Leaving Istanbul


2/19/2016

So, finally, we reached our last day in Istanbul. Checking out of the second AirBnb, we headed towards our last place, a small boutique hotel near the Bosphorus.

What a view!

I’ve stayed in a great many AirBnBs, and this was certainly my favorite. Great view, cheap, huge, and with a good location.

Street near our AirBnB

A short walk away, we visited the Museum of Innocence. I’d purposely remained in the dark about this museum. All I knew was that it got good reviews, was close by, and had been put together by the Nobel prize-winning author Orhan Pamuk. Alex and I had read some of Pamuk’s works before arriving in Turkey. There are a lot of them, and they mostly seem to feature nostalgic memories of Istanbul and Turkey in the 60s and 70s – which actually was and remains a pretty exotic place to Americans.

Inside the Museum of Innocence

I loved the museum, which took the form of a renovated 4- or 5-story brownstone completely filled with dioramas. The atmosphere was great; very evocative. I really felt as though I were in an Istanbul gripped by modernization, like a fun-house mirror American Graffiti. Thinking back, I don’t think I’d seen an artistic diorama in a museum (just little historic dioramas in museums of natural history).

One diorama

When we arrived at the museum (no fancy entrance, just a little cut-away hole in the wall, a drive-by museum), we weren’t sure whether we wanted the audio guide. Well, thank God we got it. Each diorama had a number associated with a track, and the dioramas told a story of unrequited Istanbul love. Maybe the story would have been more coherent, had I read the book. But I liked it as it was: it was out of the question to listen to the narration for every diorama, and they weren’t sequential anyway. Instead, it felt like seeing someone’s memories, in the same fragmented way he might recall them.

Cats nearby

We also explored the neighborhood outside the museum, which had its own distinct feel: residential, old, filled with antiques. It slid down a steep hill towards the water, with a view of the sultan’s palace we’d visited the day before.

At the water itself, we considered visiting the modern art museum (but it was closed; we were also museumed out). Instead we visited the Kilic Ali Pasa Mosque, which I think was actually my favorite mosque in the city: large enough to be grand, but still in regular use and somehow intimate feeling. We visited during a time of regular prayer, in late afternoon, with people coming in, praying for 5 or 10 minutes, and then hurrying home to their family. Meanwhile, we just waited quietly.

Inside the mosque

That night, we went around the corner of our hotel. The hotel was on a cute (noisy) side-street filled with cafes, restaurants, and people hanging out. It was a beautiful street, just not great for sleeping.

Nargile (hookah) cafe with huge second-floor area

After a forgettable dinner, we spent several hours smoking hookah and drinking endless cups of tea (near here). Early the next morning we took a cab back to the airport, to fly through Ukraine to the US. But for a little while, we snuggled up warm, cozy, and content on the roof of a nargile cafe on the shores of the Bosphorus.

The Sultan’s Palace


2/18/2016

On our second-to-last day, we wanted to do the second-biggest tourist site in the city (after the Hagia Sophia): Topkapı Palace (home of the Ottoman Sultan). Nothing is more symbolic of the exotic Near East than the term “sultan”… the mere idea evokes images of Tin Tin or Indiana Jones adventuring in a foreign land.

The palace is adjacent to the archaeology museums we’d seen earlier, and directly behind the Hagia Sophia. By the entrance, as part of your admission, you get to see the Hagia Irene, or “Little Hagia Sophia,” sort of a dry-run for the Hagia Sophia itself. It’s a beautiful building, stark and mostly bare stone standing opposed to the ornate mosques and the Hagia Sophia itself.

Meanwhile, the palace is a huge complex of rooms, museums, mosques, harems, and so on. In the summer I can imagine it as serene and beautiful; but on an overcast February day, the unheated buildings were chilly, and the atmosphere gloomy and damp. I’ll be honest, it was a little bit of a disappointment.

The palace harem

I’ll make an analogy: when I was a kid, I got to spend a night on a World War II battleship as part of a Boy Scout trip. It was a wonderful experience, playing hide-and-seek and running around , immersed in the small of machine oil and steel. I think half or two third of the battleship was available to see, and it was like spending the night in a floating city: a three-dimensional maze of rooms and nooks and crannies, many of them recreating the. Since then, the only WWII ships I’ve visited only permit the visitor to see a straight path of glassed-off rooms and nothing more.

Well, the palace was similar. You get a sense of a big sprawling complex, but most of it is closed off. There’s an audioguide you can listen to, which is fine, and some signs on the walls. Most of the furnishings are gone (only 2-3 rooms were furnished), and they were doing repairs while we were there. In total, it feels like a sort of empty shell (and like I said, the weather didn’t improve things). So, was I disappointed in the experience? Yes. It was worth it, but it really could have been so much more rewarding.

Still, there’s an awful lot to see. In addition to the harem, many rooms, many mosques and so on, you can also see some small museums. I guess we’d seen quite a few museums, but I think the one here was my favorite: the Privy Chamber, which houses a great many Islamic relics. Half of these are fairly plausible: Muhammad’s tooth, a hair of his beard, swords, and so on. Could be legit.

Photo I got of David’s sword, before I realized photos weren’t allowed

The other half are completely implausible: the staff of Moses, the tea-kettle of Abraham, the turban of Joseph, the sword of David (of David & Goliath fame). Alex thought they were a joke, and it was interesting to see the people around us, a broad swath of Muslims from different countries. Honestly, they didn’t seem very impressed.

See a panorama of the area:

Outside, shivering in the cold, we could look north into Karakoy (in fact, we could nearly see our AirBnb). Here we stood in a marbled courtyard, next to the sultan’s summer rooms: lighter, airier patios and porticoes that proved even colder than inside.

Sultan Mehmet with re-enactor

Leaving in early afternoon, we found an incredibly cheap little statue of Sultan Mehmet the Conquerer – the guy who finally ended the Roman empire in 1453. We got some great pictures with it – and it proved a wonderful gift for my father when we returned.

After some shopping in the various bazaars, but before heading back to Galata, Alex wanted to try the balık-ekmek, a fried fish sandwich (served from huge boats bobbing in the water with a spray of lemon juice). Cheap, and incredible fresh, the fish caught the same day. Mehmet had a bite as well (I abstained).

Trying rakı

That night, we also got our first taste of rakı, the traditional Turkish anise liquor – a sort of white licorice-flavored vodka. I thought it was pretty reasonable, at least as far as liquor goes, and we munched on bar nuts and pet cats in a warm little place right next to the Galata tower.

The guitarist was excellent

Finally, to close out the evening, we stopped across the street at Nardis to listen to some great jazz guitar.

Stepping into Asia


2/17/2016

The Asian side of Istanbul may be the least ‘Asian’ part of Asian, but Alex and I still counted it as our third continent together. We spent most of the day there, and really had a good time. I think if I were to live in Istanbul it would likely be in the Asian side: it was quiet, local, and ironically felt more ‘European’ than the European side of the city!

We didn’t have any big plans: mostly we wanted to wander. After all, this was an area without large landmarks, the appeal was instead in the neighborhoods.

Winding our way up from the ferry terminal, we wound our way through a fish market; the roofs of the buildings nearly touching above us, and the lanes two people across, filled with seafood from the Bosphorus and Black Seas. Beyond, we broke out into a more open area, with a young vibe. Stepping down one a shop basement, Alex found, of all things, a Frida Kahlo purse; it is possibly still her favorite purse. I think it was $7 or $10.

Sharing a çiğ köfte wrap

Around the corner we stopped (here) by for what was my favorite street food: çiğ köfte. Mediterranean street food is limited for vegetarians, and this is a sort of soft seitan burrito (actually bulger germ), served with onions and lettuce. The sharp spice is perfectly balanced by a sweet tamarind-like chutney, and the whole wrap costs $1 or $2.

Kadıköy street cat

I really liked this area. It was less frantic and less touristic than the European side of the city, while still retaining its own unique feel. Kadıköy itself is a large hill surrounded with water on three sides, and as we hiked downhill, we reached the Sea of Marmara. There was a pretty park here, windswept and grey in February, and after taking in the sights, we started a broad loop back to the ferry terminal.

Random unique building

Maybe it sounds like we hadn’t done much, but I don’t think that’s fair. Both Alex and I love wandering. You can see more of what makes a country or city unique that way, staying away from the monuments. In particular, Istanbul was a huge culture shock for both of us, so there was a lot to take in. But, it’s impossible to narrate all those little thing. Huge street murals; the same 5 or 10 graffiti artists tagging buildings around the city. The ubiquitous cats lazing in nooks and crevices, or a huge fat dog devouring garbage on the street?

As we wound our way back towards the ferry, we stepped into a cafe along a local sort of acute-angle square for a few cups of tea. I loved these cafes, they were definitely among my favorite parts of the city. Sit down, and for fifty cents or a buck, and sip a nice, very sweet cup of tea, relaxing under the awning and watching the world pass by, or chatting with a friend. There’s no such opportunity in American cities, which rarely even have public squares. And while it’s always a temptation in European cities – in Germany, the Netherlands or Italy, squares and outdoor restaurants are common. But there the cost ($5 or more of food and drinks to claim the table) dissuades me. Here, on this odd little street corner, there were three cafes right next to each other, each filled with students just let out of school.

Now we were back into the market district; not the fish market but the antique markets. Wizened older folks leaning out of shop doors and younger men passing by swinging trays of tea; the shops with unnamed forgotten heirlooms layered with Ottoman dust.

In Istanbul, every block is new district and from antiques we moved into the consumer zone; basically a series of stall-sized shops that comprise a Turkish department store. Here, I finally found one of my few souvenirs from the trip: a backgammon board. I wasn’t looking for anything special; but I like gaming and backgammon is one of the oldest games in the world. It’s very popular in Turkey so it was a nice, cheap momento.

Alex found one of her souvenirs as well: a remaindered English-language sweater that said “Chillin Snoopy” (the peanuts character). We weren’t sure what it meant, but it’s an amazing sweater. And just like that, we left Asia, on the ferry, speeding across the dark Bosphorus waters towards the illuminated mosques of Europe.

Istanbul: Markets, Mosques & Museums

0216_mosque
2/16/2016

Istanbul is such a huge city – two days in we really hadn’t seen many of the tourist sites (mostly just the Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque), having mostly seen a few small neighborhoods. There were still dozens of places to see. This day, our third in a city and a Tuesday, we planned to fix that, visiting the archaeology museum, a good source of near Eastern and Greek archaeology, see the spice market, and also step into a few of the smaller (though still huge) mosques that dot the city.

0216_street

First stop: the archaeology museum. This lies in a large historic complex that also includes Topkapı Palace, the Hagia Irene, and Gülhane Park. The whole area is surrounded with medieval walls and adjacent alleys; it was busy on each side, but on the West side it felt mostly Turkish, while on the East side, near the Hagia Sophia, it was more tourist.

Procession near the Ishtar Gate

Procession near the Ishtar Gate

You might wonder what kind of archaeology you’d find in Turkey, but there’s an immense amount of history in the country, and I was sad to see that the Archaeology Museum felt a little under-funded (though there were still extensive renovations ongoing). One section of the museum is devoted to a history of the city from Byzantium through Constantinople; another to the historic cultures of the Anatolian peninsula. There were also sections devoted to the ancient Near East and Mesopotamia, and to the Ionic coast, one nexus of ancient Greek civilization (home of Troy, Herodotus, and many pre-Socratic philosophers).

Sculpture on outside of a Greek sarcophogus

Sculpture on outside of a Greek sarcophogus

It’s a huge museum, really more than you can absorb in a day. Some of my favorite parts were seeing part of the Ishtar Gate (a really striking gate from the Babylonian walls; I’d seen the bulk of it in Berlin at the Pergamon Museum). I also really enjoyed seeing a lot of the Greek relics, especially some immense sarcophagi with stunning bas relief sculpture.

Link from chain that spanned the Byzantine harbor

Link from chain that spanned the Byzantine harbor

But the highlight for me was presented in such a forgettable way that it understated the significance: several links from the great chain that stretched across the harbor during the siege of Constantinople. The whole history of the siege is extraordinarily dramatic and heroic. Seeing a well-known relic from this siege, which changed world history, was really awe-inspiring. If you’d like to read an account of the sieve I’d highly recommend 1453.

Street cat at the Archaeology Museum

Street cat at the Archaeology Museum

Outside the museum there were seats and shut-down food stand. We had some snack and watched the cats in the garden. There were some really beautiful animals navigating the maze of numbered Greek capstones and sculptures.

Near the Hagia Sophia

Near the Hagia Sophia

Entering on the East side, we proceeded the visit the other sites in the main square, near the Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque. This was the site of the ancient Hippodrome, home of chariot races. chariot races were undoubtedly more popular in Constantinople than gladiator matches, and there were several riots based on chariot races & teams that threatened to overthrow the city. To put down one such riot, almost 30k people were killed in the Hippodrome. More recently, a remaining obelisk from the Hippodrome was the site of an ISIS bombing that killed several tourists, so needless to say I was on edge, and we didn’t spend as much time there as I would have liked.

0216_shopping

It was getting dark as we revisited the area near the Grand Bazaar. This area, broadly speaking, was my favorite part of the city – it felt so alive and intimate. It was the main shopping district in this area of the city. As darkness unrolled above us, the alleys seemed to grow closer, the lights on either side of the streets more inviting. It was a lot of fun seeing everyone shopping and the shopkeepers sipping tea, and after getting lost we found ourselves in the Spice Market.

Spice Market

Spice Market

This was a bit flashy and touristy, but the structure itself is mostly an old warehouse, and the spices are presented in an appealing way. I enjoyed seeing the different food on offer. We bought a small sampler of baklava and Turkish delight, though we bought a much larger, cheaper bag of Turkish delight a bit outside the market.

0216_lines

By the time we left it was dark. The entrance to one of the major mosques was directly adjacent to the exit of the spice market, and we hung out in the ‘lobby’ of this mosque for a while. It was quiet, though there was a steady stream of people hurrying in and out from conducting their evening prayers. I wasn’t aware this was part of worshiping at a mosque, but there was a series of faucets for washing feet. I guess I should have known – it was something my co-workers did when I worked at an Indian restaurant. I guess it just took me by surprise.

Smoking hookah

Smoking hookah

We crossed back into Galata to drop our snacks and bags off at the apartment, then headed out to smoke some hookah. I really enjoyed smoking hookah – after a bit of practice I learned when to stop smoking and slow down, lest I get sick. Earlier in our stay we’d smoked in what I could only describe as a ‘hookah den’, but this time I found a very nice hookah cafe high over the city, with a view of the harbor where we could see ferries criss-crossing into Asia.

View while smoking hookah - we were on the second floor (maybe the 6th floor of the building).

View while smoking hookah – we were on the second floor (maybe the 6th floor of the building).

The next day we’d both set foot in Asia for the first time, which I was excited to see – but for now it was nice to relax with good company.

Istanbul: Karaköy

0215_street
2/15/2016

After our first big day in Istanbul, we were eager to see more.

Cat with bird

Cat with bird

First, we checked out of our AirBnB (which was really closer to a hotel without a lobby). Its location was alright, and it even had a small balcony, but not much of a view. While waiting for Alex to style her hair, I stepped outside, looking up and down our street. There were a lot of cats, but I was distracted by the distant view of the water – and then I saw a cat walk down a cross street, bracketed by buildings as if in a movie, dragging an entire pigeon. It moved resolutely until it was out of frame, the bird flapping the whole time. What a weird start to the day.

Grand Bazaar

Grand Bazaar

Our first big stop of the day was the Grand Bazaar. I was pretty excited about this – you see it on travel shows, and the very name is evocative of Indiana Jones. It simply didn’t live up to expectations. The building is pretty cool, and filled with booths, but there just wasn’t much for sale: lanterns, carpets, lots of silk, lots of tacky jewelry, all of it extremely pricey. Alex wanted to get a silk scarf, so we stepped into a shop, where she resolutely negotiated down the price.

Book stalls outside the bazaar

Book stalls outside the bazaar

The bazaar was labrynthine and we left, disoriented, into a side courtyard. A threadbare canopy of leafless trees covered book stalls abutting the bazaar. These stalls sold discount books, all with colorful covers, mostly college and test prep books. I found it easy to resist the temptation to buy books I couldn’t read.

0215_waterfront

We continued past the bazaar in a straight line toward Galata, where our next AirBnB was located. I liked Galata quite a bit – it was near the vibrant main streets, had the same windy alleys and cozy shops, and also had lots of cafes with live music.

View from our AirBnB. Seriously!

View from our AirBnB. Seriously!

This was the best AirBnB location I’ve stayed in, over many years of travel. It was an entire apartment, just three blocks from the trendy music-cafe downtown. The apartment was huge, with a balcony that overlooked the Sea of Marmara, complete with double-wide rocking chair. And just $45 per night.

Street art directly across from our  apartment

Street art directly across from our apartment

Having dropped off our stuff, we left our new apartment – and right across the street was some pretty cool graffiti. There was actually great street art all over Istanbul. After all, there were enough abandoned buildings. As I was taking a picture, we heard a voice behind us. Turning around, we didn’t see anyone. But – there was a broad wooden grate pulled across what looked like a former storefront window, with a woman behind it – she was camping out there and doing street art in the neighborhood. We all talked – she was an artist, and I had been photographing her painting. It was a nice surprise to actually meet someone doing this, and I think she was flattered.

Great geometric arrangement from restaurant window

Great geometric arrangement from restaurant window

We set off down to the water to find a friend-of-a-friends restaurant. This was in the Karaköy neighborhood. I had an address I’d found online, but our maps were no good. We were getting lost. Finally, in an alley, the proprietor of an adjacent coffeeshop realized we were lost. We asked for directions and he consulted with his barber neighbor. They had some ideas, and we found our place – but it was shut down, I think for a week or two. This whole area was very hip – narrow cobblestone streets with vines overhead, outdoor bars, cafes, street art. We ended up eating at a restaurant where the waiter, I’m pretty sure, didn’t speak English. We managed to convey that we wanted vegetarian food, and that was it.

Traditional food

Traditional food

And the food was really good. Not anything I ever would have picked out for myself (beets, carrots in oil, and so on), but I really enjoyed it. Then we returned back to the coffeeshop. After all, they had given us directions. And I needed a haircut.

Luckily, it’s pretty easy for a guy to get a haircut, so the fact that the barber didn’t speak English wasn’t a big deal. He was a really nice guy, and we got coffee afterwards. The cafe was called Karanköy, and we made friends with the owner (we’d return a few days later).

0215_catlap

That night we also made friends with some neighborhood cats. The cats in Istanbul weren’t feral, like strays in the US, so if sit down near them, the more adventurous will come to get scratched, or even sit on your lap. We frequently saw cat food outside. And it turns out, in Islam there’s a tradition of helping cats, though people don’t really own as many pets. Apparently while the prophet Muhammad was alive, a cat sat on his cloak, and he cut off the fabric rather than disturb it. So the cats are revered, and the dogs have it tougher in Turkey.

Nighttime view from our street towards Galata tower

Nighttime view from our street towards Galata tower

Istanbul: Arrival

0214_dog

2/14/2016

One month before we arrived in Istanbul, an ISIL bomb killed 13 tourists. It exploded in the downtown tourist district, between the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, the two biggest attractions.

What would you do? When we purchased our plane tickets, in December, we knew that Turkey could be dangerous. It was a destination for thousands of refugees, neighbors Syria, and was engaged in a war with two terrorist organizations. Oh, and a frightening demagogue had recently been elected. But I don’t think either of us had really considered what could happen. Waking up to news of the attack was a sobering reality check.

By continuing with our plans, we’d be putting our lives in danger. By canceling, we’d help the terrorists accomplish their goals – targeting a tourist site was a deliberate strategy. In the end, it came down to math: Istanbul is a city roughly the same size as New York City, 14 million people. One small terrorist attack, in a city so big… can you let yourself get scared?

View from our room

View from our room

Our plane touched down late at night, February 13. We were staying at an AirBnB/hotel close to downtown… and the whole experience was a shock. We’d arranged for a taxi with our host, and walking out of the airport we saw a guy with a sign for Alex. So we waited while he set up the taxi. We made it downtown no problem – I understood the rough route we’d follow from maps I’d seen online. But the windy downtown area, our car seemed to get lost. The driver didn’t speak English, and we spoke as much Turkish. Comparing the address, and using the host’s phone, we figured out where we were supposed to be.

Outside the Blue Mosque

Outside the Blue Mosque

The next morning, we got an early start. We were staying pretty close to the old town, but Istanbul was completely unlike other cities I’d visited. It was certainly more run-down. Even the tourist district, which was adjacent to us, had seen better days. Maybe during the Ottoman empire.

Street cats in Galata

Street cats in Galata

It took me about two days to adjust. Initially I felt nervous, unsafe, on edge. But it was just a matter of calibration before I felt comfortable – though never quite at home. Animals were everywhere. Stray cats roamed the streets, and were quite friendly – more on this later. Stray dogs frequented the tourist sites.

Inside the Hagia Sophia

Inside the Hagia Sophia

The first site we visited was the Hagia Sophia. I’d been anticipating seeing it for two years, since we’d visited St Mark’s Basilica in Venice. During that time, I’d been gripped by the fear that somehow, after 1500 years, there would be an earthquake right before we arrived. Thankfully, that didn’t happen, but I was still underwhelmed. Hagia Sophia is ancient, and huge, and that’s impressive in itself. But the exterior is a frnakly ugly jumble of structures with pale faded paint, and there was extensive construction on the interior that interrupted the view and disturbed the ambiance. In the end, I can say that I enjoyed St Mark’s Basilica more.

Inside the Blue Mosque

Inside the Blue Mosque

Right across the plaza was the Blue Mosque, the most recognizable building in Istanbul. It really is beautiful, with a huge unified grey-blue exterior. I realized that I’d never been in a mosque before. Maybe as a kid. I didn’t remember it. There’s a whole process for entering the mosque: take off shoes and put them in a bag; for women, cover your hair. No shorts allowed. The inside felt sacred, like a church, but was also completely different.

Start with the carpeting. You probably haven’t been in a hall as big as the Blue Mosque with thick carpeting. The corporeal, musky smell of cleaner permeates the air. Looking up – you see millions of little tiles. There’s no idolatry in Islam, no visions of God or Muhammad or saints. Just Arabic script and ornate geometric patterns. It was beautiful and alien to me.

Fashion shoot!

Fashion shoot!

We crossed over the main bridge into Galata, reputed to be the ‘hip’ area of Istanbul, and wandered the streets. It was narrow, winding, steep. This area actually felt more touristy, probably due to the Galata tower, which presided over the whole peninsula. I think Alex’s biggest desire was to see the whirling dervishes, of the Mevlevi order of Sufis. This order held that spinning rapidly was a way to commune with God. The very term ‘whirling dervish’ evoked fond memories of old Tintin cartoons for me, which was appealing. On the other hand, I was expecting something of a tawdry tourist spectacle. We purchased tickets to the event, which was scheduled a few hours later, and continued to explore.

Galata Tower

Galata Tower

We returned back to the Galata tower, which was a nice place to simply sit around. It’s scenic now, but it was the scene of heavy fighting during the seige of Istanbul, between Ottoman troops and Italian sailors.

Dervishes

Dervishes

I went in with absolutely no expectations or preconceptions beyond a hunch that the event would be commercial and touristy, but I think the dervish exhibition was surprising for both Alex and I. I believe it was more mundane than she was expecting: longer and less eventful. On the other hand, it felt a lot less tacky than I expected. In the end, I was glad I’d seen it. It was mesmerizing, about half an hour of choreography, all while spinning rapidly.

Street dog relaxes outside cafe

Street dog relaxes outside cafe

It was getting dark after this, and we crossed back to the main peninsula and wound through some back streets – streets of shuttered roll-up garage doors and pomegranate presses that felt vaguely menacing (but which was my favorite part of the city when we returned in daylight). Later, wandering, we passed an old Roman aqueduct and another mosque. On the way back, we stopped for some hookah in a wonderful old market-like hookah joint, filled with kaleidoscope lamps, heavy smoke and tasseled couches, before finally arriving back at our hotel.

And that was how we spent Valentine’s Day.

Britain: Leaving

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1/3/2016

You have one day in London. What do you do? For us, it was simple – we hadn’t had a chance to see Buckingham Palace or the British Museum. Alex was more interested in Buckingham Palace, while I was more interested in the British Museum.

Tiny hotel room

Tiny hotel room

I think this may have been the smallest hotel room I’ve stayed in – basically a bed and a tiny bathroom. But it was cheap, and the location was reasonable.

The palace guard raincoats are pretty badass

The palace guard raincoats are pretty badass

I enjoyed the palace and grounds more than I expected. It was threatening rain the whole time, but the ground were verdant, populated with diverse waterfowl. There were cool statues, the guards, and the roads were walkable. Alex mentioned a rumor that the Queen (a former ambulance driver in WWII!) wasn’t allowed to drive in England, but was permitted to on the grounds of Buckingham Palace. I could easily imagine her careening around corners and zooming between ancient trees, trying to avoid mowing down tourists.

This statue is pretty badass, too

This statue is pretty badass, too

The area near Buckingham Palace has lots of government buildings, and we nearly visited the Churchill bunker. Maybe next time. We got another good audio tour courtesy of Rick Steves. We detoured a little to see Denmark Street, another famous musical location (Rolling Stones, David Bowie, Sex Pistols, Elton John), before arriving at the British Museum.

Denmark Street, rain

Denmark Street, rain


I knew little about the museum, beyond the fact that they had mummies. So it certainly exceeded expectations. You walk in (no admission!), turn a corner, and BAM – Rosetta Stone. Since it was a rainy Sunday, it was more like BAM – crowds – BAM – Rosetta Stone. But still, pretty cool.

Crowds around the Rosetta Stone

Crowds around the Rosetta Stone

For me the highlight of the museum were the Assyrian reliefs, including an extensive set of panels from Ninevah. I’ve always felt Assyria and Sumeria are underappreciated and under-represented. Egypt gets all the glory. But I enjoy Assyrian artwork more, and it feels like a much more dynamic area with more diverse cultures.

Elgin Marbles, crowds

Elgin Marbles, crowds

Objectively speaking, however, I think the highlight of the museum is the Elgin Marbles, basically the reliefs from around the top of the Parthenon. They probably shouldn’t be in Britain, but we took advantage of it while we were there. All in all, I think the British Museum compares favorably to the Met in NYC – at least, in terms of what I’m interested in seeing (more historic than artistic stuff).

We have to LEAVE?

We have to LEAVE?

Leaving the museum, we only had a limited amount of time until we caught our flight. We picked up various gifts, cramming them into our bags, and were soon on our way back to the airport – and then a return to NYC.

Britain: Edinburgh & a Return to London

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1/1/2016-1/3/2016

Long before we arrived in England, we discussed how to get from Edinburgh to London. There were two reasonable options, train and plane. Roughly the same cost, but the plane is a shorter trip. But – we opted for train – thinking that travel to/from an airport, going through security, and waiting at the gates wouldn’t be worth it. Soon, we’d find out whether we made the right choice.

We had one day in Edinburgh after the New Year’s Eve extravaganza (we slept in). So far, we hadn’t visited the castle that dominates the city (a more prominent landmark than anything I’ve seen in other cities). That was certainly on the list – beyond that, we hoped for a quiet day of scotch and seeing the town.

View of the main NYE pavilions and fair

View of the main NYE pavilions and fair

The castle really is incredible. Not only is it your traditional medieval-style castle, but it also has really jaw-dropping views of the city, to boot.

American flag, left, carved into prison door at Edinburgh castle

American flag, left, carved into prison door at Edinburgh castle

Additionally, there were two other museums inside the castle. First, after the time period when it could be a functional castle, it served as a prison. Some of the people held there were American sailors captured during the War of 1812, which was interesting – you tend to think of Americans and British as such allies – and even during the Revolution and Warof 1812, it always felt like “the British come to America,” so you don’t think that some Americans ended up in Great Britain.

In a Scottish close off the Royal Mile

In a Scottish close off the Royal Mile

We also listened to some Rick Steves – for all the hokeyness of Rick, I think his tour guides and advice for Europe is pretty solid. He offers high quality free walking tours – including this tour of the Royal Mile. It was a good thing we did the tour, which zig-zagged across the street, because it led us to some little off-the-beaten-path courtyards, called ‘closes’ in Scotland. For example, one showed the former home of Robert Louis Stevenson. Others were simply scenic.

Early the next morning it was time to check out and head back to London. We’d find out whether the train was a wise choice. It was a different tradeoff than I expected.

As I mentioned in earlier posts, there was intense flooding across Britain while we were there, and that caused some delays of the train – I think a tree had blown down across the main tracks south of Edinburgh. So we waited in the station for two hours (sitting on the train). It actually wasn’t bad, the train is far more comfortable than waiting on the runway in a plane. When we did set off, it was much slower than usual.

I think we were delayed about two hours, which was a shame, since it meant we got into London in late afternoon instead of midday. On the other hand, the trains in the UK have a policy that delays more than some amount of time (perhaps an hour), mean you can get a full refund. So in the end, our trip from Edinburgh to London was free – we just had to mail in a check.

When we got into London it was raining (surprise!) and from the beautiful St Pancras station, we stopped by at the British Library. I was continually impressed with the government buildings in London. Museums and the library were free – the library had a huge exhibit with historic books and manuscripts, including an ancient bible, a Gutenberg bible, letters from Queen Elizabeth, da Vinci notebooks, Bach musical compositions, the Magna Carta, and notes from when The Beatles composed songs.

The London Eye, from below

The London Eye, from below

Of these, seeing letters from Queen Elizabeth and the Magna Carta were coolest. We’d seen another copy of the Magna Carta in DC, and that was a big deal, lots of security and precautions – here it was just sitting there in a glass case. Very accessible.

Skating near the Thames

Skating near the Thames

Beyond that, we simply did some wandering around the town – we flew out the next day and knew we wouldn’t get a good chance to revisit some parts of the city, so this was an early goodbye.

Britain: New Year’s Eve in Edinburgh

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12/31/2015

We started the last day of the year climbing Arthur’s Seat, the highest point near Edinburgh (according to Robert Louis Stevenson, “a hill for magnitude, a mountain in virtue of its bold design”). Regardless of how you classify it, it’s pretty…

Flowers in Holyrood Park

Flowers in Holyrood Park

Except that it had been raining so much (remember how I said a few posts back that it was the rainiest month on record)? And the trail was mostly mud. Without any grip on our shoes, it was a real struggle to make it to the top. This mountain was between our apartment and the city center, so it was a convenient hike.

It was insanely crowded, though – I guess because it’s close enough to the center to walk, and because of all the people there for New Year’s Eve.

View over Edinburgh from Arthur's Seat

View over Edinburgh from Arthur’s Seat

Having gotten a late start and taken our time climbing, we finally made it into the city proper. Since we’d be spending the whole evening outside, in the middle of winter, we had to prepare… I mean, buy whisky. We visited a highly-recommended shop at the end of the Royal Mile, Cadenhead’s Whisky. I think we talked with the owner, who didn’t blink when we said we wanted whisky for that night (you’re not supposed to smuggle drinks in). We got three small bottles, slightly larger than nips, including some of the house whisky.

The trail near Arthur's Seat... pure mud

The trail near Arthur’s Seat… pure mud

I’d developed something of a taste for whisky while in Edinburgh. Not the blander styles that taste like alcohol, but the peaty kind – a super-distinctive taste (my favorite kind was Laphroaig). It’s not something I’d drink every day, but was fun in Scotland.

Toy Museum

Toy Museum

Further up the royal mile was the Toy Museum, another (tiny) free museum good for 15 minutes of looking at creepy old toys.

Our view of the first band of the evening

Our view of the first band of the evening

After some more walking, we entered the New Year’s Eve area. This required ticket entry – it was all fenced off around the entire center of the city. There were three or four stages for music, and one additional one that required special tickets. We actually managed to get very close to the stage and saw a memorable performance by the band Rura (guitar, bagpipe, fiddle) – we were in the second row from the stage. Our biggest mistake in Edinburgh was leaving this area before the next band came on (there would be 3 on each stage before midnight).

We left to get a look at the other stages, but just weren’t impressed by anything else. There was some metal (screechy) but by this time the entire 5-6 block area was getting tough to move around in it was so crowded. We danced a little at the back of some crowds, but were mostly waiting. I’d say that this part of the festival just wasn’t for me – too many people, too tightly packed.

TV screen set up on the main street

TV screen set up on the main street with broadcast from the ISS

After tracking back and forth and drinking our whisky, we settled in for the final hour of the year: we had a good, unobstructed view of Edinburgh castle from a slightly raised streetcar embankment in the middle of the street. They’d put up a bunch of huge TV screens with funky music video type animations playing. A few minutes before midnight they paused the animation and a British astronaut came on (Tim Peake, from the ISS) to wish everyone a Happy New Year.

Fireworks over Edinburgh Castle

Fireworks over Edinburgh Castle

Then it was midnight, and another year was in the books. We got to see the best fireworks I’ve seen in person over Edinburgh Castle (here’s an aerial video of the fireworks from the year before). It was a wonderful way to usher in 2016: with a beautiful girlfriend in a warm and welcoming country halfway around the world.

Britain: Edinburgh Torch Parade

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12/30/2015

What happens when you set tens of thousands of people armed with torches loose in a city? We wanted an answer to this burning question, and it basically determined the schedule for our whole Britain trip. Rather than doing London and Paris, or London and Wales, we knew we had to see Edinburgh, because of Hogmanay.

Hogmanay is the Scottish New Year festival, but what really sets it apart from other New Years festivals is the torch parade the night of December 30. We left Newcastle fired up and ready to see what all the fuss was about.

Street near the National Museum of Scotland

Street near the National Museum of Scotland

I’d heard good things about Edinburgh from pretty much everyone who’d visited, so I would have been excited even without the torches. We arrived in a cold mist and picked up our Hogmanay tickets, then rushed to our AirBnB outside the main town (we were staying East of the city, past the end of the Royal Mile and through the huge Holyrood Park. It was a pretty intense walk and the rain picked up. We caught a bus back into town after the checkin, and from there we walked up the Royal Mile to see Edinburgh Castle, which dominates the city’s skyline. Basically the city center is like a doorstop with the castle perched on top and the Royal Mile extending down the slope.

In the cemetery

In the cemetery

From there, we did some meandering in the direction of the National Museum of Scotland. I think both of us would have preferred to see more of the city, but the rain just kept coming down. We briefly went into Greyfriar’s Kirkyard, an old cemetery with good views of the castle before being forced inside.

I loved the Scottish aesthetic: huge old grey bricks, brown-green grass, rain-swept sky. It felt completely different from England, even though Newcastle was a short train ride away.

Boar in the Scottish Museum

Boar in the Scottish Museum

After the cemetery we escaped the weather in the Scottish Museum. It’s free and huge, with large sections devoted to Scottish history, world history, natural history, and so on. The Scottish history section was great, but just too big to take in at once.

I think my favorite was the big natural history hall, in which you were surrounded by taxidermied animals and skeletons.

The natural history hall was a good chowcase of both the exhibits and the building itself, which felt both modern and Victorian. The building was big and airy inside, with white metal fencing along the sides and big skylights.

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We still had some time to kill after the museum, so after having some Nepalese food, we continued to mosey around town – and then we stumbled on an amazing bookstore, Armchair Books. It was open late and had a nice selection of secondhand books, but what most stood out to me was the selection of antique books, which included a lot of editions from the eighteenth century, tons of Victorian books, and a whole lot more. We actually came back to this place the next day, because it was so cool.

It was getting a little late, so we wrapped back around to the area of the torch parade. We’d decided not to participate in the parade itself, which in the end was definitely the right decision. During the day we’d seen a lot of people out either collecting their torches for the night or carrying them around. Each torch was 2-3 feet of some wax substance with a stick in the middle. There was a small paper waxguard, but you had to accept that whatever you were wearing would almost certainly get wax on it.

Start of the parade

Start of the parade

We found the start of the parade, just off the Royal Mile on Bank Street. People were penned up waiting as far as we could see. At this point, I still didn’t really know the scale of the whole thing. It looked like a lot of people, but I couldn’t see how many. Nobody had their torches lit just yet, they were just waiting in the cold.

We didn’t wait, but grabbed mulled cider just past the start, then claimed our spot with a good view over the central park where people would be marching. This park seems pretty inconvenient for people who live in Edinburgh, but it was festive, with a huge area of amusement park rides and gardens.

Start of the torch parade

Start of the torch parade

Then the parade started, with bagpipes out front and the first of the people with torches rounded the corner in front of us. These were pretty serious torches, and the people were naturally walking at different speeds, so they naturally spread out – all the roads were closed and fenced off. In total, the walking route was about a mile long, and I don’t doubt that at one point the entire thing was filled with people walking. After about 20 minutes, we worked our way to the starting area.

Some of the people waiting to march

Some of the people waiting to march

That’s when I really understood what was going on. We’d seen about 20 minutes of people walking, which is a fair amount of people. But the pens of people were still completely full. I think it was two columns of people, each column 2-4 across; the columns extended for about a fifth of a mile, and everyone was standing, waiting to walk, with their torches lit. We continued past and around the corner, and there were still more people, just waiting to get into the pens to start walking.

More people waiting to march

More people waiting to march

After this, we wanted to wrap around, away from the crowds, to the end of the marching route. I think we probably could have taken a much shorter route, but in the end we did a huge loop around the whole city and around the back end of the finishing area (it was finishing on Carlton Hill and we looped around London Road. We were really booking it, wanting to see the fireworks on time. And we just made it – to the back of the firework display!

Snuck in with the marchers

Snuck in with the marchers

This meant that we missed the ground displays, but the fireworks in the air were directly above us – bits of cardboard tubing was falling around us. It was a pretty short display, and then we continued on to merge in with the crowd, who were milling around at the end of the parade route. They had some big buckets of water where people were supposed to put out torches, but there was just general confusing and chaos.

We managed to sneak into the parade, so we were surrounded by people with the torches, though we weren’t holding any ourselves. This meant that we’d seen pretty much everything: the start of the parade, people walking, the full extent of people in pens, the line outside the pens, the empty city, the fireworks, and been in the parade itself.

Whisky after the celebrations

Whisky after the celebrations

It was a great way to celebrate the end of one year, and the next day would be the last one in 2015.