Memorial Day & More in Toronto


5/30/2016-5/31/2016

We took an extra day off and would be spending Monday and Tuesday in Toronto as well. That Monday we decided to visit the Toronto Islands, a set of small islands off the city, with a spectacular view of the skyline. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but absolutely loved it. The islands felt divided into two parts: one that felt like a casual summer-camp beach-town, and another that felt like a small backwoods residential neighborhood. Both were charming, but I preferred the latter.

We rented bikes to get around, I think this was Alex’s longest bike ride to date. There were few cars on the road, so the only hazards were other bikers, including some three-person circular bikes. We went completely across the island.

View from Toronto Islands

The residential neighborhood – really little cottages – enjoyed a spectacular view of the city. It was quiet here, cool in the shade, and forested; I think this was my favorite part of the city. It felt a little like upstate NY in the summer.

Beaver Tail

Back in the more touristy area, after dropping off our bikes, we felt that we had to try a Canadian specialty, the beaver tail. We’d observed these sold in stands in a few parts of the city. It was basically a fried dough with a layer of glaze; in this case we chose maple syrup and chocolate glaze. Delicious, though overpriced.

Chillaxing

Sunburnt and a little tired we returned to our apartment. That afternoon we were going to see a baseball game: Blue Jays vs Yankees. As a kid I rooted for the Blue Jays; don’t ask me why. I still have some marginal affection for them, so wanted to see them win over the Yankees.

Getting into the game, we were gonna pick up tickets at the stadium, figuring it wouldn’t sell out. As we made our purchase, a 12-year old girl walked up to us and asked if we were buying tickets. Hesitantly (figuring some scalping racket), we said yes. She gave us free tickets – I guess they’d purchased too many. Same thing happened to a German couple who ended up seated next to us. I wanted to buy this family a drink or snack but we never saw them again – I guess they were all seated together elsewhere in the stadium. This was the most Canadian thing to happen on the trip. Also the Blue Jays won, and a charming group of Blue Jays superfans in front of us explained the game to our German neighbors.

Edge walk

By the way, the stadium was right next to our apartment, and so too was the CN tower, which looms over the field. As the game proceeded, we looked up to see people leaning off the edge of the tower in bright orange jump suits – an adrenaline tourist option (see here). Not for me.

The next day we revisited some of the city highlights, but also met up with another friend.

Sweet Jesus ice cream

Along the way, we stopped for what I can confidently say was the best ice cream I’ve ever had, at Sweet Jesus. As you might guess from the picture, the toppings push the boundaries of a normal Sunday. But the quality of the ice cream was so much more right than I’ve had anywhere else all this for a bargain $5-6 (and the line moved quick too).

Board game cafe

We played some boardgames in the afternoon in the Trinity Bellwoods neighboorhood, a friendlier, more residential part of the city, and then met a friend at Mamakas Taverna for some amazing Greek food, before being chauffeured to the airport.

All in all, I recommend Toronto as a weekend excursion. If I was to make the same trip again, I would forfeit the great view and stay somewhere more hip and walkable, since it seemed like there were many such neighborhoods in the city. In fact, it seems like a city where the tourist destinations and downtown overwhelm, and the outer neighborhoods are underrated. And I’d get more ice cream.

Sunday in Toronto


5/29/2017

Our Saturday had been, frankly, brutal – not the length (although we’d crammed so many sights into one day), but also the intense heat, and the amount of walking. We’d take it easier on Sunday. First on deck: the ‘graffiti tour,’ a stroll down a back alley covered in enormous graffiti murals. This alley lay 30 minutes from our AirBnB, so we got to see more of the city. It underwhelmed, a little, but there was also some very cool artwork.

Hyena art

I find that I enjoy graffiti and street art much more than museum artwork. Banksy is at least as thought-provoking as stuff in museums, and 90% of graffiti art that isn’t just a tag is better to me than 90% of ‘modern art’ in a museum.

Dumpster eagle

We also visited Chinatown – a huge area in Toronto. Unfortunately, we seemed to find the only rude person in Canada in this Chinatown, and many of the stores were cheap knick-knacks… we didn’t want to buy much food, since we couldn’t take it back on our flight without checked bags.

Underground mall

The city also has the largest continuous underground walkable area in the world – not suprising given its size and climate, and we knew we had to see it (though in the end it was basically a huge shopping mall, I thought it was a-maze-ing).

TIMO!

That afternoon we took a nap in our AirBnB. It was quiet and nice to just relax a bit. Also, our host had an absolutely beautiful cat, Timo, who started out shy, but quickly became friendly. I don’t think I’d spent time with a cat who had blue eyes, they were stunning.

Near the waterfront

In the evening, we took a tour of a brewery on the waterfront (AmsterDam brewery). Turns out we were the only guests, and the brewery was a little bit of a tourist destination (located where it was), but we got to try a bunch of free beer and got a keychain.

That night we met up with a friend of mine and went to a place he recommended, The Hogtown Vegan, located far from the city center. It was nice getting outside of the main city and seeing a more residential, hip neighborhood. This was also my first true ‘vegan restaurant’. I don’t think I’d ever in my life been to a restaurant where I could order everything on the menu, without worry. To top it off, all the food was US southern comfort food. Traditionally so meat-heavy, I got to try some of it for the first time ever.

A long Saturday in Toronto


5/28/2016

Living in NY, Canada seems so close – but it’s also so far away. Drive for 6 hours to Montreal, or 8 hours to Toronto? It’s hardly a weekend trip. And normally, flights cost so much for such a short distance – $300 or more.

Thankfully, for memorial day we were able to snag cheap tickets into Toronto, and for a long weekend no less. I had some friends in Toronto, and it’s a huge city (the fourth-largest in North America at 2.7 million in the city proper and 6 million in the area), so we had a lot of ground to cover.

Breakfast!

We arrived in the city early in the morning, hungry. The first step was to figure out where to eat, and we found an awesome spot for that: a diner close to downtown, but with an old-time feel. Of course, we could have gone somewhere else, but we wanted to get straight into the maple syrup!

Old City Hall

It turns out, though we hadn’t planned this, that there was a city-wide festival that Saturday and Sunday, “Open Doors Toronto:” public and private buildings across the city opened their doors to anyone who wanted to take a look inside; there were also walking tours. We signed up for one that featured Toronto’s walkable downtown that started near the beautiful old city hall, but ditched pretty quickly (far too many people, and Toronto’s downtown isn’t walkable!) – instead we found a courthouse near downtown.

Justice served!

It felt so welcoming, so Canadian to see inside. We got to sit in the judge’s seat and wear the fancy robes; although it was similar to an American courtroom, it was also different enough that I can’t recall ever seeing a Canadian courtroom on TV before, so there wasn’t a whole lot of emotional resonance. That said, the building was beautiful and we even met a judge – very friendly!

Later that afternoon, instead of visiting an (expensive museum), we stumbled on OCAD, the Ontario College of Art and Design. This place, a really unique building, was also open for visitors. At the top, there was a wonderful view.

OCAD workshop

The workspace entranced me – lots of extension cords hanging from the ceiling, random desks and benches and cubicles scattered all over, graffiti and art installations all over. I’m not sure what entirely is built there, but the whole space felt alive.

Locker? I hardly know ‘er!

I also found that Alex can fit in a half-size locker. So there’s that. On University Ave, two blocks away, we joined a march (or parade?) and mingled with the locals.

Field hockey in Toronto

It was swelteringly hot, a heat wave, and as we continued to walk around, we actually found a men’s field hockey tournament in progress. It was free to check it out, and there were tents for spectators, so we watched for a while (and cheered for Chile), but even so it was still hot out.

Our final tourist destination for the day was the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, housed in a dystopian brutalist building. Maybe ‘tourist’ is too strong a word! The inside of the building really was beautiful – 5 or 6 floors of dimly-lit books surrounding an open center.

Weird Toronto duplex – a very common style.

By this point, we really were exhausted. Rather than try to figure out public transit, we wanted to go to our AirBnB and settle in, and although we had neither walked far, nor in a straight line, but it was still 40 minutes in blinding sun and terrible heat to get to the AirBnB.

Along the way, we stopped at the first grocery store we found, an enormous supermarket (bigger than I think I’ve seen in any other downtown), and also grabbed some booze. Unfortunately, we got all this stuff way too early and traipsed around with it for almost half an hour.

Thankfully, although the apartment was located in a sterile, businessy part of the city, it had a spectacular view of the CN Tower, the tallest free-standing building in the Western Hemisphere (and tallest building in the world when it was built). From our balcony (tailor-made for lazing about and downing beer and wine), we could also see the Rogers Centre (home of the Toronto Blue Jays), the waterfront, and the Toronto Islands. If or when I return to Toronto, I think I’d be more likely to stay in a cozy neighborhood, but for a first-time visitor, this apartment was quite an experience.

The apartment

Istanbul: Leaving


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.

Istanbul: 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.

Istanbul: 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.