Luzern


9/24-9/25

My last weekend was in Luzern, a small city not far from Zurich. You see this city in a ton of photos of Switzerland, primarily because of its medieval wooden bridges. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but it sure looked pretty.

Classic view of Luzern

I arrived Friday evening and took a walk through downtown before heading to my AirBnB. It was quite a struggle, actually, the toughest AirBnB for me to get into. I had no wifi and no phone, I was staying in a large apartment building (but without a doorman), so it was unclear what door to use or anything, and my host wasn’t there. Luckily I found a bar nearby and after some more struggles managed to find wifi so I could message the host.

Downtown Luzern

The next morning I walked the tourist downtown. It’s quite a touristy city – the volume of people is simply too much for such a small city. Lots of tour buses and group tours, huge groups of Japanese tourists. But it’s still pretty. The first thing I wanted to see was the lion monument, which was dedicated to Swiss guards employed by the French royalty, during the French Revolution. In particular, I was curious because Mark Twain, who toured Europe, called it “the most mournful and moving piece of stone in the world.”

Lion Monument

It’s a remarkable work of art, carved into the side of a cliff above a small pond, in a little city garden. The statue and the pond overwhelm the garden.

While I was there, a large tour group arrived. The area around the park is gift shops and pricey looking restaurants. Right nearby is the Bourbaki Panorama, which commemorates the Franco-Prussian war (I decided to skip this).

Outside the church

Also downtown was the classic Church of Saint Leodegar, pretty much as stereotypical a Swiss church as you can imagine.

View from city walls

But my favorite experience in the city was visiting the city walls. They’re a little out of the way, and I mostly stumbled onto them. The walls are medieval and set on hills near the city. There are a bunch of parks nearby – kids playing soccer, and few tourists. The view from on top was spectacular, just how you’d expect a medieval city to be. For a while I had them to myself, and it was wonderful. Very calm!

Early on the Pilatus hike

I decided, a bit late in the day, to go for a hike. I’d really wanted to go for a hike in the Alps – how often do you have that opportunity? But in the morning I wasn’t in the mood. Now, though, it seemed a shame to leave Switzerland without properly appreciating the Alps.

There are a few popular mountains near Luzern, and I’d done some research beforehand and settled on Mt Pilatus as the destination for my hike. It offers a variety of trails and cable cars all the way to the top. There’s even a hotel up there. With my late start I also decided not to worry about the cable cars or anything – a very expensive proposition. Anyway, I prefer hiking.

View from the meadow

Thing is, it was a daunting challenge. I felt pretty out-of-shape as I hiked, even in the beginning, but nonetheless it was good to get the blood flowing again. I always figured I could turn back. Hikers, who mostly seemed local, were friendly, and as I got higher there were some nice views of the city below. But I wasn’t even midway when I reached a cable car stop (there are stages up the mountain), and drenched in sweat. I considered turning back, but a co-worker had said there was a nice meadow near this stop. With the prospect of flat ground, I continued a bit further and BAM! there was a tremendous view of the mountain. It just appeared in front of me, I had no idea what to expect. Well, I couldn’t turn back then.

Further along the trail

Slogging further up the mountain, I found some small ski lodges. I guess people can somehow drive up with jeeps, but these felt pretty lonely. The view here started to open up with more Alpine meadows. By now it really was starting to get late – maybe 4 in the afternoon. And I was tired. I don’t know how far I’d hiked, maybe 7 miles, and with several thousand feet of elevation gain.

View from the last cable car stop

Luckily, I rolled into the final cable car stop before the top. Here I considered paying to see the view from on top. But, I was satisfied with the work I’d done on my own two feet. Around hte corner from the cable car was a little sled run with people going down big slides on sleds. They were selling beer here, so I kicked back with a beer, some snacks I’d brought, and just enjoyed the view. It didn’t feel real – being so close to the city and having this incredible panorama in front of me.

This marked the end of my trip. I’d walk back down the mountain into the evening. The next day, I’d return to Zurich, see the city in daylight for a few hours, and then fly home. Overall, I had a great time in Switzerland. Luzern was pretty, and Zurich was underrated, but Bern was my favorite place. If (When!) I return, it’ll be to see more of the Alps, which are a gem I didn’t get to fully enjoy.

Zurich


9/19-9/23/2016

After spending the weekend in Bern, it was back to Zurich for work. I was extremely busy in Zurich, so I didn’t have much opportunity to see the city. Like the rest of Switzerland, it’s very safe, so I was able to stroll late one night, and I returned briefly at the end of my trip, since I was flying out of Zurich.

“Bond” room in Zurich office where I was working

The city has achieved a reputation as boring, and it’s true that it’s not as exciting as Munich or Rome or other big cities. That said, it’s very livable (except for the high cost of living).

The city has a few major waterways, and a cute old town with some very impressive churches. It does have something a sterile feeling, lacking the charm of other Swiss cities. But I think it’s a good one to live in: large with good public transit, big enough to attract good music acts, directly next to a large, central, European airport, and with a reputation that’s unlikely to charm expats.

Cellist busking outside the Fraumunster Church

As you might expect from someone who mostly experienced the city while everything was closed, the big highlights were the churches, and my favorite exterior was the Grossmunster Cathedral: huge (Grossmunster = big minster), Romanesque (my favorite style), and surrounded by medieval-feeling streets, the courtyard also had a great view of the Limmat river (a picture is at the top of this post).

The Limmat at night

However, the best interior was the Fraumunster church, which had installed a set of stained glass windows designed by Marc Chagall in 1970, when he was 86 years old. Personally, I feel like the internet and computers do justice to most paintings: it’s a similar experience in person and on a screen, but that’s not the case with stained glass, and here the windows were oriented to catch a lot of sun; each of the five windows was mostly one color, because they’re in the choir – tall with little floorspace – they tower over you. Really stunning. Pictures weren’t allowed, and wouldn’t convey the beauty even if they were.

Overall, the city still had an elegance and charm, and though I wouldn’t choose it as a destination, you could do a lot worse than overnighting here.

The weird hotel I stayed at.
There’s a bathroom past that glass, and then the outdoor hallway.

By the way, the hotel I stayed at – one of the hotels recommended by the company website – was really weird. It was a ’boutique’ hotel, and each of the rooms had one wall that was just frosted stained glass, and this wall was next to the bathroom. So, in the bathroom, you had the distinct sensation that people outside the room knew exactly was going on; it was the same with the wall between the bathroom and the bedroom. With only one person, it was just a bit weird.

Zurich train station

Another Day in Bern


9/18/2016

After flying across the Atlantic, seeing the town, watching a hockey game, and partying it up, I took my second day in Bern a little slower.

My trusty steed

I’d found a recommendation online for a pretty church to visit outside of town, so I thought I’d check it out. Among other amazing amenities, Bern has free bike rentals. Leave an ID behind and you can have a bike for half a day, which is a sweet deal. Like most northern European cities, Bern was very bike-friendly – but not the hectic chaos of Amsterdam.

Swiss-style graveyard

This church garden, way outside town in Bremgarten, was certainly further than I expected. I’m not gonna lie, I cursed a few times under my breath, because the ride was incredibly steep… or I was incredibly out of shape. Either way, I was exhausted when I rolled down the gravel path to the church. It was just a little wooden building, surrounded by a cemetery. But the cemetery was hands-down the most beautiful I’ve seen.

Each grave had a bed of flowers in front of it, so it was basically a garden, and the whole thing was cute and cozy. There were even a few cats around. If it weren’t for the rain, I would have stayed a lot longer. With the rain threatening, I returned back. The ride was steep both ways! I had to stop a few times, even on the lowest gear, because it felt like I was going straight up.

Gelateria in the back, the cart wasn’t open when I arrived

My next destination was a gelatto place I’d heard recommended, Gelateria di Berna. Delicious, and I think it was a fitting reward for a few hours of hard riding.

Hot damn!

Like many of the stores and restaurants in Bern, this was in a homey little nook. Sehr gemuetlich! I dropped the bike off disconcertingly early, considering the amount of effort I thought I’d put in. Now there were a few more places I wanted to see downtown, such as the parliament of Bern.

Technically, no photos allowed

I also wanted to see the Muenster, the main cathedral downtown – it’s one of the main landmarks of the city. Actually, it was closed for a concert, and I figured, what-the-heck – let’s get a ticket. It was a school choir, but they were pretty good, and accompanied by professional musicians (including some Brazilian dude who played lute). The theme was a history of Bern & religion through music, so they did musical pieces from various periods dating back to the early middle ages, intermixed with narration. It was pleasant, but I understood none of the narration. There was even a scene where the director and a few musicians pretended to be drunk monks. The crowd ate it up! But the best part, and a complete surprise to me, was seeing an Alpenhorn. I couldn’t have asked for a better opportunity – hear the horn not in a tourist shop, but surrounded by Swiss. And the guy playing it was on scaffolding way up behind the stage (you can see the scaffolding in the photo above, he was on a middle level).

That was pretty much my Bern experience – I spent the evening reading through a light rain. I arrived early the next morning in Zurich for work.

A Week in Switzerland: Bern


9/17/2016

In the fall of 2016 I had the opportunity to visit Switzerland for work. I’d be spending a week there covered by the company, but I extended my trip with stays in AirBnBs on both weekends. Luckily, Switzerland is small enough, with a diverse set of cities, that there was a lot to see without much travel. I would fly into and out of Zurich, and technically spend the most time there, but upon arrival I immediately took a train to Bern. I chose Bern simply because it was close, large, and because I’d seen some pretty pictures of it (cities that I considered, but which didn’t make the cut, were St Gallen, Interlaken and Grindelwald). It was my favorite place in Switzerland. Bern is the de facto capital of Switzerland, and has about 600k people (for comparison, Zurich has 1.8 million). I felt like the city had all the amenities (public transit, walkable downtown) you’d expect in a northern European city, but was also set in a great landscape, and with friendly people.

As soon as I got into the city, I checked into my AirBnB, a private room and surprisingly cheap in the center of the old town, a UNESCO site (view from street). I was sandwiched between a church and a cathedral, with a beautiful view from a roof deck.

My hosts were wonderful as well – a couple about my age, originally from Bern. When I checked in they said they were attending a birthday party that evening and I was welcome to stop by.

Rivella and a view!

I wanted to hit the ground running and see the big sites of the city: I only had a weekend there before heading to Zurich. The old town, a peninsula bounded by an oxbox turn of a river on three sides and rail tracks on the fourth, is pretty small, and very steep. Hungry from the overnight flight, I grabbed some snacks: vegan gummy bears and Rivella. Rivella is a whey soda that I heard was de rigeur in Switzerland; I enjoyed it, but I guess it’s not really that popular.

Waterside view

I made my way across the river, and walked along the southern bank; there a forested trail snaked its way along the water, rewarding me with a beautiful view of the city. At the end of this trail were the ‘bear pits,’ a free zoo with a few bears (which give Bern its name – Bern is German for “Bears”).

Bears!

These weren’t really pits, just an outdoor zoo exhibit on the side of a cliff; the bears also had a section of river to swim in. I enjoyed it as a quick easy diversion from the city. It’s literally a park in the city with bears, what’s not to like? Bern really takes the the bear seriously: it’s the heraldic insignia, and there are statues of bears slurping honey and displaying armor around the city.

Hungry l’il bear statue

I covered pretty much the entire city center over the course of the day. I wasn’t a huge fan of the architecture style – too much similar limestone everywhere, in the kind of Georgian style I don’t particularly like. But the city layout and culture was great. There’s a peculiar street arrangement to this part of the city, with fairly wide streets and then sidewalks with overhanging buildings, essentially making it feel like a mall with an open street in the middle. I’ve rarely seen this elsewhere.

Outside the Muenster

There’s some old clocktowers and similar sights downtown, which I found a little underwhelming; I think the charm of the city is not in its architecture.

Before the hockey game

In the evening I wanted to attend a hockey game; hockey is one of the major sports in Switzerland, and Bern has both the largest stadiums and one of the best teams (they won the 2016 season). There were fireworks, cars driving around the ice, big drums; it felt like going to a soccer game at one of the more involved MLS cities (such as Portland), because although large the stadium only fits 17k people.

There were great supporters clubs and so on, but as it got increasingly late, and with little scoring, I left early. Walking back into the city proper I could hear crowds roaring from inside. Turns out I missed 3 goals at the very end of the game! Can’t win ’em all, I guess.

Park in the city center

I’d also left early to check out this birthday party, and I’m glad I did. The party was still in full swing when I got there – perhaps 15 Swiss in a little boathouse down by the river. There were three parties in a row, each a block away, and as luck would have it, they were the third. Once I got settled in, it was a good time. They had beer and the brother of one of my hosts had started a liquor company, producing a kind of liquor called Ingwerer (German for “ginger-er”). Really great stuff, and apparently popular throughout Switzerland. The boathouse was cute and cozy, and everyone made sure to make me feel welcome.

Party! (This was at the end when I finally remembered to take some pictures, so it’s kinda random).

In fact this was one of my better experiences spending time with foreigners; everyone naturally spoke amazing English. We talked a bit about politics (they were aghast about the US election, this was two months before the results came in); life in Switzerland (very nice – it’s expensive there, but this means that even those with low-paying jobs can travel through Europe; and it’s centrally located); life in Bern (sounds like a city with great quality of life; every summer they take the train upriver and tube back into town on the Aare river). Towards the end of the evening, we played a sort of charade/noun-guessing game, and they played it in English… some of the words were just ridiculously obscure, I was impressed with how well everyone spoke English.

All in all, it was a great start to my time in Switzerland.

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.