Saturday, November 27, 2010

Thanksgiving and Other Things

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Katie, Heath, Greg and I are in Visalia, California (near Fresno) for our annual Thanksgiving visit with Greg's family. As usual, Mom and Dad have surpassed themselves in assembling our feast: we've gorged ourselves on turkey, ham, candied yams, pumpkin pie and other goodies.  Pinnochle rules.

I'm going to take the post-feast snooze fest to catch up on my blogging. 

In October, I convinced Greg to take a train to Interlaken so we could visit Ballenberg the next day. Interlaken is a beautiful little town between two lakes and is the jumping off point for the big three mountain peaks: Jungfrau, Eiger and Monch. Of course, we couldn't actually see any of these peaks as it was cold, foggy and raining while we were there. We stayed at a lovely little B and B outside town overlooking the lake. It was supposed to be a fifteen minute walk from town but I kept stopping to take photos so it was more like an hour.  When we got there, we discovered that the B and B didn't serve dinner and the only place in town that did was already closed for the winter. No problem. We caught the bus back into town and had a lovely dinner at a Swiss restaurant recommended by our hostess.  My cheese fondue was great!

The next day, we took a train and then bus to Ballenberg which is a big park filled with old buildings from all over Switzerland.  We tromped around up and down hills.

Going home, we took a different train and the scenery was drop dead gorgeous - the kind you think of when you think of Switzerland.

Last week, I went on an excursion with the Women's Club of Zurich. We took the train to Hergiswil.  There's a really interesting glass factory there with a kind of scary glass maze. The best part was we got to blow our own glass balls and I have pictures to prove it! (Of course, all we had to do was blow into the rod - the artisan did the rest.)

It was wonderful having a few days in Florida with Katie and Heath and our dog Abby before we flew out here. Tomorrow, we need to get up at the crack of dawn to drive back to Fresno. Our flight doesn't get in until 9 PM and then we have a noon flight the next day back to Zurich, arriving the next morning. Whatever happened to "Beam me up, Scotty"?

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Istanbul Moments

Thursday November 4, 2010

Well, we're back home in our apartment in Zurich, having traded the calls to prayer for church bells (LOTS of church bells). It's a beautiful fall day: sunny and warm. Greg is working at ETH and I'm getting ready to go do some shopping.

I was trying to remember what we did in Istanbul, day by day. It's easier just to pass along to you my memories and impressions of a fascinating stay in an exotic city that straddles the line between Europe and Asia.

Everywhere you go in the city, there are people standing outside cafes and shops, trying to entice you to enter. Some are so persistent you want to smack them but I discovered that most have a great sense of humor. My favorite was a young man who, on the one day of our stay that was cold and rainy, greeted me with "There you are! I've been waiting all day for you. And it was such a cold day." I patted him on the arm and said, "And I am so sorry to disappoint you." We both laughed: it was one of those fleeting moments that makes travel so meaningful. 

We did indeed see the fireworks. As it was getting dark, we passed a hotel boasting a top floor restaurant with a panoramic view of the city. (Many of the hotels in the old quarter have these restaurant terraces.) I mentioned to Greg that it would be a great place from which to view the fireworks but we assumed it would be fully reserved for the big night. Nope. The requisite hawker called us over and sent us upstairs to a restaurant that was only partially full.  Because the approach of night had chased the warmth out of the day, we chose a table in the glassed in part.  Looking out our window, it seemed we were within a stone throw of the beautifullly illuminated fairy tale that is the Blue Mosque and the impressive domed bulk of Aya Sofia. Every so often, there would be a gasp and people would run outside to the terrace. Of course, we also jumped up and ran outside. (It was like animal sighting in Yellowstone Park where you quickly learn to pull to the side of the road when other cars have already done so.) We were never disappointed.  A suspension bridge crossing the Golden Horn, a fjord like river inlet that divides old and new Istanbul, was the setting for the main fireworks. For those of you who know Jacksonville, the bridge has the same sail-like cable support as the Dames Point bridge.  The show began with huge spotlights - you know:  the kind the mayor of Gotham City uses to call Batman - raking the sky in loops and swoops.  The cloud cover added to the show, giving the light something to bounce off.  Fireworks followed and I have to tell you, I've seen a lot of fireworks shows in my 57 years ... but nothing like this. Apart from the bridge, Greg counted at least ten barges shooting off fireworks that were intricate and huge. The grand finale lasted ten minutes. 

We saw lots of mosques and were inside a few.  My favorite was the Blue Mosque. I kept expecting Cinderella to come running by, shoe in hand.  Across the square is Aya Sofya (aka Haghia Sophia), a former cathedral, then mosque, now museum. It sits on the edge of the square like a fat toad, impressive in its vastness.  The interior of the Blue Mosque is light and airy, its dome supported by slender columns. Aya Sofya, on the other hand, is darker and more solid feeling, but was an archeological feat as its immense dome is supported by pillars hidden in the wall, offering a huge open space unencumbered with columns.  Aya Sofya is undergoing restoration, the scaffolds doing nothing to add to the beauty of the place. In restoring the walls, the workers found beautiful mosaics under the plaster added when the church was converted into a mosque.

This is Aya Sofya and if you look carefully you can see the Blue Mosque reflected in the glass.

Aya Sofya interior

The day we toured the Topkapi Palace, home to generations of sultans and their harams, I talked Greg into hiring an official guide. It was ridiculously expensive and if I had to do it again, I'd rent one of those tape recorder things instead but I have to admit that the guide did show us more in the two hours than we could have done on our own - especially since he had no compunction about charging to the head of lines, something Greg and I would never do on our own.  The palace is a sprawling warren of rooms with lots of beautiful tiles and Turkish carpets.  It even has a swimming pool (used by ladies of the haram) that makes Olympic sized pools look puny. Throughout the palace, the smooth floor tiles are bisected with a path of raised stones. Our guide explained this was so the sultan could ride his horse throughout the buildings. Gee, wouldn't want the guy to have to walk. Of course, my curiosity was piqued most by the haram. Did you know that the concubines were actually servants/slaves?  They were indentured for six years and when they left the haram, they often married influential men who admired them for their beauty, intelligence, and contacts with the Topkapi palace. The sultan would have four wives and about 18 "favorites": women his mother and top eunich would choose for him from amongst the concubines. The concubines actually had it fairly easy as they could leave the harem after six years. The mother of the sultan, wives and favorites, on the other hand, had to leave Topkapi and go into seclusion at another palace upon the death of the sultan. 

entrance to Topkapi

Topkapi interior

horse path

Our guide supplied the answer to the mystery of the tags in dogs' ears. Owners have them put on to show that their dog is up to date on shots and not dangerous.  At the end of the tour, our guide fed weiners to a group of cats who came running when they saw him.  Two of them gave us a show as they leaped in the air to get a piece of hot dog.  I asked why there were so many cats in the city - all of them very tame - and he explained that  the residents of Istanbul love cats but don't necessarily want them in their houses so they feed them on the streets.  The only cats I saw that looked scraggly and malnourished were those in a really run down part of the city.

There were lots of beautiful old wooden buildings. Unfortunately, we saw many that were in various stages of disintegration.

A trip to the Grand Bazaar quickly reminded us that neither Greg nor I have a clue how to barter. Heath and Katie, where were you when we needed you?

The Egyptian Bazaar (aka Spice Bazaar) had stalls where spices were shaped into pyramids of color. I  got so involved in ordering Turkish and other teas that the total came to about ninety dollars. Ouch! The biggest problem with Greg and I is that we don't want to hurt anybody's feeling: and that's the death knoll for successful bartering.

One night, we walked along the Bosphorous Sea and were treated to a dark sky and sea peppered with lights from a plethora of boats - small fishing craft to huge freighters.  We walked all over the old city day and night and felt safe. 

Running out of time, we gave the Archeological Museum short shrift. It's worth another visit to see all of the collections. Some of the statues were very ... uh ... intriguing.

We ate awesome meals from small restaurants. Lots of kibabs (called kibaps there) with yogurt.  At one place, we had a kind of stew served in a sealed pot with lots of flames.

Istanbul has been, literally, at the crossroads of civilization since 1000 BC.  Its history lies around every corner and under every footstep and its people are justifiably proud of their city. Greg and I have many more places on our "Bucket List" but I think we just might delay checking off Istanbul until we visit it again.