Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Guide to the Hermitage

When we walked into the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg last weekend, two things crossed my mind

1) I haven't been to a museum in years (which indicates museums aren't usually my pick for sightseeing while travelling)
2) Wow, this place is huge

The museum can be overwhelming without a plan of attack - over 3 million works of art and it is situated in a complex, not just a building, that includes the Winter Palace, the Old Hermitage, the New Hermitage, Menshikov Palace and more.  Like I said, overwhelming.

So after more than four hours of slightly planned random wandering, here's the must sees of the Hermitage:

1st Floor
1. Ancient Egyptian artifacts
Here is your usual, but interesting assortment of Egyptian artifacts. You have sculptures, sarcophagi, and you know, a mummy. Other than the Egyptian National Museum, here is the only place I have seen a mummy which makes it worth swinging by.

2. Room of Ancient Sculpture
Whether you enjoy a good Aphrodite sculpture, or like to pose as friends with busts, this room is the place to be. There are lots of people throughout history captured through sculpture here.

2nd Floor
3. The Peacock Room
This probably isn't it's technical name, but since they don't have it on their website, we will improvise. If you didn't already guess, this room has a peacock, but of the mechanical kind. It's an amazing clock designed by James Cox which apparently is a big name in clocks. The peacock is the main attraction, but also features an owl and rooster which when wound move around the clock.  Unfortunately, this doesn't happen every day, but here's a video that shows the clock in better detail.

4. The Raphael Gallery
This gallery was designed at the request of Catherine II who wanted a replica of the Raphael Gallery at the Vatican. It is breathtaking to walk down this room covered in frescoes and it was copied to the exact detail with one exception - see if you can find it :)

5. DaVinci's Litta Madonna
An iconic piece of art which has some controversy surrounding it. Some scholars think that while DaVinci had a hand in creating this, it was actually his pupil who painted the majority of it, as the Christ child differs from his other paintings. Good luck pushing through the crowds to snap a picture.

6. Rembrandt's Return of the Prodigal Son
While there are many Rembrandts throughout the museum, this is one of his most famous pieces.

3rd Floor
7. French Art
I won't narrow this down - see the entire floor. Those who love art museums will love this section. Rooms full of Matisse, Picasso, Seurat, Van Gough and other painters whose names you are sure to recognize. The rooms themselves also show a sharp contrast to the over the top decor of other parts of the palace.

We managed to get through quite a bit of the museum in 4 hours, but didn't visit any of the other buildings in the complex.  For other details on the collection, exhibits and getting around the Hermitage, try their website.

Monday, May 28, 2012

2012 Trip #5 - Saint Petersburg, Russia

I do not know when it came to my head that I wanted to go to Russia. Besides the fact that I want to go everywhere, when it comes to planning trips, there is usually something that drives me to visit a place. It may be just one specific site, an excitement about the country or a story from friends about their fantastic trip.

All I know is that when Paul's brother and wife visited this month and told us they wanted to take a little side trip while over here, I was all of a sudden stuck on Russia.

A month later and a bit of hassle with our visa, we were there! It ended up being perfect timing for the trip. It was the opening weekend of the Festival of the White Nights in St. Petersburg. This festival is for the summer solstice where the sun is out for most of the day. It was also the Anniversary (or Birthday which sounds more fun) of Saint Petersburg being founded as a city. What a lucky coincidence, because it meant the city was even more full of life than usual and we got to see it at its best.

We were pleasantly surprised by the city - the canals remind you of Amsterdam, the buildings of old Europe, the people were as friendly as they come. Even with only two full days in the city, the sunlight allowed us plenty of time to soak up the sun and sights.

Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood - my favorite architecture of St. Petersburg

And the church again (I told you it was my favorite)

Inside the church is all mosaic - there are more than 6,000 sq. m of mosaics

Outside the Hermitage - I think the horse drawn carriage makes it feel circa 1800's

Inside the Hermitage

Nevsky Square at night

With the city birthday celebration, there were balloons everywhere. 
Balloons with balloons inside the balloons.

View of the Neva and bridges at night

View of the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood at night

Hermitage at night

Quick History
- The City was founded in 1703 by Peter the Great after he defeated the Swedes. He built the city on what is now Peter and Paul's Fortress.
- Originally swampland, Peter had the land drained, filled in and built up the sea walls and canals that now are an important part of the cityscape.
- St Petersburg (or Piter as its called by the locals) has also been named Petrograd and Leningrad throughout its history.
- Three emperors (Peter III, Paul and Alexander II) were assassinated, Alexander II's assissination was memorialized by the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood.
- See the Romanov family tree and a history of tsars here

What to see
- Neva River and its bridges: best time to see? At night. You can join the crowds of locals who hang out among the river at night and watch the bridges open up to allow ships through. Best to make sure you are on the correct side of the river so you don't get stuck!
- Hermitage Museum: one of the largest museums in the world. We saw everything from Egyptian artifacts to tapestries to famous French paintings. Try to join the tour if you can figure out the tour times in advance; this way you can be sure to hit the main attractions.
- Church of our Savior on the Spilled Blood: as ominous as the name sounds, this church is amazing and everything you think of when you think of a Russian Church. The church was built on the spot where Alexander II was killed and is filled with amazing mosaics.
- Nevsky Prospekt: this is the busy street in Saint Petersburg. Take an afternoon to shop or stroll down it in the evening to see the buildings lit up at night. Don't be surprised by the groups around you who are enjoying a beer during their stroll.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Istiklal Caddesi

Istiklal Caddesi (translated to Independence Street) is arguably one of the busiest streets in Istanbul, and with good reason. Day or night, Wednesday, or Saturday it is always full of life and people.

You can find anything here: shopping, street entertainment and lots of lots of food. Most of my favorite, albeit not-too-Turkish, foods can be found here like waffles, kumpirs and wet burgers.

With family in town this week, a visit to Istiklal was in order. So what are our favorite things to do while there with our visiting tourists?

1. Check out historic sites on the way:
There are tons of older buildings here and things tucked away just off the main street. I love this facade in front of St Anthony's Catholic Church, which is also worth checking out. It is the largest Roman Catholic Church in Istanbul.

Still celebrating the Galatasaray victory - outside the St Anthony church 
which you can glimpse through the arches

2. Stroll down the Balık Pazarı
Besides the fishermen on Galatasaray bridge, this is a great place to fish shop. Here there are all kinds of fish, big ones, small ones, spotted ones, and whatever else the fare is! Even if you don't eat fish (like me) it's fun to "window shop".

3. Find a little bar and have a glass of rakı
Rakı is a popular drink in Turkey and you will see lots of people indulging in it with their dinner. A bit like Greek ouzo, it is a clear drink that clouds up once you mix it with water. And you will definitely mix it with lots of water.

4.Sample the fares from the street vendors
Here you can find mostly simits (the bagel like bread) and kestanes (roasted chestnuts), but also roasted corn. There are lots of vendors to choose from, so take your pick!

 Simit cart

 And then the kestane cart left unmanned. 

5. Enjoy the view and join in the hustle and bustle.
Some of the best views of the street are at night with the lights and still all the people walking around. Just follow along and see where the road leads you! 

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

2012 Trip #4 - Abu Dhabi

This week, I am travelling in the UAE for work. I don't think I knew what to expect going into it - a desert? An over the top city full of modern skyscrapers and wonders? The epitome of the Middle East?

In a way, it is all of these, but yet, it has still completely taken me by surprise. I am awed by the city itself, so many unique skyscrapers, unexpected offerings, embracing of their own culture and of visitors to it.

First stop on our UAE journey - Abu Dhabi. Most people think UAE = Dubai, but forget about the capital city an hour and a half from Dubai.  My coworker and I only had 24 hours to kill there, but between our meetings, we made sure to make the best of it.

Best place to grab lunch in Abu Dhabi? By the beach of course. That is if you don't mind the 100+ degree Fahrenheit weather. I did not realize it was possible to burn by sitting in the shade for 45 minutes.

View from my hotel window - so much construction going on everywhere!

On the way out of town, we stopped by the Grand Mosque, which had caught my eye driving into town. It's hard not to catch anyone's eye. From the highway, you can tell it's enormous, but even that doesn't prepare you for the sheer size of the place.

A few interesting statistics?
  • It can hold up to 40,000 worshippers at a time. Yes, all those zeros are correct.
  • It contains the worlds largest carpet. 
  • It also contains the third largest chandelier in the world (wonder how this compares to Dolmabahce?) and among all the chandeliers there are millions of Swavorski crystals.

View as you come up to the mosque 

 View from inside the courtyard

Inside the courtyard

Chandelier #1

Chandelier #2

View of the inner room - there are 4 of those chandeliers going across - it's ginormous

Close-up of the world's largest rug - 1,200 people worked on it to tie 2.2 billion knots!!

Decked out in our mosque gear - let me tell you those things are not so breezy at 48 degrees celsius


More to come on our explorations of Dubai! 

And P dot S - for those of you counting, I gave in and counted this as trip #4. Paul needs to start tagging along!

Monday, May 14, 2012

More Football MADNESS

So I think I may have jumped the gun in my earlier post about the football games that were winding up here.

This weekend was the final game of the season - there are no playoffs in the league here, league winner is the champion.

As it ended up, Galatasaray (#1) and Fenerbahçe (#2) were playing. There were separated by 1 point. If one team won, they won the league. If they had a tie, Galatasaray won by default because they had the most points. No extra time, no kick off. The end.

We went down to a restaurant in Bebek to watch the game with some friends. As we live on the European side, there tended to be more Galatasaray fans, but Paul is a Fenerbahçe supporter and I decided to cheer them on too because I always like an underdog win.

The madness is not because of the game itself - it wasn't fantastic play with lots of exciting goals and saves. In the end, no one even scored, although there was a player from each team ejected with a red card, and more yellow cards and "injuries" than I think I have ever seen in a football match before.

The real madness came after the game.

First off, the Fenerbahçe fans at the game REVOLTED. This confuses me too, because it is their own stadium, but they went crazy nonetheless. They threw things at Galatasaray players as they celebrated and exited the stadium, then they stormed the field and threw chairs, benches, trash cans and more at the riot police. I even saw one fan throwing the riot police shield back at the police. It seems more like a World Cup game than an end of the season playoff game.

Throughout the rest of Istanbul and Turkey, all the Galatasaray fans were celebrating. In Bebek, traffic was stopped with people yelling, waving flags, setting off flares, honking their horns. I think it may have been the biggest celebration I have ever seen.

Lessons learned? Turkey loves their football teams. Oh and make sure to only attend a game when you know your team will win!!

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Six Months

Today is my six seven month anniversary of living in Istanbul. Wow. Time really does fly. It seems like both just yesterday and forever ago that we packed up, sold off our junk stuff, rented out our house and got on a one way flight to Istanbul.

Has everything worked out perfectly according to our well laid plans? Of course not, life is funny like that. Still, looking back, there are absolutely no regrets. I love the life of an expat, travelling the world on weekends, exploring a country I had only thought about visiting but I now call home. I love my friends here, and even as some of them head back home to 'real' lives, we will always share memories of this crazy, fantastic, sometimes trying experience of living as yabancılar (foreigners) in Istanbul.

It has been six months full of lots of firsts - first time living overseas, first time haggling in the bazaar, first time getting lost on the subway (or the bus or just in general), first time living by the water, first time missing Thanksgiving in Texas, first time.......  

So, what has the last six months brought us?
  • Five new countries stamped in our passports
  • Three visitors from home with whom we got to share our city
  • A little bit of knowledge of Turkish
  • More snow days than I care to count
  • Many, many visits to the Blue Mosque, Aya Sofya and other city sites
  • Two Turkish rugs  (and that's only because of my wonderful shopping self restraint!)
  • An appreciation for a new culture

 Turkey bound! And yes, that is one of those plane face masks. I love them and may or may not use them at home too. Just saying they're great.

Visiting my first mosque in Istanbul (Nov 2011)

 Hanging out in Ortakoy (December 2011)

 Driving through Tekirdağ - having some of their special kofte (December 2011)

 Celebrating the New Year in Gelibolu (January 2012)

 Family portrait at Troy (January 2012)

 Official resident of Turkey - and yes, I look terrible, just ignore that part (February 2012)

First trip to the Asian side of Istanbul and almost made it to the Black Sea (March 2012)

 First tulip festival (April 2012)

What will the next six months have in store for us? Well, besides the 4 sets of visitors, and lots of trips, only time will tell!

Update: I apparently skipped one of those basic math lessons. This was my seven month anniversary! Time really does fly.

Monday, May 7, 2012


Paul requested me to write a blog (which he almost never does after the time I bugged him for weeks straight to write a guest post). The requested topic was our most recent weekend in Istanbul. This request was not because of anything too exciting. Really, to burst everyone's expat bubble, we (at least we as in me, Paul and our friends) do not spend every weekend at some ancient, awesome site in the city. Maybe dinner on the Bosphorous, of which you should be incredibly jealous because it is amazing as I recently described, but other than that, we live a similar life to what we lived in the States. Dinner with friends, watching a movie, cleaning house and even bowling, just in a much cooler, older, bigger city. So back to my opening statement, Paul asked me to write a post about our weekend because we a) went bowling (no biggie) and b) Paul got a turkey in Turkey (definition of a turkey is 3 strikes in a row). He had his all-time high score of 202. What what!  I won't even tell you about my meager score. Unfortunately for him, he took the camera with him on his trip today, which means the world will have to wait to see proof of this feat.

Now, on to the real highlight of the week/weekend in Istanbul.  Football. And for you Americans, football = soccer.

Istanbul has 3 sports teams in the city. Beşiktaş, Fenerbahçe and Galatasaray. This week were the some of the final matches between these teams and one more Turkish team in football. There was a big match up on Sunday. It was a bit of a nail biter because Fenerbahçe had to win to be able to play Galatasaray in the final, as Galatasaray is ahead by 1 game. Don't judge me for incorrectness on 'football' terms here - this may be a language I need to learn more of, but that's another day, another blog.

Oh. My. Goodness. People here love their football. I have heard it said that the best time to get around the city are during these matches because everyone is at home watching the game. They have banned opposing fans from the games due to things being thrown, general meanness towards fans and some agreement I have heard mentioned between the teams that seems odd to me. As much as we wanted to attend a game, tickets are hard to come by. Who has the hookup for next Saturdays game?