Thursday, August 30, 2012

Italy Road Trip Finale - Roma!

After a couple days in the car around Italy, our final pit stop was in Roma! I think this was the city I was most excited about. To me, it was the epitome of why I love Europe. So much history around you, mixed in with the European lifestyle of cafes and lounging around public fountains and parks.

With all our other stops along the way, we really only had one full day and the night preceding it. I was worried we wouldn't fit in everything we wanted to see. Then, when I thought about it, I didn't even know where to start with sightseeing! What were the must sees? The Vatican (and therefore the Sistine Chapel). The Colosseum. And? With some of the pressure off, we got a map and highlighted the must sees.

And then we got to our walking. When you read that you can walk pretty much everywhere in the city, I laughed and thought, ya right. But really, you can walk almost anywhere in the city! Other than the Vatican which is a bit farther away than we cared to walk, we walked almost everywhere around the city.

Our first stop was the Vatican - and it is a city within itself (literally!). After some online research, we went in long pants and with a cardigan for me to cover my shoulders, as you are required to have 'respectful' dress within the Basilica and Sistine Chapel. My advice to others going - yes, they do make you cover your knees if you are in shorts (as a female), but I did see several women in dresses just above the knees with shoulders covered. Perhaps they were lenient because of the summer, but we did see people turned away. My motto on the whole thing - better safe than sorry!

We got their first thing in the morning and NO LINES!

First off was the St. Stephen's Basilica. It is huge, vaulted ceiling, with little rooms or worship areas along the whole length of it. We also went down to visit the tombs of the popes below the chapel itself and above to see the view from the top of the cupola. 335 steps didn't sound like so many before going up, but man, was it hot and the stairs were narrow and winding. It was worth it though for the great views from the top.

Inside the St. Stephen's Basilica

View from the top of the St. Stephen's cupola -
you can see the Vatican courtyard in front of us

Next up was the Vatican Museum. You could probably spend a whole day here if you knew what you were doing. But, as I've said before, museums aren't really my thing and this is like a museum on steroids. I don't know how many thousands of pieces are there, but there is something old and historical in every square inch of the place. After following the signs to various exhibits, we decided to finally give up and let ourselves be corralled towards the Sistine Chapel. Needless to say, along the way, you can still enjoy the art, paintings, tapestries and unique architecture, we just did it on a fast track kind of pace.

Inside the Vatican Museum - I was
more interested in the architecture
than all the art

After gazing a few minutes at the giant portraits in the Sistine Chapel, we were off again, this time headed to the Colosseum (of course after a change into shorts and some lunch). We bought the Roma Pass before seeing the sites, and it was worth it. After using our pass to skip the lines of tourists waiting for tickets, we wandered around the Colosseum. It was certainly multipurpose over the years. From what everything thinks of with Gladiator and fighting, to aquatic shows & circuses to stalls for animals and street vendors, it certainly has a unique history.

Once we had explored enough of the Colosseum, we wandered next door to the Roman forum. This is an area with tons of Roman ruins it, from the Temple of Saturn, to the Arc of Septimus Severus. Like the Vatican, it was a bit overwhelming and there is not much information on the site itself. So, we were content to force our tired legs to carry us through, admiring the ruins and take lots and lots of breaks to admire the views.
Colosseum - no animal fighting for us though

Colosseum from the outside - avoiding men selling
umbrellas, light-up objects and other knick knacks

We made a quick stop at the Parthenon to sit down, stare up at the ceiling and wonder what things were like back then, then ended our evening on the Spanish steps with, what else, wine and Italian food!

Not the Spanish steps, but the even MORE famous Trevi fountain

Quick History
- Is there such a thing as a quick history of Rome?
- Ancient Rome was thought to have more than 1M people at the height of its power.
- Founded in the 8th Century BC, Ancient Rome first first ruled by kings, then the senate as the Roman Republic and finally (and most famously), the Roman Emperors
- When Julius Cesar took Rome and appointed himself dictator, he helped Rome to become an empire. After he was murdered, Augustus became the first emperor

What to See
- Vatican - get there early and give yourself plenty of time to enjoy if you do like art. Be prepared to be herded like cattle along with the hundreds (or thousands?) of other visitors. There are two separate entrances to St. Stephen's basilica and the Vatican Museum.
- Colosseum - there is lots of information here for those who want to do self-guided tours. If not, purchase an additional ticket package and you are given more parts of the Colosseum to see on a guided tour.
- Roman Forum - this is definitely worth seeing, but don't do this and the Vatican & Colosseum in one day. I would also recommend getting a guided tour for this. There are poor signs and information, so often times you do not know what you are looking at.
- Piazzas - there are many many piazza (or plazas in English) around Rome. The most famous ones are Piazza Navona (with lots of street artists here), Piazza della Rotunda (in front of the Parthenon), Piazza di Spagna (or the Spanish Steps) and Piazza Fontana di Trevi (difficult translation to Trevi Fountain). While these were all great, I don't think you can go wrong at any piazza. There's usually restaurants, street vendors and lots and lots of people
Tip: if you plan on seeing the Colosseum and the Roman Forum, get the Roma pass. It pays for itself with those two attractions, you can skip all the lines and ride public transit for free. 

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Italy Road Trip Continued - Montalcino

When you drive through Tuscany, there are so many small, quaint looking little towns along the way. Some are just a few houses on the side of the road, others are bigger towns set-up the edge of a hill. I wish I could claim to have stumbled upon this little gem of a town, Montalcino, all on my own, but luckily, a friend of a friend had given us the idea to stop in on our way to Rome.

We almost skipped. it. After a morning of walking around Siena a bit more, we were ready to get to Rome. But, our stomachs didn't want to wait until Rome to eat and as we know, wine goes great with lunch, so we figured, why not eat lunch in a wine town? So, with that in mind, we stopped in Montalcino on our way into Rome.

The city was a cute medieval town (do those two words even go together?) It had a fortress and lots of little winding streets lined with shops with fabulous culinary finds.We sampled amaro, grappa and my personal favorite - chocolate liqueur.

After a delicious lunch, we decided to check out one of the local wineries on our way in to Rome. Paul and I had been to Napa before, but I have to say that this doesn't even compare. In Napa, you have these giant vineyards and wineries that you stop in for a tour and tastings. They're great. I mean anywhere you can drink wine all day is great, right?

Vineyards and olive trees are everywhere

But there was just something special about these little vineyards in Montalcino.

The vineyard we stopped at was called La Fornace - it was run by a family. They have 11 acres for both grapes and olives and produce 18,000 bottles a year. While that is still a lot of wine, it seems like a whole different affair than what you see in Napa. We did our tasting in a special room in their home. We got to walk along the vineyard and try the grapes themselves. And we enjoyed hearing their story of how the farm all started. I loved it - and even better, I loved the wine. We made it home with a couple bottles to enjoy for later on!

Paul testing out the grapes. They will be harvested early
this year to the unseasonably hot summer

Grapes! They are used for the wine, then the leftover skins
from the wine making are used to make grappa

If you are interested in trying a wine from this region, the two main varieties produced are Montalcino Rosso and Montalcino Brunello. Our favorite was the Brnnello, but I think a wine tasting is in order for everyone to pick out their favorite.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

2012 Trip #11 - Siena, Italy

When we planned our Italy getaway with our friends coming in town, we were ambitious. We decided on a road trip, stopping in Florence and Pisa, staying overnight and then hitting up Rome. In 3 days.

It seems that I not only forgot that there are only 24 hours in a day, but I also forgot that I hate car trips.

Once we arrive in Rome, pick up our rental car and make it out of the perilously cramped and teeny parking lot, this fact finally hits me. I realise that I do not, in fact, want to spend at extra 4 hours in the car that day to pose for a picture with the Leaning Tower. Florence? Eh, we will hit it up next time. All I could think about was getting out of the car and getting some Italian food into my stomach. At this point, the trip goes from action packed to relaxing and possibly lazy.

Best. Idea. EVER.

We arrived in Siena around lunchtime and checked in to the hotel. After an indulgent feast, we were ready to hit up the town. I really hadn't done much research before, and all I knew from a brief googling the night before was that we needed to check out the Duomo.

Luckily, the town is small and everything is in walking distance. After a 5 minute stroll to the Duomo, we promptly spent the next 3 hours (with a gelato break) investigating all the different parts of the cathedral.

First is the cathedral itself. The marble work inside is amazing, with multi-colored columns and intricate floor patterns. It is breathtaking, and leaves you wanting to tip toe around, not just to achieve respectful silence, but to avoid stepping and leaving a mark on the beautiful floors you are walking on.

What did I learn in Italian this week? Duomo is not actually
the name of this particular church. Duomo means
cathedral. So, we saw lots of Duomos on our trip.

Vaulted ceilings inside the cathedral

Intricate marbling on the floor

Next, is the Museum which includes access to the walls of the "new" church which they never quite finished. This offers panoramic views of the city and was worth the climb in the unusual and not exactly pleasant Italian summer heat.

Typical Italian countryside. I plan for my next (or first)
summer home to be here in Tuscany. 

After this, I was tired. Enter the first of many many gelato breaks on the trip.

Now we are re-energised and ready to go. On to the crypts! No, there are no dead bodies here, but it is interesting to see the old frescoes in here.

And last, but not least, is the baptistery. It reminds me of Istanbul's Chora Church with the ceilings depicting out stories from the Bible. The Duomo was smart enough to leave some mirrors around so that you don't have to crane your neck either to get a good look at the ceiling.

Beautiful tiled ceilings - each triangle tells
a different story
Baptismal Font - this is dedicated to
John the Baptist

After having conquered the only sight-seeing item we knew we had to see, we set out to roam the streets. We stopped in little art stores to find some local art, checked out pottery and finally ended up at dinner with more Italian food.

Siena was a perfect little Italian town to start our vacation in - just enough things to see, plenty of things to eat and lots of time to mosey around and relax.

Next stop - Montalcino.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Italian Food Junkie

As soon as the plane landed in Italy, I had food on the brain. Yes, even at 9 am I was planning out our lunch full of pasta, fresh tomatoes, parmesan pizza, bruschetta, vino, and all the rest of that wonderful Italian deliciousness.

I love Italian food, although what we get here in Turkey (and most of the time in the US) isn't REAL Italian food. Still delicious, but it can't compare to the real deal.

So, for 3 days during our vacay to Rome and Siena, I overloaded myself with carbs in the form of delicious Italian. I had tons of my favorites and still didn't have enough time for all of it.

I had meals where I was "brave" and randomly picked off the menu using my (almost inexistent) knowledge of Italian. This ended up with delicious spiral pasta, meat sauce and fresh basil.

Fresh basil is extremely underestimated. As is a glass of
wine at lunch.

I had gnocchi and gnocchetti with various, but equally delicious toppings, including pesto.


We sampled pizza, where you paid by the kilo. Best part? You could sample several different kinds of pizza. Our tray includes proscuitto, mushroom and tomato and potato. The eggplant and zucchini version of pizza bits were equally wonderful.

You pay by the kilo! I still love that idea.

And after we crammed our stomachs full of pasta, we always saved a little room for dessert. The only problem? I was too busy eating to remember to take a picture!

So while my pants may be a little snug for the next few days, despite our crazy amount of walking, I can never say I regret it because there is no such thing as too much Italian food.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Ramadan in Istanbul

As of tonight, Ramadan has officially ended in Istanbul.

While I'm sure other parts of Turkey (and even Istanbul) saw a change during the month as people fasted, it was much more subtle in my neighborhood.  In our neighborhood, it was life as usual as most people were not fasting. But, you could see it in the slightly less crowded restauraunts; with the people napping in the park during the day, tired from fasting and heat; with the call to prayers that rang out starting at 3:30 am.

But tonight, the official end of Ramadan, we saw a change everywhere. We were shopping in the Bazaar and shops were all closing up early, ready to go celebrate with family and feast for the next 3 days. Shops were also closed up all on the streets. Families and friends gathered in parks around the mosques, eating picnics, talking, laughing and enjoying the company. At night, the mosques lit up with messages in lights.

And in my neighborhood, the restaurants were almost deserted. Everyone was capitalising on the opportunity to spend the evening with their loved ones. It reminded me a lot of Christmas Eve in the United States. While everyone may not celebrate the religious aspect of the holiday, it is the perfect opportunity to spend time with those important people in your life.

Today's Zaman

Just like Christmas, we get holiday here (Eid) following Ramadan. So, we're off to Italy with our friends visiting from Texas. I can't wait to feast on tons of pasta, pizza, and wine. Perfection.

Monday, August 13, 2012

My Istanbul Love

I have an obsession. Okay, well I really have lots of obsessions, including (but not limited to): dark chocolate, Glee, singing aloud in the car and the Bosphorus.

As I have mentioned before, the Bosphorus is my favorite part of Istanbul. We have a fantastic view of the water from our apartment and I love seeing the different "faces" of the Bosphorus each day. Some days it is grey, some days it is blue, some days it is foggy, some days it is eerily calm.

The Bosphorus seems to me like a life line through Istanbul. It is such a huge part of people's lives. The parks on the water are always crowded with families and friends on weekends, enjoying picnics, each others companies and the view. There are fishermen off all kinds of bridges and seawalls throughout the city trying to catch something more than the usual 4 inch fishies. Ferries dart across the Bosphorus all day making it important to people going from Europe to Asia.

Other than these, my obsession with the Bosphorus comes from the effect the view has on me. No matter what mood I'm in, the views of the water are so calming. Whether its sneaking a quick glance in during the middle of my work day, or sitting outside for a drink after dinner, I always find the quiet my mind needs when I look into the beautiful blues of the Bosphorus.

Here are some of my all-time favorite "faces" of my obsession:

Everyday, sunny Bosphorus

Foggy Bosphorus

The morning after a snow Bosphorus

The Bosphorus "highway"

The stormy Bosphorus

Bosphorus at night

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Istanbul Day Trip - Princes Islands

About 20 km southeast of Istanbul are a series of 9 islands called Princes Islands. Or at least that's what they are called in English, in Turkish they are more commonly referred to as Adalar (the islands). I still don't quite get the disparity between works in Turkish and English (e.g. Boğaz in Turkish, Bosphorous in English). If they are proper nouns, shouldn't they be the same?

I digress.

These islands got their name as they were originally used as a place for ex-princes and monarchs - doesn't seem like too terrible of an exile to me. Later in the 19th century, they became popular as summer resorts for the wealthy. Even today, they are most popular in the summer. The popular goes from 15,000 to 100,000 in the summer as people flock from Istanbul to escape the heat, crowds, and cars. That's right, the islands have no cars, with the exceptions of emergency and city vehicles (like the always important waste trucks). Such a nice respite from the incessant honking in Istanbul.

The islands have been on my bucket list for a while, but we hadn't yet made it there. The most difficult part was that I wanted to bring Belle with us. Getting around with a dog can be troublesome in Istanbul, so perhaps I was just avoiding what I thought would be an annoying and irksome process of getting her to Princes Islands for the day.

Luckily, we got some good advice and a car lent to us from a friend. We drove to Bostanci to take the direct ferry to Büyükada, the largest of the 9 islands. Other than finding the ferry port and finding parking, it was easy, breezy with the dog. She was showing off her tricks to all the Turks and making friends. Not to mention, she LOVED the boat ride. So many fish to see in the water, birds to see in the sky and things to smell in the air! 40 minutes of pure bliss for Belle and we arrived at Büyükada.

Beautiful ferry building at Bostanci
Belle looking pretty at Princes' Islands
Waterfront restaurants from the ferry docks
Despite this being one of my bucket list items, I really hadn't planned in advance. I had heard there was a monastery on the island and that was about it. So, we spent the entire day moseying a bit.

We had lunch and worried about the impending storm blowing through. Luckily, it hit Istanbul but avoided the islands. Good luck? Absolutely.

Stormy Istanbul. Despite sports shutter speed and a couple
hundred photos, I couldn't quite capture the lightening

Next we decided to try a feyton. These are the horse drawn carriages that are one of the main transports other than bikes on the island. Even Belle got to ride around. This is a great way to see the city in an hour, there aren't really major sites, but you can see some of the views and enjoy/envy the new summer homes.

Old streets lined with little shops and dondurma (Turkish
ice cream restaraunts)
Our feyton carriage

Someone else's feyton carriage
While there are plenty of new summer
homes in the city, it is also filled with these
old, somewhat sad buildings.

View from the top of the island overlooking the other islands

After the feyton is where my lack of planning came into play. We had just missed one ferry and the next ferry wasn't for 3 hours. What were we to do? Well, after a nice stroll along the waterfront, we decided to hang out in typical Turkish fashion. We joined the locals bathing on the rocks, although Belle was the only swimmer; we enjoyed some dondurma and lokma (not to be confused with lokum/turkish delight). Once our bellies were once again full, we smoked some nargile, also on my bucket list, and taught ourselves how to play backgammon (Tawula in Turkish).

Istanbul views from the Büyükada shoreline

Everyone hanging out on the shoreline - swimming,
sunbathing, eating, or my favorite pastime - people watching

Dondurma and lokma - lokma was a little
sweet for my taste

Apple nargile AKA hookah

Getting there:
Check the ferry times here (fast ferry) or here (conventional ferry). You can catch the ferry from Kabataş on the European side or Bostanci on Asia side.

What to See:
- St. George Monastery - not much remains, but if you don't mind making the trekk up there, you might as well check it out
- Panoramic views - head up to the top of the island to get great views of the other islands, or check out the shoreline by the docks for great cityscapes of Istanbul
- Relaxation at work! Do as the locals do and just sit back and enjoy the quiet and sun.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Batman in Turkey

In honor of last weekend's release of the Batman movie (at least in Turkey), I thought it was time to share a little bit about Turkey's own Batman.

A few months ago, Paul went on a trip for work to Diyarbakır in Southeast Turkey. While he was there, the local employees wanted to show Paul some of the history of the area and took him to the Hasankeyf Caves in the Batman region.

The city was built thousands of years ago along the Tigris River. And of course anything along the Tigris you know has to have one heck of a history. It is thought to be one of the longest consistently inhabited cities (probably right behind Damascus), with a history of longer than 10,000 years. Apparently the city was even mentioned in the Mari tablets, dating back to 1800 BC. Hasankeyf was also an important stop on the Silk Road, showing its importance at the time, even if it is a little mentioned place today.

While there are tons of important sites to visit here in one of the best preserved Medieval towns in Turkey (such as the El Rizk Mosque, Hasankeyf Castle and Zeynel Bey Mausoleum), what Paul visited were the caves. Similar to the caves in Cappadocia, there are thousands here with a picturesque view over the Tigris. Cave living is still an odd concept to me, but it must have had its appeal way back in the day for so many different people to have adopted it.

The big controversy about this area right now? No, it's not that the city is sueing the producers of Batman, although that's a true story.

It's the possible extinction of the city. People are trying to get a dam built in this very region and it threatens this historic city. While the government has offered to move some of the historic monuments (something along the line of 30) out of the city, historians are still up in arms about it. It's thousands of years of history potentially down the dam and underwater. Hopefully it turns out with a happy ending so that the history can be shared with the world for many more years to come.