Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Yes, that is me with Rick Steves

Last month I attended a talk by Rick Steves and got to meet him afterwards. He has some unusual opinions but an open mind, both of which probably contribute to his enjoyment of travel. I'll bet he loves that Mark Twain quote I posted a couple of days ago! As you probably know, he's built himself into quite the one-man (not really, I think he has at least 50 employees by now) travel industry. My ambitions are not quite that expansive but it's always good to grow, isn't it? Onward and upward with the Mon Voyage "brand", then.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Mark Twain et Moi

Mark Twain and I share a birthday (along with David Mamet, Dick Clark and Winston Churchill, G. Gordon Liddy, Shirley Chisholm, Abbie Hoffman and Jonathan Swift, to name a few). I was recently reminded of a favorite quote from Twain, which I wear emblazoned on a T-shirt featuring a map on the front and these sage words on the back:

"Travel is fatal to bigotry, prejudice, and narrow-mindedness"

The t-shirt stops there, but the entire quote reads as follows:

"Travel is fatal to bigotry, prejudice, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime."

Truer words could not be said.

That latter sentence actually reminds me that Roman Catholic social teaching tells us that we have a moral obligation to participate in public life, i.e. to be active members of our civic community, to the extent that we are able. This might range from voting to volunteering, and from lobbying those who are in public office to running to serve as elected officials ourselves. It all boils down to loving our neighbors. If we seal ourselves off from our community or from fellow human beings, both nearby and far away, it's almost impossible to put that commandment into action.

That's a good New Year's resolution: not to vegetate in one's own little corner of the earth (or the town), and to try and develop broad, wholesome charitable views of our fellow man.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Road Trip!??

It's looking like we'll hop in the car and drive about 250 miles to be with a favorite cousin for Christmas. I thought this would be the perfect excuse to share a peek into what makes a road trip more tolerable for me.

If I'm already on a vacation and driving between various destinations is part of the plan, that's one thing. Say, for example, driving Route 66, or hitting several national parks and monuments in one week-long or ten-day stretch. Or spending a week and a half snaking up the unforgettable California coast with several days of winery visits interspersed. On those occasions the scenery makes it more enjoyable, without a doubt. But I'm not the kind of gal who wants to take off on a three-week road trip to the west coast...let me fly out there and THEN we can drive. (Of course, my own lack of enthusiasm for such does not prevent me from designing a humdinger of a road trip for a client.)

So, anyway, we're talking a four and a half hour trip, really not bad in the scheme of things. What are the things that go with us inside the cabin of our auto?

First, a supply of snacks: I need something sweet and something savory. That usually means box of crackers, a couple of granola bars, a bag of roasted cashews, a bag of dried pineapple. We also carry a loaf of some kind of hearty bread. If I'm feeling like a real adult I might take a couple of bananas, too.

Beverages: I wish I could say that wine makes a great road trip sipper, but, alas, that is not legal in most states, and besides, it would make me too sleepy. Instead we'll take a Thermos of strong, hot coffee (decaf, doctor's orders), a few diet Dr. Peppers and some juice boxes. That Thermos full of coffee is not sweetened because darling hubby likes it bitter, so this means that I also carry some sugar packets or a baggie with cubes, plus a spoon, so I can doctor mine.

Music: I must have a supply of music, whether that be on my iPod or in a thick folder of CDs. Nothing too quiet for me on a road trip, as the music is meant to help keep me alert. Our musical tastes run far and wide, so I've got to pack a little bit of everything because I never know what kind of musical mood I might be in from one hour to the next. And you've gotta have music that both driver and passenger(s) can live with. It'll just make people cranky to have to sit through an hour of music they hate when they are cooped up in a car all day long.

Comfort: Gotta wear shoes that slip off and on. And a sweater in case my husband wants more A.C. (or less heat) than I do. Speaking of which, I really should get my car heater fixed at some point...it just doesn't get that cold where I live, so I keep putting it off. Say, the next two or three people who hire me to plan a trip can consider themselves my heater saviors.

Maps: Being a travel geek, I love me some maps. So the car will always contain every map we might need along the way and then some. I've never used a GPS because I dig the folding and unfolding of the paper (ok, maybe more the unfolding than the refolding) and being able to see the big picture of what lies ahead.

It doesn't hurt to make a list of the things you'll need, and then to position those things in the car so that they are easily accessible to the driver and/or navigator.

Have a great trip this holiday season, get there safely, enjoy the company, and hurry home only if necessary!

Friday, November 28, 2008

Mumbai Madness

In the past two days, terrorists have made a ten-point coordinated attack on significant landmarks in Mumbai, Maharashtra, India. Estimates at this hour indicate that upwards of 160 people have been killed and several hundred wounded. I'm not going to post news here, as you can get that at http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com

Usually I visit The Times of India for a snapshot of a country I very much want to visit and to check out Hindi film reviews at both incarnations of the entertainment section, each with their own staffs, the Times of India AND IndiaTimes.com . This week it's been invaluable as a source of information in the crisis, with regular updates from the field.

But this age of instant news has presented a problem: conflicting information. In one article I have read about the attackers NOT knowing their way around the Taj Hotel. Yet in another posted at a similar hour, I read that it was believed that the terrorists had studied the plans of the hotel and prepared well to have more than just a working knowledge of the ins and outs of the hotel's floor plan. One article might say that a target has been cleared of terrorists, and then another moments later saying that there have been more flashes or explosions. Not to mention the conflicting reports of any background info on the terrorists themselves or their connections to other groups. The mere volume and rate of the information stream is bound to lead to new insights as well as problematic inaccuracies. One can only hope that in the coming days a clearer picture will be drawn of the terrorists, their plan of action, their motives, and more importantly, how the Indian government can better protect its citizens (and visitors).
I am not dissuaded from my strong desire to travel to India, including some days in Mumbai, but the attack does render me doubtful as to whether I might choose to stay in hotels widely known to cater to Americans. I typically choose other accommodations anyway, wanting to have a less sanitized experience, so I suppose it just reinforces my existing instincts.

I haven't let terror scare me away from London and Istanbul, and these attackers have not scared me away from Mumbai.

Someday I will go...and when I am in front of the Taj Hotel or the Gateway of India or the Victoria Terminus I will think of those who lost their lives to this insanity.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

That Italy trip: fantastico, but...

The folks I mentioned in the previous post had a great trip to Tuscany and Rome. They spent a few days at a top Florence hotel and from there took a docent-led walking tour of ancient Florence one day and on another they enjoyed a full-day wine tour accompanied by two certified sommeliers. They had a special lunch at a biodynamic goat cheese farm along with an array of Tuscan wines, as an introduction. Then they went to some of the finest chianti classico wineries for extensive private tastings. After their brief stay in Florence, they stayed at a huge organic farm estate with a castle. On the property the staff and interns raise heirloom produce and animals, cured meats are made, art and lifestyle workshops are held...what a special experience is available to guests there! From the estate they visited Siena and also took another wine tour, this one highlighting the famous Super Tuscans as well as some of the amazing wines coming from the Tuscan coast, believe it or not. Finally, they went to Rome, where in addition to all the usual Roman delights, they took docent-guided tours of ancient Rome and the Vatican. Every day I wished I was with them, especially for the wine tours!!
The only day I might have passed on was their day of arrival...I found out a few days before their departure that there was going to be a nationwide transportation strike. Yikes! But hey, this is Europe, and labor strikes are part of life, just like those four weeks of average vacation they get. I prepared the travelers as best I could with back-up plans on how to get where they needed to go, and advised them to pack a suitcase full of patience. When you are traveling and faced with a situation you can't control, but which does have a foreseeable conclusion and does not physically threaten you, sometimes it's best to just take a deep breath and have a cocktail or glass of wine if you can find one! I myself can get too stressed out if things do not appear to be unfolding as planned when I travel, so I probably need to heed my own advice more often. But I am usually armed with information and can find a way to remedy any problem that may arise, and that is what I try to do for my clients. I say this all the time when I'm researching health issues, but KNOWLEDGE IS POWER. That applies to travel, too.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

La Bella Italia

It's another one of those trips I'd like to be on myself...I could use an Italian food infusion, that is, an Italian food infusion IN Italy. I am sending clients to Florence, Sorrento and Rome next month and I am really excited about the way things are shaping up. The hotels that I've proposed are all so appealing I'd have a hard time deciding myself which ones to choose. OK, maybe not that hard because I do definitely have my own opinions. But I don't let my personal preferences crowd out those of a client.

I tell the truth--why I'd choose one place over another--but without the expectation that another individual would come to the same conclusion. People have different priorities when it comes to all aspects of travel; in selection of accommodation, you must weigh the price as well as what's on the inside (cleanliness, decor, service, square footage, bathroom, hipness, etc) and what's on the outside (a quiet neighborhood vs. lively one, safety, convenience to transportation and attractions, etc). And then you want to avoid things like, oh, ripoffs, overcharges, lost reservations bedbugs, rude staff, rodents...all the usual (and unusual) horror stories that will crush any potential for repeat business. With so many variables and factors to consider for any trip, I try to present a handful of options in each case that are selected based on exhaustive research and client preferences I have learned from the Mon Voyage Travel Style Questionnaire and conversations with clients. Fortunately, I seem to be doing just fine in pairing people with plans.

Soon I should know what choices this client prefers in terms of lodgings...can't wait to find out. Then I'll make arrangements for some guided walking tours, a wine tasting day trip in Tuscany, secure a rental car, find some great restaurants and lesser-known museums that suit them, make their driving maps and travel packet...soon I can have another vicarious travel experience...

Everyone always asks where we'll be traveling next and I have to say I honestly do not know!!! The list is endless but the pocketbook is not bottomless.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

"Unforgettable" trip to India, er, Houston

I am a real aficionado of Hindi films, along with the music that enhances them. Half the music on my iPod is probably Indian tracks, and I own 50+ Indian films on DVD. I call myself the Texas Bollywood Evangelist (even though Bollywood only refers to Mumbai-industry, Hindi-language films, or no more than a quarter of the films that are made in India). I've even given talks at my local school as well as a community college to help enlighten and expose other people to the fascinating world of Indian film.

My dream trip is to spend a couple of months in India, soaking up the culture, sights and sounds of the subcontinent. But since that's not in the stars right now, I decided that the stars and India would just have to come to me. Only they could not get closer than 250 miles away.

Last weekend we drove to Houston to see The Unforgettable Tour, a three and a half hour Indian movie and music stage extravaganza headlined by some of the biggest movie stars in India. Make that the world, since India has practically a billion people watching movies, plus all the diaspora Indians living around the world. I was so excited about it that I got an awesome new salwar-kameez suit and dupatta for the occasion at one of our local Indian shops (such affordable prices!).

So who was in this show?

Amitabh Bachchan, the most celebrated Indian actor in the world...

Madhuri Dixit, uncontestedly the best dancer and one of the best actresses of Indian cinema...

Abhishek Bachchan, son of Amitabh and a good actor himself; with his wife, actress Aishwarya Rai, called the most beautiful woman in the world and a fine dancer also...

Preity Zinta, dimpled popular actress and star of many hit movies geared to the NRI (non-resident Indian, i.e. those of Indian origin or background living abroad) audience...

Riteish Deshmukh, a younger actor (and son of prominent politician) who excels at comedic roles...

Music director duo Vishal and Shekhar, creators of the infectious music for the film Om Shanti Om and many other hits

And not to be forgotten, Choreographer Shiamak Davan and his troupe of energetic, graceful dancers did an amazing job and were really the basis for a great show!

The stars tried to invite me up onto the stage to dance with them, but they could not reach me in the top of the arena in the cheaper seats...

Besides all the spectacular dancing, I enjoyed Amitabh's recitation of some of his famous dialogues even though I don't speak a word of Hindi--that's how good an actor he is. (He did summarize in English before speaking in Hindi.) He also recited of one of his poet father's famous works, Agneepath. If I can find a good English translation I'll post it.

The far-away pictures were taken by me, and the extreme closeups are provided by the production company WizCraft. Whoever designed the staging and sets, lighting, etc, also achieved a beautiful result. Here is a video of one of the undisputed high points, when Madhuri and Aishwarya danced together on the song "Dola Re Dola" from the movie Devdas.

Also attended the press conference with the stars. The "press" consisted of mostly entertainment or popular Desi media, even a couple of starstruck types, and only a few serious journos (like my husband) who wanted a deeper, more intellectually sophisticated story; and the whole lot of them were treated...not so accommodatingly...by the producers and organizers.


There's another world tour in the works, "Temptations Reloaded" starring Shah Rukh Khan, the "King of Bollywood". I'd love to see that one as well if they manage to get to Texas. Maybe a Dallas promoter will be able to afford it since the "Unforgettables" went to Houston...it's only fair, right? Barring that, a promoter in Atlanta is hinting at it, and I could stay at my sister's house...

I have to paste this amusing article that appeared at the time of SRK's new tour "kickoff" in Rotterdam...I have to say that show was obviously timed to take attention away from the Bachchans' tour, because there are only two other "Temptations" dates announced...anyway, here's the article from IANS, which conveys the fun of Bollywood:

Rotterdam, June 22 (IANS) Screaming fans from across Europe showered flowers, notes and trinkets as Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan performed at Ahoy, Rotterdam's large cultural and sports complex, to launch the world premiere of Temptations Reloaded, a live song and dance show that saw a number of Indian stars descend on the city Saturday night.

Shah Rukh performed on stage with Bollywood favourites like Arjun Rampal, Katrina Kaif and Kareena Kapoor in an auditorium with a capacity of 25,000 before a mixed audience of Asians and Europeans.

In between the two-and-half-hour long show, Shah Rukh and Arjun Rampal drove through the aisles of the auditorium in light vehicles and the venue echoed with the adoring screams of fans, some of whom showered them with trinkets, flowers and notes.

Some European fans were dressed in Indian clothes and referred to the Bollywood superstar as the 'Saudagar of Sunshine'. And Dutch fans preferred to watch Shah Rukh instead of the Euro 2008 football champion semi-finals between Holland and Russia played around the same time.

In a continent starved of warmth for most parts of the year, King Khan is called 'sunshine' by his fans here.

Ignoring weather forecasts that had predicted clouds and rainfall, fans travelled from all over Europe to witness the live performance.

With stars in their eyes, cine buffs arrived here under clear blue skies to watch the midsummer night performance and to sigh that the mere presence of Shah Rukh Khan makes clouds part.

'Shah Rukh Khan is our sunshine! When he is close to us, the worst day becomes bright. He fills my life with light and warmth,' an Indian female fan said rubbishing weather forecasts.

'Bollywood makes you happy' is the slogan for marketing popular Indian cinema in Europe, suggestive of the fact that Hindi movies create a state of emotional well-being that goes far beyond mere entertainment.

This is the reason for a dramatic increase in Bollywood fan communities on this continent whose activities revolve mostly around Shah Rukh Khan and his work.

'Bollywood makes European audiences happy because the films are like life seen in dreams,' Segolene Roudot, a French fan who is researching fans of Indian cinema in France, told IANS.

Colours, costumes, music, dance and Shah Rukh's charismatic screen presence have brought much joy into many lives here.

An online Swiss fan forum has a special web page filled with thank you notes to Shah Rukh for coming to Europe. The notes thank the superstar for the colour that he brings into lives and for being the light for fans in the dark.

'Such feelings become stronger at the possibility of a meeting with Shah Rukh Khan. The desire is to touch him in an attempt to experience some more of the joy and happiness that he radiates,' Elke Mader, a professor of Vienna University who monitors the behaviour of non-South Asian fans of Shah Rukh Khan for Bollyglobal, a research project, told IANS.

Mader gives the example of Christina Zuck, a Berlin-based artist who has publicly confessed that her life was magically transformed after she touched Shah Rukh at the Berlin Film Fesival of 'Om Shanti Om' earlier this year.

'The experience of fans like Christina goes beyond admiring Shah Rukh Khan as a movie star. Shah Rukh is seen much more than just an entertainer here. He is happiness and love personified. Fans want to touch him and to talk to him because he is able to transfer a lot of joy to those who are lucky enough to cross his path,' Mader said

Hosted by Netherland's Sekier Entertainment Service, the next European stop of Temptations Reloaded, a sequel to the 'Temptations' tour Shah Rukh started in 2004, is Berlin.

Founded in 1999 by Ishaq Sekier, a Dutchman originally from an Indian family from Surinam, with an evening of songs by Manna Dey, the entertainment service has since sponsored Sonu Nigam, Udit Narayan, Alka Yagnik, Sunidhi Chauhan, Shaan, Shreya Ghosal, Kavita Krishnamurti, KK and Jagjit Singh here.

'We would like to see Bollywood activities increase around continental Europe,' Monique Dabloe, a Sekier staff member, told IANS.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Domestic and intergalactic travel roundup...

My RV client family leaves next weekend for the big Black Hills extravaganza. They'll be in a 31 foot class C rig with one slide (I sound like an old hand now, don't I?) as they make their way to Mount Rushmore, Badlands National Park, Devil's Tower, and finally Rocky Mountain National Park...and all kinds of spots in between. They'll park overnight at a variety of campgrounds, from official National Parks sites to family-owned spreads in the hills. Their Devil's Tower campsite even shows "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" every night. How cool is that? Devil's Tower on the movie screen with the actual thing looming right in front of you? I wonder if they get any special visitors out there...their RV is kind of big and flattish with a million lights...and it's like a giant synthesizer...

I've been to quite a few National Parks and Monuments but never to these, so naturally I want to visit these places myself now that I've put in the research time. It's just par for the course in this business, I reckon; I can't help traveling vicariously through my clients and in the end their trips just serve to lengthen my own to-go list.

Next up is a Paris-Brussels-London family jaunt with a side trip to Normandy...I've got these folks booked into all their top accommodations choices in areas I love, so I am particularly worked up about preparing this trip. We are on the same wavelength about most aspects of the trip, so it's almost like planning my own vacation. And we know how expert I am at THAT!

My own plans are rather tame for the near future, at least in terms of distance to be traveled: first up, a road trip to Houston to see a star-studded live Bollywood extravaganza. (Actually the first "journey" will be a root canal--I will SO need to have a dose of Bollywood after the dental horror.) Then my sister will apparently be getting married sometime in the next couple of months, so it looks like I'll be using that airline certificate I bought in the charity auction to fly to exciting Atlanta--oops, I mean HOT-LANTA.

Other than that, my DH and I hope to venture up to Washington, DC, before the end of the year to visit with several of his former colleagues, who for some reason have all independently moved there as though drawn by some...humongous pied piper spaceship playing a five-note tune. We look forward to witnessing some sort of gripping congressional hearing and/or a Supreme Court argument while in our nation's capital.

Seriously. I mean it.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

It has a name: jilbab.

If you have read the previous Istanbul posts, you know I have been pining for one of those "Islamic style" long coats I saw on so many women in Turkey. Well, now I now the name of that obscure object of desire: a jilbab. The term is actually one of several used somewhat interchangeably to describe Islamic women's outer garments.

Apparently the most attractive and highest quality jilbab(s?) come from...Turkey. No wonder I thought some of those sistahs looked fabulous, with their color coordinated scarves, clothes, jilbabs made of every fabric under the sun, from denim to shiny. Just 'cause they were covered didn't stop them from being fashionable. I even saw some women in the totally baggy black abayas that were trimmed with rhinestones (and a big honkin' sparkly buckle) or jet beading.

I also saw some younger women that were wearing funky dresses over jeans...I know this had gotten to be a trend in the northwestern US as of late, but I can't help wondering if it started over here as another, semi-rebellious, youthful way to cover up...it seems perfectly natural to see it in Istanbul, but goofy in Seattle or Dallas.

I still want one of those coats. A denim one.

And now maybe I can find one online, since I can't dash back to Turkey for it...


(too large for me but it's a start)

Thursday, May 29, 2008

17th Annual New Orleans Wine and Food Experience

Now that I've more or less finished my Istanbul posts, I need to jump back to the US and give a shout out to the New Orleans Wine and Food Experience! It's held every year around Memorial Day weekend and a fantastic way to enjoy one of my favorite cities (and my hometown, in essence). I could go the shorthand route: New Orleans...Wine...Food...enough said!!!

But seriously, it's five days of indulgence in one of the epicurean capitals of the western hemisphere. What's not to like?

75 Chefs
175 Wineries
5 Days
1000 Wines

Are you getting the vapors just thinking about it?

Tuesday: Premium Fine Wine Dinner with celebrity Louisiana chef.

Wednesday: Start off with a bang, or a pop! Vintner dinners are held at scores of the city's top restaurants. Many courses, many wines.

Thursday: Vinola premium Tasting and Auction...taste the super-duper wines, the secret reserves, the stuff that you can barely get your hands on, and bid on coveted collectible wines and exclusive (that means really cool) wine or food-related auction packages. After that...Royal Street Stroll...cocktail hour(s) winding your way in and out of the superb galleries and shops of Royal Street, inside which you will discover not only appealing art but wineries pouring their latest offerings...and of course, delicious food along the way.

Friday: Seminars all day long, some serious, some lighter, covering all aspects of food and wine...probably the only time I will ever get to even taste a $500 wine...followed by the first of the Grand Tastings, an evening where you can barely make a dent in the 50 or 60 restaurants serving scrumptious yummies to at least 150 wineries, each of whom is presenting several wines. I feel decadent and satisfied just thinking about what I consumed in those short three hours (and I was not even tipsy, in case you are wondering!)

Saturday: more seminars till lunchtime, and then when it's time to eat it's off to Grand Tasting, Round Two, this time with different restaurants.

Yes, it costs money but it goes to good causes. You can pick and choose your event(s) or buy the whole schmeer if you figure you can keep up. I promise you, it's a tough row to hoe to really accomplish and attend everything you might have on that list. NOWFE makes generous donations to New Orleans and Louisiana charities from culinary scholarships to helping firemen rebuild their homes post-Katrina. There are about 250 volunteers who really make the whole Experience complete!

If you enjoy New Orleans, if you are an oenophile even in the most casual sense, if you appreciate fine cuisine...mark your calendar for May 19-23, 2009. And if you can't wait that long, try Tales of the Cocktail, July 16-20, 2008.

Our corner of Istanbul

When we stay for a week or more in one place, or want a "base camp" for day excursions, we look towards apartment rental rather than hotels. Holiday lettings are usually the same price as a moderate hotel or even less, and we like to have the convenience of spreading out in our own temporary space. If you're traveling with a few other people or your family, a flat or cottage that sleeps all of you is almost always less than multiple hotel rooms. People think of taking a villa for a week when they travel to more rural locales, but why not a flat in the city? Besides having the extra square footage--and a kitchen if you are inclined to cook local produce for yourself, linger over coffee in the morning, or at least keep snacks and drinks handy--staying in a flat is the best way to get to see native life close-up. You'll walk the same paths to the tram as the locals, you'll shop where they shop, get bread at the neighborhood bakery...a much more intense experience of the sense of place than you can sometimes get from a hotel. If you need room service or a concierge, a rental is probably not for you; but if you are more independent, give it a try sometime. Over the years I have developed some great resources and have always been satisfied with the places we've rented, and have researched the various neighborhoods' characteristics in advance (which allows us to choose wisely).

In Istanbul we chose the other side of the Golden Horn--lively Beyoglu. It's more modern (that term being relative, in that modern means sometime after the 13th c.) and definitely more European in feel. Some of the early settlers were Roman Catholic Genovese traders, who were trying to steer clear of the Eastern Orthodox church. (They're responsible for the tower that dominates that peninsula.) After the Ottoman conquest, Beyoglu became the home of European ambassadors and such, and the merchants with foreign roots wanted to be near their embassies, so this "side across" became quite prosperous and genteel. Later, other non-Muslim groups drifted over from the older Istanbul as well--Greeks, Armenians, and Jews all made their homes here in the 18th and 19th centuries. As a result, Beyoglu looks and feels very European; there were many times I felt I could just as easily have been walking around Paris (but with hills). Buskers and street vendors abound (you're never far from a simit or roasted chestnuts).

Our apartment was along the back side of the Galatasaray Lisesi (high school), whose elaborate gates dominate the peak of Istiklal Caddesi, the 24/7 throbbing main artery of Beyoglu that runs from the charming Galata end up to bustling Taksim.

Istiklal and its side streets are lined with first floor shops, cafes, restaurants, banks, etc; in short, everything you would need; and on the upper floors are flats (or in some cases, on Istiklal itself, probably offices). In the narrow streets behind the Çiçek Pasaji you will find a small market with fresh seafood, meat, spice and produce stalls lining the way. We shopped here for dinners sometimes. I chose this neighborhood--as opposed to the area closer to some of the major historic and tourist attractions--because it would have good options for dining and we'd be close to home in the evening. It's very easy to hop the Tünel and Tramway to get to those places, as well as to the various ferry docks, or even to walk across the Galata bridge with its hundreds of fisherfolk.

At the Galata end you'll find a street full of music shops (Galip Dede) and another lined with electrical shops. This kind of organizations makes an urban dweller's life easy: you need a lamp, you go to that street; you need a faucet, you go to the street with all the plumbing supply shops. You want antiques or second-hand furniture and chatchkes, you go to Cukurcuma behind the Galatasaray Lisesi.

Attractions on this side include the Pera Museum and the Mevlevi Lodge, where, on the right day, you may be able to get into see the dervishes do their thing--and this is the only REAL dervish session in Istanbul, the others are not really religious in nature. There's also a small and informative Jewish Museum near the Karaköy end of the Tünel.

I'm posting some "street life" pictures today, like the cobblestone repairmen in front of our building...and this fellow at the Hippodrome with his scale. I saw another man with a scale in Galip Dede St. and then this second one across the Golden Horn. Maybe lots of folks don't have scales at home? Seemingly there is some market, no matter how small, for people to pay a few pennies to weigh themselves??? Anyway, I had to take a picture of this scale man because he was so friendly. I was at quite a distance, using a 10x zoom lens on my digicam and he still figured out I was shooting him...unless he was waving at someone else!? Fortunately I could be more circumspect when I captured the street workers resetting the cobblestones of Turnaçibasi Sokak.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Istanbul's Big Three, and then some...

Finally, I'm back and have some catching up to do! I was reminded this week that I haven't even mentioned (or at best have done ONLY that) several of the landmark sights of Istanbul: Hagia Sofia, the Blue (Sultanahmnet) Mosque, and Topkapi Palace.

I'll start with Topkapi Palace because it alone can easily occupy you for the entire day. The palace is constructed around several parklike courtyards which were lined with peonies in one case (the last courtyard) and tulips in another (the second), and large trees gracefully shade the crisscrossing walkways of the grounds. The harem quarters require a separate entrance fee, well worth it.

Touring the harem gives you an inkling of court life under the Ottoman sultans--it's really more like the private quarters of the family: different areas were reserved for different members of the household. This could include housing for the eunuchs, the sultan's mother's apartment, the sultan's own rooms; and quarters for the women of his harem, assigned according to rank. He was allowed four wives PLUS four "favorites" chosen from the hundreds of female house servants or slaves, and only with those designated wives or favorites was he involved sexually. Indeed the "harem" consisted of all those women mentioned, but as you can see, relatively few of these concubines were anything but domestic slaves. The decor and detail of these rooms--especially those of the sultan (pic) and his mother--are pretty incredible. There are intricately painted tiles and stained glass to match, often with the ubiquitous tulip motif.

The kitchen display is a sight to see if you like cooking. When you see the sizes of the pots involved you realize why the kitchen staff had to be huge, the kitchen had to be huge, everything here (like much of the palace) is over-the-top. If you want to see a kitchen like the sultan's in action, I recommend the Hindi film "Jodhaa Akbar" (2008). The emperor Akbar's new wife Jodhaa decides to cook a feast herself (!) and you get a short but great display of all those gigantic vessels being put to use, and the film is set in a similar era and depicts the life of a Muslim ruler.

Other rooms at the palace house some of the sultan's clothing (my favorite being the fur-lined caftans) as well as the incredible jeweled objects displayed in the treasury, from swords to headgear to an 86-carat diamond to thrones. Lots of sparkling goodies.
My other favorite splendor of Topkapi was the Hall of Holy Relics. I don't know how the sultans came to possess these relics but it is surely an indication of the breadth of the Ottoman conquest in Europe and especially the Middle East. From their previous homes in places like Mecca, Medina, and Egypt some of the most important religious relics in the Muslim (and Judeo-Christian) world were brought to the sultan's compound in Istanbul. in those days only the family and very special guests got to see them; today we are all so lucky. Among them: the staff with which Moses' parted the Red Sea; a cooking pot of Abraham; David's sword; John the Baptist's arm and a piece of his skull; Muhammed's sandals and many other of his personal effects, plus a lock of his beard, I think. The atmosphere in these rooms is very sacred and it is obvious that many of the Muslim visitors were praying as they made their way through. The fact that there is a quiet background constant of an imam reciting Koran verses adds to the effect, and this is done 24 hours a day (you can see him near the end of this section of the palace).

Once you make your way to the fourth courtyard, you'll have commanding views of the Golden Horn and the Bosphorus, a lovely spot for a little sit-down, because by the time you get back there you'll surely be tired! If your feet and back are still in good shape, stroll through the nearby Gülhane Park, full of shade and tulips in the springtime. If you're exhausted, go to the park and stretch out on the grass!

The other two biggies, which you should save for another day, are Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque. We visited those in succession and could have also added the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts as well, but visited it on a different day. Just off the tram stop there is the ancient Hippodrome, now a small park with the remaining ruins--a lovely and lively spot for a picnic lunch.

Across the street you will enter the Blue (Sultanahment) Mosque complex. It's chock full of people just about all the time. Along one wall are small fountains and spigots for the Muslim men to perform their ablutions (a bit of ritual washing off) before entering. Of course, like visiting any mosque, shoes must be removed and it would be appropriate for women to have their shoulders and head covered, as well as skirt or pants that end below the knee. Once you're inside, you'll get a neck-ache marveling at the painted dome and really nifty, low-hanging chandeliers.

When you exit the mosque complex, head across another park to Hagia Sofia. This is the granddaddy of European domes, being the first example of such a thing--a giant central dome supported by pillars. Although it partially failed on several occasions and had to be restructured somewhat, it was the largest dome in Europe until Brunelleschi built the Duomo in Florence almost a thousand years later. This Byzantine architectural jewel and landmark inspires architects still today.

It began as a church or basilica -being the seat of the Eastern Christian Church in the 500's, the "Vatican of the East". And what a showpiece it was! People came from far and wide to see its fine marble work and especially the stunning mosaics which graced it for a thousand years. Unfortunately, three days after the Ottoman conquest of Istanbul, it was turned into a mosque; and because Islam does not permit depictions of humans, over those centuries it was used as a mosque, the mosaics were plastered over. A few have survived, and now that Hagia Sofia does not function in any religious way, only as a museum, there are small areas where you can see some of the recovered and salvaged mosaics.

The last thing I might add to this day is the nearby Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts, where you can see fine examples of Ottoman calligraphy, plus loads of antique Turkish and Persian carpets, among other things.
It's housed in another former palace with a leafy courtyard.

Next time, I'll acquaint you with our little corner of Istanbul, the Galatasaray section of Beyoglu, our home from home for those nine days.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Dept. of You Learn Something New Every Day

I am currently working on the first RV trip I have ever been asked to coordinate. Thus I am learning all about the fascinating and complicated world of RV rental...RV driving...and RV camping. (Thank goodness one of my favorite clients used to sell RVs and helped me out with the basic lingo!) They have a wonderful plan to go to some National Parks and Monuments in the Great Plains states. It will likely include Mount Rushmore, Custer State Park, Devil's Tower, Wind Cave NP, Little Big Horn, Wounded Knee, Deadwood, Rocky Mountain NP, Pikes Peak, and others, a super family trip for children and parental history buffs alike. I wonder if the little girls know about the Prairie Dog towns yet!

To Market, To Market!

All right, I was really going to try and NOT go shopping...but I now admit that no trip to Istanbul is complete without visits to the Grand Bazaar and the Spice Bazaar. Whether you seek food, clothing, home textiles, lanterns, jewelry, small souvenirs, a nargile (water pipe), a kilim or carpet, a million other things...you will enjoy spending time in these bustling, kaleidoscopic surroundings.

Merchants will offer you tea to entice you to stay in their stalls and shops, hoping you'll be more inclined to part with some of your funds before moving on. As with every other busy street or enclave in Istanbul, there are tea boys (and men) skittering all around, balancing their trays of steaming tulip glasses as they race from stall to stall to tea counter and back again.

I enjoyed a glass of apple tea at a textile shop (and eventually came away with a couple of pillow covers and a tulip-stitched velvet throw for a love seat) in the Grand Bazaar and Turkish tea at a carpet dealer in the Spice Bazaar (where we decided on two small soumaks, a kind of embroidered kilim from the far Eastern reaches of Turkey, Persian/Kurdish area). Naturally you must negotiate for a better price than you are first offered. I am pretty firm when it comes to this kind of deal-making (I buy the cars in my family :0) so I felt comfortable with the prices we eventually paid for the things we bought. We decided to spend our money on things that will give us pleasure and memories every day at home rather than on expensive meals or Turkish baths.

There were also informal stalls set up all over the place, wherever people gathered...near mosques, in the underground passageways that crisscrossed some of the busiest intersections around Karaköy and Eminönü...one of the more unusual sights was the gun shops--yes, you read correctly--in one of the subterranean "malls" beneath the major roadway junction at Karaköy.

One other note about bargaining--in cases where I felt I was getting a good price, and I truly could afford it--I actually paid the price being asked. I bought 6 large scarfs/wraps/shawls from a woman along the subway steps for about $2.50 each. I figured this woman, all covered up in her black abaya, selling scarves and baby clothes for next to nothing, was trying to feed her family and I did not feel like nickel-and-diming her over something that was already so inexpensive and so lovely.
The other shopping we did was in the large Koska candy shop on Istiklal...if you love halva like we do, you've gotta load up. Turkish delight we can take or leave, but don't get between me and my Turkish halva. We got plain, cocoa, caramel, pistachio...also the most delicious walnut nougat I have ever tasted in my life (also considered a kind of halva but vastly different from the sesame varieties).

The day we cruised the Grand Bazaar was a national holiday, so there were Turkish flags and banners hung all around the place. It was April 23rd, which is celebrated both as Children's Day and as National Sovereignty Day, which commemorates the anniversary of the first meeting of the Turkish parliament.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Last boat ride

The third and last day we spent using ferry transport was to travel up the Golden Horn. In this case, the boat zigzags from the "old" side of the Golden Horn to the "new" (time being relative).

We got off at Hasköy to visit the Rahmi Koç Industrial Museum, which is just next to the ferry landing. The museum contains everything you can imagine that is powered by any kind of motor or engine (from a dishwasher to transportation), machinery used in industrial applications, communications devices, a giant (working) olive press, a submarine (photo), planes, bikes, buggies...for the "how does it work?" geek in the family to the engineers, this place is an unusual spot to kill a few hours. It's quite large, sprawling along the banks of the Golden Horn and into another splendidly restored Byzantine foundry building across the street. There are two delicious-sounding restaurants that are part of the complex but we did not take any meals there. Maybe next time...
At the appointed time (the boats do tend to run on schedule) we went back out to the landing and hopped the ferry to go up to the final stop at Eyüp. There's a famous cafe called Pierre Loti with a lovely view of the city, recommended both by friends and guidebooks.
At Eyüp you will also discover a beautiful and solemn mosque. It is surrounded by a small market area, no doubt part of the official compound and with rentals from vendors used to support the mosque. Its courtyard is beautiful, with benches and trees and incredible tiles on the walls, and filled with quietly praying Muslims that have perhaps even made a pilgrimage to be there. The mosque complex contains the tomb of Ayub Ansari, Mohammed's standard-bearer, and is the fourth-holiest place in Islam (after Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem). This mosque had a much more prayerful atmosphere than some others we had entered, because it was not full of tourists. It's so much more conservative that I, as a woman, was "invited" to go upstairs.
That's ok, I want to respect the traditions of the place of worship. Despite the fact that virtually all my hair was covered with a hat, I still tucked a silk scarf I was wearing under the hat to cover what little bit of hair still exposed. I do want to add that every Muslim I had asked in conversation whether a hat was sufficient head covering for a non-Muslim visitor in a mosque agreed that it was fine. There is an ongoing debate at Trip Advisor on whether a woman should scarf up completely upon entry or if there are reasonable alternatives. Frankly, I have mixed feelings on whether the covering should be necessary or expected of non-Muslims when in a mosque for only minutes. I don't expect non-Catholics to dip into the holy water or genuflect when they visit a Catholic church. I expect people to comport themselves respectfully but not to feign adherence to the religion of the premises.

But I was so taken with the often cute and stylish long coats worn by many Turkish women as a covering that I actually thought about buying one in denim. And of course, the headscarf is practically ubiquitous; but that too is put on a fashionable plane, with many women obviously having taken care to coordinate their scarves with any clothing that was visible. I tried on a couple of jean coats that didn't fit quite right, but had no trouble communicating in sign language with the devout Muslim lady who owned the shop. I shouldn't have waited till our last day, because then I had no time to shop around for a better fit or price...that, too, maybe next time.

What would Bob Barker say?

Everywhere we went, there were stray dogs and cats. Some of the cats behaved as you would expect feral cats to, but others were quite assertive and friendly. In many cities around the world there are large stray populations. I haven't done any research as to why this might be but several things come to mind. First and foremost, animals are not commonly sterilized and there may be no large, organized public or private spay/neuter campaign. Second, people may not keep pets inside their homes in some other countries as much as we do here. Maybe you "own" and feed a pet cat that hangs around your stoop. Third, maybe there are some other religious or cultural reasons that don't occur to me.

On the one hand, as an animal lover, one delights in making friends with any four-legged critter one comes across...on the other hand, as an animal lover, it's distressing to see all the haggard or wormed-up or pregnant dogs and cats all over the place, without proper care.

Monday, May 12, 2008

From Istanbul, boat excursions: part II

One of the other delightful boat excursions we took was the IDO (public ferry) Bosphorus cruise. There are private Bosphorus cruises as well, but I recommend IDO for two reasons: one, it's a larger boat and better if you are subject to any hint of seasickness like yours truly; and two, the private boats don't go all the way up to the northern end, turning around about 2/3 of the way up, and don't let you off to explore.

We started out at Eminönü, quite the boat transit hubbub, at the mouth of the Golden Horn. Once again we had terrific views of the city from the boat as we forged up the Bosphorus, beginning with the Galata Bridge and its hordes of fishermen. The first major site as we cruised along were the Dolmabahçe Mosque and Dolmabahçe Palace on the European side. We had visited the Mosque the day we went to Büyükada; that ferry departs from the Besiktas landing, next to Dolmabahçe, and we had a half hour to kill. Here's a picture of the chandelier in the mosque.

As we made our way northward, the boat more or less zigzagged back and forth between the European and Asian sides. Note to humanity: the sides look an awful lot alike. There are some amazing homes along the water's edge, many being summer residences of the elites, I gathered. A presidential palace here, a fortress there, a palace-turned-hotel here, a mansion with pool and gazebo over there.

There are two bridges spanning the strait, from continent to continent. Adjacent to the second one (Fatih) there are fortresses on either side. Why this spot? The fortress on the Asian side (Anadolu Hisari) was built in 1391. In 1452 Mehmet the Conqueror had the European one (Rumeli Hisari) built directly across the strait. It's the narrowest point along the Bosphorus, and the pair of fortresses allowed him to control its traffic, and therefore to cut off supply shipments from the Black Sea as part of his planned siege of Constantinople. Clever, huh?

It's still a major shipping lane of the world, connecting the Sea of Marmara and the Mediterranean with the Black Sea.

There is apparently some extra-delish yogurt made in Kanlica, so at that particular stop your onboard treat-sellers start appearing with the yogurt they pick up there, probably made that same day. Most folks have it with a large dollop of powdered sugar on top, but Bill took his straight. Let's just say it was taaaaangy.

The farther up you travel, the thinner the population gets. At the southern end the development is solid as far as the eye can see to house some of the 17 million metro Istanbullus. But by the time you reach Rumeli Kavagi (European side) and Anadolu Kavagi (Asian side), which are almost at the Black Sea, the ferry landings are probably the most exciting places in the tiny villages that poke out from the thickly-forested areas on both sides of the Bosphorus.

The final stop is on the Asian side, where we disembarked for the afternoon (which turned out to be pretty darn hot). I am quite sure that most of the merchants--especially those selling food and drink--absolutely live for the once a day (twice in summer) that the ferry comes calling with all its tourists and daytrippers.

We walked around the tiny village for a bit, then hiked up the very steep hill to the ruins of a Byzantine fortress. The area is still strategically important so there is a military base taking up much of the local land. As you walk past it much of the way up to the castle, you'll need to keep that camera packed away in your bag; for security reasons no photos are allowed. When you get near the top of the hill, there is a cluster of small restaurants, most of which don't open till summer. We did see one or two that seemed to be operating but most were in some state of hibernation. The chairs and tables were still accessible so we stopped to eat our picnic lunch in the shade of an unused café area...after the respite we contuned to the castle (another 5 minutes or so). We were rewarded with a stupendous 360 degree panorama of distant Istanbul, the Bosphorus and the Black Sea. There's not much left of the castle, but we did step inside the two rooms that still stood independently. I don't think the property is "kept" in any way, because there was quite a lot of litter both inside and out. (In Istanbul itself, it seemd that the streets were constantly being cleaned in some manner or other). And nowhere in the area seems complete without a stray animal or three, so here we have a black mutt enjoying the sea breeze.

More on the strays in another post!