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 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 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!

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Buying on boats

There are snack bars on the ferries, not surprisingly, but "Turkishness" presented itself regularly as emissaries from said snack bars were constantly circulating around the various sections of the boat with typical Turkish offerings to assuage your hunger or thirst. One go-round would see a tray of the traditional tulip-shaped glasses of hot Turkish tea; the next might be fresh-squeezed orange juice or bottled water. Then a few minutes later you might have the opportunity to grab a simit, a fragrant golden brown bread ring covered in sesame seeds, one of the more prominient street foods of Istanbul.

In addition to these "official" roving sellers, on the longer trips there were additional items that appeared as if by magic, from fellow passengers. One fellow had sets of fruit knives he was selling, and did his schtick before the captive audience; the knives' sharpness impressed sufficient passengers to evidently make this variation on the "traveling salesman" method worthwhile. At other times we saw abaya-clad Muslim women selling garments which they toted in giant nylon carrier bags; one appeared to be plying the ladies with various sorts of muumuu type loungewear or nighties. One Turkish woman sitting across from us bought not only two nightgowns, but succumbed to the knife-hawker as well.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

From Istanbul, boat excursions: part I

I couldn't figure out how to divide up our stay in Istanbul for blogging purposes. One recurring and relaxing theme was trips on public ferries, so I'll start with those.

The weather was lovely almost every day and thus perfect for a boat ride, short or long. The IDO ferry system is extensive, and we used the very low priced services to go to the enchanting Prince's Island of Büyükada in the Sea of Marmara, a zigzag cruise up the Bosphorus, all the way to the edge of the Black Sea (the private boats don't go as far), and as a restful way to get to the top of the Golden Horn.

The trip to Büyükada on the regular ferry takes about an hour and a half, with intermediate stops at three smaller islands. We first chose seats outside but it turned out to be a smoking area, so we retreated indoors. Before doing so I took advantage of the great views of Istanbul as we sailed away from the city and also shot some pics of folks on the boat. There were some foreigners like us, but for the most part it was jam-packed with local daytrippers armed with picnic goods, all destined to enjoy a beautiful Saturday afternoon in the sun.

People continuously threw bread to the seagulls, who seemed to follow the ferry for most of the distance between stops to take advantage of the free lunch.

When we arrived on the island near lunchtime, we first strolled around the village, trying to decide where to eat.
We finally settled on Milto, one of the oldest restaurants on the island, a family business dating to the 1930's, if I remember correctly. The food was good but the setting was decidedly the appeal, being right at the edge of the water. It was still cool enough that we wanted to sit in the sun as opposed to under the covered area closer to the water.

After lunch we strolled up the island's picturesque streets, marveling at the gorgeous mansions that lined them. This island was once the summer retreat of many prosperous non-Muslims and non-Turks--Greeks, Armenians, etc.
The population balance has changed but our friend Sevan's parents (Armenians raised in Istanbul) tell us that the winter population is around 10,000 but in the summer it can apparently swell to 200,000. They themselves make up part of that seasonal boom, as they spend four months there every year themselves, but live the rest of the year in Nice. Maybe next trip we can visit them when they are on the island!

There are no cars allowed on the island, so bikes and carts prevail, along with carriages. The carriages can be hired to take you anywhere you like to go or on a standard tour of the island. Deliveries are made not by truck but by bicycle, hand cart, horse cart or even on a person's back.

If you only have a couple of days in Istanbul, there may be other items on your see-and-do list that would rank higher than Büyükada; but if you have a week or so, you should definitely reserve a day for such a delightful excursion.

Saturday, May 3, 2008


The first part of our trip was spent in the London 'burbs with our friends Bill and Wendy and their extremely pleasant and well-behaved children Matthew and Dana. It's a running joke that we'll visit them anywhere in the world, based on the fact that we have already traveled to see them in Houston, Bangkok, Wassenar (near The Hague), and now in Weybridge, Surrey, just southwest of London.

The trip into London from their neighborhood is a 25 minute train ride to Waterloo. We made that journey several times during the week.Instead of doing the things I had imagined doing in London, we found ourselves choosing other options.

The National Portrait Gallery always has fascinating art on display and gives over a fair amount of space to photography as a medium for portraiture. While quite a few of the works are renderings of the famous, infamous and illustrious, others are of unfamiliar subjects. We also spent a little while in the National Gallery as well, concentrating on a few particular rooms and artists in whom we bore the most interest. Between the two we took in a lunchtime concert at the church next door, that being St. Martin-in-the-Fields. We had expected an English song recital, appealing to me as a lover of the voice, but what we got instead was a ten-piece brass ensemble! Fortunately, the program was composed of three twentieth century pieces which we enjoyed very much. I had saved the program but now cannot locate it...if it turns up I'll edit this post to include the composers' names. To top it off, all of these things were free, or by voluntary donation of whatever you can afford.

Another day we whiled away the hours at the British Museum. The collection there is pretty incredible, largely thanks to Britain's Imperial years. Today we would think differently about all the items that were brought there from other cultures with no compensation--dozens of Egyptian sarcophagi and mummies, the Rosetta stone, the Parthenon statues and sculpted friezes (aka Elgin marbles)--and in fact there are now ongoing disputes with other countries about the possession of these items. We are privileged to be able to see them but like a lot of great art and historical artifacts, the provenance is somewhat "stained", shall we say. Napoleon made off with quite a bit that's now in the Louvre and Paris, and Hitler had unbelievable troves of art and artifacts that were plundered by the Nazis. Some of the art plundered by the Nazis ended up being captured by the Soviet Union, and Russia to this day refuses to return it to the countries from which it was taken. I recommend the documentary "The Rape of Europa" and the book "Rescuing DaVinci" for an amazing account of how much of the art looted by Nazis was saved and returned to its owners or their heirs by a specially skilled group of our own soldiers.

We spent a good deal of time walking around London, and one day walked all the way from Trafalgar Square to the Tate Modern on the South Bank. It was a lovely stroll along the Thames on a brilliantly sunny day. Along the walking path on the north side of the river, you can see the Victorian penchant for the exotic played out in the charming but occasionally bizarre details of lampposts, benches, statues, etc. We walked across the Millennium (pedestrian) Bridge, which, after some scary tales of movement at its opening, is now strengthened and perfectly stable. The Tate Modern has a fine collection, some of which I dug and some of which bothered, confused or bored me! Sadly we hit the gallery in between installations in the huge entry area, so it was essentially a repair site rather than some cool monumental-scale experiential work. Oh, well!!

We went to visit Windsor Castle as well. I'd seen it before and it was just as grand as ever, and the towns of Windsor and Eton, flanking the River Thames were as charming as I had remembered.

Another day out took us to Stonehenge and Salisbury. It was pretty nifty to finally see Stonehenge in person--but I must say it does look just like the pictures you have seen, nothing more, nothing less. You know how some places you've seen in pictures are just that much more incredible when you see them with your own two eyes? Stonehenge is not one of them. Don't get me wrong--it was really satisfying to see it in person but that extra bonus of "Wow, it's so much more amazing in person" wasn't there for me. But at the same time, I loved listening to the audio tour and all the educational information about what Stonehenge MAY have been about. And I don't regret going there for a second. The same day we stopped in Salisbury, had lunch, took a walk around its medieval center and visited its Cathedral. The Cathedral was built in the 13th century and completed in only 37 years. if you've visited other European churches and cathedrals, you will know that 37 years is practically overnight. many took hundreds of years but because this one went up so "fast" it is unusually harmonious in architectural terms, reflecting only one period or style, early English Gothic. There is also one of the four original copies of the Magna Carta held there, and I felt like I had made a little pilgrimage as an American who values the freedoms we have, for that document was the forefather of many others that guarantee our freedoms today.

Most of the time we had dinner en famille and appreciated the chance to unwind after long days on our feet, and to chat over delicious and leisurely home-cooked dinners with a glass of wine. of course, we did make an exception because we had to have Indian takeout, as it is the national food of Britain, right?

The one dinner we had out was at a small Italian restaurant near Waterloo, fairly tasty and reasonably priced for London. Why there? We were going to the Old Vic to see a revival of David Mamet's play "Speed-the-Plow" starring Kevin Spacey (I think he's the artistic director there) and Jeff Goldblum. It was stupendous, of course, and I am grateful to Wendy and her eagle eye. The entire run was sold out quickly and she spotted the announcement in time to snag tickets for us. Of all the theater in London that week, that's probably what I would have wanted to see most, and we were lucky to have been there.

The last day before we continued on to Istanbul was spent out in the south England countryside at an antiques fair in Ardingly. It was one of those typically cool and dampish English spring days so we were happier inside the various sheds than trolling the outdoor stalls. It was a gigantic affair with a thousand stalls or more. We hardly made a dent in the few hours we were there, and sadly Bill did not find his dream fountain pen at a steal of a price. The ones we did see were generally overpriced or at least no bargains were to be found, so instead I used our last few pounds to buy antique buttons.

The only major downside to the time in England was the 20 pounds I wasted on a SIM card from Orange that was supposed to work in my phone in Turkey. It worked in England but in Istanbul my phone would not pick up either of the two networks the card was supposed to carry. I guess I will probably try to find out if it would work over a year from now (doubtful, as these pay-as-you-go cards generally last only a year if you don't reload) or whenever we'd be back in Europe. Failing that I'll mail the SIM to Wendy to stick in her own phone!

OK, so now we've been to England. On to Istanbul, but that will have to wait...