A Travellerspoint blog

March 2013

Jolly Old England

BY MURIEL

overcast 1 °C
View Koning/Zemliak Family Europe 2012/2013 on KZFamily's travel map.

After six weeks in Turkey, the day to leave dawned with some bittersweet feelings (except maybe for Abby, who has been anticipating Britain with great eagerness). It has been quite the experience, staying in one country for this long. While we didn't make friends with the language exactly, we came to recognize some oft-repeated phrases and felt a certain miniscule pride when surprising a shop keeper with some brief snippet of a distinguishable response. We appreciated the many varieties of bread; the ubiquitous glasses of chai; tangy-sweet pomegranate sauce; the bounty of cucumbers, tomatoes and oranges; tasty relishes and meat stews; omnipresent doners and pides; and honey-drenched baklava. We acknowledged the great national pride, the devotedness to their republic's founder, the grandeur of the historical sites, and the beauty and interest of the landscape. We carry a fondness now for Turkey that has grown from what it was six weeks ago. Hannah revealed that she feels more comfortable with Turkey than with any other European country, save for France. With familiarity comes ease and understanding. And the urge to return some day.

We had heard some stories about Istanbul taxi drivers, that they try to cheat or intimidate you in some way so as to augment a standard taxi fare. Tricks include palming the 50 lire bill you've just given them, replacing it with a 5 lire one and claiming you've given them the wrong amount. Or, they claim there's a special 'night rate' that's higher than the usual rate or the meter suddenly breaks in the middle of the ride. Wanting to avoid the hassle altogether, we elected to take a convenient shuttle bus that was a 15 minute walk from our apartment. We left our place at 8:45 AM, anticipating our 12:30 PM flight to London. It may seem like a lot of time to allow but we felt it's better to wait a bit than to err in the other direction.

Due to the wait for the next shuttle and the endless detours, we arrived at the airport (named Ataturk Airport -- what else?) at 10:15. The first step as you enter the building is to immediately go through security with all your baggage, both carry on and that to be stowed. I don't know why this is exactly unless it's to render the whole building a safer place in general. At any rate, going through the scanner, the guard saw something in Ben's main backpack that he didn't like. He pulled Ben over and asked him to open it. Now, you have to know that as we travel by car, we accumulate items that then have to be discarded prior to an airplane jaunt. It is always an effort to juggle what we feel we could use in the next country and what we know we have to give up. However, we try to eke out as much space as we can. This time was no exception and Ben had packed his backpack rigorously that morning, going through the effort twice to find just the right packing combination and layout (he is a serious master packer). Faced with the request to now open the bag, I could almost see him refusing or, at the very least, attempting to talk his way out of this. However, sensible as always, Ben acquiesced. The guard then proceeded to tear his neatly arranged contents apart, checking shoe bags and packing cubes, rifling through an orange folder containing printed documents, and generally creating a battleground where once peace reigned. He was looking for a metal implement that had shown up on the scanner. Ben helpfully tried to point out items that might have been metal but these were ignored. After several minutes and a repeated scan, he was unsuccessful in locating the offensive weapon so dismissed us. Ben then asked us to remove anything from the table that wasn't to be packed in his bag and tried to restore the previous state of his backpack. We ensured all on the table was complete and let him go to work. It took some effort and time but, finally, he was able to close the large bag, just. Sadly, that was when he noticed the orange folder lurking nearby, still outside his bag. There was no room for it to fit into our carry on baggage so he unzipped and began again. All was quiet as we watched the process a second time, wanting to be anywhere but here.

Within a mere half an hour of entering the security area, we were once again on our way, this time to check in. Having checked in electronically the night before, we anticipated some savings in time. However, the savings only occurs when you're finally at the counter but not prior, when you're sandwiched in a common lineup for all three flights going to London. "(Do you know how many people want to go to London?" I ask rhetorically.) Once that is over with, we proceed to passport control and then onto the second security area. Thankfully, there are only laptops and an iPad to unpack and we are through in a much shorter time. At length, we arrive at our gate and it is 12:00, a few minutes before boarding. We say a short prayer of thanks that we left early from the apartment.

Helen Meets Us in London

Helen Meets Us in London

Upon our arrival in Heathrow, we are greeted by a warm, familiar face, Ben's sister Helen. We have all been looking forward to seeing someone new within our mix and eagerly mob her, asking her about Canadian weather, marvelling over her small bag, and confirming she has brought the KD packages as requested. Helen will be joining us for the next two weeks of our travels and will then visit extended family in the Netherlands. We are very glad she's joined us and anticipate a lot of fun times ahead.

Leaving on the Piccadilly line (gotta love those English names), we started tubing. Riding the underground. Minding the gap, and all that rot. My first faux pas on the metro was to attempt to move my heavy bag at the same time the train lurched forward. I performed a quick swivel motion and found myself sitting in the lap of a very reserved, previously unsuspecting older British chap. Feeling it was the best way to diffuse the situation (other than actually getting up from his lap, that is), I held out my hand and introduced myself. He smiled weakly. My children rolled their eyes and ducked their heads. Helen graciously allowed me a seat next to her. The man left shortly. I'm saving my next faux pas for tomorrow.
The cold we encountered coming off the metro was biting and the wind, a bit fierce about our ears. It is all of one degree here, and we see some snow on the ground. It feels colder for us than our usual haunts in Canada. Thankfully, the house we rented in London was easy to locate and we found it lit and heated for our arrival. The hosts could not meet us tonight as it's the first night of Passover and they are Jewish. Their home is very comfortable and spacious, giving us three bedrooms and two bathrooms. However, there's always something unusual with these places and we warn Helen about this. Sure enough, at 10 PM, the lights downstairs go off. Fiddling with the fuse box didn't work and the puzzle wouldn't be solved till the morning, when we discovered certain rooms are on a timer.

I must admit it's good to be in the United Kingdom. It just seems easier, what with the Queen's English being spoken. But, speaking of the UK, how many of us can articulate the difference between England, Britain, Great Britain, and the United Kingdom? Let's be honest now. Well, if you're like me, you might need a refresher from time to time and I love to refer to this video (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rNu8XDBSn10) to relearn what I need to on this topic. Hope you enjoy it as well.

Posted by KZFamily 15:19 Archived in England Tagged london united_kingdom england uk Comments (3)

Dolmabahçe Palace and Our Last Full Day in Turkey

by Ben

sunny 18 °C
View Koning/Zemliak Family Europe 2012/2013 on KZFamily's travel map.

Dolmabahce Palace, Istanbul

Dolmabahce Palace, Istanbul

We spent yesterday at our apartment. Even vacationers need a day off. Muriel and Hannah were feeling a bit spent from the day before and were just a bit under the weather. It was overcast outside and there had been some rain through the early morning. It was an opportunity to read and for Muriel and I to do a bit more planning for the weeks ahead. We are very grateful to have a bright apartment with a ripping view of the Bosphorus.

Today is our last full day in Istanbul and the sun is shining brightly again. We started with a walk along the Bosphorus. It being Sunday there were many people out for a walk or sitting at some waterfront canteens drinking tea. Each person taking in the view of the Asian continent which lay just over the waters and watching the constant ferry and boat traffic which is similar in density to the traffic clogging the city streets.

We have decided to visit the Dolmabahçe Palace which is the last home of the Ottoman Sultans before Turkey became a republic in the 1920s. It is only a kilometer from our house and is right on the waterfront. We were not the only people with the same plans. It appears that it is tourist season year-round in Istanbul and no sight is immune to large crowds. None of the palace can be visited independently, so you must join a tour. The size of each tour group is enormous; ours was nearing one hundred people. It says something about the size of the palace and the rooms that such group sizes are possible but I would dare say not advisable. We had a very unique guide. His English took a while to get used to but he seemed to have made a hobby of languages; translating key terms from Turkish into French, German, Persian, Farsi and Arabic just to name a few in his repitoire. His patience was fairly stretched by a number of people in our tour who could not refrain from taking photographs even after being told several times not to. He had a unique cutting way of commenting as an aside to the whole group about how such a small percentage of a people can make it difficult. He made the remarks without quite crossing the line of impropriety. Where his commentary lacked in content it made up for itself in the richness and character of its delivery. He could have worked in the court of the Sultan himself.

Dolmabahce Palace, Istanbul

Dolmabahce Palace, Istanbul

The palace is predominantly European in style and furnishings. In the 1840s, the Sultan spent 35 tonnes in gold to build the palace using some 14 tonnes of that to coat the ceiling and column detailings in gold leaf. The great difference between this 45,000 square meter palace and traditional European counterparts is the division of the palace into male and female domains. There are the opulent and ornate halls and rooms meant for entertaining and impressing male guests both rich and powerful. The palace contains 46 large halls some purposed for large sumptuous feasts for heads of state. These halls are adorned with the world’s largest collection or crystal chandeliers. A number of halls have crystal lighting weighing in at over two tonnes but the largest is over twice as large at four and a half tonnes. The palaces even boasts a double grand staircase whose balusters are constructed of crystal.

Contrasting with the magnificent rooms reserved just for males is the harem which translates as the forbidden place. According to our guide not even the flies in this section of the palace were allowed to male. The Sultan, who officially had one wife who lived in this restricted enviroment, also housed many other women who were concubines, servants and slaves who all lived in a strict pecking order. With the exception of the Sultan’s official wife, the women were not Turkish but rather came mostly from the Caucuses region. The more important influential women each had their own multistory set of apartments with numerous bedrooms and large halls. The style was much less opulent than the male domain but the sheer number of separate apartments and halls is staggering. Aside many more obvious questions and possible outrages one could ponder about life in the harem, I was struck just by the overwhelming sense of boredom the more prominent women endured during their largely idle existence just waiting for the Sultan.

After touring the palace and wandering the grounds, we briefly returned to our apartment before heading out to Taksim Square minus Abby. Besides sightseeing we had three objectives: find a quick bite to eat, locate where the bus shuttle to Ataturk airport is located and find a pharmacy so I could purchase more back medicine. The shuttle bus was easy. We were happy to find a transport option to the airport that did not involve a Turkish cab. We have heard nothing but tales of woe about trying to get honest service. Food was not a problem either. Taksim has its large collection of Doner and Pide restaurants. There seemed to be two restaurants that were the most popular. One was called the Bambi Cafe which had four outlets within a city block. There was a competitor which only had three outlets in the same block but was busier. We decided to follow the feet. On the square the bargain deal was Turkish hamburger for 2 lira each. Each restaurant had them stacked by the hundred hot and ready to go and and our chosen restaurant was selling them as fast as they could slip them into a wax paper sleeve. We tried one of these along with our last Doner before heading off to London. We will miss this.

Near Taksim Square, Istanbul

Near Taksim Square, Istanbul

Our final task of finding back medicine should have been the easiest of all. In Turkey pharmacies are as common as gas stations and corner stores. Along one street in Taksim there is at least one per block. It was Sunday and all stores were open except for every single pharmacy. Apparently people can only be sick six out of every seven days. Our search for a pharmacy did take us on what seems to be one of the most popular retail streets in Istanbul. On Sunday at least it is a pedestrian only thoroughfare and people are packed shoulder-to-shoulder as far as the eye can see. The street is lined with all manner of brand name stores along with more decidedly Turkish enterprises. Astonishingly in the midst of this melee of shoppers ran an old fashioned street car reminiscent of San Francisco. Perhaps even more incredulously, out of the blue came a huge marching band followed by a parade of placard bearing followers that the ocean of bargain hunters effortlessly allowed to pass among them and hungrily gobbled up their wake just as easily.

This evening we quickly packed up and picked up a pizza meal from down the street. Tomorrow we are off to London ending our month and a half in Turkey. We have truly enjoyed this country and would all be ready to come back and explore more of this fascinating country.

Posted by KZFamily 14:46 Archived in Turkey Tagged turkey istanbul Comments (1)

Istanbul's Grand Bazaar

BY ABBY

semi-overcast 8 °C
View Koning/Zemliak Family Europe 2012/2013 on KZFamily's travel map.

The Grand Bazaar, Istanbul

The Grand Bazaar, Istanbul

Today we went to the Grand Bazaar, and for those of you who don't know, it's a very large, very old building that has over four thousand shops. All of the crisscrossing streets were packed with both people selling and buying, as well as the four of us who desperately just wanted to look at a couple things in a little peace. We had read earlier that it is near impossible to have the opportunity to look at something in a shop without the vendor running towards us saying, "Would you like this, very good price!!" But we were usually able to get them off our backs eventually, or just ignore them and walk away. A couple had some good lines though, like when my mom said, "Just looking," he replied with a shrug of his shoulders and retorted "Just selling." We also heard "Is it my turn to sell you a carpet?" and 'Those are nice shoes." Also, Hannah's hair colour provided a ready conversation starter and she received no less than ten comments today.

We spent the morning looking at the shops, and we even purchased a few small things. But at around lunch we decided to go out of the bazaar for a little and take a look around for some lunch. Hannah and my mom went off to pick all of us some Turkish wraps and pizzas while my dad rested his back and I kept him a little company.

After lunch we went back in the bazaar for a little while longer. My dad had an unsuccessful look for jeans, while I found a shirt I was looking for and Hannah got a pair of earrings. My parents also purchased a traditional coffee maker for my aunt, who will be joining us in our next destination... LONDON!

The Grand Bazaar, Istanbul

The Grand Bazaar, Istanbul

But as we were there we noticed that the mosque that was right beside the bazaar was being surrounded by crowds of men, all praying and listening to someone over a loudspeaker. Every Friday there is a congregational prayer, but it's mostly just for the men. The men are encouraged to congregate to pray, while the women can do it alone, or with people, and it doesn't have to be at a mosque. Even as we walked around the shops, many of the narrow streets were crowded with men praying or walking up and down with their prayer carpets. It was a really interesting experience.

In the end my dad and I got tired quickly and went home first, and were joined later at home by the second half of our party. Mom and Hannah reported that the bazaar got a lot busier in the afternoon. Hannah cooked us some great chili, which was especially good if you took into consideration the ingredients she had to work with, but we're all adapting pretty well.

The day was one that I really enjoyed. It was really cool to be able to see the Friday schedule for the male Muslims, as well as the bartering and regular banter between shopkeepers and customers. And I think that even though we weren't really used to this whole system, we were able to adapt pretty quickly, which just goes to show that you really do learn something new every day.

Find more information at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grand_Bazaar,_Istanbul

Posted by KZFamily 14:36 Archived in Turkey Tagged shopping walk turkey grand_bazaar Comments (1)

Istanbul: How Many Domes can you Count?

BY MURIEL

overcast 14 °C
View Koning/Zemliak Family Europe 2012/2013 on KZFamily's travel map.

So, what does one do in Istanbul? The Trip Advisor website suggests over 583 sights and activities! Knowing we might get overwhelmed by sightseeing in Istanbul, we elected to hit the biggies first in case we burned ourselves out. The first on our list were the Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque so we decided to trundle down to the tram area at a reasonable hour. Our place is situated on a higher street, providing a fantastic view of the Bosphorous, so we descended the 128 steps (they're only a problem coming up) and made for the waterside station just a few minutes' walk away. Once we figured out the token purchasing, grudgingly acknowledging that it's reasonable that every city should do it differently, we boarded the over ground tram to the Sultanhamet district.

Hagia Sofia

Hagia Sofia

The Hagia Sofia is quite the architectural and religious structure, important to both Christians and Muslims alike. The current building is the third built on the site, replacing the first two which were destroyed by rioters. Commissioned by Emperor Justinian, it stems from 537 AD. At the time, it was the pinnacle of Byzantine architecture, and claimed the prize for the largest cathedral for the next thousand years. The dome, in particular, was a spectacular achievement, and supposedly 'changed the history of architecture.' What I found particularly interesting was the hybrid nature of the Hagia Sofia: since it was used as a Christian church till 1453, mostly by the Eastern Orthodox and briefly by the Roman Catholics after they sacked Constantinople, and a mosque thereafter, it has vestiges of both faiths in the now-secular museum. Between the beautiful painted and gilded mosaics of Christ, Mary, emperors and other figures, the gigantic Islamic discs with Arabic script, the paintings of six-winged seraphim, and the Muslim pulpit (the minbar), there's lots to gawk at. We were surprised that after it was turned into a mosque that the Christian symbols were allowed to remain untouched. However, it turns out, in reading my handy dandy Islam 101 brochure, that Islam recognizes many of the Christian patriarchs and figures (Abraham, Moses, Isaac, Jesus, Mary, angels, etc. ) albeit differently than Christians do. Despite much of the crusading, pillaging and sacking that occurred in Istanbul/Constantinople, due to the many restoration efforts, the Hagia Sofia is still beautiful. It is largely empty as most mosques do not have much furniture and the carpets have been removed to reveal the rippling marble floor, settling in many places. Interesting to note is the front of the once-cathedral, where the Muslims replaced the altar with their mihrab, a semicircular niche that indicates the direction of Mecca. Fortunately for them, I guess, the altar was alllmmmoooosst in the right spot so that now, the mihrab is just a titch off centre, giving the impression that it was an apprenticing carpenter who installed it.

Blue Mosque

Blue Mosque

Exiting, we nipped into some tombs of various sultans and their families. This required us to remove our shoes; it's a neat but simple area (green is a big colour for their cloth-covered sarcophagi here); however, the tile work of many of the domed buildings are beautiful, most certainly surpassing the disappointing tile museum we visited in Konya. And speaking of tiles, during one of the restorations of these tombs, the French helped out and kindly took several tiles back to Paris to be restored. Istanbul is still waiting for them back! They are now ensconced in the Louvre in the Islamic art section. Apparently it's not only the British who know how to pilfer historical relics.

Crossing the Hippodrome, once the sporting and social centre of Constantinople (can you say chariot racing?), we took in the obelisks there and proceeded to the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, also known as the Blue Mosque due to scads of blue tiles inside. Doffing our shoes and donning scarves, we entered the revered space through the tourist door as the front door is left for worshippers. The majority of the space is reserved for those praying, although I noticed a few of the Muslim prayers taking pictures too! Again, it's a beautiful piece of architecture, both inside and out. Its symmetry, many domes and six minarets (the most ever raised for a mosque in the 1600s), provide a pleasing view and capture one's admiration. When I visited Istanbul several years ago, Sultanhamet Square, with the Hagia Sofia at one end and the Blue Mosque at the other, quickly became my favorite block in the world. Being the second time, I wasn't so in awe; however, it's still very grand.

Candy vendor

Candy vendor

The prices in this district, with the big attractions nearby, are outrageous so after a small lunch and a smaller dessert, we moved on. Next was the Basilica Cistern; we debated about going in but then decided 'What the heck? This is our only chance. Why quibble?' The cistern was built by Justinian, everyone's favourite sixth century emperor, to provide water for the city. It measures 165 m by 65 m and contains quite the collection of columns, many of the 336 borrowed from earlier ruins, we surmised. With music being piped in to demonstrate its acoustics, and the dark environs gently lit by low-wattage bulbs, it was actually a very peaceful place. The water dripping periodically from the ceiling just added to the mood.
Grateful after a full day of sightseeing that we had a very comfortable apartment in which to retire, we eagerly hopped onto the convenient tram and walked back up to our place. It's beautiful to see the city lit up at night -- there's not much neon but there are a lot of lights. The unique situation of overlooking the Bosporus while on the European side of Istanbul often causes Abby to exclaim, 'I can see Asia!' That's the last look of the continent we'll have before returning home.

Posted by KZFamily 16:55 Archived in Turkey Tagged turkey istanbul hagia_sofia Comments (1)

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