Monday, March 31, 2014

An Arrival in Aveiro

My time in Portugal was honestly one of the richest experiences of this entire journey.  During my visit, I wasn't simply a traveler or a tourist, as I had the unique opportunity to stay with a very dear friend, a local Portuguese resident of Aveiro named João.  In those weeks, I attended local events, joined a gym, was invited into homes for traditional meals, and was generally given a warm welcome by everyone I met.  I also had a lot of good, focused "work" time - time spent writing, reading, learning new photo editing software, learning some Portuguese, and working on my photography and even some videography.

But first, a note on the town itself.  Aveiro is a beautiful coastal city, just a few minutes' drive from the sandy beaches of Costa Nova and Barra.  Constructed over an area that was once swampland, the city is now known for it's charming canals and salt production.  The town has such an incredible inherent beauty about it - narrow streets are lined with homes covered in colorful tiles.  While you might see an occasional pattern repeated, the tile patterns are mostly unique.  The most typical patterns are organic and geometric in blue and white, but you'll find all varieties of color and shapes around the city, even some with raised, colorful flowers.  The sidewalks and walking pavilions are also covered with their own mosaics - small stones in slate blue and white, typical of Portugal, form pictures reminiscent of the nearby sea.  It's an enchanting place to simply wander, especially on sunny spring days just before dusk.  While I was there during some bizarrely cold, rainy weather from the storms coming off the Atlantic, I was fortunate to have some truly gorgeous days to wander the city and take in all the beauty.

On my very first evening in town, I caught a performance by Silent Preacher, a gifted singer with a Dylan-esque style.  The performance wasn't in a crowded music hall, but rather the upstairs loft area of a local artist space in the bar district of Praça do Peixe.  As the audience jammed into the space, sitting on the floor, the cool outside air flowing through open windows and tobacco smoke curling in the air, it was an incredibly intimate way to re-introduce myself to tiny Aveiro. 

A short time later, I found myself in the audience for two very different performances that included my host, João - one as part of an informal theater troupe and another with his band, Lazy Lizard.  Having received his education in theater, João and his creative partner Bruno have directed, produced, and starred in a number of performances at the local theater Estaleiro in Aveiro.  They were taking a brief reprise from 'serious' theater during my stay, putting on a children's play that Bruno had written based loosely on Grimms' Fairy Tales.  Despite being entirely in Portuguese, the play was incredibly entertaining (especially once Bruno kindly gave me a sort of Reader's Digest Condensed Version of the script in English!), and it was fun to see it performed a few different times, to pick up on the subtleties and see the variations in the audiences reactions.  They're currently working on an exciting piece of theater, another work written by Bruno, set to premier in the next month.  I only wish that I could stop back by to see it in person!

I was also lucky to catch an actual live performance by João's band, Lazy Lizard.  While they've been together for years, they actually rarely put on shows in Aveiro anymore, so it was a real treat to catch one while I was in town!  A bit of dark rock laced with pop, their show was packed with energy, and the local crowd both absorbed and reflected that energy in the darkened room at Mercado Negro, a local bar and performance space.  The guys were also hoping to get some film of the live show for an upcoming video, so I had my first opportunity to practice some videography (and admittedly take far too many still shots, something I was far more comfortable with!).  But I also got to use the shots from that show as a great chance to practice editing with Adobe Lightroom, software I had newly purchased at the urging of my friend (and very gifted photographer) Jimmy.

I had a few other opportunities to work on videography during my time in Aviero.  I tagged along when João filmed videos for both his cousin's fado band and his friend's choir, shooting alongside him, learning, absorbing, and truly enjoying this new side of my camera!  And after seeing the first versions of the edited film, I can truly say that I'm proud of my little contribution!  While as of yet I have zero editing skills, I'm trying to remember to take some video here and there of my trip,  in hopes that perhaps João can assist in skillfully arranging them into something worthwhile towards the end!

I also got in some practice with the camera by tagging along with João and his friend Andre when they ventured out to the soccer stadium to do some longboarding.  The weather was sunny and cool, and I practiced some panning (still learning, people) as they and some other locals cruised through the parking lot.

I've also been making an effort to visit CrossFit gyms all over the world during my roaming, and Aveiro was of course no different.  Despite only being there for a few weeks, I felt truly welcomed with open arms into the close-knit CrossFit Aveiro community.  It didn't hurt that everyone there spoke English really well, so the language barrier wasn't really an issue with getting to know the participants and coaches.  But they were also just really friendly!  While they're working on moving into a larger warehouse space, the small venue they're using at the moment certainly helped to create a more intimate environment - easy to learn, get to know each other, and help each other out.   It was easy to make paying a visit to the gym a regular part of my schedule during my stay.  And on one of my final days in Aveiro, they invited me to join them for their one year anniversary celebration.  It was such a wonderful experience, and I can't thank them enough for their hospitality!

And, just because, a few more photos of beautiful Aveiro:

Obrigado, meus amigos novos de Aveiro.  Estou muito agradecida pela vossa hospitalidade!  Até breve.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Portugal - An Introduction.

Let me tell you a story. 

Once upon a time, my mom and I decided to take a road trip through Spain and Portugal. It was a last-minute thing, due to unforeseen events that turned my plans upside down and yet, it was all for the best.  We had a couple of days to kill in between planned stops, so we looked at the map for what options we had on the way.  There were a few larger sized dots to choose from, and as I drove, my mom thumbed through the guidebook for information that might sway our decision.  We settled on two stops:  Aveiro and Coimbra, two small picturesque towns north of Lisbon, our eventual destination.  We arrived in Aveiro first, hungry for lunch, so we enquired at the local turismo for a recommendation.  They suggested a seafood spot just a few blocks away, taking us past the beautiful little canals the city is known for, across mosaic tile sidewalks with geometric and organic shapes reminiscent of the ocean nearby.

We found the restaurant easily and sat down.  We were the absolutely only people there.  Probably being offseason in a tourist part of town and the fact that a time change entering Portugal had put us hours before the usual lunch rush, not a soul entered during our entire meal.  Normally this could be a sign of a poor restaurant, but the food was absolutely fantastic.  We dined on a variety of fresh tapas, and we selected a freshly caught fish (St. Peter's fish, to be exact) to be perfectly grilled and served for us.  Since we're the friendly type and no one was in the restaurant, we chatted with our waiter, who spoke perfect English and seemed surprised that two Americans had happened into his restaurant and were so curious about his town and his country.  He also happened to be an actor.. and an artist… and a musician.  He was working on a bit of a 'rock opera' theater piece and tried to explain it to us.  Intrigued by the handsome waiter and his rock opera, I exchanged email addresses with him, hoping to, at the very least, be able to see some examples of his art of the theater piece he was creating.

Over the next two years we chatted only sporadically, but at some point, seeing some of his paintings posted on Facebook, I asked if he had any available for purchase.  Surprised, his response was along the lines of, "You want to pay money for a painting of mine?"  When I confirmed that yes, this was the case, he said that he would want to come up with something special since this was now a commission.  Fast forward another year and a half or so, we still chat on occasion, and I haven't pressed him about the painting, figuring he's busy and will come up with something when he feels inspired.  And then I see a few posts start popping up with previews of the painting he's working on - an abstract portrait... of me!  A couple of months later, I was receiving it in the mail - an absolutely gorgeous piece of work, a massive canvas, that completely blew me away.  And the crazy thing was, he was thanking me, for giving him the opportunity, for allowing him to rediscover a love of painting, and for helping him through a difficult time in his life.  

This was just a few months before I departed on my trip, and I found myself chatting with him much more often.  He was intrigued by my decision to travel, and as I began to post photos of my adventures, he loved seeing all of the incredible beauty out there in the world that I was having the opportunity to see.  And then, while I was sitting in a hostel in Argentina finishing my breakfast, a man sat down, flustered from a very delayed flight and waiting on his room to be prepared.  I asked where he was from, and after discovering he was Portuguese, I asked which city he was from.  "Oh, just a small town in the north," he replied, and told me he was from Porto.  "Ah, okay, I never made it to Porto, but I do have a friend in Aveiro."  "Aveiro! That's where I'm from originally!  Who's your friend?"  And I told him.  And not only did he know him, he had interviewed him for a magazine article a year or so prior.  An absolutely insane moment of serendipity and small worldedness.  

Over the next few weeks, we were chatting on an even more regular basis, and at some point started half joking - him about painting me again, me saying if he did I would have to *actually* sit for him instead of sending a crappy iPhone photo, him saying I would have to stay for a while if I did, etc.  And then I realized, I could visit him.  I mean, I didn't have a job.  My current activity was to travel around the world.  And while I hadn't planned on visiting Europe, I knew that if I did I could also visit one of my dearest friends in Scotland.  And a few other places on my European bucket list.  And visit Africa on another occasion, when I knew my new friends would be settled in and I could spend a bit more time there.  And suddenly, I was looking at flights and discussing options and it was actually happening.  I was venturing all the way to Portugal to pay a visit to someone I had only seen in person for a handful of hours four years prior, but whom I had come to appreciate as a friend and kindred spirit over years of occasional chats.  And we would see what would happen.  

Eating my way through Istanbul

After spending the past few months enjoying the offerings of South America, I was excited to try some of the incredible food that Turkey is known for.  I was lucky to have been put in touch with Ahmet, a friend of one of the guys I had met back in Buenos Aires during my day trip to Colonia.  Ahmet lives in Istanbul and loves the food of his native land, so he was happy to give me a bit of a culinary tour of the less touristy area between Taksim Square and Galata Tower.

However, I also tried a few things on my own as well!

One of the first typical dishes I wanted to try in Istanbul was Manti.  Dubbed "Turkish Ravioli" on tourist menus, the dish consists of little warm dumplings of pasta filled with meat, covered in a yogurt sauce with seasoning on top.  The sweet-savory and hot-cold combination was lovely, and the meal was satisfying in the way of all the best comfort foods.  I tried this dish at the restaurant connected to my hostel - the Sofa Cafe, connected to Nobel Hostel - and was also treated to a plate of fresh olives and feta to snack on as I waited on my dish to arrive, the perfect light appetizer.

During our trips to the Cafe Meşale teahouse, I also sampled lentil soup - a light, rich broth surprisingly improved by squeezing a few drops of fresh lemon into it, the rich flavors highlighted by the bright acceding note of the citrus.  We also sampled a typical dish of flatbread filled with cheese or a mixture of cheese, spinach, and potato, similar to a Turkish quesidilla!  And during one of our bigger nights out at the teahouse, we dined on a sampler platter, full of grilled meats and vegetables, alongside a variety of dipping sauces for our flatbread.

My first stop with Ahmet was a spot called Hala, where we sampled Yuvarlama Çorbasi (Hala Soup), a rich, flavorful broth with tiny dumplings of wheat that were soft and chewy.  Once again, we squeezed drops of lemon juice into the soup to brighten up the warm, rich flavors.  We also sampled Içli Köy Köftesi, a sort of Turkish version of a meat pie / bun / empanada.  This one consisted of boiled dough filled with flavorful meat, onions, and spices.  It was absolutely delicious, and I spent the rest of my time in Istanbul searching for it on the tourist restaurant menus!!

Our next stop was Kasap Döner, Ahmet's favorite döner spot, and I could see why.  I ordered the wrap version - delicious, packed with meat, tomato, pickled peppers, and oozing sauce, it was a perfectly filling sandwich, and one of the most typical "fast food" options in Turkey.  

Venturing off the main thoroughfare, Ahmet showed me a clump of cafes hidden away from the bustle of the Istikal Caddesi.  We sat at one called Cafe 1453, but there were half a dozen or so options with outdoor seating in the tiny plaza - beaches with cushions, tiny tables and chairs, and cozens of people packed in drinking midday tea.  We ordered Turkish coffee - served in espresso cups, it's incredibly thick with notes of bitter, chocolate, and a touch of savory saltiness (a hint of pistachio).  Being a black coffee drinker myself, I very much enjoyed the flavor!  Afterwards, Ahmet gave me a genuine coffee reading, done by turning the cup upside down and letting the coffee grounds settle into an image, then reading the resulting image.  Everything from where the grounds settle (how much falls out versus stays in the cup), to the number of drips coming off the cup, to the pictures formed by the coffee can all mean various things.  It was definitely an interesting addition to the Turkish coffee experience!

Lastly, we stopped off at a juice stand near Galata Tower for a refreshing blend of fresh carrot, pomegranate, orange, grapefruit, and apple juices - all fresh-squeezed right in front of us!  Not only was it wonderfully tasty, but one of the healthiest things I had sampled in a while!

While that was the end of my culinary tour with Ahmet, it wasn't the last of my samplings in Istanbul.  

I had also heard great things about grabbing small bites of fried seafood around Istanbul, so I took the opportunity one day to sample some whole anchovies that had been battered and fried from a small streetside shop.  They were a nice crunchy treat, especially with a generous squeeze of lemon over the top.

There are also plenty of tasty pastries to be found in the carts set up all around the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia.  My favorites were the ones resembling a cross between a pretzel and a churro, with a generous spread of Nutella inside!  A warm, sweet treat, especially when it was chilly outside.

But while we're speaking of sweet treats, who can forget baklavah?  The deliciously sweet combination of filo pastry, pistachio, and honey.  I had gotten a recommendation to check out Karaköy Güllüoğlu for the best baklavah in Istanbul, and they didn't disappoint.  The interior was reminiscent of Cafe du Monde, with mirrors, glasstop counters, jeweled light fixtures, and dark tables and chairs for patrons to sip tea and sample the baklavah.  I ordered a sampler plate, quickly realizing it would be far too much for me to finish on my own!  But the varieties were indeed delicious, and I ordered a second sampler to go to share with my friends in Portugal.  

My final meal in Istanbul was a culmination of my gastronomical tour, a trip to Kiva restaurant at the base of the Galata Tower with new friend Muharem.  We were able to put together a sort of sampler plate of typical Turkish cuisine.  On our "appetizer" plate, selections including an herb and pomegranate salad, a bean salad, hummus, spicy bean paste, and fried falafel-like balls.  On our "entree" plate, we sampled a variety of grape leaves stuffed with vegetarian and meat fillings; eggplant and peppers stuffed with minced meat mixtures; and a rich, flavorful minced meat covered in dough.  To drink, we had a refreshing concoction of citrus juices and parsley that was surprisingly good.   

Honorable mention:

Tea!  How could I forget the tea?  The Turks drink tea after every meal - typically black tea, though there is a tourist variety in a sweet apple flavor.  If you're fortunate enough to visit the spice market, check out some of the more flavorful varieties, full of floral notes and warm spices, some of which are said to cure a variety of ailments or promote feelings of love, etc.

I mentioned the döner spot I visited with Ahmet, but there are dozens of them all over town.  Typically one would order a döner in sandwich rather than wrap form, like the one below.  They may include a mixture of vegetables and even fries if you're lucky!

And finally, a brief return to the sweets - a dry baklavah and Turkish delights from a visit to the Spice Market.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Being a Tourist in Istanbul

I couldn't have been more thrilled to visit Istanbul.  Not a location I had planned to visit on this trip by any stretch, I had lucked into the opportunity when I found a flight to Portugal (my new "next destination" after my change of plans) on Turkish Airways, which had a layover in Istanbul.  A little creativity on the Turkish Airways site and I had a multi-stop flight booked for even less than the "direct" route, and I had nearly a week to enjoy Istanbul.  My flight wound up being delayed by about 5 hours due to fog in Istanbul (we actually landed at a nearby airport and waited for about 3 hours before attempting to land again), but I had thankfully pre-booked a stay at Nobel Hostel in the tourist district, and I easily caught a cab, arriving sometime around 3am, in the shadow of the enchantingly lit up Blue Mosque.  I slept in the next morning, and the gracious hostel owners allowed me a late breakfast at their restaurant next door complete with cheese and olives, fruit, toast, hardboiled eggs, and coffee.  

I had no qualms in staying in the tourist district - with a limited number of days to explore, I wanted to see the famous mosques, markets, and other buildings.  And I lucked out with an unofficial culinary tour of a nearby neighborhood to get my local food fix.  This time around I'll share my experience on the big tourist stops, and I'll follow up with a post completely focused on the incredible food in Istanbul. :)

Blue Mosque

I finally set out to explore in the early afternoon of my first full day, first stopping by the Blue Mosque, just around the corner from my hostel.  The architecture blew me away, from the smooth stone of the exterior, to the massive, intricately decorated interior.  I removed my shoes and covered my head in a scarf before stepping into the cavernous space - inside was a large open space, a square-shaped floor covered in soft carpet, with incredibly high ceilings in circular domes, all ornately decorated in geometric designs and Arabic calligraphy.  Light fixtures of iron were suspended on chains from above, hanging relatively low (about 10 or 12 feet high) above our heads, compared to the height of the interior.  Visitors were kept behind a barricade, while men entering to pray moved forward to kneel and pray in the larger central space.  Women had a separate area in the back for prayer.

An interesting fact about the Blue Mosque: it's one of the only mosques in the world to have six minarets (and actually one of the only ones with more than four).  This was a major point of contention when it was first built in the early 17th century, as only the Grand Mosque in Mecca had as many.  As a result, an extra minaret was added to the Grand Mosque to 'settle' the dispute.

Hungry for lunch, I wondered around the plaza between the Blue Mosque and the Haga Sofia, passing dozens of men hawking their restaurants, until I found a spot without anyone harassing me to come in.  I tried some meatballs, pretty tasty, but not spectacular at this particular spot.  However, right as I exited, I noticed the entrance to the Basilica Cistern right next door, and I took the opportunity to pay it a visit.  

Basilica Cistern

The inside was a dim expanse - moist air, arched ceilings supported by rows of columns resting in a few feet of water.  A walkway guided us through the space, the columns lit in a soft orange glow.  I snaked my way back, passing one out-of-place column covered in a circular pattern, finally arriving at two particular columns in the back corner.  The water had been blocked off in that area to give tourists a glimpse at the unique bases - two heads of Medusa, likely plundered from a Roman building.  One Medusa is fixed upside down, the other, on her side, perhaps to remove any 'power' that the sculptures may have possessed!  After visiting the pair of Medusas, I continued along the walkway, past a group of columns with cone-shaped bases that widened at the bottom, until I reached the exit.

Grand Bazaar

That evening, I wandered along the metro path towards the Grand Bazaar, noticing a tiny old cemetery near the turn off for the bazaar, behind which was an expansive tea house, packed with locals just off from work.  I finally found my way into the bazaar, which surprisingly felt much more like a sprawling shopping mall than the markets I was used to from my time in South America.  The bazaar is packed with fairly modern, lit-up little shops, nestled inside the ancient architecture - I had to remember to look up every once in a while to see the evidence of the ancient structure!  I wound my way through the maze of leather goods, glittering jewelry, lanterns, artesanal items, and typical tourist souvenirs.  It's easy to feel lost inside the winding corridors packed with people, so I was almost surprised to easily find the various exits and get my bearings.

Tea House

That evening I made my first of many visits to a tea house called Cafe Meşale near the hostel with my new friend Ana.  During my stay, we visited numerous times with whomever else we could convince to join us.  While it was definitely played up for the tourist crowd, the atmosphere was warm, the waiters friendly, the food tasty, and the tea savory.  We were treated to a house band each night who played typical Turkish songs (always one at the end of the night that got the locals singing along), and they even had a whirling dervish on hand to give a performance a few times each night.  Despite the performance essentially being in the middle of a bar, it still had a powerful, captivating magic to it.  The dancer spun endlessly for many minutes to the rhythms of the music - beautiful and mesmerizing.  During one of our visits, we shared a couch with some very put together Turkish ladies that we dubbed 'The Real Housewives of Istanbul' - they were amazing and kept us entertained all night, especially during that last call and response song performed by the band.  On another occasion, Ana's mother and her mother's friend had visited, so we all shared a hookah and a giant platter of food for dinner.

Hagia Sophia

One of the biggest must-sees to any trip to Istanbul, the structure of the Hagia Sophia is nothing short of grand.  Originally built as a Byzantine cathedral in 537, it was converted to a Mosque in 1453, after Sultan Mehmed II and the Ottoman Turks conquered Constantinople.  It remained a mosque until 1931, and it was re-opened in 1935 as a museum.  Ana and I decided to visit early the next morning, entering through one of the main entrances, passing through two "spiritual moats" (as Dan Brown refers to them in his book, Inferno) - interior spaces walled off from the main religious area.  The first was very plain - basic stone - and the second was ornately decorated with mosaic tiles.  Once inside, the enormity of the place was the most striking.  The very top, while under restorative construction, was an enormous dome, flanked by images of four archangels.  The front of the room displays a partially restored mosaic of Mary and the Christ child, set in between two massive discs of Islamic calligraphy.  The Islamic midrib is located where an altar would have once stood, but is slightly off center, as it points directly towards Mecca - not exactly a consideration of the original cathedral construction!   

After exploring the ground floor, we made our way up to the second level - a balcony floor running all along the back and sides of the knave.  The second level also acted as a gallery, full of restored murals, and provided an excellent view of the space below.  (When the cathedral was converted into a mosque, the Christian icons were covered in plaster, but thankfully many have been restored, and now sit alongside the Islamic script and decor, making the religious significance of the place that much more incredible.)  On our way out, we stopped at a small column in the corner which is said to have the power to grant wishes - we followed the lead of those in front of us, placing our thumbs in the center and turning our hands all the way around the center to make our wishes!

Once we had finally explored the entirety of the museum, we headed to the Blue Mosque for a quick visit.  Along the way we stopped for a few baked goods from a street vendor and a cup of Turkish coffee.  The coffee vendors were hilarious - giving us fake coffee readings (admitting they knew nothing about how to actually perform them) and generally entertaining us as we waited for prayer time to pass so we could visit the mosque.

Spice Market

That evening, I set out with Ana and two other guys from our hostel, Edoardo and Iman, to visit the Spice Market, making a quick stop into the New Mosque en route.  Venturing into the market, Edoardo took us by a few stalls (set up very similarly to the Grand Bazaar) in search of some specific teas and spices.  As he browsed the samples, Ana and I were given samples of Turkish Delights - a gelatinous candy coated with pistachios or coconut or pomegranate, and also containing bits of pistachio inside the sweet middle.  At a tea vendor (the Ottoman Spice Center in stall #17), we were given samples of a delicious flower-herb blend that had a very pleasant flavor - very floral and refreshing.  While we didn't have long inside the market (it closed at 7), it was lovely to wander through the stalls, taking in the warm, sweet scents and gorgeous colors of the various teas and spices.

On our walk back to the hostel, we passed an small art gallery and decided to peek inside.  The artist was Melik Iskender, and he had a wonderful sampling of abstract takes on the whirling dervishes and various sites around Istanbul.  We each bought a small piece (keeping to my theme of buying art everywhere I go), and he gave us each a small evil eye token as a gift.  That evening, we made a return to our favorite tea house for music, dinner, and the whirling dervish performance.


The following day I was lucky enough to be given a culinary tour of sorts by a local that a friend had put me in touch with, but I'll share a bit more of that in my next post, focused on the food of Istanbul :)  However, during my time with him I also had the chance to wander down Istikal Caddesi, a major thoroughfare from Taksim Square to Galata Tower.  Filled with locals, tourists, and dozens of shops and side alleyways, the street is a constant buzz of activity.  One side street, dubbed "French Street", was colorful, packed with cafes and artsy shops.  Another was called "Flower Street", more of an alleyway through and in between buildings, it was packed with restaurants with patios serving cold beer.  Other alleyways had themes of their own - one was packed with cafes, another, full of fresh seafood offerings.

Back on the main road, we stopped at St. Antonio Church, the largest church in Istanbul.  The interior was beautiful, still decorated for Christmas, and the exterior featured a uniquely abstract sculpture of Christ on the cross - a warped-looking piece that felt like looking at an optical illusion!

The final stop for me was the Galata Tower, originally built in 1348, used as an observation tower, a venture up to the top provides an incredible 360 degree view of Istanbul and the Bosphorus.  I visited just before dusk, taking in the amazing sight of the numerous mosques dotting the opposite hill and the Bosphorus stretched out in front of me.  As the lights in the city slowly came on the and light in the sky slowly dimmed, I returned to my hostel using the light rail so as not to return late for my next adventure, but I would return later to walk the Galata Bridge and take in the sights from that perspective.

Turkish Bath

That evening, I had decided to join Ana, her mom, and her mother's friend for a trip to a traditional Turkish Bath arranged by our hostel.  We were picked up from the hostel along with a few other visitors and taken to Gedikpaşa Bath, constructed in 1475.  We entered and were taken to the women's side of the building, where we changed into bathing suits and towels.  We were then escorted into a large, dark, humid room with a large flat stone in the middle and small rooms on each corner.  We settled into the sauna, taking in the warmth and chatting until we were each retrieved by our masseuses, taken to the large flat stone in the main room, and told to lie down.  From there we were drenched in water and scrubbed, which fell somewhere between being relaxing and being incredibly strange and uncomfortable!!  Exfoliation was followed by suds and more water, then we were each escorted into the side rooms for a table massage using honey instead of oil.  After the massage, we were again rinsed with water, this time also getting our hair shampooed and rinsed.  Our remaining time in the bath was spent between the hot sauna and a pool of cool water, until we decided to rinse off, change, and return to the lobby to wait on our ride back.  We sipped on hot tea until we were taken back to our hostel, where we freshened up a bit before returning to our favorite teahouse for dinner, tea, and hookah.  While it wasn't a typical spa experience, it was certainly a unique one!

Topkapi Palace

The next day was unfortunately cold and rainy, so I took the advantage to visit Topkapi Palace that afternoon, spending a few hours slowly moving from room to room to view the exhibits throughout the complex.  The palace was first constructed in the 15th century during the reign of the Ottoman Empire, and it covers a sprawling section of land overlooking the Bosphorus.  The architecture was gorgeous, so it was a shame that no photos were allowed in one of the most beautiful rooms, as it housed holy relics of Islam.  That room in particular reminded me of the Alahmbra in Spain, with beautifully ornate tiles covering the walls, stepped dome ceilings, and beautiful calligraphy on display all around.  The collections of artifacts on display in the various rooms throughout the palace were also impressive - from clothing to jewels, thrones, treasures, gifts, and spoils of war.  There was also a gallery entirely allocated to clocks, as well as a sprawling modern gallery full of weaponry.

The cold, wet weather finally got to me, and I spent the rest of the evening resting at the hostel, having dinner, doing some work, and being generally entertained by the resident kitten, who had found and was subsequently chasing bits of tinsel from leftover New Year's decorations.

Süleymaiye Mosque

On my final day in Istanbul, I ventured out with a young Aussie who had just checked into the hostel to visit Süleymaiye Mosque that afternoon.  The largest in Istanbul (now that the Hagia Sophia is a museum rather than a mosque), the mosque is an enormous structure of smooth gray stone, its four minarets standing just to the side of the main structure, on each side of a large pavilion.  Inside, the mosque was quiet, nearly empty, providing a perfectly peaceful environment in which to take in the grandeur of the interior.  Of all the mosques I visited in Istanbul, the interior of Süleymaiye was definitely my favorite.  Columns supported archways in stripes of white and pink stone, echoing the design of the mosque I had admired in Cordoba, Spain, many years ago.  The dome radiated pink and gold, made of cuts of swirled marble that lended a natural, organic, abstract quality to the design.  And of course the calligraphy everywhere was just stunning.  I'm so glad I made the time to pay it a visit, especially on my final day.

A return to Galata

We exited just before sunset, and I split off to venture down to Galata Bridge, in search of a famous baklavah shop I had been told about.  As it grew darker, the Süleymaiye and New Mosques were both lit up by spotlights, glowing against the pink sky.  It was an absolutely gorgeous sight.  Also an interesting sight, set up all along the sides of the bridge were local fishermen, some actively casting lines, some leisurely watching their poles as they leaned out against the sides.  Once I arrived on the other side, I finally reached my destination - Karaköy Güllüoğlu, supposedly the site of the best baklavah in Istanbul, where I enjoyed a sampler platter (what I could finish at least!) and picked up a takeaway bag to share with the guys I would be staying with in Portugal the following evening.

I returned to the hostel via the light rail, but again ventured out to the area just around the Galata Tower for one final evening meal before my departure the next morning.  After chatting with the hostel owners and some friends for a few hours sipping tea, one of the guys, Muharem, who works as a tour guide in Istanbul, invited me to join him to sample some good local cuisine.  We wound up at a restaurant called Kiva, where I not only had an incredible meal with a huge variety of typical Turkish selections, but I also learned quite a lot about the Turkish culture and history, while sharing bits of information about the States, especially Southern culture and music.  By the end of our meal, our paper placemats were covered with crudely drawn maps of our home countries and various landmarks.  It's actually kind of astonishing to think of just how much significant history has taken place in and around Turkey.  The oldest thing we had discussed about the States was the origin of the Blues and a brief explanation of the Trail of Tears, and here his hometown was the hometown of the Biblical Abraham and potentially one of the oldest civilizations in the world.  


I'm still a bit amazed at how much I packed into a visit to Istanbul in a little less than a week and yet still had some time to relax and simply wander the city.  A huge thank you to the guys at Nobel Hostel as well as Ahmet and Muharem for being such wonderful hosts, sharing information (and food!) and welcoming me in your country.  If I could have spent longer, I would have loved to visit Cappadocia and some of the other regions, but Portugal and the next stage of my adventure awaited.  Perhaps someday I'll have the chance to return!