Portland Maine is one of my favorite U.S. cities….

fiddlin in Portland, ME
I absolutely adore this place. It’s filled with funky bookshops, boats, quirky cafes, and plenty of people that fit into that scene. I arrived and met my couchsurfing host at the restaurant she works at “Sillys”. I had a very delicious Thai chicken pizza and then my lovely couchsurfing host Allison wouldn’t let me pay for it!

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Belgrade, Serbia – The Scars Remained but the Beauty Shined Through

Serbia in 2011 was still a very rough place to be. I’m glad I went, but it wasn’t easy. I look forward to returning to Belgrade someday. I felt as scarred as the city by the time I left – and that’s reflected in this decidedly unfair remembrance that I wrote soon after. 

Belgrade SerbiaBelgrade is more than a gritty city filled with bad graffiti and dog turds. I know it. and while I found pockets of what seemed like paradise, for the most part, the city felt like what it is, a scarred and damaged war zone where unspeakable atrocities have taken place. Despite having the reputation of being the Paris of Eastern Europe and having the best night life of just about anywhere in Europe, the Serbians I met generally said the nightlife wasn’t so great. While I didn’t visit the many museums of Belgrade, I still did get a sense that this is a cultured place with a highly educated population. I wanted to experience that, but somehow just missed it.

From the apartment I’d been staying in, I wandered to a hostel called 1001 Nights. The owner ran a clean place with a friendly vibe. I arrived at around 8 a.m. and he offered me coffee and rakia. I accepted. Nearby was a wonderful little cafe called JazzYoga which had great jazz playing and illustrated yoga postures on the walls. The food was carefully crafted healthy vegetarian fare. These two places told me that there is certainly more to Belgrade than graffiti, dog turds, and obnoxious fans of the former regime.

Belgrade SerbiaIn fact, as I walked around, I saw signs of cultured life just about everywhere I looked. In a city of approximately 1.7 million that has been influenced by Turks, Celts, Romans, and many others since it was founded in the 4th century there are signs of art and refinement everywhere you look…if you look past the dog turds and bad graffiti which were everywhere. One thing that was disturbing me but took me a while to figure out was the lack of diversity in Serbia. Serbs are almost 100% white. No blacks, no browns, no coffee colored, no shades other than white and often with blond hair and blue eyes. I usually live in incredibly diverse places and having no skin diversity was frankly pretty creepy. The fact that Belgrade is nicknamed “White City” and has a magazine named the same just made it creepier. Utah has more diversity.

In many ways it is like a nightmare with the stories of kidnappings, organ stealing, human slavery, bombed out buildings, ripped up streets, and utterly shitty grafitti on every possible surface. While for the most part, the Serbs I met were kind, intelligent, and gracious I had to wonder if the interior landscape is as scarred and fucked up as the exterior landscape.

Belgrade SerbiaI spent the day wandering through streets of the city. I strolled down the main pedestrian shopping area Knez Mihailova Street and then took a little side trip to the Bohemian cafe section. I snapped a few photos of the famous horse riding statue of Mihailo Obrenovic in Republic Square. I saw quite a few giant cathedrals and plenty of museums that I didn’t get the chance to visit because they were closed on Monday. The Temple of Saint Sava was impressive in its massiveness though only dating from about 1935 so not an ancient site by any means.

A highlight was a visit to the massive Kalemegdan Fortress which was once the cities main military fortification. These days it is the Serb version of Central Park. The park is filled with museums (closed on Mondays) and has wonderful views of the old fortifications, some interesting public art, and incredible viewpoints of the confluence of the Danube and Sava rivers.

Belgrade SerbiaHoused within the fortress is the Belgrade Zoo. I have to say, I’ve never seen so many bizarre animals in one place before. The highlight was this massive white tiger that sat in it’s cage looking about the size of a VW bug. I’ve never seen such an impressive animal. This is the king, never mind the lion.His name is Khane and he was awe inspiring. In some cases only a small fence separated me or other visitors from the many big cats, wolves, or dangerous ostriches of the zoo. I’m certain that people have lost limbs or body parts in this zoo which is housed in an ancient fortress. I spent the better part of four hours wandering around the zoo and getting up close and personal with the animals. Because it was freaking cold, there weren’t a lot of people there. Just me, the caretakers, and a handful of others. The animals from tropical areas were inside a winter barn which was heated for them, must be a long winter since the barn wasn’t all that big judging by the number of animals inside. Think Noah’s Ark. Oddly, there was a section of the zoo that seemed to be all domestic dogs put in zoo cages. I wonder if they were wild dogs caught amongst the dangerous packs in the city. The man at the hostel told me that people are killed by dogs on a regular basis in Belgrade. Seems like a big problem.

Belgrade SerbiaI enjoyed my day of wandering around in Belgrade though I have to admit that I’d been feeling a vague sense of unease since I had arrived in Serbia. It’s a little hard to describe, but suffice to say that I have felt the same thing in the United States, in particular after coming back to the USA from places like Canada. I kept looking over my shoulder. I wasn’t really looking for dogs, though that might have been part of it. It was more like I felt like I was being watched. I felt completely observed, just as in the United States. In the USA these days, if you look around you will find a camera, someone is watching you and chances are there is someone with a gun not too far from wherever you might be (FBI, CIA, DEA, Park Rangers, Forest Service, City Police, State Police, Highway Patrol, Homeland Security, Federal Marshals etc etc etc). Serbia feels the same way.

Later, when I returned to the hostel I asked the owner what the sign that was flashing outside my window was for. To my surprise, he told me it was for a laundry. Sex is used to advertise everything in Serbia it seems.

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Aesthetic Feasting at the Turkish and Islamic Arts Museum

In 2010, my wife and I were married in Morocco – two months later we took our honeymoon trip to Turkey. At the end of our trip, we were again at the Ayasofia Hotel where we had begun it. 

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Checking into the Ayasofya Hotel, we found ourselves with one last day ahead of us. Hanane was exhausted but there were a few things I still wanted to see before we left Turkey.

I walked up the street past the Blue Mosque and across the Hippodrome to the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts while Hanane showered and took a nap in our big plush bed. The museum holds a wealth of Turkish and Islamic art from the Ottoman and Seljuk periods along with beautiful pieces and implements from as early as the 8th Century A.D.

The museum building itself is the palace of Ibrahim Pasha which was built by Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent’s own architects. Ibrahim Pasha was Suleyman’s Grand Vizier from 1523 to 1536. The building has elements which date back to 1500.
Ibrahim was choked to death and his wealth taken by the imperial government when after the Sultan’s death he voiced support for the wrong prince. That’s why I usually don’t pick one Prince over another.

The museum is filled with Turkish carpets, illuminated Qurans, calligraphy (at which the Ottomans excelled), carved and inlaid wood, glass, porcelain and stone treasures. I went through quicker than I would have preferred but felt that this was more of an exploratory mission.

The Turkish ethnographic exhibits were interesting though quite a bit like modern life in rural Morocco, I saw many things that are used daily in the house of my in-laws laid out as museum pieces.

I would have enjoyed lingering but a Canadian film crew was there and had set up some very hot lights for a TV shoot in that section.

A modern Turkish arts section in the front was small but had an interesting exhibit of claiigraphic embroidery which I enjoyed a lot.

While I was out I booked us seats at a Whirling Dervish performance. Originally, I had thought we might be going to Konya to see the real thing (no admission and not really for tourists) but since we hadn’t I thought it would be a shame to leave Turkey without seeing the whirling dervishes for which the country is famed.

The Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art is open from 9 to 5 (closed Monday). Admission is 10 Lira.

Coffee in Luxembourg – A tiny but economic country #flashbackfriday

LuxembourgIn 2009, I was on the verge of marriage and changing my life forever. To get a little clear headedness, I went to Luxembourg to get some coffee. While that sounds pretty extravagent, I was already in Belgium, on my way back to Morocco after going back to the USA to gather the necessary documents – so it was only a short train ride away. 

Luxembourg is a parliamentary representative democracy with a constitutional monarch; it is ruled by a Grand Duke. It is the world’s only remaining sovereign Grand Duchy. The country has a highly developed economy, with the highest Gross Domestic Product per capita in the world as per IMF and WB. Its historic and strategic importance dates back to its founding as a Roman era fortress site and Frankish count’s castle site in the Early Middle Ages. It was an important bastion along the Spanish road when Spain was the principal European power influencing the whole western hemisphere and beyond in the 16th–17th centuries.

Luxembourg is a founding member of the European Union, NATO, OECD, the United Nations, Benelux, and the Western European Union, reflecting the political consensus in favour of economic, political, and military integration. The city of Luxembourg, the capital and largest city, is the seat of several institutions and agencies of the European Union.
Luxembourg
Luxembourg lies on the cultural divide between Romance Europe and Germanic Europe, borrowing customs from each of the distinct traditions. Luxembourg is a trilingual country; German, French and Luxembourgish are official languages. Although a secular state, Luxembourg is predominantly Roman Catholic.

History of Luxembourg

The written history of Lucilinburhuc (i.e. Luxembourg) starts in the year 963, when Siegfried, Count of the Ardennes, and founder of the Luxembourg Dynasty, had a castle built on the territory of the present-day capital of Luxembourg. This castle was the origin of the establishment of a town, which later was to develop into a formidable fortress, known by the name of ‘Gibraltar of the North’. At its height, the fortress was girdled by three ring-walls studded with 24 forts, and linked underground by a 23 kilometre network of Casemates. In 1994, Luxembourg City was added to the UNESCO World Heritage list.

After a long period of foreign sovereignty (Burgundian/ Spanish/ French/ Austrian / …), the Congress of Vienna settled the destiny of the country, by raising it to the rank of Grand Duchy, and by giving it as personal property to the King of the Netherlands William I of Orange-Nassau. The personal union between Luxembourg and the Netherlands lasted until 1890. During this period the political independence and autonomy were strengthened, and the democratic institutions were developed.

The 11th of May 1867 is one of the most important dates in the more recent national history: The Treaty of London reaffirmed Luxembourg’s territorial integrity, and the political autonomy which had already been granted by the Treaty of Vienna of 1839. Furthermore, Luxembourg was declared perpetually neutral, and the great powers agreed to guarantee and to protect the neutrality of the Grand Duchy.

Since 1890, when the Crown of the Grand Duchy passed to the elder branch of the House of Nassau, Luxembourg has had its own Dynasty. The present ruler, H.R.H. Grand Duke Henri, succeeded his father, Grand Duke Jean to the throne in October 2000, after having been appointed as “Lieutenant-Représentant” -the Grand Duke’s official deputy- on March 3, 1998, as provided for by Article 42 of the Luxembourg Constitution.

Grand Duke Jean’s mother, Grand Duchess Charlotte, Duchess of Nassau, Princess of Bourbon Parma, died in 1985. Grand Duke Jean and his wife Grand Duchess Joséphine-Charlotte, the sister to Albert, King of the Belgians, have five children Henri, Jean, Guillaume, Marie-Astrid, and Margaretha. (See also The Grand-Ducal Family and especially monarchie.lu)
Luxembourg
Executive power is in the hands of the Grand Duke and a Cabinet of 12 ministers. The legislative power rests with a Parliament (Chamber of Deputies) elected by men and women over 18, all of whom in Luxembourg have the right and duty to vote.

Despite its neutrality, Luxembourg was occupied twice by German troops during the two World Wars. The Battle of the Bulge was to a great extent fought on Luxembourg territory. In 1948, the country gave up its neutrality, to join the various economic, political, and military organisations of Europe. Already forming a close economic union with Belgium since 1921, the Grand Duchy is a founder member of the EU, and was host to the first European institutions in 1953.

Jmaa el Fna in Marrakech – The Circus of Morocco

Place Jemma el Fna is filled with snake charmers, jugglers, men with monkeys, and the scariest dirty clowns I’ve ever seen. (originally posted on 20 FEB 2009)

My first trip to Jmaa el Fna was overwhelming. The sights, sounds, smells, animals (snakes, monkeys, donkeys, goats, chickens) and the humanity were simply overwhelming to the senses. I made friends with a nice American couple who were staying in the same hotel as me. We got food, explored the surrounding areas, and played cards together. This was before everyone on earth had a smartphone, before Instagram, and before travel had changed so much. People were either traveling with a laptop or a guidebook and it was still fairly common to make friends with strangers. My camera was an old Pentax and I wasn’t very skilled with it.

Morocco as a whole was a great place to be in that period. There was a lot of fear about terrorism still about – there had been the bombing in Casablanca though the bombing in Jmaa el Fna itself hadn’t happened yet. That bombing came in 2011 and killed 25 people sitting where many of these pictures were taken. The great recession was still new and an entire generation was cast out of college with nowhere to go and no jobs to be had. Many of them, like me, took to the road hoping to find something better than unemployment, wage slavery, and eating the shit of a failed capitalist society.

 

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Valencia – City of Oranges and Beauty

In 2008, I left Hawaii in the midst of the great recession. My entire life changed as a result. One of my early stops after I had crossed America by train was the city of Valencia in Spain.

Valencia is a city known the world over for the Oranges that bear its name. And yet, most Valencia Oranges come from Southern California – or so I thought until a bit of research indicated that most now come from Florida. And did they originate in Valencia, Spain? Nope. They originally came from India. Who knew?

Its name comes from the city of Valencia, Spain, known through history for its sweet orange trees, originally from India. The patented orange hybrid was later sold by William Wolfskill to the Irvine Ranch owners, who would plant nearly half of their lands to its cultivation. The success of this crop in Southern California led to the naming of Orange County, California. The Irvine Company’s Valencia operation later split from the company and became Sunkist. Cultivation of the Valencia in Orange County had all but ceased by the mid-1990s due to rising property costs from urban sprawl, which drove most of what remained of the Southern California juice orange industry into Florida and Brazil.

Almost two months on the road. I’ve been from Honolulu to Portland to Sacramento to Salt Lake City to Ogden and back to Salt Lake City to Chicago by way of Denver to Boston to Providence to Lena’s town to New York City to Barcelona to Valencia and now going to head to Alacante.

Valencia  is the capital of the autonomous community of Valencia and the third largest city in Spain after Madrid andBarcelona, with around 809,000 inhabitants in the administrative centre. It is the 23rd most populous municipality in the European Union. Valencia is also Spain’s third largest metropolitan area, with a population ranging from 1.7 to 2.3 million. The Port of Valencia is the 5th busiest container port in Europe and the largest on theMediterranean Sea, with a trade volume of 4.21 million TEU’s.

Blending with the locals in Valencia

Now, the country. Spain is remarkable. The bars don’t really start happening until midnight. From noon to about five pm most everything is closed. As I travel from East to West I start to see California everywhere I look only instead of adobe missions, I see huge stone castles and massive block apartment buildings built around narrow lanes. The water of the Mediterranean is the same incredible blue of the water in the Philippines.

The craggy mountains and yellow stone with brightly painted houses on rocky ground excites me. The cultures all seem to be individualistic, as if this were some nation cobbled together from many tribes Catalan, Valencian, Basque, and Spanish and yet, they are all a part of this incredible country that discovered the new world, or at least made the horrific contact and then proceeded to dominate, decimate, and reshape the cultures there.

From the gypsies I saw playing accordion and fiddle on the train to the musician/beggars who stand guard with palms out in front of the churches to the celebration of South American dance I wandered upon my first night in Valencia, there is a vibrancy to this culture that is perhaps best summed up by the concept of memento mori, the idea of something to remind one that death is perhaps not as far away as we may think it to be.

I can see this idea in the works of Picasso, Gaudi, and Miro but even in the way that my Spanish friends seem to live their lives. There is a feeling that seems to say that one must spend the last dollar, catch the siesta now, or love the woman of your dreams in this moment because the moment might be taken from one at any time. I think this is perhaps what most resonates with me here in Spain, this idea of carpe diem or living the present moment to the fullest.


Valencia was founded as a Roman colony in 138 BC. The city is situated on the banks of the Turia, on the east coast of the Iberian Peninsula, fronting the Gulf of Valencia on the Mediterranean Sea. Its historic centre is one of the largest in Spain, with approximately 169 acres; this heritage of ancient monuments, views and cultural attractions makes Valencia one of the country’s most popular tourist destinations. Major monuments include Valencia Cathedral, the Torres de Serranos, the Torres de Quart, the Llotja de la Seda (declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1996), and the Ciutat de les Arts i les Ciències (City of Arts and Sciences), an entertainment-based cultural and architectural complex designed by Santiago Calatrava and Félix Candela.


As to my language studies, they are somewhat hopeless it seems. As I learn Spanish it is corrupted by my little French, then there is the Spanish as spoken by Italianos and Catalans. A guy in Valencia told me that the Spanish lisp (Buenath Notcthes) is the result of a king they once had who had a lisp and everyone in the country decided to speak like him. In any event, my Spanish vocabulary is growing, but confused and when I tried to speak Arabic to the Moroccans at the less than spectacular Pension Milano, I found that it is locked up for the moment in an inacessable part of my brain. As I start to access it, my vulgar spanish becomes corrupted by Arabic as well….
Cest la vie. Que sais. Al hamdallah.

 The Museu de Belles Arts de València houses a large collection of paintings from the 14th to the 18th centuries, including works by Velázquez, El Greco, and Goya, as well as an important series of engravings by Piranesi. The Institut Valencià d’Art Modern (Valencian Institute of Modern Art) houses both permanent collections and temporary exhibitions of contemporary art and photography.


At this point, I have considered to discard my coffee cup and French press several times. I like the invention, but it seems unnecessary since coffee is one thing that is readily available and cheap. I’ve not used it nor my metal water bottle yet in Europe, but I have the feeling that as soon as they are gone, I will find myself wanting them maybe one more week and then I can get rid of the cup and press. They are easily replaceable and they haven’t been used on this trip yet at all, the water bottle it is more useful and I will keep it. (future note: both have been incredibly useful and are still with me 3 years later)

The city of Science and Technology was amazing to see, but was it worth the cost?
Valencia is integrated into an industrial area on the Costa del Azahar (Orange Blossom Coast). Valencia’s main festival is the Falles. The traditional Spanish dish, paella, originated in Valencia.

The buses are more expensive between cities than I expected, I think this may be to the rise in gas prices last summer. 20-30 Euros for each leg so far. The ferry to Morocco should be about the same. Accommodation runs 10-20 euros each night in the hostels and pensions.

As for couch surfing, it isn’t really so much a way to save money as to meet new people and make new friends. If I hadn’t of couch surfed in Barcelona, I would have spent far less, but the experience would also have been far less. To be a good couch surfer, I think one should provide something to ones host, a bottle of wine, beers, a meal…something. Perhaps I am too generous, but this seems a small price to pay for the generosity I have recieved from my hosts.

Two months into this and almost 1/3 of my funds are gone. Yikes. We will see..the time will pass and the road will have its way with me as it always does. The lessons learned will be more than to simply be able to get by in other regions of the world, it will be more like how to get by in this life.

Once I hit Turkey, I will examine the prediction a client of mine once made to me when I was a stock broker. He said something like “Your destiny is to manage a guest house on the banks of the Bosphorus” , perhaps he was right, but if not then I will move on to India and then most likely to Korea to teach English… there is a lot of road between here and there though….

(Originally posted 28JAN2009)

Shores of the Bosphorus – Istanbul’s Beautiful and Important Waterway

Back in 2003, I worked as a stock broker. I enjoyed the interaction with customers, but didn’t really like the pushy sales aspect of it. I would sometimes have long and wandering conversations with my potential clients – one of them, a New Yorker named Joel stopped me during a pitch for Krispy Kreme donuts one day and said out of the blue “What the hell are you doing working as a stockbroker? You need to quit that job, move to Turkey and open a guest house on the shores of the Bosphorus!” I should have listened to him, but instead slogged through stock broking for a while more, wrote some books, worked as a commercial fisherman, and eventually became a tour guide in Hawaii – before finally ending up on the shores of the Bosphorus nearly a decade later…now in 2019, I look back at the time I was in Turkey (from 2010-2012) as one of the most deeply fulfilling periods in my life – largely because of my connection with the Bosphorus…I have no idea how he knew – but Joel was right. I wrote the following while I was there.

IstanbulIt’s impossible not to love Istanbul. This magnificent city of 17 million people, more than 5000 years of history, and more than a little bit of shopping, sight seeing, and culinary adventuring.

Istanbul is divided into two major parts…Europe and Asia. In fact, Istanbul (that’s Constantinople) is made up of the oriental, the occidental, and everything in between.

Those who come here and have the money, like to stay at the 5 star Ciragan Palace Kempinski Hotel which sits alongside the Bosphorus and boasts gardens, shops, and ultra fine dining.The high school next door used to be a harem. There is a helipad so you can land your helicopter. The master suite is just 15,000 Euros per night (About $22,500 at current exchange rates)Those who don’t have the money can find plenty of other options like the Four Seasons which used to be a famous jail. Or maybe you want to search Istanbul hostels.

In terms of transportation, the tram (metro) is by far the easiest and most hassle free, but in Istanbul, the taxis aren’t too expensive, they just take longer to get anywhere because of the traffic. As for buses, too crowded for me, but sometimes necessary. It’s that or driving and frankly…do you want to drive in a city of 17 million? No freaking way.

IstanbulTurks are incredibly nationalistic and you see the beautiful red flags and the images of the modern day founder of Turkey Mustapha Kemal Ataturk everywhere -as you should. Ataturk created a state that could have easily become fascist but instead, he turned it into a Republic and handed over the reins of power. A rare and amazing hero.

Still, it’s not all wonderful. Plenty of cabbies will charge unwitting foreigners Euro fares and give change in lira. There are rip offs in rug merchant shops, restaurants, and souvenir shop. Just the other day, a longtime Istanbulu immigrant friend and I sat down for lunch without asking the prices first. Complacency is not your friend. The cost was a staggering 47 lira…about three times what we normally would pay. The moral, Pay Attention or Pay Too Much.
Here’s an example: you give the cabbie 50 Lira. He drops it when you aren’t paying attention and then tells you that you only gave him 5 lira and he demands the rest of the payment. Since the notes are the same color and you are new to Turkish money, you apologise for the mistake and give him a 100% bonus. Lame, but it happens.

One of the things I love about Istanbul is that it is a friendly city to not only western tourists but also to eastern and Muslim tourists. In this city you see fully veiled Saudi women and their families eating next to distastefully clad housewives from Orange County and their families. It’s equal opportunity for East and West. Same goes for when you go to the hamams, the bazaars, or into the mosques…of course, in the mosques, hopefully everyone is covered appropriately.

IstanbulIstanbul is a city filled with bars, restaurants, shops and ancient historical sites. From museums to the nightlife in Taksim to Friday prayers to just wandering around Beyoglu and finding Ottoman Palaces that are falling down and held up by nothing but vines right next to brand new apartment buildings. Compare and contrast and no wonder so many American’s ask why the city is so rundown….it’s not rundown, it’s 5000 years old. The decrepit next to the sparkling new is something we don’t see in the segregated west. In Istanbul the poor neighborhood might have rich people and the rich neighborhood will certainly have poor people. No economic segregation going on here. It’s real. Modernity becomes part of history eventually…and in Istanbul you can see what was once modern but now is ancient.

IstanbulAnd then there is the food. Far from being just kebabs and chorba (soup) there is a wide and varied cuisine in Istanbul from pide and pizza to homemade ravioli, balik ekmek (fish sandwiches) and then there is the palace food. Palace food tends to be the over the top stuff the Ottoman Sultans enjoyed. Things like quail inside duck inside goose inside something even bigger. The Ottoman version of Turduken.
If you prefer you can find Indian, Chinese, and even Mexican food. I have to say though, the tacos aren’t as satisfying and the sushi, well…it’s expensive and not quite right. Still, it is here. And then there is the view although I find this equation to be fairly good: the better the view the worse the food up to about 40 lira. After 40 lira the food begins to taste good again. So, want a good view…make sure you don’t scrimp or the taste will ruin the view for you.

And the view is great whether you are looking at the famous Blue Mosque, the amazing wonder of the world the Aya Sofya or even the tree lined and ancient Constantinople Hippodrome. Mosques, Churches, Greek and Roman Ruins, and plenty of museums showing everything from ancient Lydian to modern Istanbulu art. The view in Istanbul is like no other.

IstanbulEven the over the top Topkapi Palace which sits like a jewel on the crown of the Sultanahmet area is now available for you to sip tea in or have your breakfast next to. It wasn’t always this way since this was the political and cultural center of the Ottoman Empire when it was the strong man of the world, rather than the sick man of Europe.

Like all of Istanbul there are more than a few fat cats, plenty of wild (though tagged) dogs, and no shortage of grassy places to enjoy a picnic. Plus you can see the staff of Moses and the sword of Mohammad among other religious relics. No one seems willing to tell me if they’ve tried throwing the staff down and making it into a snake though. if you tend towards the more worldly treasures you might enjoy seeing the Topkapi Dagger or the Spoonmakers Diamond (5th largest in the world). One local friend told me that the Prophet Abraham’s missing saucepan is also in the museum…now how in the world did that happen?

IstanbulStill, Topkapi is for Amateurs, the Pros head to Dolmabahce Palace over on the other side of the Golden Horn.

The Versailles of Istanbul is worthy of the name and whereas you don’t get to see all of Topkapi, Dolmabahce is thrown in front of you like a white slave before the potential Ottoman buyers looking to diversify their harems. Beautiful, dangerous, and well…expensive. All the yellow metal you see there is real gold.

Istanbul

Go out at night in Istanbul and you will find that the gold changes hands quickly and easily as the frantic hustle and dance of one of the world’s largest cities never stops. From the junk buyers to the carpet sellers, everyone is still working at night and those who aren’t are taking vanity to extremes as they show what modern, hip, young, rich Istanbul is all about. Watch a Turkish soap opera and you might think things are exaggerated. They aren’t.

As for food, you can spend little at the food stalls in Mehene, Nevisade Sokak and Kumkapi. Or you can spend as much as a corrupt Vizier somewhere else. And if you want to spend, there isn’t a better place to do it than in the clubs. Step into a club and the price of drinks goes 3 to 20 times higher than elsewhere but that’s all about the status of being there. You are there drinking, so obviously you have plenty. This is where you go if you want to impress the other sex and there is one thing that impresses Turkish women more than anything else…. When I was teaching, I would ask my students what was more important Love or Money…out of hundreds of Turkish students only two girls ever said love. Money is where it’s at and if you aren’t flashing it, you’re missing out on the ‘action’ in Istanbul.

Istanbul

But hopefully, you won’t miss out on experiencing real life here. The life on the streets, drinking tea, riding the ferry with commuters, playing backgammon on the streets, or just walking around the next corner to see something that is unexpectedly beautiful.

There is one more area where you will need your wallet…shopping. Istanbul is filled with shopping and while the prices can be very reasonable, you can also spend as much as you want. Prices will vary by as much as 1000% from shop to shop. Seriously. Where is the shopping in Istanbul? …everywhere. Literally.

But there is no place to shop like the Grand Bazaar (even if the prices are two to three times higher there for most things) With more than 4,000 shops spread in some 60 streets along with a post office, a bank and a mosque of its own with even  a health centre within the Grand Bazaar. And I might add, this is all covered. It’s the first indoor shopping mall and it is filled with carpets, ceramics, antiques, jewellery, gold and well…everything else.

Pay a visit to Café Bedestan. It’s worth the trouble and finding it will be your adventure. Just go in the Grand Bazaar and start asking.

Also everywhere is the ambiance, the feeling and a part of that is the smells. From the spice market to the smell of coal being used to heat samovars to the smell of cigarettes wafting out of a chai shop. It’s all a part of this incredible place.

Istanbul

And as we are talking about tobacco, it is a good idea to mention the nargile (hookah) cafes. Sheesha is usually just tobacco with some molasses and maybe a bit of apple. It’s smoked without contact to the fire and filtered through water. Nope, it’s not dope. Used to be it was opium or weed, but now…sorry hippies, just tobacco. Still, it can be fun, relaxing, and more than a few people claim it gives them a buzz.

The real buzz though is just wandering around the streets of Istanbul and seeing all the wonders that exist here…

The Blue Mosque of Sultan Ahmet in Istanbul, Turkey – #flashbackfriday

Blue Mosque IstanbulOn our honeymoon trip to Turkey back in 2010, my wife and I were excited to visit the famed Blue Mosque in Sultan Ahmet, the monument and tourist section of Istanbul.

The Sultan Ahmet region is named for Sultan Ahmet I who ruled from 1603 to 1617 AD. The Sultan Ahmet Mosque, known as the Blue Mosque was built near the Aya Sophia to provide a greater wonder than that of the Hagia Sophia. It was commissioned by the Sultan and designed by Mehmet Aga and what the Aya Sophia offers in terms of interior is surpassed by the exterior of the Blue Mosque.
Just a short walk from the Aya Sophia, the Blue Mosque was also crowded with tourists.

In all of Morocco, the only Mosque that non-Muslims can enter is the Hassan II mosque in Casablanca. In Turkey, anyone can go in. We entered the Blue Mosque with reverence but some Muslims from other countries get a little outraged to see Buddhists, Christians, women in shorts, and other non Muslims inside one of the world’s great mosques.

As we entered it was nearly the time for prayer and the guards were getting the non-Muslims to leave. Prayer was a little different from prayer in both Morocco and Hawaii.

Blue Mosque Istanbul

The call to prayer in Istanbul is coordinated between the many mosques so that you don’t get the same warbling effect you get between mosques in Morocco all sounding the call to prayer at slightly different moments. Instead, it is more like a symphony with the various mosques singing point and counterpoint. The call to prayer itself is different than that in Morocco and many Turkish Muslims don’t know how to read Arabic script, the language of the Koran. They often know the words, but not the meanings and thus the prayers can be less detailed than those of Arabic speaking countries.

Blue Mosque IstanbulWhen the mosque was built, it rivaled the Kabaa mosque in Mecca and the six minarets were equal in number to those of the Kabaa. In order to keep the peace, Sultan Ahmet built a seventh minaret in Mecca in order to show that he wasn’t moving the center of Islam to a new capital, though in effect, that is what he did, at least for a time.

The Blue Mosque is a geometric wonder in that the outer courtyard is exactly the same size as the interior and it’s proportions and measurements all align with the concepts of sacred geometry. It was built in the ten years between 1606 and 1616. Sultan Ahmet I died just a year after the Mosque was completed. His tomb is located in a separate building nearby.

Entry is free but restricted to Muslims during the time of prayers.

 

The Istanbul Archaeology Museum and the Basilica Cistern – Slideshow Saturday

Istanbul Archaeology MuseumThe Istanbul Archaeology Museum is located near the Topkapi Palace inside Gulhane Park in Istanbul. I first visited it when my wife and I honeymooned in Turkey in 2010. The museum has more than a million objects in its collections many of them from Byzantine, Greek, Roman, and even earlier civilizations.

This visit was not the most exciting part of our trip, especially for my wife, but she enjoyed the incredible collection of statues and the ancient sarcophagi, some of which date back as early as 400 BC.

Istanbul Archaeology Museum

As you enter the museum grounds there is a statue of a lion which comes from one of the ancient wonders of the world, the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus.The museum is massive. It took us nearly half a day to stroll through the main collections at a rapid pace.The sarcophagi are definitely worth seeing, though I was disappointed to read that the Alexander Sarcophagus is actually the tomb of a king named Abdalonymous.

One of my favorite finds was the snake’s head from the Serpentine Column in the Hippodrome. I thought the serpents looked rather headless. The Museum of the Ancient Orient was closed for renovations while we were there.

If you want to visit the museum, it is open Tuesday – Sunday from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm. Admission is 10 lira.

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Crveni Krst (Red Cross) Concentration Camp in Nis, Serbia

Red Cross Concentration Camp SerbiaTravel is about seeing things that broaden your experience. Both good and bad.  I’ve never had any desire to see a Nazi Concentration Camp as either a victim or a tourist, but back in 2011 I was in Nis, Serbia when I found out that there was a concentration camp nearby, I decided it was important to visit. I’m glad that I went. It was powerful and important.

Red Cross Concentration Camp Serbia

The camp was called the Red Cross Concentration Camp (Crveni Krst in Serbian) which sent a very mixed message. It was a strange contrast sort of like the interactions I had with most of the Serbians I met. I never really got the sense that they hated me, but in their rhetoric I sometimes heard a blind hatred of my country that included me and that, was most certainly not something that could be ignored.

Red Cross Concentration Camp Serbia

To get to the camp, I had to walk out of Nis and into the surrounding countryside. It was cold in either direction and the scenery was like a depressing Soviet era film all about life in the Gulag. Knowing I was heading to a concentration camp probably didn’t do anything to raise my level of happiness, still, I was curious what it would be like. As I got closer, I felt a cold wind not just blowing outside the walls of the camp but also blowing inside of me as I thought about the atrocities of the Nazi regime.

Red Cross Concentration Camp Serbia

The camp was built by the Nazis during the occupation of Yugoslavia during World War II. Coming closer and seeing the swastica, barbed wire, and guard tower- I felt chills as I thought of the way human beings are able to kill each other. I’ve talked with killers before and they say it becomes easier each time and soon, it’s like just about anything else. Interestingly, butchers or hunters say the same thing. Incredibly disturbing.

Red Cross Concentration Camp Serbia

I walked in and was ignored by everyone there (about five people). I went to the ticket office, but no one was there so I walked around. It felt sort of surreal to be buying a ticket to a concentration camp anyway. I found some maintenance guys and a pretty Serbian girl eating some borek and I sort of shrugged my shoulders as in “Hey, am I suppossed to pay someone or something?” The girl came over and in halting English told me “Just go in, pay ticket later.”

Red Cross Concentration Camp Serbia

So, I went in. Inside I found three American Missionaries from Missouri. A husband and wife who are missionaries in Macedonia and the wife’s father, a retired Army pastor. The lady who sold tickets was giving a tour and the American missionary woman was translating.

Red Cross Concentration Camp Serbia

It turns out that this particular concentration camp was the site of a story that was actually sort of uplifting. In 1942 an armed revolt led to the largest escape from any concentration camp. The escapees were mostly not Jewish but partisan fighters. Thinking back, my American education seems to have populated the camps with nothing but Jews like Anne Franke. By no means do I mean to say that this was not a triumph of the human spirit in the face of overwhelming adversity. These were partisan fighters. They were communist guerrillas from Josip Broz Tito’s movement who were captured by German forces during the Battle of Kozara. The escape was immortalized in a film by Miomir Stamenkovic called Lager Nis (another name for the camp) in 1987. It turns out that 100 out of 150 escaped, the other fifty were killed in the barbed wire by machine guns. On the upper floor a touching display of artwork by local schoolchildren had more than a few dead bodies in the wire along with mass graves and other horrors.

Of the 30,000 people who went through this camp, it’s estimated that 12,000 of them were executed at nearby Bubanj. Many of the others (especially those who were Jew or Gypsy) were sent to the other death camps and so probably perished as well. This camp was mostly filled with Serbian communists.On the top of three levels, were the solitary confinement cells. There were lists of who had occupied each particular cell and when. In some of the cells graffiti carved or scrawled by the prisoners is covered by plexiglass in order to preserve them for the future.

Red Cross Concentration Camp Serbia

On the floor of some of the cells barbed wire lay stretched out of frames. When I asked why it was there the ticket lady told us that prisoners were made to sleep on the barbed wire as a punishment. Apparently solitary by itself was not enough.

 

After wandering around in the cold, dark, damp building and trying to imagine what it had been like, I went outside and paid the ticket lady. The price was only 120 Serb Dinars (less than a dollar) and the proceeds go towards preserving the museum. As I left, I felt just one thing…an urge to get away.

Arriving in Rome – Scaring the Indians

Colleseuem in RomeI arrived around 10 pm and as usual, I had no idea where I was going to stay, but I figured Rome would be pretty easy to find a place to stay in. I had met an Argentine backpacker named Josephina on the plane and she asked if I was heading to the center called Termini. That was actually all that I had planned. She spoke no English and my Spanish is terrible, but we somehow found the cheap bus to Termini and she indicated she was going to a hostel and I should check it out. I agreed. The Rome Airport Shuttle took us to Termini for 15 Euro each.

Once at Termini we used the maps and addresses she had printed out to wander around the dark streets of Rome around midnight looking for a hostel. Finally, after asking a half dozen very friendly Romans who spoke neither Spanish or English, we found it. Josephina was in, but as for me and the Indian guys who had been leaving when we arrived, there was no room for us. After a few minutes, the clerk told me “I’m sorry, we have no room, but follow those Indian guys that left a few minutes ago, I sent them to our other hostel, just go out and go right and follow them.”

I said goodbye to Josphina and ran out the door. The Indian guys were already well down the street and so I ran to catch up. Not wanting to scare them, I began to shout as I got closer and had exactly the opposite effect since after all it was 1 am in the rough streets around Termini station and a madman they didn’t know was running at them and shouting “Hey, are you the Indian guys? Do you speak English?”

The two of them split apart and began to run in opposite directions!!!! Stuck between the desire to feel bad for scaring them and the desire to laugh as they reacted just as the lovable guys in Bollywood films would have, I stopped and shouted “The guy from the hostel told me to follow you, he has no more room.”

They both stopped and we trudged down the streets and into the darkness together, a strange trio looking for a place to sleep. Eventually, we found a room for the three of us to share, we went out for a late night beer and some pizza, and we all became friends.

The important part was that I had arrived in Rome. The funny part was that I was sharing a room with two Indian guys I scared the crap out of by chasing them down the streets at 1 am. Here is a fun little slideshow of a few things I saw in Rome over the next few days…

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Goethe’s Tower and Modern Frankfurt, Germany – Beer and Weenies! #flashbackFriday

Frankfurt was beautiful, friendly, and fun. The German food was delicious. In particular I enjoyed the Currywurst and Pear Schnapps, the apple wine was a little like drinking pissy vinegar. Not a taste I loved.

I stayed with an incredibly nice girl named Josie. She introduced me to friends, took me to visit Goethe’s Tower in the forest and was an excellent host in every respect.

Frankfurt was another city which surprised me, mainly because I hadn’t learned anything about it before going there. I had expected to find ancient German buildings, but if I would have done a little bit of reading, I would have discovered that most of Frankfurt was destroyed by Allied fire bombing in World War II and so nearly everything had to be rebuilt afterwards.

Frankfurt is a modern European capital with sleek high rise buildings and every modern thing you could wish for not far away, but thanks to Josie, I was able to experience some true German culture, beautiful German scenery, and warm German hospitality.

I hadn’t planned on being in Frankfurt, it was a matter of catching a cheap Ryan Air flight and a cheap Ryan Air connection – a game of connect the interesting spots between my starting point and my destination in the most cost effective way. There is much more to see there…I will definitely go back someday.

Near the airport, I strolled through the beautiful rural countryside, took a nice nap in a quiet park, had a coffee in an empty cafe, and then after dark went back to the airport. There were probably 50 people overnighting in the airport. I was stoked to score the best sleeping spot on the longest of restaurant booth benches, but at midnight when the restaurant closed, I had to abandon it. And then I left Germany….

 

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