Monday, March 17, 2014

Turkey and a Return to Bulgaria, along the Black Sea

On March 5th, we packed up the Prius once again for our trip to Istanbul. We should have left by 9:00am because it was a 465 km drive that would take at least 6 hours. Crossing the Bulgaria-Turkey border took much longer than any of the other border crossings thus far; it took about 45 minutes and we only had 3 cars ahead of us. There were about 50+ transport trucks lined up and fortunately we quickly realized we didn't have to sit in the same queue as the trucks; otherwise I'd guess we'd still be waiting 3 days later.
Poor kids were packed in the back seat like sardines during these road trips. I tried keeping Molly on the floor of the front passenger seat with me, but she was much happier in the back with the kids. Can't beat the love sitting on Paul's lap.
Once we left the Bulgarian check point, the Turkish control points seemed to be much grander than any others we'd encountered in the Balkans. There was also a large modern building selling duty-free and housing ATMs (which in hindsight we should have used) between the checkpoints.

Vincent and the kids needed visas going into Turkey, but fortunately Vincent was able to sort those out back in Sofia at a cost of €10 per visa instead of paying more at the border (which as of April 10, 2014 will no longer be possible).

Once we entered Turkey, the first city we came to was Edirne and Vincent made a detour to find a bank. Edirne was fairly big and contemporary with a number of mosques scattered throughout the city. After trying 4 ATMs, Vince got lucky with the 5th and we had Turkish lira in hand. It was a good thing because a few kilometers down the road, we came across the Turkish toll system which doesn't involve paying cash or buying a vignette; it requires buying a radio-frequency, readable, pre-paid HGS sticker that is placed on the back of the rear view mirror where each time one drives through a highway toll point, money is deducted off the pre-paid value of the HGS sticker. It's a slick system and Turkey almost gets full marks for it, except for the fact that the office to buy the sticker is situated on the side of the highway where cars leave Turkey, as opposed to logically placing it on the side of the road where cars are entering Turkey.
Vincent crossing the highway after successfully securing an HGS toll card.
After getting all set with the HGS sticker, we continued on with our drive along the E80. The roads, by the way, were great. However along the way, we detected the Prius sunroof was making more noise than it normally does and it wasn't closing fully. We noticed rain beginning to fall so Vincent pulled over under an underpass to take a look. It turned out the glass of the sunroof was beginning to separate from the rubber seal. So "Vincent the engineer" pulled out the first aid kit from the trunk and proceeded to place half the bandaids around the sunroof for a quick fix.
Looked ridiculous but it kind of worked. What we needed however were sports bandages that could handle the rain. By the time we stopped for the night, we'd lost half our impromptu seal.
Around 16:00, Vincent was getting tired and, eventhough I was willing to take over the driving, Vincent absolutely did not want to enter Istanbul after sunset. So as we approached Luleburgaz, he started looking up hotels on the GPS. Vincent turned off at Luleburgaz and headed towards what we hoped would be a hotel. The neighborhoods as we approached the city looked pretty sketchy and the roads were narrow, windy and congested. I really had a bad feeling about this decision but not being clairvoyant I couldn't claim continuing on the highway would be a better alternative. We had no luck finding the couple hotels Vincent had identified via the GPS and were just starting to crawl out of the city in bumper to bumper traffic when I spotted a "hotel" sign a block ahead. We made our way there and miraculously found a place to park in a place where there were probably twice as many cars as the city could handle. Vince went into the Mavi Hotel and emerged triumphant having booked 3 rooms at €100 total. The manager at the front desk couldn't speak English well but an Italian guest, who'd been staying at the hotel a month, helped to translate. The hotel allowed us to park right at the front door, which was great.

After loading the necessities out of the trunk for our one night, we set out to find something to eat. We ended up eating in a trendy cafe/restaurant and noticed we were getting a lot of attention. There were about 4 servers tending us over the course of the meal. The tip off that we were "special" customers occurred when we ordered our second round of sparkling water; the servers wanted to clear our first round glasses and give us clean glasses for the second round. I had never had that happen before. At the end of the meal, the manager shook Vincent's hand as we left the restaurant; seems we were their first customers from California.
This was the smallest individual bottle of sparkling water we'd ever seen: 200 ml! Which made getting new glasses for a second bottle seem that much more over the top.
On March 6th, we started our day with continental breakfast down in the hotel lobby. It's always interesting to see what's on the menu in a different country. Here, we had 2 types of olives, yellow cheese, a bright red sausage style meat that was sliced, cucumbers, tomatoes, boiled eggs and bread with butter, cherry jam, chocolate spread and honey. The only drinks were tea, hot water and Nescafe.

After breakfast we loaded up the car and then I went out to see if I could find some stronger tape to help protect the sunroof seal or, at a minimum, some more band-aides.
Packing the Prius may look a bit random but everything had it's place in order to close the trunk.
I went in several shops and no one spoke a word of English; I wasn't prepared enough to be armed with a phrase book or at least a band-aide to point to what I was looking for. After 15 minutes or so, I returned back to the car to meet Vince who had his own story to tell. Apparently when he handed his credit card to the hotel manager, the manager refused to accept payment and communicated in broken English that we were his first customers from California and the first to actually drive in their car from California and it was an honor for him to host us. Vincent didn't quite comprehend what the manager was saying. When does a hotel ever refuse payment? So Vincent handed him another card, which the manager refused. Then the manager hugged Vincent and gave him a kiss on both cheeks, gave Vincent a gift of a very nice key chain and thanked him again for staying at the hotel. Wow, what a generous gesture!

After another 2 hour drive, we entered Istanbul which seemed surprisingly modern on the outer edges.
There were lots of well-kept apartment complexes like these on the outskirts of Istanbul.
Welcome to Istanbul: That's the Sea of Marmara on the southern side of the highway. The Black Sea is about 25 km to the north of the highway.
I was struck by how pretty the flower beds were on the boulevards while entering the city.
Vincent and I were very glad that we didn't try getting to our apartment the previous evening because the streets reaching our accommodations were so narrow, it was next to impossible for Vincent to manoeuver in the streets, turn around and park long enough to check in. I wasn't even driving and I was so stressed out; I could hardly watch what was happening. Eventually, some onlookers took interest in our plight (and probably noticed our foreign license plates) and a man offered to help park. So Vincent got out of the car and the man sat in the driver's seat; he'd never seen the inside of a Prius before so I had to change gears for him but he did manage it and parked our car in a very tight space. All the while, Molly was going nuts with a stranger in the front seat; the kids had to do all they could to restrain her. Vincent then ran off and met our apartment host, who directed us to longer term parking and got us settled into our apartment.

The apartment was extremely well situated such that we could walk to most of the major sights.
We had a view of the Blue Mosque (and a whole lot of other buildings) from our apartment terrace.
We could also see the Sea of Marmara from our terrace (along with satellite dishes and laundry).
The apartment itself was located just off of Çap Ariz Sokak which is on the southern side of Istanbul's historic peninsula, just north of Kennedy Ave in a pedestrian district packed with restaurants. The first thing we did was find a place to eat. We were about 50 feet away from the entrance to our building when the aggressive sales tactics launched as restaurateurs tried to lure us to eat at their particular restaurant. One restaurant manager led with, "Don't break my heart; please choose my wonderful restaurant." Another restaurant manager put his arm around Vincent and said, "Your wife has already said she wants to eat here." These tactics would take a while for me to get used to. We eventually chose a place and ate a mostly seafood meal, which is the thing to order and it was very good.
A snapshot of the restaurants on Çap Ariz Sokak around the corner from our apartment building.
We chose a table nicely situated in the sun.
When Vincent selected the restaurant he negotiated 5 lire off the menu prices plus dessert, coffee and tea thrown in. Dessert consisted of sliced fresh fruit (oranges, kiwi, apples, mandarins) and a yummy mixture of sliced bananas with thick slices of cream and crushed almonds all dripping in honey.
After lunch, we walked towards the Blue Mosque. En route we walked through the Arasta Bazaar, which is much smaller than the Grand Bazaar (as that name implies). I'm not much of a shopper but the breadth and quality of products really caught my eye.
The Arasta Bazaar has an amazing range of goods: Silk scarves, pashminas, exquisite ceramics, jewelry, handbags, clothing and much more.
We saw a wide range of chess sets. Given all the history we've studied this year, it would be hard not to walk away from one of these. Here's just a sample: Ottomans vs Crusaders and Roosevelt vs Hitler.
And of course, spices.
The Blue Mosque is formerly called the Sultan Ahmed Mosque. It was built from 1609 to 1616, during the rule of Ahmed I, who was the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire from 1603 until his death in 1617.
This is a mosque set up for tourists. Plastic bags are provided in which to put your shoes. They also offer head scarves for women who have no head covering and larger wraps for women or men whose clothes are too revealing. The courtyard (shown) is about as large as the mosque itself and is surrounded by a continuous vaulted arcade with ablution facilities on both sides.
The mosque is popularly known as the Blue Mosque because of the blue tiles adorning the walls of its interior. The mosque has one main dome, six minarets and eight secondary domes. The design incorporates some Byzantine elements of the neighboring Hagia Sophia with traditional Islamic architecture and is considered to be the last great mosque of the classical period of Ottoman architecture (1437-1703). At its lower levels, and at every pier, the interior of the mosque is lined with more than 20,000 handmade ceramic tiles, made at Iznik (historically known as Nicaea located in the province of Bursa, Turkey) in more than fifty different tulip designs. The tiles at lower levels are traditional in design, while at gallery level their design becomes flamboyant with representations of flowers, fruit and cypresses.
The upper levels of the interior are dominated by blue paint. More than 200 stained glass windows with intricate designs admit natural light, today assisted by chandeliers. Some sources reported that some of the chandeliers had ostrich eggs which were placed there to help repel spiders and therefore avoid the accumulation of cobwebs. The decorations include verses from the Qur'an and many of them were made by Seyyid Kasim Gubari who was considered the greatest calligrapher of his time.
The main dome has 28 windows.
Sarah and I wouldn't win any style points for our head coverings, but the Scottish woolen scarves worked.
It is free of charge to visit the Blue Mosque. Upon entering, one can find pamphlets explaining Islam.
After leaving the Blue Mosque, we then walked towards the Hagia Sophia to see if we could take a look there, but found that it was closed for the day.
Walking across Sultanahmet Park towards the Hagia Sophia.
As we started back towards our apartment, we walked by the Basilica Cistern and found it still open so we had a look. The Basilica Cistern was named as such because it because it lay underneath the Stoa Basilica. It was built by Emperor Justinian I in 532 and provided a water filtration system for the Great Palace of Constantinople and other nearby buildings; it continued to provide water to the Topaki Palace after the Ottoman conquest in 1453 and into modern times.
The cathedral-sized cistern is about 9,800 square metres in area and is capable of holding about 100,000 tonnes of water. The ceiling is supported by 336 marble columns, each 9 metres high, arranged in 12 rows of 28 columns each and spaced 4.9 metres apart. The capitals of the columns are mainly Ionic and Corinthian styles, with the exception of a few Doric style with no engravings. Historical texts indicate that about 7,000 slaves were used to build the cistern. The cistern is surrounded by a firebrick wall that is 4 metres thick and is coated with a waterproofing mortar. The water came from the Eğrikapı Water Distribution Center in the Belgrade Forest, which lies 19 kilometres north of the city. The water traveled through the 971 metres-long Valens (Bozdoğan) Aqueduct, and the 115.45 metres-long Mağlova Aqueduct, which were built by Emperor Justinian.
Paul pointing out one of the two Medusa column bases. The origin of the two heads is unknown, though it is thought that the heads were brought to the cistern after being removed from a building of the late Roman period. Folklore has it that the Medusa heads are oriented sideways and inverted, respectively, in order to negate the power of the Gorgons' gaze, however it is more likely that one head was placed sideways only to be the proper size to support the column. The upside down Medusa was placed that way because she would be the same height right side up but not cause any potential mischief.
On the way back to the apartment, Vincent got hit with the shoeshine scam. A shoeshine man was walking on the street ahead of us and dropped his brush. Vincent picked it up as a reaction that most people would do when they were in the right place to do so. Well, the shoeshine man was so grateful that he offered to shine Vince's shoes "as a token of thanks". At first Vince declined but the man was so persistent that Vince relented. When the man was done, Vince was going to pay him a couple lira for the trouble but the man said, he wanted 18 lira. And then Vincent realized he'd been duped. It was particularly annoying because we'd been talking about scams off and on over the months. (We watched a number of swindlers, particularly in Paris.) Anyway, after some haggling back and forth, Vince gave him what little loose change he had and walked away. Then the next hour or so, we all talked about the various scams we knew about. It was a good lesson for all of us to be on our guard. The sad reality is that when these friendly strangers approach you, you pretty much have to be blunt and shut them down immediately so as not to get sucked into anything.
If anyone drops anything nearby you, don't pick it up for them. You'll save yourself a world of trouble. The big scam in Paris that we noticed, were men claiming they just found a gold ring; "Is it yours?" We saw a number of people caught up with that one.
After the refresher on swindlers, grifters, con artists and the like, we felt we were prepared to walk through the Grand Bazaar.
The Grand Bazaar is packed with so many fabulous goods and deals to be had, it'll make your head spin.
The Bazaar is apparently visited by 250,000 to 400,000 visitors daily.
On March 7th, we decided to take a boat cruise on the Bosphorous Strait (which connects the Black Sea to the Marmara Sea) as the weather forecasts indicated this would be our last sunny day; the next several days were expected to be rainy. There were a number of cruise options ranging from 90 minute trips to 6 hour trips. On-line recommendations pointed to the Turyol line which only costs 10 lire per person and lasts about 90 minutes. Given the kids would only want to be on the boat for about that amount of time, the Turyol option is what we chose. It went from Eminonu to Bogazturu and departed every hour on the hour.
While we waited for our Turyol boat to arrive, we each had a fish (mackerel) sandwich prepared by this floating kitchen.
Leaving the port with a view of the Blue Mosque in the background.
Crossing over to "Asia".
Passing by the Istanbul Modern Museum which is located on the Asia side.
Dolmabahçe Palace: It served as the main administrative center of the Ottoman Empire from 1856 to 1922 (with the exception of a 22-year interval (1887–1909) when Yildiz Palace was used).
Dolmabahce Mosque: It was commissioned by queen mother Bezmiâlem Sultan who was the second consort to Sultan Mahmud II (1789 – 1839) and was mother of Sultan Abdulmecid I (1823 – 1861) of the Ottoman Empire. It was finally completed in 1855.
After the tour, we wanted to direct ourselves over to the Hagia Sofia to try to see it before it closed. En route we made some stops.
Molly needed dog food but pet shops were not to be found in our area in Istanbul. The last couple days, Vincent had been making her eggs on toast. We had to find the "pet market", which we did after the cruise. We picked something out that Molly was quite happy with.
At the Sirkeci Terminal, Istanbul's central train station known by many as the final stop on the luxurious Orient Express: James Bond fans will also recognize it from the movie, "From Russia with Love". Those who can afford it can still take the Orient Express which runs the full distance Paris to Istanbul once a year. The Venice Simplon-Orient-Express train also operates shorter runs through western Europe during the spring, summer and fall.
In its early glory years, the Sirkeci Terminal was visited by famous people like Agatha Christie (who wrote a novel about it: "Murder In The Orient Express"), King George V of England, Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria-Hungary, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, and Czar Nicholas II of Russia and many Hollywood stars such as Greta Garbo and Rita Hayworth.
The terminus officially opened on November 3, 1890 and was one of the most famous examples of European Orientalism.
Sublime Porte (the "Great Gate") was built early in the 18th century during the reign of Sultan Abdulmecit. It gave access to the block of buildings in Istanbul that housed the principal state departments.
Fortified wall surrounding Gülhane Park.
Gülhane Park (Rosehouse Park), located adjacent to and on the grounds of the Topkapi Palace: There is a major project underway to rearrange the palace’s gardens to more closely resemble the way they were during the Ottoman period.
Sarah loved getting her photo taken with the lion statues. As stated previously, the gardens in Istanbul are truly lovely. In my opinion, the best time to go to Istanbul and see the spring flowers at their peak would be the last week of March and first week of April. The gardens behind Sarah are filled with pansies and tulips. The pansies are so tightly packed together, they must have been planted by seed. The green stems of the tulips are up but we need another week plus to see them all in bloom. Tulips had a significant place in the Ottoman era and were frequently used in ornamentation, ceramics and the art of calligraphy. Apparently about 15-16 million tulips blossom in Istanbul in the spring.
We walked by this restaurant to see women in the front window making giant ravioli. What a great advertisement! If it had been close to a meal time, we would have stopped in.
We saw delicious displays of baklava all over the city. Love the tiny "birds' nests".
We finally reached Hagia Sophia and stood in line for tickets. The entrance fee was 25 lira so Vincent opted to purchase the 72 hour Istanbul Museum Pass at 85 lira each which gives entry to the Chora Museum, Hagia Sophia Museum, Topkapı Palace Museum and Harem Apartments, İstanbul Archaeological Museums, İstanbul Mosaic Museum, Museum of Turkish and İslamic Arts, Galata Mevlevi House Museum, Yıldız Palace Museum and Museum for the History of Science and Technology in Islam. In hindsight, we should not have purchased the Museum Pass because we did not get our money's worth out of it. If you are in Istanbul and are considering the Museum Pass, do your homework first; don't buy the 72 hour pass on a Saturday, like we did. Most applicable sights are closed on Mondays so, when we bought the pass about 15:30 on Saturday, we only had about 25 hours to use the pass.
We do however recommend getting the audioguides at Hagia Sophia. While there is some minimal information available that is translated into English, one won't get much out of seeing the Hagia Sophia without an audioguide or some sort of guidebook.
Hagia Sophia was built by Emperor Justinian in 537 and served as the center of Orthodox Christianity until 1453, (except between 1204 and 1261 when it was a Roman Catholic cathedral under the Latin Empire), when the city of Constantinople was concurred by Ottomans under Sultan Mehmed II. For the next 500 years, it then became a jewel for the Muslim world and was the grand mosque of the sultans. It is considered the epitome of Byzantine architecture and was the world's largest cathedral for nearly a thousand years, until the Seville Cathedral was completed in 1520.
The Hagia Sophia, built in 537, was the 3rd building of worship on this site. The first church was completed in 360 and the second was completed in 415. Both the first and second were destroyed by fires started during rioting. Those gigantic circular-framed medallions were added during the renovations of 1847-49; they're inscribed with the names of Allah, the Prophet Muhammad, the first four caliphs Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman and Ali, and the two grandchildren of Mohammed: Hussan and Hussain.
The gallery above the ground floor that wraps around the perimeter of the building, ending at the apse: Several mosaics are preserved in the upper gallery, which was an area traditionally reserved for the empress and her court. The best-preserved mosaics are located in the southern part of the gallery.
A 13th century mosaic panel depicting Christ (left) and John the Baptist. In this mosaic, the Virgin Mary (not shown) and John the Baptist are requesting Christ's intercession for humanity.
A 12th century mosaic panel of Emperor John II Komnenos (Emperor from 1118 to 1143) and his wife donating money to Hagia Sofia.
When the Ottoman Turks took over Constantinople, Sultan Mehmed ordered that church be converted to a mosque. So the bells, altar, iconostasis, sacrificial vessels and other relics were removed and the mosaics depicting Jesus, his Mother Mary, Christian saints and angels were also removed or plastered over. Islamic features such as the mihrab (center), minbar (right), and four minarets were added.
The most photographed item in the Hagia Sophia that afternoon was this cat. The cat sat in the Muezzin Gallery, which was used by the Muezzin to call believers to prayer during the period of Sultan Murad III (1574-95). Every time, someone would try to take a photo, the cat would turn its head away so it became some sort of competition to see who could capture a photo of the cat's face. After many tries, Paul captured this one. Mission accomplished.
From its initial conversion to a mosque in 1453 until the construction of the nearby larger Sultan Ahmed Mosque (Blue Mosque) in 1616, the Hagia Sophia was the principal mosque of Istanbul. It remained a mosque until 1931, when it was closed and then re-opened in February 1935 as a museum.
Beautiful marble fountain, used for ablutions, built in 1740 during the period of Sultan Mahmud I.
On the way back to the apartment, we stopped at a grocery store to get a few supplies for breakfast the next day.
Vincent had to buy a couple of these. There would be no question who this chocolate belonged to.
On March 8th, we woke to the anticipated rain but needed to press on and use that Museum Pass. We first headed to the Museum of the History of Science and Technology in Islam located in the Gülhane Park, along the old palace wall, on the former stables of the Sultan's Has Ahirlar.
The Museum was opened in May 2008 and covers over 3500 square meters. The mission of the museum is to highlight the contributions to the sciences and technology made by people of the Islamic faith. The museum points out that Europeans often gained credit for discovering or inventing a range of things that had already been worked on by their Islamic predecessors. The museum provides detailed recreations of discoveries made during the ninth through the seventeenth centuries. There's a systematic presentation of objects covering astronomy, geography, nautics, time measurement, geometry, optics, medicine, chemistry, mineralogy, physics, technics, architecture and military applications. The museum also shows how some of the discoveries were transmitted in different ways to Europe, where they were adopted, assimilated, and altered.
Astronomy and navigation: The instruments and objects on display here and other rooms of the museum were reconstructed by the Institute for the History of Arabic-Islamic Science at the Johann-Wolfgang-Goethe University, Frankfurt, Germany and were based on illustrations and descriptions found in original sources and, to a lesser degree, on surviving originals.
Mechanical sun and moon calendars following designs created by Al-Buruni (973-1048).
Model of the oldest water clock known in the world: This replica is modeled after the water clock which was constructed in 1362 in the Qarawiyyin mosque in Fes (Morocco), and which has been restored recently by the Institute of History of Arabic-Islamic Science in Frankfurt. The falling float of water provides the power and regulation of the clock through an ingenious mechanism; the 24 doors in the upper gallery close one by one in regular intervals of precisely one hour. Every four minutes a small metal ball drops into a metal bowl and produces a tone. The dial on the left displays the actual position of the stars and the ecliptic in the sky.
Replica of a chandelier clock, originally designed by the astronomer Ali B Yunus (died 1009). Each of the 12 bottles was filled with enough oil to burn 1 hour, 2 hours, 3 hours and so on.
An "Entertainment Machine": This was reconstructed according to a book on automation by Al-Muradi (11th century).
After lunch at a neighboring restaurant, we proceeded to the Topkapi Palace. The Topkapi Palace was the primary residence of Ottoman sultans for approximately 400 years (1465-1856) of their 624-year reign. The palace complex consists of four main courtyards and many smaller buildings. At its peak, the palace was home to as many as 4,000 people. It contained mosques, a hospital, bakeries, and a mint. Construction began in 1459, ordered by Sultan Mehmed II who conquered the Byzantine Constantinople. 
The boys in front of the Gate of Salutation.
With our audioguides in hand, we first visited the Imperial Harem which occupied one of the sections of the private apartments of the sultan. It contained more than 400 rooms and was home to the sultan's mother (the Valide Sultan), the concubines and wives of the sultan and the rest of his family, including children and their servants.
The harem wing was added at the end of the 16th century.
The court of the concubines and the Sultan's consorts.
A room from the apartments of the Queen Mother.
Hall with a Fountain: This is the vestibule where the princes and consorts of the Sultan waited before entering the Imperial Hall. The walls are faced with 17th-century Kutahya tiles.
Cupboard and shelves in the privy chamber (built in 1608) of Sultan Ahmed I. The cabinet doors are decorated with nacre and ivory.
One of the grand courtyards. Fragrant purple and pink hyacinths were beginning to bloom.
The Ottoman sultans and their entourage had fantastic views over the Bosphorous. We took a refreshment break to warm up at this onsite restaurant. A piece of cake cost 20 lira (~$10). Our 2 pieces of cake, small plate of baklava, hot chocolate and two teas cost more than our lunch.
Another photo of the Palace gardens.
The Baghdad Kiosk is situated on the right section of the Marble Terrace. It was built in 1639 to commemorate the Baghdad campaign of Sultan Murat IV (1623 – 1640).
A view of the Conqueror's Pavillon which houses the Imperial Treasury. It was built ~ 1460 under Sultan Mehmed II and is one of the oldest buildings inside the palace. The Imperial Treasury is a vast collection of works of art, jewelry, heirlooms and money belonging to the Ottoman dynasty. 
A view of the Endurun courtyard and Endurun Institution which functioned as the principal Ottoman establishment devoted to educating future candidates of bureaucratic and managerial positions.
Earlier in the day, we had ambitions of also covering the Archeology Museum that afternoon as well as the Topkapi Palace, but we ran out of time. The Topkapi Palace Museum takes a few hours and, after covering two museums that day, folks had had enough. So we started walking back to the apartment.

That evening we decided to eat at the Topoz Restaurant by our apartment where our apartment host guaranteed that we'd receive a special 20% off deal.
We had a very good fish meal and enjoyed some lively musical entertainment so it was a good way to end the day.
On March 9th, we woke to more rain. Realizing we were in for several soggy days, I decided to make an effort to keep my feet dry. I wore a layer of socks, then put a plastic bag on each foot and covered those with another pair of socks (to cover up the bags) before putting on my sneakers. There's nothing worse than 8+ hours of cold, wet feet so I was able to solve that problem. I encouraged everyone else to do the same. I shouldn't have been surprised that not everyone did. Anyway, I was much happier with dry feet.

We decided to do something more kid-friendly and so aimed to go to the Rahmi M. Koç Museum which is located on the Asian side of Istanbul, in the suburb of Haskoy. The journey meant crossing the Bosphorous Strait. Vincent figured out how to get there via public transport which involved taking a street car to the port and then taking a ferry across to the museum. Unfortunately, the machines that sell tickets to the streetcar were not working and so we had to walk to the port which meant we took longer than expected and missed the ferry ride that only operates once per hour. We decided to have lunch and bought fish sandwiches again at the same kiosk where we ate on March 7th.
The ferries are a nice way to travel (once one figures out their schedule). On board, a server will come to your seat and offer to bring you a coffee, tea or other refreshment.
Eventually we arrived at the Rahmi M. Koç Museum which is advertised as the closest thing Istanbul has to a children's museum. At first glance, one can't help but be impressed. Everything is in immaculate condition. The museum covers the broad topics of transportation, communications, machines and scientific instruments. A subset of items on display include: Sports cars (between 1953 and 1986), salon/coupe and convertible cars (1898–1994), utility vehicles (1911–1963), commercial vehicles (1908–2002), motorcycles (1908–2003), an old Istanbul tram (1934), a Sultan's carriage (1867), a steam engine locomotive (1913), a narrow-gauge steam locomotive (1930), an Istanbul tunnel carriage (1876), a Henschel steam locomotive (1918), a ferry boat steam engine (1911), an olive oil factory, a rotary dial telephone (1920) (hey, we have a 1950s version in our house), a phonograph (1903), a Thomas Edison telegraph patent model (1876), a A marine chronometer, a Wimshurst machine and much, much more.
One of the best things for kids at the museum is the display showing how everyday appliances work. Push a button and one can see how a washing machine, dishwasher, dryer, refrigerator, gas or electrical stove and vacuum cleaner work. Video-based explanations (also in English) are provided.
To the left is a 1955 Messerschmitt Micro-Car. To the right is a Ford Anglia 105E Deluxe that was used in the movie, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.
Also on display is Kismet, a 10.5 metre sailboat in which Sadun Boro, his wife Oda and their cat Mico circumnavigated the globe, ending in 1965. They were the first Turkish citizens to do so.
Vincent and Sarah in a ship's bridge reconstructed from the 'John McKay' which was built in England in 1922. It was stocked with functioning equipment and communication devices.
We had a tour of the TCG Uluçalireis submarine. The TCG Uluçalireis was formerly a US submarine named the USS Thornback (SS-418) which was launched on July 7, 1944. The submarine was turned over to the Turkish Navy on July 1, 1971.
After receiving a certificate commemorating our submarine tour, we left the museum to rush over to the Galata Mevlevi House Museum (also part of our museum pass) in hopes of seeing that museum as well as to get tickets to the Whirling Dervish who perform on Saturday evenings at 17:30. The Mevlevi House has a semahane (whirling-dervish hall) that was erected in 1491 and therefore a good historic setting to see the whirling ritual.

The Whirling Dervish or Mevlevi Order have a unique way of practicing Islam. They are followers of Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Balkhi-Rumi, a 13th century Persian poet, Islamic jurist and theologian.The order was founded in Konya, a city in the central Anatolia region of Turkey. If one has never seen the Whirling Dervish, it is a must do when visiting Turkey.
We had to take another ferry and then walk up a steep hill past the Galata Tower (shown) in the Beyoğlu district. The Galata Tower was built in 1348. In a footnote to aviation history, it was from this tower that Hezârfen Ahmed Çelebi flew across the Bosphorus from Europe to Asia in 1638, thus inaugurating the first ever intercontinental flight.
We reached the Galata Mevlevi House Museum at 16:15 to be told we could not go in. The museum supposedly closed at 17:00 so why were they denying entry 45 minutes before closure? I then asked about tickets to the Whirling Dervish and was told, "No more tickets." It was a colossal two strikes. I was annoyed, wet, cold and ready to give up. Vincent tried to lighten the mood by suggesting we get milkshakes at a nearby "Shake Shack". I was thinking I needed something stronger but that was enough to rally the kids so that's where we headed to regroup.

During our milkshake pick-me-up, Vincent proposed that he and I visit the Cemberlitas Hamami turkish bath that evening for a spa treatment. The kids could stay at the apartment with extra computer time. It would be a win-win. I was sold.
As part of our transport back, we rode on Istanbul's historical funicular railway line, Tunnel, which is the world's second oldest underground railway after the London Underground. It was completed in 1874, whereas London's Underground has been running since 1863.
On the way back to our apartment, we stopped at an excellent restaurant for döner, which is like a shawarma or gyros. A döner is a Turkish wrap based on meat cooked on a vertical rotisserie, usually lamb but also could be a mixture of veal or beef or even chicken. They baked the thin wrap bread on the spot for the order and we were presented with dishes of cucumbers and tomatoes, peppers and onions so that we could do our own wraps the way we wanted them. They were delicious.

After dropping off the kids, Vincent and I walked to the historical Cemberlitas Hamami turkish bath that was built by the renown Ottoman architect, Mimar Sinan, in 1584. If one is to experience the Turkish bath in Istanbul, the Cemberlitas Hamami is often recommended. The building was commissioned by Nurbanu Sultan, wife of Selim II (Sultan of the Ottoman empire 1566 until his death in 1574) and mother of Murat III (Sultan of the Ottoman empire 1574 until his death in 1595). Vincent signed us each up for a traditional bath and 30 minute oil massage at a cost of €51 each. We each were handed a little package and were told the two treatments would take about 90 minutes. Having never been to a Turkish bath, I had no idea what the process was and was a bit lost. Since the majority of customers at this spa are tourists, my biggest recommendation for the management would be to put up signs with pictures (as they're dealing with customers with a range of languages) that depict the order in which guests visit the various stations. I found a locker and opened my package; it contained a pair of black underwear plus a cotton pouch for which I had no idea what use it had. I took off my clothes, put on the black panties and wrapped myself in a red and white cloth that was provided. I then went downstairs and into the massage waiting room. After standing there a few minutes and watching others I went into the bath chamber. It was a circular, domed room with huge marble sıcaklık (circular marble heat platform) in the center. There were women arranged on it like a pinwheel. About 8 or 9 women arranged around the center of the wheel and then about 14 women lying on the outer edges of the wheel who were being washed by women wearing black panties and black bras. The only difference between the customers and the working staff was the the staff were wearing bras. If one isn't comfortable hanging around with a lot of naked women, one is going to feel a bit uncomfortable initially. After a few mixed messages of where to get started, I eventually was directed to lie down in the center of the marble wheel for about 15 minutes. I put my red and white checkered cloth down and lay down looking at the domed ceiling; it was dotted with glass apertures which might be pretty in the day time, but we were here at night so they were black. I lay there watching the water drips fall and thinking to myself, "Am I enjoying this yet?" After 10 minutes or so, I was splashed with water so I looked up and a woman was signaling me to come over to her at the edge of the marble platform. I took my red and white towel and lay face down next to her. She then indicated she wanted that cotton pouch; oh, now I understood the purpose of the pouch. It was my personal scrubber. I had left it upstairs so she used some other cloth that all the other first-timers who don't have a clue share. So I got scrubbed down with the abrasive cloth on all sides, which was followed by mounds of bubbles being poured on me (which was the point where this started to get enjoyable) and then followed by less intense scrubbing. The treatment ended with the woman washing my hair (also really enjoyable) and having tubs of water poured over me to rinse off all the soap. I was then directed to the jacuzzi which really wasn't a jacuzzi but was a deep soaking tub which had a temperature of 36 degrees celcius, one degree below normal body temperature, which was probably deliberately set so no one sticks around too long. After about 5-10 minutes in the tub, I left the bath chamber and went back to the massage waiting room. I had about 6 women ahead of me so had to wait about 45 minutes to be called. My oil massage was just that, oily; it was like a light Swedish massage and was very pleasant. I took a shower afterwards, dried my hair and then met Vincent in the lobby. The whole process took just over 2 hours. Vincent bought me a glass of fresh squeezed orange juice which was a nice cap to the experience.

On Monday, March 10th we woke up to still more rain. I looked up the Museum Pass on-line to see if anything was open on a Monday to find that just the Chora Museum and the Yildiz Palace Museum were. Both were in far reaching places that required forms of public transport, taxi or car (which we didn't want to use) so in a sense we just "gave up" trying to force the Istanbul experience. I concluded that we needed to return one day to spend more time in Istanbul and see other parts of the country like Ephesus, Cappadocia, Konya and Side, plus perhaps Ankora and some of the popular coastal destinations. Turkey deserves some serious attention and our time here now was more or less the "teaser" to a bigger reach one day.

Vincent was anxious to get the Prius sunroof fixed so he looked up a car repair shop on the Istanbul's on-line version of the Yellow Pages to try and get it fixed. In order to do so, he typed out 4 or 5 key statements outlining what needed to be done and used Google Translate to translate them into Turkish. With translations in hand, he set out.

My "non-shopper" self, decided that Istanbul had too much to offer to ignore and so decided to go back to the Grand Bazaar for 90 minutes or so and price out things like scarves and ceramics to see if we could possibly leave with some sort of souvenir in hand. The kids were very happy to be left in the apartment and not dragged through the rain. I told them I'd be back around 13:00 and if Vincent hadn't arrived back by then, we'd go out and do something in the afternoon.

The thing about the Grand Bazaar, like most bazaars, is that there are no prices listed. You have to  ask and the stall/storekeeper will give you a price, but that isn't the price you pay. The price you pay depends on your negotiating skills. I found that the longer I stayed in a kiosk the better the deal I'd get when I started to walk away. However, every vendor was different and had his (most always a man) threshold for how eager he was to sell.
Istanbul's Grand Bazaar is one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world, with 61 covered streets and over 3,000 shops. So it wasn't surprising that I got pretty disoriented in there and, once I emerged on the streets, it took me a while to get my bearings and find my way back to the apartment.
The beginnings of the Grand Bazaar's core were constructed during the winter of 1455-56, shortly after the Ottoman conquest of Constantiople. At the beginning of the 17th century the Grand Bazaar had achieved its final shape. The enormous extent of the Ottoman Empire in three continents, and the total control of road communication between Asia and Europe, rendered the Bazaar the hub of the Mediterranean trade. According to several European travelers, at that time and until the first half of the 19th century, the market was unrivaled in Europe with regards to the abundance, variety and quality of the goods on sale.
At 13:30, I arrived back to the apartment and Vincent returned shortly thereafter having successfully got the Prius's sunroof fixed. The two of us then went back to the Grand Bazaar and bought some scarves for ourselves, and as gifts. Making a call on ceramics proved to be too much though and we we decided to leave satisfied with our textiles.
We went back to the apartment and collected the kids to go to the Sirkeci Terminal and hopefully see these illusive Whirling Dervish.
Hurray, we had front row seats to see the Whirling Dervish. They later had to wipe up the water left from our (and others') umbrellas so that the Dervish would spin without wiping out.
A German architect and engineer, August Jachmund, was commissioned by Sultan Abdülhamit II to begin construction of the train station in 1888, and it opened in 1890. Jachmund felt that the most important statement that the architecture of the building should convey was that this site was where the West ended and the East began. As a result, the design had to incorporate an oriental style. His plans included bands of bricks for the facade, windows with peaked arcs, stained glass and a wide entrance door, reminiscent of the stone portals from the Seljuk period. The foundation of the building was granite and the facade was built with marble and stones from Marseille. The terminal was further decorated with several great clock towers. The resulting mix of European and oriental styles was much admired and influenced the designs of other architects for railway stations throughout Central Europe.
The entire Whirling Dervish performance or ceremony was about an hour long. It began with these five musicians playing for about 20 minutes.
The musicians left and then returned wearing these black cloaks and conical pressed woolen hats.
Five Sufi Dervishes (Semazens) then emerged and began the Sema, or worship ceremony.
The objective of the ceremony is to reach the source of all perfection, or kemal. This is sought through abandoning one's self, ego, or soul by listening to the music, focusing on God, and spinning one's body in repetitive circles, which has been seen as a symbolic imitation of planets in the solar system orbiting the sun.
In the symbolism of the Sema ritual, the Dervish's camel's hair hat (sikke) represents the tombstone of the ego; his wide, white skirt (tennure) represents the ego's shroud. By removing his black cloak (hırka), he is spiritually reborn to the truth. At the beginning of the Sema, by holding his arms crosswise, the Dervish appears to represent the number one, thus testifying to God's unity. While whirling, his arms are open. His right arm is directed to the sky, ready to receive God's beneficence; his left hand, upon which his eyes are fastened, is turned toward the earth. The Dervish conveys God's spiritual gift to those who are witnessing the Sema. Revolving from right to left around the heart, the Dervish embraces all humanity with love. The human being has been created with love in order to love. (Thanks to Wikipedia for this explanation.)
On March 11th, it was time to leave Istanbul. We definitely did not spend enough time there. That being said, there were other places Vincent and I wanted to visit in Turkey so it would just mean that we'd have to return one day for more of a dedicated Turkey trip. 

We were out of the apartment and on the road by 9:30. Our drive to Bulgaria was pretty straightforward with the exception of going through Bulgaria's border control. We were back in snow country and we got stuck in the snow trying to cross the actual border. Fortunately there wasn't any traffic so Vincent could back up the Prius and go through the truck route. Otherwise we would have had to empty our trunk and dig out the chains which, of course, were located underneath the floor of the trunk.
A last snapshot of Istanbul's beautiful boulevards along the highway.
We arrived at our apartment in Nessebar, Bulgaria, along the Black Sea in good time. It was another good find via Booking.com.

After we got settled, we walked to the old town for dinner.
Mussels with wine and cream plus a few rounds of Uno was a good way to end the day.
On March 12th, we decided to hang around Nessebar and see the old town. Nessebar is the only town in the area that has any historical charm. I read somewhere that Nessebar is "Bulgaria's Dubrovnik"; that is an enormous stretch. Nessebar may be the highlight of the towns along Bulgaria's portion of the Black Sea but it is no Dubrovnik. Nevertheless, the local powers that be are doing a lot to make Nessebar shine. There was evidence of great efforts underway to restore Nessebar's historic sights. About a third of the churches or ruins were actively being worked on. Here are some photos taken during the afternoon.
The ancient part of the Nessebar is situated on a peninsula (previously an island) which is connected to the mainland by a narrow man-made isthmus. It was occupied by a number of different civilizations (starting as a Greek colony in the 6th century BC) over the centuries and is included in UNESCO's list of World Heritage Sites.
Nessebar's western fortress wall which was built in the early Byzantine period (5th-6th century): After the capturing of Nessebar by the Turks (1453), the fortress walls gradually lost their importance and fell into ruins.
I saw a couple instances of these red and white dolls (martenitsas). They are named Pizho and Penda.
Pizho is the male doll and is usually in white. Penda is the female doll, usually in red and is distinguished by her skirt. They are displayed during March to celebrate the holiday Baba Marta, which is a Bulgarian tradition related to welcoming the upcoming spring. The red and white colors symbolize the wish for good health; white symbolizes purity and red symbolizes life and passion. Behind the martenitsas is a cruxiform dome church built in the 14th century.
At lunch, we found a perfect spot overlooking the Black Sea.
I tried the Bulgarian tarator soup. It's a cold cucumber and yogurt-based soup. It needed a bit of garlic and salt or something to jazz it up a bit.
Cantilevered rooms were typical of Ottoman architecture.
A small one-nave church built in the 13th century.
Directly across the Black Sea to the west is Sochi, Russia.
Remains of the Basilica "Virgin Merciful" built in the 6th century.
Window of the St Paraskeva Church that was constructed in the 13th century.
On March 13th, we woke to another sunny day. Once the kids spent some time on homework, Vincent booked flights back to the US for he and Paul and I made some blog updates, we were set to head out to Vargas. I was surprised to find the car open but got in and waited for the kids. When they arrived they tried to open the back door but the "unlock" button wouldn't work. Hmmm, that wasn't good. Vincent got in to drive and pressed the start button. Nothing. I instinctively looked at the ceiling in the back of the car and saw the light was left in the "on" position. We had a totally drained, dead battery on our hands. I guess the remarkable thing was that we made it all the way to the Black Sea without yet encountering the "somebody left the lights on" problem. We contacted our apartment host and she sent her husband to help us.
When jump-starting a hybrid one has to let the connected cables sit for 5 minutes before trying to start up the dead hybrid. That was the only difference from jump-starting a standard gas-powered car.
Vincent was a bit concerned that now that the battery had been drained, we'd need to get a new one, which is the advice car service people generally give. I wondered whether it was really necessary or just another means whereby the car industry keeps the money flowing their way. Ever since we learned that Toyota dealers in the UK only suggest Prius service every 10,000 miles (whereas their US counterparts recommend every 5,000 miles), I've been wary of these recommendations that spell out spending money. But because we were where we were and who knows how many Toyota service departments would be in our reach, we thought we should err on the cautious side. We were a bit surprised to find there was a Toyota dealer in Burgas, just 15 miles away, but it turned out they didn't have any of our battery type in stock. So I suggested we just get on with our day and drive which would be the best thing for the battery anyway.

When Vincent typed in Vargas in the GPS, it indicated that it would be a 90 minute drive to Vargas. As it was now 13:30, we paused and asked do we really want to spend 3 hours driving to visit an archeological museum? It was a quick, "No". So we decided to drive to Sunny Beach and see what all the fuss was about concerning this resort town.

We drove by masses of hotels and condos, spelling out thousands of rooms. Apparently, Sunny Beach is home to over 800 hotels with more than 300,000 beds, most of which were empty this time of year.
Sunny Beach: The kids immediately found a minimal playground.
But quickly realized roughhousing would be more engaging.
Sunny Beach is the biggest and supposedly the "liveliest" of all the seaside resorts on Bulgaria's Black Sea coast. (You'd never know that here on March 13th.) The beach stretches for over 8 km and from May through September it is packed with rows of sunbeds and parasols. It's definitely for the swinging crowd; other than the beach and a mini-golf course, there isn't much to do other than visit the discos and night clubs.
There's a gradual slope into the water and it's a good spot for shell collecting.
The swing was so much better with Dad pushing.
After leaving Sunny Beach, we dropped the boys back at the apartment and Vincent, Sarah and I continued our walk towards Nessebar's old town.
We made one detour past this Pirates of Caribbean water park/hotel. It just captured the feeling of this resort area along the coast. I did have to wonder though, if the owners had approval from Disney?
We walked by this German WWII bunker along the promenade to Nessebar's old town. I could understand why the locals would want to keep the bunker, as it's a reminder of their history. But why go out of their way to make it such an eye sore? As seen in the photo, a modern apartment building is under construction just next to the bunker. Why couldn't the powers that be do something with the landscaping around the bunker to keep it as a reminder but not scream "ulginess"? Make it part of a playground or climbing structure, perhaps. I don't mean to single out Bulgaria; we'd seen many of these abandoned bunkers in other countries.
Walking by the wooden windmill on the causeway to the Nessebar's old town.
Statue of Saint Nicholas.
There were lots of fishing boats just waiting for the season to begin.
And of course, we had to stop for refreshments, at another Flagman restaurant. Can't beat hot chocolate and french fries. And maybe something a little stronger for Dad.
Looking across at Sveti Vlas, another resort town along the Black Sea coastline.
That evening, we returned to the first Flagman restaurant where we ate at on March 11th for another round of mussles and a few hands of Uno. The next day we would be heading on to Romania. I was glad we visited three different areas in Bulgaria: Sofia, Pamporovo and Nessebar. It helped give a better feel for Bulgaria. Once out of Sofia, Bulgaria had more of a western feel and lost those former communist undertones.

1 comment:

  1. wow... thanks.. laughed when I got to the ''directed to the jacuzzi which really wasn't a jacuzzi but was a deep soaking tub which had a temperature of 36 degrees celcius, one degree below normal body temperature, which was probably deliberately set so no one sticks around too long''... thanks!

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