Friday, 24 April 2009


(Turkish Flag)

There is nothing to say about Istanbul other than it is the most fantastic city! (Actually there it TOO much to say about Istanbul!) I arrived in the heat of the afternoon sun and was greeted with one of Istanbul's most prominent aspects: its traffic! If you have ever been stuck in an LA traffic Jam, then you know exactly what the traffic was like in Istanbul. But regardless of the traffic, the scenery was gorgeous! I flew into the Asian (or Anatolian) side of Istanbul. This side is most commonly known as the 'undeveloped' side of Istanbul, but it was none the less a beautiful drive. Hundreds and hundreds of colorful apartment buildings sat upon wild flower covered grassy hills. Interestingly, the tulip was originally cultivated in Istanbul so there was a HUGE tulip festival on in the city. On my way to the European side I saw this gorgeous and GIANT Turkish flag made entirely of tulips! My trip started off with activity! We immediately set off for the Grand Bazaar: miles of covered hallways dedicated to every specialty craft you can imagine. There were entire halls dedicated to gold jewelry, silver jewelry, ceramics, fine rugs- everyone was out to get the better end of the deal on their purchases/sales! Thank God I had Ece there to help me negotiate prices!

(Outside of the Grand Bazaar)

Later that evening, Ece took Ciara and I out to one of the most fun and eclectic places I have ever been: a city area called Taksim. I felt like I was on a Hollywood movie set to be honest. This is a very trendy area full of posh boutiques, night clubs, fancy restaurants, raving bars, and hundreds of cafes. The small alleyways snaked in all directions and the Victorian 4 story buildings seemed to lean in and shelter us from the night cold. The alleyways were also strung with hundreds of colorful Christmas lights and Chinese lanterns not to mention the streets were bustling with street vendors and were pleasantly crowded with young people sitting at street side cafe tables! One alleyway we went down was frosted with thousands of twinkle lights- it was truly a MAGICAL place. There was tango techno music pumping out of a club on the street and it was such a fun atmosphere that we were dancing in the streets! We went to a really hip restaurant in the area that was known for its gourmet cheese chef. There was a special section of the restaurant where you would go and have a cheese tasting with the chef and then she brought you a plank of 10 different kinds of cheese to taste and also fresh grapes, dried fruits, figs, and walnuts! Yum!

(The Palace, Harem)

The next day was a big sight seeing day. We went to the historical district of Istanbul and first stopped off at the Palace and Harem complex. The palace was gorgeous and was full of beds of the tulips Istanbul is known for (red, pink, purple, orange...any color you can name, they had a tulip to correspond to it!). The palace was decorated beautifully- the main colors were deep ocean blue and greens. Most of the walls were tiled in elaborately hand painted images of peacocks or tulips. Most of the doors were inlaid with mother of pearl and all of the ceilings were domed. It was a grand place, but at the same time the Harem was a cold/closed place (The sultans had many wives which they kept in the Harem and refused to let them leave was basically a fancy prison cell!)

(Hagia Sofia)

Then we headed over to the Hagia Sofia- which was one of the sights I most wanted to see in Istanbul! I had studied it in art history and I was dying to see the famous "dome" the largest mosque dome in the world. The Hagia Sofia was actually not well maintained- I was shocked that this magnificent monument that represented the glory of Constantine was disheveled, but Ece explained to me that the because the building was previously a church, it was not important to the mainly Muslim Turks. When the Turks won Istanbul they added four minarets to the Hagia Sofia and turned it into a mosque, but it was never used and thus became quite dilapidated. They are however starting to restore it now.

(Outside the blue mosque: note women covered from head to tow in background)

The blue mosque was the true gem of the historical district: it was surrounded by beautiful gardens and fountains. We were lucky enough to go inside the blue mosque and we had to take off our shoes and cover our hair. We entered just as the city of Istanbul had burst into the song which calls Muslims to prayer 5 times a day. There were not many tourists in the blue mosque which was nice.

(Inside the blue mosque)

That night we went to Ece's aunt's house to have a GIANT traditional Turkish 7 course meal! It was so AMAZING! I do not even know how to explain the magnificent dishes that were presented at this dinner but they ranged from fried egg plant to crepes with sweet sauce, to sweet rice in grape leaves, to chicken casserole, to tirimisu to Turkish tea!

Istanbul is a very diverse city and I was lucky enough to explore many of its districts: including its shopping districts! It seemed like everyone in Turkey had a Prada bag, or Guicci shoes, or some kind of designer jewelry! I found Turkey to be like any other European city or major city: very materialistic! But I am not complaining, because the window shopping made my mouth water--every designer you could possibly imagine had boutiques on SEVERAL streets in Istanbul.

(Ece's Birthday Brunch on the Golden Horn)

While in Turkey we went to several parties for Ece's 20th birthday. A good friend of her family hosted a brunch for her on the Golden Horn of the Bosporus. There I tried rowing (or sculling) for the first time! It was so much fun :) We then had a lovely brunch on the terrace of a water side restaurant- perfect views and great conversation!

(Sculling on the Golden Horn)

The next day Ece's parents threw her a wonderful brunch at their tennis club and ALL of Ece's family was there (all 60 of them). I felt like I was in "my big fat Greek wedding" We were introduced to EVERY SINGLE family member and received two kisses (one on each cheek) from every single one of them. I felt like I was playing musical chairs- always standing up to greet a smiling relative speaking in rapid Turkish. It was so much fun, but also really tiring! That night we went to a traditional kebab place for Ece's birthday dinner. Every city in Turkey has a traditional kebab and we got a giant sample plate of the traditional kebabs of turkey- it was delicious!!!

We also took a day trip down to the Black Sea where we ate at a traditional sea food restaurant. We had a family dinner which consisted of several salads, stuffed mussels, corn bread, and a GIANT whole fish! When they brought the 3 foot long fish out onto our table with skin (and head) still bubbling from the oven I had to admit I was a bit shocked! But the server dished up the fish on our plates with ridiculous skill and I have never had such great fish in my life! It was SO fresh and fluffy and delicious! What a treat! And yes, I was offered the fish cheeks, but kindly refused. He he.
I absolutely LOVED turkey, it was an incredible experience! Istanbul is certainly a unique city and I would recommend a visit there to anyone!

(MiniaTurk- standing in front of a mini version of Hagia Sofia)

Monday, 13 April 2009

"Fee! Fi! Fo! Fum!" A Trip to Giant's Causeway

For the past week I have been in Northern Ireland visiting my housemate Ciara. She has been a wonderful and enthusiastic host, and we have seen so many parts of Northern Ireland! My first day we explored Belfast -Most interesting is hearing how people in Belfast and Northern Ireland speak about "the troubles" that the city and the region faced for the majority of the second half of the 20th century. Throughout the city you can still see bullet holes in the buildings and massive murals dedicated to the paramilitary groups who fought (fight) for nationalist and loyalist agendas. We also took a day trip down to Dublin and toured the Guinness factory which was good fun.

Yesterday for Easter we headed up to the North coast of Ireland to Portstewart. The Northern coast of Ireland is amazing! Sheer cliffs line the coast and huge storm clouds loom along the horizon (there is ALWAYS a chance that it will rain on you in Northern Ireland!). We went to this famous rope bridge that connects this island with the mainland (the bridge is sturdy, but still a thrill to cross it). Then we headed to the Giant's causeway which is this really interesting part of the coast where all the rocks are shaped hexagonally. There is an old Irish legend that says an Irish giant was fighting a Scottish giant and the Irish giant laid down all of these hexagonal stones to link Ireland to Scotland so he could fight the Scottish giant (and of course the Irish giant one the fight). Hence the name "Giant's causeway"
Later that afternoon we headed to Barry's amusement park in Portstewart where we rode some fun carnival rides. Then we headed to Ciara's aunt's caravan for Easter dinner. It was a perfectly lovely Easter sunday! On Thursday I'll be heading to Istanbul with Ciara to visit our housemate Ece. Should be really good fun- its Ece's 20th birthday on saturday. Wish me luck!

The Secret Garden: Tivoli and Villa Deste

So to escape the amazingly busy city center of Rome we decided to go to the train station and pick a random destination to travel to for the day. My aunt Noreen and I decided to head to Tivoli (the ancient holiday city of the Roman emperors) where my uncle Gary said there were really beautiful Roman fountains. When we got off the train at the run down little train station, I have to admit I wasn't that impressed, but after we crossed the river and made our way to the city center I was shocked by the charm and beauty of the community gardens. Tivoli sits on the side of a mountain face and looks down onto the expansive Italian countryside- providing amazing panoramic views!
We found our way to Villa Deste- a summer holiday house of a 15th century Cardinal from Rome. Every single wall in the home was painted with frescos depicting scenes of rural Italian life (hunting, fishing, farming etc). But the most spectacular part of the house was the gardens! The gardens were full of magnificent fountains depicting the stories of Roman gods and various other mythical creatures. The sound of trickling water was ever present and created a very serene environment.
Again, the garden had the breath taking back drop of the Italian countryside. After exploring the gardens for the afternoon we headed into town and had a lovely traditional Italian dinner at a local restaurant. We ate very early for Italians (6:30) so we were the only ones in the restaurant the entire time were were there!

All in all- Tivoli was spectacular and I would highly recommend it as a day trip to anyone who is visiting Rome!

The Eternal City: Roma

I absolutely loved Rome! My mom made an interesting comparison that Rome is similar to Washing D.C. in some ways-mainly the mass amounts of monuments that are waiting behind each turn of a corner. Honestly, it was historical sensory overload! There were so many things to see and so many historically important/ historically redefining sites that I was like a kid in a candy store on a sugar rush! The second day we were in Rome we went around to all of the ancient sights- mainly the colosseum and the Roman forum. It was really fun to walk through such dense historical spaces. I always wanted to see the colosseum and we were able to go in and have a good walk around the place. We learned that the colosseum is half taken down because the Romans took the marble facade down piece by piece to build other monuments and buildings in Rome (how sustainable!).
The Roman Forum was also a great site to see and it was huge! It spanned blocks both by length and width smack in the middle of Rome proper! It was nice to get away from the hustle and bustle of traffic and escape into this fantastical historical site!
On Palm Sunday we took a 'pilgrimage' to the Vatican. What an amazing experience. St. Peter's basilica was gorgeous and surprisingly uncrowded in the afternoon. There was a very quirky moment when I ran into one of my good high school friends, LIz Vater, just outside the doors of St. Peter's! The sunset behind the Vatican city was a cherry on top of our wonderful day!

Saturday, 11 April 2009

City of the Renaissance: Florence

I really enjoyed Florence! The churches are breath taking- I do not think I have ever seen anything as beautiful!!! The Duomo caught me off guard...I never thought that the cathedral would be so large. I always thought that it was made of white marble, but it is actually made up of a myriad of colors- mainly pink, green, grey, and white marble.

The inside of the churches were also really interesting. I normally associate churches with frescos or statues, but these churches were covered in elaborate images of inlaid marble. From large lions to delicate flowers, the array of colors and the detail achieved by these artists was the most impressive craftsmanship I have ever seen.

On our last day in Florence I climbed to the top of the Duomo and was rewarded with great views of Florence. It was so nice to get away from tourists and away from the traffic. The height seemed to transport you back in time- before cars, mopeds, and vendors haggling over fake Gucci purses and miniatures of David.

The Perfect Tuscan Town: Lucca

Lucca is a wonderful town just 30 minutes train ride from Pisa. Lucca is known for maintaining a "traditional tuscan city" feel. It is surrounded by the original ancient city walls which give a spectacular view of the surrounding Tuscan country side. We really enjoyed walking along the city walls and taking in the fresh air while we were there. Again, the regional cuisine (the pasta, soup, and bread) were fantastic as was the shopping!

A Wonderful Surprise: Pisa

We were told over and over by many experienced travelers that Pisa was not the best city to visit.  "There is the leaning tower of Pisa and other than that- there is nothing to see!"  Well, we found our experience to be quite different and much more rewarding than we would have expected!  Pisa was a great respite from the mad tourist atmosphere of Paris.  We wondered around the city and found a few local restaurants that were highly recommended by locals.  The Tuscan bean soup was fantastic!  It was very special to be personally  greeted by the chef of the restaurant (a testament to the dedication and personal commitment to their restaurants).

(My mom and Jamie in the Park)

Together in Paris

Paris was a perfect destination to start my mini euro holiday with my mother, cousin Jamie, and aunt Noreen. Our bed and breakfast was right next to the Opera Comique which gave us a dazzling view of some of Paris's characteristic architecture.
Our first night we headed out to the Eiffel Tower and headed up to the very top to get a wonderful view of "the city of lights."

Whenever we got the chance we tried to head to the local market to try regional fair. The french markets were fantastic and filled with fresh baked goods, aged cheeses, cured meats, and blooming flowers! There is nothing better than having a picnic in the park!

While in paris we stopped by the traditional sights: Notre Dame, Saint Chapel, the Louvre, the Champs de Lysee etc. We also took a day trip out to Versailles which was overwhelmingly decorated. Every room was more elaborate than the last. The ceilings were covered with paintings inspired by Roman gods, and the tapestries on the walls and furniture were so rich with texture it was hard to keep focused on one thing before being distracted by another.

Jamie and I also went to the Cabaret -the Lido- one night and were able to see some of Paris's traditional entertainment. It was good fun, but it was also very staged and reminded me of a show I might see in Las Vegas or on a cruise ship. All in all our trip to Paris was a fantastic experience!