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Istanbul - Touring Sultanahmet

sunny 79 °F

Our next stop is the Aya Sofia (or Hagia Sophia).

The Hagia Sofia

The Hagia Sofia

This is another show stopper, and we tour both the ground floor and the upper gallery. The mass of the structure is incredible to behold. Rather than the soaring spaces of more modern structures, you can see and feel the brawn that holds up the enormous dome. The dome itself, although not as tall as the one at St. Peter's, is actually even bigger in diameter. It's hard to get a sense of scale from photos, but the interior is vast. It must have been a most awe inspiring place when it was built.

Inside the Hagia Sophia

Inside the Hagia Sophia

On the second floor, you gain a real sense of the enormous stresses the structure is under, viewing the warped floors, vaults, and columns.

Twisted Columns on the upper level of the Hagia Sophia

Twisted Columns on the upper level of the Hagia Sophia

The other major draw here is the mosaic work, on such an enormous scale and so finely crafted that it appears to be paint at first, the ceiling and walls were once covered by semi precious stones in glittering mosaics that were plastered over when the space was converted to a mosque. Now, some of the mosaics have been restored.

Uncovered mosaics in the Hagia Sophia

Uncovered mosaics in the Hagia Sophia

Detail of the precious mosaics

Detail of the precious mosaics

We also viewed the huge bronze doors, appropriated from southern Turkey, that turned out to be too big to fit in their intended doorway, and the lovely book-matched marble panels that line many of the walls.

A minaret, silhouetted against the blue sky

A minaret, silhouetted against the blue sky

Leaving the Aya Sofia, we view the Hippodrome, which includes the top two thirds of an obelisk relocated here from Luxor by the emperor Theodotus.

The Obelisk at the Hippodrome

The Obelisk at the Hippodrome

Now, it's down to the cools spaces of the Basilica Cistern. Once a major water supply for the city, filled to the top of the vaults with fresh water, it's now a moodily lit underground forest of columns on a shimmering lake. It's both beautiful and atmospheric, and is often used as a venue for musical concerts and weddings.

The Basilica Cistern

The Basilica Cistern

We walk to the furthest reaches to view the Medusa heads, propping up ancient columns. These Roman Medusas were wedged under columns at the very rear edge of the cistern, facing the wall and placed upside down and sideways to nullify any bad luck associated with using them as building material.

A Medusa Head used as a foundation in the Basilica Cistern

A Medusa Head used as a foundation in the Basilica Cistern

Lunchtime brings us to the Pudding House. It's recommend by Fatih, and he laughingly admits that he gets to eat there for free, as long as he brings in customers. We don't mind, and I enjoy a meat-stuffed aubergine, eggplant stuffed with a spiced meat and topped with mashed potato. Mrs. Z decides to eat a bit, and enjoys some kofte, a spiced Turkish flattened meatball. We finish off lunch with Turkish coffee, thick and full of grounds, and apple tea. Restrooms are upstairs, clean, and monitored by an attendant handing out hand towels, so be prepared with a small tip.

We backtrack toward the Mosque of Sultan Ahmed, better known as the "Blue Mosque" because of the thousands of blue Iznik tiles covering the walls. We pass through the refreshing spray of a park fountain on on our way there.

Enjoying the mist from the fountain

Enjoying the mist from the fountain

We've come prepared with bags for our shoes and a scarf for Mrs. Z. Fatih tells us she doesn't need to cover her head, as she's a tourist, but she insists.

The Blue Mosque

The Blue Mosque

We enter the beatiful mosque and soak it in. Of course, the attraction here is the Iznik tiles, but honestly, we were able to view them much better in the Palace.

Inside the Blue Mosque of Sultan Ahmed

Inside the Blue Mosque of Sultan Ahmed

Inside the Blue Mosque of Sultan Ahmed

Inside the Blue Mosque of Sultan Ahmed

Nevertheless, we enjoy our visit to yet another of the world's premier places of worship. Fatih seems genuinely moved that we showed such respect for his religion by being prepared to carry our shoes and insisting on covering Mrs. Zuke's head.

Finally, although we certainly have misgivings, we allow Fatih to bring us to Nakkas, a "carpet maker". He's been upfront with us all along about it, and says that we might enjoy seeing the goods even if we don't purchase. We agree to go in. After a brief, but interesting demonstration of carpet weaving, we move upstairs to the showroom. There, with great fanfare and flair, we are shown a dazzling array of hand knotted carpets, wool and silk.

The carpets themselves were amazing. If had anyplace to put them, I truly might have been tempted. We explain that we are very impressed with the quality, but simply are not in the market. Our host is very gracious, not pushy at all, and offers to show us his jewelry and ceramic shop as well. Our eye is caught by the ceramic shop and we go in. The handcrafted work here is just amazing. We buy a quartz glazed plate in an intricate blue design after bargaining just a little. We feel we've paid a fair price for the quality of the workmanship.

It' been a long but amazing day. I'm very impressed with the welcoming atmosphere in Istanbul, and the way Turkey has seemed to successfully combined a 98% Muslim population and a secular government. There's an air of tolerance and openness here that I had not expected. This is a place I would not mind visiting for a longer period of time on a land-based tour. Fatih has done an outstanding job, and I'd recommend him highly if you're looking for a tour in Istanbul. You can reach him at fatih @ copuroglu.com.

We skip dinner tonight, and relax on our balcony. Tonight, the Princess Theater is featuring "Movie Night" with a presentation of "Little Fockers". The production show, Motor City, is being held in the smaller Vista Lounge.

Next up, Kusadasi and the ancient ruins of Ephesus.
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Posted by Zukini 21:23 Archived in Turkey Tagged istanbul blue_mosque hagia_sophia hippodrome basilica_cistern aya_sofia Comments (0)

Better Late than Never

We arrive in Venice!

overcast 68 °F

We're finally on our way to Venice, via Charles DeGaulle and Air France. After a sleepless 8 hour flight in the non-reclining bulkhead seats sandwiched between the galley and the rest room at the rear of the plane, we arrive in Paris for our short layover. Even though we're in transit, we need to pass through a very disorganized security screening that involved a lot of rummaging through luggage and a pretty intimate and thorough pat-down. We also have to pass through passport control, where we're awarded with a French visa stamp in our passports.

I should note that US Airways did us the final courtesy of giving us the wrong local time when we landed, giving us a time 1 hour earlier than it actually was. Thanks guys! Glad we noticed our watches didn't match the airport clocks, or we would have missed our connection to Venice.

It's our first experience with CDG airport, and it is instantly our least favorite. We're at Terminal 1, a ring design with shops and facilities on the lowest level and departure gates the level above that. It's crowded, with minimal seating, and the shops are staffed with surly clerks who clearly hate their jobs and their customers. Fortunately, our sojourn there is brief, and we're soon on our way to Venice.

Flying over the Alps

Flying over the Alps

Our Air France flight is uneventful, and we arrive at Venice Marco Polo Airport (VCE) a bit late, at about 12:30pm local time. VCE is a breeze, especially without baggage claim to deal with, and we breeze right through arrivals and passport control. We're staying in an apartment rental, so our first order of business is to pull enough euros from a cash machine to pay the rental fee, and to get our cell phone working so that we can contact our host.

The ATM proves to be a bit of a surprise...on our last visit to Italy, in 2011, we were able to make multiple withdrawals for large amounts of cash from the Bancomat machines with no difficulty. Now, I don't know if this is universal or just limited to Venice, but the machines seemed to have been reconfigured. I can only make a single withdrawal of 250 Euros. Further attempts yield a message indicating that I have exceeded my international currency exchange limit for the day.

We think this might just be a configuration on the ATM at the airport, so we decide to try again once we reach Piazzale Roma. We've come prepared for any eventuality, though...we've got two separate debit card accounts, each with two debit cards, just in case.

Tip: I've mentioned it before, and I'll mention it again. When you're traveling in Italy, a debit card tied to a CapitalOne online account is your friend. Whenever we pulled money out of a Bancomat machine, we paid NO fees, and the exchange rate was the published daily FOREX rate for the USD vs the Euro. For this trip, it varied from day to day, but averaged around $1.30 for a Euro.

As for our cell phone: our normal carrier is StraightTalk, a great plan at a good price, but one which absolutely prohibits foreign roaming. We decided that, in order to have a functional cell phone the moment we touched down, we would pay the premium price that Telestial.com asks for an Italian TIM Sim card. Their price for this card is high, compared to what you would pay for it in Italy, but you get your Italian phone number well ahead of your visit, and a 15 Euro credit. The Sim is supposed to be pre-activated and ready to use as soon as you arrive.

Well, that's not how it worked out.

Any attempts to make a call resulted in a speedy Italian error message, too quick and too poor quality for me to understand. I gathered that there was something wrong with my activation or my balance. I stop at the Tabacchi shop in the airport to buy a Ricarcicard (the way you recharge a pay-as-you go phone in Italy), but I'm unable to apply it to the phone. I'm stumped. Somehow, we're going to need to contact our host to let her know we've arrived.

We step outside the airport to the Hello Venezia/VeniceConnected machine, where we collect our pre-purchased transportation pass (we've already pre-purchased a WiFi pass for Venice as well), then hop on the bus for the 1/2 hour ride from the airport to Piazzale Roma. Since I have the WiFi pass, I'm able to connect my phone up to the public internet in the Piazza, and make a Skype call to Luigia, our host, to let her know we're finally on the ground (albeit a day and a half late). She'll meet us at the Giardini vaporetto stop.

TIP: Venice offers a WiFi Connected card, for a 24 hour, 72 hour, or 7 day period. This buys you a username and password to connect up to the Venice public WiFi spots, near most major piazzas. It works well, but can only be used on one device at a time, and, of course, is limited to the range of areas where it can be used.

While we're at the Piazzale, I try to pull some more cash out of the ATM there with my original card. It won't permit it. My wife tries hers, and she's able to snag an additional €250, but that's it. We have to switch to the cards for our backup account to get enough to cover the apartment and our other costs.

We hop aboard a Vaporetto for our first ride on the public transportation system in Venice. It's pretty simple to figure out where you're going, and all we need to do is swipe our transportation ticket at the card reader before we board. A short time later, we're met by Luigia, who will escort us to our apartment near the Bienniale Gardens in the Giardini district.

The area is beautiful. It's about a 15-20 minute walk east of Piazza San Marco along the waterfront, but it's a different world. The public gardens border the east side of the area, the broad, park-like Vialle Giuseppe Garibaldi borders the west, and it's just a lovely residential neighborhood.

Calle Sarasina

Calle Sarasina

A chapel at Corte Sarasina

A chapel at Corte Sarasina

Luigia takes us to our ground-floor apartment on Calle Sarasina. It's compact, but efficient, and pretty well equipped. Windows on two sides of the apartment keep it well ventilated during the day, though they have to be closed at night for both privacy and limitation of noise.

Our apartment at Ca' Sarasina

Our apartment at Ca' Sarasina

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We're pretty well exhausted, and would love nothing better than to take a nap, but it's far too early for that. We explore the neighborhood, heading up to Via Giuseppe Garibaldi to pick up some essentials for the apartment, and scope out some restaurants for dinner.

Via Garibaldi

Via Garibaldi

We can't resist stopping for a gelato while we're at it. While we're out, I pick up an internet connection and make a Skype call to Telestial, to try to get the phone Sim problem straightened out. They tell me there's nothing they can do, and I should try to find the TIM store near the Rialto tomorrow. I'm so impressed with their great customer service, I promise them I'll let everyone know.

We have a 7pm tour scheduled for this evening with Laguna Eco Adventures, and I'd like to let them know we want to postpone it because of our delayed arrival, but I can't find their phone number anywhere. Coincidentally, at that moment, my phone rings...apparently, I can receive incoming calls on my Italian sim, even if I can't make outgoing ones. It's Giovanni, from Laguna, and I'm able to explain the situation to him. We shift our tour to 7:30pm tomorrow.

It's too early for dinner, so we go out wandering, consciously avoiding the tourist areas and sticking to the back streets of Castello and the Arsenale.

The canal at the end of Via Garibaldi

The canal at the end of Via Garibaldi

Calle San Zuane in Riello

Calle San Zuane in Riello

Ponte San Pietro

Ponte San Pietro

San Pietro Campanile

San Pietro Campanile

A creepy display in a residential window

A creepy display in a residential window

We have an early dinner at a touristy restaurant along Via Giuseppe Garibaldi, Osteria al Garanghelo, where we enjoy Pizza Margherita and a side of grilled vegetables (which went directly on top of the pizza!), along with a half bottle of their house red. Somehow, we find our way back to our apartment, and collapse.

Tomorrow, we'll be visiting the Palazzo Ducale, wandering Venice in search of a TIM store, and taking an evening tour of the canals. See you then!

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Posted by Zukini 16:23 Archived in Italy Tagged venice giardini basilica_cistern sarasina Comments (0)

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