Thursday, April 26, 2007

Istanbul, Turkey

Hmmm where to begin?? This is exactly why I need to start writing in my travel journal as things are happening. Its a good thing I have the memory of an elephant!

Ok so the trip to Istanbul came about a bit sporatically because we hadn't specifically planned on going until a great deal literally dropped into our inbox. A friend, of a friend, of a friend, aka the Prague Trainees mass email list told us abotu it. The price was amazing for flight, hotel, transfers and best of all, there was a couple Turkish guys going who would show us around. Done deal! I'd never gone on a big tour group trip before so I was a little aprehensive about it, but it turned out really well and we met some great people.

Our Tour group

Since we only had 2 and a half days to explore Istanbul, I wanted to make sure that we packed as much in as possible and boy did we ever. We arrived late on saturday afternoon and the biggest joke of the day was how I, the sole Canadian (Alex uses his British passport) had to pay more than double than everyone else for a tourist visa once we arrived. 45 Euros to be exact and everyone else was paying like 10-15. I gotta look into Canadian-Turkish relations becuase that is just ridiculous for 3 days! The Turkish guys had some fun at the hotel too and said that the price was higher there for Canadians as well. Real funny...

After settling 60 people into a hotel, we went for a walk around the coast line of the Bosphorus and the historical part of Istanbul. So many people, so many camera ops, equals 3 hours of walking to get to our dinner destination. The two main sights we passed by was the Hagia Sofia-this is the oldest building I have ever stepped foot in and has such a long and rich history. It was originally built in the 6th century as an Orthodox church, then during Latin occupation, turned into a Catholic church, and finally ordered by the Turks to be converted to a mosque in the 15th century. It stands on one end, while the Blue Mosque, or Sultan Ahmed Mosque, stands on the other end of the square.

The place for dinner was definately original and worth the 3 hour walk. It was in a dining room in the garden of a mosque, fit for royalty but without the pricetag. After dinner most people headed off to bed but we were looking for more adventure which we got in Taksim, the club and bar district. It was so crowded there that I was hanging onto Alex for fear of losing everyone. After we found a bar, I soon realized that no I cannot drink a BIG beer in Turkey. It was HUGE 0.7l to be exact. The real excitement came with finding a minibus to take us back to our hotel. Picture this, traffic bumper to bumber at 1 am, no lights or pedestrian signs and 7 of us running back and forth between eight lanes. I think my heart skipped a few beats every time we gunned it across but somehow our street smarts prevailed and we made it back in one piece.

The funny think about being with a tour group is that it actually forces you to get up in the morning at the agreed upon time. Sure Alex and I always have good intentions to get up at 8 and see the city but when the alarm actually goes off, we think, meh whats a couple hours. So breakfast, shower and we were out by 10 am on Sunday, or what will forever be remember as the busiest or most packed day of my life. Lets see, we started out by going into the Blue Mosque, shoes off and everything. I'm still perplexed by the grand size of both the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sofia.

After this we headed to the Topkapi Palace, the administrative center of the Ottoman Empire, where all the Sultans reigned. Again, it was fairly large and we saw a good chunk of it in the 2 hours we were there. Everyone told us not to miss the Harem which is the living quarters of all the women in the empire as well as eunuchs (castrated men) and slaves that served the women. While it was interesting, it wasn't worth the extra 10tl to enter and there was too many people around to really get a good look at everything. My favorite part of the palace was the gardens and the great views it gives of the Bosphorus. Oh and the jewel collection that is apparently the most expensive in the world; not surprising judging by the 84 carat diamond we saw encrusted among a couple dozen other diamonds. A girl could only dream :)

All of this was enough to build up a good appetite for some Turkish food. We went to a place that seriously had a line up to get it. I felt like I was going to some exclusive club. It was very local and the meal we had was pretty much the same as cevape in Bosnia. Actually its funny because the menu consists of only this one dish and soup or salad if you wish. But it was good enough to keep the whole restaurant full and more waiting outside to get in.

The Hagia Sofia was next on the docket. I was more facinated with the history of the building then I was by anything else. It's interesting to see dispays of two of the worlds biggest religions under one roof. On one side you have Christian mosaics and on the other Islamic mihrab and Arabic writing.

Our final stop on this busy sight seeing day was the Bascilica Cistern, the largest underground water holding chamber that was built by the Greeks in the 6th century. Lots of marble columns . Strangely enough there was also 2 Medusa heads positioned upside down or on its side in the corner of the place.

And just when you thought the day was ending, we've only come to 4 pm. To sum up the rest of the day, our tour guide took us to a traditional tea and sheesha room to relax. Melon was the flavor of choice for us and we also had this apple tea that tastes like jolly ranchers! That night our whole tour group headed to Taksim and we danced the night away at a restaurant.

Sunday morning, another painfully early morning after heading to bed at 3 am., we all headed tothe Grand Bazaar. This is the big shopping center I guess you could call it, where you get to practice your negotiating skills against some tough Turks. Everyone had such rave things to say about it before I went there but I honestly found it to be a stressful place. Everyone trying to sell you something.... try listening to "yes please" "excuse me" and "where you from" about a couple dozen times and tell me how you feel. My first attempt at negotiating a price for a ceramic bowl I wanted didn't go so well and I walked away empty handed. But then just down the street I found the same bowl with this "oh so original" marking on the bottom of it for the price I wanted to pay. The Turkish guys told us that anythign over half the price was too much and we were being ripped off. Even a third of the price is too much if you ask me. There wasn't anythign that original there... lots of little touristy nick nacks which I hate, fake designer stuff galore, and general "Tourkish" memorabilia (coffee pots, carpets, gold jewelry, tea cups...). Alex and I opted to sit down for a coffee while everyone else ran around the place. We wanted to conserve our energy for the Spice Market!

Just a short walk down and around some winding and crowded streets is where the Spice market lies. Here is where you will find some amazing food related items. Spices of course, dry fruit, Turkish delight for days, and many other sweets. The merchants at this place were generally more friendly and most importantly let you try everything and anything you saw! We even had Turkish Viagra; a dry fig with a walnut in the center. Yumm. Our goal was to buy lots of spices so we can make real curry, Turkish Delight of course and a strange assortment of dry fruit.

Packed with all our goodies, a bunch of us headed for a boat trip organized for us along the Bosphorus. We had the whole boat to ourselves with nice comfy pillows and couches inside. During the 4 hours we stopped along several points and even stepped off on the Asian side of Istanbul. Didn't spend a lot of time there so didn't get to see much but I now have bragging rights that I've stepped onto Asia! Beautiful scenery but it was so windy on the water if you went up to the top deck and I thanked my lucky stars that I purchased a pashmina before getting on. That lucky guy made a killing off of our group that day.

And that about covers my Istanbul adventure. We had to leave early on Tuesday morning and I thought I would come back to Prague and sleep all day. But the weather was so nice in Prague that we opted for laying around in the sun instead. Not a bad trade. I am happy to say that I was really pleased with our tour and that I'd definately go back to Turkey.

More pics are up on My Picture site!

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Easter in Poland

After my previous boring post about wasting time and doing absolutely nothing, I hope to bring some life back into this blog with my latest adventure in Poland. Be warned, I have a lot to say!

So I hadn't done a lot of traveling since Christmas, apart from the back and forth between Prague and Zilina while I was still living in Slovakia (definitely not missing that train ride) and with spring coming, I decided it was time to kick up into high gear again.

Before I get to Poland, I have to mention the trip we did 2 weekends ago to Kutna Hora, a small town west of Prague that is famous for its so called Bone Church (actually it is a cemetery chapel with an ossuary that contains the remains of some 40,000 people). I'd heard a lot about it because practically everyone living here had seen it other than Alex and I. We'd decided we were going and then I convinced our friend Cedric (from Belgium) to join us as well because he missed out on the big trip with others while helping me move into our new place. Such a nice guy! Luckily Cedric has a car here so we drove there, parked the car and headed out to explore the area. The biggest attraction is this bone church, but there are lots of nice cathedrals and statues as well. Especially St. Barbara's cathedral seen below.

We walked around all day, then finally made it to the bone church. In all honesty, I was a bit disappointed. Yes it was definitely original and like nothing I had ever seen before, but I really thought that it would be bigger. This is what happens when you see lots of pics and ads for a place. I also thought it would be more creepy, but it really wasn't at all. It was almost comical especially with Cedric and Alex goofing around. While I understand the history behind it (you can read more about it here), I'm still a bit divided on whether I think this whole idea behind the church it is disrespectful to the dead or a tribute to them.

OK, moving on to Easter in Poland. Our friend Lukasz had suggested that we come and spend Easter with his family at his home town in Poland after Alex and I were hard pressed to find somewhere else to go where tourist attractions would be open, it being Easter and all. We packed our bags and headed out early from work on Friday. Lets just say that the ride to Wroclaw, the city of the University that Lukasz attends, was not enjoyable in the least. Not because the scenery wasn't beautiful, but because it was wizzing past me too quickly and I was completely focused on the cars approaching us as Lukasz continually passed the cars in front. I could be over exaggerating but I'm not a fan of fast driving. We had a good laugh about their drivers licences because the picture needs to show a side profile with one of their ears showing. I suggested that this was because they constantly have their head turned looking for the chance to pass the car in front!
We made it to Wroclaw safely and headed out for dinner that night. Because Poland is a VERY Catholic country, there wasn't many people out for the night and several of the bars were closed. After a nice dinner with some friends of Lukasz, we headed to a lounge and had a couple more drinks. Unfortunately I had a migraine that day, so I asked that we pack it in early that night. The city square was beautiful at night though and we got up early the next day so that we could have a walk around before heading to Zielona Gora. The town hall is really impressive with its Gothic exterior and there was many other beautiful buildings that have recently been reconstructed although you could definitely notice that communism had reigned here before because just outside the square, there was still some very functional, ugly buildings. My favorite part of the square is this big area where tonnes and tonnes of flowers are being sold. Lukasz said it was a great way to end a date by purchasing a beautiful flower for the lady. I like!

Then we were off for another exciting drive to Zielona Gora, Lukasz's home town. He continually warned us that his parents don't speak English and that they might be shy but it turned out that we had no problems communicating with them through Lukasz as our translator. And not to mention that they were extremely nice and accommodating. Our first mission in Zielona Gora was to take the Easter basket to church and have it blessed. Being that I was the youngest lady, but most probably because I was a guest, I got to carry the basket. Lot of pressure, let me tell ya. I survived and no eggs were harmed on the way.

The rest of the day was spent basically eating, drinking, and even a nice little nap in between. That night it was off to church for a 3 hour mass. Wow, I'd never attended a mass that long. Apparently they had combined the midnight mass with the Sunday morning mass and made it one long one from 10-12:30 am. One of the neat things that they do at the mass is that all of the lights are turned out, then the priests go outside, light a fire, from which they light the big Easter candle that will be used in the church for the next year. Then as they make their procession inside, everyone in the pews lights their own candles from this light. Of course when we got home, another meal was long overdue! And more Vodka (Polish love their vodka)

In Poland, Easter breakfast is the most important meal of the day. The food that was blessed the day before is served with numerous other traditional dishes. Everyone in the family puts on their best suit and it is quite formal in a sense. Alex and I felt a bit under dressed for the occasion but nevertheless, it was really interesting to see.

That afternoon we headed to a sporting event known as Speedway. I would describe it as drag racing, where 4 guys get on to these special dirt bikes, and speed around a track with no breaks, so when they take the corners, they are literally sliding on the track. Its so popular and people were standing everywhere in the stadium to watch this. I thought it was cool, but after about 5 races, I got the jest of it.

In the end the home team lost and so there was some not so impressed fans, who had had more then their share of booze for the day. Many of them started throwing things onto the field, and even going onto the field toward the other teams cheering section. I wouldn't say it was out of control or a riot, but there was no security to be seen. Finally after about 15 mins of this, the riot police came out and all those oh so tough guys came running off. Really cool experience though, with such passionate fans.

Sunday night we headed to a "club" in Zielona Gora and I got to do some great people watching which is always fun! It got pretty busy and loud I might add so we headed to a nice, quieter establishment to continue to chat with some people whom we met. We headed back for Prague on Monday afternoon after another nice meal with all of Lukasz's family. The ride back was through the mountainous area of Poland, so a lot of winding roads, enough to make me car sick! We stopped of at a national park with a nice waterfall. Getting back into the Czech Republic, the boarder guard tried giving me a hard time because I hadn't received a stamp going into Poland (not my fault he didn't stamp my passport). Then he tried to give me a load of you know what about how much money I need per day to stay in the Czech Republic, health insurence, blah, blah, blah (tough guy act). It really pissed me off becuase I know my rights as a Canadian citizen, not to mention that I'd crossed into the Czech Republic many times before this with none of these requirements.

All in all, it was great being able to spend Easter with a family and getting to experience their Easter traditions. We owe a world of thanks to Lukasz and his family, especially his mom for the good cookin!

Off to Istanbul this weekend; I get to step onto Asia for the first time-can't wait to tell you all about it! Oh and more pictures from both weekends are up on my picture site.