A Travellerspoint blog

Istanbul's Old City

Must be one of the coolest old cities in the world

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Istanbul is definitely my new favourite city. It has an amazing history and all the museums you could ask for to go with it, but there are so many other things to do, too. Another huge attraction in the old city is the Grand Bazaar. We spent a lot of time there and also at the Spice Market, or the Egyptian Bazaar. The Grand Bazaar is as old as the Ottoman Empire itself, and one of the biggest and oldest markets in the world. And after a long day of touring and shopping, a visit to a Turkish bath (hamam) was the perfect way to wind down.

The Grand Bazaar had already reached its current size at the beginning of the 17th century and was one of the biggest trading posts of the time because of the Ottoman Empire’s total control over the route from Asia to Europe back then. It has 64 streets and about 4000 vendors. A lot of them sell kitschy tourist stuff, but some have decent things and a few have art or other things they’ve made themselves.

The Spice Market is similar but a lot smaller, and most of the vendors sell spices, obviously, and also herbs, teas, and yummy Turkish treats. It was built using the tax money collected on the trade of Egyptian spices and herbs, so it’s also known as the Egyptian Bazaar. It’s starting to get overrun with tourist souvenir stalls, but there are still mostly food vendors selling all kinds of delicious Turkish teas and treats. We definitely spent too much money at both Bazaars, but where else better in the world to do it?

After our first day walking around the city and shopping at the Grand Bazaar, we tried out a Turkish bath. They're conveniently open until midnight so it's the perfect thing to do at the end of the day, although I heard it can get quite busy after supper. This time of year nothing is very crowded, though, and we didn't run into any crowds or have to wait long at the hamam. I had heard a lot of crazy things before going in and we were both pretty nervous, but it turned out to be amazing. Mike and I both went for the “traditional” bath, meaning you get scrubbed down and massaged by a little Turkish lady, or huge Turkish guy, in Mike’s case.

The building itself was really beautiful, and kind of looks like a Mosque without the minarets. The bath we went to was around the corner from the Grand Bazaar and has been open since 1584! Coming from Canada, I still can’t get over how old things in this part of the world are. We both had a really great, and relaxing, time. Not at all as horrifying as some of the things I read. I would definitely recommend doing it if you’re ever in Turkey.

The Turkish bath was the perfect way to end off a day of touring and shopping. We had an amazing time seeing the historical buildings and shopping at the Bazaars in Istanbul. The Old City of Istanbul has so much to offer and I think you would need a year to really see everything. We luckily managed to squeeze in a few of the major sites during our short stay, but it was also great to get to check out some other areas of the town.

Posted by kmclean 12:55 Archived in Turkey Tagged cities turkey istanbul bazaar hamam Comments (0)

Churches, Mosques, and Museums in Istanbul

Our first taste of what the world outside of Europe is like, and the first stop on our latest adventure.

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We started our most recent adventure in Istanbul. The semesters in Germany are arranged more like high school in Canada than university, giving us a very convenient 2 month break during the low season. It’s our first step outside of Europe, and I think Istanbul is my new favourite city. I wish we had come here last instead of first, but either way it’s an amazing city to have seen. The day we arrived we just dropped our stuff off and then headed out to see some of the nearby sites on the “historical peninsula” of Istanbul; Sultanahmet. We spent our first day in the old city on a tour, seeing most of the historical buildings and sites. Our hotel was right in the centre of the old city, so we spent a lot time at the beginning and ends of days in and around it seeing the sites. It’s an unbelievably cool city with such a dynamic and LONG history.

The historical centre of Istanbul was the capital of the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires, and it really is the place where Europe met and clashed with the Middle East and Asia. Any churches built before 1453 were converted into Mosques (except for one in the Topkapɪ Palace) and some were then turned into Museums after the secularisation of Turkey. I had never seen a Mosque before, and I have to say they’re all really impressive. The insides are really bright and well lit, and because of the way Muslims pray they’re always really warm with beautiful, clean carpets. They seem more peaceful and welcoming than cathedrals, which are usually cold and dark. Also there are no torture scenes or brutal battle depictions on the walls and no images or sculptures of people being tortured to death, because in a Mosque there can’t be any pictures of people or animals. The walls are only decorated with patterns and in the fancier mosques thousands and thousands of beautiful tiles. I know these are some of the most extravagant and beautiful mosques in the world, but they were really beautiful. Also really interesting was that they were built extremely quickly, even by today’s standards.

They Blue Mosque was built in only 7 years. It was funded by the Sultan so that partly explains why it was so quick. Also there were no wars interrupting its construction. It’s still unbelievable though, considering most cathedrals in Europe took literally hundreds of years to build, and most are under construction or restoration still today. The Frauen Kirche in Munich was built in 20 years and that’s still considered extremely quick by European standards, and it’s not nearly as extravagant as the Blue Mosque, inside or out. Even more impressive than the Blue Mosque, though, is the Hagia Sophia. It took only 5 years to build in the year 532! Mostly because they recycled materials from other conquered temples, but most buildings today are barely finished in 5 years. We could really take some advice from the Turks. The building that’s there today is actually the 3rd reconstruction – the first Hagia Sophia stood on that site in 360 and was destroyed by rioters. The second one was also destroyed, but the third and current one has been there for nearly 1500 years now. It’s unbelievable. Luckily it’s a museum now and under the protection (and funding) of UNESCO, so it’s still having restoration work done. After Istanbul was conquered by the Ottomans in 1453 it was converted into a Mosque. Minarets were added and since Mosques can’t have any depictions of people or animals, the frescoes and mosaics were plastered over. Today they’re working on removing the plaster to reveal thousand year old mosaics, it’s an unbelievable project.

On our tour of the city we also saw the Chora Church Museum, another former Byzantine church-turned-mosque. The “museum” part is the artwork on the walls themselves. It was built in the early 5th century as a Byzantine church, but most of the artwork inside was done around 1300. After Istanbul was conquered it was also converted into a mosque, meaning all of the mosaics and frescoes were plastered over, and the faces of some of the people were even carved out before that. A lot of restoration work has been done since then, and the plaster has been safely removed in many places so you can see some of the artwork.

Istanbul is full of churches, museums, and mosques like those ones. We saw the New Mosque and the Süleymaniye Mosque as well, both were amazing. The Topkapɪ Palace was really neat, too. We spent a lot of time in and around the old city seeing all these sites, but luckily got to see a few other parts of the city, too.

Posted by kmclean 12:52 Archived in Turkey Tagged cities turkey istanbul Comments (0)

Canary Islands

The best way to end off a chilly winter vacation

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This was the most amazing place we’ve been to for sure. It was extra impressive though because it was my first beach vacation, and I think I loved it so much because it reminds of home in a lot of ways. We were lucky and got great weather the whole week and two of the most amazing hosts anyone could ask for. I’m starting to understand why people “snowbird”— this was a much needed escape from the grey, rainy winter in Europe this year. After spending the week lounging around beaches and getting to know some of the locals, I can safely say we chose the wrong major. I’m half kidding, but I’d really love to be able to speak Spanish! We had the most amazing hosts here who showed us around the island and took us to places we never could have reached on our own. We spent a lot of time on beaches, of course, but also took in a few sites like a salt museum by the salt flats, the island of Lobos, although that also just ended up being a beach day, and a trip to Timanfaya park on Lanzarote. The culture is great here and the island is beautiful. I don’t think we could have chosen a better place to end our trip.

The day we arrived our hosts, Julio and Isabel, picked us up from the airport and took us around the island to some places not accessible by bus. We saw a black sand beach in Ajuy and some caves there. I had fresh fish for the first time since we left home for lunch. Afterwards we went to Isabelle’s parents’ house and got to see the most typical lifestyle on Fuerteventura. They have a huge goat farm with about 300 goats, also lots of sheep and chickens and even a few peacocks! After tourism, goat farming is the main industry on the island. They took us to see the sunset at the Faro de la Entallada, near Gran Tarajal, which was unbelievable. We went back and got some rest, looking forward to the rest of the week.

The next few days we spent visiting all the beautiful beaches on the island. For a small island with relatively few inhabitants, there’s a great bus service for tourists. It runs the entire length of the island and you can get to all the main places with it for only a few euros. We spent some time in Peurto del Rosario, which is where we stayed, and visited the salt flats in La Salina on our first day. We walked up to Caleta and caught a beautiful sunset there. Over the next couple of days we visited Morro Jable and Jandia beach, Costa Calma and La Barca beach, Corralejo, El Cotillo, and the beaches around these popular resort towns. El Cotillo was my favourite one, and it’s slightly on the western side of the island, so we got to see the sun set into the ocean.

We also managed to get in a couple of day trips. We spent one day on the Island of Lobos, a tiny island only a 15 minute ferry ride off the coast near Corralejo. The entire island is a national park. There are couple of houses where people live on a temporary basis, I think fishermen, and one small restaurant which sells nothing bus fresh fish. There a couple of really amazing beaches on the island which we spent some time at, then we got some fish at the restaurant before catching the last ferry back to Fuerteventura. On Saturday we went to Lanzarote to see the volcano there. It erupted in the 1700’s, so a huge part of the island is still covered in volcanic debris. The earth is still extremely hot there – there’s a restaurant at the top of the volcano mountain where they cook the food over a giant hole in the ground where the heat comes up. There’s a very narrow, windy road which goes through the volcano park which you can travel through on a bus to see some amazing views. It was great to see a little highlight of Lanzarote; it definitely looks like it would be worth spending some time there to see the rest of the island.

On our last day we took an amazing road trip with our hosts. They took us along with their friends and family to Cofete, a remote part of the island on the northern edge of the very southern tip. The beaches there are unbelievable. They stretch for kilometres with the Atlantic ocean on one side and huge mountains on the other. It’s a gorgeous part of the island. It’s both a good bad thing that it’s only accessible by a dirt road – there are never very many people there, which would be really nice, but it’s also hard to get to, not the kind of place you just go to for the beach, I guess. While we were in the area we also saw the “Winter House” a former Nazi lair owned by general Winter during WWII. The history of that war spreads so far! You literally can’t escape it, not even on a remote island off the coast of Africa. The house is really, really interesting, and we were extremely lucky and got to see inside. There are all kinds of legends you can read about, some of them are likely true! We were so lucky to get to go with Julio and Isabel to this part of the island.

This whole island is absolutely beautiful, and definitely my favourite place we’ve visited. It’s hard to compare it to city vacations in metropolitan Europe, but the whole experience was just unbelievable. I really love it here, too, because it reminds of home in a lot of ways. Life in Germany is very different. It’s a lot more stressed and rushed. I would also say people are generally more uptight there, understandably, but sometimes it seems excessive. People get antsy if the tram that comes every 6 minutes is 1 minute late, they’ll stand for 5 minutes at a cross walk with no cars if the light is red, it’s almost impossible to find someone who will take 15 seconds to give you quick directions, and waitresses get mad at you if you call them over to order something else after you get your meal. Here, it’s a lot more like home, and I love it. The people are unbelievably friendly and generous, they always smile and say hi, even if you don’t know them. There’s tons of fresh fish, but if that’s not what you like there are other options. The beaches are surrounded by cliffs, the cities aren’t crowded at all, the stores are open at least until 10, there are cafés everywhere and people drink coffee, which is delicious here, the beers are a manageable size, the busses are always late, if they come at all. There are also a lot of little, ridiculous things I really miss and have had a hard time finding in Germany, or Europe, like bedsheets, bathtubs, uncarbonated water, free bathrooms, garbage cans on the streets, and local music.

I think this would be an amazing place to live, if you can handle heat, but I can definitely say it’s a great place to visit. It would be well worth it to rent a car, though, because there are just so many places to see which you can only get to on roads through the mountains. Right now it’s the low season, so it wasn’t really crowded anywhere, even though the temperatures were up around 25° some days – definitely warm enough for the beach – but Julio and Isabel said the resort towns and beaches can get pretty busy in the summer. The smaller, more remote beaches are always relatively empty. You could easily spend a month here and probably never see the same beach twice, but I felt like we were rushed to see the main places with a week; it’s a place you would want to spend a lot of time in for sure. This was the perfect end to a wonderful trip, and a great “last hurrah” before we head back to Germany to buckle down for the rest of the semester. I couldn’t think of a better way to have spent the last week of our Christmas break, and the Canary Islands are definitely at the top of my “must return” list.

Here are some pictures.

Posted by kmclean 19:28 Archived in Spain Tagged islands winter beach house villa christmas fuerteventura canary 2012 cofete Comments (0)

Munich

A very beautiful, very German city

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Our second last stop and the last city in mainland Europe we visited this Christmas break was Munich. I’ve really been wanting to see it, being so close in Freiburg, and this was perfect chance since it’s about half way between Prague and Freiburg. It’s a great city and very, very German. I guess most of the German stereotypes come from Bavaria. It turned out to be a lot smaller than I thought it was, but that ended up being a great thing since we had no problem getting around on foot. I guess it’s also one of the first cities we’ve been to in a while that doesn’t have two sides divided by a river, which makes it a lot more accessible for pedestrians. The city was really interesting and has a fascinating history. It’s very grim in a lot of ways, but nothing a few litres of beer can’t fix.

We did a walking tour on our first day, of course, and learned a lot about the city. The history goes way back to the Bavarian kingdom, but more recently it was the centre of the Nazi movement, being called by Hitler himself “Die Hauptstadt der Bewegung” – the capital city of the movement. He gave his inaugural speech as leader of the party in a beer hall here, he carried out the “beer hall putsch”, a first attempt to overthrow the government by force, here, he gave a speech every year on its anniversary here, and he opened the first concentration camp just outside the city in Dachau. Of course because of all this by the end of the war the city had been destroyed, but they knew it was coming and made a lot of effort to preserve original city plans and building blueprints. Because of this the city still looks quite beautiful compared to some other German cities, like Berlin, which were kind of just thrown up quickly according to the design of the time. Unfortunately 60’s and 70’s architecture is nothing special.

The nightlife in Munich isn’t exactly the liveliest, but we still had a good time at a couple of beer halls, which seems to be the thing to do here. We had a hard time finding cafés as always, but the drink of choice is definitely not coffee in this city. Our first night we went to the Hofbräuhaus, the royal brewery, which is where the stage Hitler gave his inaugural speech as leader of the Nazi party on is still standing. The beer was great, but the minimum litre you can order is a little much! The second night we went to the Augustiner Bierhalle and discovered why it’s the local favourite. The beer was probably the most delicious I’ve ever had, and even the pretzels were great.

There’s not a ton of stuff to see or do in Munich, but it’s definitely worth a visit and a few days is a great amount of time to see the main sites and discover the history. I’m glad we stopped over here, it was a great place to just take it easy with a few beers, but now we’re looking forward to getting some sun!

Here a few pictures of Munich.

And a few of our tour of Dachau.

Posted by kmclean 20:27 Archived in Germany Tagged beer germany christmas europe german hall munich putsch stereotypes mainland Comments (0)

Kutná Hora

A day trip from Prague

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This is a really cute little town about an hour outside of Prague and a really great day trip out of the city. We went with a tour company during our stay in Prague and it was definitely worth it. The town itself is really interesting and has a great history, but the most famous site is the ossuary – the bone chapel.

It was definitely the weirdest thing I’ve ever seen. It’s a small chapel just outside the town which was built on the site of former mass graves from the plague and the Hussite wars. The bones were piled up and a few hundred years later a very eccentric German just had to organize them. The Sedlec Ossuary is the result. There are towers, chalices, coats of arms, pyramids, a chandelier, and all kinds of other religious symbols built entirely out of human bones. The whole thing is very creepy, but if you get the chance Kutná Hora is really worth seeing. There’s also a really beautiful gothic cathedral there.

Kutná Hora used to be the site of a massive silver mining operation, and of course most of the money went into the cathedral, so it’s very extravagant. Being in Europe, though, the construction was interrupted several times by various wars and by the time they finished fighting and had the chance to finish building the church, they had spent all the money on war, so it was cut short – literally. It’s very small, and there’s a huge open space behind it, which is now a park, where you can tell they probably had plans to continue construction.

Even if you’re not into all the weird religious things about Europe, the town has an interesting history and is a very idyllic taste of small-town Europe. It was really great for us since we’ve been spending most of our time in cities. There are lots of beautiful, old, buildings which are all very fancy because of the wealth brought to the city by the mines. One that was really interesting is a house where a guy had “private” mines underneath, so he could steal the silver and not pay any taxes on it. Because of all the mines under the city, it’s becoming a little unstable. One of the other main churches there is starting to sink into the ground, most likely because of the mines and tunnels underneath it. Also, a couple of years ago a huge piece of the ground in the main square of the city caved in. The open spaces which are now “squares” in the town are former entrances to the mines, so it was probably to be expected eventually. They’re glad it didn’t happen about 10 metres to the east, though, where there’s a huge monument.

All the history and architecture was really interesting, but the best part of the tour was the lunch break. We went to a restaurant call Dačicky and it was delicious. We’ve really been enjoying Czech food anyway, but here it was really, really great. Our tour guide grew up in Prague and he said it’s his favourite restaurant in the country. They have all the traditional Czech dishes and a really good house beer with the same name as the restaurant. Everything was pretty cheap and the service was great, which I’ve found to be quite unusual for Europe. Czech food is really delicious, which was a great surprise. It’s got a lot of meat but not just pork. Duck, goose, rabbit, venison, and even veal are pretty common, and there’s a lot less cheese and salty sauces than Slovak food. Unfortunately there’s still quite a bit of sauerkraut, but still less than in Germany and Austria.

Kutná Hora is a really nice town and being only an hour away from Prague it makes for a perfect day trip out of the city. It was a perfect way to get away from the crowds (which I’m still not used to) for a day, learn a lot about Czech history, and eat some of the best Czech food there is. Besides one other tour group there were only a few people out and about in the town, it was really peaceful. It would be worth the 2 hour return trip anyway, I think, just for lunch if you’re in Prague and don’t really care for creepy monuments built out of human bones. There are really great little towns like this one with a lot to offer all over Europe, but this is one that’s definitely worth checking out.


Here are the pictures.

Posted by kmclean 20:26 Archived in Czech Republic Tagged food prague christmas czech chapel hora bone ossuary kutna dacicky Comments (0)

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