Olde City Tour – Istanbul

I’m convinced that that best way to see Istanbul is with a guide — unless one speaks Turkish. We hired a government approved tourist guide who gave us a seven hour tour around and through the old city section of Istanbul. His name was Cengiz (pronounced Ghengis — really). Cengiz was terrific. He spoke terrific English — he’d lived in the USA for several years prior to losing a business. Well-educated and secular in perspective his opinion was informative.

Our tour began with a visit to the Sultan Ahmed (Blue) Mosque built between 1609-1617. Only we Westerners call it Blue because of the blue tiles located throughout the structure. The prayer area is immense — the the main domed ceiling is 141 feet high with a circumference of 75 feet. Entirely carpeted it can hold 10,000 worshipers at a time. Its a beautiful building with 30 separate domes that flow from the top like a tumbling stream of water thus distributing the weight without a lot of columns — 26 is all that hold it up.

One Islamic ritual is washing one’s feet and hands before praying everyday outside the mosque:

Cengiz provided a religious history lesson while we gazed at the strucure. Briefly, Islam, Judaism and Christianity are all cut from the same cloth: all use the Old Testament, Torah and Koran as the source material for their beliefs. Abraham, Jesus and Mohammed are all important figures. Muslims are of two main sects — Shite and Sunni. In many ways their split mirrors that of Catholicism and Lutheranism. Historically, religion has been a major driver for war and destruction, for conquest,”redemption”,  for  obtaining wealth and power. And so it goes..

This board  shows the connection between the three major world religions:  starting with Adam and Eve the muslim story mirrors Judaism and Christian beliefs:  Upon leaving the Blue Mosque we entered the site of the hippodrome — if you’ve seen Ben Hur the movie you’ll recall the chariot race (think  Charlton Heston in 1959). Its been said that over 25,000 spectators could enjoy the races at any given time —  the oringinal site rivaled the Coliseum in Rome.  The  “citizens”of Rome  were able to attend horse and chariot races .This edifice built in 200 A.D. by the Roman Emperor Septimius Severus . Of course, sometimes more important uses came into play like the execution of 20,000+ individuals who supported the wrong regime nearly 1,600 years ago.

Yesterday’s  Hippodrome–see the oblesk in the drawing:

This is the Hippodrome today:

This obelisk still stands today– was referenced above:


From the Hippodrome Cengiz to the Hagia Sofia (translation — holy wisdom) Mosque — constructed  between 532 and 537. This structure was originally a church built by the Emperor Constantine. However, depending on “who was in charge” its been either a Church or a Mosque since then — now its a museum. Besides being beloved for its architecture in the past 100-years mosaics  have drawen interest.  These have been found during the many ongoing periods of restoration.  These 13th century examples are of Christ flanked Mary his mother and John the Baptist and Christ flanked by Mary and the Emperor Constantinople the first Roman emperor to support Christianity:

 Scaffolding was everywhere as the entire building is being restored. One standout feature is the worship box for the Ottoman Sultan. He used this to pray away from the masses — he was fearful of an assassination attempt  — typically a knife in the back.  This is filigreed marble: Mosiacs discovered in the Haiga Sofia  from its Christian orgins:
The Arabic that was written when the church became a mosque.

Picture of Mohamed the Prophet — founder of Islam—notice its words since all photos would be considered  idolatrous:

All women must be covered while in a mosque–scarves (robin’s egg blue) are provided–see ladies below:

Later we lunched at the Pudding Cafe for an authentic meal–lamb donar kabobs that were delicious: 

The final historic site we visited was a cistern. There are 500 cisterns scattered beneath Istanbul. Originally built to store the city’s water eventually it evolved into a tourist trap of sorts. Enterprising folks drained most of the water, re-built or replaced the columns that hold up the ceilings and “invited” tourists to visit. It looks spooky with the mood lighting bouncing off the remaining water (2 ft. deep) and the columns. Interestingly, carp can be seen swimming in the water — even a hand-full of goldfish.
See these “spooky” photos — the fish:       and especially the floating head:

and the ever spooky floating head (me):

One thing I really like about Turkey is its respect for its past–antiquities  are not bulldozed out of existence –rather  ruins are salvaged and re-used or left as is:

The day ended with a visit to a rug shop owned by a friend of the guide. At first the visit seemed innocous  until the hard sell started — then we ran for our lives– the salesman followed me out of the sop and onto the street.  Wow, just got out with my scalp intact –almost purchased a genuine handmade Turkish rug. Still the rug shop was educational I was introduced to the ancient art of rugmaking. Its the cost of the labor that drives the price.  The second major factor is the material used to construct the rug  — silk, wool or cotton.  It can take up to three years to make one rug.   The weaver typically works  3-4 hours a day. This is the process–see how a true craftwoman makes a  rug one inch at a time:

  The hard sell and the willingness to barter nearly ensnared me — common sense prevailed. See the flying carpet below–he should be selling pizza:

 The tour ended in the Instanbul grand Bazaar. This gigantic market is one of he largest in the world.  One can purchase a variety of household goods, tools, touristy stuff, clothing, food — spices, teas, etc.   The hard sell immediately begins when one approaches any type  of shop.  Turkish culure requires one to barter which for some can be half the fun:


Finally the sun began to set and this eye opening day was drawing to close. We  were all exhausted and ready to head to our next destination. We said our goodbyes and wished Cengis well — he was returning to America in January — he and his wife had recently obtained  US Green Cards . This time he would have a green card and a job in a rug store in Sherman Oaks, CA. He was looking forward to leaving Turkey–and sanguine at the same time.

Soon we hailed a cab and headed to our next destination.

Whew, I’m tired!

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Sadness comes with the Territory

Prague was more than I recall–the city has really changed in the past 10-years. Taking a free tour of the city was certainly the right way to start.

Kenny is an American ex-patriot who is from Denver. He’s lived in Europe for seven years. He gives tours by day and teaches English at night. Boy, was he a ball of fire — his energy was palpable:

Seeing Prague again was eye-opening. More people than ever — many were on holiday:

First, we elected to go to the Jewish Quarter. Visits to four synagogues provides the more or less complete story of the Jewish community since the 10th century. The experience included the story of death and how the Jewish faith handles it. Also the story of the 16th century wealth created in large part by Mordecai Maisel.

Interestingly, another synagogue is the entry to a very old Jewish cemetery — this dates from 15th through the 18th century. There are over 17,000 graves in this small cemetery that are buried in 12 layers of dirt brought in over time:

This is the Maisel Synagogue built in the 16th century:

The most heart wrenching synagogue to visit had three separate “shrines”. The first shrine listed the death camps created by the Nazis from Dachau to Auschwitz:

Then there were rooms with thousands of names listed on walls that state every person killed in the camps — each name is verbally declared each day as one views the wall:

All Prague Jews were initially sent to the Terezin Concentration Camp. This was called a ” model” camp because the Germans would regularly show it the Red Cross which meant inmates received better food, limited schooling for children and it had an orchestra. Eventually, the occupants were sent to Auschwitz and Treblinka.

Children of the camp did have a teacher and class. Over several years the children were told by their teacher to draw pictures of “normal” activities — the sadness is overwhelming– see below:

The students completed over 5,000 drawings while in captivity. Their teacher hid them in a horse barn. Neither the teacher or the children survived the death camps. Their drawing are all that remain. Eventually, over 15,000 children were sent to death camps–150 survived the war.

On a cheerier note the ghetto had two clocks that could be seen near the synagogues: one clock is in Hebrew (toward the bottom), but both clocks are located on the ghetto municipal building. The Hebrew clock is unusual in that it runs backwards and uses numbers shown in Hebrew:

It’s strange that with great sadness can also come beauty.

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Passau, I Hardly Knew Ye

Passau is in Germany on the edge of Bavaria only a few miles fro Austria. The Danube is joined here by two other rivers–the Inn and the Ilz:

Our first morning was foggy and mysterious–this is on the Inn River:

Passau’s population is 50,000. It principally survives on tourism. Its claim to fame is St Stephen’s Cathedral — in and out of fog:

The bishop of this town used to run the entire region through his army. Yes, I said army. There was a period of time when the pope and his bishops were leaders of armies. This bishop ruled with an iron fist. This is a painting of the bishop and some of his cohorts:

He had a castle across the Danube which he periodically had to retreat to when the townspeople rebelled against his rule. He’d order his troops to shoot boulders and flaming arrows in the midst of the crowds until they disbanded.

But, back to St Stephens. This large baroque edifice is, of course, beautiful (ugh) inside:

But it’s most spectacular offering and true claim to fame is its massive organ built in 1733. It has 17,774 pipes making it the largest in Europe — second largest in the world — there is one bigger located in Los Angeles:

Some of its pipes measure several meters — one pipe that is less than five inches in size. The larger the pipe the louder and deeper the sound. The smallest pipe plays so high it can be difficult to discern.

Later in day I was able to attend a concert in the cathedral. The organist played five pieces including Bach’s Toccata in Fugue in D minor — a musical piece well known to many from the Disney film “Fantasia”. It was, dare I say, heavenly.

The town truly survives on tourism–this means lots food to munch on:

lots of quaint museums like the Dachshund or Dackel Museum.

Don’t you love the proprietor’s love green pants:

These were in the museum shop:

What good would a tourist stop be without a character to view:

This is a photo from the 1930’s:

What tourist haven!

On to Prague!!

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Do you know the way to Cesky Krumlov?

I know it doesn’t rhythm–sometimes things just work that way.

We stopped in Linz, Austria and then went to Cesky Krumlov–located in the Czech Republic:

potty break along the way:

For me it ”twas a return engagement. It was the summer home for the Empress Theresa of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. The castle was built in the 13th century (everything is so damn old!).

It’s a UNESCO site with one of only two Baroque Theaters left in Europe. (Built in the 17th century.)

It also has a bear pit–a Middle Ages anachronism. The bear is the symbol of the Czech Republic:

This is a river town — sliced in two by the Vtlala River:

We window shopped and ate lunch at Papa’s — sat outside by the river:

— recommended by a tour guide — good food — had Italian:

Then walked to the castle garden–more in the throes of fall than summer:

The castle had this sun dial mounted to a building. The time would have been correct, but for daylight savings time:

The castle had a number of frescoes:

A fresco is painting on wet plaster; the drying of the plaster results in almost a lifetime piece of art. This process was originated in Italy and brought to Krumlov in 1588.

I was here 10-years ago and it’s definitely different now.

Still, I loved the visit. What a wonderful day — good weather, good food and good friends.


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Going Up the “Brown Danube”

Today there was only one stop. This was to the Benedictine Abbey of Göttweig. The day was quite beautiful, however, until we reached the abbey which was located on a hilltop overlooking the Danube River it was hard to see or appreciate the density of the thick fog that covered the river valley:

Located near Krems, Austria the abbey was founded nearly a thousand years ago. Currently, 45 priests and brothers reside here. Ranging from the ages of 21 to 94 they provide clergy to local parishes, as well as, agriculturalists, artists, teachers and many other professionals.

Like all Roman Catholic enclaves the buildings shared great beauty:

The abbey was originally built of timber. It burned down several hundred years ago (the flames easily jumped from building to building no water was on the hill making it very difficult to save the site save the Church) and so it was rebuilt to mirror its former design. A general dearth of funds resulted in painting certain exterior improvements onto the new abbey buildings and even its Church — the clock on the right is painted on unlike the the clock to the left. It also includes windows in different parts of the abbey:

Not unlike other churches of that era the inside had the typical gold leaf, statuary and frescos:

Frankly, I’m beginning to feel rather “over churched” — after all if you’ve seen one church you’ve seen them all!

Once we got on our way again the scenery looked great–leaves changing, swans all over the place even moon sightings occurred:

What a pleasant way to live. On to Linz.

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Gotta Love Vienna!

This is the city of Mozart, baroque buildings and art; and great food!

Known for strudel and tortes Vienna is home to the Sacher Torte only available at the Hotel Sacher — we also had coffee and incredibly rich hot chocolate:

It was sooo yummy!! After rolling out of the Hotel we wandered down a large pedestrian mall.

We spotted this gentleman pouring wine for an outside restaurant:

Later, I came upon this ice cream truck — with lots of willing customers:

That evening we had a private concert on Mozart and Strauss music with some of our close personal friends:

It was another day to remember!

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Lookin Forward to Vienna

Four years ago I spent Thanksgiving in Vienna. This time I had a day! And it was marvelous!

The visit began with a walk around the city. One is quickly reminded of why Vienna looks like a mini- Paris:

broad boulevards and wonderful buildings:

Filled with monuments to royalty like the above dedicated to Empress Maria Therese who ruled the Austrian-Hungarian empire in the 18th century. Bet you didn’t know she birthed 16 kids over 19-years. This included the birth of her youngest daughter — the infamous Marie Antoinette the future queen of France. She lost her head during the revolution because her French subjects refused to eat cake or so some say!

Even statues of Hercules abounded see four below as the hero is showing why is a crowd favorite:

Huge — right?

Here is one hundreds of fountains that commemorate Marie’s rule:

Ever hear of little group called the Vienna Boys Choir–their personal performance hall for over two centuries– they mustn’t be boys anymore is located in the same complex located in the same building:

The hall is part a church located in the backside of this building.

It’s fairly private – only the royal family could worship here until the end of WW I — the monarchy ended with war because there was no royal family after the war:

This entrance is to the same building. It is the chapel located in the coronation building — built over 300 years ago — this picture shows the entrance and its gate (original entrance). Look close, there are two spots above the opening that once worked as pulleys that raised or lowered at the behest early rulers. See two items near the top of the door opening:

this is all that’s left of the moat which is below the to the right of the gate:

Under most of the old city (under the buildings) one can find Roman ruins–this walk is nearly 2,000 years old:

So beautiful!

Next time I’ll mention other special things seen in Vienna.


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Bratislava, where is it?

On our way we traveled through the first lock:

It took forever because we had to wait for others to pass first– it was pretty cool once we entered:

After a few hours we were on our way again!

The visit to Bratislava was short, but sweet! Half a million inhabitants. Most were at work (we arrived at 2:30 or so). And it rained for a short time, like 10 minutes.

It’s home to a gigantic space ship:

It’s a restaurant that landed on a bridge years ago! So now you know where Slovaks came from — yes!

Just kidding of course, or am I?

As with all European cities–plazas take precedent because pedestrians take priority over vehicles.

I liked this sculpture in the plaza and in other places too:

As well as this piece that represents St Martin helping a beggar:

and this one — a sewer worker looking up dresses from a manhole:

and this one — a 10 foot crown on a church steeple that represents the coronation of a king:

perhaps this one — created to signify the end of the Russian occupation:

The buildings also look like sculpture:

or this church:

and lastly this government building:

Franz Liszt, a Hungarian composer spent some time in Slovakia — every Slavic country wants to claim him as their own:

Toward end of my visit I saw these fellas enjoying, well, you be the judge:

Needless to say they were animated!

So off once again.

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