Monthly Archives: September 2015

Turkish Delight — Istanbul, Turkey

The whirling dervish spins, arms raised, eyes half open, head tilted, one palm to the sky to receive gifts from God and one facing the ground to give it to Man. Istanbul could be as disorienting; it seems to spin around you even as you stay still. But as our private guide explained, “Once you know Istanbul, you sense the order behind the chaos.” He is right. There are people everywhere, but not in the overwhelming, claustrophobic, stressful sense. Istanbul is colourful and lively, pretty and sprawling. And the number of people is outnumbered only by the number of cats.

Street cats are everywhere. But instead of mangy and scrawny and sly, they seem clean, well-fed, and flealess enough to hold on my lap. They’ve taken ownership of the city: lying on statues; standing by gates; and sitting upright on restaurant chairs like little furry men, spines against the chair back, hind legs stretched out in front of them, and front paws up high waiting for their coffee.

Old Istanbul conveniently gathers most of the major sites in one place:

  • Blue Mosque: more of a pastel mosque with as much pink as blue
  • Aya Sofia: named “Holy Wisdom” (“Sofia” meaning wisdom, not someone’s name), the church has changed from Greek Orthodox to Roman Catholic to Greek Orthodox to Imperial Mosque to museum since it was built in 537 AD
  • Topkapi Palace: home to the stunning 86-carat pear-shaped Spoonmaker’s Diamond that legend says was found by a fisherman who bartered it for three wooden spoons
  • The Spice Bazaar: endless stalls with perfect pyramids of multi-coloured, fragrant spices and dusty Turkish Delight, and the surrounding streets with wall-to-wall shops selling party favours beside prayer beads beside guns with child-sized mannequins in camouflage
  • The Grand Bazaar: much more civilized than expected and both cramped and enormous: small, clean stores with doors and air conditioning, beside busy kiosks selling variations of the same thing: carpets, pashminas, jeweled teardrop lanterns, copper pots, wooden spoons, housewares, hardware, giant rolls of bubble wrap… I regretfully passed up the opportunity to buy the softest scarf of unicorn hair.
  • Bosphorus cruise: a beautiful 2-hr boat ride at sunset on the breezy top deck listening to the incomprehensible, monotone tour guide who sounded like the teacher in Snoopy cartoons but thankfully was so bored by her job that she’d stop talking for long stretches
  • As much as I loved the majesty and variety of the sights, it is the little human moments that I enjoyed the most:

  • My friend and I laughing at the plaque in Aya Sofia that we both read as the minibar, instead of “minbar,” where the priests gave sermons
  • Conservative women in niqabs taking selfies over and over again, going for the perfect expression in their beautiful eyes, I guess
  • The museum’s cat that preened in front of a giant floodlight to a paparazzi of tourists snapping pictures – work it, kitty
  • The mesmerizing whirling dervishes who spun continuously for 30 minutes both on their axes and around a central dervish to mimic the solar system, then slowed to a stop without falling drunkenly over
  • But the highlight was the private tour guide we hired for our last day. Highly recommended, he was more like a rent-a-local-friend. He was friendly with a masters in history and walked us around 15 km (and 52 floors according to my FitBit) of neighborhoods telling us history and stories of current life in Istanbul but never feeling like he should have an umbrella or lollipop sign.

    He took us to local restaurants, chocolate shops and a tea garden. He revealed the creamy sweet deliciousness of balkaymak (literally honey and clotted cream) on bread, and we shared a pot of the richest melted chocolate with fresh strawberries and a crunchy granola. Best of all, we all drank “boza,” bulgur wheat fermented with water and sugar and topped with cinnamon and roasted chickpeas that you eat with a spoon. Like a summer eggnog and apparently very effective in treating cholera.

    And to crown it off, we walked up steep stairs, down a dimly-lit hallway, did a secret knock on an unmarked door, and then waited until the caretaker came towards us. The door to a narrow stairway was unlocked and then we were up and out on the roof above the Spice Bazaar to unparalleled views of Istanbul. Our guide making me climb up on one of the roof-top domes to be King of the World – definitely an afternoon of Turkish Delight.

    Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds — Croatia

    Croatia’s national food is pasta. That was according to the proprietress of our hotel in Zadar. She explained it was a hangover from when the Venetians ruled the area from 1420 to 1797. It certainly dominates every menu no matter what the style of food. Pasta, pizza and risotto are staples. The rest of the menu consists of fish and meat, usually chicken, lamb and beef.

    It is hard to judge what is authentic Croatian or Dalmatian food. We stayed in the Old Town of each place for the atmosphere (worth it) but that also meant it was more touristy. My sister and I tended to claim the fish or seafood dishes while Mom generally kept the meat side in business. Cuttlefish and octopus were common and seemed to be the most local, along with the fish.

    In the early days we were thrown off by the pricing, moving on quickly when the menu listed steaks and fish for the equivalent of $80 Cdn. It wasn’t until a few days later that we realized they were priced by the pound, while other menu items, like pasta, were not. In general, we could eat a delicious dinner for $30-40 each, all in, with a little wine.

    Croatia counts heavily on tourism so most people speak some English and wait staff generally speak it very well. Menus are translated and if some of the labels aren’t exactly accurate, well that’s not really unusual when you are traveling. Pan-fried and deep-fried are often used interchangeably. Our “pan-fried squids” came deep-fried and breaded. And enormous: wide, thick rings of calamari with those spider pieces but of giant size, and an off-putting arrowhead squid tail that must get thrown away in Canada.

    We were also told by one server that in Croatia, omelette and scrambled eggs mean the same thing, although that was likely a language issue. He’d offered us a choice of omelette or eggs and we’d made the mistake of asking how they prepared the non-omelette eggs. We gave up and enjoyed the omelettes.

    Our most unusual meal came from the highly rated and personally recommended Azur in Dubrovnik. Azur, like many restaurants, lines up candlelit tables in the narrow alleyways radiating out in three directions. Well-fed cats sauntered by hoping for some of our pan-fried swordfish in black curry sauce and crispy salmon pockets with wasabi sauce. Black sauces and black risotto, courtesy of cuttlefish ink, are popular. And delicious.

    But our tastiest meal was at Konoba (coastal Croatian for restaurant) Matejuska in Split. A top favourite on Trip Advisor, it books up days in advance so we were lucky to discover it in time to score a table on our last night there. The server presented a cutting board of fresh fish his father had picked up at the market that morning: black sea bream, gilthead bream, sea bass, sarpa salpa (another species of sea bream) and golden mullet. All white meat, you order by the whole fish so need to balance mild vs. fuller fish flavour with the size of the fish and the number of starters and sides you are having.

    We settled on the medium-sized sarpa salpa, grilled whole, with olive oil, salt, pepper and lemon. Tender octopus with whole chickpeas in a rich sauce started the meal. Fresh bread sopped up the sauce. A flavourful grilled mixed vegetable dish of red onion, mushrooms, red pepper, eggplant and zucchini, just on the right side of salty, complemented the simple preparation of the fish and boiled potatoes tossed with oil and vinegar cut some of the richness. A little research revealed that salpa can induce LSD-like hallucinations. It’s a thing called salpa-tripping and might explain why the restaurant is so popular.

    To add to the atmosphere, we were on the edge of a storm front, not raining but cooler and windy. When we sat down outside the server said, “I’m sorry, we are all full inside so if it rains…I don’t know what to say… If it is light, you’ll be fine under these awnings. If not, you’re all in trouble.”

    Apparently they have hurricane-speed winds (up to 225 km/hr) occasionally. I can believe it as the unpredictable gusts we had that night blew the clean side plates, cutlery and napkins completely out of the server’s hands the minute he walked out, forcing him to go back for others. Throughout the meal, a strong gust would come up and we’d all dive for whatever meant the most to us. My sister and I dove for the wine, Mom grabbed the food, and the vase with flowers went flying. Napkins were airborne all night.

    We finally tried the pizza on our last and only night in Trogir. It was the sole real day of rain so after a late lunch and walking around the once-again beautiful UNESCO town, damp and tired, we ordered a large pizza and took it home to eat in our attic suite. The pizza, thin crust with salami, ham, bacon, onions and egg, made for a cozy dinner and perfect lunch the following.

    One final surprise of eating in Croatia was the predominance of gelato. It is everywhere, every few feet in every town and all dressed up for the ball. Creamy and rich, there is a multitude of flavours in each case, from chocolate to stracciatella to hazelnut to strawberry to lemon. Rarely translated, each flavour is decorated so extravagantly with some of the fresh ingredients that it wasn’t difficult to figure it out. Just to decide.

    Wary Wary Extraordinary — Dubrovnik, Croatia

    Dubrovnik has rebuilt itself in the last 20 years, repairing most of the damage from the Homeland War while leaving shrapnel marks in the walls of churches and other buildings as a reminder. I was concerned we’d be charmed-out after Zadar, Split and Hvar but I needn’t have worried. The minute we walked through the main gate, we were transported back in time. I’m not a Game of Thrones fan but scenes are shot here and I doubt they had to do much to dress it up.

    It is like the planners used the wall as a belt around the city and cinched it up to jumble all the houses together tightly. The UNESCO rules are strict but they pay off by limiting the excessive touristy elements and keeping the city uniform with light stone walls, terracotta half-pipe shingled roofs and dark green shutters.

    During the day you have to avoid the hordes of cruise ship and bus tour people who, by their sheer number, chase you down the narrow, stepped streets like the bulls in Pamplona. I’m still most partial to simply walking around and soaking up the atmosphere. While this is enjoyable at street level, it is breathtaking up on top of Dubrovnik’s city walls. For a fee, you can meander around the perimeter for what is billed as an hour’s walk but stretches to two when you stop every few feet to snap pictures. The many stairs up and down and up and up again have something to do with that too. You look out over the beautiful turquoise and deep blue of the Adriatic and in on the inner courtyards and bougainvillea of hidden Dubrovnik.

    Tourism is clearly the primary economic driver and never is it more obvious in the choice of music that permeates the area from restaurants and terraces and shops. There are jazz trios, string quartets and the Dubrovnik Symphony Orchestra playing a concert, while others blare Rod Stewart. We had our own lounge singer each night, wafting up from the restaurant directly below our attic Airbnb. We heard the pianist/singer’s full repertoire of The Entertainer, Memory, Windmills of my Mind, New York New York and Somewhere Over the Rainbow a number of times. But my favourite was Nat King Cole’s L-O-V-E. While we butchered Croatian greetings in part due to our misunderstanding of how their Vs and Ws work, they clearly had the same trouble with ours. The Love song turned into:
    L is for the “vay” you look at me
    O is for the only “vun” I see
    “We” is “wary, wary” extraordinary
    E is even more than anyone that you

    That’s Dubrovnik without question, wary wary extraordinary, even more than you can adore.

    Are There Others in the World? — Split, Croatia

    The write ups of Diocletian’s Palace on travel forums reflect the contradiction of a main tourist attraction that both doesn’t exist and is always open. After looking up the Palace on online maps and searching for opening hours and entry fees, we figured out that Split’s main attraction is…Split. There is no actual palace.

    The Palace is instead a set of ruins from 305 AD that daily life has taken over. Now filled with hotels, shops, restaurants and a fish market or two, the Old Town of Split is the Palace, walled in with three main gates for access: Golden, Silver and Iron, all of which are made of stone. Well, the arches are stone, presumably the original gates were made of namesake materials. The Golden gate is presided over by the enormous statue of Grgur Ninski, a medieval bishop who brought Catholic masses to the masses by translating them from Latin to Croatian. He looks like a giant wizard, which I suppose is fitting enough. The fourth wall of the grounds doesn’t have a gate as such as Diocletian wanted swim up (boat up) access so built his palace, really his retirement home, right on the water. Reclaimed land on that side has become the modern day Riva promenade.

    Among the warren of streets, there is a central square with cathedral, bell tower and men dressed up as centurions in a classier, European version of Times Square superheroes. Walking away from that square we turned down a side street and passed a cafe. I heard my name just as a friend from Vancouver walked up beside me. We’d recently realized we’d be in Croatia at the same time but expected it to be a few days away in a different city. So now I can take credit for introducing her to Froggyland.

    Type “off the beaten path” along with any city into Google and do whatever comes up — in Split it was Froggyland. A tragedy that photos were prohibited, words can’t do it justice, but you can see some pictures on their site, A hundred years ago, a Hungarian taxidermist caught 507 frogs in his local swamp, and over 10 years stuffed and made little dioramas of them in human situations: frogs playing poker; frogs on parallel bars; frog musicians playing songs for drunk frog brothers; and with greatest irony, frogs doing the high jump. 507 frogs. 507. It’s bizarre (frogs shackled and tortured in a frog inquisition) and amusing (a frog classroom with frog students whacking each other over the head with rulers, and bored frogs with their heads in their flippers).

    The Hungarian was a taxidermy legend. There are no seams so he deboned, stuffed and wired them internally though their mouths, without cutting them open. Modern taxidermists are agog. The best part was when the attendant introduced the exhibit with great pride, “This is the largest collection in the world!” My sister paused and asked gently, “Are there, uh, others in the world?”

    Hvar You Doing? — Hvar Island, Croatia

    When people first get to Split they immediately book a boat to an island. Or so it seems, judging by the excursion kiosks stretching along the Riva into the horizon. Not a reflection on Split, I hoped.

    Hvar (pronounced fast like “HowAre you doing?) was our choice for an island hop. It won out based on ferry schedules despite its reputation as a party island.

    There should be more synonyms for narrow, crooked, picturesque, cobblestone streets. Hvar added in hills, more churches and multiple monasteries. And met what must be a federally mandated ratio of restaurants and gelato places to Hawaiian shirt-loving tourists.

    Being a scientific family, we marched to the tourist info office for a list of sights, which I proceeded to check off with a pen once we had wrestled the map from the attendant. The tourist office was a small room a sole person standing behind a desk. No brochures, only a pad of those placemat mats. The attendant seemed annoyed that we were there and exasperated that we asked any questions at all. Sightseeing seemed to be for show, in any case, as only one of the eight attractions we came across was open to the public. We peered faithfully into the windows of locked churches and monasteries; glanced up at the fortress a Grouse Grind away; and pondered the bizarre coupling of the theatre/armoury before moving on. It was more of an excuse to wander the streets eating ice cream which was fine by me.

    Very meta, we caught a water taxi from Hvar Island to another island for a day trip within a day trip. We by-passed the nude beach in our quest for a sandy one. Croatians cleverly make use of any terrain for a beach: cement jetties, sea walls, rocky outcrops where they precariously perch plastic loungers, cliff tops and small strips of sand just big enough for a half a dozen people to lie side by side like sardines. We chose sardine beach but perched ourselves on nearby rocks instead. The cove was ringed by stone retaining walls and trees and filled with turquoise water that sparked when the sun shone on it. Cold, though. It took a friendly Italian tourist hooking my arm to haul me out bodily, likely tired of watching me mince my way around the sharp rocks in my bid to come out. It wasn’t a less painful way to emerge, just quicker.

    We finished the day eating local Croatian cuisine (i.e. Italian, more on that later) and hopped back on the ferry to Split back home. Just as the party people arrived.

    More is More is More — Zadar, Croatia

    Despite only coming to Croatia for 10 days, we have six towns on the agenda. The less-is-more philosophy is hard to follow when traveling.

    The Old Town of Zadar is walled in to keep out marauders of old and cars of new. Pedestrian-only streets of cobblestone are worn to shiny so that they look wet in the evening light. The largest street, Kalelarga, means literally “large street.” It is lined with clothing shops and outdoor restaurants. The parallel streets on either side have the cheaper tourist shops and kiosks.

    Walking around the crooked side streets, we stumbled onto cozy restaurants with outside seating, raised patios and courtyards. And tourist prices. But while the servers are few and generally harried, they let you linger at the end of the meal to the point where you forget to pay and get up to leave.

    Other than walking the streets, there are 14 churches to see in this small area, the oldest of which dates back to the 9th century. We decided to defer entry until the internal light show started at 8 pm, feeling lucky that we’d timed it right based on the poster proclaiming, “Only two days left.” Turns out 9th century architecture can charitably be described as smooth (simple, bare, unadorned, minimalist, upright) and the light show was similarly unprepossessing, consisting of a multitude of office projectors powered by snaking cords, projecting what looked like Celtic designs on the various blank walls. The most interesting part was an unseen pigeon caught in a projector’s beam and magnified to horror-like proportions.

    But what Zadar is known for is the sea organ. Made up of slits in the cement sea wall and strategically placed blow holes, the waves roll in to produce a pan pipe-like music combined with whale sounds that rises dramatically when a boat’s wake sends the sea crashing against the wall.

    The 30+ degree heat mocked my assertion that I wasn’t interested in swimming or beaches and had me and my sister jumping into the Adriatic to cool off. Very salty. And almost as buoyant as the Dead Sea, so I was able to float vertically, standing up, without having to tread water, much.

    To cap off the moment, we pulled ourselves back out of the water to see the sunset perform a crazy sun salutation light show across what looked like an electrical grid sunk into the ground. The rays heat up metal veins that activate mini lights of blue, green, purple, red, making them dance across the large circle. With the sea organ quiet at first, then loud and insistent as the waves roll in, church bells pealing and the grid’s lights set off by the wonder of physics, Zadar more than surpasses the often lukewarm write-ups as not being a picture-postcard town. And made me eager for the rest of Croatia. More is more is more.

    Ne Koala — Zagreb, Croatia

    The travel writing book I’m reading begs me to avoid the “I woke up at X, then ate breakfast at Y before having lunch at Z” syndrome. One technique, the author offers, is to write your day in five sentences. So here is my 5-part attempt, although I’m liberating myself from the actual sentence count.

    1. Despite having six devices between us, Mom, my sister and I met in Heathrow Terminal 2 at a predetermined location, old school. Some textual challenges getting the messages to come out on the right device with the right app but we’ve figured it out now. This is the family portion of the trip although we are a member short. It’s a milestone birthday for Mom and we’ve assured her that Croatia will make her the coolest traveler among her set. Although I mentioned this being a seniors tour in a previous post, I can’t keep it up in good conscience since Mom can outlast me in stamina and probably outrun me in a foot race. And my sister? No contest. I’m just hoping she doesn’t make us go camping or sea kayaking or rock climbing or spelunking. Now that I reread this, I don’t think she is going to have much fun.

    2. Airline apologies have gotten cagier. The plane took off 90 mins late and the pilot’s apology was “We are sorry for the delay. It was either due to the late arrival of the aircraft or actions of the Heathrow air traffic control.” Is that how it works now? Multiple choice apologies? If so, there should be a formula for the options: a) a white lie that makes you sound blameless; b) throw the nearest person under the bus; c) the truth, “completely my fault and here’s why.”

    3. I’m looking forward to the food in Croatia based on the airplane snack. Instead of a small bag of dry pretzels, we received a tidy box with cheese and olives in oil, although that just made the cheese taste like olives, and bagel-crisp-like crackers that listed the second ingredient as white wine. Just as champagne brings out the flavour of strawberries or the other way around, free airline white wine brings out the flavour of white wine crackers. Especially when the flight attendant empties the bottle into your glass, because really, there isn’t enough for the person beside you.

    4. I slacked on homework to learn even the basics of please and thank you in Croatian. I was reminded of that as we boarded the plane and paused by the flight attendant greeter while waiting for the line to move. My sister pointed to a sign by the door in Croatian with lots of accents and u’s. I said, insightfully,”Oh, wow!” The flight attendant, surprised, “Can you read that in Croatian?” I put on my best, most resolute voice and said, “It says the door must be closed before the plane can take off.” The flight attendant was taken aback but I’ll have a harder time when signs don’t have the English translation right there below the Croatian.

    5. As a corollary to #4, I went to the back room of the Zagreb hotel to pay the bill and was chatting with the manager/owner (desk clerk?). He taught me yes (da), no (ne), please (molin) and thanks (sounds like koala with a bit of throat clearing). I asked his name and was practicing different phrases. Probably too enthusiastically as he asked how old I was and when I told him, he said regretfully, “You’re too old for me.” I guess I should dial back chatting up the hotel staff, or practice the phrase, “Ne, koala.”

    Come On! Just Go Already! — London, England

    An elderly couple tripped on my heels as Zone 1 boarding was called. When I looked back, they smiled and said, “We’re just following the people who look the richest.” We all automatically glanced down at my faded t-shirt, sweats and scruffy Toms, the closest legitimate shoe to a slipper. “Well, you look like you know where you are going,” they amended. In my defence, I paid extra to get a seat that turns into a bed. Wearing the closest thing I could find to pyjamas just makes sense.

    I was boarding business class on a flight to Heathrow, thanks to an upgrade offer I couldn’t refuse and an enormous talent for rationalization, i.e. will I regret paying the extra money in two years. My fellow passengers are on a seniors tour. I’m sort of starting one myself: the coming leg is present from my sister and me for my mother’s 80th birthday. But first, a quick overnight in London to meet up with friends, Brits I worked with in Brazil the summer of 2012. I’m hoping to re-enact our Brazilian cabs rides, singing along to Call Me Maybe on the radio every morning on the ride into work, but really it is just dinner.

    London has changed a bit since I was last here. The baggage carousel now has sensors on the chutes so luggage waits patiently for a break in conveyor belt traffic before making a dash for it. Even baggage forms neat queues in England now. Timid bags wait overlong on the edge of the feeder lane despite large spaces on the belt. I found myself rooting for those. And like an anxious parent, hoped my bag would be well-behaved and not fling itself mindlessly on top of another bag, outing itself as embarrassingly North American. Of course, after 30 min, came the carousel rage, “Come on, bag! Just go already!”

    But suitcase in hand, one broken Tube, an express train and two underground lines later, I made my way to the overpriced hotel near Kings Cross which I would charitably describe as stable-like. I’m in the equivalent of the servants’ quarters, listed euphemistically as a triple room. I’ll concede that three people could lie down side by side in the room but that is about it.

    My reunion dinner was a mix of great food, liberal libations, fond reminiscing and interesting updates: marriage, engagements, new jobs, and someone bought a farm (in a good way, with sheep and chickens). Fun and fascinating and a reminder of how connecting with people melts the years away.

    And best of all, my friends redefined my strategy of rationalization. Instead of using a 2 yr measure of regret, they employ the Deathbed Challenge. By that rule, I can see a lot more perks in my future. I don’t intend to regret.

    Tomorrow starts the Croatia portion with family before meeting up with a friend for Turkey, Budapest and Krakow. When I’m on my deathbed, will I second-guess breaking my trip to meet up with my London friends for one night only? Not a chance. Come on! Just go already!