“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” -Mark Twain

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Istanbul Day 4: Sulemaniye and Kebab Krawl

Note to self: Pace. Rest. Especially if mixing cold weather and/or jet lag. The weekend jaunt has been great, but even with Ambien I haven't had a full night's sleep since we arrived. And even though we didn't believe we planned an aggressive schedule, I really should have planned in some quality down time or even a few naps. I did fine in South America, but it was warm and practically no time change. Noted.

Today's lesson learned was also to take some advice from the locals, which we did. We were told by a few that we really should visit Sulemaniye Casii (mosque). Knowing we'd have a 3-hour kebab crawl that night, we tried to take it easier today. We took one more spin (or two) back through the spice market (honestly, there really weren't any spices there that I haven't already seen in Arab or Indian markets in Chicago) to wrap up our shopping list. The same carpet seller was still outside his stall. He spotted Carrie as I zipped through the crowd, but she gracefully shook him off with an empty promise to return. And good... We did the math last night, and even if I were to buy a small 2x4 kilim rug for half of what he was asking, I could still find a better bargain on a Turkish rug on Devon Street next to my own home. It wasn't worth it to come all the way here to buy something I could get for less than half at home. And with the change in jobs in a few days, I'm not about to throw good money away.

After leaving the bazaar we headed uphill to find Sulemaniye, and we did just in time for noon prayers. It was closed to visitors for the hour, so we explored the grounds, which had a spectacular view of the Golden Horn and around. The weather was pleasant and the grounds were beautiful and peaceful. There were very few tourists with us. That morning we had passed the Hagia Sophia on the way in, and the line was 10x longer than when we went. We picked a good day to head away from Sultanhamet and the hoards. When the mosque re-opened we went inside to a gorgeous, bright, airy, and cool interior. It was quiet and made for a good opportunity to sit and stare into space for a while. The mosque was built 600 years ago at the height of the Ottoman Empire by Sultan the Magnificent, and his body still rests in the cemetery outside. The building is in impeccable shape, as if it were brand new. Now normally I abhor visiting ancient churches in most cities, despite their history, because I despise the idolatry and wasted opulence. I don't feel this way about mosques. Ornately decorated, but no gold- or -silver statues, altars, or other paraphernalia that would have been better spent on serving the masses. I'm pretty sure I hopped on this soapbox in a blog entry last year. But I feel differently about mosques because they lack most of the aforementioned.

Upon leaving the mosque, since it was still near the end of the noon prayers, two gentlemen approached us with small containers and spoons, saying it was a Turkish sweet. With our American pessimism, we asked if they were free. Yes! So we sat and ate along with other mosque members who were also enjoying their treats. I'm not sure what it was, perhaps some cinnamon, apple, hazelnut, bulghar, to name a few. Another young man came around with napkins. A few women next to us were busily mixing more treats into small disposable dishes and putting them out on a small table for all passers-by to take. Help yourself. The few tourists that passed through were happily surprised, and other mosque members were still either arriving for more treats, or helping hand them out. It was like a Sunday church pot-luck, but out in the open for all strangers and not in the church basement. This isn't the first time (or tenth) that I've witnessed the generosity of the Muslim community and I was happy to see this in yet another country (also similar to the public Iftar in Egypt popping up in public places). While we were inside the mosque, Carrie remarked that it was time for food. When we stepped outside, viola! Allah provideth. That, or another example of the unending Turkish hospitality we heard so much about, and likewise continued to experience.

Outside the mosque grounds was a small row of restaurants, and knowing we had a long walk back to the tram, we decided to eat a full meal then and there. There was no English menu, so the waiter took us inside to the kitchen and showed us all the food available. We pointed out what we wanted, and he brought it to our table: meatballs with potato, tomato, eggplant, and rice in a tomato broth. Hearty and delicious as the day was getting cooler and we were seated outside. More tea.

We made a pit stop slightly out of the way to pick up something in particular for Carrie's friend, so we figured since we were in the area, we circled back to the Hippodrome which used to be Byzantine arena. In my in-going international treasure hunt, I found the obelisk of Tutmosis III. Poor Egypt pillaged by so many civilizations. At the end of the Hippodrome was the Column of Constantine, which was where the chariots would make their u-turn to race back to the opposite end. It doesn't resemble anything like an arena now, except a big public promenade. Finally it was time to call it quits for the moment and head back to the apartment for a rest.

About an hour later we headed up to the meeting point in Beyoglu on the mainland European side for the kebab crawl, organized by Istanbul Eats blog. We walked up Isteklal Cadessi which is the main shopping and nightlife district in the city. Forget the Old City full of tourists, this area was more European in feel with more locals and better style. I only wish we had more time to explore it. We met up at a Victorian-era hotel lobby bar, in which the kebab crawl group consisted of two other Chicagoans, from Lakeview no less! Also a guy from Los Angeles, a man from Columbia via San Diego, and two Danish friends. And our guide Megan, who was an American who taught in Vermont, moved to Istanbul, and is getting her PhD from University of Chicago. International indeed.

We hopped in a van which took us to - I am not kidding - 200 feet from our apartment. 45 minutes to get to the meeting place which only brought us back home. A good laugh! We have been staying on the best block for kebabs in all of Istanbul! It's a shame - but not - that the tourists a couple miles down the way have no idea about this area.

We started out at a joint that served up some tasty chicken wings, but the real star here was the liver and fat pieces with a side of onions sprinkled with sumac. Toss in a couple mint leaves and wrap with lavosh, and I had no idea that liver and onions could be so good! I went in for thirds. This is ok portent. I hate liver. I dislike onions. I have never, ever, ever liked them together. It's been probably 25+ years since I tried them, and I know my taste buds have change for sure. And how! But I'm positive this had everything to do with the seasoning and preparation. Is it most definitely not the American vision and version most might recognize (and avoid). If you didn't know it was liver, you would probably eat it.

Next we stopped at an another shop in this Little Urfa sub-neighborhood of Aksaray that served Urfa-style kibbe that had more spices to it than I was accustomed, but still delicious. They also showed us the wood-fired oven that baked the fresh flatbread served here. After a touch of tea as well, we were on to our next stop. This was pretty much a bakery that only baked one thing: flatbread. They supplied all the Urfa-style restaurants in the area with bread. This saves the other restaurants from keeping extra staff to make fresh bread. They buzz the bakery for an order and a runner delivers it within minutes. Literally order-to-delivery is minutes and still piping hot. They made us a sort of Arabic pizza called lahmacun, which was flatbread with minced spiced meat, pickled cabbage, lettuce, and a squeeze of lemon, rolled up and wrapped in paper. Hot and fresh.

Our final stop was at a place that made stellar eggplant kebabs. They were skewered with eggplant, fat, and meat, then when on our plate, mash it all together. Garnish wasn't necessary. We also tried a raw minced meat fixture which I can only describe as meat hummus. Spicy and tasty. Dessert was kunefe. I've had this in Chicago and didn't like it, but was glad I tried it again here. Finished the whole thing. Unsalted goat's milk with shredded wheat on top, toasted, and poured over with a sugar syrup, topped with a dab of water buffalo cheese. Because why not?

Oddly enough in this adventure, the path we took on the kebab crawl followed in the exact footsteps we took when we explored this neighborhood on our first night. We knew the tour would end somewhere around here, but we had no idea that the entire thing would be on our very same block. We probably share a rear courtyard with at least two of these places.

I am full. Stuffed to the gills. I need gills, because my stomach is pressing against my lungs and I'm short of breath. And here ends our journey. Our taxi picks us up in 4.5 hours. I have to pack. I have to snooze. I desperately look forward to sleeping on the plane because I need to rest. Despite all we did, I'm exhausted and want my own bed. And I wish I didn't have to go back to my last two days of my job. Trying not to think about it and looking forward to the next 4-day weekend that starts this Thursday before I begin my new job. But for now I bid Istanbul a hearty farewell.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Istanbul Day 3: The Bosphorus

We only had 3 full days in Istanbul and although we try our best to go with the flow and not pack too much in, we still end up exhausted by 7pm. It seems our common philosophy is "we probably won't be back any time soon so we may as well hit one more thing." Or maybe it's just me. Or it was the rain. Let's go with that.

One of our pre-set goals here was to have a weekend brunch. But based on our schedule, it was more like an early breakfast than lunch. We returned to Akendiz Hatay Sofrasi where we ate on our first night. The breakfast was inexpensive and the food plentiful. I recognized a few items from a typical Arab meal, but the rest was guessing. Overall, delicious. Much like in Paris, I am really digging having cheese with breakfast, but this time dipped in honey, swiped right from a honeycomb. There was haloumi cheese wrapped in phylo and fried, babaganoush, kibbeh, kefte, and other assorted goodies. These are not their Turkish names, but only how I know them in Arabic. Still, warm tea continued to flow, and we knew that with our next stop we'd need a full meal in us for fuel.

Up next: Topkapi Palace. I do believe this was the seat of the Ottoman Empire and the supporting Harem. The Palace isn't one building, but an entire complex. With that in mind, we set out locate the entrance. After 30 minutes of walking around the neighboring park, we hit a dead end. No entrance was yet in sight, although we could see the palace walls. We took advantage of the detour and took pictures of the Bosphorus which we had just seen for the first time. The morning weather was refreshingly cool with scattered clouds, so we did enjoy the view and park. I was slightly giddy about seeing the Bosphorus because for some odd reason it always stood out in my head in childhood history and geography classes. Eventually we did find our way back where we started, and had barely missed the entrance to the palace the first time. Knowing that the palace might pack in the crowds, so we immediately went to the Harem first to beat any future crowds.

Apparently the Harem is where women of good blood were brought into the palace as concubines, and as they produced heirs, their own status was raised within the palace community and the Ottoman administration. With the absence of human representations in Islamic art, the walls were lined with intricate floral and geometric tilework. The word "turquoise" was coined by the French when they saw all the blue used in Turkish tiles. Turk-like. Turquoise. Emerging from the Harem rooms we moved across the palace grounds to the museum rooms where we saw the emerald-emblazoned Topkapi Dagger and the 86 carat Spoonmaker's Diamond. The crowds were thick by this point, so we employed the tactic of throwing a couple elbows and blocking the squirmy kids that were pushing their way through.

Since we were already halfway to the neighborhood, we jumped ahead a few tramway stops to search for lunch in Eminonu along the Golden Horn waterway. The waterfront was a flurry of fisherman, ferries, and commuters. Plus me and my map which I haphazardly attempted to fold in the wind. Fail. Men were fishing off both the sidewalk and the Galata Bridge, and in the process of casting their lines, a few got caught in one another and a comic tug-of-war ensued. We walked the lower level of bridge which housed various restaurants, and picked one that looked especially cozy. In this area, the traditional fare is a fish sandwich so we both ordered up a cheap fishwich and some garlic sautéed prawns. This was my first attempt in ordering an whole meal entirely in
Turkish, and seeing as we did received exactly what I said, I'd call it a success. The waiter became chatty, and after we paid our bill and left a few coins for tip, he invited us to stay longer for some tea. We took him up on his invite, which may have been more than we bargained for. He proceeded to hand me his business card with his personal number on the back and said he gets off at work at 11. This never happens to me back in the States. Turkish hospitality or did we just leave a good tip? Or the fact that we're two female tourists alone is probably bait enough. After finishing our tea, we bade him goodbye and headed out.

Our next mission: continent-hopping on the ferries. We had a general plan. Apparently the one port I had in mind wasn't an actual ferry stop, but really shared a stop with the next one down, so for just 2 lira we joined the commuting masses on the Kadikoy ferry to Asia. What were we going to do in Asia? We'd figure that out when we got there. By that time it had started to drizzle and I was concerned about losing my footing again (damn Danskos, last time I wear them on long trips). We found a busy main thoroughfare and spotted some activity in side alleys, so we chose to explore further. Next thing we know, we're surrounded by auctioneers, fish stalls, and locals. As we passed another alley, we turned east and spotted a shish and tea lounge. Now after being a approached numerous times on the European side to visit a hookah parlor, we felt more comfortable in Asia moving on our own terms, since there were no tourist touts out hunting. We walked in and sat in the window seat that faced directly down one of the souk streets, ordered up a couple teas, and some apple tobacco. There were few people inside, our age, and one guy busily on his laptop. The main guy behind the counter reminded me of Comic Book Guy. No one really spoke English there, but a few basic words sufficed for everyone, and we relaxed inside for about an hour, out of the rain. At this point it was after 4 and it would be dark soon.

We head back out into the souk, which looked like everything fell off the back of a Chinese truck. Finding our way easily back to the port, with some adventurous street-crossing, we found the next ferry we wanted that took us further up the Bosphorus. Dusk was falling and we saw the city alight through the rain. We navigated correctly on the ferries, and connected immediately to the tram that brought us back to the European peninsula. Our next stop was back again in Eminonu and the nearby spice market. We didn't quite have the motivation to shop that we had yesterday, but we scouted the prices of a few items we still wanted, the realized we were famished by that point. The bazaar had a tiny kebab stand, and I picked up a chicken doner kebab for 2tl, wrapped in paper and grabbed a stool. Marvelous. But since it had been hours since our last bathroom break and we had more tea than we could count, a water closet was desperately needed.

I was pulled astray by a friendly carpet seller who educated us about wool kilims, carpets, and silks. We greeted each other back and forth in Turkish, and he then cheerily exclaimed in Arabic, and my adventure in languages was complete. I had no idea how handy Arabic would be in this town and was pleasantly surprised, fortunately. He said it was fine that we didn't buy anything from him tonight, but was happy to teach us about the Turkish craft, and we appreciated his efforts. As he was about to invite us into his shop, I told him we really were looking for one thing in particular: a restroom. He laughed heartily and waved for us to follow him. Around another corner, up a tiny winding stairwell, and into a restaurant that we didn't know existed, where he pointed out the loos. When we emerged, he walked us over to a window by a table, which overlooked the bazaar. It was as if we had our own private peep hole into the bustle of activity below. On so many occasions, like this one, we have learned that if we open ourselves for conversation with locals, there are amazing gems we can experience.

Stepping back out into the rain, we had one more stop to make, at a pastry shop that Carrie had on her list. It was a quaint little shop and we were happy to be out of the rain again. I did finally hit my mental wall, mostly from exhaustion, but the hot cocoa hit the spot and lifted me up again. Finally we were back on our way home again, barely able to mentally handle putting a plan together for the next day. So what do we have planned? Seeing as it was only 7pm and we were ready to crash, we need to pace ourselves tomorrow, since the Kebab Krawl is from 5-9. A mid-day rest may be necessary. We might head back to the spice bazaar, visit the nearby Sulemaniye mosque, and return to the apartment to pack before heading back across the river into Beygolu and Taksim and ride our first-ever funicular to get to the meeting point. More eats await!

Friday, November 23, 2012

Istanbul Day 2: One Thing Leads to Another

It is amazing what we can cram into a single day. As I write this, the windows are open, and a soft breeze carries the smell of assorted kebabs from the restaurants below. I am about to fall asleep at only 7:45. We have been active for the past 12 hours the day after getting off a flight and do believe we'll sleep like the dead tonight. If we can figure out how to keep this apartment below 85 degrees.

The morning started easy enough with a quick walk to the tram line where we headed into the Old City. The plan was to hit the Blue Mosque first because we knew it would close eventually for Friday prayers. Right on time, when we arrived at 9am, I pulled out my DSLR camera to line up a shot of the mosque. Epic fail. Something is wrong with the aperture. I left my backup Cybershot in the apartment, so I only had my iPhone. It would have to suffice for the morning. Happily, it does take good pictures, but I'm lacking features that adjust the lighting and depth of field.

At any rate, we continued into the beautiful Blue Mosque, which isn't really blue, but is only named for the decorative blue color on the tiles inside. There were only a few faithful in the mosque at the time, and furry of tourists. It was a vast space and quiet serene with the warm morning light streaming in. When we exited and headed across the park toward the Hagia Sophia, we stopped at a cart serving up breakfast breads and had our food on the run. We looked at our notes about the Hagia Sohpia and remembered that it was advised to return an hour before closing so the crowds are fewer and the light is better. Agreed.

Instead, we walked across the street to the way-to-easy-to-be-found Basilica Cistern, which was an ancient underground reservoir that fed the city. At least a foot of water was still present, occupied by happy-to-see-tourists carp that fed on scraps. I am convinced one of these fish ate Jonah. The space was amazing... Ambient lighting of the columns, eerie music, and the gentle drop of droplets hitting the ancient water. My regular camera would have had a field day, but the iPhone was holding up well in the low light. Ionic and Corinthian columns combined to form the architecture, along with re-purposed Medusa heads as two column bases.

Upon hitting street level again, we decided to mosey toward the Grand Bazaar, then return to the apartment to try to fix my camera, and head back to the Hagia Sophia. And this is where I am very glad we took the day with a grain of salt since a single event led to so many mini adventures. I like the turns life can surprise with.

As we walked down a side street toward the bazaar, I tripped on a gutter in the street. This is mostly my fault, not the gutter's. I am wearing Danskos, which although good for the feet, my ankles tend to take a surprising roll once in a while and send my tumbling. This time, in front of an audience, I went with it. Down I went, into the gutter, on the sidewalk, twisting my left ankle and my right knee. I sat there stunned for a moment because both hurt very much. Quickly, two older men from across the street ran over to each help me up on either side and walked me to their little table and chairs outside a shop. One offered me a cigarette (kind, but no thank you). As I flexed my ankle and knee, I was bruised but fine. No lasting damaged, I laughed and thanked them.

As I was standing up to check my balance and strength, I spotted a little bad that I wanted to hold some personal times. As I was inquiring with the shopkeeper about the bag, Carrie noticed some kebab skewers for sale that she knew my sister wanted. So I began to haggle for those, and at the end I got skewers for the price he wanted and my bag thrown in for free. As he was wrapping my purchase, I began talking with his friend who had stopped by the shop while on his way to the mosque. We were having a lovely conversation about our plans for the day, that we were headed to the bazaar to look for some jewelry. He said his brother and nephew owned a jewelry shop there and would be happy to walk us in and introduce us on his way to the mosque. Normally I am very tentative of a potential sales pitch or suggestion to follow anyone, but I was ready to roll with the day, so we agreed. We chatted about what we saw and were to see as we walked through the ancient cobblestone alleys. He highly suggests visiting Sulemaniye Camii, which I've heard from numerous sources.

It was great entering the chaos of the bazaar with him as we had a purpose and didn't look like lost tourists. We walked into his family's shop and I began looking at the goods after we were introduced to brother, nephew, and token old man friend in the corner. Since I developed a nickel allergy to cheap jewelry, I needed something pure. This was one of my exact goals on this trip, silver or gold. I found a lovely pair of basic white gold double hoops for everyday wear, and we worked out a good price. Our friend had to leave for Jummah prayers, so he bade us goodbye. Meanwhile the nephew offered us some tea, and their runner came back with apple tea for Carrie and black tea for me. We sat in the shop for a while, talking to each other about nothing in particular, sipping away from little glass cups. It was time for lunch, so he wrote down the name of a tasty place in the bazaar - Pedaliza - which we found alarmingly easily considering the bazaar is a living maze, and he also wrote down the name of a restaurant in Taksim that we may try on Sunday. While finding our way to the restaurant, the athan sounded again announcing Jummah. This is where I described to Carrie what was happening. Some people would make their way to a mosque. Most shopkeepers can't afford to leave their stalls for an hour, so in a section of the bazaar we were in saw many men set down their prayer rugs. As we looked down an inner street, men were lined shoulder-to-shoulder as far as we could see. The police blocked off that section of street to shoppers so the men could pray in peace. An hour later, all the bustle was back in the bazaar. I love the spontaneous sense of community that occurs with Muslim prayer.

On the way to Pedaliza we price-checked some other jewelry and lamps for reference, so while over a delicious lunch I established a budget on what I wanted to spend on a glass mosaic lamps. Following lunch of lentil soup, kebab, and stew, we ventured back into the main bazaar. The guidebooks and trip reviewers describe the place as aggressive, the shopkeepers too suggestive toward women, and overbearing. We found this quite the opposite. Really, if you're not interested in something, then don't respond, walk away. Eventually I scouted a few lamp vendors and walked away with a chandelier trio of some gorgeous colors. In the course of the day so far, I checked off nearly everything on my shopping list. I just have Kilim rugs and one other thing to find. We stopped to talk to another shopkeeper for a bit, a young man who was happy to talk to Americans.

We were laden with purchases so we chose to return to the apartment, settle our things, and rest for a few while I tried to fix my camera. No luck there, it's definitely in the body, because changing lenses did no good. Shortly after 3 we headed back out to the Hagia Sophia with the Cybershot in tow, which eventually proved of no use so the iPhone was back on duty. The museum was built in Byzantine times as a church but was converted to a mosque when the Ottomans conquered Constantinople in the 25th century. I mourned the loss of my camera for a few minutes, as I would have had a love affair through my lens with this place, but I put it in perspective that I was HERE regardless. After some creative thought and acrobatics, I pulled off a few good shots. As the museum emptied at closing I had more liberty to finish some photography before we were ushered out.

Standing in the plaza pondering our next move, we were approached by a gentleman who joked if we wanted to buy a carpet (everyone claims to be a carpet seller here), but he was nothing but just a friendly man. We talked about our plans and he also gave us some recommendations. We of course spoke of food, and he applauded our choice of neighborhood for our lodging, saying that if you want doner kebab in Istanbul, Aksaray is where you find it. As a matter of fact, his favorite place is on our street. (Or isn't it always?) A cart vendor with a samovar stopped nearly, so our new friend described that it was a type of spiced milk with honey, orchid bud, vanilla, cream, and sprinkled with cinnamon, an ancient Ottoman specialty. We heard a Syrian man nearly haggle over the price of a cup, and when it came to us, the vendor tried to charge us more, until Carrie piped up that he charged the other guy less. Haggling at its best! We spoke with our friend a little longer, and got his suggestion for nearby kebab and a smoking parlor down the road. Our plan was to have dinner followed by some fruity tobacco from a hookah and hot tea.

As we were looking for food, another gentleman approached us and asked if we've been to the Madrasi yet, which was exactly the hookah parlor we were looking for. He offered to buy us some coffee there, but being the usual pessimists we are, we asked him to show us where it was and we'd see him there after dinner perhaps. I smelled a scam. He may have been as friendly as any other person we met, but I didn't want to run down our luck. So it was agreed, we'd meet there in an hour. We walked on further where we found a kebab smorgasbord in a plaza outside the bazaar, and each ordered a delicious spiced lamb and yogurt kebab wrap. Nom! However, we didn't pay attention to the prices in the menu, and the check seemed unusually high. I asked some English-speaking locals next to us to help explain, and apparently the meat is sold by weight. Ah. That was a big wrap. Still satisfied, we settled our tab. We may have hit our breaking point. It had gotten colder and I had no ambition to spend more money on a hookah and tea when we had free tea in the apartment. I wanted to be warm and in pajamas. There were pictures to upload and this novel to write.

And here we are. Tomorrow's plan is to head back to the restaurant we were at last night for their 8:30 buffet, then on to Topkapi Palace, followed by perhaps Sulemaniye Camii and the spice market, and maybe ferry over to Asia. We'll see how we roll tomorrow. We have only 2 more full days here and based on our track record to date, we squeeze in as much as possible while still rolling with the punches. We pray for another dose of marvelous Turkish hospitality, which has served us well so far.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Istanbul Day 1: There Is No Turkey in Turkey

At nearly 9pm at night Istanbul time, I should be falling over from jet lag. We napped on the last leg here and got a second wind. When we finally arrived at our apartment in Istanbul, it was nearly 5pm. Essentially for a Thursday, the day was practically over. We missed Thanksgiving! And that's a good thing. No pumpkin pie, no jello molds, no production, no football, no Black Friday rigmarole, nada. We skipped all of it. I should have thought of this years ago. The holiday isn't going away, but I can! This is how I will now make holidays disappear. By disappearing myself.

For flying out of O'Hare on the busiest travel day of the year, the international terminal was a breeze, nearly vacant. We had a fantastic fight to Amsterdam of only 7 hours. I would have been pretty upset at the guy next to me for continually leaning into my space and over the arm rest, but the poor dude was over 6' tall and he was just trying to counterbalance himself because he had to put his legs in the aisle. I wasn't going to add to his misery.

We didn't have a long enough layover in Amsterdam to be able to leave the airport, so we settled into a quaint diner for a hearty breakfast. The Dutch are so friendly! Everywhere in the airport they were delightful. I can't want for our layover on the way back so I can shop there. Tulip bulbs, slippers that look like wooden clogs, cheese, chocolate, and cute souvenirs. We also found a Dutch Kitchen we'll eat at on the way back. I would love to explore Holland and Amsterdam more, but not on this trip.

On the flight to Istanbul we finally slept a bit better, which gave us just enough energy and presence of mind to buy Metro cards, find our way into the city, meet the person to bring us to our apartment, and have dinner. 85 steps to the 5th floor of the building. No elevator. This is okay, because with the amount of eating we'll do this week, we'll need the exercise.

Our street is lined with kebab stands and restaurants. I haven't seen any tourists yet. This is exactly what we wanted, just to jump in with the locals and wing it. Some light language lessons in the plane and a bit of studying beforehand did help, and it was fun to practice on the waiters who would correct us and help us learn more words. We were just on our way out to dinner when we heard the Isha call to prayer. Beautiful.

Our dinner choice wasn't even a choice. We found a restaurant in the Rough Guide and on TripAdvisor that is at the end of our block. We knew it was one of the best. Oh boy, did it not disappoint. But here is where doing your homework comes in handy. As soon as we sat down, they brought over a massive tray full of about 20 small dishes. From there we selected 2. These were mezas, little appetizers. This doesn't mean you have to have everything on the tray. Just pick what you like. Kind of like when a restaurant shows you the dessert tray. I recognized a few things (and also a few to stay away from because although tasty, they weren't cooked, like dips), so we went with dolmeh and a fantastic bulghar blend with spices and spearmint. I basket of flat bread followed.

We then next elected to share a sultan kebab, which was meat, tomato, mushroom, and cheese rolled in bread, then cut and you dip it into yogurt that has a sweet dark nutty sauce on top. They were helpful in showing us the proper way to eat it. We also ordered kibbe, which hands-down in the best kibbe I have had in my life. When they brought it to us, the waiter placed it on our plates, cut it open down the middle, then drizzled a sauce into it. Oh dear mother of god. I could eat this every day. At the end they brought us tea and cookies, and a few goodies: a little booklet of the menu describing all the items, a little bar of olive soap, and a business card for a TripAdvisor comment. They have no worry, we always write travel reviews, which is how we also found this place!

We also learned on the plane the name for "breakfast" which is kahvalti, I believe. On the way out we saw a sign for their breakfast buffet. 20TL per person. That's $10. Our meal tonight cost us 68 TL. $34. $17 per person. Love it.

On the walk back we picked up some bottled water for the apartment (2TL for 4 or $0.50 each!) then wandered around the side streets. The doner kebab stands smelled marvelous and I WILL be eating from one of them these days. Plus hookah cafes, which sound lovely with some hot tea on a cool night. One of these days. Lots of other restaurants, I spotted a felafel cart with a large crowd, and more Arab eateries and stores. Since the place we ate at specializes in Hatay cuisine, including a few others around here, this explains the large Arab population. Hatay is a region in southeastern Turkey, which used to be part of Syria until the 1930s. Although I only learned a few Turkish words, being surrounded by Arabic means I have a backup language I can use to communicate and get food. I know more of that than Turkish. So this is a double adventure!

I'm about to take my Ambien in a few to curb the jet lag. Tomorrow we'll probably hit the ground running at the crack of dawn right after Fajr prayer so we can get into the Blue Mosque and Hagia Soohia before the tourist crowds set in. As for food... We're already planning on heading back to Akendiz Hatay Sofrasi for the Saturday breakfast buffet. Oh the food we will eat... And the pictures to take!

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Day 8: The Pig and the Cow

The verdict is in. Rome wins with the pig. They know how to cure pork. From pancetta, to porchetta, to bacon, and prosciutto. I could have cured meats on everything, all day. The bacon was unlike anything I've ever had in the US. The best bacon was in a carbonara dish we had on the first day in a tiny place called Cacio e Pepe. I wanted pork on everything: bacon on my eggplant pie, prosciutto on a sandwich, on pizza, over veal.

Paris knows all things cow. The milk is fresh, dense, and rich. The cheese is creamy. The beef carpaccio is refreshing and tender. I've had lovely meals in both countries but I believe my favorite food was in Rome. I'm a salty and savory gal so Rome's food was perfect for me. However, I really need to return to Paris so I can still eat cassoulet, escargot, duck l'orange, and somewhere on this continent I will eventually have horse meat. I haven't found it yet and was looking forward to tasting it. The rumors are true about Paris: the croissants are out of this world. Since this is just about the only pastry I like, this is a happy fit.

After downing some croissants, cheese, and salami for breakfast, we visited the Musee d'Orsay mid-morning. For a Saturday the crowd wasn't bad at all. We may have only spent an hour in the museum, but I was pleased to see the famed works of Cezanne, Manet, Monet, Renoir, Toulousse-Lautrec, Van Gogh, and Degas. The museum itself is a beautiful piece of architecture occupying a former train station, and from the top floor we could see across the Siene to Montmarte and Sacre Couer. We didn't have enough time visit this area, it's on the list for next time. There is a lot we missed (and that I didn't eat) so coming back in the beautiful springtime would be a proper forgiveness for this cold weather. The last stop before returning to the hotel was at the Arc de Triumph. It is a massive monument, including the tomb of the unknown soldier which was installed at the end of WWI.

Per tradition, we had a spectacular final meal. This time we were fortunate to get reservations (made well in advance) at the #19 restaurant in the world, 2 Michelin star L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon. The restaurant is set up more like a sushi bar where diners sit on bar-height chairs along a counter that wraps around the open kitchen. From behind the bar the wait and bus staff work together for dinner service. Diners side side-by-side. We could see the chefs in the kitchen working with speed and efficiency. Between the bar and the kitchen is an open counter on which was a large Iberico ham leg, hoof and all. I ordered this jambon and it was practically paper thin. Salty, flavorful, naturally greased, and served with a side of crostini with diced tomato, olive oil, and herbs. I walked to grab the ham leg, tuck it under my arm, and make a beeline for the front door, figuring out later how to stuff it in my suitcase.

For dinner I opted for the special, the Dover sole with butter and parsley, and a side of the world-famous mashed potatoes. Honestly, I chose the sole "solely" because they came with the potatoes. I heard about these and couldn't leave without tasting them. Carrie wanted the spaghetti with black truffles, but when they told her it was €100 she asked them for another suggestion, which was the ribeye, rare. I had a piece of this and it was beyond perfect. As for my Dover sole, it was a full large fish which they filleted at the bar for me, served with a half of a lemon that had to the brightest yellow and juiciest lemon I have ever set eyes on. The fish lay in a lovely light butter with a mildly crispy topping and melted in my mouth. It was a lot of fish, but I ate is slowly just to savor it. Carrie also ordered the fois gras, which was good, but I far more enjoyed my Iberico ham.

About the mashed potatoes... It was as if they were filled with as much butter and cream as one could squeeze from one cow, then whipped into submission. Dense yet soft, rich, succulent. There has been no equal. After I cleaned my plate completely, and finished the potatoes, the waiter asked if I wanted more potatoes. Well, my fish was gone, but okay, sure! He brought 2 more bowls. Now Carrie isn't into potatoes. I ate my second bowl. Then I ate hers. Forget dessert, I didn't need it. Remember what I said about not having a sweet tooth? I considered the THIRD bowl of mashed potatoes my dessert. Don't judge, just be jealous.

A few other Americans, a Spaniard, and another French tourist were in there and at least half the crowd was taking pictures of each dish, including Carrie. I've never been into photographing my meals. I feel cheesy whipping out a camera in restaurant. I topped off dinner with a small espresso-like coffee. I was full, satisfied, pleased, yet not overstuffed.

I am ready to go home now. I am ready to BE home. A much as we did, it was still a very hard week between my illness and the frigid weather. I am tired of juggling bags, cameras, coats, gloves, hats, scarves, and maps. I am tired of being outside. I am tired of walking. I want to come back and relax and eat, maybe stroll, when it's warmer. But right now, I miss friends back home and I miss my cat Jude. Can't wait to just be home, order a pizza, some Coke, and watch Sunday night TV with the cat curled up next to me then my very large, warm, comfortable bed and Ambien for the jet lag. Realizing I have to work immediately the next day might be a little rough, but I miss my home and my life across the pond.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Day 7: Versailles, Notre Dame, Sparkling Eiffel

Versailles was as sprawling, opulent, and awe-inspiring as I had heard. Although the gardens and Trianon were closed due to the snow coverage, I was kind of happy just to stay inside the palace and not feel like I had to see everything. I had come prepared with a Rick Steves' walking tour podcast on my iPad so I donned my headphones and explored. Conveniently, this was also paced the same as the official audio tour that Carrie had, so we progressed together through the palace. I was shooting with a different lens today so I can't wait to get home and upload these pictures for you. Rooms were recovered in silk wall coverings. Floor-to-ceiling windows. Gold gilt everywhere. Hundreds of rooms. Larger than life artwork. And the approach to the palace took our breath away with a gold-covered gate that shone like the sun for a half mile at least. I would love to return in warmer weather to take a Segway tour of the grounds.

We had a lovely lunch in the village of Versailles, in which I had sausage wrapped in puff pastry, and beef carpaccio with olive oil, Parmesan, and red onions. Once again I ordered in French, and the waiter complimented me on my pronunciation and asked if I was also French. Mon dieu, non! But it certainly made my day, especially since build-up to this trip I was obsessed with learning as much as possible since I am intimidated by the language and heard that they're picky about pronouncing things properly. But I find people are very friendly and accepting if you try.

We left Versailles early enough to make a visit to Notre Dame. Now I feel like I've seen the three grand cathedrals of Europe: Canterbury, St Peter's, and Notre Dame. It's gorgeous, and 850 years old next year. A no idea it was so old. Yet so beautiful in its gothic architecture. I was happy to see the flying buttresses, which was - I believe - the first use of buttresses on a gothic building. We also heard the famous bells ringing.

Across the river we found the bookshop Shakespeare & Company. It's a tiny shop filled with new and old books in a cramped space, with reading rooms on the higher floors and an unofficial home away from home for many famous writers. On the second floor in a small room was a piano where a girl sat playing, and I leaned against a bookshelf full of delightfully smelly old books and listened to her play for a bit. I also found Bebelman's "Madeleine" book and flipped through it for nostalgia's sake. Afterward we walked through the Latin Quarter which was cute with its small winding streets and ethnic foods, but I found it a bit more of a tourist trap with high-pressure sales pitches to try to beckon us into restaurants. I longed for being back in our residential neighborhood where our hotel is.

Soon it was dusk so we hopped back on the Metro to the Eiffel Tower to see it lit up and night, and found a perfect vantage point on some steps at the opposite end of the park where we could get full shots of the tower. Within minutes of sitting, the tower began to sparkle with light. Breathtaking. Spectacular. Quintessential Paris. And this also meant we didn't have to wait in the cold very long, so we went back to the hotel, dropped our bags, and headed out for a light dinner of mussels, fries, wine, and creme brûlée. My theory is that fries are merely a delivery mechanism for mayonnaise. Ketchup is old news.

I don't know where the stereotype of rude French comes from as we've encountered nothing but friendly and helpful people, including wait staff. When we were looking momentarily confused on the Metro, an old lady stopped to offer her help and made sure we headed the right direction. I also discovered a lovely Parisian fashion that is also wildly practical in the winter. Wearing a shawl OVER and around a winter coat. This didn't make sense to me at first until I tried it. Viola! It cuts the wind from blowing into our coat, and is equally adorable. And I love accessories, so now I'm hooked. So practical. I used to say that there's no such thing as fashion in Chicago during the winter, but Parisians can pull it off, so there's no excuse anymore not to look put together and warm.

I haven't yet eaten cassoulet. I found it at one restaurant, but we had just eaten lunch and were still full. It's more difficult to locate than I had thought. Tomorrow night our final meal is at Joel Robuchon's L'Atelier so there will plenty to be written about that, as well as an overdue reason to dress up.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Day 6: Classic Paris and Charcuterie

Pont de l'Alma
Today we essentially checked of a slew of sights in a marathon of Metro-hopping and quality footwork. The Eiffel Tower was lovely to visit in the morning since there weren't a lot of people around and the sun was shining brightly. We didn't need to go up it for the view, because then we'd be seeing all of Paris except the Tower in our view. Best to save this for another vantage point. We strolled through the adjoining park, making our way to the Pont de l'Alma. First, there is a gold metal flame which was the model for the Statue of Liberty. It is also the unofficial memorial for Princess Diana where she and Dodi al Fayed crashed in the tunnel below.

We walked along the Siene past the Grand Palais, which reminded me of where Chanel had one of their most stunning runway shows a few years back. Across the street was the Pont des Invalides, which is a stunningly ornately decorated bridge. Heading a bit north, we approached the Place Concorde which was significant for two reasons. This was where Marie Antoinette was beheaded. Unfortunately we were unable to find plaque marking the exact spot, but we were close. Also, the plaza hosts the obelisk that was "liberated" from the Luxor Temple in Egypt. I mentioned in an earlier post that I had visited that temple and have a picture of where that obelisk once stood. My international treasure hunt was complete now that I have found the twin obelisk in Paris.

Running northwest from the Place de Concorde is the Champs-Élysées. We strolled about halfway up when hunger got the better of us and we ducked into a bistro on a side street. Our waiter was sweet but spoke next to no English. We managed with my basic French, and a combination of English and hand gestures. I'm loving the idea of constantly having a plate of cured meats and terrine before my entree and a cheese course for dessert. I could live like this. Afterward we ducked into yet another pharmacy to get me some cough medicine. I got both a suppressant for night and expectorant for day, but after getting an Internet connection tonight and looking up the suppressant ingredients, I can't take it because it contains a relative of codeine, which I had an allergic reaction to just days before this trip. Damn, 5 euros wasted and I don't have a receipt. Anyone need a cough suppressant? It'll be another long night if I can't get this under control.

We hopped the Metro again to the Rue Cambon, I had to make a pilgrimage to the atelier of Chanel and fortunately was able to see through a set of glass doors and take a picture of her famed white and mirrored staircase on which she used to sit to watch her models promenade on the runway below. We're getting really good with the Metro and Chicago could take some tips from Paris. We never wait more than 2 minutes for a train, it's quiet, gentle, and goes EVERYWHERE. The cars seem wider and longer, have more doors, and seem to hold a lot more people.

Walking down Rue Saint-Honore was like a mix between Michigan Ave and Oak Street. We also stumbled upon Place Vendome, home of the Ritz Hotel, Hemingway Bar, and the kitchen of Auguste Escoffier. We found ourselves back near the Louvre where there was some interesting architecture of Metro entrances. Another loop back along the Jardin des Tuileries and we rested in Angelina, which is a fancy tea room, complete with pastries, sweets, and drinks. I hit my wall at this point and quickly tired of the walking, lugging a bag, and dressing and undressing coats, gloves, hats, and scarves. Still full from lunch, I settled for just a hot cocoa while Carrie indulged in a vanilla eclair and white hot cocoa.

One thing we will never have a problem with: when Carrie orders pastries or sweets, she is guaranteed to have them all to herself with no question if my fork will be probing her plate for a taste. There is absolutely nothing that piques my interest in a patisserie. I already had a croissant for breakfast and that's where my sweet tooth ends. The tea room Angelina has allegedly the best hot cocoa on record, so I was pleased with this. That was my dinner. I am loving this idea of gentle breakfasts, large lunches, and a nosh for dinner.

I am also getting the hang of some basic French and am not shy about trying it out. I used to be very shy about using my Spanish. But now that I've been thrust into a language, I find it fun and a challenge to see if I'm understood. Although we found that our accent easily gives us away as Americans. C'est la vie.

Tonight we rest at the hotel, watch CNN, and plan for tomorrow. We're heading to Versailles, which I'm quite excited about. I keep forgetting to carry my other camera lens, so I may shoot with the fixed lens tomorrow for more creativity. We may try to revisit the Eiffel Tower at sunset and see it sparkle when it's dark. And to find some cassoulet.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Day 4 & 5: The Vatican, Rome in Review, and the Louvre

St Peter's Dome
We started Tuesday with a tour of the Vatican Scavi, which is the necropolis below St Peter's. Loved this part, especially as we walked the original ancient street that ran the length of the site. It was our first official tour of the trip. We saw Saint Peter's tomb, his alleged bones, the shrine above it, and a full history of how the  basilica came to be. Interestingly, as we explored the Vatican we began to piece together such things as why the Vatican "logo" has two keys (learned from a painting in the Sistine that Jesus handed Peter and another apostle the keys to his church), and what the inscription around the dome meant ("You are Peter and upon this rock I build my church", upon Peter's tomb).

The Rough Guide Rome had an incredibly detailed map and description of every panel painting in the Sistine Chapel so we spent some quality time in there as well, practically laying on the floor to look up. I had to make my share of "Life of Brian" and Mel Brooks references. The rest of the Vatican was impressive as you may imagine, but I still felt uncomfortable with the degree of opulence and pomp devoted to worship.

Stairs at Vatican Museum exit
After lunch we returned to the hotel for a nap. Well, I needed to nap. I hit my wall around lunch and as much as my brain wanted to continue sightseeing, my body was screaming in resistance. A quick doze later and we were headed out to our final dinner in Rome. On the way, a couple of Italian tourists stopped to ask me directions to the Spanish Steps, in Italian. Oddly, 1) they took me for a local (I credit the new coat for this), and 2), I knew where to direct them, and the fact that I understood their Italian. The city was surprisingly easy to navigate, but we also had good maps. Despite all I heard about the insane traffic, it wasn't bad and drivers actually stop for pedestrians on crosswalks.

Vatican City
We had our final dinner at a restaurant called Al Duello which came highly recommended on TripAdvisor.  I thought it was delicious, that is, as much as I could taste it since I lost most of my sense of taste except for acidic and salty. This is fine considering I love red sauce and wine, so I fared okay. The eggplant pie with crispy bacon hit the spot.  When I sampled a portion of Carrie's tiramisu, I could have just as easily eaten a rice cake. My taste for sweet is gone during this cold, but since I don't have a sweet tooth, no major loss.  We decided to take a taxi to the airport instead of the 1.5 hour transit by train or bus, since it would have been much earlier to wake up, and me lugging our bags and not at 100% would be misery.  It was expensive but worth it.  The nap on the flight to Paris made me feel much better and I arrived to the City of Lights in much better condition. I think I need a Rome redo. The snow and my cold just took a toll and I'd love to come back in warmer weather to experience other parts of the city. This was by no means a bad trip, but I could use a reset. I appreciated what we still managed to do. And Carrie for being a trooper. Today in Paris my cold is drying up and I only fear a cough, but am trying to keep it at bay with liquids... Tea, water, and hey, wine.

It took us a few to get our bearings on the Metro, but once we figured out the system we were moving quickly. On the train, an older gentleman boarded with an accordion and started playing. Classic. We checked into our hotel, changed clothes, headed back out, and found a small tea cafe outside the Louvre. where I finally caught my second wind and was more myself today than I have been in days.  It's as though I finally "woke up" after hibernating for a long winter. We decided to see the museum at night (open until 10pm) when the crowds were thinner. Immediately we headed to the Mona Lisa and there was a small crowd but no line, and we got perfect pictures. We decided to hit some basic hot spots: Venus di Milo, Liberty Leading the People, Winged Victory, the Wedding Feast at Canaa, Consecretion of Napoleon, and a few others. To know we were in the world's most famous museum, I admit I almost choked up a bit to see all this famous art in person. Next, we decided to head to the Egyptian wing. Aaaaand...  Evacuate.

Inside the Louvre
An announcement played repeatedly in a few languages. And kept playing. Head for the nearest exits, collect your belongings later once the situation has been cleared. We tried to ignore it and soldier on since the curators weren't shuffling anyone to the doors. Except some of those doors started closing. We got into the beginning of the Egyptian wing when we reached a dead end. People really did start heading for the exits. We were confused. Did we really have to evacuate? What was going on? Nerd that I am, I really didn't want to leave without seeing Hammurabi's Code. That was in the other wing. Egypt could wait, I've been there, I could miss it. We just started to laugh. Arrived in Rome during an historic snowstorm, I got sick in Pompeii, now this?

 As we followed the crowd out, we ducked down a side stairwell and found ourselves eventually in the Medieval basement where there used to be a moat. We started passing through galleries with no one in them. We made it discreetly into another wing and there was silence.  No announcements.  No people. But nothing stopping us. So we stayed. We found our way to the Mesopotamian galleries and spotted Hammurabi's Code. Mission accomplished. While we were on that side, and it was still quiet with just a few lingering people, we made our way into Napoleon's Apartments. This is when Carrie best described it as "it's good to be the king."

Napoleon's Apartments
 We took a later dinner at a bistro down the street and topped off a long day with wine, cheese, cured meats, onion soup, and frog legs. We have not yet experienced the French stereotype of the locals being rude. Far from it, the staff at both cafes were very nice, especially the waiter at the bistro. A stranger talked to us on the Metro. The hotel staff is pleasant. No issues at all. Is it because we greet those we meet with a "bonjour/bonsoir" and "merci"? We're trying. So far I like Paris, but I have to reserve judgment for the equal time that we gave to Rome. They are so different cities.  Tomorrow we sleep in for the first time, then hit a few more sights, perhaps statring with the Eiffel Tower, which we saw lit up tonight. For now, I rest. Bonsoir.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Day 3: Pompeii and Misery

Pompeii and Vesuvius
One day I'll look back on today and smile. But right now I'm resisting the urge to plow my face straight into a wall, mercifully. Ever since we arrived at the hotel, I've been having sneezing fits whenever we're in the room. Once I'm out I'm fine. I figure it's allergies. I awoke congested and figured it would pass once we left the hotel. We headed to Termini station for our two hour train ride to Naples, and inside found a bar serving breakfast baked goods and coffee. Like every other Italian, I stepped up to the bar and ordered a cappuccino and cornetto. Stirred in two sugars and quickly drank my cup standing up at the bar, scooping out the foam at the end. Perfecto.

We boarded for the two hour journey but by time I got off the train, I was miserable. These sneezes just might turn into something. This was no allergy. We transferred to another train 30 minutes south to Pompeii and began to walk the site.

Alone in Pompeii
We practically had the place to ourselves. It was a cold grey day but at least there was no rain or snow. But oh, the wind. Between my congestion which by now had turned into a full-blown cold, and my eyes tearing up from the wind, I couldn't get back inside to warmth fast enough. I had one Benadryl on me that worked for a while, but wore off before we completed Pompeii. I was stumbling, tripping over my own feel with ill confusion. I couldn't stop sneezing, nor could make any decisions. We forgot to pick up a site map. I'm sure we missed some highlights of Pompeii, but we did manage to sneak our way into some closed off sections and get some great shots. It wasn't all bad and I'm still glad we saw this site. A snow-topped Vesuvius loomed overhead with dark green cypress tress framing it. Gorgeous. But I was done. We spent maybe under 2 hours in there before I was calling "uncle".

Misery had befallen me. I wasn't going to buy any medicine in a foreign country and try to wait until we were back at the hotel for more Benadryl, but I was in the throes of this cold. On the subway ride back to Naples, our train broke down for a half hour. We stood in the cold waiting for another train. At this point on the platform I nearly lost it. No medicine, no remedy, shivering, exhausted, and sneezing. When we FINALLY arrived in Naples, there was no room on the next train so we decided to take the one that departed the next hour. I ran to a pharmacy and explained my ailments. After reading the ingredients as best I could in Italian on the box the pharmacist recommended ("okay for ah-choo??") and seeing that it contained paracetamol (which meant it wasn't ibuprofen, yay!) I washed it down and waited for our train. And waited. And waited. It was delayed for an undetermined time.

Carrie was kind enough to not tell me that she noticed other trains were also delayed, which helped keep me calm. Mostly because I was in no mood for funny business. Although I wanted to throw an epic tantrum at feeling so miserable and consistently cold it wouldn't be fair to her, nor should I create my own drama in the train station. Luckily, there was other drama that pleasantly distracted me for a bit. A customer and train service person in a shouting match, red faces and hand gestures included. It was spectacular. So Italian. I would be nice if I could express myself that way at work and it be perfectly acceptable.

I still had no common sense. Struggled to exit the bathroom stall, or find a toilet in the first place, to make change, and I probably would have forgotten my name if someone had asked. An hour and 30 minutes later we're finally under way to Rome, if this train is headed in the correct direction. What is important is that it's warm in here and I can finally unbutton my coat for the first time in 12 hours. Carrie is seated a few rows up and maybe it's for the better that she get a break from my sneezing, dripping self. Carrie said I was wheezing in my sleep and this isn't a good sign. I can't set foot in that hotel room again without a face mask and we have two more nights to go. I asked the front desk to keep it allergen-free, but perhaps I'm allergic to something foreign in there and there isn't a thing to be done about it. Here's to hoping that the hotel in Paris treats me better.

What seems like a millennia later we have found our way back to the hotel. I picked up a couple face masks at a pharmacy and will sleep with one on. Oy. We popped into a pizzeria for dinner and devoured a few slices with the ferocity of a Roman orgy. I don't know what they do to the pork in this city, but the cured ham is out of this world. Last night I had the best damn hot cocoa ever, thick and chocolaty with extra sugar and whipped cream. Tonight we're finishing with a cheese platter and hot tea. Tomorrow, the Vatican. I hope to spend most of it indoors.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Day 2: Nothing Funny Happened on the Way to the Forum

The recent snowfall made things treacherous in Rome. Since they don't have snow removal equipment or salt, everything was slippery, so the monuments were closed. We didn't mind too much since we were able to walk around the peripheral of the Coliseum. It as closed due to the snow but it made for some fantastic pictures through the arches. And we just saved ourselves e12. The Via Sacra around the Forum was open up to Palatine Hill so we climbed that.... It was rather like scaling an ice mountain. Again, this city knows nothing of salting or sanding pavement, so today I made my second fall on ice of the trip, but the camera and iPad are safe. It was a slow journey up and down as everyone was carefully navigating the icy cobblestone. We saw a few falls and one head injury.

The Via Imperiali was closed to traffic as usual on a Sunday so as pedestrians we were able to stroll alongside the Forum, since the Forum was also closed due the weather. Apparently marble and ice do not a pleasant mix make. At then end of the Via Imperiali was the Vittorino monument with the tomb of the unknown soldier and honor guards. We were on our way toward the Pantheon at this point when we passed a small garment shop with a coat on a form outside the door. It stopped me in my tracks so I went in. After browsing, we left. I took a picture of the coat. Thirty seconds later I turned around, announced the I was going back to try on the coat and walked back in. As the saleswoman slipped it on me, it was like slipping into a custom glove. A leather wrap belt was tied around the waist and I fell in love. Italy has sale seasons only twice a year. Right now is one of those times. Every store is having a sale. Killer sales. Tax either included or not even paid. I love that sale prices are posted in the windows! It makes window shopping so much easier. At any rate, the coat's sale price was a steal and I couldn't leave without it. Spring, winter, or fall, this coat would get plenty of use. It was pure love. I needn't buy anything else in Rome, I was set.

Palatine Hill
Happy, we left and moved on to the Pantheon, which was also closed due to the snow, but we were able to peek through the door crack. Our day of sightseeing was essentially complete, so we stopped for a late lunch at a little restaurant and must have spent at least a couple hours there. Hey, we ordered a liter of wine, no one was going anywhere until it was gone. What I've come to love about Rome is that servers don't bother us. We're not interrupted by their inquiries. We order enough wine, enough water, and just raise our hand when we need something. It is so nice to sit in leisure and not be rushed to turn a table over or handed our check when we don't need it. Everyone is friendly and we even took a stab at ordering in Italian a few times, successfully. At the Piazza Navona we popped into an enoteca and sampled some limoncello. We haven't purchased any yet, but are sure to before we leave Rome. None of it was as good as the stuff we had last night at the restaurant. I just may compare every limoncello to that one.

The daytime sun seemed to have melted a good portion of snow on the sidewalks for walking was much easier today. More traffic was on the streets and there was far less slush to navigate. We returned to the hotel before the sidewalks iced up. On the way back from dinner, we crossed a bridge by our hotel and saw the dome of a magnificent basilica in the distance. Could it be? Maybe? Possibly? For certain, it was St. Peter's in the Vatican, with the sun setting behind it, and from where we were standing on the bridge, was reflecting on the Tiber River. It was too picturesque not to stop for pictures, which other people had the same idea.

As we rounded Piazza Cavour near our hotel, we scouted a couple cafes to ensure we could stop for some cappuccino and cornetto on Tuesday morning on the way to the Vatican. Right now, we're sitting in the lounge of our hotel about to order some cheese and maybe tea and cocoa to finish the evening, as tomorrow we have to catch a 6:38am train to Naples for Pompeii. I'm miserably allergic to something in our hotel room, and despite talking to the desk about a hypoallergenic room, I don't think that came to fruition. Someone should put me in a lab experiment because I sneeze entire time we're in there. Luckily Carrie is being a champ and camping out in the lobby with me. I already hit the Benadryl and will crash fairly soon.

Day 1: Turning Lemons into Limoncello

It began easily enough with two uneventful plane trips and a stopover in Philly. It was an overnight flight to Rome from there. We chatted away for half of the flight until we decided it may be a good idea to get some shut-eye. That is, as much as you can on a plane. There was enough space to spread out a bit across our rows and I caught a few Zs, although not very soundly. When I wake about an hour before landing, I looked outside to see daybreak and... The snow-covered Alps. We must have been over France at this point.

We heard it snowed in Tuscany, and the area around the airport was dusted with snow. Little did we realize that by the time we got into central Rome, there were a few inches on the ground. It must have just fallen the night before because the locals were in the parks building snowmen and having snowball fights. We heard this was the first snow Rome has seen in 15 years, and the most in 26 years. We passed the Forum and Coliseum, with it's arches and surrounding cypress trees dusted in snow. I've never seen this in pictures and thought that we were really lucky to be here to see something that is so very rare. Our pictures will be fabulous. So despite the weather, when given lemons, make limoncello.
Spanish Steps

Given that, nothing was plowed or shoveled. Unfortunately our express bus from the airport wasn't making the stop by our hotel so we were dumped at frantic Termini station. With suitcases in hand, we hopped on the Metro across town. At street level no sidewalks were shoveled, so we dragged our luggage through snow and slush. At this point we just laughed. It was the day of an historic snowfall in Rome and we arrived just in time. We were famished and exhausted so after dropping our luggage off and freshening up, we headed north in search of a little restaurant called Cacio e Pepe. We found it easily enough and were seated. When the waiter came to take our order I asked if he spoke English. "No. Espanol?" Yes! So he recited the menu in Spanish, I ordered for the both of us, and the food was fabulous. Who knew I'd be using Spanish as a backup here. Carrie had the carbonara and I the cacio e pepe. The bacon was out of this world. Can I bring home and entire cured baby pig in my suitcase??

Trevi Fountain
We returned to the hotel for a much-needed disco nap. Rested, we set out in the evening to find some dinner and maybe try to find the Spanish Steps and Trevi Fountain. Success! The Via del Corso was close for pedestrian promenade and overhung with red, green, and white lights for as far as you could see in either direction. Couples were walking arm-in-arm on the streets and shopping. The Spanish Steps were lovely, and since covered with snow, no one was sitting on them. This way we got some excellent photos without lots of people in our view. Next we found our way down to Trevi Fountain. It was evening, so the fountain was illuminated with beautiful lighting and covered in snow. Gorgeous. We're realizing that one of the advantages of being here in the dead of winter is that we've only run into a scattering of tourists. Everyone else is Italian. And there was barely a crowd at the fountain. We had plenty of pictures with no one in our views.

Roman Forum in the snow
Finally we settled in to a very warm and cozy trattoria near the fountain with some chianti, pizza, prosciutto, and bruschetta. Heaven. With our check they brought us complimentary limoncello. As I had been saying all day, when given lemons, make limoncello. And here it is! Nectar from the gods. Not a drop remained. We decided to walk back to the hotel since navigating the streets proved easier than expected. Back past the Trevi and Spanish Steps and by 10pm, no one was there. We took a few more pictures since we had the advantage of no one being in the streets and headed back to the hotel. We're settling down for the evening about to watch Bridesmaids on the iPad, and get ready for tomorrow. The plan is to visit the Coliseum, Forum, and Pantheon.

For not really sleeping in the plane, for the exhaustion, for the non-stop headaches, we have fared quite well our first day. We went into this knowing we would be pushing ourselves, but with some rest, food, and wine, we'll be fine. Just make sure there's limoncello at the end of each day.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Romantic Parisian Notions

Last night I watched two Samantha Brown episodes about Paris.  This morning as my alarm clock sounded, I dreamed that I was awaking in Paris.  I'm coming to find that once it gets under your skin, it's tough to get Paris back out.  And I've never been there.

While we were planning the Italy trip, we were vying for a side trip outside Rome and Naples.  Malta was a strong contender until we discovered logistically it wasn't possible this time around.  Carrie threw Paris out into the universe as a possibility, and before I could blink, it was confirmed.  I won't say I never had plans to visit Paris, but it wasn't at the top of my list.  I'm an archaeological girl.  I like ancient ruins.  But hey, when someone taps me on the shoulder and says I'm headed to Paris in a few months, I'm not turning down the opportunity.  It certainly came out of left field.  I had been in a Rome-state-of-mind up to that point.  Paris?  I hadn't done any research.  I knew nothing.  Eiffel Tower, Louvre, cheese.

Luxor's missing obelisk on the right,
now in Place de Concorde, Paris
Next was the research.  I had to find something in Paris that wasn't ancient but still stirred my soul.  I had to search for a new meaning and passion in Paris.  I soon discovered that not only does the Louvre house a remarkable Ancient Egyptian collection, but it's also the home to the Hammurabi Code of Laws stele.  We're off to a good start.  Of course there's also the Mona Lisa, Venus de Milo, and Napoleon's Apartments.  Soon a plan started to emerge... This was getting exciting.  I read a fascinating book years ago - Measure of All Things - which was the true story of two Parisian scientists that set out to measure the exact length of the meter.  The history of the modern Western world owed so much to Paris.  The Place de Concorde holds an Egyptian obelisk that used to rest outside the Temple of Luxor, where I visited a few years ago.  I now feel like I'm on an international treasure hunt.  Napoleon's expedition to Egypt was a ground-breaking journey and the dawn of modern Egyptology.  In his failed conquest, he brought with him scientists, botanists, artists, geologists, astronomers, and together they chronicled the first thorough written catalog of Egypt, the Description de l'Egypt.  This massive volume set stirred the imaginations of explorers and travelers, including that of Jean-Francois Champollion, the man who deciphered the Rosetta Stone.  Napoleon's army discovered the stele in Rosetta, Egypt, but when the British overwhelmed France in North Africa, the final settlement agreement was to surrender the Rosetta Stone to the British, which is how it ended up in the British Museum in London.

When I was growing up in Rhode Island, we'd spend nearly every summer touring the mansions in Newport.  I'll always have fond memories of running around the ocean-facing lawn in front of the Breakers, and marveling at the extravagance of that estate.  To the Vanderbilts, that was merely a summer "cottage".  So seeing Versailles would be a sentimental journey.  I grew up visiting the "palaces" of Industrial American royalty; it would be equally as exciting to compare it to the ultimate example of opulence.  Luckily, I believe this will happen.  The way we've configured our few days in Paris, by knocking off the Louvre on the first evening, we'll have 3 full days of sightseeing, of which we could probably easily spend a morning at Versailles.  Some of my family grew up in France and have highly recommended visiting Versailles, often comparing it to Newport, and then some.

There's also Napoleon's tomb, Louis Pasteur's laboratory, Chanel's atelier, charcuterie, unpasteurized cheese, inexpensive wine, the Catacombs, and Pere-Lachaise Cemetary, the eternal home of famous artists, musicians, and writers.  Throw in some ice skating, cafes, possible Segway tours at night through a twinkling city, and then there's the food... Hotel Ritz, home of Auguste Escoffier, and more Michelin stars in town than I have fingers on which to count.  We promptly attacked the Top 50 list and managed reservations at #19.

I've traveled to many countries in which I haven't been able to speak the language.  Before I travel I try to get the basics down, like "please", "thank you", "hello" and "goodbye".  However, I'm a freaking out a little bit about Paris.  Will I remember my 5th grade French?  I could care less about learning much Italian.  That is, I can cram for some in-flight Italian on the way there.  It's not a far departure from Spanish and comprehension hasn't been difficult.  But Paris?  As Rex Harrison said in My Fair Lady, "The French don't care what you say, actually, as long as you pronounce it properly."  Egad!  And manners, let's talk about French etiquette.  I'm terrified of sticking out like an American tourist, and/or offending someone such as a shopkeep or a waiter.  I feel like I'm cramming for a test.  French movies, French music, travel programs, language lessons on the iPad, to name a few.  Fortunately many friends have visited Paris and have given me some great advice.

Granted, Paris in the springtime would be beautifully ideal... if other tourists didn't also agree.  But I'm also very glad we're going in the dead of winter.  A seriously low season in the tourism industry, fewer crowds, season-ending sales, shorter lines, and warming up in a cafe over wine or coffee, a hot croissant, and some beautifully gooey brie.  These are my romantic notions of Paris.  Will it live up to what I've constructed in my imagination?  I'll be blogging once again from Rome and Paris (on my own iPad this time!), and will keep you posted.  I'm sure lovely Paris won't fail to disappoint.