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Istanbul, and the Rustem Paşa Mosque

sunny 29 °C
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Saturday September 10

Today is our last day in Istanbul. We stayed one day longer than originally planned. We have been enjoying ourselves, Istanbul is a nice city in which to be walking around, our hotel is comfortable and reasonably priced, and we will have one extra visit with Mehmet.

In the morning we take the tram to Kabataş, the last tram stop across the Golden Horn, but still on the European side. This is the same stop we originally came to after being dropped off by the bus from Selçuk. We walked up the hill and steps to Taksim square, which is rather unremarkable. Then we walked down the main pedestrian shopping street, very cosmopolitan, Istiklal Caddessi. We made it to the Galata tower, built by the Genovese a long time ago. It is big and round. We then made our way to the tram stop at the foot of the Galata bridge by an unconventional route, which first took us through “fan and big hose” street, then along “hardware and gas-powered machine” street. If I want to pick up a doner kebap and a monkey wrench at the same time when I’m next in Istanbul, I know exactly where to go. Susan felt a bit uncomfortable in hardware street, as there were absolutely no other women in sight. Soon, however, we returned to civilization in the form of the tram stop. Sunny says she likes Istanbul, partly because of the contrast between the nice, civilized parts like Sultanahmet, where everything is clean and attractive, and then the back streets, which can be convoluted and dirty, with cars parked in odd places. She also likes the smell of the city, like smoky corn grilling and doner kebaps and, less attractively, corn.

In the afternoon we met Mehmet for tea near the Blue Mosque. He told us about the time of his military service, and he called a hotel in Cesme and booked rooms for us at our request . We said our goodbyes, sadly, but with any luck we will see him again sooner than later. Then, off on a grand adventure to the Grand Bazaar and the Spice Bazaar. In the Grand Bazaar, walking down aisles we had not seen on our previous visit, we bargained a Turkey t-shirt for Alison down to 12 from 20. Outside the Grand Bazaar, we bargained for Sunny an Adidas complete set for 35 (already a pretty good price, if you recall our last trip to the Grand Bazaar) to just 20 for the top. And, on the opposite side of the Grand Bazaar, but also outside, we bargained a Turkey t-shirt for Kas down to 10 from 10. The owner of the shop was pretty sure that was the price, and I thought it was very reasonable. Susan bought a shirt the last time she was in Turkey (ed note: and is trying to save money. SK).

In the Grand Bazaar

In the Grand Bazaar

We took another unconventional route to the Spice Bazaar, but this happened to be the same insanely busy shopping street we went down the last time we were lost coming out of the Grand Bazaar, even though we came out of a different gate this time. Weird. I fail to understand how so many shops can be needed to sell people underwear, shirts, and tea towels, and circumcision boy outfits, but apparently the people of Istanbul do a lot of shopping, many days of the week. Again, few other obvious foreigners were in evidence, likely because they have better map reading skills than we do.

After the Spice Bazaar, we headed to Rustem Paşa Mosque, armed with directions from Angela. We waited outside the door which Susan was familiar with, eating our grilled corn (one lira, very delicious. Sunny can’t have one because of her braces. Alison doesn’t like it.) Two young men were playing soccer against the closed door, and we waited for evidence that the mosque might be open. The passersby also played soccer, sometimes unintentionally, but always good naturedly. Finally, we inquired whether the mosque might be closed, and they just opened the door for us. Inside, it turns out that the few other visitors to the mosque took the doner kebap entrance, rather than the soccer entrance. The mosque was small in comparison to our other mosques, but very exquisite. Also in contrast to the other mosques, it was closely surrounded by shops and, clearly, had no grand entrances. Tomorrow, we catch an Atlas Jet plane to Izmir and then a two hour bus ride to çeşme, gateway to Chios, Greece.

Football player outside entrance of Rustem Pasha Mosque

Football player outside entrance of Rustem Pasha Mosque

Posted by teamkarim 10:44 Archived in Turkey Comments (1)

Chios, Greece

Tuesday September 13

Caught the 9:30 ferry from Cesme to Chios, a Greek island several km off the coast. Turkish travel people seem to be very efficient at taking your money, but not necessarily very good at telling you what to do afterwards. We stood with all the other passengers in front of what we thought was the ferry until 9:25, everyone wondering if we were I'm the right place, or we were missing the actual ferry somewhere else. The one employee on the boat provided no direction. Turned out the ferry we were catching was coming from Chios first. Otherwise, Turkish businesses generally seem quite sophisticated. Getting on the boat, about 150 surged forward at the same time onto a 3m wide ramp, thrusting our tickets into the grasping hands of three employees who clearly had no idea how many people were on each ticket. The trip was very pleasant.

After passport control, we found the local bus to take us to a town, Thymiana, near our lovely hotel, the Voulamandis Hotel. After getting off the bus, we showed the hotel name and address to three old men sitting in a restaurant. After deciphering our crazy alphabet (you know, abcdefg...) they pointed us down the road and indicated"straight". Luckily, a lady working in the restaurant spoke English and took pity on us, getting her son to drive us the 800m. Good thing too. We would have had a hard time asking passersby for directions. The only people on the extremely narrow, hemmed in by walls on both sides streets are driving cars or scooters at unsuitably fast speeds.

Our hotel is in the middle of a mandarin orchard as advertised. That's mandarin orange, btw. Our suite is a darling self-contained cottage with kitchenette. We like it.

Kas.

Posted by teamkarim 09:30 Comments (0)

Chios, more comprehensively


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Wednesday September 14, 2010

I am sitting on my veranda, sipping retsina. In front of the veranda is an expanse of mandarin orchard. It is uncommonly cool tonight. For the past many days we have wandered about town in the evening in our shorts and t-shirts. Tonight is the first night that I have felt the need to put on my pants. There did seem to be a slight change in the weather when we arrived back at our hotel this evening. It seemed slightly muggy, a humidity we haven’t probably felt since Dusseldorf.

The Hotel Voluoumandis is named, I believe, after its owner Michalos. My spelling may not be authentic Greek, but he is happy to go by “Mike”. He is an excellent fellow, very thoughtful and helpful, always ready to talk about his island of Chios, which he seems to know very well. The hotel, by the way, is really neat, with the pool and the orange groves and everything. We are staying in a little cabin that reminds us all of cabin 4 at Green Acres Resort on Salt Spring. The kids love it. The main building in the hotel dates from about 1750, and was built by the Genoese around that time, together with the mandarin orchard and well that supplies the water for the orchard. A piece of marble on the former irrigation reservoir, now swimming pool (we all took a refreshing dip this early afternoon, following Alison’s incessant prompting), reads “1742.” The main house, where most of the hotel’s rooms are, is from the same era. The island was part of the Genoese empire at that time. Interestingly, local historians make the case that Christopher Columbus may indeed have been from Chios, rather than Genoa as is commonly believed. His Genoan provenance has apparently proven somewhat unreliable. His surname is quite common on the island, and many of the Columbus families date back to that time. Columbus kept two ship’s logs. The Latin log was the official version, but contained incorrect data and coordinates. His secret log, with the correct coordinates, was written in Greek. And in those days, the coordinates of voyages were important secrets. His signature included Greek characters. Also, apparently Columbus referred to himself by the name “Columbus of the Red Earth”, or some such translation, and Chios is known for its very red soil, which we have seen lots of this visit. The houses and walls of the area are all made of it. Why would Columbus have claimed to be Genoan if he were actually from Greece? Well, as a Greek he would have been a member of the Greek Orthodox Church, and as such he would have been unlikely to have gained support for his endeavours from a Catholic king. In any case, in Greek my retsina is actually titled something that looks more like “PeToiVa”.

Yesterday, after arriving at our hotel (via a bus from Chios town to the village of Thymiana, and then a ride from the tavern owner next to the bus stop’s son, after she took pity on our helplessness and utter incomprehension of the language and offered to have him take us to the hotel) , we went in search of the Thymiana town centre and a grocery store to supply our dinner. We managed to make it back to the restaurant where the bus had dropped us off. Did I mention that all the properties in the area are surrounded by high red walls that all look exactly the same? There was a small grocery store nearby the bus stop and taverna, with half of its space queerly devoted to trinkets, toys, and household goods. There were six packages of cereal placed high on a shelf, well out of the reach of the ubiquitous old ladies we see sitting in doorways, much like in Turkey. There was a case of retsina on the floor, making it difficult to reach the cans of dolmades, and everything in the store seemed strangely misplaced. The store was not well provisioned, and far too small for our liking, so we continued our search for the town center. We never found it. After another one kilometre of narrow streets, walking single file and dodging motos and cars, we finally gave up our search outside a pet food store. We returned to the unusual grocery store, our spirits dampened, and purchased 13 Euros worth of dinner.

Today, we took the unusual and, for us, daring step of renting a car. Now, understand that we have been advised by Arden that driving on the Greek islands is relatively easy, and that it is a good way to get around, and that is fairly cheap. Also keep in mind that our experience of walking around Chios is that the streets are crazy narrow, and that cars drive past with excess speed and a careless disregard for normal behaviour. However, Mike assured us that he could get us a car for less than the 30 to 40 Euros we had been quoted in the port upon our arrival.
Our car is small, white, and cost 25 Euros. We drove to the town of Mesta, about 25km away, and we were pleasantly surprised when the narrow village roads around Thymiana soon turned to normal roads that were quite driveable. Given that we are on an island, the steep, curvy nature of the roads was not particularly surprising. We were also pleased that the route was extremely well sign posted, both in Greek and the equivalent Latin alphabet.

Mesta is a medieval town, built to protect the Genoese Mastic producers from attack. Mastic, you ask? Yes, mastic. Mastic is a product derived from a bush, or a tree, or some sort of plant, anyways. It can be used for many things, including gum. The Sultan of Turkey loved mastic gum so much that he ordered the inhabitants of the mastic villages to be spared while the other inhabitants of the island were being slaughtered in 1822, as part of the ongoing strife between the Greek and Turkish peoples. Well, Mastic was such a valuable product that the villagers cleverly built their town so that the house essentially created a fortress. The houses on the outside of the village are all joined together, their backs creating what was probably in those days a virtually impenetrable wall. These days, of course, everyone has windows and doors, but the effect is still quite evident. Inside, the entire village looks like the inside of a castle. There are arches and tunnels connecting buildings, and the streets are narrow and twisted. The inside of the village was built like a maze, to confuse and discourage pirates.

The village seemed weirdly deserted when we were there, as if it were built entirely around tourism, but the tourist season has died down significantly (except, apparently, in our hotel, which is heavily populated by Germans), or was really nothing but a museum or something. However, when we returned to our hotel, Mike surmised that most of the inhabitants were likely out tending their mastic plantations.
Our exploration of Mesta went like this: we entered through an arch in the walls, and wandered around the deserted little streets and walkways, hitting a few dead ends and passing by the same stoop ladies multiple times. Then, one wrong turn found us back outside the walls, even though we hadn’t intended to leave. Those crafty Genoese! That’s just how they dealt with the pirates! Undaunted, and looking for another way in to see all the great stuff that must be inside the town, we re-entered, but after wandering around a bit thoroughly lost, we found ourselves back where we started. We finally came to the conclusion that it’s a much smaller town than we thought but, just to be sure, we walked all the way around it on the outside. That’s how the Karims explore a town – no half-assed attempts for us.

After seeing Mesta, we made a brief stop at a local beach, of which the island has many. The beach is unusual for this area in that instead of sand, the entire beach is made of black, rounded volcanic stones. The tourist booklet called them “pebbles”, but clearly the distinction between pebbles and stones requires the insight of someone with English as a first language. We had kinda hoped that black volcanic pebbles would be really neat, but they turned out to be just like the rocks on the beach at home, except with no sand between them, which made the water super clear. Alison went for a swim, and Susan and I stood in the water enjoying its not-coldness. The sun went down soon, however, and we rushed back to our town before darkness arrived. By the way, we discovered that fifty feet down the road from where we had given up our search for a grocery store the day before, there was a large, well provisioned, immaculately organised “B”, a popular Greek supermarket. Having found this oasis of groceries, we went inside and purchased dinner supplies, including a surprisingly well priced (5 Euros) 850g “you bake it” spanakopita, and the aforementioned retsina, 1L for just a touch over 2 Euros.

Old men in cafe in Chios Town

Old men in cafe in Chios Town

Posted by teamkarim 11:34 Comments (1)

Chios to Piraeus

Thursday September 15

We are on the 10 PM night ferry from Chios to Piraeus, the main port that serves Athens. We arrive early in the morning.

We spent the morning packing, showering, and finding a place to stay in Athens. In Athens, location is very important. There are areas close to the touristy sites that are no-go zones. My favourite review of a hotel read, "The hotel is very nice, but you can't go out after19:00. It's too dangerous." Our chosen hotel seems to be in a good area, and isn't too outrageously expensive at 68 Euros a night. No breakfast. It received generally favorable reviews from hostelworld, but less spectacular reviews from tripadvisor. More of a backpackers hotel, perhaps.

Alison and Susan are trying to sleep on the floor, Sunny and I in seats. It is midnight. All the lights are on, a man is snoring off to the side, and two different tvs are tuned to different shows. Luckily, tv is easier to tune out if it doesn't make any sense.

Kas.

Posted by teamkarim 14:06 Comments (1)

Athens

How on earth do you get out of this place?

sunny 30 °C
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Sunday, Sept 18

So, we took the ferry from Chios to Piraeus, an 8 hour night time trip where we opted for “airplane seats” rather than deck class, for an extra 3 Euro each. It was not a pleasant voyage. Greek ferry companies seem to think that you will of course not want to bother sleeping, so they leave all the lights on and the TV at full blast. As the night progresses, you watch Chuck Norris trying to sell Total Gyms to the Greeks, and you wonder how successful he will be. You are afraid your stuff is going to get nicked so you doze with one eye open, the toilets are shockingly dirty and smelly, and we only have one blanket and one towel between the four of us so half of us were cold from the too cool air conditioning. We arrive in Piraeus, take the train into Athens, find our hostel, and go out to wander for a few hours without our packs until we can check in.

Kas: A brief interlude...

So, about our hotel. You get off the tram at Monastiraki. By the way, we have ditched our map of Athens, so all my spelling of places, streets, etc. is suspect. You come out of the station into a medium sized plaza, at the end of which is a small church sunk about five feet into the ground. As you will guess, the builders did not build it like that; rather, the level of the city has grown higher since it was built. Now, the street in front of you is Ermolu. If you turn right, you will be in a pedestrian zone that runs about five or six blocks up to Syntagma square, the main plaza in Athens, location of the Parliament and the changing of the guard, the National Gardens (very pretty and cool, ie. not shady), and all of the fashionable shops you'd hope to find: Zara, Mango, H&M, etc. Now, if you turn left, you will instead be headed towards our hotel, the interestingly named "Hotel Pella Inn." The hotel is only two blocks away, and therefore only three blocks from the fashionable pedestrian zone. However, the building on this part of the street are mostly run down, the occasional building actually so decrepit that's it's no longer in use, and graffiti everywhere. When we saw this, we were wondering whether we'd made a serious error in judgement. After seeing the hotel, we realized everything was fine. The hotel, which is actually more like a hostel, was ok, but it had a very helpful staff and the most amazing view of the Acropolis and the Athens skyline. If you've been to our usual hostel in Granada, you know the kind of million dollar view I'm talking about, but instead of the Alhambra, it's the Parthenon. We did, by the way, discover the area around Omonia Plaza, which all the hotel reviews had warned against. Even on a Sunday morning, it was filled with sketchy people, and the dog who briefly adopted us barked at several unusual characters. Back to the story...

First stop is for coffee, because it’s still early morning and the big Karims haven’t had any, then for water, because it’s hot, and then for a milk shake, because it’s hot, and then we go to see the changing of the guard at the tomb of the unknown soldier in Syntagma square. Always entertaining... You Tube it if you haven’t seen it. Then back to the hostel, which is a typical backpackers hostel, but our room has a splendid view of the Acropolis out the window. Nice! We have a rest, then go to explore the nearby Plaka area and get the lay of the land. We find really good souvlaki for dinner and go to bed happy.

The next morning, we go out and source some breakfast and coffee, then go to a park for some shade and grass and playground time. Sunny and I shoe shop (a lot), and I buy some impractical heels, for the cruise. Then siesta, which has become an important part of the dialy schedule, given the heat and the energy level/attention span of the littlest Karim, and then we launch our attack on the Acropolis, which is as fantastic as we remember. Kas and I find ourselves telling the girls more than once that it’s one of the most important monuments of the Western world. I’m not sure they bought it, quite frankly, but we enjoyed ourselves nonetheless.

View of the Acropolis from our hotel

View of the Acropolis from our hotel

View of the Acropolis at night

View of the Acropolis at night

We are up and away the next morning to the bus station for the bus to Patras, where we catch the ferry to Bari. Patras is an oven. Even after three weeks or so of extreme heat, Sunny and I can’t believe just how hot it is as we walk from the new port to the grocery store 5 minutes away, which turns out to be closed. We are parched, baking, so hot we can’t think straight, and the cool looking store (Eurospar) with all its water and bananas and juice and tomatoes is closed on Sundays. We don’t want to return empty-handed so we hit the streets looking for something else. All we find, after 10 minutes of walking through what Sunny says feels like a huge Dyson hand dryer, is a small kiosk in the middle of barren and empty streets. It sells water, thank god.

The ferry to Bari exceeds our expectations. It looks like the Love Boat. The staff is nice, the lounge is comfy and fairly dark, the TVs go off overnight, and Kas finds an English language movie on with a lot of gunplay and swearing. We sleep.

Posted by teamkarim 11:33 Archived in Greece Comments (0)

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