Tuesday, September 29, 2009


After Kusadasi, our travels took us back to Greece to visit Athens, where they know a thing or two about temples and pleasing tempermental gods. Temples, and parts of temples, are all over the city, so in our short given time we had to pick just a few to visit. Our first choice was the Temple of Poseidon, high atop a hill well outside of Athens, giving us a chance to explore the Greek coastline as we traveled by bus to our destination. This spot was a favorite of Lord Byron, who carved his name onto a section of one of the columns, and it is, indeed, a lovely sight. There is a wonderful breeze that flows through the area, almost making you think you are at sea instead of on land. Best of all, because of the location, there are far fewer tourists than you will find in the city, giving a little extra time to drink in all this beauty at your own pace. This is how we began our day.

Next stop was the Acropolis. This one takes some effort to reach; the bus can only take you so far, and then you must climb to the top of the hill on your own. Another hot day, another path paved with slippery slabs of marble that someone thought was a good idea back in the day. Not the best surface to walk on; many people spent most of the hike up cursing their shoes and other wardrobe choices for this adventure. I have to put in a shameless plug here: I did this climb, and every other walk in the Mediterranean I've written about, in a pair of flip flops. Happy feet every day.

Once at the top, a huge surprise .... how can this be? The Parthenon has been here for thousands of years and it is still under construction! Scaffolding around the structure, piles of broken pieces of statues and columns, and no landscaping to speak of. The view of Athens from here, however, is spectacular, and well worth the hike. Although we did not visit the adjoining museum, we were told that most of the actual structure is now housed there to protect it from the elements.

Back down the hill again, we made our way to a small tavern where I had the best Greek lunch ever, with all the classics: spanokopita, moussaka, salad with tiny tomatoes that were as bright red inside as their outside skins, spicy beef, and many other dishes. Waiters would rush by and, seeing a vacant space on your plate, immediately toss on more of yet another yummy dish. The entrees ended with a round of Greek spaghetti, and for a brief moment I was back at Skyline chili in Cincinnati again.

After lunch, we strolled over the the Plaka to see what the shops had to offer. Alas, no paper to be found. Enroute we passed this colorful street art and, as I don't know any Greek, I apologize in advance if it says something naughty. We were delighted to find a shop that sold beautiful decorative glass trays, plates and bowls that we have purchased in Chicago -- the artist is Greek, and we had by accident found the source of her beautiful work.

Our trip is drawing to a close; we have only one more city to visit in the next post!

Sunday, September 27, 2009


If you love a good crumbling column or two, then you would enjoy a visit to Ephesus in Turkey, the ancient Greek city where the Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the World, was located. All that is left of the Temple now is a nice teetering column, but the rest of the town still provides plenty of visual wonders to enjoy.

I confess, I was not a student of history in my formative years, and somehow Ephesus just slipped right under my radar. (However, I did pay attention during Pompei, as you know from the earlier post.) Ephesus is reached from the port of Kusadasi--just rolls off the tongue, yes? It's a pleasant drive through the Turkish countryside once you leave the port; along the road I saw potentilla bushes growing wild and beautiful .... why don't they look like that in my backyard at home? This was another very hot day, well over 100 degrees, and there were no shade trees in sight. I was sorry not to have brought an umbrella for heat and sun protection, as the usual sunglasses and hat weren't doing a very good job.

We walked the ancient streets lined with slabs of marble that once graced the sides of buildings. Ephesus was a sizable city at one time; makes Pompei look like Munster compared to Chicago, and it had everything ... theatre, library, shops, dozens of temples and, as a consequence, lots of crumbling columns. Our only respite from the heat was a tour of the hillside excavation where a massive home is being reconstructed; it was under cover and provided a much needed break from direct sun. Some of the interior rooms are shown in the photo above; it is remarkable to see firsthand.

After spending several hours exploring Ephesus, we dragged our wilted bodies back to the bus, but not before stopping at the tourist shopping area where I saw this wonderful sign, and where I successfully bargained in the parking lot for 20 bookmarks that are woven miniature Turkish carpets. The book club will love these!

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Flying Carpets

First, let me set the stage for the seduction. You're traveling in Istanbul and you've had a long, hot day of palaces, mosques, and the Grand Bazaar. The temperature is over 100 degrees and you've done a week's worth of walking in one day. Your water bottle was emptied an hour ago, the back of your neck is soggy from the humidity, and your feet are begging for a break. That's when the silver tongued Turkish devil invites you in for a glass of cold apple tea or a beer, and offers you a seat in an air conditioned room several floors above the crowds.

Welcome to the Turkish rug salesroom. We were drawn in by the warm hospitality, promise of education about the weaving process and, well, because we just wanted to sit down for a bit. As you are well on your way of enjoying your tasty beverage served on a silver tray, the story begins. First, you marvel at the silkworm cocoons and how the cool, broom-like tool pictured above is used to find the beginning thread of each cocoon. Next, the rug weaver, usually a young woman, arrives with her loom and shows you how deftly she ties the double knots to secure the fiber. Working from a drawing, she creates the pattern one row at a time.

But then it is show time. A team of young studs arrive and start pulling carpets from the inventory at the far end of the room. Whoop! the rug rolls out on the bare floor area in front of you, followed by a another on top of that one, and another still .... carpets in colors you're seeing for the first time, beautiful lush silks and wools, simple patterns, complex florals, whoop! whoop! one rug after another until there is a great teaming pile of overlapping rugs. The guys especially love to roll out the long hall runners, timing their release so the fringe ends just at your toes, a red carpet just for you! They save the little ones for last, because they've perfected a tossing technique that spins the carpet around two or three times like a pizza thrower before it lands on top of the pile. Real theatre!

If you find yourself in this situation, you must not let your curiosity get the best of you. I made the error of asking the price of one I saw fly by, and that was all it took to engage the salesman. We moved onto his radar screen and couldn't shake him for anything. The original price quoted was dropping by the minute "just for you, because you are from Chicago where my brother lives!" We hadn't even thought about buying a carpet on this trip, so it was easy to appear uninterested. After 10 minutes or so, the salesman followed us down the three flights of stairs to the door and we walked.

We strolled around the Grand Bazaar for about an hour and I completely forgot about the carpet. Not so, my spouse. Just out of the blue, he bet that he could get the carpet for 40% of the tagged price. We were approaching the meeting place for our tour which, not uncoincidentally, was just outside the carpet store. I told him to go for it; that I would stay outside to remove any emotional involvement with the purchase.

Thirty minutes later, he emerged from the store with a receipt and a triumphant look .. he had done exactly what he set out to do. Too large to bring home on the plane, the carpet is being shipped to us, but apparently it doesn't fly, it comes by very slow boat in about 10 weeks. Every night I pray to the carpet gods for these things: one, that it will actually arrive, and two, that it will be the same one I saw go flying past. I will post a photo when it arrives!

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Istanbul (not Constantinople)

As you pull into the port of Istanbul, you know you're not in Kansas anymore. The skyline is distinctively different, with mosques and towers spread all over the city, and it just looks more, well, exotic, than most of the other cities in Europe. Istanbul is quite large (over 12 million people) and the traffic is tremendous, so it took a while to get to our first destination on the tour, the Blue Mosque.

You must be appropriately dressed to go into a mosque--no shorts above the knees or bare arms, and no shoes, but that works out just fine because the floor is lushly carpeted inside even though the area is massive. The guy with the vacuum cleaner must have to start very early in the morning just to finish up by dinnertime. I spent most of my time inside the mosque looking up at the beautiful tiles and wonderful, larger than life letterforms on the walls, pillars and ceilings.

Historically speaking, the Turks have been there and done that for just about every major culture -- Romans, Greeks, Ottomans, and more. This makes for some interesting architecture as a result. Great cathedrals which later became mosques, then reconverted to churches, and then to museums. Hagia Sophia is one of these structures, and it was the next stop on our visit.

From Sophia, we went to Topkapi Palace, home of the sultans and their families during the Ottoman empire. The compound on which the Palace sits is almost as large as my little town here; once you've entered the gates, you stroll down a wide promenade through beautifully landscraped grounds, past a row of shops including a post office, and then finally you reach the Palace gates. The group of buildings that make up the Palace appear simple in contrast to what goes on visually inside. Colorful tiles are everywhere, pattern upon pattern, in every room and space available. We were able to tour the harem quarters; one of the photos here shows a bedroom. Incredible!

There is also a museum within the compound that displays swords and jewels and ancient artifacts, including books. From Topkapi, we went to the original mother of all shopping malls, the Grand Bazaar, with over 4,000 booths or stalls selling everything under the sun, with heavy concentration on jewelry, scarves, handbags, textiles and cheap souvenirs . We decided to save our money for a more interesting purchase, which I'll tell you about in the next post.