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July 29, 2002

TravelBlog: Europe - part 9

This is the ninth of nine letters I wrote to friends and family during a two-month solo trip backpacking through Europe in 2002, a year after I graduated from Haverford College. The photos for this and other entries are on my flickr stream.


Merhaba from Turkey again!

In the afternoon I left Goreme for Istanbul, I began to get the first inkling that I might have eaten something I shouldn't have. Sure enough, before the bus left that night, I started feeling sick in my bowels. I arrived early the next morning after sleeping throughout the 12-hour bus ride, and thought only of sleeping more. The next two days were particularly uncomfortable between my bowels being a war zone and the oppressive heat-wave that had come into town with me, as I tried to sleep as best I could in the busy hostel. During the two days that I was particularly unwell, I made only brief journeys outside the hostel to see sights very nearby. Fortunately, by the third day I started feeling more normal again, and during my fourth and fifth days in Istanbul I felt largely back to my active self (although subject still to the occasional stomach-growl).

Istanbul teems with life in a way very much like Paris, London, Rome and Barcelona. During the day, there's the busy bustle of people coming and going, shopping and selling. I made the neighborhood of Sultanahmet my home base, in much the same way most tourists do. They do this because that's where the two most well known mosques (the Blue Mosque and the Ayasofia Mosque) are and the Grand Bazaar is very nearby. Istanbul itself is split first into two sections, the Asian and the European sides, and the European side is again split into two sections, north and south of the Golden Horn. Running north-to-south is the Bosphorus, which connects the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara (which then pours into the Mediterranean Sea). As far as I could tell, in Istanbul itself, there's only one bridge that crosses the Bosphorus - it's a giant suspension bridge much like the Golden Gate in San Francisco, across which flows an immense amount of traffic between the two continents.

My first day in Istanbul, armed with plenty of water to keep myself upright and hydrated, I ventured out to see the Topkapi Palace, which was the seat of the Ottoman Empire for more than 500 years. (Throughout my stay in Istanbul, I learned a little about the Ottoman Empire. It wasn't really much considering how much history there was to learn, but it was enough for me to feel shamefully ignorant of such and important Empire given my woefully small education on this part of the world in grade school). The Palace is divided into four walled courts, the first of which is more precisely a giant garden where locals would come to trade wares, soak up the glory of the Empire and where occasionally the sultan would make an appearance to view his subjects. Passing through another wall and gate, one enters the Third Court, where the Palace's kitchens, another garden, the entrance to the Harem (living quarters of the Sultan), entrance to the Inner Treasury and another gate that leads to the Second Court. The Harem is only accessible by a guided tour, so I bought my ticket and spent the remaining time until the next tour poking around the kitchens. In one part of the kitchens is a collection of some very ornately shaped silver statues, dishes and models. The other is the more important though, as it houses a small piece of one of the largest collections of ancient Chinese pottery in the world (something like 12,000 pieces in all! Less than a hundred were on display). These were truly beautiful pieces - the rich blues of the pottery in detailed images of nature and dragons decorated plates, vases, pots, etc. Some of the vases were four or five feet tall and exquisite. The pieces that really caught my eye were the ones with polychromatic coloring, since they stood out from the blue and white coloring of the majority of the pieces.

The Harem area of the Palace was occupied by the Sultan, his eunuchs and the various women that were either his current wives or candidates to become his wives. Here's how the system worked: young girls, usually around the age of five, were brought to the Harem and put into the service of the Sultan. While in service, they were educated in things like logic, philosophy, history, and literature, and provided with extremely good accommodations. If, over the next ten years or so, the Sultan slept with one of the girls, she became one of his wives. The Sultan usually had between four and eight wives, and I'm not sure what might have happened if he slept with a ninth. Anyway, being one of the Sultan's wives elevated the girl to a significantly higher status. If she bore him a child, she was elevated again. If she bore him his heir, then she was elevated to the highest possible position in the Harem and was an extremely powerful/influential person in her own right. There were some other details in how all this worked, but it was a little hard to understand our guide at some points because her voice was easily lost in the depths of the huge echoing rooms that we were moving through. The Harem area itself is a complex of rooms, hallways, bathing chambers (he even had a very large outdoor pool) and courtyards, mostly covered in beautiful blue Iznik tiles, with white plaster and timber making up the rest of it. Plus the gold detailing. Interestingly enough, the Sultan's Harem was served by a hot and cold water system, a few rooms had heated floors and there were the squat-and-aim style toilets in use as early as 1600, which was well before the kings and queens of Europe had such luxuries. Many of the rooms in the Harem had huge domed ceilings, many of which were painted. Two rooms in particular stick out in my mind as being memorable - they had giant stain glass windows in them. The individual pieces of the windows were all very small, and the designs intricate geometric ones, given the overall effect that the window was more like a giant mosaic with an inner light than a Western-style stain glass window. The Harem reminded me quite a bit of the papal apartments in the Vatican museum, for their endless splendor. At the gateway between the Third and Second Court is a small covered square where the Sultan would have ceremonies. Stuck in the middle of the square is a small marble half-dome (perhaps 15cm high) where the Sultan's standard would be placed during the ceremonies. The Second and First courts were where the Sultan would entertain important dignitaries, go for walks on his own, and they housed the Treasury Museum and another set of rooms with interesting artifacts like the Prophet Muhammad's sandals, swords, bits of his beard, hair, etc. The Treasury was really interesting, as along the walls were illuminated boxes containing wondrous treasures of gold, emerald, mother-of-pearl + tortoise shell inlaid stuff (this combination seemed to be a favorite of Sultans'), rock crystal, etc. Incredible beautiful. In one of the four rooms was a bit of St. Paul's skull and I think St. John's forearm and hand. (It still strikes me as being a bit odd to preserve people piece-wise in this manner) The First Court looks out over the Bosphorus, and far across the water, you can see the Asian side of Istanbul spreading out into the distance. (Interesting Factoid: only three percent of Turkey's landmass is on the European continent)

My second day in Istanbul, I again armed myself with water and ventured out to see the Blue Mosque. Unfortunately, I didn't quite make it all the way there as I had planned. As I was sitting in the Sultan Ahmet Park, three young Turks came up to me. I immediately slightly tightened my grip on my bag and steeled myself for some kind of scam. Turns out such precautions were needless this time, as they just wanted to practice English. So I met Ceyhan (who did most of the speaking, as his English was the best), Ahmet and Hulusi. We chatted for a long time about things such as where I'd traveled, Islam, Turkey, euphemisms (both Turkish and English), etc. Here are a few of the Turkish sayings I learned (translated into English): meaning the same as our saying 'Rules are made to be broken', the Turkish saying is 'Rules are made for chewing.' Meaning something along the lines of saving money will make you wealthy, a common Turkish saying goes something like 'Drip. Drip. And soon a lake will be there.' After a while, I started feeling less well, we were after all sitting out in the sun while we were chatting, I bade my new friends goodbye and went to see the Blue Mosque.

More properly called the Sultan Ahmet Camii (mosque), the Blue Mosque is, I think, what most people would call the symbol of Istanbul. It's many domes cascade upward from the hulking base to culminate in the triumphant grand dome that rises above the ground at almost 50m. Surrounding the mosque structure are six minarets from which the daily calls to prayer are made. Apparently, at the time of its construction, it was preposterous to build a mosque with six minarets, as that's how many the mosque in Mecca has. Sultan Ahmet circumvented this little snag by financing the construction of a seventh minaret in Mecca. Four of the minarets stand at each of the four corners of the mosque itself, while the remaining two stand at the corners of an attached large courtyard (of equal area as the mosque, and adjoining the mosque on one side). The tourist entrance and exits are on the north and south sides of the mosque. I'd worn long trousers that day since my guide book had advised that shorts are disrespectful in a mosque, but it turns out I would have been alright anyway. At the tourist entrance, there were shawls that some men wrapped around themselves, forming a makeshift skirt, while women wrapped it around their shoulders if they were bare. Either way, the tourists stood out inside the mosque because of their silly garb. Inside the Blue Mosque is a single cavernous, vaulting interior space for worship. Covering almost every surface were more blue and sometimes polychromatic Iznik tiles (Iznik is a place (in Turkey, I think) known for its world-class pottery for many years). Four massive pillars supported the main dome's corners far above. These pillars were swathed in tiles and a band of gold-on-black Arabic writing. Covering every inch of the floor were carpets, which were quite comfortable to pad around on in my socks (no shoes inside the mosque). It was really quite an awesome place to be. I relished the beauty of the interior as I slowly wandered toward the tourist exit; this was the first mosque I'd ever been inside, and I definitely picked a good one to start with!

By my third day in Istanbul, I was beginning to feel somewhat better, although I was still sleeping throughout most of the day. Mirroring my rise in health and spirit, the heat wave also relaxed and temperatures cooled off a bit. I started the day by trying to unsuccessfully find the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art; so instead, I visited the Underground Cistern and went for a walking tour. I'm not quite sure what the Underground Cistern was used for - I would guess it was a water reserve - but it was such a neat place to visit. It lies just a few meters beneath the frantic hustle of Sultanahmet's main street and as you descend the short flight of steps into the cistern, all sound from above fades and is replaced by the eerie drip-drop of water and a faint Turkish flute (soundtrack) playing from hidden speakers. This place is eerie, and fascinating in a way nothing else I've seen on this trip has been. The cistern is a giant chamber supported by a grid work of 340 columns each of which sits at the crotch of a brick barrel vault. Covering the floor is a clear pool of perhaps 15cm of water. A slightly elevated walkway allows terrestrial tourists to walk around dimly, and eerily, illuminated sections of the cistern while inky blackness plays tricks on the mind in the distance. (Can you tell I liked this place? :)) The walkway does a long loop through the main part of the cistern, taking you by the only two atypical areas in the largely uniform room. In Turkey and on some of the Greek isles, I often would see blue glass disks with a white eye painted on them. These are the evil-eye charms. They were ubiquitous in Turkey, with almost every vendor selling them and almost every Turk carrying one somewhere. One of the columns in the Cistern was carved with the same, I think, eyes, and was called the Tear Column. Interestingly, around each of the large eyes on the column were lines making the shape of a large inverted tear. The walkway then wandered over to a pair of shorter columns. Shorter because they were standing on top of large blocks, each of which had carved on it the face of Medusa. One face was upside-down and the other was on its side. Supposedly, these two and another pair (which lie at the base of the Bosphorus Bridge and are at opposite 45-degree angles) were taken from a Roman building somewhere or other. How they made their way to the Cistern and why there were there, I have no idea. They added to the eeriness of the whole place. Oh, another interesting factoid I learned: there's a chase scene in some James Bond movie filmed in the Underground Cistern. Any Bond buffs know which one it might be?

The rest of my day was spent wandering up toward to the Grand Bazaar and to the Suleymanye Mosque. The tight and stuffy quarters of the Bazaar was a little much for my still unwell body, even though I was only cutting through it, but the Mosque was a pleasant respite. This mosque looked very similar to the Blue Mosque from the outside, but the inside had its own personality. I could see how looking at a lot of these mosques, one could start to think they all looked the same, but I think that Christian cathedrals are kind of similar - they start to look the same after you've seen a lot of them as well.

My fourth day in Istanbul, I did manage to finally find the Turkish and Islamic Art Museum (it was in a completely different place than I had first thought!). Christian art is largely focused on representations of scenes and people from the Bible. Islamic art doesn't permit the representation of people, so it focuses on geometric and floral patterns projected onto objects. Objects like boxes, Koran stands (which can be exquisitely beautiful objects), Koran boxes, the beautiful script of Arabic, tiles, various bronze objects, etc. It's a whole different way of being artistic, and I can see why the Humanist Revolution came through Western art rather than Arabic art - it's a little more difficult to identify human emotions with a beautiful piece of Arabic script than it is with the extremely human face of David in the Accademia Museum in Florence. That doesn't make the Islamic art any less beautiful, but it was still one of the distinctions that I sought to understand a little more about by going to a museum specifically about Turkish and Islamic art. Another thing I learned a little about was how to look at carpets - I haven't talked much about them, but there are carpet dealers everywhere in the areas of Turkey that I've visited. I've been accosted by no less than a dozen carpet dealers, and was I more easily parted with my money, I might have been coming back to the US with one or more carpet in tow.

My last day in Istanbul, I finally visited the sister of the Blue Mosque's spot in the Istanbul skyline, the Ayasofia (or St. Sophia, as it was originally a Christian basilica). Ataturk turned this mosque into a museum when he established the Republic of Turkey. This mosque was an entirely different experience from the other three that I'd visited. Where the other mosques were swirls of blue and white with accents of black and gold, the interior of the Ayasofia was a wash of different greys with gold ceilings and black details. The blue and white tiles in a few places seemed out of place. The interior here was even more cavernous than the two other big mosques I'd seen, and its dome reaches higher than any other in the city (53m). The really interesting thing about the Ayasofia is that as it was originally a Christian basilica, there were frescoes on the ceilings. When it was converted into a mosque, the builders simply plastered over the frescoes rather than destroying them. Now, in several places, those frescoes have been uncovered, and the ghostly outlines of crosses adorn many of the arches and ceilings where they had been painted over with floral patterns, while pinned against the walls, high up in several places are huge black disks with gold Arabic script and trim - all together, it's an odd mixture of iconography from both religions. When you walk into the main area, you immediately get the impression of overwhelming age. The entire place looks like it's covered in a not-so-thin layer of dust, although that's perhaps because the marble isn't polished and has a dull luster to it rather than the shine one usually sees. Unaligned with the main cross of the old basilica floor-plan are structures aligned to Mecca for the mosque's functioning - this adds to the weirdness of the place, as these structures are quite obviously additions made after the original structure was built.

I also spent a bit longer poking around the Grand Bazaar, and even stopped by the Egyptian Spice Bazaar. The word 'bazaar' conjures up images from movies, stories and antiquity of men wearing robes standing under cloth awnings hawking various goods like bronze objects, bags of grain, etc. This is a foolish imagery as it has very little in relation to the labyrinthine market that is the modern-day Grand Bazaar. The whole area is covered by barrel vault roofs, and each shopkeeper has a box-like shop of various proportions out of which he bases his sales. Usually, his goods (shirts, lamps, jewelry (lots and lots of these), wooden crafts, etc.) were arrayed on the outside of his shop so that passers-by can easy see what he has to see. This year apparently, tourism is down and the Bazaar wasn't as crowded as it usually gets. Still, there was definitely a crowd, and at times, it was more of a slow shuffling movement than a stroll as I wandered among the shops. The Bazaar itself is loosely organized by type of goods, so the leather dealers are mostly grouped together, the t-shirt dealers, the jewelry row and the carpet dealers all have their own areas. But sometimes you'll find a leather dealer in the t-shirt/clothing section, etc. Just outside the Grand Bazaar, nearer to the Suleymanye Mosque is another market, this one more like a Home Depot split up and distributed among a hundred small merchants. The Spice Bazaar is more food related. The one thing all these places have in common is the fact that they're all selling stuff in the very Turkish manner - that means that the shop keeper will try to get you, the innocent passer-by, to come into his shop by hook or crook. This usually entails his starting a conversation with you, and then drawing you in to look at a few things. I have to admit though, the best salesmen I encountered in my trip in Turkey were at the pottery workshop in Avanos in Cappadocia - with them, it was very difficult to be polite and not inadvertently purchase something!

With my trip winding down, my last real stop was in Selchuk, near the ancient city of Ephesus. Ephesus was the capital of the Asian province of the Roman Empire, and a city of more than 200,000 people. That's big, especially for those times. Ephesus today, however, is a tourist trap of first class. It's also a ruin, and reminded me a lot of the agora area around the Acropolis in Athens, as there are bits and pieces of carved marble laying everywhere, and very few structures intact. The structures are intact are ones that have been pieced back together by jigsaw-crazed archaeologists (the facade of the Library in Ephesus is said to have been composed of three million pieces) from Austria. Ephesus used to be a seaport with a natural inland harbor, but the river than fed that harbor slowly filled it with silt, which helped to seal Ephesus's fate as a doomed city. It was inhabited for something like 600+ years, and had several revivals. There were a series of terrace houses that were extravagantly decorated, probably housing the local officials/politicians. The Library held 12,000 scrolls (a lot, I suppose), and nearby was the Temple of Artemis. At four times the size of the Parthenon, it was a Wonder of the Ancient World. All that remains of it now is a single reconstructed pillar and a vague outline of the enormous girth of the building amid family gardens that occupy the surrounding land. Comically, there's a bird's nest of what I guessed are Ibises (they looked like long-legged, thin pelicans with a long thin beak no oversized sack underneath) on top of the column as well. The theatre in Ephesus has been mostly reconstructed and supposedly seats 25,000 (historians use the theatre's capacity to estimate a city's population: so 25,000 x 10 = city population of 250,000ish). I overhead a tour guide saying that pop stars like to give concerts in the theater, although I can't imagine that the massive vibrations from the amplified sound is good for the surrounding ruins. Ephesus itself wraps itself around a hill, with the main avenues running along the base of the hill, and away from the theatre (carved into the hillside) toward the flat former marsh where the old inland harbor was. Carved into a flagstone on one of the avenues leading from the harbor are a few symbols that archaeologists claim are the first advertisement... for the local brothel!

I'm now back in Athens, biding my time until my flight leaves (tomorrow) for the States. I'm spending time thinking back over this amazing trip I've had, and the myriad of experiences that I'm bringing back with me (something no Customs agent will be able to hinder my bringing into the country). I'm just marveling at how many interesting people I've met (just the other night, I met a high school history teacher who's traveling for several months in Turkey (his second time doing this)), how many interesting things I've seen, and all the interesting places that I'm hoping to visit again before my time is done. If you're able to, I strongly urge you to travel! And not via a tour bus or tour group, but as an independent traveler - you see and experience so much more of a place this way. Turkey was such an amazing experience for those two weeks, and such a different one from what life is like in truly industrialized countries, that even coming back to Athens was a bit of a shock. Athens seems incredibly advanced compared to much of Turkey, so this was perhaps a good stepping-stone on my way back to America. :)

A part of me is very sad to be done with traveling (especially to be done with Turkey... I spent two weeks there and feel like I've only scratched the surface; I could easily go back and spend four months and still have more to see) as I've really settled in to a rhythm now. There's a small part of me that's excited to be done, because it means that I'll soon have nice luxuries again like showering in the same place for more than just a few days, having my own bed, etc. Then there's the part of me that's looking forward to the next adventure, which is graduate school.

I'd like to thank all of you who have written to me while I've been traveling - it's made checking my email something I look forward to, and it's allowed me to maintain a sense of contact even while traveling alone (which can and does get lonely every now and then). To all of you whom I've sent postcards to (I estimate that I've sent over 100 postcards in the past two months), I hope you'll reciprocate when you travel to interesting places! I'd also like to thank all of you who've trudged through my ever-lengthening email updates. I hope that I've been able to convey a part of the wonder and excitement that I've felt in visiting these places, and if I can inspire a few of you to go see those places yourselves, then I'll feel all the more accomplished. :)

Cheers! Aaron

posted July 29, 2002 06:23 AM in Travel | permalink | Comments (0)

July 20, 2002

TravelBlog: Europe - part 8

This is the eighth of nine letters I wrote to friends and family during a two-month solo trip backpacking through Europe in 2002, a year after I graduated from Haverford College. The photos for this and other entries are on my flickr stream.


Merhaba! (Turkish 'hello')

When last I wrote, I was on Santorini Island in Greece, preparing to depart for Rhodes Island on an overnight ferry. It was that night that I finally made it to Paros Island, although it was only for a layover on my way to Rhodes. I spent most of my time chatting with a young female traveler from Maine who'd spent close to two years in Japan and traveling in Southeast Asia. She had only good things to say about her travels. Perhaps it's because American mainstream culture fosters the view of Asia as a wild and uncivilized (in the American sense, I suppose) place, but after meeting many people who've successfully and happily traveled in both the Middle East and Asia, my desire to visit those places has grown. Not on this trip however...

Rhodes Island lies just off the coast of Turkey, and over the course of the past several thousand years, has been invaded, fortified and shaped by perhaps a half-dozen peoples. From the Greeks, to the Ottoman and Byzantine Empires, Rhodes has evolved into a fairly diverse place. Even modern day Greeks come to vacation at the lush beaches of Lindos. Rhodes was also the home of the Colossus (a 65m high bronze figure), although it fell over close to 2500 years ago. Marking where his feet would have been is a pair of pillars capped by life-size bronze deer. I have no idea why that particular kind of memorial was chosen, but the deer seems to be a symbol for Rhodes now a days (on the various Rodian governmental icons, there was a deer). Rhodes City is split between a new town and an old town, and actually reminded me quite a bit of Carcassone in France - the old town is where the backpackers like to stay and is where tourist shops as well as traditional locals live, while new town has a McDonalds and very few buildings more than 100 years old. The thing I liked most about Rhodes was the dry moat that circled the old city. Between 15 and 30 meters wide, this swath of green land seemed rather out of place considering that the city walls were intended to repel invaders.; palm trees, grass, a wide sandy-dirt path and a large number of what appeared to be stone cannon balls (sometimes just one, but usually a pile of them in a pyramidal shape).

Getting from Rhodes to Marmaris in Turkey ended up being a very expensive hop. All told, it cost 101 euro: 28 for the catamaran ferry, 23 for the port tax and 50 euro for the entry visa! (apparently, only Americans have to pay just a high visa fee; most other nationalities pay less than 20 euro) The Turkish lira has undergone heavy inflation for a long period of time, and everyone here is a millionaire as a result. Here're some examples of prices:

1.5 liters of mineral water: 500,000 Turkish Lira (TL); dorm room in a hostel: 8,000,000 TL; one apple: 750,000 TL. The exchange rate is about 1,620,000 TL per US dollar. I've purchased postcards that cost 100,000 TL, which is about $0.06 a piece. That being said, there are some Turks that try to fleece tourists. Several of my first transactions weren't very pleasant because I had very little idea of how much was an appropriate price to pay. Another noteworthy thing about Turkey is that most prices are negotiable, especially when there isn't a price posted (which is just about everywhere, and allows a businessman so inclined to have a 'tourist' price and a 'local' price).

I landed in Marmaris, Turkey. It's a port town, that apparently is the international yachting capital, and plays host to a very large international yachting competition each year. It also has the largest bazaar in the southwest of Turkey. I ended up having to stay the night in Marmaris (the bus to Cappadocia the night I landed was full), and actually very much enjoyed being able to wander around for about a day. Marmaris, I think, was good practice for Istanbul.

The Marmaris Bazaar occupies perhaps five square city blocks of space, and consists mostly of little shops. The streets are covered by a steel and plastic barrel vaulted roof that is a boon in the intense heat. In Turkey, it's customary for stores to post a man outside who will call to passers by in an attempt to get them to come in to the shop. I heard 'Hello my friend, how are you?' and 'My friend, where are you from?' quite a bit. There were leather shops, barbershops ('Hello my friend, do you need a shave/haircut?'), clothing shops, jewelry shops, etc. At the recommendation of someone at the hostel, I ate several of my meals at a traditional Turkish kitchen, where the food is very cheap (prepared in very large, shallow pans and put on display - you point at what you want) and Turkish men come to eat, mostly alone and in silence, while they're on break from work. Meal price: less than 2,000,000 TL ($1.33). I did decide to go for the haircut/shave though, and it was quite an experience. First was the shave with a straight razor, then the haircut (more like a trim), and the facemask, and the ears (they light the end of what looks like a long metal qutip (sp?) and flick your ears with it to burn off the little white hairs) and finally a shoulder massage. The guys wanted 40million ($25), but I haggled them down to 30. Turns out, it was only worth about 10million. Ah well :)

Another thing about Turkey is their legalized obsession with Ataturk, the man who founded the republic of Turkey in the early part of this century. He really was a visionary as well. Ataturk made Turkey a secular state with no state-religion (although 99% of Turks are Muslim - that being said, many don't practice, just like with other religions), enfranchised women so they can hold jobs, land, etc. (Turkey has even has a female prime minister), and otherwise modeled the Turkish state after some parts of Western governments. Because of all these progressive reforms, his likeness is found on every unit of currency; seemingly every town bears at least one road with his name and a statue of him. I've often seen a picture of him hanging on a shop wall. I believe it's even against the law to say anything bad about him!

The night bus from Marmaris to Cappadocia was an interesting experience. Long-distance travel in Turkey is usually done on these overnight busses, which are nice Mercedes ones that tour companies use. Unlike our pathetic Greyhound system in the U.S., the Turkish busses have a steward that comes by several times on the trip with your choice of tea ('cay' here - in Marmaris, I was offered turkish tea on several occasions spontaneously. Drinking tea with someone is a traditional form of meeting someone, and there's even a saying that translates roughly as 'One glass of tea shared makes fifty years of friendship'), coffee or a soft drink. Just before coming around with the drinks, the steward comes around with a bottle of scented cologne, which you rub into your hands and perhaps arms and face to refresh yourself.

Finally, I arrived in Cappadocia, which is in the center of Turkey. I stayed in a small village, popular with backpackers, named Goreme, which lies in the heart of the exotic landscape that makes Cappadocia so interesting. Here's a bit of history on the region:

Millions of years ago, there were four volcanoes that, through I suppose a series of eruptions, covered all the surrounding land in layers of ash, dust, mud and lava. The ash, mud and dust congealed into a substance called 'tufa', which is a bit like cement. The lava turned into basalt and obsidian. The volcanoes also ejected large chunks of basalt or pyroclastic stones that embedded themselves in the tufa, compressing the rock below them, making it denser than its surroundings. The volcanoes died out, and the forces of erosion took over, wearing away the tufa and basalt. Tufa, being a porous substance, and slightly flaky on the exterior, wore away quickly. In some areas, the tufa was the most prevalent substance, and as wind and water wore it away, large valleys were created. In a place nearby, called the Ihlara Gorge, as the lava cooled into basalt, the ground split open, forming a gorge with sheer walls. Because tufa is easy to dig into, this area became a perfect place to settle if you wanted to hide from someone else. The Hittites and the Christians used the area the most, delving into the tufa valley walls, creating cave houses, underground cities (which were only inhabited in times of war, as they were extremely defensible), and (by the hands of the Christians) more churches than you can shake a stick at. Goreme sits in the middle of a large valley, flanked on either side by what would appear to the naive eye as sand dunes, etched by a recently fallen rain. Starting from the top ridge, the white tufa falls toward the valley floor in a cascade of branching flows of solid tufa. It's really quite beautiful, and very difficult to describe (I've been trying to come up with a good analogy by which to describe it for several days and am still at a loss). Some of the tufa is tinged yellow from a high concentration of sulfur, other is red from iron, while most is white from calcium. Speckling the landscape inside Goreme's large valley are giant basalt cones, rising 20+ meters from the ground. Into these have been carved rooms and homes, and many are still inhabited or used in conjunction with traditional dwellings. There are even a few pensions that tout themselves for being 'caves'! In other places, are odd projections of tufa, capped by a basalt pyramid that served to shelter the underlying tufa from the elements that wore away the surrounding stone. Some of these projections are called fairy chimneys (the legend says that once upon a time, humans and fairies lived together in peace in these tufa houses, but when a fairy and a human fell into forbidden love, it broke the peace, and the fairies left forever), others that are penile in form give their valley of residence the name 'Love Valley'.

My first day in Goreme, I visited the 'open air' museum, which is a tufa house village complete with some nine churches created by Christains in hiding. The floors of many of these churches were covered in now open and empty graves. Many were decorated too, some by a technique that applied a reddish paint directly to the tufa surface, while others had frescoes (in which a layer of plaster is applied to the surface first, and the paints applied while the plaster is still somewhat wet) on them. In some churches, there were no images of people, as the decorations were done during an iconoclastic period of Christianity (when representations of people were forbidden), while others are completely covered in rich imagery. In some of them, the faces of the people had been scratched off. Islam prohibits representing people in religious art, and so over many years and through misunderstanding, the faces of the Christian frescoes were marred. It was neat to be able to walk around this village and see the rooms and architectural elements carved into the tufa. Afterward, I hiked through the Sword Valley (so named for its preponderance of large pointed basalt and tufa shapes that I suppose resemble swords pointing toward the sky). This was a real thrill because I could clamber into and around the various dwellings that I found in my hike. At one point in my wandering, I spied a large flock of pigeons. These were the first truly wild pigeons I'd ever seen, as I don't think the ones that inhabit cities really count as being wild!

My second day in Goreme, I went on a guided tour. We covered some 220km that day, and saw enough for another email itself, so I'll have to condense a little. Our first stop was Pigeon Valley, where for many years, the locals had cultivated pigeon colonies for their guano (dung). Once a year, they would collect the guano and use it as a fertilizer for the local crops (potatoes, squash, grapes (for wine) and sunflowers). Next, we visited an underground city, which delved some 80m underground. Apparently, nearly every village in this area has such a city beneath it, although some are more extensive than others. All of them are ventilated by a large number of air shafts, that appear to be wells from the surface. When a village was about to be attacked, everyone (including animals) moved underground, and they would draw large basalt millstones across the entrances. The access tunnels between levels and from the surface were also intentionally made small and narrow so that an invading force would be easy pickings for the defenders. Next we hiked a part of the Ihlara Gorge, which yawns very suddenly open in the rolling hills of the area (it's closer to the volcano, so here there is less tufa and more basalt). The sides of the Gorge are like huge, vertical, tightly pressed fingers of basalt. Here erosion works differently from the tufa, as basalt is a much harder stone. Between the slabs of basalt, water freezes in the winter, and over the course of several cycles of freezing/expanding and melting, slabs are shorn off the sides, continually widening the Gorge over time. Here too, Christians took refuge, as except from nearby the Gorge is invisible in the countryside. The land surrounding the Gorge is mostly brown, yet inside the Gorge is a lush greenery, cultivated by the river that runs the Gorge's length. The hike was fairly easy, although there were a few times when we had to either climb up over, or under large blocks of basalt that had fallen from the Gorge's walls. Our next stop was by far my favorite - Selime, a monastery and village carved into a cliff face of tufa. This spot also happens to be featured somewhere in Star Wars: Episode I. I don't remember where it was, so I'll have to watch the movie again sometime :). Selime was my favorite spot because we were allowed free run of the place, and could climb through the wending tunnels and explore the unidentified rooms that reached upward from the base of the cliff to perhaps 50 meters above the road below. This place was like an underground city with a view. Next we visited a fortress on the old Silk Road - the caravans from the East would stop at these stone fortresses for protection from thieves. But when Europe started using Asian routes, or using ships (which were faster and carried more, and also avoided the taxes the Ottoman Empire charged for the use of its section of the Road), the Silk and Spice Roads fell into disuse. We then went to Avanos, which is world famous for its pottery. We had a guided tour of one of the towns most famous family workshops, and I have to say that my respect for quality pottery has increased quite a bit as a result. One of our group even tried her hand at making something with a manual wheel. Then we were ushered into the 'exibition room' (a.k.a. sales room). I think the cheapest piece there was about 30million TL, while the most expensive went for thousands of dollars.

The next two days, I spent hiking in the area. Each day, I took with me 2-3 liters of water, as it is hot hot hot here. Apparently, it gets as hot as 45-50 degrees Celsius here! (that's 110-125 in Fahrenheit) My first day, I wandered through the Rose Valley (called that for its rose colored tufa) among the tufa flows and projections. Usually, the trails looked like dry streambeds (this area doesn't get a lot of rainfall), and would wend their way under thickets, up slopes of tufa, through tunnels or along narrow trenches that the rainfall had cut into the tufa. I was really surprised at how much flora there was in the valleys, but I guess they serve as a kind of funnel, collecting rainfall from the ridges high above as well. At one point in my wandering, I came across a church. There was a Turkish man stationed in a cave nearby, with a few drink cans on display. The price of admittance to the church was one million TL. What really made me think though, was that this fellow sat here all day waiting for the occasional hiker or small group of hikers to wander by. This was a recurring theme in Turkey. In the Marmaris Bazaar (and the Goreme commercial area) there are multiple vendors selling essentially the same goods, all courting the same customers. It's a marvel to me that any of them actually sell anything considering that there aren't that many people who actually buy. I think a lot of the vendors don't actually make much money, but then again, it doesn't cost much to live either. You could live fairly well on less than 50million a week ($33), and that includes everything from food, to renting/owning a house, etc. In my second day of hiking, I hiked the Love Valley (with those phallic projections) and the White Valley (named for its pure white tufa) to a small village called Uchisar. The village wraps itself around the base and mid-section of a small atoll that thrusts itself up out of the surrounding ground and is capped by another tufa village. The view from this point was just stunning - you could see the various tufa valleys stretching out like fingers and arms, the plateau of harder basalt rock in the distance, the rolling soft brown hills of the general Cappadocian countryside and faintly the shape of one of the volcanoes.

One thing that I have been extremely impressed by is the friendliness of the Turks. In the commercial areas, it's harder to tell if the friendliness is genuine or just part of an attempt to get money out of you. But even in the Marmaris Bazaar, it struck me as being unusual. I had tea several times (for no charge) with random people (a guy at the bus station, a waiter at a harbour-side restaurant, and in the Turkish cafeteria), and chatted a little with them. While I was walking along the main road from Goreme to the entrance of the Love Valley, no less than four cars honked, slowed down and gesticulated about given me a ride somewhere. I don't think I've ever seen that happen in the States. While I was wandering around the Marmaris Bazaar trying to find the youth hostel (which was very well hidden), several people spontaneously gave me directions. When driving, there are a couple of Turkish-isms that I thought were interesting as well. The overnight bus would flash its bright-lights at on coming cars as a kind of 'here I am, be aware of me' gesture. Cars will often honk at each other as a way of saying 'hello', and especially when you pass someone in your lane. When I was hiking along the roads, sometimes a car would honk as it drove by and the driver or someone would wave to me.

Tonight I head to Istanbul, then to the ruins of Ephesus, and finally to Athens to fly back to the U.S. I have only another 8 days of travel. If I get the chance to come back to Turkey, I'll certainly take it - it's a beautiful country, with many many things to see. Next time, I'll spend some time on the Mediterranean coast and in the east part of Turkey near Mount Nehmut (where the large carven heads are).

Now reading: nothing. I finished Lord of the Rings the other day (and am really looking forward to seeing The Return of the King on screen - of the three, it's my favorite), and will soon start re-reading Crime and Punishment, by Dostoyevsky.


posted July 20, 2002 04:33 AM in Travel | permalink | Comments (0)

July 13, 2002

TravelBlog: Europe - part 7

This is the seventh of nine letters I wrote to friends and family during a two-month solo trip backpacking through Europe in 2002, a year after I graduated from Haverford College. The photos for this and other entries are on my flickr stream.


Kalimera, from Greece!

My time in Rome was definitely a lot less organized than my previous stops. This was perhaps because I didn't go into the city with a firm idea of how to spend my time here, but it was enjoyable none-the-less. After sorting out my bankcard issue, I went off in search of a place to get dinner. The place I ended up in was a small Italian restaurant, well off the main avenues. It didn't take long for me to realize I was the only non-Italian there, which made it all the better. My waiter spoke fairly good English, and I tried ordering in what little Italian I had picked up from my phrase book. I actually found it easier to pronounce Italian than French (which is hard because of the silent or deceptive letters). The meal was excellent! Homemade fresh pasta, good house wine and a pleasant atmosphere.

The next morning, I headed to the Vatican City via Rome's metro system. From what I understand, Rome had big plans for their metro, and began digging for a large, extensive system. But, and perhaps not surprisingly, they ran into antiquities all over the place and had to pare down their designs to just two lines (Linea A and Linea B) that form a large 'X'. There's also little/no ventilation in the tunnels, so the only time the sweltering air moves is when a train rushes by. Three times a day, when the Romans use the Metro to get to and from work (morning, lunch and evening), there's a massive crush of hot, smelly people riding the trains. But I digress...

The last time I visited the Vatican City, you had to pass through customs (showing your passport, and everything) at the wall that surrounds it. This is because the Vatican is a sovereign country (the smallest in the world, I think). This time, there weren't even guards stationed at the entrances, although I did spy a few wandering the grounds. The main square of the City is an oval with fountains at the focal points and a large obelisk at the center. Reaching out from the San Pietro (Saint Peter) church and surrounding the square are quadruple rows of classical columns supporting a classical roof. Crowning these arms is a single row, which runs the entire length of the colonnade, of statues. I overheard a tour guide saying that each statue is of some saint, and there are 147 such statues. I had no idea there were so many saints! San Pietro's basilica is huge, classical and dominates the square. The dome itself was designed to be seen above the church's facade from the square, and it's really quite impressive. After a brief wander around the square, I headed inside. The best way to describe the interior is with the words 'big' and 'ornate'. Everything inside is big, and almost every surface is decorated somehow. The barrel vault dome rises perhaps some 100ft above the floor. Just to the right as I entered was a crowd of people taking photos of Michelangelo's Mary and Jesus. At the intersection of the transept and the nave is a small set of stairs going down to what I think was a tomb of someone important. The detail everywhere was just amazing, and again, even the cherubs, which are normally child-sized, were overly large. Huge blocks of marble had been carved at cloth draped over a doorway or under a fountain. I briefly wandered through the crypt below, which was neat - the sarcophagi of pontiffs long dead were stored there, with a carven figure of the respective pope atop. I then climbed to the top of the dome, which was the better part of a thousands steps! The view from atop was appropriately stunning, as you could see the rich greens of the papal gardens in the City as well as the dense buildings of Rome stretching out from the high wall that circled the City. After the long climb back down, I considered going to see the Sistine Chapel, but I had timed things wrong and the entry line was down the street and around the corner. That night, I met up with my British friends from Nice, and we went back to my Italian restaurant for dinner. My birthday was only a few days before, so we celebrated it with a nice bottle of wine (recommended by the waiter).

The next day, I went with my British friends early in the morning to see the Sistine Chapel. We arrived well before the crowds congealed, and strolled through the Vatican Museum for the better part of the morning. The museum has several parts, but the one that includes the Sistine Chapel winds through papal apartments of old before finally putting you out into the Chapel. Every apartment and hallway was richly decorated with ornamentation and painting. My favorite was done by Raphael though. The ceiling had four women seated, one for Poetry, Philosophy, Justice and Theology. The painting below Philosophy was a scene with many robed Greek philosophers from antiquity all posed appropriately - Pythagoras was crouched teaching geometry to his pupils, Aristotle was there along with a bunch of other notables. Finally, we found our way into the Sistine Chapel. The last time I was there, they were doing restoration work on a large portion of the ceiling. This time, there was no scaffolding, and I can definitely say that it deserves every bit of its reputation as impressive and important. Right in the middle of it all, and only being one of about ten panels, is the famous one of God reaching out to Adam. Awe inspiring is a good way of putting this incredibly large room - every inch of it is covered in the richly colored paintings. One end of the room is occupied by an immense depiction of what I guessed was the Last Judgment. Along the bottom there was hell, in deep reds and blacks. The top was heaven, in rich blues and whites. And there were people everywhere, on clouds mostly, each with a unique expression and face. Just amazing.

Around lunchtime, I met up with my friend from Haverford Josh Adelman, who had been studying in Germany for the year. We'd planned to meet up for a brief period of time for many months, and after many emails, it was great to finally meet. With him was a friend of his from Britain (another British girl!) Sarah. We spent most of the rest of that day trying to figure out how to get from Rome to Athens, and me trying to pick up my new bankcard (which was eight hours late - FedEx in the U.S. seems a lot more efficient than FedEx in Italy). After a frustrating experience with a travel agent at the Rome train station, who seemed to know nothing, we finally gave up and got online. Within 10 minutes, we had ferry times and costs from Brindisi, Italy to Patras, Greece, and train times and costs from Patras to Athens. We had a good laugh about that. Once we finally got things worked out, we met up with my British friends for dinner.

Starting at 9:00 a.m. the next morning, we began traveling to Athens. The full trip took almost 30 hours, and by the time we finally reached our hotel, we were extremely glad to have a place to stretch out! On the ferry ride over, we met Seth and Sally, a pair of American high school teachers from Louisiana who were traveling in Greece briefly before heading back to Italy. We ended up staying at the same hotel (they were using the Lonely Planet guidebook, which no one whom I've met on this trip has said good things about!), and the five of us went out for a late dinner. The Greeks tend to eat very late - between 10pm and midnight is normal. In Greece, heckling seems to be a normal form of doing business, and the first few restaurants we considered all had a man standing outside trying to bring business in. We eschewed that area for it's touristy feel and prices. The place we settled on was fantastic. We ate well, and for only about $5 each! Spinach pies, Greek salads, eggplant, stuffed vine leaves and what Sarah, who spoke a little Greek, said was a traditional wine. I didn't care for the wine though; it tasted a little like pinesap.

Josh and Sarah were on a much tighter schedule than I was, so we only stayed in Athens the one night. The next day, we went to the Agora and the Acropolis, before having lunch with Seth and Sally and then catching a ferry to Paros. I'd heard that Athens was a big, sprawling, dirty city and that it's a good idea to get in and get out, seeing the essentials, as quickly as possible. The big and sprawling parts were very much correct, but the overall feel of the city wasn't terrible, and if given the chance, I'd like to spend a few days there. The National Museum of Archaeology there is supposed to be incredible - the museum collected antiquities from all over Greece (of which I imagine there were a great many) and displays them in there in Athens. Definitely on the 'to see' list, and I'm hoping to get to see it before I catch my flight home out of Athens at the end of July.

The Agora is a ruin in every sense of the word. The landscape is very Greek - an arid area with mostly browns and greys, speckled with clumps of a pale green that are the bushes and trees that grow everywhere. Between the greenery are piles of rubble from ancient Greek buildings. If you look closely, and it helps if you look at the little map you get at the entrance, you can see the outlines of buildings, temples, etc. One building has been fully restored, and houses a museum of various smaller Greek artifacts such as pots, bowls, the voting machine used to elect officials (complete with a description of how it works, which is extremely complicated!), and even a ceramic potty for a small child. The upper part of the building was enclosed, while the lower part was open, supported by many rows of columns. I could immediately see why the Greeks favored columns so much - it was really very cool on the benches there, with a nice breeze blowing. A pleasant relief from the relentless sun outside. We then trekked up to the Acropolis (which literally means 'upper city', and many Greek cities have an acropolis. The one in Athens just happens to be the greatest of them all). There we saw the Caryatids (a set of columns carved in the likeness of women) and the Parthenon. Apparently, in the 1800s, there was a British man who, in the name of preserving antiquities, took large portions of the sculpture frieze from the Parthenon. It is those portions that I saw in the British Museum several weeks ago (this guy really did get the best parts too - what remains isn't really enough to tell that the Parthenon was a temple to Athena, and that the main frieze portrayed the gods' reaction to Athena's birth (i.e. surprise!)). Even though the Parthenon seemed smaller than I'd imagined it, it was really neat to realize that humans had continuously occupied this area, the Acropolis and the Agora, for some 6000 years!

That night, Josh, Sarah and I caught the ferry to Paros. Except that we never quite made it to our destination. We misheard the announcement of which island we were at, and deboarded onto Syros! By the time we realized our mistake, the ferry had just left port. We managed to land on our feet though, and took a chance with a heckler who was pushing rooms. We rode with him some 10km out from the port to a sparsely populated area near the town of Vari. The hotel turned out to be really nice, with air conditioning, a refrigerator and a nice bathroom (with a Greek style shower, which is to say one with no shower curtain and a shower head that you have to hold in your hand) for a very reasonable price. There were a few other hotels in the area, but otherwise there were two restaurants, a mini-market and a beach. That was it. The restaurant we ate at that night was excellent again - our waiter insisted on our coming into the (large) kitchen and seeing what was available, and ordering there on the spot. This is apparently a very Greek thing to do, although the more touristy places don't do it. And so it was that we spent the next day on Syros, lounging on the very nice beach and then strolling the port (which we reached via the local bus) in the evening.

The next morning, I caught a ferry to Santorini - ferries in Greece don't run very often between certain destinations, so you go when there's one you want. It was an all-day venture, and I arrived in Santorini in the evening. Santorini is known as the most picturesque of the Greek islands, and it lives up to every bit of that reputation. Here's a little history on the place: some 80,000 years ago, a volcano began to build the island, connecting several smaller islands that were already there. Very quickly, it formed a very large, circular island. Then, about 3500 years ago, the volcano exploded, vaporizing the island's center. Water rushed in to fill the area, and we have the Santorini we see today. About 500 years ago, the volcano formed a small island in the center of the caldera. Then 50 years ago, it moved about a kilometer away and started a new island, still in the middle of the caldera. So... the main island is shaped like a slightly overweight crescent, with two main towns, Fira, which is right in the middle of the crescent, and Oia, which is at the very top. There are other villages on the island too, but these towns are the biggest.

My first day, I went on a guided tour of the islands. We sailed on a Kai-eeky (phonetically), which is a traditional Greek vessel, to the new volcanic island and hiked to its top. I mentioned earlier that Santorini is very picturesque, and it's true. This place gobbles film. We then went to the old volcanic island, where most of the people in the boat went swimming and visited the 'hot' (warm is more like it) spring. The Europeans in our group smeared the muck from the spring's floor all over their face, hair and upper body, for it's therapeutic effects, I suppose. I dared only to smear my arms. Later that day, I did notice that my shorts and boxers had been dyed with the reddish color of the spring water though! Next we went to Therrisia, part of the rim of the original island. More beautiful scenery, and pictures to take. Both here and at our final destination, Oia, there was a winding trail that climbed the cliffs of the caldera to the top of the island. Industrious Greeks would rent you a donkey to ride up the trail, if you wanted. Oia (pronounced 'Ee-ah') is perched on the very tip of the crescent, and was the perfect spot from which to see the sun sink into the distant haze. The buildings in Greece reminded me of the pueblo style of the Southwest - flat roofs and square buildings. The Greeks white- and blue-wash everything, so the buildings merge seamlessly into the low walls, the walkways and each other. The overall effect actually reminded me of the non-classical unity of Gaudi's architecture. Gaudi's stuff is a lot more refined and designed, but I did wonder if perhaps he'd visited Greece at some point.

My next day in Santorini was a beach day. I rented a motor scooter (these things are so much fun!), and visited the black sand beach in Perissa (another little village), and the red sand beach near Akrotiri. Both were interesting places, and both were very commercialized - you could rent one of the umbrella and beach chairs that lined the seashore. Wading out into the water at the black sand beach, I discovered that the seabed was very smooth, feeling like volcanic rock. It was also quite shallow for at least 50ft from the shore. The red sand beach was a little more exotic, as you had to traverse a rocky little trail that went around the side of a cliff to reach it. The beach itself was nestled under vaulting cliffs of deep burgundy and black, and the beach was pebbly (small pebbles, not the big ones you have in Nice, France), and even the pebbles were red and black. The seashore dropped off much more here than at the black sand beach, and there were a few partially submerged rocks that you could swim out to and lay on. If it weren't for the many people, the rows of umbrellas and the little shop making a killing on cold drinks, this place would be perfect. Nearby, although I didn't visit it, was a white sand beach that I heard was equally exotic a locale.

My third day in Santorini, I went SCUBA diving at a little village named Kamari. It'd been, I guess, about six years since I last went diving, so I was a little nervous about going, but the basics are very easy to remember. Also on the dive were two French women who were still learning, a Frenchman who had also not been diving in a while, and an Austrian. Our guide took us out in a little boat around a large cliff, and prepped us. The dive itself was wonderful, although there was a lot less life down there than I had expected. On my previous dives in tropical places, the sea seemed to be teaming with fish and plant life. Here there was a funny grey-brown plant that covered the cliff face as it plunged the 10-20meters from the surface to the sandy sea floor, and a few fish that I didn't recognize. It wasn't until the last third of the dive that I finally settled-in and relaxed. Being a little nervous, I was using up my air rather fast at first. For the rest of the day, I kicked around Kamari, ate lunch, watched people come and go from the beach, and generally soaked up the atmosphere.

And so that brings me to the present. I leave for Rhodos Island today, and on Monday, I set out for Turkey. I met another person who'd traveled through Turkey while I was on Santorini, and she gave me some good tips about how to travel and site-see. One interesting tip she gave: the Turkish lira is so volatile, that when bartering, it's better to have Euros or US Dollars to pay with, since the merchants like that. Some of them will even insist on bartering in USD, and then convert the price (with a suitably horrible exchange rate) to Lira.

Now reading: Return of the King, Lord of the Rings. Things are really getting exciting now! Can't wait to see how the rest of the trilogy plays out on screen.

Kalimera! Aaron

posted July 13, 2002 04:33 AM in Travel | permalink | Comments (0)

July 02, 2002

TravelBlog: Europe - part 6

This is the sixth of nine letters I wrote to friends and family during a two-month solo trip backpacking through Europe in 2002, a year after I graduated from Haverford College. The photos for this and other entries are on my flickr stream.


Ciao! (In Italy, 'ciao' is used both as a greeting and a farewell)

Last time I wrote, I was in Barcelona, and I've had quite an adventure since. I made two expected stops and two unexpected stops, met many very interesting people (let no one say that traveling is lonely business!), sampled a variety of the legendary Italian gelato and lots of other fun stuff.

My last day in Barcelona was more about wrapping up loose ends like doing email, postcards and wandering around a little, soaking up the last bit of Barcelona before I went to Genoa. I had a bad experience at the post office there, being short-changed a stamp and then trying to express this situation in to people who spoke almost no English. I also visited the Barcelona Aquarium that day, and was a little disappointed given how much I'd paid for entry - the aquariums in Boston and San Francisco are much better, in my opinion. Still, I did learn a little about Mediterranean sea-life (which is amazingly similar to sea-life elsewhere).

The train from Barcelona to Genoa was a night train. I arrived at the train station early, and when the train was announced, boarded immediately. I laughed to myself when I saw what must have been almost thirty other backpackers board the same train! Soon enough we set off for Port Bou, the Spanish-French border station. Little did I know at this point that my next few days would be radically different from how I had anticipated. Just before we arrived at Port Bou, I began chatting with four British girls across the aisle from me. Before I knew it, we were sitting together chatting at the border waiting for our train (90 minute layover). They were very nice, and were heading to Nice, France. And so it was that after many more hours of chatting, I decided that instead of spending my extra time in Genoa, I would stop in Nice and spend more time with my new friends.

Nice is the city with the second largest tourist industry in France. This is mostly because in the late summer, a large portion of the middle and upper class French population move to the French-Mediterranean coast for vacation. The beaches in Nice however, aren't the kind that I was used to being from North Carolina. These were pebbly beaches, with the sea floor dropping quickly away as one goes away from shore. The first day I was there, I had my first European beach experience, and also discovered that the sunscreen that I'd brought with me wasn't good anymore (it was a little old, and I'd combined the last part of several identical bottles that I had lying around). I did, however, very much enjoy soaking up a little sun in such an exotic location. As I sat/lay there, on either side, into the distance stretched the same pebbly beach dotted with people. When I looked to my left, I saw the curve of the coast and the rows upon rows of hotel buildings lined up like cornrows blanketing the slight slope that reaches back away from the shore. I also noted that French beaches were top-optional, and that rule wasn't specific to age. Then there were the guys walking around selling cold drinks for exorbitant prices. My favorite guy had a little rhyme that he sang that had bits of English in it as well as the names of the drinks he was selling. That night my new friends, Laura, Laura, Clare and Marie, and I had very large (and very yummy) pizzas and then stopped by a couple of bars. Oddly enough, the best bar we stopped by was an Irish Pub. That night also happened to be the same night in which Brasil won the match that got them into the World Cup Finals. As some point during dinner, there was a little parade of people showing Brasilian pride that went by our table on the street banging drums, cheering and wearing Brasilian-flag clothes. They seemed quite happy about their team's good fortune. It was also this day that I read an interesting article in an English paper my friends had about the Germany win. It seems that not many people were really hoping Germany would win in the Final.

The following day, I couldn't resist being in town, even one as focused on worshipping the sun as Nice, without seeing a museum. Fortunately, Nice features a fantastic Matisse museum. That brought the number of Matisse/Picasso exhibits I've seen on this trip to five. In the morning, I went for a swim in the cool Mediterranean waters, which was wonderful. There were cool currents that buffeted me while I swam up and down the coast. One thing I'd noticed, and still wonder about, is that there didn't seem to be much of a tide - the water level throughout the day seemed to be roughly the same. Can anyone shed any light on this matter?

After another evening swim in the sea, and another pizza dinner (sans the showing of Brasilian pride that night, although I did see one of the same guys out there performing again (he was something of an acrobat)), I then headed for the Cinque Terre having very much enjoyed my unexpected stay in Nice. My new friends were heading to Florence next and then to Rome, so we talked briefly about the possibility of meeting up again. I arrived in the Italian town of La Spezia, the 'gateway' to the Cinque Terre as the local train that serves the five towns of the Cinque Terre (Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corneglia, Vernazza and Monterroso) leaves from there. Each of the five towns is right on the Italian coast, and four of the five are perched right on the shore. This area has a simply breath-taking abundance of picturesque views - I could have snapped a shot of almost every bit of coastline I saw! The five towns are nestled right up against the shore, with the land rising steeply and rockily away from the spray of the waves that continually crash ashore. The land itself is a tangle of folds of land, covered in the greens of plant-life and the grey of stone. Blanketing the hillsides around each town is a spider web of little trails that service the terraced vineyards. The Cinque Terre, particularly Corneglia, is renowned for its wine (my guide book claims that pottery in ancient, far-away cities sang the virtues of the wine from this area). My first day was composed of a lot of walking around and soaking up the slowness and persistence of life there. The area has been declared a national park by Italy, so I think it's supposed to, and will continue to look like it hasn't changed in hundreds of years. The little harbor in Riomaggiore, where I was staying, was particularly interesting, as there was a group of older Italian men that hung out there in the evenings. They didn't necessarily do anything that interesting, but it was actually a lot of fun to watch them :) That night, I met a group of four girls that were partly sharing my dorm-room. Three of them were Canadian (Canadians have quite a bit of national pride) and the last was an American that they'd picked up in Barcelona.

My second day in this beautiful place (I had already begun thinking about how I might return for a much longer stay) was to be spent mostly doing the 4-5 hour hike that connects the five towns. The night before, my new friends and I had talked about hiking it together, so I got started a bit later than I had intended (it seems that I tend to rise earlier in the morning than most traveling-folks my age :)). The first part of the hike was more of a stroll along the Via del Amore (Lovers Lane) with amazing views of the shoreline and the ocean. This brought us to Manarola, the second of the towns, which was also nestled in a fold of the land with the buildings stretching up away from the central road on the surrounding hills. The shore-side path from there to Corneglia was washed out, so I parted ways with the girls (they took the train) and struck out to find a more inland route. I spent the next two hours hiking along those narrow spider web trails that crisscross the hillsides connecting all the terraces. I managed to get about half way to Corneglia before finally admitting defeat, being both hot and hungry. I picked my way back to town, got lunch and took the train to my next stop. Even though I was unsuccessful, I still had a great time getting thoroughly lost in the hills. The views and the pleasure of good hiking in such a beautiful area made it all worthwhile. Because of what my guidebook said about Corneglia, I stopped there for a respite in the form of a glass of local wine (which cost me 1.30 euro). It was some of the best wine I've had! It was so good, that I bought a bottle (for only 18 euro) of what the guy behind the counter called 'the best'. I have yet to crack it open, as I'm saving it to share with some friends. I don't think it will make it back to the States thought, as I have another month to travel. I didn't see it, but Corneglia apparently has a nude beach as well. Between Corneglia and Vernazza, I met a very nice couple of professors from Portland, Oregon who were also hiking. They went at a slower pace than I might have done myself, but I decided early on that I would rather spend the time chatting with them. Finally, we arrived in Vernazza, which is perhaps the most picturesque of the five towns - I think of it as being just a bigger Riomaggiore. It has a really neat harbour complete with frolicking bathers, a wide piazza on the shore with several nice restaurants (which were all booked up since it was Saturday night) and tons of character. It was there that I met three very interesting american students whom I'd run into in passing several times before in or after Corneglia. It turns out that these three (Melissa, Catherine and Jeff) were physics students doing a summer internship at the Pisa, Italy gravitational wave interferometer detector (if that doesn't mean anything to you, that's okay, just know that this device is one of several that are being used to do a very important, multi-national experiment). So naturally, we started talking since we all had physics in common (it did occur to all of us how odd it was that physics of all things would be one of our commonalities). It was getting late, and the next leg of the hike would take another hour, so we caught the ferry and strolled around Monterroso. There we ran into two guys from Seattle who were in Paris on a Boeing, Inc. trip. The students were just in the Cinque Terre for the day, so they caught a train back to La Spezia, while I caught one to Vernazza for dinner.

My first day in Florence was a busy one. So was my second day, as there's just so much to see and so little time! I'd called the day before and reserved a time to see both the Accademia Museum (where Michelangelo's David is) and the Uffizi Gallery (which has the largest collection of Renaissance paintings in the world, as well as Boticelli's Birth of Venus and others). The David deserves every bit of its reputation, and was truly impressive! It's very big too. I liked the Uffizi more though, because for the first time I was able to see and understand the evolution of artistry from the seemingly awkward, two-dimensional pre-Renaissance painting into the very sophisticated, emotive and very realistic painting of the Renaissance. The neat thing about the Uffizi is that all the paintings are arranged in chronological order, so it's very easy to see the progression of style. And so while on this museum tour, I finally began piecing together my own perception of the evolution of art, as it traveled from the first known example in the cave paintings in France to the post-modern stuff I've seen both in London and in Paris. It was a very fulfilling revelation, more so because I 'discovered' this way of looking at art on my own. Considering how many art museums I've seen while on this trip, one might think I was an art student or something! It was this day that I also had two SWE (Small World Experiences): while I was in the Uffizi museum, I ran into a guy Victor and his female friend that I'd also met on the train from Barcelona. Later that day, I passed a pair of Americans that I'd met just briefly at the train station in Monterroso in the Cinque Terre on my way to Vernazza for dinner.

My second day in Florence was devoted once again to architecture, and there's quite a bit of really important stuff to see there. There's the massive Duomo with the dome constructed by Brunelleschi (apparently Michelangelo said he liked Florence's dome better than the St. Peter's dome in Rome); the Medicci Palace which I had up until now thought was just a massive building - I discovered that the side I'd seen in class during college was just the facade to a lesser building; the Hospital of the Innocents, the St. Maria Novella and a fifth building that I think I studied but couldn't quite be sure (it didn't make a strong enough impression on me in class, I suppose). The Duomo is very, very big, and has what I guess is typical Italian Renaissance decoration (I also learned that the Duomo church was started in the 1200s, and the facade seen today wasn't put up until the 1800s) with a white marble base heavily accented with red and green marble in a very decorative face of gothic elements arranged in a strongly classical way. One neat thing about the Uffizi building is that it's shaped like a big 'U' and on the inside in each of the columns is a statue of some important person (like Michelangeo, Donatello, Machiavelli, Dante, etc.). It was kind of neat to stroll along with their faces gazing down. I also sampled quite of bit of gelato that day, and can attest first-hand that gelato is as near to a form of edible art as one can possibly get. Yum! My favorite flavor is called Strachaiccelli and is a kind of vanilla with chocolate bits in it. There was also Nutella gelato, which was also very yummy.

My second day in Florence was also my 23rd birthday. It was a very nice birthday present for me to be in Florence for the day - I'll have to see if I can beat that next year :)

In the evening, I strolled the streets looking at all the shops (Florence is a great place for shopping) and somehow managed to wander into the designer section of town. I pretended that I was wealthy beyond need and looked at stuff in the Armani store, the Versaci store, the Gucci, and several who were so exclusive that I'd never even heard of them before! I can't imagine spending 91 euro on a t-shirt, but if I ever decide I need to (which I doubt) I know where to find it now (Armani). That was also the day that Brasil won the World Cup. It wasn't hard to figure out who'd won since starting in the late afternoon I started to see people wearing Brasilian colors parading around cheering. Then I came upon a massive gathering of people in the Duomo square, all celebrating - there were several vehicles in the middle of what must have been several hundred people; there were several guys on a van waving huge Brasilian flags, a few women dancing up there, and someone was playing loud music too. There was cheering, singing, drinking and a general air of exuberance that I don't think I would have seen from the Germany supporters had Germany won the cup :)

During this time, I'd been thinking about my next stop. I'd intended to see Siena next before heading to Rome to meet up with my friend from Haverford Josh Adelman and a friend of his. I decided though, that it really would be nice to see Rome again (more great architecture, culture and art!) and I might even be able to meet up with my British friends again before heading off to Greece. Thus I skipped Siena (will have to see it on my next trip) and arrived in Roma today.

It was also today that I had my first major crisis of my trip. It's difficult to describe how distraught I was at 3:00 p.m. today when finally (after three hours) I was able to figure out why no ATM machine anywhere in Rome, and I tried over a dozen of them, would take my card: it had expired at the end of June and was thus invalid!! I had planned and checked what I thought to be literally everything for this trip, but had neglected to even think about this going awry. And of course, it was something that I hadn't thought about that became my first trip-crisis. Adding to that, I had less than ten euro to my name and needed to pay for my room tonight. Fortunately, I was able to get some cash through my credit card, bought an international phone card and called home (the calling card wouldn't let me call 800 numbers in the States for some reason, so I couldn't call the bank directly). The bank said they mailed out a new card a few weeks ago, and my mother, who shall here-to-fore be credited with saving my trip, is going to FedEx it to me here in Rome.

Quite a week it's been! :)

Ciao! Aaron

posted July 2, 2002 11:24 AM in Travel | permalink | Comments (0)