Tag Archives: Bus

Have your gelato and eat it too

I spent a lot of time traveling as a group in Turkey––beginning with our 2-week orientation tour at the start––so it’s been strange that we haven’t really done any out-of-town trips as a group here in Italy yet. Traveling with a group can be hard; itineraries are often jam-packed and people can only stand on their feet for so long before they get tired. At the same time, there’s nothing like traveling to bring people closer together, like the time we had to walk for an hour to detour around a giant protest in Istanbul or the time we traveled for hours to make a 45-minute long meeting with a village women’s theater group. I think it’s good to be put in uncomfortable situations and go to places that you wouldn’t otherwise have gone on your own. Over the past year, these experiences have taught me to learn to let go––something that doesn’t naturally come to someone who’s slightly Type A like me.

And so, the whole Villa le Balze crew piled in a bus early Saturday morning, made a pit stop to pick up someone who overslept, and headed off to Siena and San Gimignano for the day.


Siena is only about a 90-minute drive from Florence, but Sienese will fervently assure you of the differences that run between them and the Fiorentini. The rivalry between these two Tuscan cities runs deep, dating back to the 12th century. During the 13th century, multiple wars were waged as each fought for more influence in the region, though Siena ultimately fell under the power of Florence during the time of the Medicis.

Map of Siena by Matheus Merian (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

As a whole group, we spent our Saturday under the guidance of my history professor, who travels back and forth every weekday from Siena to Florence for work. After a bus ride through the beautiful hills of Tuscany, we met Professor Brizio near the city walls.

PC: Will

Photo Credit: Will

The center of Siena sits on top of a hill, with the rest of the city fanned out below. Siena was actually one of the first cities to ban traffic in its center back in 1966, making for quiet and pedestrian-friendly streets that you can wander.

We first visited Siena’s Duomo, also known as Santa Maria Assunta. The white, intricately carved edifice rises dramatically from the square. It was originally intended to be built to a size larger than that of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, though they ended up only constructing one branch of the planned cruciform shape.



PC: Will

We also managed to snap a group picture, at last.


PC: Will

We also visited the Palazzo Pubblico, which has served as the seat of government in Siena since 1297.

The Palazzo Pubblico sits in the Piazza del Campo, the famous piazza in Siena where twice a year they hold the famous Palio di Siena on July 2 and August 16. The Palio is a crazy horse race held in the square where each of the 10 contrade or city wards enter a horse and jockey to win.

Before the race, the horses are taken into the church where they are blessed and have a chalice of wine held up to their lips. If the horse poops while in the church, it’s supposed to be a sign of good luck.

We ate lunch in Siena at a charming––though overpriced––trattoria. The whole group of 19 went to the restaurant, but we ended up splitting the bill evenly. That means that athough many of us opted for the 7 euro pasta, we each had to pay 16 euros at the end––yikes!

Price complaints aside, however, this tiramisu may have been the best tiramisu I have ever had.

Price complaints aside, however, this tiramisu may have been the best tiramisu I have ever had. So good, in fact, that I almost finished it before I remembered to take a picture.

San Gimignano

After lunch, we got back on the bus to drive to San Gimignano, an absolutely beautiful medieval walled hill town in Tuscany. When we arrived, we were treated with this view:


The entire town is surrounded by sturdy old walls. Medieval towers still stand watch over the city.

My only complaint about San Gimignano is that we didn’t get enough time! I could have spent a whole day wandering through its streets. Nevertheless, we had an itinerary to stick to.

The Church of San’Agostino may look unassuming from its exterior, but its interior was elaborately and beautiful decorated.

PC: Will

PC: Will

We also visited San Gimignano’s town hall, the Palazzo Communale.

PC: Will

PC: Will

Near the end of the tour, we were given a choice: gelato or climb the tower. San Gimignano is known for having some of the best gelato in Italy, but I couldn’t turn down an opportunity for a view.

IMG_8362 We raced up the stairs, two at a time, to get to the top. And my goodness, it was worth it.





We managed to race up and down fast enough––with plenty of photos at the top––to have time for gelato too.

Because sometimes, you can have it all.


Something Out of This World

After an early morning seeing Cappadocia from the sky, we joined the rest of the group for a morning full of vista views.


From legend, the name Cappadocia, or Kapadokya in Turkish, which means “Land of the Beautiful Horses” in Old Persian. The area has a long and storied history due to its central location in Anatolia, at various times under the control of the Hittite, Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman Empires.


You can see the door to a house carved into the rock!


Centuries ago, the people in the area used this "castle" to retreat from invading troops.

Centuries ago, the people in the area used this “castle” to retreat from invading troops.

Group photo in front of the evil eye tree.

Group photo in front of the evil eye tree.

This was one of my favorite stops. We found a path down to one of these rock houses and explored the inside.


Next we visited the Derinkuyu Underground City, a series of connecting caves that stretch down eight levels to a depth of approximately 60 meters below the surface. The city could accommodate up to 20,000 people in case of an attack, when the entrances could be blocked by large stone boulders. It’s an impressive engineering feat: a series of ventilation shafts, wells, and narrow passageways keep the city comfortable and protected. The rooms of the city stretch on and on––there’s even the cross-shaped room of a church! Historians are not quite sure who built the tunnels, which were most likely expanded over the years; however, some estimates date the city back to the 7th or 8th century.

This was one of the occasions where I’m glad to be just under 5′ 5″––for many of the tunnels, I had to completely crouch over to make my way through the dark. I have no idea how you would fit if you were much taller!


Outside of the cave, I found this strange animal sculpture and made Alex take a picture of me. “Oh, that’s definitely going on the blog,” he mocked me. (So here it is!)

We had lunch at a restaurant called Aç Kedi (or “Hungry Cat,” in English). So naturally, it provided another cat-tastic photo-op:

One of my favorite sights of Cappadocia was the Göreme Open Air Museum, the impressive remains of one of the earliest Christian communities. By the end of the 2nd century, a large Christian community had formed in Cappadocia, which lasted until the terms of the Treaty of Lausanne instigated a massive population exchange of Christians and Muslims between Greece and Turkey. In the 3rd century, St. Basil founded a lively community of monks in the area and introduced forms of worship to the early Christians. The Göreme Open Air Museum was the site of much of this religious education, where you can today visit a number of these early Christian churches, many with fantastic murals decorating the walls. The churches and accompanying rooms were directly carved from the soft volcanic rock, making the site visually as well as historically rich.


Lastly, we had some time to hike around one of the valleys in this beautiful region, exploring the physical beauty for ourselves.



What a place.

On the Silk Road

We hit the road again this morning to travel to Cappadocia, the picturesque region of Central Anatolia. As we settled into the ride, I once again found myself curled up with Anna Karenina, amusing myself with the randomness of my iPod’s shuffle.


So flat!

Our journey followed the very same path that thousands of merchants once traveled along the Silk Road. Along the way, we stopped at the Sultanhan Karavansaray, which is the largest and grandest caravanserai of the Seljuks. Alaattin Keykubat built the caravanserai originally in 1229, where it once served as a lodging and trading post for merchants who traveled from all across the world to seek profit on the Silk Road. The caravanserai itself consists of two sections: a large open courtyard for summer and a huge indoor cavern for winter.

We then visited Hacıbektaş, a small town in the Nevşehir Province in Cappadocia. Notably, the town has a large Alevi population, members of a religious group that combines Anatolian folk Shi’ism with Sufi elements. In Turkey, they have faced a history of long oppression under the Sunni majority.

The town gets its name from Haci Bektasi Veli, a prominent Turkish-Muslim Sufi thinker who lived from 1248-1337. Similar in many ways to Rumi, his system of thought is based on tolerance, peace, love, and equality. His tomb is located near the center of town in his former monastery, which now serves as a museum and a site of pilgrimage for Alevi and Bektashi from throughout Turkey.

We also got to see a traditional dance of the Alevis.

The chair and table where Ataturk sat for tea when he came to visit the town, now on display in the town's cultural center

The chair and table where Ataturk sat for tea when he came to visit the town, now on display in the town’s cultural center.

The theater of the performance

The theater of the performance

As the sun was setting, we stopped in the pottery town of Avanos. The town sits near the banks of the Kızılırmak, the longest river in Turkey, whose red clay has been the raw material of pottery for centuries. We visited a local pottery shop, whose workshops had been steadily producing pottery pieces by the same family since 1843.


Looks almost straight out of the American Southwest.

By the time we drove into Ürgüp, it was dark. Only the bus’s headlights gave glimpses of the eerie rock monuments that define the landscape of Cappadocia. The rest would have to wait until the next day… by hot air balloon.

City of the Whirling Dervishes

After several weeks in Alanya, it was once again time to head out again for our study tour, a weeklong trip as a group where we’ll be traveling through central Anatolia to Ankara. Since the last week was packed with midterms and papers, the study tour couldn’t have come at a better time. By the end of the week, I couldn’t wait to hit the road again.

We left Alanya early on Saturday morning, driving inland to our first destination: Konya.

Konya is a city of around 1 million people, located about a five hours drive inland from Antalya. Konya was historically the capital of the Seljuks, who ruled Anatolia before the Ottomans. Most famously, it is the home of the tomb of Jalaleddin Rumi, the famous 13th-century Sufi poet and mystic.

Rumi was born in 1207 in present-day Afghanistan. As a child, his family moved extensively throughout the Middle East before finally settling in Konya at the invitation of the Sultan of the Seljuks. In Konya, he attracted a great following as an accomplished professor in religious sciences at the largest theological school in the city. After his death, his followers formed the Mevlevi Sufi order to follow his teachings.

Today, Rumi’s poetry has been translated into countless languages, preaching its message of compassion and love. One of his most famous poems is his Seven Advice:

In generosity and helping others
be like the river.

In compassion and grace
be like the sun.

In concealing others’ faults
be like the night.

In anger and fury
be like the dead.

In modesty and humilty
be like the soil.

In tolerance
be like the ocean.

Either you appear as you are or
be as you appear.

With these words in our minds, we first visited Rumi’s tomb and museum. (The Turks know him as Mevlana.) The courtyard was unbelievably crowded with all kinds of tourists and pilgrims squeezing into the rooms.

Our next stop was the Karatay Museum, an old 13th-century madrasa that today houses a collection of tiles from the Seljuk period.

Afterwards, it was time for a çay and kahve break on the citadel! The citadel is this giant artificial hill in Konya, reportedly built from a tax that required everyone in the city to bring a bag of dirt to the center of the city. Today, the largest roundabout in the world encircles the hill.

We peeked inside the Alaeddin Mosque, which sits at the top of the hill. The mosque is built in the Seljuk-style, with a large square building built out of red stone.

Then we were in for a special treat. We visited a Dervish House, where one of the dervishes walked us through their ceremony and explained the basic tenets of Mevlana’s philosophy. We got to make our own attempts at becoming Whirling Dervishes ourselves!

Luckily, I got tons of video footage of them spinning around and bumping around as they attempted their own version of the meditative dance.

And after dinner, we got to see it done by professionals at the free show on Saturdays at the Konya Cultural Center.

It was so mesmerizing! I have no idea how they don’t get dizzy.

We then settled into our hotel for the night, exhausted from the day of travel.

“What you seek is seeking you.” – Rumi

Stuck in small spaces

Turkish elevators and I don’t get along.

This morning, I wanted to drop off my luggage at the bus before breakfast, so I squeezed my bags and myself into an elevator and pressed the button for the first floor. Once at the first floor, the inside doors opened and I pushed against the heavy outside door to get out. However, my push was a little too forceful. I tumbled out of the elevator into the lobby, completely face planting on top of my luggage and sprawled out on the floor. Glorious.

Last week in Istanbul, we were coming back at night and I piled into the small elevator with Amanda and Mara. We took the elevator up to the sixth floor, but when we got there, the doors wouldn’t open. We couldn’t get out.

We tried taking the elevator back to the lobby then back to the sixth floor then back to the lobby, but still the doors wouldn’t open. I pushed and pulled on the metal doors, trying to yank them open with my fingers. Our frantic calls to others’ cellphones were unanswered.

Finally, Mara decided that we should try pushing the alarm button. Bzzzzzzz.

“Don’t do that!” said Amanda. “You might wake someone up.”

Several moments passed.

“HELLO?” Amanda yelled, apparently changing her mind. “MERHABA? MERHABA???”

Shortly, a man came and pried open the elevator doors. We decided to take the stairs up instead.

Since then, I’ve been avoiding elevators unless completely necessary, but yesterday I jumped on one to get up to the restaurant on the 8th floor. About halfway through the trip, the elevator then suddenly stopped between floors. The inside elevator doors had opened, exposing the elevator shaft and part of a doorway.

Are you kidding me? Not again.

Luckily, we were able to get it moving again after several moments, but trust me. If I’m given the choice, I’m taking the stairs.

Spiral staircase at the Ethnographic Museum in Izmir

Spiral staircase at the Ethnographic Museum in Izmir


Anyways, today’s main attraction was a tedious 7-hour bus ride from Eskişehir to Izmir, so my main challenge was to find out how many hours of Candy Crush I could play before I got tired of it.

Nevertheless, before we left Eskisehir, we visited a model of the Devrim, the first ever automobile designed and produced in Turkey. In 1961, President Cemal Gürsel issued an order to build a prototype engine and car to jumpstart Turkey’s automobile industry. He assigned the job to a group of 24 engineers, who had 130 days to build the car from scratch. It was called the Devrim, after the Turkish word for “revolution.”

Two of the four prototypes produced were shipped to Ankara for demonstration. On the day, President Gümal got in one of the cars for a ceremonial ride. However, the driver had forgotten to put fuel in the tank. So, after approximately 100 meters, the vehicle came to a halt. As a result, the car became the subject of jokes for many years.


Of course, the Devrim has a greater significance in the history of Turkey’s economy, particularly in Turkey’s attempts to prop up its own manufacturing industry through heavy import duties—something I’m sure we’ll cover in my economics classes this fall.

We then stopped for a visit and tour at Anadolu Üniversitesi, a public university in Eskişehir that has the second largest university enrollment in the world due to its large online open education programs.

After that, it was on the bus for the long haul to Izmir! During the drive, I was amazed at how relatively quiet the roads were—there was none of the kind of traffic that I’m used to during road trips in the U.S. At one point, our bus backed up some 50 feet on the highway because we missed our exit (which was quite terrifying, considering the driver couldn’t see behind him).

California-themed poster for sale at a Turkish pit stop

California-themed poster for sale at a Turkish pit stop


Nevertheless, we finally arrived at our hotel around 9 p.m. and settled in for the night. Tomorrow, adventures in Izmir!

The Little Pashas


As we’ve visited various mosques throughout the past week, we’ve spotted young boys dressed up in elaborate costumes like that of little pashas. The reason? The young boys are dressed up for the celebration of their sünnet, or circumcision ritual.

They have no idea…

In line with Islamic tradition, Turkish boys are circumcised between the ages of 7 and 10. Before the ritual, the boy is dressed in the satin uniform of a sergeant major, and his parents throw as lavish a celebration as they can afford. Relatives and friends proffer money to the young boy, and he gets to eat as many sweets as he wants on his special day. The young boy is also taken around to the most important mosques in the city.


When we were in Iznik, we saw about 10 cars drive by in the little street, honking their horns loudly in honor of a boy’s sünnet.

PC: Lindsay

PC: Lindsay

It’s currently the time of the year where they usually perform the sünnet, so we’ve seen these young boys almost everywhere we go. All hail the little pashas!

After a week in Istanbul, it was sadly time to pack up our suitcases once again for the next part of our trip. Somehow, we managed to pack up the little bus with all our luggage, even though they had accidentally sent us a smaller bus than we were supposed to have. (And for once in my life, I actually packed light compared to rest of the group!)


We then set off on our way to Iznik, a little town several hours out of Istanbul that is famous for its elaborately painted ceramic pottery. Once out of the city limits, the countryside surrounded Istanbul reminded me of California…


About halfway through the drive, I was incredibly excited to see our bus pull onto an auto ferry to cross the Madrasas Sea. I jumped out and ran up to the deck to take as many pictures as I could during our short journey. (On another note, I’m turning into my mom in this way—I’m definitely one of the most obnoxious photographers on this trip with my little blue camera.)

Eventually we reached Iznik, and it was quite evident that we weren’t in Istanbul anymore. Narrow streets crisscross the small buildings that make up the town; mothers and children enthusiastically greet each other as neighbors on the sidewalk.

First we visited the Iznik Ayasofya. While today it functions as a mosque, originally the site was used as a place of worship during the era of the Romans. In the 4th century, a church was built on the remains of the former temple, where Christians worshipped until it was converted into a mosque in 1331. Most notably, it was the location of the 7th Ecumenical Council at Nicea.

We then walked over to the local pottery workshop, where we were able to tour the small building where they create most of the works.

The shops for the ceramic workshop were located in an old madrasa, or school, that was the first one built by the Ottomans. Each of the shops were located in the little cells where the students used to study.

Random note: If you look closely at many pieces of Ottoman-era art, you’ll often notice that tulips are a popular design. Tulips are a common motif in Ottoman art, particularly because they resemble the Arabic word for Allah.

We piled back into the car to drive to Bursa, a large city of about 2 million people that is famous for its silk production. Immediately, it was noticeable that we were in a much more conservative area—our group had the only people we saw who were wearing shorts.

We visited the Ulucami Mosque, a gigantic building that was built early on by the Ottomans in 1399. Since it was a relatively early mosque, its architecture carries elements from the Seljuks as well as Ottomans.

The walls of the mosque were covered with beautiful Arabic calligraphy. There’s also a lovely fountain in the middle—the legend goes that when they were trying to build the mosque, an old Christian woman owned that plot of land. At first, she wouldn’t give up her land, but finally agreed to sell it as long as there wouldn’t be any praying on that plot—hence, the fountain in the center today.

After we exited the mosque, we stumbled upon a public performance of a group playing Ottoman-era music and dressed in the costumes of Ottoman Janissaries. In Ottoman times, the purpose of the music in war was to scare your enemies as well as inspire confidence in your troops. The Janissaries, in their elaborate uniforms, would march at the front playing such songs to let enemies know that the Ottomans were coming.


Lastly, we toured the old Koza Han, where they once housed merchants on the road but now sell all types of silk items for purchase. Hans or caravanserais were roadside inns where travelers could rest and recover from the day’s journey. Often, they were built around central courtyards, around a raised small mosque. Caravanserais supported the flow of commerce, information, and people across the network of trade routes throughout the Ottoman Empire and beyond.

In the evening, we settled into our hotel for the night. Tomorrow, we’re checking out again as we travel to Eskisehir!