Tag Archives: Travel

One Day in Budapest

Since I was already leaving for Vienna the next morning, I was determined to cram as much as I could of Budapest in my one full day in the city. The best way to accomplish this? Free walking tours!

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Budapest is the capital and largest city of Hungary, with a population of over 1.74 million along the banks of the Danube River. While it once was composed of three different cities––Buda and Óduba on the west bank and Pest on the east––it was unified in 1873 into one: Budapest.

Alex and I got out early to meet up for the start of the morning walking tour. You can find tours like it all across Europe, which are most popular with the young and hostel crowd since they’re only funded by a policy of “pay however much you can” at the end of the tour. We were paired with Anita as our tour guide, and started out for a 3-hour tour of some of the major sights on both sides of the river.

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Anita began our tour with an overview of Budapest’s history, from the seven original tribes of the Hungarian people to their horrendous luck in also being on the losing side of wars over the past centuries. In the 16th century, the Ottomans pillaged Buda and occupied it for 140 years, during which they constructed many of the traditional Turkish baths that you can still find in the city. With the fall of the Austria-Hungary Empire in 1918, Hungary declared itself an independent republic. Hungary once again was on the wrong side of World War II, where it suffered serious damage and remained under Soviet occupation until the fall of the USSR.

Our tour began in the Pest side of the Duma River, slowly making our way over the Chain Bridge to the Buda side, where the old castle and palaces are located.

In our tour group, we quickly became friends with Cindy, a girl from Chile who was about two months into her 3-month solo trip across Europe. She had previously spent two years as an au pair in Massachusetts, and she now was traveling across Europe by couchsurfing and meeting up with old friends.

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After the tour, Cindy joined Alex and me to grab some sandwiches at a local grocery store and eat them near the Fisherman’s Bastion. We walked around a bit, crossing over the bridge and taking lots of photos.

Cindy had to go meet up with her friend, so we said goodbyes and exchanged contact information to stay in touch and exchange photos. Alex and I went on the prowl for some free Wi-Fi and  ended up in the lobby of an extremely posh hotel.

Since we enjoyed our morning walking tour so much, we decided to also meet up for the afternoon Communist walking tour. This time, our guide Anna took us by some of the remaining buildings and monuments from the Communist era, but also told us a lot of anecdotes about life under Hungary’s version of “Happy Communism.”

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In 1949, the Communist Party gained control of Hungary, subsequently enacting an era of state socialism under the influence of Moscow. However, unlike many other countries east of the Iron Curtain,  demonstrations in Budapest in 1956 led to the outbreak of the Hungarian Revolution in defiance of the Soviet occupation. In response, the state began to enact several reforms to appease the people––for example, Hungarians were allowed to purchase their own kind of blue jeans and could buy real Coca-Cola at the store. As a result, from the 1960s to the 1980s, Hungary was often satirically referred to as the “happiest barrack” within the Eastern bloc.

Anna shared with us all kinds of stories about life in communist Hungary, such as how the state supplemented two-week vacations for all Hungarians, dubbed James Bond movies in a way that left out all references to Communists as the enemy, and created all kinds of bureaucratic nightmares, such as the arduous seven to 10 year process to buy a car. While Hungarians lacked many types of freedoms, Anna explained the kind of nostalgia for the by-gone era that still persists for many older Hungarians. More than once, Anna commented on the need for a generational change––that it would take several generations to truly instill a “democratic” way of thinking in the country.

After the tour, we scoped out a traditional Hungarian restaurant that we found on Trip Advisor, and ended up having one of the best meals we’ve had on the trip so far—they even had a man playing the harpsichord in the restaurant!

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Afterwards, we walked over to the Buda side of the city once again to get some night shots of the city, especially the Parliament Building.

What a beautiful city!

Ticket to Ride

There’s something magical about trains. You don’t have to worry about ridiculous long security lines; you always have plenty of legroom; and they even have an entire car dedicated to feeding you. On a train, travel doesn’t happen in a vacuum-sealed chamber of screaming babies and persnickety passengers. Travel passes before your eyes—the patchwork of farms and pastures, the small town centers, the trees with their changing colors—so that your journey becomes more than a passage from point A to point B but instead a way to experience the country as you travel through it.

I said goodbye to my parents in Prague this morning to board EuroCity 171 to Budapest, where I was meeting my friends for the rest of the fall break. After a relaxing breakfast at the hotel, I arrived at the train station with my printed out ticket in hand.

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It turns out, my train was running a full 30 minutes late—a condition that wasn’t too much of an inconvenience but made me internally freak out as I convinced myself that I was reading the departure information wrong and the train most definitely left without me. But around 20 minutes after the scheduled departure time, they finally posted the platform number for my train and I practically ran to platform 3S in my antsy anticipation.

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Shortly, my train arrived—an old hunk of steel called the Hungaria, with its faded red utilitarian exterior straight out of the 1960s. I was able to find a window seat in a row by itself, stretching out my feet on the chair directly across from me, with its unique combination of brown carpet and yellow pleather upholstering.

I quickly settled in for the 7-hour journey ahead, catching up on blog posts and tearing through chapters of my book. The train slowly made its way through the Czech Republic and into Brno, then entering Slovakia and passing through Bratislava. By the time we entered into Hungary, it was dark.

At this point, hardly anyone was left on the train, which made it eerily silent as the lights flickered overhead. Maybe it was because I was 6 hours into my ride—or maybe it was because it was suddenly dark outside—but the creepiness factor of the train increased suddenly. Repeatedly, the train kept stopping on the tracks for no apparent reason.

I was incredibly relieved when the train finally pulled into the Budapest-Keleti station, where I found a taxi and gave them the address to the apartment. I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to find my friends since I was almost an hour late for our meeting time, but luckily Alex and Matt were still waiting outside.

I dropped off my stuff at the apartment, an entire two-bedroom flat that looks straight out of an Ikea catalog. I had found the place for super cheap through Airbnb, which connects owners to short-term tenants.

We went out to dinner at a Hungarian restaurant nearby (which honestly isn’t too different from Czech cuisine), before heading back to the flat to get ready to see all of Budapest in a day. Bring it!

What’s all the Praha-ha

We met up with Pavel again in the morning, for our second half of the walking tour around Prague. To begin, we took the metro and tram across the river to Lesser Town to visit the magnificent complex of the Prague Castle.

The Prague Castle sits on a hill overlooking the river, where it has served as the seat of the Kings of Bohemia, Holy Roman Emperors, and the presidents of Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic. It holds the Guinness World Record as the largest ancient castle in the world, occupying an area of almost 70,000 square meters.

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The castle dates back to the 9th century, where the first walled building was the Church of the Virgin Mary. At the beginning of the 10th century, the rulers began work on the Basilica of St. Vitus, a gigantic gothic church that remained under construction for centuries until it was finally finished some 600 years later. Look at those stained glass windows!

We also toured some rooms inside the castle itself––from the grand coronation room to the offices for the government scribes.

My mom’s favorite part was this row of little houses built into the castle walls––complete with a collection of torture devices (yikes!).

Afterwards, we walked around Lesser Town and visited the Lennon Wall.

Beginning in the 1980s, people began to cover the wall with all kinds of Beatles-inspired graffiti and song lyrics. Under the communist regime, the wall served as a source of irritation. Young Czechs began writing grievances on the wall. Multiple times the wall was painted over, only to be covered again with flowers and lyrics by the next night.

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After the tour with Pavel, we had lunch as we decided what to do for the rest of the afternoon. First stop: the Communist museum!

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The Communist Museum of Prague had a somewhat creepy collection of old artifacts and mannequins, depicting life in Prague during the Communist era. When we had asked Pavel what life was like before the fall of the Communists, he always told us the same thing: “Gray. Everything was gray.” It was fascinating to contrast the photos of drab, ramshackle streets with the beautiful facades of Prague today.

My favorite part of the video was an old documentary that depicted the protests that erupted in Wencelas Square in 1989. Crowds numbering thousands, strong-willed protesters, police brutality… yet all of this underscored by the remarkable success of the subsequent regime change, all with no violence or lives lost.

We also visited the Spanish Synagogue, with its arched ceilings covered with tiny, intricate geometric designs. The synagogue also had a remarkable collection of Jewish artifacts from all over Central Europe. When the Nazis gained control of the synagogue, they had kept a staff working at the museum charged with the task to create three private exhibitions to document many of the Jewish artifacts seized from the territories under Nazi control. All of the museum staff was eventually sent to Auschwitz.

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We had dinner at an Italian restaurant near Old Square, and we then went to the top of the clock tower after dinner to have a view of the city at night.

What a sight!

Czech It Out

After two packed days in Istanbul, my parents and I woke up early this morning to catch a flight to Prague, the largest city and capital of the Czech Republic. Our flight went smoothly, and we arrived in Prague just before noon with a new stamp in our passports.

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Immediately, you could feel the change from the chaos and bustle of Istanbul. While Prague is a large city in its own right, its population of 1.3 million people pale in comparison to Istanbul’s 13 million plus. Its narrow cobblestoned maze of one-way streets keeps most of the cars out of the city center.

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We had lunch at an Italian restaurant just off the Old Town Square—where I scarfed down an entire pizza more as a testament to my gratitude to eat something besides Turkish food than to the quality of the pizza—before meeting up with our guide, Pavel, for an afternoon walking tour of Old Town, New Town, and Josefov.

The four hours that followed took us through a leisurely stroll through the streets of Prague. Repeatedly, I was amazed at the beauty of the architecture of the buildings—a testament to the many centuries of immense wealth and power invested in Prague throughout the centuries. While today it serves as the capital of the Czech state, it has also been the seat of two Holy Roman Empires, the historical capital of Bohemia proper, the capital of Czechoslovakia, and an important city to the Habsburg Monarchy and its Austro-Hungarian Empire.

We began our tour in Old Town Square, slowly wandering over to Wenceslas Square. Wenceslas Square played a significant role as the site of many protests leading up to the Velvet Revolution and subsequent fall of communism in Czechoslovakia.

We then traveled over to one of the most recognizable panoramas in Prague—the view from Charles Bridge, which spans over the Vltava River. The construction of the bridge started in 1357, and served as the only means of crossing the river until 1841. As a result, this crossing helped make Prague important as a trade route between Eastern and Western Europe.

We finished our tour in Josefov, which historically served as the Jewish district of Prague. There still stands a remarkable vaulted gothic synagogue known as the Straronová Synagoga (literally “Old New Synagogue”) that dates back to 1270.

And sometimes, there’s truly no better way to explore a city than on your two feet.

Back in Old Square!

Back in Old Square!

The world’s capital

If the earth were a single state, Istanbul would be its capital.

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I couldn’t help but think this as I wandered through the streets of Istanbul once again. The once expansive stretch of the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires are hard to fathom, a fault I attribute to the failure of my Western education to properly acknowledge the importance of the great powers before the ascension of Western Europe. If we were to truly designate a city as the world’s historic melting pot, I’d doubt any other city would be such a serious contender as Istanbul.

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And so, we awoke to a rainy and cold morning in Istanbul, and met our guide Selahattin for a full day of sightseeing. Our first stop was the Blue Mosque, or Sultanahmet, as the Turks call it.

Afterwards, we drove to the Fener neighborhood in order to visit the site of the Ecumenical Patriachate.

Above the Partriachate, we drove to the top of the hill in order to get a spectacular view of the Bosphorus! Selahattin also showed us a portion of the old city walls, which you can still climb up on today.

We also toured the Chora Church, which was just as stunning as I remembered it.

Next, we stopped at the Süleymaniye Mosque, which is by far my favorite mosque out of all the ones I’ve been to so far. Sultanahmet may have its exquisite tiles, but there’s something about the quiet and reverence of the Süleymaniye Mosque that truly makes it feel like a holy place.

We ate lunch at a restaurant that specialized in southeastern Turkish cuisine before stopping by the Spice Market to try and purchase some Turkish Delights for my little brother.

For the rest of the afternoon, it was time to spend some time of the Bosphorus to see the city from the water!

After an extremely long and packed day, we headed to a local restaurant in Sultanahmet for dinner. It turns out the restaurant was actually connected to a long series of caves––part of an old Byzantine palace.

We walked  for a bit around Sultanahmet, where everything is lit up in all kinds of beautiful colors at night. We even spotted a whirling dervish!

At last, it was time for some much needed rest. Tomorrow, on to Prague!

Istanbul Part Iki

After a paper and presentation on Thursday for class, I know I’m not speaking for myself when I say that I was very ready to go on break. The shuttle picked us up at the apartment building at the ridiculously early time of 4:40 a.m. to take us on the 2-hour drive to Antalya, where the major airport is located.

At 7 a.m., the airport was packed—all sorts of tour groups were trying to make their way through the two-step security process and I was glad I had plenty of extra time. After getting to the terminal, Mara and I had some time to kill so we ordered breakfast at the café.

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Soon enough, I boarded my plane to Istanbul, excited to share with my parents the city with which I fell in love at the beginning of September. My flight was uneventful, though I was thrilled to get served a full meal (chicken sandwich, mint and yogurt sauce, and cherry cake) in the 80-minute flight. I only have good things to say about how marvelous it is that Turkish Airlines still gives you food on every flight. (And you get your first bag checked free! Take that, United.)

Once I got to Istanbul, I was determined to figure out how to take public transportation from the Ataturk Airport to Sultanahmet, the old part of the city where my parents were staying. I didn’t really have the chance to go out on my own while we were in Istanbul, and I also knew that it would save a lot of cash—6 TL versus 50-60 TL to hire a taksi. Armed with my printed map of the public transportation system, I struck out to follow the signs out of the airport to the metro.

I figured out how to buy these little plastic tokens from the jetonmatik, and easily boarded the train headed towards the center of the city. Then I had to transfer to the tram, squeezing into a crowded car packed with all sorts of people on their commute.

It was at that moment that I realized that, for the first time since I arrived in Turkey, I was truly surrounded by Turks. I was the only American around. There’s a certain amount of comfort and safety net that comes with a program like the one I’m on, where you take your classes with fellow American students and professors. But while this can be an excellent way to explore a country that might have otherwise been off limits for someone who doesn’t speak Turkish, it limits your opportunities to truly be immersed in a culture. Or to have uncomfortable moments where you have no idea what’s going on.

At some point on the tram ride, everyone got off the train and stood on the platform. I had no idea what was going on. I hadn’t heard any announcement, but everyone gave me strange looks when I was one of the last people staying in the car, so I also exited the tram. Some public transit employees walked through the car, and everyone boarded the next replacement train that came after 10 or so minutes. Luckily, since I was one of the last people to get off, I was one of the first back on. I was actually able to get a seat on the tram this time. Sometimes, ignorance pays off!

I got off the tram at Sultanahmet, and pulled out my Istanbul map to try finding out where my parents’ hotel was. It was then I realized that the map didn’t even have any street names on it. Yikes.

I wandered down the Hippodrome for a bit, lugging my duffel bag around as I tried to make sense of the landmarks around me. I knew that their hotel was somewhere near the Küçük Ayasofya, so I guessed which direction the water might be and headed through the maze of streets.

With a huge serving of luck, I was able to spot the minarets of the mosque, found the right road, and spotted the hotel. I got a key from the front desk and dropped off my stuff at my room. I didn’t have a way to contact my parents since they were on a tour, so I figured I would go back near the Hippodrome and Blue Mosque to pass some time.

I slowly wandered my way around the gardens of the Blue Mosque, circling around the monuments in the Hippodrome, and trying to seem like I was doing anything but wandering around by myself. After a half hour, I was ready to head back to the hotel to get out of the cold, but I just happened to spot my parents at the other end of the Hippodrome. At last!

I'm pretty sure my mom took this photo several minutes before I found them. Can you spot a lost looking 20-year-old in the distance?

I’m pretty sure my mom took this photo several minutes before I found them. Can you spot a lost looking 20-year-old in the distance?

It was fantastic to see them again, and I was so glad I was able to find them and join them for the end of their tour. We wandered around the Hippodrome, decided to hold off on the Blue Mosque since it had a ridiculous hour-long wait due to Friday prayers and cruise ships, and got lost once again in the Grand Bazaar.

After the end of the tour, we found a little traditional kahve next to this old Ottoman graveyard, where we had some tea as we had time to catch up on their time in Istanbul so far.

We then made it back to the hotel, where we arranged for dinner reservations at a fish restaurant under the Galata Bridge. Dinner was quite a treat!

We ordered a gigantic seabass for the three of us, and the restaurant cooked it in this mound of salt before bringing it to the table and setting it on fire in this elaborate show. It was so cool!

After dinner, we walked over to Taksim Square and Istiklal Street. The area was bustling on a Friday night—it seemed like half the city was out roaming down Istiklal. We even stopped for tea and Turkish coffee at a café.

And let’s be honest—after all the traveling and all the people I’ve met, nothing  beats spending time with your family.

Life 101: Lessons in Turkey

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I’m currently at the Antalya airport, mooching off this café’s free wifi as I wait for my flight to board. (My flight leaves at 10:50 a.m., but I left Alanya in the dark of 4:40 a.m. in order to take a shuttle with everyone else.) As we begin our fall break and split to our separate travel plans, it seems like a natural opportunity to reflect on my time in Turkey so far. These past 35 days have gone by both fast and slow—it’s strange to think I’ve already been here for over a month, but then it also seems like these experiences fill quite more than a month. Time is a funny thing.

I’ve also learned a lot over these past several weeks. I know it’s cliché to talk about travel in this way, but I don’t quite know how else to put it. Instead, I’ll try to move beyond the clichés of “travel while you’re young” to keep track of all of the specific things I’ve learned thus far:

For example, I’ve learned that there’s few better ways to create a connection with someone else than learning some basic phrases in their native language. This morning, I was proud to know enough Turkish to be able to ask our bus driver how he was and talk about where our school was.

Helping out in the English class at the local middle school

Helping out in the English class at the local middle school

Living in such a tourist destination like Alanya, I’ve also further appreciated the importance of language—and how sad it is that most Americans only truly know one. Earlier this week, when we were trying to order pizza, the man on the phone asked us if we spoke Swedish or Danish, before passing the phone to someone who could speak better English. Many Alanyans speak some kind of combination of Russian, Danish, Swedish, German, or English along with Turkish. We had a conversation about this early on the trip with our tour guide in Istanbul. “Americans are lazy about language,” he told us, “but they can afford to be. You can’t travel to another country if you’re Turkish and expect someone to speak Turkish.”

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Sign in front of the bookstore in the Antalya airport

At the same time, I’ve learned to nod and mutter enough “Evets” when someone talks to me in Turkish and I have no clue what they’re talking about. Truth is, the smile and nod can also get you a long way.

I’ve learned that it’s better to walk. Walking allows you to slow down and appreciate your surroundings. It can also allow you to unexpectedly stumble upon a World Lacrosse Expo in the middle of the beach at night—just like Alex and I found after dinner one evening.

Lacrosse... in Turkey? (This was also several minutes before we almost got pegged in the head with the ball, twice.)

Lacrosse… in Turkey? (This was also several minutes before we almost got pegged in the head with the ball, twice.)

I’ve learned that it’s important to make time to write. While I kept a meticulous journal of each day during the study tour, I’m still making sure I write down a couple of sentences for every day even when we’re in class. As a result, this past months has been one of the best-documented times of my life. I’m so afraid to forget anything that I’m driven by this compulsion to obsessively capture as many moments as I can. However, it’s also given me a wonderful record of my experiences in Turkey to look back on once I’m home.

It's also great to receive letters too!

It’s also great to receive letters too!

I’ve learned how to develop a more serious resting face to ward off aggressive shopkeepers and hawkers. This is partly a cultural adaption—it’s very much an American thing to smile at everyone you meet and greet them accordingly. While Turks are equally just as friendly and hospitable, they also don’t go around randomly smiling at strangers (which admittedly can be pretty odd). It can give off the wrong impression. And so, I’ve also somewhat adapted to this habit.

Serious face? (Or maybe i still have some work to do...)

Serious face? (Or maybe i still have some work to do…)

I’ve learned that I can never live for too long away from the beach. It’s something that I truly fell in love with this summer when I lived in Santa Cruz, and it’s something of which I will never tire in Alanya. I love its changing colors—the way it can be like smooth silver in the morning and a rich blue in the heat of the afternoon. I love the waves, the sand, and the sun. I may never truly be able to tan, but I could honestly lie out there for weeks on end (with many reapplications of SPF 50, of course).

I’ve also learned that possibly the best way to cope with locking yourself out of your apartment is to create a blanket fort in the middle of your friends’ apartment and singing Disney songs obnoxiously at the top of your lungs. I’m incredibly thankful for the people I’ve met on this trip so far, and I couldn’t ask for better friends to share in this experience.

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.

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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

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

The Little Pashas

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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.

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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!)

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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…

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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.

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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!

Tintin in Istanbul: Hagia Sophia, Basilica Cistern, Blue Mosque, and Grand Bazaar

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At the beginning of the summer, I read Dan Brown’s latest book Inferno, particularly because the book was set in two of the places that I’m going to this year—Florence and Istanbul. While it may not have been the most historically accurate novel, I was definitely excited to see the various locations that make up the setting for its climax.

On the drive to the old part of the city, one of our professors gave us some background on what she called the “three places of serenity” that we’d be seeing today: the Hagia Sophia, the Basilica Cistern, and the Blue Mosque. On our visits, she encouraged us to take a moment to appreciate each space—and my, what beautiful pieces of serenity they were.

However, we first met our tour guide, Claire, at the Hippodrome. The Hippodrome was once a huge kind of sporting arena, where they used to hold chariot races and gladiator fights in Constantinople. Today, it’s a square named Sultanahmet Meydani, and you can see remnants of the original structure, such as the incredible Egyptian obelisk (originally brought to Constantinople in 390!), a Byzantine obelisk, and a Roman serpent column.

We then headed into the Hagia Sophia, or Ayasofya in Turkish.

The Hagia Sophia was originally built as an Orthodox Church by Byzantine Emperor Justinian in 537. It then served as an Eastern Orthodox cathedral until 1453—except for a period between 1204 and 1261 when it was converted into a Roman Catholic cathedral. Then in 1453, the building was converted into a mosque under the Ottoman Empire. Finally, Atatürk converted the mosque into a museum in 1931.

The scale of the building is incredible. The dome is huge—only slightly smaller than the Pantheon, yet much higher off the ground. The restored Christian mosaics along with the Arabic calligraphy create a fitting juxtaposition for the powerful history of the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires.

Then we visited the Basilica Cistern, a huge underground chamber that was used to collect water. The cistern was built in the 6th century, but today it’s been turned into this kind of “New Age” experience—spotlights illuminate the columns in the dark space and acoustic music softly plays from a speaker.

We also stopped at the Mosaic Museum, which houses mosaics from the Byzantine period from the original site of the Great Palace of Constantinople.

We stopped for lunch, and then it was time to visit the Sultan Ahmet Mosque, otherwise known as the Blue Mosque by tourists due to the blue tiles from Iznik that adorn its walls.

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The mosque was built from 1609 to 1616 during the rule of Ahmed I (hence its name). While it is now a popular tourist attraction, it is still used as a space of worship. Accordingly, we came prepared wearing long skirts and carrying scarves to cover out heads. However, many of these mosques also offer various loaner scarves and skirts if you’ve forgotten to come prepared.

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The arches and geometric designs were beautiful!

After the mosque, we then stopped for a snack at a lovely café nearby. I ordered a frozen Turkish coffee. It even came with a chocolate spoon!

Then it was time to explore the Grand Bazaar. I didn’t know quite what to expect from the bazaar, but it was certainly grand. The covered market is comprised by over 3,000 shops and employs some 31,000 individuals.

While you can get your pick of Istanbul souvenirs, the Grand Bazaar also has quite the selection of fake brand-name sunglasses, bags, purses, and watches. I was incredibly excited to find a Tintin in Istanbul shirt for my brother, and I also bought a pair of cheap sunglasses knockoffs since I accidentally left mine at home.

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As you wind through the maze of streets in the bazaar, countless salesmen pull out all kinds of tricks to get you to enter their shop. Often, they ask if you’re from somewhere like England or Germany—even when you might be obviously American—because they can get you into a conversation and then into their shop. Other times, they’ll call you out individually—our favorite line from one of the salesman was “Hey blond lady!” to Amanda.

On top of the aggressive salesmen, it quickly became fun to undermine each other’s attempts to get away from them. For example, after we brushed off a particularly aggressive salesman, Alex stopped and asked loudly, “Amanda, didn’t you just say you wanted a scarf like this?” Then as Amanda was being convinced to try on a scarf, she told the salesman, “Oh no, Shannon is the one who really wants the scarf.” Soon enough, we were trying on multiple scarves before we were finally able to get away.