Gratitude Friday: Our new family member!

This Gratitude Friday, I am excited to announce that we have a new family member!  Gabe’s brother, B, just got married last weekend so his lovely bride, D, is officially one of the fam.

As far as in-law families go, I really lucked out with mine.   And we feel very blessed to have D joining the Johnson clan.  She is energetic & colorful, and adds a lot of fun anytime we are all together.  We love learning about her Brazilian heritage, hearing her stories, and enjoying her delicious cooking.  Most importantly, she is the perfect partner for B.

So, we are so very happy for them and for our good fortune at having her for a sister-in-law.

Here are a few snapshots from their nuptials, which took place in Rockford, Ohio last weekend.  Many of D’s Brazilian family and friends joined us so it was a really wonderful celebration of love and joy.

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Eating in Istanbul

While in Istanbul, we were excited about the mezes (small plates) and eating fresh seafood.

Our first night, Gabe selected a restaurant in old town with a view of the Sea of Marmara.  We enjoyed a cold meze plate to start, and for mains, Gabe had lamb shish and me a fish shish.   The mezes were so-so but the shish was delish.  The setting was really serene.

Ahırkapı Sokak Cankurtaran
Hotel Armada

The second night, we went to a fish place.  We ordered a salted sea bass to share, and were wowed by the presentation.  The staff was exceptionally great and we really enjoyed sitting out in the street, watching a typical evening in Istanbul’s old city.

Salted sea bass

The fish coming out of its salted carcass

These little guys were wowed too.   Notice the pairs of eyes on either side of me.   I am constantly entertained by the cat beggars in Greece and Turkey’s coastal cities.

Fish House
Alemdar Mah. Prof. K. Ismail Gurkan Cad. No:14  
Sultanahmet, 34122 Istanbul, Turkey 

For lunches & snacks, we filled our tummies with street food and shish.

Fish sandwich from Eminou

Bread rings….Image courtesy of

Note to readers:   We know we didn’t venture out of Sultanahmet (old city) which we heard is crucial for seeing the true Istanbul culinary scene.  However, for our 48 hour stay, we figured it was easiest to stick within walking distance vs. figure out the tram system or take a taxi.  We loved our “first taste” and hope to come again to Turkey for a more authentic sense!

From Europe to Asia & Back: Cruising the Bosphorus

On Sunday, after the Blue Mosque, we headed down to Eminou port and caught a Bosphorus tour.  There are countless tour operations, and even more guys in the street trying to lure you in chanting “Bosphorus Tour….Bosphourus Tour…..Bosphorus Tour”.

However, we had read about one particular company that offered a service of hopping on and off on opposite coastlines.    This was really appealing to us, since the Bosphorus strait is the separation between Europe and Asia.  We thought it would be neat to have lunch in Asia.   For reference, this company has three departures a day – 10:35, 12:00 and 1:35.

Also a tip for European travelers, make sure your watch is set to the appropriate time zone.  We bought tickets thinking our boat left in 30 minutes.  However, we were on Swiss time.  An hour and a half wait. Oops.

We had a snack (bread ring for me, fish sandwich for Gabe) on the bridge, waiting to set sail.

It was a really nice way to spend the afternoon. Since hoards of crowds were out, happily dining in the daylight after Ramadan, the peacefulness of the boat was a plus.

Pulling out of Istanbul

Dolmabahçe Palace


Khedive Palace

Rumeli & Anatolian Fortresses beside Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge

Bosphorus Cruise – near Yenikoy

Bosphorus Cruise – Yoros Castle

The Black Sea

Bosphorus Cruise – Rumeli Kavagi


After a two hour ride, we docked in  Anadolu Kavagi and selected a restaurant based on the smell of the delicious fish we saw grilling on the side of the building.

They said a fresh fish would take 15 minutes, no problem with the timing.   So, we had some mezes to bide the time.  However, after about 30 minutes, we were getting nervous having time to eat and catching our return boat.   It all went a little downhill from there, but let’s just leave it at I got a whole fish in a aluminum tin “to go”.

Entertaining, but it made for a fun rest of the trip home, trying to eat this with the toothpicks I swiped from the restaurant.

Basilica Cistern

The day before our departure, I mentioned to some Geneva friends that we were going to be traveling to Istanbul for a quick weekend getaway.  J, my friend from South Africa, enthusiastically recommended the underground cisterns that are somewhat underneath or nearby Hagia Sophia.

The Basilica Cistern was built in the 6th Century during the reign of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I, so it is the same age as Hagia Sophia.   It was originally under a Basilica that no longer stands. It is said that 7000 slaves worked to build the site.

The purpose was to provide water for the Great Palace.  It even continued to provide the water source for Topkapi Palace after the Ottaman takeover in 1453.

The ceiling is supported by 336 marble columns. Historians believe many are ‘recycled’ from older buildings all over the Ottoman Empire.   The water-tight wall is 4 meters / 13 feet wide.   The cistern was filled with water from Belgrade Forest and was transported via aqueducts.   It can store 100,000 tons of water!

There was such a peaceful feeling in the cistern.   I delighted in the fact that there were huge fish still swimming around.   I also enjoyed the two mysterious Medusa head columns – one on its side and one upside down.

Gabe said it looked familiar when we walked through.   And, for good reason….this enchanting underground site was featured in James Bond From Russia with Love and The International.

There was not a lot about this site in our guidebooks, so I really appreciated the unique recommendation.

The Blue Mosque

The Sultan Ahmed Mosque is most commonly called “The Blue Mosque” because of the 20,000 handmade blue-colored tiles that decorate the interior of its dome.

It was built by Sultan Ahmed from 1609-1616 so is around 400 years old.    The mosque dominates the skyline of Sultanmet.  One of my books said that if Sultan Ahmed could see how many hotels advertise “Blue Mosque” views, then he would be pleased.  His intention was to build a structure more magnificent than Hagia Sophia.

Tourists are allowed to go in, as long as it is not a worship time.  We visited Sunday between their worship services, which occur five times daily.

They have scarfs and skirts to borrow if you aren’t dressed in accordance to the requirements for the mosque which require modest attire and no shoes.  I’d dressed in a longer dress that covered my knees and had cap sleeves, based on my typical preparation for Italy.  I also brought a scarf for a head wrap, hearing from friends that they are required.   However, both Gabe and I had to borrow Velcro “skirts” to make sure our legs were covered.

The tile/dome was quite beautiful.  However, I think Hagia Sophia was more impressive to me based on the fact it was built 1000 years before.   The fact it was the first dome of its kind still wows me.

It happened to be the last night of Ramadan when we were in Istanbul.  We thought Istanbul was busy before, but as night fell on Saturday indicating the end of the 30 day period of daytime fasting, the city came alive.   Since 99% of the Turkish population is Muslim, literally everyone was out and about.

The light sign on Blue Mosque reads, “Say Goodbye to Ramadan”

Hagia Sophia

From our hotel room at Burckin, we had a lovely view of Hagia Sophia, standing out in the Sultanmet skyline.

Hagia Sophia at night, from our room

View of Hagia Sophia at breakfast


Hagia Sophia, meaning Divine Wisdom, has a very interesting past.   Three churches have held the name on the very same spot.   The Hagia Sophia that stands today was finished in the year 537, during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian.  It is the oldest church in the world, and was also the largest church in the world for 1000 years, until Seville Cathedral was completed in 1520.

It was a Christian church for most of its existence, but in the 1453 Fall of Constantinople (Istanbul was previous named for Constantine), it was converted to a mosque by Sultan Mehmed II.

Turkey’s first president, Ataturk, secularized it and converted the Istanbul gem to a museum, re-opening it in 1935, as it was a treasure for both Muslims and Christians based on its rich historical past.

What is most striking to me is the dome.   This amazing feat in Byzantine style is said to have changed the history of architecture.  I had flashbacks to 6th grade when we all had to attempt to build a dome in model-size.  Our teacher had given us this exercise to show us how difficult it is to construct this type of structure.  I can’t imagine the talent and skill it took back in the 6th Century.   1000 skilled tradesman and 10,000 workers were needed to complete Hagia Sophia.

And….it was magnificent to walk beneath it.

We had the opportunity to walk up a winding ramp to the top to get a different angle.

Hagia Sophia falls at the toop of my impressive religious structures list we have seen.  Others making the list are:

  • The Duomo of Florence
  • The Duomo of Milan
  • The Duomo of Siena
  • Lyon’s Basilica
  • The Emerald Buddha & surrounding temples at Grand Palace, Bangkok
  • Notre Dame in Paris

Impressed with Hagia Sophia

Istanbul’s Bazaars

We landed into Istanbul late Friday night and arrived to our hotel after midnight, and got to bed around 1am.  I’ll spare you the story about the disaster of our pre-arranged transport story.

After sleeping in and a full Turkish breakfast, first on our list for Saturday was to hit the Bazaars.   There were two reasons:  one, they were closed for the following three days due to Ramadan, and two, we heard that you need FULL energy in order to manage the energy, bargaining and physical stamina required!

The New Mosque & adjoining Spice Bazaar

We walked to the Spice Bazaar, or as locals call it, the Egyptian Bazaar.  There are endless stands of spices and sweets.   We lingered over one and were helped by a really friendly lady so that is where we ended up buying our edible souvenirs.

Here are the goods we bought:

  • Iranian saffron (most expensive spice in the world, we just got a few pinches)
  • Yellow curry
  • Meaball spice (Gabe’s pick)
  • Ottoman spice
  • Mixed apple tea
  • Pomegranate orange tea
  • Jasmine balls for tea
  • Turkish delights – pomegranate gel with pistachio
  • Pistachios, the most delicious I ever tried

After the Spice Bazaar, we headed to the Istanbul Grand Bazaar.   It dates to 1455 and is one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the entire world.  We had heard to take a map and have an intention, so armed with this knowledge, we dove in to the splendor of this Turkish tradition.

Good thing we had a map.  Sultan Mehmet II’s idea has blossomed from a simple textile market, to a massive bazaar with 61 streets and over 3000 shops.

We purchased two things – a silver guilded double-teapot and a Turkish towel for a gift. We had hopes for purchasing a carpet but soon got overwhelmed after looking in a few stands.

Here are the tips we learned:

-always negotiate.  Offer 25%-50% of the price they say.   I found that none went as low as 50%, but a 30-40% discount of the original price was offered to me.

-never offer an amount unless you intend to buy.  You can ask how much, but don’t try to get them down in price unless you are going to follow through.

-accept a drink and a seat if they offer – it is customary and not an obligation to buy.   This happened a few times as we looked for carpets.  They’d shut the door, turn on the A/C, and offer us a seat and the most delicious tea.

-pay in Turkish lira vs. another currency (some accepted euros, US dollars, and credit cards)

-if you buy a carpet, handle the shipping yourself. Several of my books talked about the switcheroo that can happen with a lesser quality.

-at the spice bazaar, request that they vacuum seal your goods so they’ll travel better and last longer