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

Canal Wars: The best canals in Europe?

Having visited and re-visited some of the best canal towns in Europe this summer, I thought I would share our thoughts on the highlights of each.

My ranking scale is done with 10 being a good rating and 1 being a bad rating.

Venice

The entire city is an island full of canals.

The grand canal in Venice

There really is nothing like Venice.  So, it really is a must-do in your lifetime. However, since everyone has it on their bucket list, it is over-crowded, and with the typical summer heat, it can be quite claustrophobic.

Uniqueness:                 10 – there is nothing like it in the world

Quaintness:                  5 – when you get into the back canals, this score could improve to a 7 or 8

Crowdedness:               1 – awful.  When mixed with heat, it’s a -1!

Ability to live there:     2 – couldn’t deal with crowds

Tips: Venice is best seen in the evening, when the sun is setting.  This provides both a more refreshing experience as the heat is less, as well as there is a decrease in some of the cruise ship travelers.  For the budget conscious, take vaporetti #1 or #2 (public transportation boat) and vie for a place on the edge.   Big spenders could go for a evening gondola but this sets you back around 200 euros or $250 USD.  In two trips to Venice, I still haven’t ‘invested’ in this, as I don’t think it is worth the price.

Amsterdam

Dark wooded and chock full of 17th century gabled architecture, this city is romantic and beautiful.   When you add the adorable local shops and restaurants lining its cross streets, its downright perfect.

Amsterdam in the Fall. I have painted this scene three times 🙂

Uniqueness:                   9

Quaintness:                   8

Crowdedness:                8 in Fall, 4 in Summer

Ability to live there:     9, I’d move there in a heartbeat

Tips:  I favored Amsterdam in the fall, when the leaves had fallen and we had better views of the charming architecture when strolling or biking down the canal.   This most recent trip, we took a summer canal tour, which was average.  I far preferred biking down the canals as the best way to see the the beauty and character of this city. 

Burano, Italy

This little island is off of Venice, but it is so different that I thought I would include it as a separate town.

Colorful Burano

Uniqueness:                   7

Quaintness:                   7

Crowdedness:                7 in Summer

Ability to live there:     5, too hot and isolated

Tips:  Quieter than its neighbor, this picturesque canal island is a nice side trip from Venice.   You can catch a boat that is included with the vaporetti pass. 

Brugge

Tiny and medieval, this city makes you say the word “cute” at least 10 times an hour.

Brugge is so CUTE!

Uniqueness:                  8

Quaintness:                   9.5

Crowdedness:                7, wasn’t that bad, even in the summer

Ability to live there:      8 – I’d adore a home on the canal.  But it’s a small town and maybe it could get mundane quickly without big-city appeal & activities?  Plus, I wouldn’t be able to fit in my pants with all the chocolate, fries, beer and waffles!

Notes: our favorite time was walking the canals at dusk, as the sun was setting.   The reflections were magical and ideal for photography. We did a canal tour the following day, but in the middle of the afternoon, it wasn’t as cool as a relaxing stroll our evening before.   

Copenhagen

A merge of classical and modern forward-thinking Danish design, this city was hip and fashionable while maintaining its priority one – Mother Earth.

Copenhagen’s Nyhavn harbor

Uniqueness:                   8

Quaintness:                    5

Crowdedness:                9 – not at all crowded

Ability to live there:      7– I could do it, Danes are said to be the most content people in the world

Tips:  this city had a few canals but was more completely surrounded by a vast body of water vs. small canals.   The architecture and vibe were cool and fresh, but cute/quaint is best reserved for neighboring Amsterdam and Brugge.   We did a canal tour which was a great way to see the city since a lot of it isn’t accessible by walking/biking.

The Verdict

As you can see, the ultimate decision is up to you, depending on how your preferences.    If you love fresh, clean, and green – Copenhagen should be your destination.   If you don’t mind crowds & souvenir stands, for unrivaled uniqueness, go Venice.    For a romantic & charming locale, Brugge is the best pick.   For vibrant color, sunny weather, and photo ops, Burano is a great choice.   And for the most character and culture, I’d always select Amsterdam in the Fall.

A Perfect Swiss Day

Hooray!   Isabella and Ferdinand have been here!    They had a wedding to attend in England and we were lucky that they came to Geneva to visit us beforehand.

Ferdinand had to work at the beginning, organizing a golf event.  Once work was done, on the weekend, the four of us set off on a Swiss adventure.

Our first stop was the Lavaux wine region.  Isabella can’t drink currently (she is expecting), but we wanted to show them this UNESCO gem nonetheless.  So, we took the Chexbres exit off of the A1 and descended down the village towns into Rivaz.   They were breathtaken with the gorgeous terraced vineyards as we are every time we visit.

Next stop…..Gruyères.

Ramparts of Gruyères

Walking around the château

Lovely little village

We skipped the cheese tour (we knew we were having raclette for dinner), but all did order Gruyère-cheese based dishes for lunch.

After Gruyères, we drove to Broc, home of Cailler chocolate factory.

Smelling the cocoa beans.

Branche candy bar machine

Ta da! The tasting room!

I just go straight to the good stuff at the end now. I am trained.

Discussing the merits of milk & white chocolate

Weeeeee!

 

 

After playing on the playground a bit, we headed back to Geneva.  We had a big night in store.

The Schwingen & Switzerland crew was hosting a raclette party before the big Fête de Genève fireworks.   Ferdinand and Isabella had raclette their last time in Switzerland, in Zurich, but they were impressed by S’s monstrous spread.

The spread at the S’s

Raclette in action

 

For dessert, S had “Creme de Gruyère” and “Creme Brulée” Movenpick ice cream.  She surprised her dad and me with a candle in each carton for a birthday surprise.  It was the loveliest ‘cake’ I have ever had.  If you have an opportunity, I urge you to try Movenpick ice cream.  Full of Swiss whole cream, its the real deal.

We left their house and were immersed in the madness that is Fête de Genève.  We say it is the absolute busiest, craziest time of year in Geneva.

We luckily found a spot for 12 of us, near the rides, and watched the magnificent hour long fireworks:

The beginning of the fireworks

 

Love this type!

Jet d’eau, in harmony with the show

What a perfect Swiss day!

 

 

Related Links:

The Swiss Watch Blog:   Cheese Wars

The Swiss Watch Blog:   It’s Raining – I guess we have to go to the chocolate factory

The Swiss Watch Blog:  Famous Swiss Foods – Cheese

The Swiss Watch Blog:  Famous Swiss Foods – Chocolate

The Swiss Watch Blog: The land of chocolate and cheese

The Swiss Watch Blog: Thanks for a Joyeux Anniversaire, everyone

The Swiss Watch Blog:   The fête commences

 

 

 

Spinalonga Island

Right across from our hotel was an interesting looking island.

Dining at our hotel our first night with “The Island” in the background

It’s original name was Greek and derived from language meaning to protect the ancient port of Olous (present day Elounda).  However, the island had quite a history after this origin.

Sun sets on the tiny island

First, it was occupied by the Venetians (of Venice).  They renamed it Spinalonga for “long thorn”.   It is said that until the Venetian rule, this island was actually part of Crete, but they carved it to be a free-standing island.   They used it in farming and selling salt.  However, they soon had to build fortifications as of the threat of pirate invasions as well as take-over by the nearby Turks, based on their profits in salt-mining.   The Fall of Constantinople (Istanbul today) hurried their development.

View from the top of Spinalonga at the middle fortifications

Lower fortifications

They built dual fortifications – both on the basin, and up above.  Having these enabled the island to become one of the most powerful defenses of this side of Crete.

The island of Spinalonga with its Venetian walls

They could view the entire Mirabello bay, ensuring Elounda’s protection

Even during the Cretean war, when the Turks tookover the whole of Crete, the island remained a Venetian stronghold.   Our driver from the airport commented, “imagine some people lived their whole lives out there in isolation, during that period”.

Walking the streets in Spinalonga

Spinalonga fell to the Turks in 1715. Ironically, because it was so hard to take over, it was the Turks last footing when the Christian Cretans overtook them.

Old buildings on Spinalonga

In 1903, Spinalonga became a leper colony for Crete. When Crete joined Greece, it grew into a leper colony for the entire Greek population.  They worked, married and had children, while isolated on this little island.  In 1957 it was dispanded and has been abandoned ever since.

I can’t imagine the isolation felt out here by the lepers

The author Victoria Hislop wrote a story about Spinalonga, entitled “The Island”.   I plan to read it to get a greater context for the history.

A few tips if you plan to visit:

-It was only a 5 minute boat ride from our hotel, The Blue Palace, via private boat where you can indicate when you wanted to come back.  You can also get tours from Plaka, Elounda or Ag Nik with the closer being the least expensive.
-We went the latest possible time in the day to avoid the heat and the crowds, as Spinalonga is the #2 tourist visited spot in Crete.
-Bring water and lots of it.   We had severe dehydration from climbing and not a place to purchase water on the island.
-You can swim if you want.  So bring your suit.
-Also, Spinalonga is incredibly windy.   Dress accordingly.   We thought Le Mistral was bad, but look at the effects on this tree:

a little wind-blown

I was a little wind-blown as well.   Headband and ponytail.  A must to visit Spinalonga.

A few other note-worthy islands we adore:

Burano:  Bella Burano, Mediocre Murano

Capri:  Oh, Amalfi.

Phuket & James Bond Island:  Christmas in Phuket

Exploring Crete – Krista, Lato, and more

It is hard to believe that snow still exists on Crete until mid-July (it just melted 20 days before our arrival), but that is the elevation on part of the island!  While visting Crete, we wanted to visit some of its mountainous region.

Mountain village of Kritsa

Kritsa was not too far from where we were staying in Eastern Crete.  During Medieval times, it was the largest town in Crete, however, now is a small village with 2200 residents.  It still looks like time hasn’t passed when you walk on its streets:

Gabe was a bit too tall for this door

Wait….which address is this?

Streets of Kritsa

Hot day in Kritsa

 

 

 

Nearby Kritsa is the archeological site of Lato.  It was the most powerful town during Dorian towns with two acropolis.  It was destroyed in 2nd Century BC.

It always amazes us how freely Greece (and Europe for that matter!) allows visitors.   There was no entry, no guards, to visit this incredible site.  We could freely walk all over the pre-Christ dated ruins.

Archeological site of Lato

View of the ocean from Lato

 

After Lato, we meandered through the mountainous roads back to the highway and to old town Hersonissos.  An old colleague of mine’s family originated from this area and many of them still live there today.  We tried to visit their restaurant in the charming old town square, but didn’t know it was closed for lunch.

Me in front of Georgio’s

Old and new, we had a nice day exploring Crete.

Knossos Palace : Home of The Labyrinth & The Minotaur

The Minoan civilization was just a myth until the last century when Sir Arthur Evans , a British archeologist, was able to pursue his intuition and dig after the Turks departure from Crete.  Before that, he was not able to dig due to the conflict.

And he found what he was looking for – traces of the ancient Minoan civilization which flourished in Crete from 2500 BC to about 1500 BC. This civilization was the oldest  in Europe, happening during the Bronze Age.   For a reference point, it thrived in the same era as the Egyptian times and the Ancient city of Babylon.

The first settlement on top of a previously Neolithic village occurred around 2500 BC – time of King Minos.   They flourished, but were completely iradicated around 1700 BC – possibly by earthquake or the Santorini volcano which is likely to have caused tsunami effects.   During this early time, they were far advanced, producing:

-the first flushing toilet.  Our guide pointed out that even the Palace of Versailles didn’t have such technology 2000 years later.

Evidence of the Minoan engineering – a top channel for regular water, underneath was a channel for waste water from the toilets (not visible in photo)

-the first draining bathtub in the queen’s quarters.

Image courtesy of daedalus.gr

Original terracotta pipes

-the first throne.  The original is pictured in the below photograph.  A replica sits in The Hague at the International Court as a reminder of the power of justice vs. war (the Minoans were peaceful).

King Minos’s throne

-the oldest road in Europe

Our guide said this was the first road in Europe that went from the port to the Palace of Knossos

We toured the Palace of Knossos, capital of Minoan civilization when visiting Crete.   If you know your Greek mythology, you are likely familiar with the Palace of Knossos as it is the site of the great labyrinth and the Minotaur.

The labyrinth of the Palace of Knossos

A few myths related to the Palace of Knossos & Minotaur occurred here.  You may remember them?

–Father and son  Icarus  were traped in the maze of the labyrinth at Knossos.  Finally, they came up with the idea to use wax and feathers to make wings to fly out of their captivity.  The father Daedalus warned Icarus not to fly too high, but being young and foolish, he did, the wax melted by the heat of the sun and he drowned in the sea, now named The Icarian Sea.

–King Aegeus  was fed up with King Minos sacrificing 14 young Greek boys and girls each year to the Minotaur.   His son Theseus agreed he would go with the troop and kill the beast, changing the sails from black to white to signal his success.   He succeeded with the aid of the King’s daughter Ariadne using string to help him find his way.  However, in his rush to return to Sounio, he forgot to change the sails.   His father jumped into the sea in mourning, thus naming it the Aegean sea.

Lucky we didn’t get stuck in the labyrinth!

Other than it’s tie-in to Greek mythology, we found the original 4000 year old urns to be quite impressive – they were made to hold olive oil, honey, and wine.  They were extremely heavy, requiring many lifters and handles.   It is said that the son of King Minos was curious and climbed into the honey urn and accidentally fell in.  He met his death by the bees that swarmed the urn.  What a way to die!

Impressive urns

Also, I really loved the frescoes.   Throughout the archeological site, they had imitations so you could get an idea what the palace looked like.  We later toured the archeological museum which contained the smaller and most precious artifacts found at the site.   My favorite fresco was the one that depicted the acrobats flying over the bulls for entertainment.   Bulls were sacred (unlike Spain and Mexico where they slaughter the bulls), so the acrobats had to be very talented to grab the horns and flip over, with no harm to the bull.

Fresco of the bull dancers

Talk about dangerous jobs!