Blue, Blue Lakes of Patagonia

How many lake photos is enough? One more…

Before I start singing praises to the beauty of the famous Lake country or the Wild West of Argentina I need to give you some advice on a challenging topic of transportation or more precisely renting a car in Argentina.

When we arrived to Argentina for the first time in the fall of 2002 with our children in tow, we were secure in our conviction that a reservation with Hertz will procure the high standard of service one (used to) expect from a well know travel brand.

Ah, Hertz! You keep breaking my heart.

Well, we were wrong, very wrong. Our middle sized car to transport five people turned out to be a Match Box size of the car seating less than one and half malnourished Pygmy from Amazonia with only one piece of luggage, an elegant office leather case filled with ten sheets of legal size paper plus a small gold Mont Blanc pen. Not much more! Fortunately for us, we were met by an Argentinian friend at the BA airport who was so disgusted by the service we received he made us cancel the reservation then and there, took us home and handed us the keys to his big car.

Frustration

You’d think we learned our lesson. But no, hearing lots of horror stories about car rental in Argentina we made another reservation with big name Hertz in Bariloche. It is all just a franchise name on a shingle these days so upon arrival we went through highly anticipated exercise with Hertz airport office staff, rather entertaining to fellow renters. It was the reconciliation process between what they think we deserve and what we think we should get according to English print on our Hertz confirmation email. All arguments lost their weight and validity as the reality set in on discovering that Hertz (and the other rental car companies as well) had only one size of car anyway and only in either white or a few different shades of grey to chose from, and even those in short supply or awaiting return from the car wash.

Our assigned car was white,

Really big trunk

a little bit bigger than the Match Box of 2002 (good) and we did not have any kids in the back seat (even better). After listening to a comprehensive warning on not leaving anything in the car when parking anywhere or even stopping for a pee break (lest the car gets broken in) we compressed our duffle bags into the trunk, and refreshing the fine memories of our teenage years driving manual stick cars in Europe, we settled for what was offered. Before you would count to ten we were on our way into the sunset to discover the beauty of this land and have, now a very late lunch with a new Servas friend Brenda. What a treasure to have planing advice from a local, and someone who really knows her backyard well.

With Brenda and visiting German Servas member Peter

Bariloche is a natural center of this region spread on the shore of one of the largest lakes here AND headquarters of the National Park with the same name of Parque Nacionál Nahuel Huapi. Do not even try to memorize it. After a week spent driving around it, I still do not remember it. Like many others. But the Park is about 85 years old, the first N.P. in Argentina and the most visited, thus bringing to Bariloche a huge tourist crowd to ad to 100,000 residents.

NP Nahuel Huapi from Cerro Campanario

So we quickly decided to leave Bariloche behind and get further into the countryside where nature prevails over the number of tourists. First, going to the north we drove to the Land of Seven Lakes between Villa la Angostura, a much smaller, cosier town, at the northernmost reach of the Lago Nahuel Huapi and another N.P. Lanín. There are definitely more than seven lakes and rivers lining up Ruta 40, a famous highway running full length of Argentina from Tierra del Fuego on the eastern sides of Andes to the Bolivian border.

As the traffic on Ruta 40 became less dense, it made it much easier to stop at frequent miradors (view points) for picture taking

Notice blue cap!

or having a late picnic lunch on the river bank.

Dessert first

The higher end lodges and hotels were replaced by plentiful campgrounds on more than breathtaking lakes

To jump or not to jump?

like this Lago Traful

serving at the estuary of the Río Pichi Traful their young backpacking and hitchhiking clientèle, (that we often tried to cram into our car)

We love to meet young people and share our wisdom 😉

in a natural Salón de Té with their drink of choice – mate té, an old indigenous Guarani Indian crop grown from special tree leaves.

We know that nothing can beat the beauty of Iguaçú Falls (see our next blog) but you simply could not neglect the local falls

with wide variety of birds making you unhappy that you have not developed sufficient birdwatching skills. Not having a big shot camera with even bigger télé lens would be to our disadvantage, but our trip’s artistic director easily bridged this gap by mastering her latest iPhone model.

Happy to see so many healthy bumble bees

Pleased with our progress we landed that day in the real jewel on the Ruta 40, a beautiful and the absolute cleanest clean town of San Martín de Los Andes. In spite of disappointing foggy weather next morning

View from our B&B

we pushed nevertheless further north on unpaved roads stretching our minicar’s durability

Rugged

and hoping not to loose some essential parts such as wheels, or non-essential parts like suspension (no biggie, after a mile or two on those kinds of roads you do not feel like you have any suspension, anyway). We proceeded ferociously towards the Parque Nacional Lanín. It was named after its main attraction, almost 12,400 feet (3780m) high Volcán Lanín,

White caps on blue

which appeared just like Fata Morgana with its carved pyramid shape on the horizon over Lago Huechulafquen

All shades of blue in one place

(another local name difficult to read, correctly pronounce and memorize, tell me about it!). We did not try to reach its top, it would have taken us more than three days of strenuous effort and we would have had to shed more than 35 years off our shoulders (yes, on February 21, almost to this day 35 years ago, we succeeded in our attempt to reach the snowy top of Kilimanjaro!). Still we were rewarded by a garden like place at the base of the Volcán with a cozy Mapuche Indian church

Birch trees surprise

with a coolest carved rendition of Nativity scene!

On it you can find all local flora and fauna including in the back the fantastical tree, we have never seen in the wild, only planted in the city scape or a botanical garden.

It is a national tree of Chile and it’s known scientifically as Araucaria Araucana but you may have heard it being called Monkey Puzzle tree or Monkey Tail tree.

One of the old ones

Easily (actually extremely slowly) growing over hundred feet tall it is qualified as coniferous

Monkey tails

but I would hardly call this green stuff on its branches needles; leaves seem to be a better fit, no matter how hard they are. What a treat to see a grove of these trees!

Our follow up trip on the comfortable boat crisscrossing one of the Lago Huechulafquen far reaching arms could not be spoiled even as the weather did not fully cooperate and soon hid the snow capped volcán behind the clouds.

A lovely blue Argentine flag

We were so excited that nothing could stop us from crazily celebrating our trip on the nearby pedestrian bridge over a clean mountain river.

Blue jump

We knew we were in gaucho country as we started to pass estâncias. But then we started seeing people on horses all spiffed up in their best gaucho outfits. It is a yearly Puestero – a gaucho fiesta. What an amazing timing! Of course we have to stop! Let the pictures speak!

My kind of travel heaven
Lots of women, too, of all ages
The youngest gaucho

After three beautiful fun filled days spent north of Bariloche we decided to turn south and further into Andes even if it meant leaving the decent comfort of the paved Ruta 40 and more miles driven on bumpy mountain roads. We wanted to reach the base of glacier covered Cerro (Mount) Tronador where our leader hoped to secure with her charm a last minute room in Pampa Linda Lodge.

Is there room at the lodge? Yes!

The plan was for her to ride a horse as high as she could towards the ice fields of Cerro Tronador with me following her on foot while feeding us both with trouts I would fish for in the mountain streams. Well, it did not work as planed as we overslept the crack of dawn horse expedition departure to Refugio and no fish could be found in icy waters of mountain streams and lakes this high up.

Notice the black ice glacier on bottom the blue ice is hidden in the clouds.

Nevertheless we did have a lot of fun even if the weather was changing by the minute.

One minute
Next minute
Repeat

In this part of the trip we learned an invaluable lesson about Horário enforced on certain mountain roads imposing one-way traffic in prevailing direction. We had no clue, of course, and were very surprised to find cars driving on our! side of the road, blinking their lights at us, and gesturing in unmistakably unfriendly ways! That was a hard lesson, indeed.

Then we were chased by the clouds

Ah, the vistas!

further south to the town of El Bolson, known as hippie capital of Argentina in 1980’s. There are still plenty of hippies left. They do all sorts of hippie things like making jewelry and jam, carving trees

A sculpture in Bosque Tallado, mountain sculpture park

or setting up great coffee shops and charming, artistic B&Bs.

That floor, that floor!

Close by is a cabin where Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid of of 1960’s movie fame

Ah, those two!

settled in 1901 with $32,000 ($2,500,000 today) of booty from their last American bank robbery. After Pinkerton detectives tracked them here, they ran away north to Bolivia where they found their end in the shootout with a platoon of Bolivian army in Santa Cruz.

We did not rob the bank, just enquired at the local Western Union office about moving some emergency cash from our home bank account to pay for our frequent visits in our favorite El Boson watering hole called Jauja (pronounced Hauha, huh?!)

Dried flowers and hand painted lamps

Quality of their coffee

and helado (ice-cream) was unmatched by anywhere else in Argentina!

As we left Patagonia for warmer pastures the view from the plane bid us a blue goodbye!

Buenas Noches Buenos Aires

Happy voices and laughter are wafting up to our 13th story Airbnb as I wake up from the heavy jet lag induced sleep. It is 7 am on Saturday morning and it is not that people in Buenos Aires get up early on weekends, they never went to sleep yet. It is still the continuation of the city wide party that started Friday night. The Portenos, as the inhabitants of inner Buenos Aires are called, really take the Latin partying to another level.

Spontaneous dance parade

For once it is actually helpful for early birds like us, to have jet lag, so we can keep our eyes open for the late dinners and other fun activities planned by our new Argentinian friends.

Good wine and good friends

Our trusty Servas International, the peace building organisation we have told you about many times before, comes into play again. Our main Argentinian contact is Ana. As we have exchanged plenty of emails and WhatsApp messages I know she is a glass artist, and a great organizer. (We will join her and Servas Argentina on a group trip at the end of our stay). Her husband is a screenwriter and film critic so we have fun discussions of art and movies. When we are not discussing the challenges of Argentine economics, their and our politicians, and life in general.

Ana and Mirek in her home in front of her glass piece.

It is a rather strange, but auspicious coincidence that we have chosen our Airbnb not only in the same Palermo Soho neighborhood, but only a few blocks away from Ana’s home. It is great, because we will see each other more than once. The morning after our drinks and dinner together I am walking through absolutely deserted streets to Ana’s studio for an Intro to Glass class. I am joining her regular students and feel a bit intimidated, but as there is no glass blowing involved I quickly find a chair

and settle into choosing and cutting some glass pieces.

“It is not so much the artistic accomplishment,” says Ana, “it is more the experience of creative process, and totally clearing your head for a few hours!”

Then she bursts into laughter, her wild laugh cascading around her head, just like her black jaunty curls. It is a nice surprise when a day later she brings me the pieces “baked” in her studio oven.

Art is everywhere in Buenos Aires: in and on museums,

in galleries, and on any available flat surface, large

or small

“No parking!”, says the pretty lady

You will also find art in any public square, where a myriad of craftspeople and artists set up shop.

I can’t resist and buy just one beautiful hand carved necklace. It won’t take any space in my luggage, I will keep it around my neck!

It should come as no surprise that a simple ice cream window display can turn into art!

Even the public works are colorful. We loved this rainbow pedestrian bridge

leading to a park full of relaxed people enjoying their sunny Sunday, listening to music lying on the grass.

We tried our best to avoid tourists and touristy places. We did not go to visit Evita’s grave in Recoleta cemetery (we did 20 years ago and figured it hasn’t changed). Neither did we stand under the Casa Rosada balcony where she gave her famous speech. We were quite satisfied with this rendition.

We only drove past the famous Teatro Colon, but did go into two well known museums: MALBA (Museo de Arte Latino Americano)

and Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes. Both were wonderful and both held a special surprise. Besides grand works of art from Latin America and Europe they each also had a small, well curated room of pre Colombian art treasures.

We have a soft spot for “primitive” art! We love to see how these old patterns have been passed down through the centuries (the same textiles the figure is dressed in are still woven today) and how these striking, powerful human figures influenced modern artists.

Upon recommendation of our new friends we found a small Fundación Proa in La Boca, and were delighted to walk through a fun exhibition by British sculptor Anish Kapoor. You all know him for his reflecting Bean/Cloud in Chicago. Even though we like modern art we are often baffled by many contemporary pieces that fail to speak to us. (Perhaps you can relate?) But Kapoor is whimsical and thoughtful and engages the viewer on many levels.

Fun reflections in Double Vertigo sculpture
When I am Pregnant

Walking back through the colorful streets of La Boca

Another feeble attempt at a selfie

we can’t help but wade through the throngs of tourists, so we make the best of it by taking their photos.

Getting away from the crowds we come to a more serene environment of the old Buenos Aires

We feel transported back to Europe.

Especially when at the end of the day we find ourselves in front of a classic white Catholic church.

Ah, but the night is still young! How about a tango lesson? Courtesy of another Servas member Jorge, a tango teacher, who invites us to his home studio in fancy Retiro area. Mirek begs off due to his bad back, but I put on a brave face and shake off my two left feet.

Not willing to take advanced lessons 😉 we instead agree to meet next evening at Plaza Dorrago for some tango action. First we get a drink (ok, actually a bottle of Malbec) at a tango restaurant with a show put on by a friend of Jorge,

Jorge explaining that tango is like a knife in the hearth

then we go out to admire the courage of regular folks– tango aficionados, young and old, that regularly come out in droves to practice their steps in the square late into the night.

Tango is synonymous with Buenos Aires, so it is encountered in many shapes and forms throughout the city, be it traditional

or more contemporary.

What else is synonymous with Buenos Aires and Argentina? Beef steak, of course. We surely will get more than our fair share of it on this trip,

and certainly must agree that

P. S. Traveling in Argentina is at times challenging, not in the least for weak WiFi, so putting together our blog posts requires additional patience and time. Your words of encouragement and remarks in comment section are therefore even more appreciated.

Travel With a Pinch of Good

When planing travel I generally don’t like going back to the same places (too many new ones on my bucket list) and I really, really don’t like traveling in groups. There is one exception that more than perfectly proves the rule. I absolutely love the different groups of roving philanthropists I travel with every January to Cambodia to visit villages, schools, and projects supported by the Cambodian Community Dream organization, which I have been involved with for more than ten years. They all have different dynamics, but are always comprised of exceptional people that are smart, interesting, generous, and fun. They are full of questions and observations, wisdom and emotions. This year was the best ever. It is a physically and emotionally intense 10 days, that leaves me exhausted, stimulated, and inspired.

Cambodia is, of course, most famous for the spectacular Angkor Wat temple and one could certainly spend ten days just exploring the many archeological sites, browsing the handicraft markets, being driven in a tuk-tuk from one tasty meal to another, drinking cheap beer, and popping in for an inexpensive massage every night. A tourist paradise. Oblivious to the real Cambodia, that awaits just around the corner from the Pub Street lights and other touristy sights.

Bright and early we spill out of our van and in a pleasant morning temperature head over to the school canteen to help serve breakfast, starting with the littlest preschool kids. We watch them wash their hands first at the water station and then kick off their shoes to sit down in long rows, patiently waiting for their tray with their daily meal of rice, veggies and protein. It is the protein: chicken, pork, eggs, or beans that lacks in their diets at home and makes all the difference in their growth capacity, physical and mental. We are continually amazed at the discipline, politeness and responsibility the Cambodian children exhibit. After they are finished with their meal, they go and scrape any leftovers into a slop bucket and then wash and rinse their trays in big basins of water. Those of us with children or grandchildren look at each other and concur that our kids can’t/wouldn’t/definitely don’t do anything like this. Most likely they complain about what they don’t want for breakfast and leave a half eaten mess on the table.

Then we watch the little munchkins brush their teeth with verve and enthusiasm, rinsing their mouth and then feet with a cup of water. Then we smile at them marching to the classroom for morning exercise and learning. There are 30 plus in the classroom and everyone participates. How many teachers, assistants and parent volunteers takes to get a much smaller classroom under control back home?

And so continues our morning from observing English classes to engaging with students in the library. We read big books aloud, build with Legos, draw with chalk and create with paper. Big smiles and happy faces surround us everywhere and all the time. Everywhere we go, we are greeted warmly by old friends. We also visit with the families in the villages where participants on our trip meet the recipients of their generosity, who can now use their donated latrines or water wells. No shared language is needed to make a human connection. Just a warm smile and a touch of a hand. Surprisingly this group has energy to spare. They are happy to travel to distant temples, swinging on jungle vines. In the evenings we jump into tuk-tuks and explore the city. There are museums, markets and galleries galore. Or for the more spiritually minded a water blessing by the local monk can be arranged. We try our hand at cooking our own Cambodian dinner, or enjoy a private traditional Khmer dance performance. Our meals are a time for reflection and discussion, but also celebration. It sure does us good to make new friends while we are doing a little good in the world.

PS. Looking forward to the January 2021 Travel with Purpose. Join us!

Home for the Holidays

“Ah, you are back!” cried a friend, spotting me at a holiday Cookie Exchange party. “When are you leaving again? I really miss your blogs!”It has been more than a month since we returned to California and I have been planing to write a blog about the challenges of reentry home after a long travel. But we have been busy with mundane tasks of bringing our home and garden up to date after two years of benign neglect. I am pleasantly surprised in the good shape it really is. The walls don’t even need to be repainted, nor the carpet replaced. There are of course plenty of minor repairs and the frustration of finding someone to do it. The garden is an overgrown jungle and some of the plants have died. It takes time and energy to just get appointments with the handyman and the gutter people and the gardeners.

We were really lucky first with a year of Airbnb rentals and then another year renting our home to a most wonderful Australian family. Even though Airbnb got a lot of bad press lately, personally we have great experiences from both sides as hosts and as guests. I have left a guestbook at home and came back to many hearth warming messages from families that stayed affordably at our house and had a chance to join in celebrations of weddings, graduations or grandpa’s birthday party. There were also many international travel elders that found a comfortable home away from home in our house. I got a special kick out of a Swiss family traveling around the world with their two young boys and checking out their travel website. We in turn had met wonderful Airbnb hosts around the world that helped make our travel not only more affordable, but much nicer and deeper.

What strikes me almost immediately upon returning back home, is how exhausting and time consuming (and totally under appreciated) domestic work is and how liberating it is to travel. Free of the everyday drudgery of chopping onions for dinner, scrubbing pots and pans, cleaning bathrooms, vacuuming carpets, standing in line for groceries and sweeping leaves, that keep on falling in the garden, one has time and energy to devote to exploration, physical and mental. Thinking and processing of old and new ideas, meeting and conversing with scores of new interesting people, adding spontaneous stops on the way as the days unfold with vigor and energy fueled by lovely meals someone else prepared, slipping into comfortable beds someone else changed (and washed and ironed).

Because of all that time on our hands in our exploration luxury we discover many places that even the locals don’t know. And because our travels are much about connecting to people we find it especially entertaining to show or tell locals of secret places we discovered on their turf. “Oh, I didn’t know there was a restaurant in that old building.” or “I haven’t been to the museum since the school excursion.” Haven’t climbed past all 12 Stations of the Cross on the pilgrimage route to the little church, haven’t seen the restored ballroom in the chateau, haven’t taken the ferry to the nearby island, haven’t been to waterfall in the woods.

Lest I come across as a judgemental prick, let me admit that in nearly 30 years of living in the Bay Area we haven’t been to Alcatraz once. It will be there later, and anyway, it is too much of a tourist attraction.

Life gets in the way of fun and exploration; there are bills to be paid, windows to be washed, cars to be taken for oil change. We will save Alcatraz for later, the expensive Egyptian Mummy traveling exhibit for when we have more money. Taking a whole family to a museum or ballet performance in America should begin with a stop at the bank to ask for a loan.

Reconnecting to friends back home over a home cooked meal has been the fun part of reentry, especially those interested in travel. Because they will ask questions beyond “What is your favorite country?” We can discuss and compare shared experiences and ponder logistical questions of long term travel.

There is a big difference in going on vacation and traveling long term. When going on vacation you just need to lock your front door and go. Of course, if you don’t have plants to water and pets to feed. Still, remembering the old days of vacationing, I realize how different is the mind frame of short and long term travel.

For those deep in the workforce – it takes time to dig yourself out of the hole of work problems. The first few days are spent letting go of worry and responsibility and then as the departure back home approaches the planing for all the tasks awaiting you begins and spoils the end of vacation.

For those deep in the domestic duties crowned with primary responsibility for wellbeing of little ones – family vacation might liberate you from cooking and cleaning, but the mind is still in the trenches of counting the kids and keeping them safe (and fed and hydrated and slathered in sunscreen) in a new environment with unknown dangers.

Traveling long term you can let go of many things quickly. For me the liberation is in having very few possessions in my travel bag and not being inundated with negative news.

One day soon after our arrival back home, my husband asks me, “Why are you so crabby?”

Surprisingly I don’t negate it, nor go on a tactical offense. I know it is true and the answer dons on me immediately. It is exactly what I was most worried about on our reentry. Despite not watching TV we are immediately sucked into the ugliness of US political news and the international conflicts as well. When we left two years ago, it was bad. I felt compelled to join in protests and organizing some community resistance. It gave me some measure of hope. Then we left, thinking it can’t get much worse. Coming back now and seeing how much worse it did get and how much lower our humanity has sunk, is disheartening. I used to be angry, now I am dismayed and hopeless. Not only for the state of politics, but the state of community discourse as well.

To stay connected to our home community I have been reading NextDoor postings on my email. NextDoor is a great platform and a resource for local communities with recommendations, safety alerts, and community discussions. What I noticed though is a gradual deterioration of civility in communication. People have opinions on everything and some of the comments are downright nasty and turning into personal attacks. I always felt blessed to live in a “nice”, “progressive” community, but I am not so sure about it anymore.

Driving has been a shock, too. The traffic has doubled, if not tripled and the behavior has deteriorated. I have been flipped and honked at for stopping on a yellow light instead of driving though. People won’t let others merge or will take the parking spot you are waiting for.

I am always freaking out that my husband will get into an argument over such actions and someone will pull a gun on him. Because guns in America are everywhere and mass shootings a regular occurrence. Of which we are reminded often in the foreign lands, where people can’t comprehend that American children are murdered in school with regularity. Sometimes those admonitions come in lands with a very strong military arm or experiencing war conflicts with their neighbors. It would be funny, if it wasn’t so sad.

Back home I am asked if the countries we go to are safe and all I can respond is with: Do you feel safe in the US where people get shot at school, at work, at the hospital, at Walmart? It doesn’t happen in any of the countries we have travelled to for the last two years.

Driving to San Francisco and around Bay Area it sure looks and feels a lot let safe. Not that there are people running around with guns, but man, there are so many more homeless encampments on sidewalks and disheveled mentally unstable people walking around speaking to themselves or yelling out loud. There are daily reports of car break ins and mugging and home invasions and they are not happening to strangers in newspapers, but to people we know personally. Perhaps our girls worry about us gallivanting to the ends of the world, but we also really worry about them, living in San Francisco.

I can’t help noticing how filthy the streets are, how much trash lies on the sides of the freeways and how neglected the roads are, full of potholes and overflowing gutters. Having just come from Istanbul, it is shocking, there the freeways were spectacular; new, clean, and enhanced by planted trees, shrubs and flower beds.

But then Turkey is ruled by another autocrat, that half the people despise and half adulate. What is it with this whole crop of old mean men suddenly coming to power everywhere, good old Europe included? And what is it with people that vote them into power? And what is it with women in particular, who don’t mind the prospect of reversal of the progress we have made? I just don’t get it! These very same women who look down on Muslim women for wearing a scarf, are supporting these icky old men who are blatantly disrespectful and downright nasty to women? Somebody, anybody give me an answer, please!

If there is one country that bucks the trend it is New Zealand with the phenomenal, inspiring young female prime minister Jacinda Ardern. She is my hero and my hope. Too bad we are too old to be starting anew in a far, far off land.

Coming home for the holidays: Thanksgiving and Christmas is the best time for a return. Though this special time also brings forth another thing that I don’t appreciate. No, not just the obnoxious, loud Christmas tunes playing everywhere, but the big capitalist push for consumerism and gift giving. Shop, shop, buy, buy and get it delivered overnight. Or not, as what I read is, that wholly 1/5 of all packages get stolen from in front of doors or mailboxes. The spirit of the Season, indeed!

Still the holidays are to celebrate the family and with family and we are so lucky that all three of our girls live in one place and not scattered around.

Thanksgiving has never been our favorite holiday because we don’t particularly like American football (always watched on Thanksgiving), nor the traditional huge turkeys baked to oblivion. But there are some fun side dishes to enjoy once a year like tangy cranberry sauce, mashed sweet potato (with marshmallows and brown sugar?), pumpkin pie. If someone else even makes it for you, how could you not say yes!

To return the favor our family invites our oldest daughter’s family in law to a traditional Czech Christmas. The ubiquitous turkey is replaced by two ducks. According to Czech tradition fish has to be served for Christmas Eve dinner, karp specifically. It is in our case Americanized into salmon.

But the crowning glory of our Christmases has always been Mirek’s marvelous potato salad, each year decorated differently.Then there is a sweet reunion with our four legged friends.

They have excellent memories and their tails wag happily when they see us again.

We now have 3 grand pups to spoil. And you know who is the one who spoils them the most! When we pet sit we like to take them for a long walk at a nearby reservoir. At least there I feel the old sense of Americans being very warm and friendly. Many say hello and ask about the breed of the dogs complementing them lavishly and we do the same for people with their dogs walking towards us on the path.

Someone asked us what we miss most on the road. I know my husband will say “my bathtub”, but I can’t come up with a single thing. What surprises me is how easily I can slip back and forth. I walked into our house after two years and felt immediately at home again. “That’s because you immediately spread your shit all over the place,” says my husband. Yeah, I am perfectly happy to travel with a small duffel and then I come home and quickly cover all horizontal surfaces with boxes of tea and flowers and bottles of wine and holiday cards and small treasures from the road.

And guidebooks and maps to plan more travel. What I like most about being home is plenty of time and a place to plan the next adventures. 2020 is shaping to be another great travel year!

Istanbulites Light up Our Istanbul Days

The more we travel, the more we are convinced that people are (mostly) good everywhere. But some are even gooder (no, not better) and Turks have always been on the top of our Good European People totem pole, followed closely by the Portuguese.

Our delightful encounters with Istanbulites only enforced our long standing perception. Every day we had warm conversations with people dusting off their English, sharing their opinions and recommendations and if we had no common language, waves, nods, and warm smiles. As many conversations started with “How long are you staying in Istanbul?” our response, “One month,” floored them and excited them. Ah, you are no fly by night tourists! When we added that we have been coming for the last 35 years, they were tickled pink. “Oh, I haven’t even been born then!”

We had a daily check in with our wonderful house manager Hatiçe, who reigned from her downstairs office surrounded by computer, iPad and two smart phones. Within minutes she would pull up a ferry schedule or secure a dinner reservation. She accompanied me to the real neighborhood hamam and was amused when I ordered the works, including the coffee grounds scrub. With hair still wet, we met our significant others at their favorite sidewalk kebab place for some unusually spicy and delicious kebabs. Her funny boyfriend Ergul was Kurdish by birth but could not speak Kurdish anymore, because his parents wanted the kids to assimilate.

We had a lot of Kurdish connections. My tarot reader Baran’s father was Kurdish and his mother Jewish. I don’t know much about tarot and this was my first time I had a reading, but he was the nicest tarot reader ever and only told me all the good things, predicting wealth, fame and grandchildren in near future. 😉 Told me I kept picking the very best possible cards. I asked him how he came to be a cafe tarot reader. He said he was on a volunteer stint with UNESCO in Iraqi Kurdistan and narrowly escaped a road side bomb and a bullet that pierced his bus window. It was after that trauma that his mind became really sensitive and in tune with people’s destinies.

Another Kurd we visited was a carpet seller in our favorite Dhoku carpet store in Grand Bazaar. We came across this store many years back when we brought our three girls to Istanbul. Our then 11 year old daughter took one look at a small green patchwork carpet and declared she had to have it. She was going to pay us back with her savings and future allowance money. She still has it 17 years later and can be proud of her pick as the company has become quite famous in the world of interior design by promoting the unusual reworked traditional carpets. Over the customary complimentary little glasses of strong tea we chatted about life, nationalism, politics and family. He complained that his three little kids spent way too much time on iPads. He admitted that there were way too many carpet stores in Grand Bazaar and most of their own sales were now actually online. “We, Turks, work too hard,” he said, “always a-hustling, morning till night, striving for profit, not having enough time for family and friends.”

“I much prefer the lifestyle of our neighbors, the Greeks. They take it easy, they are not stressed. They work a bit during the summer tourist season, and then they relax.”

Funny enough, two years ago we had been on a small boat island cruise through Greece and Turkey and we could certainly compare their attitudes and lives. Whereas in Turkey, if we came to a store two minutes before closing they would enthusiastically start showing us their wares, offering us a special last sale of the day price and a cup of tea, whereas in Greece they would ignore the browsing customer or worse – chat with the seller next door. In one of the museums on Rhodes they actually started shooing us out half an hour before closing time. When we complained, they explained their work shift ends when they get home, not when the last visitor leaves. And they needed the extra half hour to close up and catch the bus. I kid you not!

Well, lest we be generalizing too much, our carpet seller was quick to point out that Turkish Anatolian farmers happily espoused the Greek lifestyle, letting their wives do all the work on the farm and in the home.

Just looking at the Turks walking by one can notice a big variety in body type, facial features, hair color and eyes. Modern day Turks are quite a mixture of peoples that have been absorbed into the Ottoman Empire.

The ones that you might not have heard of are Circassians. They were people of the Caucasus like Armenians or Georgians, but as a nation they did not survive, because of the Russian occupation and policies. Circassian regiments were famous in sultan’s army and Circassian slave women were very admired for their beauty, spirit, and elegance. No wonder many became wives or favorite concubines in sultans’ harems in Turkey, Egypt and beyond. The Servas friend we met one afternoon for a gallery visit and dinner exhibited all the attributes of a “Circassian Beauty”, including the customary dark blonde hair and green eyes. Arzu Nur told us her grandfather was a Cherkez (Turkish for Circassian) fighter who worked closely with Ataturk. She had been a shipping trader for most of her life until a hearing loss in one ear took her on a different path.

Not sure if this lady was of Circassian descent, but she surely was beautiful and made beautiful hand knitted designs in a tiny store that I loved visiting. It was interesting to talk to her about her business and how she was empowering many Turkish village women knitting her delicate designs and making an income at home. 

She had grown up in Germany and came back to have her own family in Istanbul.

Close by her store Nananko Knits was a fancy Sofa Art & Antiques. On my first visit the owner gifted me a yellow envelope. I took it with me to lunch and as we waited for our food to arrive I opened the envelope and pulled out a handful of Turkish poems he had translated into English.

As I started reading the first one ‘I am Listening to Istanbul’ by Orhan Veli, the waiter arrived, took one look at me and started reciting the poem in Turkish. He quickly called over his boss and they were both really touched that I was reading a famous Turkish poem. What a magical moment of connection! Some weeks later as I was walking down the street in our neighborhood I ran across the owner of the antique store. I told him the story of the reciting waiter and now it was his turn to be touched.

That area of Beyoglu was a fun and funky place with lots of great corners where many fashion photographers found their inspiration. I always had fun photographing the photographers and then one day decided to jump into the shoot. The models and the photographer were all good sports, the ladies posed and the photographer took some shots on my iPhone. How nice is that?! Sometimes I simply found my own models. At the most funky dark fantasy designer leather shop of Emino Tillo amongst the chain mail and candelabra, and old treasure chests worked a handsome young man. Would you mind posing for me in some cool outfits? Not at all… It must have been a slow day or he was just simply another oh so nice young Turk. In an altogether different area we found a traditional archery store and the owner Hasan who spoke perfect American English, because he studied at Georgetown University. He showed us around and explained everything even though it was clear that we were not on the market to buy a bow or a set of arrows.

It didn’t take long to find our favorite coffee shop and of all the staff at Coffee Brew it was a young woman who concocted the best capuccinos. We stopped there nearly daily and she was always happy to chat and recommend a cocktail bar or a restaurant.

Another young Turkish woman that was a delight was Nisa. She stepped in when we were looking lost searching for the right ferry to take us to the Asian side. “I am taking the same ferry, just follow me.” On the ride across the Golden Horn we chatted about her studies (psychology) and her desire to study for 6 months through the Erasmus program in Europe. Turns out we were all planing to go to the Princes Island the next day and she introduced us to her friends and showed us around the art Biennale that was on one of the islands. A few days later she came over to our place for the terrace sunset view with a visiting friend Jenn from England, who was on her way to India. What a hoot talking to two young women from such different backgrounds, one a practicing Muslim, the other a practicing Free Spirit! As the sun went down Nisa said, “Why don’t you join us for dinner at my parents’ house, my mom is cooking up a storm?”

So we jumped on the bus and travelled to the modest apartment of her family. What a lovely home cooked feast and what a lovely family. At the end Nisa’s mom gave me a lovely scarf to remember her by and her dad, who was an air condition repairman, pilled us all into his van and took us to a well know Boza drink (fermented bulgur) shop. We were lucky to have another home cooked dinner at Mirek’s former colleague’s house. Melis studied civil engineering at Stanford, where she met her future husband, who was also from Istanbul. What a lucky find! Well, the parents were not quite as enthusiastic as she was Muslim and he Jewish. But love conquers all and they have been happily married for more than twenty years and have two children! Her husband is a descendant of Sephardic Jews who came to Istanbul in 15th century after expulsion from Spain. It is incredible that some Jewish-Turkish families still speak Ladino, a Jewish-Ottoman language with Spanish sentence structure that has barely changed from that time. We conversed in English, but their cook could only communicate in Russian. Turns out she was from Moldova of Gaugazian minority. She could not believe that just a few months back we drove through the tiny Gaugazia when we made our foray into Moldova on our Balkan driving adventure.

Sometimes no words are needed to communicate. Or let’s say the language of art was the communication tool between my traditional paper marbling teacher Nurala and her beginner student. I found her little studio on a walk through Balat neighborhood and watched her work with some Syrian refuges. They helped translate for me when I inquired whether she would teach me also. She said yes and the next morning I was back for a private lesson. For an hour she helped me make my first marbling paper masterpieces. Even though we could not talk, it was so much fun! We sure did a lot of talking when we finally met in person the owners of our fabulous Airbnb: Zeynap and her mother Salmin. Zeynap has studied in US and worked in New York for many years.

“What made you come back?” I asked.

“She did,” she answered, laughing and pointing at her mom. “One evening I was talking to my mom on the phone. Everyone had gone home, but I was still in the office. My mom said, ‘What kind of life is that? You are rotting in the corners of New York!’

“So I came back to Istanbul with my very new American boyfriend who loved it here and became my husband.”

With two small children, an educational consulting business and a large Airbnb house to run Zeynap surely had no time to rot in any corners! Luckily her mom was of great help to her. She used to run a gallery in Ankara and had an impeccable taste and great knowledge or art and history. She took us for a tour of the neighborhood and showed us all the historical houses.

Lastly I have to mention a great couple, even though they are not Turkish. I met Hilary and Don from Portland, Oregon in the Georgian mountains. They had taken a gap year off in the middle of their careers to travel the world and we had many notes to compare. They told me they were finishing their year in Istanbul and I told them to make sure to let us know when they arrive as we were going to be there at the same time. They did and we spent a few days together exploring Istanbul. And eating and drinking, of course!It is really special to meet up again with traveling friends that share your passion for travel and discovery. I am sure we will see them again sometime somewhere. Once the travel bug bites you, you can’t help but long for more adventures. Istanbul is a fantastic city to explore and enjoy, made even better for the diversity and vibrancy of the people. It feels like a very happy place, full of life and joy. As proven by this random group of people dancing one evening undeterred by the light rain.

Istanbul Book by Book 

He took a dolmus taxi to Bebek this time, making conversation with the other passengers so that he’d be remembered, a foreigner who spoke some Turkish. Anna had already been fed and changed for bed, a soft nightgown she seemed not to notice. “I’ll just sit with her until she falls asleep,” he told the nurse, holding up the magazine he’d brought to read. An open-ended visit, no need to check back. Fifteen minutes later he was through the garden entrance, on the road where Mihai was waiting.

Istanbul Passage by J.Kanon

Published by Simon & Schuster, 2013

I am following Leon Bauer, an American tobacco trader to Bebek, way off the beaten tourist path. Istanbul is a place to be if you are a spy as the WWII winds down to its victory lap. Turkey, a neutral country pressed between Allies and Axis for most of the war is a happening place. 

Leon and his German Jewish wife Anna settled here when he pulled her out of Nazi Germany after atrocities of Kristal Nacht. Finally safe in Stamboul, she threw herself, and Leon marginally as well, into saving Romanian Jewish families by paying a ransom of $300 per head and then shipping them from Black Sea port of Constance (that we visited just three months ago!) through Istanbul to Palestine. During one of those heroic missions the hardly seaworthy ship full of Romanian children sinks while passing Dardanelles in the dark night. As Anna witnesses in horror the helpless Jewish children drowning in the waters of Marmara Sea she loses her mind and Leon has to place her into a mental sanatorium in Bebek, freeing him to do some spy and love work on the side. In 1945 Bebek was a small village on European side of Bosporus well outside the Stamboul city limits. Nowadays with Bebek becoming the playground of Istanbul rich, it is hard to imagine how this place looked then. As I read the book I envision a pier (iskelesi) 

and a simple café with a few shacks around it. Today there are numerous cafes and fancy restaurants including arguably the “Starbucks with the best view in the world”. On its walls you can admire lots of old references, including its location proudly shown on an old French Bosporus chart with Starbucks green logo slapped over it.

Since today’s ferries rarely stop at Bebek Iskelesi you can ride the ferry just to Arnavutköy enjoying the view of many yalis – spectacular old palaces on the water, some converted into luxurious hotels.

Modernity of steel, glass and concrete mingles with 

graceful marble mosques and old elite schools lining the shore of Bosporus. After you disembark at Arnavutköy (meaning Albanian Village in Turkish) Iskelesi, you can take a pleasant stroll to Bebek. But first you might want to stop for some good coffee and in pleasant weather you can continue enjoying your book in the sunny garden. 

As you walk the bank you will notice you are between two gracious bridges spanning the Bosporus. It took almost thirty years after the WWII ended before the first modern Europe to Asia Bridge was built, but by now there are two more completed and in service over this seaway, chock full of maritime traffic of all sorts.   

Here at the Bebek Pier the drama of Leon, Anna, and the other characters in this novel starts unwinding with many surprising turns and a lot of suspension. Before I reach the last page of the book I learn a lot about this town and the different districts of Beyoğlu, Pera, Karaköy, Tophane, Taxim, and Galata, where we are staying in the shadow of

the old, round Galata Tower, looking across to the Old Town of Istanbul.

After this year’s intense travel  I was very much relieved when we opted for our trip’s last installment to have a long stay in a place we both love very much. We have  been coming here regularly since 1983 but so far we have not paid our dues and never stayed longer than a few days. But this time we completely reversed our modus operandi of one night stays and for a month played a role of an older settled down couple. Not well heeled, though, just look at our selfies… This decision has changed our travel style a lot. What a new experience waking up in the morning (is noon still considered a morning?) in our bright three window corner bedroom with a view, to make an important decision of our lives, eg. what to do with upcoming breakfast! At home? Or on our way somewhere? Either way, while consulting our dear Istanbul DK Guide or blindly volleying different ideas to one another, we have to decide before our cleaning lady shows up at our door! When we finally kick ourselves out and walk towards our intended destination, then quite often, on the whim, we change our plans. Sometime intentionally as we are sidetracked by some interesting event unfolding in the streets, or unintentionally, after boarding the wrong ferry which unexpectedly takes us instead of to the distant terminal on the Golden Horn to an iskelesi somewhere on the Asian side of Bosporus! 

Number 15 was the second shop down from Hamami near the Kiliç Pasha Mosque in Tophane. The street was flat, behind the shipping terminals, and the shop was scarcely wide enough to fit a door and display window. The dusty framed photographs covered the usual ritual of family life: soldiers stiff in new uniforms, secular weddings, solemn young circumcision boys in round hats and white satin cloaks. In some of the older pictures the men still wore fezzes, steamed and pressed for the camera, already artifacts. According to a small sign, Enver Manyas offered a choice of backdrops-a garden pavilion, Seraglio Point, Bosporus views-but most of his customers seemed to have opted for less expensive plain canvas. 

A bell tinkled when Leon opened the door, bringing out a short, round-shouldered man with wire-rimmed glasses. At first a look of surprise, then a guarded dip of his head .

“Efendi.”                                         ”Merhaba. Manyas Bey?”     The man nodded, still wary. “I have some work for you. From Mr. King,” Leon said in Turkish.                                         Manyas stared at him, keeping his face composed, noncommittal.                             ”We are alone?” Leon said. Antoher nod, waiting. Leon reached into his pocket, pulling out Alexei’s passport.   “Mr. King is dead,” Manyas said.

Istanbul Passage                       By Joseph Kanon Published by Simon & Schuster, 2013

Anyone who ever visited Istanbul knows the touristy areas of Sultan Ahmet (with Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque) and Seraglio (with Topkapi Palace). But Tophane is not as well known and hence much less frequented, except for the ladies who come to the historical Ali Kiliç Pasha hamam On a rare rainy day my wife decides to join them for a sweat, scrub and soap bubble massage, while I walk around, between the boutiques and arts cafes, hiding under an umbrella. Until my socks get sopping wet and I need to duck inside a pillow rich Han for a cup of hot tea and a few hours of quiet reading. This marble clad, luxurious, and spotlessly clean hamami had been here in Tophane for more than three and half centuries waiting for Mr. Bauer to use it. Of course he did not have the time for it. From his conversation with Enver Manyas you noticed he was more interested in ordering  a fake passport! But my wife sure enjoyed her time spent inside!

Eyoub, December 4th, 1876

She is here! For the last two days I have been living in a fever of expectation. This very evening a caïque is to bring her to the landing-stage at Eyoub, opposite my house.

My informant is Kadija, the old negress who, those nights in the boat in Salonica, used to bear Aziyadé company and risk her life for her mistress.

From three o’clock onwards, I was waiting for her on the jetty. The day had been sunny and bright and there had been an unusual amount of traffic on the Golden Horn. Towards evening, thousands of caïques came alongside the Eyoub landing-stage, bringing Turks from their business in the crowded centers of Constantinople, Galata, and the Great Bazaar, back to their homes in the quiet suburb. I was beginning to be known at Eyoub and some of the men hailed me.

Aziyadé by Pierre Loti

Translated by Marjorie Laurie

Published by Amphora Egitim Yaynçilik, 

First published 2006

Eyüp, as the district is known today, lies on the Golden Horn ‘s west end. On a sunny afternoon we easily reached the hill top with a funicular for a tulip glass of tea and a magnificent view of the Golden Horn all the way towards the Bosporus seaway and the hills on its Asian side.

Sitting contentedly at Pierre Loti Café I started wondering who was the guy behind the name? Without a word my wife handed me a book. 

A book? Yes, a slim paperback titled Aziyadé. To start reading immediately, which I did!

This is what I really like when visiting a place. Read a book connected to the place. Submerge (look, stare and listen; my wife does the talking, people connection is so easy for her) into the local life, its pace and customs.

Well, the book is a historical novel depicting a love affair between a naval officer of certain Western Power named, you would not believe it, Pierre Loti, on assignment here in Istanbul, with a married Turkish woman named Aziyadé, one of four wives living in the harem of a local businessman. As a pre-requisite for this story Aziyadé’s husband’s extensive business interests frequently take him on travels out of town, thus fatefully neglecting his four wives in general and Aziyadé in particular. Leaving the playground to his young and attractive competitor in white naval uniform with gold epaulets was not very smart. In fact it made it way to easy for Pierre to find himself in close, actually more than close, emotional relationship with the young beautiful wife as those two lovebirds took their chance. Before anybody could notice they started happily spending night after night in the house the mariner rented in Eyüp with the help of Azayidé’s servant Achmet  and old Samuel from Balat, a Jewish village next to Eyüp.

Can you see the local connection now? Very, very interesting. As I read the book I have to make a few critical points. You have to excuse me, as I am not a writer and certainly not a literary critic, but I could not help noticing some disconcerting illogical elements in this literature of the Mexican telenovela quality, which were rather bothersome to my engineering mind, as the story played out in the milieu of Istanbul in 1876. For more romantic souls those issues may not be important as the steam of their love story easily envelops the mind of the excited reader. But for me it was not quite clear how the officer could handle the logistic of his affair; actually it was a mystery. Firstly, he had to fulfill the duty of the commanding officer on the frigate “Deerhound” during the day and secondly, by dark his call of duty continued in the couple’s Eyüp love nest. This intense activity performed nightly must have certainly been physically demanding and affecting his daytime service to his Country and the Queen. But then every evening to get from Bosporus to Eyüp (just look at the photo view from the Pierre Loti Café and see for yourself how distant the Bosporus is) while Aziyadé was already impatiently expecting him, was a major task (no underground metro or cars then) thus requiring a few nautical miles of rowing! Today, in our modern era, our government reps, diplomats and spies are moving effortlessly around in black Mercedes limousines or Masserattis. For them, it is a piece of cake. But our Loti must have been exhausted on arrival to Eyüp falling into the lap of his darling Aziyadé! 

And then with the first signs of night dying he better be on his way rowing back to “Deerhound” to share his  breakfast with his fellow officers. If he managed to board his ship on time at all! When did this poor chap sleep during that one year long affair? Understandably love is powerful and can clearly provide lovers with wings at the time of need. But still? This man was simply amazing and could have had served as a hero prototype to Ian Fleming when he created Agent 007!

Eyüp was the first Turkish district established after the conquest of Constantiopole in 1453 by Sultan Mehmed II. He built a mosque and turbeh (a mausoleum) to the Eyyub al Ensari, a standard bearer of prophet Mohammed, who is believed to have died here. Because many Ottoman wishes to be buried here close to the saint there are many many cemeteries stretching all the way up Pierre Loti Hill. 

Remember old Samuel from the book? He hails from the next community over – Jewish Balat. This is where the Sephardic Jews settled after Catholic rulers of Spain Ferdinand and Isabella declared “Either you convert to Christianity or get out of here! And P.S. Even if you do, we won’t believe you and torture you in many gruesome ways.”

It was Ottoman sultan Beyazıt II who issued an open invite to the Jews and more than one hundred thousand of Sephardic and other Jews were welcomed to settle in Istanbul. Honestly, what an act of kindness from Muslim community!

Balat today does not have many Jews left, and the big Archida synagogue is locked up and only accessible if you get a special permit from the high ups, we were told at the Jewish museum. We didn’t try, instead we wandered around this up an coming colorful neighborhood where on the weekends young crowds come out for coffee, long drawn out Turkish breakfast and maybe a peek at the colorful Turkish wedding. We came across an unusual wedding celebration sight with two men dressed in long skirts, with bells on their fingers danced in the streets accompanied by a traditional band. People were a bit embarrassed when we asked them about it; apparently this custom harkens back to the days of sultans when women dancers were only appropriate for the harems and non. Turkish beautiful young boys were trained to dance for the honorable guests. They also performed additional services after the dance, hence the embarrassment. 

The mosque of Sultan Mehmed-Fateh (Mehmed the Great) beheld Achmet and myself basking in the sun outside its great portico of greystone, – two of us lying there without a care in the world, lost in some vague dream not to be expressed in human speech. The square of Mehmed-Fateh, which lies high above old Stamboul, consists of wide open spaces, which are frequented by men in cashmere caftans and great white turbans. In the centre stands one of the  largest and most deeply revered mosques in all Constantinople. The immense square is girt by mysterious walls, which are topped by a line of stone domes, like a row of beehives. These are softas’ dwellings, which no infidel may enter.

This quarter is a center of purely Eastern activity. Camels traverse it with leisurely gait, their bell tinkling monotonously. Dervishes sit there, deep in pious meditation, and yes no tinge of Western Europe entered it.

Aziyadé by Pierre Loti

Translated by Marjorie Laurie

Published by Amphora Egitim Yaynçilik, 

First published 2006

This Istanbul quarter and the mosque are named after the guy who conquered Constantinople for islam in the year 1453AD, effectively finishing the Byzantine Empire as we know it. To celebrate his accomplishment he decided to build a mosque in place of an old Byzantine church, then already in ruins. And because Mehmed II was the Conqueror of Constantinople, and in Arabic the conqueror is Fatih, he, his mosque and the part of town around it was named Fatih.  When the 1766 earthquake struck Constantinople it leveled the poor mosque to the ground leaving only three parts of it standing.
The ablutions fountain and three porticos – where Loti and Achmet spent their lazy sunny afternoons – of the courtyard plus the gate to the mosque Prayer Hall.  Immediately after catastrophic earthquake  Sultan Mustafa III called his Chief Imperial Architect and on the third attempt the Architect got it right. Light and spacious Prayer Hall is absolutely stunning! Unbearable lightness of engineering at its best.  And IT has already survived a quarter of millenia!!!

When I said before: “Seeing one mosque/temple/pagoda/church is like seeing them ALL!” I did not mean one per day, but with thousands (3,113 to be exact) of mosques  packed in the city of fifteen million, I am bound to see one mosque every day or at least every other day and to my big surprise I find them beautiful in infinite variations of the basic architectural principles.

Following Loti and his companion Achmet to the Fatih mosque I search not only for the place where they rested, but also the life they observed. While the tinkling of camel bells might be gone, the enormous market spilling over all the streets surrounding the mosque is the reflection of everyday life of Istanbul, probably not that different from the long days past. There are lovely rudy ripe tomatoes spilling over, orange oranges, green (!) mandarins, glistening pomegranates, huge bunches of grapes, mountains of nuts and sackfuls of chestnuts. Women bargain, children whine, men belt out prices. I would have welcomed an occasional snake charmer or a meditating dervish. Never mind, we find them at the Mevlevihanesi Muzesi (of the Sufi order of whirling dervishes), practically on our home’s doorstep. 

Giving him self over to the hands of God, the first dervish started to whirl, the hems of his skirts gently swishing with a separate life of their own. We all joined in and whirled until there remained around us nothing but Oneness. Whatever we received from the skies, we passed on to the earth, from God to people. Each and every one of us became a link connecting the Lover to the Beloved. When the music ceased, we jointly bowed to the essential forces of the universe: fire, wind, earth, and water, and the fifth element, the void. 

The Forty Rules of Love

By Elif Shafak

Published by Penguin Books 2012

On a Sunday afternoon in the dark museum hall we watch them whirl solemnly, somehow suspended between Heaven and Earth. There is only a few places in the world where one can witness this ancient ceremony and as much as I am uneasy that it is “performed” for the benefit of paying public, I do have to appreciate that it probably helps keep it alive and brings an introduction of a different, loving kind of Islam to a wide audience.

Mevlana or Rumi, a 13th century poet is one of the most read poets in the world, but not everyone that admires his poetry is aware that his love poems were not penned for his wife, but his Sufi companion dervish Shams el Tabriz, upon his death. Shams’ powerful friendship influenced and transformed Rumi from an Islamic scholar and  theologian to a Sufi mystic and poet. The novel by the most famous Turkish female author is an unusual double story of love: between Rumi and Shams and a Boston housewife Ella and Aziz, the author of a book about Rumi and Shams. 

While not always available in bookstores (the conservative government has a bone to pick with her feminist views and her historical take on the killings of Armenians), she is obviously popular with the local readers. We even find Shafak’s books in coffee shops.

Silence reigned until the Sultan spoke again. ‘Architect, you were ordered by my venerable father Sultan Selim to build a tomb for him. Weren’t you?’

´Indeed, your Highness. He wanted to be buried by the Hagia Sophia.’

´Build it, then. Start the work without delay. You have my permission to do what is necessary.’

‘Understood, my Lord.’

‘It is my wish to bury my brothers next to my father. Make the turbeh so grand that even the centuries on people can come and pray for their innocent souls.’

He paused and added in an afterthought, 

‘But do not make it too spectacular. It should be just right size.’

And this is how, in the month of December, an early day in Ramadan, in the year 1574, Sinan in his capacity as Chief Royal Architect, and his apprentice Jahan, who had no place at this meeting and yet was present, were given the task of constructing inside the gardens of Hagia Sophia a monument that was large and impressive enough to befit five princes, the brothers of Sultan Murad, but neither so large nor so impressive as to remind anyone of how they have been strangled, on his orders, on the night he ascended to the throne.

The Architect’s Apprentice 

By Elif Shafak

Published by Vikings 2014
This was a moment typical for a newly installed Sultan. Ordering his deaf-mute servants to strangle his own brothers with a silk rope, so no royal blood is spilled and to avoid future fights among relatives for the Sultan throne. The record was 19 brothers and half brothers. Often it was the scheming mother of the new sultan who arranged it. It must have been a strange childhood, being a prince.

The most famous Ottoman architect of all, Koca Mimar Sinan Aga was Imperial Architect of a few Sultans in a row thanks to his long life, passing away at the age of 98. Interestingly, he was born Armenian Christian, but was brought to Sultan’s Court by the Ottoman immigration program called Janissary  recruitment, where young capable Christian boys were yearly taken from their villages to be converted to Islam and become part of elite Janissary troops. Apart from building 81 mosques Sinan left behind even more tombs, hamams and bridges, about 300 architectural monuments in all. 

It is hard to keep up with all his exceptional works as well as the succession of sultans he served, so the novel about Sinan’s apprentice and elephant tamer Jahan, who comes from India to Istanbul as a boy, is a wonderful way to find our way through Turkish history and architecture. Sinan’s most famous work of art is Süleymaniye Mosque, but it is the smaller works that delight as well. It is said that he was hopelessly in love with Suleyman’s daughter Mihrimah and built her two mosques on opposite ends of Istanbul where you could see the sun set and moon rise on the very day of her birthday.

In Architect’s Apprentice the writer puts the apprentice in the role of unrequited lover, who in old age after many heartbreaks and loses finally leaves Istanbul to go back to India where he helps build the Taj Mahal. 

On my night stand in our place under the Galata Tower three books are still waiting to be digested.  Our one month Istanbul stay suddenly has only one week left. 

As we leave our anniversary dinner one evening I ask my wife,

“Are you ready to go home?”

“Yes”, she replies.

“Really?” I am taken aback. “But where, do you mean California or Prague?”

“No, no, home to our place bellow the Galata Tower!”

An Istanbul Birthday

If you could celebrate your birthday anywhere in the world, where would you choose? And if you could stay your whole birthday month, what city would it be in?

Perhaps romantic Paris comes to mind first, or cosmopolitan London? In October, my birth month, the fall foliage of Kyoto would be fabulous. The city that never sleeps – New York would be perfect for party animals.

Last year we celebrated Mirek’s birthday in Jerusalem and today I am celebrating mine in Istanbul. Even when we weren’t on permanent vacation as now, we had a tradition to plan a trip around a birthday. My 50th was spent with the gorillas in Uganda, but even more fun were the short surprise birthday trips that were planned by my husband, where I would only discover the destination when he handed me my boarding pass at the airport. After the first week of exploring this ancient city, I can say it was the perfect choice. Istanbul is most vibrant, fascinating, friendly, history rich, traditional and ultra modern. And making you feel right at home. It is surrounded by beautiful blue bodies of water and is one of a few big cities I don’t get hopelessly lost in. What is more, it is easy to get to and easily affordable. The crazy traffic can simply and effectively be circumvented by extensive, efficient, modern, clean, safe, and ridiculously cheap public transportation under and above ground. Not to talk about the network of ferries that go everywhere literally for cents per ride.

Of course the first thing you need if you will go somewhere for a month is a place to stay. Choosing the perfect place for your taste, shouldn’t be hard at all, there are so many hotels and apartments. Initially we thought we would get a place for a few days and then explore long term possibilities but when we came across this apartment on Airbn

and saw the long term stay discount offered, we jumped on it. On top of it being even nicer and more spacious than on the pictures, there are bonus features: the building is a beautiful restored historic building with lots of marble, yet chic new decor, we have a spacious terrace on the top overlooking the skyline of the Golden horn, we have a great receptionist that can answer any question and gives invaluable local advice, a cleaning lady, who does a quick clean everyday, including making our bed and a big clean every week. There’s air con, washer and dryer and the whole place is Green certified. And we have real closets where we can put our clothes, instead of living out of the suitcase. Can you believe our luck?

Just around the corner there are restaurants, coffee shops and boutiques galore, yet there are regular people walking down the streets all the time. I could just sit for hours at our breakfast nook table and watch the life bellow. There is a Church right next door, a small mosque and a few synagogues right around the corner. That means we get all sorts of sounds that you are protected from in double paned 20th story hotel windows. We hear the muezzins calling and the church bell tolling. In the morning the children laugh going to school and sing in their classes. At night lovers giggle and drunks yell and street cleaners roll their garbage cans. It is all part and parcel of living with the locals. Our new home is in the famous district of Galata, with tons of people coming to take a selfie or have their photo taken in front of Galata tower. I feel so cool and special walking past them in the evening with my groceries in the bag and a house key in my hand.

Not that we are cooking up a storm. We only make breakfast in the morning and even that not ever day. If we sleep in late, we simply go out for Turkish breakfast, because it is actually a lunch meal with dozens of small dishes of savory and sweet variations. I guess Turks like their breakfast too, because there is a whole street in Besiktas district called Breakfast Street. You can get a really cheap lunch or dinner meal (I could probably just live on burek and pudding) and you can get a great meal for cheap. You can of course easily find many, many high end 5 star restaurants, wine bars, cocktail roof tops etc.

Which makes me think, eating out every day, visiting mosques and exhibitions, going on ferry excursions – this is not really how locals live. We say I want to go somewhere and live like the locals. But it is not really true, right? Because the locals go to work every day and rush to grocery store and pick up their children from school, hep their parents or their daughter with the new baby. When I was home and living at the edge of San Francisco, I might have gone out to dinner once a week and maybe to an art exhibition or performance once every few months, I didn’t drive to Napa for wine tasting on a spur of a moment and I have never ever in all the years been to Alcatraz Island.

So while it is true that staying in Istanbul for a month we don’t really live the life of the locals, we can also afford to not be typical tourists rushing from one top 10 sight to another. Besides we have been to Istanbul before and have seen Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque and Topkapi, a few times even.

As a matter of fact my husband instituted a rule of Maximum one Mosque a Day. Occasionally I manage to slip in a church or a synagogue on top and he doesn’t complain too much. We can go look for the lesser known, uncrowned and sometimes entirely deserted sights. Some of the most memorable ones from the first week are:

-Theodosius cistern, a newly discovered 1600 years old water cistern, now a gallery and concert hall. -Mihrimah’s mosque, the light infused mosque of Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent’s favorite daughter. -SALT or former Ottoman Bank building, now the most elegant marble library, exhibit space and restaurant. We never go on guided tours and we only use public transportation. The later is really easy, you simply buy Istanbul card, load it with some Turkish Liras and you can hop on any metro, tram, bus or ferry. Not only can you avoid famous Istanbul traffic jams, the card gives you extra transport discounts so your ride is mostly somewhere between 35-80 cents. Yes, American cents. Or Euro cents, the exchange is pretty close.

On my birthday we went for a day trip taking a ferry to Prince’s Islands an hour and a half each way and paid $1.80 round trip per person. There was even music playing on the way back.Living like a local means finding your favorite coffee shop, where the barista knows you. In the city mostly drinking strong sweet tea or equally strong and sweet Turkish coffee finding a really good cappuccino is not that easy. Buying freshly baked bread in the morning, and local produce at the open air market. I am gorging on black figs and black olives and eating soft heavenly kaymak cheese with honey for breakfast.

Surprisingly we even found plenty of pork salami options at the Kadiköy market on the Asian side of Bosporus. No problem buying all sorts of beer from local Efes to imported brands, too. Guess who’s in heaven?

We are starting to feel like locals because we don’t need to look at maps as much anymore. We know which station comes after the previous one and which street is a shortcut home. We are starting to recognize the resident cats that have adopted certain steps or stores. They are being abundantly fed and spoiled by the locals.

Staying awhile means being able to stay and chat with friendly people. I have always found Turks very pleasant and hospitable people. Merhaba (Hello) and Teshekur ederim (Thank you very much) goes a very long way and brings a big smile to their face. These days I would only avoid the tourist bazaars and mosques at prayer times, not to spoil this impression. But everywhere else Turks are genuinely sweet and helpful. Some speak excellent English and many none at all, but all are happy to engage in a conversation. One should not get annoyed at repeated shouts of “Where are you from?” for this I think is a simple phrase of introduction for them. We were riding a bus during rush hour in a local neighborhood far from the tourist track and a young man was desperate to talk to us. He ended up using Google translate just so he could exchange a few words with us. At the end he showed us the picture of his with his two little kids and ended up with:Welcome to Istanbul from Sinan.

He was delighted when we told him he had a famous name of a famous architect Sinan. I have just finished reading a book called the Architect’s Aprentice by Elif Shafak, so I knew about the architect that built hundreds of spectacular mosques, tombs, and other monuments all over İstanbul in 16th century.

Having time on our hands we have also stocked up on novels that are set in Istanbul and are happily reading through factionalized history, art, politics and spying. As I mentioned my birthday was celebrated with an excursion to Prince’s Islands. In the summer they are a huge magnet for the Istanbulites, and I presume they get a fair share of foreign tourists as well, but on this day we were the only foreigners. Still, the crowds were surprisingly thick on the ferry because the island of Büyükada was part of Istanbul Bienale and lots of ladies who lunch came over from the city to enjoy the arts. We were glad to pop our head in as well, especially since some of the hundreds of lovely Victorian houses were exhibition spaces and we could go and see these gorgeous buildings from the inside. It was surprisingly warm for October 2nd and we did bring our swimming suits with us. At the end we didn’t swim, just sat at the edge of the sea, enjoying the views and a quiet delicious birthday lunch.I plan to continue celebrating my birthday and life every single day in Istanbul. I don’t need presents or parties, just a chance to uncover many new things and secret corners. May I be abundantly protected from evil eye and other misfortunes on this noble mission!

Trotting Through Tusheti

Deep down on my Bucket List of Places&Experiences from since I remember had been a horseback riding adventure. But not just a ride on the beach fantasy. No, a bigger, longer adventure, like cattle herding in Argentina, or Mongolia’ steppe on horseback, or an African horse safari.

When young I have done a lot of horseback riding, even dressage and parkour, so I am pretty sure in the saddle. I also made sure our girls as kids had horseback riding lessons and whenever there were opportunities to introduce them to the joy of riding out in nature, I did so. My best memory of riding together was in South Africa when we went to a private reserve near Stellenbosch and galloped amongst zebras and giraffes. Being on a horse you have a better, off the ground perspective, but what is even more wonderful is that the animals don’t see you as a threatening human, but just a strange animal, so you can get really close to them.

Different horse breeds also give you a different experience. At this point I don’t really want to get on a spoiled, finicky, oversensitive Western horse any more, because I had such fabulous experiences with other breeds. Galloping on the beach on a Berber horse in Morocco is absolutely thrilling, and so in a different way climbing up a steep mountain path on a small, incredibly surefooted Tusheti horse.

Last year I had such a horse for an afternoon in the Caucasus when my husband and I travelled around Republic of Georgia. It was definitely the highlight of the trip for me and when we returned from the Tusheti mountains to the winery where we stayed, I mentioned my horse dream to the owners. “I wish I could spend a week crossing the Tusheti mountains on a horse.”

“And why not?”, said the winemaker. “I have a number of horses up in the mountains and I can have one of my cousins take you. I only wish I could go with you, for we, Tushetians, are crazy about horses. Horses are in our blood. We keep herds of horses, just because we love them.”

That close relationship showed in the way the horses were treated in Tusheti. All of them, without exception, looked healthy, well fed and not afraid of humans. On the opposite, a horse would happily approach you on its own to be touched, instead of flinching in fear if you extended your hand. There were horses everywhere in Tusheti: in the villages, pastures, or just roaming freely around the mountains. Some were used as transport animals to bring supplies to far away villages where no cars could reach. Even if the equipment was simple, much care was taken that the horses were comfortable and their hides protected by layers of homemade woolen padding. I very much appreciate that as there are many places in the world where horses, but especially their relatives – donkeys are terribly maltreated. Some horses were used for the local cowboys to herd the sheep up the mountain in springtime and down the mountain at the beginning of fall. Even the littlest children were fearless around horses and clamoring to be close and kids as young as 7 or 8 could be seen trotting around bareback and alone.

On our first trip to Georgia, by a strange and wonderful coincidence we met a well travelled and adventurous Czech couple in Georgian Svaneti mountains. When I mentioned to them my amazing horse experience and my dream of going back for longer, they said, “We really want to see the Tusheti mountains and we have horses at home and we would be thrilled to go riding with you in the mountains.”

Well, people say one thing, but then when it comes to it…

No, this time everything fell in place easily and perfectly. I even got to borrow riding breeches and a riding helmet from my new friend Miša. We decided that we were too old to ride all day and camp at night, so we came up with an alternative itinerary where we would stay in two different guest houses and make shorter day trips to various villages in different valleys. And so it happened that a year later the three of us (my husband not being a horse guy and having had back surgery) flew to Tbilisi, jumped in a waiting car and presented ourselves at the winery again. The owner checked our itinerary, tweaked it somewhat and called his cousin to choose the best horses for us when we show up in the mountains.

We hired the same reliable driver with a 4 wheel drive van that Mirek and I had the year before and my friends Miša and Jirka experienced the thrill of driving one of the craziest (and supposedly the most dangerous) unpaved roads in the world over the 2826 m high, Abano pass, this time mysteriously wrapped in fog. We brought along a few bottles of excellent Georgian cognac as Miša is very afraid of heights. As is the custom on that road we toasted the many people who fell to their death, the last victims just a month before with a lousy truck full of families driven by an inexperienced young driver.

The drive was easier than our autumnal ascend the year before, if hotter. With the summer still lingering, we only encountered one flock of sheep coming down the mountain, bringing the car to a standstill with the torrent of thick white wool flowing by. On the other side of the pass we went straight to Upper Omalo and the place we stayed at the year before -Gordilla Guest House, where we were welcomed like family. It might not seem much, but within limited competition it has a number of advantages. It is in the middle of the little community with the view of the impressive defensive towers. It is only a year old with bright, if simple rooms, with new beds, private bathrooms with hot showers run on solar panels and it has the best food served on a terrace that overlooks the little square where local life happens. It even has USB phone chargers and a decent WiFi. Impressive for such a remote location!

Our horse guide came to introduce himself and we were a bit concerned as he looked awfully young, but he had a smattering of English (in the manner of: road – no good – horse) and the horses and equipment looked decent. My friends used to the fancy saddles were a bit taken aback, but soon they were glad to have the extra padding after hours spent in the saddle. My reins weren’t even leather, but a simple road, but the horses were so well behaved and cooperative that it really didn’t matter. Only once I had to really use the reins to hold back my horse at a steady galloping pace while our valiant leader let his horse loose and went flying like an invading horde of Gingis Khan!

So yes, horse back riding dream…did it come true? Pretty much. We spent enough time in the saddle that we felt soreness in all sorts of body parts. At times we felt as pioneering explorers coming to the villages that time and people forgot. Some were at the border of Dagestan and some at the border of Chechnya, but all in spectacular settings. The only notion of the border being a hand made sign…We had the freedom to gallop to our hearts’ content. The most memorable was galloping above and along a merrily flowing river Pirikiti Alazan, surrounded by tall mountains, flocks of sheep and herds of curious horses. We let our horses munch on fresh green grass and drink from clear mountain streams, cold rivers, and tall waterfalls that were flowing everywhere. We sat high up in the saddle gobsmacked with 360 degrees views while golden eagles flew in the blue skies. If the year before I reveled in the yellows and reds of the fall, this year the summer meadows rich with many familiar Alpine flowers of Caucasus variations in full bloom were a colorful sight. We certainly reveled in the admiring looks of some other travelers that we passed on our way. We did wish that we did not have to share the unpaved roads with others, some cars and a few very loud and annoying motorcycles. But the mountainsides on the most were far too steep to take shortcuts through the woods. The few times we did we marveled at the stamina and sure-footedness of our steeds climbing up the rocks. Only once I felt we were taking a dangerous risk when we rode to the village of Kvavlo on a path so narrow and steep that I seriously thought of just closing my eyes and holding on for dear life while the horse found his way down to the river on his own. Of course, once he did and we crossed the stream and were in the sacred village where a sheep had been sacrificed that day, it was all seen as a thrilling adventure. Still, I was glad we took a different even steeper, but wider path back, even if I had to dismount and walk leading the horse behind me. For me an ideal trip should have nature, culture and people. We could not have wished for a more majestic and untouched nature and the people were so welcoming and generous. It is not unusual to be invited to partake of a juicy watermelon or a glass of thick red Georgian wine. I was also very pleased to meet dr. Irakli, living in the village of Bochorna, the highest settlement in Europe at 2345m, who has been ministrating to villagers all his life. We rode to the village of Bochorna and tied our horses by the one inhabited house.

“Dr. Irakli, I presume!” I greeted the man with white hair.

“Niet doktor, starec Irakli,” he responded in Russian. (Not doctor, old man Irakli).

“Niet starec, slavni Irakli,” I retorted. (Not old, famous Irakli). A happy smile spread on his face. I just wish we had a better supply of words so I could hear more fascinating stories. I did get the gist of the one where he went to administer to a patient on his home made skies in the winter and got buried in an avalanche. He lead me to the holy place- kheti, the shrine with white stone above the village. These white stones of all shapes and sizes are a strong presence everywhere and a reminder of the old religion that predates Christianity and coexists with it to this day. they are also used in construction of tall towers, to protect from bad spirits and from cracks in construction. Legend says if you remove the white stones, the whole tower will collapse.

With the help of the locals I found some wonderful stones with pictographs on house. This one is connected to the story of Jason and the Argonauts, who came to Georgia in search of the Golden Fleece. As always, the myths reveal a lot about the real history and life of people in olden times. While the hero story of a band of brave men overcoming impossible challenges, slaying dragons etc. is interesting in its own right (we all love a good fantasy), I like to dig deeper. These myths tell of common method of fratricide to get the throne and of powerful women priestesses/sorceresses without whose help the brawny hero could not succeed. In this case it is Medea who helps Jason after she falls in love with him through the meddling of Goddess Hera. She even kills her own brother to be able to escape with Jason to his homeland, bearing him many children only to be discarded for a younger princess. Her revenge is swift, sending a poisoned wedding dress to her rival. I just wonder why the heck didn’t she send a poisoned tuxedo to Jason?

As for the Golden Fleece – the historical fact lies in the gold collecting method of people in Georgian mountains by putting a sheepskin (fleece) into the rivers and trapping gold particles in the wool. Could it have happened right here? The Dartlo village tower you see was our home for the night. Not as fancy as our Omalo accommodations,but a good jumping point to the most impressive mountain views of the whole trip in the last village of Girevi.

On the ride in we met fierce looking children.

They were celebrating in great fun the Color Day, the day summer colors change into Autumn colors. The children go into the woods to pick wild blueberries and paint their faces with the juices. I wonder what pagan ritual that is based on? The influence of orthodox Christianity is not that strong in the mountains and the churches are very few and far between.

And they of course heavily borrow from the mythology of yore.

Saint George slaying the dragon or is it Jason? On a beautiful horse no less.

Our own horse adventure of mythical proportions coming to an end, all I can say is that truly, madly:

Entranced by Transylvania

We left you with the love story of a princess and a violin player that met at the Royal Court in Sinaia, held in a magical castle in Transylvania, the epitomy of Romance itself, beautiful Peles castle.

They were introduced by a very romantic woman, the poet queen Carmen Sylva, the wife of King Carol I. Since her husband was rather cold and they became even more estranged after the death of their only daughter, 3 year old princess Marie, she turned her romantic dreams towards others. She encouraged a love affair between the King’s adopted nephew and heir apparent Ferdinand and one of her favorite ladies in waiting. For that both women were exiled for years from the court and young Ferdinand was sent to Europe to look for a suitable bride. The queen’s romantic name Carmen Sylva was her nom de plum, her real name being Pauline Elisabeth Ottilie Luise of Wied. Not very Romanian sounding, eh?

That’s the thing with the Royal House of Romania. The Kingdom of Romania was pretty short lived and ruled by a royal family that was a branch of the German Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen dynasty. The kingdom existed from 1881, when a German prince Karl was proclaimed king Carol I of Romania, until 1947, when the last king, Michael I of Romania was forced to abdicate. Still in the short 66 years there was plenty of romances, intrigues and, scandals. And sadly, not many happy marriages.

I was never interested in royals and couldn’t really understand people’s obsession with tabloid news of royal families, but now that I have spent hours and hours digging through the life of the Romanian Royal family I can feel a certain satisfaction of a commoner seeing how despite privilege and money they are all pretty screwed up and not particularly happy. So, when Ferdinand had to give up his Romanian love, he dutifully found a suitable bride in 17 year old granddaughter of Britain’s Queen Victoria, Marie. The start of their married life was not easy under the stern control of King Carol I, but Marie dutifully produced children: prince Carol first, and then five more. Still, their relationship matured only to one based on a cordial friendship and respect which ended up giving Marie a lot of positive influence on her husband, when he finally became King Ferdinand I and he had to decide on which side Romania will fight in WWI. It is said she took many lovers and that some of her children were not fathered by her husband, though he helpfully claimed paternity. The next king, their first son Carol II really made a lot of women unhappy. Passionately and in opposition to the rules and his duties he fell in and out of love. Already as a mere teenager he produced two out of wedlock children and then in secret married a general’s daughter with whom he had a son. When that marriage was annulled against his will, he married an exiled Princess Helen of Greece and Denmark and had another son – Michael, but then took up a series of mistresses. Left the country with one and renounced his royal succession rights, putting his son Michael I on the throne at the tender age of 6. Only to change his mind three years later, return and take the throne for himself and proceed to make his ex wife’s life most miserable. Only to be deposed 10 years later with now adult Michael becoming king in the worst of times during WWII.

When Michael was forced to abdicate after the war, he had just been engaged to princess Anne etc. etc. of Bourbon-Parma. In exile and without means and despite opposition from the Catholic pope (who wouldn’t give dispensation to a catholic to marry an Eastern Orthodox) they married in Athens and seem to have been one of the Royal exceptions. They lead a relatively simple life and were married more than 60 years raising 5 daughters. Maybe that is the secret- stay away from court and titles and royal intrigue.

When it comes to intrigue no one was embroiled in it more deeply than famous 15th century Wallachian Voivode (=Count) Dracula. Notice I did not say Romanian, as at his time there was no Romania as of yet. Vlad III Dracula, known as Vlad the Impaler is often considered one of the most important rulers in Wallachian history and a national hero of Romania. He was the second legitimate son of Vlad II Dracul. His father had won the moniker “Dracul” for his membership in the Order of the Dragon, a militant fraternity, established to fight the Ottoman Turks. Younger Vlad was born in the Transylavian Saxon town of Sighisoara (then in the Kingdom of Hungary). You can easily imagine him stalking around those cobblestone streets at night in his black cape. But it would have to be a very small cape as he only stayed there with his family for a few years. I can also imagine his grandma and her sisters looking just about like this in their traditional dress. As a teenager he and his younger brother were held as political hostages by the Ottoman Turks sultan Murad II for four years. It wasn’t a bad existence at all, they were schooled and entertained. While his brother became friends with sultan’s son and converted, Vlad didn’t take lightly to his imprisonment.

When his father was killed by the Hungarians, Vlad made it back home and exacted revenge, embarking on a life of constantly fighting internal and external enemies, especially the Ottoman Turks, who promoted his younger brother Radu the Beautiful. His legendary imaging cruelty is either exaggerated by his enemies or excused by his supporters as a necessary measure of a ruthless Tyrian bringing security and order to his homeland.

Irish writer Bram Stoker borrowed his name and snippets of fact and fairytales to create his famous supernatural blood sucking vampire Count Dracula.

Bran Castle, a great fortresslocated in a mysterious place in the midst of the Carpathian Mountains was chosen as the nocturnal residence of Count Dracula, an ideal and romantic framework for Bram Stoker’s novel. Nobody should be surprised that in real life neither Count Vlad nor Mr. Stoker ever set foot in this castle. Nevertheless thousands of tourists do every day, proving that the power of imagination is real and knows no limits. The more incredible, the more likely the crowds will buy in and pay up! I never read the novel nor seen any of the 200 movies made on the theme of Dracula. It is enough to watch the daily news! Lately it scares the shit out of me. I really don’t enjoy horror movies and find it hard to understand why people seek them out. I don’t like to be scared or have bad dreams. But I don’t mind a good vampire spoof movie and one of the best musicals I ever saw was indeed about Dracula.

Because of Mr. Stoker the western world commonly associates Transylvania with vampires. How unfair, for Transylvania is so much more. This cauldron surrounded by Carpathian mountains boiled for centuries with competing tribes and nations leaving behind a rich history of art, architecture, technical innovation, music and food. Magyars (Hungarians) and Saxons (Germans), Székelys, Ottomans, Poles, Moldovans, Romanians, Gypsies (Romas) and Jews contributed to and competed for the heart of Transylvania.

The name itself Transylvania (“beyond woods” in Latin) speaks of the bucolic beauty. The alternate name, the German Siebenbürgen,   meaning “seven castles” is also used by many neighboring nations.

But wait how do you get seven German castles in Romania? It is not like Romania is even close to Germany! Well, if you are a Hungarian King in the 12th century trying to defend the southeastern border of your kingdom from the foreign invaders trotting in from Central Asia, you look for help far and wide and to the best. And the best at building sturdy fortifications were German Saxons. Incidentally they were also good at mining, and that didn’t hurt, either. Deep in Turda salt mines we realized one does not have to be an engineer to admire the beauty left behind after all the salt has been extracted over hundreds of years of mining. Give the Saxons special rights (whoever ever said no to paying less taxes?) and new opportunities and they will come. “Go East, my Saxon son!” must have been the cry. And through the centuries they mined and they built walls and villages and fortified churches and towns. Seven of them, amongst those the most beautiful Sibiu (Hermannstadt), Brasov (Kronstadt) and Sighisoara (Schässburg). Most of the Germans left Romania after WWII and those who didn’t got stuck under the communist rule and when that finally collapsed, they also took of for Germany and Austria.

At the entrance to the Sibiu’s main Lutheran church tower we met a German lady who volunteered as a local guide. In retirement she came back to live modestly in her beloved home town. She kindly let us conquer few hundred stairs to reveal a beautiful view of Sibiu against Fagaras Mountains shared only with resident pigeons. Looking down we could see all the houses looking back at us with their window-eyes. In a friendly, not creepy way at all. In the town of Sighisoara we strolled trough an expansive and melancholy old graveyard with hundreds of graves of Saxons living in this town for centuries. The Hungarians have left their architectural mark in Transylvania with the Castle of Corvinus (or Hunyeadora) There are a number of legends associated with the castle, the most prominent among them being that Vlad the Impaler spent some seven years in the dungeons of Corvin Castle. In fact it was 12 years at Corvin’s large renaissance castle in Visegrád.There were a numbers of prison towers and the dungeons were connected to a bear pit in which prisoners were disposed in afterwards.

Nice Hungarian contribution, indeed, but what about Romanians? Well, it seems that Romanians were sprinkled throughout the territories, but largely sheep herding peasants with little power, except if you consider Wallachia and Moldavia as having alongside Romanian population the nobility represented by such men as Dracula and Stephan the Great respectively.

In the town of Alba Iulia we were startled to come accross an excavated Roman (no, not a typo missing –ian) town. Here the Roman Empire successfully fought fierce Dacian tribes and under Emperor Trajan established the seat of the XIII Gemini Legion. While Romanian is based on old Roman (Latin) language, it has also been influenced by Slavic and Germanic languages and the exact origin of Romanian is still disputed in academia. For me the richness of the Romanian people lies not in castles and palaces but in their colorful, intricate, handmade and very well preserved and cherished everyday folk art.

And there is no better place but the ASTRA Museum and endless skansen on the outskirts of Sibiu. We lucked out that we visited at a time of a festival, so the huge outdoor area with rescued and restored traditional dwellingsfrom all over Romania was particularly lively and full of happy people in beautiful traditional clothes. Some were singing, dancing, and playing instruments and some cooking and npassing out free traditional foods. A great send off from our favorite Balkan country.

Reminiscing In Romania

Leaving the dismal disappointments of Moldova for shimmering hope of Romania, with pain in our hearts, knowing full well we will never ever return, we were very much aware that reality rarely matches your expectations. Fully recovered from food poisoning and freshly stuffed with juicy apricots and peaches bought from a sweet roadside vendor in pouring rain, we were ready to recalibrate our expectations on the other side of the border and crossed the river Prut back to Romania. 

And when you least expect it, good things happen. We were entering a different Romania, not at all like what we saw in Romania Part 1 – the Black Sea Coast and the Danube Delta. No wonder as historically it was indeed a different world all together, for centuries part of “good old” Austro-Hungarian Empire.

One feels sorry for Romanian school kids having to learn their country’s history. The patchwork of tribes, languages, invasions, intrusions, meddling and local feuds is overwhelming! We entered the region of Bukovina in northern Romania along the border with Ukraine and we expected to find yet another backwater area. Well, surprise, surprise! The late afternoon sun was shining, roads were unexpectedly good, our navigational system started working again, and the hotel booked just a few minutes before our arrival was way above our expectations, recalibrated or not, and so was its restaurant with impeccable service. The array of beers and the name –  Sonnenhof Hotel should have been a good indication of what was to come.

It has to be stressed again how much the atmosphere in the car and overall mood on this expedition is, unfortunately, dependent on how well the old bastard like me is fed and watered, the frequency and quality of espresso drinks served, the proper welcomes in the hotel lobby by good looking young ladies speaking good English, how he is ushered to his room with orthopaedic quality bed, serving his back very well and finally how thick is the foam in  his bath tub full of hot water. Did I mention that the latest available edition of New York Times properly ironed for his comfortable spa reading is awaiting him as well? Or at least fast speed WiFi so he can read it on his phone.  

With all of this delivered daily we discovered an area full of stunning beauty and, as a rich froth on my cappuccino, absolutely spectacular churches and monasteries, I never heard of, until my companion dragged me to them!

They are sprinkled in the vicinity of Suceava and as they are quite well known UNESCO recognized tourist attractions, we chose to start with a small one, where we only had to contend with two or three other visitors. Biserica (=church) Luca Arbore was named after its patron Luca Arbore, who had it built over the summer of the year 1503 A.D. (yup, we could only dream nowadays about such short delivery times of builders) after he had defended Suceava from Polish troops for his king Stephan the Great. As he was often partaking of such skirmishes he intended the church to be his burial place and dedicated it to the beheading of John the Baptist.

How strange that he and his sons were soon thereafter falsely accused of treason and beheaded as well. 

As you may know, in the olden times the word of God by the order of Roman-Catholic Church could have been spread by the priests in Latin only until Protestants, with Martin Luther as the main culprit, came up with a novel idea of spreading it in the language the local people could actually understand. That meant preaching and translating the Bible into different languages. And if the locals could read neither Latin nor any other alphabet, why not make the bible and the most interesting and educational stories (like this one) in the format we call now comics. Violence was popular in the media even then!

The paintings were executed in “al fresco” technique – if you think of your favorite pasta dish, you are absolutely wrong! Stop laughing and listen!

Hence everybody, even those who skipped school and reading classes, knew what was written in the scripture and lived in fear of God! Having all the churches painted inside and out, these comics were very inclusive, so someone like me – the sinners – would usually be left standing outside of the church door, could still get the most important lesson of what punishments awaited me as the outside was richly and in great detail decorated with scenes from hell with a river of fire and poor naked buggers being tortured by devils.

In the meantime the better members of the parish could make it inside and see the fancier parts and the ladies could check the latest fashion of the rich and famous.
What a huge step in democratization of the religious access in the history of human mankind before Gutenberg’s invention of the press!

It was interesting to note that visitors in the centuries past were just as bad at wanting to leave their names behind stretched on the walls expect that this sort of vandalism wasn’t done in secret but with a lot of precision. Here a certain CK dated his visit in 1845 by the painting of the Fall of Constantinople. Many of the richly decorated churches and monasteries were built by king Stephen and his illegitimate son Petru Rareș like Voronets and Moldovita. Those were more popular with the crowds, triggering a flood of Chinese and other guided tours in buses. Encountering those selfie yielding maniacs I felt like running away and screaming “After you saw one (meaning monasteries, not tourists!), you’ve seen them all!”Fortunately, the cultural and artistic director of our trip was well aware of my mind’s fragility and cultural immersion limitations. She diversified our itinerary to allow drives through the green countryside into the Romanian mountains to rehash my sweet memories of trekking there in early 1970s. We undertook a few short hikes into my old haunts enjoying beautiful Carpathian Range now without huge backpacks, just chasing the best shots of local wildlife (they say there are 3000 bears in Romania) and
less wild animals and also the local tribe’s way of life and produce with merciful supportof newly built ski lifts. Which leads me to the next question:

What happened to me that I was suddenly requiring so much comfort in our travel arrangements? I was not always demanding like this. Looking at old photos from my mountaineering years my meals were not served on a silver plate. I was my own chef warming simple packages of dry soup, or rice and baconon a gas cooker fixed between three rocks. My bed was made of thin foam separating my then not so spoiled derrière from the freezing ground! And what about my hot tub? A mountain lake full of near freezing crystal clear water was enough to take care of the aforementioned body part.

I guess, the wear and tear of my body and psyche after the many years of physical and mental abuse and more available travel funds made me lazy and demanding and definitely not a better human being. While I was turning the wheel of our car and pressing the pedal to the metal (being reminded frequently there is something called a speed limit), my wife was exerting a gentle (OK, sometime not so gentle) gentrifying guidance so I could (not always) do better and see there is more to life than reaching a mountain top with the last bottle of beer still unopened in my backpack.

Our zigzag travel from the northeastern to southwestern corners of this large and interesting land open my eyes to countless places I missed on my Romanian conquests before. In Maramures I was introduced to stunning soaring wooden churches and monasteries covered by shingles. The complex of Bârsana monastery in the hidden Ima Valley was a total surprise and a revelation in wood. If ever there was a location Games of Thrones should have used for filming, this was it. Every angle revealed a new beautiful view of fantasy land. We agreed that our favorite was the structure we dubbed the Twirling Church with a double skirt to boot. The complex is newly established and ruled by a stern looking abbess Filofteia. In a nearby Dragomiresti we came across a new construction. A small group of skillful village master builders working with a part time architect with the help of just one crane was building a new wooden church. We were lucky to get a personal guided tour. It is a remarkable undertaking to do this by hand, do not forget the church spires can easily top one hundred feet (30m) of height! While master builder explained the building process, the priest explained the iconography behind the parts, which looked like a novel information to the builder, too.
The supporting column is the symbol of Christ on the cross himself. As per the Book of Revelations: I am Alpha and Omega. Alpha are his feet, Omega his head and on the sides are the nails.

To diversify further my Romanian cultural enrichment my wife introduced me to a home of the most famous Romanian genius – violinist, pianist and composer George Enescu. After overcoming serious navigational difficulties we finally arrived at a small villa, now converted to a museum.
Enescu found a forested lot close to the railways station (because he loved trains and their whistle), designed his villa and paid for it making big bucks as an international violin prodigy. He was also the teacher of famed American violinist Yehudi Menuhin. He said of his teacher that Enescu was “the Absolute by which I judge all others… the most extraordinary human being, the greatest musician and the most formative influence I have ever experienced.”

He spent in his villa a few good years with his muse Maria Tescanu Rosetti, known in the Romanian Royal Court as Princess Maruca Cantacuzino, a good friend of Queen Marie of Romania. He met her at the royal court in Sinaia and fell madly in love with her, despite her being very married and very difficult. He had lived with her for many years, married her finally in 1939, moving between France and Romania. Unfortunately for this poor chap, the end of WWII came to Romania with Red Army tanks in 1944.  Enescu was chased out of his homeland by the communist government into an illness and financial difficulties fraught exile in Paris (better than Siberia, I have to say). 
And lo and behold not far from his old home, we had a 

chance to listen live to his compositions during the annual musical festival in Brasov. How fun!

But Brasov is in Transylvania and famous Dracula’s Transylvania most certainly deserves its own post.