Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Mosque hopping in Istanbul

So you have read my impressions of the Blue Mosque in one of my recent posts about Istanbul. It's the most famous, the most astonishing, but  also the most touristic of mosques in Istanbul. The Blue Mosque is for sure the most impressive of the mosques in the city, but it's also the busiest and the one where its purpose almost gets lost among the endless lines of tourists who queue, take off their shoes, ask for a scarf, take pictures, and so on.

Blue Mosque Courtyard
Courtyard of the Blue Mosque
Mosques in Istanbul are free to enter even for non-Muslim people. It's not like this everywhere: in Morocco, for example, it is not permitted due to a different interpretation of a sura in the Quran. During my five days in Istanbul I also visited Süleymaniye Mosque, and Rüstem Pasha Mosque, and every experience was unique. If from the outside Istanbul mosques look a bit underwhelming, with their grey colour and overall similar appearance, the grounds and the interior are always a surprise.

Thursday, 19 December 2013

Glendalough, Ireland

Glendalough is one of my favourite day trips from Dublin. It is a village in County Wicklow, and the settlement of a very old monastery. There is a lot of history around the place, but Glendalough is above all about atmosphere. It has huge Celtic crosses, the ruins of the monastery, and the fascinating round tower. The setting is the great strength of Glendalough: green hills, greenery, and not one but two peaceful and scenic lakes (Glendalough means "valley between two lakes").

The Celtic cemetery in Glendalough

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

4 reasons why I am head over heels in love with Paris

The architecture blew me away. The impeccable style of the elegant buildings, the astonishing and perfect symmetries of Notre-Dame de Paris and Sainte Chapelle, as well as the general harmony of most of the city: in Paris it is hard to find buildings that clash one against the other. I loved the sloping roofs and the elegant railings in the buildings of central Paris, but also the stained windows of Gothic churches and the innovative architecture of some of the most famous museums, such as the Musée d'Orsay and the Louvre.

Louvre seen from Tuileries Gardens, Paris
The Louvre building seen from the Tuileries gardens

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

An artsy itinerary around Campo Santo Stefano in Venice

Walking around Campo Santo Stefano is certainly relaxing. In this area of Venice there are interesting exhibitions and art galleries, as well as beautiful palazzi, and many curious things to discover. Many occasional tourists pass here on their way to St. Mark's Square, but they seem absent-minded, so focused on checking out Rialto Bridge and the Palazzo Ducale that they forget to take their noses out of their maps and guidebooks to admire the rest the city has to offer.

View from the Accademia Bridge
View from the Accademia Bridge (picture by Koalie on flickr)
The itinerary starts in Ponte dell'Accademia, which is one of the four bridges on the Grand Canal. It is full of locks because in the last few years lovers have found it a romantic place to demonstrate their love. The view is really a classic of Venetian sightseeing. The church of Santa Maria della Salute that you see from here was built in the 17the century to ask the virgin Mary to put an end to the plague that had spread in the city.

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

The Bosphorous trip: what a disappointment!

There are times during your travels when you just feel you have to do something. It was the case for the Bosphorous trip I took during my 5-day stay in Istanbul: guidebooks and travel bloggers keep saying that no trip to Istanbul is complete without a trip to the Bosphorous. I must say that I agree that it helps to move away from Sultanahmet and Beyoğlu in order to understand the morphology of a city like Istanbul, but the Bosphorous trip kind of let me down.

This doesn't mean that you shouldn't do it, but simply that I didn't connect with the sights as strongly as I did with the rest of the city.

view of Rumeli Hisari plus bridge
Rumeli Hisari and the Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge on the Bosphorous

First of all, I was worried about the touristy side of the Bosphorous trip. I had imagined a trip in a ferryboat used by locals, so I opted for the longer Bosphorous trip on the public ferry, which arrives almost at the end of the strait and then comes back, stopping at both the Anatolian and the European sides along the way. The other option is a private boat tour that goes closer to the shore but perhaps is more touristic. I was planning to make a couple of stops along the way and come back with a bus, like many guidebooks suggested, so I bought a one-way ticket (15TL).
First of all, I arrived at Eminönü, the same dock I used to go to Üsküdar on the Asian side of the city. The boat was waiting there for the passengers to board. Everybody was a tourist, to the point that they were selling audio guides. I bought one, but it was a mistake: it didn't work very well and I manually had to click on the building I saw from the boat, trying to guess basically.
The famous yalis, the wooden houses on the waterside, were nice but I couldn't understand which ones were fake and which ones were real, perhaps restored. I had imagined much bigger palaces on the shores, but then I am spoiled because I live in Venice. The only one I recognized from the boat was Dolmabahçe palace, in the neighbourhood of Beşiktaş. The landscape is pleasant, but nothing memorable.
Yali on the Bosphorous
Yali on the Bosphorous

No information was given on timetables, on what were the best attractions to stop at. We decided to visit Dolmabahçe Palace, because Beylerbeyi (an Imperial Ottan summer residence built in the 1860s) was closing early that day. I had planned to stop at Rumeli Hisari, a fortress on the European side, but after seeing it from the boat I concluded that it wasn't that special. I had hoped to see the famous pink flowers in bloom but I guess it was too late. Maybe I was wrong about Rumeli Hisari, who knows!
We got off at Sariyer. Nothing to do there: I had expected a quaint little town or a fishing village, but what I found was a nondescript town with some waterside restaurants. We ate in a big restaurant with a terrace on the Bosphorous. I think my friend and I ordered a simple kebab, but they were very slow to serve us. After lunch our adventure on the minibus started! Instead of a regular bus, some girls (who were very excited about practicing their English with us, which made me think that this part of the Bosphorous doesn't get many tourists) told us it was faster to take the minibus. So we boarded this private-looking minivan that drove at a crazy speed towards our next destination.
Why I was disappointed with Dolmabahçe Palace
When we finally arrived in front of the palace, we found a line at the closed gate. The ticket office was also closed, and there was nobody who could explain what was happening.  Nobody seemed to speak English, not the guards, and  strangely not the visitors lining for the palace. We assumed that the ticket office had closed for the day and that no more visitors were allowed in the palace, as a sign seemed to explain. Thanks to my persistence, we waited ten minutes  more in front of the closed gates, and somebody in the queue was kind enough to explain that the palace was free for the day, but that everybody had to wait for their turn to enter.

DOlmabahçe Palace 3
Looks closed, doesn't it?
After the guards inexplicably allowed a larger group to enter, we made it through the gates. What we saw was a park with a clock tower in a style that looked almost baroque or rococo. The visit to the actual palace is allowed only through a guided tour. There are guided tours in Turkish and English. We waited for a tour in English to start and we were finally allowed in the palace. Before entering, we had to wear some plastic bags over our shoes since most of the palace is carpeted. My feet immediately felt hot and sweaty, it was very uncomfortable and I couldn't wait for the tour to end.
Before entering Dolmabahçe
With bags on my feet

The tour guide spoke English in a funny way, and sometimes it was hard to understand what he was saying. Unfortunately, the tour was rushed (about 35-40 minutes), but there is no other way to see Dolmabahçe Palace. The palace itself is an interesting mixture of Ottoman architecture and Western influence,  with an evident penchant for the  rococo style, and lots of crystal. At times it felt tacky and showy, rather than opulent. Also, horribly dusty. On a more positive note, the crystal chandelier in the Ceremonial Hall is really impressive. The guide pointed out that it's not true that it was gifted by Queen Victoria, as it's written in some guidebooks, but the Sultans paid for all of it. As a matter of fact, the sultans fell into debt in order to build this palace.
We also visited the bedroom where Kamal Ataturk died, as well as the harem and the most luxurious rooms in the palace. Photos were not allowed inside, so this is the only one I managed to take. It is a photo of the chandelier in the entrance hall of the palace.

Dolmabahçe Palace 1
The only picture I managed to take inside the palace

Some parts of the palace were inexplicably bare, others luxuriously furnished and decorated. Overall, it gave me the impression of a decadent empire. As a matter of fact, Dolmabahçe Palace was built in  the middle of the 19th century when the Ottoman Empire was losing its grip. It remained the residence of the Ottoman Sultans until the end of the Caliphate in the 1920s, when it became the summer presidential residence of the republic. This is why Ataturk died here, in 1938.
Overall, it wasn't as mind-blowing as Topkapi Palace, but since I didn't pay the entrance fee I cannot complain. On a normal day I think you'd pay 40 TL (€14,60/$19,60) for a joint ticket (Salamlik + Harem), it's way too much. I'd pay about half for that visit.
Dolmabahçe Palace 2
Dolmabahçe Palace

The silver lining is that I learned something more about Turkish history, another piece of the puzzle let's call it. I think it's important to see Dolmabahçe Palace  in order to understand the evolution of Turkish taste. Maybe just don't expect to like it madly!

Have you got any suggestions for a more satisfying Bosphorous trip? Were you luckier than me during your trip?
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