On the Road Again

Italy began lifting its lockdown restrictions in mid-May, and in early June the ban on traveling between Italian regions was removed.  That didn’t mean you could immediately go anywhere – flights to Sicily, where we had originally planned to go, won’t resume until the end of the month.  But the uneven end of the lockdown provided a golden opportunity to visit popular sites at a time when not not many foreign tourists would be around.

So as soon as we could, we were on the road again.

Venice

When we arrived in Venice, on a Wednesday evening, the city was so empty as to be almost desolate. We have been to Venice in low season before, trading off the shorter days and sometimes bad weather of late winter to avoid the huge high season crowds.  But this was different.  Smaller hotels were open, but many of the larger ones were not.  Many shops and restaurants were open, but a surprising number remained closed.  The Basilica of San Marco was closed to tourist visits, although you could still attend mass or visit the loggia upstairs.  And the Piazza San Marco, normally teeming with tourists, shoppers and vendors, was practically empty.  The Cafe Florian, the iconic coffee bar in the middle of the Piazza, was closed when we arrived.  Even the pigeons seemed to have temporarily deserted the place.

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Fortunately, things improved over the course of our 4-day visit.  By Friday, the Cafe Florian had reopened (although their coffee was still too expensive to actually consider buying).  By Saturday, a few souvenir vendors had returned to the Piazza, but they were the licensed kiosks, not the guys selling “irregular” merchandise spread out on the street.  Even a few pigeons had ventured back.  And more shops and restaurants opened their doors.

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The number of tourists increased each day, too, and by Saturday there was a line to get in to the Doge’s Palace (although it didn’t look very long).  Most of the tourists were Italian, including many families, taking the opportunity, like we were, to rediscover their own cities as they were in a quieter era.

Venice, like most parts of Italy, does not require people to wear masks outdoors, and the social distancing requirement is only 1 meter (about 3 feet).  You are required to wear masks in indoor public spaces – hotel lobbies, churches, museums, stores.  They are required in bars and restaurants, but you can take them off as soon as you are seated and, given the fine weather, we took most of our meals outside.  You are also required to wear them on public transportation, although on the 40-minute trip to Burano, those of us sitting outside took our masks off.

Aside from that tiny act of civil disobedience on the boat, compliance with the masking rules was quite high. We saw one guy take his mask off inside a church, admiring a Tintoretto, when the custodian, a young woman, came over and politely asked him to put it back on. “Later,” he said.  When she asked a second time, still politely, the guy looked around at the other visitors giving him the stinkeye, and realized he was at risk of making a “brutta figura,” which literally means “cutting a bad figure,” but actually means “embarrassing yourself by acting like a jerk.”  And no Italian wants to do that.  He put the mask back on.

I do wonder, though, how Venice and other big cities are going to enforce the social distancing requirements on public transportation, which means leaving every other seat vacant, when there are more visitors.

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Carpaccio: Panel from Legend of St. Ursula (restoration finally complete!)

We visited the Accademia, Venice’s largest art museum where we were able to spend time with the works of Bellini, Veronese and Carpaccio in uncrowded rooms.  We also visited the Peggy Guggenheim museum.  We don’t always like museums devoted to modern art, but Guggenheim selected her pieces according to her personal taste, and makes a convincing case for her selections.   Even Jackson Pollock’s strange abstractions look more organized when paired with Peggy’s wrought-iron windows.  And Peggy’s placement of modern abstract pieces next to contemporary African art is also very interesting – she knows exactly where the inspiration for the European works is coming from, and she wants you to know it too.

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Magritte: La voce dell’aria (at the Guggenheim)

We took a guided tour of the Casa Bartoli, a 16th C structure which, much renovated, was a private residence until the owners died a few years ago.  The house was elegant, but comfortable, and had killer views of the Grand Canal and the church of Santa Maria della Salute across the way.  (The church, whose name means Our Lady of Good Health, was built by the city in gratitude for surviving the second coming of the Black Death in the 17th C – a story that had unexpected resonance in these pandemic times.)

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Casa Bortoli interior

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Casa Bortoli: Fantastic chandelier

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The Salute Church from Casa Bortoli

We even took a gondola ride, for the first time in many years.  Without the big cruise ships in the lagoon, you could venture out into the canal in a gondola without fear of being swamped.

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Mostly, though, we enjoyed just walking the streets of Venice, being able to travel side by side instead of single file for once.  Most of the restaurants we have enjoyed in the past were open, and doing good business, but they had time to talk to us.  So did our gondolier, the folks running our hotel, and shopkeepers.  They all wanted tourists back – just maybe not so many of them.

Cinque Terre

The Cinque Terre are five spectacularly sited villages along the Ligurian coast.  Although there are some roads, the towns are connected mainly by hiking trails and a rail line.  We had never been to this part of Italy before, since we had heard that it was often crowded during high season and the hiking season is short (it’s not really a place you can visit during the winter).

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The villages are as beautiful as advertised. From our base in Monterosso, we enjoyed hiking to Vernazza and then Corniglia, and we visited a fourth town (Manarola) by train.  We even got in a little beach time.  All in all, though, I’m not sure we would have enjoyed it so much had it been more crowded.

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Lucca

We have been to Lucca before, some years ago, but again, it seemed like a good time to revisit this popular city.  Lucca has a very old cathedral (started in the 11th C) and very fine city walls, which you can walk around. But the highlight of this trip was our visit to Villa Reale di Marlia, a few miles outside the city.

Villa Reale was the country residence of Elisa Baciocchi, the sister of Napoleon Bonaparte, who was named Princess of Lucca after her brother conquered much of northern Italy.  Elisa restored the 17th C manor house, and completely redesigned the gardens in the style of English country houses (including very large lawns, unusual in Italy).  After Napoleon was deposed, the house was sold to a succession of new owners, who maintained the magnificent gardens but allowed the manor house to fall into disrepair.  The house has recently been restored by an anonymous Swiss couple who fell in love with the place and clearly spared no expense to restore the house to its original Napoleonic splendor.  It is spectacular, and we highly recommend a visit here to anyone who happens to be in the vicinity of Lucca.

Travel in the post Covid era

How has travel changed in the post Covid era?

The first and most obvious difference is that we took our car instead of the train.  Neither of us minds wearing a mask during a visit to a church or museum, or on a short trip on a bus or train.  But wearing one continuously for 5 or 6 hours seems a bit much.  I can’t even imagine a transAtlantic flight under those conditions.

Going to a restaurant where all the waiters are masked is a little weird, but you get used to it pretty quickly.

One less obvious casualty of the pandemic is the hotel buffet breakfast. The hotel we stayed at in Venice used to offer breakfast, but their breakfast room was so tiny they could not comply with the new social distancing requirements.  So they no longer offer breakfast, and have adjusted their room rates accordingly.  Given that the hotel was situated within 5 minutes walk of at least half a dozen cafes, including an excellent pastry shop literally outside the door, this was no hardship.

The other two hotels we stayed at continued to offer a buffet style breakfast.  You could see everything on offer, but you had to ask a hotel staff member to get it for you and put it on your plate.   In some ways, that’s a good thing – you will probably be too embarrassed to ask for that second piece of pastry you didn’t need anyway.  But some might be less willing to try an unfamiliar local specialty – deviled eggs in Turkey, or spinach with pine nuts in Spain, which would be too bad.

The Peggy Guggenheim museum in Venice is currently operating an an advance reservation basis – you go to the website and select a date and an entry time.  I think this is a great idea for small museums, which can sometimes be unpleasantly crowded at peak times.  The Villa Borghese in Rome has been doing this for several years now.  It requires a bit of advance planning, but it makes your visit to these smaller museums much more enjoyable.  I hope it’s a permanent change.

 

 

 

 

 

On Being Recognized as an Italian Citizen

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During the months of planning for our move to Italy, I discovered that I was, under Italian law, actually an Italian citizen.

Under the law of the United States (and, as it happens, the Roman Empire), citizenship is a matter of geography.  If you are born in the United States,  you are a citizen of the United States, regardless of the citizenship of your parents. In some European countries, however – including Italy – citizenship is a matter of ancestry.  If your father or mother was an Italian citizen when you were born, then you are an Italian citizen, regardless of where you were born.

My grandfather emigrated from Italy to the United States in 1912.  Since my father was born in 1917, before my grandfather became a naturalized American and renounced his Italian citizenship in 1924, that means my father was an Italian citizen (although I doubt he ever knew that).  And that means I have been an Italian citizen since birth, although until recently I didn’t know that either.

Since this type of citizenship operates automatically, and not by choice, under US law I can “recognize” my Italian citizenship without giving up my US citizenship.

As you might imagine, going through the recognition procedure requires collecting quite a lot of paper — not all of it easily obtained decades after the events.

I thought locating my grandfather’s Italian birth certificate would it be difficult, but it turned out to be surprisingly easy.  Although he was born in a tiny town in the Abruzzo, a forward-looking city administration had actually put its old documents online, which meant they were easily searchable.

My father’s birth certificate was more problematic.  Although he was born in the US, his birth certificate was filled with spelling errors, including my last name.  My father was born at home and my grandfather likely went to the city records office to obtain a birth certificate.  My grandfather spoke English with a heavy accent, and county clerks in any event didn’t know much about Italian names in those days.  I was told that I could have the document corrected if I could provide a baptismal certificate.  Using Google, we located a church in the Arthur Avenue area of the Bronx which appeared to be only a few blocks from where my father was born.  Sure enough, they were the right church — they provided my father’s baptismal certificate, which spelled my last name correctly, and we were then able to get the city of New York to issue a corrected birth certificate.

As it turned out, though, I couldn’t change my father’s first name. My father was christened Antonio although he went through life as Anthony.  Apparently teachers in those days didn’t have much patience for “foreign” names and arbitrarily changed them to something more “American” – something that thankfully wouldn’t happen today.  We were able to resolve that problem, too, by getting an “also known as” certificate from the state of Florida, where my dad lived for the last 30 years of his life.

We also needed to provide a copy of my parent’s marriage certificate.   That wasn’t so easy either.  My parents hadn’t had a church wedding – all I knew was that they had eloped.  An older friend suggested I try the records of Elkins Park, Maryland, which she said had been a favorite destination for eloping couples in the 1950s.  Bingo.

After we collected all the documents, we had to have them verified using apostilles (basically an international notarization form) and then translated.  We took these documents to the vital records office here in Ascoli, where the woman in charge reviewed the documents, then sent request letters out to the various Italian consulates in the US verifying that they had no contrary information.

This whole process took months.  Once my application was approved, though, things moved amazingly quickly.  I went down to City Hall and had my birth and marriage “registered” in the town records.  The town hall used special oversized paper which hasn’t changed much since the Middle Ages (although they use printers now instead of pen and ink).  Within a week, I had a new Identity Card, identifying me as an Italian citizen, which basically entitles me to live (and work) anywehere in the EU.  My new status also enables Ted to apply for a “carta di soggiorno” (essentially, a [ermanent green card which doesn’t have to be renewed every two years).

Why did I do this?  There are no tax benefits — Italy taxes legal residents essentially the same as Italian citizens.  The main benefit is administrative.  Like many European countries, Italy is now tightening up its requirements for foreign residents.  Non-residents have to renew their permessi di soggiorno  (visas) every two years, and the language requirements and hard to define “integration” requirements seem to be getting tougher.  We could most likely pass the current tests, but who knows what new requirements may be coming down the pike? And it is easier not to have to worry about dealing with the Italian bureaucracy any more than is necessary.  This way, we can come and go as we please.

And I now have two passports!  I feel like an international money-launderer.

 

Lecce and Matera

Lecce

With the arrival of spring, we decided to drive down to Lecce, about 5 hours south of here, in the little-visited (by Americans) province of Puglia.

Lecce is not located on the coast or on a navigable river, somewhat surprising for an ancient city.  It turns out that it has access to an underground water source, an important consideration in a region where the availability of sufficient water has always been an issue.

Lecce affiliated itself pretty early with the ultimately victorious Romans, and it was a thriving city during the ancient Roman empire.  After the fall of Rome, it was associated for a while with the Byzantine empire, and eventually became part of the Bourbon Kingdom of the Two Sicilies.

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The city is known for its many baroque churches built in the local golden-color stone.  Many of the statues are in “cartapesta” (what we would call papier-mache) a surprisingly durable and lifelike material.  The tradition of working in “cartapesta” remains vibrant today, and there are little shops all over the city featuring the work of contemporary local artists.

Lecce Duomo - Immaculate conception chapel

Some of the city’s older churches, like SS.  Nicolo e Cataldo, were remodeled during the Bourbon era but retained some of their late-Byzantine-era frescoes, a unique combination.  There is very little art of the time in between those two eras here.  It’s almost as if the Renaissance occurred in some other country — which, in some sense, it did.

We saw more Byzantine frescoes at the abbey of Santa Maria di Cerrate, just outside of town, which recently reopened after a major restoration.  The restored colors on the interior frescoes, so different from the more typical faded colors, challenge your conceptions about what these frescoes are “supposed” to look like.

We took a short day trip to Otranto, a pleasant seaside town near the end of the heel of Italy’s boot.  We were lured into a local restaurant by the promise of  “ricci,” fresh sea urchin.  I was introduced to ricci near Bari, on my first trip to Italy so many years ago.  Over the years, I have eaten them in Japan (where they are known as uni), California and France, but nowhere are they as fresh as they are in Puglia. Many people eat them raw, right out of their spiny shell. But eating them as we did, with pasta, is also popular.

Otranto also has an old and very historic Cathedral.  In this case, the cathedral floors are covered in mosaics from the 12th Century and mostly tell bible stories.

We visited the lighthouse just south of Otranto, which is the most easterly point in Italy.  (Not quite the most southerly, though — Italy continues for about an hour south of Otranto).  The Adriatic is at its narrowest point here, which in less orderly times made Otranto the frequent victims of raiders and pirates (hence the lookout castle on the seaside).  These days, the narrowness of the channel makes for some fabulous views — on a clear day, you can see Albania.

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Matera

After leaving Lecce, we went to Matera, in the even less-frequently-visited province of Basilicata.  If you think of Italy as a boot, Basilicata is the arch between the toe and the heel.

Matera has been inhabited since Neolithic times, largely due to its combination of natural caves and an easily defensible location (a fertile valley surrounded by steep mountains).  By the Middle Ages, Matera was a thriving small town, albeit one where the dwellings were inside instead on top of the rocks.  Whole communities developed in these grottoes, including not only churches but also monasteries and convents with several subterranean levels.  Beginning in the later Middle Ages, the more prosperous citizens started living on top of the rocks, but most of the city’s population still lived in the “Sassi” — the grottoes below.

Matera

The city went into decline during the later Bourbon period, when the provincial capital was moved.  The middle class departed, and the people of the Sassi became poorer.  By the late 19th C, the divided city featured wealthy people living in the sun in the upper city, and thousands of the less well off living essentially below ground, deprived of sunlight, fresh air, and modern sanitation, like something out of Blade Runner.

In the 1940s, Carlo Levi, a political opponent of Mussolini, was sentenced to internal exile near here.  After the war, he wrote a book, Christ Stopped at Eboli, which among other things highlighted conditions in the Sassi and scandalized the nation. The inhabitants of the Sassi were moved out of their rock dwellings, some to new apartment buildings in town, and others (less successfully) to new “farming villages” a few miles away.   The old grotto buildings, including the cave churches , were allowed to sink into disrepair.

By the 1980s, Italians were taking a fresh look at the city and its unique artistic heritage.  The city was named a UNESCO heritage site in the 1990s, and has been named a European “capital of culture” for 2019 — marketing designations that have brought restoration attention and tourist dollars into the economy.  Today, about 4,000 people are living in the Sassi again (in dwellings now fitted out with modern conveniences).   About half a dozen cave churches have now been restored, with more in process.  You can even stay in a luxury hotel built right into the grottoes (although we didn’t.)

Rupestrian (cave) church in the Sassi

The city has also had some success marketing itself as a movie site.  Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ and other Bible-themed movies have been filmed here, since the city’s narrow stone streets and deep ravines make it a plausible substitute for Jerusalem.

Who knows what the future holds for Matera?  Historically, attempts to base a local economy on tourism often founder when too many people want to come to a very small place.  For the time being, though, Matera is just far enough off the beaten track, and just hard enough to get to, that a visitor won’t be overwhelmed.

 

Venice in the Snow

One of the benefits of living in Italy is that you can visit popular tourist sites off-season.  Venice is one of the most challenging destinations, because it really doesn’t have much of an off-season.  “Go during Quaresima (Lent),” we were told — after Carnevale and before Easter.  Most years, folks said, it was warm enough to sit outside in early March.

 

Not this year.  Not only was it about 20 degrees colder than normal during our visit, it even snowed the first day — a rare event in Venice.   The snow was pretty to look at, but with all the cobblestones and polished marble, walking around was like negotiating an ice-skating rink without skates.  Fortunately, the bridges had handrails.  And the city employed a small army of workers spreading salt on the sidewalks — hard on leather shoes, but better than falling.  The temperature rose a bit after Thursday, although it still wasn’t really warm, and by Sunday all vestiges of the snow were gone.

Since we had been to Venice before, we concentrated on the art in smaller churches, which typically you don’t have time to see on a short visit.  Venice was a prosperous city for several centuries, and each parish wanted to build its own magnificent church, complete with what seemed like foundries full of marble,  and decorated with paintings and sculptures from local artists.  And what artists they were — Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese, Tiepolo….  I am particularly fond of one work by Tintoretto which imagines Mary as a young girl, climbing an impossibly steep flight of stairs to an imaginary Temple.

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My personal favorites, though, were the works of Giovanni Bellini.  His special skill was making two-dimensional paintings seem three-dimensional — an effect that’s hard to see even in photographs.  I’m sure he used some tricks to attain this effect — he often put figures in niches with stairs leading up to them, which creates a geometric illusion.  But other painters did that, too, and their paintings are still flat.  I guess that was his particular genius — and one reason why his paintings are considered nearly impossible to forge.

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Also during our trip, we experienced two “acqua alta” (high water) events.  Acqua alta is a tidal event, enhanced by certain wind patterns most prevalent in winter.  It is not primarily a function of the rain, although winter is the city’s rainiest season.

Because it is a tidal event, the high water doesn’t just lap over the embankments the way you think it might.  In Piazza San Marco, which is low-lying and frequently floods, the water seeps up from generally unobserved drainage channels in the middle of the piazza, and the far side, furthest from the Grand Canal, floods first.

The first night, we got caught out on the wrong side of Piazza San Marco coming back from dinner, and since we weren’t wearing hip waders we had to make a big detour to get back to our hotel.  The next evening, we stayed on the right side of the Piazza, but we were able to observe water all the way to the courtyard of the Palazzo Ducale.  It was a strange effect, almost as though the city were sinking under the water in slow-motion — which, in a way, it is.

The poor weather did have some compensations.  You could visit popular sites like the cathedral of San Marco and the Accademia without waiting on line.  The stores were all open and uncrowded — Venice has some of the best shopping in Italy, even if like us you’re mostly window-shopping.  Hotels offer deep discounts (although some smaller ones close) and it was easy to get restaurant reservations.  Best of all, people had time to talk to you, which rarely happens in summer.  All things being equal, though, I think we’ll wait for better weather next time.

 

Of Kitsch and Kin (Salzburg and Turkey)

April 2011

Ted and I recently got back from a 16-day trip to Salzburg, Istanbul, and southwest Turkey, with a couple of days in Munich at the beginning and end. We hadn’t been to any of those places before, other than Munich. Here are our thoughts.

Additional photos are available here.

Salzburg

Salzburg spent centuries as an independent province, ruled by a Prince-Archbishop who was essentially an absolute ruler. Its wealth was based on its being located almost literally on top of a salt mine (“Salzburg” means “salt mountain”) and later, a gold mine. Perhaps because its wealth was based on selling its assets,rather than trade, it’s never been particularly welcoming to outsiders. Over the years, the city has kicked out its Jews, its Protestants, and Mozart, and it doesn’t seem to have lost its insular character.

After the fall of Napoleon, the city became part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In the mid-19th Century, the city fathers had the bright idea of reinventing Salzburg as a tourist destination, which was pretty far-sighted for the time. By the 1890s, they had built a funicular to their hilltop castle, and the Salzburg Music festival (started in the 1920s) and refurbished Mozart sites have proven durable tourist draws. The whole place functions as sort of an Alpine Disneyland – every hotelier will offer you a “Salzburg card” offering discounted or free access to a designated list of “tourist attractions.” You can visit the salt mine, take a ride on the “dancing boats,” take a bus tour of the Sound of Music film locations, or even visit Berchtesgaden, just over the German border.

But the real E-ticket ride is Hellbrun, a hunting lodge/pleasure palace built just outside the city by a 17th Century Archbishop. The grounds include a plethora of trick fountains where the Archbishop amused himself by soaking his helpless guests (while he, of course, remained dry) – a dubious entertainment replicated by modern tour guides. The gardens also feature spinning mermaids, rocking dragons, scandalously-tongued demons and hyperactive villagers – Small World on acid.

In the 17th Century, the fountains and mechanical figurines were powered solely by hydraulics, not electricity. What might those clever artisans have achieved had they devoted that ingenuity towards making labor-saving machines rather than Prince’s toys.

Autocracies and progress don’t mix.

Istanbul

After the artificiality of Salzburg, it was something of a relief to arrive in Istanbul, which is certainly a real city. As recently as the 1950s, Istanbul had a population of barely over a million. Today, it’s 12 million, with growth fueled both by population inflows and geographic expansion – the city has absorbed a number of formerly independent fishing villages on either side of the Bosporus.

We stayed in Sultanahmet, the historic district, which turned out to be a good thing, since most of the historic sites were located within walking distance of our hotel. Traffic is awful, so it takes a while to get around no matter what kind of transportation you use.

Together with our friends Mike and Trine, who were visiting Istanbul at the same time, we hired a guide for the first two days. That turned out to be a good decision too, not only because he could (legally) cut the lines, but also because he was very well-informed. Being a guide is a professional service in Turkey – it takes at least a year of study (including a six-month training course) to pass the licensing exam. Hakan, a graduate of Northwestern, spoke excellent English, even though, as it turned out English was only the third of his five languages.

We began our trip with the Aya Sofya, which was built in the 6th Century as the “Hagia Sophia” (church of Holy Wisdom). When Mehmet conquered the city, he repurposed the church as a mosque and covered over the mosaics that depicted human figures. The mihrab, or prayer niche, is off-center, to correct for the fact that Christian altars are oriented towards Jerusalem while mihrabs are directed towards Mecca. hIn the 1930s, the Aya Sofya was converted to a museum, and it is no longer used for religious services. Subsequently, the government began the long, painstaking project of removing the plaster from the Byzantine mosaics, so now many of them can be seen, once again, as they were in the Christian era.

Upstairs, one of the mosaics, done by an unknown artist in the 10th or 11th Century, depicts a compassionate-looking Mary trying to convince Jesus not to condemn too many people to eternal hellfire – a couple of centuries before the “humanistic” depiction of Biblical figures was supposedly “invented” by Italian artists. Did one of the Crusaders sacking Constantinople send back a sketch to his cousin back in Italy? Possibly – Sienese and Florentine Madonnas show clear Byzantine influence. More likely, it’s another demonstration of how artistic change, even revolutionary change, rarely occurs just once.

Here’s a photo of the compassionate Mary, followed by with another more “traditional” Byzantine mosaic.

The Blue Mosque, just across the road, uses a multiple-dome structure to create a sense of internal lightness and space that the medieval cathedral builders strove in vain to achieve. Later in the day, we heard the Blue Mosque muezzin call to prayer – a very strange sound to ears tuned to Western scales. These days, the muezzins no longer have to climb the scary-looking minarets – they stay inside and benefit from modern amplification. But the centuries-old chants themselves remain the same.

The Blue Mosque

The next day, we visited the Topkapi Palace, whose Treasure House includes a selection of diamonds, rubies, emeralds and other precious gems that rivals the Crown Jewels in the Tower of London (alas, no photos permitted). To my surprise, the diamond dagger which features in the movie Topkapi actually exists, and is on display. The harem was rather more extensive than I had supposed (nearly 1,000 people lived there, including children). Most poignant was the “Gilded Cage,” the apartments of the Crown Prince and presumptive heir. The Sultanate did not follow primogeniture; when a Sultan died, the first son to seize the crown (usually by killing off all his brothers) was the next Sultan. As a result, the sons of the Sultans were often kept in a form of protective custody within the palace walls – not a recipe for enlightened government.The rooms are, however, beautifully decorated, including some outstanding stained glass:

The Galata Tower, in the “new” section of the city, offers a fine view.  In the 17th Century, a young man built a flying machine based on the sketches of Leonardo da Vinci.  He took off from the Tower, and according to eyewitnesses successfully crossed the Bosporus, a distance of about 6 kilometers – the world’s first successful flight.  The Sultan at first wanted to reward him, but later thought better of it and exiled the unfortunate young man to Algeria.

Autocracies and progress don’t mix.

Ephesus

We flew from Istanbul to Izmir (formerly Smyrna) and drove down to Alaçati, on the Çeşme Peninsula.

From there, we took a day trip to Ephesus, which was described in the guidebooks as Roman ruins “second only to Pompeii.”  Having seen Pompeii, I would reverse the order.

Pompeii was a prosperous town, but Ephesus was a city.  At its peak, in the 2nd Century AD,  the city had a  quarter of a million inhabitants, making it the 3rd or 4th largest city in the Roman Empire (and larger than many Western European cities would be from the fall of Rome to the Renaissance).  Only about 20% of the city has been excavated, but you can still get a sense of how large it was.

Ephesus

Ephesus was settled as an Ionian (Greek) colony in the 6th Century BC.  The Temple of Artemis, just outside the city, was considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World (today, all that’s left of the temple is a single column, sitting in what is now a marsh).   This “Artemis” was not the huntress Diana of the Romans, but the ancient multi-breasted fertility goddess of the Eastern Mediterranean.

The city was a crossroads of the ancient world. Antony and Cleopatra hung out there. Public buildings in bear the names or imprints of Roman emperors Domitian, Trajan and Nero, as well as local consuls (the library of Celsus, shown above) and freed slaves made good.  St. Paul spent time there (although he was run out of town because of his disparagement of the still-popular Artemis). And the Apostle John is believed to have died there, along with (according to legend) the Virgin Mary. The attribution of a 1st Century house, 6 km up the hill, to Mary is probably apocryphal, but the site has been visited by three Popes (not to mention the Virgin Mary Taxi Service) and is now a Christian pilgrimage site.  It seems oddly appropriate that a shrine to Mary would exist not far from a place where an ancient goddess was held in special esteem.

In the late Roman period, the harbor silted up, and the city went into a long and ultimately fatal decline. In the 6th Century, the remaining citizens retreated to a nearby hilltop, where they built a citadel and a basilica dedicated to Saint John.  The basilica is now a ruin, although you can still see the immersion pool used for baptism (rather different from the baptismal founts in Western European churches).  Eventually, the city fell into the hands of the Seljuk Turks, “Seljuk” being derived from the Turkish name for Saint John – Aya Soluk.

Çeşme Peninsula

We spent the remaining three days exploring the Çeşme Peninsula.  Çeşme was once an important Ottoman naval port, but these days it’s mostly a summer resort area, with a tiny year-round population. Its coastline is still relatively unspoiled, although the number of construction cranes suggests this will not last for long.

We have visited many lovely small hotels with the help of TripAdvisor, but never have we received such a warm welcome as that provided by Sabahat and Poshor and their helpful staff at Incirliev in Alaçati. Sabahat and Poshor have reconstructed a true Aegean stone house in the old style but with modern building techniques and conveniences. Our room, the Terrace Room, was exceptional and had all the facilities that one could want in a small hotel. The “encircled garden” with its fig tree, almond tree, mulberry tree, and citrus is a small paradise. However, the true wonder of this hotel is Sabahat, who welcomes you every morning for the wonderful breakfast (with Poshor’s scrumptious natural jams), helps plan your day, recommends the best restaurants, and meets you at the end of the day with tea and delicious cakes. Or, on occasion, Poshor might meet you in the evening for a tasting of his excellent Turkish wine collection. Both Sabahat and Poshor exemplify the character of the Turkish people we met on our trip: warm, generous, and gregarious.

For those of you who must stay connected, Incirliev offers high-quality, free Internet wifi.

The Çeşme peninsula is full of natural beauty and it is easy to drive places where there is no one within a kilometer. However, it is also a place where there is seemingly unbridled development. We were there in mid-April, and most of villages and towns were desolate and empty. It seems that the population multiplies 10 or 20-fold in summer, in which case the towns and beaches might feel like Istanbul. There are many “unowned” dogs and cats left in the streets, presumably by summer visitors since they are quite tame and friendly. They must have a source of food since they don’t seem particularly ravenous. If you are nervous about such animals, be forewarned.

There are a limited number of historic sites to visit on the Çeşme peninsula. So, it is perhaps a better place to relax, swim (in season), or wind-surf (if you are so inclined).  On one day we visited Ephesus (see above — about 100 mi, 1.5-1.75 hours driving).  Sabahat arranged a very good guide for 120 TL per day, well worth it.  Ephesus was spectacular, but I imagine that it might get hot and crowded in summer. Pergamom is a bit farther, but on worse roads … so perhaps 2.5-3 hours.  We didn’t go there.

On the peninsula, we visited the ruins of the ancient Greek village of Erythrai.  The most recognizable building was the theater, built, in the Greek manner, right up against the hillside.   This method of construction created a natural amphitheatre – you can sit at the top and hear someone speaking in a natural tone of voice at the bottom, without artificial amplification.  (The Greeks may not have had our technological expertise, but they weren’t stupid.)  Despite its age and historical interest, the site’s remote location means you have it all to yourself (at least in the spring).  From the upper rows of the theater, you can see a landscape populated only by sheep, goats, donkeys and the occasional herder, much as it was in ancient days.Mid-April is often warm and sunny, but for us it was showery, windy, sometimes stormy, and quite cool (never above 15C). The sun came out on the day we left, and the place took on a quite different, and distinctly happier, character.

Alaçati is an engaging small town with small a year-round population.  Like much of what we saw in Çeşme, Alaçati seems to be in transition from a sleepy rural village to a tourist destination. There is much (re)construction going on that is carefully controlled by the town, but construction generally stops in mid-June for the summer visitors. There are nice restaurants to be visited, but none of the elegant variety you might find in Istanbul (although such places might open during summer). If you stay at Incirliev, pay attention to Sabahat’s recommendations. On one occasion we strayed from her advice and regretted it. Sabahat recommended one fish restaurant in nearby Dalyan where the Levrek (Sea Bass) was the best I’ve had anywhere. The food in this area is truly Mediterranean: lots of fruits, vegetables and greens, careful use of spices, many herbs, lots of fish, and a little meat. Although “organic” food is not really a concept here, the food is naturally organic in a more fundamental sense. I would not be surprised to soon see Turkish food from this region appear on the “foodie” radar.

Driving in the Çeşme peninsula is quite easy. There is a 6-lane modern toll-road that traverses the peninsula. Toll is taken on exit by means of a KGS toll card which can be bought or recharged at machines prior to exiting the roadway. There was no cash lane on the toll roads on Çeşme or south from Izmir. Cash is being phased out in the entire Turkish road network. However, the tolls are not high (2 TL for ~60 km). Avis sold us a KGS card at 2X the price. Gas/diesel is expensive, but there are sufficient stations in the populated areas and (American) credit cards are generally accepted. Non-toll roads are well maintained as well (although pothole increase as population decreases). Parking is, however, not well marked and the legality of any given parking space is hard to determine. I did not try to drive in any cities. Airport car dropoff at Izmir was the easiest I’ve experienced at any airport anywhere. I called Avis, and a guy came to meet me at the (International) arrivals level.

Don’t expect to carry-on a bag weighing more than 8 kg at Izmir. This was the only such restriction on our SFO-FRA, MUC-IST, IST-ADB, ADB-MUC, MUC-ORD-SFO itinerary.

General Impressions of Turkey

We had never been to a Muslim country before, so we weren’t sure what to expect.

The streets of Istanbul are almost as crowded as those of New York City, and there are lots of children – particularly noticeable after Europe’s sclerotic urban centers.  The streets are remarkably clean, and we didn’t see any obviously homeless people or child beggars, making Istanbul a more modern-looking city than some “European” ones like Naples.

We didn’t really have a language problem in Turkey, since most people affiliated with the tourist industry spoke at some English. Turkish is a non-Indo-European language, whose closest linguistic relatives (and they’re not that close) are Finnish, Hungarian and, believe it or not, Japanese.  That means there are no cognates, except for yogurt (a Turkish word), and the occasional word “borrowed” from French or English for stuff that didn’t exist before the 19th Century.

The Ottomans used Arabic script to represent Turkish sounds. Ataturk converted to Western letters, but that doesn’t help Western tourists that much, since words often aren’t pronounced the way we’d expect.  (Parenthetically, it also means that modern Turks can’t read Ottoman documents without special study.)

Other than the language, we were struck by how similar the city was to many we have visited in Europe.  Admittedly, we were in the most “Westernized” parts of the country, and things might have been different had we visited the interior. But our general impression was how similar Turkey was to [the rest of] Europe, not how different.

Anatolia was part of the ancient Greco-Roman world, and evidences of that ancient culture were evident in the art, the architecture, public buildings like baths, even the food (of which more below). Although Turkey is 98% Muslim, it is officially a secular country – its public holiday is Sunday, not Friday. And although there were lists of clothing rules posted outside the mosques (including a request for “ladies” to wear headscarves), the only rule that seemed to be enforced was the one asking people to remove their shoes (to protect the rugs). It was less trouble getting into the Blue Mosque than St. Peter’s, which has a phalanx of “clothing police” who will actually deny entry to the improperly dressed.

Although a number of women wore headscarves, here they were mostly silk or cotton kerchiefs, not the confining garments of other parts of the Muslim world. Full burqas are rare, and worn mostly by tourists from other Muslim countries. (In fact, I saw as many burqa-wearing women in Salzburg as I did in Istanbul).

The food in general was pretty good, and quite a bit more varied then the ubiquitous “doner kebab” restaurants would suggest. The fish, in particular, was outstanding. The yogurt was thick and wonderful (probably most similar to the Greek yogurt you can sometimes find in the US). A variety of fresh-squeezed fruit juices were available – including unusual varieties like pomegranate and cherry. Turkey, it turns out, is one of the world’s leading cherry producers.

In Istanbul, a number of restaurants were presenting “Ottoman cuisine,” which was generally meat stews (beef or lamb, no pork) with fruit, gently flavored with spices – something like Moroccan cuisine, but with more subtle flavors.

The food in the Çeşme Peninsula was like a textbook version of “Mediterranean cuisine” – lots of fresh fruits and vegetables (artichokes!), wonderful nuts, and fresh local fish cooked in olive oil, with rice as the basic starch.  The sea bass at one local restaurant, picked from a display of fish that had probably been purchased from a local fisherman that morning, was served grilled with fresh local greens. It  doesn’t get much better than that.

Turkey seems to be a busting, growing nation. There is universal admiration for Kemal Ataturk, and every town has its Ataturk Bulvari much like our major (US) streets bear the name of Washington and Lincoln. The military keeps garrisons (and armed watches) in more public places that one might expect. Although there are mosques everywhere, there seems to be as much diversity in the practice of Islam in Turkey as in the practice of Christianity in the US.

Somewhat to our surprise, since Turkey is a Muslim country, alcohol was readily available. The most popular drink is “raki”, a local version of the anise-flavored liquors (Greek ouzo, French pastis, Syrian arrack) that have been drunk all over the Mediterranean for centuries.

Even more surprisingly, Turkey also has a wine industry. Since Turkish wine consumption is miniscule (about 1 liter per person per year) most Turkish wine is exported to the UK or northern European countries. But production methods are modern, and the local wine offered by many restaurants was pretty good, though it was made from unpronounceable grape varietals that aren’t even mentioned in Ted’s wine encyclopedia.

Turkey’s biggest asset, however, may be its hospitable people. Turks are naturally gregarious, more like New Yorkers than typical Europeans. It won’t take long for the person sitting next to you on a plane or train to start up a conversation. And asking for directions actually works. When we got lost trying to find our hotel in Alaçati and asked a woman sitting on her porch for help, she came out and took us herself (first stopping, of course, to put on her headscarf).

The staff at our moderately-priced hotel in Istanbul spent about 20 minutes with us on our first morning making sure we had maps, tram tokens, restaurant recommendations, and everything else we might need for a successful trip – a level of service you usually have to stay at a luxury hotel to get in the US or western Europe. The hospitality was even more pronounced in Alaçati, where our small hotel was run by a semi-retired chemical engineer and her husband. Her restaurant recommendations were outstanding (dropping her name was like magic), and when her husband discovered we liked wine, he insisted we visit his tiny cellar and try some of his finest Turkish wines.

Experiences like that are rare, and it’s a trip we won’t soon forget.