In the Halls of the Norman Kings

Ted and I just got back from a 3-week trip to Sicily and central Italy.  We consumed vast quantities of pasta, ice cream and various alcoholic beverages.

Oh, you want to know more?

(More pictures available here.)

A Brief Initial Misadventure

We had booked a three-flight itinerary to Sicily (always a risky move) and arrived in Frankfurt only to find that our next two flights, both into and out of Rome, had been cancelled.  Apparently there had been a major fire at Rome’s airport.  No one was hurt, but it took several days for normal flight schedules to return.

With the assistance of an extraordinarily helpful (!) Lufthansa agent and some genius smartphoning by Ted, we put together a substitute itinerary through Milan, booking a flight on EasyJet from Milan to Palermo the following morning.  Vacation saved.  And we got to visit Milan’s wonderful cathedral and sample some risotto as well.


(Our smartphones saved us more than once on this trip — but very little of it had to do with using it as an actual phone.)

Palermo (and the Other Norman Invasion)

I was somewhat apprehensive about visiting Palermo — “seedy” and “scruffy” are some of the nicer things the guidebooks say about it.  I certainly wasn’t expecting a city with broad streets, palm-shaded parks, and lots of greenery — the place is a virtual clinic of drought-tolerant landscaping.  And despite all the warnings about crime, we didn’t feel remotely threatened while we were there (or anywhere else in Sicily, for that matter).  It was a little weird when the street musicians started playing the theme from The Godfather movie, though.

We went to Palermo to see the mosaics, and they did not disappoint.  But first, a bit of history.

Capella Palatina

The Normans arrived in southern Italy in the early 11th C, and in 1071, the Norman Robert Guiscard (a real person, not an Asimov robot) conquered Sicily, which had been held by Saracens for 250 years.  Unusually for Christian rulers, the Norman kings of Sicily allowed the Greek Orthodox and Arab communities to practice their religion freely.  There was also an unprecedented amount of collaboration among Greek, Arab and Italian artisans.

The mosaics of the Palatine Chapel (in what was the Norman royal palace in Palermo) and in the cathedral of Monreale, about 6 km up the hill, are outstanding example of Norman cultural fusion.  They combine Byzantine mosaics, Arab decorative arts, and Italian figurative art in an extraordinary combination that I haven’t seen anywhere else.  Many of the mosaics (particularly in Monreale, which features many scenes from the Old Testament), had a dynamism that is quite different from the typically static Byzantine style — a style which in some ways prefigured the Renaissance.

Mosaic detail -- God gives Adam Garden of Eden (upper right)

When the last Norman king of Sicily died in 1190 with no offspring, Sicily began a long slow decline, and its unique artistic traditions proved to be a dead end.  The world had to wait another 150 years for Giotto.

Piazza Armerina

The Villa Romana del Casale, just outside this small town in central Sicily, is a late Roman villa featuring mosaics of astonishing quality.  The villa’s large size indicates it was owned by someone really important — the local governor, perhaps even a co-emperor.  The villa was buried by an earthquake in the late 4th C, and later landslides essentially protected it from despoliation until the 1950s, when it was carefully excavated.

We had seen Roman mosaics before, and were familiar with their complex and wonderful geometric designs.  But we were unprepared for the numerous depictions of exotic animals — wild beasts such as lions and leopards as well as somewhat less fearsome ducks and flamingoes.  The depictions of the animals were astonishingly lifelike and showed the artists had some familiarity with the living animals.  A scene depicting wild animals being loaded on boats featured a beast-wrangler struggling with an ostrich.  (This is not the case in medieval and early Renaissance bestiaries, where it is clear that the artists were working from written accounts, rather than from life).  The mosaics even included depictions of tigers — I had no idea such animals were known in ancient Rome.

Mosaic depicting loading wild animals onto boats; note ostrich wrangler in the middle

Most interesting of all was the figurative art — depictions of hunting and fishing scenes that seemed more like medieval tapestries than what we think of as “ancient art.”  A famous mosaic known as the “Bikini Girls” is actually one of the earliest known depictions of female athletes — including one pair playing what appears to be an early version of beach volleyball.

Some of the scenes were also somewhat bawdy — be aware that if you’re flipping through our pictures, some are definitely Not Safe for Work.

Hill Towns

We visited several hill towns of southern Sicily — Ragusa, Modica and Noto.  This part of Sicily was heavily damaged by a major earthquake in 1693, which means much of the architecture dates from the 18th C and later.  I’m not a big fan of Baroque architecture generally, but Sicilian Baroque is more restrained than its mainland equivalents  — there’s more focus on the architectural elements, and less over-the-top decoration.

View of Noto Infiorito from bell tower

In Noto, we were lucky enough to visit during the annual flower festival.  For three days every year, the city devotes an entire street to works of art realized in flowers.  You can think of it as the apotheosis of sidewalk art.  Or as a major civic project like the Tournament of Roses (but without the football game).


Historic Syracuse was Greek for several centuries before the Romans arrived, as the number of Greek ruins around the city attest.

We were lucky enough to see a production of an Ancient Greek play, Iphigenia in Aulis, in the city’s Ancient Greek theater.  There were some concessions to modern tastes (the actors were miked, spotlights were used, and there were cushions on the stone bench seats).   But the minimalist staging was very similar to what we know of ancient productions.  It’s as close as we can probably come to seeing this kind of play in the setting for which it was originally intended – an amazing experience!

Entrance of Clytemnestra and Iphegenia

Food and Wine

The guidebooks are right– the food and wine in Sicily are quite good.  If you’ve spend any time in and around the NYC metro area, the food in Sicily is more similar to what you likely think of as “Italian food”  (tomatoes, garlic, eggplant)  than anywhere else in Italy. That makes sense — most Sicilian immigrants to the US settled in and around New York.  In Piazza Armerina, I was served a dish called “Veal Siciliana” (veal with a slice of eggplant, tomato sauce and melted Sicilian sheep cheese) which may be the origin of the Italian-American dish “Veal Parmigiana” — with mozzarella and Parmesan cheese being used to imitate the more difficult to obtain native cheese).  Somewhat more unusual are the pasta sauces made with the locally-grown (and justly famous) pistachio nuts.

Fresh fish, which is becoming a luxury item in much of Europe, is readily available in Sicily and relatively reasonably priced.  Sicily has retained the older custom, now more rarely seen in other parts of Italy, of displaying the fish on offer and allowing customers to choose their own.

Fish market

In Siracusa, Ted sampled “couscous trapenese”, a dish of couscous and fish cooked in fish broth, and served with the reduced broth as a sauce.  You can think of it as an inspired cross between Spanish paella and French bouillabaisse,  In Ragusa, we had an unusual dish of spaghetti with sea urchin (ricci) and mustard greens.  The chef said it reminded him of Japanese sea urchin (uni) with wasabi. 

Sicily is one of the few places in Italy which offers a wide variety of desserts and sweets — probably a result of the Arab influence.  We saw people eating brioche with gelato for breakfast, but somehow they are not all 300 pounds.  Haven’t figured that out yet.

Sicily has a long history of winemaking, going back to ancient times.  In recent centuries, Sicilian growers often sold their grapes in bulk to other countries (where it was sometimes sold as “French” wine). But in recent decades, Sicilian winemakers have been selling their own wines, with traditional grapes — grillo, malvasia, nero d’avola, frappato — all quite wonderful, either alone or in combination.

General Thoughts on Travellng in Sicily

Sicily spent 600 years as a Spanish colony, and missed pretty much every important cultural development  in Europe.  The Renaissance, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, even the Industrial Revolution — left little trace on the island.  The reunification of Italy under the house of Savoy (regarded as just another bunch of foreigners by the Sicilians) resulted in nearly a century of domination by the Mafia.  The power of the Mafia on the island was broken during an astonishing series of major prosecutions in the 1990s.  The Internet has been embraced — free wifi was readily available, and we found it easier to communicate electronically with folks in Sicily than in many other parts of Italy.  But in many ways, infrastructure — roads, rails, public transportation — still lags well behind the rest of Italy.  English is not as widely spoken here as in other parts of Italy, either.  It’s possible to get around on your own, but patience (and smartphone-enable GPS) help a lot.


Londinium, Eboracum, and Lutetia

We were lucky enough to take a trip to London, northern England and Paris in the fall of 2014.

Note: Due to a camera mishap mid-trip, we lost our photos of England, and have substituted some publicly available photos for that portion of our trip.


We spent a few days in London at the beginning of our trip.

To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I, the Tower of London installed an art exhibit featuring over 800,000 ceramic red poppies, each commemorating a British or Commonwealth soldier killed during that war. Poppies are apparently the first flowers to appear on a rehabilitating battle field, and are the subject of a famous WWI poem. Viewed from certain angles, the poppies could be seen as a river of blood, a mute reminder of the horrors of war that was more eloquent than the comprehensive, but oddly triumphalist, WWI exhibit at the Imperial War Museum.

tower of london poppies

We also saw a play, King Charles III, a near-future fantasy about the accession of Prince Charles to the English throne. England has a “constitutional” monarchy, although it has no constitution. The powers of the monarch vis-à-vis the Parliament are strictly limited, but there are no comparable limits on the power of Parliament vis-à-vis the people. In the play, Parliament has just passed a bill strictly limiting the freedom of the press, and the fictional Charles decides one of his limited powers is to refuse to sign the bill. Mayhem ensues. We enjoyed the political dimensions of the play – should England have an analogue to the US Supreme Court – and appreciated the numerous Shakespeare references.

We had some wonderful ethnic food in London. We ate creative Peruvian food at Lima, and very good Indian food at Chutney Mary’s (although neither chutney nor Mary were in evidence). Elsewhere in England, we had good breakfasts, and the tea was good.

Cathedral Tour


We have a particular interest in medieval cathedrals, but our previous visits to English cathedrals have been somewhat disappointing. Many of England’s medieval cathedrals are relatively lacking in interior decoration. That’s because during England’s civil war in 17th C, Puritans destroyed the stained glass and statuary as relics of “Papism.” Much of the interior decoration in English cathedrals today are the result of 19th C renovations.

York Minster is an exception to this general rule. During the 17th C Civil War, York was attacked by Protestant forces. But in order to prevent a prolonged siege, the city negotiated a surrender of the city in return for an agreement to spare the stained glass. The church’s great East Window is currently in the middle of a multi-year restoration, but several of the restored window panels, or “lights,” are currently being displayed at “eye height.” The windows had a distinctive yellow color that I haven’t seen used much elsewhere.


Most of the statuary was destroyed, particularly Madonnas. A local guide showed us a rare survival – a Madonna carved into the portal of a chantry door, near York Minster – so well hidden that even standing right underneath it was hard to discern.

The statues of English kings in the cathedral were spared, so at least we have a sample of contemporary sculpture.


There are plenty of other things to see in York. We were particularly impressed by Jorvik, a museum of the Viking era (Jorvik was the Viking name for the city). The museum included a Disneyesque(in the best sense) recreation of the Viking town as it might have looked in the 10th C – located just about where it actually existed. The best feature of the museum were local archeology students who acted as museum guides, explaining how we can use bits of bones, pottery and other detritus to reconstruct how people lived, what they ate, even how they died – interesting for children of all ages, and a really creative use of an excavation that was really little more than a garbage dump.

We also visited Castle Howard, an aristocratic mansion built in the late 17th C. The interior of the house was somewhat disappointing – apparently, the original owner lost his lucrative court position just before the house was completed, and neither he nor any of his descendants ever really had enough money to maintain the house properly. The façade of the house and the grounds are magnificent, though. The house will be familiar to contemporary audiences as the setting for both versions of Brideshead Revisited (both the recent movie version and the 1980s BBC TV version starring Jeremy Irons).

Castle Howard

York has an active theater scene, and we saw two plays while we were there. One was a two-woman play about Nell Gwynn, who ponders her future as her lover Charles II lay dying. Another, the Kite Runner, about modern Afghanistan, is perhaps more familiar from the recent movie version, but it makes for compelling theater. It was a little strange, though, to be watching a play in England written by Afghan-American now living in San Jose, and partly set in San Francisco. Why haven’t there been more American productions of this play?


We visited Durham Cathedral as a day trip from York. Durham is still a relatively small town, and the cathedral remains a center of local life much as it has been since the Middle Ages. Graduations from the nearby University of Durham, for example, are held in the Cathedral. Most of the stained glass in this Cathedral is modern. We were particularly struck by this delightfully contemporary rendition of the Last Supper. This window was underwritten by the local branch of Marks and Spencer, continuing a tradition of local sponsorship of stained glass that goes back at least as far as Chartres.



We spent nearly an entire day in Lincoln Cathedral (just as well – it was one of the few rainy days on our trip). In the morning, we took a “floor tour,” covering the magnificent interior, as well as the excellent 19th C stained glass. In the afternoon, we took a “tower tour” which provided access not only to the bell tower, but also the usually inaccessible upper story of the cathedral, including a catwalk that passed right in front of one of the rose windows. In between, we visited the Cathedral Library, which was featuring an early manuscript of the medieval encyclopedia of Bartholomeus Anglicus, a 13th C English scholar. This work (which I encountered in college) is a delightful compendium of the facts both real and imagined and is the source for many of the wonderful flights of fancy in Umberto Eco’s Baudolino.


Lincoln was an important center of England’s medieval Jewish community. The “Jew’s House,” which dates to the 12th C and is still standing, speaks to the importance of this community. The position of Jews in medieval England was a difficult one. One of the few occupations permitted to them was money-lending. The Jewish community were considered vassals of the King, and when the King wanted to grant a favor to one of his other vassals, he would often remit their debts (without, of course, reimbursing the Jewish moneylenders). In order to account for what we would call “bad debt risk,” the moneylenders had to then charge relatively high interest rates, making them very unpopular.

In 1255, a group of Lincoln Jews were arrested and executed for the ritual murder of a Christian child. Anti-Semitism continued to run high in England, and the Jewish community was formally expelled from England in 1290, a ban not lifted until the time of Oliver Cromwell. The charges against the Lincoln merchants, now universally acknowledged as fraudulent, are commemorated by a small plaque with an official apology, in English and Hebrew, inside the cathedral.


We were able to rent an apartment on the top floor of an apartment building on the Rue de Rennes, in the 6th Arrondissment. The top floor, as in many such buildings, was originally a garret, often used for servants’ apartments. That’s one reason why, in a 8-story building, the elevator only went to the 7th floor. The owners converted a series of small rooms into a wonderful apartment, albeit one with curved ceilings and an odd floor plan. We had a wonderful view of the Eiffel Tower from the front of the apartment, and Notre Dame from the back. We had a wonderful bakery and an artisanal chocolate shop on our street. And we were only a short walk from Le Grand Epicerie, one of the finest grocery stores in Paris, which made it easy us to cook a couple of dinners at home. Truly special.


We’ve been to Paris before, so we didn’t try to see everything. We visited the recently re-opened Picasso Museum. The renovation has greatly improved the viewing space, but unfortunately, not the viewing experience. The vast collection has been organized according to some metric that is not apparent to the casual viewer. Maybe we should have rented the audioguide.

On the other hand, the Musée d’Orsay has dramatically improved the viewing experience for their outstanding collection of Impressionist paintings. If you haven’t been in a few years, it’s time to go back. We also visited the Musée Monet Marmottan, which we have always thought was a better way to see a selection of Monet’s Water Lilies painting than the Orangerie, even though the latter was specially designed for them. We visited the Musée Jacquemart-Andre, one of the prettiest museums in Paris, which was featuring a special Perugino exhibit based on their wonderful small collection of Italian Renaissance paintings. Another old favorite was the Musée du Moyen Age (formerly known as the Cluny Museum), where it is now possible to see the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries at close range. We also made some time for the Musée Guimet, which has one of the finest collections of southeast Asian art outside the region (including some painstakingly made replicas from Angkor Wat.)


We took a day trip to Vaux-le-Vicomte, about 30 miles outside of Paris. When we first visited here, in 1981, you needed a car. These days, you can get there via Paris’ ever-expanding regional railroad network.

Vaux-le-Vicomte was built by Nicholas Fouquet, an advisor to King Louis XIII who clearly expected to have the same kind of power and influence during the reign of his son, Louis XIV. Le Roi Soleil had other ideas. And Fouquet didn’t count on an aggressive young rival, Colbert, who poisonously suggested to the King that Fouquet was stealing from him – a suggestion that seemed to be confirmed by the magnificent house party Fouquet threw for the King at Vaux-le-Vicomte. Fouquet thought the event was a great success. Little did he know that Louis had already decided to arrest him. As Voltaire later noted, Fouquet went to bed a king, and woke up as nothing. Fouquet spent the remaining 20 years of his life in prison, never seeing Vaux again.

Vaux has had the good fortune to be owned by a succession of rich and careful owners, who maintain the property. Today, it is owned by a private foundation, and employs a staff of 80 to keep the place in good condition. The gardens are particularly notable, and are often used as a stand-in for Versailles in both French and American movies. That only makes sense, since after having Fouquet arrested Louis poached Vaux’s garden designer, LeNotre, to do his own much grander gardens at Versailles.


With all of this sightseeing, we got very hungry. We dined at a number of the kind of smaller, family-style restaurants that we enjoy so much. We had roast guinea fowl at Willy’s Wine Bar, deer at Au Biche au Bois, fresh foie gras served on a bed of green beans at Hide, perfectly cooked St. Pierre and langoustines at Dessirier, and a spectacular veal roast at Jadis.

Our best experience, though, was a Huitrerie Régis, a small place not far from our apartment. As the name suggests, this place is all about oysters (minimum order, 12 per person). It is tiny (only 6 tables, very close together, with a couple more outside in fine weather). Ordering is easy – you decide which of the 5 or 6 types of oyster on offer you want to sample that day, and then select a bottle of wine from the small but excellent wine list (most stored vertically above the oyster bar). It doesn’t matter what you order – they’ll be the best oysters you’ve had in your life, shucked right in front of you. About midway through the meal, Régis (the owner) showed up, greeted everyone and asked whether we were enjoying our oysters. This partnership of purveyor, preparer, and server, all united in their desire to make sure their customers have an excellent experience, is the essence of what fine French restaurants are all about. And it’s the reason why so many American imitations, which often forget one leg of that triad, are often so sterile.

We’ll be back!


If It’s Tuesday … (Western Europe)

Our trip in the spring of 2014 grew out of a conference Ted was planning to attend in Amsterdam. Little by little, other cities were added (“I’ve always wanted to see Bruges… Provence is nice in the spring… We can get a cheap flight out of Cologne….”) and pretty soon we found ourselves planning the type of multi-country, move-every-few-days type trip we usually scorn. No matter – we had a great time anyway.

Please find more pictures here.

Begin the Beguine

Bruges is a city almost literally lost in time. A major commercial center in the Middle Ages, it lost much of its importance when its channel to the sea silted up, and its architecture hasn’t changed much since the 16th C. Surrounded by canals, it evaded the carnage of the First World War, some of which took place only 40 km away.


Bruges and its canals

Today, Bruges’ economy is based mainly on tourism. It is well-organized for welcoming its visitors, without being overwhelmed by them.

In addition to its lovely canals, Bruges is known for its “Flemish Primitive” painters (Memling and Van Eyck), a Madonna by Michelangelo (one of the few Michelangelo statues outside of Italy, and quite a nice one) and chocolate shops, which seemed to comprise about half the commercial establishments. In addition to well-known brands like Godiva and Leonidas, Bruges is home to more individualist chocolate shops offering funky flavors like chili pepper and cannabis. I didn’t inhale.

In Bruges (and also later in Amsterdam) we visited the Begijnhof, once the home of a lay Catholic sisterhood (women who lived as nuns without taking vows).   Whatever their religious motivations, these women sure knew how to pick lovely locations, and these places are an oasis of peace (especially in Amsterdam) in otherwise modern surrounding. These days, the Begijnhof in Bruges is home to real nuns (Benedictine). In Amsterdam, the Beguine community survived in otherwise Protestant Holland until the 1970s; today, the place is a residential community for single women, so maybe things haven’t changed that much.

Around and Around We Go

From Bruges, we went to Amsterdam, a place where the canals go in circles. The names of the canals, as the guidebook helpfully noted, are in alphabetical order, so you always know how far from the center you are. Unfortunately, you can’t tell where on the circle you are – it is possible to be two blocks from your destination and have no idea which direction to go. No matter – most Amsterdam residents speak excellent English, and are more than happy to help.



We stayed at a small hotel in the Museum Quarter, just a few minutes’ walk from each of Amsterdam’s main art museums – the Rijksmuseum, the Van Gogh Museum and the Stedelijk Museum of Modern Art. At the recently renovated Rijksmuseum, Rembrandt has pride of place, particularly the painting long known as the Nights Watch (which, since its recent cleaning, apparently was painted in the daytime, albeit indoors) and the painting formally known as the Syndics of the Drapers’ Guild, but forever known, to those of us as certain age, as the painting on the box of Dutch Masters cigars. The Van Gogh Museum has an excellent collection of earlier works, painted while the artist was still living in the Netherlands, as well as a skeleton smoking a cigarette that seems amazingly modern. The Stedelijk had an interesting collection with informative captions that kept even those of us not generally fans of modern art interested.

While Ted was at his conference, I visited the Jewish History museum, which was next door to the Portuguese Synagogue.   When it was built, in 1675, it was the largest synagogue in Europe. Jews were welcomed into the newly independent Netherlands. For most of the 17th C, in fact, Jews faced fewer restrictions on the practice of their religion than Catholics did – surely the only time in European history that was the case.

Amsterdam is also reputed to have a tattoo museum. Unfortunately, I was unable to find it – just as well. They apparently have a tattoo studio on the premises – who knows what might have happened?

No We’re Not On a Cruise

After Amsterdam, we went to Cologne. Although we arrived in the city by train, apparently Cologne has been discovered by the river cruise lines, and we saw a number of tour groups of various sizes.


Cologne Cathedral

Cologne is famous for its cathedral, which is of massive size – as long as its tower is high. It was completed in the 19th C, with support both from the Protestant king of Prussia and the Catholic king of Bavaria – a rare example of religious harmony.

In addition to its cathedral, Cologne has a number of Romanesque churches, and a small museum which offers excellent examples of stained glass and statuary usually hard to see close up. Cologne is also famous for its toilet water, “Eau de Cologne,” called 4711 after the address of the store which first sold it. These days, it is sold in as many outlets as Bruges has chocolate shops.

Easter in Provence

Being secular humanists, we had no idea, when we arranged some months ago to spend a few days in Provence with our friends Ken and Mary Lou, that the weekend we had picked included Easter Sunday. It turned out to be a pleasant coincidence, since their daughter Eva (currently a student in London) and Ken’s mother Betsy, who lives in Canada, were also visiting. We had “Gigot de sept heures” (leg of lamb cooked for 7 hours) a delicious dish which we hope to try out with our cooking group very soon.


A Camarguista

After this visit, we spent a few days in Arles, and took a day trip to the Camargue, which has a noted bird sanctuary (and seemingly hundreds of flamingoes – thrilling in flight). We visited the town of Aigues-Mortes, once an important embarkation point for French crusaders.  The country of France was much smaller in the Middle Ages than it is today, and Aigues-Mortes was its only outlet to the Meditteranean.

In later years, Aigues-Mortes was an important outpost of the free-thinking Albigensians and later still, not by coincidence, of Protestants. In the 18th C, the tower once used by Crusaders was used to imprison Protestant women who refused to abjure their faith – one of the awful consequences of religious persecution that the founders of our country surely had in mind when they drafted the First Amendment.

On the Road

From Provence, we drove to Spain, stopping first at the Abbaye de Fontfroide, near Narbonne. Fontfroide is also important in the annals of Albigensianism, since it was the murder of a Papal legate, a monk of Fontfroide, by Albigensians, which started the Crusade against them by the institutional Church, which ultimately destroyed them. The monks are gone now, and the former abbey is now a museum, with a very nice garden.

We stayed for a couple of days in Girona, in Catalonia. By another happy coincidence, we arrived on St. Jordi’s day, which is a local public holiday (St. Jordi, or St. George, is the patron saint of Catalonia).   The holiday is an excuse for a massive street fair, in which the traditional gifts are books for men and roses for the ladies. [Insert sexist joke here.]



That night, we ate at Massana, the second best restaurant in Girona, which, given that the “best” restaurant, Can Roca was recently named the best restaurant in the world, was awfully darned good. The chef combined Spanish ingredients with a Japanese sensibility, producing stunning results.Girona is also the home of an insanely popular ice cream shop, run by Can Roca’s pastry chef, which featured a “panet” – a turnover-like pastry, served warm, with ice cream still cold on the inside. How do they do that?

In addition to some fine Romanesque churches, Girona also features an interesting Jewish history museum – all the more amazing since there essentially hasn’t been a Jewish community in Girona since 1492. It was very well done – one of the visitors signing the guest book noted, “I’m from Israel and even I didn’t know this stuff.”

We also visited an interesting river house done by a local architect named Maso, a contemporary of Gaudi. Although not as revolutionary as Gaudi, Maso used many forward-looking techniques, particularly in the use of ventilation and natural light.

All in all, quite a lot to see in this little town, and well worth a 2-day visit.

More Than a Soccer Team

We had visited Barcelona once before, in 2001, and if anything liked it even more this time.

Casa Battlo, a private home designed by Antoni Gaudi, has recently been opened to the public. To say it was breathtaking is not to do it justice. Gaudi was apparently given a free hand by the owner, and he designed not just the residence but the furniture to go in it. Marks of Gaudi’s genius are everywhere – from the creative use of natural light, to the use of recycled materials (tile and glass) for decoration, to his characteristic “caternary arches” for ventilation. Just stunning.

Sagrada Familia

Sagrada Familia

La Sagrada Familia is still under construction, but the interior has been enclosed since we were last there and it is now an operational church. Fortunately, we had been told to reserve an entry time online – even on a weekday morning in April, the wait on the “unticketed” line was over an hour.

We have visited a lot of Gothic cathedrals over the years, but this one literally left me speechless. Gaudi, a deeply religious man, spent most of the last 20 years of his life on the cathedral, and it is clearly a place of faith, not power (more Chartres than St. Peter’s). Gaudi clearly intended to bring the Gothic cathedral to the modern age – using modern materials, modern construction techniques, and modern engineering – parabolic arches instead of flying buttresses. He looked to nature for some of his design ideas, long before anyone had heard of fractals. And yet, despite the modernity, this is still recognizably a “Gothic” church, with the characteristic cruciform design, stained glass windows, and soaring walls.  A masterpiece, and the highlight of our trip.

So Near and Yet So Far (Japan)

October 2013

Additional photos can be found here.

Ted and I spent about 10 days in Japan in mid-October. This was our second trip to Japan together (Ted’s third). I can’t really explain why we like Japan so much. But there’s something about the combination of modern Western conveniences and a very different cultural heritage that is irresistible to us.

Since we had already been to Tokyo, we decided to spend more of this trip in the western half of Japan.  We started in Kyoto, where we were fortunate enough to stay in a small (7-room) hotel in the picturesque Gion District. Gion is the center of Kyoto nightlife (bars, restaurants, and discreet geisha tea houses), and there aren’t many hotels there. This wonderful place treated us as though we were members of an extended family. Each morning, we would discuss our touring plans with the staff and they would give us helpful hints about how to get there and what to see. Each evening, after asking what type of food we wanted to eat, they would make us a reservation at a local restaurant, where “Ted-sama” and I, with a reference from the hotel, were greeted as regular customers. The hotel also offered a most unusual breakfast: homemade yogurt with fresh fruit, boiled eggs, pastries – and (surprisingly refreshing) vegetable soup.


In Kyoto, most of the sightseeing involves Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines. (The differences between those two religions are not apparent to the casual traveler, and in any event many Japanese practice both.) Our favorites were Ryoan-ji, a Buddhist temple with a rock garden carefully set up so that you can never see all the rocks at the same time, Kodai-ji, where one can can admire the same view as did Nene the long-lived wife of Hideyoshi Toyotomi, and Shoren-In, a Shinto temple with spectacular flower paintings. Ginkakuji (the “silver” or “moon viewing” temple) was also particularly attractive in the rain.

A Maiko

At the local crafts museum, we were fortunate enough to see an authentic dance performance by a maiko (apprentice geisha). Although the dance forms, music and language were completely unknown to us, the emotional resonance of the highly-disciplined dance, where most of the body was kept still and only the dancer’s arms, hands and fan were in motion, was unexpectedly powerful. It reminded us, in an odd way, of flamenco.

Kyoto is known for its food, and it did not disappoint. Some of the restaurants were amazingly specialized. One restaurant, for example, served only chicken, although it included chicken parts (necks, hearts and gizzards) not usually seen (or identified) in American restaurants. And we had a wonderful lunch in the suburb of Arashiyama, at a restaurant that specialized in tofu. But the traditional Kyoto restaurant follows the kaiseki style, where each course uses a distinct cooking style – raw, fried, grilled, steamed – and focuses on seasonal ingredients. Though we ate a number of such meals in Japan, we never had the same meal – or even the same course – twice. We loved the food, even the stuff we didn’t recognize – although I couldn’t manage to eat the head of the small skewered fish we were served, as suggested. Too roly-poly, I guess.

After Kyoto, we went to Nara, home of the Daibutsu (Big Buddha), which is housed in a building that is believed to be the largest wood structure in the world. The shrine includes a pierced column which, if you can wriggle your way through, is supposed to guarantee a ticket to Paradise. It helps to be 4 years old – although we did see one 20-something Aussie do it, to the amusement of the crowd. The Buddha shrine is situated in an extensive park, home of some very assertive “tame” deer. Nara also has some spectacular gardens.

We stayed in the Nara Hotel, located at the entrance to the park. The hotel was built around the turn of the last century, and was designed to be a “rustic lodge” for city people – something like the Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite, although with distinctive Japanese architectural elements. One corridor of the hotel has pictures of the dozen or so visits by the Imperial Family – a big deal, since the Japanese royals don’t often appear in public.

After Nara, we took the spectacular Japanese train system to Hiroshima, about 2 hours by shinkansen. Japanese trains are expensive, and the fare system is very complicated. But you can’t beat them for speed and convenience.

Hiroshima was totally rebuilt after the war, and with its tall buildings and broad streets it looks much like an American city. The epicenter of the atomic bomb blast, once a densely-populated residential district, is now a Peace Park, with monuments and a small museum. Though lovely, it’s a pretty spooky place – it’s immediately obvious that you are walking on a mass grave. (In fact, the bones of nearly 80,000 mostly unidentified victims are buried here.) At one end of the park, there is a small stone statue of Jiso (a Buddhist deity) which survived the blast, although you can still see a “shadow” in the pedestal left by the heat. The museum includes replicas of letters sent by successive mayors of Hiroshima protesting nuclear bomb tests. There are letters to the leaders of Britain, France, Russia, China and the US (including Barack Obama), as well as a particularly acerbic one to North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un.

Hiroshima is particularly known for okonomiyaki, a kind of pancake cooked on a hot griddle in front of you. It’s surprisingly good and reasonably priced. We had the traditional version (pork, cabbage and bean sprouts), although versions with many different flavorings are available.

From Hiroshima, we went to the picturesque island of Miyajima, known for an 11th C Shinto shrine seems to float on the water at high tide. The Torii gate (the seaside entrance to the shrine) is often photographed at sunrise. Unfortunately, both of these effects were muted by the rain (we caught the edge of a late-season typhoon). But we had a good time nevertheless.

At Miyajima, we stayed at a ryokan (traditional Japanese inn), run by a family in its fourth generation of innkeeping. Our room was set up for sitting during the day, and futons would be brought out for sleeping at night. The room set-up would be magically changed while you were eating meals. The room also had a traditional Japanese cedar bath, designed for full-body soaking. Despite its rustic appearance (complete with a little wooden bucket for pre-washing), the bath was thoroughly modern – you just selected your temperature, and the bath would be filled in 10 minutes. Sleeping on the floor futons, with the sound of a rushing stream and the rain outside, was surprisingly comfortable – at least for one of us.

From Miyajima, we traveled to Kurashiki, a small town whose old section still looks much as it did in the 17th C (although with modern conveniences). Kurashiki is something of an “artist” town, with a number of shops selling high-quality pottery, lacquerware and other traditional Japanese arts. It also is the home of the Ohara Museum , one of the best collections of Western art in Japan. (The art was once the private collection of a Japanese industrialist.)

At Kurashiki, we stayed at a more “upscale” ryokan. Our “room” was really a suite, with separate sleeping, eating and sitting areas and a small garden. Although the room had its own bath, we took advantage of the larger, more elaborate separate bath that is a feature of many ryokans. The staff didn’t speak much English, and we have virtually no Japanese, but they were obviously used to Western travelers — they asked us if we wanted to bathe together (which Japanese couples don’t often do).

After bathing, we were served dinner in our rooms, sitting on tatami mats in our stockinged feet, wearing the full-length bathrobes furnished by the hotel – a most civilized way to eat. Dinner was served course by course. Each course was a tiny work of art. Not only was the food presented attractively, but many of the place settings included fall foliage and other seasonal elements, which are an important part of the Japanese esthetic. And since it was Japan, nobody had any problem with our taking pictures of our meal.

After Kurashiki, we stopped for an afternoon at Himeji, one of the few more-or-less original 17th castles left in Japan (many others, like the one in Osaka, are modern reconstructions). Himeji Castle is undergoing a major, multi-year renovation project , which meant that its famous “White Egret Tower” was shrouded in scaffolding. Given the importance of the castle to the local tourist industry, however, the restoration project included an elevator, which allowed tourists to view the roof at close range – something that won’t actually be possible once the project is done.

At Himeji, we were offered the services of an English-speaking guide. In most other countries, such guides are often expensive. But here, as is often the case in Japan, the guide was a volunteer – a middle-aged businessman who traveled internationally and wanted to improve his English. He was not only very knowledgeable about the castle, but also the details of the restoration project – an “engineering-oriented” tour you don’t usually get from more traditional guides.

At Himeji, we had an unusual local specialty – a rice bowl served with raw egg, which you cracked over the rice (the heat of the rice cooks the egg) and finished with various toppings. The eggs, we were told, were delivered every day from a farm where the chicken were raised listening to Mozart. They were quite wonderful.

We finished the trip in Osaka, traditionally Japan’s second city (although it was recently passed by Yokohama). The Dotonbori, filled with bars and restaurants, is filled with flashing, talking billboards and wild wall ornaments advertising their wares – plastic models of crabs, fugu (puffer fish) or samurai chefs.  It was supposedly the model for the main commercial street of “LA” in Blade Runner, but the effect of the real-life place was irrational exuberance, not dystopia.

Although Osaka is a big city, it has surprising oases of quiet. We visited one shrine which, serendipitously, happened to be a place where local families came to celebrate the children’s birthdays.  Many of the children, boys as well as girls, were dressed in decorative kimonos. There were also  newborn babies wrapped in yards of spectacularly beautiful fabric.

On our last evening, we sampled teppanyaki – beef cooked on a hot griddle right in front of you (although without the theatrical knife work you sometimes find in American Japanese restaurants). The chef offered us “garlic risotto,” which turned out to be Japanese rice, slightly undercooked, tossed on the grill with slivered garlic. It wasn’t like any risotto I’ve had in Italy – but it was surprisingly tasty.

Although we ate well in Osaka, we were embarrassed to discover, too late, that the city has an amazing number of Michelin-starred restaurants. I guess we’ll just have to go back.

It’s Not Easy Being Green (Ireland)

June 2013

When Ted and I told our friends we were planning a trip to Ireland, a common response was “why?”  This was a mystery to me, since Ireland is full of cultural and scenic treasures.  And they speak English.

Some photos of our trip can be found here.

Dublin is a lovely city which reminded me of the older parts of Boston – Georgian architecture, leafy green parks, a faux-medieval university, and lots of bars.  There’s even a local “duck boat” tour, although the Dublin version provides customers with horned helmets, in tribute to the city’s Viking origins.

We stayed at the Merrion Hotel, one of the nicest places we have ever stayed at – historic 18th C surroundings, with a down-to-earth, incredibly thoughtful staff.  It claims to be the birthplace of the Duke of Wellington (although, we found out later, it is not the only claimant — everyone wants a piece of this illustrious fellow).  The hotel has an impressive collection of art by Irish artists, and on weekends they host an “art tea” with inventive pastries inspired by their collection.

Dublin (and Ireland generally) is a frustrating place to visit for lovers of churches.  The country’s medieval churches were generally taken over by the (Protestant) Church of Ireland after Cromwell, and many had their interiors “redecorated” in the 19th C.  They are nice enough, but lack the spiritual power of the medieval original.  Most of Ireland’s current Catholic churches date from the 19th C , and are not architecturally interesting.

Ireland is, however, rich in medieval monasteries, some dating back to the 6th C.  We visited several of these, including Glendalough and Clonmacnoise.  They are pretty impressive, even as ruins.

Ireland’s roads are pretty good these days, courtesy of the EU.  Left-side driving turned out not to be much of a problem as we had feared, since there isn’t much traffic.  I found it was actually more difficult as a pedestrian, since on busy sidewalks I was always swerving the “other” way.

One thing that becomes immediately obvious once you leave Dublin is how agricultural the country is.  Ireland is a country that, essentially, missed the Industrial Revolution.  The Ford factory at Cork, and the great shipyards of Belfast, are no more; and the Paint Hall which once housed the Titanic now serves as the throne room of the fictional Kings Landing.

Ireland’s current population (4,000,000) is lower now than it was in 1840, before the Famine (7,000,000) – the only developed Western nation for which that is true.   The country is still losing about 2,000 people a week, although these days emigrants are more likely to go to Australia and New Zealand than the US or Canada.

For the tourist, this means that the countryside still consists of small villages separated by farmland, with little of the urban sprawl you see in other parts of Europe.  You can also sometimes see 20th C gravestones in 1000-year old graveyards.  In most parts of Europe (and even in colonial New England) these old graveyards ran out of space decades if not centuries ago.

It wouldn’t be much of a trip to Ireland without visits to local pubs.   They are surprisingly pleasant – indoor smoking in pubs was eliminated a few years ago.  I’m not generally a beer drinker, but Irish Guinness is surprisingly tasty — tangy and creamy at the same time.  (Unfortunately, the American version, which is pasteurized, is not very good, so you’ll have to travel to Ireland to taste it.)  Irish whisky is also tasty – smoother than Scotch, but not as sweet as American bourbon.

Doolin, on the West Coast, is noted for its traditional music pubs.   At one pub, a 14-year old girl asked if she could sit in with the musicians (a fairly standard request at such pubs).  She was pretty good, and when the musicians asked if she wanted to play another piece, she asked if her sisters (aged 13 and 10) could also join in. They were pretty credible too.  It turned out these girls were from Uganda and had learned this music pretty much on their own.  They had brought their instruments with them on their family trip to Ireland, hoping they would have the opportunity to sit in with real Irish musicians.  Everyone in the pub was moved by this story of Irish music’s international appeal, not the least the musicians themselves.

We took a small tour boat out to the Cliffs of Moher, one of Ireland’s scenic landmarks.  We saw dolphins (at the northern edge of their geographic range) and Arctic puffins (at the southern end of theirs).  Global climate change is no joke here, where even a small change in climate could knock the country, at the same latitude as Labrador, off its precarious perch on the edge of the temperate zone.

About the weather, the less said the better.  Summer is supposed to be relatively dry, but there’s a reason the Romans called this place Hibernia – loosely translated as “the place where winter is always coming.” The first four days and (of course) the last day of our trip were sunny and warm.  The rest of the time we had rain, sometimes intermittent, sometimes so heavy it made a mockery of what we had previously referred to as our “rain gear.”  Fortunately, there was always a warm , snug tea shop or pub nearby.  And the coastline was pretty dramatic, even in the rain (fewer pictures, though).

We visited the Dingle Peninsula, one of the few places in Ireland where Irish, not English, is the primary language.  English is universally spoken, so this presents no problem for tourists.  Some of the road signs out here, though, were in Irish only – fortunately, not any place where we wanted to go, because the language is pretty much indecipherable.  (Galway, for example, is Gailimh in Irish.)  Hearing Irish spoken, it becomes immediately obvious that the distinctive lilt of the Irish accent comes from the cadences of the old language.

In Killarney, we visited Muckross House, the center of what had once been an 11,000-acre estate granted to an English nobleman by the first Elizabeth.  (It’s been a national park since the 1930s.)  The house, available for tourist visits, is set up as it would have appeared in the late 19th C. Somewhat startlingly, the tour guides point out that the bells in the servant halls were not labeled because most of the servants were illiterate, and the sinks for washing pots and pans were so low because the scullery maids were usually children.  There’s no Downton Abbey-type nostalgia here – Ireland got rid of its aristocrats and doesn’t want them back.

We visited Kinsale, a charming fishing village along the south coast, noted for its fish restaurants.  The local churchyard had a memorial to the Lusitania, which was torpedoed about 20 miles off the coast.  Our final stop was Cork, the country’s relatively untouristed second-largest city, and the birthplace of both Henry Ford and labor activist Mother Jones.

The phrase “Irish cuisine” is no longer an oxymoron.  Fresh, local foods have become cool again, and Ireland has some great local products – beef and lamb, seafood of all types, cheese,  artisanal yogurt, and butter so good you don’t want to bother with the bread.   But you still have to work a little bit to find a good meal – especially if you like vegetables.

Ireland’s most awesome attraction, though, is its people.  It’s a place where people are not only willing, but eager, to talk to you.   Sitting in a pub, your neighbor would discuss your choice of beverage.  Locals sitting next to you at the theater would ask whether you liked the play.   One guy passing Ted on the street advised him not to wear his sweater tied around his neck, because “only Americans do that.”  Tour guides provided not only information about what you were looking at, but also their views about everything from national politics to local sports.  For people like us, who enjoy understanding how other people live, Ireland was a real find.


Four Ladies and a Holy Land (Israel)

May 2013

When my daughter was invited, last year, to speak at a conference in Haifa this month, I realized that, given my current work schedule, I could go with her.   We were joined by my sister-in-law Mary Jo (whose son Jeff is currently living in Jerusalem) and her cousin Carol.  So then we were four.

It was only a short trip (10 days, including a full day of travel on either end) so we didn’t try to cover too much territory.

Some photos of our trip can be found here.

Tel Aviv/Jaffa

We spent a couple of days in Tel Aviv, a modern city that, despite its location, feels like it is in Europe.  I’m not crazy about the Bauhaus architecture that predominates, but the beach is nice and the city seems very livable.  It was also a good place to recover from the 18-hour journey from California.  We spent an afternoon with a friend of Mary Jo’s in Herzlia, a pleasant suburb, and explored this historic port of Jaffa, now beautifully restored.


If Tel Aviv was still Europe, Jerusalem is definitely someplace else.   Hearing it described as “a city on a hill,” I imagined the rolling hills of San Francisco, not Chavez Ravine.  It’s remarkable that a city with such ancient roots could have been built in such a mountainous site, but it does have access to water.

Jerusalem is the spiritual capital of both Judaism and Christianity, and is an important holy site for Muslims too.  The Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the Western Wall, and the Dome of the Rock are all located a few minutes’ walk from each other, and you could potentially visit them all in the same day (we didn’t).

Jerusalem is full of religious pilgrims of all types.  In addition to Christian clergy of all denomination including many in the unfamiliar garb of Eastern rites, there are Hasidic Jews in black coats and variety of hats, Arab Muslim and orthodox Jewish women in headscarves; and the occasional fellow dressed like Jesus.

The Church of the Holy Sepulcher, which dates to the 4th C and encompasses the site where Christ was crucified as well the tomb of the Resurrection, is unlike any Christian church I have ever visited.  Ownership of the church is divided among the six oldest Christian sects:  Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Egyptian Coptic, Ethiopian and Syrian Orthodox.  Each sect jealously guards its particular chapel, and holds its own services – often there are several going on at once.   In the 12th C, Saladin appointed a Muslim family to act as the Church’s official custodian, and unofficial referee; a descendant of the same family retains that position to this day.

The religious pilgrims who come here are unusually enthusiastic – kneeling, knocking their heads on the ground and kissing the edges of the various holy sites located within the church.  Some of the most demonstrative pilgrims were Russians – particularly notable since religious observance was officially banned in that country for some 75 years.  Even if you’re not a believer, you cannot help but be moved by their fervor.

Similarly, at the Western Wall, the sight of believers kissing the Wall or putting small written prayers in it, and walking backwards away from the Wall to avoid turning their backs to it, is spiritually overwhelming.

Visiting the Temple Mount, site of the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa mosque, is more austere, since non-Muslims are not allowed to go visit the interiors of these mosques.  The buildings are impressive, however, and the site offers fine views of the Mount of Olives and the surrounding area.

One morning, I took the light rail out to the western edge of the modern city to see the Mark Chagall stained glass windows at Hadassah Hospital.  The 12 windows, representing the 12 tribes of Israel, are in a synagogue, so there are no human figures.  However, Chagall’s trademark animals make their appearance, as well as disembodied hands with Spock-like fingers.  (As Star Trek geeks know, Leonard Nimoy, an orthodox Jew, based his “live long and prosper” salute on the praying rabbis of his youth.)  Four of the windows were badly damaged during the 1967 war; Chagall repaired them, incorporating a piece of shrapnel into one of the new windows.

Not far away is Yad Vashem, a place of commemoration for the victims of the Holocaust.  The Holocaust museum on the site is probably the most comprehensive such museum in the world.  It makes two simple points very well:  (1)  the whole world was watching, and did nothing;  and (2)  we’re never going to let that happen again.


We spent an afternoon in Ramallah, in Palestinian territory.  The hardest part about going to Ramallah is getting there.  Ordinary taxis can’t cross the border, but my nephew Jeff, who teaches at Al-Quds University east of Jerusalem, knew of a taxi service whose drivers had the right kind of visas.

As we approached the border, a sign reminded Israelis that they were forbidden to travel to Ramallah without special permission.  This was followed by a second sign which, somewhat oddly, said it was strictly forbidden for Israelis to bring their cars across the border for repairs.  Sure enough, as soon as we crossed, we saw half a dozen auto repair shops, on an otherwise empty stretch of road, obviously doing a brisk business from clients on both sides of the border.

There’s not much to see in Ramallah.  In some ways, what’s most surprising is how normal it is.  There’s a lot of building going on, the shops are busy, and the merchandise is not much different from what you’d see on the Israeli side.  After a while, you begin to notice some oddities.  There are a lot of garbage bags on the street waiting for pickup, indicating suboptimal public garbage service.  There are an inordinate number of taxis – no public transportation.  And, although bathrooms are clean and modern, when you turn on the water in some places, only a tiny trickle comes out.  Water politics are a huge part of the story here, although rarely reported.


After Jerusalem, our party separated.  Tory and I went to Haifa for her conference, while Mary Jo and Carol headed for the Dead Sea and Tiberias.

Although Tory’s conference was notionally located in Haifa, our hotel was actually in nearby Akko – which was just as well for me, since Akko is more historically interesting.

Haifa’s main tourist site is the Baha’i Shrine and Gardens.  The Baha’i, perhaps the world’s first “New Age” religion, split off from Islam in what is now Iran in the 19th C.  They aren’t very popular in most of the Muslim world, which regards them as heretics.  But they have found a comfortable home in Haifa, which has good interfaith relations.  I’m not sure how many Baha’i actually live in Haifa, but Baha’i pilgrims come here from all over the world to visit the Shrine and admire the magnificent hanging gardens, which offer dramatic views of the sea.

Haifa is relatively young, by the standards of the area, but Akko has been continuously occupied for some 4,000 years.  St. Paul was here, and so was Richard the Lionheart.  Napoleon was defeated here, which ended his attempt to conquer Jerusalem.

Akko was an important Crusader site.  After the battle of Hattin, which led to the Crusaders’ loss of Jerusalem, their kingdom was based in Akko, which was then known as Acre.  Some of the Crusader sites have recently been excavated, including a magnificent staircase which was meant to be used by knights mounted on horseback.  The Templars once had a large castle here, of which nothing now remains.  However, you can visit the Templar Tunnels, whose purpose remains obscure – were they designed for clandestine communication, or were they an ingenious engineering project designed to remove silt from the harbor?

Akko also has a nice 18th C mosque, which is open to visitors of all faiths.  From 1948 to 1967, when the Temple Mount was part of Jordan, the Akko mosque was actually the largest mosque in Israel.

I was able to join a conference “field trip” to the Mt. Carmel archeological site, a system of cliff caves where it is believed Homo sapiens and Neanderthals may have lived side-by-side, some 50,000 years ago

Nazareth / Galilee

On our last day, we hired a guide who took us to Nazareth, a little over an hour’s  drive from Akko, and the Sea o Galilee.

Nazareth is far from the tiny village it was in Jesus’ time – today, it is a bustling town of 80,000.  It is a majority Arab town, but it has a large Arab Catholic population.  The Church of the Annunciation, built over the legendary site where Gabriel appeared to Mary, features mosaics of the Madonna in the costumes of Catholic communities all over the world (including a kimono-clad Mary with a tiny samurai baby Jesus).  Since it was Sunday, we caught a little bit of Mass in the local language – Arabic.

At the Sea of Galilee, we visited Capernaum (where Jesus preached, and where the apostles Peter and Andrew lived) and Mount Beatitude (site of the Sermon on the Mount).    At a Greek Orthodox church near Capernaum, we had a picnic lunch at a small pier that jutted out into the water – an uncrowded spot that made it possible to imagine what the place must have looked like in Jesus’ day (although I’m pretty sure there were no bananas or avocados growing there in the 1st Century).

We also visited the site on the Jordan River where, according to tradition, Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist.  Religious pilgrims come from all over the world to be baptized in the river.  The gift shop will even rent you white smocks – this is full immersion baptism, including a head-dunking.  Despite the apparent hokiness, it was obvious that the people being baptized regarded it as the high point of their journey.

On the way back, our guide pointed out the Horns of Hattin, the site of the momentous battle in which Saladin defeated the Crusader army in 1187, allowing him to retake Jerusalem.

Food and Drink

I found Israeli food to be quite enjoyable.  It basically followed a Mediterranean pattern (fish, olives, lots of vegetables) with the addition of Middle Eastern favorites (falafel, hummus) and some Eastern European imports (cottage cheese, dill pickles and beets).   Quality standards were high, although I found some of the local combinations (falafel with beets) a little strange.

Israeli wines were surprisingly good too, although it was odd to see names on the wine labels – Galilee, Bethlehem, Golan Heights – that you usually see in other, more political, contexts.

Tel Aviv is reputed to have the best food in Israel, but the best meal we had was at Uri Burri restaurant on the waterfront in Akko. We ate there our first night in Akko, and it was so good we came back for the last night too.  The restaurant prepared the superlative local fish and other local ingredients using techniques of fish cookery from all over the world, with remarkably felicitous results (e.g., fish “cured” in balsamic vinegar and beets tasted remarkably like miso-cured fish, while shrimp “ceviche” was enlivened with local lemons and cilantro).  On our second visit, we met Uri, a rotund fellow with twinkling eyes, merry dimples, and a long white beard – sort of a Levantine Santa Claus.  (On reconsideration, maybe I don’t need the adjective, since the original St. Nicholas, who was born in southern Italy and spent most of his life on the coast of what is now Turkey, was a Man of the Med.)

Sabattical in Italy

September 2012

Ted and I are taking advantage of a sabbatical program offered by his employer. We’re off to Italy for two months, starting tomorrow. We will have sporadic access to e-mail, but don’t expect to be posting much.

More photos of our trip can be found here.

We’ll be hitting big sights and small (Venice, Bolzano, Treviso, Ravenna, Ferrara, Monte Cassino, Paestum, Positano, Florence and Rome) and, except for the north-south transit, staying mostly in rentals (including a month in Florence).

In 1970, the summer I turned 17, I spent 45 days in Italy visiting the extended family of a high school friend. Prior to that trip, I had never been on an airplane, and, except for the Jersey Shore, had barely been out of NYC.

It’s no exaggeration to say that the trip changed the course of my life.  My very first day, I was taken to a church built before Columbus discovered America.  The art, the food, the way of life — I was hooked.

Ted and I took our first trip to Italy together in 1981. We have traveled many other places since then (France, Spain, Portugal and, more recently, Turkey and Japan). But when this opportunity to take a long trip presented itself, it didn’t take us long to decide that Italy would be our destination.Italy has its problems, lord knows. But the Italians seemed to have figured out something about living a satisfying urban life back in the 14th C — we can still learn from that.

Best Laid Plans

We arrived at Frankfurt airport to find ourselves in the middle of a wildcat strike by Lufthansa for which the airline (and us) were totally unprepared. 60% of Lufthansa’s flights were cancelled, but by some miracle ours took off only 3 hours late. We even made our dinner reservation at Corte Sconto, where we dined on a selection of unpronounceable seafood.

We are staying in an apartment in a residential area called Dorsoduro, about 15 minutes walk from St. Mark’s. The area is remarkably quiet – even the bells of the nearby church, which chime merrily all day, go silent at night.

The bridge over the little canal next to our place is so low that water taxi drivers have to duck their heads to get under. They seem to have a lot of practice doing that, not even bothering to stop their cell phone conversations.

As I type this Ted is making restaurant reservations by telephone. When did Ted learn to speak Italian?

Tomorrow is the historic Regatta. We hope to catch a glimps

Regatta Storico

On Sunday, we watched a parade of historic boats, which was part of the annual Regatta Storico (historic regatta). It’s not really that historic, by Venetian standards — only 116 years old. But it’s a good excuse for a party. We had been warned about the crowds, so we showed up about 2 hours ahead of time and found a shady spot on the steps of the Santa Maria Della Salute church. While we waited for the parade to begin, we watched later arrivals searching for seats and were “entertained” by modestly talented musicians. All in all, the experience was not unlike a Harvard graduation, with better costumes.

The parade began with a replica of the Bucintoro (Golden Boat), which was the ceremonial boat of the Doge.

Regatta Storico - Bucintoro

The parade of historic boats was followed by a series of boat races with different kinds of flat-bottomed boats. The “mascareta” was the boat favored by Venetian courtesans. So of courses this is the women’s race.

Regatta Storico - Mascaretas

Camera Mishap Survived

On Tuesday we had a potentially devastating camera mishap — the lens was corrupted by dust (probably from extended residence in Ted’s pocket). Ted was able to locate a camera store online. We visited in person, and the excellent salesman (who appeared to be the owner of the tiny establishment) sold us an even better camera. What did we ever do without the Tubes?

We paid our respects to the 4 horses of San Marco (now sensibly housed indoors) and had a Bellini at Harry’s Bar – perhaps not worth the 16 euro price, but at least they make it with real peach juice.

In the evening we saw La Traviata at La Fenice, a jewel box of an opera house where the opera was premiered in 1853. The cast was excellent and relatively young.  It’s always good when the woman who is supposed to be dying of consumption isn’t 250 pounds.

Venetian Horses

Another Day, Another Country

We are spending a few days in Bolzano, in a bilingual part of Italy that was part of Austria until after WW I and still seems more like Austria than Italy. The architecture may look Austrian, but the art (and the coffee) are definitely Italian.

They don’t get a lot of tourists here, so you can still take pictures if the 14th Century frescoes, There is just enough Germany here, though, to keep Ted happy.

English is definitely the third language here, so I’m getting to practice my Italian.

Bolzano is also the resting place of Otzi, the Iceman – the prehistoric hiker whose ice-preserved body was found in the mountains not far from here about 20 years ago. You can see his mummified body in a little box – it’s pretty creepy. The associated museum is quite interesting though.
This is a big wine-producing area (Alto Adige) and we’ll be tasting wine tomorrow.


Food Glorious Food

I haven’t talked much about the food here, but of course we are eating very well.
Some favorites:

  • Cigale del mare – small mollusks from the Venice lagoon; sort of like crayfish, only sweeter. Ted likes to call these “crickets of the sea” (cigale is Italian for cicada).
  • Broiled cuttlefish – better than it sounds.
  • Baccala mantecato – salt cod cooked in milk and served on toast.  Ditto.
  • Risotto buranello – cooked in stock made from tiny fish called “go” from the Venetian lagoon; a specialty of Burano.
  • Canederli  – crepes cut in strips and served in onion broth; Alto Adige’s answer to tortilla soup.
  • Treviso precoce – young (“precocious”) Treviso; not as bitter as the more mature version you usually see in the US.
  • Morlacco cheese – fresh lightly salted cows milk cheese from the Monte Grappa area. The name apparently comes from a community of “Morlacchi” that used to live in the area, but of course that name is not translated. Morlocks?

And of course, porcini season is just beginning.

The other day, in the town of Treviso, we saw what is believed to be the first portrayal of eyeglasses in Western art – 1352. Don’t ask me who made them – maybe Morlocks?

We’ll be on the road, going south, for the next couple of weeks, with uncertain Internet access.  So I’ll probably be posting less often.


In the House of Giants

On our last day in the Bolzano area, we visited several local wineries, courtesy of our friend Eric Lecours, whom some of you may know.  Because of the variety of microclimates, they are able to grow a number of different grapes there, many of which are not commonly exported to the US.  One discovery was a bone-dry Gewurtztraminer, which they claim as the original version, named after the local town of Tremeno, Traminer in German.

Now we are staying for a week in a rented house in Monfumo, in the Veneto.

The house is owned by an American, who is apparently very tall and finished the house to her measure.  Everything from the kitchen shelves to the shower curtain is a real stretch for my short arms.

Yesterday we visited Vicenza, which has a lot of buildings by the 16th C architect Palladio.  His buildings influenced many English and early American architects.  This is Vila Rotonda, which is just outside Vicenza, but which might easily be mistaken for the US Supreme Court.


Justinian Time

We spent a couple of days in Ferrara, which was a nice place but severely impacted by an earthquake last spring.  The old city, much of it dating from the last severe earthquake in 1570, is largely built of brick, and many of the most important sites have been closed because of structural damage.  It is not clear when some of them will reopen – it may take years.

Yesterday we stopped for lunch in Comacchio, a small town close to the water, and Ted ate grilled eel, a local specialty.  I chickened out (actually, I ate shrimp).

We are now in Ravenna, a city with an amazing amount of really old stuff, some if it dating back to the 5th century.  Our B&B is 5 minutes’ walk from the famous mosaics of Justinian.

Tomorrow we head south, and we plan to visit the abbey of Monte Cassino on Sunday.

Here’s another photo from S. Appolinare in Classe, about 8 km outside of Ravenna.  When it was built, in the 9th C, this church was on the water.  Now that the harbor has silted up, it’s in the middle of a field.

Small Towns, Big History

We stayed for a couple of nights in Pico, a small town south of Rome which, unbeknownst to us, had been the HQ for the German high command in Italy in 1943 and early 1944.

Pico is not far from Monte Cassino, a 6th C Benedictine abbey which has been destroyed four times – by Lombards, Saracens, earthquake and Allied bombing – and rebuilt every time. Here is Ted in the rebuilt courtyard. As you can see, the scale of the place is huge. We were able to join a guided tour with a group of Benedictine monks from all over the world, and as a result got to see Benedict’s tomb behind the altar in the main church. The guide was happy to point out that, although a shell hit the tomb, it did not explode.

It only took a few hours of bombing to demolish the abbey, but it took 3 months of hard fighting to take the hill. There is a special cemetery for the Polish fighters, who took many casualties, nearby.

Yesterday we tasted wine with Bruno de Concilis. Unlike many Italian winemakers,whose roots go back generations, Bruno’s father was a chicken farmer, and the winemaking operation takes place in the old chicken raising facility. The family was a little startled when Bruno decided to open a winery, but things are OK now that he’s made a success of it. He may visit California next spring.

Today we visited Paestum, the oldest Greek site on the Italian mainland, with three 2500 year old temples in an amazing state of preservation.

Brief trip to the US

Actually, we are in Positano, but there are so many Americans here it seems as though we’ve left the country. I’ve even seen spaghetti and meatballs (not something Italians eat) on the menu.

Snark aside, this is a pretty spectacular place, built into the side of a mountain. People are friendly, and the food is good. I’m glad we came while we still can walk the 300 steps from the port to our hotel (this picture is taken from the staircase, about 1/2 way up). We did, however, pay a porter to take our bags up by minicab.

It’s also hotter here than we expected – nearly 90. Must be that mythical global warming. Ted had to break down and buy a pair of stylish Italian shorts (photo on request).

It’s wonderful here, but it’s like a movie version of Italy.

After leaving Positano, we spent three days in Amalfi, around 15 miles down the coast. Amalfi was a maritime republic in the 11th and 12th century, and has the Moorish-Norman cathedral to prove it. It faded pretty quickly, though, and after that the town, like most of southern Italy, missed every cultural advance since the Renaissance. It successfully reinvented itself as a tourist destination some decades ago, and today it is indeed an enchanted place. Unaccountably, the food was much better in Amalfi than in Positano – too many rich Republicans in P-town, I guess.

We took a day trip by boat to Capri, which has been a high-end resort since Emperor Augustus, no fool, built a summer residence there. Those islands behind us are called the Faragliones (Farallons). I have no idea why.

Yesterday we travelled from Salerno to Florence by high-speed train, which took about 3 hours. (Insert surly commentary about how it is the Italian government can do something we can’t.)

Our apartment in Florence, where we will spend the next month, is awesome – more on that later.

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 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.


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.


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 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.