New York, New York

I expected New York to be large and loud, busy and buzzing with energy.

New York was always one of the places where I wanted to live, and I thought that I would be swept up in its pace. What pace? When I left my hostel and walked south on Broadway in peak hour, it was quiet – there were few people and even the cars weren’t honking their horns. I continued south of Central Park, where the buildings grew shinier and the areas became more business focussed than residential, but it was the same.

New York seemed flat and grey. I missed the intimacy of Europe, the tiny alleys and renaissance buildings, the shouting market vendors and bakeries whose aromas pulled me in from the street. In contrast, New York was closed to me, completely anonymous. I walked down 53rd Street and 5th Avenue, feeling like I was just on a supersized version of William Street in Melbourne.

I continued walking, searching for the click that would make everything fall into place. It was as though there was a secret passageway to get into the life of the city, and I hadn’t found it.

By midday I was soaked in the ongoing rain. Then, as I was walking north from Chinatown, past Union Square, someone screaming snatched my attention.

“40 DAYS AND 40 NIGHTS!” a black man with elbow-length dreads in a clear poncho shouted.

Buy an umbrella people!” I jumped back as he bellowed, “it’s cheaper than a doctor’s bill!

“I think he’s scaring people off,” a guy said next to me, and I looked at him in surprise. Was someone actually talking to me?

“Well would you want to buy an umbrella from him?” he asked.

“Of course,” I grinned, “he’s passionate!”

I was in.

Suddenly I was talking to people . . . and (more importantly) seeing food!

Grand Central Station was a warm haven in the rain, and I started to dry off as I wandered through the market centre, looking at the fish, vegetables, fruits, chocolate and baked goods. When I headed back to my hostel that night, I was shocked by how many shops had names that included the words organic, natural, farm-fresh, healthy and gourmet, all of them with fruits and veggies arranged outside.

I prowled through shop after shop, wanting to buy everything. It was only after I’d chosen some salads and yoghurt that I realised I didn’t have any cutlery.

I stayed in the shop where I’d just bought the yoghurt, looking for spoons. There were beautiful sets of five stainless-steel teaspoons for $12, or fifty plastic spoons for $5. $12 was a bit steep for me, but I really didn’t want to buy 50 spoons . . .

I took the escalator to the basement, where two staff members leaned on the plastic cutlery display and chatted. I looked around them.

“Can I help you?” the girl asked.

“I’m just seeing what cutlery you have,” I said as my eyes scanned the numbers on the packets. The lowest seemed to be 25. “I just need one spoon.”

“Oh, go to the deli, Ricardo can give you a spoon,” the guy said.

“Really? Thank you!” I smiled and followed his gestures to the deli.

“Yo, Ricardo!” he shouted across the store. “Boss, would you get this young lady a spoon please, boss?”

Ricardo lifted his head from behind the deli as I arrived, looking suspiciously like he’d been having a nap under the counter. “What?” he looked at me groggily.

“I said would you mind getting this young lady a spoon, if it so pleases you boss sir!”

“Here you go, darling,” Ricardo handed me a spoon with a smile.

After this, New York started growing on me.

I loved ‘suggested price’ ticketing. At the Natural History museum, the ticket kiosk said $16.95 for general admission, and then said if I’d like to pay less I could go to the ticket counters.

So I went to the ticket counter and asked, “so, how does the suggested admission work?”

“You can pay whatever you want,” the girl said.

“Oh, okay. So I could pay, like, $5?” I asked tentatively, not sure if I’d get away with it.

“Sure, $5 please,” she handed me a ticket!

Times Square

I visited Times Square, which was an explosion of neon lights and activity – advertising everywhere, hawkers trying to sell tickets to comedy shows, yellow taxis, tourists, and M&Ms world – exactly what I’d imagined New York would be.

Chelsea

But my favourite place was Chelsea. I went there to see the Chelsea Market – a warehouse of stores connected by exposed brick tunnels, selling food, coffee and wine, with a busker playing an electric cello next to a fountain/waterfall walled in brick and lit in neon purple. Afterwards I wandered around the area, and there I was enchanted by how quiet it was rather than disturbed. Rows of specialty stores lined small streets, along with ethnic restaurants and delis. Apparently art dealers migrated here from Soho in the 1990s, transforming the industrial warehouses into galleries, and now Chelsea is home to 300 galleries, mostly along 10th and 11th avenues. I liked how the factory grit met the boutique glamour – ground floor shops elegant fronts with large windows of goodies on display, while the buildings themselves were stained with smoke and had rusty fire-escapes zigzagging from the ground to the sky.

It’s strange when you consider that I was looking for the busy, glamorous city from The Devil Wears Prada and Sex and the City, that the part I really fell for was nothing like it.

Ode to Madrid

Street in Madrid

Paris in Madrid

Plaza Mayor

Templo de Debod

Crystal Palace

Palacio Real

I love Madrid.

I love the bright pink and yellow buildings. I love how much everything east of Puerto de Sol reminded me of Paris, yet the wide main roads and squares make it easier to breathe. I love the concrete squares that dot the city, even though they felt like frypans in once the mercury hit 30ºC.

I love that the graffiti seems to be restricted the metal roller doors in front of shops, so it completely disappears in business hours, and then transforms the streets at night.

I love the beautiful designs on the tiled street signs.

I loved my hostel – Musas Residence, with dorm rooms and ensuites that seemed more like apartments than a backpacker’s squat. And I loved their free sangria night (what did you expect? I’m an Aussie!).

I loved Plaza Mayor and the mosaics on the buildings.

I loved the Templo de Debod – a genuine second century Egyptian temple transported to one of Madrid’s gardens. I loved Plaza de España, with market stalls under little white marquees selling clothes, accessories, souvenirs and other knick-knacks.

I loved Gran Via, a big shopping street that leads from Plaza de España to another palace . . . dedicated to the post office. And I loved the cheaper, grungier shopping streets that turned south off Gran Via.

I loved Mercado de San Miguel, one of the oldest covered markets in Madrid. The original metal construction now has glass walls and the rather posh market has bars selling sangria filled with freshly chopped apples and oranges. Other bars sell delicatessen products, tapas, fruit, cheese and baked goods, and they surround café-like benches that run down the centre of the hall.

I loved the enormous Parque de el Retiro and the Crystal Palace, which twinkled like a star in the sun. I loved the gardens around the Palacio Real, though the palace was no Versailles. I liked the Prado museum . . . but I prefer the Louvre (look at that – the French must have rubbed off on me).

I don’t even know why I loved it so much, but I did. Even when I was wandering around lost.

Especially when I was wandering around lost.

Tirso de Molina

My favourite place in Barcelona . . .

Gothic Quarter

Mercat Boqueria

Mercat Boqueria

I turned into the Mercat Boqueria on my first morning, torturing myself at the chocolate stalls as I tried to swindle free samples for myself. Fish, tapas, dried fruit and nuts, and colourful fruit and veggies are on display, and they sell tubs of fresh fruit salad for €1 or €2, while the Carrefour down the road sells them for €3.50. The produce all smelt remarkably fresh and watching the locals haggle made for a popcorn-worthy

Cascada - Parc de la Ciutadella

performance. But get in early – by midday the market is crawling with tourists.

Parc de la Ciutadella

Surrounding the Catalan Parliament, on the weekend this park was bustling with joggers, dog walkers, roller-bladers and chatter. On a Monday afternoon, however, the predominant sound is birdsong and people stroll in the sun or doze on the grass.

Park Guell

Parc Guell

Parc Güell

One of Gaudi’s creations, knobbly pillars, colonnades and steps look like they’ve been excavated from a goblin realm and preserved here in some sort of museum. On a hill to the north of the city, when I reached the top all of Barcelona was laid at my feet. I felt a heady rush of power, and understood for the umpteenth time why some people never stop travelling.

When I left I turned out a different entrance (the main one, as it turns out). There was a large, wavy terrace under a roof supported by white columns, all decorated in mosaics where a cellist and violinist played. The sighs of their instruments echoed through the space, seeming to bounce off the mosaic tiles. At the foot of the double staircase are two buildings that looked like they came from a Dr Seuss book – brown with long windows, white and mosaic patchwork roofs, and little towers at their peaks. Down here, two people were playing steel drums in the cave-like area under the terrace which gave the area a summer, island-holiday feel.

Montjuïc Gardens

After visiting the castle of Montjuïc, on the top of a hill to the south-west of Barcelona, I descended through the gardens on the hill. My favourite was the Jardines de Mossèn Cinto Verdaguer – wide central steps are framed by water terraces covered with waterlilies, surrounded by 2800m2 of flowerbeds, which have all just bloomed in an explosion of colour.

Gothic Quarter

Gothic Quarter

The Gothic Quarter

I’m not even sure if the area I liked was the Gothic Quarter, but it was between the Gothic Cathedral (its walls fence an internal garden of green plants, water and geese, for some reason) and the Arc de Triompf.

This area used to be a Roman village, and is still filled with old buildings and tiny streets, some of them so narrow that I think they must always be in shadow. Every time I stumbled onto one of the main roads, my heart sank with disappointment and I quickly turned back into the maze.

People are often standing on the street in front of their restaurants and shops, and the men readily called out “hola guapa!” when I walked past. And all of the bakeries now have chocolate displays in their windows in preparation for Easter – I kept finding myself stopping to admire the intricate castles and cartoon scenes.

La Sagrada Familia

Sagrada Familia - Nativity

Sagrada Familia - Nativity

Sagrada Familia - Passion

I visited this church on my first day in Barcelona and, upon discovering that the entrance was €12.50 (€10.50 with a student or youth card) and that the line stretched around the block, I turned away. It was impressive enough on the outside – one facade is dedicated to the nativity and another to the Passion of the Christ, including all the stations of the cross. I loved the Passion facade – the statues are more modern, simpler and slightly abstract, and feel more in tune with Gaudi’s designs than the more classical nativity sculptures.

So was it worth going inside? I went back to the hostel and started asking people. The conversation usually went like this:

Me: “Have you been to the Sagrada Familia?”

Them: “No, not yet.”

Me: “Oh, okay. I just wanted to find out if the entrance was worth it.”

Them: “How much is it?”

Me: “€12.50.”

Them: “For a church!?”

And one that isn’t going to be finished for another thirty years.

On the last day I gave in – how could I come to Barcelona and not see the inside?

Nearly all of my travels have been in Europe, so I’ve seen a lot of churches. And, after a while, the big cathedrals start to look very similar to each other.

Not this one – it was the most amazing church I’ve ever seen. Pillars stretch into the sky, breaking off into smaller branches as they reach the ceiling, so it feels like you’re walking through a fantastical white forest. The stain-glass windows are coloured in bright reds, yellows, blues and greens and don’t seem to depict one design, but are more like a celebration of colour and are so much more vivid than their gothic counterparts.

Afterwards you can learn about the architecture and construction in the museum below the church.

Gaudi’s creations are like nothing I’ve ever seen. I knew nothing about him before I came to Barcelona (I still don’t, for that matter), but his buildings are instantly recognisable. Either earthy and organic, mimicking the structures of plants and looking like fairy kingdoms from fantasy stories; or wavy and colourful with different shapes all over the place, like a Dr Seuss creation. No one else thinks like that.

Sagrada Familia

Hmm . . . I seem to have more than one favourite place. But that’s what it was like walking around Barcelona – almost every time I saw something new, I thought about how it must be the most enchanting part of the city, only to think the exact same thing about the next place I visited. Maybe it’s just the perfect place to have a ramble.

Lisbon

Rua Augusta Arch

I hadn’t been to Lisbon before, and it was only after I’d arrived that I realised I was searching for Porto.

I went to Porto in the summer of 2008, when I was living in London. I loved it – I arrived on a balmy night and the air smelled like leaves. For the three days I was there I was caught up in a wave of sensations – the smell of sausages sizzling down near the riverbank, the heat radiating off the pavement, the coolness of the port wine cellars, and the dizzyingly sweet taste of glass after glass of port.

Some cities seem to have such a strong gravitational pull that it drags you into the life-force of the city. Porto was one of them. On this trip, Istanbul is probably the best example.

In other cities you can see the potential, but you really need a local to show you around. And some cities never truly touch you.

At first, Lisbon seemed to be in the second category. I spent my first two days enveloped in wet, grey clouds. Whenever I returned to my hostel in Baxia, the city looked so beautiful out the windows that I kept going out for walks, but without a destination I was overcome with a feeling of vague dissatisfaction – was I missing something?

After a week of sun in Dahab (and the freckles to show for it) I had no patience for clouds. And after all of the smiles of Istanbul and Dahab, the people in Lisbon seemed grumpy and unsociable, and some of the men had pouts that could rival a parisienne.

My third day, Tuesday, looked like it was going to be another grey day.

Belém Tower

I returned to Belém (having walked there in the rain on Monday only to discover that everything was closed) and, when I was on my way to Belém Tower, the sun came out!

A man was playing a pan-flute by the river, where people leaned back on the benches by its banks. The smell of jasmine wafted over from the parks and I began to get a sense of Lisbon.

Jerónimos Monastery

The three areas where I spent most of my time were Belém, Baxia and Alfama.

In the sun, Belém was very peaceful, with beautiful manicured gardens near the river and pink, yellow and white buildings with terracotta roof tiles. The buildings there are some of the oldest in Lisbon, because the area didn’t suffer much damage in the 1775 earthquake. Sights in the area include Belém Tower, Jerónimos Monastery, Belém Palace, Ajuda Palace, The Monument to the Discoveries, the Botanical Gardens and the Coaches Museum.

Baxia - Rua Augusta

The next area was Baxia – where I was staying in Lisbon. With white marble streets, large squares, expensive shops, and tourists with shopping bags, this is the main shopping and baking district of Lisbon. After the earthquake of 1755 it was completely rebuilt, and is now a uniform grid of neoclassical buildings, with a pedestrianised central thoroughfare and a network of yellow buses and antique trams bumbling through the area. Here are some of the most impressive squares in the city and the 45m

Restauradores

tall Santa Justa Elevator, designed by Raoul de Mesnier du Ponsard (an apprentice of Gustave Eiffel), from which you can see views of the city.

Neighbouring Baxia is Alfama, a labyrinth of narrow streets with black paved roads paved and white footpaths. Home to Castelo de São Jorge and the National Tile Museum, steep stairs and winding streets lead up the hills to the castle, lined by churches and beautifully tiled or painted buildings with wrought-iron balconies. Blossomed trees are just starting to sprout green leaves, and when the wind picks the pavement is frosted in a shower of purple flowers.

This area also survived the 1755 earthquake, and getting lost in the medieval maze is a pleasure. At the end of my last day I returned to Alfama to wander around, and stumbled upon a church. I popped inside to have a look, only to realise that I’d walked into a mass.

The priest began to break the bread in preparation for communion, speaking in Portuguese. I was surprised to find the voice of Father Joe, the priest from my primary school parish in my head, reciting the English version – ‘. . . Christ broke the bread, gave it to his disciples and said: “Take this, all of you, and eat it: This is my body which will be given up for you” . . .’ The words must have been burned in my childhood and adolescent memories.

Although I didn’t take communion, I stayed until the end of the mass. When I left my mind was still.

And the sky had clouded over once more.

Mount Sinai

Sunrise

I climbed Mount Sinai. All 2,285 metres of it.

And it nearly killed me.

Mount Sinai is believed to be the mountain that Moses climbed when God gave him the Ten Commandments. He climbed it alone, and stayed there for 40 days and nights.

I climbed it overnight with six other travellers, a Bedouin guide and Minah, our chain-smoking tour guide from Embah Safari.

After a two-hour drive into the desert, we started walking at 1am. The landscape looked almost alien, lit grey by the moon, so bright that it could have been a floodlight. The route was dotted by stone houses inhabited by Bedouin – the floors were carpeted and blankets were draped along the walls, some of them less traditional than you’d expect (one had Looney Tunes mattresses lining its roof). The houses act like little convenience stores for tourists, each holding about 30 cans of coke, 10 bottles of juice, 10 cups of instant noodles and an assortment of chocolate bars.

Most of the climb wasn’t too bad – we took a gently sloping path and frequently stopped in these houses. What was difficult was that this meant we didn’t rest anywhere for long enough to have a nap, and I’d been up since 6:30 the previous morning and had done two yoga classes before the journey.

But I was okay.

It was the last half-hour that got me. There are four paths up Mount Sinai. One of them is a stairway of nearly 4,000 steps. We needed to take the last 750.

The steps are pieces of uncarved stone that were put into the mountain side by a monk. They are not even. There is no railing. And some of them are a little loose.

Our altitude increasing more swiftly than ever before, it wasn’t long before I started puffing. A little later my legs started to ache and, when we made out final stop before the summit, I was feeling awful. Weak, shaky and my empty stomach heaving, I didn’t know if I could make the last 100 steps, and I was scared that I’d fall on the way down.

But I made it!

At 5:45 (4 hours and 45 minutes of climbing, including stops, and I’d been up for 23 hours and 15 minutes) we reached the summit. And I felt so sick that I couldn’t enjoy my triumph. Why couldn’t Moses have climbed a different mountain?!

Luckily I quickly stated to feel better, and had a front-row seat for the sunrise.

When we arrived there was a band of yellow across the horizon – a second horizon created by the fog that morning. Through the mist the mountains seemed indistinct and elastic, like waves in the darkness.

Soon we could see the sun through the fog – first just a pink crescent, then a ball rising as the deep blue of the night sky receded.

Then the sun broke through the haze. It was blinding, the circumference of its rays expanding and it reached into the sky. It rose slowly, yawning and stretching as it woke, and a French couple next to me commented that, although it had a charm of its own, it wasn’t the Alps.

Going down was much easier, and I chatted to Minah happily as the new sun bathed the mountains in a golden light. White fog curled around the mountains like tendrils of smoke, and it swallowed us up as we descended.  Engulfed by the vapour, it was like we were in a crystal ball before the future materialises.

At the foot of the mountain is Saint Catherine’s Monastery, which opens at 9am (we were at the front of the line, there nearly an hour before it opened). The monastery looked beautiful, with bricks the same colours of the mountains, small archways that led to different buildings and tranquil gardens enclosed in courtyards.

I just wish we could have seen more – the only parts open to the public are some of the gardens, the Chapel of the Burning Bush, and the courtyard with the Burning Bush and the Well of Moses (you can also see the Museum of Holy Icons, but you needed to pay extra for it and it wasn’t in my budget).

The Well of Moses is an underground spring that supplies the monastery with water and is said to sit on the spot where Moses met his future wife, Zipporah. According to the monks, it never dries up.

The monastery also houses a bush believed to be the Burning Bush – yes, the one from the Bible when God first speaks to Moses. The bush comes from the rose family called Rubus Sanctus and is extremely long-lived. The Chapel of the Burning Bush was built over the roots of the bush, and the fortress-like basilica was built around the chapel in 542 AD by Emperor Justinian I to protect the monks and the chapel from Bedouin marauders.

I’m glad I went – not because I’m religious, but because Mount Sinai and the monastery are such culturally and historically significant places.

That being said, I will never climb that mountain again.

Mt Sinai views

Mt Sinai views

Saint Catherine's Monastery

Saint Catherine's Monastery - the Bell Tower

Moses Well

Burning Bush

 

Saint Catherine's Monastery

Dahab – yoga holiday

Coral Coast Hotel

At £290 (plus flights), this yoga holiday was definitely the most expensive part of my holiday and, if I had have known what would happen with Bénédicte then I probably wouldn’t have booked it.

But part of me is glad that I didn’t know in advance, because the break was wonderful.

Coral Coast Hotel

Eighteen of us stayed at a hotel on the beach called Coral Coast and did yoga in a studio where you could hear the waves break on the sand. The hotel was lovely but what made staying there incredible was the staff – I’ve never felt so welcome, or taken care of before. Every morning when our rooms were cleaned, our pyjamas were folded under our pillows (my roommate, Michelle, went as far as to say that she thought hers had been ironed) and our towels were folded into works of art – one day a rose, the next a swan, then an elephant, a heart, a fertility symbol and a lizard!

Towel origami – apparently the cleaner spends so much time on the towels that he sometimes doesn’t get around to cleaning.

The days went like this –

7:00-7:40 – unguided meditation

8:00-10:00 – Scaravelli yoga and meditation

10:00-11:00 – breakfast buffet! Fruit salad, yoghurt, bread, pancakes, cucumber, tomatoes, feta, boiled eggs, omelettes/scrambled eggs, falafel and more

11:00-5:00 – free time. I usually spent this walking around Dahab, reading or lounging about in one of the hammocks on the beach

5:00-6:30 – Scaravelli yoga and meditation

6:30 onwards – free time

It was so relaxing – at the first meditation I started panicking – how could I stay in one place for seven days with nothing to do?! I was going to get bored. I could have been using this time to travel somewhere else!

By the end of the week I found my mind starting to still. Michelle, the yoga teacher was wonderful. I felt my flexibility was coming back and, with two desert trips, I felt like I’d used my time there well.

Being with the same group for the whole week also created a sense of community – on our last night we had a 80th birthday celebration for Judy, whose birthday was on April 27th (that morning her towels were folded into a tiered cake, decorated with flower petals), in Coral Coast’s Bedouin tent on the beach and shared the most amazing cake (sponge with berry and cream frosting, a jellied berry filling and a chocolate brownie base, decorated with fresh strawberries). It was the perfect way to end the week and, when I reached Lisbon yesterday, I was a bit sorry to be back in a hostel.

Bedouin Tent

Ali Baba

Dahab was quite small – about a ten minute walk along the beach from Coral Coast you reach a touristy area of shops and restaurants on the beach with thatch roofs where people stand out the front of each door trying to persuade you to come inside. I ended up getting free bottles of water (really necessary in the heat) every time I sat down with one man to talk about his fiancée, and I got into a ritual of giving another man two kisses every time I walked past.

The best restaurant we visited was Ali Baba – with a main we were given free starters and a free fruit salad for desert (a standard deal in the area) and we sat on the water, under a roof strewn with fairy lights. The service was wonderful, and at the end of the meal the waiters brought over a large brass bowl with halved limes resting on a central landing. One by one we lifted our hands over the bowl to have lime juice squirted over them, and then had the juice washed off with warm water poured from a long-spouted brass jug.

Unfortunately there wasn’t much to Dahab outside of this area – immediately behind the beach front the landscape is almost desolate, with abandoned construction sites stretching into the desert. But it’s a nice place to go for trips into the desert, snorkelling, diving and general chilling out.

Istanbul – sights

The Hagia Sophia

Inaugurated in 360CE (though the current version was built nearly 200 years later) the Hagia Sophia was originally a church, and then was converted into a mosque, before becoming the modern-day museum. After it became a mosque in 1453, it was a model for many other mosques in the same style, including the Blue Mosque and the Süleymaniye Mosque.

The last time I saw the Hagia Sophia they were doing some renovations, so it was covered in scaffolding and I couldn’t really see what all the fuss was about, and I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to go back. However, as it’s a ‘must see’ in Istanbul, I obligingly went along with Madeline, Tom and Amir, smiling like a parent taking her child to the zoo for the first time.

Then I entered, and I was the one who gasped. It was breathtaking.

Lights hang from the ceiling on wire frames shaped like flowers, bathing the colossal central nave in a golden glow. Large black disks decorate the pillars on the second level, each inscribed in gold with the names of Allah, the Prophet Muhammad, the first four caliphs and the two grandchildren of Muhammad. Without meaning to, I broke away from the others as I tried to inhale the essence of the building, my eyes as wide as a child’s and my heart beating furiously. At several moments I was moved to tears – when I saw the gold religious mosaics on the upper gallery, when I wandered through the quieter, cooler stone corridors, and when I looked back towards the entrance from the opposite end of the mosque, I was overwhelmed by the Hagia Sophia’s size.

The Blue Mosque

The only mosque in the world with six minarets, the Blue Mosque is one of the most beautiful things I saw in Istanbul, and I wish I had a photo that did it justice. Its name comes from the blue tiles that decorate the interior, which form intricate patterns around the arched stained-glass windows. Apparently more than 20,000 tiles line the interior, and rings and rings of lights hang from the ceiling in bell-shaped cups of glass.

Unlike the Hagia Sophia, this is still an operational mosque, which means that you need to remove your shoes in the courtyard before entering (though they weren’t that strict about women covering their hair), and you also aren’t allowed in at prayer times. However, there are tourists rushing in and out almost constantly, snapping photos as they balance the plastic bags carrying their shoes on their wrists. I really wish some of them would have been more reverent – I felt a bit like they were letting the mosque down.

Topkapi Palace

After buying my ticket for Topkapi Palace, I stopped to take a photo of the gate.

A man approached me. “Would you like a tour in English?”

“No thank you, it’s too expensive for me,” I said.

“But it’s free for you!” he exclaimed.

A slow smile spread across my face as I asked, “why?”

He shrugged, “because you’re a beautiful girl, and it’s always nice to have a beautiful girl on the tour.”

Half-an-hour later, when he had found a Swiss couple who wanted a tour, I tagged along for free! We entered the first courtyard, and he took us to a model of the palace and began telling us about its history. I didn’t hear much, though, because a school group of about fifty children came up and started calling out “hello!”

“Hello!” I replied with a smile.

One girl introduced herself and asked my name.

“My name’s Jolie.”

“Where are you from?”

“Australia!”

They giggled amongst themselves and the girl lifted her camera in question. I nodded and we had our picture taken. Suddenly there were fifty cameras out! I stood next to child after child, unsure about which camera to look at, and hoping that the cosmetic-free shots would look decent.

“Jolie,” the tour guide called as he moved away.

 

After four more snaps I untangled myself from the group and rejoined the tour. I could finally enjoy the palace – though I kept a safe distance from all children thenceforth.

Although the tour was interesting, I really preferred wandering around alone. One thing I did learn was that in Islam, simplicity is considered to be beautiful, so most Islamic architecture is very simple. However, in the 18th century, European styles came into fashion, so the palace now has many French-style embellishments that were added in that period. He also said that Islamic architecture is always asymmetrical – as only Allah is perfect, they didn’t build symmetrical buildings. This means that many doors are off centre, with a different number of columns on each side and quite often the columns are in different colours. And this is something you can see everywhere – the Hagia Sophia was originally a church, so is quite symmetrical, but when the four minarets were added, three of them matched and one of them didn’t. The Blue Mosque is also an example with the six minarets containing different numbers of galleries (I think four have three galleries and two have two, but couldn’t find anything online to confirm this).

So the palace is very simple (in comparison to European palaces) and beautiful. Divided into a number of courtyards with large gardens, it’s very soothing and open and feels a world away from the city. Because many of the palace buildings are surrounded by colonnades, they don’t intrude on the gardens, but seem very airy. And the walls of the final courtyard extend out to the water, affording wide views across the Bosphorus.

Some of the buildings house museums, or items from the treasury (including the second largest diamond in the world), or porcelains or the Sultans’ kaftans, while others are furnished as they would have been when people lived in the palace.

The Basilica Cistern

The Basilica Cistern is an underground cavern of 9,800m2 capable of holding 800,000m3 of water. Rows and rows of stone pillars run up and down its length, all 336 of them 9m high and 4.9m apart. People walk over the water on raised wooden walkways. The only lighting is from the bottom of the pillars, which were lit by amber lights shining up from their feet – they illuminate the sides of the pillars and reflect against the water. It’s really magical.

Süleymaniye Mosque

I stumbled onto Süleymaniye Mosque by accident. Having gotten a bit turned around between the Spice Market and the Grand Bazaar, I found the second largest mosque in Istanbul when I was trying to get back to the hostel. The Süleymaniye Mosque was designed as a complex consisting of the mosque, a hospital, a primary school, four Qur’an schools, a medical college, a school for the learning of hadith (narrations about the words and deeds of the Prophet Muhammad), a public kitchen, a road-side inn and a hamam.

I feel so privileged that I was able to see it – with cream walls, red carpet and little arched windows, it’s completely different to the cool, cellar-like stone of the Hagia Sophia, and the mosaic tiles of the Blue Mosque. Excluding the warm floral designs on the central dome, and the small signs in Arabic, the only decorations were red or blue strips around the arches between the pillars. The simplicity only drew attention to its size, so big that the rings of lights hanging in the centre of the mosque seemed like a solar system.

Dolmabahçe Palace

Built from 1843 to 1846, Dolmabahçe Palace is on the European side of Istanbul, and was the first European Palace built in the city.

Unlike Topkapi Palace, Dolmabahçe Palace was very ornate with fourteen tonnes of gold-leaf gilding the ceilings and countless chandeliers made of English crystal. The largest hall in the palace is stunning – with moulded pillars, beautifully painted walls and the largest Bohemian crystal chandelier in the world, weighing in at 4.5 tonnes. The central dome has been painted to look as though it is a part of another building, so it resembles stone arches that look out onto a garden or courtyard.

Unfortunately you could only see the palace as part of the tour, and you weren’t allowed to leave the group due to security concerns, so it often felt like we were being herded around like cattle. I much preferred Topkapi Palace, where I could roam as I pleased.

Istanbul

Blue Mosque - view from Hagia Sophia

This is my second trip to Istanbul.

My first was two years ago. Having just broken up with my first serious boyfriend, I spontaneously booked a trip to Istanbul to get away from London and to get him out of my mind.

Big mistake. Everywhere I turned, I saw things that he’d love and I wished that he was there. A couple of Turkish men offered to show me around and, when one of them commented that the Basilica Cistern was “very romantic”, I burst into tears.

I knew it was time to leave and, 25 hours after I landed, my return flight took off.

So I was really curious to see what Istanbul would be like without baggage.

It was amazing – I joined forces with three Americans (Madeline, Tom and Amir) from Cordial House Hostel and I spent the first day and a half with them in a state of euphoria. Because I’d been here before, everything was familiar, but it all seemed to be sparkling new.

The Blue Mosque was stunning, the Basilica Cistern was eerie and mysterious and the Hagia Sophia was so beautiful that I grew teary as I walked around the golden corridors.

Then I broke away from the Americans for a bit and started accepting offers of local hospitality – I sat down in carpet stores, souvenir shops, travel agencies and laundry back-rooms for apple tea and conversation. I saw Whirling Dervishes, ate seafood and went dancing with one local, and had a home-cooked dinner with another. I was given food samples, a pair of earrings and an evil eye pin for free.

And all of this was because I was open to these offers. I think so many tourists shut down when a local shows some genuine interest in them. All I had to do was accept, and I got to hear about people’s relatives in Australia, or what I should do before I left Istanbul. True, some of them were interested in more than a smile and a conversation, but they were all completely honourable when I refused.

I was staying in Sultanahmet, between the Blue Mosque and the Grand Bazaar. Sultanahmet is always what comes to mind when I dream of Istanbul – the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque mirror each other across a large garden area with curving paths for pedestrians and a fountain that is lit in different colours at night. It’s the perfect place to enjoy a two lira pastry from one of the nearby patisseries, and the mosques are an awe-inspiring sight at any time of day.

The Grand Bazaar is worth visiting once, but it’s not really my cup of tea. A covered maze of shops selling scarves, leather bags and jackets, jewellery, and trinkets for tourists, the vendors can be quite aggressive. Although it’s entertaining, it makes it difficult to window shop. And as it’s a popular tourist destination, you’ll be paying tourist prices.

However, if you venture onto the surrounding streets and head towards the Spice Market, the prices come down and the people are much less intense. I loved the Spice Market – stalls display pyramids of spices, tea leaves, dried fruit, nuts and Turkish delight and the vendors are happy for you to try before you buy.

Madeline and I got stuck tasting Turkish delight in Develi Baharat Spice Centre, and I left with a kilo of it – cubes of sugar-based Turkish delight dusted in icing sugar and coconut, and rolls of honey-based Turkish delight that they cut into cubes with scissors. There were two vendors working, one who spoke English and one who didn’t. Osman, the one who spoke English, battled with Madeline over prices for half-an-hour (I’m a pushover – give me free samples and you have me) while the other one insisted on calling us both Jennifer, no matter how many times we repeated our names. In the end, Madeline and Osman locked horns over one lira, and Osman said he would drop the price for a kiss on the cheek – I happily obliged.

The European part of Istanbul is across the river – when I crossed the Galata Bridge there were dozens of fishermen lined up on each side, with buckets containing their catches. I inhaled the scent of fresh fish, tickled that I could actually see where the ‘fresh fish’ I’d eaten the night before had come from. I took a short hike to the Galata Tower then walked to Taksim Square along Istklal Caddesi.

Spice Market

Istklal Caddesi

Karaköy Güllüoğlu

Asian side - market

This may seem obvious, being the European side and all, but I was shocked by how European it was! Istklal Caddesi is a long pedestrian shopping street full of brand-name shops in late 19th and early 20th century buildings with an old-fashioned tram running its length. On the way back I popped into Karaköy Güllüoğlu. This is like the Ladurée for Baklava – shiny walnut tables with gold bars and rows and rows of Baklava on display in shiny glass cabinets. I was served by an adorable boy with braces who selected 400g of Baklava for me, and also gave me an extra chocolate piece (mmm!) as a gift after I talked to him about kangaroos.

I also visited the Asian side of Istanbul, taking the 20 minute ferry from Eminönü to Kadiköy. Unfortunately I couldn’t get a map for the area, so didn’t really know what there was to see, but still enjoyed wandering around for a couple of hours. It was like a completely different city (though I couldn’t say which one) – large streets filled with modern shops selling clothes and accessories, and smaller streets with punk shops and some selling household goods like Tupperware and balls of wool. Near the water, there is a group of market streets selling fresh fish, fruit, vegetables and olives. What I liked about this section was my relative anonymity – having been in Istanbul for five days at this point, there were a number of men in Sultanahmet who knew me and would stop me in the street to talk. Although this was fun, it was nice to have a break from it all.

I think my favourite part will always be Sultanahmet, but the entire experience was exhilarating. If you get a chance, go to Istanbul.

Bucharest

Bucharest has no signs!

When I got off my train from Budapest at Gara de Nord, I looked for signs to the metro (also at Gara de Nord – don’t worry, I wasn’t expecting directions to some random station).

Nothing. There were signs for ticket sales (also inadequate – domestic and international sales are in two different halls and the signs don’t say which is which) and a few other things, but nothing that would help me.

Unfortunately my hesitation immediately made me a target for taxi drivers searching for a fare.

Unlike in Budapest, where a simple headshake was enough to dissuade the men chanting “taxi, taxi”, in Bucharest they started following me. I kept walking, saying “no” repeatedly until they wandered off. However, one persistent man wouldn’t budge, so I turned back to him to say that I was looking for the metro.

“You go to the centre of city? I can take you, very low,” he indicated a small price with his thumb and index finger.

“Smaller than the metro?” I asked.

“Very small.”

I shook my head.

“Okay – the metro is at the left,” he pointed to that side of the station.

I turned left but couldn’t see anything, so followed the footpath around the car park. Then . . . an M sign! Above a descending flight of stairs!

The metro also had no signs, and it was the same case when I returned to the surface – I knew which street I had to take to get to my hostel, but I came out at a big intersection with no signs. After about 10 minutes I found one – white and rusted with faded blue lettering and partially covered by the overhanging leaves of a tree, but it was the right street!

After being unable to find my next turn, I realised it was on the wrong side of the road and I was going the wrong way.

I eventually reached Happy Hostel and found the other extreme:

They were everywhere.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And check out the overuse of exclamation marks!!!!!

Finally settled in, I could see Bucharest. I visited The Palace of Parliament, The Village Museum and The Romanian Peasants’ Museum, as well as doing some general wandering.

Palace of the Parliament

Village Museum

The Palace of Parliament is worth a visit for its size alone – with a floor area of 360,000m2, it is the world’s largest administrative building for civilian use (the Pentagon is the largest administrative building for military use). It is also the world’s heaviest building and the world’s most expensive administrative building, with the costs of the structure estimated at USD4 billion in 2006. According to a Romanian guy on the train from Budapest, the communist government built this to send a message to the western world:

“Look what we did! Communism = awesomeness! You capitalists suck!”

Unfortunately the tour was a bit dry – it focussed on the facts and figures regarding the size and the architecture, whereas I wanted to learn about the gossip, conspiracies and politics.

Arc de Triompf

The Village Museum was a really relaxing way to spend a morning (though afternoons are said to be a bit hectic). Founded in 1936, since then buildings have been moved from rural Romania to this outdoor museum, so it’s like wandering around an eclectic Romanian village. The Peasants’ Museum was more traditional – artefacts from around the country on display, and scary women on guard to ensure you don’t touch or photograph anything.

 

Roman Athenaeum

In general, Bucharest felt unfinished to me. True, there are some lovely areas, where you can see why it was once known as “The Paris of the East” or “Little Paris”, but so much of it deteriorated under the Communist Party that those names are no longer accurate. Restorations have started taking place, but the work is slow and patchy, especially in the Old Town.

 

Old Town Church

In the Old Town there are some beautiful streets that have been completely restored and house expensive cafés for tourists. Then there are some cafés that are sparkling new neighbouring the abandoned shells of former shops, or buildings where the ground floor has been renovated to accommodate a shop, but the upper levels are crumbling. Some of the roads have their centres gouged out and are bridged by wooden planks, and several cobblestoned streets are so deep in mud that you can’t see the stones under the tyre tracks. And there are piles of rubble everywhere.

In some ways, this adds to the charm – I followed an old Romanian man across an unstable boardwalk into an ancient church to listen to the singing on Friday afternoon. It was spell-binding – one man’s poignant yodel reverberated through the small church and onto the street, while the second man hummed in harmony. And I worried about getting mud on the floor.

I think Bucharest is a place I’d like to return to in a few years, once the restorations are complete. I’m looking forward to the finished product.

Banking in Paris – more drama

For some reason, BTL pays our final month and holiday pay by cheque.

This means that, if you are leaving the country the next day, you need to organise a bordereau de remise de cheque, which allows someone else to deposit the cheque for you. I organised this before I left (it’s basically a book of deposit slips that needs to be completed with the number of cheques being deposited and their value) and asked Imogen to deposit it. Both BNP and Renée at BTL told me that I needed to sign the back of the bordereau de remise de cheque, so signed about four in case there was a problem.

Because I hadn’t heard from Imogen, I assumed everything went through last week. Until today – I checked my bank balance (-€159.73) and the my phone, and I had a message from her:

I’m afraid your bank has refused the cheque because it’s not signed. . .

This makes no sense to me – the reason I needed someone else to deposit the cheque was because I wouldn’t be there at the time I received it, so how was I supposed to sign it?! Luckily I’m going back to Paris in April, so if I can’t organise anything now at least I know I can do it then. But what if I’d gone back to Australia immediately after I finished working? Wouldn’t I have been paid?

Unfortunately, I was expecting this money to come in last week, which means I’ve been spending the money that I had. So my bank balance is in the negatives, and I’m not sure how long BNP is going to allow me to continue to withdraw funds.

It might be time to give the ‘mummy and daddy bank’ a call.

 

Update:

BTL said they could post the cheque to me, and I could sign it and post it back to them. However, my hotel in Dahab, Egypt (my next destination) said that the cheque might not arrive before I left, so it looks like I’ll have to wait until April 5, when I’m back in Paris.