Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Look kids...Big Ben!

My sister, Jocelyn, and b-n-l, Stephan, arrived in Frankfurt the morning of Friday, March 12th, ready for a European vacation. I picked them up from the airport and ran them around Frankfurt showing them the all the sights before they crashed from the jet lag. The next day we hopped a train and headed down to Heidelberg to let them check out the castle and wander the quaint city there. During these first two days of sightseeing, Shea and I were sure to get them walking as much as possible, so their legs would be numb to all the hoofing we would be doing in London!
On Sunday, we woke up early to catch our flight to London. We had to take just about every mode of transportation imaginable to make it (minus, maybe...unicycle) but we got there all the same. In London we found our way to our hotel in the Marylebone area of town, very near Hyde Park and only about 2 kilometers from all of the well-known tourist attractions. We checked in and freshened up before taking the world-famous Underground (a.k.a. Tube, a.k.a. Subway) to Piccadilly Circus. There we walked around London's equivalent to Times Square with the enormous neon lights and billboards touting all of the world-class shows in town. From there we walked down to Trafalgar Square, where we stumbled upon the St. Patrick's day festival for the city. Everyone was decked out in green and double fisting Guinness Stouts around the world famous National Gallery and Nelson's Column. We didn't witness a single person jump into the fountains, but then again we didn't stick around till the end of the celebrations either.
After making our way through the party, we headed south away from the square down Whitehall Street. Along this street we snapped pics of the Admiralty Arch, the Horse Guards Parade and Cavalry Museum, Downy Street (where #10 Downy Street is located, which is where the PM stays but you aren't allowed anywhere on the street), and the Cabinet War Rooms-where Winston Churchill met with leadership underground to discuss strategies to defeat the Germans while the city took waves of bombings during WWII.
After making our way down the street, we found ourselves standing at Parliament Square, with the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben to our left, Westminster Abbey directly before us, and the King's Court to our right. A very impressive sight to behold.
From there we headed over to the river Thames and crossed over Westminster bridge to the London Eye (which is best described as an over-sized ferris wheel). As sunset was nearing, we decided to take a ride and were rewarded during the loop with a magnificent sunset and seeing the beautiful lights of the city turn on and brighten the sky.
After our view of the city from on high, we headed back across the Thames and came across the Texas Embassy restaurant. Joc and Stephan were kind enough to let Shea and me enjoy our first quality Tex-Mex since leaving was great and the ice cold Dos XX's also tasted amazing. From there, we headed back to the hotel room to get some rest after a long day of travel.
On Monday, we headed out and walked along Hyde Park to meet up with a walking tour at Wellington Arch. We saw all of the military monuments to the British colonies that fought for the Empire. From there we headed down Constitution Hill to Buckingham Palace, where we took in the changing of the guards. Impressive display. Unfortunately though, the Queen wasn't in, otherwise, I'm sure Shea and Joc would have been invited in for tea. The tour then led us to St. James Palace, which was the original home to the royal family, before upgrading to Buckingham Palace. Outside we each took turns playing the part of soldier in the guard shacks and having our picture taken. The tour then wound us through the a number of the same sights we had seen the day before, but only this time, we were able to learn about the history of what we were seeing. Very interesting and definitely worth the time. After the tour, it was time for lunch, and we all decided it was time for some traditional English flair. We headed to a restaurant and rewarded ourselves with fish and chips (fried fish and fries), wrapped in (simulated) newspaper, (almost) like in the old days. "Jolly good lunch, Governa"
After lunch we headed over to the Covent Garden area of town, which is a trendy area with plenty of shopping, but also home to many of the theaters of London. We decided to take in a show that night and were able to buy some cheap seat tickets to one of the big name shows in town called "War Horse". We wandered around that area of town for a while, and then headed back down to Westminster Abbey to take in a prayer service/choir performance at 5:00pm. We got to sit and enjoy the wonderful choir, while at the same time soak in the 1000-year-old cathedral. After the service, we grabbed a bite to eat before heading to the theater to make our 7:30 curtain call. We all really enjoyed the show and after it finished caught a late night Tube ride back over to our hotel and called it a night.
On Tuesday morning, we headed over to the Notting Hill area of London, famous not only for the Julia Roberts/Hugh Grant movie, but also for the Portobello Road Market, which is a mile of shops lining the street with antiques, collectibles, food stalls, top designer and vintage clothing. Stephan and I were very thankful that we had afternoon plans and were able to get the ladies out of there before any credit damage was done. Although the refrain heard through the rest of the trip was "do you guys think we can get back over to Portobello before we leave?"
So, from Notting Hill, we headed back into the city to make our bus to go and see Stonehenge. It took almost two hours to get there, but we were able to watch the city fade away and then see the beautiful English countryside stretched out before us. Let me say here that we were amazingly lucky with the weather in London...we had nothing but clear bright skies and temperatures in the 60's during our entire trip. Unheard-of weather for London in March, but Joc and Stephan were kind enough to bring some of the Texas sun along in there pockets and share it with their English speaking brethren.
We arrived at Stonehenge and took the audio tour around the site. We were pretty amazed at the size of the stones, and it is remarkable to think that we don't really know how or why the ancient people brought them there around 5000 years ago. Best guess is as an ancient sundial calendar...although Shea is sticking with her guess of ancient ice-age drinking Jenga blocks "make fire or drink 5" (+2 GK bonus points for all readers who get that joke). After our tour of Stonehenge, we took the bus back into the city and decided it was time for a night in a famous London pub.
We headed to the "Cittie of Yorke", which has operated as a pub since 1430 and claims to have the longest bar in all of England. We headed down to the cellar where we grabbed some English pub grub, which let me say, does a great job of sticking to your ribs. We then headed back upstairs to indulge in some more of their tasty adult beverages. We had a great time chatting it up, and I can honestly say that we closed the bar down, but don't be too impressed because London bars close at 11 pm.
On Wednesday, we headed over to the oldest parts of the city of London. There we quickly peeked in St. Paul's Cathedral and then walked over the Millennium Bridge to the Tate Modern Museum. We didn't have time to tour the Museum but kept that on our list of places to hit next time. We walked over to the reconstructed Shakespeare's Globe Theater and then popped in the infamous Clink Prison museum...ghastly what medieval people would do to each other. We then took the "Queen's Walk" down the Thames to the Tower Bridge and over to the Tower of London. The Tower is best known of course for being the place of imprisonment and beheading of Anne Boleyn and also for housing the crown jewels. Seeing all these things allowed us just enough time to blow through a souvenir shop and then head for the airport to catch our 8 pm flight back to Frankfurt.
London was an amazing trip and though we saw lots of stuff, we feel like we were really only able to scratch the surface. It is probably one of those places that you would have to live in in order to have the time to take in all it has to offer. Maybe that is were we need move next...
Just kidding moms.
We got back to Frankfurt and packed Joc and Stephan up to send them by train off to Paris for a romantic getaway. They really enjoyed their time there together and then they headed out from Frankfurt Saturday morning back to Dallas. It was a great trip with them, and though they likely needed a vacation after their vacation, we got to see and experience many new things together!

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Istanbul...not Constantinople

Istanbul, Turkey is one of the largest cities in the world and is the only one that sits on two different continents. It has acted as the gateway from Europe to Asia for thousands of years. It is pinched between the Marmara Sea to the south and the Black Sea to the north, and the Bosphorus Strait connects the two seas and at the same time divides the city and two continents. Istanbul has been fought over, passed around, and claimed as the capital of the Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire, the Latin Empire, the Ottoman Empire, and today the republic of Turkey.
So, we jumped on a flight on Friday, February 26th to check this place out for ourselves. We arrived late that night and caught a taxi to our hotel, which was located in the heart of the city and within walking distance of the major historical and tourist sights. Along the drive we drove past the ancient walls that have unsuccessfully protected the city for centuries and the Marmara Sea. We checked in to our hotel and got ready for our sightseeing the next day.
On Saturday, we headed out early and went first to see the hippodrome. The hippodrome was once a big stadium for chariot races but today all that is left are several obelisks that mark the course the chariots would race a scene out of Ben Hur. From there we went to the famous Blue Mosque immediately adjacent to the hippodrome. With its imposing 6 minarets, the mosque's interior is adorned with blue tiles giving it its name. Shea and I took off our shoes and were able to walk around inside and check out the beauty of the building for ourselves. From there we visited Hagia Sophia, which was a church for 916 years, then a mosque for 481 years, and now a museum for the last 80. It was incredibly interesting with a mix of Christian symbols, including stucco paintings of Mary and baby Jesus and gilded mosaics walls of Christ next to Islamic symbols of faith with their Arabic scriptures painted into the center of the dome and Islamic pulpit. It was amazing to see how the building was adapted over the ages for use by the differing religions rather than destruction of the religious art.
After taking the morning to visit some of the big tourist spots, we then grabbed a lunch of some ever-popular Turkish doner. If you have been able to visit us in Germany, than you already know that the doner has been integrated here and is more popular than MickeyD's. After lunch we visited the basilica cistern. It is an underground palace with rows of decorative columns that has collected water for the people of the city for centuries. Some of the decorative columns from the roman period include large sculptures of Medusa with her hair of snakes.
After the cistern we walked through a new beautiful city park. The flowers were in bloom and many people were out enjoying the warmer weather. We stopped and snapped several pics of about a half dozen Muslim women, covered head to toe, with only their eyes visible playing volleyball. Not something we had ever seen before! We walked through the park to the Topkapi Palace. It was a home of the Ottoman Sultans and included a large harem chamber for the Sultans' many wives.
From the Palace we headed to the Grand Bazaar or what could also described as the first indoor mall. Since 1451, tradesmen have been selling all sorts of rugs, spices, fabrics, jewelry, pottery, and metals in this location. You could haggle as much as you like here and were expected to give it back as good as they gave. After some haggling we decided to sit for a while and refresh with some tea, local specialties, and desserts. We tried some handmade breads made by women hard at work over the stove. It was very similar to tortillas, filled with your choice of potato, spinach, or cheese.
After catching our breath, we ventured up one of the main streets in town and were rewarded with some beautiful views of the surrounding city and sea. We found a historic Turkish bathhouse and decided that we would return Sunday morning to experience it firsthand.
We headed up to a rooftop bar and relaxed with a beer as we watched the sunset and the city lights come to life.
We had found a restaurant earlier in the day that offered belly dancers as entertainment during dinner. The owner had a great personality and promised there would be a male belly dancer as well for equality purposes, and that Shea would really like it. So, we decided to return and see what this was all about. The restaurant was small with only about 7 tables and we were rewarded for our return with a table by the cozy fireplace and a wonderful 3 course meal with wine. At about 9:45 the female belly dancer came out and performed her show. It was fun, but then as she finished the owner comes bouncing in and starts belly dancing. He is blowing the female belly dancer out of the water and has the whole restaurant clapping and laughing hysterically. He pulls Shea and several other women up and proceeds to put on a belly dancing clinic. Everyone was having a blast. Come to find out after the performance, this restaurant owner was actually a professional bellydancing instructor and taught for years all over the world in places like Australia and Germany. It topped off the night, and Shea's laughter as she was belly dancing in the middle of this restaurant are awesome memories. We got back to our hotel room about midnight and racked out hard after a full day.
On Sunday morning, we woke up early again and headed over to the Turkish bathhouse. We were shown to our separate sauna areas. This bathhouse has been in existence since 1581, and you are directed to lie on heated marble platforms that are suppose to purify your system and relax you. There are warm and cool water basins where you splash water all over yourself when you get to hot. Then if you want, you can be given a bath by an attendant who massages you as you lay on the heated stone. Shea and I went with the self service sauna, as hey, this was our first experience and we didn't know how friendly these Turks would get. After you are done relaxing in the sauna, you are able to take showers and dress followed by an offer of tea or water to rehydrate. We both really enjoyed it and felt really relaxed after our time there.
From there we headed down to jump on a hop-on hop-off city bus to get outside of the downtown area. We were able to see the Sirkeci train station, which was the last stop of the Orient Express, the Galata tower, which protected the ancient port of Istanbul, and a bunch of other large mosques. We got off at the Dolmabahce palace and took a ferry boat across to the Asian side of Istanbul. We ended up in an area call Kadikoy and experienced our first visit to Asia! We wandered around some of the open air markets and the shopping district before stopping for some lunch. After several hours, we then got back on the boat and headed back to Europe and our bus. We then saw Taksim square and its shops and famed restaurants. We were able to take in some wonderful views of the "Golden Horn". The golden horn is the natural harbor that is formed by Istanbul and is named for the golden hue the setting sun makes on the water there. We then saw the Golden gate, which is the main entrance gate to the ancient walls of Constantinople, or what is present day Istanbul.
We hopped off again and headed to see the ancient Roman Aqueduct before jumping back in a taxi and heading back to the airport for our 8pm flight.
It was a crazy fast trip, but we had an amazing time there. The people were incredibly friendly, and the food and atmosphere were wonderful. We would definitely go again and spend more time there!