Top 8 Climbs for a Great City View in Europe

There are so many ways to see and experience a city.  But one of my top ways to get to “know” a city is by getting up high and looking down at it.  Of course, this is not hard to do as there are usually man-made or natural high points.  While I like getting a view more than anything else, the view is even more appreciated when I have had to climb my way to get it.  I will only list here places that I have actually climbed as opposed to places where I rode up when there was a way to climb it – the ones I rode up will be the subject of another post…   So, here are eight (in no particular order) of my favorite climbs to get a city view in Europe!

Paris’ Eiffel Tower

Yes, I may be stating the obvious but most people ride the elevator on this one.  I have been up the Eiffel Tower two times and both times I climbed it up to the point at which there is no other way open to the public to get to the very top (and then you are required to take an elevator).  I love the freedom of walking up the tower, seeing its beams and bolts up close, and pausing a lot along the way (yea, for the view, that’s the ticket!).  It may not be for everyone but if you are able to do experience the tower this way, do it!  Regardless of how you go up, the altitude and the view of Paris combine to give one a great experience!

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Up close and personal

Sacré-Coeur in Montmartre

You can walk up or ride up to Montmartre (I have done both) but the best view is from climbing the Basilica of Sacré-Coeur itself.  Of course, this is a better view in some ways than the Eiffel Tower since this view includes the Eiffel Tower.  But not only are you rewarded by looking at Paris from this angle, but you get to see the many gargoyles and other details of the church up close and personal – which makes for good photo opps!

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One of the gargoyles keeping watch over a park

St. Paul’s Cathedral in London

When I went up St. Paul’s Cathedral, it was the first time I had gone to the top of any church.  St. Paul’s, built in the 17th century, is 111 m high (365 ft) so you really are high up when you climb it.  I enjoyed not only the view but seeing the “innards” of the structure as I made my way up to get a glimpse of London (pre-London Eye!).

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Looking down towards the front of the Cathedral

Bologna’s Medieval Towers

Bologna is a city of arcades (or porticoes):  it is great to be able to walk around the city whether it is raining or not thanks to this feature of this unique Italian city (home of the world’s oldest university!).  But perhaps a lesser known secret of this town, former possessor of many medieval towers (estimated at 180 towers!), is that you can go up one of the remaining towers (one of the pair called the Due Torri).  It will not be the one with the serious tilt but the other one (which is taller).  I recommend putting out the effort and going up!

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The lower of the Due Torri (the tilted one)

St. Peter’s Basilica in The Vatican

OK, to get to the first viewing point, you do take an elevator but to get to the top of the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica, you walk it up.  Not only do you get to look down across the Tiber to Rome but you get to look down onto St. Peter’s Square (where I have participated in a papal audience (as a VIP!) and an Easter Mass) from a great vantage point.  What I enjoyed (besides getting to the top) was walking inside the dome’s inner and outer walls in the passageways – the higher you got, the more you noticed the curvature of the walls and sometimes had to tilt the head a little bit to adjust to it!  When you come down, you are deposited right inside the basilica.

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St. Peter’s Square from the top of the dome

La Giralda in Sevilla (Seville), Spain

La Giralda, Seville’s famous tower is part of which is a former minaret built in 1198 during the Moors’ occupation of Spain.  It sits in the center of the city right next to the amazing Cathedral of Seville (3rd largest church in the world).  To go up this 100m+ tower, you do not walk up stairs.  So how do you go up if it is a “climb” and there are no stairs?  Well, it actually has ramps!  Why?  So horses could go up!  So, do like the horses and go up the ramps to enjoy views of the city center of Sevilla.

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Composite picture looking down onto the Cathedral of Seville

Galata Tower in Istanbul

Where else, other than Istanbul, can you look at a city laid across two continents with a great bird’s eye view?   Besides learning about its history, it was a great climb.  Once at the top, I looked at Asia across the busy Bosphorus with all its maritime traffic and then with a slight turn of the head, I was looking at Europe.  Across the Golden Horn, I could see the “skyline” of Seraglio Point where the eye quickly focused on Topkapi Palace, the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque.

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Looking towards the Asian side of Istanbul

The city walls of Dubrovnik

Though there are higher vantage points from which to admire the tiled roofs and setting of Dubrovnik, the city walls allowed me to look down but yet be close enough to feel the city.  It was more of a walk than a climb but, since I had to use stairs to get to them, I will call them a “climb” – but don’t be scared, it is pretty easy to walk along these walls!

Bell Tower and Church of St Vlaho in Dubrovnik, Croatia

Bell Tower and Church of St Vlaho


 

On the Other Side of the Golden Horn

A visit to Istanbul is not complete without crossing the Golden Horn to the other side of European Istanbul.  And it cannot be any easier.  A short walk from the Grand Bazaar you can cross the Golden Horn (which back in the day was closed with a long chain to prevent ships from coming in) by bridge or by a short boat ride to the Galata/Karaköy area.

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Walking to catch a boat to cross the Golden Horn (Galata Tower to the upper left)

I opted to cross by boat.  Upon landing on the other side, I went past a spot with a lot of activity where fishermen came in with their goods.

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Fishermen with their goods

The sea was right there, no big barrier between the sidewalk and the beautiful blue waters of the Bosphorus!

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Looking back across the Golden Horn towards Topkapi Palace

I made my way to the Galata Tower (about 67m high) built in 1348 by the Genoese who had commercial interests in then-Constantinople.  It sits on a hillside so you will do some exercise getting there and then you will climb it.  Yes, lots of work but you will rewarded with great views of Istanbul landmarks like Topkapı Palace, the Hagia Sophia, and the Blue Mosque.

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View from the Galata Tower towards Seraglio Point. You can see, from left to right, Topkapi Palace, Hagia Sophia and the Blues Mosque

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Looking towards the Asian side of Istanbul

Along the way, I stopped at the Neve Shalom Synagogue that had been bombed a dozen years earlier (and then 5 years after my visit).  It is not an old building by Istanbul standards having been finished I 1951 but it is the largest Sephardic synagogue in Istanbul.  The guards were not sure if to let us in but they spoke Turkish and Yiddish only, languages none of us knew.  Thankfully German (which I spoke at a very elementary level) and Yiddish sort of relate a little – enough to say we were American, to understand they wanted to know what hotel we were staying at, and answering.  We were allowed in.

Beyond these places, I enjoyed a local place called Ece Bar in Tramvay Caddesi, facing the Bosphorus.  It was a three level locale with the bottom level offering a feel for traditional local music and dance.  We were hosted by the owner, Ece, and it was a neat experience.  Other levels offered more standard restaurant and bar services.  I have tried to see if it is still in operation but have had no luck.

I also meandered up some large avenue going east-ish from the Golden Horn which gave me an opportunity to see more of modern Istanbul, not just the old quarter where I spent most of my time.  Istanbul offers contrasts in so many ways:  the population reflects in its “look” the mix of peoples that have been through here; modern buildings sitting side by side structures from days long gone in one incredible juxtaposition.

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The juxtaposition is everywhere

At the end of this walk I met my friend’s girlfriend for lunch and then I decided not to walk back as I was tired and ended up with a mini-adventure.  See, I wanted to come back by water so I could admire the grand old mansions that sit right by the shores of the Bosphorus.  However, I somehow got lost trying to find a boat stop and the locals I ran into spoke none of the languages I could communicate in at the time (English, Spanish, French and German).  After a lot of walking and beginning to wonder what to do, I ran into an older Dutch couple who had a clue and who were doing exactly what I had hoped to do – success!!

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Dolmabahçe Palace, an European style palace built towards the end of the Ottoman years; where Ataturk died

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Other grand buildings along the Bosphorus

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Other grand buildings along the Bosphorus

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Other grand buildings along the Bosphorus

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Can you imagine living on the building right under the bridge??

I highly recommend the crossing of the Golden Horn and a boat ride along the shores of the Bosphorus (not just crossing the Golden Horn) as you will a glimpse of the Istanbul of today – and of yesteryear.

Love Shopping? I Have a Grand Bazaar for You

This is one of the neatest places to go in Istanbul if you like to shop and haggle, and even if not, it is still quite impressive by its sheer scale in size and offerings.  You can almost picture business going on here for centuries!  The bazaar is huge – it is a veritable maze of over 60 covered streets and 3,000 shops.  How is that versus hanging out at a mall in the U.S.?  Yes, not the same thing.

The Grand Bazaar came to be into its current form over a couple of centuries – it evolved and was added to over time and now it is close to 550 years old.  Fortunately for us visitors, it sits in a perfect spot with key sites all around it – almost a ground zero for the visitor checking out the places to see in Istanbul:  Topkapi Palace, the Hagia Sophia and some of the mosques including the Blue Mosque.

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Arcade in the Grand Bazaar

I, not a fan of shopping, actually enjoyed walking around and seeing all the goods on offer, getting lost in the maze along the way.  I even ran into some sort of informal “pit” of trading in something:  guys on cell phones, maybe 8-10 of them, exchanging money around.  Pretty cool!

Finally, some advice:  haggle is the name of the game; it is expected in fact – so don’t be shy.  Pay no more than half of what they originally asked but go for less if you can!

Please note that it is closed on Sundays.

Going Under in Istanbul

I have shared in other posts about the incredible Hagia Sophia, Topkapı Palace, and the beautiful mosques of Istanbul – definite must-sees in that great city.  But be aware, right under your feet could be some of the remnants of good ole Roman engineering:  the cisterns of Istanbul.

Old cities tend to have lots of hidden secrets.  Many of them are hidden simply because they are underground.  Istanbul is no different except most cities’ hidden structures are not even close to being around 1,500 years old.  Istanbul’s cisterns are.  The best known and largest of the underground cisterns in Istanbul is called the Basilica Cistern because a basilica had stood at that location.  The cisterns in Istanbul are part of a system that brings water from outside the city via aqueducts – all evidence of the well-known Roman engineering.

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The Basilica Cistern

The Basilica Cistern is not far from the Hagia Sophia and is well worth a visit.  I felt like I had walked into a flooded underground church.  The cisterns used to be visited by boat but at some point, platforms were built for the visitors to explore them.  Most of the materials used in the cistern, including the 300-odd columns holding up the ceiling, were re-used from structures elsewhere.  That includes the bases of two columns carved with the image of Medusa.  Of course, everyone knows not to look at Medusa in the eyes so the builders placed the bases sideways or upside down to protect innocent visitors who may dare gaze into her eyes…

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I rotated this photo so you wouldn’t have to rotate your device 🙂

The Ottoman Ruler’s Residence: Topkapı Palace

Topkapı Palace sits at the entrance to the Golden Horn, an inlet of water that splits the European side of Istanbul.  It is located quite close to the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque.  It was the Ottoman ruler’s humble abode for part of the time they ruled the empire (the rulers eventually moved to a different type of palace of a more European style further up the Bosphorus).  This palace is where the Empire was managed from – an empire that at peak included, more or less, Southeast Europe, Western Asia, part of North Africa, and the Horn of Africa.  A Muslim empire that was quite tolerant of other religions.  And an empire feared in Christian Europe.  Eventually the empire disintegrated over a period of a few decades finally ending its life after World War I.

The palace is strategically situated high on a promontory on the tip of Istanbul (Seraglio Point) west of the Golden Horn which affords great views of the Karakoy/Galata area, the Bosphorus and the Asian side of the city.  It consists of many buildings and gardens so it was not a massive building as were more European-style palaces like Versailles or El Escorial.  The most important buildings sit up high with the rest of the complex working its way down to the shores of the Bosphorus where the complex is walled with some parts of the walls going all the way back to what was then the acropolis of Byzantium.

An interesting part of the palace is its imperial harem where the sultan kept his many wives, concubines but also where the women of the royal family lived – and schemed.  It must have been an interesting place with all the intrigues, jealousies and power fights.  The mother of the sultan ruled the roost so it surely must have been a fun place!  You may picture the harem as a big room with women just laying around (I did, anyway) but it really is a series of buildings consisting of over 400 rooms!  Of course, space was allocated according to rank.  Oh, and this also included the eunuchs (slaves especially trained –and castrated- to serve in the harem) who guarded and took care of the harem.

Today, the palace is a museum, letting the visitor get a glimpse of some of the spaces, enjoy the vistas, and see some of the collection of important artifacts in the gallery.  I enjoyed learning more about the sultans and Ottoman Empire, especially in such an incredible location in such an incredible and unique city.

Below is a gallery of photos of the buildings, rooms, grounds, and vistas of the Topkapi Palace, a must-see in Istanbul!

Click on the pictures to enlarge and view.

Jewels of Istanbul: Its Mosques

During my 5-day visit to Istanbul, I had ample time to walk around, often aimlessly, to get to know the city.  While some sights were on the must-see list (like the Hagia Sophia and the Topkapi Palace), I also “discovered” places not on my list.  I quickly developed an interest in entering the many mosques I encountered (and there are plenty!).  For a non-Muslim like me, they are worth exploring for their architecture / construction for sure but also for their interiors.  The interior of mosques in Istanbul were different than the ones I had seen in Egypt (which were the only mosques I had ever entered at that point).  What made the interiors different was their use of ceramic tile typical of Turkey (more on this further down…).

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The skyline of “old” Istanbul is accentuated by many mosques

While I don’t remember all the names and locations of the mosques I visited (though I was writing about travel at the time, it was only in emails to friends and family), I will at least share some of what I saw so you get an idea of what I mean.  But there is one that is a must-see for sure:  the “Blue” Mosque.

The Sultan Ahmed Mosque, aka the Blue Mosque

Almost across from the Hagia Sophia resides the most imposing mosque I saw in Istanbul:  the Sultan Ahmed Mosque.

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Looking up to the domes with an ablution fountain in the courtyard

The Blue Mosque was built in the early 17th century so it is a “baby”, really, by Istanbul standards but, nevertheless, monumental inside and out.  It boasts 6 minarets, one main dome, and many secondary domes.  It has a courtyard as large as the mosque itself surrounded by arcades (apologies to architects if I am not using the proper term) with the fountains for the ablutions located in that space.

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The arcade around the courtyard

As is the case with mosques, its interior is a vast open space (unlike Christian places of worship with benches and chairs throughout) since the prayers are done by sitting and prostrating on the floor which, of course, is covered in rugs/carpets.

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Not the best photo of the interior but you can see the faithful praying (I wanted to not be close to them while taking the pic) and some details of the interior (chandelier, carpets, etc.)

Can you believe that at the time Roman Catholic Pope Benedict XVI visited the mosque in 2006, it was only the second time a Pope had visited a Muslim place of worship?  Not only shocked for ecumenical reasons but also thinking the beauty they missed seeing!

Ceramic tile

As I mentioned, what appeals to me about mosques in Istanbul is the use of ceramic tiles in many different styles and geometrical patterns and using a lot of blue (could it be the influence of the close-by Aegean Sea blue??).  The writing in Arabic script that you see is actually verses from the Koran.  I don’t read Arabic so all I can do is say that they add to the beauty of the place.

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Side walls of a mosque in the city; notice how blue plays a prominent role in the tiles’ color

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Dome of the same mosque

Parting tips…

If you have never been to a mosque, it is good to know that you need to be properly dressed (no shorts, etc.) and that you will have to remove your shoes before you enter – please do not miss observing these rules!!  Some mosques I have been to require you leave the shoes outside (not placing them inside your bag).  A fellow traveler decided not to leave his shoes in the area that some attendant watches it because he didn’t want to pay (at the mosque close to the Golden Horn and the Grand Bazzar).  When we came out, his shoes were gone.  BIG LESSON LEARNED:  don’t skimp.  Attendants are just earning a living though, certainly, this one was a thief.

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Mosque by the Grand Bazaar where the “shoe incident” happened: the New Mosque

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Looking down onto the New Mosque, built in the 17th century right by the Golden Horn (Asian side of Istanbul in the background)

So discover Istanbul and its mosques if you visit!  I leave you with a parting shot of one of these beauties:  the Blue Mosque at sunset sporting a different color!

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At sunset

 

A True Representative of Its Hometown: Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia

After having had some challenges getting out of Egypt, my arrival in Istanbul continued to offer “experiences” as there was an unexpected change of plans that I shared in my Boarding Pass Series post about Istanbul.  Since I had to find a place to stay all of a sudden, I opened my guidebook and fished around for some hotel that looked well situated, cheap enough, and nice enough. And that’s how I found the Hotel Pierre Loti, a small but well located hotel that became my source of accommodations for 5 days.  It was definitely an easy walk to the main historic sites, like Topkapi Palace and the Blue Mosque, and a score for the price point.

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A city that straddles Europe (foreground) and Asia (background), divided by the Bosphorus

Each of the places I want to share with you deserves its own post, not only because of what I want to say about them but also because of the photos I want to share.  If you are visiting Istanbul, one thing to keep in mind is that most of the places I write about are within walking distance of each other so it is only a matter of how much you can or want to cover in one day.

In this first post, I will share what I consider to be the crown jewel of Istanbul as a history and architecture lover –  its “grand dame”: the Hagia Sophia, or Holy Wisdom.

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Without further ado, the Hagia Sophia

A church is born

This is one of the most amazing structures that I have seen.  It is not imposing in the same way that, say, Versailles is amazing.  But if you hear or read its story and consider how old that structure is, it is nothing short of incredible.  I stood in the center of the museum looking around in awe and disbelief that I finally got to see in person this unique piece of architecture and history that I had learned about in high school days.  The ability to build a structure that could support such a large dome back when the church was built is incredible in and of itself (the dome has had repairs over the centuries).

The current structure with its massive dome has its origin in the 6th century when it was built by Roman emperor Justinian as a Christian church (it was the third church built on that site).  It was one of the most magnificent churches in the world at that time and for centuries to come.  In fact, it was the world’s largest cathedral for a thousand years!  (You may wonder “who” dethroned it… the Cathedral of Seville built in 1520).

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A massive base was needed to support the dome

Hagia Sophia was decorated with mosaics all around and it is said to have re-defined the course of architecture.  While it remained an Eastern Orthodox Cathedral for close to 900 years, for a very brief period (at that time scale), it served as a Roman Catholic Cathedral.   In a way, Hagia Sophia was at the epicenter of the Great Schism that resulted in the split of the Catholic Church into Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox “versions” around the year 1053.

Transformation into a mosque

The Christian church was converted to a mosque when Constantinople fell to the conquering Ottomans who came from what is today Asian Turkey in 1453.  Lovers of history (or those with good memories of their world history class) know this was a key turning point in history.  This event ended the existence of the Eastern Roman Empire (the Byzantine eastern half of the former Roman Empire).  In essence, this killed off the last remnant of the Roman Empire which had existed in one form or another for around 1,500 years.

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Ablution fountain added in its conversion to a mosque for ritual purification

As part of the conversion to a mosque, minarets were added to the church so it would be a proper mosque and the mosaics were covered up or removed as images of people are not appropriate in a mosque.  While I realize this goes with the belief system, I am saddened to think of all the beauty we don’t get to see.  But at least the beautiful Islamic features compensate the loss of a good number of the mosaics.

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One of the mosaics of the Hagia Sophia (Virgin and Child flanked by Justinian I and Constantine I)

Its current state

Eventually, after the fall of the Ottoman Empire (around World War I), Turkey moved to a more secular state under the guidance of its modernizing leader, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (my visit coincided with the 60th anniversary of his death hence you will notice flags at half mast in photos I may show in other posts from this trip).

During his presidency (he founded modern Turkey and was its first president), the Hagia Sophia was secularized by being converted into a museum.  Like with any of the places on this list, a guided tour or audio guide (if available now) are the way to go; you will not truly understand the significance of the place without getting all the background.  But the good news is that, so we can appreciate the history of the place, a few of the mosaics have been exposed.  Impressive.  The Hagia Sophia had fallen into disrepair but, mercifully, thanks to corporations and governments, the various issues are being worked through.  One key item that was addressed was the potential risk to the dome’s long term viability.

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Ritual purification urn brought in during its time as a mosque

For me and my interests, nothing beats the Hagia Sophia as the number one sight to see in Istanbul.  And the day I return to Istanbul, you can be sure I will be going again.

Before you go, which days it is open (as with anything).  Last I checked it was closed on Mondays.

A structure that represents its city

Istanbul, like the Hagia Sophia, has gone through a lot of “conversions”:  Byzantium, Constantinople and Istanbul.  Due to its location at the crossroads of the “world” for many centuries, Istanbul has had a part in or been affected by most events in that part of the world.  I am still fascinated by this incredible city that has seen so much and serves witness to all it has seen and by this structure that reflects all that perfectly.

I would really enjoy returning and spending another week exploring the many things I still did not get to discover in my only visit there.  Stay tuned for more posts about the sights and sites of this great city.  I leave you with a rewarding view of the Bosphorus.

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The sun sets on the Bosphorus and Istanbul

 

Boarding Pass Stories: Constantinople! OK, Istanbul

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The destination, the when(s), and the reason(s)

My knack for taking one trip idea and expanding its scope is not a recent event.  That’s how I ended last year exploring a country I may have never visited otherwise:  Moldova.  It pre-dates my travel blogging days by a bit.  As I joined a group of friends last-minute on a trip to Egypt (literally, like two weeks before the trip), I wondered what else could I do as I had plenty of vacation time at work.  I contacted a former co-worker who had moved back to his hometown of Istanbul and asked him if I could visit and he said yes, of course.  I got a free ticket to/from Istanbul with Delta and then bought a separate ticket between Istanbul and Cairo so I had to fly through Istanbul to head to Egypt first and then I would come back and stop in Istanbul from where I would fly through Paris again (as the boarding pass above shows).  This was in 1998, eons ago, it feels.

The airline

Air France offered great service as usual in those days for many airlines.  I flew business class since I had plenty o’ miles and it was going to be a LONG trip.  Class…

What fascinated me about this experience

I returned from Cairo to Istanbul to visit my friend and explore this “epically historic” city for the first time.  I wait for my friend and nothing.  An hour passes and I begin to get a little antsy (these days, cellphones were not what they are today and I believe you still couldn’t use a U.S. in Europe, had I brought mine along).

So I nervously wondered if my friend confused the day or time of my arrival.  I realized I should call him at work and see.  Since these were the days you could still find payphones, this would not be a problem.  Except I first had to exchange money, hope for coins, figure out how much to pay for the call, etc.  I called and it rang and rang.  I kept trying and no answer.  I was beginning to worry more now.  I decided that surely someone was sitting around his desk or office so maybe I just had to keep calling until someone, in exasperation, decided to walk over and answer the darned phone.  Someone sure did.

They plugged me through to my friend’s secretary and she told me she had been expecting my call (!) as my friend had unexpectedly and last minute been asked to make a trip abroad.  So he left instructions with her to connect me to his girlfriend so she could let me in his apartment, etc.  I rang her but in talking to her I realized his apartment was not near the city center which was the area I was going to be exploring and since my friend was not around, no point in staying far out.

I pulled out my travel book and found a hotel, the Pierre Lotti, which had availability and ended up working perfectly due to its proximity to all the places I wanted to see!  What was great about this experience was that I explored Istanbul for 5 awesome days, met other travelers with whom I then did more social/less-touristy things, and had a great time!  I did meet my friend’s girlfriend for lunch which was neat and which led to me getting lost on the way back to the hotel.  But that, my dear reader, will be food for another post!

Hagia Sophia, Holy Wisdom, Istanbul, Constantinople, Byzantiu, church. mosque, museum, architecture, history, photo, mosaic, art

One of the mosaics uncovered in the Hagia Sophia – beautiful

 

Picture of the Week – Hagia Sophia, Istanbul

Many moons ago I finally got to see Constantinople, er Byzantium, er Istanbul.  After so many years hearing about this place and its history, I finally was going to see face-to-face some of the places I had studied or heard about.  At the top of my list:  the Hagia Sophia.  A monument of Christianity that transcended time, religion, and utilization.  Here is one of my pictures of that amazing creation of architects, engineers, and builders…

Hagia Sophia

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