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Winter in Middle Europe (part 4)

Tuesday, 27 December 2016

At 2:30 on Tuesday afternoon we boarded a bus to Vienna from Prague, the last stop of our official Mid Europe trip. I visited Vienna many years ago on an Insight Vacation tour, but it was more of a passing through, so was looking forward to the visit. Also, after much walking for many days, I was looking forward to putting my feet up for a few hours!

Our hotel in Vienna was outside the city center and as we were only arriving after 7pm, the plan was to just go for dinner close by and have an early night. As usual, I had a walking tour booked for the next morning…

When we arrived in Vienna, it was drizzling and I immediately called an Uber to take us to our hotel. After settling in, connecting to the wifi, we walked down the road to get some dinner. There were a few options, but we decided on the most authentic looking Viennese restaurant, Mimoza, on Siebenbrunnenplatz. The food portions were astonishingly big and extremely reasonably priced (Bianca had a Chicken Cordon-Blue for €6.90 and Anya and I both had Schnitzels for €6.50 each).

After dinner we retired to our hotel as we had an early day the next morning.

Wednesday, 28 December 2016

After a delicious buffet breakfast, we set off to find the bus into town. The map provided by the hotel was slightly confusing, and we were not sure where the bus stop was but after spotting a bus with our number on it, and a bit of a sprint to make it to the bus, we arrived at our meeting place in front of the Albertina, for our walking tour with Good Vienna Tours.

Ready for another walking tour

I booked the tour in advance, even though there was no upfront fee, but rather tip based and I was very glad I did. The group was quite big, so initially I was a bit apprehensive, but Iva, our guide controlled the group very well. She was equipped with an iPad which gave her the opportunity to show some pictures of art and even a couple of movie previews along the way to spice up the tour a bit.

Our meeting point was across the street from the Hotel Sacher Wien, and Iva started off by telling us the story of the most famous Viennese culinary specialty, created by Franz Sacher for Prince Wenzel von Metternich in 1832, the Sachertorte. We never managed to go and eat this special chocolate cake at the Hotel Sacher, but I did manage to eat a piece at the airport on the way out, and it really is deserving of its fame!

Sachertorte at the airport

Iva also explained how the standing tickets for the Vienna State Opera works, that’s of course assuming we had the energy to stand in line for a few hours for the chance to get cheap standing tickets to the Opera…which we didn’t.

Next, we moved on to the entrance of the Albertina, a large art museum built on the last remnants of the fortifications of Vienna. She showed us a picture of the most famous picture in the Albertina, the Young Hare, a watercolour painting by Albrecht Dürer, dating back to 1502.

We proceeded to the Burggarten, behind the Hofburg palace, with its statue of the emperor Franz Joseph and of course the famous Mozart marble statue. Iva spent some time explaining the importance of the Habsburg family in the history of Vienna and contributed some more to the discussion of the Viennese love-hate relationship with Mozart. The Mozart statue or denkmal, is situated on Southwestern end of the Burggarten and has a flower planting area in front of it in the shape of a treble clef (music note). Apparently it is beautiful in summer as the flowers bloom. But apparently much more difficult to take a picture!

Emperor Franz Joseph, Burggarten

Mozart denkmal, Burggarten

Mozart denkmal, with flower planting in front

Our next stop was the Heldenplatz, where Hitler announced the Austrian annexation by Nazi Germany (the Anschluss) on 15 March 1938. The Heldenplatz was commissioned by emperor Franz Joseph as part of the Ringstraße boulevard project. It has been the setting for many historic battles and events in the course of Viennese history. Iva explained many of the historical events that took place and showed another video clip (the name of which escaped me now…).

Hofberg Palace from Heldenplatz

We walked through the entrance of the Hofburg palace past the Imperial Treasure Museum towards the Spanish Riding school, where they still train Lipizzaner horses (tracing back to 800 AD) in the classical dressage methods. Iva highly recommended attending a show of the horses which I’m sure would have been fabulous. As a side note, we have our own Lipizzaner horses, tracing back to the Croatian branch of the Tulipan breed of Lipizzaners in Kyalami in South Africa, where these Spanish horses are still trained in the classical method as well. The South African Lipizzaners were brought to South Africa by Count Jankovich-Besan in 1944 from a war-torn Europe. I saw these horses perform with the Drakensberg Boys’ Choir a number of years ago and it was magnificent! It was great to see where they originate from.

Entrance gate at Hofburg palace

Quite impressive is the fact that entrance to most museums in Vienna is free to under 19 year olds. Unfortunately there are so many fantastic museums that we barely scratched the surface!

After the Hofburg Palace we stopped at Rosenberger restaurant, a large buffet style underground food hall for the quick coffee to warm up from the cold.

On our way to St Stephen’s Cathedral, we walked through the Neuer Markt, which is actually one of the oldest places in Vienna. The elongated square is surrounded by shops, including A. E. Köchert, a jeweler where original diamond hair stars, such as those worn by the much loved empress Sisi, can be bought for a small fortune. The square also hosts the Donnerbrunnen fountain, which didn’t have any water in when we were there but was still very impressive. The naked figures (allegories of the Danube’s tributaries) were removed by the Empress Maria Theresia when she established the Chastity Commission in 1773, but was thankfully restored to their rightful place in 1801.

Donnerbrunnen fountain, Neuer Markt

A. E. Köchert jeweler, selling Sisi star jewelry and hairpins

St Stephen’s Cathedral (or Domkirche St Stephan) with its multi coloured roof tiles, is breathtaking. The current Romanesque and Gothic style building dates back to the 14th century but stands on the ruins of two earlier churches. We decided to return at a later stage, as we were told that the view from the roof is magnificent.

St Stephen’s Cathedral

We also walked past the Mozarthaus, where Mozart lived (in apparent luxury that seems quite a contrast to the poor pauper end of his life) and composed. A short walk took us past Figlmüller, a restaurant famous for the best Wiener Schnitzels in the whole of Vienna at not an unreasonable price of €14.90 (for a schnitzel big enough to feed two people with leftovers…). The restaurant is however very busy, so even though we did try and get in the next day, we were not successful.

Finally we walked down Fleischmarkt street and ended our tour at St Rupert’s Church (Ruprechtskirche) an ivy covered old church dating back to the 12th century. At the end of the tour Iva spent a bit of time giving some recommendations for restaurants, and answered some questions. It was certainly a very worthwhile tour and a great way to kick-start our trip to Vienna.

Ruprechtskirche

After a quick snack, we made our way back to the Albertina museum, as I was very keen to see the Monet to Picasso exhibition. There was also a Ways of Pointillism exhibition on at that time, showcasing the transition of art through Pointillism from George Seurat, Signac and Van Gogh, which I found breathtaking and very informative.

Entrance to the Albertine, the steps showcasing Van Gogh’s Sower

At the Albertina

We spent a few hours in the museum and eventually had to rest our weary feet!

We went for dinner at Reinthaler’s Beisl (another recommendation) and had delicious schnitzels (as you do…) and made our way back to our hotel.

Thursday, 29 December 2016

The morning started with much excitement. Bianca had applied for au pair work in America, as she decided to take a gap year, before starting varsity. She turned down a potential family just before we started our trip, following her instincts, and I was very proud of her for making such a brave decision, with no other options to fall back onto. And then almost two weeks passed, in which I could see she was stressing about what she would do if she did not receive any further interview requests. So, it was with huge relief that she woke up to an interview request from a family in New Jersey. She sent off a return email but since it was the middle of the night in the States, we would have to be patient.

As a bonus, it was a beautiful sunny day, although it was freezing cold outside. We had a tour planned to Schonbrunn palace on the outskirts of Vienna and we were very excited. After breakfast I realised that our tickets were only valid for entrance for a very specific time, and we decided to take an Uber to the palace, saving us the hassle of finding our way to the palace via public transport.

At entrance to Schonbrunn palace

We has booked the Grand Tour and spent a good hour plus walking through the imperial rooms of the palace, from the impressive Hall of Ceremonies to the intimate rooms of Maria Theresia, who ruled the Habsburg dynasty for 40 years) for with her many kids and doting husband, the Holy Roman Emperor, Francis I.

I was quite impressed by the number of her 16 children (10 of whom survived into adulthood) went on to become queens and kings and princes in their own rights. She was also the mother of the famous (or infamous) Marie Antoinette of France, who died under the guillotine after the French Revolution.

Afterwards we strolled through the beautiful palace gardens, which very much reminded me of Versailles. It was really cold, but it was lovely to experience the bright winter sunshine.

Schonbrunn palace gardens

In front of frozen fountain, Schonbrunn palace gardens

The girls entranced by icy fountain

A walk in the woods, Schonbrunn palace

View over palace gardens

Schonbrunn palace in the background, with the girls

Beautiful skyline with Schonbrunn palace in foreground

We made our way back (on the metro this time around) to the city centre and decided to take the historical Vienna Ring Tram, a 30 minute tram ride around the Vienna Ringstraße with commentary. Of course we had some Käsekrainer or hot dogs with chunks of cheese in the sausages on Stephanplatz before we boarded the Ring Tram! It was delicious.

On board the Vienna Ring Tram

Afterwards we tried to find a restaurant for lunch. As mentioned above, we tried Figlmüller but unfortunately we would have to wait too long for a table. We found an Italian restaurant on Schulerstraße, which looked like the type of place we could sit down, enjoy a glass of wine and a relaxing lunch. And indeed, Ristorante Da Capo was such a place.

Unfortunately, it was during lunch that we received notification that our flight to Amsterdam, which was due to leave at 6:55 the next morning, has been cancelled. A quick internet search confirmed that lots of flights to Amsterdam Schiphol had been cancelled and delayed as a result of fog. This did create a bit of a panic but we were told to wait for re-booking information so there was little we could do but wait.

The sun was starting to set as we walked to St Stephen’s Cathedral. I wanted to go up to the tower and catch the sunset from there. It was a bit of a squeeze into a tiny lift, but the view from the top was magnificent. The multi coloured roof tiles were even more impressive from close up! Unfortunately, there is a cage-like structure at the top (presumably to protect people from falling off the tower) but this does distract a bit from the view.

View from roof of St Stephen’s Cathedral

From the other side of St Stephen’s Cathedral roof

On top of the roof

Afterwards we made our way back to the hotel, to give Bianca a chance to email the family and to try and find out what the plan was with our flight. We had accommodation booked in Amsterdam and I was uncertain whether we would be able to extend our stay at our hotel in Vienna, so it was important to find out if we would still be able to get a flight to Amsterdam the next day.

St Stephen’s cathedral at dusk

The Vienna State Opera at night

Finally, just after 8:30 in the evening we received confirmation that our flights were re-booked, but only on the 31st of December, which would mean that we would only arrive in Amsterdam in the afternoon of the 31st. Luckily we were able to find a room in our hotel in Vienna. We had to move to a smaller room though but at least that was sorted. And all of the sudden we had an extra day in Vienna, so we decided to have a bit of a sleep in.

Friday, 30 December 2016

We had a relaxing morning, went to breakfast a little later, packed and moved rooms. Late morning, we made our way back to the city centre. It was another glorius, sunny day and I gave the girls a choice as to what they would like to go and do.

They chose the Natural History Museum, which they were keen on the day before, but we decided it would be too rushed. I googled the museum that morning and realised that we struck gold. On Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, the NHM arranges a tour to the roof of the museum, and as our luck would have it, there was a tour on this Friday afternoon at 3:00pm. It promised to be an unforgettable experience.

In front of the Natural History Museum, Vienna

Once again, under 19 year olds could enter the museum for free and adult entrance fees were only €10. We did have to pay an extra €8 per person for this extra tour, but it was definitely worth it!

The Natural History Museum is housed in one of two identical buildings on either side of the Maria-Theresien-platz. The other building houses the Kunsthistorisches Museum or Museum of Art History. If we had more time I would have been very keen to visit this museum as well. The two museums were commissioned to house the formidable collection of the Habsburgs. The two buildings are exactly the same on the outside, but apparently the interior is different.

Statue of Maria Theresia on Maria-Theresien-platz

The Natural History Museum

Christmas markets in Maria Theresia square

The NHM opened in 1889 to the public. The museum hosts a very large, very impressive and informative collection. The audio guides were great, the many interactive displays provided entertainment for kids (and adults) of all ages and we just loved it. I could spend a whole blog post talking about everything we saw and learned, but suffice to say that some of the most impressive exhibitions were the Venus of Willendorf exhibition, the history of science exhibition, some of the wonderful gemstones (including the gemstone-and-diamond bouquet of flowers which Maria Theresia had made as a present for her husband), the dinosaur collection and the huge mammal exhibit.

The famous gemstone-and-diamond bouquet, NHM Vienna

Some dinosaurs, NHM Vienna

Venus of Willendorf, 28 000 to 25 000 BC (the artifact is 11 cm high)

The view of the dome of museum from bottom

And then of course, as part of the rooftop tour, we got to see some areas that are not open to the public, including the 40 000 large human skull collection in the Anthropology department! There were even some decorated and skulls painted with flowers from the Bone House in Hallstatt.

The skull collection, Vienna NHM

View of dome from top

View of restaurant below from top

And of course, the view from the rooftop was just amazing. We made it up there just as the sun was setting and I would have quite happily spent another half an hour up there taking pictures but alas, it was time to go back down. A fantastic experience all and all.

The rooftop of the Natural History Museum, Vienna

View of Vienna from NHM roof

The sun is setting behind the dome of the NHM

With the girls on the roof of the NHM

Statues holding guard on the roof of NHM

We left the museum when it was already dark, and after a bit of gift shopping near St Stephen’s Cathedral, we started making our way back to the hotel.

Trdlenik at the Christmas market on Maria Theresia square

Bianca had an interview with her potential family at 6:00pm, which went very well and afterwards we went for dinner at another restaurant in the area, Restaurant Maria Rosa. I would be amiss to say that there were not Schnitzels served at our table…and beers.

Some more Schnitzels…

The next day was going to be a busy day, with our flight scheduled to leave at noon, but we went to bed satisfied to have had such an excellent bonus day.

We loved out time in Vienna!

Next up, New Year in Amsterdam

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Posted by on March 25, 2017 in Family, Travel

 

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Winter in Middle Europe (part 3)

Winter in Middle Europe (part 3)

24 December 2016

We woke up early on Christmas Eve, as we had a train to catch to Prague from Kraków. Actually, it was a combination of bus and train, as the first part of the trip, from Kraków to Ostrava (just after the Czech border) was by bus and the rest of the trip to Prague was by train. It was going to be a long day commuting…

I did some research before the time, and as it is, the main Christmas celebration takes place on Christmas Eve, as most Czech people stay at home (read most restaurants and shops are closed) and have a traditional Czech Christmas dinner with the family. Apparently, in the days leading up to Christmas, the markets sell live carp everywhere which will be taken home to cook up a storm for Christmas dinner.

I was happy to have stumbled across this little tidbit of information, and decided that when in Rome, do as the Romans, so we had a booking for a traditional Christmas dinner at a restaurant in Prague Nove Mesto (New Town).

We arrived at the Praha-Libeň railway station after 3:00pm in the afternoon and it was immediately clear that the city was empty. A lonesome man at a ticket counter grumpily pointed us in the direction of the automatů to purchase tickets for the tram. Luckily, the tram ride was a short one and we arrived at the Luxury Family Hotel Bílá Labuť soon after with a bit of time to kill before we had to leave for dinner.

Another tram ride brought us to the Nove Mesto, where we had a short walk to the medieval Restaurace u Českých pánů, where we had a booking for dinner. The restaurant is set in Gothic cellars, restored to offer the feel of medieval times, and we booked for a traditional Czech Christmas dinner. The ambiance was pleasant, with live music and an explanation of the food on offer, with little extras to assist in mimicking a traditional Czech Christmas dinner.

We were welcomed with a complimentary drink of Becherovka, a herbal liquer, or a glass of Prosecco. Starters were Old Czech mushroom Cuba, a sort of barley risotto and was very delicious, followed by a creamy fish soup (made from carp, of course). The main course was breaded veal cutlet (don’t let the ‘let’ in cutlet fool you, it was a monster portion…) with homemade potato salad. Apparently, potato salad is also a very traditional addition to the Christmas dinner. Dessert was an apple strudel with ice cream, followed by coffee or tea and Christmas cookies. All this in a medieval cellar setting with Christmas music played by traditional folk musicians.

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Apple coring, walnut, and delicious food

All and all, the food was good, and we dutifully followed the instructions for the Czech traditions, including coring an apple. If the inside of the apple is shaped as a star, it means that everyone will get together the next year in happiness and health. A four-pointed cross is a bad omen and means that someone at the table will fall ill or die within a year. In addition, we each had to crack a walnut by hand, and if it breaks clean, with the insides pretty much intact, it is meant to be a positive omen.

 

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I couldn’t resist a picture with one of the many knights in armour on display…

The only downside and disappointment was that the service was shoddy to say the least. After the starter drink the waiter never once came to ask if we wanted to order anything else… dishes were brought out in rapid succession, but not once did he stop and ask for further drinks orders. Our coffee was ordered from the manager who happened to clear a table next to us. We spent almost half an hour jokingly trying to get the waiters attention to get our bill, imagining there was an invisible wall around our table (with much amusement from fellow diners).

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Wenceslas Square

When we got outside, the girls joked about checking the newspaper for the year. I am thankful that we were all in good spirits and we didn’t let this poor service spoil our evening and actually good food. The set menu was CK850 pp (almost $35) which was not a cheap meal by any stretch of the imagination, but luckily we saved on wine or prosecco, because…erm…we weren’t offered anything…

Before heading back to our hotel, we walked down to the Wenceslas Square, a traditional setting for demonstrations and surrounded by shops and the business district. It was more a very large boulevard than a square, but the lights were pretty and it was a nice round off to a pleasant evening.

25 December 2016

We woke up on Christmas morning ready to explore the city. After a great breakfast, we set off towards the Old Town or Staré Město where we were to meet our guide for another walking tour. There was light rain forecast and we were not sure what would be open on Christmas day, but that didn’t put us off.

Upon recommendation from my friend Ingrid, we joined the Prague Tip Trip with Jana for a walking tour. The tour started off with a quick overview of one of the most amazing clocks in the whole world, the Prague Astronomical Clock dating back to 1410, the third oldest astronomical clock in the world and the oldest one still operating. Jana showed us how to read the months, the lunar phase and the approximate time. For an accurate time reading, there is a proper clock at the top of the tower…

The Prague Astronomical Tower

The Prague Astronomical Tower

We moved on to the old town square, which was starting to show signs of live as the Christmas market was starting up for the day. The huge Christmas tree on the square also features a small show of lights in the evenings (although we didn’t ever see this). We walked across the square to the statue of Jan Hus, a religious reformer who was burnt at the stake for his beliefs.

Large Christmas tree on the Old Town Square

Large Christmas tree on the Old Town Square

Following one of the exits from the square, we walked to the Tyn Courtyard, founded in the 12th century where merchants came to pay customs for their goods. The courtyard features the Granovsky Palace, a Renaissance palace with the walls decorated in sgraffitoes and wall paintings. Unfortunately many of the paintings are faded badly, and in need of restoration. We stopped briefly at St Jacob’s church or the Basilica of St James, where we were able to view the inside of the church through a one way window. Jana shared the story of the mummified arm which, according to legend, belongs to a thief who tried to steal from the bejeweled altar when the statue of the Virgin Mary came alive and grabbed his arm, where he was found in the morning. His arm had to be amputated to rescue him and the arm was put on display in the church as a grim warning. Moments later the grumpy priest slammed open the door of the church and Jana sneered at him. Clearly not a lot of love lost there!

The wall murals

The Renaissance paintings on the walls of the Granovsky Palace

We made our way past the Grevin Praha, or the Madame Tussaud’s of Prague, which was closed for the day, to the House of the Black Madonna, a Cubist building that houses the Cafe Orient, which according to Jana served delicious cakes and sandwiches. We did peek into the building to see the awesome staircase, which is apparently often missed.

The staircase of the Cubist

The staircase of the Cubist House of the Black Madonna

Next, we made our way to Municipal House, next to the impressive Powder Gate, one of the original 13 gates of Prague. The Municipal House is a civic building that houses the Smetana Hall, a concert venue, where classic music concerts are held daily. The residents of Prague claim to have first discovered a young Mozart after his opera The Marriage of Figaro was performed there with tremendous success. The next year, Mozart visited himself and apparently he “counted this day as one of the happiest of his life”. His opera Don Giovanni debuted in Prague later that year to very appreciative audiences. Apparently Mozart famously said “Meine Prager verstehen mich” (My Praguers understand me). Jana told us the story of Mozart with some scorn and highlighted the fact that the Viennese today does not know where Mozart is buried as he died very poor and was buried in a mass grave.

The Powder Gate

The Powder Gate

After this we moved to the other side of the Old Town square to the Jewish Quarter or Josefov and the impressive Spanish Synagogue, with the bizarre Franz Kafka statue next to it. The statue is inspired by the short story written by Kafka called “Popis Jednoho Zápasu” (Description of a Match). By now it was raining but we managed to get a peek at the Old New Synagogue, the Jewish Ceremonial Hall and the Maisel Synagogue. Jana also shared the story of the legend of the monster Golem, in the 16th century by the Rabbi Loew, to defend the ghetto from antisemitic attacks. The monster was created from clay from the banks of the Vltava river, and brought to life through Hebrew incantations. The rabbi deactivated the Golem every Friday night by removing the shem, but legend has it that one Friday he forgot, and some reason the Golem went on a rampage. The rabbi finally caught up with him and removed the shem and he fell to pieces. Legend has it that the body of the Golem was stored in the attic of the Old New Synagogue and still lies there today.

The Church of the Holy Ghost, Jewish Quarter

The Church of the Holy Ghost, Jewish Quarter

The statue of Kafka

The statue of Kafka

The Old New Synagogue, Jewish Quarter

The Old New Synagogue, Jewish Quarter

The Maisel Synagogue

The Maisel Synagogue

This concluded our walking tour and we were happy to make our way to a small little restaurant, Paneria, on Jana’s recommendation to warm up and dry out a bit.

After lunch we made our way to the Klementinum, a historical complex of buildings which once housed one of the largest Jesuit colleges in the world. And of course, it houses one of the most impressive libraries in the world, the Baroque library hall, which I was dying to see. We booked a tour and was not disappointed with the library (which we unfortunately was not allowed to photograph), but the building also contained an observatory with wonderful equipment. And finally, the view from the tower was definitely worth the claustrophobic climb to the top.

The chapel of Saint Clement at the Klementinum

The chapel of Saint Clement at the Klementinum

The Barogue library in the Klementinum...no pictures were allowed

The Barogue library in the Klementinum…no pictures were allowed

The staircase to the Observatory of the Klemintinum

The staircase to the Observatory of the Klemintinum

Some of the equipment in the Observatory

Some of the equipment in the Observatory

The view from the Klemintinum tower

The view from the Klemintinum tower

Beautiful Prague from the Klemintinum Observatory Tower

Beautiful Prague from the Klemintinum Observatory Tower

After the visit to the Klementinum, we started making our way back to the hotel as we had a boat cruise on the Vltava river planned for the evening.

View of the city on the walk back to our hotel

View of the city on the walk back to our hotel

I originally wanted to book the Jazz Boat, but by the time I came around to making a booking, the seats were all booked out. So we settled on another boat cruise with a buffet style dinner and live music, through Viator. The cruise was pleasant and the food was reasonable and in the end we had a fun evening. We made turns to brave the cold to go up to the deck for pictures as it was difficult to see anything from insude the boat.

On the dinner cruise with my gorgeous girls

On the dinner cruise with my gorgeous girls

View of Prague Castle from the river at night

View of Prague Castle from the river at night

After dinner, we went back to the hotel to recharge our batteries overnight!

26 December 2016

After a very busy Christmas day, I relented and we had a bit of a sleep in the next morning. We wanted to visit the Castle district and the Charles bridge on our last full day in Prague. We initially thought we would join Jana again on a visit to the Castle district in the afternoon, but I wanted to go and visit the castle itself, so we decided to do it on our own steam.

After a short tram ride, we made it to the other side of the river, and made it in time for the ceremonial changing of the guards at noon. The queues at the castle were horrific. I can only imagine how busy it must be in summer. We had to queue at every entrance and the crowds were crazy. In the end, it made the whole experience of the castle very tiring, but it was still worth it. There are various tickets giving you entrance to certain sections of the castle. We bought tickets that gave us access to St Vitus Cathedral, Old Royal Palace, St. George’s Basilica and the Golden Lane with Daliborka Tower which was as much as i thought our tiresome feet could withstand.

St Vitus Catherdral, Prague castle

St Vitus Catherdral, Prague castle

St Vitus Cathedral was very impressive, once we managed to get inside (another half an hour queue). Construction on the Gothic Cathedral started in the 14th century, but construction was halted in 1419 because of the Hussite wars and remained uncompleted for centuries. Only in the late 19th century was construction resumed and repairs to the original section undertaken. The cathedral was completed in Neo-Gothic style and solemnly consecrated only in 1929.

The interior of St Vitus Cathedral

The interior of St Vitus Cathedral

St Vitus Cathedral gilded altar

St Vitus Cathedral gilded altar

St Wenceslas chapel is next to St Vitus chapel and is meant to be a cult center for St Vitus. The value of the decorations of St Wenceslas Chapel is incalculable. The lower parts of the walls are decorated with more than 1300 gems, made in Bohemia. The joints between them are covered with gold.

St. Wenceslas Chapel, Prague castle

St. Wenceslas Chapel, Prague castle

St George’s Basilica was originally meant to be a second church for Prague castle in the 10th century. The current Romanesque appearance of the church dates back to the time of the reconstruction carried out in the 12th century. The interior of the basilica is austere and monumental. There are tombs and skeletons visible, one of whom apparently belongs to Prince Vratislav, father of St. Wenceslas.

St George's Basilica

St George’s Basilica

The eerie crypt in St George's Cathedral

The eerie crypt in St George’s Cathedral

The origins of Old Royal Palace dates back to the 9th and 10th century. In the 12th century it was replaced with a stone castle, remains of which is still preserved. In the 14th century, the king and emperor Charles IV enlarged the Romanesque building and so a Gothic palace with a vaulted interior for state purposes and a band of arcades on its northern side came to be. After a period of 80 years where the castle was empty, the King Vladislav Jagiello commenced a large scale reconstruction, adding the magnificent Vladislav Hall.

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The Vladislav Hall, Old Prague Castle

Our last stop of the Prague Castle was the Golden Lane. The modest dwelling, in small scale architecture, were inhabited by defenders of the Castle, servants or for example goldsmiths and the Castle marksmen. The tiny houses were occupied until World War II, but already during the period of the First Republic, care was taken to ensure that the picturesque character of the Lane was not changed in the course of modifications. From 1916 to 1917 house No. 22 was inhabited by the writer Franz Kafka.

Anya assisting Bianca with tying her shoelaces

Anya assisting Bianca with tying her shoelaces

Golden Lane, Prague Castle

Golden Lane, Prague Castle

I found my size house! Golden Lane, Prague Castle

I found my size house! Golden Lane, Prague Castle

Views from the Prague Castle Hill

Views from the Prague Castle Hill

Steps leading down from Castle Hill

Steps leading down from Castle Hill

After the castle visit, we walked down towards the river, sharing a traditional trdelnik covered with chocolate. You can buy trdelnik everywhere in Prague and they resemble the Kürtőskalács or chimney cake we had in Budapest. The cake is rolled around a wooden stick and then grilled and topped with sugar and walnut mix. Decadent and delicious! Something I would love to try at home.

And... time for some Trdl

And… time for some Trdelnik

We strolled back over the magnificent Charles bridge as the sun was setting and despite my feet being so tired, that I could not stand still, I could not get enough of the bridge!

With the girls on Charles Brigde, Prague

With the girls on Charles Brigde, Prague

The girls on Charles bridge, Prague

The girls on Charles bridge, Prague

Views from the other side of Charles Bridge of the Castle district

Views from the other side of Charles Bridge of the Castle district

One final one from Charles Bridge, looking back towards the Castle

One final one from Charles Bridge, looking back towards the Castle

Afterwards, we took a short walk to Restaurace Sedm Konšelů, another one of Jana’s recommendations. where I had the tradiční českou svíčkovou, which is fillet of beef in cream sauce and cranberries, served with traditional bread dumplings. It was good, and I ate the cranberries like Jana directed, a little bit at a time with the sauce.

After this late lunch, early dinner, we returned to the hotel, as we had tickets for the ballet at the National Theatre that evening! Knowing how much Bianca loves the ballet, I thought it would be a real treat to go and see the Nutcracker in the National Theatre, which dates back to the 19th century. Unfortunately I didn’t realise that it was a modern day adaption of the Nutcracker and actually had very little resemblance to the original ballet, other than the music, but it was still a fun evening out! The theatre is magnificent and it was a real treat to see a show there.

The National Theatre, Prague

The National Theatre, Prague

27 December 2016

This was our last morning in Prague, and we decided to go and do some shopping. Bianca’s suitcase broke when we arrived in Prague, and we needed to get something else. We also wanted to get some souvenirs and gifts. After some shopping, including the cutest Bohemian glasses, we returned to the Old Town Square to view the hourly show of the Astronomical clock, which we have missed until then. It was extremely busy, with people shoving and pushing, but it was worth it. Afterwards, we did a final visit to the Old Town Square, a last Trdelnik and a couple of last pictures before we headed back to the hotel.

The making of Trdlenik

The making of Trdelnik

View over the Christmas market, Prague Old Town Square

View over the Christmas market, Prague Old Town Square

I absolutely loved Prague. The crowds were quite something and I really wished I could have had at least one sunny day for some nicer pictures, which will give me an excuse to return again one day in summer!

Finally, at 2:30pm, we boarded the bus for the semi last leg of our trip, to Vienna. I was glad to put my feet up but sad to leave this beautiful city behind.

Au revoir!

 

 
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Posted by on February 12, 2017 in Passions, Travel, Uncategorized

 

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Winter in Middle Europe (part 2)

Winter in Middle Europe (part 2)

December 22, 2016

Our overnight Lux Express bus from Budapest to Kraków, Poland departed at midnight and by the time we got onto the bus we were exhausted, as we got up early the previous day to make it to the Szechenyi baths. The bus was luxurious though and we had a 6 and a half hour drive, so we all dozed off quickly. Unfortunately, I am not a good sleeper at the best of times, so when we arrived half an hour early in Kraków, I knew that it was going to be a long day!

After our disaster with the taxis in Budapest, I tried very hard to figure out the public transport system at the bus station but with little luck, and mainly because everything was in Polish. Eventually we decided to just bite the bullet and take a taxi to our hotel, but this time I did ask how much it would be upfront (there is a good tip for you whenever you travel overseas…) and the quick conversion to South African Rands in my head confirmed that it was quite reasonable (about R100).

We arrived at the hotel around 7:00am and were very relieved when we were informed after breakfast that our room was available for an early check in! A quick shower and power-nap was in order before our 9:30 departure for our tour to Auschwitz.

Kraków is the second largest city in Poland, and for many centuries, was the capital of the Crown of the Kingdom of Poland. In the second world war, after Germany invaded Poland, Kraków became the headquarters of the Nazi General Government. This is also the city where Oscar Schindler established his enamelware plant, utilising low cost labour from the Jewish ghettos, which eventually ended up becoming one of the largest rescue initiatives for many Jews in the second world war.

And of course Auschwitz was the largest concentration camp in Europe and was the guinea-pig site for gas chamber exterminations by the Nazis in WWII. Auschwitz II-Birkenau went on to become the major site of the Nazi Final Solution to the Jewish question. The town of Oświęcim is situated about 50km west of Kraków. Auschwitz was the German name for the town and this is where the German Nazi built first Auschwitz I (initially for Polish prisoners) and later expanded to the much larger and more ‘factory like’ Auschwitz II-Birkenau.

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The entrance to Auschwitz I – the original camp with the words ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ (labour will set you free) adds to the eerie feeling of the place

The tour was a chilling experience, but very informative and very thought provoking. I learnt so much, but I think the one thing that really captured me was that most of the Jewish prisoners were executed on arrival, so most of the prisoners were actually Polish people, Romani people (gypsies), with many intellectuals, homosexuals, etc being incarcerated in the camps. Many died within days and weeks of arrival due to disease, torture and hardship. This was also the site of many medical experiments, including sterilization experiments on women. And the infamous experiments on identical twins by Josef Mengele also took place here. There are rooms full of glasses, suitcases, brushes and other personal belongings from Jews that the Russians found there when the camp was liberated.

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The women were separated from the men and there are electrified fences everywhere

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The extravagant house of the first SS commandant of Auschwitz Rudolf Höss, less than a hundred meters from the camp. He was executed at the camp after the war

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Double fences ensured nobody was getting our…

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Auschwitz II-Birkenau. the camp that was built when they started running out of space at Auschwitz I. This is the view from the offloading bay where prisoners were sorted to the entrance

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A typical wagon used to transport prisoners to the camps, each transporting about 50 prisoners standing

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The International memorial at Auschwitz II -Birkenau, erected in 1967 between the ruins of Krema II and III (extermination chambers)

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The remnants of one of the gas chambers, destroyed by the Nazis days before the end of the war

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The beds inside one of the barracks for children at Auschwitz-Birkenau

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Drawing on the walls of the children’s barrack at Auschwitz Birkenau made by prisoners

After the tour we returned to Kraków in a somber mode. It was already after 4:00pm when we returned to the hotel and decided on an early night dinner at the popular local restaurant Pod Wawelem, which was just next to our hotel. Anya went for the ‘Huge Schnitzel served with chips’ (very traditional Polish, I know…) and let us just say the portions were huge! And the prices were really cheap too.

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As serious schnitzel…spot the plate…

Tummies full, we decided to have a well deserved early evening at the hotel.

23 December, 2016

After a filling breakfast at the hotel, we set off towards the Main Square of the Old Town, to meet up with a walking tour departing from St Mary’s Basilica. It was cold outside and we had time to go for a quick coffee before the start of the tour.

We did our walking tour of the Old City Center with Ela from Cracow Free Tours and she was really excellent. Her knowledge of the city, its history and the legends were fantastic. She gave us lots of tips for places to eat, to shop and to visit.

Ready to start our walking tour

Ready to start our walking tour

We started the tour by walking to the green park that encircles the Stare Miasto, Planty Park, where the Medieval city walls used to stand until the early 19th century. Our first stop was the Juliusz Słowacki Theatre on the border of Planty Park, erected in 1893 on the spot of a 14th century church and monastery of the Order of the Holy Ghost.

Juliusz Słowacki Theatre

Juliusz Słowacki Theatre

From there we moved to the Kraków Barbican, a fortified outpost which was once connected to the city walls and walked through the 13th century St Florian’s Gate, which, we were told, follows the footsteps of visitors in the medieval ages into the city. From St Florian’s Gate, we walked down the Florianski street towards St Mary’s Basilica. The street is one of the most prestigious in Poland, evident from the many boutique stores down the street. Apparently apartment rentals in the street ranks the 2nd highest in Poland.

The Kraków Barbican - a fortified outpost once connected to the city walls

The Kraków Barbican – a fortified outpost once connected to the city walls

Remnants of the city walls next to the Florian Gate

Remnants of the city walls next to the Florian Gate

Entering the city through the Florian Gate

Entering the city through the Florian Gate

Our walk down Florianski street coincided with the top of the hour and we witnessed the St Mary’s Trumpet call, a traditional five note Polish anthem that is played every hour by a trumpeter in the tower of St Mary’s four times in succession from the 4 different windows of the tower. Ela shared the legend of the Trumpeter of Kraków, who according to legend warned the city dwellers of the invasion of the Tartars in the 14th century and was killed by an arrow before he could finish the anthem. In honour of the sentry who gave his life to safe the city. legend goes that the anthem is still played until the note where he was killed, which is the reason why the anthem sounds incomplete. Apparently the legend is not true and was immortalised in a children’s book by a professor on a scholar exchange at the Jagiellonian University in 1928.

The view of St Mary's Basilica from Florianski street

The view of St Mary’s Basilica from Florianski street

We moved on to the Main Town Square, which hosted the annual Christmas Fair. The Square, at 4000 m² is the largest medieval square in Europe. Walking through the Cloth Hall, the western side of the square (sans the Christmas market) gave a better feel for the size and importance of the market. Ela was also outspoken about the ‘Eros Bandota’ sculpture on the Main Square, which was gifted to the city by the Polish artist Igor Mitoraj. The sculpture is a large empty head of a man in bandages on its side.

Main Town Square, Krakow

Main Town Square, Krakow

The Cloth Hall, the central feature of the main market square

The Cloth Hall, the central feature of the main market square

‘Eros Bendato’ is the work of Polish artist Igor Mitoraj, a student of the Kraków School of Art

‘Eros Bendato’ is the work of Polish artist Igor Mitoraj, a student of the Kraków School of Art

From here we moved on to the Collegium Maius, the oldest building of the Jagiellonian University, founded in 1364 by Casimir III the Great, with alumni like Nicholas Copernicus and Pope John Paul II. We were really keen to return to the courtyard for the clock show between 11:00am and 3:00pm every day, but unfortunately didn’t make it back there. I did watch it on YouTube afterwards, and it is quite fascinating…

The Collegium Maius is the Jagiellonian University's oldest building

The Collegium Maius is the Jagiellonian University’s oldest building

A walk through the university parks took us to the St Paul II window in Kraków at the Bishop’s Palace, where the Cardinal Karol Wojtyla were a resident for 20 years before he became Pope John Paul II, where he often made evening appearances as Pope when he visited Kraków in later years.

We continued our walk South towards the Wawel Castle past the Franciscan Church, St Peter and Paul’s church and the oldest church in Kraków, built in the 11th century.

The Church of St. Adalbert is one of the oldest churches in Poland and has been a place of worship for almost 1000 years

The Church of St. Adalbert is one of the oldest churches in Poland and has been a place of worship for almost 1000 years

A short walk down Kanonicza street (the oldest street in Kraków) brought us to the Wawel Royal Castle, the 14th century castle that was the residence of Polish Kings for centuries. The castle was occupied in the Second World war and they built a new administration building on the hill. After a short walk around, with lots of informative stories about the castle (including the one about the Nazi governor Hans Frank’s wife who made ‘ugly’ alterations to make the castle more ‘livable’), we finished the tour. All and all an excellent tour!

Kanonicza street, the oldest street in Krakow, where Pope John Paul II lived for a number of years

Kanonicza street, the oldest street in Krakow, where Pope John Paul II lived for a number of years

The Royal Wawel Castle, Krakow

The Royal Wawel Castle, Krakow

Remnants of old ruins at Wawel Castle, where evidence of settlements dating back 50 000 years ago have been found

Remnants of old ruins at Wawel Castle, where evidence of settlements dating back 50 000 years ago have been found

We made our way back to the hotel (which was across the road from the castle) for a short break and returned back to the Castle in the afternoon. We visited the Wawel Cathedral and some of the rooms in the Wawel Castle, with its splendour and wonderful artifacts, paintings, tapestries and furniture.

The girls in front of the doors of the Wawel Cathedral

The girls in front of the doors of the Wawel Cathedral

In front of the Wawel Castle

In front of the Wawel Castle

Late afternoon, we made our way to the Main Town Square again for a late afternoon lunch at one of the many restaurants around the square, Kawiarna Bankowa, where I had a traditional Polish bigos, or a hunters’ stew with finely chopped meat, sauerkraut and shredded cabbage. And mulled wine, of course! The girls had goulash. The food was delicious and filling after a full day of walking around.

In the early evening, we split up to do some last minute Christmas shopping and I went to see St Mary’s Basilica which was quite spectacular inside. We later met for coffee (and another hot wine) and started making our way back to the hotel.

The Main Town Square at night

The Main Town Square at night

In front of the giant Christmas tree on the Main Square

In front of the giant Christmas tree on the Main Square

One final stop was the monument on the banks of the Vistula River (just below the Wawel Castle), dedicated to the mythical Wawel dragon. Legend goes that the dragon lived on the banks of the river and fed on lambs and young girls. Because King Krakus has a young daughter and was terrified for her safety, he promised her hand in marriage to anyone who could defeat the dragon. Endless unsuccessful efforts later a young cobbler takes up the challenge, stuff a lamb with sulpher and lures the dragon to eat it. Later the dragon gets so  thirsty that he drinks so much water from the river that he explodes. And the young cobbler and the King’s daughter lived happily ever after.

Anyway, there is a statue of a dragon on the banks of the river, and he breaths fire every few minutes. Bianca, earlier in the evening, got lost on her way to the hotel and walked by it by accident so Anya and I was on a mission. And it was fabulous! I took a short video on my phone and hope it captures some of the magic!

Smok Wawelski, the dragon of Wawel Castle

Smok Wawelski, the dragon of Wawel Castle

We would have liked to go to Oscar Schindler’s factory in Kraków but we had an early train the next day to Prague so we decided not to turn in too late.

What a beautiful city this was, and definitely worth the detour from Budapest to Prague! I would like to see more of Poland, Slovakia and some of the former Eastern Block countries one day again, as this visit has only wet my appetite!

Next up, Prague!

 

 
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Posted by on January 22, 2017 in Passions, Travel

 

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Winter in Middle Europe (part 1)

Winter in Middle Europe (part 1)

December 18, 2016

Travelling from sunny South Africa, in the midst of summer to Central East Europe in December is not for the faint hearted. Our departure was at midnight on the 18th of December and we had quite a long commute, via Amsterdam and Vienna, finally taking a train from Vienna to Budapest.

As usual, despite our best efforts, we were not travelling ‘lightly’, so looking at our suitcases, I knew it was going to be a bit challenging moving from place to place with suitcases, jackets, but we were off and that was all that mattered!

December 19, 2016

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Time for a snack at Amsterdam Schiphol airport

We arrived in Amsterdam Schiphol airport tired, after our overnight flight, but with time to spare before our connecting flight. We had something small to eat at the airport and perused the shops, making mental lists of what we wanted to buy at duty-free on the way back…alas, that never happened, but that is a story for another day. Anya did get a pair of gloves (we never wear gloves in South Africa, like in never).

We arrived in Vienna and hastily made our way to the train station for the train to Budapest. We finally arrived in Budapest after 8:00pm on the Monday evening and was immediately met by a bunch of taxi drivers at the train station, offering lifts. The plan was to take public transport to our hotel, but we were tired, with heavy luggage and I decided to just go with the taxi. And in so doing, fell into the number 1 tourist trap (according to our walking tour guide the next day), which is taxi’s. The number 2 and 3 tourist traps in Budapest are taxi’s and taxi’s too….in case you were wondering.

We paid an equivalent of EUR28 for a 3km trip, whereas 3 single tickets would have cost about EUR3.50. The silver lining is that after that, most things felt fairly cheap in Budapest! Dinner, breakfast the next morning, were all cheaper than the taxi…

December 20, 2016

We woke up to a cold and foggy morning, but energetic and looking forward to the day. I found a popular breakfast spot in the Pest side, close to the Vörösmarty Square, but being a popular spot, it looked very full and we didn’t have much time, so we decided to go to a little cafe on the corner, Cafe Hilda. Breakfast was fresh and inexpensive and we were even treated with these little complimentary Christmas rolls filled with walnuts and poppy seeds. I think they are called Beigli.

With our tummies filled, we were ready for the walking tour. We went with Free Walking Tours, a local company, claiming to do the original walking tour in Budapest. The concept of a free walking tour is fantastic, as you normally get a local guide and as they are not being paid upfront, they are paid with tips, so they have a lot of incentive to do an excellent job. Our guide, Andrais was fantastic. He not only gave us a lot of information about the history, and local culture but also gave lots of tips on food, drinks to try and places to visit. After the tour we were given a little flyer with more information on food, restaurants, eateries and other local information.

The view of the Chain Bridge Budapest

The view of the Chain Bridge Budapest

The walking tour started in the Pest side of Budapest (on the eastern side of the Danube river) and continued to the Buda side, walking over the Chain Bridge, where we walked up the Castle hill to the Buda Castle. We strolled around at the top of the hill, seeing the Sándor Palace (or the White House), the beautiful Matthias Church with its ornate roof tiles and ended off with a glass of mulled wine a the Fisherman’s Bastion.

From the top of Buda Hill, Budapest

From the top of Buda Hill, Budapest

The Sandor Palace, Budapest

The Sandor Palace, Budapest

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In front of St Matthias Church, Budapest

In front of St Matthias Church, Budapest

From the Fisherman's Bastion, Budapest

From the Fisherman’s Bastion, Budapest

Buda Castle, Budapest

Buda Castle, Budapest

Afterwards, we took a slow stroll back to our apartment in the Pest side, taking in the local scenery in, doing some shopping at a local vintage shop and browsing through interesting shops. Lunch was fresh bread rolls, ham and cheese from the supermarket around the corner. Later in the afternoon, we set off in the direction of Vörösmarty Square again where the biggest Christmas market in Budapest was located. The atmosphere was very festive, with live music and the smell of pastry, mulled wine and meat in the air. We were craving the local ‘chimney cakes’ or kürtőskalács, and decided to share one.

Christmas market in Budapest

Christmas market in Budapest

 

Kürtőskalács from the Christmas markets

Kürtőskalács from the Christmas markets

Sharing is caring

Sharing is caring

We did some shopping and Anya found a wooden cut-out magnet with her name on it. Very impressed, she told the shopkeeper that it is her name, spelled correctly, after which he informed her that anya is the word for mother in Hungarian! Who would have known? This coincidence was enough to convince her to buy the magnet!

After a dinner of hungarian goulash, which came with complimentary Rákóczi Túrós, a sort of ricotta cheese cake traditionally served at Christmas, we decided to take a walk towards the river to see the lights. The Castle at night was absolutely beautiful and we were very lucky to see one of the trams that was decorated in Christmas lights as well.

A tram light up with Christmas lights

A tram lit up with Christmas lights

The Buda Castle at night

The Buda Castle at night

December 21, 2016

The plan for this day included a visit to Szechenyi baths, a mineral bath close to Heroes’ square in Budapest. The guide for the walking tour recommended going early when visiting the baths, so avoid the crowds, so we got out of bed early, armed with our swimming costumes and towels in sub zero temperatures! We could only enter the baths at 9:00am, but took a walk around the area (in light snow), taking a walk to the Heroes’ Square before our entrance. It may sounds a bit crazy, but the baths were a great idea, and definitely something different to experience! We couldn’t stay too long as we had to check out of our apartment, but we thoroughly enjoyed the visit.

Heroes' Square, Budapest

Heroes’ Square, Budapest

At Szechenyi Baths, a thermal bath in Budapest

At Szechenyi Baths, a thermal bath in Budapest

Beautiful baths at Szechenyi with the building in the background. It was -1 degrees outside the water...

Beautiful baths at Szechenyi with the building in the background. It was -1 degrees outside the water…

After sort of drying, we went back to our apartment, checked out, left our luggage and went out again.

On the way to Basilica from our apartment

On the way to Basilica from our apartment

After a light snack and hot chocolate at the Christmas market on Városháza park, we walked to St Stephen’s Basilica where we bought tickets to go up the tower. The view from the top of the tower was amazing! You can walk right around the tower and have an awesome 360 degree view over the city. Afterwards we had a look in the Basilica which was also very impressive with its domed ceiling.

View from the tower of St Stephen's Basilica, Budapest

View from the tower of St Stephen’s Basilica, Budapest

After our visit to the Basilica, we needed to rest our feet and stopped for coffee at Avenue Cafe, close to our apartment. I wanted to see the largest Jewish Synagogue in Budapest, the Dohány Street Synagogue, but unfortunately it was closed when we arrived, so we walked around the outside. The synagogue is the largest and Europe and the fourth largest in the world.

St Stephen's Basilica, Budapest

St Stephen’s Basilica, Budapest

We walked to the most famous ruin pub in Budapest, the Szimpla Kert in the Jewish district, with very interesting decor but not much to offer in terms of dinner, so we took a long route back to a restaurant close to our accommodation again, which served delicious Italian food, the Panificio Il Basilico.

Szimpla Kert, a Ruin Pub in Budapest

Szimpla Kert, a Ruin Pub in Budapest

Finally it was time to collect our luggage and make the trek towards the station (via public transport this time!) as we had an overnight bus to Krakow.

We loved our short stay in Budapest, and I would love to go back again one day, hopefully in summer. I googled all these magnificent spots to take sunrise pictures, but alas we were not to see the sun on the days we were there, We did, however have some light snow, which ended up being the most snow we had on our trip…. So, as a final picture for this post, herewith our almost snow selfie!

Snow at Heroes' Square, Budapest

Snow at Heroes’ Square, Budapest

Next up, Krakow!

 
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Posted by on January 4, 2017 in Family, Travel, Uncategorized

 

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A Turkish delight (final part)

A Turkish delight (final part)

Thursday, 2 July 2015

The first thing I did this morning was check my swollen feet…all the walking on cobble streets, up and down hills, took its toll on me the previous day. But icing and some anti-inflammatories seem to have had the desired effect. And we had a bit of a different day planned…a Bosphorus cruise.

The Bosphorus is the strait that connects the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara in Istanbul and it separates the Asian and European continents. Ideally, if we had more time in Istanbul, we would have loved to make a trip inland. There is so much to see in Turkey, but alas we didn’t have the time. But we were definitely going to do a cruise on the Bosphorus! We needed a little bit more of a relaxing day after two extremely busy days and decided to take the Şehir Hatları cruise, the official ferry company. They offer several Bosphorus cruises, and we chose the full Bosphorus cruise, which takes an hour and 45 minutes, to its final stop in Anadolu Kavaği, the last port before the Black Sea. If we left at 10:35am, we would arrive in Anadolu Kavaği just after 12:00pm, which would give us sufficient time to have a look about and have some lunch, before the return journey at 15:00pm. And we would be back in Istanbul in time to still do something else. Perfect!

We left the apartment and stopped for a traditional Turkish breakfast at Istanbul Travel Café, en route from our accommodation to the tram station.

Another traditional Turkish breakfast...

Another traditional Turkish breakfast…

We took the tram to the Eminönü harbour and bought a return ticket for TL25. We also decided to rent guided tour headsets and settled inside the ferry. The guided tour was interesting and came with a booklet and gave lots of information about the many large homes and palaces (yalı) on the banks of the Bosphorus. There was a map (much more detailed than the picture below!) accompanying the headsets, and we had much fun trying to identify the houses from the pictures…not always so easy.

The Bosporus tour route

The Şehir Hatları Bosporus tour route

The ferry stops at a few ports along the way, but not long enough to disembark. The Bosphorus is quite a sight and it was clear why this strait has fascinated so many over the centuries. The legend goes that the Greek God Zeus had an affair with a beautiful woman named Io.  When Hera, his wife, discovered his infidelity, she turned Io into a cow and created a horsefly to sting her on the rump. Io jumped clear across the strait. And hence the name, as bous (cow) and poros (crossing place) was combined to form Bosphorus or the crossing place of the cow…

Crossing under the first bridge on the Bosphorus cruise

Crossing under the first bridge on the Bosphorus cruise

 

Putting our feet up...

Putting our feet up…

 

At Kanlıca, one of the final stops on the cruise

At Kanlıca, one of the final stops on the cruise

 

First views of the Black Sea

First views of the Black Sea

 

Anadolu Kavağı harbour

Anadolu Kavağı harbour – the final stop

 

Anya trying to take a picture of a jellyfish

Anya trying to take a picture of a jellyfish

 

At Ana

At Anadolu Kavağı

 

Sitting high on the hills overlooking Anadolu Kavağı and the Black Sea is the Yorus Fortress, built by the Byzantines in the same spot where Phoenician and Greek ruins from hundreds of years BC are being excavated today. It was the perfect position with views in all directions.We saw the fortress from the ferry and wanted to walk up, but I must admit we underestimated the climb quite a bit, but it was definitely worth it! The views over the Black Sea were magnificent!

The hike to the Yorus fortress

The hike to the Yorus fortress

 

The Yorus fortress

The Yorus fortress

 

Anya taking a breather...

Anya taking a breather…

 

At the Yorus fortress, overlooking the Black Sea

At the Yorus fortress, overlooking the Black Sea

 

Another picture of the stunning view...

Another picture of the stunning view…

Back at the harbour, we had a fantastic lunch of local produce and fish (of course).

Quite a spread for lunch!

Quite a spread for lunch!

 

Anya battling with her prawns...

Anya battling with her prawns…

After lunch, we made a move on the ferry as we wanted to have good seats on the way back. While we were waiting for the ferry to depart we enjoyed the views and scenes, including local afternoon activities!

A local taking a swim at the harbour

A local taking a swim at the harbour

The return trip was relaxing and we had beautiful views over the European banks and even had a glimpse of the Dolmabahçe Palace.

The Dolmabahçe Palace from the Bosphorus

The Dolmabahçe Palace from the Bosphorus

 

The Ortaköy Mosque from the Bosphorus

The Ortaköy Mosque from the Bosphorus

 

View of the Bosphorus bridge with the Fatih Sultan Mehmet bridge in background

View of the Bosphorus bridge with the Fatih Sultan Mehmet bridge in background

We disembarked at the Karaköy harbour and took the tram to Taksim Square, at the northern end of the most famous shopping street, İstiklal Caddesi, our next place to explore…We had a coffee at Starbucks, as you do with a teenager on tow, and set off to explore. İstiklal is a pedestrian road and reminiscent of many European and British shopping streets with the likes of H&M and many other high street stores dotted with family owned Turkish shops. It was quite a sight. There is also a historical tram running down the street.

The historic tram on İstiklal Caddesi

The historic tram on İstiklal Caddesi

 

İstiklal street

İstiklal street

As this was almost the last day in Istanbul, we did a little bit of shopping, before we finally rested our tired feet at a local Kebab restaurant. Joining just as the locals were breaking their fast, we were astonished at the sizes of some of the feasts being consumed around us! After dinner, we walked the last bit to our apartment, and fell into bed exhausted!

Friday, 3 July 2015

It was our last full day in Istanbul…and we could not believe it. Our days in Istanbul were packed to the brim and we had seen and experienced so much, but we were not done yet, and we wanted to get the most out of our final day. Which meant we had a very full day planned, mainly shopping. Anya made lists of everyone we still needed to get gifts for and saved it on my iPad. We had leftovers for breakfast and made our way to the Eminönü district.

First stop the Spice Market! I bought spices and Anya bought some of her loved Apple tea, Then we made our way, as we did with Cammie on Tuesday, past the sweet shop, stopping for tulumba and onwards to Altan Sekerleme, for some sweets and Turkish delight.

Spices galore in the Mısır Çarşısı or Spice Market

Spices galore in the Mısır Çarşısı or Spice Market

 

And sweets to die for...

And sweets to die for…

 

Anya tucking in to a tulumba (Turkish koeksister...)

Anya tucking in to a tulumba (Turkish koeksister…)

Our next stop was at the Yeni Cami or New Mosque where we met Cammie the first day. We were given cloaks to cover ourselves and entered. It was prayer time, and we traipsed around quietly while taking in the beauty.

The inside of the Yeni Cami mosque

The inside of the Yeni Cami mosque

We made our way to the Suleymaniye area, because there were one other thing we definitely wanted to do and that was to visit a Turkish bath. And there was a Turkish bath in the Suleymaniye district, and we decided it would be the perfect stop after our next escapade, the Grand Bazaar! We made a reservation and went to the Grand Bazaar or Büyük Çarşı. It is one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world, with 61 covered streets, with construction started in 1455! And who says shopping is a new hobby??

The Grand Bazaar or Büyük Çarşı

The Grand Bazaar or Büyük Çarşı

 

A sensory overload at the Grand Bazaar

A sensory overload at the Grand Bazaar

Our bartering skills were tested at the bazaar and on more than a few occasions, we would walk away wondering whether you got a good deal or not, but it was a fantastic experience and we managed to spend a fair amount of Turkish Lira…!

One of the many streets in the Grand Bazaar

One of the many streets in the Grand Bazaar

At the end of the day, we were exhausted and as we made our way to the Suleymaniye Hamam, we were looking forward to a pampering session! The Suleymaniye Hamam was commissioned by the Sultan Suleyman the Great and was built in 1557. It is a small hamam and caters for families and couples as opposed to most of the hamams in the city that separates men and women.

And pampering it was…As you enter the hamam, you are given a bikini set made from material and a Turkish towel, as well as wooden slippers. The routine starts off with a sauna session on a large slab in the centre of the domed hamam. You then proceed to one of the rooms leading off from the sauna area where you are scrubbed and foamed from head to toe! They even wash your hair if you so wish. After the 15-20 minute scrubbing session, you are given dry towels to wrap yourself in and are led of to a small lounge, where you can order refreshments while you wait to dry completely.

Anya in the 'after' towel wraps...

Anya in the ‘after’ towel wraps…

Of course, with all the shopping, and snacking all day long, both Anya and I had not eaten much during the day and it was already 16:00 by the time our hamam experience started, and we both got headaches from dehydration. I would definitely recommend making sure you are properly hydrated before going to a hamam!

After getting dressed (there are even hairdryers), we relaxed for a while in the common loung area, before starting to make our way back to our apartment with all our shopping!

The lounge area of the haman

The lounge area of the haman

I took a headache tablet on an empty stomach at the hamam, and this resulted in nausea, so I needed to lie down for a little bit. The lie down was fairly short though, because there was one more item on our list of things to do…dinner on the Asian side.

We made our way back to the Eminönü and caught another ferry to Kadıköy, on the Asian side of Istanbul. We made it to Kadıköy just in time to view our final sunset and what a sunset it was! The view of the Hagia Sophia from a completely different continent was mind blowing. There was an live band playing music and people walking around in traditional clothes.

 

From the ferry, looking back over the large city

From the ferry, looking back over the large city

A sunset concert

A sunset concert at Kadıköy

Our final sunset view over Istanbul from Kadikoy

Our final sunset view over Istanbul from Kadıköy

 

A sunset to remember from Kadikoy

A sunset to remember from Kadıköy

We made our way to the Ciya Sofrasi restaurant, another recommendation from Cammie. As they were not allowing English menus during Ramadan, it was a bit of a confusing effort to order dinner, but we managed eventually and had a good meal.

As we made our way back to the apartment, knowing that we didn’t have much time for anything other than packing the next day, we had mixed feelings. We wished that we had a few more days in Istanbul or even enough time to go and see a bit more of Turkey, but also looking forward to sleeping in our own beds again.

Istanbul was an experience that transcended anything that I was expecting. The indisputable place where east and west meet, in the architecture, the food and the people. I would love to go back one day and spend more time in this city with new experiences around each corner. And maybe venture into the rest of the country.

Until we meet again!

(if you missed the first two parts of this journey, click here)

 
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Posted by on August 10, 2015 in Family, Travel

 

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A Turkish delight! (part 2)

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

I woke up this morning with a bubble of excitement in my stomach. We were planning to just spend a relaxing day in the Sulthanahmet district, visiting the Topkapı palace and the Archeological museum.

And I have also been reading quite a lot about local things do see and do and one of the things that I sort of wrote off was a whirling dervishes ceremony. Now if, like me, you’ve never heard of this before, the whirling dervishes practice a religious ritual called a Sema, which is rooted in Sufism, an Islamic order started by the famous poet, Mevlâna Rumi in the thirteenth century. And…I managed to track down a Mevlana order in Istanbul where they perform these rituals every day and made a booking!

By the time Anya eventually woke up (she was reading Harry Potter long past the time I fell asleep…), we were quite hungry. Our Airbnb hostess, Hanife, was making french toast and offered us some. With feta cheese (of course) and olives, because that is the way they do it in Turkey…It was delicious.

When we finally made our way to the Topkapı palace it was past 11:00am already and there was a bit of a queue getting into the palace. The large palace, nestled on the banks of the Bosphorus, was the main residence of the Ottoman sultans for about 400 years and it is a UNESCO world heritage site. It also contain many Islamic relics, including the cloak and sword of the prophet Mohammed (which we saw, but no pictures were allowed…).

Once you enter the Imperial Gate, a large courtyard with big trees open up in front of you with the Babüsselam Gate at the far end. There was a band marching down on the right hand side and lots of people milling around in the green gardens.

The first courtyard withe the Imperial Gate at the far end

The second courtyard with the Babüsselam Gate at the far end

We veered to the right and entered the Palace Kitchens, where there were beautiful exhibitions of kitchen implements and the most glorious porcelain crockery. It was evident that the Turkish love of sweets was practiced extensively in these kitchens for the benefit of the Sultans…

The palace kitchens

The palace kitchens

Next we entered through the Babüssaade gate, through the Dormitory of the Akagalar or Audience Chamber, into the third courtyard with the Chamber of Petitions in front of you. There was a very large queue waiting to enter the treasury, so we decided to give this one a skip. By now Anya was complaining that she was starving (in all honesty, so was I), so we were quite relieved when we saw a sign indicating the way to the Restaurant. We decided to eat at the Konyalı Restaurant, which was probably not the cheapest option, but by far had the most stunning view over the Marmara Sea.

The Audience Chamber, right behind the Babüsselam gate

The Audience Chamber, right behind the Babüsselam gate

 

The view over the lush gardens of the third courtyard, with the people queuing to enter the treasury on the far right

The view over the lush gardens of the third courtyard, with the people queuing to enter the treasury on the far end

 

Anya in front of the Chamber of Petitions

Anya in front of the Chamber of Petitions

 

Lunch with a stunning view over the Marmara sea!

Lunch with a stunning view over the Marmara sea!

Tummies filled, and even sharing a dessert plate, we set of again. The fourth courtyard is quite magnificent and contains the Sofa Mosque, the Baghdad Kiosk and the Marble terrace.

Stunning views over the Marmara sea from the Mecidiye Kiosk, also known as the Grand Kiosk

Stunning views over the Marmara sea from the Mecidiye Kiosk, also known as the Grand Kiosk

 

The beautiful gardens in the fourth courtyard

The beautiful gardens in the fourth courtyard

 

The upper terrace with the fountain

The upper terrace with the fountain

 

The Marble terrace

The Marble terrace

 

The Baghdad kiosk

The Baghdad kiosk

 

Inside the Baghdad kiosk

Inside the Baghdad kiosk

Retreating from the fourth courtyard back to the third courtyard, we visited the Privy Chamber, that contained the cloak and sword of the Prophet Mohammed, as well as the Staff of Moses, the turban of Joseph. We were not allowed to take pictures inside, and it was clearly a holy place, with recitations from the Qur’an taking place in the background.

Next we entered the Dormitory of the Royal pages, with portraits of the Ottoman Sultans, the Inkwell chamber or the clocks’ section and finally the Mosque of the Ağas, the largest mosque on the palace grounds. Everywhere, there were İznik tiles and we found that we were dragging our weary feet along to try and see as much as possible.

We also visited the Harem of the Sultans (an additional fee) with its more than 400 rooms and it was quite an eye opener. I don’t really know that much about the Ottoman Sultans, but it was quite extraordinary to read about and see all the apartments for the concubines, the queen mother, the princes and the favourites. Once again the rooms were gilded and decorated with the most spectacular İznik tiles everywhere.

View from the Harem

View from the Harem

 

Anya at the entrance to the Harem...

Anya in the Hall of Ablution

 

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The Imperial Hall inside the Harem

 

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Gilded inscriptions and İznik tiles abound

The view of the Tower of Justice from the second courtyard, on our way out

The view of the Tower of Justice from the second courtyard, on our way out

After our visit to the Topkapi, we went to the Istanbul Archaeology Museum, which actually consists of three museums, the archaeology museum, the museum of Islamic art (the Tiled Kiosk) and the museum of Ancient Orient. We were quite exhausted by this time and sat down for a while at the cafe in the courtyard of the museums.

The archaeology museum was fascinating, with outlines of the history of the whole Turkish region back to the Archaic period, the Roman period, the Byzantine period and the Ottoman era and more. The Tiled Kiosk had an impressive collection of the finest İznik tiles and the Ancient Orient museum had an impressive collection of artifacts from pre-Greek Anatolia and Mesopotamia. I was too tired to take many pictures by now…just soaking up the art and atmosphere (in between stops to rest my feet…).

Glazed brick panels from the Ishtar gate in Ancient Babylon

Glazed brick panels from the Ishtar gate in Ancient Babylon

 

The street view outside the Archaeology museum

The street view outside the Archaeology museum

After our visit to the Archaeology Museum, we started making our way to the Sirkeci train station to collect our tickets for the Whirling Dervishes ceremony later that evening. We walked to the train station and picked up our tickets. After a little rest and ice cream at the harbour, we made our way across the Galata bridge towards the Galata Tower.

The view over the Eminönü harbour

The view over the Eminönü harbour

 

Fishermen on the Galata bridge

Fishermen on the Galata bridge

 

The Galata Tower

The Galata Tower

 

At a cafe next to the Galata Tower

At a cafe next to the Galata Tower

At the Galata Tower, we sat down for a while, having a drink and taking in the surroundings. (Did I mention we had to climb another one of the seven hills to make it to the Tower??)

We then started making our way back towards the station for the ceremony.

The local hardware stores on the Beyoğlu side of the Galata bridge

The local hardware stores on the Beyoğlu side of the Galata bridge

The Whirling Dervishes ceremony took place in the Sirkeci Events Hall at the Sirkeci train station. On arrival, we were offered a complimentary drink and we settled down to wait for the ceremony to start. The hall filled up slowly and eventually, just after 7:00pm, the ceremony commenced with the entrance of 4 men with a few strange looking instruments playing Sufi music.

Anya sipping on her apple tea (a firm favourite by now) while we wait for the ceremony to start

Anya sipping on her apple tea (a firm favourite by now) while we wait for the ceremony to start

After a while, they exit and then enter again. Finally one of the dervishes enter, lay down a red rug, and exit again. When the 4 dervishes enter together, they all have black over coats over their white dresses and the start the ritual. Initially they just move in circles and reunite on the side, and eventually the whirling starts, slower and then faster. There are breaks in-between each set of whirling. It was fascinating! They start whirling with their arms crossed over their breasts and as they start whirling (with closed eyes), their arms loosen and they eventually whirl with arms outstretched. I cannot describe it properly at all, so I have posted a youtube link of the video I took with my phone.

The Whirling dervishes of Istanbul

The Whirling dervishes of Istanbul

The ceremony is clearly a religious ceremony and the aim of the whirling is to reach some sort of a trance, I suppose similar to a meditative trance. To some extent you almost feel a little bit like an intruder, but I am very happy we did this. I think it is such an integral part of the culture of Istanbul that I certainly think we would have missed out had we not attended this.

I was intrigued as I saw whirling dances in Egypt many years ago, but with multicoloured dresses and it was much more of an entertainment act than this ceremony. I did a little research and the whirling dances in Egypt are definitely related to this Sufi ceremony, but most of the whirling dances you will see in Egypt are done as part of an entertainment package, often with belly dancers so they are not Sema ceremonies.

After the ceremony, it was time to look for some dinner. It was Ramadan when we were in Istanbul, and I did a little research and found out that the place to be at breaking fast time in Istanbul is the Hippodrome. We decided to walk to the Hippodrome, instead of taking the tram and got a bit tangled up in the roads around the station, so had to cross roads like the locals, anywhere, to get where we wanted to be. It reminded me of Cammie telling us the previous day that her mom, when she hesitates walking across a road, tells her she has been in England too long!

Snacking on simit, a local favourite you can buy anywhere on the streets, with Nutella en route

Snacking on simit, a local favourite you can buy anywhere on the streets, with Nutella en route

During Ramadan, Istanbul residents gather at the Hippodrome to break their fast. There are wooden benches and a little market (reminiscent of German markets in Europe over Christmas) and Istanbul residents bring their food from home and gather as large families at the wooden benches and have their meals together. We loved the atmosphere.

The Ramadan market at the Hippodrome

The Ramadan market at the Hippodrome

Enjoying a coffee after our dinner of döner kebap

Enjoying a coffee after our dinner of döner kebap

The Hippodrome packed with locals breaking their fast together

The Hippodrome packed with locals breaking their fast together

(apologies for last few pictures’ quality…camera’s batteries gave up, thank goodness for iPhone!)

There was also live entertainment at the amphitheatre and we peeked at the show over the shoulders of the many locals watching…It was already after 10:00pm when we started making our way back towards our accommodation (but not before we tasted the most divine chocolate baklava ever!) and the area was packed.

We finally collapsed in our beds that evening (my swollen, sore feet elevated on a cushion) with much satisfaction. FYI, according to my iPhone, we walked 18.83km on that day alone, and apparently climbed the equivalent of 19 floors, mostly cobblestones, so I guess it was no wonder my feet needed a little TLC!

Our plan for the next day was a Bosphorus tour, with a little stroll around the Beyoğlu area afterwards.

But, that is a story for another day!

G x

(Ps: If you missed part 1 of this trip, click here…)

 
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Posted by on August 5, 2015 in Family, Travel

 

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A Turkish delight! (part 1)

A Turkish delight! (part 1)

Monday, 29 June 2015

After our extended layover in Cairo, in which time we managed to do a tour to the Pyramids, we finally arrived in Istanbul at 5:30pm on the Monday afternoon. Getting through the airport didn’t take too long, and we decided to take the Metro and tram to our Airbnb accommodation in Beyoğlu, in the new part of Istanbul. The tram took us through the Sultanhamet area (old area) of Istanbul and we were literally craning our necks to try and spot the first glimpses of the Hagia Sophia and other attractions. By 7:30pm we checked into our accommodation after a very eventful taxi ride from the tram station. It was clear that drivIng a car in Istanbul requires a LOT of patience and preferably a verA Turkish delight! (part 1)y small car!

Our room was fairly small, but clean and comfortable, and since we were in time to catch the sunset, we decided to explore the view from the rooftop of our apartment block. And as promised, we were rewarded with a magnificent view over Istanbul.

View over Istanbul from the roof of our apartment

View over Istanbul from the roof of our apartment

The view of the Galata Tower from our rooftop

The view of the Galata Tower from our rooftop

After unpacking our suitcases, we took a walk to the Karaköy area to find a spot for dinner. We initially wanted to get a view over the Bosphorus, but there is a wall that extends from shortly after the Karaköy quay and we weren’t sure exactly how far it goes down. We ended up in a lively little street with chairs on the sidewalk and took a peek at the menu at Pim Karaköy, and were immediately told by some American visitors that it was the ‘best restaurant’ in Istanbul. That settled it. Anya had pasta and I had the sausage pita and I had my first cup of tea in Istanbul. We were exhausted and started making our way back to the apartment, which meant experiencing another first in Istanbul…walking up one one of the seven hills the city was built on!

The view of the streets where we had dinner

The view of the streets where we had dinner

Anya exhausted over dinner :-)

Anya exhausted over dinner 🙂

At least we could sleep in a bit the next day, as we had a walking tour booked for 10:00am and it seemed like a hop, skip and jump to get there. Our first day of our holiday came to a exhausted end!

Tuesday, 30 June 2015

As usual, I woke up quite some time before Anya and had to contain my excitement, and let her sleep in a bit after travelling most of the day before. Our scheduled walking tour was booked with Istanbul Food Walks and we had to meet our guide, Cammie, on the steps in front of the Yeni Cami Mosque, in Eminönü district, just across the Galata Bridge.

After a bit of regrouping (my instructions were old, and Cammie was waiting for us inside the courtyard of the mosque), we found each other and realised that this was going to be a bonus private tour, as it was just us and Cammie.

This tour was by far the best thing we planned upfront and we spent a delightful few hours with Cammie (an Australian born, Istanbul bred girl with a degree in architecture from a college in England) who has a passion for the history of Istanbul, especially the history that the predominantly Muslim population would rather not remember. Cammie told us that she is starting her own business doing walking tours in Istanbul, and that ‘starting a business as a woman in Istanbul’ is very difficult, quoting from “New York, New York”, saying if you can make it in Istanbul (as a woman), you can make it anywhere…

The walk started out at the entrance of the Spice Bazaar, the Mısır Çarşısı, or the Egyptian Bazaar, where we had a traditional Turkish breakfast, or kahvaltı. It consisted of a platter with dried meat (I think it was pastırma, a cured beef), tomatoes, cucumber, green and black olives, and three types of cheeses, tulum peynir, stringy kaşer and a cheese similar to an aged cheddar cheese. With this we had some fried pastries, sourdough bread and some simit that Cammie picked up on the way from one of the many stalls in Istanbul. With this we had Turkish tea, because the Turks do not drink coffee for breakfast! It was delicious and we could have spent a delightful few hours sipping tea and nibbling on snacks at this sidewalk cafe, but it was time to continue our tour.

A traditional Turkish breakfast

A traditional Turkish breakfast

Entering the bazaar is a sensory overload! The smell of spices and herbs mingle with the sweet smell of sweets and tea in the air and transports you to a different world…

Inside the Spice Bazaar (Egyptian bazaar) with Cammie

Inside the Spice Bazaar (Egyptian bazaar) with Cammie

Our first stop in the market was Ebcin Spice Centre (no 68) and we were treated with a platter of the most delightful Turkish delight rolls, dried fruits, nuts and of course, Turkish tea! Anya also had her first taste of apple tea which she instantly fell in love with. Of course we had to buy some Turkish delight which was carefully vacuum packed for us to take home.

A fantastic spread...just for us

A fantastic spread…just for us

The next stop was a little dessert shop just outside the bazaar where we sat down and sampled the baklava and tulumba (it very similar to churros, but is crispy and soaked in a lemony syrup). Incidentally, we have a typical dessert in South Africa, called koeksisters, which is also fried and dipped in syrup, but the dough is normally plaited or rolled, so we immediately christened the tulumba as Turkish koeksisters

Tulumba and Baklava...sweet heaven!

Tulumba and Baklava…sweet heaven!

We briefly visited the Rüstem Pasha Mosque on the western side of the bazaar, a 16th century Ottoman Mosque, famous for its beautiful İznik tiles from Western Anatolia.

The Rastham

The Rüstem Pasha Mosque

The next stop on our tour was Altan Sekerleme, a traditional Ottoman era confectionary shop, which has been run as a family business for four generations. They claim to make the best Turkish delight (lokum) in Istanbul and they certainly make the most delicious hard boiled candies (akide), which can only be described as heaven in your mouth! Cammie also bought some halva, which she kept to have with afternoon coffee…

The shop window of Altam Sekerleme

The shop window of Altam Sekerleme

Around the corner was Mevlana Pide,another little family owned cafe where we sampled a yoghurt soup, yayla çorbası, spiced with mint, slow cooked beef in a broth and ayran, a very popular drink made with cold yoghurt and salt (it almost taste a bit like diluted buttermilk), with a head of froth. You can even find ayran at McDonalds in Turkey! We both agreed that it is probably an acquired taste, but certainly is quite refreshing…

Anya enjoying

Anya enjoying the yoghurt soup…

And the Aryan

And the Aryan

After climbing another one of the seven hills in Istanbul, past the Istanbul University, we stopped for lunch (as if we needed any more food!) at Ali Baba Kanaat Lokantası. A lokantası is a very traditional restaurant serving Turkish dishes and we were treated with a spread of butter beans, pickles, olives, bread and of course Turkish tea… The restaurant is in the vicinity of the Suleymaniye Mosque and was bustling at lunch time (despite the fact that it was Ramadan or Ramazan as it is called in Turkey). By now, we could hardly eat anymore, but the conversation was fantastic and we learned so much.

The Suleymaniye Mosque

The Suleymaniye Mosque

View over the Bosphorus from the Suleymaniye Mosque

View over the Bosphorus from the Suleymaniye Mosque

Our final stop of the tour was Darüzziyafe, a restaurant set in the most magnificent gardens just a short walk down the street. Cammie told us that she did a course to learn how to read someone’s fortune in their coffee cup and we were being treated to a complimentary reading, a Kahve Falı. We sat down in the garden and ordered our coffees.

I must admit that I was a bit scared of the coffee, which I have been told is very strong and is served in tiny cups. Cammie recommended adding a bit of sugar to it, and it wasn’t bad at all. It almost tasted chocolatey. It does take some getting used to as the coffee is unfiltered and the grounds are left in the bottom of the cup, which is then used for the fortune telling! We had the coffee with the halva that Cammie bought earlier, which was delicious. When you are done with your coffee, you put the saucer at the top of the cup, turn it around, and then turn the cup back to its normal position. My cup showed a dolphin (apparently a fish represents money, therefore a dolphin represents a lot of money?), an old cat lady, three men (that’s right!!) and a trip to a place with a volcano (maybe Ecuador??). All and all my cup was declared a peaceful cup with no rough storms, thank goodness! Anya’s cup was a bit more anxious and filled with lots of friends and some ball game or something. It was all very exciting.

Dar

Darüzziyafe cafe in the shadow of the Suleymaniye Mosque

Turkish coffee

Turkish coffee

The dolphin in my cup...

The dolphin in my cup…

We loved Cammie and had a fantastic day, and was very sad when it came to an end. I would definitely recommend a walking tour with Cammie, so if you are planning on travelling to Istanbul, be sure to check out her website, Cornucopia Walks. If we had more time in Istanbul, I would have loved to have done a Levantine History walk with her. She also gave us lots of tips for places to sea, to eat and visit.

After all that excitement, the sun was still high up in the sky and we still had several hours before sunset, so we decided to go to the Hagia Sophia, or the Ayasofya as the locals call it. The Hagia Sophia is a perfect example of where the Byzantine empire and the Ottoman empire merge and I was very excited to see it.

It was built in 537 AD by Byzantine Emperor Justinian and was once the seat of Constantinople. It was the largest cathedral in the world for almost a thousand years until the Seville Cathedral was built. After Constantinople was conquered by the Ottomans in 1453, it was converted to a mosque, removing the bells, altar and other relics, plastering over the golden mosaics and adding Islamic features such as the 4 minarets. It remained a mosque for many centuries until 1931, when it was secularised and converted to a museum. 

Inside the dome of the Hagia Sophia

Inside the dome of the Hagia Sophia, with the Virgin and child in the right mini dome

The vast inside of the Hagia Sophia

The vast inside of the Hagia Sophia

One of the many examples of early Christian mosaic depictions uncovered during restorations

One of the many examples of early Christian mosaic depictions uncovered during restorations

During a major restoration in the 19th century, the mosaics were uncovered and the plaster removed, however it was then painted over. The inside of the building has a strange feeling to it, with the Islamic features still playing the most significant role, but in places the restorations have uncovered complete sections with Christian iconography. It is quite extraordinary.

Unfortunately, major restorations are currently underway, so the left hand section of the dome was covered with scaffolding, but there was still enough to feast our eyes on. We hired a tour guide outside the building and he was very knowledgeable about the history.

After the visit, our tour guide offered to take us to his brother’s shop where we can see carpets and pottery. Actually, in hindsight, I am sure he promised to show us how they make pottery, but that never happened. It was still our first full day in Istanbul so we obliged…

Inside the shop, we were offered tea (and we’ve been told it is rude not to accept tea when offered). I was curious about the carpets (and since I have been dreaming about a new Persian rug for my lounge…), I left Anya downstairs and followed them upstairs to look at the carpets. What beauty. I was hesitant to show too much enthusiasm and had absolutely no idea what carpets costs, so after some to and fro he told me what the price was on a particular carpet. Which was way out of my budget! I told him I can’t afford that and that I can pay half a year’s school fees with that money and proceeded to move towards the stairs. And…bartering ensued…

In the end of the day, I did buy a carpet (I think that was what Cammie saw in my coffee cup – the money I was going to spend, not make..), but I am happy that I paid what I was willing to pay. With the carpet in a small bag, and promises that we will be able to take it on board as hand luggage (heavy hand luggage, I may add!), we left the shop and that brought an end to our sightseeing for the day.

We made our way back to the apartment, carrying the carpet up one of the seven hills, while I was all the way thinking about how we are going to get the carpet home! In the end, we managed to fit it into a small suitcase on roller wheels and it is now on proud display in my lounge!

The suitcase...

The suitcase…

And the carpet...in its rightful place!

And the carpet…in its rightful place! Definitely worth the effort!

That evening, we decided to take another stroll to the Bosphorus harbour and with a bit more orientation, a GPS and more light we made our way to the quay.

We had a lovely stroll down the quay, doing the touristy think and drinking Starbucks coffee with a view over the Bosphorus, and eventually had a late dinner at a little restaurant overlooking the river.

Sipping Starbucks coffee, overlooking the Bosphorus

Sipping Starbucks coffee, overlooking the Bosphorus

The view over the Bosphorus (Golden Horn) of the Hagia Sophia at night

The view over the Bosphorus (Golden Horn) of the Hagia Sophia at night

It was a magical day, and we have done so much already. We fell into bed utterly exhausted that evening, with much excitement about the days to follow. Istanbul was under our skins and I was already worrying about how we were going to fit all we wanted to do into the remaining days!

Until later!

Gertie x

(the next post for this trip can be found here)

 
6 Comments

Posted by on July 31, 2015 in Family, Travel

 

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