Posts Tagged ‘architecture’

Turkish Delights


Nina in Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar

Istanbul can be a little tough for vegetarians with doner kebab on every corner, but they sure know how to do desserts well.


My favorite sweet was the Turkish delight, chewy little squares with pistachios in a variety of flavors and colors. I liked the ones made with honey better than the ones with just sugar.


Scott ate a lot of baklava, thin layers of pastry dough sandwiched between chopped pistachios and soaked in honey. I couldn’t eat that much of it, though, because it’s so sweet.


Dondurma, or Turkish ice cream, contains orchid root, which is a thickener that gives it a dense, elastic texture and allows it to stiffly hold its shape without melting (see the picture above). Ice cream vendors will often perform little shows with the ice cream that take advantage of its unique properties.


Even better is dondurma with helva, ice cream covered with a warm, dense confection made with semolina flour, sugar, and pine nuts.


I loved sutlac, baked rice pudding. I know the top looks a little weird since it’s blackened from being broiled, but I thought it was delicious.


If you get thirsty from all the street food, you can easily pick up a cup of fresh-squeezed carrot/grapefruit/pomegranate/apple/mixed juice from a juice stand. A small cup goes for 1 Turkish lira, or about 50 cents (pomegranate is more).


Turkish pizza is pretty popular, too. For meat eaters, it often comes with a spicy minced meat topping. It has a long boat shape with light, crispy dough, especially good when it comes right out of the oven although it’s often sold as street food.


Cig kofte, or spicy “raw meatballs,” probably wins the award for Most Misleading Name for a Vegetarian Food. It used to be made from raw meat, but when this was banned, most vendors switched to making it out of bulgur instead yet kept the name. Scott likened the taste to Taco Bell meat (I think he meant this positively?) and it’s often sold with veggies in a wrap.


There are other vegetarian dishes that actually look vegetarian as well. I got a veggie platter with grilled vegetables and yogurt (the oblong shape above is an eggplant), and there are lots of salads and eggplant dishes in Turkish cuisine.


One of our favorite places to wander was the open-air market near Galata Bridge. Crowded stalls sold tubs of olives, dried fruit (try the huge figs), nuts, dried fruits stuffed with nuts, loose leaf tea, spices, Turkish delights, baklava, gifts, knicknacks, knockoff clothes….pretty much anything you could imagine. Interspersed among the stalls were restaurants and street vendors selling roasted chestnuts, salep (a sweet hot drink made with orchid powder), sesame rings, and Turkish pizza.


Scott kept returning to the cheese shops there to get what looked like string cheese, a mild and fibrous cheese.


Oh, and we did do some other things besides just eat. That’s me in front of the impressive Blue Mosque.


The inside was pretty impressive, too. After visiting a bunch of Christian churches and Buddhist temples on our trip, it was interesting to see the complete lack of sculptures or portraits of people or animals (to avoid idolatry). Instead, the interior was decorated with stained glass and mosaics with intricate geometric designs and Arabic calligraphy quoting from the Koran.


Istanbul has a rich history as the capital of the Byzantine empire (when it was Constantinople) and then as the capital of the Ottoman empire. When we first got to the old city, we’d come across a large mosque, and I’d ask Scott, “Is that the Blue Mosque or Hagia Sophia?” and he’d answer, “No, that’s not even marked on the map.” The minarets and domes of numerous mosques towered over the landscape of the old city.


I would recommend visiting the Topkapi Palace, the residence of the Ottoman Sultans for almost 400 years. Packed with relics and treasures, the extensive palace complex houses the Topkapi dagger (with 3 huge emeralds embedded in its hilt) and the 86-carat Spoonmaker’s Diamond. I hardly ever wear jewelry, and I was still captivated by the enormous jewels.

I think Scott was kind of disappointed with Istanbul because of higher prices than he had expected and the lack of vegetarian options, but I had a good time!


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Discovering the Beauty of Italy

IMG_5706 Requisite shot in front of the leaning tower of Pisa

If you’ve read my previous posts about Venice and Soriano nel Cimino, you’re probably thinking that it’s a little late for me to be talking about how beautiful Italy is. But whether it was the spectacular artwork or picturesque streets or expansive landscapes, I couldn’t help being mesmerized by the beauty of Italy everywhere I looked.


Michelangelo’s Pieta (St. Peter’s Basilica) and David (Accademia)

Since Italy was the birthplace of the Renaissance, I really enjoyed visiting some of the incredible art galleries like the Uffizi gallery and Borghese museum. I also waited in a long line and handed over $14 pretty much just to see David, knowing full well that the cost was tourist extortion (for example, the huge Louvre in Paris is the same price), but it was still worth it to see the magnificent 17-foot statue in person.


Luckily, most of the churches in Italy were free to visit. St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome was particularly impressive – look at the guard in black standing on the left for a sense of scale. And the letters written on gold background across the top are seven feet tall.

galla placidia mausoleum

Galla Placidia Mausoleum in Ravenna

Ravenna isn’t a widely known tourist destination, but it has no less than eight 5th and 6th century monuments with detailed mosaics on the UNESCO World Heritage List. My favorite was the Galla Placidia mausoleum because the ceilings are low enough to get a really close view of the mosaics.


Piazza in Lucca

Aside from the fantastic art, there are so many cities in Italy that are lovely to just walk around in. With only my cheap point and shoot camera, I often wasn’t able to capture the buildings and streets the way I wanted to, but the lighting around sunset in the Tuscan town of Lucca helped some of my (actually, mostly Scott’s) pictures out.


Many Italian cities had old city walls surrounding them, but Lucca’s are some of the most intact, and walking around on top of them provided nice views.


Wall surrounding Lucca


But this pretty street in Lucca was just one of the many pretty streets we saw in Italy (see pictures below).


Street in Florence


Near a bridge in Verona


Nina walking down a street in Bologna

We thought Bologna was especially beautiful from our two short visits there. Its arcades are said to cover almost 40 kilometers of its sidewalks, perfect for when it’s raining.


Street in Ferrara

Thanks to the bikes our hotel provided for us, we could take advantage of the limited time we had in Ferrara to ride our bikes along its cobblestone lanes, through its central castle, and around its ancient medieval walls.

I’ll finish with San Marino, which is technically an independent republic, but since it’s the third smallest country in Europe at 24 square miles and completely surrounded by Italy, I’m going to throw it in here anyway. It’s known for its three towers built on the three peaks of Monte Titano. The towers are  wonderful to explore, providing great views of the little country, and easy to visit with a trail connecting them all.


First tower


Second tower


Third tower

The third tower is the smallest, but a funny Italian woman insisted on taking a picture of us here. I feel kind of lame for not really touching on any of the Italian castles or churches or other historical buildings, but I can only spend so much time talking about Italy before I finally move on and talk about some of the other countries we visited. Next up: the French Riviera.

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A Glimpse of Ancient Rome


Roman forum in Rome

Scott learned Latin in high school for his foreign language requirement, which hasn’t been very useful on this trip, but he did hear a lot of stories about the Roman empire that made him excited to finally visit Rome fifteen years later. As you might expect, when in Rome we roamed around Rome quite a bit. Ha, I know that was terrible, but when else am I going to take advantage of this blog’s title?


One of the first things we did was check out Ostia Antica, the ancient Roman port town just outside Rome that was abandoned when the Tiber river changed its course. It’s not quite as big and impressive as Pompeii, but it was much less crowded and easier to explore with fewer restricted areas.


We had a picnic of bread, cheese, olives, and wine on the steps of the Roman amphitheater.


We wandered around the old marketplace, whose floors were covered in mosaics that showed what the vendors there used to sell.


We went to a tavern where Scott tried to order a couple beers.


And within Rome itself are ruins that they’re still excavating and learning more about (apparently scholars have recently discovered the exact spot where Julius Caesar was killed).


There’s something about the juxtaposition of old and new in Rome that I love. Sure, there are the deservedly famous huge ancient attractions, but you can often stumble across the remnant of a wall or statue thousands of years old just as you wander the streets of modern Rome.


Oh, and it’s hard to miss the huge Colosseum.


I had a strong urge to rewatch the movie Gladiator after visiting the Colosseum. Yes, I realize the movie is not that historically accurate. It probably says something warped about me that I felt the same way after visiting New Zealand (Lord of the Rings) and Sydney, Australia (Finding Nemo).


My favorite building in Rome is the Pantheon below.


Built in 126 AD, this Roman-temple-turned-Catholic-church has the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome, which provided the inspiration for countless other domes we see today. The oculus (hole at the top of the dome) is completely open – when it’s raining, the rain comes in and drains through holes in the floor of the church. I bet it would be neat to see snow coming down through the oculus on the rare occasions that it snows in Rome.


Palatine Hill at sunset

Having grown up in Los Angeles, I’m constantly amazed by the history of cities like Rome and how old some of the ruins that we can still see are. Rome was one of the first places I ever visited outside of the U.S., and it was just as breathtaking the second time around a decade later.

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The Magic of Venice


After seeing how beautiful the canal-lined cities of Bruges and Ghent were, we wondered how our next destination, Venice, would compare. We’d already read the comparisons to Disneyland and about how overwhelming the tourist crowds could be. And since Venice is such a huge tourist attraction on a small island, accommodation prices are outrageous (at least $100 a night for a tiny room with a shared bathroom), the water taxis get away with charging tourists $9 for up to an hour of transport (local residents are charged the same as for a bus ride, about $1.70), and using the public restrooms costs $2! So we decided to visit for just one day and spend the night in a bungalow in a campground outside of the city.


Kind of noisy and not the cleanest sheets we’ve seen, but at least it had its own bathroom and cost a little over $40 a night, a steal for being a 20-minute bus ride from Venice.


Gondolas in a traffic jam

When we first arrived, we did see a lot of tourists, at the airport and on the island. By the time we actually got to Venice in the afternoon, we were in a rush to visit a couple of churches before they closed, but it was hard to navigate past the strolling tourists in the narrow streets. We barely glanced at the buildings as we hurried to make it inside St. Mark’s Basilica. The church and the square it was in were impressive, but once we visited them and actually relaxed, our favorite part was wandering the streets and crossing the bridges over the canals.

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Some of the streets were incredibly narrow with twists and turns that had you guessing whether you were coming to a dead end. Even though we had come to Venice with a bunch of negative preconceptions, it slowly worked its magic on us. As the evening progressed, more and more tourists left (most of them people on a day trip or a cruise), and as the streets emptied and the setting sun cast rosy reflections on weathered buildings, we became more and more charmed.


Scott stumbled onto a wine shop down a side street selling glasses of wine for 1 euro (and filling larger containers for under 2 euros a liter), and by now I’ve learned that good budget wine is the way (for a city) into his heart.


We returned to St. Mark’s square at night to find that most of the large masses of people had left.


Cafés along the square had set up dueling orchestras outside that played easily recognizable tunes. Some of the oldest cafés had been running for hundreds of years, and having a coffee there while the orchestras were playing would have meant a ridiculous charge of something like $30. Luckily, it was free to stand in the square and just listen to the music. Scott and I danced on the square, looking up at the stars and into each other’s eyes, and somehow it was all wonderfully romantic instead of just silly and cheesy like my (too often) cynical self would have normally deemed such things. Yes, Venice can be kind of crazy and a tourist trap, but there really is a reason why so many tourists have been visiting for centuries. And in the late evening after the crowds have left, the romance and charm manage to seep in when you least expect it. The pictures just don’t do it justice – it was one of the most memorable nights we’ve had on our trip.


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Wandering in Belgium

So I might have eaten a little too much in Belgium, but I still had a good time there walking around some of its beautiful cities. Our first day, we took a high-speed train from Paris to Brussels and spent just a couple of hours in Brussels before picking up our rental car.



We arrived on sort of a strange day. The normally pricy public transportation was free because we happened to visit on the one day out of the year that Brussels had a car-free day (although we didn’t really end up taking advantage of this). The beautiful central square, the Grand Place, was hosting a big Mexican festival with huge puppets, while nearby a parade of Scotsmen played bagpipes. Is it just me or does the Scottish guy on the right with the awesome mustache also remind you of the giant Mexican puppet above? In any case, we still managed to get some Belgian beer and waffles at the festival since the greasy taquitos and pale guacamole there were pretty sad-looking. It’s been way too long since we’ve had good Mexican food – I think the last time was in Ubud, Indonesia a few months ago.

After enjoying some bagpipes and mariachi music (yeah, I didn’t really get the connection), we picked up the rental car and drove to Bruges, where we stayed in a really cute cottage outside of town with a sweet golden retriever named Mabelle (sp?) as a neighbor down the road.


Now Bruges is definitely pretty and lovely to walk around in, with old historic buildings and seven swans a-swimming down the canal, but during the day it is jam-packed with tourists. Tourists crammed into boats going down the canals, riding horse-drawn carriages running you off the road, and crowding around buildings snapping photos. I know, I’m a tourist, too, but I don’t want a ton of other tourists around making it hard to walk and driving up prices! It was much better at night, though, when the day-trippers had left and it was a lot more quiet and peaceful to stroll around.


We enjoyed Bruges at night but ended up liking Ghent (a city only 55 km from Bruges) better. Still beautiful with canals and old buildings, but with fewer tourists. Plus it’s a fun university town and vegetarian-friendly as the “veggie capital of Europe” with Thursdays proclaimed veggie day, which we appreciated.

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Pretty, right? At least when I’m eating unhealthy food, I tend to be enjoying the sights and walking around a lot while eating it, so I figure that just about cancels each other out. Trust me, I’m a doctor. And good thing I assume this principle also applies in Italy, where we headed next after Belgium…

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Yeah, I know I’m totally behind on posting. So I’m going to cheat by combining 3 cities into one post! In my defense, the three of them are all beautiful cities that are great to walk around in, plus they’re connected by trains and buses a few hours away from each other, so they often make it onto one itinerary. Keep in mind that when I say “best,” I only spent a total of 12 days in the three cities so this is all based on the small slice of my random experiences.


Best Cafés and Bakeries: Vienna


The couple of days we had in Vienna were cold and drizzly, and after a long day of sightseeing, I loved sitting at a café watching the gray clouds go by, sipping a coffee and savoring a delicious pastry.


Sacher torte, a two-layer chocolate cake with apricot jam in the middle and dark chocolate icing served with whipped cream, is one of the most famous Viennese desserts, but I hadn’t planned on trying any. Hotel Sacher touts “The Original Sacher Torte” invented in the early 1800s, but I had heard that eating there was touristy and overpriced, and the cake didn’t even sound that good – it’s served with whipped cream because it’s so dry. However, I went to a different café with the intention of only getting a coffee, and they happened to have a great combo deal on a cappucinno and a slice of sachertorte that I couldn’t resist. It was surprisingly good – not too sweet, not that dry, good quality dark chocolate, and the whipped cream provided a nice balance.


There was never any doubt that I was going to eat a lot of strudel, though. The most popular strudels are apfelstrudel (apple strudel) and topfenstrudel (strudel filled with a soft and sweet quark cheese, see picture above). The traditional Austrian strudel is a little different in that the pastry dough is rolled out very thinly until you can “read a love letter” through it.


The traditional strudel was fine, but I preferred a thicker, crunchier puff pastry instead. I loved topfen cheese (the filling for the pastry above) so much I never did end up eating the traditional apple strudel, but I at least got a pastry with some apple filling once. Pretty much all of the breads and pretzels and pastries we got in Vienna were delicious.


Best Preserved: Prague


Of the three cities, Prague felt the most touristy, with lots of tour groups milling around headed by people holding up flags. But I have to admit it’s no wonder that so many people are attracted to Prague as it’s quite picturesque and has a lot of cool old architecture. Vienna suffered a lot of destructive bombing during World War II, and many of the buildings in Budapest are fairly new (relatively speaking) and built in a neo-whatsical style that makes them seem older. Prague is the best preserved of the three.

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One of the most famous sights is its astronomical clock, a medieval clock built in 1410 and the world’s oldest working astronomical clock. In addition to the paltry feat of telling the time, this clock can tell you where the sun is on the ecliptic, what phase the moon is in, and other such things of astronomical nature. There’s a little show on the hour where the figures move if you don’t mind peering over the heads of everyone who has gathered to watch it.


Best River View: Chain Bridge in Budapest


I think most people would say Prague for this one, maybe including Scott (I haven’t asked him), but since our apartment was just a 10-minute walk from Budapest’s iconic Chain Bridge, I have some fond memories of enjoying the view from this bridge at various times of day and night. 


It was the first permanent bridge across the Danube River that connected Buda and Pest (yup, Buda and Pest used to be two separate cities, and if you pronounce it Budapesht with an “sh” sound, you’ll make every Hungarian who hears you happy). I also think the Danube River looks prettier here than in Vienna, despite the famous Blue Danube waltz written by the Austrian Strauss.



Best Beer: Prague


I don’t drink much alcohol, but I thought the beers in Prague were pretty good. Scott was in heaven (look at the happiness radiating from his face!), especially since he got to try a bunch of unfiltered beer that can be harder to find in the U.S., and the prices were great: one pint of good beer could cost 50 cents in the supermarket and $1.50 in a pub.


I mostly liked going for the atmosphere, whether it was the residential pub within walking distance from our apartment with wagonwheels on the ceiling and wooden clogs on the walls (with farm instruments hanging out of them?!) or the more traditional pub in the city center with gruff service where famous writers used to hang out.


They had exactly one kind of beer on tap (with a hanging tiger above it for some extra flavor) so all you had to figure out was how to say “one beer” or “two beers” in Czech (don’t worry, you could keep repeating this as necessary).


We also enjoyed a day trip from Prague to Plzen, where we went on the Pilsner Urquell brewery tour and tasting. The coolest part was when they took us into their giant maze of underground cellars where they used to keep the beer cold during fermentation. They had a small section where they were still using the cellars, and you could see and smell the giant barrels of weird frothy looking fermenting beer.


An old Czech guy (who looked just like the guy advertised on the brewery pamphlets) then filled our cups from a cask of unfiltered beer.


There’s Scott looking blissfully happy again! We went to three different pubs our last day in Prague.


Best Cathedral: St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna


We saw a lot of impressive cathedrals in the three cities, but this one built in the 1200s stood out in particular. This picture was taken looking up from one corner of the church to give you a sense of how tall it was. There were lots of intricate details and sculptures on the interior and exterior, and it was cool to think about its place in history, including the fact that Mozart’s wedding and funeral took place here.

Here’s a view of the interior of St. Stephen’s cathedral, and you can click on the video to hear the organ playing during the mass that we saw.


I know I skipped over a lot of cool stuff about the three cities, but those were some of the highlights from our short time in Budapest, Vienna, and Prague.

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One Day in Bulgaria


Huge lion statue in front of the Palace of Justice

Unfortunately, we only had one day to spend in Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria. But we tried to make the most of it, joining the free walking tour (which I would definitely recommend) to explore this pretty city. Thanks to its eclectic history, Sofia has a wide range of architectural styles, and its religious buildings include Orthodox and Catholic churches, mosques, and synagogues.


Alexander Nevsky Cathedral


Church of St. Nicholas the Miracle-Maker (Russian Orthodox)


Church of St. George (Roman)

We enjoyed walking around this lovely city and hearing its stories, occasionally stumbling into some reminder of its not-too-distant Communist past or catching a glimpse of the Roman ruins that the modern city was built on top of, and eating a lot of yogurt along the way.


Yep, yogurt. Yogurt (kiselo mlyako)is kind of a big deal in Bulgaria, and they even use a particular strain of bacteria called Lactobacillus bulgaricus to make Bulgarian yogurt. Online I had read that this unique yogurt tastes like no other because of the special bacteria, climate, and method of preparation that lends it a particular thickness, aroma, and sourness. Scott ate several containers of Bulgarian yogurt while we were there, and he reports that at least to him it just tasted like Greek yogurt. He wasn’t a fan of ayran, a thinner, saltier yogurt drink, but I thought it was decent and had more unusual flavors than plain solid yogurt. I also enjoyed tarator, the light and refreshing cold soup in the picture above made from yogurt, cucumber, dill, and garlic.


And Bulgaria has other good dairy products besides just yogurt. My salad included some tasty sirene, a crumbly white cheese that reminded me of feta. It’s too bad we didn’t have longer in Bulgaria, but we enjoyed the little time we had there.

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