Saturday, November 27, 2010

Turkey and Bulgaria

Istanbul - Dinner with new friends in the most unbelievable setting. We were celebrating an anniversary down behind a well-known restaurant in recently excavated ruins. The food was delicious, the company was perfect, and even the waiter sat down to share a drink. Incredibly, this followed a two hour trip to the Turkish bath where I was steamed and soaped and scrubbed scrubbed scrubbed while big-bellied Turkish women ordered me about.

One of the many Turkish sweets shops. That is baklava and different types of Turkish delight - a jelly or marshmallow candy with nuts and coconut.

Inside the Hagia Sofia, a Byzantine church turned mosque turned museum. Removing layers of plaster has revealed gold mosaics and Viking graffiti. An interesting mix of religion that reminds me of the Christian/Mayan church in Chichicastanango, Guatemala.

The Hagia Sophia from the outside. Istanbul is truly beautiful. I could spend a week, or a lifetime, there.

The ceiling of the Blue Mosque, one of Istanbul's most famous sites. After waiting in line, removing our shoes, and covering scandalous skin, we walked onto a cushy carpet to witness prayers and some of the finest interior decorating that I have ever seen.

Istanbul's cistern - a really old water storage complex underneath the city. Nowadays there is less water, more tourists, and a tacky fluorescent-lit Cistern Cafe. Great mood lighting though...

Inside the Grand Bazaar, one of my favorite places for about 10 minutes. This covered market is one of the worlds largest, with over 4,000 separate shops and about a million visitors a week. Everywhere we walked, Turkish Rico Suave was trying to tell us that while we don't need a new carpet, we also don't need music - an analogy to show that somehow a Turkish rug could make my life more rich.

The Bosphorous River, as seen from the Topkapi Palace. We'd been walking around all day, so we decided to sit outside and order tea service. The teapot of tea came atop a teapot of water, which I assumed was for the heat. But when the tea-man saw me pour a full cup of dark brown tea, he came to show me that in Turkey, the tea is diluted with water before it is drank. Why they don't use a bigger pot and less tea leaves, I do not know.

In this spot we also saw beauty in fashion. One woman in particular, covered in a brimmed head-scarf, looked as if she had been picked out of the Great Gatsby or from a stroll in the park in Victorian England.

Topkapi Palace. Do you think that this was some sort of tilers competition, or leftover flooring that was put on the wall? I think the haphazardness of the different patterns is strange.

On our third night in Turkey, we headed to the otogar, spent $30 for a ticket, and set off on a 9 hour drive to Sofia, Bulgaria. The border-crossing was miserable. A bus full of people herded through cages and offices and on and off and on and off in the middle of the night. On entering Bulgaria, the customs official asked why I was going to Bulgaria. "I am on vacation," I told him. His response: "And you chose to come to Bulgaria?" Hmm, bad sign?
A food market in Sofia.
The former Communist party headquarters.

We only spent one night in Sofia. The lingering taste of Communism and the size of the city made it feel like somewhere you move on from, not somewhere you stay. But highlights from the 24 hours: the hostel accidentally double booked our room, which we found out when a very nice German man woke us up at midnight; outside an old church we came across a flea market selling jewelry and Nazi relics; Sofia has decent Indian food and Dunkin' Donuts; and even though we had a problem with the room, the folks at Hostel Mostel we extremely kind and helped us get on our way to Rila Monastery, a two hour bus ride away.

Rila is a working monastery in the mountains of southern Bulgaria. The nature felt like Vermont - tall pine trees, cold air, wet. We walked the grounds, explored the museum, and shared bread, cheese, and honey (our menu for more than 2 meals).

Our next stop was the highlight of the trip from me. From Rila, we took the bus to a small ski town in the Pirin Mountains called Bansko. We actually took the bus through Bankso. When we realized our mistake, we got off and stood confusedly on a dark street corner in a residential area. Bulgarian hospitality saved us - the second car to drive by stopped and drove us five miles back to the center of the town.

We didn't have any reservations, so we once again stood on the side of the road, confused. A general feeling told me that we should walk down a particular road, which took us to an idyllic intersection of cobblestone streets. A man must have seen us through his window, so he came out to see if we needed help. We said, "Hotel, hotel," and he motioned for us to come inside.

This white-haired gentleman turned out to be the co-owner of a tiny restaurant with his wife Lily. We dropped our bags, sat at one of the four tables and ordered cheap but delicious Bulgarian beer. The fireplace warmed us up. Three young boys, who turned out to be the sons of the chef, sat at one of the other tables. At another, two men were sharing a meal and a drink. One of these men was the son of the owners. He lived in Scotland, was very critical of Bulgaria because of its suppression of business, and liked to talk.

Lily brought us menus, but I don't know why. When I asked for one salad, she insisted that I get another. And for J, she determined that some sort of mixed meat dish was the best. Well, this turned out to be the largest quantity of food that I have ever seen served to one person. He valiantly made it through about a third of the chicken, beef, and sausage. When Lily saw me sip the wine that he had ordered, she brought me out my own glass, on the house. And when we joked to each other, stomachs ready to explode "Want dessert?" she brought out goblets of dried fruit, sugary syrup, and chocolate ice cream.

At some point during the evening, we expressed that we were looking for a place to stay. The Scottish Bulgarian and his friend had a quick chat (in Bulgarian), the friend made some phone calls, and they told us "Okay." They had a place for us to stay for $30. Without really understanding what we were getting into, we agreed. Lily and the friend then helped us get our things together and led us down the street. The accommodations turned out to be a small apartment with three twin beds intended for skiiers. It was comfortable, and in the morning we woke up to an incredible view.
The following day, we took a short hike up into the mountains. Such a nice change from the deserts of Jordan. We hitchhiked back into the town - the second car to pass picked us up.

From Bankso, we took a lumbering 5-hour train ride to the second biggest city in Bulgaria, Plovdiv. Plodiv is a comfortable mix of history and modernity. There are Roman ruins, wide car-free boulevards constructed at the turn of the last century, and an apparently vibrant art scene. We spent one night there, in a room in the eves of a hostel with a three foot ceiling.

And then finally, back to Istanbul, one more visit to the Grand Bazaar, and back to the "real world" in Jordan.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Ridiculous Menu

One restaurant, and sooo many things wrong.

A very nice drive into Aqaba as the sun set on Saturday. You can see the Red Sea in the second photo, as well as a little bit of Eilat, Israel on the right.