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Trip Report A redhead in Athens and Istanbul

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Due to an unexpected (though entirely welcome) extra week off between jobs, I all of a sudden had two weeks off starting in just over a week. Instead of starting my new job May 2, I was asked if I could wait until May 9 to start. That was on April 14.

The question was no longer “should I go?” but “where should I go?” A friend had just returned from Athens a few weeks before and said that he really enjoyed it so I decided to visit Athens and somewhere else. I looked at a map to see what was close and saw Istanbul. Hmm, Istanbul. Yeah, that could be fun. :)

My planning amounted to a topic on TripAdvisor and buying a guidebook for both cities. I had my plane tickets, hotels and insurance within a couple days and would figure the rest out on the flights.

My flights were on Delta. My regional airport to Detroit to JFK to Athens. Then a Turkish Airlines hop from Athens to Istanbul. My flight home was Istanbul to JFK to Minneapolis to home. Because of how late I was booking flights there were few options left for timing and my best option involved very short connections in both Detroit and JFK on the way out and in Minneapolis on the way home. My longest scheduled connection was 84 minutes in JFK on the way home. Those connections made life fun later on, as I don't think a single flight went as planned.

My photos are up on Facebook in albums that are open to the public (you don't need a Facebook account to view these photos).



As always, I'm sure this is going to be more detailed than necessary. :) Please ask any questions you may have and I'll do my best to answer in some kind of helpful fashion.

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    April 25/26 - Day 1

    My trip started normal as I laughed at all of the business travelers heading out of the local airport. One guy was a stereotypical salesman who was buddy-buddy with everyone and kept going on about how he was in Melbourne last week, he was in China the week before and was going to Sydney for this trip. It’s like the passport-stamp version of “mines bigger than yours!” The flight left a few minutes late and we ended up sitting at the gate waiting for the ground crew to pull us into the gate for about 10 minutes. I kept checking my watch and thinking that my short connection was getting rapidly shorter. Thankfully Detroit is a pretty small airport and a fast walk got me to the gate just a few minutes before they started boarding.

    Due to weather, we sat on the tarmac for about 20 minutes before we could head out. Yep, that was definitely turning my fast connection into an almost impossible connection. I had checked the gates the night before and knew that I would be coming into one end of the terminal and leaving from the complete opposite end of the terminal. At least it was the same terminal though. As soon I was off the plane I grabbed my bag from the gate check pile and hit the ground running. Now, running across JFK is one thing. Running across JFK with a large backpack bouncing around is another. This was one of the few times I really wished for a roller bag instead of my backpack. Note for future trips: if you’re planning on a possible sprint across a large airport, a roller bag is likely easier than a large backpack. They called out the final “all passengers should now be on board flight #___ to Athens” when I was still eight gates away. They were apparently slow about closing the gate and I made it with two others from the Detroit flight right behind me. Of course we then stood in the jet way for about 5 minutes waiting for those ahead of us to put away their carryon items.

    I was quite lucky and had two empty seats between me and the guy in the other aisle seat of the middle section. There was one row behind us and then the bathrooms in the middle of the economy section. Just before we pushed away from the gate, there was a thud behind us in the unmistakable sound of someone falling. The passengers behind us jumped up and started calmly flagging the flight attendants over. Apparently one of the flight attendants had fallen in the walkway between the bathrooms and was injured. One tried to call up the cockpit to tell them to stop pushing back, that someone was injured and needed medical help. The phone apparently wasn’t getting the pilot fast enough so she started to run up the aisle. It’s quite hard to run in 3” heels though so after about one step she toed off her shoes and ran for the front, leaving her shoes in the middle of the aisle. Unfortunately the ambulance based at the airport was already on another call so we had to wait for one to come from off the airport grounds.

    It took around an hour from the time the FA fell to when the paramedics carried her out on a backboard. The pilot made a couple announcements to let everyone know why we were going back to the gate and what was going on. As the paramedics started to carry her down the aisle, the FA said “Thank you all for your patience, I’m so sorry for the delay.” Yeah, cause you meant to fall and be injured badly enough that you would need to be carried off the plane. Poor woman! She had to be in a lot of pain, but we never heard a squeak from her. Just before landing in Athens the pilot announced that they had gotten word about her condition and that she had broken her femur and would require surgery. The poor woman broke her THIGH bone, and on the way out she was concerned about the inconvenience to the passengers???

    By the time the paramedics were off the plane and we could have a chance to get going, fog had rolled in and all departures were being delayed. Due to the situation with our previous delay, traffic control let us get back into the departures line near the very front instead of at the far back and we were on our way about two hours late. I was VERY impressed with the entire Delta crew on that flight. They proved yet again that they’re not just flying waiters/waitresses and are there to react and deal with any emergencies that might come up. It was also really nice that the pilot made a point to keep us updated with the status of what was going on. Even if the news is “we’re going to be delayed for awhile” I’d much rather hear that and whatever time estimate they might have than just nothing.

    Athens airport was very easy to get through and I hopped on the Metro towards the city center. That ticket is 8Euro but is rather quick and very easy. I changed lines and exited at Acropoli station and walked the two blocks to my hotel, Philippos. As it was only around lunch time I headed out exploring. The hotel is very easy to find and is only about two blocks in one direction from the Metro and two or three blocks from the walkway along the side of the Acropolis.

    First stop: Acropolis! I knew that the Parthenon was big and that it’s up on a hill. Yeah, that doesn’t even come close to the reality. It’s up on a pretty good hill that looks out over the city and it’s not merely big, it’s enormous. There’s not just one building, but a handful of smaller (relatively speaking) buildings around the main building, Parthenon. From Acropolis, I headed over to the nearby hill that is between the Acropolis and the Agora for more photos. After awhile a lady from Romania asked me through charades to take photos for her as she was also alone. We ended up talking a little (she only knew a little English, and I’m rather pathetic at learning languages) but she left when she found out that I’m not exactly a Christian (I‘m agnostic). I didn’t know the story about apostle Paul coming to Athens to convert people so she eventually started asking about my religion. “Orthodox?” was her first guess. “No.” “Catholic?” “No.” “Christian??” she asked with the almost desperation and confusion that someone might have if they were asking “well, you don’t kick puppies and children for fun, do you?!?” At my “No” the poor lady was just utterly horrified. I could have lied about my religion but I figure that if someone is rude enough to ask a complete stranger what religion they are, and keep pushing despite one word answers, that they can just be horrified. I have to admit that her being so flustered about something so simple was kind of funny. I just wanted to look at her and say “well, you asked!”

    Once Elena scurried away (and it was a definite scurry) I walked around the area until almost dark. I passed the Church of the Metamorphosis, the Agora, countless little restaurants and into the Plaka area. I decided that dinner was overrated and crashed into bed.

    April 27 - Day 2

    This day started with a quick Metro ride towards the Archeology Museum. I stopped at a bakery shop on the way and grabbed a slab of pepperoni pizza that was absolutely fantastic.

    After a couple hours of looking at lots of naked statues and priceless treasures of Greek history, I headed out. When I don’t have a set plan, I generally just end up walking around a city rather aimlessly and seeing what catches my eye. I ended up back at Syntagma Square (which I kept thinking of as Stigmata Square) and at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. One of the many stray dogs was there playing with the pigeons. He was loping in giant circles after the birds with a completely dopey grin on his face. On ground of the open area is a nice pattern in marble among the pavement stones. Mr Puppy (I’d bet he was a fairly young adult) found out quickly that marble is very slippery when wet and his feet would skitter about every time he stepped on the marble. He was definitely a smart pooch because after a little while he took to giving a little leap every time he came to the marble instead of running on it. If he was trying to catch lunch it was only half hearted at best. After awhile he flopped down and watched the birds with a completely satisfied “I showed those birdies who’s the boss dog!” smirk.

    Off to one side was a young family with two kids playing with the pigeons. The little girls giggles of “Mommy! They’re sitting me!” were soon replaced by the (entirely predictable) shrieks of “Mommy!! It POOPED on me!” I think about that time everyone in the small crowd snickered and thought “should’ve seen that one coming…”

    There were two soldiers in traditional dress uniforms guarding the tomb and a soldier in a camo print, casual uniform between them and the people gathered out front. I felt a little bad for the two soldiers because people kept going up to stand next to them to have their picture taken with them. Even though they do the “I’m a statue” impression quite well, it just doesn’t seem polite to treat them like a statue and go take a photo next to them. I am quite impressed though. It takes a very special kind of guy to make a short, poofy skirt, white tights and clogs with toe pom-poms look anything other than utterly ridiculous and they both managed to not only look not-ridiculous, but pretty masculine as well.

    From there it was back to walking. I passed Hadrian’s Arch and kept wandering. By the time I decided it was likely time to head for home I was over by Pnyx Hill. One of the very good things about a hotel close to the Acropolis is that it’s pretty easy to find your way home.

    I used my ultra high-tech method of finding a place for dinner (does it have tables and chairs? Okay, sounds good!) and ate at the Acropolis Restaurant and Tavern. It was just getting dark and I was the only person in the place. I ordered veal with pasta and tomatoes. The toast brought out ahead of time was fantastic. It was nothing fancy, just toasted thick bread with drizzled olive oil and oregano. I think that was when I decided to bring some olive oil home with me. The veal and pasta were good but nothing wonderful. Dessert was a sliced orange. As I was the only person in the place, the owner kept checking on me to make sure everything was good and we ended up talking for awhile. He asked questions about the economy and what I thought of President Obama. Do other countries not have the same notion that it’s often considered rude to ask someone you’ve just met about things like religion and politics or is it just because I’m a tourist? I managed to be tactful this time. He was a nice older guy and warned me that I shouldn’t be out at night with a bag, that if I had to go out at night that I should put the little money I needed in my pocket instead of carrying a bag that someone might take. I never felt even remotely unsafe but I always appreciate it when someone tries to be helpful and save me from trouble.

    April 28 - Day 3

    Today started with a walk to Pnyx Hill. The history associated with that place is absolutely amazing to me. From there I walked to the Agora, then through a shopping area with all kinds of brand names that I can’t even begin to afford.

    After a quick stop by my hotel to ditch my jacket (definitely not needed, though it was nice to have first thing that morning) and lunch at a little restaurant between my hotel and the New Acropolis Museum. I ordered a pork kebab and my lunch was sliced off of the big spit behind the counter. It was pretty good but the fresh bread was even better. Fresh baked bread is such a treat for me that it often seemed like that was the high point of my meals.

    From lunch, I took the Metro up a stop to Syntagma Square, and walked past the various embassies towards Lycabettus Hill. On the way I passed the Pakistani Embassy and the crowd of men gathered outside. I don’t know why, but there was a large crowd of men just standing around waiting for something. While they didn’t hassle me when I walked past, it was definitely uncomfortable and one of those “just keep looking straight ahead and keep walking like you have an appointment to get to” situations.

    I know that there is a tram/funicular to the top of Ly. Hill but I had no plans for the rest of the day and chose to spend it walking instead of taking the much faster funicular. That is one steep dang hill that just seemed to go on forever. The views from the top are gorgeous though and it feels like you can see forever on a clear day. I took photos and relaxed with my feet up for a few minutes and then headed back down the hill, down the street and back to Syntagma Square. I wandered through Plaka again, through the New Acropolis Museum and had dinner at one of the little café’s next to the Acropoli Metro station. I ordered chicken souvlaki and again the bread was definitely one of the highlights of the meal. I’m definitely going to have to start buying real bread instead of keeping a loaf of Wonder bread laying around for a couple weeks at a time.

    There was nothing more that I could think to do in Athens so I signed up for two tours with Viator. The first was the next day to Delphi, and the second was for the following day to Mycenae and Epidaurus.

    April 29 - Day 4 - Delphi

    The bus picked us up (a couple from my hotel were going on the same tour) at 7:30 and we wound our way through parts of Athens picking people up as we went. Apparently they have it set up so that all of their buses take a section of town and collect everyone going on one of their tours. Then we went back to Amalia Hotel (right down from Syntagma Squarge) and rearrange quickly onto the proper bus for our tour. It’s actually a pretty good system and seemed to work pretty spiffy.

    The bus ride to Delphi took around 2 hours I think and we unfortunately had very little “free” time at Delphi. The guide felt the need to talk and talk and talk. She wouldn’t tell us when and where we needed to meet for the next part of the tour so we couldn’t just leave and go around on our own. Finally, she said “it’s a 20 minute walk to the top to the stadium. Let’s meet back at the entrance in 45 minutes.” What?? I would have much rather had more time at Delphi on my own and less time listening to her blather on about the gods. I like having information, but she should have told us that sort of thing on the bus and she should have explained better. She unfortunately seemed to assume that everyone had some knowledge of the ancient Greek gods and how they related to each other. Nobody on the trip really did and there were mainly bored, confused and irritated faces in the group. I didn’t dink around and I still had only enough time to stand at the top for a couple minutes before turning around and heading back. I made it back to the bottom about 3 minutes before it was time to meet. Other people were 5 and 10 minutes late because they had walked to the top and couldn’t make it up and down quite as fast as she thought they should be able to. From there we walked down the block to the museum where she again proceeded to talk at us and would not give us a time and place to meet. She walked us through the museum in 45 minutes and talked about each piece that she thought was important, but gave us no time to look at things on our own. She completely ignored it when someone asked what time we would be meeting at the front.

    From the museum we headed to the local Hotel Amalia for lunch. It was salad, a cheese pie appetizer, then pork tenderloin and potatoes, and then an apple or orange for dessert. The main dish was absolutely fantastic.

    From lunch, we headed towards home with a quick stop in the small town of Arachova for 20 minutes of shopping. I walked back up the road a bit and took photos of a fun clock tower on a cliff. Delphi was gorgeous but it’s hard to appreciate such a gorgeous setting when it’s so hurried. I would definitely suggest a day trip to Delphi, but maybe with a different tour group or at least with a different tour guide than we were assigned hopefully.

    Dinner was in Plaka on one of the busy walking intersections where I could people watch quite nicely. Dessert was a sliver of something that reminded me of both custard and carrot cake at the same time. I have no idea what it was, but it was yummy.

    Up next: Mycenae and Epidaurus, and then on to Istanbul!

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    Please keep up the details. You're very observant and write well.

    Now, all you need to do is to start forgetting about the North American concept of "privacy" regarding people's thoughts,lives, ideas and beliefs. I think that is why so many Americans find it difficult to "share" and conduct a fulfilling relationships. It is interesting that you do not mind sharing even more intimate details on paper or on the net but have difficulty handling personal interaction. -:)

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    Very interesting to read how an american redhead ( a rarity in Greece) is observing my hometown.
    Fact is that people working in tourism ( hotels, restaurants etc) have no problem of asking questions that some might find as intruding their privacy....
    An average Athenian would never ask such questions...
    Sometimes i wish that people visiting other countries would be more open and talkative.... Instead of observing i always try to get in touch with locals, exchange ideas and finally to learn more about their country.
    When it comes to that Greeks are thank God very talkative and ready to talk with you just about everything... From Obama, to the economical crisis etc...

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    Great report IR.

    "I would have much rather had more time at Delphi on my own and less time listening to her blather on about the gods."

    One of the better trip report lines I have read.

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    I am enjoying your report.

    I loved Athens when I went a few years ago. I took a tour which spent the night at Delphi, and it was a much more relaxed way to view the archeological site and its spectacular setting. Looking forward to hearing what you thought about the tour to Mycenae, a place that was a real highlight for me.

    I really enjoy talking about things like religion and politics to people I meet on my travels.

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    Great report on Athens.

    I had the same impression about the Evzones guarding the Parliament building. I don't know how they look so hot in their skirts and pom-pom outfits, but they manage to look pretty manly. And I agree that it seemed pretty rude of people to take photos with them as if they were statues. I took photos of them from afar, but I wouldn't go right up to them and stand next to them without asking. Although I wonder if they are even allowed to interact with the tourists at all.

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    Evzones are suppossed to look very manly... the ones you see have to fullfill certain criteria to serve as Evzones.. ( height, weight etc) I laughed very much about the pom pom shoes... Being Greek i never had this association, the shoes are traditional, can be found in many parts of Greece, and are called tsarouhia..... Men in Southern Greece used to wear this kind of uniform untill the 19th century....
    The Evzones are only doing their military service,they are serving as evzones on a volunteer basis, and they are not allowed to talk to others or to react... In order to protect them there is always a 3rd person from the army nearby, and takes action if something should happen.
    In the wintertime, late at night i have seen ome of them talking to a 3rd person, when no one except me was around... ( probably a girlfriend or family visiting...)...

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    Thanks for the explanation of the Evzones Clausar! :)

    As for discussing my religion with Elena from Romania, I really have no issues discussing my beliefs (or lack thereof) with pretty much anybody. However, I have learned that being agnostic tends to confuse and freak people out a bit. Add in that there was a very definite language barrier. Her English was only very slightly better than my Spanish or Italian (which is practically nil) and have you ever tried to explain religion through charades??

    Knowing that my beliefs often make people uncomfortable, knowing that I had less than a snowballs chance of her understanding anymore than the most basic idea, I thought it would just be easiest to avoid the whole religion thing altogether and stick to discussing Athens in charades. She kept asking though so I was honest. However, it always drives me a bit nuts when someone asks a question and then gets offended at the answer. If you want to know something about me, that's fine but don't get pissy when I tell you. :P

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    April 30 - Day 5 - Mycenae and Epidaurus

    The bus pick up situation was the same as the day before and we headed out from the Amalia Hotel towards Mycenae. I spent much of the ride dozing.

    We stopped on the way at the Corinth Canal. It was built in the late 1800’s and dug at sea level, with no locks. It’s very steep and narrow and a nice little stop. The guide on this trip was much better than the day before. She was enthused and excited about the places we were seeing, and really wanted to answer questions and did an excellent job of finding a middle ground on the information vs “free time” scale. She would tell us when and where to meet, but then she would talk about the things we were seeing so that if someone wanted to go off on their own, they easily could.

    Mycenae was a really cool place to visit. The scenery is gorgeous and the length of the history just blows my mind. I loved the Lioness Gate at the front and it was fascinating to think that they had traveled that far, so long ago. The guide said that they traveled far in search of tin (tin + copper = iron) and likely saw lions in Egypt. We saw the circular burial area where they found the Mask of Agamemnon and other items that are held in the museum in Athens. When the Mask was discovered, it was thought to be the death mask of Agamemnon. However, it was later dated to a period prior to Aggie.

    At the back of the complex is a stairway down into the below ground cisterns. There were a bunch of students down there so I thought it seemed fairly safe and went down with my tiny LED flashlight. It’s pitch black (even a flashlight does little) and the steps are VERY slimy and slippery. When the students decided that they were going to come back out (their lighters were getting low on fluid) and standing to one side for them to pass on those stairs, to see nothing, seemed like a bad idea so I headed back out again.

    The Mycenae complex is right at the base of the foothills (they looked like mountains to me, but were likely only foothills) and looks out over a flat plain where the sea used to be. Stories tell about the people of Mycenae being right near the water and back then it was likely almost up to the fortress. Sometime in the centuries since, the water has pulled back and left a fertile plain behind. The water was still visible in the distance.
    From Mycenae, we drove a few minutes down the road to the Treasury of Atreus. One of the others in the group put it very nicely as we walked up and turned at a 90 degree angle to see the Treasury: “well, that was unexpected.” None of us really saw it until we turned and realized that it had snuck up on us. And it’s quite big to be sneaky.

    It’s a neat little beehive shaped burial chamber that was picked clean by the time it was re-discovered. The builders built earthen ramps up the sides and covered the top with earth. Unlike so many ancient sites, it was never buried and forgotten about. That chamber has likely been confusing the hell out of people for centuries (bonus points for the designers and builders). As with so many things from the ancient Greek sites, one of the columns from the front is housed in the British Museum. I’m beginning to think that the Brits who went traveling for awhile were a bit klepto. They have the Rosetta Stone and who knows how many mummies and funerary goods from Egypt, every site in Greece seemed to discuss bits and pieces that are housed in the British Museum. London is still my favorite city in the world, but I’m beginning to see a pattern.

    From the Treasury, we headed for a nearby Hotel Amalia for lunch again. Apparently CHAT Tours has a contract with HA. The hotel was quite nice and seemed very large, but it also seemed to be in the middle of nowhere. The appetizer (first course?) this day was spinach pie. I managed to choke down a single bite without doing a technnicolor yawn, but decided not to push my luck and continued my appreciation of bread in Greece. Everyone else seemed to think that it was quite yummy. The entrée was chicken and rice, which was fantastic. Dessert was a lovely cream cake with cherries. I asked the waiter what kind of cake it was (I never know if things have specific names or just “cake”). He looked at me like I should maybe be wearing a helmet and said with a patient smile said “pasta”.

    Umm, what? I may not know what specific name to put on cake but even a kitchen nitwit like me can tell the difference between cake and pasta. I smiled and said “ah! Thanks.” Everyone else at the table was looking as confused as I was feeling so we decided to ask the guide about it once we got back on the bus. I assumed that it was a simple language issue.

    We explained the situation to the guide and she just started snickering. Apparently, in Greece (and in Italy as well according to someone else on the bus) pasta doesn’t necessarily mean pasta like spaghetti or penne, but actually means cream cake. I’m still wondering what word is used to refer to spaghetti, penne, fettuccine, etc if pasta means cream cake.

    After lunch we headed for Epidaurus. This site became very wealthy and ended up building a wonderful theatre in the 4th century BC. Unlike all but a few other theatres, this theater still has the full circle orchestra (where the singers stood, not the group who play stringed instruments). The Romans generally changed theatres to a half circle stage area instead of a full circle. The Romans did add more rows to the original theatre, but left the stage alone. The theatre seats around 15,000 people.

    The acoustics at Epidaurus are amazing. It’s built into a hill and is open towards the surrounding foothills. The wind comes up the valley, up the hill, and pushes sounds from the stage area up into the stands. People were standing in the center yacking and yelling and our guide sent us up into the seats for a demonstration. The yackers finally left and our guide looked up into the seats and said in a normal tone “can you hear me?” She didn’t raise her voice at all, but even the highest seats could hear her perfectly. At our slightly stunned nods, she pulled out a piece of paper and started slowly tearing it. We could hear the paper tearing in the top row. Amazing acoustics and a breathtaking view, what more could you ask for from a theatre?

    We wandered around the grounds for a little while and then headed back for Athens. It was time for dinner, and then bed. My flight to Istanbul was scheduled for 7:45AM and the Metro doesn’t start running until 5:45AM. I didn’t want to pay the insane fare for a cab to the airport at the much higher night rate and planned to take the all night bus from Syntagma Square very early the next morning.

    If I had to choose one of the two daytrips, I would choose Mycenae over Delphi. Delphi was nice, but I loved Mycenae and Epidaurus.

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    So good to hear your reactions to the various sites! I've been in Epidaurus a number of times, and now I don't climb to the top (puff puff) I'm the one who does the demo (drop a coin, strike a match). In 2009, there was a class of Greek 14-year-olds who did a scene from Lysistratos In the center circle (the play about women refusing s-x until men stopped war); much giggling! I agree a day trip to Delphi can be frustratng... too short a time. After many years, I'm returning, spending the night so I can be at the site at 8 am ...

    We look forward to your next installment Iowa Red!

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    Following the story with interest and hoping that some additional characters will be introduced into the narrative at some stage. Will also be nice to read about clothing/fashions/roads/prices/photography, etc.

    By the way, "pasta" means soft, creamy cake in Turkey also and pastry shops are called, "pasta-hane" meaning home of pasta. So English speakers are definitely in the minority. you should better admit that you have been wrong all along and that the Greeks, Italians and Turks know better.

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    pasta in Greek has always been a creamy cake....
    There was no confusion with the italian pasta, as this is being called zymarika in Greek... ( and includes everything from farfale to spaghetti and tortellini...)
    We are using the term pasta now as well, after the invasion of italian restaurants in Greece in the 90's

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    Thanks for all of the encouragement and sorry for the delay. I've been very busy and (as you well know) I tend to get wordy. Writing a trip report is like getting to experience my vacation and those wonderful places again (without tired feet this time) and I just want to take people along with me and introduce them to some of the places and people I met along the way. :)

    May 1 – Day 6 – Athens to Istanbul

    My morning was scheduled to start very early, but started even earlier than I had planned. Around midnight someone started knocking on my door and saying “Madam? Please open the door madam.” I hadn’t managed to fall asleep yet and was still awake but all I could think was “what the…?” I opened the door for the night clerk and was even more confused when he asked me if I was okay because my fire alarm was going off. When he realized that my room wasn’t on fire and I was simply too stupid to realize it, he glared at me and asked if I had been smoking. His face smoothed out when I informed him that I don’t smoke and had no idea what he was talking about (it helped that there was absolutely no smell of smoke in my room). The clerk apologized and left.

    I am still however quite confused as to why the heck my smoke alarm went off (the detector above the door did have a glowing red light on it) but never sounded any kind of alarm. I realize that you wouldn’t want some idiot smoking in the wrong room and sending everyone out of the hotel in the middle of the night to the clanging of an alarm, but I’m not sure if just alerting the clerk to go check it out is the best option either. I decided that since the wakeup call would be ringing me awake in just a few hours it was probably best to cuddle into bed and quit worrying about the fireless fire alarm.

    When I woke up I realized that the fire alarms weren’t the only things misbehaving. Despite setting up, and triple checking, a 3:30am wakeup call and setting my travel alarm clock, I woke up around 8:00am. Apparently I grabbed the wrong travel alarm and took the one that I keep meaning to throw out because it's not reliable. I swore a bit and got up as quickly as possible. At the front desk I was informed that if I really wanted a wakeup call that I should ask at the desk and not rely on the automated system. The automated system that had worked perfectly every other time I had set it up. The two clerks at the desk were very helpful when I asked them to help me call the airport or airline to find the time of the next flight to Istanbul on Turkish Airlines. Nobody answered at the airport desk, but one clerk got online and found that a flight was leaving in just under 2 hours. They called me a taxi and pointed me to the ATM around the corner as I had only planned cash for the bus fare.

    When I came back from the ATM and met the taxi at the front door, the clerk apparently told the driver that I needed to get to the airport as fast as possible. Thankfully there was very little traffic and the driver took the clerk seriously. At one point I saw the speed sign saying 60km and the speedometer saying 140km/h. Nice! He wasn’t driving scary, just fast. The lady at the airlines desk got me a ticket quickly and I got through check-in and security with 30 minutes before my newly scheduled departure. We left around 30-40 minutes late for some reason.

    It was a nice little hop and navigating inside the Istanbul airport was very easy. I purchased my Turkish visa right before the passport desk and breezed through the passport control line. At baggage claim I was a bit appalled at the two older people who told their guide that they had 11 pieces of matching luggage. I was even more appalled when the man pointed out one of the pieces to the poor guide as he was in the middle of wrestling one of the giant pieces off the belt already. Just grab the stupid thing yourself or let it go past, it’s not a situation where you only get one chance to grab it. As I was walking away I snapped a photo of their luggage cart. Yep, 11 large pieces of matching Louis Vuitton luggage were piled on there and the cart was larger than most of the cars I saw in Athens. I don’t honestly know if I even own enough clothes to fill 5 or 6 large bags like that, let alone having enough that two people would require 11 large bags for vacation.

    After staring at that scene in bemusement for a few minutes I headed outside and lucked into a cab with a driver who spoke fairly clear English. On the way to the hotel he pointed out a few things, told me about his family and asked me if I was married. Throughout my trip, one of the most common questions I was asked was if I was married or not. Before the week was out I would get very used to that question. He was very kind and worried about me getting into the hotel without problems because he couldn’t stop on the narrow street in front of the hotel door and had to pull around the next corner. He stopped and pointed out the door when we were in front of it, then stood and watched as I walked up the sidewalk to the door. When I looked back he said “yes! There!” like I might get lost. I smiled and waved and thought that it was very kind of him to make sure I got to the right place, even if his concern wasn’t necessary.

    My room was ready shortly after I arrived (it was around 1:00 by this time) and I dropped my stuff to head out again. The clerk assured me that the Hagia (pronounced Aya) Sophia was closed that day when I asked if he would point me in the right direction (my bookstore didn’t have an Istanbul map, I didn’t have time to order one online and the ones in my guidebooks were a complete headache to use). I headed for the Blue Mosque instead as a starting point.

    The hotel I stayed in was the Sultanahmet Park Hotel and was only 2-3 blocks from the Blue Mosque. I knew that I would be close but I didn’t realize exactly how close. The location was perfect as I was close to the tram, close to the Blue Mosque/Hagia Sophia tourist area but still a little bit to the side and in a less busy area. There was a cute little mosque, Fuad Pasa Camii, right across the street.

    Visiting the Blue Mosque was fascinating for me because it is so different from anything I’m used to. When I got to the entrance I wrapped my scarf loosely around my head and hair and slipped my shoes off and into my fold-up market bag. I was quite annoyed by some of the other tourists who were yacking about how stupid it was that they had to take their shoes off and cover their hair because it’s not like they were Muslim. I noticed that trend in some tourists in other mosques that I visited while in Istanbul. It doesn’t matter if you’re Muslim or not. It’s a place of worship and you’re a guest so you either do as you’re asked (there were always signs in English that very clearly said no shoes past this point and women needed to cover their hair) or you simply don’t go in. Sorry for the mini-rant but it just seems so incredibly rude to visit a place and then carp about the very simple and easy to follow rules. They even provided pieces of fabric in case someone didn’t have their own scarf or was showing too much of their shoulders or legs. If someone hands you a piece of fabric and it’s still too much work to drape it over your head and keep it there for the duration of your visit, then you just really should go sit down outside.

    At the back of the mosque are screened off sections for women to pray. In front of those was the walkway and area for non-Muslims. In front of a short railing was the majority of the floor space and this area was reserved for Muslim men. The feeling of open space was amazing and the architecture was gorgeous. I can’t imagine the task of building such a building. The entire front wall up into the large dome was windows and paintings/mosaics. As in most of the mosques, there was a large rack hanging from the ceiling to hold lights close to the floor (10-15’ from the floor I would guess). The domes and windows gave an amazing sense of open space, but the low light rack allowed for light during the dark hours that was low enough to be useful. I wandered around inside the Blue Mosque for awhile and still wish that non-Muslim women were allowed to wander into the main section at some point during the day.

    From the Blue Mosque I headed for Hagia Sophia to take photos outside and noticed that there were definitely people going inside. Yep, the hotel clerk was incorrect and Hagia Sophia was open. Once inside I looked around in the entrance corridors for a little while before heading into the main area. Once in the main area, I looked up and up and up to the dome. And I thought that the dome at the Blue Mosque was tall, yikes! At one point I was standing reading from my guide book about various sections in the main area and was rudely tapped on the shoulder, “Ma’am!”d and the guy glared and gestured for me to step back to the side so that a small group could sweep through towards the doors. Because it’s really so difficult to walk two feet to the side in a giant open area and walk around me even though very few people were in that part of the building? Apparently their security thought so. I’m fairly certain that it was a group of politicians visiting Istanbul from Africa for the poverty in developing countries summit. I fully understand that their guards have to be concerned for security but they also don’t need to be rude about it.

    There were a few stands with minimal information at different interest areas, but they offered little more than the name and most basic description. I was very glad to have my guidebook and most people had the audio guides. While Hagia Sophia is ginormous and has an amazing history, it didn’t really catch me quite like the Blue Mosque did. I don’t want to call it blah, but it just didn’t have that same “look at me, aren’t I spiffy!” feeling that the BM did. Maybe because Hagia Sophia has a feel like a museum (interesting but dead) while the Blue Mosque was in use constantly and had a constant buzz of activity and lives.

    From Hagia Sophia I went walking through the park along the side of Topkapi Palace and walked along the river for a while. Tulips were in bloom and were growing everywhere. There were gorgeous bursts of color along all of the pathways and green spaces. Purples, reds, pinks, oranges, yellows, yellow and orange stripes, white, peach. Beautiful solids, bright stripes and gently blended variations.

    It seemed like the thing to do was to go and sit on the large rocks along the bank of the river with friends, family or a date. It was busy without risk of being crowded. I lazed about watching people and the water for a little while and then continued my walk. One of the lovely things about having a hotel near the Blue Mosque is that it’s very easy to find your way back. Look for the large cluster of minarets that can be seen from almost anywhere in the city and aim that direction.

    I wandered into a restaurant on the way back towards home and ordered… something. It was little sausage or beef patties, tomatoes, rice and onions. There was also an enormous chunk of deflated sesame seed bread. I ordered my first apple tea. The food was good but I fell in love with the tea. I generally dislike tea, but this didn’t make me think of tea but of apple cider. Sugar cubes came on the saucer but weren’t needed. I continued wandering back towards the Blue Mosque and home as I’ve learned that it’s generally a good idea to get a slightly more solid idea of where the hotel is before staying out after dark. On the way back I stopped by the tourist office (right by the Sultanahmet tram stop, towards the Blue Mosque I think) and picked up a nice little map and a VERY handy list of the open times of the most popular tourist attractions. No more relying on a slightly out of date guidebook or the woefully inaccurate hotel clerk.

    When I reached my street I noticed the name of the street for the first time. The maps showed it as a single word, but the street sign breaks it into two: Klod Farer. I had to laugh because all I could think was “clumsy traveler” and how insanely appropriate that was for me. Now that I was back in my neighborhood, I passed the hotel and continued back to the square in front of the Blue Mosque. When I was in Egypt a couple years ago I remember hearing about the missing obelisk that had been cut down and sent to Istanbul. There it stood in front of the Blue Mosque. Unfortunately only the top third of the original obelisk is present and it lacks the same “holy buckets that’s tall” feeling that it’s sibling in Egypt has. After awhile, it was back to the hotel to figure out what adventures might await me the next day.

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