04 July 2012

New blog....

Since I seemed to have have turned this blog into a blog about our travel, it doesn't seem appropriate to revert to ordinary day-to-day stuff!   Hence,  my random thoughts on miscellaneous matters will be posted to a new blog so that this blog can stay as a blog about our recent travel.
The new blog is http://no-cobwebs-gxh.blogspot.com.au/
(EDITED so as to clarify my meaning.  My original post didn't accurately convey what I was trying to say).

30 June 2012

Kilometre Zero, Paris

In the square in front of Notre Dame (Paris) there is a plaque (said to have been put in place by André Michelin, founder of the Michelin tyre business) marking the point from which all distances in France are measured.
On our recent trip, I set out to locate this plaque (having not previously noticed it).   It took me a few minutes, even though it was quite early in the morning, before many people were around.   But, yes, it's there, even though it's not very conspicuous and can be easily overlooked.

29 June 2012

Intriguing things

Pivo = beer
There are a couple of things that intrigue me in parts of the Balkans.
Beer prices:  It's sometimes the same price - or even a little cheaper - to buy an 0.5 litre beer  ("pivo" ) than an 0.33 beer.   Apparently this has something to do with the fact that the small bottles are not returnable but the larger bottles are.  The beer is said to be the same.  I don't get it, but I did take advantage of it.

Names of taxis: there are some interestingly-named taxi companies!  "Pink" taxis are found in many cities, but apparently this doesn't have quite same connotations as it does in some western countries.   And presumably the meaning of words sometimes changes in translation! (See image below).

28 June 2012


Several days after our return, we're still getting over the jetlag.

I have a couple of theories about jetlag.   First, it seems to be worse if you're travelling against the sun (that is, from west to east).    Secondly, it's made worse if you're tired.  And in this respect, if you're tired when you board the plane, and are relying on being able to catch up on your sleep while travelling, it doesn't work.    In my experience, if I'm tired when I get on the plane, my jetlag is worse when I arrive.

Intercontinental travel without jetlag (Bosphorus Bridge, Istanbul)
For me, jetlag manifests itself in dozing off at strange - and not necessarily logical - times (well, more than dozing, I've been going "out-to-it"), and waking up earlier than usual in the morning.   For Sue, it has resulted in being hungry in the middle of the night.

At present, we seem to be on track to recovery, on the rule of thumb that, when travelling west to east,  it takes a day for every time zone that you pass through to adjust before you're completely normal.

27 June 2012

A tourist in Istanbul

It's obviously presumptuous for a person who was only in the country for a few days, and only Istanbul at that (and in fact mainly in the tourist-oriented area of Sultanhamet), to comment on Turkey.   So these are strictly personal observations, obviously derived only from a limited tourist experience.

Outside the Palace
Obviously Hagia Sophia and the Topkaki Palace are world renowned tourist sites.    There were crowds at both of these.   Inside, the crowds aren't really an issue at Hagia Sophia, but they are at the Palace, where it was necessary on several occasions to queue for entry to particular sections.

On the other hand, the excellent Archeological Museums complex was almost deserted when I visited it, and there weren't too many people at the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts.

At Hagia Sophia and the palace, there were long queues for admission tickets at mid-morning which is when we, along with many others, tended to arrive.  However, my research had turned up that there is a "Museum Card", providing for admission to certain museums (including Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace, Chora, the Museum of Islamic Arts and the Archeological Museum).  Not only was the queue for the card much shorter, it provided us with an incentive both to get out to Chora (which we were glad to do) and  visit the Harem section of the Palace (which is otherwise an additional cost).    And we came out ahead financially, too.
An interesting restaurant -  the cooking takes place on the boat

More generally, I had been led to believe that there would be quite a lot of hassling of tourists.    Yes, it's true that as you  walk past restaurants in the tourist area, you'll be offered menus, but usually all it takes is a polite shake of the head, keeping your eyes down, and mostly you'll be left alone.    The same applies to street vendors.    We were slightly more assertively approached on a only small number of occasions, but perhaps only  once or twice did we feel "hassled".

So far as dressing in the street, at least in the city area, there are no real constraints.   Likewise, beer and alcohol generally seems to be readily available, at least in the areas frequented by tourists, both in restaurants and in shops (to take away).    I acknowledge, however, that this might not apply in other areas.
The trams are modern
The traffic in parts can be congested, and the public transport system doesn't seem to be great (although if you needed to get around you'd probably manage: see map - http://www.urbanrail.net/as/tr/istanbul/istanbul-map.htm).  Most tourists probably don't venture beyond the user-friendly and efficient tram through the heart of the Sultanhamet area.   There is a limited metro, but we didn't use it as it didn't go anywhere that we wanted to get to (there are interchanges to it at two points on the tram line).  There are buses as well as taxis everywhere, with taxi fares not being too bad (although I suspect that they would mount up if you were caught up in traffic congestion).
 We took the tram to the terminus at Kabatas, but weren't swept off our feet by the scenery there!   There is a funicular here to Taksim Square, but we didn't venture on this!

Chora Museum

Glimpse of land walls from taxi
"Chora" means "in the country", and the Kariye Museum at Chora  is in fact a 12 - 15 TL taxi ride from the Eminou area.  Of course, Istanbul's urban sprawl now extends way past Chora,  which is just inside the Land Walls (as extended).   We sighted these when we made the trip out after our cruise on Thursday.

There is a good view back over the city area from the museum grounds.

The museum was previously the church of St Saviour which dates from the early 12th century (although it was sacked by the Fourth Crusade, and later restored and extended).   Its significance is that it contains numerous remarkably well-preserved Byzantium mosaics and frescoes, said to date from the 13th and 14th centuries.  They were covered with plaster while the building was used as a mosque from 1511, and restored between 1945 and 1958.
In fact, the number of frescoes and mosaics is almost over-whelming.  They include several series, such as the Cycle of Christ's Ministry, and the life story of Mary (to mention just two). I couldn't describe them all.   However, photography (without flash) is freely permitted, so here are some samples (although my photography doesn't really do justice to the scenes).

Christ holding the inscription "Come to me all you who are weary & burdened and I will give you rest"
Fresco of the "the Harrowing of Hell", with Christ raising Adam and Eve
EDIT:   I now understand that this depict- Christ's descent into Hades to (after His crucifixion and death on the cross) to bring the good news of the resurrection to Adam, Eve, and all those departed, imprisoned.  At the bottom you can see how the "gates of hell" have been shattered by Christ's overcoming of death.
One of the domes, depicting the Virgin and Child at the apex and figures from the genealogy in the fluting

Christ Pantocrator (inscription is "Land of the Living")

St Paul, holding Bible

25 June 2012

And so ... home

Well, it was a long trip home, but basically uneventful.    I could perhaps do an Air France vs Qantas comparison.  There again, perhaps not.
We arrived on time, and are most grateful to Ang and Kev who picked us up at 7 am on a Sunday morning.   Many thanks.
We're pretty jet-lagged, so it will be interesting to see how long it takes to get over this.
The biggest problem of the whole trip arose when I attempted to turn the home computers on.  The router was totally dead.   Off to Dick Smith to buy a new one, but to date the installation program keeps telling me that it will only accept the "default" password.   Needless to say, there's no indication of what this might be, so the installation is still work in progress.  I postponed the task, and went into the office.   Guess what?  Metro's trains were in melt-down.  Does nothing change?   However, for once, I happened to be in the right place at the right time, and along came a train going in the direction I wanted to go, even if crowded.
There are a couple more postings on Istanbul to come, which are waiting for me to sort out the photos.
EDIT:  Router now configured, but it had to be done manually.  For some reason, the "wizard" wouldn't work.    I lost track of how long this took......

24 June 2012

Istanbul Archeological Museums

Our flight out of Istanbul was in the afternoon, so in the morning (while Sue was packing!), I slipped in a quick visit to the Archeological Museums complex.    I was very impressed, including with the buildings themselves in which the collections are housed.     It's a large museum, but most exhibits are clearly and logically displayed.  The wealth of material means that displays of various eras are comprehensive (at least, to the untrained eye).   Amongst other things, there's a large collection of sarcophagi, lots of material from the Anatolia region, a whole building called the Museum of the Ancient Orient (lots of Egyptian material), and detailed sections on Troy and Byzantium/Constantinople/Istanbul over the ages (spanning pre-historic times, as well as both the Greco-Roman and Byzantine eras, plus of course the Ottoman era).
In Museum of Ancient Orient

Having done my preliminary reading of Lord Norwich, a lot of this section fell into place.    Just occasionally, I could detect subtle differences in approach from Lord Norwich, but nothing really major!
Part of the chain used to block the Golden Horn (but possibly Ottoman?)
If you were so inclined,    you could spend days in this museum.   The only minor catch is that it's tucked away, on the side roadway leading up to the Topkapi Palace from near where we were staying (it took us a couple of attempts to find this roadway on the day we visited the Palace).    Perhaps this wasn't the only reason that attendance was very sparse when I visited, but it is a pity that more visitors don't come because even a quick visit was very informative.

23 June 2012

In Transit in Paris

Getting from Istanbul to Melbourne via Paris isn't quite logical, but it's the price we paid for having a stop-over in Paris on the way over.   And at the time we booked, it was the best fare available, and a pretty good one at that.    Subsequently I saw a nearly-as-good fare that would have offered a better route, but especially with air fares, you have to have a "no regrets" policy, and we made our decision based on what was available at the time, taking into account past trends.   So, here we are, with a 2 hour transit in Paris.
Experience has given me a vague idea of the layout of Charles de Gaulle airport (a strange place), but there are always new surprises in store.   Sometimes long distance flights seem to depart from one terminal, sometimes from another.  I don't get it.  Tonight's flight is from terminal 2E - along with 7 other long distance flights, all departing within a few minutes of each other.   The lounge is full, the catering is pretty average, yet at other times (when at this airport) we've ended up at a large lounge in a different terminal with better catering!  And Germany at the time of posting has a 4-1 lead over Greece in the Euro cup football to the general dissatisfaction of most of those around us.   At least the flight is said to be on time and the internet access is working well.
PS - There are a couple of posts on Istanbul yet to come.

22 June 2012

Bosphorus Cruise

Topkapi Palace
Everything we've read said that a Bosphorus cruise is a "must" when in Istanbul.    The question is - which one?   The guidebook referred to a cruise that actually stopped at a couple of villages, but even if we had have been able to find its departure point, the times didn't fit in with our itinerary.    So, this morning (Thursday) we just walked along the wharf, and - no problems - there were guys everywhere offering tours (all at the standard price of 20 TL).   But how to choose one?    The obvious questions were, how long would we have to wait and how long would we get for our money?    These questions having been answered to our satisfaction, we were duly loaded into a mini-bus and transferred a short distance to the departure point.    Our concern about accepting rides from strangers was somewhat lessened by the fact that the mini-bus was full of people from all over, including several locals.   
We all arrived at the departure wharf with our kidneys and wallets intact, and boarded the vessel.   
Cruise ships in port
We then realised that there were a number of other questions that ought to have formed part of our due diligence!    Luck had shined on us, because the boat was a reasonable size and it did have shelter from the sun.  The Turkish music wasn't too loud (and was turned off at prayer times).   It also met the 2 hour duration requirement,  but it wasn't quite as fast as some of the many other boats we saw.   But I think the majority probably only got to the 2nd suspension bridge, as we did.

Dolmabahce Palace

Up-market housing
It was indeed an interesting cruise:   there was a lot to see, including a a number of cruise ships in port,  a couple of palace-type buildings on the banks, several up-market hotels, lots of shipping of a variety of sizes and quite a lot of expensive-looking  housing, particularly on the Asian side.
There was quite a breeze, but our concerns about the water being rough didn't eventuate.
On our return, we took a taxi to the Chora museum with its many frescoes and mosaics, but it will be the subject of a future post.

We leave Istanbul tomorrow, so we now have our final packing to do as well as making transfer arrangements to get us to the airport.   Our experience of Istanbul traffic leads us to the view that one of the shuttle services may be preferable to a taxi!

21 June 2012

Topkapi Palace and Grand Bazaar

Our entry to the Palace was delayed as the band marched out
There were 2 large cruise liners in port today, but we think the crowds at Topkapi Palace would have been there anyway (the tour groups from at least one of the vessels seemed mainly to be arriving as we were leaving).    The "palace" is a series of courtyards, pavillions and sets of chambers. 

The various chambers were devoted to different purposes, such as the Throne Room, the Harem, the Imperial Treasury and the Rooms of the Relics.  So, there's a lot to see, and at times it's necessary to queue.   It took us over 4 hours to see most of it, not including the kitchens which for some reason weren't open. 
One of the courtyards

Entrance to the Harem
Lunchtime view
We had lunch at the rather expensive Konyali cafe (within the Palace), but considered we got our money's worth because of the terrific view of the Bosphorus from the terrace.

Grand Bazaar


We rounded off the afternoon by checking out the Grand  Bazaar.   Does the world really need all the scarves, leather items, gold and silver, dishes, lightshades, shoes and other things on sale here?   Not many of the stores have fixed prices, which means that you need to be confident of the value of an item before starting to bargain about the price. Some courage seems to be in order if you're buying something on the expensive side.

20 June 2012

Hagia Sophia

Of course, on our first morning in Istanbul (Tuesday) we headed off to Hagia Sophia.   Having read a little about it, we were prepared for its size and dimensions, but even so we were awe-inspired by the sheer amount of marble and the ability to see the various well-known mosaics "in the flesh" as it were.  My limited photographic abilities probably don't do justice to it all, but here some of my attempts.
We also visited the nearby Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art and went to the Blue Mosque.   In the evening, we had dinner at one of the many nearby restaurants (yes, tourist-oriented, but nevertheless good), and checked out the night stalls on the Golden Horn near the Galata Bridge.

Blue Mosque

Museum of Turkish & Islamic Arts (Great Hall)

19 June 2012

To Istanbul

After a satisfactory flight from Belgrade to Istanbul on a plane that was less than 20% full (I didn't know that such flights still took place!), some air traffic delays getting into Istanbul and a much higher-than-expected visa-on-arrival fee, we're now established in a modern and comfortable, if slightly squishy, room in Istanbul.
No photos yet, but my initial impression is that the Sultanahmet district depends greatly on tourists, literally from all over the place.  We went for a fascinating walk last night and had a pleasant dinner.    No problems at all about getting a beer to drink, but definitely no bacon on the breakfast buffet.

18 June 2012

Farewell to Belgrade and final reflections

We arrived in Serbia just over 3 weeks ago.    We've been based in Belgrade, but have had good side trips to Bosnia (Banja Luka/Sarajevo/Mostar), Vrnjacka Banja and Kraljevo.   A real highpoint has been our two visits to the Barajevo monastery.   We've been shown great hospitality (especially by Rada, with whom we've been staying), and we've benefited from an exchange rate which has worked in our favour.
We've had warm weather most of the time that we've been here.  The past few days have been well into 30s.   However, on most evenings there's a breeze which is nice.

There's always somewhere to have a drink, and I've noticed one or 2 Maccas.   I'm pleased to report I've seen no sign of Starbucks.  Many cafes have cappuccino on the menu, but what you receive varies.   It's better to consult the menu and - if available - ask for a Nescafe or "expresso with milk".   These are often better than what passes for cappuccino, and sometimes cheaper, too.
New tram (Spanish)

With Sue's language skills (and ability to read cyrillic),  we haven't really tested the ability to survive on English alone.   My assessment is that it would be possible, although a little preparation (such as writing down your destination!) would be in order.    We have encountered many people with excellent English who are very willing to use it, and almost everyone can understand a little but (understandably) are not always confident speaking it.   Restaurant menus (especially in areas where visitors are likely to be) are often available in English.    However, when travelling, it would be helpful to know the cyrillic version of your destination - although signs are usually in latin, there are exceptions!  With a little research, the trams, trolley buses and buses are easy to use in order to get around the city (although regular tram services can be altered at weekends, presumably to allow for upgrading work).

Modern trolley buses

Older tram

The time has now come to move on.  We're off to Istanbul today (Monday) for a few days, and from there will fly home at the end of the week.

For  dinner on our last night, we went to nearby restaurant Lipov Lad.   This was very good indeed, in fact, as good as any meal that we've had here.  Apparently we're not the only ones who like this restaurant, because Vuk Jeremic (well known politician) was at the next table.

I think I'll have internet access in Istanbul, but if this doesn't eventuate, then I guess there will be no blogging for a few days!

17 June 2012

St Sava Temple

Well, the concept of this enormous Church was put forward in 1895, 300 years after the burning of Saint Sava's remains by the Turks, but there have been a number of interruptions since then, including a few wars and the Tito era.     Construction commenced in 1935 and recommenced in earnest in 1985 and the exterior was finished in 2003. However the interior is still not complete, although  some shrines have now been established which means that it is one of the world's largest Orthodox Churches (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_largest_Orthodox_cathedrals).   
It's a basilica or temple, as it's not the seat of a bishop (required for a cathedral).

We went past on Saturday to pay our respects and to check progress, before having a light lunch at a restaurant in the Vračar area, in a pleasant courtyard covered by a 150+ year old plane tree (I'm still trying to track down some more details of the restaurant).


Restaurant in Vračar