Wednesday, September 28, 2011

I have very nice rugs to show you

Istanbul version of bagels and cream cheese
"Where are you from?" That's the lead line that's asked of tourists at least 100 times a day, followed by "Oh, my brother's living in America--in Washington D.C. I have very nice rugs to show you!" or "I live in the United States too--in Florida. I'm here buying antiques. Are you interested in a very nice rug?" Or...and on it goes. But fortunately a little banter in reply or a polite "No, thanks" is all it takes to escape. Until the next guy. And no wonder they are out hawking their wares--there are thousands and thousands of rugs for sale in the shops of the tourist areas and in the bazaars. As we were having lunch today I watched the rug-seller across the street from our table. He got no business in his store; in fact, the only business he was involved in was buying the bagel-like things that street vendors sell in the neighborhood. How does he make his living?

Same applies to restaurants. One tout for the fish restaurant on the corner stands outside all afternoon and evening, imploring passers-by to eat at his restaurant. "Fine rooftop terrace, let me show you the pictures! Best fish in Sultanhamet! Come in, enjoy, we have meat too! Anything you want!" He's a really friendly guy and is always ready to talk to us even though we have given him every excuse in the books for why we are not eating at his restaurant "this time."

No rug? Perhaps a lamp?
Or maybe harem pants?
Despite the constant chatter from the sellers, it's lots of fun to wander around the streets looking at their goods. We ventured into the Grand Bazaar today and left with two lovely cashmere pashminas, which I'm sure we overpaid for, but whatever. I'm wearing one now and it feels great!

We also visited the Spice Market and ogled the mounds of spices, Turkish Delight, tea, and other good things for sale. Had some more pomegranate juice, as I knew we would, on our all-day, 8-mile walk from the old section (Sultanhamet, where we are staying) across the Galata Bridge to the newer part of town, where even more people were crowding the pedestrian-only, modern shopping street that stretches almost from Taksim Square at the top of the hill to the Bosphorus at the bottom.

Pomegranates, the source for fresh juice
On our walk we popped into the centuries-old Galata Tower and climbed to the top for a beautiful view of the old town and the Sea of Marmara beyond. Istanbul has such a gorgeous setting that it rivals our other favorite harbors (Sydney, San Francisco, Hong Kong, New York). Everywhere you look there are interesting scenes. And I love the changing neighborhoods, like New York--the tool-sellers morph into the tile- and lamp-sellers into the cafes into the meat-on-a-pole delis (hard to describe, but they are actually two-foot-high poles of compressed beef, lamb, or chicken that is carved for sandwiches. Does not look that appetizing!) 

View from the Galata Tower
And looking back at the tower from our side
Having visited several mosques in the past couple of days, today we entered one of the most famous former Christian churches in the world, the Hagya Sophia. The vast interior space, crowned by a huge dome, lives up to its reputation. Since it was turned into a mosque a few centuries ago, lots of the original Christian mosaics are covered up, but some have been revealed and they are all the more striking perhaps because of that. The mix of Christian and Islamic religions in one building is kind of cool, in a world peace kind of way. To me, anyway.

Istanbul has a magnificent archaeology museum, with beautifully displayed sarcophogi and statues, so we happily spent the morning there. We arrived about 10 a.m. and had the place almost to ourselves for a while, which was beautiful. 

Tomorrow we leave the city for a flight to Izmir, where we'll spend a couple of nights so we can visit the ruins of Ephesus before driving a rental car south to our lodgings for the month at Villa Maisie in Kas on the Turquoise Coast. We'll return to Istanbul at the end of October and try to squeeze in some more of the sights in this wonderful cosmopolitan city.

Hagya Sophia at night

Monday, September 26, 2011

Istanbul calls

Watching for the Mafia at the Focacceria
We spent Saturday getting from the islands to Palermo, where we stayed again at the friendly Ambasciatori Hotel near the train station. This time they put us in one of their apartments around the corner--lots of room, and quiet with the windows closed, so it was fine with us. We spent the evening dining at the nearby Antica Foccaceria San Francesco, whose claim to fame is that the owner refused to go along with the demands of the mafia for protection/payment. He apparently gets lots of public support for his stand, and the tables were all taken by the time we left.

We woke up the next morning to loud booms--like bombs going off very close to our apartment. It was actually kind of scarey, but there were no sirens after the booms stopped so we figured it was safe to go out. Turned out that they were part of a festival celebration put on by the church in our neighborhood.

We only had a couple of hours before we needed to take the bus to the airport, so rather than attending the religious festival we headed to the Palazzo Normani at the edge of town, where we had seen only a glimpse of the famous mosaics in the Capella Palantina on a previous trip to Palermo, the main portion of the chapel having been covered in scaffolding for restoration. The restoration has now been completed, so we were eager to see the results. Not to be, however: we arrived at the ticket window, the ticket seller told us something (whatever, smile, OK), we bought the expensive tickets (17 euros for the two of us), and we climbed the steps to the entrance. Ropes--no entry. We were directed up the stairs to the palace apartments, so we figured we needed to go there to get to the chapel. Waited in line with a bunch of other people for about 30 minutes, the line behind us growing all the time, but no movement. The man in front of us, who I thought was French, shook his head in disgust. I chimed in, "Italia!" (i.e., that's the way it is in Italy, no?). Oops, he was Italian. "Non," he said, "Sicilia!" He proceeded to tell me (in Italian) that he was from Bologna, up north, and things run smoothly there. Sicily, in contrast, was "Africa...Morocco..."--definitely NOT Italia! Interesting perspective.

Sure looks Italian to me
We never did get to see the chapel--or the apartments, for that matter--because we were apparently in Morocco, where things don't go as planned.
Our Lufthansa flight from Palermo took us to Milan, where we changed planes to Turkish Airlines (their ad spokesman is Kobe Bryant!) and arrived in Istanbul about 10 p.m. on Sunday. Grabbed a cab into the city (35 Turkish lira, about $20) after being hustled by shuttle bus operators, and arrived at our cute little hotel in the Sultanhamet, the heart of the hotel/restaurant/blockbuster sights area. The Sebnem Hotel is nice, with a view from the rooftop terrace overlooking the Bosphorus and the Asian section of Istanbul. We have garden room (about $140 a night) with a double-wide lounge chair on the patio and--get this--a mommy cat and her just-born kittens in the corner of the garden. (The hotel staff didn't know about the kittens until we told them this afternoon.)

Inside the Blue Mosque
The hotel is really convenient to some of the biggest tourist sights in Istanbul, a few of which we visited today, all on foot. Topkapi Palace, including the fascinating harem (no women left!), took about 4 hours to get through, followed by a delicious meze platter of Turkish appetizers for lunch, and an afternoon visit to the Blue Mosque just before it closed for afternoon prayers.

The Cistern

The tile work in all these places is astounding. We also walked down into the evocative underground Cistern with its double Medusa-head columns and then had our first (of many, I'm sure) fresh-squeezed pomegranate juice. So much to see and taste!

I thought we might have some trouble communicating with people since we know absolutely no Turkish (though we're starting to learn a few words already), but it turns out that English is widely spoken here. In fact, all the signs at the tourist sights we've visited are in both Turkish and English. There are a zillion other foreigners here, from all parts of the world, so it's lucky for us that Turkey chose English as the second language it would present information in. And everyone in tourist-facing businesses (restaurants, rug sellers, taxi drivers) seems to speak English in some format or another, making Istanbul a very easy place to navigate. (No thanks, we don't want to buy a rug from you today. Maybe tomorrow.) It will be interesting to see how much this extends to the other parts of Turkey we'll be in over the course of this month.
Hagya Sofia

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Pollara, another possible There

Another storm blew in a couple of nights ago and completely cleared the air, leaving everything just sparkling. Sweater weather! We are hoping the white-capped sea calms down before we have to leave on Saturday—the folks who run the hydrofoils and ferries are pretty particular about what kind of weather they run their boats in. Last May we sat in Milazzo on mainland Sicily for two days while we waited for the boats to the islands to start running again after a big storm. On Saturday we have to get to Milazzo and then on to Palermo in time for our flight to Milan and Istanbul. Oh well, no worries. We'll get somewhere, sometime.

Pollara is our new favorite place, another candidate for “There” for sure. It’s at the bottom of steep cliffs and is serviced by an hourly bus that stops running for lunch (the drivers break from 2:00 to 4:00) and for the night at 8:00 p.m. So that leaves the place pretty isolated. There are probably 25 houses sprinkled along the plateau above the sea, along with zillions of caper vines, grapes, bougainvillea, fennel, rosemary, cactus, and a bunch of other dry-tropics plants. 

There’s one business in town – L’Oasi – a little shack that serves drinks and Italian sandwiches (well, we didn’t really expect Chinese food, did we?), which we have frequented at least once every day. Today we’re going to have lunch there. Italian sandwiches, what else?

The Oasis--the only game in town
Other than that, there’s the sound of the sea and the wind to keep us entertained. The dog network (one barks and they all start barking). The lone gunman who shoots his gun a couple of times a day—where? At what? We only hear it, never have seen it. Watch the geckos catch bugs at night. Stare at the sunset. Walk down to the beach. Peer at the Aeolian-style houses. Love the sturdy columns and the reed roofs on the verandas. It’s a  pretty awesome place.

Some of the granite choices
Yesterday we took the bus to the other end of the island, a village called Lingua, where Da Alfredo’s coffee and granite bar serves the best granite in the vicinity—everybody recommends it. We had our standard limone, which I order every time because (1) it’s fantastic and (2) I always wish I had ordered it if I order something else. But maybe next time we visit Da Alfredo I’ll break out and try something else. Maybe peach, which is in season here right now and should be delicious.

Da Alfredo is also the best restaurant on the island, so we settled in there for a wonderful afternoon meal. We were happy to pay a little more than usual (100 euros for the two of us) for something different from the standard Sicilian fare, and it was worth describing in a little detail. 
Tuna with fennel and orange peel
We shared a carpaccio trio for an appetizer—little mounds of tuna with fennel and orange peel, prawns with capers and something else, and amberjack (a type of local fish) with salt crystals and mint. I’m not usually a fan of raw prawns, but these were perfectly prepared and delicious. And I finally got some good tuna! Sushi grade, for sure. The mounds were served on big pieces of slate—very chi chi. I followed that with a wide, tube-shaped pasta with ground up calamari (tasted like sausage from the sea), pistachios, and a light pesto sauce, and John had amberjack in a light sauce of Sicilian red wine and other stuff. A side order of eggplant and zucchini caponata, with a sweet-and-sour taste reminiscent of good Chinese sweet-and-sour, local white wine, sparkling water, and espresso rounded out the meal. I could get used to eating well!

Pesto, pistacchio, and ground calamari over tube pasta

Amberjack in red wine
We also came across an interesting cultural event in Malfa, the town over the hill from us (where we spent a week last year). There’s a little international documentary film festival going on there this week, and it's free. It has drawn a different crowd (if you can call 100 people a crowd) than the usual denizens of sleepy Malfa. Lots of grungy jeans, scarves wrapped around necks (on both men and women), slouchy artiste clothes. Women wearing jewelry. We walked by the entrance to the theater just before the first film of the festival started so were luckily able to take it in – it was a film about the members of a gang in Milan called Latin King. The dialogue was all in Italian (naturally), but we could follow it in general terms. Will try to catch another film tomorrow and get another Italian infusion.I have some thoughts on traveling in a country where you don’t really speak the language, but I’ll save them for another time.
The Pollara church. Open on Sundays.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Salina, and I don't mean Kansas

The first storm the area has seen in four months is upon us. We're in Salina (one more island in the Aeolian Island chain) and have had 19 days of brilliant sunshine, so this is quite a change--but it should be sunny again by tomorrow. The winds are blowing, the sea is churning, and the brilliant pink bougainvillea blossoms are swirling like little whirlwinds. But the temperature is still a pleasant 75, so we're enjoying it all. Salina is the largest of all the Aeolian Islands, with six small towns scattered around, and has the most interesting vegetation.

Filicudi from Pollara
The enclosed open-air sitting room
 We arrived here by hydrofoil of Saturday and took a taxi to across the island to the hamlet of Pollara, where we found the restored farmhouse we are staying in for the week. It's perfectly situated overlooking the sea, and the views are glorious as the sun sets over the island of Filicudi in the distance.

The kitchen
The house was restored by a friendly architect who speaks a little English and lives with his wife in the main section--our quarters are on one side, with a separate entrance. We have a kitchen/dining area (with a couple of spare single beds), an enclosed outdoor sitting room with a roof of reeds, a small bathroom, and an upstairs bedroom that is accessible by a steep, ladder-like set of 12 steps. The bedroom is my favorite part of the house; with its big bed and large square window looking out onto the sea, it is a haven for relaxation. The white stucco walls of the house are very thick, so I can get Internet access only when I'm sitting outside.

Pollara has the most idyllic cove for swimming, backed by towering layered cliffs that go straight down from the plateau where all the houses sit. The beach is a steep walk down switchback stairs, but once you get there it's absolutely beautiful. (This was the location for the beach scenes in the film "Il Postino," and the house that Pablo Neruda lived in in the movie is hidden away just above the beach.)

Vulcano mudbath girl
 Before we left Lipari we took a couple of other boat trips. The first was a hydrofoil ride to Vulcano, which is a kind of crazy island complete with an active volcanic crater (just smoke, no fire) and its own outdoor volcanic mudbath. The mud is sulfurous and smelly, and didn't look too appealing, though plenty of people were wallowing away in it. You get the sense of being at an informal spa as you wander around the island to the pretty swimming beach.

Il Capitano steers with his feet
Yes, I am addicted to swimming in the Mediterranean Sea. Another trip was on a smaller private boat to the distant islands of Filicudi and Alicudi, where we had five opportunities to swim in coves where the boat docked. Awesome! The best place was the eponymous Blue Grotto, which definitely lives up to its name. What a fantastic swim that was. The Mediterranean is extra salty--at least in this area--so you can float and bob all day without hardly moving a muscle. The water temperature is perfect--just cool enough to be refreshing.

Swimming at the Blue Grotto

At this time of the year our farmhouse costs only $400 euros for the week, really a bargain. For another 18 euros a day we can rent a motorbike from the architect, so we did that yesterday. We've only ridden motorbikes once before (Vespas in Bermuda, years ago) and had never ridden tandem, so it was a bit tense at first, but we soon got the hang of it--John driving and me hanging on in back. The mountain roads we went on couldn't have been more twisty. Fortunately, the bike came with sturdy helmets in case of a spill. It was a lot of fun but I think we'll stick with the local bus for the rest of the week!

We motored over the hill to the small beach town of Rinella, where we joined the locals eating Sunday afternoon lunch at a restaurant overlooking the little harbor. Dish of the day was "spaghetti with fish"--a platter of spaghetti cooked in the local style (capers, tomatoes, garlic, olive oil, basil) with a delicious whole fish, accompanied by eggplant caponata and Messina, the local beer. Way too much for the two of us to eat, but really nice. 

Just five more days here in the islands and then it's on to Turkey for five weeks. Will miss the Aeolis!

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Lively Lipari

Where Panarea is dreamy and very quiet outside of August (only about 350 full-time residents), the island of Lipari is a bustling center of activity for the 9,000+ people who live here and the hundreds of tourists who flock here from all over the world. The main town (also named Lipari) is full of shops, cafes, bars, restaurants, and agents for the private boat companies that organize tours to the other islands. About the only time it's really quiet is between 1:00 and 4:00 in the afternoon, when all the shops close down for their break during the hottest time of the day.

Lipari harbor

We are staying smack in the center of Lipari town, down a little alley and around the corner from the main commercial street (even it is mostly pedestrian-only), in a nice little B&B run by a woman from South Africa, Diana Brown, and her Italian husband. Our top-floor apartment (only 26 steps to climb as opposed to the 100 in Panarea) has a small open-air kitchen, a sunny deck with lounge chairs, and the standard tiny Italian shower.

Our deck and dryer
Since it's right in the middle of an urban neighborhood, the colorful sounds of Italians living their daily lives in the surrounding houses are always entertaining, even when we don't know exactly what they're saying (maybe it's better that way).

We even get to join in the daily ritual of hanging our laundry out to dry on the lines above the street--now I really feel Sicilian.

The clothespin is a Sicilian's greatest asset

The bus situation here is kind of funny. There's a really good road that goes all the way around the island and buses could easily make a circular route, but for some reason there are two bus routes--one that goes halfway around, clockwise, to Quattropani (1.70 euros), and the other that goes a third of the way around, counterclockwise, to Aquacalda (1.55 euros). To connect between the two for the full circuit you have to walk 3 miles from the end of the first route to the end of the second route! I'm sure somebody's benefiting (taxi drivers?) from this crazy setup, but it's not the passenger.

John on the road to Aquacalda, Salina in the background
We did the full circuit (bus, walk, bus) this morning while the weather was still fairly cool, and it turned out to be a fun walk with beautiful views across the sea to the island of Salina (where we will be staying next week). All downhill, much to my delight. When we arrived at Aquacalda we rewarded ourselves with our first gelatos of the trip (strachiatelli [chocolate chip] for me and nocciolo [hazelnut] for John) as we waited for the counterclockwise bus to pick us up.

On our walk we saw an interesting company working on the roadside, securing metal netting to prevent landslides-- "Vertical Workers." The picture looks like they're Navy Seals or CIA machine-gunners on ropes, but in reality they're just using power tools to drill into the rock.
Mostly we have been cooking at the apartment (pasta, pasta, pasta) but last night we ate out at a very cool restaurant, L'Anfora, nestled in one of the narrow alleys near the port. The restaurant's tables are lined up at the end of the alley, and to get to them you get to walk by the laundry drying on little racks outside people's homes.
L'Anfora restaurant, in the alley

The meal included a small souffle of ricotta, shrimp, and spring onions; a caprese salad with delicious homegrown tomatoes and to-die-for fresh buffalo mozzarella, a risotto with zucchini flowers and more shrimps, and tuna on a bed of arugula with a balsamic reduction sauce. We loved everything but the tuna, which was plentiful but just adequate. Note to self: next time you feel like ordering tuna and you're not in Japan or the coastal United States, order something else instead!

It's easy to get to the other islands from Lipari--both public hydrofoils and private excursion boats are constantly plying the waters.

No climb for you!
We made one full-day trip back to Panarea and Stromboli, mostly for the chance to swim at locations only boats can get to (fantastic swimming!) and to view the volcano erupting at night--currently accessible only from the water because the trail to the summit is closed, much to John's dismay.

He had plans to climb Stromboli but has had to put them on hold because the climb is too dangerous while the volcano is so active.

We had a good view from the boat, though it's almost impossible to capture it in pictures with my little camera.

Stromboli erupting at night
Before we leave Lipari on Saturday (for Salina), we will take boat trips to three other islands--the remote Alicudi (no vehicles on the island--donkeys only--and less than 100 full-time residents), Filicudi, and Vulcano. When we're not boating around to the other islands we have enjoyed walking the streets and alleys of Lipari, where there's always something interesting to come across, like the murals in one little neighborhood:


Or the guy selling fresh fish from a truck on the main street

Or the posters announcing the funeral arrangements for local residents. 

Or, on a happier note, the tub races in Marina Corta, the harbor for excursion boats and private craft.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Happily doing little in Panarea

Panarea is such a glorious place just to be, it's difficult to get motivated to do anything besides take it all in. We have, however, managed to undertake a few small things while we've been here.

Each morning we take the 20-minute walk into the village for a cappucino (with a glass of sparkling water on the side) at an outdoor cafe at the port, where we watch the local scene: Electric taxis get themselves into place to meet the incoming boats. A few dogs check out each other and their favorite smelling spots. The occasional hydrofoil loads and unloads passengers and supplies for local markets.
Women in beach coverups and men in shorts and t-shirts wandering around, sometimes greeting each other with air kisses.

We stroll through the narrow lanes of the village, admiring the brilliant white buildings and red and orange flowers against the shockingly blue sky.


John hiked around the island (I stayed in bed) early one morning before it got too hot--it was a 3-hour hike up the ridge behind the village and along the spine of the mountain that constitutes Panarea. By 10 a.m. it's too hot in the sun (90+ degrees) to do much of anything except find a shady place to cool down. This week the temperature in the shade has been in the low 80s, really nice if you're not moving.

We had drinks on our anniversary (#42) on an astoundingly beautiful patio overlooking the sea and the hunky rock islands off Panarea, watching the sky change colors and the almost-full-moon rise. That same night we ate dinner at Da Francesca, the restaurant favored by the owner of our cottage, and watched the volcanic eruptions high on Stromboli, an active volcano just 10 miles away. Evenings in "downtown" Panarea are beautiful, with everyone enjoying the cooler temperature (mid-70s) and the relaxed ambience of the bars and restaurants.
On the dock, Stromboli in the distance

Yesterday we took the boat to Stromboli, walked through its pretty lanes, spent some time on one of the beautiful black-sand volcanic beaches, and had pizza for lunch at a terrace restaurant overlooking the town and the sea before heading back to Panarea.

lava beach

We hosted the owners of our cottage and the young Italians who are staying in the apartment in our compound for drinks and hors d'oeuvres on our upper terrace as evening fell--turned out to be a spectacular evening and lots of fun (+ 3 new Facebook friends). We got to learn about the Italian school system and a restaurant in Palermo that is NOT connected to the Mafia, among other topics.

Every day we go to the beach in the late afternoon to get a little sun and swim in the balmy Mediterranean waters. There's a small sandy beach about a 10-minute walk from our house that is really cooling, and a stony beach another 10 minutes beyond. But please, why do older women wear bikinis? In fact, 95 percent the women on the beach wear bikinis, and 95 percent of them look terrible. (Not too many men look any better in their skimpy suits.) Not much toplessness here in Panarea, unlike in France.
I wear a one-piece

We spend the late evenings on our terrace watching the boats and gazing across the sea to Lipari, Vulcano, the Sicilian coast, and Calabria on the Italian mainland--last night we even saw Mount Etna  spewing its steamy clouds.

We're really going to miss almost perfect Panarea when we leave tomorrow for a week in Lipari, but maybe I'll have something more exciting to report from the capital of the Aeolian Islands.