Monday, November 26, 2012

Istanbul 5 - Sultan Ahmet's Hagia Sophia

It is not as old or as historic as its rivaling 'Hagia Sophia' but like the grand building it stands facing, Sultan ahmet mosque popularly called 'the blue mosque' is the dream of an emperor, his highest aspiration, standing out like the solitaire bedecked in a ring amongst its contemporaries.

Its victory stroke is that it is not dead yet. Its spacious halls, glistening ceramics and chandeliers hanging from sky high ceilings are all alive with the prayers of many believers that knock on its doors and kneel on its floors. While outsiders to the faith queue infront of its majestic doors, waiting for their turn in its grand courtyard examining its galleries. 

When the clock bids and the devotees depart, the vistors enter eagerly. Failing to mimic the order of the believers, the visitors totter around in deference holding their shoes in plastic bags, admiring the mosque and appreciating the delicate carving at the mihrab from a distance. After a few minutes of silence, pictures and videos, visitors make a quiet exit into the courtyard. 

There are six elegant minarets from where the call for prayers is made five times a day, nine mighty domes that reverberate with devotion, the 260 windows that let in the light and 20,000 blue tiles fitted on its ceilings - all tell the story of four hundred years that it has been standing for. 

The central hall is lit with 260 windows
The mosque stands proudly in the center of Istanbul adjacent to the ancient HippodromeCommissioned by Sultan Ahmet, it was to be his response to Justinian's Hagia Sophia. The ambitious sultan demolished the last few remnants of the Great Palace of Byzantine to make place for his ambitious project at the chosen spot. Although built in seven years, even after four centuries the mosque is by no means an old building. It is constantly restored to its old glory.  

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Greece 1- 7 Greek must eats in Crete and Santorini

How do you review a restaurant in a place where all restaurant serve great food. There is no such thing as a bad meal here. Sit down restaurants serve great plates of food with on the house dessert liqueur and bites of dessert at the end of the meal, the fast food options mean no compromise in taste but great savings for the pockets and even on the go meals are surprising delights. Here 7 new dishes to prepare your palette before Greece trip.

Meditating upon food
Spinach pieGreece sleeps late and wakes up late. If you got out in search to feed the morning hunger, the only shops that will be open are bakeries. In bakeries, the freshest are piles of spinach pie laid out in baking trays. Spinach pie or spanakopita will be your typical morning breakfast for as long as you are in Greece. It will be cheap - for Euro 2, fresh and omni present on your entire vacation.

Fava dip - This is a warm dip made from boiled fava lentils, blended with olive oil, onions and garlic. It is a perfect light and healthy starter to a meal.

Beetroot Salad - A meal replacement when you are hopping islands in Greece. The quality of food in Greece is never lousy. I had a salad when packing a little before a flight and it is a salad I have tried to recreate in my kitchen several times over.

Gemista - Greek rice cooked in a special mix of Greek spices stuffed into red peppers and tomatoes is a perfect light vegan meal option.  

Gyros - This is a take away cheap fast food option of the Greek kitchen. Shavings of Donner kebabs with a blob of tzatziki (a yoghurt dressing), chips and salad wrapped in a pita bread. It is cheap, you have an option of chicken or pork and you find it everywhere.

Chicken Soulvaki - Pieces of chicken marinated in lemon, garlic and olive oil grilled on skewers served with rice and/or chips and/or salad.

Chicken Soulvaki with Rice 

Dakos - Crudely putting it, a plate of Dakos looks like 'Greek Bruschetta'. In reality the bread underneath is tougher to bite into, the tomato sauce is relatively under done (not done at all) almost like tomato juice and there is a huge layer of myzithra cheese slapped on the top.  The result is three different flavors coming together in your mouth.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

My 5 unforgettable cups of coffees ever!

In a pursuit of wonderful moments, panoramic scenery and life-changing experiences, we go travel. Longing for moments when we sit face to face with a great view that makes us stop everything, hold our breaths and steal moments of our busy lives and stay a little longer. And when you find these views and you want soak them in your memory and sip a great cup of coffee. 

What I have learnt is that a great cup of coffee cannot be the one where the question of size is asked - it is not "tall," "grande," and "venti". It could be a flat white, cappuccino, macchiato, Americano or just black coffee with milk. It is never 'to go'. It is always to stay and it is a cup that you want to keep sipping out of forever.

Wonderful pastries breakfast with cappuccino, in Manarola

 This is my favorite cup of coffee ever. I took this on my first trip to Italy, my first trip to Europe! I sat in one of the many coffee shops facing Pantheon and thought what a blessing it was to be able to travel. I was in love with Rick Steve's back then. Me and him were inseparable. Today its a different story though.


My little balcony in Manarola, one of the five cliff hugging villages of Cinque Terre in Italy.

View of the Ligurian Sea

This is a little cafe on the hike up to the Schilthorn in Switzerland. With the breath taking views of the alps and cool September air, coffee tastes better after you have climbed up a height and are  looking into the faces of tall mountains, when you have walked many miles and have a couple more to go and when you are very tired but can give it a little more to go all the way up. 

Views of the alps

My first lone trip ever to Mussorie while I was in college. This was one of my first photographs I ever clicked. This one was taken at a little canteen by the famous Kempty falls of Mussorie.

Kempty Falls, Mussorrie

This picture was taken at the coast of England. It was cold, windy, cloudy and also very lonely at four in the evening. We were lucky to find a little coffee place for a warm cup of coffee.

Seaford, UK

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Swiss 2 - Matterhorn Glacier Paradise

So often you just stumble upon great things without much research. After an idle day in Zermatt and comparing how the area fell short of Bernese Oberland, I wondered what else to do. I decided to the cable car to the top of the Klein Matterhorn - To Matterhorn Glacier Paradise

Views from the top
The Klein Matterhorn (Little Matterhorn) is the highest point in the Zermatt-Cervinia ski area in Switzerland. It is also the highest cable car serviced summit in Europe.

Cross at the Matterhorn Glacier Paradise
The cable car to the top of the Matterhorn is the highest cable car in Europe. 
Sheets of ice cover the mountain top

The peak is at 3,883 metres with the cable car terminal at 3,820 metres.

There are three stages in the journey to the top of the summit with journey time of 50 mins on each side.

From the top you can get views of Italy. On a clear day even Mont Blanc - the tallest mountain in Alps is visible. The day I went was not that day.

It costs about CHF 64 to get to the top or CHF 32 if you hold a Swiss pass, but the money charged is worth every penny.

Other posts on Switzerland:

Swiss 1 - 5 reasons why Switzerland is the perfect world

Swiss 1 - 5 reasons why Switzerland is the perfect world

There is something about Switzerland that makes me break my rule "no country twice unless all country once". I have been to Switzerland thrice in the past one year and I can't wait to return. My ultimate wish is to retire amongst the green pastures of the Alpine country hearing the chiming of cow bells and climbing up and down its many mountains - my only doubt is if I can live up to the Swiss standard of life. Here are the five things that make Switzerland the perfect world -

1. Cleanliness - The country is spotless and immaculately clean. The Swiss are obsessed with cleanliness. You can see people vacuuming the outside of their houses and scrubbing clean everything that is visible to the eye. With an environmental performance index (EPI) of 95.5, this European country ranks first in cleanliness.

 2. Robust Public Transportation - A dense network of railroads, buses, tramway lines and even boats operate on a systematic timetable allowing you to reach almost anywhere in Switzerland once per hour. In most cases one ticket is enough for a journey even if numerous railway, bus and ship operators are involved. Switzerland has the highest train density in Europe, a higher proportion of the population uses public transport and they travel longer distances than in any other country except Japan. They work with the goals of 95% arrivals with less than 5 minutes delay and 75% with less than 1 minute delay which are regularly achieved.

3. Hiking Paths - There is no end to hiking trails in Switzerland totalling a 66,200 kms. The best thing is that hiking paths are signposted with direction, distance and time to destinations. You can keep walking into the alps and always find your way back. The Roads are so well-marked that you can never get lost in the alps.

4. Natural Beauty - Switzerland is blessed with unparalleled natural beauty. Is that cliche? Yes! But how else do I describe the tall mountains covered with the lush green and beautiful cities nestled by lakes with gorgeous cathedrals and cuckoo clocks.

5. Efficiency and Quality - Precision, efficiency and quality are the principles that run the Swiss life. Swiss watches, Swiss Knives Swiss chocolates, Swiss cheeses - the "Swiss" is now a brand name in its own right. Trains leave and get everywhere on time. The hotels are clean. The food is good. The procedures are clear and well-defined. Everything in this country moves according to a plan with a clear sense of purpose. All in all there is no such thing as "shoddy", "clumsy" or "cheap" in this country. Being in Switzerland feels like being in a big five star hotel.

Other posts:

Swiss 2 - Matterhorn Glacier Paradise

Swiss 2 - Matterhorn Glacier Paradise

5 things NOT to pack when taking a career break

Taking a career break is exciting but when the day of packing approaches the daunting prospects leaving or even discarding things that you have gathered and lived with can be unnerving. As I wrap up my bearings in the city of London, here are five things I am not packing with me:

5. My television set - The biggest comfort of home is to be able to jump on that couch with a tub of popcorn and eat and watch and watch and eat. And, I can't take my television set with me. Someone thinks my couch potato days are over. But, I am carrying a portable projector instead with me.

4. My favorite teddy bear - The warmest hug, solid shoulder to cry on and the comfort of hard times - my teddy bear will have to be left behind. May be I can sneak him in...

3. My Business Suits - I am happiest about this. My formal wear is not coming with me. There is no room for it and there is no occasion for it. A career break that involves business suits is not really a career break. Find another name for it.

2. My books - This is probably late but you should have stopped buying books about an year ago if you are taking a career break anytime soon. Much as you like reading, you can't carry tonnes of books around with you. Get an e-book reader instead or find second hand book markets in the places you travel.

1. My fancy shoes - High Heeled shoes are doing you no good if your career break is about climbing mountains and trekking the globe. That make up box is not going either. And my many lovely jackets? You can pick one or two - the remaining ones are to be packed and saved for another day. What about the lovely bags? I know you have tonnes of them...but what you really need now is a comfort of a back pack the has loads of pockets and is easy to carry around.

I am a minimalist anyways so I am really glad about this opportunity where I can throw away things that I really don't need. What are the things that you are leaving behind?

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

4 Fascinating City Bloggers you must check out

Nowadays, a brigade of bloggers patrols every major city documenting the everyday life in its streets. City bloggers go around searching through the nook and corners of their home cities to find the unique flavors, colors, cultures and histories of their city in a way a static. It is so exciting to see how these multi-talented people couple their writing skills with photography to put life in the seemingly mundane, everyday places of a city. With each passing day they add dimensions to their city taking it beyond a ten point itinerary of popular hang outs in a way guidebooks and travel websites never could. They change the face of static 'to-do' of a city into a vibrant 'take a pick' palette. Whether you are a traveling on your next trip to one of their cities or a blogger seeking inspiration or just in need of some reading pleasure, here are five blogs that never fall short of ideas and places:
  • Delhiwalla: He is unrelenting, unebbing with his enthusiasm that finds something new in the city that he has been writing for over five years and he has even published books. He makes me see how little I know about the city I have grown up in. 
  • New York Daily Photo - This blog reveals to outsiders the city of New York as it is for the locals. Lots of pictures, great personal experiences and loads of video clips give this blog a personal feel.
  • Istanbul Eats - There is no better combination than Istanbul and food and when you add expertise and depth to it you would get something like Istanbul Eats. A treat to read.
  • Tired of London Tired of Life - Honest confession, I am not a lover of London. But this person is amazing with his suggestions. He makes one a day and it is a huge credit to both the blogger and the city that he is able come up with one thing a day for four years now.   
Do you have blog about a city or is there a blog about a city you love and follow regularly. Tell me about it.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Five tips to get the most from your museum visit

Here are my five tips to get the most out of your visit to any museum:

1. Research the museum - Visit the museum website before hand to know the greatest treasures housed. By researching you know the timings, late hour openings, free tours, best exhibits, new exhibitions, facilities etc. These details are very helpful in planning your trip. Every museum in Chicago runs a free day and it is always on those days that I visited the museum. I practically visited every museum in Chicago for free.
Queues at The Louvre, Paris

2. Get a map before hand - Whether you get it with your ticket or buy it for a couple of bucks, it is most important thing to get the worth of your ticket and time. Without a map you may be just re-discovering the museum items all over again, stumbling upon them and missing some of the ones you may have seen.
Chicago Art Museum

3. Get a guide - An audio guide is my best friend in a museum. I sometime wish there were audio guides and numbers all around a new city I visit so that the process of learning about new things becomes easy. An audio guide tells me which things are the most important finds or items of display. I may miss everything else but I do not miss those described in an audio guide.
Seals from Indus Valley Civilizations, on display in British Museum

4. Know what interests you - A museum can have a huge collection. No matter how ample or little the time on hand is, you cannot see everything in one visit. So, decide the areas that seem most interesting to you and focus on those to get the most of your visit.

Harley Davidson Museum, Milwaukee

5. Take back five things from the museum - This does not mean pick up and walk away with items! The truth is nothing disappoints me more than walking for hours in a museum and not remembering a single thing I saw there after returning home. Now, I simply a five item rule. I make a mental note of five things that impressed me the most in a museum and return home and research it.

Vikram's favorite museum pose

My husband gets really bored in a museum because the task of seeing and retaining so much information can be daunting. Looking at him I made a simple rule for both of us, 'we do not aim at seeing everything and we do not aim at remembering everything we saw.' Keep it simple. It is after all fun.

Photo Essay: Making of a Jalebi (quite literally)

You may have seen this a 100 times! Running to the corner shop to get an evening fill of freshly fried snacks and standing for minutes as the halwaai completes the process of the writing on the oil creating jalebis out of pale white batter and also frying away the samosas on the side (i.e. if you have guests for tea).

Here are a few pictures I took at a stall in Mussorie, India of Jalebis and some facts I learnt along the way.

The origin of Jalebi are found in ancient India when it was referred to as Kundalika or Jall-vallika.
Semi-solid batter is filled in a muslin cloth with a little hole in it
Overtime, Jall-vallika became jalebi.
The cloth is held like a bag and the holder pushes down the batter through the tiny hole
The earliest mention of the dish is in 13th century cookbook.
Here are some typical shapes drawn out of batter

The dish has spread through most of South Asia and parts of Middle East.
Fry away the Jalebi
The dish can be enjoyed with curd. Left over evening snacks can be enjoyed with a glass of hot milk before going to bed.
These are not ready yet: The Jalebis are dipped in a sugar syrup

Jalebis are best served hot

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Istanbul 4 - Watching Turkish Dance in Istanbul

Hagia Sophia, Ottoman Palace, Baklava, hhmmmmn, Bosphorus...hmmmmmn mezze...the bazaars... All done. Well done! What else now?

"Belly about full blown Turkish cultural Hodga Pasha" I proposed to my friends. "Well, we could consider it," was the response. The truth I already knew. The final decision was going to be mine. But I was the one who thought longest and hardest about spending 60 Turkish Lira for a dance that could turn out touristy, tacky, badly coordinated. It was a game of 'should I?' or 'should I not?' I played around with the idea and kept the decision for later not committing to either going or not going. After miles of walk around the historical lanes of Istanbul our spirits were more energized. The museums are closed, the bazaars have shut, the sun is down. Two drinks and many food plates later, what do we do now? "How about the dance show you mentioned?" on in the company said. "Oh okay. Let's go." And that's how I went along with my party to Hodga Pasha Cultural Center for the Turkish Dance show.

Watch this little clip about the dances and my review on it.

Do I recommend one of the cultural dance shows that get advertised online or in the tourist quarters of Istanbul. Yes! Yes! Yes! I highly recommend the show that I have been to - The Hodga Pasha Dance Show. It is phenomenal! Turkish dance, soulful music, great musicians - you will not believe the value you will get from this one. In fact, you will forget all about money - you will be lost in the dance and music. My only regret is that life is not as colorful, joyful and soulful as was this dance and music show. It was my last evening in Sunday and now very memorable. My only advice is - don't miss it.

Istanbul 3 - Seven items to look for in Istanbul's Archaeological museum

The Istanbul Archaeological museums consist of three buildings with three museums – Archaeological Museum, Ancient Orient Museum, Tiled Kiosk Museum. The former two were built in 1891. The tiled kiosk however dates back to 1473. Here are a seven items in Archaeological Museum and Ancient Orient Museum of Istanbul to look out for:

1. Treaty of Kadesh - It is the oldest peace treaty dating to 13th century BC a copy of which hangs at the UN headquarters. The treaty was agreed upon between Egyptian and the Hittite dynasty after the battle of Kadesh known to be the biggest wars of  

2. Lions of Ishtar Gate - The Istanbul Archaeology Museum houses lions, bulls and dragons from the Ishtar gate of Babylon dedicated to Goddess of Ishtar. It was the 9th gate in the ancient city of Babylon constructed in about 575 BC by order of King Nebuchadnezzar II. Through the gate ran the Processional Way which was 180 m long and on each side were placed 60 lions each made of glazed bricks. Some of these lions are now in the museum of Istanbul. But most of them are in Berlin where the Ishtar gate has been reconstructed in the Pergamon museum.

The Lions of Ishtar gate

3. Oldest Love Poem - 8th Century BC inscription on a tablet from the ancient Babylonian times. The king was required to marry a priestess every year for the fertility of soil and women. The poem is said to have been written by a bride for the king. Shuu Sinn.

A cuneiform Tablet
Here is the translation of the poem from Istanbul Archaeological Museum: 
“Bridegroom, dear to my heart,
Goodly is your beauty, honeysweet,
Lion, dear to my heart,
Goodly is your beauty, honeysweet.
Bridegroom, let me caress you,
My precious caress is more savory than honey,
In the bedchamber, honey-filled,
Let me enjoy your goodly beauty,
Lion, let me caress you,
My precious caress is more savory than honey.
Bridegroom, you have taken your pleasure of me,
Tell my mother, she will give you delicacies,
My father, he will give you gifts.
You, because you love me,
Give me pray of your caresses,
My lord god, my lord protector,
My SHU-SIN, who gladdens ENLIL's heart,
Give my pray of your caresses”

4. Code of Hammurabi – Hammurabi’s code dating back to 1772 BC is one of the first written codes of law in history. Hammurabi was 6th king of the 11 kings of an old Babylonian dynasty. He is known for having produced the first ever written code of law. The complete code of Hammurabi with 282 laws is inscribed on 2.25 meters long stele now in Louvre museum. However, the Istanbul museum houses a smaller tablet used in schools and offices dating to 1750 BC. 

5. Gezer Calendar - The Gezer calendar is a 10th century BCE inscribed limestone tablet discovered in excavations of the ancient Canaanite city of Gezer, west of Jerusalem, Israel. It is one of the earliest calendars and one of the oldest examples of Hebrew writings.

6. Sarcophagus of Alexander - The Alexander Sarcophagus is one of four massive carved sarcophagi that were discovered during the excavations at the necropolis, Lebanon in 1887.  Though it is called the Alexander Sarcophagus, in fact, it does not belong to Alexander the Great. It is thought to be the sarcophagus of Abdalonymus, the king of Sidon. Another Sarcophagus of crying woman with 18 women mourning belongs to the 4th century BC.
Sarcophagus of Alexander - Not his sarcophagus, though 

7. The bust of Alexander the great – The head of the Alexander dated 2nd century BC excavated close to Pergamon is displayed.
Head of Alexander dated 2nd century BC

If you have indeed reached the end of the post, I will also suggest three displays that I enjoyed a lot:

  1. ·      Archives of Cuneiform documents: Tablet Archive containing 75,000 cuneiform documents is housed in the museum. Cuneiform is one of oldest forms of writing developed around 30th century BC. This is where you find the oldest love poem and the code of Hammurabi
  2. ·      Royal Necropolis of Sidon – This room houses a collection of Sarcophagus excavated at Sidon in Lebanon. Here are displayed the Alexander Sarcophagus, the Lycian tomb and the Sarcophagus of the Crying Women.
  3. ·      Istanbul through the ages – After visiting Hagia Sophia you tend to wonder what Istanbul was like in Byzantine times. This display gives you a window into Constantinople of the Byzantine empire.


Istanbul 2 - The Hagia Sophia

The Grand Hagia Sophia - The Church of Holy Wisdom

Istanbul stands in the center of the two continents and in the center of Istanbul stands the grand Hagia Sophia. Hagia Sophias has been described as the 'architectural wonder' - the gem of the Byzantine empire, later the proud possession of the Ottomans and now the symbol of secular Turkey. The building has stood at the heart of the empire that laid claim on it. 

Justinian's word still ring in the columns of Hagia Sophia, "My Lord, thank you for giving me chance to create such a worshipping place." Pleased of his finest creation, he said proudly, "S├╝leyman, I beat you." At the spot where two previous churches each ravaged by riots and fire, the Emperor ordered the building of Hagia Sophia in 532 AD. Completed within 6 years, Hagia Sophia was the crowning glory of Byzantine empire. 

 Such was the allure of Hagia Sophia that when Mehmet, the conqueror entered victorious into the city of Constantinople his first stop was the church of Hagia Sophia. A muslim priest was called in to read to Shahada and the Eastern Orthodox Cathedral that stood for 1000 years was now a mosque. There onwards, the grand structure of Sophia Hagia inspired the many other mosques built in Istanbul during the Ottoman rein, all looking like the prodigies of Hagia Sophia

When Kemal Ataturk secularized Turkey, he converted Aya Sophia into a museum opening its doors to all sending out the message that Hagia Sophia was indeed a heritage of the world. 

Even though the building is not an official place of worship, it continues to be contested upon by the Islamists and the Greek Orthodox Christians. For a traveler, like myself, the building is an awe-inspiring grandeur that has a spirit of its own - unfallen, untarnished, unbeaten. We are the privileged ones who can see the images of Virgin Mary at the altar of what was the Christianity's grandest cathedral for 1000 years alongside the Mihrab for believers who prayed here for 500 years. The tracks of Byzantine emperors throne with the Ottoman Sultan's lodge, the giant calligraphic panels hanging from the pillars with the mosaics on the ceilings peering from behind the plaster tell us so much. The wise pillars of the Hagia Sophia that stood testimony to rising and falling kingdoms sermonize that no one is here to stay forever and that much as you try, history cannot be silenced. 

A 9th Century viking inscription in the Southern Galleria of the Hagia reads "Halvadan was here", a tell tale sign that everyone who ever entered Hagia Sophia left its mark on it. Justinian's successors painted mosaics, adding and removing sacred relics with time. The doge of Venice Dandalano who plundered the glory of Hagia Sophia sending home loads of its mosaics was buried here. Recently graffitis by a repair worker in 10th century on the top of the dome was found. "Lord, help your servant, Gregorius" it read. Ottoman kings added the plaques and inscriptions with writings from the holy Quran, installing in the halls of Hagia Sophia their exploits from other kingdoms. 

Even the not so kingly who entered the doors of Hagia Sophia do as little as insert their fingers in a hole carved inside the wish column rotating their hands around it - an act that is said make wishes come true - leaving a mark of their presence behind. The bronze plate on the column is now worn out by the finger impressions but the pillar itself still stands strong testifying for the countless wishes and dreams that Hagia Sophia has made come true.