Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Better Late Than Never-Never Land

Sunday, April 05, 2009
We had a sea day today to recuperate from climbing to the top of the Acropolis and to prepare for the next three straight days of tours.
The Prinsendam sailed through the Bosporus this morning. Frank, the port lecturer, gave a running commentary starting around 6:30 a.m., but, luckily, we missed it all. We slept late but still made it to the dining room for breakfast; lost again at trivia; and did little else. After lunch, we threw a load of clothes into the washer and then MA went for her nap. D managed to transfer the clothes to the dryer and even retrieve them without incident.
While he waited for the laundry, he worked on crossword puzzles and watched Istanbul sail by. We cruised right past the point of land which holds many of the city’s treasures: the Hagia Sofia, the Blue Mosque and the Topkapi Palace. We will visit the latter two tomorrow and hope to see the exterior of the Hagia Sofia which is currently closed.
Around 4:15, the future cruise lady called the room to let us know that our credit card charge for the next cruise deposit had been denied. D went to see her and eventually placed the charge on a different card. D had notified the bank that we would be out of the country until April 30 and the credit card folks said they would put a 30 day notice on the card [not long enough but we weren’t expecting trouble]. We theorized that, knowing we were away, the computer kicked out the charge from Seattle, Washington. We’ll see what happens after April 11.
We “rested” until dinner time and then returned to the room. MA read before turning in for the evening and D captured the cruise lady’s desk and co-opted her printer with front office permission. He experimented by printing page one of the journal, then went on line to check the credit card statement; there were no charges from Seattle or anywhere in the past four weeks. He used the printer to make a copy of his internet minutes, closed it all down and went to bed.

Monday, April 06, 2009
As noted earlier, we were in Istanbul, Turkey, today and took another private tour of all of the antiquarian highlights. Since we were in port overnight, we didn’t need to wait for a signal to disembark, so we left the ship around 8:20 for an 8:30 meeting with today’s guide, Nayla[?]. She was waiting for us with the usual sign when we emerged from the terminal.
Our first stop was the Hippodrome. Today, it looks like a park surrounded by streets, but in its heyday, it was a racing oval [hippo = horse]. Not nearly as extensive as the chariot track at the Roman Circus Maximus, it still served the same function. It featured a number of small flower gardens which included pansies, tulips and other unidentified but familiar blooms. We found, as the day progressed, that Istanbul is filled with flower beds, at least at all of the tourist stops. The Hippodrome currently showcases three fountains, not displays of aquatic acrobatics but sources of drinking water for the populace. Of course, these three are only ornamental now. As Nayla pointed out, no one in Istanbul actually drinks the tap water because it is not safe; bottled water is, therefore, a big seller.
We can’t remember the name of the first fountain we saw which should be some indicator of its importance to us. The second one was in the shape of an Egyptian obelisk, hence called the Egyptian Fountain [duh!]. It was decorated with hieroglyphics on all four sides. The last of the fountains also resembled an obelisk, but it had been constructed originally to honor Constantine, a Roman emperor who ruled over what is now Turkey. It was covered by metal at its inception but now shows only the stone tower covered with holes where the metal was once attached.
All of the tourist high points are within walking distance of each other, sort of like Athens only overcast and chilly. We walked, then, to the Blue Mosque a short distance away. A magnificent collection of domes and half-domes, it resembled an Orthodox Jewish synagogue; there are no human images in a mosque and there is separate seating for men and women. Just as the old synagogue in Shanghai had seating for women on the second floor, so does the Blue Mosque, although there was a women’s area at the very rear of the first floor.
Naturally, we had to remove our shoes [and carried them in disposable plastic bags] while inside as we had at the Buddhist temples in Thailand and Cambodia. The entire floor was carpeted, but the building was not heated; D had left his jacket in the van and was a delicate shade of blue before the morning was over. The ceilings were painted in brilliant colors and there were bright stained glass windows. The lighting, however, detracted from the appearance of the Mosque. Lights had been hung from above and the entire space seemed to be filled with wires supporting the hanging fixtures. It looked a bit like a giant spider web. The wires also made it difficult to take unobstructed photos and the like was so dim, thanks to Mother Nature, that a tripod or really good camera was needed. We are presuming that Bill and Sharon got better pictures than we did.
We spent some time outside in the front courtyard of the Mosque as Nayla gave us some of the history of the building. She also was very explicit in her discussion once we had entered through the visitors’ entrance; there is a separate entrance for Turkish citizens. One of the points she made was that plaques inside the mosque containing Quran verses were written in Arabic even though that is not the Turkish language. We found Arabic script in most our stops today as an homage and sign of respect to Islam.
Just across another flower-filled park from the Blue Mosque is the Hagia Sofia. This building, another collection of half-domes, has served as a church and as a mosque. It has been rebuilt after fires destroyed its wooden structure twice and is now made of stone. Mosaics built during the last reconstruction as a church were painted over when it became a mosque [that no human image thing again]. When the Hagia Sofia became a museum, the mosaics were uncovered and restored. Unfortunately, the building is closed on Mondays, so all we could do is take pictures of the exterior and walk on to the Topkapi Palace.
Here we found even more gardens and more flowers. The Topkapi is a series of formal gardens interrupted by an occasional building. In the middle, for example, is the formal reception room which the emperors used when meeting dignitaries. There are arched gates in the walls leading from one garden to the next, but the buildings housing the kitchens and the harem are on the perimeter of the compound. Interestingly, the kitchens and the living quarters [the harem] are on opposite sides of a garden. The harem, by the way, housed all of the household and any live-in staff. There were quarters for the emperor and his wife [or wives]; the regular concubines; the special concubines and a school for female children.
The regular concubines were really no more than household servants while the special concubines were the ones we normally associate with the harem. The emperors secured girls of 8 or 9 from their parents and then raised them in the harem; the parents were often glad to be rid of females and were compen-sated for their loss. As the girls matured, the prettiest were taken off of their household duties and were trained, presumably, to be companions in every way for the emperor.
The kitchen provided meals for everyone in the Palace – three meals a day for the inhabitants and breakfast and lunch for the day laborers. Altogether, Nayla said, the kitchen was preparing 4000 meals each day, as many as the Prinsendam when it is full.
We decided not to join long lines of people waiting to see the Receiving room or the collection of gold and jewels, but did sneak into the room with the fist-sized diamond when we were on the adjacent portico overlooking the Bosporus, the Asia side and the connecting bridge. We also went into the Council building used by the emperors’ ministers to discuss affairs of state. There is a window in one of the two rooms which afforded the emperor the means to eavesdrop on the discussions.
Our last stop in this area was the Cistern. We walked down steps until we were perhaps twenty feet underground. Before us lay an immense underground hall with columns supporting its enormous ceiling. The columns were all different because they came from an assortment of temples from throughout Turkey. There is still water in the cistern even though it is no longer part of the Istanbul water system. Fish of varying sizes swam by in the dimly, but dramatically, lit cavern. We walked to the very end of the path to see two Medusa heads used as bases for columns which would otherwise have been too short to reach the ceiling.
It was noon by now, and time for lunch. Nayla had the driver take us to a little restaurant that would have been a Trattoria in Italy – family owned serving the locals, not tourists [except us]. Lunch was included in the cost of the tour, so all we had to pay for were drinks. Nayla joined us for lunch and we followed her advice on what to order and were not disappointed. Each couple shared two dishes, a thin, cheese-filled chicken patty which had been grilled; and a kebab unlike what we see in the States with thinly sliced beef in a savory sauce served over fresh bread with a side of yogurt. Both were delicious. They were preceded by fresh hot bread, salad and a vegetable plate which we all shared. Cokes, wine and beer finished it off.
There was a price to pay, of course. We just happened to be directly across the alleyway – for that is what the street was – from an allegedly reputable rug dealer. Ah, the rug demonstration, curse of the Turkish tour. We tried to explain that we were going to be in Ephesus in a few days where we would see a rug demonstration. “Please,” she pleaded, “it will take no more than 20 minutes.” So we went to see the demonstration of Turkish rug weaving and, of course, a sales pitch.
Watching the weaver work was hypnotic. Her hands were flying as she lifted strand by strand of silk, tied a knot and cut it. It is such tedious work that she can stay at her look for only 15 – 20 minutes at a time before having to take a break. The salesman said that it would take 2 years to complete the rug she was working on. Then we trooped downstairs to the showroom.
Let the games begin! We were shown rugs of every size, style and material. There were reds, blues, taupes, pinks and any other color one could imagine. There were “native” patterns which looked like Navajo rugs; there were rugs which told stories; there were formal patterns. It was both beautiful and dizzying. Bill was with us, but Sharon stayed upstairs because she didn’t want to climb more steps. The three of us were treated to drinks and a very good salesman. When we were debating the colors and pattern of a runner, we asked Bill to chime in. We learned that a hand-knotted rug will change colors when it is turned 180 degrees as the light strikes the “grain” differently. Colors change from light to dark depending on the light source.
We eventually agreed on a runner for the front door to replace one which is showing its age. The price was more than we wanted to pay, of course, but was reduced about 16 per cent for using Visa and for the VAT refund. Okay, it was still a lot of money but we had priced cheap rugs at the Festival Flea Market on Sample Road and knew that the price was high, but fair.
Wait! There’s a complication! When the business staff at the rug store tried to run the Visa card, it wouldn’t go through. Twice. D handed over the Master Card he had brought for emergencies [didn’t this count?] and then went outside in the drizzle to call Visa on his cell phone at a million dollars a minute. Visa said they weren’t having a problem but would goose the system to facilitate this and other transactions. When D went back inside, the MC hadn’t cleared either. Apparently the store was having transmission problems, but we had waited enough and had spent too much time and money to be patient. D told them to cancel the sale and we left.
We walked to the Grand Bazaar, a must-see in Istanbul. “Grand” doesn’t begin to describe its size. There are 4000 merchants in the complex which is really several blocks long in every direction. The street merchants have simply been enclosed and cleaned up. The shops look just like ones in any mall except there were more of them. Silver, tchotchkes, a post office, restaurants – all were there in plentitude. Sharon found some silver jewelry and postage stamps and then we were gone, bypassing wooden boxes that MA might have wanted but was still too angry to buy.
As we walked to the Bazaar, Nayla either called or received a call from the rug merchant who really wanted us to return. Since our minivan was parked nearby, we said we would discuss it and let her know when we were on the way. We decided to make one last effort, so D went into the store while the rest of our group waited in the van.
When he got to the “point of sale” terminal, he asked both the business manager and the salesman if the were prepared to adjust the price of the rug to compensate us for the aggravation. There was no immediate response, so D said goodbye and started out of the store. When he reached the back door, near the parking lot, the salesman ran up. They hadn’t understood what D meant, he said. Of course they would make an accommodation, even though they didn’t do business that way. Would we be satisfied with another $50 off the price. D countered with a price $300 below the one previously agreed on. Could we split the difference, the salesman wondered. Yes, D said, grudgingly, and returned to the front to dance through hoops again. Instead, the designated card-swiper pulled out an old-fashioned paper sales slip and made an imprint of D’s credit card. The price on the slip was actually $50 less than the compromise price, so the rug cost $500 less than the so-called list price. They made a sale, we had a rug and everyone was satisfied with the price. It will be interesting to see what charge they eventually put through. In the meantime, they are holding the paper work and the rug pending our visit to Ephesus where we will be required to hear the pitch again. If we find something there, we can cancel the Istanbul sale, but that is unlikely. We don’t want to go through this again – it was too much like buying a car.
We were tired and drained by now. Bill and Sharon had been good sports but Sharon, especially, was ready to go “home,” so we skipped the Spice Bazaar and returned to the Prinsendam.
We were due to leave Istanbul at 5:00 p.m. tonight but developed engine trouble and couldn’t weigh anchor until the problem was fixed. As a result, we didn’t pull away from the pier until after 8:00, three hours late. We expect to be in Varna, Bulgaria, on time, though. When we returned to the cabin after dinner, we discovered a voice mail from the agency in Bulgaria reconfirming the tour and urging us to be off the ship ASAP in the morning.
And so to bed.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009
We were on time arriving in Varna despite the late departure last night. Varna is only 150 or so nautical miles from Istanbul, so we didn’t have too far to go.
The six of us were off the ship with the first rush and met our guide, Peter, just outside the terminal building. Peter, we discovered as the day wore on, is an eighteen-year old high school senior who is a state sanctioned, licensed guide. He had no trouble answering our questions and was a pleasure to have as a guide. We had gotten lucky again.
We drove out of Varna into the countryside. The roads were paved but felt like they were cobblestones, they were so rough. This is an indication of the post-Communist-era’s infrastructure problems. Most of the housing we passed in the city was old-style Cold War apartment blocks; they had nothing artistic or architectural to recommend them and they were, for the most part, in a state of disrepair that paralleled Budapest. By contrast, comparable buildings in Prague were well-maintained and colorful if somewhat bland.
We drove through rolling farmland into the heart of wine country, passing row upon row of grape vines waiting for warmer weather to start to grow. Some of the vines seemed to have been purposely left to their own devices, but most had been tended, the rows weeded. There were also fields of green in which we could see clear rows as if these were being cultivated, but Peter told us that these were fallow this year so the soil could rest; he knew neither the term “fallow” not “crop rotation,” but we understood.
We finally pulled off the road near what looked at a distance to be more Roman-style ruins. In fact, we were not looking at broken columns but naturally-occurring stone pillars. Some were monoliths as much as twenty feet high; others were almost rubble. All were pitted and weather-worn by the constant wind which, Peter said, only blew in one direction but which was incessant. The landscape looked like a lunar scene although it wasn’t very wide. It seemed to stretch forever and reminded us in its length of the ruins at Pompeii. We found small sea shells in the sand surrounding these ancient constructions. There is no proof that humans had anything to do with their placement, but there was also a hint of Stonehenge here. The HAL tours referred to this area as the Petrified Forest while our tour operator called it the Stone Forest; its official name is Pobiti Kamari. A slight difference to be sure, but these stones [for lack of a better word] did not look like they had ever been alive. Peter’s theory, probably endorsed by the tour guide bureau, is that this area is the result of wind and water erosion. Whatever, it was eerily beautiful in the cold morning wind. We were glad we had worn coats today.
This was our day for wind and stone. Having driven to Pobiti Kamari on a back road, we returned to the city on an interstate highway of sorts. It was four lanes and divided, but it was still a rough ride compared to what we expect in the States. We went off the beaten path for our next stop, the Aladzha Monastery. This 13th – 14th Century Eastern orthodox monastery was carved into the face of a limestone cliff high above the Black Sea which was barely visible through the fog. We had a long, steep climb to get to the base of the cliff and then more climbing up a modern stairway to get to the cells and other remnants of the community. D, Scott, Karen and Bill went up the first set of steps to see the abbot’s cell, a monk’s cell, the refectory and crypts; Scott and D went up the second set which didn’t really have any surprises but did have a bell which Scott rang while D took his picture. Scott, D and Peter then returned to terra firma and we schlepped down the steep hill to the van.
We went to the Archeological Museum and ran into a HAL tour. We pretty much walked right in and delighted in telling the HAL group that they could not go with us. Can you spell s-m-u-g? The Museum wasn’t overwhelming like the one in Athens, nor was it crowded. Despite the signs and occasional personal warnings not to take photographs, we did. We tried to be subtle and couldn’t check immediately, of course, to see if our efforts at stealth had paid dividends.
The first room we entered was devoted to a necropolis, literally, a city of the dead. There was a map posted which showed where in this plot searchers had found filled graves, empty graves or rubble. Displays contained items recovered from the gravesite as well as a complete skeleton which had been re-dressed in its gold and jewels. D sneaked a few pictures which came out well and will be added to the journal when we get home.
We saw rooms with other relics and jewelry as well as tools. Another gallery contained only coins from the area [Thrace, primarily] over the centuries. It was interesting to see the detail on the coins and to see that the coins were “dated” by the picture and name of the Emperor at the time it was made rather than by year. The coins had been made by both molding and stamping and were beautiful.
The final gallery we visited contained icons. Icons were religious paintings done on wood. Many were 18th and 19th Century copies of older icons. Some were free standing; some seemed to be on shutters and others were on doors. All of them looked older than they really were but we never asked why they seemed to have deteriorated so much in 200 years.
We moved to the Roman Baths, the Thermae, for our daily dose of Roman ruins. The Baths spanned an area that was approximately one square block and were the fourth largest Roman baths. Archeologists have identified most of the “rooms” which survived. For example, there were three rooms – the fridgidarium, the tepidatium and the caldarium – where the water temperature was cold, warm and hot, respectively. We saw the steam bath area, too, with the steam pipes now exposed for the curious. The largest room was the basilica which had a high vaulted ceiling [no longer present] and was used by large groups of men to conduct business and politics. Varna [like most of Europe] had been ruled by the Romans, so it was they, not the indigenous population, who bathed and socialized here. We compared it to a golf game and a schvitz.
Finally, it was time for lunch, prepaid as part of the tour. We went to a local “joint” on what we learned later was the oldest street in Varna. We were served a feast. We started with a local artisan bread brought by Peter’s boss. It was accompanied by a spice mixture into which we were to dip the bread; the spices were good and tasted like Old Bay crab seasoning. This was followed by four kinds of salad. We could only finish half of these among the seven of us [Peter ate with us]. There was a white salad which we think was either yogurt or sour cream with spices, delicious on the bread, and there were pickled vegetables, wonderfully vinigery. We were already full.
Next came homemade cream of mushroom soup [Sorry, Jon]. It, too, was too good not to finish. Then, lunch was served! We passed around plates and platters of meat, cheese and vegetables; an eggplant dish and something I forget. There were also endless glasses of a local red wine and, for the non-drinkers, bottled water. We were getting ready to leave when dessert arrived! Individual bowls of fresh yogurt served with blueberry sauce and honey. We could hardly walk to the van [which, by the way, was a 13-passenger wan for the 6 of us].
It was almost 2:30 by then, and we had to be aboard the Prinsendam by 3:30. Of course, that meant 3:00 to us because we are cautious or cowardly or both. We stopped so Bill could buy a couple of bottles of the wine served at lunch and then so MA and Karen could get their souvenirs. MA got two boxes [to make up for the one she didn’t get in Istanbul] and Karen got a Bulgaria magnet because there were no pins to add to her collection.
We were back just past 3:00, enough time to get out of our coats and take a breath before trivia. We wrangled over answers again and came in a distant third or fourth [Which 1990s TV character spent a month at the Betty Ford Clinic? What soft drink used to be called the Queen of the South? What were prisoners in Texas legally barred from doing in 1995?].
To cap the day, the Cruise Critic group was invited for drinks with Captain Gundersen and [we discovered] the senior officers between dinner seatings. We think more people showed up for this than there are members of the group. We know that only 25 of the 30 have come to the meet-and-greets, but there seemed to be more than five new faces. Regardless, most of us felt honored to be invited although some, we think, felt it was their due. We left most of the group in the Captain’s quarters and went to dinner followed by bed and blogging.
Tomorrow – Sevastopol, Ukraine.

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