Sunday, August 30, 2015

Finca Guell (Guell Estate)

I've lived in Barcelona on and off for just about five-and-a-half years now and full time since we moved back from Germany three years ago. For pretty much the whole time, Diana and I have been trying to visit the Finca Guell (something like Guell Estate or Farm in English). Like lots of other places with the Guell name (like this, that, and another), this one was designed by Gaudi.

I had pretty much given up as, seriously, we'd gone there I can't tell you how many times and it was closed, or had just closed, or was never open, or who knows what... Here's a photo of me being attacked by the front-gate's Gaudi-designed dragon during my first visit just over five years ago...

Diana and I, against my better (and overly-pessimistic) judgement, decided to try again, this time using a locals-only 50-percent-off summer-discount ticket. Well, finally, after what seemed like a lifetime, it was to be the day. We got there and...the gate was not only unlocked but...actually an actual human...actually selling tickets!!!

The original property was fairly large and what's in these photos is basically the property's back door near where they kept the horses. The rest is now the Palau Reial (where the Spanish royal family stayed when visiting Barcelona), the big Avenida Diagonal, and a university.

La finca, built between 1884 and 1887, was one of Gaudi's first projects for Guell and the stables are one of the largest things that remains. Classic Gaudi touches include the catenary-arch door and the tile-covered cupola:

The stable doesn't look particularly big but, step inside, and it's surprising how much space there is. As you can probably tell in the photo below, they haven't over-renovated the property and, other than this building (and the front gate), there's not much to see (which is probably partly why it's only a few euros to get in...if you manage to get in).

The rest of the grounds, which basically cover a large city block, is park-like reflecting the original Garden-of-Hesperides design.

The Garden of Hesperides is a Greek myth about a garden located somewhere on the Iberian peninsula (where Spain and Portugal are). Legend says that a golden-apple tree grew there and, when eaten, the apples granted immortality. But, the Hesperides, who were nymphs (of course), sometimes ate the apples themselves when they were only to care for the tree. So the god whose garden it was introduced a hundred-headed dragon to act as a guard, thus the gate. My take on the story is a warning against how some (most?) companies introduce complex rules and policies rather than directly address problem individuals...but I digress.

Unfortunately, we didn't see the hundred-headed dragon the day we were there. It is possible, though, that the dragon is there during other parts of the year but, since it was August and all of Spain is on vacation, maybe the dragon was too.

With the dragon a no-show, the surprise find of the tour was this old crane. I took a photo but didn't think much of it until I saw a photo inside the stable showing people building La Pedrera using this exact piece of equipment.

...and a close-up...

Yeah, if you can tell, after all the waiting and trying, the Finca Guell was just okay (Yes, I know, maybe I'm too spoiled by all the great things to see in Barcelona!). But the gate, which you can see from outside is awesome and I did enjoy learning about the Hesperides story.

Five years later and, this time, full of golden apples...

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Barça Trebel Celebration

Philadelphia, where I grew up, is a huge sports town. Sports is second only to oxygen in popularity. With professional teams the Eagles (American football), the 76ers (basketball), the Phillies (baseball), and now even the Union (soccer), the city is kept busy year around. Barcelona's more similar to San Diego in that there's not as much sports interest. But, when Barça's playing, things definitely slow down a bit.

Watching the Champions League final between Barça and Italy's Juventus at our local secret spot:

Barça's 3-1 win that night gave the Catalans their Treble, or third league championship of the year: La Liga, La Copa del Rey, and the Champions League. It's the second time in six years that Barça's won all three.

The result was predictable; the celebration spilled out to the Font de Canaletes on La Rambla near Plaza Catalunya where the city gathers for every Barça win. (The fountain is where the people are sitting on top of the light. Tradition says that if you drink from the fountain, you'll return to Barcelona one day.)

Similar to the 2013 la Liga victory parade, this year's version was a city-wide party. Aboard a specially-decorated hop-on, hop-off bus, the team crossed the city and ended up at the Camp Nou stadium.

Diana and I didn't plan on going to the stadium for the big post-parade celebration because you had to get tickets at the stadium in the morning and we couldn't make it. But, around 7 pm that evening, Carol and Juan sent us a message saying they had two tickets if we were interested. Claro que si! (Of course!)

The stadium was packed and the celebration lasted well over an hour. There were (possibly-drunken) player speeches, a light-and-sound show, and fireworks:

There was even the mandatory playing of Queen's 'We Are The Champions' (yes, I think every country and team, regardless of language, uses this song):

My family'd be surprised that I'd watch Barça play and even more that I'd actually go to a celebration. Well, they'd be correct. I'm not a huge sports fan but I've learned to enjoy watching with friends and even playing a little. Plus, Barça's an easy team to like as they sure do seem to win a lot. It's different because, if you don't know, part of being a Philadelphia sports fan is the annual pain and suffering when the teams inevitably lose (not always, of course, but it sometimes seems that way).

F.C. Barcelona, més que un club:

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Istanbul - Part 2

This is part two of our visit to Istanbul. For part one, go here. As in part one, sorry about all the likely slow page load. It was really tough to choose from so many good photos!

On our third day in town, Monica took Diana and me with her to Istanbul's Grand Bazaar so she could pick up a jacket she bought recently. The 550-plus-year-old bazaar is quite...well...grand. They say that its 60 covered streets and over 5000 stores makes it the world's largest indoor market.

Just inside one of the entrances of the Grand Bazaar. Those red-and-yellow flags are for the local football (soccer) team, Galatasaray, which seems every bit as popular as Barça is in Barcelona.

We wandered around for about 45 minutes or so. I think you could pretty much live your entire life inside the market as everything you need could probably be found somewhere in the warren of streets. But, what I was most interested in seeing, believe it or not, was the roof as it was one of the settings in the recent chapter of the James Bond series, Skyfall. You might not remember but Daniel Craig road a motorcycle on the roof (if that link doesn't work, try this one) and inside the market during one of the many great scenes of a great movie.

A section of Istanbul's Grand Bazaar roof:

I was surprisingly excited to see the roof because I remember watching Skyfall and thinking about all the cool places they shot scenes (and I had been too - but that's for another story!). But, it got better...

Monica led us up a dark stairway and down an even darker hall to a locked door where a man with a key appeared. He let us in the door, which led to another dark set of stairs...

...until we emerged into bright daylight and found this view:

Yes, that's the Bosphorus and "downtown" Istanbul beyond. We spent about 30 minutes or so just walking around taking in the views. This is the difference going to place where you know some locals. We probably would have never gotten to enjoy this experience if it wasn't for our fearless tour guide.

Simply amazing! Thanks Monica!!!

If you look closely next to my right arm in the photo above, you'll see a small piece of broken concrete with black marks on it. A closer look shows that it's awesome stencil art of three whirling dervish, which was the closest I got to seeing this Turkish tradition. Maybe next time...

Monica's friend, who met us at the Grand Bazaar, took us to a local sandwich place that she likes. It was literally a hole in the wall where they were making and selling only three items. It was a very In-N-Out style place right down to the red-and-white colors and limited menu. Let's just say the sandwiches were as good as, if not better than, In-N-Out's burgers!

About a block or two farther down the same street, we walked by a store that had a line of about ten people waiting to buy from an open window. The business' name is Kurukavechi and they're a traditional Istanbul coffee roaster. It smelled like what heaven's probably like. We, of course, bought a couple of bags to bring home. It wasn't until I looked at the bag when we got home that I noticed Kurukavechi is ISO certified! Ha! Nothing like a "quality" cup of coffee!

Monica's friend took off and the three of us went to eat Kunefe, which is a dough-and-cheese dessert covered with a sweet, baklava-style, sauce and pistachios. Monica swore that this was one of the best in Istanbul and, based on my limited experience, I couldn't agree more.

Just so you don't think that all we did was eat and drink all day (not that there would be anything wrong with that), here's a photo of our last stop of the day with Monica at the famous Orient Express train station.

The Orient Express was a long-distance, luxury train that ran between Paris and Istanbul for about 100 years up until the 1970s. The reality was that I had heard of the Orient Express but I guess I just assumed it was a story/book/movie/etc. It never occurred to me that it was "real". Silly boy. There were were; it was a real train and it was a real place.

Monica headed home to meet up with the kids but we kept marching on. One of the Istanbul's landmarks is Galata Tower, which overlooks where the Golden Horn meets up with the Bosphorus. We were going to go up but the line was crazy long. Had we not been on the roof of the bazaar to enjoy the views earlier in the day, we would have waited. Instead, content that we had sufficiently enjoyed many great views, we continued on our way.

At one point, I looked up a small side street and saw a bride and groom walking up the hill. The combination of light and dark, the flags, scooters, signs, the bride and groom, all topped off by the tower, was a spectacular sight. I've taken a ton of photos but this, other than being a bit dark along the edges, is one of my new favorites. By the way, if you go to the Wikipedia page for the tower, it has (at the time of this writing) a photo taken from the same spot almost 150 years earlier. Very cool.

We were headed for Taksim square, which you may have heard of. Anytime there's a protest or demonstration of some kind, chances are it's happening there. The first time I was in Istanbul, I stayed nearby but, like I said in Part 1, the weather was horrible and I didn't see much.

We walked up the Istikal Caddessi, which is basically a large outdoor mall these days but I'm guessing it was the central market of sorts back in the day. About half way up, Diana pulled me inside an opening between buildings. There was a plaza or, I guess, courtyard is a better description, and a church. It was important for Diana that we stop together at Sent Antuan (Saint Anthony) for a reason that I'm not allowed to share. If you remember when we're all together sometime, you should ask her.

There was not much going on at Taksim the day we were there and it's not the most scenic place so I'll skip the photos. It was getting pretty late in the afternoon and we wanted to get back to Monica's so we went to the far side of the plaza where there's a bus (well, it's more like one of those airport rental-car shuttle vans) that goes to her neighborhood.

While waiting, I noticed this guy selling coffee out of his car (!!!) for 5 Turkish Lira (~$1.75 U.S.). Now, for Istanbul, that's like Starbucks' pricing but how could I resist? His front passenger seat was reclined and he had a propane-fired coffee maker from which he sells his brew. It wasn't the best coffee I've ever had but it was certainly a good experience and well worth the price.

Diana and I caught our bus about five minutes later but on our way we had one of those "we're-going-the-wrong-way" panic attacks. We stayed on the bus for a few minutes more but decided it was best to get off and try to catch a taxi or something. Well, the second the bus drove away we realized we were doing okay and should have stayed on. Oh well. Live and learn.

With the help of google maps, we were on our way again walking towards Monica's. It ended up being a good thing though as we got to see stuff we wouldn't have seen otherwise including the LOVE sculpture below, which is just like the one near where I grew up in Philadelphia.

For our last day in town, it was off to see the twin wonders: the Hagia Sophia and Sultan Ahmet (or blue) mosques. The Blue Mosque and a happy, world-traveling couple:

Both the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia are impressive for their size and beauty but I couldn't help feeling like Hagia Sofia could be the palace on Naboo where Star Wars princess Padme was from:

Oh, and both are big, like really big, inside, especially Hagia Sophia:

Hagia Sophia, like the Chora church we went to a couple of days earlier, used to be a church. The juxtaposition of the (giant) Jesus and Mary frescoes and the (again, giant) Arabic script was awe inspiring. It made me think about how someone who attends services at the mosque today might have attended church services in the same exact location had they been born hundreds of years prior.

The final stop on our Istanbul tour was at the nearby Basilica Cistern, which was originally built to hold water for the church that used to be above it. Again, as with the Grand Bazaar, the Basilica Cistern was the scene of a James Bond film, this time the 1963 From Russia With Love. (I really need to try to write a story about all the Bond locations I've been to...hmm...)

The cistern covers about 100,000 square feet and can hold something like 200 million gallons of water. Yeah, it's big. And lovely, as you can see in the photo above. One of the most interesting things about the cistern are two columns that have Medusa heads for bases. On of them is upside down and the other is sideways but both are curious additions to a surreal environment. The whole thing reminded me of the cenotes near Merida, Mexico, where I lived a bunch of years ago.

With our quick trip almost over, we went back to Monica's to pack our bags. She asked if we wanted some coffee and we said yes. Little did we know that she would take us to a neighborhood place to get some fresh Turkish coffee prepared the traditional way.

Diana checking out the coffee-making process (so she can hopefully repeat it at home):

And so ended our trip. Thanks and a big hug to Monica, Olivier, and the kids for having us at their place for a few days. See you again soon in Barcelona! And France!

Teşekkür ederim and güle güle Istanbul. We'll miss you!

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Istanbul - Part 1

I've been super fortunate to have traveled to many many places but there's always been one that's held special intrigue. That place is Istanbul. I think it's partly that, growing up, it just seemed so far away and it sounded exotic and strange. We learned in grade school that it "was the crossroads of the world" and the European end of the great spice road, which starts in another exotic city, Xi'an China. Oh, and of course there was that They Might Be Giants remake of Istanbul (Not Constantinople) my friend Mike introduced me to during high school...

Anyway, I went to Istanbul back in 2010 for what was basically a long layover. The short time I spent there, it was blustery with heavy rain mixed with snow so getting a feel was basically reduced to how to stay dry. When Diana told me her friend Monica invited us to come visit her and her family, I was super happy.

A quick note about this story and our visit overall. It was a relatively short one but we did a TON and took LOTS of photos. There are 17 photos in this story and Part 2 will probably be the same or more - sorry for the page-load time!

The flight from Barcelona is about three hours but it's a world away. Istanbul, if you didn't already know, is a city that straddles two continents; Europe and Asia. Monica and her family lived (more about that below) in Besiktas, which is in the European side of the city, and, interestingly enough, the closest metro stop coming from the airport to their house is in Asia. Once out of the metro, it's a short walk to the ferry to cross back to the European side.

Good afternoon Istanbul!

A view towards the European side:

While we were there, Turkey was preparing for national elections so every part of the city was covered in political banners and Turkish flags. Barbaros Boulevard view in the Besiktas neighborhood:

We arrived at Monica's house early Saturday afternoon and went exploring while she prepared for a party happening later that evening. Diana and I walked along the Bosphorus up towards the Ortakoy neighborhood where there's an outdoor shopping and dining area with an impressive location, mosque, and views:

There was a street festival going on with food stalls and a stage. Diana and I ate way too much and enjoyed watching a bunch of different folk performances including a Latin salsa group! Small world.

Diana buying one of our snacks from women making a quesadilla-ish treat:

Oh yeah, tea time. What can I say? I'm a sucker for tea time and always have been. I think it goes back to hanging out with my mom's sister drinking tea when she used to babysit me. I love the idea of taking time to enjoy a cup, some talk, and a bit of life.

Diana got me on a boat ride on the Bosphorus, which I actually ended up enjoying (but don't tell her). We then headed back to Monica's house, which, can I tell you, was in an amazing location with even more amazing views. That's Asia out towards the left, the Bosphorus in the middle, and Europe out towards the right. Nice, huh?

I mentioned above about how Monica, who Diana met while living in Barcelona, and her family used to live in Besiktas. Monica's husband, Olivier, is originally from France and works for a car company. Like Diana and I, they're a bit nomadic and they've lived in several places including China and, of course, Turkey. Well, their five-year stint in Istanbul was coming to a close and they told us it was now or never to come before they moved to France (for a few years???).

The long weekend that we could finally all make it work happened to overlap with a going-away party at their house. Again, like Diana and I, they have friends from pretty much everywhere and it was a fun time getting to know a bunch of interesting people and even more fun using a strange combination of English, Spanish, a bit of German, and even maybe ten words of French!

Au revoir les amis!

On Sunday morning, Monica and Olivier took us out for an early lunch and to visit the Chora Church and Museum. Like Barcelona's Sant Pau del Camp, the name comes from the fact that the church was built beyond the old Roman city walls in the 'countryside'.

Like a bunch of old churches in Istanbul, this one was converted to a mosque during the Ottoman era (the opposite of what happened in Spain). What makes the church extra special is the Byzantine-style mosaics and frescoes, which are considered some of the finest examples from the time, that decorate the interior. As with many of the converted churches, the decorations were covered up at some point only to be uncovered more recently.

According to the audio tour guide, the artwork was a way to share bible stories with the locals most of whom couldn't read. The stories progressed as you walk through the church.

From there, we walked through the surrounding neighborhood, which is full of older wooden houses that would fit right in some parts of California. The old city wall runs along one side of the neighborhood and, at one of the wall's doorways, we saw what looked like a flea market or swap meet. It wasn't until we were inside that I realized it was full of stands selling...PIGEONS! And, of course, pigeon accessories, pigeon food, and who knows what else. There was even a veterinarian set up over in one of the corners.

Olivier and Diana checking out some Istanbul pigeon bazaar action:

So what, you ask, can be more interesting than the pigeon bazaar? I'm going to tell you.

Our next stop was basically at the "top" of Istanbul's Golden Horn at a mosque and nearby park that has a great view of the city. The plaza out front was packed, packed, packed with families, old folks, young couples in love, and scenes like the wedding below. You know, basically like any other major city park.

But...what you may not have noticed (and should have) in the photo below is the two young boys dressed like sultans handing out candy. The park was full of very happy boys dressed similarly. Monica, who takes tour guiding as serious if not more than me (if you can believe it) told me they were dressed this way because it was their circumcision day. "WHAT did she just say?", I thought to myself assuming I misunderstood her Spanish.

Nope. This surprisingly-public right-of-passage is a big deal in Turkey. I had never heard of it but was floored when I read up about it back home. Based on my google searching in-depth research, I learned that the bigger and more public your child's circumcision day, the better. Boys get dressed up in extravagant outfits, get to ride ponies, eat special treats, and have their friends, neighbors, and relatives over for the big day.

Super interesting. It's moments like this that continue to make me continue exploring more of the world. As I've always said and am trying to do, learning something new every day!

By this point in the day, Olivier had gone off to the airport to catch a flight but Monica, like Diana and I, is a trooper and loves to walk. We decided to walk all the way back down the Horn, which took us through some neighborhoody places like this where we got a small taste of daily life:

The walk also gave us time to do some shopping:

A lot of the over-four-mile walk was along the waterfront. It seemed like half of Istanbul's 14 million people were out barbecuing that day. Another great opportunity to take in a small slice of local life. Every family was spread out on a blanket and/or playing ball and for sure every dad was hovering over a small grill like the guy below.

Wait, but that's not a grill the guy's tending? If you noticed, you'd be right. What was even better than every group having their own grill was that every group also had their own charcoal-fired coffee/tea maker! And, if you've noticed hot beverages have an exalted place in Turkish life, you'd be right again. Can. You. Tell. That. I. Love. This. Stuff?

We arrived at the bottom of the Golden Horn right around sunset, which gave us a chance to experience first hand how it got it's name. Each afternoon, as the sun sets, the sky turns a golden color, which reflects on the water below making everything glow. I took a bunch of lovely photos and had a heck of a time choosing. My favorite ended up being this one I took off the back of the ferry as we left the European side of town to go to the Asian side to catch another ferry to take us back to the European side.

There are some places I've gone that could never live up to expectations. Istanbul's not one of those. It's better than what I had imagined. It's crazy big. There are a lot of people. The culture's an interesting blend owing to its bridging Asia/middle east and Europe. But, still, there's something about it; maybe even a bit of Barcelona familiarity. Yes, I think I love it. Oh, and I haven't been able to get that song out of my head the whole day as I wrote this story. Istanbul, not Constantinople... Istanbul, not Constantinople...