Monday, June 27, 2011

Istanbul the city of wonders.

A short flight took us from Athens to the wonderful city of Istanbul. I say wonderful because Istanbul, a city of over 13 millions, has everything to make you dream from its rich past of Sultans, flying carpets, spices, religious monuments and the last but not the least; the Turks themselves who are warm, welcoming and very pleasant people. In this post I don’t have much to say but lots to show. So here’s a string of pictures with short comments and explanation to show you the colors of this city we will never forget. On this first picture you have a view of the European side of Istanbul and the river in the middle is what is called the Golden Horn which is not the Bosphorus that separates the city between Europe and Asia and leads to the Black Sea.

The Blue Mosque is probably the number one feature monument in Istanbul. This huge monument finished in 1617 is an active mosque and consequently the entrance is free of charge but also requires a proper attire to come inside.

Food is obviously a treat in Istanbul. First the baklavas. Usually you’ll find three to four varieties of baklavas to satisfy your palate but here they have entire shops dedicated to that treat and other sweets. We are talking about tens of different baklavas, and fruit squares! Ice cream is also something of trademark in the city of Sultans. You don’t just go ask for a cone, pay and leave just like that. The vendor in his traditional Turkish costume will play with his 3 feet (1m) long spoon, ring the bells, play with you to make you laugh and then you have your cone. A bit expensive but very good gelato. Another treat was these huge pretzels. As a matter of fact we had a hard time stopping Claudette from trying everything unhealthy sold on the street ;-)

Just next to the Blue Mosque was the famous Ahia Sophia (Ayasofya) built in A.D 537 and was first a Christian church then later modified as a mosque and is now a museum. Yet the duality of the two religious trends still remains as you can see on the first picture. In foreground is the stairs leading to the minbar where the Imam talks to the followers during the prayers while in the background painted on the roof dome are Holy Marie and Jesus! It is a crude contrast from what we saw in Egypt for instance.

One cannot go to Istanbul and miss the Grand Bazaar the pinnacle of shopping and mercantile trades. It is not a building, nor a street, nor a shopping mall but an entire section of the town covering many square kilometers. A huge section is a covered building but the shopping area now extends way beyond the walls of the original Bazaar. One thing that we may not be used to is the fact that for Turks it is the tradition to offer to customers a complementary glass of tea while discussing the deal. At first it is disorienting but we get used to it after awhile.

While in the Bazaar I couldn’t resist buying one of these beautifully handcrafted wooden backgammon boards you can find here in Turkey. The funny thing is that Danielle and I didn’t completely remembered the rules of that game when we sat in a café for a Nescafe (that’s what they called the kind of coffee we drink in western countries) and started a game. Playing backgammon in coffee and tea shops is quite common in this part of the world so nobody cared or so we thought. After less than ten seconds of playing and trying to remember the rules we were already surrounded by Turks interested in the game and quickly giving us advices on how to play. Of course the fresh varnish look of our new board also attracted the attention. Then this gentleman taught us the local game they play here, which is a bit more complex than the basic one, and I had the chance to play a couple of games with him and receive genuine advices about the game. The thing about backgammon is that the rules maybe extremely simple but the strategy and the skills to develop are huge. So no need to say that I miserably lost but it was nevertheless very enjoyable.

One night we went to a Turkish traditional dance show. The ten dancers gave us a good performance and we had an enjoyable evening.

The Basilica Cistern is an underground water reservoir built to store massive amounts of water to supply the city in times of drought or siege.

Although 98% of Turks are Muslims Sunday is the official day off and here is a picture of a street just adjacent to the Grand Bazaar on Sunday morning. We would have had a hard time walking in this street on any other days.

Topkapi Palace is where the Sultans used to live. We could see many of the different sections of the palace but the two most impressive were the harem, where at its most crowded housed up to 800 of the Sultan’s wives, and the treasure rooms where we saw a 64 carats diamond among many other pieces of jewelries displayed as a testament of the enormous wealth of the Sultans.

Finally we couldn’t finish this post without underlying the friendliness of the Turks who literally bend backward in restaurants and other services places to please the visitors and making their visit of the magic city an unforgettable experience. Talking like that I should really think writing travel guides!

Saturday, June 25, 2011

The glory of ancient Athens.

Our trip to Canada over we flew back to Athens to resume our travels. Danielle’s mom Claudette came to spend five weeks in the Mediterranean with us. With Chocobo in Turkey we decided to spend a few days visiting Athens before taking another flight to Istanbul and one of the very first thing we did after we arrived was to go visit the Acropolis. As we started our visit of the site we quickly realized something that for many might be obvious but not to us. When we talk about the Acropolis we immediately think of the huge stone monument with all the columns around it and the remains of a triangle top façade but as we quickly realized this building, or what remains of it, is actually called the Parthenon. Acropolis is in fact a much bigger site which includes of course the Parthenon but also a few other temples or monuments and the term simply means “higher city”.

Surrounding the Acropolis are many other sites such as the amazing and still functional Theater of Herodes Atticus with its round rows of seats made of stones but at least they provide a cushion for each seat. Sitting directly on the hard stone during an entire play would give the audience members more than what they paid for! All this looks good in pictures and they are indeed in reality but the trick is to actually get to the sites. No buses or anything, we must walk uphill. At the gate at the bottom of the hill we bought a ticket giving us access to about ten different sites then started walking the path made for that purpose. Along the way we would stop at a theater here then carefully observed a fallen column there but at one point an old site is an old site and we just kept going to the top to see THE monument namely the Parthenon. Of course the most difficult part at the Parthenon is to take a picture that doesn’t show all the cranes and scaffoldings used for the restoration of the old building. However, it is worth mentioning that Greeks are doing quite a good job with their ancient ruins. They are literally rebuilding the old sites by using existing stones still available but also by adding new ones where some are missing or adding cement to complete the broken ones. The result is that instead of looking at just a bunch of broken stones we are able to see a structure that looks just like what the original one was and is by far much more interesting to visit. Purists could argue that things should remain untouched but any building whatsoever needs maintenance to stay in place and I don’t see anything wrong with that.

Here are other pictures of the sites surrounding the Acropolis some of them very old others much newer but all standing as a remembrance of the glory of the cradle of civilization.

Athens is by far not only the old archeological sites but also a large modern city of about 5 millions of which we could have a good view from our hotel room on Konstantinou Street in the Omonia area. Some warned us that this area wasn’t the safest place in town but we didn’t feel such a thing. Of course walking at night in the area felt really out of place but during the day it was just another urban area where people just live their lives and see to their businesses. One interesting aspect of choosing that area was that it was not directly at the center of all touristic sites and therefore the hotel prices were a bit lower. Consequently we had to take the subway to get to the sites and as I said many times travelling in the public transportation system is always the best way to feel the real culture of the place. The Athens’ metro is a modern and efficient system and it was amazing to see that the payment of the entrance fee was somehow based on an honor system. The users buy their tickets from a machine, keep their tickets with them and simply enter the metro with no one to check at the gate. Apparently the tickets can be checked while in the train but we never saw such a thing. This kind of system would be simply inconceivable in Montreal for instance but here it seems to work.

Friday, June 24, 2011

A quick stop in Canada.

After more than 28 months for me and 18 months for Danielle outside of Canada we really needed to get back in touch with our culture and to see our friends and families. During our short two week stay in the middle of May we had appointments with people in Montreal, Ottawa and Sherbrooke that made us travel over 1000 km. Even when we stop we still travel like crazy! In total we had breakfasts, lunches and dinners with over 37 different peoples, friends and family, and we even forgot a few. It’s unbelievable how good it feels to see our people again. Africa and pirates that’s nice but it’s always pleasant to go back once in awhile to see the peoples dear to us and 28 months straight of travelling that’s long, very long. We also took the opportunity to make it up with home food. During our passages along the Red Sea while the Sahara ran along the shore I had only one thing in mind; a large poutine, two steamed hot-dogs and a Sprite from La Belle Province’s! So, as soon as we arrived in Montreal while it was only 5am for us we rushed for a poutine and steamed hot-dogs. We took at least 4kg during our stay in Canada! Despite our fast pace to see everyone we still managed to take a few hours to revert back to a normal life to seed grass and to attend to the backyard in a sunny afternoon. It wasn’t my own backyard but what do I care? Finally, one of the important things we had to do was to renew our passports. Not because they were expiring but because they were now full and had no more available pages for new stamps! Do I need to say that we asked to keep our old passports?

While in Peru and Bolivia there were protests for social improvements, in Yemen protests targeted political reforms and in Egypt people were claiming the legal lynching of Mubarak. So when we came back to Canada even with our own conservative dictator recently reelected with a majority in parliament we were happy to leave the Middle East troubles behind us but it seemed that the troubles in question didn’t want to leave us. As we walked the downtown streets of Ottawa we came face-to-face with a protest …. for Libya! There’s really no end to it I’m telling you. An interesting point though was that we stopped and even took a picture of the protest. Around us people were going their way and although they were likely not insensitive to the horrors presently happening in Libya they were simply not touched enough to stop and pay attention to the object of the protest. Of course, wasn’t it for the fact that we now sail for months right in the middle of these Middle Eastern troubles we too would have probably not pay attention to these peoples trying to their best to make of their native land a better world.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Medieval Rhodes

When we booked our flight tickets to Canada many months ago we thought we would be able to make it to Athens in time but sailing is always slower than planned. Our boat was still in Marmaris, Turkey and we found that the best way to go to Athens was to take a ferry from Marmaris to the island of Rhodes, Greece then to take a domestic flight from Rhodes to Athens. The problem was that the only available ferry ran three days before our flight from Athens. So we had to spend a few days in the magnificent medieval city of Rhodes on the Greek island of the same name. What a terrible life we have! But Rhodes or anywhere in Greece rimes with extraordinaire food and we sure took this stop on the island to enjoy Hellenic food, for sure, but also the unique ambiance of a small “taverna” somewhere in the multitude of stone paved streets of Old Rhodes. Greek salads, gyros and moussakas here we are! (Note that Greeks would tell us that gyros are not real Greek food but who cares? They make very good Pita Gyros down here!)

Greece is obviously a modern society but visiting Old Rhodes was definitively travelling back in times when templar nights were roaming the streets and mixing their own vision of the world with the millenniums old Greek culture. Prices were maybe outrageous but what a treat it was to spend a few days in Rhodes.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Turkey; Back to civilization and boat repairs.

After a 2 day crossing from Egypt to Turkey across the Mediterranean Sea we arrived at the small town of Kas, Turkey. It was somehow refreshing to go back to a modern society after spending over six months in underdeveloped countries. Of course, developed means expensive but also the easy availability of goods and Turkey, with double digit inflation in the past decade, really caught up with Europe in terms of prices. But still we felt immediately at ease in this charming town where we did our clearance in the country. We spent only a couple of days in Kas before moving west but as we were there they had a family holiday of some sort and they were presenting the traditional making of a kind of large crepe stuffed with a plant tasting very close to spinach and with some local cheese. I don’t remember what the name of that crepe was but I know it was pretty good. Seeing the ladies rolling the dough with a long narrow stick was quite impressive.

Last time we hauled out Chocobo for refit was in Curacao a year and half ago. Since then we crossed the Pacific, South-East Asia, the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea. So when we arrived at the city of Marmaris, in the south-west corner of Turkey, she was long overdue for some care. Besides, we had a long list of breakups that we managed to patch as we were going through a long string of countries where asking for a specific boat part was like asking for a part to fix our space shuttle! So for nine days we worked like little bees and at the end Chocobo had regained all her shiny look of before. Once done we quickly put her back in the water to get her prepared for the month to come during which we would be away as we had our plane tickets booked many months ago to go spend a couple of weeks in Canada then to visit Athens and Istanbul.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Crossing the Suez canal

To get from the Red Sea into the Mediterranean Sea it is mandatory to go through the famous Suez Canal and this was our last adventure in Egypt. Maybe not less important than the Panama Canal the Suez Canal is not as impressive in terms of infrastructure or engineering feat. For one thing it is a direct canal all at sea level with no locks and the surrounding on both shores is simply sand and desert. The crossing process is quite simple. The total distance to cover is 90 miles and is crossed in two days with a stop for the night in the town of Ismailia right in the middle. Each day an Egyptian pilot comes aboard and leaves at the end. So the first one boarded in Port Suez and left in Ismailia and of course not without asking for a bakchich for his services. He did a rather good job so we gave him a good tip but obviously he told us that this was not much and asked for more. Note that it didn’t matter how much we gave him in the first place he would have asked for more by making you feel like a cheap person. That’s one of the too many cultural traits of Egyptians that make them impossible to stand for the rest of humanity. And don’t think this is because they are Arabs or Muslim because I have an Arab Muslim friend who went to Egypt for his honeymoon and came back discussed by them! Finally the second pilot came in Ismailia and left in Port Said. His English being quite limited he didn’t argue much about his tip and left rather happy with what we gave him.

Because of the lack of special features along the canal I don’t have much to say about it. However, one particularity is the limited width of the canal. Most sections were dug by hand and based on the size of the boat at the time I guess. The fact is that it’s pretty difficult for two large cargos to cross each other so they cross only at specific time in each direction and for both half of the trek. In the middle there are huge lakes allowing boats to cross both ways. In order to do that they gather at each end of the canal and leave all with 10 minutes between each other in a long convoy of about 20 cargos. Sailboats cannot cope with the fast pace of the ships so we leave in the morning no matter what. This means that inevitably we cross or get passed by a convoy of behemoths in channel that becomes very narrow at that very moment!

One thing worth mentioning though is that we cross the canal in company of another sailboat called La Palapa with Roger and Karla on board who happened to be celebrating their one year anniversary while we were in Ismailia. We didn’t know and thus didn’t have anything planned but wanted to have pizza on board Chocobo. The problem was that we didn’t have enough flour to make the dough so I went by La Palapa and asked Roger if they wanted to come over Chocobo for a pizza dinner. After he accepted this generous offer I asked him if he had a bit of flour to spare!!! Yes I know I’m pathetic sometimes but what can I do? Once on board they told us about their first anniversary so we improvised a candle on the pizza to mark the special event.

One last note. In my last post I unfairly compared Egyptians with mosquitoes, bank managers, matrimonial lawyers and used car dealers. I think that these words were too harsh and I would like to officially apologies to mosquitoes, bank managers, matrimonial lawyers and used car dealers for comparing them to Egyptians. Here, now I can sleep better.