A Travellerspoint blog

February 2019

Aya Sofya (Hagia Sophia)

Istanbul


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Happy birthday, Dave! An exotic birthday two years in a row now - last year in the Ecuadorian Andes, this year in the historic heart of Istanbul...

The Hagia Sophia, or the Aya Sofya as it's known here, was the first place we went to after breakfast. At 9.30, the place was already really busy, but despite the multitude of selfie sticks (the first time I'd really seen them being used), it didn't take anything away from the magnificence of the place! Neither did the scaffolding on one wall of the interior.

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We both found the mixture of Christianity and Islam within the Hagia Sophia an interesting combination. It was set up like a mosque, but also had remnants of decorations it had when it was still a church, before its conversion into a mosque. There was a fresco of the Virgin Mary & Child above where I guessed the main altar used to be, and on the first floor (where there were viewing galleries) there were very intricate and colourful mosaic frescoes of Jesus and the saints.

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We also really liked other objects of interest sprinkled around; these included a huge marble jar which was used for storing water and sherbet, graffiti left by the Viking soldiers in the Imperial Guard in Constantinople and a huge stone bowl with a stone snake wrapped round it.

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Once we'd left the main building, we came out into the courtyard, where there was a small stone building which is now the manager's office but used to be a religious elementary school, and another small historic building which is now an office.

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We then walked round the corner to the Hagia Sophia's Tombs of the Sultans. At least five Sultans are buried here, along with their families. We had to remove our shoes before entry to each tomb.

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The decoration inside each one was very ornate, with colourful patterned tiles on the walls and interior of the dome. The coffins were all covered in green felt.

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After leaving the Hagia Sophia I took a couple of photos, we bought a drink each and sat on a wall to one side.

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A man came up and started chatting - his ulterior motive became obvious very quickly, however, when he claimed that Topkapi Palace (which we were in clear sight of) had a wait of an hour and a half to get into and what we really should do instead was let him guide us round the corner to the Basilica Cistern and then his carpet shop... Luckily we realised he was talking through his hat about Topkapi Palace, and in any case had no desire to be guided by him or to see his shop, so we refused his advances.

To be continued...

Posted by 3Traveller 11:02 Archived in Turkey Tagged art turkey museum istanbul dave hagia_sophia unesco_world_heritage_site Comments (0)

Arrival in Istanbul; the fulfilment of a dream...

Veliko Tarnovo and Istanbul


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The bus was only 5 minutes late from Veliko Tarnovo's Yug station.

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The driver didn't check our passports and tickets (so there was no need for us to have arrived half an hour early) but the 'road hostess' did, after walking up and down the aisle offering people splashes of lemon water. We just held out our hands and she poured it on.

The bus only had three or four people on it apart from us. Just before we started moving the old man in the seat behind us leaned over and started talking to us in Bulgarian. He asked where we were from, so I told him (also in Bulgarian). At that, he said something else but I simply couldn't understand what he said. Dave broke in at this point and said that the man had said 'Margaret Thatcher'!

The journey to the border took almost exactly four hours. We went by a highly scenic route with forested mountains on every side; the beauty was heightened even further by the sunset, which created silhouettes of the mountains and turned part of the sky pink. Although there were almost no clouds in the sky, for a while only two stars were visible; one of them was so incredibly bright we thought that it might actually be a planet. When the moon appeared, it seemed particularly large and yellow.

The border crossing took an hour and a half, much longer than it took between Bulgaria and Macedonia. It was physically much larger, with some duty-free shops in between the two countries' passport control that we stopped at for ten minutes, and there was much more traffic. There was also a baggage x-ray room to go through. This time I did get a passport stamp, although the writing and dates on it aren't clear!

On the resumption of our journey the road hostess made another round with the lemon water and then the TV, which had been showing a foreign talent show ever since Veliko Tarnovo, was turned off. It was now past 2 am and we could finally get some sleep.

I woke up to a very pink sky, pale and delicate very early morning light and... the city of Istanbul spread before me, with minarets silhouetted against the sky! I was bleary with fatigue, but still a great thrill of excitement ran through me. We were clearly on a hill, for I got a real sense of how large the city is.

It was 05.40 when I woke up. About twenty minutes later we got to the big otogar (bus station). This is about ten km from our hostel, so we had to get on the metro for a bit and then a tram for five stops. We passed mosque after mosque. On our walk from the Sultanahmet tram stop to our hostel we went through some gardens with the Hagia Sophia on our left and the Blue Mosque on our right. I almost couldn't believe we were there! The sun shone and although it was so early, it was already quite warm.

Although it was only about 07.30 when we got to the hostel and check-in wasn't until 12, they very kindly said that if we waited for half an hour, they could get our room ready for us by then.

We set the alarm for 12, but when it woke us up we fell back asleep as soon as I'd turned it off. Then I woke up again later due to the calls to prayer wailing from the mosques, but fell asleep as soon as they finished. We finally woke up for good at 15.20 - we clearly needed the sleep!

When we stepped outside, two women were sitting on a doorstep nearby, shelling peas. Someone was playing a flute inside. We passed them on our way back to the gardens we'd gone through earlier.

Our destination was the Museum of Turkish & Islamic Art, close to the Blue Mosque. We took some pictures of the mosque and of Hagia Sophia, the gardens and of the Hippodrome (where the Romans used to race horses, but is only really a long public square now, with one or two archaeological sections left) on the way.

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The museum was excellent - really well presented, and with exquisite examples of calligraphy, Medieval Turkish carpets, carvings, colourful glazed pottery and suchlike. It also gave a lot of information about and had artifacts from the Ottomans, Seljuks, Timiruds and other ruling dynasties of Turkey and Asia Minor. I remembered studying some of these in one of my first year History modules at Swansea.

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We stopped at the hostel for a short while to rest our feet and have a refreshing cold drink; then we headed round the corner to the seafront. Finally I was standing on the European side of Istanbul, gazing out at the Asian side across the Strait of Bosphorus! This was something I'd wanted to do for many years...

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We walked around for a while before going back to the hostel and then out for dinner. We shared bread and hummous; then Dave had a salad and the soup of the day, while I had sautéed chicken which turned out to come in chunks with a tasty tomato and onion sauce.

Posted by 3Traveller 09:32 Archived in Turkey Tagged mountains mosque turkey museum istanbul buses bosphorus dave bulgarian bulgaria hagia_sophia veliko_tarnovo roman_remains unesco_world_heritage_site turkish_cuisine Comments (0)

Relaxation before our night bus to Istanbul

Veliko Tarnovo


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We arrived back from Sofia at lunchtime, so since we didn't have to be at the bus station until 20.00 for our night bus to Istanbul, that meant we had a nice long break to relax and get our stuff together for our Turkish travels in the next two weeks.

The first couple of hours were spent having tea, coffee and some snacks on the terrace with F, R and her brother G, who had arrived back in VT yesterday. The sun was shining and it was just so idyllic, sitting there with grape-laden vines above us, and a spectacular view in front of us. Apparently the grapes will become fully ripe in August - just after I've gone! Oh well.

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Late afternoon, Dave and I decided to go out for a meal at Stratilat Café - the last proper meal we'd have until we arrived in Istanbul the next day. A salad for Dave and tarator and rice pudding for me. More lovely views - you get one at every turn in Veliko Tarnovo - from the balcony.

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After our meal we made sure we were well stocked with drinks and snacks for the long journey. I have some kashkavalki and other cheesy rolls for us, plus some fruit mentos and one or two other things. On our return, we rested again for a bit and then packed. Passports - check, electronic Turkey visa confirmation print-outs - check, cameras - check... So excited about Istanbul!

Posted by 3Traveller 10:04 Archived in Bulgaria Tagged buses dave bulgaria veliko_tarnovo bulgarian_cuisine Comments (0)

Thracian treasure, wonderful pizza

Sofia


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After resting a while in our room after our Mount Vitosha excursion, we headed out to the Archaeological Museum, because Dave hadn't been before at all and I hadn't been since October so I wanted to see if a) the wonderful Thracian treasure troves were still there and b) if the temporary exhibition had changed. We went there via the amazing pizza place and also the Rotonda Church of St George.
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It was very interesting for me to get another look at everything, and Dave was impressed by the Thracian treasure in particular. At first we thought the Thracian treasure room was closed off, but then we realised that although the door was closed, people were actually still allowed in. I couldn't get over how amazing a lot of the craftsmanship was. The burial masks, helmets, jewellery, drinking horns, wreaths of almost paper-thin gold leaves... just absolutely stunning.

The temporary exhibition room now had an interesting exhibition of the finds from a Roman Thracian villa. It included two of the finest pieces of Roman glassware ever found (according to the blurb - they did indeed look very fine), plus an assortment of other things; an extraordinarily well preserved and engraved helmet, a stone with a carving of a Thracian Horseman, some coins, metal tools and other household objects.

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We headed back to the main part of the hostel then, though we looked into the Sveta Nedelya Cathedral on the way. The scaffolding that had been along the whole of one wall ever since I first saw it (last October) has been taken down now, so the results of the fresco cleaning that had been going on there could clearly be seen.

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Back at the hostel we played some games of pool and had our free dinner before returning to our room.

We've got an early start tomorrow - our bus to Veliko Tarnovo leaves at 09.00 - so I'd better be off now for a relatively early night.

Posted by 3Traveller 08:23 Archived in Bulgaria Tagged museum cathedral hostel dave sofia bulgaria orthodox_church roman_remains Comments (0)

Mount Vitosha

Mount Vitosha


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This morning Dave and I did something I'd been wanting to do since I first got to Bulgaria; we took a cable car up Mount Vitosha, the mountain overlooking Sofia. The cable car trip alone was worth the 10 leva it cost for a return ticket, because it was the longest I've ever been on and we were surrounded by beautiful forested slopes most of the time. Needless to say, the view of Sofia laid out before us in the distance was a grand sight as well; it reminded me of our view of Quito from the top of Pichincha Volcano.

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The cable car didn't take us all the way to the top of any of the peaks (there were at least three peaks of the mountains), but where it dropped us off was lovely, so we didn't feel the need to continue further - we just fancied a lovely stroll around, rather than an extremely strenuous hike in the manner of our Ben Nevis and Cotopaxi Volcano ascents.

Unfortunately, after only five minutes in one direction a man came sprinting past us at full pelt; after we'd continued for five minutes further we saw why. A man was lying on the ground, unconscious, with a small group of people around him trying to bring him to. We really hoped that he'd just fainted (maybe due to the altitude), or maybe tripped over and knocked himself out, rather than anything worse. He was right by the edge of the path ahead of us. As we got closer, we looked back and saw two Bulgarian paramedics come running up the path through the wood, so we got out of the way sharpish. There was clearly nothing we could personally do to help, so we continued, hoping though that the man would be OK.

The scenery was beautiful, with lots of large flattish rocks in piles, rhododendrons, bushes with very fluffy, cotton-like seed clumps, what looked like very large and fleshy-looking thistles and the occasional grove of pine or fir trees.

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The trail was well signposted. After about twenty minutes we reached a plateau of long-grassed heath, with more groves of trees further down the slope on our right hand side and a very high ridge/ peak on our left.

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We looked round for a bit before heading back the way we'd come. The man at the side of the path had now disappeared.

Once we got back to where the cable car had landed, we set off on a trail in the other direction. We had even better views from here than on the other one.

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The sun was still shining and it wasn't very windy at all considering we were very high up a mountain. On our return from there it was now lunchtime, so we stopped at a café and in Bulgarian I ordered us kyufte, kebapche, shopska salad and some chips for us to share, before we took the cable car back down again.

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Posted by 3Traveller 11:27 Archived in Bulgaria Tagged mountains dave bulgaria butterflies bulgarian_cuisine mount_vitosha Comments (0)

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