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The Blue Mosque, the Basilica Cistern & more

Istanbul


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After breakfast we set off to another must-visit destination, a famous site I was really keen to visit; the Blue Mosque.

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There are two entrances to the main building; one for Muslims who come to pray (it's a working mosque) and one for tourists. It's free entry to all. Our queue was quite long, but moved at quite a decent pace, so we didn't have to wait for that long. Our wait was enlivened by a tour group behind us being given a talk in Spanish by their leader - he spoke very quickly and his Spanish sounded quite different to Ecuadorian Spanish, but I made out something about Ramadan, no drinking and no smoking.

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All women who didn't have something to use as a headscarf were given one to put on; men wearing shorts were also given one, to wrap around themselves like skirts. Dave didn't have to because he was wearing trousers. Before we stepped over the main threshold everybody had to take off their shoes and put them in a clear plastic bag.

The interior was just as large, airy, beautiful and elegant as I'd always imagined. It was full of blue-patterned Iznik tiles which gives the mosque its name to Westerners (out of interest, to locals it's known only as Sultanahmet Mosque). We admired the place for ages before eventually leaving.

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I gave back my headscarf, we put our shoes back on and we went into the courtyard adjoining the main building. This was also beautiful and we took a few more photos.

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From the Blue Mosque we headed over to the Basilica Cistern nearby. We were extremely hot by now, but the Basilica Cistern cooled us down. This huge column-supported underground cistern, used to hold 80,000 cubic metres of water for the imperial palace and other local residents, was built by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian (527-565). It has been renovated on more than one occasion since then, and is no longer used as a cistern, but still holds a foot or two of water, enough to support lots of fish.

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The only light in there came from lights shining onto the bases and tops of the columns, so the atmosphere was ever so slightly eerie, even with the high volume of visitors walking around on the wooden pathways raised above the water. I enjoyed watching the fish. In some parts of the water, people had thrown coins. Right at the back of the cistern there were two sculpted heads of Medusa; each one was at the base of a column. One was set sideways, the other upside down! Apparently nobody is entirely sure why they were placed there.

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After we left the cistern we went into a shop where we bought postcards, a book about Istanbul and a fridge magnet, and Dave picked up a free book of cartoons by a Turkish cartoonist.

After this we went back to our hostel to shower, have cold drinks and rest for a while. We went via Sultanahmet Park.

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When we stirred again, it was to the Great Palace Mosaic Museum down the road. This was relatively small, but excellent, with a great long floor mosaic taking the centre stage. The palace has now gone apart from this mosaic and several smaller ones arranged on the walls around it. The mosaics were magnificent, with pictures of animals, trees and human figure.

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When we left the museum we came out into the Arasta Bazaar. This bazaar is different to others in that it's hassle-free and lots of the goods have fixed prices. I saw some very intricately painted beautiful unframed pictures on special paper, including one of two world maps, but it was extremely expensive so I didn't get it. We wandered up and down the rest of the bazaar, which was small, but didn't buy anything.

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After another short rest at the hostel we went out for dinner at one of the two cafe-restaurants attached to the Arasta Bazaar. We shared bread and hummous and each had a different type of kebab; to go with them I had a lemonade with honey and Dave had some mint tea and a glass of lemonade & banana juice. For dessert I tried Turkish rice pudding, which was cold and had been made with ground rice instead of grains - it was delicious! Dave had baklava, which he also found delicious. We each had a Turkish coffee afterwards; it came with two mini chunks of Turkish Delight.

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As dinner drew on, we noticed the waiters setting out cling filmed plates of food on the other tables. These tables started filling up with locals; we asked our waiter what the event was and he said that it was for the breaking of the day's fast for Ramadan. The food I saw on their tables was flatbreads and bowls of salad.

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Posted by 3Traveller 06:56 Archived in Turkey Tagged art mosque market turkey museum istanbul spanish bazaar dave roman_remains unesco_world_heritage_site turkish_cuisine 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 (2)

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)

Last teaching day

Veliko Tarnovo


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Today was the last day of the language school's academic year, and so my last day of work. It has been slowly winding down for a while though - the young learner classes all finished at the end of May (when they finish their academic year) and the exam preparation classes have also already finished. I only actually had one class today; a small, absolutely lovely Elementary class which I've really enjoyed teaching. They were very kind when I was saying goodbye!

I forgot to mention it in previous blog entries, but speaking of kind goodbyes, I was taken to Stratilat Café for lunch last month by a one-to-one student as a thank you for helping her pass the CAE (Cambridge Advanced exam). After we'd finished eating she gave me a novel called 'The Help' by Kathryn Stockett, set in the 1960s and described as 'the other side of Gone with the Wind'... sounds like an interesting read! She said that she hoped I would remember her every time I read it. Of course I will - she was an absolute pleasure to teach!

Last Sunday 'R' and I had a leaving party which was supposed to be held on the terrace in the sunshine, but unfortunately for once the weather failed us and the rain forced it into my flat instead. We had a great time anyway! Lots of people came and we had loads of food - mozzarella & tomato salad with red pesto, homemade hummous, flatbreads which I cooked ultra-fresh so people could eat them straight from the pan, green salad, a ham selection, strings of preserved sausages, sirene (feta-like) cheese, snezhanka (a yoghurt & cucumber salad), bottled roasted red peppers, olives, salted & buttered popcorn... There was cake which someone made, too, but I didn't have any space left for any!

Last Thursday I paid a visit to VT's Archaeological Museum. I know it sounds a bit silly but I didn't realise it was there until only about a month ago! The entrance is quite hidden away and there is a distinct lack of signage and advertising of it, compared to other attractions here. I love visiting archaeology museums - wish I'd found out about this place a lot sooner. Anyway, although not quite at the same level as the archaeology museums in Varna and Sofia, it was definitely worth visiting. It had some prehistoric objects, finds from the nearby Roman town of Nicopolis ad Istrum (which I visited on 21st March; see my blog entry here), Tsarevets Fortress when they were reconstructing the Patriarchate Tower in the 1980s, some votive tablets and figures of gods and goddesses, some Roman toys made of clay and some other interesting artifacts.

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One or two other out-of-the-ordinary have happened within the last two or three weeks - small enough not to merit a separate blog post each, so I've saved them up to put in one together;

- A couple of weeks ago it was a very misty and cloudy day; so much so that little sun was getting through. Both windows in my kitchen/ living room area were open. All of a sudden a swallow flew inside one window, circled the room and flew out of the other! When I looked back out of the window I saw loads of them circling round. My flat is on a ridge with valleys on both sides, so I have a wonderful view. I'd never seen so many swallows in the air in one place before, let along so high up yet level with my eyeline.

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- A week or two before the swallows incident, I was sitting in my flat doing something or other when suddenly I heard a voice on a loudspeaker getting louder and louder and then fading away. I rushed to the window and looked down but I was just too late to see what was going on. Ten minutes later it came back again and I saw that it was a circus advertising ploy - a small truck with colourful billboards on the back. It was clearly going round the town in circles, raising awareness. The third time it came round I was ready with my camera and managed to get a picture.

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- Two Friday evenings ago there was a Sound & Light Show with the accompanying soundtrack available to all - not sure what the occasion was (usually the soundtrack, apart from the bells, is only for a group of paying customers). It was a lovely balmy evening with a clear crescent moon. It was wonderful to hear and watch the show again, though bittersweet for me because I knew it was probably the last time I would hear it.

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As I said, tomorrow I am off to my first post-work travel destination; Skopje, Macedonia! I will have to go via Sofia. This is my plan for the next month and a bit; all of this worked out by ourselves, as we are travelling independently rather than with any tour company.

Veliko Tarnovo - Sofia - Skopje (Macedonia) - Sofia & maybe Mount Vitosha (Dave joins me here) - Veliko Tarnovo - Istanbul (Turkey) - Cappadocia - Izmir - Selçuk - Ephesus - Selçuk - Izmir - Istanbul - Veliko Tarnovo (Bulgaria) - Sofia (Dave flies home) - Veliko Tarnovo - Bucharest (Romania) - Sighișoara - Budapest (Hungary) - Home (UK).

Now that I've finished writing this, time now to down the road with 'R' to meet up with the other teachers for a drink or two at The Bestseller. A cocktail I think, or some Kahlua on ice or Malibu & Diet Coke.

Posted by 3Traveller 06:20 Archived in Bulgaria Tagged parties birds museum bulgaria veliko_tarnovo english_teaching fortifications roman_remains tsarevets_fortress bulgarian_cuisine Comments (0)

Further Plovdiv explorations

Plovdiv and Shipka


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Well, we certainly fitted a lot into this morning and the first half of the afternoon!

The very first thing I did after breakfast was walk to an internet café to print off Mum's boarding pass for her. Reception at our hostel didn't have a printer, but they told me how to get to a place where there was one. Something I've noticed in Bulgaria is that internet cafés are much rarer than they are in Ecuador - this was the first time I'd been to one in Bulgaria. It was mega-simple though - walked in, didn't even need to log on to one of the for-public-use computers as the girl in charge set up hers quickly for me instead; three minutes, cost about 20 stotinki (8p)! On my way back I stopped at a fruit & vegetable market and bought Mum a bag of cherries.

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First stop together was the Ethnographic Museum; I'd been there before, in March, but Mum hadn't. Our favourite exhibits were; the traditional musical instruments and mummers' costumes, the large wooden attar of roses container which had been steeped in the stuff for so long in the past that it still smelled wonderfully of roses, and the huge, fluffy (sheepskin?), colourful rugs on one wall. Mum also particularly liked the embroidery as well.

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From there we headed down the road to Hadji Aleko's House, via a souvenir shop where the owner's wife weaved mats and wall hangings on looms at the back of the shop (she wasn't actually in action when we went, but there were half-made things on them and the owner told us his wife made them).

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Hadji Aleko's House is a National Revival building now used as an art gallery. Downstairs was filled with contemporary paintings for sale, whilst upstairs had a permanent exhibition. My favourite contemporary painting was of a colourful Firebird. Lots of original antique furniture as well, especially upstairs.

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Once we had looked round the gallery we were feeling quite hungry, so I took Mum to a restaurant I knew of at the foot of Danov Hill. Back in March I tried to have lunch there but was thwarted by the public holiday crowds, so I was keen to return! My tarator and potato balls were delicious; the dish of cooked red pepper slices surprised me by being cold, but were nice all the same.

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Our last proper stop before returning to the hostel was done on an impulse at a small mosaic museum which I think was connected to a Roman forum excavation nearby. The mosaics were impressive and we also liked the well-lit and colourful collection of amulets and scent bottles made of Roman glass. It was just the thing to round off our Plovdiv visit!

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After picking up my stuff from our hostel and saying goodbye, I took a taxi to the north bus station. The bus journey back to Veliko Tarnovo was uneventful, though we did stop for ten minutes at Shipka. The golden domes of the Russian Church gleamed over the rooftops. Right in the middle of the parking area was a cherry tree absolutely dripping with ripe fruit; I enjoyed several ultra-fresh, sweet and juicy cherries before it was time to get back on the bus.

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Mum had a couple of hours to go in Plovdiv before her lift to the airport; apparently she went for another walk and saw a Bulgarian bagpiper performing outside a shop. This is something I really want to see before I leave Bulgaria.

Posted by 3Traveller 06:57 Archived in Bulgaria Tagged mountains art market museum buses traditions bulgaria mum plovdiv roman_remains house_museum bulgarian_cuisine traditional_customs shipka_pass Comments (0)

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