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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)

Back to Sofia - Dave arrives for Christmas

Sofia


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Dave arrived today at Sofia Airport, but not until 23.50 so I had quite a few hours to myself in Sofia before then. My bus journey from Veliko Tarnovo was uneventful and I arrived at Hostel Mostel mid-afternoon.

On my walk from the bus station to the hostel I suddenly heard lots of very loud twittering and chirping on my right hand side; I turned round and saw a bushy tree the same height as me, filled with sparrows! I stepped up right next to them and none of them flinched or flew away. It reminded me of when Mum visited in October and said that the sparrows reminded her of how common they used to be in London forty or fifty years ago.

It looked like a really good place - before I was taken to my room I had time to send a quick email on one of the free computers and take note of the free pool table! The private rooms were in a separate building three minutes away from the main hostel; the room was excellent and I
liked the common room and kitchen.

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Shortly afterwards I went out to do some shopping. I admired the clearest view of the mountains yet, walked to the fruit & vegetable market to look for brussel sprouts (unsuccessfully - I've heard they they only appear on sale in Bulgaria for a couple of days per year), visited one or two shops and when my legs got tired I sat down in Sveta Nedelya Cathedral for a bit. There was a service going on; a group of people were standing in the middle, flanked by six poinsettia arrangements. Choral music filled the cathedral, but I couldn't see any choir anywhere so I assumed that was through a sound system. I bought and lit a beeswax candle for Dad.

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On my walk around Sofia I noticed several streetsellers selling branches of fir tree, branches from another type of tree (which I think it traditionally brought inside the house at Christmas in Bulgaria) and other branches which had ribbons, stringed popcorn, (I think) sheep's wool, and other decorations attached. I think this last type of branch are traditionally carried by children as they go carol singing from house to house from midnight on Christmas morning onwards.

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I got a free dinner at eight o'clock - pasta with tomato sauce and salad. As I was eating, I couldn't help but overhear the conversation two guys sitting near me were having. I listened, puzzled, because it sounded similar to Spanish but also different. I was just pondering whether to ask them where they were from, when another girl walked up to them and asked 'de dondé eres?' (Where are you from? in Spanish). They replied 'Chile!'. I nearly laughed - when I was in Ecuador, every time I asked the students which Spanish accents they liked the most and least, they always said that they found Chileans very difficult to understand. Now I can see why! It sounded very different to Ecuadorian Spanish.

I took the bus to the airport terminal late at night, at quarter past eleven. Somehow I ended up getting a free journey, because although I checked with the driver if it was going to the airport or not he never asked me for the fare (like the girl at the hostel reception said he would) and there were no conductors or machines to give money to. On the way there I saw other people get on and then get off again later without having paid anyone anything, but the driver never said anything, so I just got off at the terminal and hoped for the best.

It was amazing to see Dave again, as you can imagine. Thankfully the OK-Supertrans taxi service desk was still open, so we took one of their taxis to the hostel.

Posted by 3Traveller 05:15 Archived in Bulgaria Tagged mountains market airport spanish cathedral christmas hostel buses dad sofia bulgaria mum orthodox_church traditional_customs Comments (0)

UNESCO World Heritage Site: Historic City of Toledo

Toledo


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Today I finally managed to visit Toledo, an extremely beautiful, historical town that I've wanted to go to for many years!

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It was a day trip organised by my hostel and we left quite late in the morning so I didn't have as much time as I'd have liked - I only really had time for some photos from a viewing point at the top of the public library...

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... a wander through picturesque, narrow, cobbled streets, a set lunch and then a really good look round the cathedral, including a trip up the belfry tower to see what I think is the largest bell in Spain.

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The cathedral included a museum that was mainly filled with religious art but also contained four silver sculptures from 1695 of a goddess sitting on a globe showing one of the four known continents on the world at the time. I gave a mental cheer when I looked at the Americas one and saw the names of both Guayaquil and Quito carved into the correct places in the space where the country Ecuador would later be created.

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At lunch I tried something I'd never tried until then - octopus. It came in chunks as part of the free appetiser. The texture and taste was much nicer than I expected. I still don't think I'd be able to eat an octopus if it arrived on my plate whole with all its tentacles out, but in the future if a dish has octopus chunks in it I won't hold back from ordering it.

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After I left the cathedral I had just enough time to buy a very special souvenir for myself - a small but high quality knife with a blade made from Toledo steel and the handle handmade from antler. I did the whole interaction with the guy in the shop in Spanish so I didn't understand every word he said, but before I bought it I made sure to check that it's a type of knife allowed into the UK. He showed me the types he had that aren't allowed and said that my one was fine. So fingers crossed it will get through OK on Monday! I've already put it into my big case to make sure I don't leave it in my hand luggage by mistake and have it confiscated at baggage x-ray.

Once I was back in Madrid I met two really nice girls from Philadelphia who had moved into my dorm while I was out. They were very chatty and when they said they were going to Lisbon soon I told them that I think it's one of the best cities I've ever been to, which made them get even more excited about it. Amongst other things, I recommended that they go to the famous Portuguese custard tart shop/café in the area of Belém.

For dinner the three of us joined in an all-you-can-eat tapas event organised by the hostel jointly with some other hostels nearby. There ended up being quite a large group. We were taken on a walk to the tapas bar, which was almost unnoticeable on the street (it wasn't a touristy place), led upstairs and then organised into groups standing up at small circular tables. Plates of tapas were brought round to us, along with very large glasses of a drink very much like sangria. The tapas was very tasty, though not very much at all in the way of vegetables.

After the tapas finished there was an option to carry on to a bar crawl, but the Philadelphians and I decided to give it a miss and head to bed, as it was already very late and we had a lot planned for the next day. They were going to go on a Toledo day trip (I'd recommended it) and there were lots of things I wanted to see and do in Madrid.

Posted by 3Traveller 07:49 Archived in Spain Tagged art toledo museum spanish spain cathedral madrid hostel unesco_world_heritage_site spanish_cuisine Comments (0)

Mindo: Cloud forest, butterflies, waterfalls and ziplining

Mindo


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Sunday 20th July

Bus journey from Quito to Mindo. Mindo is a tiny village surrounded by mountains covered in cloud forest, which makes up one of the most biodiverse areas on Earth. This setting is certainly dramatic.

My hostel was very quiet. I'd booked a bed in a 2-bed dorm, which along with the other dorms was within the owner's house, but nobody else arrived to take the other bed. In fact I seemed to be the only person booked into a dorm the whole time I was there! This meant it was very quiet, peaceful and relaxing.

For dinner I had a whole steamed tilapia fish, learning through the process of ordering that the Spanish word for steamed is 'al vapor'... makes sense considering what the process of steaming is. I'd never come across steamed food on a menu in Ecuador before.

Monday 21st July

At breakfast I saw hummingbirds for the first time since Dave and I did the Inca Trail in Peru five years ago!

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After some scrambled eggs, pineapple juice, melon slices, toast, jam and coffee I looked round the little orchid garden attached to the hostel, but it evidently wasn't the right time of year to see them because not very many were in flower. It was still nice to wander round though.

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After that I booked a ziplining trip for the afternoon and walked to a butterfly farm. It was very hot and sunny and I soon left paved roads behind; as I walked along the whitish dirt road in the middle of lush greenery, with the sun beating down on my head, I got a sudden image in my head of the cover of my copy of 'As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning', which shows the back of Laurie Lee as he walks by himself along a road in the middle of nowhere in Spain.

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At the butterfly farm I saw some bright shiny silver jewel-like chrysalises that are designed to look like water drops, a butterfly in the process of breaking out of a normal-coloured chrysalis, and lots of brightly coloured butterflies! I especially liked the ones that were grey, brown and black on one side of their wings but then electric blue on the other side when they opened them. There were bowls of overripe bananas around, food for the butterflies, and when I dipped my finger in the juice, butterflies would then land on it.

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My afternoon ziplining trip was an exhiliarating experience, zipping between beautiful valleys and mountains within the cloud forest. There were ten lines. I was put with two small groups of Germans and one of Ecuadorians. We saw two toucans in the branches of a tree at one point - I was so happy! I love toucans and I hadn't seen any since Dave and I saw some in Brazil on the same trip five years ago that I just mentioned above.

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On the way back I started walking but was then given a lift the rest of the way by a group of girls who'd been in my group. It had clouded over by the time the ziplining had begun, and just as they dropped me off at the end of my road it started pouring with rain.

A couple of hours later, when I went out for dinner, the rain had stopped. I went to a café known for its brownies, though I didn't have room for one after I'd had my main. They didn't actually have any hot main dishes left by that time, only salads and sandwiches, so I had a really thick tuna sandwich with a side of yuca chips and a chocolate milkshake. I made a mental note to come back the next day for lunch.

Tuesday 22nd July

First thing this morning I went on a cable car over a forested gorge to a protected forest, where there was a long walking trail leading to and past six different waterfalls. I was one of the first people there so I had a lovely peaceful walk with nobody else around for the majority of the time. It was very sunny again this morning.

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It took a couple of hours to do the main walk, which went past five of the waterfalls. Then there was a shorter, separate path to the sixth waterfall, which was also the biggest. I swam in the pool and river beneath it - the water was so refreshing and cool - very very welcome considering how hot and sweaty I was after my long hike! The current was very strong so when I tried to swim to the waterfall itself to get underneath it, I couldn't because the current pushed me back so hard. I was trying to swim forwards but ended up just swimming on the spot.

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I wanted to stay in there for hours but eventually dragged myself out, got changed and hiked back to the cable car station. Then I walked the 4 km back to the hostel (I'd got a taxi on the way there in the morning). It was all downhill but because I was already tired from the long hike, I arrived pretty exhausted.

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It was about 3pm when I arrived back, so as soon as I'd dumped my stuff I went straight back out again for some lunch at the same café I'd been to for dinner the night before. This time I went for the soup of the day (cream of broccoli and asparagus), a chocolate milkshake, Fanta and one of their famous chocolate brownies. I was stuffed by the time I finished.

I then went back to the hostel for a bit before going to an internet café for a couple of hours. I wasn't particularly hungry for dinner because of how late I'd had lunch, so I left dinner as late as I could and then only had a plate of chips.

Posted by 3Traveller 15:23 Archived in Ecuador Tagged waterfalls mountains birds spanish hostel butterflies ecuador mindo ziplining hummingbirds explorations toucans ecuadorian_cuisine freshwater_swimming Comments (0)

Holiday weekend begins

Santa Elena and Montañita


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24th May is a public holiday in Ecuador (commemorating the Battle of Pichincha) and this year that falls on a Saturday... so that means no Saturday classes tomorrow, and to take advantage of that, a group of us teachers decided to go to the coast for the weekend. Our destination was Olón, a little village not far north of Montañita.

The coast is a very popular holiday destination for Guayaquileños, so by the time everyone had finished work today and we had all got to the bus terminal, it was the evening and all the direct buses were booked out. No worries, we said, we'll just get a bus to Santa Elena and then get another one from there up the coast to Olón. We are a very chilled bunch. So that is what we did.

We had no problems on our journey to Santa Elena... but once we arrived, one finally appeared. The coastal buses had stopped for the night! Never mind; in Ecuador there is always a way out of any transport issue, and this situation was no different. There was a minibus on the other side of the road which was taking passengers up the coast for a couple of dollars each, so we all crammed onto that.

Before we left we waited around for a while for the thing to fill up. Our travelling companions were all locals; one incredibly drunk young man who was passed out in his seat by the window when we got in, a middle-aged, more talkative but also very drunk guy and two other younger guys who were only tipsy.

The way the interior was set out, there were four rows of three seats, split into two sets of two rows facing each other. There was also a seat to one side and one up front next to the driver. From our group, I drew the short straw by getting in last - the others filled up one set of two rows and the individual seat, so I was left sitting in the other set of rows, with the passed-out guy on my right, the other drunk man on my left and the other locals in the three seats opposite.

This combination meant that until the guy on my left got out at a village about halfway to Montañita, I spent all my time keeping the corner of my right eye on the passed-out chap on my right in case he was sick on me, and shaking hands with the man on my left, who kept offering his hand to me and mumbling in Spanish with a word or two of English thrown in! Although my Spanish has improved, it is still not great, and because he was mumbling I understood even less than I would have done in perfect conditions. He said something about how he was a guitarist by trade and could teach me how to play (I politely refused). He shook hands with me about every three minutes for half an hour, until he got off the bus.

After he left 'S' moved into the seat next to me, something I was grateful for. The other passengers got dropped off not that long afterwards, so by the time we got off the bus at Montañita our group were the only ones left. We decided to spend tonight here instead of Olón because we'd have a better chance of finding somewhere to stay.

It was very late by now and we were starving, so the first thing we did after leaving the little bus terminal was head to a pizza restaurant for some food. Then on to a back street hostel for a night's sleep.

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Posted by 3Traveller 10:49 Archived in Ecuador Tagged coast spanish hostel ecuador montanita guayaquil Comments (0)

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