A Travellerspoint blog

24 hours in Stuttgart

A visit to the holy land...

sunny 75 °F

I am a car addict. There, I said it. Most of you who are reading this blog know me and are likely shaking your head from side to side knowing what a “problem” cars are for me. I’ve been a car addict since I was a very young boy (my mom and dad can attest to this), subscribing to hot rod magazine, making my own car wall art, collecting “Hot Wheels” by the score, building models, and drawing my favorites over and over again. As an adult, my garage has become evidence of my addiction, even stacking them on top of each other just to squeeze in one more. Problem? What problem? They say that admitting you have an addiction is the first step of curing it, but in this case, I have found that facing my addiction has only made me a very “self aware” car junkie.

I left the family in Zurich like any self respecting car junkie would, and made my pilgrimage to Stuttgart, a short 2.5 hour train trip, to pay homage to my favorite badge – Porsche. Stuttgart is where they build the Porsche 911, and I wanted to see it being made. As luck would have it, I was able to book a tour in the 911 factory with 10 other English speakers (mostly Americans) who were also religious followers of the Porsche.

I’m sure the Porsche factory is just a proud place to show up for work for most of the technicians, and St. Peters Basilica is only an office for the Pope, if you know what I mean. I was in awe. I saw a 911 turbo engine being assembled. I saw cow hides being cut into 911 body panels, and saw them being sewn. I saw 911 bodies drifting from the ceiling to meet their interiors. I saw those bodies being “wedded” to chassis and power plants, and I saw that all of this was being done with the most precious of instruments. Human hands. All of this stuff is hand assembled. The only thing in the factory that isn’t, is the windscreen. Factory technicians build 160 cars a day here, and every color and model of 911 can be seen interspersed on the line. It was a religious event for me (as much so as seeing St. Peters) but this witnessing didn’t require faith. I met some very nice people on the tour, and one fellow addict, Steve Potter, who is actually a Porsche Salesman in South Carolina, was doing the tour for fun on his vacation. I guess that’s the equivalent of me going to a data center in Eastern Washington for my vacation. We all asked a lot of questions of our young tour guide who spoke great clipped English, and was rarely stumped. “Yah. Thank you very much. Your tour is over now.” Unfortunately, they made us relinquish our cameras and phones before taking the tour so we didn’t expose any manufacturing trade secrets, so no photos of the tour. :-(

While in Stuttgart, I also visited the Porsche Museum, and the Mercedes Museum. The Porsche museum is tiny, but holds many significant cars, highlighting their racing heritage, while the Mercedes Museum is huge and other-worldly, showing their first cars, the plane engines they built for Nazi Germany, trucks and buses, as well as their entire racing fleet. My 24 hours in Stuttgart fed my addiction, and made me pine for home, just to get behind the wheel of my 911, while prepping the garage for a new one . After Italy and some time with Ferrari in Maranello, I had begun to wonder what sports car held the keys to my heart. After a 24 hour visit to Stuttgart and 2 hours or so in the Porsche Factory, it’s no longer a question.

Posted by Blakei 05:35 Archived in Germany Tagged automotive Comments (3)


A week in Zurich?

all seasons in one day 70 °F

I know what you’re thinking. Zurich? You guys spent a week in Zurich? Isn’t that the place that is chalk full of Swiss bank accounts, Swiss bankers, three piece suits, starched shirts and precision timing? In short, isn’t that that place that is tighter than Priscilla Presley’s Forehead? We thought that too. We were readying ourselves for structure and precision, and man were we wrong.

We have a dear friend (Tamara Jehle) who was born and raised in and around Zurich and through our conversations with her while we travelled (over Skype), we made arrangements to visit. We would leave Italy and head to Zurich for our first post-Italy European city. Tamara is in the Heli-skiing business in Zurich now, having finished a long stint as a professional snowboarder. We met Tamara in Whistler 10 years ago where she taught Anna and Carol how to Snow Board, and subsequently taught Parker and me as well. We’ve travelled to Mammoth together and she’s visited our homes a number of times over the years. It was only fitting that we stop and visit Tamara. She cleared four days to be with us and showed us a side of Zurich that few tourists see. It was completely counter to what we all thought when we conceptualized “Zurich”.

We found Zurich to be an energized, athletic, incredibly hip, culturally eclectic, and very accepting place. Sure, UBS and Credit Suisse are headquartered here, so there are bankers roaming the streets on weekdays, but there are Rastafarians, Punks, Goths, Metal Heads, Skate Boarders, Break Dancers, Beach Volleyballers, Mountain Bikers and extreme partiers on the weekends. Yes, some of them work for UBS. Tamara introduced us to some of her friends who we enjoyed immensely, and we were able to partake of the local scene as if we lived here.

The weather in Zurich was unbelievably nice. It was about 75 degrees and sunny with an occasional afternoon shower. Zurich rests on beautiful Lake Zurich that becomes the main source of entertainment when the weather gets good. We hung out by the lake or the river that drains it for a few days, taking in the sun and the beautiful people. The water was a chilly 58 degrees (f), but this didn’t prevent us from partaking (it was much warmer than South Africa). We took the very precise and most excellent public transportation system to House Mountain for a great view of Zurich and the surroundings and hiked down, watching mountain bikes traverse some pretty gnarly single track. We took the trams everywhere and found the connections from train to tram to bus to be completely flawless and near-perfect. Another lesson for America.

Perhaps the most fun we had was in a district called Letten. The Letten district had a wonderful area right next to the river that called home to a few bars and restaurants, a skate park, three beach volleyball courts, a makeshift masonite floor area where ex-gymnasts break-danced to tunes that we hear in the US all the time. Burning hemp wafted across the area as freely as cigarettes in Italy and not even a head turned, though deeply inhaling noses did. It was incredible to see all of the diverse activity taking place side by side. Skaters would punctuate the break dance floor with an errant board, while bar goers walked through the skatepark, occasionally trying out a board. The people were all so different, but also much the same, in that they just accepted everyone else. Territoriality didn’t seem to really exist and no one was trying to buzzkill any other cliques’ activity. Boarders, Break Dancers, Rastas, Sun Bathers, Beer Drinkers all coexisted in this environment. I can’t think of a place where this kind of thing exists in the states with this level of openness and acceptance. Zurich is amazingly COOL!

Speaking of cool, have you heard of Freitag (fray-tog) bags? They are the rage of the cool folk in Zurich. Freitag makes shopping bags, messenger bags of all sizes, purses, man bags, wallets, back packs, ipod holders, and they are all made out of recycled materials. To be precise they are made from seat belts, truck tarps, and recycled rubber. Other companies have been trying to replicate them for years to no avail. The bags look a little like a used truck tarp (duh!), but they are functional and just say “cool” I mean, check out the shop for crying out loud, including a “truck spotting” platform on the top. How cool is that? Yes, they are stupidly expensive and probably carry an obscene profit margin, but we couldn’t help ourselves and bought a few.

The only downside we found in Zurich was the cost. It is a very expensive place to spend time. The dollar is so darn weak, that we trade about one to one. You know it wasn’t always like this when you note that a Vente Nonfat Late’ at Starbucks will run you about $8.00. We found the same with hotel rooms, dinners, shoes, shirts, and the like. In inverse, the public transportation system was very reasonable, and excellent, and Zurich has a free bike rental program where you can hire a bike for free, and then return it later in the day. How nice (and how trusting) is that?

A couple of other things I didn’t mention already. First, probably the nicest and most appropriate skateboard park we had seen on the trip was just outside of Zurich in the suburb of Winthurtur. It a great street section, a great half pipe and a world class bowl – all wood. The second thing I didn’t mention was the train ride to Surich from Milan. It was the most beautiful train ride of our long trip, (including the Tibet train ride). The mountains were stunning. The big towns (like Lake Como) were unbelievable and the little towns ever so quaint. You could see the architecture change from definitively Italian to definitively Swiss as we got deeper into Switzerland.

Overall Zurich has been one of our favorite cities and one of our most pleasant surprises of the trip. Tamara, thanks so much for allowing us to monopolize you for four days and thanks for spending all that time with us. And thanks for being such a great friend. Hope to see you in the states soon!

Posted by Blakei 05:26 Archived in Switzerland Comments (1)


Feels like Home. Really!

all seasons in one day 68 °F

After traveling for seven months, Italy seems more like home than anywhere we have been. I know it shouldn’t, seeing how we were in English speaking countries like Australia, New Zealand or South Africa for months, but it does. It’s hard to explain. Maybe it’s because we know we’re closer to the states than we have been in 7 months. Maybe it’s because the season and weather are similar to what we would be experiencing back home. Maybe it’s because we are staying in a little town that seems so very similar to San Luis Obispo in temperament with laid back locals, shops that close early and open late, and maybe because the downtown is best enjoyed by foot. Who knows? But it feels a bit like home.

Lucca is a town of about 70,000 in the region of Tuscany, about 50 miles west of Florence, and 25 miles east of Pisa. It is a quaint little city in spite of its numerous inhabitants, feeling more like a town of 2,000 than 70,000. The reason? The 800 year old “walled village” that sits in the center of Lucca. Lucca is an ancient city, described by locals and tourists alike as two separate cities. One city is “inside the wall”, and the other “outside the wall”. Hmmmm… how do I create this image for ya? Imagine an ancient brick wall that is 30 feet tall and 60 feet thick, in the shape of a 4 kilometer jagged oval encircling and protecting the inner city from once-plundering hordes. Interrupting the wall are battlements, entrances for bikes, pedestrians, cars and tour buses, while on top of the wall is a lovely paved and grass bordered path, strolled by grandparents pushing strollers, well attired joggers and cyclists, field trips of 11 year olds, lovers holding hands, families on holiday and the locals just walking and enjoying one of their numerous cigarettes (more on this later). The wall dates back 800 years, and has never repelled even a lone trooper. Lucca was a rich city for 100s of years, thanks to a booming silk trade that made it rather interesting to even folks like Napoleon who was one of Lucca’s proud plunderers. There is easy access to the top of the wall from the inner city so you can enjoy the views while you stroll atop it. Within the wall is a walking city, inhospitable to cars and trucks, but a great friend to bicycles, scooters, and of course walkers. The streets are charming, the churches are magnificent and the history just swallows you with every step. Simply sitting around in a café, enjoying an espresso, while facing one of the many piazza’s, courtyards, or shopping streets is a noble pastime.

A good friend from SLO, Judy King and her family have been staying in Lucca for months and were there to greet us when our bus arrived in Lucca. We had just missed Alex Crozier, Judy’s better half, who had gone back to San Luis Obispo to resume his responsibilities as the Women’s soccer coach at Cal Poly. He was here in Lucca playing with the men’s club team (ouch). The kids, Bo, Dan and Angie are all attending Italian schools, playing on Italian soccer clubs and learning the language from a fire hose.

Our apartment is inside the wall and we all easily walked to it, even with our giant bags. Chiara, our super helpful (and cute) property manager was there as well to give us a walk through. The walk through stunned us. Our place “The Residenza Mansi” was huge and perfect. It is on a quiet street, on an upper floor, overlooking everyday life in the small courtyard behind it. It has four bedrooms, two kitchens, a sitting room, family room, dining area, laundry room, a gaggle of bathrooms and everything you would ever need including four bikes and cooking accessories galore! I recommend renting the Reseidnza Mansi yourself. The web site is nice, but it doesn’t do the place justice.

We cycled everywhere and even tuned the bikes up when we needed at the resident shop for very little cost. We hung out, shopped, strolled, ate, found a nice little skate park, and could catch the train to anywhere in Italy, just by walking or riding our bikes the short distance to the train station. We had heard that Lucca was a fantastic place to call “home” while you trained your way to some of the major Italian cities and that is exactly what we did, heading to Modena and Maranello, Florence, Pisa, Rome and Venice. Lucca was a little slice of heaven and we will come back here for sure.

Parker and I trained our way to the Ferrari Museum in Maranello Italy. We passed through Prato and Bologna on our way, but two hours later, there we in Modena, waiting for cab to Maranello. This day trip was totally worth it, seeing some of the most notable Formula One cars ever, Parker’s favorite car, the Enzo, and a bevy of other beauties. We even saw a Scaglietti making its way around Fiorano test track which was fun to watch.

Florence and my Mom
We asked my mom, “Grandma Patty”, to come visit us while we were in Italy. My mom loves artwork and we could think of no better gift than to share some of the beautiful art history we knew we would see. We had enough bedrooms in Lucca, and one more person was no big deal at all for the small day trips we would take. She had never been in Italy before, and after some gentle prodding and an OK from her doctor, she was committed. Mom flew into Florence and I picked her up in the airport without incident, (that is if you don’t count that she missed her connection and Paris and arrived 9 hours late). Mom and I spent her first three days in Florence, visiting museums, cathedrals, palaces, and shopping in between those. We walked everywhere and we wore each other out. We hadn’t spent much time alone with each other for as long as we could remember and we had a great time touring by ourselves. It was our first time to Florence and mom had a list of places she wanted to see. I think we saw everything on the list, and we walked everywhere, never really needing a cab or a bus. We visted the Duomo, the Croce Cathedral, Santa Maria Novella Cathedral, the Uffizi Museum, the Academy Museum, the National Museum at the Bargello, the Duomo Museum, the Piti Palace, and the Ponte Vecchio bridge.

Our hotel was close to the Duomo, and we could see the bell tower and dome from our room windows. It drizzled every day for most of the day, so lines and tourists were relatively light. Florence is an incredible place to experience Italian Renaissance art. We visited the sarcophagus of Michelangelo, Machiavelli, and Galileo, all in the Croce Cathedral, and we saw Michelangelo’s David at the Academia which produces an involuntary a gasp in everyone I watched see it. We saw countless Italian Renaissance and Flemish paintings at the Uffizi, walking through the sculptures in the Piazza del Signoria from Ammannati, Giambologna, as well as Donatello and Michelangelo (which were actually copies), just to get in line.

Perhaps the most incredible place we visited was at the Pitti palace. The gardens were incredible and one could take hours to stroll it if they were so inclined, but the rooms are what blew me away. There are rooms at the Pitti palace that house an Italian Renaissance Museum with pieces by Francesco Fusini, who is my new favorite renaissance painter, blending beautiful Flemish light study with Italian and religious subject matter. But it wasn’t Fusini’s glorious work that made the Pitti stand out. The rooms themselves were the real prize. These rooms were painted in the 1600s to look as though they contain the most incredible and detailed molding and architecture on the ceiling and second floor. As you view the ceiling, you gawk at the incredible molding, balconies, and skylights. However, it’s all painted, and none of it is 3 dimensional. I found myself looking past Fusini’s work, staring at the ceiling and the incredible work of those artists. These rooms and this Fusini exhibit were coupled with the most insane jewelry and ceramics museum you can imagine. This museum does the best possible job relaying to the visitor how much wealth the Pitti and the de Medici families had. Wow. Wealth hasn’t been worn like this for hundreds and hundreds of years.

After our Florence visit the kids and Carol were thrilled to see Grandma Patty in Lucca and we would all head out to Rome and Venice in a few days after chilling from some days in Lucca. Pisa is a slight 30 minute train trip from Lucca and Mom wanted to check that out as well so we did a half day trip to see the tower. It was worth a half day to see the Duomo, the Baptistry, and the leaning tower of Pisa. We all scaled the tower, toured the Duomo, and watched people taking the silly photos of their buddies holding up the tower. The place was quite over run with tourists, but nevertheless, it’s pretty cool to see the tower in person when you’ve seen images of it your entire life. The only real thing of note during our visit was our search for some initials of one of Grandma and Grandpa’s friends, Harvey Lorenzen (sp?), who carved his initials in the tower during the 2nd world war. We think we found them – but couldn’t be sure. Generally, this isn’t a place I would recommend spending oodles of time. Do it in a day, or better yet a half day and don’t stay there.

Rome must be one of the most photographed places on earth. There were “aha!” moments all over the town, seeing things in real life that you’ve only seen before through 1,000s of photographs. We were blown away by seeing St. Peters, the Sistine Chapel, the Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps, and all the fountains, but the thing that set Rome apart for us was the Roman architecture that is still standing and the 2,000+ year old ruins that are barely standing. The Coliseum, The Forum, Circus Maximus, and what we thought was the most spectacular, the Pantheon, were all hard to fathom. We couldn’t imagine that people were so advanced as to build all this 2,000 years ago. We hung out in the Coliseum for quite a while absorbing it all, which is impossible. It was a major event for all of us to be inside the structure and imagine what it must have felt like for a spectator or a competitor, or for a carnivore’s lunch for that matter.

The other thing about Rome that should be said: It is a big city with lots of people and it is a bit dirty. Scooters abound and share the road with the numerous tour buses and a whole lot of cars. It was a bit like New York City to some degree, in its frenetic quality and errrr…cleanliness. Like New York, we had heard that we had to watch out for crime in Rome, but I guess we were lucky because we found none, excepting a poor vendor getting steamrolled by the Polizia for selling counterfeit purses. We liked the place, but were ready to head out after a scant few days.
Our hotel was pretty old and haggard and was on the third floor of an old building or “palace”. It had an old elevator that sometimes worked and held at most 4 people holding their breath.. The Oceania was the hotel’s name, and while the people working there were quite nice, the place itself was pretty bad and doesn’t warrant a recommendation. Five beds in a tiny room, with stained carpets, not a single chair or dresser, and the shower was essentially the entire bathroom, not in the bathroom. It was the bathroom. There was only a continental breakfast, and you couldn’t log on to the internet until 9:00am (if it was working) so you didn’t disturb guests, or apparently the noisy people eating breakfast. I just shrugged my shoulders when I was scolded for trying to get on too early in the morning. Oh yeah – the Oceania was hugely expensive as well.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the Rome visit and something I highly recommend is the “double decker red bus” tour. It is a great way to see the city and we did it all the way around. The bus makes 12 stops around Rome in a big loop. If you sit in the top of the bus for the entire loop you will get your bearings straight and see all the major sights. Pick it up at the Train station. There are always a few waiting there. A funny thing happened while we were making our loop. We were driving straight into St. Peters Square and we noticed what appeared to be 10,000 people and two jumbo monitors displaying *gulp* the pope. Yep, the pope was speaking to the masses while we drove by in our tour bus. We heard him say “President Bush” and “USA” because he had just returned from his trip. Upon reading the fine print, it appears that a papal visit was included in the price of our bus tour.

Venice was fantastic and we all loved it. We stayed in a fantastic place right on the Grand Canal, and while the floors slopes a bit just like the building, everyone had their own bedroom, and we had a nice kitchen, dining room and living room. We could hear the boats going by day and night. We grabbed a three day pass for the Vaporetto (or water bus) so we could get around easily, but really only needed it when we were trying to cover ground from one island to the other without enjoying the neighborhoods. Venice isn’t nearly as big or overwhelming as Rome is, and much of it can be easily walked. In fact, it seemed to us that on these walks the real Venice can be found. We ran into churches that held Caravaggio and Peter Paul Rubens artwork, and we were just strolling. The tiny canals and the little shops, and the people who work in them are the story it seems. There aren’t that many people living in Venice any longer and the ones who do must really love it. There are tons of tourists, and getting anything done is hard with the transportation being a huge limitation. Venice population has declined by half in many years, with many accommodations be used as pure rentals or vacation spots. The people who live here full time, must really love what this city has to offer.

Saint Marks Square and Saint Marks was a highlight, feeding pigeons with the boys, and viewing the incredible work that makes up the Catherdal and Clock tower. The food was pretty good (we had heard otherwise) and the people were very very nice.

We took a water taxi one night for an evening tour of the canals. We literally walked out of our door, walked 10 feet to our dock, whistled at a passing wooden taxi, and a driver picked us up. We toured the canals for an hour, drank a great Brunello and watched the sun wash the beautiful buildings in what felt like a warm farewell wave to Italy.

The trains in Italy are incredible. They can take you virtually anywhere you want to go in Italy or get you started to just about anywhere in Europe. They are clean, convenient, safe, on time, and not very expensive. There are many choices as well. A). You can ride in a regular Trenitalia train with no reserved seats. These trains stop in every city along the tracks and take their time. B) You can take an “IC” that has reserved seats and doesn’t stop at every stop. C) You can take the Eurostar which moves at 200kmph and stops only at major stops. On the Eurostar, you can sit in 2nd class (coach), or 1st class. As you might imagine, the prices increase as you move up the service classes. From Lucca, we would need to take a regular train that would connect with a Eurostar in Florence or Milan. We found that the best way to organize train travel was to investigate departure and arrival times on the Trenitalia web site, write down the train numbers, times and dates, then show up at the train station with all your information and then simply hand it to the person behind the counter. This worked flawlessly and was super low stress, with the only exception being that our train from Milan to Zurich simply vanished with the comment “sopresso” next to it, which it turns out means “deleted”. We boarded a train with the same destination a few hours later because the Trenitalia help desk told us our seats were still valid, which was true, except a group of Singaporean tourists had those same seats on that train. Oh, you mean the train number changed? They forgot to tell me that. Oh well, we hopped from seat to seat as we were booted by the real “occupants” until we reached Zurich. It seemed to all of us that America is so backward when it comes to train transportation. Imagine how an all electric high speed nationwide rail system would be. If this high speed rail system was integrated with rail systems in major cities (real rail systems like major Europe cities) it would be incredible and have incredibly powerful impact on the environment.

It seems everyone in Italy smokes cigarettes. I know this is a gross over statement, but we were shocked by how many kids and adults were smoking. It seems a national pastime. Imagine this: A bus load of junior high school kids exit their bus in Lucca for an “inside the wall” tour, and as soon as their little converse hit the gravel, they all, (and yes I mean all), whip out packs of smokes and start puffing away, along with their teacher. I swear to god it’s true. Mothers, grandmothers, fathers, uncles, cousins, brothers and sisters, all smoke. Inside, outside, upside downside. Walking, driving, riding bikes or skateboards. These people love their cigarettes and treat them as just another incredible fashion accessory, but more on that later. It must be true that the Italian people think they look more interesting or sophisticated when they are smoking. With their cigarettes gently resting between index and middle finger, their hands wave vigorously, leaving wispy translucent patterns of smoke in the air, not unlike a stunt pilot at an air show performing his grand finale. It truly is a beautiful and interesting fashion accessory. NOT. How do you think it looks on us? Yeh, no so nice, eh?
No actual smoking was done in this photo

Beautiful people
Italians are beautiful. Now maybe that’s as big an overstatement as my smoking hyperbole, but I believe it. These could be the best looking people on earth. I have been abused by my family members for even thinking this, but I think it’s true. These people are just damn good looking. Now maybe it seems so, because we spent a week in Turkey, where I found the opposite to be true, but we all found ourselves ogling passersby with mouth agape, because they were just so damn beautiful. The men, the women, the kids are all beautiful. Blonde hair and blue eyes, red hair and green eyes, brown hair and brown eyes, all shapes and sizes. Ya know, maybe they aren’t really that good looking. Maybe it’s just that they dress so much better than everyone else, and they carry themselves with such royal aplomb. We would sit at cafés and watch passersby in layers of color coordinated clothing; orange pants, red pants, green pants, or brown, with contrasting or subtle hues of shirts and sweaters on top of that, capped with great hair and subtle earrings and perfect glasses, with cigarettes in graceful outstretched fingers. And that’s just the men. The women were even more beautiful, but I think they’re just trying to keep up with the men. By the way, there are as many men’s clothing stores as there are women’s, and their selection is fantastic. Now I’m not implying anything here, but people kept trying to talk to me in Italian. I must look like that ugly Italian second cousin they keep squirreled away in a house attic in the Tuscan hills somewhere. Seriously, it’s probably just the sense of style Italians have, but it just looks so darn good on them.

Bye Bye Grandma. Arrivederci Lucca.
We had a great time in Italy and it felt so much like home, we’re all pining for it. It was great to see Grandma enjoy herself so thoroughly in Italy. We were sorry to see her leave, and had our saddest goodbye of the trip, but we were happy to know that she had a great time, packing so much into her 18 days with us. I think we were also sad because we realized out time in Lucca was coming to a close. Bye bye Grandma! And Arrivederci Lucca!

Posted by Blakei 00:56 Archived in Italy Tagged family_travel Comments (3)


Even old New York was once New Amsterdam

sunny 67 °F

Istanbul straddles Europe and Asia, connecting the two continents with bridges, mosques and the Turkish flag. However, it’s hard to reduce Istanbul to the only city that can boast being simultaneously Asian and European. Istanbul has been so much for so many for so long. This city of 12 million people, the 4th largest in the world, has been home to more recorded and restored history than any country we’d been to.

We had done some studying before arriving in Istanbul, but any books we poured through didn’t capture the frantic pace of the city, the traffic, the diversity nor spirit of the locals. We found the city to be very European and concurrently highly Muslim. 99% of the city is Muslim, but 99% of the folks we saw on the street were European in appearance. Folks all over town dressed sharply European regardless of the day, and we found a walking street near our hotel (the Hyatt) that was packed to the gills with upscale stores, and folks walking the town until dawn, (literally). The boys found a nice street spot near the hotel to skate, within the mass of people cruising the streets, and the locals seemed amused by the boarders, not irritated, which was a welcome surprise.

The old part of town is where we spent the lion share of out time. We were staying in Taxim, a relatively modern section of town, so we would need to taxi our way into the old city each day to get to the various sites we intended to visit. Once we were in the old town, where the majority of Istanbul’s history resides, it was pretty easy getting around by walking or public transportation, but not quite as easy traveling from our Hotel. Throughout Istanbul we met many folks that spoke great English and wanted to talk to you about America, and the trips they had made or were planning to make, or whether Hillary or Barack were going to be the next president. Once again we were shocked to see how much citizens of another country know about our government.

Istanbul has a long history dating back well before the Romans and we found museums and archeological sites that took pleasure in recording and telling the stories. We visited the Basilica Cistern that Constantine had built to ensure water was plentiful for the palace (later enlarged by Emperor Justinian). We drove underneath the ancient Roman aqueduct that filled that same cistern. We walked around the chariot race track that housed 100,000 people and saw many deaths. We gazed on an Egyptian Obelisk that was over 4,000 years old. We did this without entering a mosque, cathedral, or palace. We of course did that as well. We visited the Hagia Sofia which was built by the Roman Emperor Justinian in the 4th century AD and still stands quite proudly to this day. It has been a church and a Mosque and is now simply a museum – a gawkers paradise. We were amazed how well this structure has held up over the centuries. Considering that this building is over 1,600 years old, the architecture, and the mosaics within its walls are stunning.

Next to the Hagi Sofia stand the Blue Mosque, which was built roughly one thousand years later, and it is perhaps even more stunning from the outside, but the inside just made us uncomfortable. It is the first mosque we had visited and we are not used to taking our shoes off to enter. Parker commented first about the smell of feet, and we all gave him a silent but acknowledging nod – it did smell like a dank closet. And the thing that bothered us all the most was the way the women were stuffed into two small areas at the back of the mosque. Men worshipers had the run of the place, but women appeared to have domain over only two small galleries in the back. The men seemed to have an open invitation to show the tops of their heads to god, but the women had to wear a scarf over their head. In fact all women had to wear a scarf including Carol. This segregation of males and females made us uncomfortable, (beyond the pungent olfactory issue) and we all scrambled for the exit for a breath of fresh air and an equal footing. I can’t claim to understand nor to have ever studied the reasons for the different treatment of men and women in mosques, but it made us very uncomfortable. We also cruised over to the Topkapi Palace to see how the Ottoman Empire’s Sultan and his Harem lived hundreds of years ago, and it was pretty amazing to see the wealth dispensed by the royal family, and to see more evidence of the unequal footing between men and women. None of us were shocked that 300 women were kept for the Sultan’s needs and wants hundreds of years ago, but the recent memory of the Blue Mosque made this seem like another piece of evidence that something just ain’t right from a western point of view. It was pretty apparent that this isn’t really Europe, is it? We read an interesting article before arriving in Istanbul that detailed the tension between an Istanbul that wants to become a non-secular Muslim country and an Istanbul that wants to become part of the EU. There is so much happening in this country to pull it further east, and simultaneously pull it further west, it caused us to wonder whether the fabric of the country can hold together. Or will it rip apart at the Bosporus straight, creating a European Turkey and a non-secular Muslim Turkey. Only time will tell.

We took some time to go through the Archeological museum in Istanbul as well that is literally right next door to the Topkapi Palace. This place is amazing featuring treasures from Africa and Saudi Arabi, as well as local Archeology. There seemed to be scores of 4-2,000 year old sarcophaguses dug up in simple farmer’s fields. There were fabulous Mesopotamian relics and artwork. And there were some of the most significant items I’ve ever seen at a museum. For instance: The staff of Moses, the sword of Joseph, the sword of Mohammed, the turban of David, and the baseball bat of Joe DiMaggio, (ok just kidding on that one). It was the first museum that produced eerie shivers down my spine, confirming that people I thought were just folkloric, actually lived and held possessions. Beyond bizarre.

Carol and I spent some time in the Grand Bizarre, which, if anything is perfectly named. It was a giant and grand maze of tiny shops selling everything you could want to take home from Turkey: faux Monte Blanc pens, Turkish Delight candy, leather satchels, rugs from every corner of Asia, jewelry, antiques, spices, food, bobbles, bangles, etc... The aisles and stalls seem as if they will never stop, and getting lost among the brightly colored aisles is expected. Even a GPS wouldn’t help you here. The grand bazaar could hold your attention for hours and turn almost anyone into a shopper. The men and women working in the shops are more than accomplished sales people with a mastery in an English language derivative known as “come into my shop”. It is a highly effective language. We walked away from the Grand Bazaar with some very cool things, some of which we are now asking ourselves “What the hell were we thinking when we bought that? “That’s yours, not mine” “No it’s not. You bought that thing – you carry it home.”

For our parting shot of Istanbul, we did what everyone told us was a must. We cruised up the Bosporus straight which connects the Marmara Sea to the Black Sea. It is considered to be the narrowest straight used for international navigation, and we saw some massive ships cruising it. We also got a taste of other parts of Istanbul that were beautiful and tawny. We caught our boat in Bebek, which is the highest end neighborhood in Istanbul. If you shielded your eyes from the occasional Turkish flag, bebek could have been on the French Riviera. Beautiful homes sat on the shores. Large boats and yachts bobbed in the choppy waters. Exotic cars cruised the streets in stop and go traffic lined with pedestrians. The pedestrians were the giveaway that you weren’t in the Riviera. As much as we loved the people of Turkey for the friendliness, they don’t look European like French or Italian. They look Turkish which is entirely different. Strangely, I was being talked to in Italian throughout the trip which seemed quite befuddling to me until I stepped foot on Italian soil, which will be explained in the next entry… but I digress. The boat we took was an all wooden boat that served a fantastic lunch on board and cruised both sides of the Bosporus, avoiding the occasional and massive wakes of tug boats, and cruising under the bridges connecting Asia to Europe. We anchored and had lunch outside a school and watched with amusement as children ran into and out of the school at the sound of the bell, (which sounded more like a ring tone). The boat was awesome and the lunch was great. It would have been nice to have an English speaking guide, but we had a map showing significant palaces and forts, which was a great help.

After nearly 7 months of travel, we have finally made the turn into the Northern Hemisphere again and we all feel like we are entering our final leg of the trip. Istanbul, while not “really” Europe signals the end to our Asia, Australasia, and Africa legs of the trip and the beginning of our European segment. As we meander through Europe over the coming months, we’ll likely start pining for home as places begin to look feel more familiar. So let’s sign off to Istanbul with a song that we were singing for our entire stay in the fabulous city, raising a few eyebrows as we did… The song was first recorded in 1953 by the “Four Lads” and remade by “They Might be Giants” in 1990. Sung to the tune of putting on the ritz…

“Istanbul was Constantinople
Now it's Istanbul, not Constantinople
Been a long time gone, Constantinople
Now it's Turkish delight on a moonlit night

Every gal in Constantinople
Lives in Istanbul, not Constantinople
So if you've a date in Constantinople
She'll be waiting in Istanbul

Even old New York was once New Amsterdam
Why they changed it I can't say
People just liked it better that way

So take me back to Constantinople
No, you can't go back to Constantinople
Been a long time gone, Constantinople
Why did Constantinople get the works
That's nobody's business but the Turks

Istanbul (Istanbul)
Istanbul (Istanbul)

Even old New York was once New Amsterdam
Why they changed it I can't say
People just liked it better that way

Istanbul was Constantinople
Now it's Istanbul, not Constantinople
Been a long time gone, Constantinople
Why did Constantinople get the works
That's nobody's business but the Turks

So take me back to Constantinople
No, you can't go back to Constantinople
Been a long time gone, Constantinople
Why did Constantinople get the works
That's nobody's business but the Turks


Posted by Blakei 00:47 Archived in Turkey Tagged family_travel Comments (2)

Cape Town

Our last two weeks in Africa...


We finished our safari and headed for Cape Town, South Africa. As sorry as we were that our safari was over, we had heard from many people that this was a great city with a very So-Cal feel, and the perfect place to chill out after a safari. We found it a great place to chill, to surf, to golf, to shop, and for many others, to work and live. This, in spite of some of the issues we heard from the locals about current politics, the nervous anticipation of future governments, and a still existent racial divide. We were treated to great weather during our two week stay and enjoyed Cape Town immensely.

We stayed in the suburb of Camps Bay, on the other side of “Lions Head” from Cape Town city center. Camps Bay is a quaint, west facing coastal town on the Atlantic, sitting directly below the peaks of the 12 Apostles and Table Mountain. Residences and vacation homes scale the foot hills that rise from the Atlantic and slam into the base of the 12 apostles. Villas perch themselves directly over Victoria Road, Camps Bay’s main street, and the 2 km strand of white sandy beach that beckons just on the other side. Victoria Road is lined with restaurants and shops that seem busy from morning until the wee hours. During our stay, weekends filled Victoria Road, the beach, and the restaurants to the brim with tourists, sun worshipers, and folks that simply appreciate a great meal or their favorite beverage in a near-perfect atmosphere. Our Villa was perched over Victoria Rd, on the Northern end of Camps Bay, looking over a surf cove called Glen Beach. Glen Beach is rimmed with magnificent rock formations, warn smooth by eons of Atlantic surf. The Villa and its location was perfect for our family and for our visitors Anna and Fred, who flew to Cape Town from Accra, Ghana to visit. With its perfect west facing view, we saw some unbelievable sunsets from our balcony over Glen Beach.

Adding a bit of Color to Camps Bay and to all of Cape Town I suppose was a worldwide Hell’s Angels get together. Hell’s Angels leather jackets could be seen from all over the world strolling the streets in Camps Bay and Cape Town. Finland, France, England, Austria, Northland were all accounted for, as was California, Connecticut, Ontario, and New Jersey. It was funny, but North American Hells Angel Jackets feature the State, while the rest of the world just reads “country”. We actually found the Hell’s Angels we met to be fun loving, cool, and damn nice people. It was fun to have them in town throughout our stay, adding a bit of color that otherwise would have been missed.

The city center of Cape Town was a nice place, but rather unremarkable if measured by its architecture and activity. What sets Cape Town as a city apart from the rest of those in the world is its fantastic waterfront and the almost surreal location of the mountains that surround it. The city center of Cape Town sits in between a large bay and the beautiful backdrop of Table Mountain. Table Mountain rises almost vertically above the city, dwarfing the entire skyline, and making one wonder if New York or Shanghai’s skyline would look equally unremarkable in its presence. A tram runs to the top of the mountain and on a clear day, it is a magnificent place to stand. We were lucky to take the tram on an evening where the weather was perfect and we could see for what seemed like one hundred kilometers in every direction. False Bay and the Cape of Good Hope lay to the south and the city, with its millions of people and endless beaches to the north. Table Mountain regularly produces its own weather, which is a large fog bank that covers the top of the mountain, referred to by locals as “the table cloth”. We saw the Table Cloth spread out over the mountain tops a few evenings, but were lucky to miss it during our trip to the table top.

We didn’t have a big agenda in Cape Town. We had only planned on three activities besides hanging out at the beach and studying; 1) A visit to the top of Table Mountain, 2) A shark cage dive, and 3) A visit to Robben Island. Upon our arrival and discovery of our Villa’s spaciousness and location we added one more important activity, which was re-establishing a vigorous workout routine. Every morning we would rise, and do sets of pushups to exhaustion, jump rope, and then run 2 lengths of the beach. This proved to be a fun family activity that wasn’t really possible at some of our other locations. OK, that’s a bit of a cop-out. Finally our guilt of not working out for a couple of months after Australia caught up with us, and this perfect workout setting inspired us to dive back in to prepare for our entrance back into our active and healthy little town. We found a couple of other fabulous things that were “must dos” as well, like sand boarding some South African dunes and hiking Lion’s head, that we manage to find time to do as well :-)

Shark Cage Diving
We knew that South Africa was home to just about every Great White Shark documentary we had seen on television over the years. We weren’t exactly sure where these documentaries were filmed, but we knew they were close to the cape. After a few internet searches, we had found that one can arrange transportation from Cape Town to Gaansbai, about 180km south east to take a boat about 10km off the coast to swim with Great White Sharks. You don’t actually swim with the sharks, mind you. You put on a full wetsuit and weight belt, and lower yourself into a shark cage while the crew of the boat “chums” with fish parts to bring great white sharks right to you! Isn’t that awesome! We thought so. So off we went, leaving the house in the morning for the long drive to Gaansbai. We arrived, had a lunch, watched a dos and don’t video, and walked to boat. The boat had an appropriately scraggly and unaffected crew who were quite comfortable with the notion of rubbing great white sharks on the nose, and throwing Tuna heads and blood into the water to bring sharks nearby. Nearby is an understatement.

We left the protected dock and pushed the outboard motors on the way out toward “Seal Island” and area you have likely seen on the discovery channel called “Shark Alley”. The swells were pretty large and the water was very choppy. We were all a bit freaked out as the boat slammed its way through the swells. It felt as if the boat was going to break apart in the swells. We could see the top of the boat separate from the bottom on every slam. It looked like it was going to fall apart. And there are Great White Sharks in the water. AHHHH! We slowed down, and came to a calm stop. The engines idled, and we hooked up with the shark cage. The sea now seemed calm by comparison, but the swells were large enough to completely lose the other boats that were nearby as the dropped their passengers into the water as well. We took turns dropping into the cage which was a bit of a thrill as 10+ foot Great White sharks actually rubbed up against it. The sharks were so close that I couldn’t get a picture of an entire shark from inside the cage. I got a lot of pictures from outside the cage. The horrendous smell of the 10,000 seals on seal island would waft over us from time to time, which, when combined with a chum of fresh tuna heads and fish blood, made simple sea sickness seem like a paper cut in a trauma ward.

We had a blast on Shark Cage Diving and it was one of the highlights of our Cape Town activities. It’s pretty hard to describe how scary and claustrophobic it is to be enclosed in a cage under water while Great Whites swim around you. It’s even scarier getting in and out of the cage while the crew is yelling at you to “HURRY UP – SHARK RIGHT THERE!” About a week after our adventure, I ran into a story about a Shark Cage Diving boat capsizing and losing (as in death) three of its 10 passengers. It turns out that a “freak” wave capsized the boat in the exact same place we were diving only one week before. The “freak” for me was that the same boat was only 100 meters from our boat. The two pictures that follow are the boat that capsized: One from the Cage Diving Company’s own web site, and the other from our camera the week before the accident occurred. As much fun as it was, I would urge you to make sure you are comfortable with the conditions before you commit to heading out to the sea, even after a 180km drive.

Robben Island
Robben Island sits in the middle of Cape Town’s Bay, just a few kilometers off the coast. A visit to Robben Island was on our list of things to do, because Robben Island is perhaps the most significant acknowledgment of apartheid we would encounter on our visit. Robben Island was an Island jail, that held both political prisoners and criminal prisoners. Political prisoners were sentenced to years of detention on Robben Island, many for protesting the policies of the apartheid government nonviolently. We had seen pictures of Robben Island during our visit to the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, but pictures couldn’t capture the raw emotion of the place. It seemed as if we took a virtual time machine, touring the jail that held political prisoners. Our tour guide himself was a prisoner on Robben Island during the apartheid era. He described in detail how he was treated, what he was allowed to read, allowed to write, and allowed to do. He described how many letters he could receive and send per year (two). He showed us the daily diet for black prisoners, and the contrasting higher calorie diet for Indian prisoners. He described what it felt like to have letters from his wife destroyed before he could read them, and letters he wrote destroyed before reaching his family. He explained how treatment like this was all part of the psychological warfare used to keep the prisoners weak.

Nelson Mandela, who was the central figure in unraveling of the apartheid government and its policies was held in Robben Island for many of his 27 years of incarceration, and we were able to see the cell in which he spent those years. What an incredible ordeal this man and this country have been through in the past 50 years. This “tour guide”, having spent more than a decade of his own life incarcerated on this Island, was very upbeat about the prospects of life for him and for all South Africans going forward. He was sure that we all left understanding that Robben Island is a tribute to all men’s strength to overcome injustice, and about the power of reconciliation, and not about the wrongs committed by a ruling class of South African’s who wished to keep the black majority forever in the dark. It was an inspirational visit.

We spent a fair amount of time at the Victoria Water Front, a fantastic collection of shops, restaurants, bars, movie theatres and attractions, as well as the Nelson Mandela Terminal, home to the Robben Island Ferry. The Victoria Water Front is also a bona fide working waterfront with fishing boats, and fishing terminals with all the aromatic sensations you would expect from such a place. We found some of our best restaurants here, and did a fair amount of shopping too. It seemed however, ironic to depart from this upscale water front, and arrive at the most notorious of apartheid prisons.

We sensed and discussed with white and black South Africans the nervous anticipation of what the future holds for this great country. All hope for a better, more unified and equal South Africa, but all worry that the time machine we took back to Robben Island won’t treat the country as well in the next 20 years. This was top of mind in most South Africans because the Zimbabwe elections were being held during our visit, reminding them all of how a shining example of an African democracy can go so horribly wrong. So many South Africans privately, (and publicly when prodded), worry that Zimbabwe’s shining example could become their South Africa as well. During the Zimbabwe election week, power outages were rolling through tawny Cape Town neighborhoods, pressing ever harder on the South African Psyche, providing another scary comparison to Zimbabwe’s hardships.

Sand Boarding
Carol saw a “Sand Boarding” activity in one of the brochures at the Villa, and called the outdoor adventure company that managed these trips. Sand boarding, as you might imagine, has something to do with putting a snowboard and boots on your feet and sliding down sand dunes. We like boarding of all kinds, so it sounded fun to us, so we arranged a trip. A young South African drove us about 50km north of Cape Town, where sand dunes were large and plentiful. We put on our snowboard boots and carried our boards about 1km out on to the crest of one of the dunes. We strapped on our boards, and slid down the hill. The hills were steep, but you didn’t gather much speed, since the sand slowed the board. We actually had to apply car wax to the bottom of the board before each and every trip down the dune. Now, there are no chair lifts in the dunes, so when you reach the bottom, you walk to the top. I don’t need to tell you how much work it is to hike up sand dunes in snowboard boots carrying a snow board. I think you can probably envision that. It was a little hot that day and we were all dripping in sweat by the end of our outing. Let’s just say it was a calorie deficit day.

Lion’s Head
Toward the end of our stay, the boys and I climbed Lions Head, while Carol and Anna did some last minute shopping, (there isn’t much in Ghana). Lions Head is part of the Table Mountain National Park, but the peak sits alone, separating the City Center from Clifton and Camps Bay. The climb took only two hours thanks to some great paths and pretty quick hand over hand climbing, (in some cases assisted by chains for a vertical wall short-cut). The payoff at the top was incredible offering even better views than Table Mountain. If you’re in Cape Town, in reasonable condition, and not afraid of heights, do this climb! That evening we were visited by some friends, John and Candy Montgomery who live in the New York City area, but have lived in, and still love Cape Town. They gave us some great suggestions about Cape Town before we left on our trip, and we were very lucky to have their visit overlap with our stay. We enjoyed some great conversation, some excellent South African wine, and a beautiful sunset.

Our family repeatedly found ourselves toasting Cape Town, one of our new favorite “world” cities, wishing Cape Town and all of South Africa good fortune and great luck in the coming years.

Posted by Blakei 10:47 Archived in South Africa Tagged family_travel Comments (2)

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