Above and underground in Orvieto

This past week I have been very lucky to have a very dear friend visiting, and so I’ve been playing a bit more tourist than I normally do in Italy. We wanted to get out of Florence a bit, so we headed to nearby Orvieto, somewhere I have never been, and only about two hours on the regional (slow) train. Orvieto is located on a (very tall) hill, so we took the funicular from the bottom of the hill where the train dropped us off to the old town, and then headed straight for the main piazza del Duomo. We picked up tickets for our main interest first, and while we waited headed into the Duomo. Orvieto’s Duomo is pretty low-key overall, but the chapels are what are most noticeable and they are much more ornate than the rest of the empty-feeling church.

IMG_1970

The church is similar in feel to the Duomo in Siena, but as previously noted the chapels here are what are incredibly ornate. One chapel in particular was created for a piece of bloody cloth from when the wafer began to drip with the actual blood of Christ to convince a doubting priest. The cloth and host were taken to the pope, a miracle was declared and the chapel was built where the cloth is enshrined to this day. The majority of the frescos in that chapel were done by Luca Signorelli, and are said to have influenced Michelangelo’s frescos in the Sistine Chapel. The influence is obvious; Signorelli’s figures are incredibly muscular.

After viewing the church we headed from the beautiful city aboveground to under the ground, to the main attraction of Orvieto and what we were most excited to see: the Orvieto underground. During the time of the Etruscans thousands of man-made caves were dug out of the hillside and they are spread throughout the city. I tried to find an example of the map that you can see there, but was unsuccessful, but imagine a small Italian town city map: now draw thousands of red circles all over it and you’ll have an idea of how many caves there were and the reach of them. We took a guided tour in English, and were able to get some backstory on the caves and see them up close and personal.

The caves look pretty much like you would expect– they are caves after all– but what is perhaps most surprising is the temperature drop after you descend even just one level down into the caves. It is so much cooler there, and it is no surprise that the Etruscans used the caves for things such as olive oil making. Below you can see an ancient olive oil press. The straining mat is modern, but something similar would have been used to press the oil out of the olives and prevent pieces of the olives from joining the oil.

IMG_1979The caves were incredibly extensive; we felt we had seen so much, but in reality we only covered two tiny circles on the map of thousands. At one point our guide pointed out that while it seemed we had covered a lot of ground, it had all been vertical, and there certainly were a lot of stairs– this was not a tour for those who can’t do stairs– or the claustrophobic! The caves were quite spacious, but the tiny staircases and passages between them, not so much.

IMG_1981

Many of the rooms in the caves were studded with holes, as you can see in the photograph above. For a long time they believed that these holes had a different purpose, but now archeologists are pretty certain that they were used to raise pigeons, which are actually a pretty common food in Orvieto, one of the things the city is known for (the others being ceramics, Orvieto classico wine from Trebbiano grapes, and olive oil). The pigeons were self-maintaining, because they would fly out the window that was ever-present to eat, and also bring back food for their young. Unlike other animals such as rabbits, people did not have to put in as much effort to raise them.

After some time the caves reached their final hurrah when the people of Orvieto were forbidden from digging out any more caves due to the instability of the area; landslides, thanks to the instability caused by the caves were increasing and there was fear that the entire city might disappear. Now there are spikes driven through the hill to protect the city, but the caves are now an archeological and historical site as opposed to a functional one.

Orvieto, being a hill town, had beautiful views, and we spent the rest of the afternoon wandering and enjoying them before heading back to Florence on the train. Below you can see a convent (I believe) from the hillside where we entered the underground caves.

IMG_1975Orvieto was sacked by the Romans, but the city withstood their attacks for two years thanks to its prime hilltop position: easy to defend. There are walls around the city as well, and facing the train station you can climb atop for the best view of the valley below.

IMG_1984Sometimes living in Florence it’s easy to forget that Italy isn’t really a land of cities. I’m lucky enough to have a view of the hills from my balcony, but visiting a small hill town is a good reminder of what Italian life is really like for most people– in the past, and in the present.

IMG_1988

 

 

 

Advertisements

The fourth time, I fell in love with Paris

Paris is, for some, the city of lights and of love–the best place in the world. For others, it is merely another stop on the big cities trail, full of tourists and having lost most of its precious charm over the years. For me, Paris always fell somewhere in the middle. I loved the museums of Paris, the food, the atmosphere, but at the same time it felt big and impersonal. I’d been to Paris several times in the past- once in high school with my French teacher and fellow students and twice the last time I was studying abroad when I took a month to travel around France, so this time I knew I wanted to do something different.

So instead of staying near the tourist attractions, I picked the closest hostel to the Latin Quarter, an area that I remember particularly liking when I was previously in Paris. The hostel was located on Rue Mouffetard, and while that street was touristy, it still felt charming and the area was lovely. Even the graffiti was fun.

IMG_1802While I did spend some time hitting major attractions, I think this trip was marked more by what I didn’t do than what I did do. I didn’t rush around feeling like I needed to see 20 different museums. I didn’t spend a lot of time waiting in line. I didn’t make myself do anything I wasn’t in the mood for. Instead, I spent the time much more as a vacation–actually taking time off as opposed to feeling obligated to check items off a list or rush around from dawn til dusk trying to see everything because you never know if you’ll be able to go back.

I prebooked a ticket for the Musée D’Orsay and went straight in, waiting less than five minutes in line and having plenty of time to explore–they have changed the layout and done a complete remodel since I’ve been, so I was particularly glad I had dedicated time to spend with some of my favorite impressionists. A different day I went to the free museum across the street, the Legion of Honor museum, and explored a bit of French (and international) honors.

IMG_1808I hit two major street markets and admired the freshness.

IMG_1856

I ate tons of traditional French food but when a cute little man was making fresh, hot churros I thought “why not?”

I popped into small churches that normally I wouldn’t know about without just walking past and went back to one for a free German high school girls’ choral concert one night.

IMG_1842I went to a poetry reading one evening hosted by Shakespeare and Company and bought a collection of Hemingway’s articles that he submitted to Canadian papers while living in Paris while there.

IMG_1824I tried watermelon soup, and enjoyed when the waiter became flustered because we were speaking in French and he didn’t know the word for “watermelon.”

IMG_1805I walked past Notre Dame and admired the view while skipping the insane line to go inside and instead exploring those smaller churches.

IMG_1831

I read books in French and drank the most amazingly subtle chai latte.

IMG_1806

I caught tiny glimpses of the Eiffel Tower.

IMG_1854I celebrated Bastille Day in style, with a picnic in the afternoon and fireworks viewing to celebrate not only the national holiday, but the 100 year anniversary of the Eiffel Tower.

IMG_1944

This time more so than any other time Paris felt smaller, because I made it smaller– the only time I took the Metro was in and out of the city and on the way to the parade on Bastille Day, the national holiday when I wanted to have a quicker, more direct trip. I deliberately took it easy and was able to do the trip my way because I was traveling alone. While I still have a great love for other French cities, I was able to connect with Paris by making the city smaller and getting to know a neighborhood better, and doing like the locals do, like shopping in the Sunday Richard Lenoir market. It was tough to come back to Florence afterwards… the fireworks show for July 14 is just such a high note and the last time I was in Europe was a perfect sendoff– I flew home the next day. I still have a few weeks left here in Europe, but I was so grateful to have this time in Paris.

What do you think– have you ever unexpectedly connected with a city after not having felt that connection before?

 

 

 

 

Foodie Istanbul

So as I’ve been sharing over the past few weeks with you about my experiences in the great city of Istanbul, you might have notice that with the exception of the Asian side, I shared very little about one of the most important parts of traveling in a new country… the food. Living in Italy, I’m sure you can imagine that I have access to great food all the time, and it’s true–but it’s always nice to get away from the Italian classics and experience something more out of the box, and Florence isn’t exactly known for its great variety or its exceptional foreign food. Heading to Istanbul was just as exciting for the potential culinary opportunities as it was for the amazing culture and we enjoyed every minute of it.

I’ve already mentioned the Istanbul Breakfast Club, a great and highly recommended way to eat a traditional Turkish breakfast and meet really interesting people on the Asian side.

IMG_1512

I mean how can you resist all those great looking vegetables and cheeses? But there is so much more to Istanbul than breakfast, beginning with the notable Turkish coffee. Strong and served in a tiny cup like in Italy, it’s similar and dissimilar to espresso. Notably the grounds are kept within the coffee, so you have to be careful to not get a mouthful of them towards the end of your cup. It was okay, but overall I wasn’t super impressed– though we only had it once, so I’d be willing to give it another chance.

IMG_1724

Juices were huge on the streets of Istanbul, and super cheap– one thing my friend and I really enjoyed about Istanbul was the available options of street food, something that we don’t really have a lot of here in Florence. You can get all types of juices– we opted for orange which was super cheap but they also have pomegranate juice. If it wouldn’t have set me back about 8 USD I might have gotten it, but that seemed a bit much for a juice!

IMG_1728

When we were on the Asian side we walked through the fish market and the surrounding streets– it seems every few shops there is an option for purchasing tea or dried fruits… yum yum!

IMG_1522

Food in Turkey was amazing, and really reasonably priced. It was nice to be able to go for a sit-down dinner and feel like it wasn’t going to break the bank, even if you ate in courses! We tried a place the first night and split a bunch of different dishes so that we could taste different things. We started with hummus, what else? They also gave us complimentary pepper dip, which I’ve previously mentioned to you in the Istanbul Breakfast Club. The pita bread that we ate them with was incredible– so soft and fluffy and the vegetables were superb… we definitely could have eaten some more summer tomatoes.

IMG_1468

Then we indulged in this pida, which was similar to a white pizza, and a meat dish that was served with vegetables and rice.

IMG_1469

 

We got kebabs another night, in the Galata area… they were some four meat kind, we weren’t positive, but they were amazing! Just a little hole in the wall place but definitely delicious.

IMG_1726

 

Pretzel-type things are a big street snack in Istanbul, and we couldn’t resist getting them one day… the Nutella filled ones of course!

IMG_1611

Another night we went to a different restaurant we had wanted to try based on its great people-watching windows and low-slung chairs. We tried raki that night… it’s a Turkish liquor that has a licorice flavor. Orhan Pamuk talks extensively about it in The Museum of Innocence (see last week’s post for more on him), and the characters seemed to drink quite a bit of it. All the time. So we figured we had to try it! Ours was served in these ice bowls and diluted a bit with water.

IMG_1639

For dinner I opted for a veggie kebab, wanting something a bit healthier after all the street food we had been eating! The pretzel-type things are far from the only option, and in fact earlier that day we had indulged in watermelon on the street. Seriously, get on that Florence! I have a feeling it would sell way better than the light-up things the street vendors throw in the air.

IMG_1640

Who, though, could go to Turkey and NOT indulge in baklava? Yep, dessert was definitely on the list and we tried baklava multiple places. Turkey serves many different kinds of baklava– milk and walnut are available, though pistachio seemed to be the most common. Below you can see a sort of syrup-cake that I tried one day… it was pretty good, but you can’t beat baklava!

IMG_1744

 

We typically got samplers so that we could try multiple kinds. You only live once right? Plus those honey-soaked fritter things were SO good.

IMG_1528

 

And finally, don’t forget Turkish delight!

IMG_1746

What about you? When you travel, are you a food-experience seeker? What’s your favorite?

 

Through the eyes of an author: Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul

One of my favorite things to do when exploring somewhere new is to see it through the eyes of a local. Sometimes a great way to do that is through literature, and I was lucky enough to have a Turkish author from Istanbul recommended to me in advance of traveling to Istanbul. The book is called The Museum of Innocence and it’s really a great read, I would highly recommend it to anyone thinking of traveling to the city. Orhan Pamuk is from Istanbul and that clearly shows in his writing as he intimately describes the neighborhoods his characters traverse. I felt like I really got to know the city even before arriving, and I wasn’t disappointed when we got there. Pamuk conceived the idea for the book and a corresponding museum at the same time. The book was published in 2008, and the museum opened in Istanbul in 2012, a testament to Pamuk’s importance and high level of respect in the Turkish community. He has won the Nobel Prize in Literature and is a truly talented writer. The book isn’t for the faint of heart–it’s long and very introspective with a slow plot, but it is beautifully written. We were able to stop by the museum and explore the neighborhoods surrounding it during one of our days in Istanbul. Below you can see the front of the museum, which contains mementos that have significance in the book. If you’d like more details than that, feel free to ask, but I don’t want to spoil it for everyone!

IMG_1714

 

We wandered around that area of town for most of the rest of the day, just walking and exploring, getting off the beaten track and for the most part seeing very few tourists. We wandered the backstreets, winding up (and up and up) hills and just exploring. We saw this really cool graffiti on one of our notable uphill climbs.

IMG_1719

All this uphill walking was for a purpose– we were heading to the Pera Palace hotel, where famous people the likes of Agatha Christie and Atatürk have stayed. One of my DAR ladies had recommended we stop here and ask to check out the rooms, so we did. Christie’s room, is, unfortunately for a big fan such as myself, still rented out, so I couldn’t check it out, but I do definitely plan to try to sleep there someday! Atatürk’s suite was converted into a museum room and a manager in training took us around it and shared some stories with us, so that was really interesting. He had left many things in the room at the time of his death, and those objects are what are now displayed there (two rugs that were gifted to him, pajamas, documents, etc). From there we walked around the area for a bit, checking out the cable car and shops… this was a very bustling and busy area.

IMG_1721

 

We wandered down to Galata Tower from there– it was nice to be walking downhill for a change!

IMG_1729

The line was ages long so we didn’t end up climbing the tower but we walked around it before deciding to continue downhill and meander our way back towards Sultenhamet by walking across the bridge over the Bosphorus.

IMG_1739

The bridge has great views and local Turks still fish off the bridge as well. You can see them fishing below with Galata Tower in the background.

IMG_1741

 

The bridge has great views looking towards both sides of the river.

IMG_1742

It’s a great reminder of how important the river was and is to Istanbul, both for trade and transportation.

IMG_1740

In this instance, a great day was created thanks to the recommendation of a friend and being willing to get out and explore a different area of the city, but when traveling it’s just as important to be flexible and to go with the flow when things come up. Getting off the beaten track in a destination can be challenging at times, but sometimes it’s a simple as appreciating events when you stumble across them. After one long day in Istanbul we stumbled across a military band playing and took advantage of the opportunity to indulge in watermelon from a street vendor and a bit of music.

IMG_1631

Istanbul is a beautiful city and exploring all of the hidden corners of it would take years. Finding all of the tiny things that make a place stand out to you is one of the greatest things about exploring new (and even old) places. For us, it was the reminder that Ramadan was coming, as we walked back through Sultenhamet at the end of our stay.

IMG_1747

For me, living in a Catholic country at the moment, the reminders of daily Muslim life couldn’t have been more different than my normal life, but it was a really amazing way to become a part of the culture of the country.

IMG_1748

 

That Local Life: Istanbul

One of the best things about travel is when you can get off the beaten track and experience things that are unique and get to know the locals of the city– and that’s what the next two posts I’ll be sharing about Istanbul will focus on. My friend and I are very compatible travelers in the sense that we both enjoy this type of travel, just wandering and exploring. Our first day in Istanbul my friend and I were off on an adventure to check out the Asian side of Istanbul. Since we stayed in the main tourist area we walked around 20 minutes to get to the ferry terminal, confused ourselves and some very nice Turkish people trying to find the proper ferry to Kadiköy, not to be confused with Karikoy, which, for the record, sound the same when you say them in your American accent to Turkish people. On our way to the waterfront we stopped and got fresh fruit juice–something that is all over Istanbul and that I wish we had more of here in Florence.

IMG_1497

All of the public transport in Istanbul (or at least all that we took) operates on a token system; careful that you don’t put a twenty in the machine because it will give you change all. back. in. coins. The ferry arrived and boarded quickly and we were off. Below you can see the ferry terminal from the water and the view behind.

IMG_1501

So I know it’s a little confusing to envision the city, so check out this map. We stayed in Sultenhamet, which is a part of the bottom left section of land and close to the Topkapi palace, Blue Mosque and Haggia Sophia. Kadiköy is the land mass on the right, labelled. And the top section we’ll touch on next week, so keep this map in mind.

istanbul02

The ferry ride to the Asian side is only about half an hour, and it was really pleasant. Since it was a Sunday morning most of the ferry was unoccupied and we got to enjoy the view in peace. Below, you can see the view of another area of Istanbul, including the Galata Tower. Refer back to the map above; the top section actually marks the Galata Tower so you can get an idea of the geography.

IMG_1503

We walked from the ferry stop at Kadiköy, intent on our destination. Along the way, we encountered some interesting things, such as these super creepy crows (below) and were lucky enough to meet some people that could direct us to the Starbucks, which was close to the apartment we were searching for.

IMG_1508

The reason that we were on the Asian side on this particular day was to hit the Istanbul Breakfast Club, something I stumbled across while doing research on all things Istanbul. Olga, who hosts the Istanbul Breakfast Club, runs a blog called Delicious Istanbul, full of helpful articles about where to shop (and where to avoid) in the major and minor markets and I read through some of her articles and noticed a box at the top of the page advertising the breakfast, so I checked it out. Olga is Russian but prepares a huge Turkish feast, only one a month, the last Sunday of the month, and it just so happened that my friend and I would be in town for the event. We finally found her apartment (luckily it was basically across the street from Starbucks) and were actually the first to arrive.

IMG_1509

Olga was very welcoming and chatted with us while she finished cutting cheese and arranging things from the brunch and answering the door. Around 15 people were attending the breakfast club and we got to chat with quite a few of them before the breakfast started and then throughout the meal as people sat, rearranged and departed, shifting conversational partners. The brunch was incredible, and all the food that Olga had made was so delicious. On the left is homemade strawberry jam and several sauces (a peanut sauce and some others) and in the back are savory biscuits that she made and in the front a type of cookie type thing and sesame seed candy.

IMG_1511

She made flatbreads at one point and there was a ton of fresh cheese including one similar to a ricotta in the bowl, vegetables, and this amazing pepper dip that we had tasted the night before at dinner and were thrilled to indulge in again.

IMG_1512

We filled our plates and Olga served everyone traditional black tea and we chatted with everyone while we ate. The brunch was mostly travelers so everyone had really interesting stories to share and swapped tips on what to do in Istanbul. We sat with someone who was originally from Istanbul and he gave us some great recommendations for the city. I’d highly, highly recommend the Istanbul Breakfast Club if you’re in town on the right day. If not, Olga also does foodie type tours, so be sure to check out her website!

IMG_1513

When breakfast wound down we ended up walking into town with a couple other people from the brunch. One was the local I mentioned before, who now splits time between Istanbul and San Francisco and the other two were a couple who had been living in another area of Turkey. We wandered back towards the ferry area together, grabbed coffee and stopped by a store in town that I had asked about to buy something for my brother. They headed back to take the ferry afterwards but we weren’t finished exploring the Asian side so we stayed over, wandered around the small streets behind the ferry station and opted to have dinner somewhere they had recommended to us earlier, one of their favorite spots in Istanbul. They have a self-serve appetizer dip bar, but I wasn’t too impressed with the main course we had, so I’m not sharing it with you here.

The Asian side of Istanbul doesn’t hold a ton of tourist sites, and I’m sure that most tourists gloss over it. For me, though, it felt every bit as much a part of the city as the other areas, and it was great to be out and about among mostly locals enjoying a calm Sunday. I imagine it’s probably a quieter area during the week, but I highly recommend getting out from the main tourist zones of Istanbul and checking it out if you have time. If you are able to, be sure to give Olga my best!

We took the ferry back across the Bosphorus (for the record, the cheapest ‘river tour’ you could possibly get) at sunset, the end to a perfect Sunday.

IMG_1536

Istanbul: where histories meet

This past weekend I went somewhere completely new to me that I am so excited to share with you over the next couple of weeks. Istanbul encompasses so much more than I could possibly say to you in one post, and I hope you’ll stick with me to get to know a city that is truly deserving of a spot on your bucket list. There are so many things that I could say about Istanbul, but none would truly describe the city. It’s really a place that you have to experience yourself, and I couldn’t speak more highly of it. I have been wanting to visit Istanbul for some time, but it’s more complicated to tack onto a Eurotour because it is further away, making flights more limited and train access longer and not as accessible. To top that off, I had heard mixed things about Istanbul and I just wasn’t sure about exploring the city on my own.

This year I was lucky enough to meet someone else who had an interest in traveling to Istanbul, and we were able to get the same week off work so a couple of months ago we booked five days in the city of Istanbul. I did a ton of research in advance because there are just so many things to see that with limited time we didn’t want to miss, but even so I wasn’t really sure what to expect. I had a vision in mind, and in some ways, Istanbul was exactly how I imagined it; in others, it was so entirely different. The whole city has a really unique feel, and I attribute that to the unique history of the city that has created a completely diverse culture. Istanbul was part of the Roman Empire and the seat of the Ottoman Empire, two completely different empires that contributed greatly to the establishment of much of the modern city. It is both Europe and Asia, ancient and modern, Islamic, Christian and secular. All of this contributes to such an interesting feel when you are walking around the city– almost like you have been transported to the past, with the amenities of the present. It’s hard to describe, but it’s entirely unique and very peaceful.

We hit many of the big tourist sites while exploring Istanbul, including the Topkapi palace, the Basilica Cistern, the Süleymaniye mosque, the Blue Mosque and the Ayasofya (Hagia Sophia). There were so many other things we could have seen; in particular we really wanted to go to the archeological museums but we simply didn’t have time; we weren’t willing to compromise on other things to squeeze it in, so mark that down if I make it back to Istanbul someday. Istanbul is a bustling metropolis and in most ways is very similar to any other major city: there is a metro, buses and a tram system. The teens on the metro are just as giggly and annoying as the ones in the US. Still, there are marked differences as well. The call to prayer resonates throughout the city during the day, and in the wee hours of the morning as well, before sunup, defining the day. Personally I found it very peaceful, and very different and yet similar to the clanging church bells that can be heard on the hour all over Italy.

IMG_1485

Did you have any idea that there would be an Egyptian obelisk in Istanbul? Yeah, me either. There is a surprising number of things imported into Istanbul, from ancient pillars to the notably more recent Shake Shack. Still, the ancient history is what the city is noted for and what enabled it to become what it is today. Below you can see the inner courtyard of the massive Topkapi palace, seat of the Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans ran most of their business out of the palace; meeting rooms were next to the harem and were actually damaged in the harem fire that occurred, but you can still see much of the buildings. Many of the rooms have been converted to display artifacts belonging to the Ottomans, but some, like the meeting rooms and the harem, were left as they were to be seen as the rooms they were at the time. In the display rooms you can see a wide variety of historical objects, including weapons the Ottomans used over the course of their reign, clothes the Sultan wore, and items such as vases and jewels that were either gifted to the Sultan or taken as spoils of war.

IMG_1548Below you can see some of the ceilings within the meeting rooms. Do you think they painted the ceilings so intricately in case they got bored when someone was droning on? Just kidding… maybe…

 

The harem was particularly interesting because it was where many women and the Sultan lived during the reign of the Ottoman Empire. When you first enter the harem and go inside a bit more, there are three doorways: one leads to the concubines, one to the head wife and one to the Sultan. The tile work is incredibly intricate throughout the palace and leans toward blue and teal tones.

IMG_1579

And the view isn’t bad from the palace either…

IMG_1577

The frescoes throughout the harem were quite intricate and beautiful.

IMG_1585

And surely the Sultan couldn’t complain about this bed…

IMG_1600

Learning more about the Ottoman Empire’s home was really interesting, but for our next stop we completely switched tracks and went to see something Roman left in the city… one of the aqueducts. Below you can see some shots of the aqueducts including the famed Medusa head. It was pretty dark underground so I didn’t have a ton of photos that turned out, but it was SO cool, definitely a must-see when in Istanbul.

Perhaps the most interesting things we saw in terms of big tourist sites, however, were the contrasting Ayasofya and Blue Mosque which face each other in the heart of the tourist district of the city. They are such a contrast to each other and both have such interesting history. The Blue Mosque was built to counter the Ayasofya and is known as the “blue” mosque because of the blue tiling on the balcony level of the mosque (not that, as a tourist, you go that high. You stay on the floor, so the blue didn’t seem as predominant, at least to me). It was really stunningly beautiful. We had visited the Süleymaniye mosque the day before, and it was much more intricate than that mosque, but they were both really beautiful. Below in the gallery the Süleymaniye mosque is shown above and the Blue Mosque below it.

Below you can see some photos where I tried to zoom in on the infamous blue tiles.

The Ayasofya is probably one, if not the sole most interesting historical building in the city. Built as a church, it was converted to a mosque under the Ottomans before eventually being secularized by Ataturk and made into a museum, which is how it stands today. There are still some who would prefer it be returned to being a living mosque, however, so occasionally there is debate around it. Because it has such an interesting history, it is a really interesting building to explore. For example, when it was converted into a mosque, the mosaics of the Byzantine church were covered in plaster. Some have been uncovered; in parts of the building you can see areas where the plaster has been pulled back just enough to view that there is something else beneath; there are also many mosaics still beneath the plaster that have not been uncovered yet. Side by side in the same building you are able to see these Byzantine frescoes and the sweeping letters of the Islamic art and it’s a little surreal. Below you can see a bit where the plaster is pulling back to reveal what lies beneath.

IMG_1669

 

The interior of the church is really interesting and really beautiful. The combination of Christian and Islamic themes is so interesting.

DSC07366

DSC07369

The light messed with the picture above but you can see the mosaic of the Virgin Mary and Christ Child next to the Islamic script. You can clearly see the influences from the Ottoman Empire in the photos below. The lowermost shows the box where the Sultan would sit if he came to prayer.

DSC07370

DSC07371

There are so many truly amazing things that I could show you images of, but the truth is you will only capture the essence of the city if you see it for yourself. Tune in next week when I share more off the beaten track treasures from Istanbul– I hope you are enjoying hearing about this amazing city as much as I enjoyed exploring it.

Rainy Rome: photo essay

I popped down to Rome for a quick overnight visit last week, and I have to say that unfortunately it rained nearly the entire trip. And by rain, I mean more like a torrential downpour, which really affects enjoyment of the city! At some points it stopped raining and those moments were really enjoyable. It was a really quick turnaround, so we didn’t do too much in the city and I thought instead of boring you with the non-things that we did, I would share some photos with you. Rome is so much more of a city than Florence, so it’s fun to be there and explore and also see how the current time and modernity butt right up against the past.

The Best View in Florence

One of the most popular things to do in Italy is to climb things. You got to see a bit last week of my own hiking and the amazing views from the hills of Assisi, so you know that climbing a bit can result in a totally fabulous view that makes all that sweat worth it. Florence is no different, and you’ll find a ton of people willing to wait hours in line to climb things here, in particular the famed Duomo. You can also climb the bell tower, right in the same piazza, but the Duomo, the dome itself, is by far the most popular. The line stretches for hundreds of people; I snapped this shot one time looking at the line. Technically this is the line to enter the church. Put another one beside it that goes up the side of the building and almost all the way to the back of the church… yeah, you’re starting to get the picture.

IMG_0788

Don’t get me wrong– I have personally climbed the Duomo and it’s amazing. But if you only have a couple of hours and you have to choose one thing to climb, I would argue that the view from the Duomo in fact is not the best one in the city. What’s really cool about climbing the Duomo is getting up close and personal with the art and architecture and frescoes inside the dome as you climb up to the tippy-top. But when you look out over the city of Florence, you are missing one key landmark in your view–because you are standing in it.

Instead, I recommend going to Palazzo Vecchio, the former seat of the Florentine government and a really interesting building in and of itself. There are famous frescoes on its walls of battle scenes, notably between Florence and Pisa, and you can tour some of the rooms of the palazzo where famous governors of the state lived. For an extra fee, you can climb the bell tower of Palazzo Vecchio. The view is amazing; but don’t just take my word for it. See for yourself. You really get a feel for the city, all the red rooftops when you are up high.

IMG_1150

IMG_1154

IMG_1157

IMG_1159

IMG_1165

If you can do both, by all means. But if you have to choose, think about why you are climbing–for the art, or for the view? If it’s a great view of the city you are seeking, choose Palazzo Vecchio– or if you have a bit more time, climb into the hills and check out the view of the city in whole from either Piazza Michelangelo or Fiesole. È bella!

City of Peace

IMG_1316

This past Friday I spent the day in nearby Assisi, known for Francis of Assisi, and despite being hot, really enjoyed the beautiful city. The photo above was taken on a stop on the way to the town (we went by bus) and is a good reminder that there are actually lakes in this area! We stopped first at Santa Maria degli Angeli in the lower town of Assisi, whereas most of Assisi is actually up on the hill.

IMG_1324

Francis asked for a small place in the woods (during his time the town was all up on the hill, and this area was the woods) for his order to pray. That church was preserved and is still inside this church, which was built up around it.

IMG_1326

We then took the bus up the hill into the town of Assisi and started out at  this church that you see above, St. Francis’ basilica. It’s well-known within the art history world for its famous fresco cycles, including many by Giotto. We had a guided tour here, which was interesting because our guide was from India so he had a pretty strong accent. For most of the day, as I was with a friend’s school, a religious studies professor took us around and explained things to us, which was really great since I’m not Catholic and so don’t know a ton about Francis. Below is a great shot of the basilica from the front.

IMG_1335

 

So from there we walked further up the hill into the main city square and took a lunch break, after which we walked up even further to the medieval castle in the area. It was a good hike, not that bad except for the heat.

IMG_1354

You can climb the towers for a good view, but other than that there isn’t that much to see. The view is great from the hill, so even if you don’t want to pay for going inside I would recommend walking up. You get great views of the town of Assisi as well as the Italian countryside and hills.

IMG_1347

 

IMG_1365

We walked back down after and stopped by another church, where Francis heard God tell him to rebuild his church.

IMG_1366

 

Overall I would say Assisi is a beautiful hilly town to visit on a day trip from Florence– especially in the spring or fall when the weather is nicer. It is a great town to get outside of the hustle and tourist rush, though there are many Catholic pilgrims, especially at the basilica. Willing to do a little hiking? Visit the smaller churches, where you’ll practically have the place to yourself.

Your Dinner Tonight: Osteria Santo Spirito

Those who have been following this blog for a while know I love good food, and so up next I’m going to share one of my all-time favorites of Florence: Osteria Santo Spirito. I’m all for a good apertivo but sometimes you really want a sit-down meal with multiple courses, and Osteria Santo Spirito does not disappoint. As its name suggests, it is located in piazza Santo Spirito, a popular spot particularly during the summer. Whether you are planning on eating inside or out, I definitely recommend getting a reservation. Then you know you will get a spot, and can sit down to enjoy a great meal stress-free–and at a bargain price, too. Of all the places I have been (rarely) or seen, it’s one of the most reasonable in town. Every meal starts off with their bread accompanied by a delicious olive spread. Yum.

IMG_1174

Then it’s up to you as to what you want to order. Since there were five of us we opted to split a starter, so we got this delicious combo:

IMG_1175

Which was quickly devoured– except the lard. Why do Italians serve lard on bread? Something we Americans just don’t understand.

We had actually come to the restaurant on the recommendation of a friend, who insisted we get the cheese and truffle oil gnocchi. Let me tell you, she was not wrong. One of the best things I have put in my mouth EVER. Delicious. As you can see, it was a popular choice. Oh, did I mention these are half portions? (Lucky they HAVE half portions, a rare thing in Italy!)

IMG_1181

In the closeup you can practically see the cheese bubbling. Excuse me while I run across town to eat some more.

IMG_1176

Do you have a favorite restaurant in a city you live in or have visited? This one is definitely on my list now!