The Cats of Istanbul

Istanbul’s cats are quite the tourist attraction, but I had no idea they even existed till a few weeks before I got there. I’m sure they didn’t know I existed either, so we’re even. In case you couldn’t tell from my previous Istanbul post, I love the little furballs. Knowing I’d have a virtual army of them to keep me company whilst travelling alone made me happy. But when there, I was left in two minds. Well, actually I was left in about 100 minds. (more…)

Istanbul Galata Tower

Eating Istanbul

I really thought I’d not get a holiday this year. But then it dawned on me, if I cut back from drinking 75 litres of Jack Daniels a week, I might be able to afford at least a couple of days, if I, you know, went full-on budget. Plus I might even remember what I did while I was there. So where to? Hmm. Somewhere slightly more challenging than Italy for the umpteenth time. Somewhere with a different culture. Somewhere to make me think I’d actually left the UK. What about Istanbul? There’s direct flights. There’s Turkish Delight. And there are cats. Oodles of them just wandering the streets, apparently. Perfect.

Normally I research the shit out of places before I go. After an initial couple of hours’ perusal told me that taxi drivers will most probably try to rip you off, there’s 14 million people (ugghh) and terrorists had set off a bomb outside one of the biggest tourist attractions that very day, I decided to stop reading. I also decided not to go to any top tourist attractions, but this was more about having an authentic experience , not silly, media induced fear, I swear.

Come travel day, we hadn’t even taken off before I knew I’d chosen well. I was surrounded with culture the second I squished myself into my seat; the man to my left stroked religious beads, the man on my right sat cross legged and chanted, other men prayed, women in veils outnumbered those without and there was a not unpleasant, but very distinctive, aroma of incense whenever someone in robes swished by me.

Then it all went to shit.

But let’s not focus on the bad things. Well, maybe just quickly – no power, no water, no air con and an unexpected September humidity that had me permanently looking like I’d just jumped into the Bosphorous. Oh and I had to actually punch a handsy a-hole before he understood that no, I did not want to go and make porno with him at 5am while waiting for my airport bus back home. I did say I wanted a challenge, right?

Despite the above, I’d picked a great area to stay in; Beyoglu. Mere steps from my shitty apartment was a lively local community. It bubbled away each day with cafes run by young, trendy twenty-somethings, a Borek shop (pastry stuffed with meat or cheese), a Pide shop (like a pizza), a ‘club’ where old men gathered to play cards and drink tea, a little corner store often run by a bunch of kids serving people between games of soccer and enough neighbourhood cats to keep any cat lady happy for weeks.

It was so nice, not even the Beyoglu hills bothered me, the many, many, 45 degree-angled, narrow, cobblestone lined hills. OK, that’s a lie. I’m betting high heels are not big sellers in Istanbul. I actually wouldn’t be surprised to find Beyoglu is built up over a pyramid. A myriad of paths wind up to the top, shops along the way full of panting tourists trying to catch their breath by feigning interest in Turkish flag t-shirts and all-seeing-eye fridge magnets. That look of delight on everyone’s faces at the top is probably not from seeing the shiny shops of Istiklal Avenue, but because it’s finally, blissfully flat.

The heritage tram on Istiklal Avenue

Flat it may be, but Istiklal is a consumer promenade so long there’s a tram that runs from one end to the other, all day, back and forth, one little narrow tram swaying side to side, overloaded with all those shopping bags and weary shoppers.

I only stayed here long enough to see the famous ice cream sellers making fools of their customers with a deft, almost vaudevillian sleight of hand act. Buy an ice cream from them and try to remain cheerful while he hands you the cone, only to snatch it back at the last moment. Again and again he’ll trick you, to the cheers and ever building mirth of the gathering crowds. By about the twentieth time, see if you can keep your frustration and embarrassment in check and don’t want to punch him in the face. Such fun. (more…)

‘Stuck’ in Edinburgh

Looks like I won’t be going anywhere this year. But when your home just happens to be Edinburgh, that’s not exactly the worst fate in the world. You might think this makes having a travel website a bit more of a challenge, but I’ve got that sorted. Until I can leave the country once again (no, I’m not in jail, just a bit po’er), I’ve been busying myself running around my adopted home, trying to find the cool stuff there is to do, to eat and to drink in Edinburgh. And yep, I thought about it for about three seconds and came up with anooooother website – Stuff Edinburgh.

If you’re planning on visiting Scotland’s capital, or just fancy a bit of a read and some nice pics, check it out. Stuff Edinburgh’s on Facebook too. There you’ll find a few more photos and interesting bits and pieces that aren’t on the website. And OK yeah, I’m also on Twatter. Ugghh.

Here’s hoping I’ll be back to sharing my embarrassing travel stories here soon…

Venice Part 3 – how to visit Venice and keep your sanity; stay in Padova

I wasn’t sure at first, but my mother’s insistence that we stay in Padua instead of Venice when she came to visit this summer turned out to be yet another example of ‘Mum knows best’. Venice is unlike any city in the world (well, that I’ve been to), it’s seriously amazing and I probably only just scratched the surface, but… the crowds… oh my god the crowds…

If I’d been staying in Venice I think I would have ended up barricaded in my hotel room with some nice calming music and a medicinal ‘beverage’ or six to keep me from being sent mad each day. But luckily my wise mother foresaw all this and decided we’d be staying 40 kilometers west of Venice, in quiet little Padua. Or Padova if you want to be Italian.

Padova (yep, I want to be Italian) is a University town of approximately 250,000 people, sitting along the Bacchiglione river in the Veneto region. And it’s unlike any Italian city I’ve ever been to.

I’ve been to Italy about ten times, but except for a quick trip to the Cinque Terre, Florence was the furthest north I’d ever been. Maybe a lot of the northern cities are similar to Padova, but at first I wasn’t that impressed with it, architecturally I mean. To be honest, after spending the day in Venice, it would be hard for any city to compare to the beauty of Venice. But by the end of my week there I knew my first impressions were a little unfair because Padova has a simple charm about it which unfolds the longer you’re there and the more you immerse yourself into local life.

What struck me as unusual to begin with were the narrow streets surrounded on both sides by covered arches, giving everything an almost claustrophobic feel. But, being Italy, the arches have beautiful vaulted ceilings, so even though I felt crowded, looking up was still pretty.

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And away from the very centre, the streets are wider and tree lined like the one below.

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So what’s there to do in Padova, besides breathe, in the calm  after a day of crowd wrestling in Venice? Here’s my picks.

Prato Della Valle

Padova’s biggest square is one of the largest in Europe. It has a garden in the centre and a sort of moat with 78 statues of famous Padovians (if that’s what they’re called) circling it. Like most Italian squares, it’s a great place to come at dusk to witness the ritual evening passeggiata, as locals meet to walk, watch their kids play or catch up on gossip.

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Churches

If churches are your thing, you’ll love Padova. The one below is the rather imposing Basilica of Saint Anthony or ‘Il Santo’, but they also have the famous Scrovegni (with some of the best preserved Giotto frescoes around, so precious that you have to stand in a humidity chamber to regulate your temperature before going in), the Abbey of Santa Giustina, the Padua Cathedral, the Church of the Eremitani, San Gaetano and Santa Sofia. Knock yourself out.

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The University of Padua/Galileo

One of Padova’s most illustrious residents was Galileo. He taught at the university between 1591 and 1610. The street where he lived has now been named after him.

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Dating back to 1222, the University of Padua is one of the oldest in the world (and the second oldest in Italy, after Bologna). From the 15th to the 18th centuries, it was a leader in the fields of medicine, astronomy, philosophy and law.

The tour of Palazzo Bo, which housed the University’s anatomy school, is well worth doing. The highlight is surely the amazingly preserved anatomy theatre, where public dissections took place and more than a few light headed anatomy students fainted – from the heat and small confines of the room of course, not from the blood and guts and creepy stuff going on below them. Apart from getting to see the medieval surgery tools which looked more like torture devices, the anatomy room was my favourite part of the tour. Our guide was a bit stiff for the first half, corralling us in the lecture hall and spewing out dates and names (albeit in 3 languages), but once we moved on from there she relaxed a bit and became a more entertaining story teller. Stick it out if she’s boring you.

The courtyard of Palazzo Bo. No photography is allowed once inside unfortunately.

The courtyard of Palazzo Bo. No photography is allowed once inside unfortunately.

Detail of the crests around the portico of the Palazzo courtyard.

Detail of the students’ family crests around the portico of the Palazzo courtyard.

Piovego Canal

During summer, a little way out of the city, the Piovego Canal is lined with temporary, wooden hut-style bars where the drink of choice, Spritz (Prosecco, Campari or Apperol and soda), costs just 2 Euros. Each drink order also comes with free nibbles, so you can help yourself to whatever’s on the bar; usually chips/crisps, but sometimes they also break out the dips! It’s kind of clever to give you salty food for free, because that of course is just going to make you thirsty and go back to order another Spritz.

The bars are close to the university campus so it attracts students (as you can see in the shots below), but in Italy, students out for a drink are nothing like what you might encounter in the UK or Australia. The atmosphere is relaxed and cheery, as opposed to loud and out of control. (more…)

Venice Part 2 – the usual suspects

Venice. Sigh. It’s slightly attractive. As I said in my Part 1, there’s not really much I could show you or tell you that you’ve probably not heard before. But I did learn one interesting fact. So below is that one fact, a word of advice and then some pretty pics. For pics of another kind, see Part 1.

Some Advice 

You’re going to go into St Mark’s Basilica aren’t you? I mean, you’ve come all that way, no matter how worn out and weary of tourist attractions you may be, it’s one of those things you just have to tick off. Well, here’s what the queue looks like to get in.

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Eww. So, my advice is to book yourself on some kind of walking tour that includes the Basilica and you’ll waltz right past all those poor people who aren’t in the know. Plus, I mean, hello, if there’s one place in the world where you really really need to find yourself an expert to explain what you’re looking at, it’s Italy. And for that I can highly recommend Walks of Italy .

Of course these things depend greatly on who you get on the day, but our tour guide was amazing (I think he was called Mose, but don’t quote me on that). His presentation wasn’t just a dry spewing out of facts, he really told a story and helped us imagine Venice how it would have been hundreds of years ago. It’s a real skill to be a good tour guide and for me in Italy the best have all been Art History students. So maybe that’s the key.

A Fact to Blow Your Mind (thanks Mose, if that was your name… )

Venice had the world’s first digital clock! Look again at the queue in the photo above. See the clock tower there? It was built in the late 16th century, but in 1855 panels to the left and the right of the virgin and child statue were added. As you can see below, these panels change every five minutes, a kind of Roman Numeral digital clock.

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This is 12 o’clock…

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and ta daaaa… five minutes later it shows 12.05. Very cool.

Some Pretty Pics

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And there it is, well the most famous part at least, with the St Mark’s Basilica bell tower jutting out conspicuously.

And another view from the bell tower of San Giorgio Maggiore, an island across from St Mark’s square.

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As part of the 2014 Venice Biennale, this sculpture by Heinz Mack will be on display at San Giorgio Maggiore until November 23rd. It’s called ‘Sky Over 9 Columns’. I’m not usually one for modern art and it of course has all sorts of symbolic meanings, but to me it just really looked like it was holding up the sky and that was enough to impress me!

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I spent a hell of a lot of time looking up in Venice.

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Venice Part 1 – the everyday side of one of the world’s most photographed city

What could I possibly tell you about Venice that you don’t already know? Or haven’t already seen? It would have to be one of the most photographed places in the world wouldn’t it? Well, when I was walking around Venice, taking shots of all the most photographed buildings, monuments and alleyways, I even began to bore myself. Well, as much as looking at endless beauty can bore anyone. So I began to snap the locals going about their day instead, trying to get an idea of what it would be like to actually live in a giant lagoon.

The beautiful stuff I’ll post next, but for this one, here’s some of the ordinary, everyday aspects of living, working and visiting Venice.

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This is a Vaporetto station, the Venetian version of a bus or train station. It’s floating too, so waiting for your ride is like a ride in itself.

The Vaporetto’s are usually absolutely packed. This guy makes sure everyone gets on and off safely.

From what I experienced, this is a pretty empty version of a Vaporetto ride.

From what I experienced, this would be classed as pretty empty. Aww, it’s just like being on The Tube in London. With prettier scenery.

Does anyone on public transport ever look happy?

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The Police…

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The Paramedics

The Garbage Man...

The Garbage Man…

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The garbo’s doing their thing. Bet you’ve never pictured this version of The Grand Canal.

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Delivery guys…

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The craftsmen who make the Gondolas.

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A not so busy Gondolier.

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