Sunday, December 27, 2009

Rome and Istanbul

We just returned from our 14 days trip to Rome and Istanbul. I always dreamed of going to Istanbul, and when I found out I had enough mileage saved for two to fly there I coudln't wait.
Rome was a 4 days stopover that added on the last minute while I was booking. I was so glad I did, it turned out to be the highlight of the trip.

Eating in Rome (or probably the whole Italy) is such a joy. It made me realize what living is about. I envy Italians. They seem to enjoy life, make great art, and love their food.

Each meal in Rome would last 2 hours or more (ok, maybe not the breakfast.) Several times we went into a restaurant and saw how much people were laughing, having a great time, while chowing down on amazing food, it all became contagious. Paul and I would chat so happily for a long time and kept ordering food. The way Italian servers never rushed people actually ended up making us stayed and enjoyed the food, and eventually ordered desserts, which is something we almost never do back home.

In Rome, it seemed like one would have to try really hard to get bad food. Even the obvious tourist restaurants like the one we went the first night near Plaza di Fiori had very decent food. We stumbled across a restaurant on our way walking to Vatican. I saw through the window a big gathering of an Italian family laughing and having a good time, I knew it couldn't be bad. I ordered pasta with clams in pesto sauce. Oh my, I still dream of that plate of pasta with enormous amount of clams. There was at least 30 or 40 clams and the pesto sauce was sooo good. I can eat that every day and not be sick of it. At a restaurant near Coliseum we walked into a restaurant that seemed to be a favorite hangout of locals for lunch, (long lines of locals and every table was taken, we're the only ones who did not speak Italian,) I had the best risotto, ever.

Eating in Rome is understanding what eating experience can be: loving your food, loving your company, and loving life.

Oh, and the sites. Walking around the ruins in Forum was an unforgettable experience. Lucky for us, it had finally stopped raining. I loved seeing cats crawling in and out of some broken columns laying on the ground.

The Basilca - for someone non-religious like I am found it not so much a place of feeling spiritual, but a showcase of power and wealth with all the amazing and grand sculptures. The Pieta was no doubt the best and most subdued piece in the Basilica.

The collection in Vatican was such as a treat. To see Raphael's school of Athen was a given, but to find other lesser known treasures added more depth to the tour. I loved the tapestries there. I was not a fan of European tapestry for the longest time until I began to see the good ones in person.

a small fresco by the window inside Vatican

Someone turn on the heater please, or at least give him some clothes.
Another fresco by a door in Vatican.

I was almost in tears seeing Sistine Chapel again. The first time I saw it was nearly 20 years ago. I bow down to Michaelagelo. Up on the celing it was a whole lively world. Seeing it renewed my complete belief in art once again. For a long time I've been questioning the relevance of art in today's world. Mostly, I question my own making of art, how inconsequential they are. The kind of doubt that many artist often have, especially those of us who don't make any living out of the art we make. But seeing the "Last Judgement" and the Ceiling in the chapel made me see how important art can be in human existence. The great works of art are just as important as great thoughts, or scientific discoveries. They open up your eyes and your mind to see the possibility you could not dream of before. Now I feel that even if I can never match one hundredth of Sistine Chapel's greatness, the quest of doing good art is relevant. The world is different because there are us who believe in the value of art, and of trying to do better art than what we have done.

On Michaelangelo's ceiling, the huge complexity of how every figures relate to each other and the structure of spatial relationship to the story telling (which involves the concept Time), and different parts of the ideas all came together in the most mind-blowing way when you look up. The figures seemed to be talking to each other and formed a lively world up there, and the sybils/prophets being completely different part from the bible stories yet by putting in the faux architectural painting to situate them, it unified the whole composition and telling story in a different way.

Then you look at the "Last Judgment" up in front of the altar you see Michaelangelo's development later in his life. The structure of space and monumentality gave way to an intense spiritual struggle and distortion. The immense power radiates from the Last Judgment was almost frightening, not only in the imagery but the way it was composed and painted.

I felt such a rush in the presence of an enormous giant and his talent and accomplishment. I was humbled by it, and feeling complete be able to witness it. It made me want to rush back home to get into my studio. Not that I am an figurative artist, nor do I work in representational works, nor do I posses the grand talent of Michaelangelo or other masters, but it gave me ambition, it made me want to be better of an artist.

Sistine Chapel

In the Vatican museum, I also saw two beautiful Morandi's paintings. It was always a treat to see a Morandi in person when I rarely saw one in the U.S. I did coupla quick studies of them in my sketch book as well.

Walking around Rome was like walking in a treasure box. I would find little (sometimes big) surprises all the time. Be it a balcony garden, or coming across a ruin site, or seeing a beautiful crystal chandelier inside a second story window.


We had 8 days in Istanbul. We made a big mistake of booking a hotel for 8 days in advance and they charged our credit card even before we got there. For 8 days we were sleep deprived. The biggest culprit was the bed. It was the most uncomfortable bed I'd ever slept on, and I'd slept on a lot of crappy beds/floors from camping trips and backpacking in Europe for 2 months. On the fifth morning I woke up screaming from the pain on my back/shoulder. I couldn't lift my arm for a day. Paul is still hurting badly with his back pain from the bed.

We stayed in the old town area Sultanahment. It's an area where the majority of tourists stay because it's all withing walking distance to Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, Tokapi Palace, Grand Bazaar, and other major sites. It was amazing to be walking by Blue Mosque at least twice a day every day. The down side of staying at Sultanahmet though was that it's filled with mosques, old and not so old ones. I love the view and architecture of mosques, but they don't bring out the nicest part of me early in the morning with their call for prayer. Every morning at the crack of dawn each mosque would do their call of prayer through the loud speakers. The 5 mosques around us all did theirs at a slight different time. The calls seemed to be very different than the ones we heard in Morocco. Unlike the continuous calling in Morocco, in Turkey, each call would be a 15 senconds of calling, then 10 seconds of pause (so I'd begin drifting back to sleep), then started again, and that went on repeatedly for what felt like an eternity. It would take about 20 minutes for all 5 mosques to finish the calling. And it was still so dark outside. Being such a light sleeper, even though I did not get enough sleep, sometimes I wouldn't be able to get back to sleep because the noise of the street would start after the prayer.

The horrible bed, the calls for prayer, and a noisy hotel (noise from construction next door and traffic started each morning and lasted 'till 10 at night, and the walls were paper thin, the toilet also would not stop running half of the time which the hotel didn't fix after I made a request) really made sleeping a very difficult task.

The bad choice of hotel really dampened our experience a lot as we were walking zombies for 8 days. I felt like I would've fallen in love with the city a lot more if only I was well rested each night. If I were to do it again, I'd stay in the newer part of the city, it may lack in atmosphere, but I'd have a better chance of getting sleep and alert enough each day to enjoy the city.

Another downer on the trip was on our last day there. As we were walking down the street from the hotel in the morning, all of sudden I felt so dizzy as if the world was falling away from me. Paul came and grabbed me. Even though the dizziness went away very quickly, I was weak. I sat down at the park and drank some water, then puked. I'm not sure what happened. It scared me. I'm not sure if it had to do with total lack of sleep, or the cold I was catching, or dehydration, or more serious problem that's related to my ear feeling plugged up on and off for months (though for the ears, the ENT doctor said it was no big deal just eustachian tube deform and it will very likely to heal on its own after few months.) I never felt that way before, it was not light-headedness or the kind of dizzy after spinning around.

Blue Mosque at dawn

Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque were my long time dream of visiting and they did not disappoint at all. Blue Mosque surpassed my expectation both outside and inside. It is a work of sublime, a jaw-dropping beauty. In contrast to the impressive display of power and wealth in the Vatican Basilica, the trascending art of Blue Mosque carries more persuasive power of spirituality.

Inside Blue Mosque

Inside Hagia Sophia

On the fourth day in Istanbul, we took a ferry across to the Asia side and I thoroughly enjoyed the trip, both the ferry ride the the tourist free streets. Originally we were gonna go up Bosphorous to Black Sea but we missed the ferry. The hotel told us it runs 3 times a day, but as it turned out it only runs once a day (maybe for winter) in the morning. So we just decided to hop on the shorter trip ferry and went across to Asia. We loved it so much that we went across twice in one day... Nah, the real story was Paul forgot his backpack in the restuarant and did not realize it until we're already on the ferry coming back. So we went back again. But gladly so. The fare was cheap only about $1 each way. We came back during sunset time, too bad it was overcast so we didn't get a glorious sunset, but the colors were still beautiful on the water.

A doorway in harem at Topaki

The Harem at the Topaki Palace has some amazing tile work. I love the design elements in Islamic/Ottoman art. And we saw some beautiful rugs at the Museum of Islamic and Turkish Art next to the Hippodrome. So beautiful that it made us not even want to look at any rugs sold in the Bazaar. It's a very nice museum, not large in collection on display, but amazingly beautiful stuff that I felt like I could take my time to look at each piece and not rushed.

Tile work in Harem at Topaki Palace

Grand Bazaar was unfortunately a let down. At first sight it was impressive with the number of stalls. But there was nothing but tourist souvenir stuff and fake designer handbags, and it's all the same thing stall after stall. If you've seen 5 stalls you've probably have seen the whole selection of the Bazaar. Once we ventured outide the Bazaar, we found streets shops where locals go. And there were tons of people everywhere. I found the yarn area that people on Ravelry had recommended. There were at least a dozen yarn stores there. Most of the yarns were acrylic and eyelash yarns which I was not interested at all. But after asking around for a while I finally found some Noku Bambu which is a blend of cashmere and bamboo. Very lovely yarn. I bought enough for 2 sweaters for about $40. I was very happy with the deal. The old guy at the store laughed when I bargained, it was 36 Liras for the first 12 skeins, and I said 30? He laughed and said something, the only word I undestood was "..... Turkish....." and immediately said, "OK." I think he was laughing at my bargaining skill that was obviously not Turkish enough. Then I went back for the second 12 skeins. He laughed again when I said the same thing. He showed me the scarf that he was working on, quiet neat, super bulky yarn in very very tight guage. Paul said he saw the guy knitting, it was almost like forcefully stabbing every stitch, cool.

Grand Bazaar

Albeit the sights are beautiful in Istanbul, the best part is the people. We've encountered so many nice people in Istanbul. One day we were lost in the pouring rain walking around the new part of the town, when we're looking at our map in the rain a lady came up and asked if we needed help. Another day an older guy gave up his seat on the tram for me. I was embarrassed thinking, "does this mean I look pregnant, maybe I should go on a diet." When we were at the restaurant in the Asian side, none of the servers spoke any English when I asked for vegetarian food, a custermer came over helped with translating. The best was in the Grand Bazaar, we had a great conversation with a rug dealer. We usually ran the other way when we saw a rug dealer. But while Paul was looking through a stack of pillow cases made from kilims (the cheapest stuff in the store), the shop owner and I chatted happily about natural dyeing. We were so into our conversation that he totally didn't push Paul for getting anything at all. He told me the best purple can be made of cochinal bugs (I always thought you can only get red from cochinal.) Then we talked about personal aesthetics, beauty of natural dyeing over chemical dyes, and how to treat and dye wool. I was really excited about the things he told me. After Paul bought his pillow case (probably the cheapest sale he had in a week.) The owner invited us in and gave us tea. The whole time we sat there chatting he never once tried to show us any rugs to sell. We talked for a long time about Orhan Pamuk's books, the life in Turkey, his trips to US, the cultures of US of Turkey. It was so delightful. In Grand Bazaar, ones' instinct was always to be on guard of anyone inviting you for tea or ask you to go inside a store, but it was such a treat to have a geniune encounter.

Overall, I fell in love with Rome more each day I was there. Although we regretted staying at the hotel, we enjoyed Istanbul. I think Istanbul is one of those cities where you may not love it at first sight because it's modernized, and the old town is becoming too much of a tourist trap, it lacks the exotic enchantment that Marrakech has. But if you stay there for longer than a tourist stay, I think you will love the city for its people and for the real side of it.

1 comment:

  1. Grand Bazaar is so great and Blue Mosque is so delightful.