Saturday, October 24, 2015

Yes, Please: Istanbul

Let's start with this: Istanbul be crazy.  We've all heard about the tumult spilling over from the middle east into Turkey, so touching down Brittany and I were both a little anxious.  You never know what can happen, especially when traveling in a foreign country, so we were excited yet wary (this may have had something to do with our mothers' voices in our heads).  Still, we found comfort in being with Gio, who speaks more than enough Turkish to get by, and in staying with her father, who is Turkish and lives there permanently.  He resides in a huge complex that is jokingly referred to as "Mashattan" (pictured below) for its similarity to the Big Apple. 

Apparently Istanbul has increased by millions since I last visited in 2010, and this influx of people was terribly apparent.  Still, despite large crowds, impending panic attacks, and red flags the size of giraffes hanging far and wide, we had so many highlights while there!  Here are my top five.

 1. Shopping in Taksim

The first day was just us girls (Shawn was to join us from New York the next day), so we dedicated it to shopping, peeking into stores we only get in Europe, exploring the neighborhood and its attractions, and pausing for Turkish coffee or tea (we did a lot of this to help sustain us through our sightseeing!).

Galata Tower

2. Turkish Bath

Last time in Turkey we didn't go to a bath, so I was really set on it this time around.  We went to the Cagaloglu Baths, which are very well-known thanks to being listed on "1,000 Places to See Before You Die" and Kate Moss's photoshoot for W Magazine.  While there were many international people there, it wasn't very crowded at all.

We had heard we had to "get the bubbles," and not knowing what that meant, went ahead and requested them.  We're given a key to our own changing room, Turkish towels, and the most ill-fitting little wooden planks of slippers that make my feet look like two decidedly unappealing sushi rolls.  Doubled over in laughter, we attempt to walk through the hamam teetering on these death traps.

We head to the hot-as-all-hell sauna, gawking in amazement at the details of the hamam around us.  We could only take photos in our minds (based on the water splashing everywhere and abundant nudity), so here's an online photo just to give you an idea of its magnificence:

Finally, after sweating off half our body weights in the sauna, it's our turn for the main attraction.  We each have a sturdy Turkish woman in what can only be described as a wrestling singlet taking care of us.  We shed our towels, lay down on the raised platform in the center of the room, and begin our bath.  My lady introduces herself as Goo (I'm sure it's not spelled like that and short for something much cuter, but this is how it will always be remembered by me, as it brings me great joy), pours water down my body and starts scrubbing me all over, first the front, then the back, and finally she sits me up to do my arms.  Then she grabs my hand and leads me to the wall, where the faucets are, to rinse me with several shallow bowls of water before taking my hand and guiding me back to platform, where we begin part two.

This time around it's a massage, first front, then back, then seated.  I'm marveling at how much I feel like a vulnerable child (and don't mind it), how beautiful it is to shed all abandon (and cotton), how I'm getting to share this amazing experience with close friends, and how spectacular the ceiling looks with the light pouring through the cutouts.  At this point I'm picking up on the process and know to grab her hand and head to the faucets.

Next up, we arrive at the third, the final: the "bubbles" round!  Basically, a bucket of super-sudsy water is brought in, and Goo digs into it to reveal an apparatus that is old-witch's-broom-meets-horse's-tail covered in, yes, bubbles!  She slops it onto my body from head to toe and it feels weirdly wonderful, sudsy and scrubby and soft all at once.  We do our full rotation, her massaging me with the occasional slop of bubbles, and then she declared it's time to wash my hair, which I hadn't been expecting (let's be real, I went into all of this pretty blindly, making it all the more fascinating).  So I let her guide me back to the faucet's ledge, where I sit down, arms wrapped around legs, feeling so naked and infantile, until she starts in on my hair.  To Goo, this was achieved by taking my head and pressing it into her bosom so she could really get the leverage to scrub.  It was an intimate hour with Goo, let me tell you.

If you ever go to Turkey, don't let any insecurities hold you back from this experience!  It was absolutely one of my favorite experiences of the trip, and such a great lesson in letting go and just being.

3. Visiting the Mosques

On our first day with Shawn, we revisited the main hot spots, including the Blue Mosque, the Hagia Sophia, and the Basilica Cistern.  Brittany had never been to Turkey, and it's hard to imagine a trip to Istanbul without seeing these sites each time.  We also visited a mosque I hadn't been to on the last trip, called Rustem Pasha, which has incredible tile work.  The Blue Mosque and Rustem Pasha are still active places of worship, but the Hagia Sophia, a Christian church turned Imperial mosque, is now a museum that showcases its various layers of history.  A highlight of the day was Shawn having to wear a skirt around his bare legs to enter one of the mosques.

The Blue Mosque

Pretty sure there were some expletives from Shawn about just letting him take the picture already

Hagia Sophia

Rustem Pasha Mosque

Hilarious photo bomb

4. Shopping for Pottery in the Grand Bazaar

We spent many hours browsing the bazaar: tasting Turkish delight, selecting between different trinkets, and enjoying the creativity of the salesmen's tactics:

"Princess!  For you, everything is free!"

"We have everything...but customers."

"You have a great you work at Colgate Company?"

Walking through the bazaar, I had my sights set on one main thing: pottery.  I secretly (maybe even to myself) wanted to buy something significant but was trying to figure out how I would fit it in my luggage.  I have many weaknesses, and one of them is ceramics.  I inherited this from my mother-she practically has tiny dessert plates coming out of her ears!

I found a very nice lady in a shop that escorted me through the labyrinth to their full inventory, where I fell in love with far too many things, including this pomegranate-shaped ornament and colorful vase, both of which I purchased and spent the remainder of the trip lugging around with me, covered in 4 layers of bubble-wrap!  It was worth it.

5. Turkish Meze in Taksim

I had been itching to return to Taksim's vibrant nightlife, where just sitting down for dinner at a bustling outdoor table can be a thrill, and Gio knew exactly where to go.  We got to pick our meze, which are basically like tapas or appetizers, from an example tray the waiter brought around to us.  Relishing our eggplant, cheese, yogurt, fish, and more, we spent hours people watching, chatting, and trying to choke down our raki, an anise-flavored aperitif ubiquitous in Turkey.

The food was yummy, but it was the charged pulse of the street and the Euro characters shuffling by our table that made it my favorite meal out while we were in Istanbul!

Friday, October 9, 2015

Yes, Please: Zagreb

Our bus ride from the lakes to Zagreb was incredibly entertaining solely because of the driver's antics.  He was a relatively quiet older gentleman, who occupied his time by mumbling under his breath and cursing (we imagine) any driver that crossed his path.  Have you ever been in a coach bus as it passes other cars on a two-lane road?  We have.


We arrived in Zagreb and Brittany immediately liked it because there was an Italian coffee vending machine at the station.  I mean that's just smart.

Basically, we both loved Zagreb.  A lot of people skip the capital, but it was such a highlight for us.  Evocative winding roads, bustling cafes, a funicular, and awesome museums, including one about the Croatian Naive Art movement (which we were naive about until we visited) and another called Broken Relationships, with stories of love lost from near and far.  It felt alive, and filled with Croatian people going about their everyday business.

We only had one afternoon to take everything in, so as soon as we arrived, we started in on Rick Steve's self-guided walk, which took us through the highlights of the more historic part of the city. We stopped at Pivnica Medvedgrad for sustenance and a sample of their in-house beers.  While there, our waiter was both extremely accommodating and poor at English.  Each time he would deliver something to our table, he would blurt, "Yes please."  During one particular visit, I think he said it four times in a row, with his adorable accent to boot.  Brittany and I were laughing so hard to ourselves.  We'd received many "yes pleases" in the place of a solid "here you go" or "enjoy" over the course of the trip, but this guy reached a whole new level of dedication!

The restaurant is located on Tkalčićeva Street (please don't ask me to pronounce it), which is always hopping with diners, live music, or people just grabbing a drink and watching the passers by.

We then continued around town, stopping at the cathedral...

checking out the two museums, admiring the roof of this incredible church, and finally ending up back in the main square.

Along the way, we stopped in a really cute shop and picked up some souvenirs (Brittany bought the necklace right off the shopkeeper's neck!), rode the funicular to take in the view, and walked by the old red light district (which is now completely dilapidated). 

We also took a moment to relax with some espresso and cake.

Britt!  Stop taking so many pictures of me!

That night, we went to Vinodol, a super-hip restaurant recommended us by our hotel.  Over our veal and pork chops, we took some time to reflect on how much we had enjoyed our time in Croatia, and noted that we could seriously see ourselves living in Zagreb, for all its hip locales and awesome people watching.  We had been to many places crawling with tourists, but this is where the real Croatians are! 


Just see how happy Zagreb made us:

After dinner, we headed back to Tkalčićeva Street for drinks and to take in the local scene, and on the way home even stopped in at a salsa club for a few songs.  I dance with one older gentleman who rolled his eyes when I said I was American.  Sorry to disappoint, dude!

The next morning...

...we had just a couple hours-one to enjoy our Hotel Jägerhorn's breakfast on their patio, and another to take in the fresh food market in the center of town.  I'll leave you with this adorable babushka.

 Next stop: Turkey!

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Yes, Please: Plitvice Lakes

Way too early the next morning, we jumped on the ferry from Korcula to Hvar to Split.  It was a tranquil journey, and I got to watch the sun rise over the water while Hozier serenaded me-"Sit back and watch the world go by."  We were headed to the mainland to meet Mate, our private driver, who would take us from Split to the stunning national park of Plitvice (PLEET-veet-seh).

Mate is way over six feet tall, used to play for the Croatian basketball team, and drives an Audi sedan.  "It is amazing!" he says about everything in his country.  We learned a lot from him over our 3-4 hour drive: about the geography of Croatia, the history, the currency, the people, and more.  He also showed us real, live bears, which are a symbol of Croatia (probably because of all the honey they produce!), and are kept at a private "zoo" of sorts.  Really, it's just a guy that likes (hates?) animals and has set up some pens next to a parking lot with deer, bears, warthogs, etc.  It was pretty bizarre.

Next, we made a quick pit stop at our Airbnb to drop off our luggage and meet our host, before Mate took us over to the entrance of the parks.  We could "smuggle you in," he said to us, but we preferred to buy our tickets, thank you very much.  After saying goodbye to Mate, we headed on our way into this spectacular park.  The 16 lakes are terraced and nestled in a valley between hills, lush trees, and cascading waterfalls.  The lakes are crystal clear; each a varying shade of blue, turquoise, and green, and there are small boats connecting you to the lower and upper lakes.

One of the most interesting things I learned about the park was that the first shots of Croatia's war with Yugoslavia were fired here in 1991, and subsequently the park was held by the Serbs until 1995.  During that time, hardly anyone visited the park, allowing it to grow wild and recover from the tourism that had trampled it in the past.  "It is amazing!" to see the unexpected beauty that can come from such conflict and suffering.

At one point Brittany's sunglasses fell into a small babbling brook.  We were both stunned for an instant as they began to sink, before I yelled "grab 'em!" and she managed to.  Close save.  I'm telling you, Plitvice is an exciting place.

Here we are, looking sporty in front of the tallest waterfall in the park (Veliki Slap):

I think I saw more selfie sticks in Plitvice than anywhere else on the trip, and we were really happy towards the end of the day, as we made our way around the upper lakes, to see the tourist rush abating, allowing us some time to enjoy the beautiful scenery (and fishes!) in peace.  

After a quick dinner at the only restaurant around, we trekked back to our apartment and met our host in the street.  We told her we were just going to stop at the market across the way and she exclaimed, "Oh no, it has just closed!"  When told her it wasn't a big deal, since we had only wanted some ice cream, she told us that she had just bought some that day ("Croatia's best!"), and she would bring it to us to enjoy.  So hospitable and sweet!

With visions of waterfalls and bellies full of ice cream, we finally got a really good night's sleep (at least I did-Brittany said it was "too quiet").  In the morning, I enjoyed the view out our window of this sweet old man tending his lush garden:

You can almost hear Julie Andrews singing now!

Our Airbnb was a little off the beaten path, so that morning we had to make our way, luggage and all, down to where the buses pick up (at one point, Brittany was actually carrying her suitcase in arm over gravel).  This was the only transportation of our trip that we hadn't planned and booked months in advance, and while we were nervous of this, it made for a good adventure (as always).  It would have been more fun searching high and low for the bus stop sans luggage, but we finally made it there, dripping in sweat, and ready for a gripping ride to Zagreb, the capital.