Sunday, September 25, 2011

Love of Continents: Istanbul, Turkey

Note: This is the second guest post from my DH from his Europe tour, a tradeoff for not taking me along with a promise for this blog-post and lot of gifts. I hope you enjoy reading!!

Day 1: After an hour flight(Pegasus) from Sofia, we got down at S.Gocken(SAW) airport in Istanbul in the afternoon. Istanbul is the only city in the world that is situated on two continents(Europe and Asia, divided by Bosphorus Strait), and we spent most of the time on the European side(Byzantium/Constantinople). We checked in to a hotel in Sultanahmet which is the heart of historic old Istanbul and quickly set out for our first destination- Blue Mosque/ Sultan Ahmed Mosque. It was closed for the prayer so we visited Hagia Sophia, which was once a Church, later a mosque and now a museum depicting two different cultures (Ottoman and Byzantium)  under one great dome. Being the month of Ramadan, the streets were busy by evening with people, celebrations and food. 
Day 2: We started off at the Sultanahmet Archaeological park, a UNESCO world heritage site and this time were able to get into Blue mosque. 
We visited  Topkapi palace with great views both inside and out. Our next stop was the underground Basilica Cistern which once provided water to the Topkapi Palace, but is now limited to a few feet of water lining the bottom
 Evening we went around in Taksim square, an 8 storey mall and Hippodrome. But the real buzz started at night after 6pm for Iftar(a meal to break the fast), when families gather to eat, shop and enjoy the special performances.
 Day 3: We went to Dolmabahce Palace, a very grand and classy palace right on the European coastline of the Bosphorus strait. 
Then we toured Istanbul University. Evening, we took the sunset/night cruise on Bosphorus which was expensive but got to see the dazzling Istanbul along with dinner, drinks and belly danceJ (There are also official ferry tours for fraction of cost available for Bosphorus and Prince's islands).
 Day 4: Its nearing the end of the trip, so we went to Grand Bazaar for some souvenir shopping. We spent there quite some time before going to New Mosque, colorful spice market and walked across the Galata Bridge. The Galata tower offers nice views of the city and the Golden Horn
With so many mosques, palaces, architectural monuments and long history from different empires, this alpha world city has so much more to see and explore in itself, let alone Turkey. The beautiful peninsula, people, culture and not to forget the great food especially Turkish Tea leaves such a strong impression that anyone would want to come back, but its time to go home and before that…a rich dinner!!!

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Let’s go International – Visiting Bulgaria

(Bansko, Pirin National Park, Rila Monastery, Sofia)
Note: This is a guest post from my DH, a tradeoff for not taking me along with a promise for this blog-post and lot of gifts:) I hope you enjoy reading!!

A week of classes in Bansko, Bulgaria on a scholarship was a unique, not to miss opportunity for an International trip. Bansko is a town and ski resort in southwestern Bulgaria, located at the foot of the beautiful Pirin Mountains, about 3 hour drive from Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria. The Sofia airport was relatively small and currency exchange in the airport was indeed a bad idea. As part of the course, we toured industries in and around Bansko, which included Shumensko (Bulgarian beer company now owned by Carlsberg). We explored exotic restaurants with live native band and traditional Bulgarian costume. The houses(apartments) look alike, people speak no English and weren’t very enthusiastic about economy. All over, it felt like the country was stuck in communist era after the fall of soviet union. We also met Bankso mayor who was keen on developing skiing and tourism while the managers expressed interest in cheap labor and industry. 
Catching our own fish at a Restaurant, Bansko
Malnik, a town near Bansko
On the last day, we hiked in Pirin National Park, known for its wealth of flora and fauna. There were colored markings along the trails. The glorious alpine landscape and its beautiful glacial lakes, called “the crystal eyes of Pirin” make it  completely worth to be a World heritage national park.
 Next day we visited the popular Rila Monastery, another UNESCO world heritage site on the way back to Sofia. This big eastern Orthodox monastery has beautiful wall paintings and equally astounding natural surroundings and stands as an important symbol for culture, architecture and ancient history.
We spent the evening in Sofia touring around Sofia Center- Alexander Nevski Church, Banya-Bashi mosque, the Sofia Synagogue, Hagia Nedelja church, Central Department Store, Saint Sophia statue and stayed there for the night.
Inside a mosque
Next morning we went to a local farmers market and few other streets before taking the flight to Istanbul, Turkey!