Assos day two – market day

In a nearby town there was a local outdoor market on Fridays. Everyone seemed to show up – buying, selling, exchanging and conversing. You could find everything from clothes to power tools and quail eggs to live chickens. Lauren and I were most excited about the fresh produce, and made a beeline for those stalls.

Need a chain for your boat? We got that.

Mountains of fresh parsley and dill

Tomatoes, eggplant, fruit – everything you could ever want.

The fruit was the most notable. The best strawberries I’ve ever had – fresh, small and packed with flavor. We got 2kg for 14 Lira, about $4. That’s less than a dollar per pound. Incredible. Every exchange was happening in Turkish, but we managed to make it work with the basics we knew, and plenty of pointing!

Proud owner of a mountain of strawberries

If you know me, you know why I was excited by this stand.

What do you do when you have kilos and kilos of fruit you couldn’t possibly eat? Make jam, of course! After a laborious pitting and pruning operation we had the stove full, cooking down three different pots. Sour cherry, strawberry-basil-balsamic (my favorite), and strawberry-peach.

Slightly less fruit after all the sampling that was happening

Jam cooking down

The final product. Well worth the effort!

Arriving in Assos

How lucky are we? Selen’s family runs a vineyard in Assos, on the Turkish coastline near the Greek island Lesvos. We piled in the car — six hours of driving and a ferry ride later we arrived at the vineyard. And just in time! We welcomed a thunderstorm rolling in from the Aegean. We all huddled under the porch to watch the lightning. Soon enough it was hailing fairly large pellets — the first time that’s happened in Assos since Selen’s family has been here.

Lightning over the Aegean

After the storm – ancient Assos in the background

The next day we explored Assos, the ancient village built on a hill over the sea. The construction dates back to 530BC, and much of it is still standing. There’s no mortar holding the walls and tower together, only perfectly carved stone blocks interlocking an supporting each other. At the top of the hill was a large temple to Athena, the god of war and wisdom. Only a few column pieces remained, reassembled here with some modern cast sections. Stand among the columns and imagine the Greeks using this temple, right where you are, 2500 years ago. And then snap out of it and pose for a photo.

Further down the hill is an amphitheater, still standing with the same timeproof construction.

We walked town to the old harbor town of Assos afterwards. It’s now a popular tourist destination, filled with hotels, restaurants, and a place to get ice cream by the water. We saw some locals serving “fish bread” to tourists from their boat. Doesn’t get fresher than this!

No trickery from this ice cream man!

Thanks for telling us you are taking a photo, Lauren!

Olive trees grow like weeds around here. Unfortunately they are nowhere near ripe. Still, we got a great sunset over the ocean and a perfect end to the day.

Not the best idea I’ve had this trip.

Harbor at sundown

Cycling around Büyükada

After so much city time, Lauren and I wanted something more quiet and active for today. Selen recommended Büyükada, the largest of the Princes’ Islands in the sea of Marmara. The day started with another boat ride, this one much longer than the last.

Cruising down the Bosphorus

We rented bikes from a local shop and set out to explore the island. There are two peaks, one topped by an old Greek orphanage that is now in decay. Fun fact: this is (or was before it starting apart) the largest wooden building in Europe and the second largest in the world! Now, it’s all blocked off.

View of the orphanage from the higher peak

The highest point on the island was a major challenge to cycle up on the poorly maintained rentals, so we had to walk most of the way. The views of the sea of Marmara and the Turkish coastline were worth it!

On the way down we found a nice secluded swimming hole. A dip, a nap and a snack later we were feeling refreshed!

The sea of Marmara was cool and clear

Later, in town, we got dinner at a seaside restaurant. They let us choose which freshly caught fish we wanted cooked up.

One freshly caught sea bass, please!

The winding route we took around the island

On the boat ride home, we had an exceptional sunset over the old city. Aya Sofia and the blue mosque looking regal here.

Istanbul’s Old City

Monday, Lauren and I were up early the next morning for a full day in Istanbul’s old city. We caught a boat from a terminal near Selen’s house and rode it all the way down the Bosphorus. Getting around by boat is common and efficient here. The terminal runs just like a metro stop – swipe your Istanbulkart to get in – and we noticed many local commuters boarding at stops from both the European and Asian sides of the Bosphorus.

Simit for breakfast!

I caught Lauren having tea and contemplating the spirit of travel

Morning fog over Anatolia

Today was the day to be tourists in the old city. First up was Hagia Sophia (pronounced Aya Sofia here), the towering monument to religion constructed by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian in 537AD.  It was a Greek Orthodox church back then, and many mosaics and symbols of Christianity are still visible inside the building. With the conquering of Constantinople (Istanbul) by the Ottoman Empire in 1453, out went Christianity and Aya Sofia was converted into a mosque. It remained a place of active worship until the 1930’s, when it was opened to the public as a museum.

Notice the massive calligraphic panels (recent additions), with the names of Allah, Muhammad and other important Islamic characters.

Across the way is the Blue Mosque, a towering building with a distinctive red carpet that is still actively used as a place of worship.

Men still kneel on the red carpet to pray at the Blue Mosque today. Lauren had to cover up to go inside!

In desperate need of snacks after only simit for breakfast, we searched the Hippodrome (a circus and chariot racing pavilion in the times of Constantinople) for some street food. Luckily a vendor selling freshly roasted chestnuts and corn was more than happy to oblige. We took a trip through the Grand Bazzar after, one of the oldest covered markets still in operation today. We stopped to peruse the hand-made silk rugs, gasp at the gold salesman and sample Turkish delight from vendors eager to take our Lira.

Service with a smile! I think we were his first customers of the day.

Wearing your wealth on your sleeve is a thing here.

Afterwards, we toured Topkapı Palace, where Ottoman Sultans lived and ruled from the 15th century onward. Most interesting was the Harem, the private quarters of the Sultan and his family. The Sultan’s mother (Queen Mother) had a ton of power back then! She dictated which women could be part of the Harem, and actually had a room between the Sultan and his wives (no doubt to keep tabs on their comings and goings).

Only the Sultans family and servants were allowed inside. A palace within the palace.

Imperial hall of the Harem.

Finally, we had to try a Turkish bath (hamam). Baths have been a staple of Istanbul’s culture since the 16th century. Walk into the bath room wearing only a towel. Çemberlitaş Hamam is one of the oldest and the obvious choice. Lay down on the hot marble slab and wait 15 minutes for your skin to soften. When your masseuse enters, roll over and try to convince yourself it’s fun as they scrape your body of its outer layers with what is basically a brillo pad. Enjoy a hot massage and soap bath following, and end with a cold shower. Wow.

You will be scrubbed clean of every single dead skin cell while laying on a marble slab from 1584. Source

Tired, but cleaner than we’ve been in days, we rode back up the Bosphorus in another commuter boat.

Arriving in Istanbul

“Why Turkey?” I was asked this question many times by friends and family as I prepared to travel further East than I’ve ever been before. Turkey has made international headlines many times the past year, not often for good reasons. The country is increasingly conservative and repressive. What can it offer to an American traveler? Is it safe for Westerners?

The main reason for this trip to Turkey is to visit Selen, a good friend from Brown who grew up in Istanbul and is currently completing a Master’s program here while applying to medical school. Lauren, another good friend from Brown, and I both had the time off. What a great excuse to travel and visit a new place! Selen reassured us that Turkey was still was still worth a visit — She spun tales of thick coffee, fragrant food, boat rides up and down the Bosphorus and trips to visit some of the world’s oldest and grandest mosques and churches. Plus, her family runs a vineyard on the coast of the Aegean, a 6-hour drive from Istanbul. We would get a chance to visit and sample their wine and olive oil. What more could I possibly want?

I’m glad I listened to Selen.

Our first day in the city began with brunch at Emigran Sütiş, a bustling restaurant near Selen’s house. We sat on the balcony and our table was quickly filled with Turkish coffee, freshly baked bread, vegetables, honey and kaymak (Turkish cream/butter). We ordered 3 types of menemen, eggs scrambled in a pan with tomatoes, spices and cheese or sausage for the main course. We watched boats motor up and down the Bosphorus as Lauren, Selen and I got each other caught up on where our lives were going. It had been a year since Selen moved from Boston back to Turkey!

The first of many Turkish coffees!

Sipping my troubles away

After breakfast we walked along the Bosphorus, taking in the new sights, sounds and smells of Istanbul. Fisherman casting into the blue water and men selling simit (circular sesame bread, hugely popular in Turkey) filled the path. One thing you notice immediately about Istanbul is the number of stray cats and dogs wandering around. People actually seem to enjoy and care for the strays here – it’s not uncommon to see trays of water and food set out on the street.

Cats by the Bosphorus. Photo credit Lauren C.

One of many Simit stands. Photo credit Lauren C

Later that day we toured the Istanbul naval museum, where we learned about Caïques: gilded boats that Sultans of old used to parade around the Bosphorus. Many had Kiosks for the Sultan and his family in the back – just like a floating palace. One Sultan even had a smaller caïque solely to bring him coffee and tea. Talk about luxury!

Next was Dolmabahçe, a grand palace on the Bosphorus built in 1856 and used as the center of the Ottoman empire for decades. We toured the lavish interior, much of it filled with rooms too big and gaudy to be practical. We had a relaxing afternoon in the park, with plenty of time to (literally) smell the roses.

Getting up close and personal

The famous view: Ortaköy Mosque with the pier and bridge in the background

A dinner of köfte (Turkish meatballs) and Tuborg (Turkish beer) I was ready to call the first day in Istanbul a success. More to come tomorrow!

Cesky Raj (Czech Bohemian Paradise)

Cesky Raj is the first Nature Reserve in the Czech Republic. Two hours North of Prague by train, it’s a great day trip to get out of Prague. You’ll find towering sandstone rock gardens, ancient castles built atop weathered outcroppings, swimming holes at every other turn and Czech locals out enjoying the warm weather.

I spent an entire day in the Bohemian Paradise, taking the train to Turnov in the morning and returning in the evening. You can walk to the major sites, espicially if you take bus back to the train station. However, any path walked is much better biked! After a little trouble and miscommunication finding the shop, I rented a bike for the day and was cruising down the cycle tracks. An early stop at the inforamtion center gave me a map of all the roads, hiking paths and cycling routes that was invaluable for the trip.

Here are some photos of what I saw over the course of the day.

Cesky Raj cycle tour

I don’t think I heard another lick of English after the information center – most people were visiting from other parts of the Czech Republic. For a good part of the trip I played leapfrog with a couple: her on a mountain bike and him in a tricked-out handcycle. Carbon frame, a huge climbing gear and fat mountain wheels. Watching him climb the steep roads to the castles was impressive and inspiring. We passed each other stopping for sights, snacks and swimming holes.

The route took me through some of the major sites: Var castle, Hubra Skala, Vysker. Some of the marked cycle routes were winding dirt roads through the forest, others were long and steep switch backed climbs. A bike gives you so much freedom in where you can go – so much quicker than walking, easy to conquer rough terrain and no problem to park against a signpost for a visit to castle or for an afternoon beer! I recommend Cesky Raj to anyone visiting Prague with a day to kill and a desire to get outside the city.


Summer travels start NOW!

The past few weeks have been a whirlwind. Since the end of June, I have:

  • Quit my job at the Broad Institute (yet somehow I’m still working)
  • Moved out of my apartment in Somerville
  • Given away or thrown away approximately 50% of my possessions
  • Said goodbye to the great friends I’ve made in Boston

A lot is in flux right now, but the newfound free time has been enjoyable. I’m especially looking forward to the ~2 months of traveling before I have to start grad school in September. Here’s a quick rundown of what’s to come.

Tomorrow, I fly to Prague for some solo travels and the 2017 International Society for Computational Biology Student Council Symposium, which I help organize. Then, on to Istanbul. Meeting friends, visiting mosques and drinking plenty of Turkish coffee are on deck. Flying back through London and Dublin to knock a few new cities off the list.

Turn around with a fully loaded car (including mountain bike) and drive North, making a left turn after Toronto, and heading to Banff and Jasper National Parks. Spend a few weeks in the parks mountain bike touring and exploring the beautiful blue lakes.

THIS is what I want (stock photo bland-ness not included)

I’m going to make a few posts along the way, so stay tuned!