The Lone Bike – Weekly Travel Photo

The Belgian cities embody the feel of storied medieval cities in a way that very few other locales can.  The city of Ghent is a beautiful blend of historic architecture, winding waterways, and ever so slightly overgrown cobblestone roads.  Despite being a major tourist attraction it is still possible to explore parts of the city without feeling overwhelmed by the constant onslaught of tourists constantly shattering the ambiance of authentic daily life.  The city’s greatest and most elegant charm is on display after the sun sets when every detail of the historic buildings comes to life under the multi-hued rays of lamps and lights making it one of the most beautifully lit cities I’ve ever seen.  Luckily, one need not wait until the sun sets to properly enjoy the city as an aimless meander is guaranteed to have you stumbling across UNESCO World Heritage sites and an oft’ surprising mish-mash of cultures and architectural periods.

Friday’s Weekly Travel Photo – The Colored Streets of Malmo

The Streets of Malmo, Sweden

One of my favorite things about Scandinavia is the brightly colored houses.  With fairly uniform front facades the Scandinavians have added rich flavor and color to their cities in the form of multi-hued buildings.  While these streets are fantastic in the golden summer shades of early morning and late afternoon, anyone who has spent (dare I say survived?) a winter in Scandinavia will attest to the smile color brings to your face in the midst of a cold, dark, gray winter.  Though it obviously wasn’t overly cold, or dark during my February visit to Malmo, Sweden I was still thrilled to stroll down the city’s picturesque streets. The combination of well maintained buildings, clean cobblestone streets, hearty plants and bicycles – often in nearly as many colors as the buildings – definitely adds to the city’s charm.

Would you like to see previous Friday Photos?  View past travel pictures here.

Hagia Sophia and The Sultan Ahmed “Blue” Mosque

Hagia Sofia at Night

Hagia Sophia

Every art and architecture student has studied the beauty and wonder of  Hagia Sophia. It is a premier example of Byzantine art and construction. This fortress-esque structure has stood as a testament to human ingenuity since 537 AD.  That’s not a typo.   This massive sprawling citadel to God is just under 1,500 years old and has played a pivotal roll in human architectural history.  Some reports suggest that it also held the title of largest cathedral in the world for nearly 1,000 years.  No small accomplishment.

Hagia Sofia in the Snow

Amazingly the entire structure was built in less than 10 years, reportedly by a work crew of some 10,000 people, by the decree of Justinian I of Constantinople. It was the third basilica to be built in the location and the largest of the three. Unfortunately, the structure was severely damaged less than 20 years after it was completed by a series of earthquakes which collapsed the main dome. Resiliently, the dome was re-built, re-structured and raised some 20+ feet. These enhancements were completed quickly and done by the year 562.

Hagia Sofia in the Snow

The church stood as a shining example of Christiandom until 1453 when the Ottoman empire conquered Constantinople. The church was immediately converted into a mosque, a process which resulted in the removal of most of the holy relics, altars, and bells. Interestingly, instead of removing the old Christian mosaics, the Ottomans decided to paint over them.  The interior was re-decorated to serve as a mosque and the building’s four large minarets were added.  The majority of the building’s interior (as seen today) dates back to this period, with the exception of several large christian mosaics which were recently uncovered.

Hagia Sophia (Recovered)

The building served as one of the largest and most impressive mosques in the Muslim world for the next several hundred years. The mosque’s design and appearance was mirrored in other Ottoman mosques and served as inspiration for Istanbul’s numerous structures. It served as the key model for the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, which is now commonly known and recognized as Istanbul’s Blue Mosque.  In an interesting turn of history, Hagia Sophia ceased to be a mosque in 1935 when the then newly elected President Ataturk decreed that it be converted into a museum.

Hagia Sofia in Istanbul

The interior of the structure is truly fascinating.  The sheer scale of the open space in the main area will leave you feeling tiny.  The mosaics are beautiful and reflect the periods in history during which they were created. The mixture of cultures, religions and periods in history is evident in all aspects of the structure creating an eclectic mixture that while somewhat cold, still manages to be very rich and engaging.   Stay tuned for video from inside Hagia Sophia in future posts.  Beyond that, you’ll just have to visit yourself!

Sultan Ahmed Mosque in Snow

Sultan Ahmed “the Blue” Mosque

The Blue Mosque was completed in 1616 and sits immediately opposite Hagia Sophia.  The mosque embodies the epitome of Byzantine-influenced Ottoman construction. It relies on heavy inspiration from Hagia Sophia, but the building’s lines and domes are enhanced while simultaneously integrating a series of six minarets into the original design.

Sultan Ahmed Mosque in Snow

From the start, the goal while creating the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, was to create one of the greatest mosques in the world.  The structure was built on a massive scale and can accommodate 10,000 people during prayer.  It was created to be a purely Muslim structure, in contrast with Hagia Sophia which had a mixed heritage.   It was also fairly controversial initially due to its 6 minarets, which was a violation of accepted policy at that point in time-typically all mosques outside Masjid al-Haram in Mecca were limited to four minarets.

Blue Mosque

Unlike Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque is still in active use and faithful are welcomed to attend for daily prayer.  However, don’t fret – the mosque remains open most of the day for tourists, who are welcome into the mosque and given free roam of just under half the ground floor.  If, that is, you’re willing to leave your shoes at the door and have made sure to dress appropriately.

Interior of the Blue Mosque

The mosque’s nickname comes from the beautiful blue tile work that decorates its interior. This is accentuated by more than 200 blue stained-glass windows.   The tiles and beautifully painted calligraphy work has made the Blue Mosque one of Istanbul’s leading tourist attractions.

Interior of the Blue Mosque

Every inch of the building’s interior is covered in rich, padded carpets, beautiful stained-glass windows, or intricately decorated Islamic decorations and calligraphic script. The amount of time and energy that went into these decorations is staggering and an amazing testament to the might, wealth, and glory of the Ottoman Empire at its peak.

Interior of the Blue Mosque

For people familiar with calligraphy, many of the tiles depict beautiful flowing script, which are verses from the Qur’an and were created by Seyyid Kasim Gubari – one of the greatest calligraphers in his era.

Sultan Ahmed Mosque in Snow

The interior of the Blue Mosque is absolutely gorgeous.  However, it is also slightly overwhelming making the structure feel somewhat smaller and significantly more cozy than Hagia Sophia.  If planning a visit to Istanbul, I highly suggest visiting both structures and dedicating ample time to each. While it is easy to assume that the two will be very similar, the reality is that the experience varies significantly from one to the other.  The Blue Mosque will awe you with its beauty, with its polished architecture and wonderful lighting.  Hagia Sophia will captivate you with its size, scale, and odd mixture of religious and cultural history.

Mosque in Istanbul

Other Mosques Abound

As a first-timer to Istanbul I expected that the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia would be the only two large religious structures in the city.  Especially after seeing the incredible size and scale of the structures it made it hard to imagine that the city could have ever supported a third, fourth, or fifth building of similar scale and scope.

Istanbul at Sunset

So, perhaps you can understand (and share) my surprise at discovering that Istanbul’s skyline is decorated by the impressive domes and needle-like forms of towering minarets from at least half a dozen large mosques.

Have you visited Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque?  What were your favorite parts?  What surprised you?

**Bonus – While visiting Hagia Sophia, there is a free (and separate) series of tombs which can be accessed from the external side of the building.  These serve as the eternal resting place for a number of the region’s influential rulers and religious figures, in addition to boasting their own wealth of beautiful tile and mural work.

Wandering in Oslo, Norway

Embassy Row - Oslo, Norway

My final day in Oslo was spent meandering the city’s cobblestone streets, wandering through the old harbor, and resting lazily in the park reading my book.   I’d paused at the local rail station during the previous day’s walking tour and picked up a discount reservation for an overnight train from Oslo to Stavanger on Norway’s western coast.  To my disappointment, my Eurail pass only reserved a reclining airplane like seat, but – it would have to do.   The train left late in the evening – 10PM if memory serves and would take just over 8 hours as it wound its way along the southern coast, before hockey-sticking up through the Fjords to Stavanger.

Downtown - Oslo, Norway

The late departure gave me the entire day to explore the city and relax.  Hildur was off work at 4:30 which gave me a sold 4 or 5 hours to explore.   Eager to make sure I hadn’t missed anything, I struck off down towards the old harbor.  My path took me along major streets with old buildings, showcasing an eclectic mixture of architectural styles from all over the world.  Despite the inherent beauty in most of the buildings, one stands out in my memory: the US Embassy. The building stood on the corner of the street which encircles the Palatial Park/Main Palace.  It was an odd building.  Ringed by an imposing 10+ ft tall black fence, the building was all blacks and grays.  About 3 stories, it was square, with an odd architectural design, one which had arrow slit like windows.  The whole thing oozed a sense of…I don’t want to say Evil…but perhaps…unfriendliness is a better word.  It may have just been the color and the architectural era it hailed from.  Either way, it left me feeling disappointed and misrepresented.

The Harbor - Oslo, Norway

Though I’d poked around the main Harbor the day before, I relished the opportunity to continue my exploration.  The harbor is home to some 5-10 “tall ships” which is to say old/classically modeled sailing vessels.  Many have been converted into tour vessels but others are still classic sailing ships.  All offer a beautiful ambiance to the harbor which is ringed by cafes and small kiosks not to mention an incredible view back towards the down town area.

Street Performer - Oslo, Norway

From the harbor I struck back up, re-tracing the previous day’s steps, towards the Parliament building and central greenbelt.  From there it was up and down the main shopping street. Lined with people, the street also provided a wide selection of street performers.   From jugglers, to musicians most of the usual types were in attendance.  Some of the more a-typical ones, however, included a puppeteer playing the piano, and cripple using his two crutches to alternately perform tricks while bouncing a ball with them.  The sights and sounds left me chuckling at times, wincing at others and of course scratching my head in bafflement at yet others.

Flowered Square - Oslo, Norway

The street eventually led me down  towards the main train station, where I headed to the left, and quickly ended up in a picturesque square which was doubling as a flower market.  The market was awash in colors, scents and people as passerby’s paused to relax, pick up flowers, or wound through the square on their way to some errand or meeting.

Children at Play - Oslo, Norway

Eventually my meanderings took me back through the warren of H&M stores and small cafe’s towards the old National Theater.   The boulevard it sits on is split down the middle by a series of small fountains, flowerbeds overflowing with blooming flowers, and of course the usual assortment of relaxing and sunbathing Norwegians.  I paused briefly next to one of the fountains to capture the photo above – two young children at plan.  There’s something about it which just seemed to strike me as being a bit classic.  Boy meets girl.  Boy wears blue. Girl wears red. Both enjoy the innocence of youth, combined with the joys of a youthful, inquisitive nature, while relaxing in front of a gorgeous fountain on a beautiful blue day.

Town Hall - Oslo, Norway

From the fountain I decided to see if I could explore the inside of the city hall.  It was, after all, a rather unique building.  It seemed only natural that the interior would be equally interesting.  The 5 minute walk down to the main structure was quick and enjoyable.  I say walk, but it was more a lazy meandering as I lankily ambled my way along the sidewalk.   The building – a massive red brick creation – served as a picturesque backdrop for various pieces of artwork, often added seemingly at random.  A prime example is the large clock shown above, which I found all the more beautiful due to the relatively basic and plane brick backdrop that it had been set within.

Town Hall - Oslo, Norway

The building’s main entrance was equally interesting.  Though not completed until 1950 due to the War, the building was started in 1931 which is reflected in its general feel and appearance. Parts of the design left me thinking of a simpler, less ornate version of the Chrysler Building in New York.  Interestingly, the City Hall is also the site of the award ceremony each year where Nobel Peace Prizes are awarded.

Town Hall - Oslo, Norway

The building’s immediate interior is a massive open room.  The room has a variety of different murals – all done in a similar style – decorating each of the walls.  The murals reflect the nation’s history and toils, while conveying a very propaganda-esq artistic style. One which, at least in the US, we’ve often come to associate with former Soviet and more Socialist governments. The murals focus on the people, their labors, culture and wars.  Not surprising given the building’s history and completion in the immediate aftermath of World War II.

The Palace - Oslo, Norway

After leaving the City Hall, I found my way back up past the Royal Palace before connecting with Hildur, who had just gotten off work.  After a quick nap, we decided to pick up some Sushi to go (which to my surprise was only slightly more expensive than fast food), before heading to the park to enjoy the weather.  We ate, chatted, and enjoyed the weather before saying our goodbyes. It was time to head to the rail station and to continue my exploration of Norway’s culture and natural beauty.

My stay in Oslo was incredible.  Made that much more delightful by my incredible hosts, who truly went out of their way to share their city, culture and local cuisine with me.  I owe them a huge debt of gratitude and will always have very fond memories of Oslo, in no small part, due to their hospitality.

Prague

Unfortunately, the computers in this hostel are located in the bar area…soo we’ll see how much I get written before I get interrupted and/or can’t focus any more. There are people starting to show up so I imagine it will get fairly rowdy before long.

First – in general. Prague was a very different experience then the other cities I’ve visited. In part due to the Eastern European influence and in part due to the general spirit of the city itself. The elder Czech generations I saw tended to be very hearty looking. You could tell by looking at them that many had worked hard throughout their lives under rugged conditions. In particular I noticed it in a lot of their hands. Both men and women often had rugged, calloused hands with finger nails that showed an existence filled with heavy use and constant wear. The younger generations shared that look to a lesser degree, though as I’d commented previously many of the Czech girls on the subway were quite attractive. Boots seem to be a huge Euro fashion thing currently, especially in Eastern Europe so seemingly every third young girl-woman was dressed in some form of mid-shin or knee-high, high-heeled boot. The locals in general were very friendly and warm. Though there was a huge difference between the locals outside the tourist areas and those within.

The locals located within the tourist sections and working at tourist locals were some of the rudest people I’ve encountered so far on my trip. Brusque, devoid of patience and just generally rude. It was surprising, as one would think they of all people would be polite with their livelihood depending on tourist dollars. From many of them I got the vibe that they didn’t like the direction that tourism had taken the city and in part blamed the tourists for visiting.

Many people talk about Prague as a beautiful city. Which it definitely is, though I don’t feel that it’s as beautiful as everyone claims. Rather, I would say it’s an interesting city with it’s own rich flavors. The river itself, is without question beautiful, as are the old buildings but the skyline is mixed with more modern buildings. Many of which are high rise residential buildings from the 60s, 70s and 80s. From an architectural standpoint I think the two most noteworthy parts of Prague are the monument roofs with their spires and clean lines and the statuary located on the older buildings. Many of the older buildings have incredible figures and statuary over the windows, surrounding the doors, and set at random on the buildings. These figures are typically carved in the very stoic, hard, almost skeletal style that I’ve always associated with the old Soviet Union. They also bring to mind elements of the Chrysler building in NY and that time period. I found them fascinating and beautiful. They have so much emotion which depending on your mood and perhaps the state of the building can come across as either great stoic pride as a modern Atlas steadfast in his vigil while he gladly holds up the world, or alternately as worn and haggard faces that have lived hard lives with a penetrating sadness to them that makes you pity their stone hearts.

Another thing I heard while gearing up for Prague was that it was cheap. Luckily that was definitely the case. Though movies such as Eurotrip etc. exaggerate things a bit, there is a massive difference between the Euro and the Czech Krunar. At about 20 K per dollar a beer or coke typically cost between 15 and 25 K. I could order a full plate of chinese food (rice, chicken, the works – just no drink) or goulash, biscuits and meat for 69 K or so that would leave me stuffed. Though these prices required I leave the tourist section and stray into the city.

Food – as long as it’s not dairy-I’ll eat most things. I usually try and draw the line at eyes, brain or pieces of an animal’s sexual anatomy but depending on my mood and how good it smells I try and keep an open mind. As a result if I’m feeling up to it I’ll ask the waiter or waitress to surprise me with something regional that they think iI should try. It almost always works out and doing it over the years I’ve been served everything from tripe to steak and eggs. I charged my waiter/ress with my meal twice while in Prague and ordered things at random off the menu 4 times. The local Czech food that I ended up with was delicious. One of the meals was breaded chicken, much like a chicken-fried steak, but with real slices of chicken breast and a very different/thick batter served with dumplings and gravy. One of the other meals was gulash- a slice of ham, a slice of beef, and two huge sliced dumplings. Both were delicious. One of the other more interesting things was a large fried potato cake (a huge latka?) with chicken bits in it. It was about a foot long and about 4 inches wide. Regardless of what I ate, be it Chinese (seems to be the Czech version of Europe’s kebab shops or US Mexican), Czech, or just general brats, burgers and random food, it was almost all delicious.

I spent the first two nights of my stay at a hostel a bit outside of town. The hostel was clean, had free internet and friendly people but lacked atmosphere. The common area was closed at 10 and the train ride into town was a pain. When my two nights there were up, i made my way into the heart of town and booked into the Clown and Bard. A boisterous social hostel with a huge 30 plus person dorm room, and then 2 and 5 bed rooms. The hostel had an on site bar, fun playful atmosphere, and a backpacker oriented mentality. The walls of the room were covered in writing, some were quotes, some were profanity, some were insults and some were humorous. Other bits of bedroom graffiti included a giant doodle of Bevis and Butthead, other strange pictures, and a huge face. Despite the graffiti however, the hostel, sheets, and room were all clean.

The arts: I’d been told that Prague was a very musical city so, eager to take advantage of the exchange rate and wide musical selection I saw several shows. In Prague almost all of the cathedrals & monasteries put on small, medium-sized classical shows. Some are basic with just a few violins and cellos, others use organs, others use small symphonies.

The old Opera House: Romeo and Juliet. It had been a long time since I’d seen a ballet as when the opportunity arises I usually choose to see the symphony or opera instead. As I walked around the city I saw signs for Romeo and Juliet at the old opera house. Initially thinking they might have turned it into an opera-and that it would be awesome to see something in the old opera house-I looked into tickets and found decent balcony seats for a fair price. As I purchased the tickets I learned it was in fact a ballet. I decided to push ahead and give it a go (I had missed all of the actual opera shows in my time window).

The opera house itself was gorgeous. A small round classical building with a beautifully fresco’d roof-the house itself was a slightly different layout than I was familiar with. It had group-general seating in a long swatch down the middle on the floor level, which carried up on to the 2nd and 3rd balconies. The swatch though was only the area straight out from the stage, with all of the side area, except for that up on the 3rd story, being filled by small 6 person areas. The walls and ceiling were all coated in golden figures and the whole room while lit seemed to glow.

Now, as I mentioned earlier ballet isn’t my favorite thing in the world but, the shows I have seen I enjoyed. While this one was not necessarily an exception it was a huge disappointment. It wasn’t until the last 1/3 of the show that I felt like I was actually enjoying it and that the performers got on cue. The set was very plain, with a number of wooden constructions that would have looked a lot more impressive with a little paint. To make it more annoying one of the larger ones had a piece of the paneling coming loose which could have easily been fixed with a few screws. The performers themselves, while obviously skilled, seemed off. In many of the group movements there were visible differences between dancers and (perhaps due to my ballroom background?) I noticed that many seemed to have unstable footing and be constantly adjusting. Also, a number of the moves seemed ballroomesque and to be honest I’d rather see the ballroom version. It’s possible I just was overly critical and/or don’t understand ballet, but I think a large part of the sync and performance quality came from nervousness. At the end of the performance they brought an old lady on stage and introduced her. Apparently she was the original Juliet that had launched the performance years ago. Given her presence…it wouldn’t surprise me if their nerves had thrown the troupe off. To top the experience off I’m pretty sure one of the main dancers was REALLY excited to be performing for 5 or so minutes before he was killed off, though from the look of things it was a whole different type of performance he was hoping for. Watching a bunch of guys leap around in skin tight tights was bad enough…the added bit just generally made the whole experience a bit traumatizing. So, Romeo and Juliet – 2 of 5 stars.

Two nights later I decided to try one of the many shows held around town. I purchased my ticket and then killed some time before making my way to try and locate the building. When I followed the map it took me down a main street, to a side street where an attendant was directing people in through a small doorway. Nowhere to be seen was the classical cathedral or small church I’d been expecting. My annoyance went through the roof as I made my way up a flight of winding stairs and was met by an attendant who took my ticket and seated me in a small room with a fresco’d ceiling, bout 50 chairs, a small stage, and 4 seats for the musicians. Ready to demand a refund, I forced myself to sit tight and give it a chance. The room itself was maybe 75 feet long and the seat I chose was about 5 rows back located directly under the center of the domed fresco’d roof. The fresco was of a multi-story library with teachers, books, railings, and objects arrayed above us. While not captivating it was beautifully painted and with the curve of the dome felt 3 dimensional. About 15 people in total filed in and then the musicians entered through the same door we’d all come in, as you can imagine this added to my annoyance. They sat down on the stage and I found myself looking at 3 violinists and a cellist. They paused and then began to play. Within the first 3 notes I knew I’d been wrong and that the show would be well worth the money. Because of the acoustics and my proximity to the performers the power of the music was incredible. Especially due to my location directly under the middle of the dome. Violin is easily one of my favorite instruments, if not my favorite and this show made left me breathless. They played a number of famous pieces including Canon, Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and about 10 other pieces whose names escape me right now. Each one was even more impressive than the last. The hour plus that the show ran, passed in a heartbeat. Where the ballet was a huge disappointment, this show blew even my initial expectations out of the water. Easily a 5 out of 5.

Lot more to share about Prague but the bar is getting too rowdy and I can’t focus any more, so for now. Goodnight!