8 Ways Turkey Is Nothing Like You Expect

A Mosque at Sunset - Istanbul, Turkey

With the recent protests in Turkey the country has been launched into the news for the second time this year.  As many of you may recall Turkey was previously in the spotlight when a female American backpacker was murdered.  These events have built upon existing misconceptions and stereotypes about Turkey which are grossly inaccurate. They lead a lot of tourists to rule both Istanbul and Turkey out as a viable travel destination.  A year and a half ago I booked a ticket to Istanbul.  I had no clue what to expect. All I knew was what I had heard from trusted friends, travel bloggers, and my brother. Each insisted it was a must-visit destination. I was anxious. It was my first Muslim country.  I was nervous about what to expect and torn about booking the ticket even after I locked in my flight.  Boy oh boy did I have Turkey pegged wrong!  Not only did I enjoy Istanbul, but I fell in love with it. So much so that this past March I returned for my second visit.  If you’re like most western tourists, what you know about Turkey is flat out inaccurate. So, let’s dive into eight of the common misconceptions I hear most often.  I’ll focus mostly on Istanbul, but this information holds true across western and central Turkey.

Women Relaxing - Istanbul, Turkey

1. Turkey: The Extremist Muslim Country

For many westerners who have lived in countries dominated by Judeo-Christian tradition, the thought of visiting a Muslim country is a bit unnerving.  Especially in light of the tensions that have arisen between Islamic groups and Judeo-Christian groups over the last two decades. Tell someone that a country is Muslim and automatically images from movies like Aladdin merge with films such as Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade – all weighed within the context of terrorist hostage videos, Al Qaeda, and suicide bombers.  Other stereotypical imagery that comes to mind is that of streets filled with burka-clad women, and entire cities coming to a complete halt five times a day to bend knee and pray towards Mecca.

While things are changing (perhaps for the better, or perhaps for the worse) in Turkey, one thing is certain.  Istanbul and large portions of Turkey, while Muslim, are nowhere as extreme as most of us have been led to believe.  You will find women in burkas, true, but you will also find women in burkas here in Copenhagen. In practice, I was shocked by how few women were actually wearing hijabs or burkas. While it varies depending on the part of Istanbul you’re in, the number of women dressed in burkas was only slightly higher than what I am familiar with in the Norrebro neighborhood where I live here in Copenhagen.  It IS more common to see women with head scarves of some sort, but these are often moderate Muslims roughly as spiritual as your typical American Christian.

The founder of modern Turkey, Ataturk, is deeply respected and holds a George Washington like status for the Turks.  The Turkey he established was structured to be a secular and democratic nation-state.  The Turkish Government has, as a result, actively worked to discourage fundamentalism and religious influence on government. Turkish currency features great scientific minds and scientific subjects.  The 10 Lira note features a mathematics equation, while the 5 lira note features the atomic symbol and a strand of DNA.  This level of secularism and visible declaration for science is something that puts even the US to shame and offers insight into the compelling contrasts that define Turkey.

When re-framing my understanding of Turkey and the Turks, I like to take a historical look at the origins of Istanbul.  It is easy to forget that Istanbul, formerly Constantinople and before that Byzantium, spent the majority of its formative years as the capital of the prosperous Eastern Roman Empire. It was not until the 1400s with the Ottoman conquest that Christianity took a back seat in Istanbul to Islam.  While Istanbul is predominantly Muslim there are still more than 120 active churches and around 20 active synagogues in the city.

Religion in general, and Islam more specifically has and continues to play an important role in shaping Turkey.  It is not, however, something that tourists should be concerned about or feel endangered by. Just remember that when you treat people as individuals matters of faith, nationality, or race tend to be far less divisive.

The Maiden's Tower and Lighthouse

2. Turkey Is An Arab Country

One of the things that frustrates Turks is the common misconception by outsiders that Turkey is an Arab country.  Turkey is not, in any way, an Arab country.  In reality out of nearly 79 million Turkish citizens only 2% are Arabs.  Compare that to Brazil where 3% of the population is Arab or France where a full 9% of the population is Arab.

Turks have a strong national identity.  They speak Turkish and associate more closely with Europe and European culture than with the Arab world. The country also has a very complex power dynamic and somewhat difficult national identity due to the massive geographic area it covers and its historic position in the center of one of the world’s greatest cultural crossroads.  This clash of cultures is a fascinating subject which can be a topic which necessitates tactful discuss with Turks, and which makes for incredible reading and a rich culture.

Best Friends - Bodrum, Turkey

3. You Can’t Drink Alcohol

For many of us, understanding the relationship between Muslim countries and alcohol is a bit confusing. At the end of the day, we don’t really care about the specifics. We just want an affordable drink that doesn’t get us arrested, thrown in jail, or force us into doing something illegal.  Many of you have no doubt heard horror stories about trying to get a drink in Saudi Arabia, about booze delivery services in Iran, or about how locals and tourists have different rights of access to bars and booze in Dubai. I had no idea what to expect in Istanbul, so it was with quite a bit of surprise that I learned upon arrival that alcohol is readily available in Turkey.  While it is quite expensive by local standards it is still affordable very affordable. Beer is readily available in most cafes, particularly in tourist-oriented areas. I was somewhat surprised to learn that Turkey has several national breweries. Of these, the largest is Efes Beverage Group. You also have a vibrant club and bar district situated around the Taksim area just off Istiklal Avenue in downtown Istanbul.  You may recognize Taksim from news articles about the current protests.  It’s one and the same and while this has impacted the immediate area surrounding Taksim it has done little to stifle the greater tourist experience.

The Taksim area at night is a fantastic mixture of hip bars, restaurants and night clubs.  I was shocked to see that young folks would often walk from bar to bar with an open beer in hand. While not strictly legal enforcement seemed to be minimal.  You’ll also find beer, wine and hard alcohol readily available across the rest of Turkey.  When visiting Cappadocia we had several lovely local red wines and in areas like Antalya or Bodrum a few beers on the beach is an absolute must.

Tulips in Bloom - Istanbul, Turkey

4. People Are Rude

I was expecting the people to be rude, pushy, and constantly trying to take advantage of me. In particular I was dreading the shop vendors and street merchants. I wasn’t alone.  I’ve heard time and time again that people have avoided Turkey out of a fear of dealing with the merchants.  Boy was I wrong.  The Turkish people are incredible.  They are warm and the culture revolves around hospitality. You’ll drink more tea than you can bear and while occasionally merchants have an agenda – they’ll saddle you with a steaming hot cup of chai and then try and convince you to buy something while it cools – most are just happy to have a conversation with you in the hopes you consider their products.  They also tend to be very curious about you, your family, and how you are enjoying their country. Similarly, most of the merchants are respectful and nowhere as aggressive or high pressure as you might fear. The exception to this is in the extremely touristy areas such as the Grand Bazaar where high pressure sales are slightly more common. Even there though, they were nowhere near as pushy as I expected. You can read about my first intro to Turkish hospitality here.   I’ve found that many open and friendly folks tend to be members of the Kurdish minority.  These individuals in particular are extremely friendly to the US and Americans.

The Grand Bazaar - Istanbul, Turkey

5. Turkey Is Dangerous

Turkey is quite safe. There are some subtle cultural differences that people should keep in mind, women in particular, but those considerations are quite similar to many other parts of the world. When you consider Istanbul’s size – 13.5 million officially, 18 million unofficially – and compare it to other major metropolitan areas I felt as safe, if not safer in Istanbul than I do in Los Angeles, Phoenix, New York, or other large American cities.  The rest of the Turkish cities you’ll likely visit as a tourist: Cappadocia, Antalya, Bodrum, Izmir, etc. are all extremely safe.  Even now, in the midst of the turmoil and protests, the majority of the tourist areas are unaffected and I would not hesitate to plan a trip back to Turkey.

Church of the Holy Savior in Chora

6. Turkey Lacks History

Istanbul is, in effect, Rome’s sister city. It is, without question, one of the world’s greatest historical cities.  Yet, somehow, it is largely overlooked. The combination of ancient history, Roman history, and Ottoman history combines with Turkey’s central position to provide a spectacular assortment of historical, culinary and cultural attractions. You need at least 5 days to see Istanbul properly. Visits to other parts of Turkey will require a similar amount of time as there are incredible Crusader castles, historic Greek ruins, and wonderful Roman artifact collections scattered all over the countryside.

Busy Turkish Streets - Istanbul, Turkey

7. It Is Primitive

Another misconception a lot of people have is that Turkey is poor and/or relatively primitive. Many assume that the country has more in common with developing nations than fully developed ones.  While this holds true in the country’s most rural areas, and on the outskirts of some of its larger cities, it is grossly inaccurate when discussing the country’s western half.  Istanbul has a vibrant transit system, and is every bit as modern a city as those you’ll find across other parts of Europe. They have a prolific number of state-of-the-art shopping malls, new theaters, international airports and a thriving business center.

The Turkish Spice Market - Bazaar, Bodrum, Turkey

8. Squat Toilets Are Everywhere

While it sounds silly to say, there are a lot of tourists who avoid countries out of concerns over their bathroom conditions. The good news is, you’ll very rarely find a squat toilet in the modern parts of Turkey.  What you will find periodically are water hoses to supplement the toilet paper for those who have a preference one way or the other. The handicapped stall which is present will also always be a traditional western-seated toilet. So, have no fear, Turkey is a western-friendly toilet destination.  Just make sure you pack a little backup paper just in case.

Istiklal Avenue - Istanbul, Turkey

Turkey is an incredible destination.  I now find myself recommending Turkey in the same breath as places like Scotland’s Isle of Skye, Prague, Central Italy and Budapest. It will defy your expectations and leave you breathless.  Don’t wait to head to Turkey – I can promise you, it is far less of a heart palpitating adventure than you might expect.

While these are eight of the most common concerns and misconceptions I hear, there are many more.  If you have a question of your own, or have something to add, please share it in the comments.

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.

Istanbul: The City That Took Me By Complete Surprise

Istanbul City Bench

When I chose Turkey as the destination for my holiday trip, one key factor was weather.  While I still didn’t expect it to be terribly warm, I was hopeful that the weather would be notably warmer than what I had grown accustomed to in Copenhagen, Denmark.  Little did I know what I was in for: the coldest weather Turkey has experienced in over 25 years.  After diving into my bags and layering on just about every piece of warm clothing I had, I quickly set out to explore the historic district of Sultanahmet which immediately surrounds the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, more commonly known as the Blue Mosque. I have to confess that I was more than a little frustrated by the cold and snow flurries which made visibility difficult.  Still, I decided to take stock of my situation and make the absolute best of it – after all, when was the last time you saw photos of Istanbul covered in snow?  Eager to take care of this rare occurrence, I began to explore the neighborhood..

Blue Mosque in the Snow

The trip was my first to a Muslim country.  It was also my first to an arab-influenced country.  I say arab-influenced country because I know that many Turks don’t consider themselves to be arabs and are regularly frustrated by the mis-association.  As I crunched out into the snow the first time I honestly had no idea what to expect.  I had heard that Turkey was much more liberal, western and progressive than many of the more traditionalist/conservative Muslim countries, but I had no idea just where the boundaries between the two might fall.  Would I see lots of women covered from head to toe in traditional garb? Would beer and alcohol be available – or even legal?   What about pork?  Would people pause during prayer periods to pray in the streets?   Some of these unknowns no doubt seem silly to some of you, especially some of my Turkish friends who have known me for years.  For others, I imagine you likely share the uncertainty I did before my arrival in Turkey.

Sultan Ahmed Mosque in the Snow

What I found was a city full of surprises. While there were some women in full-body traditional conservative outfits, most wore a headscarf, or nothing particularly unusual – choosing instead to dress as one would find and expect anywhere else in the world.  In truth, there are probably more women dressed traditionally in the heavily-Arab district of Norrebro back in Copenhagen than there are in the Sultanahmet district of Istanbul.  In part, that’s due to the tourist-centric nature of that part of town.  Mostly, however, it is indicative of exactly what you would expect in any major metropolitan area.  Similarly, despite the loud sing-song of the Muslim call to prayer echoing through the city several times a day, I never saw anyone pause to pray in public. In truth, few Turks even paused as they went about their business. Should I be surprised? Probably not.  Was I?  Most definitely.

Hagia Sofia in the Snow

As my time in Istanbul quickly raced by I came to realize just how far off most of my perceptions about Turkey had been.   During our visits to the Taksim area, which is a shopping sector and bar district within Istanbul, I quickly learned that Istanbul has a thriving bar and nightlife scene.  While drinks are relatively expensive, they’re easily on hand in most parts of the city (though perhaps slightly more difficult to find than some other major cities). Perhaps most surprising was that there even seemed to be unofficial open container laws, as long as you were careful and remained within Taksim.  The city was not at all what I expected or what many of the westernized portrayals of Turkey depicted.  Heck, to our total surprise (and dismay) several fellow hostelers and I actually stumbled into (and right out of) what we thought was a bar which ended up being a brothel – located right in the heart of Taksim.

Blue Mosque in the Snow

Now, all of this isn’t to say that Istanbul doesn’t have its conservative districts and idiosyncrasies.  It does, but it’s also nothing like the city I was expecting.  Another aspect that took me by complete surprise was the city’s size.  A review of online literature about Istanbul in preparation for my trip left me expecting a mid-sized capital city with a hearty population in the 10-12 million range.  What I found was a city that locals claim has at least 19 million residents and, given the population density and size of the city, I believe it.  This, and other experiences during the trip led me to realize that  Istanbul is one of the world’s great cities and it is not discussed as such as often as it should be.

Blue Mosque Area and Obelisk

More than that, it possesses a charm that few cities of its size and scale are able to nurture or retain.   Istanbul is a city of empire.  A city of history.  Of wonder. With its well-manicured boulevards and crumbling historic districts, Istanbul befits a city that straddles two continents – two worlds – that has served as the sentry of the Bosphorus for thousands of years.  Despite spending more than a week in Istanbul, I feel as though I’ve only just scratched the surface.  There are still so many historical buildings, museums, and remnants of the past to explore.  But, it goes far beyond that.  The foods, music, cafes, and cultures of Istanbul are also intoxicating, rich, and complex. I’ll find my way back to Istanbul as soon as the chance permits and as someone who isn’t generally a fan of mega-cities, that is a take away from the city that I found extremely surprising.   If you find yourself considering a visit to Istanbul – don’t be mislead by headlines, silly stereotypes and hear-say.  If you haven’t considered Istanbul and Turkey as a destination in the past – I hope my series on the country will help inspire you to add it to your list and to consider it seriously.   After all, Istanbul is the city of Byzantium and Constantinople – a city that demands every traveler’s attention!

Granada Part II

When I tell people I absolutely love traveling on my own they look at me like I’m crazy.  With a skeptical eye they usually pause, think for a second, then ask where I stay. When I respond with, “Hostels – they’re amazing” I usually get a sideways look, another pause and then “Did you see the movie Hostel?’.   It’s a shame really that in many ways that movie has become our generation’s Jaws – only this time frightening the average Joe/Jane away from hostel travel instead of the ocean.

That said, during each of my extended backpack/hosteling trips I have had 1 night that left me bleary eyed, pissed off and ready for a nap. Not because I was in danger or frightened but rather because of unfortunate bunk mates. Even the rare unpleasant experience though is well worth it. It’s not an adventure without them and let’s face it – they often make for some of the best stories.

My first evening in Granada was this trip’s one evening.  It involved a tired German switching into the wrong bunk, a horrible smelling drunken Irishman with his heart set on the German’s newly claimed bed, and a number of other late arrivals who were apparently unaware of basic hostel etiquette (making your bed before you go out, leaving the lights off at 3am, etc.). The combined effect made for an interesting – and trying – evening. Needless to say the guy’s smelly feet were probably the worst of it…somehow managing to waft all the way up to my poor embattled nostrils on the top level of a 3 level bunk bed.

The next morning I was up early and out the door. As I walked through the crisp mountain air I retraced my steps through the narrow twisting hillside streets back to the main staircase which would quickly lead me down to the entrance to the Oasis Granada hostel.  The photo at the beginning of this post is of that stairway.  Note the creative parking jobs.   There were very few vehicles in Granada without some sort of scratch or dent and the city as a whole was a constant reminder illustrating the power, advantage and necessity of bumpers. I can’t imagine what happens when the city gets ice or snow.

The walk back down to Oasis was the first real view I’d had of the city by day. Needless to say it was drastically different than the city I’d first experienced the night before. As I paused and stood looking out over the city it dawned on me just how high up I’d traveled.  The air was significantly cooler than it had been in Cadiz – not cold – but cooler. Before, I’d just thought it brisk, but as I looked out across the city I was greeted by an impressive backdrop – the snow covered Sierra Nevadas. Laughing softly at myself I continued down the stairs and soon found myself relaxing in the hostel lobby.  The feisty gal at the reception window told me that rooms would be ready by one, backpacks in the corner until then, bar opened at 6, gave me a drink coupon and sent me off on my way with a smile. I unloaded my bag, grabbed a huge glass of water from the kitchen and set to exploring the hostel. As luck had it my room was on the top floor and accessed off of the rooftop terrace.  The view from the terrace was spectacular:

The terrace rooms were excellent, with wall mounted mini-safes for each bed, sturdy wooden double bunk beds, an en suite bathroom and a small table area  all of which made for a fantastic stay.

Eventually, I made my way downstairs and introduced myself to a few of the others in the common area.  It turned out that they were gathering for a 10:30 free walking tour of the city. Always a fan of spur of the moment I decided to join the group and before long we were off and walking. From the hostel it was a quick walk down through one of the more flavorful flea market streets:

The street was fairly steep with a slight V designed to funnel water away from the shops and down to the main street below. The shops were overflowing with vibrantly colored scarves, rugs, hats, caps, hookahs, beautifully inlaid boxes and a multitude of other flavorful keepsakes. Eager to explore it in greater depth later I made a mental note to return and followed the group the rest of the way down the street…around several corners…and into a large square.  There we paused and waited for others from throughout the city to join us while he had us introduce ourselves. At 11 o’clock sharp the fountain spluttered to life and the tour began.  The square was absolutely charming:

The day was partially cloudy and crisp – if not overly cool. As we made our way across the square laughter bounced back at us off the old stone streets and storefronts. Our guide was a slightly odd, high energy Oregonian who had a box of jokes – some funny…some not.  Although, even the more spectacular comedic failures got a small chuckle or two.   Our path led us up a small street bounded by building walls on the right and a waist-height stone railing on the other.  Beyond the railing there was a 15 foot drop to a small stream which wound its way down between the two hills that sat on either side of us before eventually diving under the central square where we started.  After dodging cars and mopeds on the narrow sidewalk-less street, we paused and our guide shared with us the small river’s history.  From stories of wooden bowls full of fruit set adrift and used to serve reclining Moorish party goers in the 1400s to the noteworthy construction project that had covered most of the stream and facilitated the building of the large square we’d just left.

The buildings to our left were all in excellent condition.  Aged but well maintained, some still had ancient fresco work decorating their plaster facades.  The area to our right sloped up towards the Alhambra gardens, fortress and palatial compound.  One thing that stands out in my memory is the subtle signs of terracing which decorated the steep hillside.  It never ceases to amaze me how prolific mans touch is in Europe.  Even the things that initially strike us as untouched or more wild inevitably end up being little more than neglected areas once shaped by human hands.

The streets to our left were beautiful.  Narrow, paved with cobblestones. Typically too small/steep for cars they were ripe with personality. Before long our guide led us up one – seemly at random.  Our tour of the Albayzin had begun.

Huffing slightly we worked to keep up with each other as we wound up the hill towards its summit…all the while winding through the old Moorish streets.  It’s an amazing feeling – something about the physical exertion – perhaps the slight blur it brings to your eyes – makes it easier to squint and slip back in time. Though I’m sure my imaginings of what the streets looked like 400 years ago are grossly off base, I can’t help but still be captured by the thought.  As the group paused I returned from my musings in time to hear our guide launch into a story about the “Carmen” or small garden we were standing in front of:

The guide’s story suggested that it was a beautiful Carmen.  One so beautiful that when Disney sent their researchers to Granada in preparation for the movie that made the phrase famous – they found this garden and were inspired.  Skeptical or not – it was still more than enough to make me smile. After all, as a wandering backpacker I couldn’t help but feel a certain affinity with the phrase and all of the imagery and message that goes with it.

The hill that the Albayzin is built upon is steep enough that a delightful view of the Alhambra is periodically visible … beautifully framed by the trees towering up and out of the local careens and the multi-colored, tiled rooftops:

Towards the summit of the Albayzin we paused in front of an outdoor water fountain to rest our burning legs and refill our water bottles.  From there we found our way to several small cathedrals as our guide explained that every cathedral in Granada had initially been a mosque which had since been converted.  We then paused near the only mosque in the city – a building which had just recently been reclaimed. Allegedly, it was the first mosque in Granada in hundreds of years. An interesting fact reinforced by the existence of the stacked 3 round balls representing Islam that decorated the tops of all of the cathedral towers.  In every place that they appear they have had a large Christian cross welded on top of them, intended to forever illustrate Christian dominion over Islam.

As we neared the end of the tour we passed this small heavily decorated home.  Each year there is an annual competition among the women in the Albayzin for the most impressive and best-decorated house.  This one showcases local plate/tile work combined with a wonderful mixture of fresh flowers. As we paused and took in the sight, the construction workers renovating the house across the street paused – watched – waved and smiled our way eager to see people enjoying and appreciating a local cultural icon.

I wrote earlier about the strange juxtapositions of old and new that seem to be every day occurrences in ancient medieval cities.  I snapped the following shot spur of the moment and can’t help but feel it illustrates those strange contrasts:

The gateway is actually the old city gate through which all of the Albayzin’s original traffic was funneled.  It dumps out into one of the longest running market places in Granada…A small square that has by all accounts been a market in some shape or form far longer than all of the cities in the Western U.S. have existed.

To add to its mystique, the gate still has rusted old weights nailed above the entrance as a warning to those wayward merchants who would cheat their customers. I’d rather not dwell on what else was no doubt nailed beside the weights a few hundred years ago. Now the gate serves as a normal street – trafficked by pedestrians and the odd moped. It even has a rather flavorful piece of graffiti which you’ll no doubt  recognize. What a clash of different worlds.

Once through the gate we found ourselves in a large open area next to one of the largest cathedrals in the Albayzin.  The square led up to a wonderful viewing area full of local gypsies, artisans and musicians all set to the backdrop of the Alhambra across the way – beautifully framed by the snow capped Sierra Nevadas.

There we bid our guide goodbye, tipped him and set off to find lunch. Before long I’d scarfed down a chicken kebab and was sitting in a tiny internet cafe fingers furiously pounding away as I tried to get caught up on my blog posts.  From there it was back to the hostel to find my bed, wash up and take a quick nap.  Then the evening’s explorations began!

Stay tuned for stories of cave bars, odd live Flamenco, late nights in beautiful old cities and more!