Monday, November 7, 2011

Byzantine Tour 2011 Day Twenty: Istanbul to Rome

We spent three incredible days in Istanbul, but now it is time to leave one capital of the Roman Empire for another.  How often do you get to say that?  To be fair, I am sure that countless people fly from Istanbul to Rome or Rome to Istanbul every year.  But me?  This might be the only time that I ever do it.

But first things first.
Breakfast.  The day after tomorrow we head home.  I look forward to being home, but oh my am I going to miss having a breakfast buffet every morning.
The view out the window from the Ritz Carlton Istanbul restaurant.  To the left is actually the Besiktas Football Stadium.

We took our bags and headed to the airport.
Was I not going to be excited when the highway crossed under a Roman aqueduct?
Look at how the lanes of traffic weave through the ancient aqueduct.  Coolness.

Again, if you want to see ancient Greece and Rome, come to Turkiye.
In the previous picture was an aqueduct that was built around 1,700 years ago.   In this picture you can see high-rises going up.
Entering Istanbul's airport.
If you think about it, it is amazing how every airport is different.  Noticeably different.  You would think there would be more uniformity, really.  Perhaps the land upon which airports are built creates challenges that have to be overcome.  Or maybe cities seek unique landmarks to distinguish themselves.  Either way, you would think that someone would figure out the best way to build an airport and then everyone else would follow.  But no.  Not even close.
Destination: Roma.
Airport lunch self portrait.
A lunch for kings.
Our ride to Roma.
Istanbul Airport Candid,  November 2011.
Leaving Istanbul.
Entering Italy.
Ciao Roma.  You see the sky?  It looks pretty there, but it is about to turn into a downpour.
Driving through Roma in the rain.
We pulled up to our hotel, The Hotel De Russie, next to the Piazza del Popolo.  Yes, our hotel is a few hundred feet from my favorit obelisk in Rome.  This happens to be yet another Rocco Forte hotel.  Very much looking forward to the extra firm mattress that Rocco provides.  

We got into the room and decompressed.
Room service.  Salad and pizza.
We are in Rome.  Feels good to be home.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Byzantine Tour 2011 Day Nineteen: Istanbul

We woke up this morning in a room that was not floating.  Weird, right?  Alas, at some point we had to abandon the sea for land.

We have an agenda today.  We have site inspections at many of Istanbul's best hotels, and tonight... tonight is a biggie.  But I will save that story for when we get to it.  TIme for your third day in this fascinating city that bridges continents and cultures.
Breakfast buffet at the Ritz-Carlton.  We did not expect to be served bacon in this Muslim country.  And then it turned out that the bacon was beef pastrami bacon and tasted so close to the real thing that I cannot believe this is not the standard for all of my sad Jewish friends who do not eat pork.

Room update.  Remember yesterday when we had trouble with our car's tinted windows and ended up back at the hotel?  During that stop, we switch from a hypo-allergenic room to a normal room.  And there was a perfume smell in our room, and after what happened on that cruise we decided to ask for a switch, even though that is very rare for us.

And the wonderful people of the Ritz Carlton Istanbul gave us a switch to a hypo-allergenic suite.
Suite panorama.  Living room on the left, bedroom on the right.  After almost two weeks in a cuise-ship cabin, this feels like a house.

Ready to see some hotels?
Okay.  This picture does no justice.  This is the Çırağan Palace, which is today a five-star Kempinski Hotel.  I could not get far enough away for a decent picture, but imagine the coast of the Bosphorus just to the right, and the hotel stretching as far as the eye can see to the left.

Now.  If you want to talk luxury... to the left and up the road is the entrance of the hotel.  This is the entrance for a wing of the hotel that is only suites.  But we use the work suite loosely here.  This is a hotel that hosts billionaires.  B.  Billionaires with a B.  Care to see how Oprah travels?
This is the lobby for this wing and of course there are not counters or anything hotel-like at all.

When they call this a palace, that is literally what it is.  The last few hundred years of the Ottoman Empire it became custom for the Sultans to build their own, new palaces.  Living in the same place that your parents lived was so... pasé?  Çırağan Palace was built by Sultan Abdülâziz in 1867.

Seriously.  If you want to know why the Czars and Emperors all fell, look no further than how they chose to live.

Time for a suite.
This is a pretty funky panorama of the entry hall, but note not just the luxury but the fact that there are five doorways.  Yes, this suite has more square footage than many homes.
A living room with a view of the Bosphorus.  You tired of my talking about that?  So what.  I will repeat.  This living room is in Europe, and across that water is Asia.
Not a bad bedroom, is it.
A crazy living room panorama.  But if you want to move around inside this picture, click here.
Crazy 360 of the bathroom.  Want to see the sort of bathroom that a billionaire enjoys?  Where Oprah does her business?   Go ahead, move around inside.

We looked at a few more over-the-top suites, and then headed toward the part of the hotel for less absurdly rich.
Just in case you thought Turkish culture never has fun with its past, I think this cartoon Sultan is all you need to see.
I walked out along the Bosphorus, and, yes, of course, inevitably took a picture of the bridge again.  You know that bridge connects two continents, right?
Not a bad spot for the pool.
The back of the Çırağan Palace Kempinski hotel.  Palatial.
Here is the indoor pool.  Not bad.
But this sign heading toward the outdoor pool is bad.  Apparently they get enough Europeans here to warrant the sign?
Finally, as we exited through the lobby after a very long and thorough look around, I snapped a pic with these fun guys here to entertain the kids.

We hopped into the car for a drive along the Bosphorus to our next destination.  But along the way...
We passed under the Bosphorus Bridge.  And the tinted windows add quite the nice hue to the shot.

Time for another hotel.
The Hotel Les Ottomans.  This seaside mansion was built in the 1790's as an aristocrats home.  Burned down in 1933 it remained a ruin for much of the 20th century, until a famous Turkish interior designer rebuilt it into a boutique luxury hotel with just 10 suites total.
This is luxury, my friends.
A pretty fancy shmancy room.

As I have learned, the Turks are proud of their Republic of Turkiye, but they feel a strong connection with the Ottoman Empire.  Why would they not recall the days when they ruled a vast empire?  The thing is, from my point of view, that this longing for the old days may or may not recall just how awful this era was for the common person.  The reason feudalism and monarchies all fell and were replaced with democracies and republics is that the landed aristocracy lived like kings while everyone else lived in misery.

People seem to have forgotten this, and it bothers me.  Parts of the world are freeing themselves from monarchy for the first time, while the developed parts slip into a perversion of capitalism that borders on neo-feudalism.  Bad news.
Sure, it may recall the days of a landed aristocracy, but look at that tub!

Time for the third super-luxurious hotel of the day.
Ah... the Four Seasons Hotel Istanbul at the Bosphorus.
This was an Ottoman Palace built in the 1800's known as the Atik Pasha Palace.
Today it is knows as te Four Seasons.

Basically, if you are extremely wealthy and wish to visit Istanbul, you get to just a little like the rulers of the Ottoman Empire,
A view of the Bosphorus Bridge from the Four Seasons.
An outdoor fountain at the Four Seasons.
We toured the spa, and I thought you might like this indoor pool.
Barbie takes a picture from the balcony of a rooftop room.
Not bad, people.  Not bad.
Time for lunch at Aqua at the Four Seasons
Maybe you are wanting to see the restaurant?
We absolutely loved this olive oil and balsamic vinegar bottle.  Barbie liked it so much that she asked where she could get one.  The restaurant manager came over and explained that they are hard to get, because she found them in a small shop on the Aegean coast of Turkiye.

And then, in classic Four Seasons fashion, she brought us one in a gift bag to take home.  Which means that if you make the list to a dinner party in our home, then you might get to experience the joy of this brilliant jar.
This bread was... some of the best bread I have ever tasted.  Seriously.  This bread alone was like a warning signal that we were in for a fantastic meal.
Barbie started with the Spinach Salad, with beetroot carpaccio and gorgonzola cheese.
I started with the Braised Octopus, warm Sicilian "caponatina" and rosemary bread.
Barbie's main, the Risotto with porcini and black truffle.  This was one of the best risottos I have ever tasted.
I had the Duck Cannellone, with spinach, parmigiano, and hazelnut cream.  I have never tasted anything like it.  It was absolutely delicious.  If a restaurant at home served this amazing dish, I would go there at least once per month.

After what we both agreed was the best lunch of the trip, and probably best meal of the trip, we had a little time to spend before our big evening begins.  How to spend it?

Well, our entire time in Istanbul has been spent in Europe, looking at Asia.  Who wants to take a ferry across?
We do.
Uskudar is the neighborhood on the Asia side, Besiktas is the neighborhood on the Europe side.
Good-bye, Europe.
Hello Asia.
As you can see, football is very popular here.  We had very little time on the Asia side, but at least we made it across.
Our feet, standing in Istanbul, in Asia.
I think that I like this shot for the way it catches some normal turks with their flag.

Soon a massive flock of birds came at us, and I shot away.
Sea gulls. 

A simply stunning and lucky shot.
Remember Galata Tower from tow days ago?  I told you that you can spot it from almost anywhere.


Now the surprise.  Sometime after I knew we were going to Istanbul, and before we left for the trip, something occurred to me; a well-known NBA player had told the league to stuff it during the owners' lockout of the players and gone to play professional basketball in Istanbul.  NBA All-Star Deron Williams, inspired by having had a Turkish teammate tell him about IStanbul for years, had the courage to go on an adventure while the players and owners sat on their hands.  As long as Barbie and I were going to spend a few nights in Istanbul, why not try to see a game?

I researched online, found out the team he played for, and they did have a home game during our visit.  Barbie sent the idea to Levon, our guide, from home and he said that he would about getting us tickets. When we arrived in Istanbul, he told us that he had gotten us good tickets.

And, to show what an intelligent and thoughtful host he is, Levon surprised us today with the plan that our driver, whom we knew and trusted, would attend the game with us.  Genius.  No searching for a cab in who-knows-where Istanbul.

At the end of our day of touring, we drove out to the Western suburbs on the Europe side of Istanbul.
Passing the Byzantine walls that surrounded Constantinople.
Turkish freeway.  Yes, I know that most everyone is sophisticated enough to know that freeways exist everywhere.  But just in case you did not think of Istanbul as a normal city with normal highways, look above.
The Sinan Erdem Dome, home to the Besiktas basketball club.
I have my ticket.

Geting to our seats was an amazing journey.  The fans are fanatic to the point that as we entered, before tipoff, every person was standing and cheering, even in the aisles.  I thought we were toast, but people let us step through the crowd pretty easily until I saw what I thought was our row.  All I had to do was show my ticket to a person or two, and then that fan pointed to the row behind him and I thanked him.   As we got to our seats, we really were not sure which were ours, but the same process worked and some guys standing in front of our seats moved closer to their friends.
Tip off!
Did I mention seats?  I have no idea why this arena has seats.  Not one person sat in our section for the entire game.  This is not exaggeration.  People sat during time-outs and half-time, but during the game every single person stood and cheered.

Need I mention that at an NBA game, people mostly sit during play and then get up and go during a time out.  In Istanbul, you stand and cheer during play and you sit during a time out.
A pretty incredible panorama.  If you want to look around first-person, click here.
Besiktas Home Game Candid, Sinan Erdem Dome.  November 2011.
Proof that we were there, and proof that the Turkish fans adore the NBA player who came to their city to play for their favorite team.

Do you want to feel the energy at a Turkish basketball game?

This video is the best that I can do to put you in our seats.

We were cheering along and waving our arms with everyone, but we did not talk to much.  Finally Barbie told the guys next to her that she was from Los Angeles, and they loved it.  Soon they were high-five-ing her all the time and just adoring that an American was rooting for their team.
They liked Barbie so much that one of them gave her a Beskitas banner to wave around.
Besiktas was playing against the reigning repeat champions, but with help from Deron Williams they won tonight.  And guess what happened when they won?  Everyone kept standing and cheering.  See the player up there waving his arms to the crowd?  That is long after the game was over.
Still cheering the victory, probably fifteen minutes after the game ended.

I told the guy next to me that I had come from the USA.  He smiled and high-five'd me during the game, but then after the game, as the crowd finally quieted down, he turned to me and expressed, in excellent English, that he was personally honored that I came to the game.  He said that he loves his team and for an American to respect it by taking the time to come to the game was something that he greatly appreciated.  I was floored.  It was one of the most touching moments I have ever had while visiting another country.

We then talked about the NBA lockout and how he will miss Deron Williams when the NBA resolves its labor dispute and Deron heads back to the USA.  I could think of nothing else to say but to ask him to take a picture with me.
Yours truly with the Turk whose name I will never know but whom I will never forget.

We went outside, met up with our driver at the car, and headed back to the hotel.  If it seems like I laid it on thick about this experience, let me tell you that the opposite is true.  This experience was incredible.  The energy of the fans was more than I have ever seen at a game, even in college when my school defeated the semi-professional team from UNLV at home.  The graciousness of the fans was even more incredible; the gift that Barbie received is now pinned to the wall above her desk.  And to be there and feel a connection with people in a country very far away from my own was the best part of all.

We returned to the hotel, and it was time to rest.   
Room service burgers.  No need to compete with today's lunch.

Until tomorrow.