Castles in Greece in danger

castles, castle, Greece, MethoniWhen people think of castles, they usually think of those in Western Europe such as Spain, France, and Germany. Eastern Europe, however, has just as many if not more.

Greece has some of the best, like the castle of Methoni photographed here by Wolfram Sinapius. Having been fought over by the Byzantines, Venetians, Crusaders, Ottomans, and many others, it seems every island and hilltop has its own medieval fortification. Many changed hands several times. The Methoni castle dates to ancient times and in the Middle Ages the Venetians built atop the old foundations. The conquering Byzantines and Ottomans added their own elements.

Now those castles are in danger, according to an article in the Greek Reporter. Time and neglect are taking their toll. Some are on remote clifftops or islands and hard to get to, so while they are at least spared the vandalism so common in other historical sites, they can’t be properly maintained or studied. Now Greek archaeologists are trying to raise awareness of Greek castles and hopefully get them better cared for. This will be a difficult task with the country’s financial crisis.

One castle at least will be preserved. It was recently announced that the Pylos Fortress will become home to the city archaeological museum. This will bring in more visitors and help raise funds to maintain the site.

Gallipoli battlefield being mapped by GPS

Gallipoli
Archaeologists in Turkey are making a detailed survey of the famous World War One battle of Gallipoli. Using period military maps and GPS technology, they’re mapping the old trenches and redoubts used by both sides.

Gallipoli was the scene of fierce fighting starting in 1915. A peninsula with highlands dominating the Dardanelles strait linking the Black and the Aegean seas, it guarded the western approach to the Ottoman capital of Constantinople, now Istanbul. The Ottoman Empire was on Germany’s side during World War One and the British Empire’s high command believed an attack on Gallipoli would be the first step to knocking the Ottomans out of the war.

They were wrong. The Ottoman Empire, long dismissed “the sick man of Europe”, put up a determined resistance and the British, Canadian, Australian, New Zealand, and French troops got stuck on the beaches as Ottoman troops pummeled them from the highlands. After nine bloody months, the allies sailed away.

The international team of Turkish, Australian, and New Zealand archaeologists and historians have discovered large numbers of artifacts from the battle and are busy working out a complete map of the complicated network of trenches, many of which can still be clearly seen today.

The battle started 25 April 1915, and this date is marked as ANZAC Day in Australia and New Zealand. ANZAC stands for Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, who did some of the toughest fighting in the campaign. Many people in both of these countries feel the soldiers’ efforts proved the worth of the two young nations.

Last year archaeologists discovered the HMS Lewis and a barge sunk off the shore.

Weekending: Sarajevo


Istanbul’s unique position straddling two continents affords a lot of travel opportunities, with quick direct flights throughout Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. As an American living in Turkey, I try to explore as often as I can, particularly to less-traveled destinations. While my last weekend trip was to Prague, for this trip, I ventured to another Eastern European capital with far fewer tourists but an equally fascinating history.

The place: Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina
When I stepped off the plane in Sarajevo, the immigration officer asked me what I was doing in Bosnia. I struggled for a moment before answering “holiday” but really had no single good answer. A combination of cheap tickets, a holiday weekend, and an intriguing destination was what brought me to Bosnia. Most people associate Sarajevo with the tragic Bosnian War in the 1990s, or as part of the former communist Yugoslavia, but today the city is rebuilding and winning fans with cafe culture, Ottoman architecture, and easy access to outdoor adventure. The blend of religions and ethnicities have led the city to be called the European Jerusalem, and travelers will find the excellent exchange rate ($1 USD = 1.5 BAM, which is tied to the Euro 2:1) and widely-spoken English especially welcoming.

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  • One of the most amazing things about Bosnia is the the people. Resilient, scrappy, and friendly, Sarajevans have survived a lot and recovered remarkably well in a short time. I was particularly sobered by imagining the incredibly difficult adolescence people my age (30) must have had during the 1992-95 conflict. To get an idea of life under siege, you only have to walk around the city and take in the many bullet hole-ridden, damaged and shelled buildings, like the Moorish National Library which is undergoing reconstruction. Every visitor should go to the Historical Museum, across the street from the infamous Holiday Inn war correspondent hub, with a humble but moving exhibit on the siege. The Tunnel of Hope is another must-see museum documenting and preserving the cramped passage between the city and the free zone, where residents could connect with aid and communication with the outside world.
  • Sarajevo also offers excellent value. Decent hotels start at 40 Euros and rarely top 100 Euros. I stayed at the very comfortable and personal Hotel Michele for 85 Euros with a nice breakfast and wifi; celebrity guests have included Bono and Morgan Freeman. Tram or bus tickets are under 2 BAM, with taxi rides among the lowest in Europe (the most expensive ride is to the airport and under 25 BAM). Most attractive to expats who pay a small fortune for alcohol: beer, wine, and cocktails are 3 to 10 BAM most everywhere. While not a party town, there are a few good night spots including one of my favorite bars ever: the delightful Zlatna Ribica with the most well-stocked bar bathroom I’ve ever seen.

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  • While many of the sights are fascinating and affecting, the small museums and tourist attractions are still limited and can be seen in a day or two. The historic Bascarsija Turkish quarter is fun to stroll but crowded with more souvenir shops than craftsmiths these days. Sarajevo is better spent relaxing at a cafe on pedestrian Ferhadija Street and absorbing the history and culture than ticking sights off a list. Surrounded by mountains and valleys, there are also lots of opportunities for hikes, day trips, and skiing in winter.
  • Bosnian food is not bad, but many staple dishes are strikingly similar to Turkish food, such as stuffed burek pastries and cevapi meatballs (see: Turkish kofte). While tasty and locally-sourced, the food in Sarajevo tends to be heavy and meat-centric, without the abundance of salads and fish that balance out Turkish menus. High-end international and modern Bosnian restaurants are popping up around town, while cheap eats can be had for under 10 BAM. Reliable mid-range options include Noovi Wine Bar near the British Embassy for pizzas and a great regional wine list, and To Be or Not to Be (name reflects the plucky and determined spirit of Sarajevans during the siege) for homemade pastas and funky twists on traditional dishes. A famous local restaurant is Inat Kuca, or House of Spite, across the river from the National Library. The story behind the name dates back to the building of the library (then City Hall) when the house’s resident refused to let them build over his home, so they took the house brick-by-brick across the river to where it stands today (how’s that for thwarting eminent domain?).

Getting there

Tiny but admirably high-tech (they offer mobile and web check-in) Sarajevo International Airport doesn’t offer many flights outside of Eastern Europe, but national carrier B&H Airlines has affordable flights from major hubs including Frankfurt, Istanbul, and Zurich. Many travelers arrive via car or bus from neighboring countries; Croatia’s popular Dubrovnik is 5-7 hours by car and there’s an overnight train to/from Zagreb.

Make it a week

Check out the other half of B&H: Mostar in Herzegovina is another beautiful river town with a famous bridge not far from the Croatian coast. Bosnia is also an emerging destination for adventure travel with a large diversity of activities and landscapes. The Balkans have a wealth of places to go, but be aware of the history and potential Serbia visa issues when traveling overland.

Trinkets and treasures: Istanbul on and off the beaten path


The tourist season in Istanbul is well underway, bringing hordes of tour buses and groups into Sultanahment (the Old City) each day, perhaps even more this year as the Turkish city is currently one of Europe’s Capitals of Culture. Whether you are planning your first visit or your tenth, here is a look at some of the most touristed spots, why you should fight the crowds to see them, and where you can get off the beaten path.

%Gallery-97405%Hagia Sophia
Why go: Istanbul’s star attraction could hardly be overhyped; it is awe-inspiring and worthwhile, period. The sheer size and fact that it was completed in just five years makes it a must-see. Yes, it will be crowded but it’s big enough that you barely notice.
Where else: There is no real comparison to Hagia Sophia, but if you enjoy the murals, plan a visit to Chora Church (aka Kariye Muzesi). While not undiscovered either, the location is outside of the Old City and can be quiet in the off-season and on weekdays.
Getting there: Bus 31E, 37E, 38E or 36KE from Eminönü, or 87 from Taksim, get off at Edirnekapı near the old walls after the sunken stadium.

Blue Mosque
Why go: The city’s most famous active mosque isn’t really all blue, as the interior is covered in tiles of all shades and designs. It’s perpetually filled with rude tourists with uncovered hair talking on cell phones and photographing worshippers (all major mosque no-nos) but if you are seeing Hagia Sophia, it’s right there, the light and colors are lovely, and it’s free. Watch out for the “helpful” guides who will tell you it is closed for prayer and “volunteer” to take you elsewhere; if it is closed to the public, you’ll know it at the door and will have to wait a half hour or so to enter.
Where else: Tucked in a busy street near the Spice Market, the Rustem Pasha Mosque is also decorated with beautiful Iznik tiles but gets few foreign visitors. You may sometimes get the place to yourself, making your visit far more peaceful or even spiritual.
Getting there: From the Spice Market, exit onto Hasırcılar and wander a few blocks past vendors selling everything from coffee to tinfoil to guns; look for an elevated courtyard on your right with a sign for the mosque (camii). From Eminonu, head up Uzunçarşı away from the water, the mosque will be on your left a block or two up the hill.

Topkapı Palace
Why go: In many rooms of the palace, you’ll feel the full court press of people trying to get a good look at exhibits, it’s worth it to see emeralds the size of a baby’s head, over-the-top Ottoman costumes, a bizarre collection of relics, and the reality that life in a harem was nothing like the inside of I Dream of Jeannie‘s bottle.
Where else: While less grand than the other royal residences, Beylerbeyi Palace is a pretty jewelbox of a palace and gives you a nice excuse to visit the Asian side. Only accessible by guided tour, but unlike the European Bosphorus-side Dolmabahçe Palace, you’ll rarely have more than a few other travelers on your English-language tour and the admission is a relative bargain at 10 TL.
Getting there: Ferry over to Üsküdar on the Asian side, where you can take bus 15 to the Çayırbaşı stop right by the big bridge.

Grand Bazaar
Why go: The mother of all tourist traps, it’s hard to say you went to Istanbul without visiting this maze of shops. While quality and value are questionable, it’s an experience to listen to the myriad ways the shopkeepers will try to get your attention (they are very thick-skinned and multilingual). One thing to note besides tourist swag is the “Wall Street” of the Grand Bazaar, a street of Turkish men trading currencies and yelling into their cellphones (thanks to Rick Steves for the tip). Want to actually buy something? Outside the actual covered bazaar lie more streets selling many of the same items without the hassle.
Where else: If you are in the market for a submarine phone or an Ottoman fireplace, Horhor Bit Pazari is your best bet. More of an antiques market than a souvenir bazaar, it’s still fun to wander the hundreds of shops and wonder about the history behind the furnishings.
Getting there: In the very untouristy neighborhood of Aksaray, take the tram to Aksaray, walk towards the metro and head up Horhor Caddesi and look for the sign at Kırık Tulumba Sokak. It can be hard to find so check with your hotel or ask directions when off the tram.

Galata Bridge dining
Why go: The views from the Galata Bridge over the Golden Horn are spectacular and unmistakenly Istanbul, but the restaurants on the lower level tend to be overpriced tourist traps. Any place where the waiters try to hustle you into sitting down at their table and the menus are in seven languages should be approached with caution. Better to have a walk along the bridge with the fishermen and stop below for a tea (not the apple stuff, it’s a dead giveaway that you are a foreigner) or beer.
Where else: Waterside cafes are plentiful in the suburbs lining the Bosphorus and while they may also be overpriced, the Turkish locals are spending similar amounts to enjoy the views. Rumeli Hisarı is popular for Sunday brunches and has a cool old fortress to explore, Bebek is trendy and posh, Arnavutköy is full of crumbling Ottoman mansions and fish restaurants, Ortaköy is famous for overstuffed baked potatoes and terrace cafes, and Beşiktaş is crowded with students and commuters having a beer and lounging on bean bag chairs.
Getting there: Ferry schedules are erratic, try buses 22, 22RE, 25E from the tram end or 40, 40T, 42T from Taksim to anywhere along the water. Traffic is often bad along the Bosphorus, so work your way back on foot.

Have a favorite tourist trap or local secret to share? Leave it in the comments.

Istanbul’s hammams becoming more popular

In Ottoman times they were the daily ritual of the wealthy and middle class. Hammams were a place to unwind and socialize while getting clean. But in the twentieth century with the rise of internal plumbing and changing attitudes, the traditional hammam declined. Many decayed or were converted to other uses.

Now hammams are becoming popular again. Turks are once again interested in their Ottoman past, and with the recent death of the last heir to the Ottoman throne, that nostalgia will probably increase. Cagaloglu, built in Istanbul in 1741, is on sale for $16 million. Another one in Istanbul’s Aya Kepi neighborhood, dating to the 16th century and built by the famous Ottoman architect Sinan, is on sale cheap for $3 million, but needs extensive remodeling. At the moment it’s being used to store lumber! Hopefully someone will buy this historic building and reopen it as a hammam. There’s also been a spate of new building, with hammams appearing in shopping malls and hotels.

While the big historic ones in Istanbul are impressive, going to a small-town hammam in Cappadocia was one of the more memorable experiences of my month in Turkey. It was so small, in fact, that they didn’t have separate men’s and women’s sections. Men and women went on different days. The smaller crowd made the whole experience more relaxing and the tellak (masseur) sure knew his business. As I lay on a warm stone bench he squashed me into the rock, kneading my muscles until tension fled in terror. The best feeling was when he stopped! It was only then that I realized how relaxed I was.

Lounging around a hammam is a great way to spend a couple of hours. So if you’re headed to Turkey, try a hammam. The small-town ones are more sedate and less expensive, but the big popular ones in Istanbul need support too.