Trabzon Day 3: The City Itself

Our very nice hotel, Novotel, was equipped with a pool, spa, direct access to the public beach, and next to a large outlet mall, among its many attributes. It’s also located eight or nine kilometers outside the city of Trabzon. This means it’s a 40 lira ride via taxi to the city. Trabzon may be a small city of 250,000 people but taxis are expensive. Far more expensive than in Istanbul. Especially when you consider that for the trip to and from Sumela Monastery we were charged 35 lira each for my wife, our son, and me. And it’s an hour drive up the mountain.

For our final day in the area we took a taxi into town to explore at a leisurely pace.

The Church of St. Sophia is often touted as one of the Trabzon’s main attractions. It’s on the west side of the city. We didn’t bother to go. It used to be a museum. It’s no longer a museum. The current AKP-led government converted it to a mosque a few years ago.

(Something you ought to know about Turkey: the government controls all the mosques. They build the mosques and they determine who serves in the mosques. They approve the Friday sermon read out in every mosque across the country. You can’t just build your own mosque or church or synagogue. A new church hasn’t been approved for construction in several decades. It’s not a theocracy so much as a state with a large religious branch of government.)

If you want to see the Church of St. Sophia in Trabzon, there’s no way to find out it’s opening hours or if the many mosaics and frescoes are on view. They’ve allegedly been covered with curtains.

So rather than drag ourselves and the kids to one end of the town and back without a guarantee of being able to get a look inside, we decided to save ourselves the hassle.

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Instead, we went to Ataturk square, ate lunch, and visited the Trabzon Museum. It’s just off of the main pedestrian street Uzun Sokak. The museum, in an old mansion built for a wealthy Greek businessman in the late 19th century, contains many artifacts found in the region, including a bronze statue of Hermes that was flattened.

When we had finished exploring the museum, we stopped at a pharmacy to buy some contact lens solution. Stephanie had forgotten to pack her case. We were low on solution anyway, and all of the solution packages come with cases. Unsolicited, the pharmacist gave our children some balloons.

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Then we walked down to the seaside.

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The kids played on a playground in one of the parks while Stephanie and I sat and drank tea. When it was getting close to dinner time, we walked back up to the square and hailed a taxi to take us back to the hotel (for roughly 40 lira).

We’re glad we came to see that area of the Black Sea coast. It’s quite beautiful. But I think our next trips will be much more laid back. My wife and I are thinking Bodrum and Antalya, and being lazy on a beach.

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Trabzon Day 2: Sumela Monastery

On Wednesday we visited Trabzon’s main attraction: Sumela Monastery. Without a guide because there are no English-speaking guides to be found in Trabzon during the tourist off-season.

We were picked up at 9:45am by a well-dressed, handsome young man in a small hatchback car and taken to the office of the tour company where we boarded the van. This was as the tourist agency had arranged for us. The bus wound its way through the winding, hilly, narrow, cobblestone streets of Trabzon picking up people here and there and then headed out of the city…until it reached our hotel at 10:30am. Where we picked up a young couple (who we found out later were from Dubai).

That’s right, we could have simply waited at the hotel to be picked up for the half-day excursion, and saved us and the young man some time and gas.

The former Greek Orthodox monastery dedicated to the Virgin Mary is perched on the side of a mountain in what is now a national park. The road to the monastery is winding and steep. I told my wife, “See, we could have easily rented a car and done this ourselves.”

“Yeah, right.”

Judging by the number of cars with license plates that read “Touring and Automobile Club of the Islamic Republic of Iran” making their way up to the monastery, I’d say it was doable. There were many tourists from Iran making the trip to the monastery.

The toddler in the front row of the van puked once on the ride up to the monastery and once on the way down from the monastery. The driver had to make an unexpected stop on the way up as the father of the puking toddler had to dump the plastic bag filled with puke into a garbage bin outside a small shop.

On the way up the mountain we stopped next to a waterfall where we took several pictures. Here’s Henry and me.

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From there we could just barely see the monastery way up on the mountain side.

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Then we stopped at a point that provides a good view of the monastery as it clings to the mountain side.

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The small parking lot for the monastery is a 300 meter hike from the monastery entrance. It’s a path that’s, thankfully, fenced and rises up and down several times and is overgrown with tree roots in some spots. The kids liked climbing those.

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The monastery is a wonder of beauty and engineering. The frescoes inside the chapel are in excellent condition. If you look closely you can see where the current frescoes were put on plaster placed over even older frescoes. This is one of those cases where I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.

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There are the usual gouged-eyes when the people came in and freaked out over all the eyes. So there plenty of eyeless apostles, saints, and whatnot. (You can never underestimate the power of human superstition, whether it’s the belief that depicting human eyes is evil or that vaccines cause autism.)

The kids did some goofing around.

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Stephanie posed with the enormous landscape behind her.

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When we had finished exploring the monastery we went to the gift shop. We bought ice cream for the kids and tea for myself. We sat at a table and enjoyed the view over-looking the valley below.

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Back at the hotel, when we asked the kids what their favorite part of the day was, both Henry and Meredith said eating ice cream at the monastery. Yes, ice cream. We take them to the Black Sea coast, show them the beautiful countryside, take them to one of the most unique monasteries in the world, and their favorite thing was ice cream.

Why are we dragging our children all over Turkey?

Trabzon Day 1: The Tour Without a Guide

This past week was Spring Break for our children. We had decided awhile back to use some of those days to visit Trabzon, on the Black Sea Coast.The landscape is very different from what you see in Istanbul. Trabzon is a much smaller city and it’s set right against the mountains that border the Black Sea.

We arrived in Trabzon on Monday afternoon. Our plan was to visit Sumela monastery on Tuesday and then do another tour of the area on Wednesday, leaving us with Thursday to explore the city of Trabzon. That’s what Stephanie arranged with the people at the front desk of our hotel, Novotel.

Tuesday morning we received a phone call confirming we were going to Uzungol. No, we’re going to Sumela. OK.

Then another call a little later saying we didn’t have to be down there at 10am. We would be picked up at 10:20am. OK.

When we got down to the reception area we were told that our tours were being flipped. We would go the monastery tomorrow but go to Uzungol today and that the van wouldn’t be coming until 10:30am.

I was thinking it was all very Turkish.

We got on the van with several couples: a young Turkish couple who sat in the front with the driver, then two couples with the women wearing niqabs, and one with a woman wearing a headscarf. I make note of this only because I could count on one hand the number of women (including my wife) who were not wearing niqabs or headscarves. For those of who who don’t know, niqabs cover every part of a women with the exception of the eyes and hands. It’s a popular form of Islamic dress in Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Arabian peninsula. In fact, there were a lot of women staying at our hotel wearing niqabs.

Our first stop on the tour was this knife shop. No explanation.

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I didn’t buy a knife. Then back in the van we went for a ride.

We stopped at the Ozcay Koop. We were given complimentary tea. It was good tea.

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Next to the entrance was this window filled with tour company labels.

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Just as I was finishing my tea it looked like a tour of the plant was commencing. So I finished my tea and the four of us joined the group on a tour of the tea-processing plant. It looks defunct. It probably is. I couldn’t tell you anything about the place because the tour was conducted in Turkish and Arabic.

This is apparently a very important part of the tea-making process.

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And this,

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Oh, and this, too.

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We boarded the bus after the incomprehensible tour and rode awhile where we stopped at a small bridge (Kiremit Bridge) to take pictures.

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Then we stopped at this nice lake to take some pictures.

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Then back on the bus to the tiny town of Uzungol. I have no idea why this town is important and has tour buses shuttling tourists to it every day. It’s not so much a town as a construction site.

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It’s set in the mountains with a small lake. After we got off the bus and headed to a restaurant to eat, Stephanie motioned to the young Turkish couple walking away from the group and said, “So much for our guide.” The young man had been the one who, after speaking with the driver, would tell everyone in English how many minutes we had at each stop.

“That’s not our guide,” I said.

“They’re not?”

“No. We don’t have a guide. He just speaks enough English to tell us when to get out and for how long.”

“You’re kidding.”

“No.”

We ate lunch at a restaurant outside next to the lake. This was our view. It’s a very pretty setting for a town.

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Afterwards we looked into renting bikes but the ones they had for the kids were too small and they didn’t have any tandem bikes. So we explored a little bit, finding a waterfall.

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Henry covered his ears when we took his picture because the waterfall was so “loud.” He’s a very silly kid.

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Meredith didn’t want her picture taken in front of the waterfall. But she did find a flower.

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When we returned to the hotel Stephanie called the Trabzon Tourist Agency, asking about a tour of Sumela. After talking for a few minutes we had a tour organized for the next day that would take us to the monastery and back. No extra stops, but no English-speaking guide. Why no guide? Because it’s the off-season and there aren’t any English-speaking guides around. Which explains why we did not have a guide for our tour.

I’m Blocked from Twitter, Like Everyone Else in Turkey

Thanks to Turkey’s Prime Minister Erdoğan (aka “The Little Dictator That Could”), millions of people in Turkey can no longer access Twitter. This includes me.

“The international community can say this, can say that. I don’t care at all. Everyone will see how powerful the Republic of Turkey is,” he [Erdoğan] said in a characteristically unyielding tone.

San Francisco-based Twitter said Thursday afternoon local time that it was looking into the matter and had not issued a formal statement. But the company did publish a tweet addressed to Turkish users instructing them on how to continue tweeting via SMS text message.

I don’t know how long this blocking will continue. I don’t have a VPN or access to a good proxy server (that I trust) at this point. WordPress automatically publishes a link to my blog posts on Twitter. So for now that’s the only way I can publish to Twitter. But it also means I still have no way to continue to follow many of the people on Twitter whom I read on a regular basis.

There are many great and wonderful things about Turkey. The pettiness and corruption of its current leader is not one of them.

Update: …and just like that…I’m back on Twitter courtesy of a very easy-to-use VPN. Bwahahahaha…

Where Is the Islamic Art Museum?

Our trip to Edirne this past weekend also included our attempts on Sunday to visit the Turkish and Islamic Art Museum. It’s supposed to be close to the Selimiye Mosque. We thought it would be very nice to see considering that the Islamic Art Museum in Istanbul is closed for renovations and there’s no sign that it’s going to re-open anytime soon.

After a late breakfast and a morning spent being lazy in our very nice hotel, we checked out, left our bags at the reception desk and headed into town. According to our map the museum was right behind the Selimiye Mosque. My wife and I asked Henry if he wanted to go inside, since he hadn’t wanted to take a look yesterday. He still said no.

We went to the other side of the mosque and saw no sign of the museum. I asked a man selling candy and he pointed in the direction of the mosque. So we walked in that direction. We did see a museum; the Edirne Museum. Stephanie went inside and asked the staff where the Turkish and Islamic Art museum was located. They said on the other side of Selimiye Mosque. We walked back to the other side and still couldn’t find it.

It’s possible we passed right by it. Or maybe it’s closed, or was moved. Who knows?

After our unsuccessful attempts at finding the museum we gave up and focused on seeing one of the other highlights of the town: the Health Museum. We hailed a taxi and the driver took us just outside the town to the front entrance to the museum. Then he offered to wait for us and take us back into town. I paid him the fair up to that point and told him we’d need about 40 minutes.

The museum is in the Complex of Sultan Beyazid II. There is a mosque next to the former hospital and medical school. It was notable as a place where those suffering not just from physical ailments but mental illness as well were treated using music and the medicines of the day for several hundred years, up until the early 20th Century.

As you can see the sky was overcast, giving everything a gray pallor.

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There was a model of the buildings in one of the rooms formerly used for out-patient services.

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The hospital building was shaped like a hexagon with a fountain in the center.

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On each side of the hexagon were the rooms. In one side was the place for the musicians to play.

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One room was for occupational therapy.

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Next to this room was the pharmacy.

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When we were done, we crossed the street to the snack stand and bought the kids some ice cream. After several minutes the taxi pulled up. I thanked the driver, and he drive us to our hotel, where we got our bags and headed to the bus station to return to Istanbul.

The Most Beautiful Mosque I’ve Yet Seen

We took an overnight trip to Edirne this past weekend, arriving Saturday afternoon and leaving Sunday afternoon. Edirne is in the Northwest of Turkey, on the border with Greece. It was once called Adrianople and was the capital of the Ottoman Empire before Constantinople fell to the Ottomans in 1453.

Edirne is a small city of 130,000 people. After being in Istanbul so long, it seemed like a very small town. We took a bus to get there from Istanbul. The trip there and back was filled with confusion, bewilderment, and frustration. I’m going to save the bus ordeals for a separate post to come later…maybe…

This post features the main reason we visited Edirne: the Selimiye Mosque designed by architect Mimar Sinan. It was completed in 1575 under the reign of Sultan Selim II.

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Our son Henry refused to go inside. He was cranky, much like his sister, and annoyed at the long walk from the Hotel. (We stayed at the Rys Hotel, a very nice, modern, sleek hotel with a friendly staff.) So my wife, our daughter Meredith, and I went inside while Henry waited outside with some snacks.

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It is by far the most beautiful mosque I have visited with rich colors and intricate designs featured in an enormous open area.

While admiring the mosque, my eye caught something.

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If you look closely in the center of the picture you can see a red Angry Birds balloon. Some child’s balloon floated away and was stuck on the railing.

We visited the nearby Bedesten market after that, looking but not buying anything. Before we headed back to the hotel, we visited the Old Mosque (built in 1414) next to the market.

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This older, smaller mosque has plenty of its own beauty in a very different style.

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I kind of felt sorry for the Old Mosque being in such close proximity to the Selimiye Mosque but not having quite as many charms. I suppose it’s not fair to compare any mosque to one as magnificent as Selimiye. Though Henry did consent to go inside the Old Mosque.

When the Protest Comes to Your Front Door

Yesterday there were demonstrations all over Istanbul in honor of 15 year-old Berkin Elvan. Berkin was a boy who was hit in the head with a teargas canister last June during the height of the Gezi protests, went into a coma that lasted over 250 days, and died the other morning. His funeral was yesterday.

There has been no investigation into his death.

The demonstrations were peaceful, like they always are, until the police came.

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The police here follow the motto of Mayor Richard the First of Chicago: “Gentlemen, get the thing straight once and for all– the policeman isn’t there to create disorder, the policeman is there to preserve disorder.”

This is looking north on Halaskargazi Caddessi in the early evening. My wife had exited that Metro stop (Osmanbey happens to be the stop closest to our apartment) shortly before the police swept in. You can see what she saw here.

Today’s Zaman and Hurriyet had hour-by-hour coverage. Hurriyet has a video on its page showing exactly how the police cleared the area by the Osmanbey stop at the corner of Ergenekon and Halaskargazi. They shot teargas canisters into stores and restaurants.

Things got noisy just before dusk. We saw people running down our street and heard several loud pops. People peered out of apartment windows and shouted, “Katil police! Hesap verecek!”

What do you do when the demonstrations are shoved to your front door courtesy of heavy-handed police tactics? You do what I did: you go out with your camera phone and take some video.

Sorry about the shakiness of the video. I hope no one gets motion sickness when they view it. The video gets blurry at the end as I start running after the teargas canister was shot.

From where I was standing the street angles up. So every time the police shot a teargas canister in the direction of our apartment, it would roll down. Here you can see a canister and then a guy picking it up and throwing it back. There were several guys (they were all guys as far as I could tell) who wore masks and would either kick the canister away or throw it back.

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Then one of those TOMAs, what I call a “police plow,” barged down the street with about a dozen riot police.

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Notice that the Onur grocery store was open the whole time. There’s also a taxi stand to the right on our side of the street. You can’t see it in the photos, but the taxis were coming and going most of the time.

The police plow pushed what had been part of a barricade, that had been set further up the street, down in front of our apartment.

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After I took the video and posted it on Youtube and then linked to it on my Facebook page, we got the kids ready for bed, and then I went back out to the street to take some pictures. Things had settled down. The police were no longer shooting water cannons or teargas at anyone. But there were fires and lots of debris all over the street. The barricades and fires are set up to keep the police from attacking at close range.

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These guys were pushing a car back against the curb. It had been angled out, almost perpendicular with the sidewalk. Once the car was back in place, people clapped.

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This is the fire that was in front of our apartment.

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I came inside to find my wife on a Skype call with my sister. Apparently, there was a family freakout about me being out there taking video. My mother and her friend had been staying with us and had left our apartment yesterday morning for Ankara. And so my sister and father were panicked. After reassuring my sister that I was alive and well and that everyone was safe, I went to bed.

In the morning, I took the kids down to wait for the school bus.The fire was gone.

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Once they were off to school, I took a few photos of the street this morning.

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Though there was some small debris, the streets were clear. Traffic moved as it normally does. People were heading to work. Even our garbage, which we leave outside our apartment door on a nightly basis, was picked up.

Without justice for Berkin and all the others killed since the Gezi protests started, what are people here to do?