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    August 21st, 2011adminHistory, Italy, Touristy Stuff

    Buildings on the Ponte Vecchio ("Old Bridge") - a medieval bridge that goes over the Arno River. This is the only original Florentine bridge to survive the bombings of WWII.

    The Ponte Vecchio shops were first installed under the edict of Cosimo de Medici. The famous Italian painter, architect and historian (a true “Renaissance man”) built the corridor.

    Interesting historical tidbit:

    “It is said that the economic concept of bankruptcy originated here: when a merchant could not pay his debts, the table on which he sold his wares (the ‘banco’) was physically broken (‘rotto’) by soldiers, and this practice was called “bancorotto” (broken table; possibly it can come from ‘banca rotta’ which means ‘broken bank’). Not having a table anymore, the merchant was not able to sell anything.”

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    I’m now back in Istanbul after a week in Italy. Today, I’m posting photos of Venetian masks, which is a new fascination of mine after this trip. They’re simply striking; I love the high theater and drama. And, while, the Venetian Carnival is in February, the masks are displayed and sold throughout the year.

    Walking the back streets of Venice, I came upon a dress and mask shop. I saw a woman hand-sewing a traditional Venetian baroque costume, all the work completed with a simple sewing  machine and her hands.

    Honestly, it was a relief. So many of the stores along the waterfront sold items that were ostensibly “Italian” or “Venetian.” But it didn’t take a brain-surgeon to guess otherwise. The material was cheap and obviously mass-produced. Half the stuff was probably imported from China or Bangladesh. In perhaps one of the most touristy places in the world (Old City Venice in August!), one would be a fool to not know they were being taken as a fool. So, to witness something so basic as a personal handicraft, completed on an old shop desk, on a forgotten side street, was really quite remarkable.

    I chatted with the store owner, too. The business was an old family-run operation, and he participated in Carnevale every year. He asked if I was religious, told me he was an atheist, and talked about psychological research conducted by a professor at my former alma mater. Then, pulling out his computer files, he showed me his recent photos — there he was, decked in fine white silk, and his son — like a baby baroque charmer — and an older Dutch woman, who has participated in the Venetian Carnival for over 20 years, and even an old gay couple, with one man in female costume.

    I bought a handmade, paper-mache bauta (full-face mask.) It was a rare character, explained the shop girl (who was religious) — someone who is always getting involved in everyone else’s business. “Oh, a gossip!” I exclaimed. She continued, “One of the main characters in the Commedia dell’arte is Harlequin,” motioning at the Harlequin masks. “How about women?” I asked. “Oh, there is Colombina,” she said, “who is smarter than Harlequin.” My mask is now sitting on my bookshelf; it has a long-nose, beautiful sea-blue paint and a traditional Venetian floral design on a paper surface.

    When I’m traveling, I like to talk to everyone, from dapper cafe dwellers to bored plumbers. There’s a pleasure in being an “outsider,” and as a result, not even noticing (or at least fully participating in) the class distinctions. Similarly, Carnevale was developed with the same spirit; the masks rid of traditional social distinctions. You cannot see who is who. So, in theory, everyone can rejoice freely. And, yet, how true was this? Did common servants walk in lavish costumes, exquisite jewelry and finely-painted masks? I would think not.

    The same holds for today. A poor kid, trying to make ends meet, will not fly to Venice, purchase magnificent historical costume, and have the financial means to forgot himself in a week of high-end drunken splendor. Sorry, Venice. Just wouldn’t happen.

    Venice has become a holiday destination for the idle rich, who purchase sinking architectural masterpieces along the Grand Canal. It has become a playground for who? Maybe Russian oligarchs or Euro socialites. Maybe American billionaires or bored heiresses. I don’t quite know who. But I certainly do know that this beautiful city — once the home of Marco Polo, Bellini, Titian and Casanova — is now a home to a very select few: the long-standing locals and the rich.

    And, combined with the hordes of tourists, Venice can also be a nasty thing. I was reading quotes on Venice, and came upon some funny ones.  Henry James on Venice: “Though there are some disagreeable things in Venice there is nothing so disagreeable as the visitors.” And, Truman Capote: “Venice is like eating an entire box of chocolate liqueurs in one go.”

    But, ah, I’m veering! I’m supposed to be writing about the MASKS. And I do genuinely find them gorgeous.

    I learned that the Commedia dell’ arte, which is the origin of many Venetian masks, has ancient roots, going back to Greek theater and Etruscan festivals. This tradition was carried on to the Roman Empire, though the first record of such performances was in 16th century Rome. The performances were earthy affairs, played on the streets and in public venues, by traveling actors. And, unlike other European theater of the time, female characters were played by actual women — imagine that! In fact, Ben Jonson supposedly referred to one female player as a “tumbling whore.” Fantastic.

    I especially love the characters. They are full of humor and real life relevance. I can imagine people today, in my life (especially in Istanbul!), who could stand as examples of such characters. There’s the Zanni, the a-little-too-clever servant, with country roots and a wooden sword. There’s the Innamorati (“the lovers”), constantly and melodramatically in love. And, as the shop girl said, Colombina, the flirtatious, female intellect.

    In the next few days, I’ll post more photos from my Italian Week of Food, Wine and Beautiful Things. I visited Rome, Florence, Venice, Padova, Verona and Lake Garda. I remembered how much I loved Italian food. Like prosciutto with melon. And wine. And fresh mozzarella. I remembered pizza and pasta. I tried new foods for the first time, like tripe soup and horse meat! And I was charmed by a bevy of cafe baristas and shop owners and candy shop keepers. Thank you, Italy.

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    The village of Kastraki in Thessaly, Greece

    Beauty may be a subjective thing. Or it may be a silly thing. John Ruskin wrote that beauty exists in the most “useless things, peacocks and lilies, for instance.” I have read that beauty aligns with organic symmetry; there is geometry to flowers in bloom. I have also been told the opposite …that beauty is human vanity — our fear of natural disorder — a cowardly attempt to organize and, thereby, dominate nature. And some people measure beauty: symmetrical features, well-proportioned women, or a mathematical balance of shape and color. But I could never define it, and I doubt I ever will.

    The Holy Monastery of Varlaam, built in 1541

    Beauty, when I truly encounter it, is overwhelming. Like Meteora.

    But what is “true” beauty? I doubt there is such a thing. When I walk in certain American neighborhood, I know that they are not “beautiful” — they are ugly, charmless and common. But they strike me as beautiful, perhaps due to my memories. Or, sometimes, a man tells me that he finds a woman beautiful — and she leaves me cold (I don’t understand the appeal) — and, other times, I’m drawn to a painting or a song deemed uninspiring by another. So, maybe I should clarify the beauty of Meteora.

    Climbers almost at the top...

    The place felt unreal — like out of a landscape painting by Cézanne. We looked down upon lush meadows, absolute verdure. The land was mostly quiet, except for a quiet Greek village, Kastraki, where women cooked moussaka and pinned old skirts on clotheslines and sheeps and dogs frolicked in the open air. And, within that world, massive rock formations jutted out of the ground — these surreal, science-fiction like mountains, which once rested underwater until tectonic shifts brought them above ground. Now, they stand in the central Greek region of Thessaly, like some haunted grey palace on Mars.

    And, in this world — isolated & sublime — there was a spiritual human story. Beginning in the 9th century, ascetic monks began moving to this area. They lived in the hollows of the rock towers.

    Holy Monastery of Great Meteoron -- built in the 14th century, restored & embellished in the 15th and 16th centuries

    By the 11th century, an ascetic community had developed in Meteora. The first monastery was established, which still stands today. In the mid-14th century, a monk from Mount Athos (known as the “center of Eastern Monasticism”), Athanasios Koinovitis, brought a community of followers to Meteora. As a result, a new monastery was established.

    Close-up of section of Holy Monastery of Great Meteoron (the largest Meteora monastery today).

    The Meteora mountains are located in the Thessaly region of Greece. This area was constantly invaded by great powers, including the Romans, Byzantines and Bulgarians ( …during the medieval period, the Bulgarians did all right for themselves, okay?).

    And, centuries later, it was the Ottomans. By the 13th century, the Ottomans had advanced into the Balkans, conquering Serbia and Kosovo. They pillaged Thessaly in 1309. Then, following the victory over Constantinople (1453), the Ottomans captured Athens (1458) and, by 1500, successfully seized most of the Greek mainland. Though the battle over some islands (particularly, Crete) was a longer struggle, Greece was essentially taken by the Ottomans, and a new period in Greek history thus began.

    It was at this time — during and after Ottoman invasions — that monks ran up to their rock fortifications of Meteora.

    So, how did these monks get up to those monasteries? The answer is less obvious than expected. After climbing into the mountain region of Meteora, the monks would be hoisted up to the monasteries by roped nets, as seen in the image above.

    The crank

    Once a visitor asked the monks how often they replaced the nets. They simply replied that God tells them — in other words, when the net breaks (!). The nets were supported by a large crank, which slowly pulled up the precariously supported monks.

    Stairs were not constructed until the 1920s.

    An old style (i.e. medieval) kitchen in the Holy Monastery of Grand Meteoron.

    To return back to my meandering thoughts on beauty ….Meteora was so radiant — such a bewitching, distinct moment in my trip, which I still remember so clearly — that I’ll post photos in the next few days, including those showing the interiors of the monasteries, scenes of holy virtue and utter damnation, and a Greek monk picking persimmons from a tree… But, for now, I need to go to bed.

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    What is the story behind these Hebrew scripture tablets? Unsurprisingly, there was no information to be found, though they were placed right next to the Roman rotunda.

    In Thessaloniki, I stayed by the old Roman Rotunda — an imposing, cylindrical structure, commissioned by the Roman Emperor, Galerius. Like so many buildings in this region, the rotunda changed as did the times. With the rise of Christian Byzantium, the rotunda was converted into a Christian Church by Emperor Constantine. Lavish mosaics, all overlooking a circular sky, graced the church, which stood until the Ottoman siege. In the 16th century, the Ottomans added a minaret and refashioned the old rotunda into a mosque — the Mosque of Suleyman Hortaji Effendi.

    Pathway outside the rotunda

    And this is how the building stood until the Greeks recaptured the rotunda in the Balkan Wars. Interestingly, while it was re-christened into a church, the minaret was not destroyed. Today, it is a museum and historical monument. Some in the Greek Orthodox community want to reclaim it back as a church world, but it remains a museum for all visitors today.

    The destructed stones seem to represent more than just geological elements in waste...

    Oddly enough, when I was walking around the rotunda, I found destructed stones with Hebrew script. I wondered: Was there once a Jewish synagogue here? Unfortunately, there was no way to tell. The “helpful” tourist brochures, which detailed the Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman elements of the rotunda, failed to mention the massive Hebraic slabs in the rotunda garden.

    The exterior of the rotunda, including the ubiquitous Greek graffiti.

    So, I took photos, confusedly tried to make out an idea in my mind (as to what they were for, as to who used them and looked at them), and moved on. It is moments like these that make European Jewish history particularly difficult to swallow — when one last vestige in a city like Thessaloniki, once *so* very Jewish, is not even mentioned. It’s like it was never there at all…

    I tried to think of a caption for this image. But, as I thought, I realized that the image says enough.

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    November 28th, 2010adminByzantines, Greece, History, Roman Empire

    Thessaloniki's White Tower

    For many years, Thessaloniki’s White Tower was a place of horrors — a building known for torture and executions, where soldiers and civilians alike were massacred, all while overlooking the seaside city. Yet, this Ottoman tower now represents a different Thessaloniki — the espresso-sipping, well-heeled Thessaloniki. Of course, the tower was the first image I saw online when researching Thessaloniki. And it was the iconic building plastered over guidebooks and flyers for city tours. But its history remains more dark than glossy promotions would lead one to  believe…

    Day One: Obligatory gyros stop

    So, I spent a total of about 3 days in Thessaloniki (2.5 days first round, then 1/2 a day on the second round). While the city was not as bustling as Athens, and perhaps the nightlife was a bit more quiet than expected, it was a lovely place. I felt calm there — maybe because we were always close to water, and beautiful Byzantine buildings, and the people were hospitable in a gracious, but more cool way.

    The illegal workers of Greece, many from the Middle East and Nigeria, selling everything from Nike shoes to umbrellas on the street.

    Anyway, Thessaloniki is located in historical Macedonia, a name with obvious associations. Yes, the land of Alexander the Great! In fact, the city was named after the half-sister of Alexander, the Princess Thessalonike (who married King Cassander of Macedon, the founder of the city). Very interesting, no?

    Arch commissioned by Roman Emperor Galerius in the 4th century

    Well, the city remained an autonomous part of Macedon for some time. But then it fell to the Romans — and, eventually, was incorporated into the Byzantine Empire. It was such an important city to the Byzantines that it was sometimes called “co-capital.” And, as a visiting tourist, I most certainly saw vestiges of its Byzantine past. Nearly everywhere I went, I felt I saw some old, dark monastic-looking building that was probably Byzantine. As a resident of Istanbul, it’s always fascinating to see Byzantine and Ottoman elements in a different city. So, Thessaloniki was a nice get-away — both familiar and, of course, very different.

    Archaeological dig in the city center -- something I imagine to be a common event

    In the next few days, I’ll post more photos, historical tidbits and observations from my time in Greece. But, for now, I’m off to a Thanksgiving meal with American expatriate friends who badly desire some turkey and stuffing in Constantinople.

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    November 14th, 2010adminArt, Byzantines, Gypsies, History, Ottomans

    Last month, I visited the gorgeous Chora Monastery, nestled in the Edirnekapi district of Fatih. The walk to the monastery was very interesting: We got off MetroBus, followed the old Byzantine wall — and, sadly enough, passed a former gypsy neighborhood (it was recently evacuated by the city government to further sanitize the district).

    An expression somewhere between stern and empathetic.

    Shortly after, we reached the monastery — and, upon entrance, I was immediately struck by its beauty: Byzantine Jesus and Mary, gold-encrusted and imperial, the saints, maybe the apostles — things big and important, in some fashion or another. And everything with an air of untouchable time.

    I don’t quite how to articulate this feeling …but there was a sense of hallowed distance …things were farther away than they seemed.

    A struggle of the highest order.

    For two years now, I’ve wanted to visit the monastery. From a historical perspective, it’s undeniably appealing. In fact, the monastery was located outside the walls of Constantinople — yes, outside. For that reason, it was called “Church of the Holy Saviour in the Country.”

    The worst part of experiencing history, nowadays, is that you rarely do it alone. Tourists are unavoidable -- and, sometimes, I'm one of them too.

    Originally built in the 5th century, the old monastery stood outside the walls of Constantine the Great. However, when Theodosius built land walls, the monastery then became incorporated within city walls. But the name remained.

    For centuries, the monastery wasn’t really a big deal. But, in the 12th century, an earthquake destroyed much of the monastery — it partially collapsed. As a result, it needed to be rebuilt. There were two phases of this restoration — in the 12th and 14th century. And it was the second phase, in the early 14th century, that brought the beautiful frescoes and mosaics to full bloom.

    The monastery displays, arguably, some of the best preserved Byzantine mosaics in Istanbul. In particular, the style is known as “Palaeologian Renaissance,” named after the emperor Andronicus III Palaeologus. Interestingly, the emperor exiled Theodore — that is, until he returned to Constantinople two years later and lived his remaining years as a monk in Chora Monastery.

    In 1453, the Ottomans sacked Constantinople. During their last siege, the icon and protector of Constantinople (usually housed in the Haghia Sophia), was brought to Chora Monastery. Alas, however, the monastery was converted to a mosque fifty years later. Because Islam prohibited iconic imagery, the monastery’s icons were covered by a layer of plaster.

    Today, the monastery is a museum.

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    October 19th, 2010adminHistory

    Yedikule Fortress, Istanbul: History without placards or museum-ready glossiness.

    My friend sent me an email in response to yesterday’s entry:

    I have read your latest blog entry and quite frankly, I agree with you. History is so sanitized and commoditized in America that it often doesn’t even feel real here. Of course, the Turks do have an advantage since Istanbul is thousands of years old but it still does not excuse how America treats its own history. You’re definitely right when you mention how in Istanbul, you don’t even have to go to a museum to see history. In America, you often don’t even have a choice since the whole surroundings have often completely changed due to new development and etc. I live in a 1920s Art Deco apartment but with the exception of San Francisco (which often has a strong incentive to keep its historical buildings for tourist reasons) and a few other cities, most American cities do not even bother to preserve their history; even though San Francisco preserves its buildings, I can’t help but be disappointed by the reason why the people want to preserve the buildings, it is mostly for monetary reasons since 10% of San Francisco’s GDP comes from tourism. I mean just take a look at McMansions in Beverly Hills.

    The former home of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, now a museum. He moved into the home after returning from the Syrian Front and lived there until 1919.

    Of course, history is not perfectly preserved in Istanbul by any measure. In Osmanbey, you can visit the Ataturk Museum, which is actually right around the corner from one of my closest friends here — so, maybe I’ll give a report on the museum soon!

    But, anyway, the museum is, basically, a house — a beautiful, 3-story home where Ataturk resided from 1908 to 1919. And what’s around this absolutely charming building, which was surely once also surrounded by other absolutely charming  buildings? Well, not much. There are high rise apartment buildings, greasy cafeterias, even a burger joint (Kristal), recommended to me by a man I met in the Plovdiv bus station. And there are definitely some preserved buildings, eighty years or older. But many buildings in this district are emotionally gray: post-WWII, boxy and cold. So, is this area now beautiful? Do the streets seep with nostalgia of a bygone era — a time of genteel gentlemen and fin de siècle culture? I would think  not.

    History isn’t perfect anywhere. But, nevertheless, America does an especially bad job of remembering it.

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    October 18th, 2010adminCrafts, Folk Culture, Gypsies, History, Imagination, Istanbul

    A photo taken, near my friend's flat, in the slum district of Tarlabaşı -- a mixed neighborhood, including families, petty thieves, prostitutes, small businessmen, Kurds, expatriates and an assortment of Turks.

    As I’ve written in the past, history is plainly different here. In America, I fantasized about the rollicking saloon past of San Francisco and Portland. I wondered what New York City and Washington D.C. looked like 200 years ago. I imagined the old factories of Chicago, the blues joints and robust German immigrants and newly arrived Greeks and Irishmen. But did I feel the history? Could I really conjure it? No.

    In the United States, economic progress was so fast — and so great — that cities barely resemble their past, barely have remnants of even 150 years beforehand.

    Drying clothes in Tarlabaşı in the last days of summer.

    In Istanbul, I sense history. I don’t “feel” it completely — so much has been expanded or redeveloped. But history is also very much alive. Because it never completely went away.

    A man, hand-sewing blankets, in his shop, which overlooks hip art galleries, featuring political art work. The juxtaposition can be fascinating or, if you see it every day, totally average.

    For example, I live in Mecidiyekoy, a very modern district. My bedroom window overlooks the new Trump Towers, glossy and boastful elements of the modern age. But what’s directly below the towers?  Burnt, charred homes, with cardboard roofs, occupied by gypsy families, living (more or less) like they did a century ago. I pass some of the gypsy families every day. They smoke cigarettes, play cards, and keep an assortment of animals — chickens, roosters, dogs, cats. They are a part of the neighborhood — just as much as the corner store, mosque or police station.

    Of course, there is a huge textile industry in Istanbul and most people here just use factory-made, mass-produced items. But these shops exist, too -- and that's important.

    And this is not tokenized history.

    When I visited friends in New York City, I saw advertisements for a museum (and tour) of former 19th century tenement life — interesting but also long gone. Also, if you’re visiting the Western states, the Lonely Planet guides like to recommend former brothels and other former venues of licentious activity. But how silly, right? How strange. The unruly, anarchic and passion-filled past is made into common tour. You’re left to wonder.

    Perhaps if I lived in Appalachia, I would feel differently — maybe history would be more ever-present. But, in urbanized America, history seems so hyper-branded.

    Of course, there is historical tourism here. And waiters wear gimmicky Ottoman clothing, at times, mimicking a time that is long gone.

    But there is also a tremendous sense of cultural and historical preservation. In Istanbul, history is a continual thing — something that extends so far back, and still seems so ever present, that the crumbling buildings and old folk songs seem relevant — somewhere between historical and contemporary.  And, as a history nerd, I can’t help but feel enchanted by the intermingling of past and present here.

    A watermelon cart in Cihangir, a yuppie/bohemian district bordering the Taksim area. I also took this picture walking home from a friend's flat. In Istanbul, you don't need to look for photo moments -- they're constant.

    Here's Cihangir -- modern, pastel and safe. Contrast Cihangir with Tarlabaşı...

    I know I have written multiple times on the old/new element of life here. But I’m honestly not tired of it yet! Perhaps it’s my favorite part of Istanbul. So in this blog, I’ll come back to it, again and again …just like my daily life …walking up and down streets and passing faces and doorways that could be 20 years old, or 200 years old — as if it even matters at all.

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    A mountaintop view from Plovdiv. Originally used as an ancient fortress by many great empires, this area is now a popular drinking spot for teenagers, sort of like an all-inclusive partying and "make-out point" spot, from my observations.

    I’ve been informed that this blog was mentioned in Sofia Weekly, which is great news (thanks!). And some Bulgarian readers have happened upon this blog, leaving emails and comments. I really appreciate the interest. In fact, I truly enjoyed my trip to Bulgaria, so I’m including one last photo-based entry before returning to my Istanbul blogging. You’ll find photos — both historical and mundane — from Sofia and Plovdiv. Enjoy!

    And here are the teenagers, sitting amidst their graffiti. I was interested in the lone boy by the tree. What was he thinking about? Girls? Life? Did he find humanity disgusting? Maybe.

    A run-down home by the old mountaintop fortress. There was a car parked infront -- which makes me wonder, who is inside?

    The Plovdiv Ethnographic Museum in the 1847 Kuyumdzhioglu House.

    Kebabs in a Sofia restaurant. The food was very good and very cheap. The waitresses all wore traditional Bulgarian clothing -- but, beneath the wonderful outfits, they looked tired, bored and jaded. I guess you see that in restaurants everywhere...

    Fish on ice at the same restaurant. When I was a vegetarian traveler (years ago!), this is what I was missing. But, even if I was a vegetarian today, I think I would loosen up when traveling.

    Oversized cowbells at the same restaurant. The cowbells are hand-made. So, no one bell is exactly alike. And, because each is shaped differently, each bell has its own distinct noise.

    My adorable teenage tour guides in Plovdiv. I was lost, trying to find the Roman Odeon, and they gladly helped me. They filled me in on Bulgarian girls, too! According to these fine male specimens, Bulgarian women are very beautiful but very difficult. Well, now I know! Thanks, dudes!

    Night life in Plovdiv on the main commercial boulevard. The photo came out strangely, but I like it this way -- lends the whole experience a ghostly air.

    A less than inviting entrance in Sofia.

    A sex shop advertised on a Sofia street sign pole -- in other words, on city property! How did this get approved? How the hell is this normal? Okay, I'm from San Francisco, home to the largest leather festival in the world and all forms of debauchery. But do I think there should be an advertisement for "Rock Hard" or "Good Vibrations," both local sex shops, on my street sign? Hell no! Very, very strange.

    Old Town Plovdiv: Completely charming -- and relatively free of tourists! I walked on most streets completely alone, only accompanied by the occasional street cat. Perfect.

    Daily life in "Old Town." I always wonder how people, who live in the "historic area" of a city, feel about the whole thing. Do they appreciate it? I grew up in the historic area of San Francisco -- and I didn't appreciate it until I grew older and left home.

    Some more daily life -- fascinating and mundane simultaneously.

    I met these really cool guys in Plovdiv (from London) who, coincidentally, had the exact same heritage: Fathers from Ghana, mothers from Bulgaria, and a childhood in London with a lot of fantastic Cockney humor. They met as children, when spending summers in Plovdiv with their families. Anyway, they asked me to go get these special Bulgarian pancakes with them, which I expected to be an exotic discovery. When the food came, I exclaimed, "Oh, they're blintzes!" They asked, "What's blintzes." I said, "Basically, they're this."

    Okay, I know this *just* looks like a peach and espresso. But let me just say that this was maybe the best peach I ever ate in my life. It was purchased at a small farmer's market in Plovdiv ....so good. The espresso was from a bohemian-type cafe with a buxom, curly-haired lady behind the bar (yay!).

    I just loved this -- whatever it was ...an entrance to a cafe, restaurant or hotel ...I don't know. The photo was taken in Old Town Plovdiv.

    A more full shot of Plovdiv's impressive Roman Theater. I wonder what bawdy humor, fantastic tales and epic tragedies graced this stage. Really, I never get sick of Roman or Greek theaters.

    A shot through the columns.

    There was so much beauty in this shot -- the columns, the house and all the green. In fact, a Bulgarian TV show took place in this very spot (in that very house), and the opening credits featured an image similar to this one.

    A Sofia doorway.

    I took this picture in Sofia with no knowledge of its content. I was simply drawn to the image. But, on the bus from Plovdiv, I asked about the posting. Well, it's a death notice. Rest in Peace, whoever this woman was or may have been...

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    Socialist architecture in Plovdiv. Even years after the fall of the Soviet Union, many are still struck by such buildings' uniformity, ugliness ...and how political architecture can be.

    Unfortunately, I’ve been quite busy since returning to Istanbul. So, regular blogging has proven difficult. But Plovdiv genuinely struck me as a beautiful and interesting place. So, I’ll conclude my Bulgarian blogging saga with some impressions on the city.

    Bulgarian gypsies waiting for Muslim worshipers to leave the mosque after prayer time (side note: This was the first mosque to be established by the Ottomans in Bulgaria). Indeed, after people began walking down the stairs, they were hounded like Hollywood celebrities, bombarded with calls for money, pity and charity. The older lady also violently pushed around her daughter (or, who I assume to be her daughter) for inexplicable reasons. All in all, a very sad and pathetic situation.

    When I began researching Bulgaria, I came across pictures from a town called Plovdiv. To be honest, I only really know of Sofia. But Plovdiv looked serene & special — particularly due to its Roman ruins. And, after realizing that Plovdiv was on the way back to Istanbul from Sofia, it was a “must.”

    My Plovdiv adventure began with a situation commonly known by veteran travelers: The bus let me off on the side of the road — a nondescript, empty highway, that could have been in Hungary or Germany or anywhere. I wasn’t even quite sure that I was in Plovdiv! But, yet again, my shaky Spanish saved the day and a Spanish-Bulgarian tourist pointed in the direction of “Old Town,” where my hostel was located.

    So, that’s how it began.

    The magnificent Roman theater with PRESERVED STATUES -- a more rare sight! I love how classical civilization -- both Roman and Greek -- emphasized height, so as to be closer to the gods. There's such lasting beauty in mountaintop spaces...

    Now, onto some history:

    THE GREEKS

    Like Istanbul, Plovdiv is located in historical Thrace. So, as I took the bus across the Bulgarian-Turkish border, I thought about the massive cultural differences encountered today between the two nations. Perhaps, in ancient times, there were greater cultural meetings points in the region inhabited by Spartacus and mythical Orpheus.

    Interestingly, the city was conquered by Philip II of Macedon, the father of Alexander the Great. He renamed the city Philippopolis or “the city of Philip.”

    A contemporary (not ancient) statue commemorating Philip of Macedon in the central plaza of Plovdiv. However, below the statue, there rests the ancient seats of an old theater.

    The city was later reconquered by the Thracians.

    THE ROMANS

    But their independence was not eternal. Rather, Plovdiv was incorporated into the Roman Empire, becoming an official Roman city in the first century. From then on, it was known as Trimontium (“three hills”) — yes, it has three hills.

    The Balkan Roman road, the Via Militaris, passed through Plovdiv.

    The Assyrian satirist and mathematical, Lucian, called Plovdiv “the largest and most beautiful of all cities.”

    By all accounts, it was a vibrant, dynamic city, boasting the cultural bounty of Roman life. Unfortunately, only a small portion of classical Plovdiv has been excavated. It will be interesting to see what archaeologists uncover in the Balkan region in years to come…

    Yup, that's me.

    After the Western Roman Empire fell, Plovdiv became a part of the Byzantine (or “Eastern Roman Empire”). At one point, the city was even ruled by a eunuch emperor Peter I of Bulgaria.

    THE OTTOMANS

    Medieval Plovdiv, now known as "Old Town," housed many of Bulgaria's intellectuals, poets and bohemians in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

    Okay, fast forward: After a lot of power struggles between the Byzantine Empire and the Latin Empire, Bulgaria was lost to a different power — a new threat from the east: the Ottoman Empire.

    Bulgaria was under Ottoman rule for 500 years. Plovdiv was pronounced capital of Eastern Rumelia (until the Ottomans captured Sofia) — and, in this time, the Ottomans constructed a beautiful, spacious mosque in the city center.

    However, Plovdiv also became a focal point for resistance against the Ottoman Empire, including a revival of Christian and Bulgarian traditions.

    In 1878, the city was liberated from the Ottomans during the Battle of Philippopolis.

    Today, the city is named Plovdiv, which comes fro Pulpudeva — as Wikipedia explains, “assumed to be a translation of Philippopolis, from Pulpu = Philippou and deva = city), which was rendered by the Slavs first as Pəldin (Пълдин) or Pləvdin.”

    Today, many ethnic Turks live in Bulgaria, especially in Plovdiv. There are also many refugees from the 1990s Balkans wars who live in smaller towns.

    THE SOVIETS

    I asked my Bulgarian friend, “Are there remaining communists or socialists in Bulgaria?” She said, “Oh, yes — the little old grannies who talk about how everything used to be better. They say that people have nothing now, that in socialist times, at least they had something. They go to meetings sometimes and talk about these things. But it is just the grannies.”

    While I was staying in the hostel, one of my roommates told me, “You need to check out this restaurant — Diana. The place is crazy! The food is good. And the best part is that, when I asked to go the bathroom, I began walking down this long hallway. It just kept on going and was very strange. It led me to the back area, and there was the bathroom. But something seemed off, like it used to be a bunker or something. So I checked around and talked to a woman. She said, ‘Oh yes, I worked in that bunker during the war. But we don’t talk about it now.’ Isn’t that incredible?”

    So, of course, I went! As expected, the food was good. And here are pictures of the food and the bunker bathroom!

    Appetizer: Potatoes with bacon bits

    Chicken and pork and lots of vegetables! So good! By the way, this was the SMALL PORTION.

    The entrance from the bunker back into the restaurant...

    More bunker action

    Those doors look pretty impenetrable, huh?

    We've reached the end: The Ladies Room!

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