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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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    It’s been a long time since I properly updated this blog. Honestly, I have been busy (in a good way). But it’s high time I resumed things… So, here it is goes:

    Okay, I hate looking like a “tourist.” I don’t want to carry five cameras and wear white bermuda pants. I don’t want to follow the “beaten path,” eat at every Lonely Planet recommendation and then happily tread home. I love the serendipity and adventure of attempting to live like a local… But, alas, this entry is about being the ultimate tourist — or, in other words, that whenever I enter the Hagia Sophia, I feel like I am back in Istanbul in 2009 (the first time I visited) — totally struck with awe and wonder — bewildered by the history and beauty and blood — that, perhaps, the Hagia Sophia makes everyone (even Istanbul natives) a bit of a tourist — it represents a history that is long gone, a shadow but not forgotten — and this leaves us all in a state of quiet observation…

    The history is mesmerizing, yet tragic. First constructed in the 4th century, the Hagia Sophia was originally built as a wooden-roofed basilica. First under the rule of Constantine II and then Theodosius II (who caused a lot of theological problems by meeting with Nestorius in Syria!), the basilica stood until the Nika Revolt in 532. Nearly half the city was destroyed in the revolt, and the basilica was burned. And what were the riots about? Well, chariot racing factions (in the Byzantine days) more closely resembled 1920s mafia famiglias than one would imagine. Basically, the Greens and Blues (two racing teams) were embroiled in an internal dispute over murders, which spilled out into the city — like football hooliganism and mafia rivalry, all taking place in the Byzantine Hippodrome — then, the Senate took advantage of the opportunity to demand changes in taxation and other political elements — Ultimately, the basilica was burned, with only some marble blocks surviving until the present (which can still be viewed today).

    I was fascinated to learn that the riot was, in large part, quelled by a EUNUCH named Narses. He stepped right into the anarchic Hippodrome, diplomatically tried to reason with the masses …and then Justinian’s troops came in and, basically, made a bigger blood bath of the situation… By the end, it is estimated that 30,000 people were killed…

    For many reasons, Justinian was an unprecedented leader …within days of the revolt, he commissioned the reconstruction of the basilica. But, this time, it would be grander than anything ever seen before…

    In truly imperial style, Justinian demanded the finest of materials. These included columns from Temple of Artemis in Ephesus, stones from the quarries of Egypt, green marble from Thessaly, yellow stone from Syria and black stone for the Bosporus region. The building itself was an architectural wonder — the brainchild of a physicist Isidoros of Miletus and mathematician Anthemios of Thrales.

    Before the Hagia Sophia, domes were supported by heavy columns. But the architects envisioned an ingenious way to create a “floating” dome — one supported by the structure itself, without the need for columns underneath, thereby giving the building a sense of heavenly weightlessness…

    I will include more photos and stories about the Hagia Sophia tomorrow. Today, I need to work and pack because, in two days, I’m visiting the United States! So, more to come…

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    February 20th, 2011adminIslam, Istanbul, Touristy Stuff

    Young German tourists and women in headscarves at Topkapi Palace.

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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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    September 17th, 2010adminBazaars & Markets, Bulgaria, Food, Touristy Stuff

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    September 15th, 2010adminBulgaria, Religion, Touristy Stuff

    The staggeringly picturesque Rila Monastery, nestled in the Rila Mountains of Bulgaria.

    Bulgaria is a land of secluded monasteries, amidst trees and atop mountains. There was a freshness to the country — a desire for pure, untainted air and water, where monastic monks worship in peace. Perhaps the best example of this is Rila Monastery, the country’s most famous monastery, in the gorgeous Rila Mountains  (2-3 hours from Sofia). Only one bus goes from Sofia metro terminal to the Rila Monastery daily, despite its popularity, which is probably a reflection on Bulgarian tourist infrastructure more than anything else.

    Passing through a mountain village on the way to the monastery.

    I went with two hostel friends. We missed the bus, which immediately pissed me off and made me think I had to spend an extra day in Sofia. However, the Brit knew some Czech — and, in a garbled Czech-Bulgarian conversation, convinced another bus driver to take us to Rila. In fact, he caught up with our missed bus and, as a result, we made it to Rila in one piece.

    Imagine living in this monastery. Imagine worshiping here. It seems that it would be easier to believe in God here than in Sofia.

    When I entered the monastery, I was immediately struck by its beauty — architectural and natural. There was a lot of brown. And white. And then, on the walls, ceilings and monastery interior, every inch of space was covered in biblical  imagery — heaven, hell, saints, Jesus, Mary, even God, with a paternal beard and knowing eyes.

    Well, I think it was God, anyway.

    And, then, you look up. It’s just mountains. And sky. One would think that this is where God lives, or Adam and Eve lives, or some holy entity, assuming one believed in any the Judeo-Christian figures at all.

    A group of nuns entered the monastery courtyard. Their somber, religious faces changed instantaneously. Their eyes grew big. They exclaimed things, quietly but with visible excitement, in their native language (I couldn’t decipher what it was).

    Orthodoxy kitsch abounded, as well. Booths sold fake iconography, all of which looked very Byzantine or Bulgarian Orthodox or gilded or special …but in an obviously fake and touristy way. The booths were popular, probably because they were cheap, too. And middle-aged European tourists, many of them Bulgarians from other towns, peered at the wares and made purchase decisions.

    The great thing about beautiful holy sites is that you don't have to follow the religion to recognize the beauty. You can just understand the appeal, from a purely human perspective. Maybe that helps us gain insight into others' faiths.

    We weren’t allowed to photograph inside the monastery. But I’ll just say that the place was covered with frescoes from the famed 19th century Bulgarian artist, Zahari Zograf. It smelled of the burning candles. I was totally overwhelmed by the barrage of images, of smells and colors and saints, all intermingling in that dense space.

    The monastery was originally founded by the hermit, St. Ivan of Rila, originally a herder who became a priest at 25 years old. Interestingly, St. Ivan was a contemporary of Boris I, the tsar who officially made Bulgaria a Christian land. So, St. Ivan was on the “first wave,” one could say, of both Christianity and hermeticism in Bulgaria. Even revered as a saint in his own time (9th century), St. Ivan was known to have a special connection with animals — wild animals approached him and birds flew into his hand. Wishing to fully immerse himself in religious devotion, he left his monastic life for the mountains. There, in the Rila Mountains, he lived in total isolation (I think, in a cave, for 15 years or something). After his death, he became the patron saint of Bulgaria. The monastery was built in the location of his hermetic dwelling in the 10th century.

    The only surviving original tower (left) of the monastery.

    As I mentioned, I went to the the monastery with two hostel buddies — Lena, from Hamburg, and some British guy, who now lives in Australia (but lived in Prague beforehand). We shared a beautiful picnic, surrounded by greenery and mountains and water. We talked about the American book, “Three Cups of Tea,” which I have never read. But it really fascinated the British guy — a story of a man who, stranded in the Pakistani mountains after a botched rock-climbing adventure, finds life-saving hospitality and graciousness from village locals. As a result, he goes back to the USA, raises money, and then builds a school in that very same Pakistani town. He continues to follow suit in other towns across Pakistan. “I can’t find that book in Britain or Australia,” he complained. “But it’s very popular in the US, right?”

    Is this St. Ivan? God? I don't know...

    Mary, baby Jesus and a million other things...

    Before you enter the monastery, you pass through a doorway that is absolutely surrounded by grotesque images of hell. Yes, out of everything: HELL. They really drive home the idea of damnation with that design decision.

    The bus back was also amusing. I sat next to a jovial, fat French woman who kept on laughing and talking about how much she loved Turkey (she came via Turkey to Bulgaria), and how the Turks were so gracious, and she grew very excited when she found out I was from San Francisco. She called to a woman, sitting in the front, “The girl is from San Francisco!” in French and they all smiled at me with some excited sense of approval. The two were dropped off at a mountain-top hotel.

    Private residential quarters.

    I saw a few more secluded monasteries and churches in my time in Bulgaria. In Plovdiv, on a hilltop by the daily produce market, I found an old monastery of some sort: medieval-looking stone floor and a stern, black-bearded (priest? what do they call them in the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, anyway?), watering his plants and tending to his candles and other items. I don’t know why I tried. But, out of curiosity, I smiled at him. And he just looked at me, dead seriously for a second, and then turned away. Oh well. I just wanted to see how (and if!) he would interact with me. So, I passed by his plants, walked out the door, and genuinely felt admiration for his church’s architectural past, even if the greater interiors of its believers remain as mysterious as ever.

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    September 14th, 2010adminBulgaria, History, Religion, Touristy Stuff

    Alexander Nevsky Cathedral (Sofia, Bulgaria), named after the medieval prince who defended Rus from nasty German and Swedish invaders. He was also a clever politician who allied with a Mongol khan.

    My short visit to Bulgaria was very nice. I arrived knowing practically nothing about the country, save for a basic historical overview. And I’ve returned feeling like there’s a lot more than people give it credit for. “I really didn’t expect much from Bulgaria,” explained a touring Brit from my hostel. “Really, I thought it would be depressing post-Soviet grayness. But it’s quite lovely and, as a city, Sofia has nice, big, open spaces.”

    Though it may appear very old, even Byzantine, the Cathedral is rather new. Construction began in late 19th century. Regardless, it's still impressive.

    Of course, life wasn’t all roses, either. I saw that many people lived with very little. Jaded, chain-smoking transexual prostitutes loitered and lingered infront of my hostel. I was definitely cheated (at least by a small amount) at one restaurant. Some streets were dead empty, which was a creepy prospect at 3 am. And there was a huge population of utterly desperate gypsies, begging for change at any opportunity.

    But there were many points of interest, history and beauty. For five centuries, Bulgaria was under the yoke of the Ottoman Empire (in fact, one of the most famous Bulgarian books, titled “Under the Yoke,” depicts exactly this). As a result, the country is over 10% Muslim today — a population that includes ethnic Turks and converted Slavs. In Plovdiv (which I will describe in subsequent entries), there stands the oldest mosque in Bulgaria — the first built by the Ottomans. It’s grand, big and white inside. There is an official placard from the city of Istanbul, as well.

    But the majority of the country is Bulgarian Orthodox, their own distinct brand of Orthodoxy. I asked some teenagers, “Is Bulgaria religious?” They said, “No.” I then asked, “Are your families religious?” They smiled and said, “Oh, we go to church maybe twice a year.” Nevertheless, Bulgarians today seem to take great pride in their independence — both from Ottoman and Soviet control. Their official coinage, the lev, has a guy (I don’t know who!), holding a cross.

    The country has its own Bulgarian Orthodox Church, officially established when Tsar Boris adopted Christianity in the 9th century. The Tsar took special measures to make the religion Bulgarian, rather than Greek, in orientation. In  fact, he “expelled the Greek clergy from the country and ordered the replacing of the Greek language with the Slav-Bulgarian vernacular,” according to handy Wikipedia.

    "Oh, a grandfather," said my Bulgarian friend, who I met on the bus from Plovdiv to Istanbul. She smiled. "This," she said, is what many grandfathers in Bulgaria look like. Just like him."

    When I walked down the streets, I definitely felt the Eastern European culture. In the United States, I grew up in a neighborhood bordering a Chinese/Russian community. I grew familiar with the elderly Russian ladies on the bus, coated in heavy make-up and stiff hair, talking about life in Moscow, or their groceries, or their grandchildren. No doubt, Bulgaria is very different than Russia. But I felt the general Eastern European cultural element.

    Near the train station. Just a street. Nothing special, which, of course, makes it more interesting.

    There’s a lot more to say about Bulgaria — the people, the food, and the other city I visited, Plovdiv. But I’ll save those insights and photos for another day — tomorrow, maybe. For now, here’ s a few more photos of everyday streets…

    Street art in Sofia. I found these pieces in a neighborhood full of street art, artist's boutiques and little restaurants -- "artsy," I guess (well, kind-of). There were some aimless-looking dreadlocked dudes...

    CENTER -- Former Communist Party headquarters. Notice the Bulgarian flag on top? I have a sneaking suspicion that a massive Soviet symbol once stood on top. To the left, you can see the current parliamentary building. Behind it, there's an old Roman fortress.

    Just a pretty building.

    I was really drawn to this advertisement. It looked so outdated -- like something I would see in 1992. I wondered if it has actually BEEN there since, like, 1992. Or is the lady's power blazer and poofy hair undeniably hip in Bulgaria?

    But some parts were very nice...

    A disgusting-looking meat advertisement that, for some reason, brought a smile to my face. It's interesting when advertisements from another country do NOTHING for you. So, I think: Is the ad really bad? Or am I just from a really different culture?

    A final cathedral shot.

    I don’t think I have met anybody in the States who has gone to Bulgaria. Many expatriates in Turkey have made the trip. But it’s not so common for the average American college backpacker. Why is that? Why does everybody just go to France, Italy, Spain and Holland?

    Of course, many people go to Hungary and Croatia. Those are popular tourist destinations. But maybe there is an added level of interest and excitement in visiting a country “off the beaten path.”

    While Bulgaria was, in many ways, quiet and not very exciting, it was also a beautiful, green country with a unique history and culture. Not to mention, the food was damn good.

    So, expect more entries related to Bulgaria — including a visit to a beautiful monastery in the mountains — in the days to come!

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    August 19th, 2010adminByzantines, History, Istanbul, Ottomans, Touristy Stuff
    Yedikule Towers in Istanbul

    Yedikule Towers in Istanbul

    I’m fascinated by dungeons and prisons. When I visited the Torture Museum in Prague, I was appalled by the torture kitsch — real instruments of medieval torture refashioned into a tourist experience! But I was also captivated. I remember it all: the spears for impalement, the horrific bull, first developed in Greece, and the contraptions to humiliate loose and disloyal women.

    Recently, my friend, Baris, took me to Yedikule Fortress. Like me, he’s a history buff and, when we first met, we talked about the Ottoman sacking of Constantinople in 1453. So, he was a perfect companion to visit Yedikule Fortress, also called “The Fortress of Seven Towers” in Ottoman times.

    Tower Detail

    Tower Detail, probably Ottoman rather than Byzantine due to the curved structure.

    But, before it was Ottoman, it was Byzantine. Like many buildings in Istanbul (most famously, the Haghia Sophia), this fortress had two lives — first under the Byzantines, then under the Ottomans.

    Originally, it was known as the “Golden Gate,” constructed in the 5th century by the Byzantine emperors, Theodosius I and Theodosius II. This gate connected the famed Roman road of Europe to Constantinople. Flanked by four towers, the gate served as the official ceremonial entrance into the city for the emperor. On rare occasions, papal delegates were allowed entrance. But it was meant for the emperor.  To be honest, I didn’t take any pictures of the “Golden Gate” because I wasn’t even sure if I knew which gate was the “Golden” one. It was so unceremonial, so deteriorated and past its prime, that I just looked and wondered. I thought, Who went through those gates? Who cheered for the emperors? There’s always a strange sense of nostalgia (for a place I have never been to and a time I will never truly know) when I encounter ruins.

    Maybe I’ll take pictures of the gate next time.

    When the Ottomans sacked Constantinople, Mehmet the Conqueror added three more towers. The fortress was thus expanded to include a treasury and prison. This dungeon housed many important people. Most famously, it housed the Ottoman sultan, Osman II. After trying to reorganize the janissaries, Osman II was imprisoned and strangled by his elite soldiers in 1622.

    I found this very interesting — yet very gruesome — description of events on Wikipedia:

    Probably the first Sultan to identify and attempt to tackle the Janissaries as a praetorian institution doing more harm than good to the modern empire, Osman II closed their coffee shops (the gathering points for conspiracies against the throne) and started planning to create a new, loyal and ethnic Turkic army consisting of Anatolian, Mesopotamian and Egyptian Turks and Turkmens. The result was a palace uprising by the janissaries, who promptly imprisoned the young sultan. When an executioner was sent to strangle him at Yedikule, Istanbul, Osman II refused to give in and started fighting the man and was only subdued when he was hit on his back with the rear end of an axe by one of his imprisoners. After that he was strangled with a bowstring.


    Looking down at Istanbul from the fortress. I wondered what the city looked like 1500 years ago, when it was first constructed ...or 500 years ago, when Mehmet expanded the fortress.

    Anyway, the fortress and dungeon is a big, scary thing. Made up on hulking gray stone, it is a massive building, overlooking the Black Sea.

    Here are some photos taken from inside the dungeon!

    The damp dungeon where Osman II was (probably?) imprisoned. There were no placards or tourist-friendly explanations inside. So, we were left to our devices -- and our own imaginations.

    At least the dungeon had an open top, bringing in some sunlight. Baris and I talked about the fact that this set-up could impact someone's final moments. Maybe the bright sunlight made the surroundings less grim? Maybe it gave someone a sense of the approaching afterlife? I don't know...

    One last thing I wanted to add: We were ALONE! There were two other people, a couple from Florence. But they soon left. And we had the entire fortress to ourselves! My god. Imagine having ANY tourist attraction to yourself. This may have been the first time I have had such an experience. I stopped feeling like a stupid tourist sheep, following the herd. And I began to just enjoy history, having it all to myself.

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