Pritam Rohila Travels

Reports of my travels along with some pictures

Oct 30, 2007

2007 Istanbul, Turkey
September 27-October 14, 2007

September 30

At 8:55 a.m. by a Tarom Airline flight we left Bucharest for Istanbul. Before boarding our flight, I enquired about our lost bag. I was told, that it had been located, but had not been received at Bucharest. They promised to send it to our hotel in Istanbul.

Upon our arrival at Istanbul airport about one and a half hour later, we stopped at the lost luggage office and told them about our bag. They told us that they would sent to our hotel as soon it was received by them.

At the airport, we were received by a representative of Insight Vacations. It took us about 45 minutes to reach our hotel, Conrad International, located across the body of water known as the Golden Horn near Taksim Square. Our room was not ready. Therefore, we had to wait in the lobby for about an hour.

Here we were going to join Insight Vacation’s 16-day “The Golden Explorer” tour from Istanbul to Vienna tour.

In the evening we met our tour director, and our fellow travelers. Among 38 people in our group, there were seven persons from the United States, three couples from Canada, one each from Ireland and New Zealand, and the remaining from Australia.

It was a congenial group, and always on time. Most of us were experienced travelers. During the tour, many followed our progress on the maps generously provided by our tour director, took notes, and/or maintained a daily journal.

Roman, our tour director, hailed from Austria. He was well informed, and very organized. But he tended to be a little authoritarian and dictatorial.

After our meeting, Kundan and I went out for a short walk. She carried a cane, which also served as a light-weight folding stool. It served her well throughout the tour.

On our way back uphill to the hotel, Kundan needed to rest on her cane/stool for a few minutes. Taxi drivers sitting and sipping tea across the street, while waiting for their turn, noticed us. One of them came to us with an offer of chairs and tea. Since we did not need either, we thanked him for his kindness, and declined his offer.

October 1

This was our third visit to Istanbul. At one time known as Constantinople, after the Roman

Emperor Constantine, the cosmopolitan city straddles two continents, Europe and Asia. Separated by the Bosphorus Strait, the two parts are connected by two intercontinental bridges. Most of the tourist sights are located on the European side.

Today we had city tour on our schedule. The first place we visited was the Hippodrome, a remnant of its Roman past. Dating from 200 A.D., it was the site for chariot races and public executions.

Surrounded by many eating places, only an obelisk and remains of two columns now mark the Hippodrome. A life-size bronze sculpture of four horses, which also once stood here, can now be seen at the entrance to the Cathedral of San Marco in Venice.

The obelisk was brought here from Karnak in Egypt, in the 4th century. The stump of the Serpentine Column is from the Apollo’s temple at Delphi in Greece. And the Column of Constantine is now devoid of the gold-plated bronze tiling, which was looted by Crusaders during the capture of Constantinople.

Our next stop was the huge Sultan Ahmet’s 17th century mosque, which has 16 balconies and six minarets. It is popularly known as Blue Mosque due to the blue tiles that cover most of its interior.

From there we proceeded to the 5th century Kariye Church of the Holy Savior, now used as a museum. It is known for its many 14th century Byzantine mosaics and frescos depicting various biblical stories.

We then proceeded to the Topkapi Palace. It reminded me of some of the palaces I had seen in Rajasthan, India. To me it is the most magnificent of Istanbul’s monuments.

The official residence of the Ottoman sultans and their harems until 1868, Topkapi Palace was built in the 1450’s to monitor the maritime traffic through the Bosphorus, which provides access between the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara. The sprawling monument was once home to 5,000 full-time residents.

It various gates provide access to its four courtyards, and many chambers and other structures.
Quranic verses and phrases, and gold highlights embellish the walls of many of its structures.

Several paintings and cooking utensils adorn the Royal Kitchens in the second courtyard.

Located in the same courtyard is the ornate Diwan-i-Humyun, where the prime minister presided over the state council.

Passing through the Gate of Felicity one enters the third courtyard, where the Audience Chambers and the Treasury are located.

The four-room treasury now displays royal thrones, costumes, jewels, and daggers. Photography is not allowed in this area.

After an obligatory visit to a carpet-crafts-jewelry store, our final stop was the Grand Bazaar, the ancient, covered shopping mall consisting of 4,000 shops, which line its 65 winding lanes. Having visited there last year, we were not interested in buying anything. Confronted by a shopkeeper, Kundan said to him, “We are just looking.” He responded, “I am just selling!”

We were disappointed that like on our previous two trips, we couldn’t visit the 6th century church, Aya Sofia, which was converted to a mosque following the Ottoman conquest in 1453. It now houses a museum. It is closed on Mondays.

To help us exercise our “Turkish Muscle” (=stomachs), tonight our group was treated to a dinner at a traditional Turkish restaurant. They fixed a special vegetarian meal for two of us. The meal was delicious.

Upon our return to the hotel, we discovered that our bag had still not arrived. When Kundan called the airport, the lady there told her that our bag was there, but we had to go to the airport to pick it up. After much argument, she agreed it to send it to the hotel at our next stop in Sofia, Bulgaria.

Oct 24, 2007

2007 Bucharest, Romania
September 27-October 14, 2007

Pritam K. Rohila

From September 27 through October 14, we traveled in Southeastern Europe. We visited Albania, Austria, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Romania, Slovenia, and Turkey. We returned home early on the morning of October 15. I plan to write to you about our experiences, in installments. Here is the first installment.

September 27 & 28

We left Portland by a United/Polish Airlines flight at 8:33 a.m., on September 27. After traveling for 16-1/2 hours involving two flight changes, we arrived at our first stop, at Bucharest, Romania, at 1:45 p.m., on September 28, safely, but without on of the three bags, we had checked in.

The lady at the baggage counter was quite pleasant. It took her only a few minutes to record our report, along with information about our next couple of stops. She assured us that, our bag would be sent to us at our hotel, as soon as it was located and retrieved.

We were here on our own. But, we did not look forward to dealing with taxi drivers, especially after a travel book had warned us, “Money exchange and taxi scams (in Romania) abound,” and “Taxi drivers (in Bucharest) will cheerfully rip off foreigners. Drivers rarely speak English.”

The woman at the information counter was not much help. The taxi driver who approached us demanded 80 Euros for a 16 kilometer drive to our hotel. But after a little negotiation, he agreed to charge us $30. After we got to his car, we noted that it was not a regular taxi, and had no meter. Apparently, some enterprising individuals there use their personal cars as taxis to fleece unsuspecting foreigners. Also they avoid paying license fees and government taxes.

The closer we reached to our hotel, the slower was our drive. The roads were quite congested. Apparently, it was the local rush hour.

Soon after our arrival at the hotel, we contacted the travel agent at the hotel for a city tour, the next day. He informed us of difficulty arranging a city tour at such a short notice. The best thing he could do was to get us a car and driver, but without a guide, for 80 Euros per person. He warned us that we had to make up our mind in the next 30 minutes. Not being used that kind of attitude, we decided to make our own arrangements.

We went to the taxi stand at the train/metro station nearby. After failing to communicate with a couple of taxi drivers, I found one who agreed to take us to all the places we wanted, at the going rate of 1.4 Leu ($0.59) per kilometer.

At the station we found a place where we could get a vegetarian pizza (personal size) for dinner for about $3.50. A glass of beer was free. We had pizza the next day also for lunch as well as dinner.

At night, we felt very hot in our room. We called the front desk to complain. The clerk sent someone to our room with extra blankets! Apparently, because of the language difficulty, she thought we had been too cold. Anyhow, when finally we got through to the gentleman at our door, he explained that, due to the winter season, the AC had been turned off throughout the hotel. The hotel did not have any table fan. He advised us to open our windows, and promised to change our room the next day.

September 29, 2007
The next day we started sightseeing 9 a.m. The first place we visited was the Palace of Parliament. The huge structure is said to be the second largest building in the world after Pentagon. Over 20,000 workers constructed this 1,000-room building with Romanian wood, crystal and marble.

It was built by the former dictator Ceausescu, who got five square kilometers of Bucharest’s historical center destroyed to make room for it. During the rest of our travels, we met a woman, who lived in Brooklyn, NY, but had grown up in Bucharest and had seen the beautiful 19th century buildings which had been destroyed by Ceausescu.

Our next stop was at the Old Court Church. Founded in the 16th century, this ochre color building with an unusual dome was built near the Princely Court.

Then we visited the Arch of Triumph. Resembling its namesake in Paris, the Arch is Bucharest commemorates those who died in the 1877 War for Independence and in the World War II.

We concluded our sightseeing around 12:30 p.m. after visiting the Museum of the Romanian Peasant. It displays old churches, homes, mills, icons, and a large number of traditional costumes and artifacts

The museum has a small anti-Communist display in the basement.

Bucharest has a number of communist style apartment houses. But we were impressed by its wide tree-lined avenues, large green spaces.

With its McDonald’s, fast food restaurants, and markets it is comparable to any modern city.