Vote for King Crow!

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is running a design contest to celebrate “150 Years of Creating.” There are about 190 entries that you may vote on through August 12, 2019. The top 10 winners of the public vote will progress to The Met’s professional judging panel in August. The winner will have their design incorporated into product for The Met’s Museum Gift Shop in Spring 2020.

I have entered a hat, based on a manuscript in The Met’s collection. It’s an honor to see one of my hats on this prestigious website. It would be an even greater honor to make it to the Top Ten. Your VOTE FOR KING CROW could get me there! Thank you from every piece of my heart : )

Morocco 2017 – The Red Dunes – a Sea of Sand

We end our too-short stay in the exquisite Kasbah Moyahut, and find a young man in a white turban and blue caftan waiting for us out front.  It’s Moha, our guide and camp concierge, who would take us into the Erg Chebbi dunes, the tallest in Morocco.

We drive a few short blocks through one- and two-story mud brick buildings, to the “Camel’s House” where Mohamed will rest up while we’re away. Brenda and I check out the shop next door, filled to the rafters with local handcrafts.  I find a small woven pouch to carry my camera in,  a simple ring that I think is fashioned from wood, and a turquoise caftan.  I still lack the knack for bartering, but as an artist, I know the value of handmade, and consider my lack of bartering skills to be of benefit to the local economy.

Our camels have arrived, so we grab our overnight satchels and mount up.  My back complains a little, until I sync with the sway of the camel, which makes the ride much more comfortable.  And we’re off!

Not quite an hour later, our camp comes in to view … a cluster of dark oblong tents surrounded by a reed fence enclosure, nestled in a depression between some dunes. We dismount and are shown to our rooms – individual tents surrounding the carpet-strewn courtyard.  My tent is lined in synthetic silk, with a tidy twin bed made up with sheets and blankets, and a mosquito net canopy draped over the end.  

We are shown to the ‘restaurant’  – a tall circular tent draped on the inside with several colors of ‘silk’, gathering at the top with the ends twisting around the center support pole.  We are seated on the low couches that line the walls, and enjoy a kefte and egg tagine, accompanied by a beautiful Moroccan salad of chopped tomatoes, cucumbers, corn and green pepper, garnished with orange slices and the tasty green olives I have come to favor. We ask what type of meat is in the tagine, and get a description of how the meat is processed (chopped vs ground) but not what animal the meat is from.  We suspect that most of the kefte here is beef or lamb, or a combination. Dessert is presented as two platters of sliced oranges, one sprinkled with cinnamon and one without.  And tea!

I am told there is internet reception here, so after lunch I take my laptop to the top of a nearby dune to see if I can “Facebook from the desert.”  I don’t get a signal.  What I do get is a lot of sand in my keyboard as the wind picks up.  I close up my laptop and climb a taller dune for some photography. It’s incredibly beautiful, and my bare feet are rejoicing in the hot sand.  

Back at the camp, I try to wipe sand that looks more like ground cinnamon, out my camera and keyboard, and hope that I haven’t damaged every electronic thing I own. I find a spot to repose in the ‘reception’ tent, and  watch a pair of finches as they build a nest a few feet away, and three dung beetles as they skitter across the sand, while the rest of the camp sleeps…

Soon it’s time to wake up and saddle up for a sunset ride. It’s a really great ride, zigzagging along the edges of dunes, watching as Moha and Hassan pick out pathways that offer the least amount of vertical climbing.  It’s the same theory as mountain climbing – you don’t go straight up, you zig-zag, which takes longer but is safer and more energy efficient. 

We reach our destination and park the camels at the base of the dune. We climb up to our vantage point, and Doug sets up his camera and tripod for a live Facebook feed. It’s still warm but the wind is really kicking up, so I pull my scarf over my face as I watch the dunes start to change colors with the sun’s setting rays.  Moha and Hassan allow me to photograph them, and Hassan captures the photo of me (at the head of this post) that would become the talk of the town back in Seattle.

The next hour is nearly indescribable. The sun sets, the dunes continue to shift and shadow and the landscape becomes surreal. After the sun sinks beyond the horizon, we start our return to camp.  

I keep looking back at the dunes, trying to embed the red landscape into the deepest recesses of my brain. When I can no longer distinguish the sand from the sky, my attention is drawn upwards to a canopy of blazing stars… 

You are closer to the stars on the back of a camel…

Back at camp, it’s dinnertime, and we are joined in the restaurant by a Chinese tour group.  After tagines, tea and fruit, we are invited to a bonfire and drum circle.  Once the fire is raging, our Berber hosts launch into a Chinese song they have learned.  The Chinese group sing next, a folk song which the Berbers pick up on quickly and soon join the chorus. Back and forth – the Chinese clapping and the Berbers answering with their drums, both singing the same song. It was a pretty cool thing to witness.

The Chinese are going out for a sunrise camel ride, so they turn in for the night. Doug and I remain and it is our turn to engage, so we are handed drums and accompany our hosts as they sing. Then Doug starts a conversation with the three camel men, asking a question in his Egyptian Arabic, which I think is being translated into Moroccan Arabic by the first camel man, which is then translated into Berber for third camel man who does not speak Arabic. Doug takes out his phone, pulls up a video, and hands it around the circle.  The stars are bright and the fire backlights four men, in turbans and caftans, t-shirts and jeans, with no common language, as they share a video on a cell phone in a camel camp in the Western Sahara.

I am suddenly overcome by the sensation of having walked into a “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke” commercial…

As the fire dies down and the stars lull me to sleep, we retire for the night to our respective bedchambers.  What an incredible day…

Morocco 2017 – Monkeys, a White Horse, and a Kasbah

Kasbah Mohayut at sunrise

After a final fabulous breakfast in Fez, we pack the van and hit the road. It’s going to be a long day (340 miles) but there will be a lot to see. Doug says there’s snow in the mountains but the roads will probably be clear.  At least he hopes they will be clear … he relates a story about his previous trip, where he made it over the pass just before the road closed. The couple in the car behind him were not so lucky, and were stranded for a week, waiting for the pass to reopen.

There’s fog hanging over the orchards, appearing to rest on the netting designed to keep the birds away from the stone fruit. There are bottles of olive oil atop wooden boxes at makeshift stands, every 50 feet or so along this stretch of road.  I rarely see people attending these roadside stands, the honor system must be pretty strong here.

We’re now seeing direcional signs in Arabic, Berber and French

As we climb into the Middle Atlas Mountains, we are back into pines and cedars. We reach Azrou, in the heart of the Forest of Cedars. Doug tells us to start watching for monkeys, and no sooner does he say “monkey” than we see them coming down out of the trees. We pull over and park, and are soon surrounded.

These are macaques (also called Barbary Apes) – indigenous to the mountain forests of Morocco and Algeria. Only a few thousand are left in the wild, marking them as an endangered species. They are twice as big as I was expecting, and docile, except for the Leader of the Pack, which the locals point to, with a warning to keep clear.

A young guide comes up to me with a handful of broken up crackers, and says “photo” as he hands me a few pieces.  I start to toss them at the macaque closest to me, but the guide shakes his head and giving me more crackers.  After a few more tosses, the guide motions to me to hold out my hand and wait for the monkey, which I do.  

He snaps a few photos and then leads me to his horse – a beautiful white creature with an ornate saddle, is standing next to a boulder, a convenient aid for mounting.  The guide again says “photo” and I climb up onto the horse.  He snaps a few more shots, and then unexpectedly grabs the reins, and starts to lead the horse into the forest.

“Oh NO!”  What have I gotten myself into???

I frantically protest, but he he continues down the path towards the forest. I twist around in the saddle and start waving and yelling to try to get Doug’s attention.  After several more yards I impress upon the guide that I’m with a group and I MUST GO BACK.  He slowly turns the horse around, and Doug arrives as I dismount.  “Please find out how much that escapade just cost me, I’ll be back with my wallet.” By the time I get back, Doug has negotiated the price down from 300 dirhams ($30) to about 70 dirhams ($7). I give the guide an extra 20 dirham, which puts things right and everyone walks away happy.  

And now I know what “photo” actually means…

I wander around for a few more minutes, picking metal sequins out of the dirt that have dislodged themselves from the horse saddles. I contemplate visiting the merchant’s row but decide I shouldn’t tempt fate again today.

We take a 45 minute detour in search of a tree that we had been told was the source of aspirin. Mark is a doctor, so it’s pretty important to him. We drive up a rocky road and find a tree in the center of a clearing. There are signs all over the place in French, and a placard on the tree itself. It’s a very tall, and very dead tree…. about 800 years old, thought to be the oldest tree in the Atlas Mountains.  But it is not where aspirin comes from.  

Back onto the highway, we reach Ifrane, also known as Little Bavaria or Little Switzerland.  It was built as a summer resort in 1929 by the French; the cream-colored buildings with their sharply gabled red tile roofs make the town look more like Europe than Morocco. Although Moroccans come here in the summer to escape the heat, it’s also a popular ski resort in the winter. There’s a large stone lion on the main drag, surrounded by tourists, I presume another memorial to the wild lions that once roamed the countryside. I’m sad that I couldn’t grab a photo of it.

Beyond the city, we continue past cherry and plum orchards in bloom, and something that looks like ponderosa pine.  There’s an apple orchard, some goats, and a flock of sheep with red faces. Off in the distance I see a conical tent set into a stone wall.  Here are pomegranate trees, and stone walls made from volcanic rock.  Doug points out Ephreda bushes, a common desert plant useful as fire starter.  The landscape starts to shift, and there are red striated outcroppings that Doug describes as uplift from the teutonic plate activity in this area.

We stop for lunch in Midelt, the City of Apples – a gigantic red apple sculpture at the edge of town tells us so! At the Restaurant Diafa, most of our group orders pizza, while I welcome a salad, one of only two or three that I will find in this country. The corner of the restaurant is curtained off as a prayer room, where men and women take turns behind the curtain for a few minutes of midday prayer.  As we depart, we are barraged by men wanting to sell us fossils.  Morocco was once a sea bed, so ammonites and other fossilized sea life are a pretty big business here. 

Back in the car, we pass juniper trees, and roadside honey stands. As we pass a lake, we are pulled over for the second time today at a security checkpoint. We’re told the ticket is 800 dirham, but the officer will lower the ticket to 500 dirham if we pay it on the spot.  They accept the 100 dirham that Mohamed has in his pocket, and we are back on the road.  We’re starting to think that checkpoint patrols are a pretty lucrative line of work here. 

Well after dark, we reach Mergouza, and the Kasbah Mohayut.  My. Oh. My. Even in the dark, this mud brick oasis on the edge of the desert is very beautiful, and I cannot wait to explore it in the daylight.  I find my room at the far end of the kasbah, and walk through a modest door and into a space that I swear is bigger than my apartment.  

I am thankful for the directional signs that prevent me from losing my way back to the restaurant for dinner. Tonight’s meal consists of two meat tagines and a plate of couscous topped with grilled eggplant, which we share as a group.  I’m exhausted and not very hungry and try to leave the table early, but the waiter would have none of that until he had served tea and dessert – a lemon-bar pastry with a torched marshmallow cream topping.  It is very dense and flavorful, and I am glad the waiter was so insistent.

I wake early the next morning to see the sunrise and to explore this wonderful kasbah. After wandering around the roof and the courtyard, I follow the signs for the restaurant and am the first to arrive for breakfast.  The buffet offers whatever you want to eat – as long as it is a form of bread!  There’s chorizo soaked in honey, and little chocolate stardrop cookies, hard rolls, soft breads, and deep fried chickpeas rolled in sesame seeds. Hard boiled eggs, cheese wedges and two styles of peanuts offer some protein.  The mint tea here is not as syrupy-sweet as what we had been served up to this point, and is poured into glasses that each have a fresh sprig of mint. I drink several helpings out of the classic, ornate tea glass. 

I wish I could capture the sounds and smells of this place, as I sit at the edge of one of the fountain courtyards, tea in hand, incense wafting over me… above my head an iron chandelier, with palms and birds… waitstaff wearing the blue and gold caftan that the men wear here, smiling at me as they light incense in the other four corners of the courtyard.  

It is very, very hard to leave. But leave we must.  The Red Dunes await … 

Please visit Daveno Travels for additional photos of the Forest of Cedars and this delicious kasbah!

Morocco 2017 – Fez Day 2: tiles, souks and cemeteries

We’re off to see the Souk!

Wafi, our local guide for today, meets us at our hotel and rides with us to our first stop. In the car he gives us a brief history of Fez el Bali, the original medina-city.

  • It is the second oldest city in the world after Jerusalem, and was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1989.  It lays claim to the first psychiatric hospital in the world, as well as the first surgical hospital, the oldest university and library, and the world’s 3rd largest mosque behind Mecca and Medina.  A US flag marks the veterinary hospital, which was also founded by a woman.

Fez has been predominately Muslim since 789. In spite of that, almost every city in Morocco has a Jewish quarter, and Fez is no exception.  Our first stop is the Jewish Cemetery, one of the oldest in Morocco.  I remarked on the square openings at the end of some of the sarcophagi, and learned that it was where a lit candle would be placed for the dead. A little further on was a section where 500 children were buried in unmarked graves, most of them dating from the 1930s-40s.  I learned later that there were both malaria and cholera epidemics that crossed North Africa during that time, and wondered if that was a contributing factor.

Our next stop is the Royal Palace, with a huge, nearly empty courtyard and scant police presence. Wafi explained the colors of the uniforms and the branches of the armed services that the officers represented, and cautioned us against photographing anyone in uniform in Morocco.

The general populace is not allowed beyond the grand brass doors, but there’s plenty to look at from this side of the gate. Wafi said that nearby residents keep an eye on the doors, and when they see workmen polishing the doors with lemon juice, they know the King will be in residence within the week.  

I note the patina brass gutter along the top of the door, just under one of the mosaic archways. The knockers on the main doors are well above my head, and about the size of dinner plates.

Our next stop is an outdoor mosque, marked by an immense flat circle on a hilltop offering a panoramic view of the old medina and a graveyard that dwarfed Arlington cemetery in Virginia.  There’s a minbar at the East side, painted yellow, and gates with green tiled roofs at the other compass points. Services are held here during the summer when enclosed buildings are too hot. I can’t even estimate the size of this place. The view is outstanding.

Next stop, the Art D’Argile Tile Factory.  What a fascinating place! They produce wares mostly for restaurants, from a white lead free clay which is very hard to break. We watch a potter with an electric kickwheel, pull small goblets off of a mountain of wet clay at the rate of one every 45 seconds. He then whipped out a small tagine, the size that Moroccans use for mezze dishes, with a perfectly fitting lid, without the aid of a template or any form of measure beyond his hands and eyes.  

I stop to watch a craftsman painting a pot, nearly freehand with the exception of equally spaced vertical pencil lines on the outside of the piece. The flourishes between the geometric shapes were completely freehand and as even as could possibly be.  I bet he’s done that design a million times… 

Past the glaze room and the kiln that was tall enough for a man to stand in, were the mosaic tile cutters. Ahmed, the manager who was guiding us through the factory, explained that Roman mosaic work has 4 shapes, compared to Zellige – Moroccan mosaic – which is made up of 700 shapes.  I learned from the museum at the Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca that the white clay is hydrated, kneaded and rolled out before being cut into tiles.  The tiles are fired at 1000 degrees Celsius, and then enameled and fired again at 800 degrees Celsius. 

The tiles are then marked and cut with a hammer.  Ahmed led us to the pair of tile cutters, who cut precise shapes (called ‘froma’) at an alarming speed, using a hammer with a flat chisel where the claws would be on a carpenter’s hammer. Piles of cut pieces and shards were at least a foot deep on the floor at their feet. The froma are chiseled on the back, which is also different from tiles I have seen everywhere else.  This allows the froma to butt up against eachother, with the mortar (called ‘hamri’) filling in the backside to produce the panel. Additional photos are at Daveno Travels.

We shop the gift show and then I wander out into the back courtyard, where I find a fountain sitting in the center of a star-shaped mosaic sampler.  I’m literally on my hands and knees taking photos of individual tiles, aware that a couple of older gentlemen are watching me as they sip their tea.  When I am done with my camera, Wafi comes over to forward a compliment on my djellaba (the one from Chefchaouen) and relays that one of the gentlemen who have been watching me, wants to know if they can buy it from me for their wife if I ever find my luggage …

We pile back into the car and we are at last, off to see the souk.  Mohamed drops us off outside the medina wall, and we enter the snake-like labyrinth of alleyways, some dark with filtered light, others open to the sky, twisting through open courtyards and then back into covered alleys.  Wafi says its really easy to get lost here…

The souk, in addition to being the ‘shopping mall’ of the medina, also houses several historic sites. The first one we see is also the one I’ve been most excited about – the Qarawiyyin Library, the oldest working library in the world. Established originally as a mosque by Fatima Al-Fihre in 859, it houses 4,000 rare books and manuscripts, and was at one time attached to a university which has since moved to another part of Fez.

We stop for a glimpse of the Kairaouine Mosque.  As with all mosques in Morocco, non-Muslims cannot enter but we saw a little of the gleaming white courtyard through the heavy gate doors.

We enter via a staircase, a beautifully restored building that was either originally a caravansary (traveler’s rest) our or a fondouk (another form of lodging for traders and their mules), which now houses a women’s weaving cooperative.  At the top of the building I find a woman at her carpet loom.  The back of the loom faces the room, so I peer around to get a glimpse of the rug, and the weaver invites me to sit with her on her workbench.  (Photos courtesy of Mark Charteris)

She shows me how she ties the knots, and then hands pieces of wool to me so I can try.  I expect to get a couple of pieces, but she continues to hand them to me until the row is finished.  She hands me a pair of barbers shears to trim the pile, but I decline as I am terrified of ruining her work.  She hacks off the yarns with some abandon, and starts her next row.   What an experience that was!

The next flight of stairs takes us up to the top of another shop, this one filled with leather goods. The top floor is open to the air, and overlooks the Choura Tannery, one of the three largest in this souk. There are dozens of vats, with men scraping hides from goats, sheep and cows.  Although we were warned of the stench, and handed sprigs of mint to hold under our noses, I don’t find the aroma that overpowering, and ultimately I just eat the mint.  

The vats include mordants made from lime, salt and pigeon droppings, and there are cages of pigeons nearby to supply the droppings.  Colors are only derived from natural organic sources, and there are several steps in the process of tanning, ending with skins in every imaginable color, grade, suppleness and sheen.  This shop sells handbags, coats and leather ottomans made from the leathers dyed in these vats.

After lunch at Restaurant Asmire, we find another leather shop, and I find a pair of delightful turquoise leather mules with upturned toes.  A nearby textile shop draws us in, and after a few minutes, we are seated and served tea. The shopkeeper teaches us about fibers, and shows us an agave leaf which is stripped for its fiber and blended with cotton to make scarves, shawls and other garments. He then starts unrolling lengths of woven goods in a process similar to buying a carpet in Istanbul.  I excuse myself from that process but I find a traditional fez here for my brother, and try on one of the conical slave hats that our waiter was wearing at lunch.  I buy the fez, and leave the conical hat behind.  But it gets presented to me in the car, a gift from Mark and Catherine, whose generosity seems to be endless.  I wear it to breakfast the following day.

We barely scratched the surface of the souk in Fez el Bali, and did not venture very far into the medina.  There are also two other medina’s in Fez – Fez el Jdid, established in the 13th century, and Ville Nouvelle, built by the French in the 19th century.  We did not visit those sections either. To learn more about its history, click here.  

It would take a week to see all the major sites in this city.  If I ever return to Fez, my list of things to see includes the Batha Museum (of Moroccan craft), and the Arms Museum, housed in a 16th century fortress. Additional photos are collected at Daveno Travels and several boards on Pinterest.

Tonight, Brenda, Catherine and Mark have opted to stay in,  so I join Doug and Mohamed for dinner at a nearby BBQ house.  It was a meal of meat, meat and more meat, but it sure was tasty.  Then, it’s back to the hotel to pack.

No sleeping though – I’m way too excited. Tomorrow’s destination is Merzouga and the Red Dunes of the Western Sahara. And camels!

The Making of the Crow King

Twitter has its uses. On June 5, I ran across a tweet from The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, announcing a design contest: “The Met’s 150 Years of Creating”. Voting opened today to the public and runs through August 12. Winners of the popular vote will be judge by a jury, and the winning entrant will have their design developed into products for The Met Museum Gift Shop in April 2020.

I am one of 190 entries. It’s the biggest contest I’ve ever entered and although I don’t expect to make it to the top ten, it’s a real feather in my cap just to be on The Met website. I hope you will VOTE for the Crow King!

The deadline for submission was in 6 days, so I spent an hour combing the manuscript collections and found three pieces, which I narrowed down to this one after learning its back story.

The Kalika wa-Dimna is a series of allegorical tales written in Sanskrit during the 4th century as a teaching tool for three young princes. It was translated it into Arabic 300 years later, in a style so lucid it is still considered a model of Arabic prose. Called Kalila and Dimna, after the two jackals who are the main characters, the book was written mainly for the instruction of civil servants. But it was so entertaining that it became popular with all classes. Arabs carried it to Spain, where it was translated into Old Spanish in the 13th century. In Italy it was one of the first books to appear after the invention of printing.

I was a storyteller once, with a fondness for 13th century history, and a traveler to both Spain and Italy, so this piece made an emotional connection with me. It reminded me of another allegory – the Monkey King from Journey to the West (a Chinese work). I find allegory to be not only amusing, but a powerful teaching tool as well.

http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/453116

Anyway … I cropped the folio and made a color copy for reference, and several black and white copies for templates. And, with time rapidly ticking down, I began.

At first, I was going to apply the birds in one piece, but I decided to apply them individually to get better spacing and more dimensional detail. The foliage lent itself well to individual ‘stalks’ as well, which wrap around the rest of the cuff.

As usual, I changed the materials several times, trying several wools before settling on a rust suede leather to mirror the background of the folio. At that point, I also decided to mount the Crow King to the crown of the hat rather than the cuff. And of course, all the materials are rescued from previously used clothing, and remnants from other costumers’ cutting room floors.

The birds are appliqued in leather which is padded to make them more dimensional, held in place with whip stitch which I covered over with couching. The leaves are ultrasuede and will become dimensional, as they will naturally curl at the edges with wearing. I added brass beads to the tips of the foliage and a gold wire crown to the King Crow, as points of difference from the original – to leave my mark on the piece rather than making a carbon copy of someone else’s work.

I finished the hat 4 days after starting it. Oddly, the very next day, as I was walking to work, I was buzzed by a crow in a part of town where I’d never seen crows. He buzzed me so close that his feathers brushed my hair, and then circled around and did it again! He landed on the closest lamp post and cawed at me until I was a block away. I’ll leave it up to those who read this, to offer their own interpretation of that event …

Morocco 2017 – Fez and all the broken things

Saying goodbye to Chefchaouen

Descending from the mountains and the Blue City of Chefchaouen, we are soon back in olive groves, cherry orchards, and fields of wheat and lettuce.  Mohamed suddenly pulls over … there’s an open air market that he thinks we should see …

We park on the side of the road and traverse a narrow foot bridge over a creek.  After taking shots of this burro bit and learning about how it was used, Doug asks us to leave our cameras shuttered, since this is a ‘daily life’ activity and tourist photos would be intrusive.  We spend about an hour wandering the grid that the stalls are set up along, orderly in their layout but calling out “souk” in their content, offering everything from plastic kitchenware and plumbing supplies, to detergents and cleaners, spices, raw fish and freshly butchered chicken. A man cooks kebab over a trench brazier, a ferrier shoes a burro.  I walk past large tubs of fava beans, alfalfa and oranges, among stacks of cartons whose labels I could not decipher. Most of the stalls were run by men, the shoppers were equally divided between men and women, each loading their purchases onto motorcycles and burros for their respective treks home

We’re back in the car and on our way.  About 3 hours later, Mohamed negotiates some fairly astounding traffic, with roundabouts at every intersection, cars interlacing through each other every which-way, with the rule of the road seeming to be dictated by a “stare-down and wave-through” technique. The chaos gives way to a wide and much calmer palm tree lined boulevard with a 12-foot wide park down the center, complete with grassed areas and park benches and filled with pedestrians.  We arrive at the Hotel Volubilis in downtown Fez.

It’s a modern hotel, a very stark contrast to the riad in Rabat and the boutique mountain hotel in Chefchaouen. My room is white, spacious, unadorned, and overlooks a swimming pool.  For the first time since arriving, I am wishful for my suitcase and the swimsuit contained therein.  Brenda later offers me hers, but I never do take her up on that offer.

And then, a series of small unfortunate events starts to fray the edges of my else wise impressibility.

I unpack my ‘luggage’ – a heavy, white plastic laundry bag from the Hotel Barcelo in Casablanca – and the handle rips. “A bit of duct tape will patch that right up,” I say to myself as I reach for the roll I had tucked into my purse. I reach down to take off my shoes, and find that I’ve blown the side seam. “Good thing I packed that duct tape,” as I remove the insole to do a quick internal repair.  In the bathroom, there’s a hole in the shower wall that I can see daylight through.  “I’m going to need more duct tape” I mutter as I use up most of what I had left so I could take a shower. I take off my watch and the metal band breaks, beyond my ability to repair. There’s no bottled water or WIFI in the room, no services directory, not even a “do not disturb” sign. In the corner, there’s a broken chair…

I go down to the lobby to inquire about WIFI, and find Doug, whom I alert about the broken chair in my room so he doesn’t get charged for it.  A few minutes later, Doug and the front desk manager arrive, and I show them the shower wall (now patched) and the broken chair. “We have another room” says the manager.  “I don’t need a new room, I just don’t want to be charged for the broken chair,” I respond.  “Please follow me,” says the manager, and he shows Doug and me to another room.

“Do you like this room?” the manager asks.  I reiterate that I don’t need a new room, I was just reporting a broken chair. I’ve already unpacked and I really don’t want to make a fuss. “So this room will work for you then?” the manager asks.  OMG.  I walk over to a chair in the corner. “This chair is not broken.  Let me take this chair to my room, and it will all be perfect.  Can we do that?”  The manager finally understands and insists on carrying the new chair to my old room. Such a simple fix, and yet so elusive…

I think it was later that day that we hunted down a hardware store, in part to escape the drum corps that have taken up a corner of the hotel lobby.  We find a Carrefour, where I use the last of my dirhams to buy a roll of duct tape in case my shoe or luggage blow out again.  Mark and Catherine stock up on wine and champagne in the grocery department downstairs, while their floor standing oscillating fan is being assembled in the hardware department.  It will help them sleep at night, and will provide notes of humor at every hotel, kasbah and riad for the duration of our trip.  On the way out, I notice the really nice bright green Tyvek shopping bags that Carrefour offered at their checkouts, and Doug gets one for me. New luggage!  In the car, Mark and Catherine gift me with a bottle of vodka. Things are looking up!

After a dinner buffet in the hotel restaurant, Doug and I hit the boulevard in a search of an ATM and a drug store. We locate two ATM machines, which both fail (adding to the list of All the Broken Things) but do find a convenience store, where after a short discourse between Doug in Egyptian Arabic and the shopkeeper in Moroccan Arabic, with accompanying charades, I procure some necessaries, including a plastic disc that looks like a scalp massager, but which works surprisingly well as a hairbrush and is very compact.  

Back on the boulevard, we see a bronze statue of a lion in the parkway, and I pose for a photo. I would later learn that it commemorates the last wild lion in Morocco, who was shot by a trophy hunter during the 1930’s. Had I known that, I would not have smiled for this photo…

We cross the street to the hotel. The drummers are now gone, so I sit in the lobby to get onto the WIFI, until the hoteliers start turning the lights out, signaling that it’s time to return to my room.

The next day, breakfast in the hotel restaurant turns out to be among the best of the entire trip. Fresh and grilled vegetables, eggs, blocks of feta, dates, olives, and folded and fried Moroccan pancake called mesmen, which I spread with honey and cream cheese.  I also note a variety of cold cereals and something that looks like Cream of Wheat. At the end of the room there’s a table-top coffee dispenser, reminiscent of the vending machines I fell in love with in Florence, that serves 5-6 different styles of thick, milk-based European coffees at the push of a button.  

Mmmmm…. vegetables and coffee, my two favorite food groups…

Today we visit Volubilis, the ruins of a Roman town renowned for its mosaic floors.  We stop at a 3rd ATM but it doesn’t work for me either, so I give up so as not to delay our day any further. I’m concerned that my shoe repair won’t hold in the rugged terrain we are going to be walking through soon, so I break out my sewing kit and astound my traveling partners when I produce thimble, beige carpet thread and a leather needle, and begin to stitch up the side of my handmade Italian shoe.  

“You carry a sewing kit – with a leather needle?” they ask. “Textile artist!” I answer.  About 20 minutes later, my stitching is complete, and I pull out a black Sharpie.  “I may be a bag lady but I’m still a fashionista,” I joke as I color the carpet thread so it matches my shoe.  By now my traveling partners have run out of words…

Just outside the city, we reenter agricultural areas, marked by roadside produce stands with pyramids of fruits and potatoes towering over the edges of the bushel baskets that line the edge of the road.  Farmland is interspersed with ruins of stone or brick walls.  We arrive at the Roman ruin of Volubilis.

  • Volubilis was a caravansary for the Berbers and the capital of the Kingdom of Mauritania, before becoming an important Roman outpost after the Third Punic War in the 2nd century BCE. It marked the furthest reach of the Roman Empire into Africa. The city declined during the 8th century, with most of its inhabitants having converted to Islam and moved to the nearby city of Meknes.
  • In spite of its marble being stripped during the 18th century to build the sultan’s palaces in Meknes, Volubilis remains one of the best preserved Roman ruins in Morocco.  It was rediscovered during the French Protectorate in 1915, when excavation and restoration work began. Most of its artifacts have been moved to the Archaeological Museum in Rabat, which I hope to see on my next visit to Morocco.  Volubilis was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997.

After leaving the parking lot, we are greeted with an expansive concrete plaza – designed no doubt to gather large groups together for orientation before heading out onto the site. We hired a local guide, who wore a long, loose, lime-green caftan over his jeans and sandals, and a conical straw hat that I had started to see on some of the older people on the outskirts of town.  We head out under hot sun and a pale blue sky with just enough wispy clouds to offer a contrast to the nearly 104 acres of ruins we were about to view.

The floors are exquisite and I am in awe of their condition, in sharp contrast to the vestiges of the walls that surround them.  I wonder what has prevented weeds from breaking through, when everything else is overgrown.

The guide is great, and again I wish I had brought my journal, even with the risk of it drawing my attention away from where my feet were going.  There are informational placards that I photograph along the way, with information about the aqueducts that fed the city, and some of the homes which are named after images in their mosaic floors, including the “House of Venus,”  the “House of Bathing Nymphs,” and the “House of Big Game” with its lions and tigers detailed in the floor.

The “House of the Rider,” (Maison av Cavalier according to the carved stone marker) named after a bronze figure discovered there in 1910, was one of the larger homes at 1700 square meters.  The mosaics covered the floors of  the public areas of the homes (but not the private areas like kitchens and baths), and I cannot help but think there must have been some ‘keeping up with the Jones’s” competition as the floors become more spectacular as you circle clockwise through this site.

We see the the remains of a bathing pool. Shown here is a jacuzzi – a large flat pool with a center stonework carved into backrests that would accommodate 10 people.  It served as a social center in the same way that the Turkish hammams did during the Ottoman period. Our guide told us that the water for the jacuzzi was heated by underground pipes which ran under the ovens in the nearby bakery. Talk about architectural multi-tasking … 

The imposing Triumphal Arch of Caracella is a popular place to have your photo taken, and guides are yelling at the too-adventurous tourists to stop climbing to the top of it, presumably for a better photo op.

  • The Triumphal Arch was built in 217 AD by the town council in honor of Emperor Caracalla and his mother Julia Domna as a thank you for granting the townspeople Roman citizenship and tax exempt status.

Further down the avenue, our guide points out the bakery, and the King’s Palace with its huge circular mosaic floor, and a square pool larger than my entire living room, overlooking a panorama of fields and orchards, with the Atlas Mountains in the distance. I take note of a stacked stone wall, and a vomitorium with the remains of the trench which drained into the sewer.
I had seen a piece of a mosaic floor in a Roman exhibit at the Seattle Art Museum, but it is entirely different to see them in context.  In spite of being exposed to the elements, they are remarkably intact and vibrant.  It’s a testament to the craftsmanship that went into their making.

Back at the plaza, there’s a small museum, with maps on the walls and a few cases of Roman artifacts which included bone buttons and needles, bronze pieces from horse trappings,  and a foot tall bronze figure of a boy, labeled “The Genius of Abundance.”  In the next building is a display and sale of local products, mostly honey and packages of herbs from the nearby farms.   I am once again disappointed by the lack of a gift shop, and will have to shop for a book online.

Tasks for tonight include laundry – combining a shower with a soapy stomp on my red traveling coat, wringing it out in a towel and hanging it up to dry.  With all of my clothes clean and in various stages of drying, I head back down to the lobby to read up on what I expect to see in the souk tomorrow.  It’s another night of being on WIFI until the lobby lights go out.  I hope I’m not annoying the hotel staff… 

More information about the history history of Volubilis is here. My full photo collection of the mosaic floors from this site is boarded on Pinterest.

Morocco 2017 – The Blue City of Chefchaouen

After roaming around the Kasbah of the Oadaias and inspecting nearly every inch of the fortress in Rabat, we climb into the car and head towards the fabled Blue City of Chefchaouen.  

We drive by groves of trees that have had their bark stripped to about 8 feet up. They are cork oaks, freshly harvested. Cork can be harvested a dozen times during a tree’s lifetime; after a tree reaches 25 years old, it can be harvested by hand every 9-12 years. The harvest does not harm the tree, and because trees regenerate their bark, cork is considered a renewable resource.

We also pass hothouses where bananas are being grown, the structures are not as tall as I would expect but stretch back from the road for several acres. I also see smaller quonset shaped hothouses where strawberries are being grown. Flocks of sheep graze right along side the road while their shepherds stand nearby, almost always in traditional dress.  We see cattle, but are told that these are dairy cows.  Beef cows are raised in feed lots, but Morocco does not have an industrialized beef industry.  Mohamed, our driver, also owns a restaurant, and explains that restaurants work directly with butchers, who buy cows directly from local ranchers.  Much of local commerce is based on personal relationships here.

Further on we start to see burros pulling carts, almost as often as we see other cars.  I look out at hedges of prickly pear interspersed with low growing trees, which form a green fence between the fields and the road. We pass through a  small town of window manufacturers and automotive shops operating out of spaces about the size of a single car garage.

Here’s a graveyard out of seemingly nowhere…

There are carts of oranges along the side of the road, nomadic fruit stands. More burro carts, houses that are painted lavender and pink.  Doug points out aqueducts running parallel to the roadway, 40-50 year old structures delivering water to the fields.  The prickly pear hedges have disappeared and now the road is lined with eucalyptus trees. To the left is a sugar cane field, and to the right, pottery stands displaying piles of lanterns, pots and tagines. Craftsmen’s booths are lined up side by side for a solid two blocks.

Climbing up a winding road, nearing sunset, we turn a bend in the road and a very pale blue and white landscape comes into view.  It’s Chefchaouen, a mountain community that we would explore tomorrow.

  • The Blue City of Chefchaouen was established in 1471 by Moulay el Ben Rashid ed Alami, a Moorish exile from Spain. It served as a refuge for Moriscos and Jews escaping the Spanish Inquisition and was also a stronghold against the Portuguese.
  • It’s Jewish population painted the town blue during the 1930’s.

We pull into a steep drive and check into the Al Khalifa Hotel, on a hill overlooking the city.  The rooms are simple but efficient, and the red painted furniture is striking against the blue-washed walls.  It feels very Himalayan, but the hotel manager assures me that the motifs are indeed Arabic-Moroccan, painted by a local artist.

After a brief respite in our rooms, we walk down a winding set of stairs towards the town square, only to discover that the restaurant is above us (literally).  Mohamed finds a route which backtracks upwards, and we arrive at The Lampe Magique Casa Aladin.  It’s a fun place and we get a table right next to the window, which offers an excellent view of The Qasaba – a kasbah which now houses a museum.  Our table is covered with tea glasses and plates of mezze, a precurser to the tagines that will arrive later.  Mine is squid, delivered still boiling.  I watch it continue to boil for at least two minutes before I test my bravery and my fork, spearing the succulent white meats from the broth and blowing the sizzle away so I don’t burn my tongue.  Still very hot but very delicious!

Doug gives us an overview of what to see during our free time tomorrow, and to use the Plaza Uta el Hamman, the town square, as our landmark. The city is built into the side of the mountain, with a Spanish mosque overlooking the city and the reddish mud brick wall snaking up the mountain at the northern edge of town.  It was built in 1471 as a stronghold against the Portuguese.  After dinner we walk back to the hotel, through noisy streets where the shops are still open, under a beautiful starlit sky.

We start the next morning with breakfast in the glass-enclosed terrace of the hotel, which Doug says is new since the last time he was here.  Brenda and Doug pair off, as do Catherine and Mark, and I set off down the stairs for a couple of hours of sightseeing and shopping.

I walk down the pale blue staircase towards the town square, immersed in a soundscape of rushing water, and the pastoral bleats of goats and sheep.  There’s a waterfall near the Hotel Khalifa, the Ras el Maa, a water source for Chefchaouen that literally roars out of the mountains.  I cross the bridge to admire the sound and the view. Further upstream are wooden structures with roofs but no sides – washing sheds where the townswomen come to do their laundry, and wash fleeces prior to processing the wool into yarns for weaving.  I pass one of the community bake houses, built in the mid-1500’s.  There are no ovens in the homes in town, it’s too much of a fire hazard, so women bring trays of bread dough, covered with linen towels, to be baked in the centuries-old wood fired ovens.

My first stop is The Qasaba, built in 1471 by Moulay el Ben Rashid ed Alami in the Andalusian style, complete with crenelated walls and a watch tower with a prison in the bottom. The cell reminded me of Casanova’s cell in Venice – some things are universal. The top of the watch tower affords the expected panoramic views of the countryside. I was particularly taken with the finish work of both the carpentry and the brick flooring, and wondered if the top floor doubled as a residence. See my gallery of photos at Daveno Travels.

A building across from the tower that I think was the original manor house for Moulay Ali Ben Musa, now houses an Ethnographic Museum, although apparently I missed many of the displays. There were several settees displaying tradition craft, which I have boarded on Pinterest. The expanse between the guard tower and the manor house was filled with gardens and two fountains. Gardens and fountains were very important to Islamic cultures and nearly every building of consequence had one.

Back in the town square, my eye is caught by a textile that turns out to be a rug.  The young shopkeeper tells me he is the weaver, and draws back a row of shawls to show me his loom.  I buy one of his striped shawls, and he puts it into a small handbag which he has also woven the fabric for.  I wander off, absent in thought, when another shopkeeper shouts down at me from doorway and asks me where I’m from.  

“Seattle, USA,” I shout back.  “Is that near Tacoma?” he responds…

He introduces himself as Abdamin, and invites me into his antique store.  He shows me a photo of his girlfriend in Tacoma, and after some social banter, I have a look around.  Here’s a pile of small silk prayer rugs of the style I was looking for in Istanbul.  He pulls about half a dozen from the stacks and lays them out on the floor, and then makes me circle around them until I choose one.  I see another pile of square carpets, which he tells me are for laying your head on when you go to bed.  I buy one of each style, not haggling over the price.  While he’s fetching me a glass of coffee, I look around again, this time finding an astrolabe in a corner cabinet.  I had looked all over Florence and Istanbul for one of these, after visiting the science museums in both cities.  What an unexpected find! Abdamin takes it out of the case for me, and I promptly dismantle it to see if it has all its parts.  It does.  And now it is mine …

I finish my coffee and my transactions, and get a very friendly parting hug before setting off again.  I turn right into a cobblestone alley, looking at the tailors hunched over their sewing machines in stalls that can’t be more than 6 feet wide by 10 feet deep, stuffed floor to ceiling with folded garments and stacks of fabric.  Walking back towards the square, I spy what would become my second clothing purchase … a red, green and purple striped djellaba with fancy turkshead and tassel buttons.  The shopkeeper helps me try it on, and accepts the $200 dirham I have in my pocket in spite of his $300 dirham asking price. His wife made it, and he was eager to make his first sale of the day.  

  • My clothing purchase in Chefchaouen was a Djellaba, a full length, long sleeved garment with a hood, worn by both men and women, though I saw more men wearing them than women. Caftans do not have hoods, which sets them apart from djellaba, which always have hoods.

My wanderings take me to the backside of some apartment buildings, where I find a panorama view of what I think is the reconstruction of a lower fortress wall, and what I think is the tomb that Abdamin spoke of. He told me there are several holy men buried in Chefchaouen, though I did not learn any of their names.

I also find some other things of note, like the gate to a mosque that no longer exists, and a hamam built in 1927, and a woodworkers shop across the alley from the hamam. I put my camera away at this point, but admired all of the templates that he had hanging along the walls of his shop.

I make my last shopping stop at a shoe stall, but after trying on a pair and not succeeding at the haggle, I decline the sale, and then get lost trying to get away from the salesman who is now following me.  I pass some kids who greet me with “Ola.”  When I relayed that later to Doug, he said that a lot of Spanish tourists come here, and the kids probably weren’t Spanish, but thought that maybe I was.

After about a half hour of upstairs and downstairs and circling around to the salesman who is still trying to sell me those shoes, I find my way back to the hotel, where I rejoin my group.

And shortly after noon, we set out for Fez.

Morocco 2017 – Rabat

We leave the Habbous District of Casablanca, with it’s grand Municipal Building of carved plasterwork and arches, and the souk where I acquired a beautiful striped caftan and a tunic/pants set (yay, pants!).  We drive through another market filled with farmer’s wares, and shop from our car for bananas, apples and the distinctive round loaves of Moroccan bread that we would munch on on the road.

Morocco is an agricultural center of the Maghreb, and every crop grows here except for pistachios.  Doug points out fields of sugarcane, we saw stalks of the stuff in the souks, where it was ground and sold as a beverage.  

Unlike Casablanca, where I only saw a couple of minarets, here they dot the landscape with regularity.  They are always square (which I would learn later is a regional style) and always have a finial at the top, called a jamour, typically with 3 spheres which symbolize the sun, moon and stars.

In about an hour, we arrive in Rabat, the capital and the political, administrative and financial center of Morocco, and the second largest metropolis behind Casablanca. I am also told it has a bit of pirate history although I have not yet tracked that down.

  • Rabat was founded in the 10th century near the Roman port of Sala, and became the capitol city under the reign of Caliph Yacoub el-Mansour after his victory over Alfonso VIII at the Battle of Alarcos in 1195. After the caliph’s death, the city declined for the next several centuries until being settled by the Moors who were expelled from Spain in 1610. It regained its status as a capitol during the French occupation in 1912.

We drive along the crenelated wall of the Kasbah of the Oudaias which surrounds the oldest part of the medina, and find a place to park. The rest of our way is on foot through the covered alleys to our lodging for the night.

Kasbah of the Oudaias, surrounding the medina

We walk through an unassuming wooden door and into a courtyard, 3 stories tall, covered at the top with a pyramid-shaped glass ceiling. We have arrived at our first riad – the the Dar El Kabira. It’s stunning, filled with light, and furnished as though it were the home of a nobleman. We are seated and served glasses of tea while our passports are being. processed.  I admire a tall set of carved double doors with large brass barrel locks, wondering where the door leads to. Soon, we are given our keys and are led to our rooms.  I nearly fall over backwards when the door I have been admiring, turns out to be the door to my room …

The room has the dimensions of a large shoebox, tipped on its side. The ceiling is at least 20 foot high, dark wood and beamed, with a single simple chandelier suspended from its center. There’s a small round table to my left, holding a red velvet tagine filled with fresh fruit, and a bottle of water in an ornate cover, and a plate with a napkin and knife for the fruit,  and a welcome note, rolled up and tied with a ribbon, that includes the WIFI password. The ambience of the room calls up the 1930’s French occupation, with pastel ceramic light fixtures in the colors of Turner’s Flamingos.

I check out the bathroom and find a sink that I have only seen in photographs. It’s a finely painted blue and white porcelain basin with engraved brass fixtures, sunk in to a simple white wrought iron stand. There are toiletries here, which I grab to start reconstructing the kit that were lost with my luggage. I really don’t want to leave, but we’ve been promised a remarkable sunset…

We walk towards the waterfront, passing old graveyards on both sides of the highway.  I see a lighthouse, and a sand and rock beach that appears to be a popular hangout, in spite of the chilly wind that has picked up.  We are treated to plumes of water sent high into the air as waves crash into the breakwater, and a sun that turns the sky from pale blue to tones of Navajo pink and yellow.  We hike back up the hill towards dinner, and I turn back every few steps to watch the sun’s rays play out against the sky, which is in turn, turning the air to gold and the wall of the kasbah to shades of tawny red.

Dinner tonight is at the Dar Naji restaurant, where we sample our first classic Moroccan cuisine – a chickpea soup that tastes like the chorba I ate in Istanbul, served here with a small cinnamon bun soaked in honey, and a hard boiled egg that we are told to peel and break into the soup.   Next up is a plate of mezze – 10 different salads and relishes presented on a bed of romaine leaves.

Tea, served by a skilled waiter who pours a steady stream from a silver pot held above his head, into the six glasses on a silver tray, which he rotated with his other hand. Dinner and a show!  Bread, and tagines, and more tea and fruit for dessert. I settle back into the low couches as the meal comes to an end,  and Catherine remarks that my new striped caftan matches the cushions on the couch.  I respond that I’m trying to fade into the scenery, so I don’t have to leave.  But after awhile I’m found out, and we return to our riad to bolster reserves for our busy day tomorrow.

Breakfast the next day is served on the rooftop terrace of the hotel — yogurt, fruit, breads and tea. I note that the roof of the building behind the riad is covered with crypts.

Afterwards I rush up and down the stairs, trying to find the embroidered caftans that I can see hanging on the walls from the courtyard floor.  The maids sound French, and are dressed in white shirts, pants and short aprons, with crisp white bonnets covering their hair.  They’re looking at me from around the corners and giggling, and the manager of the hotel finally tells me that they are pleased to see a guest in traditional dress.  “Tell them I lost all my clothes at the airport, and I am now dressing Moroccan.”  The hunt for an elusive floor continues until one of the maids leads me to -the other staircase- which gets me to the third floor and allows me to complete my quest.

Today we visit the Mausoleum of Mohammed V, a leader revered as the father of Moroccan Independence. The mausoleum was commissioned by his son, Hassan II and was built by 400 Moroccan craftsmen using white Italian marble. Its stained glass windows and dome hail from France.

Glass dome in the Mausoleum of Mohammed V, made by French craftsmen

Across the plaza is the Hassan Tower and Mosque, begun in 1195 and intended to be the largest mosque and minaret in the world. My first view of the Hassan tower was through the partially ruined mosque wall. The holes in the red wall accommodated scaffolding during the construction process, and were left open to allow for air circulation.

  • Caliph Yacoub el-Mansour started construction of the Hassan Mosque in 1196 but died 3 years later, and the mosque was never finished.  It was destroyed in the earthquake of 1755 (which destroyed much of Morocco), leaving only the unfinished minaret standing.  Had it been completed it would have had the capacity for 40,000 worshippers and would have been the second largest mosque in the world behind the Samarra in Iraq.
  • In more recent history, Mohammed V conducted the first Friday prayers here, after Morocco won its independence from the French in 1956.

Hassan Tower stands at about half of its planned height. There is an internal ramp which allowed donkeys to carry building materials during its construction. My guidebook says that this tower is usually open and offers an excellent vantage point of the surrounding area. It was closed for construction when we were there.

Our next historical site is the Chellah Necropolis, dating to 1339 and built by Abou Yacoub Youssef as the site for a mosque and burial place for his wife.  The outer wall was built sometime before 1351 by Sultan Abou Yacoub,  possibly as a reconstruction of the original Roman walls.  

The site became the burial place for the Merinid rulers, of which there are now at least 50 tombs.  The site was destroyed during the 1755 earthquake that destroyed many historical sites in this region.  It now houses over 70 storks in the biggest bird nests I have ever seen.  Additional photos of this site are on my photo-blog at Daveno Travels, although I did not manage to capture the pond, where women come to feed eggs to the eels in hopes of conceiving children.

  • Travel tip: bring a dirham or two to give to the woman who sits at this pond.  You can pay a woman a dirham or two, and she will reach into her basket for a boiled egg, which she peels and feeds the whites to the eels, and the yolks to the cats who are already circling her ankles in anticipation of a treat.

We finish the day roaming around in the Kasbah of the Oudaias, the 12th century fortification at the head of the medina, restored during the 17th-18th centuries.

I did not expect to see blue-washed walls before arriving in Chefchaouen, but most of the alleys were blue at the bottom, white at the top, and led to private residences which looked out over the sea.  I discovered a courtyard, and a door, which led down a series of stone steps to the ramparts and guard towers that guarded the Kasbah on its northern and eastern sides.  

  • Travel tip: We did not get into the museum or the gardens, but I hear they are highly recommended.  Make plans to see them when you go.

See additional photos of the sites of the day at Daveno Travels.

Next stop – the Blue City of Chefchaouen…

Morocco 2017 – Welcome to Casablanca!

Mosaic facade on the Main Post Office in Casablanca

A red-headed cowboy leaning against a pillar in baggage claim, lifts his gaze from his phone.  It’s Doug Baum, our tour guide and ‘camel guy’ for the next two and a half weeks.  He offers to assist Brenda with her luggage, and looks around for mine.  I grin, and hold up my purse, and say “this is it, I’m traveling light this trip.”  “Oh Girl!” he exclaims with an air of disbelief.  

“Nothing is going to ruin this trip.  I’ve got the critical things I need, and I’ll buy new clothes in Fez.  Let’s go!”

I will not allow myself to be stressed or let lost luggage ruin this trip.  I obeyed that nagging voice in Seattle and repacked essentials.  Everything else can be replaced.  “It’ll be fun.  No stress!” I shout in Doug’s direction,  “you are not allowed to stress out about this!”  When I’m sure that we both actually believe those words, I start to laugh.  What else are you gonna do?

I comment about the unexpected site of green fields stretching to the borders of my vision.  Doug says it’s been a wet spring here, so everything is even more green than usual.  We climb into his car and he starts the conversation with a snapshot of the culture we are about to encounter.

  • My introduction to Morocco begins in Casablanca, the largest city in the country with about 31 million people, and the country’s industrial capitol. Today it is one of the four largest metropolises in all of Africa. The city was originally Berber, and was destroyed at least twice over the past 8-9 centuries. Click here for more history of this fascinating city.
  • The population of Morocco is one-third Arab and two-thirds Berber, with Derija (an Arabic dialect) and Tamazight (Berber) being the primary languages, followed by French, Spanish and a smattering of other languages. Morocco gained its independence in 1956, although its cultural history traces its lineage to pre-Roman times.

We meet up with Mark and Catherine, who have arrived from Australia, and start a walking tour of Casablanca with Nezha Sebti, our local guide. Nezha leads us down Boulevard Mohammed V, which slices through the city from its center to the waterfont, past a number of colonial era and Art Deco landmarks, including the Rialto Cinema, still in operation. Josephine Baker and Edith Piaf both performed here. The Palais de Justice, and the old French, British and German consulate buildings.

The Main Post Office caught my most fervent attention, with its stunning blue and green mosaic tile facade — an example of “Mauresque” architecture, a blending of Moorish elements, European Art Deco and Art Nouveau, which gives Casablanca its distinctive architectural flavor. The style dates back to the French Protectorate period (1906 – 1930’ish). A photo of some of the tilework is at the beginning of this blog, with additional photos at DavenoTravels.

We end our walking tour at Rick’s Cafe, inspired by the film Casablanca which was actually shot on a sound stage in the US.  All I can remember is the white tablecloth, and the Coca-Cola, poured from small glass bottles into tumblers filled with ice, each garnished with a wedge of lime.  My fatigue sets in as we finish our first dinner, and walk out through the thick crenelated wall of the medina, past a cannon and on to our lodging at Hotel Barcelo.

The next morning, breakfast is at the Terrasse Cafe Restaurant on the Corniche. It’s my first view of the Atlantic Ocean, and my first taste of tagine — Morocco’s national cooking style — this one is an egg and meat dish swimming in oil, which our driver, Mohammed, shared with me.

The sea is stormy-grey against a pale blue sky, and I can see a lighthouse in the distance.  Bagpipes below us add a humorous underlay to the morning’s conversation.

The Corniche in Casablanca

Today’s plan includes a visit to the Municipal Building – a miniature version of the Lion Courtyard from the Alhambra (which I visited in Granada). The building was crawling with police since the King was in residence, and I had to be very careful in aiming my camera away from them.

Afterwards, Doug and I spent an hour shopping at a nearby souk, where I begin building my Moroccan wardrobe. I come away with a nice (and expensive) striped caftan, and an embroidered cotton tunic with pants included (yay pants!)

Our next stop is the Hassan II Mosque. the largest in Morocco and the fifth largest in the world.  The prayer room has a glass floor over the sea, and a retractable roof, and accommodates 25,000 worshippers. We weren’t able to go inside, but I explored as much of the exterior as we had time for.  We also got to watch workmen doing restoration work on both a fountain and the mosaic work over one of the side doors.

Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca

On the other side of the expansive courtyard, we walked past the madrasa – a university for Koranic study, and into a museum which had numerous examples of the styles of craftwork we would see up close and personal throughout this trip. I have boarded tile and plasterwork, as well as several door panels on Pinterest.

I commented to Doug on the plantings between the Hassan II courtyard and the Madras, which included palm, snake plant, and surprisingly, prickly pear. Doug said that prickly pear was brought here from Spain during the time of Columbus, and that it’s used throughout rural Morocco as organic fencing. See more of the Hassan II Mosque on my photo-blog at Daveno Travels.

Next stop – Rabat ….

Morocco At Last

Finally.  After two weeks of flurried preparations at both home and office, and a very long night filled with unnecessary preparations, today has arrived.  I am on my way to Morocco.

The last time I went to Istanbul, I was packed in 2 hours. It has taken me 3 days to pack for this trip, and yet last night, heeding a nagging voice in my head, I repacked again. I dump my carry-on out onto the floor, swapping out my shoes, moving my chargers and adapters to my purse, as well as my sewing kit, a small roll of duct tape, a spare shirt and a book.  “This is a ridiculous level of overthinking,” I say to myself.  But I chalk it up to the normal pre-travel jitters which always keeps me up until 2 AM the night before a flight.

Adam, the apartment maintenance guy arrives just as I am leaving, to patch the ceiling in my bathroom after a week of flooding from the upstairs neighbor.  “It’ll all be repaired by the time you get back,” he assures me. I’ve spent the last several days packing valuables into my now empty fridge, oven and dishwasher, bundled much of my clothing into plastic bags, and have parceled irreplaceable belongings out to a handful of friends, in the event that the neighbor upstairs persists in letting his faucets run unattended, or worse – setting the place on fire, as I look with some concern at a BBQ which has newly arrived on his deck…

A final tussle with the ShopCats and reassurances that substitute keepers would arrive twice daily to provide them with meals and playtime, I’m off to board bus and then LightRail that will take me to the airport.

I have left extra early to counter Seattle traffic (there was none), and lines at the airport (there were none).  I take a pleasant stroll down the concourse to the Lufthansa ticketing desk with my TSA pre-check pass in hand.  “Sorry miss, your bag is overweight (by less than 2 pounds!) and will have to be checked.”  Oh well, at least I won’t have to wheel it through the airport and struggle with getting it into the overhead bin on the plane.  

I hop onto the tram (no waiting!) and thread my way through halls and escalators to the international gate, and through security without having to take off my shoes (a first!).  I’m still 2.5 hours early, so I grab a yogurt, a seat, and my copy of El Cid which I had slid into my purse at the last minute.

Previous flights to Frankfurt have taught me to book an aisle seat in the center section of the plane, since the chances are high that you’ll have at least one empty seat next to you.  This pays off for me again, and after dinner and a movie – “The Dressmaker,” a deliciously dark piece – I curl up across 2 seats and take a nap.

Eight hours later, we land in Frankfurt.  No frisking or swabbing for explosives at Frankfurt (another first!) “Wow, this is going to be a great trip, everything is going so well!” I whisper to myself, through lips curled in an uncharacteristic grin. I meet up with Brenda, a woman from Toronto who will be one of my traveling companions for the next several days.  We pass the time with idle chit-chat, sitting on the floor in the hallway, wondering why the seating area for the gate is behind locked glass doors.  Finally, after the hall has filled with passengers, and the staff have made several false starts, the doors are unlocked and we flood in.  More waiting, and then boarding, and the final leg of the flight begins.

The plane follows the Spanish coastline on its way to North Africa.  I’ve booked a window seat for this 3 hour flight, and look out over green lakes, an unexpected patchwork of crop fields that stretch to the horizon, and an expanse of solar panels about half an hour outside of Casablanca.  

We land, deboard and head to baggage claim.  Brenda finds her suitcase right away and waits for me as I search the carousel, and then the piles of suitcases in the corner, and then every other carousel.  After about 20 minutes I find an airport staff to help me, and we search again, everywhere, for a tidy, well packed lime green bag that apparently never arrived…

Pro-bono projects – and Morocco!

This news story was originally posted in early March 2017 on my previous website. I am reposting it here for posterity and public record : )

The absence of blog posts is an indication of just how busy I have been over the last few months.  

First of all, I want to announce that I am pausing hat production for the rest of March.  I am joining a small band of intrepid travelers on a three week tour of Morocco. Our guide, Doug Baum, is renowned both for his camel tours of Egypt, India, Jordan and Morocco, as well as camel treks in the SW US. He is as the owner / operator of the US Army Camel Experimentestablished to educate the public on the historic use of camels in America in the 19th century.  Brace yourselves for an onslaught of blog notes and photos upon my return …

In January I delivered a dozen handmade caps to a Vendor Appreciation event for Real Change News.  I challenged myself in November and December to make these caps as part of my annual philanthropic efforts. Real Change is an advocacy group working towards ending homelessness and poverty in the Pacific NW.  This project was so much fun that I hope to make it a new annual giving tradition.

Late last year I was approached by The Underground Railway Theater, a theater group in Cambridge, who were looking for hats for a play titled “Homebody Kabul”. They provided me with some off-the shelf imports and asked me to rework them so they would look handmade and echo the descriptions from their script. It was an interesting process, turning imported hats into stage props… My Homebody Kabul album on Facebook shows the original hat in the comments section for each makeover, and included quotes from the play in selected photos.  I donated three of the hats to keep them within their allotted budget.

“…Several months ago I was feeling low and decided to throw a party and a party needs festive hats. So I took the tube to where there are shops full of merchandise from exotic locales, wonderful things made by people believe as I do not…whose grandparents believed in magic, believed that some combination of piety, joy, ecstasy, industry, brought to bear on the proper raw materials…” 
from “Homebody Kabul” – a play by Tony Kushner.

My next project was the Women’s Marches in Seattle, Sacramento, Olympia and Washington DC. After trying to knit a hat, I turned to my “linen closet” and produced hats with a handstamped design and ears in two variants. I randomly selected 10 men and women, and gifted them with a custom made hat for them to wear, as well as one to give away that was patterned after the knit version. The results of that project are captured in The Art of the March.

These hats became so popular that I added them to my Custom Catalog, in a variety of colors and cuff treatments, with 50% of the purchase price benefitting Planned Parenthood.   I have sold about 20 so far.  If you would like to order one, they will be available again after April 5.

The black and pink hat shown here is the one I wore in the Seattle March, and has been accepted as part of the permanent collection at the Fashion History Museum in Cambridge, Ontario, just as soon as I can get it shipped.

I am now working on a hat for the Science Marches that will be occurring on April 22.  I am still working on the prototype, which will be made of linen in your choice of color, with an atom embroidered on the top, and a DNA strand handstamped to the sides. The cost will be about $65, and I plan to donate about 20% of the purchase price to an organization working to support women in the sciences.  The leading candidate is the Scientista Foundation, although I am also collecting other suggestions.  
If you are interested in ordering this hat, I am not collecting money right now, but do give me your name, head size and color preference.  Ears are optional and at no additional charge.  

I am now off to finish hat orders and attend to a list of logistics for my upcoming trip.  See you when I get back!

Creative Minds on Orcas Island

I took a weekend excursion to this, one of 172 islands that make up the San Juan Islands. A friend of mine, Janet Gadallah, has opened an art gallery here and I’ve come to pay her a visit and to deliver some summer straws.

After a full day of sightseeing, including the Rosario Resort and Mt. Constitution, we return to her gallery, where I check my new hats into her inventory, and then begin the evening project – painting all of the door and window frames in her gallery from ugly cream to shiny black.

I must say that a little paint makes a big difference. The new black woodwork not only frames her gallery nicely, but ties the building to the art and makes everything pop …

New Summer Arrivals from August Phoenix Hats!

The gallery showcases island and regional artists, many exclusive to Creative Minds. It’s located at 123 North Beach Road in Eastsound. Be sure to stop by when you’re on the island!

Stitchery Series Part V – Applique & More!

This is the last in this series, which has focused on (mostly) Chinese embroidery as a surface embellishment. This segment will cover a few other forms of surface decoration that can be combined with embroidery to bring new color, texture and uniqueness to your own textile projects.

Reverse appliqué is my favorite technique and can add a lot of dimension to your project, especially if you are working in several layers of heavy fabrics. I used this technique for a small round pillow with five layers of wool. By the time I was done, the pillow gave the impression of being carved rather than sewn.

Grab some history and technique of this process at the download below:

Stitchery Series Part IV – Chinese Symbolism

Every symbol in Chinese textiles had significance, and evolved from several philosophies and concepts.  The Chinese enjoy puns and plays on words, and often designs were used if their verbal sound or written character was similar to a quality or virtue.  Hence, because the words for bat and happiness sound similar, bat became the symbol for happiness. 

The invention of the draw loom and the development of jacquards and brocades allowed patterns to be woven into the cloth. Common patterns included checks, diamonds, zig-zags, coins, clouds, dragons, lions, horses, flowers, birds and fish. Brocades were often over-embroidered to augment the woven patterns (a technique I now employ on my hats…) 

Learn more about Chinese Symbolism in embroidery and textiles here:

Stitchery Series Part III – The Stitches

This installment provides a ‘Cliff Notes” historical overview of embroidery stitches in China and Europe, and rolls right into the stitches themselves.

There are somewhere around 100 – 150 identifiable embroidery stitches used worldwide.  I have only captured here those that are the oldest and most recognizable. For additional stitches, please look into the additional resources at the bottom of this post.

A Gothic Hat

Travel inspires my work.

This is my singular inspiration from Spain, from the Cloister of St. John the King in Toledo. It took about 6 years to bring this hat from drawing board to finished piece, and hours of experimentation to translate the arches not only into textile, but into a commercially viable piece of wearable art.

The first one I made was from recycled wool. The arches are ultrasuede that I gleaned from a thrift store skirt, applied in padded applique to give the arches some additional dimension. Detailed in hand embroidery, and finished with a mink rescued from a vintage coat.

I have made one other in a Garden style, with a padded fabric cuff ornamented with grape leaves, vines and grape clusters. Both styles will be available soon by custom order in my catalog.

Andalucia 2012 – Granada’s Albayzin District

My first breakfast in Granada was in the modern district, at a cafe that seems to attract every cop in the city for their morning coffee. My last breakfast will be in the historic district of Albayzin, followed by a day of leisurely walk-abouts as I savor my final day in Spain.

I hop the #31 Red Tour Bus to the old Moorish quarter of Albayzin, where I have breakfast of cafe de leche with no sugar, and ‘1/2 racion de churros’ – a sort of donut but very airy and not as sweet.  I watched the cook as she swirled the vat of oil before extruding a length of batter into it, using long chopsticks to catch the batter and guide it into a spiral, flipping it once in the oil before flipping it out onto a plate. The entire process took about 45 seconds. 

The Albayzin District is whitewashed like Cordoba was, a restful change from the sites of the past couple of days.  I enter at San Nicholas Square and start wandering down streets and selected alleyways.  I find  the Great Mosque but cannot enter.  Built in 2003, it’s a modern, compact building with a tiled three-station ablution area. There’s a fountain in the courtyard and a great view of the Alhambra and the Sierra Nevada mountains in the distance. The view must be spectacular at night.

A farmers’ market is in full swing today. I find a shop window full of small doll-like religious figures. The white hooded figures at center look like KKK but are actually inquisitors, among other church themed figurines. It struck me as really odd, given how gruesome the Inquisition was in Granada …

There’s a blue path laid out on the cobblestones that seems to be an art installation, running from San Nicolas Square to some unknown stopping point. I follow it and discover a chapel built into a wall is all that remains of the Fortress of Granada, that pre-dates the Alhambra. Here’s a synagogue which is also closed, which has curious brass horseshoe-donkey motifs on the planters on each side of the door. I stop to photograph an iron grillwork that is nearly identical to the one on my front door at home.  It would inspire me to do a minor make-over of my front porch, to play up the Spanish influence. 

I cannot find any books, but buy some tiles as a souvenir before catching a bus to the Sacromente, which I miss and end up back downtown. By the time I arrive, it’s siesta, so the Cathedral and the Royal Chapel are closed.  I check out of my hotel and board a bus to Malaga, where I have booked a hotel close to the airport for my flight home in the morning.

I check into the Hotel Solymar, a non-descript but adequate hotel two blocks from the beach.  I walk by a granite marker inscribed with ‘Birthplace of Antonio Banderas” which cracks me up, especially when i start seeing other references in shop windows.  I do not see any such monuments dedicated to Pablo Picasso, who was also born here.  

I choose a fish restaurant on the beach and have the full attention of the staff since I’m the only one there. I look out the window towards an industrial area to the north, and an absence of sea birds over the waves.  

The tide is coming in. The beach is dirty but I take my shoes off anyway, and venture out into the surf for a stroll as the sun sets on my last day in lovely Spain. You will find photos of my final day in Spain on my photo-blog at Daveno Travels.

Andalucia 2012 – Granada and the Alhambra

When your concierge says “you only need to be at the train station five minutes ahead of departure,” take him at his word. So far this trip, my hotels have been 5-10 minutes away from the train station, and a 5 or 6 Euro fare.

In spite of his suggestion, I arrive an hour early for my next destination – Granada and the famous Moorish Red Fortress known as the Alhambra…

I board the train for Granada, which is delayed three times due to accidents and adds an hour to this trip. I arrive at the Abadia, where I check into a pleasant, spacious, modern room on the floor level of a courtyard filled with small palms and tables with umbrellas. I would enjoy coffee a few times during my stay here. I’m a little fatigued this morning and my Google directions have failed. It is still early enough for a cappuccino so I stop in the first cafe I find, for a cup of caffeinated froth and a consult in my travel guide. I’m off to find the Cathedral.

I encountered living statue street performers in Florence, and find one here as well. This one is a Roman soldier who becomes animated as soon as you put coins into his box. I watch him for awhile before heading to the Cathedral, running a gauntlet of gypsies so numerous and aggressive that their attempts to exchange their sprigs of rosemary for coin becomes a contact sport. I think I should have hired the Roman as a bodyguard…

  • The Cathedral is another Christian church built where a mosque once stood. It began as a Gothic structure but was finished in the Baroque style. It is closed today, which is only a minor disappointment since I’m starting to get burned out on cathedrals and religious artifacts this trip. Ferdinand and Isabella are interred in the Royal Chapel adjacent to the Cathedral but I could not locate the building.

There’s an open air spice market just outside of the Cathedral, where I buy tea and saffron, and sample candied aloe vera, which tastes sort of like green tea ice cream. I enter the Calle Reyes, a plaza filled with cafes and shops. I manage to find a sewing shop in every city and Granada is no exception. This one carried mostly yarns and flosses, embroidery hoops on stands, and the rayon that mantilla fringe is made from.  There’s also a statue here of a famous guide and his burro.

I hop aboard a tour bus and head up to the Alhambra.

  • The Alhambra (Al Qal’a al-Hamra,) or “The Red Castle”, was built during the Nasrid Dynasty in 1243 and was the last Moorish stronghold to fall to the Spanish Reconquista in 1492. It gets its name from the red clay the buildings were built from.
  • It was designed to be a palace-city (like the Topkapi in Istanbul) and was further transformed in the 13th century when water was brought up from the Taro River and the castle was expanded into a fortress. The complex contains several gardens, and the Nasrid Palaces, the oldest and most well preserved Islamic palaces in the world.
  • Travel tip:Reservations are highly recommended. Due to ecological concerns, they limit the number of visitors per day and after waiting in line for over an hour, I was one of the three last people who got to the ticket counter before they cut off ticket sales for that day.

Once inside the complex, my first stop is the Tienda Libereria de la Alhambra, the official bookstore. My purchases are governed by how much weight I am willing to carry for the rest of the day. Beyond that there are several souvenir shops selling both antiques and replicas. Among the wooden pistols and knives is a scissor-dagger in a sheath, which I lust over for several minutes before walking away from the case.

Must. Move. On…

Entry to the Nasrid Palaces is timed, so I visited the Generalife, a separate area outside of the Alhambra Fortress, built as a recreational area where the Kings of Granada could escape their official routine.

  • Travel tip: Every eatery here seems to order the same menu of pre-packaged processed foods. I want a salad but never find one, so I end up forgoing lunch. There are plenty of places to sit down here for those wise enough to save their money for books and bring their own picnic lunch. Water and shade are both limited, especially in the area where you queue up to enter the Nasrid Palaces. Bring a hat and your own water bottle.

The Generalife (“Garden of the Architect”) reflects the Muslim concept of garden as it is referenced in the Koran and to reproduce paradise on earth. Dating back to at least the 13th century, it originally included orchards, farmland, and animal pens. It’s gardens are currently planted with citrus, jujube, pomegranate and grapes, cypress, laurel, jasmine, and roses, which are very fragrant. Andrea Navagero, the Venetian ambassador to Charles V, wrote in 1526:

  • “…Although it is not very large, it is extremely beautiful and well constructed and the beauty of its gardens and waters is the best that I have seen in Spain… The water arrives at a stunning green courtyard, which has the appearance of a meadow with a few trees, and by closing off certain channels, the stream that flows through this meadow, I know not how, swells underfoot and dampens everything and then effortlessly retreats without evidence of human hand…
  • For a concise history of the Generalife and a selection of travelers’ accounts between the 15th-19th centuries, please read “The Generalife: Garden of Paradise” by Jose Antonio Garcia Lujan.

The Court of the Myrtles (named after the hedge that surrounds it), previously known as the Court of Alberca or the Court of the Pool, is an example of classic Granada architecture, built during the reign of Muhammed V (the founder of the Nasrid dynasty). Half of the wooden ceiling was lost in a fire in 1890.

Beyond the Patio of the Sultana is the Water Stairway, dating to the 16th century. Under a canopy of bay trees, four sets of terraced stairs are linked by three landings, with a small fountain in the center. The stone handrails have channels carved into them that were filled with water that flowed so fast, they created little whirlpools at the round joints. The sound of birds and water throughout the gardens was omnipresent, and at times, drowned out all other sound. I would remember it as one of my favorite spots here.

I enter the Fortress through the Water Tower and veer right, walking past more gardens and into the section called the Partal. The Palacio del Partal is another of the oldest buildings at the Alhambra. The tower is known as The Observatory and the pond serves as a water tank. Its original roof was dismantled in the early 20th century and resides in the Islamic Art collection in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin.

Next to the Partal Palace lies the Mexuar Oratory, the private place of prayer for the sultan and his retinue. The Mexuar was the first of the Nasrid palaces to be built here. It is oriented towards Mecca and is unusual in that it’s windows are open rather than being enclosed in glass. Its walls are carved plasterwork that I would later see in the Nasrid Palace. John Hoag, author of “Western Islamic Architecture” describes the work as “carved with incredible intricacy on a scale so minute it looks like embroidered cloth.” It’s a very accurate description.

I was not prepared for the visual feast. There are so many viewpoints framed by architecture that at times it becomes surreal, and feels more like I am standing in a painting instead of a landscape. Like my experience at the Topkapi, after awhile I put my camera away and just tried to drink everything in with my eyes, confident that much of what I would see would be included in the stack of books I was adding to my Islamic arts library.

  • For those of you who would like a deeper dive into these buildings, I suggest “Reading the Alhambra: a visual guide to the Alhambra through its inscriptions” by Jose Miguel Puerta Vilchez (published by the Alhambra and Generalife Trust and EDILUX s.l.,) This book might also be helpful in translating the Kufic and Arabic script that you see in the tiles, carvings and other art pieces here.

The Courtyard of the Lions is said to correspond to the Koranic definition of Paradise and is also called “The Garden of Happiness”. The channel at the feet of the lion fountain symbolizes the four “rivers” running off in the four cardinal directions. It is one of the most private places in the Royal Palace. This courtyard dates to 1380.

The Fountain of the Twelve Lions is under restoration. Originally a water clock, each lion spouted water to mark a specific hour. After the Reconquista, the new Christian inhabitants dismantled it to see how it worked, but could not reassemble it. It has never worked as a water clock since that time. The lions are thought to date back to the 10th century; two of them are on display in Palace of Charles V. The top of the fountain was removed to another garden in the Generalife complex. I have included a black and white photo of the original fountain in my corresponding blog at Daveno Travels.

Washington Irving, author of “Tales of the Alhambra” and “Sleepy Hollow” lived in the Royal Apartments in 1829 before becoming the ambassador to Spain. My vacation was extended by reading his book, and retracing my steps through his eyes. I quote him periodically throughout the rest of this journal:

  • “…we passed through a Moorish archway into the renowned Court of Lions. There is no part of the edifice that gives us a more complete idea of its original beauty… for none has suffered so little from the ravages of time. In the center stands the fountain famous in song and story. The alabaster basins still shed their diamond drops, and the twelve lions which support them cast forth their crystal streams as in the days of Boabdil…”

The Hall of the Abencerages is at the opposite end of the Courtyard of the Lions. This is the first apartment which constitutes the Harem, this section reserved for the Sultana. This was also the site of an assassination, and the blood spots are still said to be visible on the marble floor. When Washington Irving lived here, he was told that this part of the palace was haunted by the event, and that sounds of low voices and the clanking of chains could be heard late at night.

Facing the courtyard is the Hall of the Two Sisters, the best preserved section of this palace. It is named after the pair of stone slabs that flank the fountain which is imbedded in the marble floor. A channel leads the water from this fountain to the center Fountain of the Lions. There is a network of pipes below the surface which recirculates the water back to the fountains.

  • “The lower part of the walls is encrusted with beautiful Moorish tiles… the upper part is faced with fine stucco-work invented at Damascus, consisting of large plates, cast in molds and artfully joined, so as to have the appearance of having been laboriously sculpted by hand…”

Washington Irving resided at the Alhambra in 1829. I poked my head into his lodgings in the Royal Apartments. The interiors felt Italian in style, in what looked like mahogany paneling, a dark contrast to the carved plaster of the rest of the complex. I later read in Irving’s account of these rooms in his “Tales of the Alhambra.”

  • “…the door opened to a range of vacant chambers of European architecture…there were two lofty rooms, the ceilings of which were of deep panel-work of cedar, richly and skillfully carved with fruits and flowers…”
  • “…I found on inquiry that it was an apartment fitted up by Italian artists in the early part of the last century, at the time when Philip V and the beautiful Elizabeth of Parma were expected at the Alhambra and was destined for the queen and the ladies of her train…”

The fountain and the garden he later describes, are still there, although I am sad that I did not arrive home with a photo of it.

The palace of Charles V, a stark Florentine-looking box which now houses the Alhambra Museum, includes Roman and Islamic artifacts. The building is expansive on the inside but as it is not furnished, it is hard to tell what it may have looked like in period. Its round courtyard was commissioned by Charles for his bride, Isabella of Portugal. The architect was Pedro Manchuca, who was born in Toledo and studied in Italy under Michelangelo. The building was abandoned during the next century, having never acquired its roof.

  • “…With all its grandeur… it appeared to us like an arrogant intrusion, and passing by it, we entered a simple unostentatious portal, opening into the interior of the Moorish Palace…”

This oldest section of the Alhambra is the Alcazaba, built on Sabika Hill, where a castle already stood, dating back to 860. It was renovated and became the defensive fortress for the entire Alhambra Fortress. It is separated from the rest of the fortress and the Nasrid Palaces by the Wine Gate, where tax free wine was sold during the medieval period. It was here that Boabdil relinquished the keys to the city to the Christian monarchs at their successful end of the Spanish Reconquista.

I end my tour of the Alhambra at the Monastery of San Francisco. It was built by Queen Isabella in the 15th century to fulfill a promise she had made to her church, to build a monastery next to the Moorish palaces in the Alhambra. It stands on the site of a mosque, palace and gardens built in the previous century. Ferdinand and Isabella were originally buried here, but were later exhumed and moved to the Royal Chapel adjoining the Cathedral downtown.

The Monastery now houses the Parador Hotel. I could not afford to stay there, but did eat dinner there, where I ordered a salad but was served a plate of salted salmon instead. The dining terrace affords a magnificent view.

For additional information about the Alhambra, or to plan your own trip there,please visit their website.

Now that you’ve read my tale, see more of the Alhambra via my photo-blog at Daveno Travels.

The Inspired Turks

This collection resulted from my travels through Istanbul in 2011. They are shown there alongside the architectural elements that I was inspired by, which includes the Harem Apartments at the Topkapi Palace, the Grand Bazaar, and my favorite mosques.

Of this collection, the Suleyman and Suleyman Garden remain among my most popular styles, made by hand from mostly reclaimed textiles. Both styles are available by custom order, and through my galleries during the fall and winter season. I have also reintroduced my Topkapi, hand painted on linen for a lighter weight summer hat.

After overcoming my fear of flying in 2009, my first international was to Carnivale in Venice, a trip that would inspire me to create hats that mirrored the sites I had seen there. Two years later, I returned to Florence, and then went on to Istanbul. I would now be happiest if I could visit the world every six months : )

The journals for this collection are now available here. I hope you will continue reading the back stories behind my creations.

Next up – a Gothic hat inspired by my travels in Spain!

Venetians and Florentines

This collection resulted from my travels to Italy between 2009-2011. They are shown here alongside the architectural elements they are inspired by.

Of this collection, the Venetian and Venetian Garden remain among my most popular styles, usually by custom order, made mostly by hand and almost entirely from reclaimed textiles and found objects. I have also reintroduced the Florentine to my Custom Catalog.

My first trip outside of the US was in 2009, when I attended Carnivale in Venice. It is the trip that started my internationally inspired designs. Read the rest of my Travels in Italy for the back stories behind these hats.

Andalucia 2012 – The Alcazar and Surrounds

After I have seen all the sites in the Jewish Quarter of Cordoba, I break for lunch. Today’s attempt at ordering tapas and a mojito for lunch are ‘corrected’ by the waiter who insists that I should more properly order a crab salad and a glass of white wine. Apparently I was trying to order bar food and I also apparently defy the meals of a stereotype female. The salad comes with a packaged loaf of bread. There is so much pre-packaged food here… Music in this restaurant is American rock from the ’50’s.

I finish the lunch that was chosen for my by the wait-staff, and spend my next few hours at the Alcazar.

  • The Alcazar was the castle of King Alfonso X, known as The Learned, King of Castile, Toledo, Leon, Seville, Cordoba and a few other cities. He ruled from 1252 until his death in 1284 and spent nearly two decades in what would become a failed pursuit to become Emperor of Christian Europe. In spite of draining his treasury by remaining in a state of near constant war, Alfonso also promoted a blossoming in the arts, sciences, and law. He is commemorated in the US House of Representatives as one of the world’s most influential lawgivers.
  • King Alfonso also recognized Spanish as a formal language of government, breaking Latin’s hold and accelerating Spanish as one of the world’s most widely spoken languages. Castilian became the common language as well, helping to unify a people who had been conducting business and general life in Arabic, Berber, Hebrew, Basque, Portuguese and a host of other languages and dialects.
  • The Alcazar was started in 1328 as a military fortification, and was later extended to include gardens, transforming int a residence for the Catholic monarchs after the Reconquista. Christopher Columbus was received here by Ferdinand and Isabella. After the surrender of Granada, it was used by the church until the Inquisition was banned in 1821, after which point it was used as a prison until 1951.

The area outside the wall is a public park / plaza. I was surprised to find plazas of hard packed yellow clay more often than plazas of grass.

Unlike the other ‘castles’ here which were actually manor houses, the Alcazar feels more like a fortification. A statue of King Alfonso stands near the entrance. There are a number of artifacts here but I only found one furnished room, a council chamber, perhaps used as a war room. A stone staircase takes you to the roof where the view between the crenelations is far superior to the view from tower I would later see at the Roman Bridge.

The highlight of this building is the gardens in back, with its terraced pools down the center, filled with foot-long fish that are probably hand fed. There are mosaic pools in Romanesque themes situated towards the back corner. The garden also features formal box hedges, and topiary in the shape of large jugs with handles.

I cross the wide, brick paved Roman Bridge to the Museum of Three Cultures. There are buskers and a few craftsmen stationed along the bridge, and a statue of Saint Raphael, guardian angel of Cordoba since the 16th century, when he appeared to a clergyman, proclaiming that the city was in his possession. This tower at the end of the bridge hosts a museum, which begins with a ‘talking wax statues’ presentation, which, although interesting, was a little tedious. The rest of the museum is mostly panoramas of various aspects of Islamic life. 

Across the street from the Alcazar are the Almohade Bath (the Caliph’s Baths), a partially restored ruin of royal baths. You enter a Reception Hall, built in the 10th century, when the Alcazar became the governor’s seat.  There are traces of carved plaster in this room, with foiled arches, inscriptions, plant motifs, geometric decoration and mythological animals.  In the center of this room there was once a fountain with a spout and basin, which may have been used as a reception hall or a ceremonial space by the governor of Cordoba between the 11th-14th centuries.  It was also used by the kings of Castille.

The informational placards (of which there are many) will tell you that the Baths had a perfect design, from the changing room where you would leave your clothes, to the Cold Room, where you would perform ablutions at the tiled fountain, and use the latrine.  It is here that you would receive a cloth and ‘alcorques’ – a cork-soled sandal that would help you to avoid slipping or scalding.  Your next stop would be the Warm Room, a domed room where you would bathe. You can see the original marble slab flooring here.

You would then progress to the Hot Room, another domed room divided into three spaces, two had pools, one of which was installed by Christians during the 13th century. A bronze furnace between the two pools supplied heat to the pools and the hypocaust – galleries under the marble flooring through which heat passed from the furnace to the chimneys.  Ceramic pipes distributed heated water to the pools and also heated the marble floors. The furnace was made of refractory brick and was kept lit at all times to prevent the deterioration of the boiler. It was only extinguished to change its position or for repairs.

There was also a garden here but it was in serious disrepair.  It originally was divided into four parts by two channels, in the center of which was either a pavilion or a fountain.  (I would later see this style of garden at the Court of Lions in Granada, and would learn that it reflected the ideal of Paradise in Islamic architecture). The garden was laid out in front of the baths at a lower level than the floor of the portico, so the tree tops were at the same height as the people.  The garden may have contained orange and lemon trees, myrtle and aromatic plants, making it a pleasure for the senses. 

  • The Andalusies developed a sophisticated hydraulic engineering and irrigation system which brought water here by an aqueduct that followed the top of the city walls, and discharged into reservoirs near the baths.  A brick cistern in the baths was used for irrigation.

I walked along the riverfront and shops, it’s ambience heightened by the number of women dressed in traditional flamenco wear, apparently for some festival.

Dinner is, at last, tapas! A small plate of marinated shellfish, and another plate of potato and pepper salad, followed by a flamenco show at the Tablao Cardenal later that evening.  I may never know why I was seated at a table by myself, at the corner of the stage, with everyone else being seated at the other end of the room. At intermission, one of the lead singers sat down at my table and tried to strike up a conversation, but my Spanish remained inadequate, and all I could say was “no habla.”

On the stage, the women are spirited in step and very serious in facial expression, in high contrast to the men, whose broad grins were so contagious that even the women were smiling by the end of the evening.

It was a great experience to end my stay in this city. See more of the Alcazar and Cordoba on my photo-blog at Daveno Travels.

Andalucia 2012 – The Jewish Quarter

I leave the Mezquita and admire the palms, as they filter shade onto the hard-packed clay that paves the public spaces here. I am off to the Jewish Quarter, one of the best preserved and largest urban Jewrys in Europe. There are two homes of note here, across the street from each other, as well as the Synagogue.

The first home is Casa de Sefarad. The first room of this house is filled with absolutely stunning metalworked textiles as well as jewelry and household objects.

  • Sephardic Jews introduced the production of Golden Thread, from North Africa to Europe via Morocco, Turkey and the Mediterranean. Gold and silver were smelted in specialized furnaces to produce this thread, which was then spun with silk to make it pliable. Golden Thread production contributed to the social structure of single and widowed Jewish women, who were the chief creators of both the thread and the textiles it embellished. Sephardic Jews had a leading role in the production of this thread up to the 20th century.
Shown here is a section of a heavily worked jacket.

I admire cases of jewelry, including a pair of silver cloak brooches, and a metal wedding cap similar to those I saw in Bursa. A selection of Hamsa, which was a cross-cultural piece. Muslims call it the Hand of Fatima, symbolizing the five pillars of Islam. Jewish people call it the Hand of Miriam, symbolizing the five books of the Torah. There are several mediums represented here, including metal piercework, enamelwork, and one piece that displayed a Sultan’s tughra (calligraphed signature) on its palm.

The rooms here are painted in vibrant shades of blue and red, with wood planked floors rather than tile. I am stunned to find a full size painting of Lubna, a 10th century Cordoban woman with extensive knowledge of calculus, metrics, and math. She worked in the library of Caliph Al-Hakim II, considered the most important depository of knowledge at the time. She is also a doppelgänger for a friend of mine, Kate O’Guinn.

Additional photos of the Casa de Sefarad are boarded on Pinterest

Nearby is a synagogue, built at about the same time as the house. Its small size indicates that it was a private space, built for the family. Built in 1315, it was used until the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492. In 1588 it was the property of the shoemaker’s guild, who added a chapel dedicated to St. Crispin, the patron saint of shoemakers.

There is a timeline here showing the persecution of the Jews over the centuries, starting with the Roman inquisition of 1184, the destruction of the Jewish Quarter by fire in 1391, and the Inquisition of Cordoba in 1482. The most wrenching reference is to the night of December 22, 1504, when 107 Jews were burned in a single night. By the mid-18th century, the burning of people stopped, but was replaced by the burning of books…

Across the street is Andalucia House, whose claim to fame is a scale model of one of the first paper making factories in the Western world. Paper was invented to China, and carried by Muslims during the 10th century to Europe via Bagdad, Sicily and Spain. Clicking on my previous photo link will bring you to a step-by-step photo expose of the papermaking process and the medieval tools that were employed.

To learn more about the Jewish Quarter, visit this website. I have boarded the papermaking process on Pinterest.

Andalucia 2012 – Cordoba and the Mezquita

Cordoba is almost as much like OZ as Istanbul was.  My introduction to this city is a drive through a very crowded street, along a stone wall which I would discover is the Mezquita, a model of which I saw at the Islamic Science Museum in Istanbul last year, and a major reason I came here.

  • I was also drawn to Cordoba because of its history as a scholastic and scribal center as far back as the 8th century.  Under Muslim rule, Spain celebrated a golden age of economic and cultural revival.  Christians, Jews and Muslims worked side by side in the scribal houses, translating the world’s works into their respective languages.  It was among the most diverse and religiously tolerant city of its time. 

My taxi drops me off at the front door of Los Patios, across the street from the Mezquita.

What a happy little hotel!  The enclosed courtyard is filled with palms and tables, with 23 fully furnished hotel rooms overlooking it from the second floor. The concierge tells me that admittance to the Mezquita is free in the morning (Sunday) and that my meals in the hotel are discounted by 10%.  I take advantage of that offer by sitting down to a dish of squid in ink sauce and my first Sangria before setting out to explore the city…

Near my hotel is a horse stable and a poster advertising the equestrian festival which begins the day after I leave.  The stable is locked but I find a piece of screening that had been torn away enough to be able to slip a camera through. I can just barely see the heavily vaulted ceilings and iron railings that separate the stalls.

The next street leads me through Los Patios District. The origins of these courtyards date to Roman times, when houses were built round open air ‘agora’s. The Moorish term is casinillo, with their additions of fountains and flowers. They are almost always whitewashed, and every inch of wall space is covered with potted plants and flowers, predominantly geraniums, and many of the owners will gladly charge you a pittance to allow you to come in and look around. I paid a 50-cent admission fee to enter one of these courtyards, and found it cool and incredibly fragrant.

Heading north takes me into the Art Nouveau District, where the architecture is a mix of Nouveau and Deco facades.  Turning a corner suddenly brings me into the stark ruins of a Roman temple dating to the 1st century. 

  • The city of Cordoba dates back to about 160 BC, when it served as a Roman trading port. It remained a Roman city for 8 centuries. It became an Emirate in 756 and a Caliphate under Abd-ar-Rahman in 929. 

I tour the Palacio de Viana, a series of twelve courtyards and a garden taking up 6,500 sq.m. of space surrounding a 14th century manor house named after the Marquises of Villaseca, a ruling family who lived here until the 19th century.  Among my favorites was the Courtyard of the Cats, the oldest documented community courtyard in Córdoba, known in the 15th century as the Houses of Puentezuela de Tres Caños. The Courtyard of the Orange Trees was originally the Arabic kitchen garden, and the entrance to the palace in the 15th century. It includes a maze garden with a fountain at the center, surrounded by 100-year old orange trees.

I was not able to take photos inside the palace, though I did take a few of the kitchen, including an interior water well, a version of which I would see again in the Jewish Quarter. The rest of my photos for today are on my photo-blog at Daveno Travels.

I finish my day with dinner at an outdoor cafe, where my lack of Spanish thwarts my efforts to order tapas.  I notice the tent card on the table for pre-packaged flans, custards and ice creams, that are delivered to your table in their wrappers. I would find identical menus at nearly every restaurant I ate at here, and was amused with the concept of restaurant menus for freezer-case desserts.

Breakfast the next day is toast and pate that tasted like a spam product, peach juice and plain yogurt with a separate sugar packet, all served in individually pre-packaged servings. I share the dining space with sparrows who are scavenging crumbs from underneath the tables, and bathing in the fountain, two tables over. 

Ready for my day, I walk across the street to the Mezquita. Admission is waived on Sunday mornings so locals can attend Mass.  Walking through the 800+ Islamic arches with Latin liturgy echoing in the background remains one of my most memorable experiences.

Walking through the Mezquita during Sunday Mass
  • The Mezquita was the largest mosque in the Western world, measuring almost 24,000 square meters. It was built in stages between 785 and 987 and would be considered the most important sanctuary of Western Islam.  It was inspired by the Mosque of Damascus and built from materials gleaned from the 6th century San Vicente Basilica.
  • The original mosque was divided into two parts: an open courtyard for ablution (the ritual washing prior to prayer) and this covered hall, with a capacity for over 10,000 worshipers. The archways, built of brick and limestone, are a Visigoth influence and add structural integrity to the building. The architect was Ahd er-Rahman, who was also the first independent Emir of Andalus. 

Walking from one end to the other is a tour through history, as you can discern the ages of the various naves by the differences in the columns and the structure of the arches.  

  • The nave of Al-Hakim II was the second extension of the mosque during the late 10th century.  It houses the private chapel for the Caliph, and the mihrab, the elevated pulpit where the imam delivered sermons. After the Reconquista of Cordoba by Fernando III in 1236, the Muslims were expelled and the Mezquita was consecrated as Santa Maria la Mayor, dedicated to the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. A large silver lamp once hung over this area, which held just over 1400 lamps containing perfumed oil. It was destroyed during the building of the Christian chapels in the 14th century. 
  • Further destruction occurred the following century during the reign of Ferdinand and Isabella, when a great center portion of the mosque was destroyed to make room for the Grand Chapel. Although the Council of Cordoba issued a public proclamation to stop this work, Bishop Don Alonso de Manrique (who was in charge of the construction) petitioned King Charles I of Spain to continue, and was granted that permission. When Charles later passed through Cordoba and visited the mosque, he said “Had I known what this was, I would not have allowed it to reach the ancient part, as what you are doing is already done elsewhere, but you have undone what is unique in the world”. 
  • The Grand Chapel was finished in 1766 and remains to this day an active cathedral. The altarpiece is red Cordoban marble, paintings by Cordoban artist Palomino. The chandelier was donated in 1629, measures nearly 2 meters across and weighs close to 150 kilos, crafted by Cordoban silversmith Sanchez de la Cruz.  

Guards are posted around this area during Mass to prevent tourists from taking photos. You are free to wield your cameras once prayers have concluded.

I admire the fretwork encased windows, many of which are reproductions.  At the other end of the building are a number of glass cases housing artifacts ranging from Visagoth carvings, to bibles with silver fittings, and what I believe is the gearwork for a clock or chime tower, as tall as me and about 8 feet long.  It’s a pretty impressive clockwork. 

It was difficult for me to leave this mosque.  I leave the dark coolness of the Mezquita and step out into a brilliant sun, filtering through palms onto a hard-packed yellow clay where most public places would have either pavement or grass.  I’m off to the Andalucia House…

See more of the Mezquita on my photo-blog at Daveno Travels.

Andalucia 2012 – Toledo

My travels have taken me from Venice to Florence, and to Genoa – centers of commerce during the medieval period, and of heightened artistic and scientific endeavors during the Age of Enlightenment. Istanbul presented itself to me as a counterbalance, with similar pursuits and advancements equal to their European counterparts, and in some cases surpassing them.

My next destination continues to trace a path through Europe as it existed under Muslim occupation. That pathway brings me to Andalucia, in search of the remnants of medieval Spain when it was under Moorish rule.

My favorite flights are those that are uneventful, as this one was. My only memories of it are giving up my window seat so a mother could sit with her child (who had booked seats separated by a row and an aisle), and being woken up at midnight Madrid time for yet another white something sandwich. By the time we land in sunny Madrid, I’m dying for a salad. I find one with white beans, red peppers, and eggs with bright orange yolks, the first orange yolks I had ever seen.

I board a city bus to the Madrid train station — a large, clean, modern multi-platform affair with large airport-style screens showing arrivals and departures. It’s pretty easy to navigate as long as you pay attention not only to your train number and gate, but also if your ticket says “Baha” (lower floor) or “Plata” (upper floor).  I exchange USD for euros, and find a ledge to sit on, within sight of the reader boards. There are beautiful palm trees just outside of the double glass doors, which I thought led outside, until I stepped through …

I enter a wing that looks like an aircraft hangar, filled with a conservatory containing full size palm trees, and a pond filled with over a hundred turtles of various sizes and ages. There are shops along the sides and a couple of restaurants. It is serene and I look forward to returning here to make my connection between Toledo and Cordoba.

  • Toledo is a small but historically important fortified town, halfway between Madrid and Cordoba. This Iberian city served as a Roman trade hub, a Visigoth capitol during the 6th century, and a Moorish capitol in the 8th century before coming under Christian rule during the Reconquista in 1085. It was the capitol of Spain until 1561 when Philip I moved Spain’s political center to Madrid. It remained Spain’s religious capitol.

It is pouring rain when I arrive at the beautiful Neo-Moorish train station, and it takes me several tries to hail a cab for the winding, uphill five minute ride to my hotel, The Santa Isabel, located in historic Central Toledo.

  • The Santa Isabel was built inside the restored home of a Toledan noble, and dates back to 1388. It went through a series of remodels during the 15th, 16th and 20th centuries. If you follow my travel blogs you will note my preference for lodging in historic properties rather than mainstream hotel chains. I get a much better feel for the country that way.

I walk through its 15th century doorway and up a colorful ceramic-tiled staircase, and enter my room. It is spartan, with heavy carved doors on iron hinges. A mock balcony overlooks a niche carved into the building across the narrow street. It is very quiet here and I fall almost immediately to sleep.

Breakfast the next morning in the crowded dining room is bread with olive oil, tomato puree and prosciutto, orange juice, and a cup of very thick coffee served with a double-sized packet of sugar. It’s a far cry from the Turkish breakfasts that I am now completely spoiled by. I finish quickly so I can start my plan for the day.

I thought Florence was the home of brilliant sculpture until I visited the Cathedral of Santa Isabel, which houses floor to ceiling works carved from the most beautiful marble I had yet seen. Of equal workmanship were the wooden pews, which appear to be of mahogany, and depict the defeat of Granada. They are reputed to be the largest carved choir in all of Europe.

  • The Cathedral of Santa Isabel, also called the Holy Church Cathedral is nearby. Dedicated to the Virgin Mary, building began in 1227 over the foundation of a 6th century Visigoth church, which itself had been built over a mosque. The church was not finished until the 16th century.

The Chapel of St. Blaise, with its lapis-blue ceilings and murals, was stunning. The halos of the saints, done in gold leaf, were in remarkable condition for frescoes dating back to 1397. It was also the first cathedral I had visited that had electronic votive candles. One of the treasure rooms is filled with vestments, and I see an alter cloth that had been woven by Muslims, who had included an Arabic border around the central lozenges.

The Cloister of St. John the Kings was begun in 1389 by Rodrigo Alonzo under the direction of Archbishop Don Pedro Tenorio. It was finished in 1425. Finely wrought archways surround a courtyard which is intensely lush and beautiful.

I start thinking how to incorporate gothic arches into my hat designs …

The orange trees in the courtyard are in full fruit. There’s a roof of bird netting, presumable to keep the trees in more pristine condition. This cloister would be among the finest example of Spanish-Arabesque Gothic architecture I would see on this trip.

The ceilings surrounding the gardens are done in marquetry, and I spy a pair of stone lions passant on one of the overhead arches. I take a myriad of photos of the floor tiles, a feature I would become fixated on throughout this trip.

I wander around the Plaza de Zocodover, in and out of the wide alleys, watching workmen hang lanterns and large sun shades. I walk pass the parliament building of La Mancha which is housed in an old convent, and along the Arabel – “between walls” – one of the oldest parts of the city, built by Muslims to protect Toledo. Further down, the Bisagra Gate, on a bridge over the Tajo River, offers an exceptional viewpoint for the city.

I will remember Toledo as the city where churches, synagogues and mosques all look the same. The Synagoga de Santa Maria la Blanca was built by Muslim architects in the early 13th century, and converted to a church in 1492. I was surprised to see Islamic script carved around the doorway. Its ceiling reminds me of the ‘upside down ships’ hull” from a church I saw in Alaska, and the interior is filled with arches like those I had seen in pictures of the Mezquita in Cordoba.  The Mezquita del Cristo de la Luz, Toledo’s oldest mosque, dates back to the turn of the 11th century, it’s keyhole arches facing Mecca. It too, was converted to a church less than 200 years later. 

Synagoga de Santa Maria la Blanca

The Museo de Santa Cruz, as noteworthy for its architecture as its contents, was formerly an orphanage and a hospital. It is home to the famous Tapestry of the Astrolabes. Woven in Belgium in 1480, it combines mythology and science to explain the divine world as it was perceived during the Middle Ages. 

The Astrolabe Tapestry

Lunch choices are pasta, pizza and doner kebab. So I choose – gelato! But it was really good gelato, the best I’ve had outside of Venice …

I thought Florence was the most austere city of my travels until I arrived here. Toledo is rugged, but compact, and in spite of its’ hills it is a fairly easy walk as I traverse the entire outskirt of the city before heading back towards its center. I look for souvenirs to buy, but Toledo is a ‘trinket’ city, full of reproduction helmets from the Roman and Medieval periods; blades that are labeled as damascus but which do not bear the patterning; damascene plates and other items geared towards tourists.  I could not find English books, or in fact many books at all. 

English is not a language of choice here, and hard as I try, my limited repertoire of phrases fail, and yet people continue to speak to me in Spanish long after I have said “no habla Espanol,” a statement which is met with intolerance. It’s an interesting comparison to my trips to Italy, where nearly everyone speaks at least a smattering of English, or to Istanbul, where pantomime has evolved into an art form …

Dinner this evening is at the El Foro Cafe, where I point to a chicken and seafood paella on the photo-menu (a god-send when you have a language barrier). I think paella must be a national dish, and it is a specialty of this cafe. It arrives with seafood in shell, immersed in the rice and messy to eat, but the squid and calamari are very tender and flavorful. I am smitten by the violetta mojito, deep purple at the bottom of the glass, fading to the palest lavender at the top, and “like drinking candied violets.” I had been introduced to ‘cafe violetta’ in Genoa, and it would take me weeks of searching for the elusive elixer upon my return to Seattle …

After dinner I board a tour bus, which includes really great views of The Fortress, Toledo’s ‘castle’, perched on the top of the tallest hill in the city. It’s easy to see how difficult it must have been to have finally conquered this city …

I’m back on the road the next morning. There’s no direct route from Toledo to any other city, so it’s back to the train hub at Madrid. The landscape between Toledo and Madrid reminds me a lot of Eastern Washington, right down to the ridge that is the same shape and texture as Ahtaneum Ridge, and the red clay soil that lines the railroad tracks. About an hour outside of Toledo, olive groves give way to deciduous trees and more rugged mountains in the distance. The power polls are topped with glass transformers which make them masquerade as street lights …

Back in Madrid, the misting machines are at work in the conservatory, humidifying the court of palms. The pond is swarming with baby turtles clamoring up the cement ‘sunning’ platform, while adult turtles are vying for space at the bubbleator. At the cafe I am introduced to cafe con leche, which appears to be a shot of expresso served with half & half. The menu lists a ‘traditional breakfast’ as cafe, and either a croissant with jam, or some sort of fried pastry. I confuse the counterperson by ordering a club sandwich …

Finally, it’s time to board. The trains in Spain are newer, cleaner and much less industrial than those in Italy, and I watch a crew of men and women in bright orange coveralls, washing the outside of the windows on the train the next track over. My next destination is Cordoba, where the forecast is for 82 degrees. It’s raining back home in Seattle, and friends are pretty jealous …

For pictures of the day, please see my photo-blog at Daveno Travels.

Stitchery Series Part II – Tools and Techniques

Through personal experience, I have found that needles of bone and ivory, although retaining a sharp point longer than other materials, are also coarser and more brittle, which causes them to break easily. Bronze needles are the best for embroidery as they have a smooth surface and are more pliable than modern steel needles.  A pliable needle helps to decrease sore and fatigued fingertips.

I am fond of Chinese scissors which made from iron and hold their edge well, and which are available in a variety of sizes from the bonsai section of your garden store, or your black powder / sutlers fairs if you are a reenactor. I also keep my grandfather’s pliers close at hand because it is sometimes easier to pull -rather than push- a needle through dense fabric or leather.  A Chinese pin cushion and a jade pin dish round out my kit.

Learn the rest of my favorite techniques by downloading the article:

Stitchery Series Part I – History and Fibers

This 5-part series begins with a very brief historical overview and comparison of embroidery between East and West, and then delves into materials and technique.  My intention with this series is to demonstrate how embroidery can be combined with other techniques to bring new color and texture to your own textile projects.

Download Part 1 of this series here:

Teaching Applique at the Seaview Fiber Arts Guild

Back in 2015, a milliner friend of mine asked me if I might lead a workshop for the Seaview Weaving and Fiber Arts Guild, of which she was a member. Of course, I said yes. Little did they know how much trouble I would bring through their door…

I dug out my handout on the history of a few basic embroidery stitches, illustrated with both historical and modern examples, and brought examples of my own works to further illustrate the techniques and applications that were covered in the handout (which you can download at the end of this news story).

I had been asked to develop a project for 8-20 students to work on. But recreating the same project 20 times was far too boring, so I brought 20 kits, ranging from complex multi-layer reverse applique, to trapunto, to simple applique, to simple embroidery. Some kits were flowers, some were animals, others were Celtic knotworks.  Each kit came with a pattern, tracing paper or fusing, instructions, and a selection of fabrics, some of which I had partially assembled if it was one of the more complex patterns. 

I presented my historical overview to a receptive group of about 15 guild members, and explained how I applied historical techniques in my own work.

Then we got to work…

Everyone found a project that was interesting to them, and some members of the class even took two kits. After two hours of tracing and sewing and pressing and more sewing, a few people seemed unwilling to put their projects down in spite of a delicious lunch waiting for us in the other room…

Afterwards, I was able to see projects that the guild members were working on, including a Ravens Tail pouch with it intricate twining. I was introduced to spun nettle, which I would love to have a chance to embroidery with some day. What a tremendously creative and talented group.

For additional photos, see the Seaview Guild Blog. You are welcome to download my handout at the link below. Feel free to share : )

The things you find …

One of the fun things about rebuilding a website, is combing through your archives to look for things that you need to repost, and finding things that you had forgotten you had!

Katie Cordrey wrote a piece about me for the Eco-Fashion section of Green Living Journal in Spring 2011. That article, titled Marvelous Millinery, is posted below:

Reconstructing the UlaanBaatar Boot

Several years ago, a friend and I stumbled across these boots in a military antiques shop in Seattle  (now closed).  We recognized them as traditional Mongolian footwear, and were informed by the shopkeeper that they are still manufactured in UlaanBaatar for the military.

When the stitching wore through the soles, I tore the boots apart to refurbish them.  This article outlines the process for putting them back together again.  I have boarded a few photos from that process on Pinterest.

You can download the instructions below. I highly recommend that you cut your pattern out of tag board or lightweight cardboard and tape the pieces together to make sure that they will assemble correctly, before cutting in to your leather.  Also please note that the drawings in this document are not to scale …

Return to Turkey

I returned to Istanbul in September 2011. Baha meets me at the airport, all smiles. Back at his hotel, he’s printed out a stack of Islamic designs for my hats, and I show him the hats he asked me to make for him, to sell at his hotel. We start discussing price points and promotional plans.

Price points become really tricky with the exchange rate between USD and TL, and I’m concerned about tariffs and shipping costs. I start to get a little stressed out, so I take a break.

It’s EID and the city is lit up like Disneyland. There are street vendors and kids tossing neon spinners high into the sky. I try to get some night shots of the Ayasofya and the German Fountain. By the time I get back, Baha has put my hats into the glass case he has already built in his dining area.

His hotel is full, so he has reserved a room for me at the Kybele Hotel, where I spend the night admiring the ceiling where there’s a grid of Turkish lanterns, mounted every 10″ and lit up in a festival of colored glass.

I wake up the next morning to a landscape that has changed. Sidewalk cafe tables have been banned by city ordinance. The old hotelier is gone, as is Cihan. Baha is not his sunny self. He walks me through the fashion district near the Galata Tower before we hop public transit to the Rumeli Fortress. It’s a long trip, and the door to the Rumeli is being locked just as we arrive. It’s not the last door that would close on this trip.

The next day, I go back to the Bazaar and am successful in finding the suzuri salesman, who sells me 3 pieces which I intend to cut up for hats. I buy a Turkish designs book, and note the similarities between Chinese and Turkish phoenixes and dragons. I look for the Chora Church, which Baha had suggested the last time I was here. His directions fail me so I hail a cab, but even the cabbie has trouble finding it. He drops me a few blocks away but points in the direction I need to walk to get there.

  • Built in the 6th century during the reign of Emperor Justinian, the Chora Church was converted into a mosque in 1511, and became a museum in 1945. Unlike other church to mosque conversions, the original mosaics and frescoes were not plastered over.

The mosaics are incredible, with tiles the size of my smallest fingernail and not always square, allowing for fine shading and shaping of the human faces. The domed and vaulted ceilings bring back memories of the Basilica in Venice, but with the addition of windows in the tops of the domes, reminiscent of the Salute Cathedral. I was surprised by the intensity of the colors.

To see my photos of the Chora Church, please see my supplemental blog at Daveno Travels.

Afterwards, I wander through a residential area of old Ottoman homes, and scale an ancient wall for a panorama view of the surrounds. I stop for a bottle of ayran and turn the corner to find a delightful, huge open air market. Arriving at the water’s edge, I hop a ferry with the intention of going north to Eyup. But the ferry turns south instead.

Rumeli fails, and now Eyup as well.

I return to the Han Hotel and ask Baha about the TurkuaZoo, which is said to have an aquarium where you can swim with the sea turtles. He doesn’t know where that is, so I Google the bus route myself. That adventure ends up as a 3 hour bus ride through another wedding gown district, and reaching the end of the line,forcing me off the bus and onto another going back the direction I came. I never find the zoo and I wonder what plan will fail next…

I find out over dinner that plans for Bodrum have fallen through. Baha suggests alternative destinations for me to visit on my own. “See what is outside of Istanbul for a couple of days. Cappadocia perhaps. Or Ephesus.” He offers to find a tour that I can afford and make those arrangements. I chose instead, the ancient Ottoman capitol of Bursa. I have not felt well for the last couple of days. I would spend the next day sick in bed, and leave for Bursa on the following day.

  • Bursa has a history of some 5,000 years. It was built by Hannibal as a gift to King Prusias, who gave refuge at his court after Hannibal was defeated in his campaign against the Romans. The Citadel is still a significant part of the landscape, and I am taken by the way the modern parts of the city have nestled up to this ancient stone fortification. 
  • Bursa became the capitol of the Ottoman Empire under Sultan Orhan Gazi, who is buried here. The city became the cultural center of the scientific world, and was an important part of the trade routes heading West. In recent times it has become a center for textile and automotive production in Turkey.

It’s a 6 hour trip by bus to the Boyoguzel Hotel, a modern business hotel just outside of town. Downtown Bursa is too far to reach by foot, but it’s a lovely day, so I spend the evening walking around, and find the grave of Suleyman Celebi, the author of the Mevlid, an epic poem describing the birth of Mohammed.

Further down the street is a large, elevated cement stage with a proscenium from which hang a pair of oversized Turkish shadow puppets, marking the Karagoz Cemetery. Legend has it that during the construction of the Orhan Mosque, two blacksmiths named Karagoz and Hacivat impeded work by distracting the other workers with their antics, and were beheaded by order of Sultan Orhan, an action he later regretted. In an attempt to cheer up the distraught sultan, his vizier removed his turban and made a screen, and reenacted the antics of the dead blacksmiths in shadow-play. The vizier, Sheikh Kusteri, is credited as the father of Turkish puppet theater, and Hacivat and Karagoz became staple characters.

I stop for dinner at a kebab place where a very enthusiastic cook takes me into his kitchen so I can point to what I want. A stop at the liquor store for a bottle of Raki, and a slow back up the hill, completes my day.

The next day, I hail a cab to Yesil Madrash, the Green Tomb, which turns out to be the furthest point away from the hotel, and with all the other sites lined up in a mostly straight line back up the hill. It is very early yet, so I step into a small bazaar that is housed on 3 floors of an Ottoman home. It’s a lovely place and I am closely attended to by a child who continues to talk to me long after I indicated I do not speak Turkish. I regret not having purchased anything there.

Yesil Madrash is the burial place of Sultan Mehmet I, and his sons and daughters. Unlike Christians, Muslims do not bury their dead in their places of worship.  Mosques (camii) are always separate from tombs (madrash).

  • Commissioned in 1421 it is commonly known as the Green Tomb because of the turquoise-green tiles that cover its exterior. Its interior is a riot of blue tilework inscribed with interlocking rumi and cufic inscriptions.

Upon my return home I chided myself for not making the time to visit Iznik, less than two hours away, and the home of the factories that produced the tiles for many of the buildings I visited in this country.

The video below is a 360 degree view of the interior of this tomb. For additional photos please visit Daveno Travels. 

Further down the street, the Turkish Islamic Museum of Arts fills several tiny rooms surrounding an open air courtyard. There is an extensive array of artifacts, each room seems to be themed with either the type of item (coins) or the items’ usage (prayer items). Assuming that a catalog does not wait for me at the end, I start photographing items, which attracts the attention of a security guard. I am writing notes, and in spite of the language barrier, I figure out that he’s asking me not to lean on the glass. 

There are cases full of ceramics in the outdoor courtyard, and I motion to my camera to make sure photography is allowed. “Yes,” he nods. I continue to photograph everything which continues to rouse their curiosity.  I take a last look to make sure I haven’t missed anything, and wave goodbye.  As I am standing just outside the entrance, my nearly useless map in hand, trying to figure out where next to go, the youngest guard runs up to me and presents me with an English language Bursa City Guide.  “A gift,” he beams. I thank him profusely and sit down with it for the next 20 minutes. Small gestures make such a big difference…

Here are a few of my favorites from this museum.

Just outside of the Yesil Madrash, I find a handful of street merchants. One is peddling small antique trinkets and silver by the ounce. The ring I have not yet found in Istanbul, I find here — a prettily worked silver bezel surrounding an onyx cabochon, and a silver thimble, covered with granulation, which must be the most perfect thimble ever (and which now I cannot sew without).

The Cultural Museum, previously a dervish lodge and then a library, now houses a collection of costumes and textiles. I wander around, completely alone, no guards or attendants in sight. Sunlight streams through the windows and reflects off the cases, which makes photography difficult. I also wondered about UV damage, especially to the metallic thread embroideries. Here are more of my favorites.

Prayers are in progress at the Ulu Camii, so I check out the Kozahan (the Silk Bazaar). Built in 1491, it is stocked to the ceiling with every type of silk scarf, apparel and towel you could possibly imagine. A small import shop at the entrance of another han attracts my attention. I should have bought a lamp here but did not, and the filigree belts which the clerk pulls off the wall en masse for me, also sadly stay behind. Other bazaars sell modern goods for the locals and cheap trinkets for everyone else.

I find a kebab place to eat lunch, and have my first durum which I like a lot, a tortilla filled with a tiny bit of meat, pickle and tomato. I mill around until 2:30 and the end of afternoon prayer. It was interesting to note that in spite of there being a women’s gallery, the only people exiting the mosque are men.

  • The magnificent Ulu Camii was built in 1399, when, to satisfy a promise to construct 20 mosques, Yildirim Bayazid chose instead to build a single mosque with 20 domes and minarets. The center dome is glass, hovering over a 16-sided fountain. The calligraphies were finished in 1904.

Ulu Camii is the largest mosque in Bursa, and is also the most distinctive mosque I have seen in Turkey thus far.

Children run around, and a couple of girls are rolling around on the carpet. Women in headscarves, in spite of the secluded women’s gallery in the corner (there’s no elevated gallery here), prayed in groups of twos and threes, along with a scattering of men. It was interesting to watch ‘only men’ entering and exiting the mosques at prescribed prayer times, but the women entered with the tourists. Men and women prayed here separately but simultaneously on the main floor, with no screens or barriers between them.

I backtrack to the Orhan Camii, where a custodian is vacuuming between prayer services. I quickly take a few photos, pull all of the change out of my pocket and put it in the offering box.

Nearby is the tomb of Orhan Gazi. His turban is perched on his sarcophagus which is overlaid with a heavily embroidered tapestry. The pillar is one of four that support the domed ceiling. The walls are whitewashed with limestone. It was very airy and beautiful.  See more of my photos here.  I find a public park with a directional sign listing distances for neighboring countries (an installation art piece) and several shady benches. I take a coffee break and study my map. A man sits down a little too close to me but does not initiate contact and leaves after about 10 minutes. It was the only time I would ever feel unsafe in Turkey.

Bursa is a city of sultan’s tombs. A silver domed building that had been the chapel of a Christian monastery, was converted to become the burial place of Orhan’s son, Osman Gazi, who died during the Siege of Bursa in the 14th century. The carved sarcophagus is inlaid with mother-of-pearl and surrounded by a brass balistrade. His turban rests on top, as is the burial custom for the sultans in this region.  It is done in blues and whites and is very calming.

I tour the 17th Century Ottoman House Museum, believed to be the birthplace of Sultan Mehmed. You will find those photos here.

I find the Uluumay Ottoman Costume and Jewelry Museum just minutes before it was scheduled to close. The curator gives me a personal tour of room after room of costumes, textiles, jewelry and other artifacts that he has been collecting for the past 50 years. It is housed in an old Ottoman school, only large enough to exhibit a quarter of his collection. Completely accessorized mannequins of folk costumes from all over Central Asia and the Balkans, are displayed on turntables in glassed off sections of the room. Photography is not allowed and of course these things have not been cataloged. But the presentation is exquisite and had I had more time I would have asked to sit and sketch things. The Hurriyet published an article about this museum the year after I was there.

I head back up the hill to the hotel and find dinner at a kebab place about a block away. Seated at a sidewalk table, I watch the relentless stream of traffic just feet in front of me, and watch in awe as a man in a wheelchair bullies his way across the intersection. Taxis pull straight into oncoming traffic and block the flow until they can push their way through.

Motorcycles hop off and onto the sidewalks. Right of way seems to go to whoever is fearless enough to take it. In Istanbul there are crosswalks and walk signals, but those are a rarity here. Women with children and strollers take the same risks and are awarded the same care as anyone else. By the end of the day, I find myself running in front of cars and buses, not being assured that I would make it across the street…

I spend the rest of the evening wandering around the residential areas, admiring the architecture. I have figured out the high-speed ferry, a 2 hour trip which will return me to Istanbul tomorrow morning.

The following morning I hail a cab to the ferry dock. The high-speed ferry is the most efficient but also the most boring route between here and Istanbul, with nothing to see but the flat, expansive Marmara Sea. I purchase a plate of the egg and phyllo dish that is a prevalent breakfast dish here, and coffee with milk, like a latte.  I find a table but discover that the entire ferry is assigned seating.  I locate my seat after sharing that knowledge with the tourists are seated there,  and spend the remainder of the trip writing in my journal.

Today is my last day in Istanbul. I am finally recovered from my maladies and try to cram as much stuff into my remaining hours as I possibly can.  I had hoped to see the Orient Express but it left a few hours earlier. Baha shows me the way to a lamp maker so I can buy an Istanbul-made lamp like those that cover the ceilings of the Kybele and Hotel Han. I spend the rest of my day shopping for hatmaking materials along a “Textiles Row” of shops near the Grand Bazaar, and come home with bags of laces, woven trims and metallic thread appliques.

I take one more walk through Gulhane Park and Sultanahmet Square before returning to the Han Hotel. Baha offers me an hour of his time and a small bowl of chorba, a final gesture of hospitality.  A taxi arrives three hours later. My hats that I had hoped to sell here would arrive in Seattle by DHL a few weeks later.

“Inshallah you will visit Istanbul again some day,” he says, as the door to my taxi slams shut and I am whisked back to Ataturk Airport for my flight home.

“Inshallah…”

Crossroads Tour – A final Bazaar, a last museum, a last day

Baha invites me to Captain’s Table for breakfast, which he promptly covers with an extensive array of dishes. We are joined by an Australian woman who is also leaving today. Baha offers to take us to the bazaar to buy suzani (the embroidered bedspreads) and ceramics. I don’t think I can cram anything more into my suitcases but the offer is more than the Australian and I can resist.

The Australian finishes breakfast and heads upstairs to pack. Baha shows me YouTube clips of Turkish tulum, and a traditional Turkish men’s line dance called Horon. He then asks me if I know what this is called, as he pulls up another line dance. “Riverdance” I respond, and tell him it’s Irish clogging. This cultural exchange would continue between us by phone and Facebook for rest of the summer.

At the Bazaar, Baha takes us to the vendor who sells the suzani for his hotel. We are offered tea and seats. We make our selections and are each gifted with a suzani pillow case. The embroidery on mine is incomplete, which makes me smile. Baha also notices and pantomimes with needle and thread, indicating that I could finish the embroidery on it myself. I am also gifted with a silk ikat headscarf.

I photograph a framed goldworked section of an Ottoman robe that is leaning against a wall behind a pile of other things. The Australian takes off to join her friends, and Baha takes me to Iznik Ceramic, managed by Tolga Neidim. I sort through stacks of handmade tiles, and select a few in traditional Turkish motifs. A blue and white Turkish cup rounds out my purchase there.

We stop for lunch at a sidewalk cafe: a kebab roll, with a huge mound of pickled cucumbers, grilled peppers, and cilantro onto a plastic placemat at a table that reminded me of a lunch counter at Woolworths. A beverage called ayran which reminded me of kiefer. There are no circles on my map today, so I decide to keep my sightseeing to within a few blocks of the hotel.

I find the Ibrahim Pasa Palace, a building that dates back to the Ottoman period which houses the Islamic Art and Ethnology Museum.  It’s a treasure trove that would make my friends Sunjan and Khalja want to move here. A nomads tent, called a kara cadir in Turkish, woven from black goat hair with center pole supports, much like a Bedouin tent. Home interiors and women’s clothing from the end of the Ottoman period. A lantern built around a Chinese dragon pattern blue and white porcelain drum. Wood and copper doors and 13th century stone reliefs. Sarcophagi in carved wood and stone. Kor’ans that I could not bring myself to photograph. Anatolian kilims that were woven in one piece, a rare find as they are traditionally woven in two or three sections and then stitched together.

Here are my photos for the Islamic Ethnology Museum. Additional photos of this final day are at Daveno Travels.

It has grown chilly and overcast, just like my first day in Istanbul. I try to play the “What’s for dinner” game with Cihan, who embarks on a lengthy conversation with Baha before departing for the kitchen. Baha shares with me that there had been a recent death in his social circle. I had also lost several friends and family recently, and we talked about that a little. I repeated what he had told me earlier, “that only Allah knows when weddings and funerals will occur.” There was little else to be said.

Dinner arrives: potatoes, carrots, and lamb ribs in broth, with a side dish of rice. A nice, simple comfort food. Baha will catch up with me later this evening for a final evening out. I finish packing, settle up my bill and drop my suitcase off at the concierge desk.

Oh look, there’s Cihan! It’s like he never leaves …We engage in an incredibly topic-varied conversation, which I step away from whenever he needed to attend to customers. He is a very articulate and intelligent young man. Near 9 PM, he ducks into the Barbecue House, and emerges with a single plate, two pieces of baklava and two forks. These guys! There is no end to the hospitality here…

Baha arrives and we catch the tram across the Galata Bridge, then climb a very steep winding alley of stairs to the base of the Galata Tower in the Beyoglu district. I point out buildings with facades that look like the ones I saw in Genoa. He shows me his favorite church, Sant’Antonio di Padova Church which is locked behind an iron gate. It is the largest Roman Catholic Church in Istanbul, built by the Italian community in 1905 on the site of the original church which had been built in 1725, but later demolished.

We spend the evening walking around and looking at architecture. We thread through crowded streets to an alley and up to the Asmali Mescid, and later the Cicek Pasaji (Flower Passage) where we listen to musicians as they roam from one table to the next, one of which is playing something that looks like a hammer dulcimer.

  • The Flower Passage building dates back to 1876 and was originally the site of the Naum Theater, a favorite of a couple of Turkish sultans during the 19th century. After the Russian Revolution, impoverished women sold flowers here, giving the building its current name. The tables are set up in a very pleasant covered courtyard formed by two three-story buildings that is actually the alley between Istiklal Avenue and Sahne Street. 

We hail a cab back to the Sultanahmet, just after midnight. I am the last guest in his hotel, and since he can sleep the day tomorrow, he sits up with me in the dining area. So we talk… about my Facebook albums that he looked at the other night. The route my plane would take over the North Pole and Canada on its return to Seattle. If there are sharks in Puget Sound. Cars, and sports, and music. Whatever small talk our tired brains could manage…

The shuttle arrives, and Baha loads my book-heavy luggage into the van. He gives me a warm European-style send-off and promise to keep in touch. It has been a most remarkable trip, and I will never, ever forget this place…

Crossroads Tour – Ayasofya and the Sea of Marmara

My first stop this morning is Ayasofya, the lines have not yet formed so I walk right in. Even though this is no longer a mosque, I cover my head and remove my shoes within a few feet of the entrance because it feels wrong not to do so. 

  • This church-converted-to-mosque is among the oldest religious sites in the world, dating to 537 AD. It is also among the most important examples of Byzantine architecture still standing. It is the third church built on this site after the first two were destroyed by fire during riots in the 5th and 6th centuries. Emperor Justinian I assigned two Anatolian architects (Söke/Balat and Aydin) to build a basilica that surpassed Solomon’s Temple. Materials were recycled from various buildings in Anatolia, including the Temple of Artemesis in Ephesus and a pagan temple in Tarsus. Restoration work started almost immediately after the domes suffered damage from earthquakes in 553 and 557.
  • There are runes carved into one of the marble railings from the Viking raids of the 9th-10th centuries. The church was looted during the Fourth Crusade in 1204. During this famous sacking of Constantinople, many pieces from the Ayasofya were redistributed to churches in the West (I saw some of these pieces in the Doges Palace in Venice) Historians at the time recorded that “compared to the Crusaders, Arabians are more compassionate…” 

When Sultan Mehmed conquered Constantinople in 1453, the Ayasofya was converted to a mosque. Great care was taken to preserve the integrity of the structure as well as the sacredness of the space. Four minarets were added between the 15th-16th centuries, two of them built by Mimar Sinan. This stunning minbar (the imam’s pulpit) dates to the late 16th century and is one of the most beautiful I saw in any mosque. 

  • The most famous restoration occurred in 1847-49, when the 8th century mosaics were uncovered and documented. They were plastered over again as Islamic law bans images, but were restored again in 1932 when the Ayasofya was converted to a museum. 

One of the domes in this building inspired this silk and brocade hat…

I board a train and head across the Galata Bridge to the Kabatas ferry terminal and the Princes Islands.

  • Travel tip:  Istanbul can be an intense city and the crush of people can be relentless, especially at peak tourist season.  When you need a break, go to a hamami or take a ferry somewhere.  It doesn’t matter where, just pick a direction and go.

I am among the first to embark, and find the perfect seat on the starboard bow with an unobstructed view, a place to hang my purse, and a rail to prop my feet up on. I replay the pleasant conversations from last night as I gaze down into a jade colored sea filled with jellyfish, and watch as three dolphins break the surface of the Marmara. The Golden Horn and Bosphorus sails are nice, but this is the ferry trip that gives you a true feel for the immensity of this place. Twenty million people live here, in a city whose skyline along both sides of the coast is unbroken. 

There are about 5 stops on this run, the final of which is Buyukada, where we debark into a town filled with Victorian era houses covered with varying degrees of gingerbread, some with Indonesian peaks, slopes and other design influences that do not strike me as Turkish. The architecture and flora here are dramatically different from the mainland and it feels very tropical. I can see why this is such a popular mini-vacation place for the city-dwellers. 

I take a short walk before allowing myself to be talked into taking a tour of the island by horse drawn surrey. I opt for the shorter of the two tours, which winds its way to the top of the hill, through residences and parks and twisty windy roads. We stop at the top to water the horse, and trot back to the city center, past vendors selling silk flower hair wreaths, and the most expensive gelato I have had so far this trip. It’s a very short wait for the ferry back to the mainland.

I return home after a very pleasant day, topped by very well timed transit schedules. I’ve got two days of photos to upload and have given up trying to transcribe my journal due to wanting to pay attention to more immediate things. After dinner I settle my tab and ask to have my boarding pass printed. But there’s a problem with printing it. Baha calls Lufthansa to get it sorted out. And then, a remarkable thing occurs…

“Your flight does not leave until the 19th…”

An extra day!  Baha suggests that we celebrate, and we join Erhan and his lady friend for drinks at Cagaloglu Hamami, one the oldest and finest in the city, where we sit with a small group of local hotelliers. Baha instructs me in Turkish etiquette — to stand and shake hands with people as they enter and leave the room, and how to properly clink glasses during toasts. I am asked to relate the story about my lost taxi driver, which elicits much laughter from the group.  

Afterwards, Baha takes me across the street to the Kybele, the hotel which adjoins his. “Like museum,” he says; It is similar in structure to the Han but larger, and filled floor to ceiling with glass lanterns, yurta bands and other antiques. We take the very slow glass lift to the roof that the Kybele shares with the Han. The view is spectacular, made only slightly less perfect by the absence of stars…

For additional photos from this day, please visit Daveno Travels.

Crossroads Tour – The Hamami, Suleyman Camii and a Lost Taxi

I begin my day at a Turkish Bathhouse, called a hamami.

  • Tarihi Gedikpasa Hamami was built in 1475 by Hayrettin for Gedik Ahmet Pasa, a statesman and naval commander during the reign of Sultan Mehmet. Hayrettin was considered one of the most important architects of the period and is regarded by many historians to be the teacher of Mimar Sinan.

Tarihi Gedikpasa has the largest dome of any hamami in Istanbul and is one of the most important Ottoman historical buildings in this city. It serves both men and women in segregated parts of the bath. I check in at the front desk and am led to a room with a bed and a chest, where I could disrobe. I wrap myself in the thin striped cotton towel that they handed me on the way to the room, slip on rubber flip flops, and lock the door behind me. I am led into the bath.

The heat nearly takes my breath away. A series of domes peppered with round glass windows at the top, allow beams of sunlight to illuminate the marble lined room. I am led to one of three marble fountains along the wall, where I am doused with water from a plastic bowl, which is then handed to me so l can continue to wash. I am then motioned to lay down on the large marble platform under the center dome. It feels like it is heated. I am wrapped in the now-soaked striped towel but am motioned to take it off and to lay on top of it instead.

In an American spa, you are met with white coated attendants who drape you discreetly in a comfortable but clinical setting. My Turkish attendant is a middle-aged woman in a black two-piece swimsuit. She begins…

I am scrubbed head to toe with a heavy luffa mitt. Sit up for more scrubbing. Lay back down as a cotton sheet filled with suds is laid across my back, giving the sensation of being smothered in a blanket of heavy cream. More washing. More turning. Rinsing. Back again for massage and hair. Rinse again. Sit and steam …

The final step is being led to a pool of cool water that did not smell of salt but which made me feel more buoyant than I know I am. The pool is blue tiled, and under another dome with shafts of light coming down through the small squarish windows and piercing the water. The photo below is not the ceiling of this hammami but is of a similar one elsewhere in Istanbul.  I am floating as much in shafts of light through heavy windows, as in the cool water of the pool…

There are traces of frescoes throughout this hamami, but no paint could survive so many centuries of steam. I wondered what deals had been struck, what intrigues planned, what gossip shared or weddings arranged over the centuries here.   I walk out into a common area, where I am dried off with a heavy Turkish towel and shown back to my changing room. If I lived here, I’d do this at least once a week …

  • Travel tip: Book your visit to a hamami on a Monday when most sites are closed, and use it as the halfway point of your visit. A standard bath is TL35, splurge for the full treatment for TL50 which includes a massage. Remember to bring a bottle of water; this experience, like any spa treatment, will dehydrate you.

Completely refreshed, I walk to the Grand Bazaar for lunch. My waiter is half Turkish, half German, raised in Boston. My meal is a chicken dish cooked in filo, served in tomato sauce, accompanied by yogurt and garnished with french fries, a culinary detail which continues to baffle me. The salad is the traditional mix of tomato, onion and cilantro, almost like a salsa.

I spend my lunch time watching people. Turks refer to East Indians as Blacks. I do not know what Turks call Africans, or if they make a distinction. People who work in the service trades need to be competent in at least 5 languages and the successful ones like Cihan have working knowledge of closer to ten. The hospitality and general attitudes towards others here borders on the unreal. People offer to help you almost before you ask, from trying to give you directions, to helping mothers with strollers as they traverse stairs and trams.  

It’s time to find the University of Istanbul, and behind it, Suleyman Camii. I discover a street of craftsmen that I nicknamed “Metalsmith Alley”.

  • Travel tip: Mimar Sinan Cadessi, the street that runs along the backside of the University campus, is where you want to buy things after you have experienced the Grand Bazaar. I stopped to watch this artist (whose name I believe is Ercan Tekin) as he engraved Turkish coffee sets on the sidewalk outside of his shop and bought a few of his wares. There were a number of working metal shops here, as well other artisan merchants and at least one antique store.

I arrive at the mosque when it was closed for prayer so I try unsuccessfully to locate Barbarossa’s statue and tomb. There are several major restoration projects occurring in Istanbul right now, and much of the Suleyman complex is not accessible. I buy a traditional pair of hand knit wool socks from a vendor just outside the wall.  The purchase takes nearly all of my remaining cash. Noticing this, the vendor smiles and slips a bottle of water into my bag before sending me on my way.

  • Sultan Suleyman Camii was built on one of the seven hills of the city by Mimar Sinan, and is the largest square based semi-domed mosque he ever designed. It was finished in 1557. A 90-foot wide dome is supported by four ‘elephant’s feet’ pillars which are masked by an arcaded gallery to give the illusion of an immense open space. Mimar imbedded juniper beams among the stones in the foundation to absorb shocks from earthquakes. To improve the acoustics, 255 empty pots were incorporated into the dome. Soot from the oil lamps was directed by a venting system to a chamber, where it was collected for use in calligraphy ink. 

The colors are very sedate compared to other mosques and I found the Suleyman Camii to be among the most calming of any I spent time in in Istanbul. The sound of tens of pairs of shoes dropping to the marble step in unison as men and women left after prayers, is a sound that still reverberates in my ears, weeks after having heard it… 

  • Sultan Suleyman, called ‘Lawgiver’ by the Turks, reigned from 1520-1566 and was the longest ruling sultan in the history of the Ottoman Empire. He reformed Ottoman law in keeping with Islamic principals and commissioned the building of mosques, schools, hans (hotels), baths, bridges, hospitals, and a large library. Sciences, art and literature flourished during his reign, in part due to his financial patronage. He was referred to as The Magnificent in recognition of these works which he did to serve his religion and his nation. His reign marked the Golden Age of the Ottoman Empire.
  • Chief Architect Mimar Sinan, called Sinan the Great by the Turks, was born into a Christian family sometime between 1494-99. He was recruited into the Janissaries when he was 14-18 years old, and went on to become a military engineer. The campaigns and wars he was engaged in allowed him to see the architecture of several different cultures, which may have formed his own style and skills. Over the fifty years that he served as Chief Architect, Sinan was responsible for the design, construction and restoration of 477 buildings and public works, about 20 of them of which still stand in Istanbul. The Suleyman Camii is regarded as one of his greatest achievements. 

On my way home I shop a street lined with button shops, fabric shops, and more kitchen shops than I have seen in one place with the possible exception of Chinatown. I finally find the tiny spoons which complete my glass tea sets. I visit Sinan’s tomb, a very modest structure tucked away under a wisteria arbor. I think I walk past a synagogue, mosque-shaped but with a Star of David window above its door. I also find an English book store and allow myself to splurge, having decided days ago to trade my carpet for an Islamic library.

With daylight still left, I head to the Galata Bridge. The top deck was studded with an array of food vendors hawking roasted corn, roasted chestnuts, and savory breads. The rail is lined with fishermen, pulling small silver smelt-like fish out of the sea on their multi-hook lines. I sit down on the curb and watch the boats traffic in and out, pushing the surf up over the retaining wall. I return home via the bottom deck of the bridge, which is lined with restaurants.

I now want to figure out if I can stay here an extra day. Plans for tomorrow include the Ayasofya and perhaps the art museum.

Back at Hotel Han, I am seated at Captain’s Table for dinner. Cihan confers with Baha and suggests a shrimp/tomato/cheese casserole which is served sizzling on a brazier. It’s a nice presentation. I order Raki. Cihan brings two glasses to the table, one filled with water, the other with a single shot of Raki, and pauses over the shot with a bottle of water, but I wave him away. Both he and Baha watch me drink it, straight up. It tastes like ouzo.  

Baha asks what my plan is for tomorrow. “The Ayasofya and the museum,” I say. “You must go to Princes Islands. Very Important.” And he instructs me to take the second train station past the art museum to the end of the line which is the Kabatas ferry terminal. One island has a castle, another has a famous church, another has very nice houses. And he makes notations on my map. He gets a phone call and says he needs to leave to meet up with his family. He grabs his jacket, and invites me to come along.

I experience Turkish traffic from the car’s point of view as he weaves through streets that don’t even look passable. We arrive at Lasos Fish Restaurant, where a small group have already gathered. Baha introduces me to Mustafa, one of his friends. Raki is ordered, and a little later a plate of tuna sashimi and onion arrives, followed by a plate of melon wedges and sheep cheese. Mustafa is quite animated and has an opinion on a lot of topics. I seem to be an anomaly, “that American woman who drinks her Raki straight.’ Mustafa asks me if I am Irish. At the end of the evening Baha walks me to the cab stop, gives instructions to the driver, and sends me on my way. And a new adventure begins…

The cabbie get off the freeway, and stops at a cab stop to ask for directions to the hotel. And again a few blocks later. And again. Between stops and turns he mutters “Hotel Han” and “Allah Allah” and throws his hands up in the air. A dry cleaner is shutting down for the night, the cabbie stops to ask him directions. Some random guy is standing on a street corner and cabbie stops for directions but I don’t think Random Guy speaks Turkish.

We get to the walled city and I start pointing at signs for Yerebatan and the Cistern.? I also point straight ahead at the Ayasofya because I can walk home from there. There’s more muttering of “Hotel Han Hotel Han” and “Allah Allah,” and the raising of hands to sky. By now I’m the one praying to Allah… I really want out of this cab but I cannot get him to stop. I point once more to the sign for Ayasofya which he takes literally, and starts driving across the pedestrian plaza to the mosque. NO!

Finally, after eight stops for directions and a countless litanies of “Hotel Han Hotel Han Allah Allah,” we arrive at the Hotel Han. His meter says more than TL35 but he only charges me what he had quoted. I tell him “Good Job” and we both laugh, though who was the greater relieved between the two of us, would be a pretty hard call…

For more photos of the day, please visit my supplemental blog at Daveno Travels.

Crossroads Tour – The Horn, Astrolabes, and a Holy Place

I am up and ready to go by 7:30, having three days remaining with a long list of things left to see. I step out onto my balcony to see that the sidewalk across the intersection has sprouted a rainbow of tables, and a grey haired man with a black cap and a brass shoe shine kit. I head downstairs to catch an early breakfast and am greeted by Baha and Erhan, one of his brothers, who apologize for the construction noise last night. “No worries,” I say, “not your fault…”

I decide to visit a hamami (Turkish bath) tomorrow as many sites are closed on Mondays. Baha makes a reservation for me at the Gedikpasa Hamami, a 15 minute walk from here. He asks me what my plan today is. “The Science Museum,” I say, “and the Galata Tower”. “Where is your map” he asks, which has become our daily routine. “You must go here”, he says, circling a fashion district near the Galata Tower. “And here,” he adds, circling a mosque at the north end of the Golden Horn which I must take a ferry and then a funicular to reach. “It is very important mosque” he says with intense earnest. Hmmm. That’s not something I had planned for, but I’ve learned not to question his advice. 

I hurry on to the Islamic Science Museum, eager to see how it compares to the Galileo Museum in Florence. There are world globes in the entryway, but unlike the ones in Florence, these are not enclosed in glass. The first room is filled with astrolabes! Case after case, about a third of them are originals. I start snapping pictures of the originals and their accompanying signage, but take few notes as I expect that information will be in the museum catalog. Perhaps I’ll even be fortunate enough to find a replica of something here for Payne in the gift shop. 

The next room is filled with sundials and clocks. The next one, siege weapons. No cases! No ropes! I am furiously fighting the urge to sit on the floor and play with All The Things…

I stroll through rooms of medical instruments, weather instruments, early steam engines, distilleries, kilns, a few books, a few maps. I reach the end. Where’s the museum store? No gift shop? No catalog? ARGH!!! Had I known that I would have taken better notes…

I take a short respite in Gulhane Park to watch the herons and the small green parrots which nest in the tree hollows. After wandering around the fountains and ponds, I am off to find the ferry… 

Today’s lesson is that one cannot always rely on maps. There is construction at the Galata Bridge and I cannot follow the waterfront through to the ferry dock for the Golden Horn. I’m lost. The sun is intense today and I sit down on the curb, pulling my shawl over my head for shade. After a few minutes, my attention is drawn by a parade of people on the other side of the street. Directly across from me is the blue and white sign marking the ferry dock for the Golden Horn. I cross the street and watch where a crowd of mostly East Indians are scrambling over piles of broken concrete, winding their way towards the water. When in doubt, follow the crowd, chances are that they’re going to the same destination as you are… 

I arrive at the ferry ticket office and ask for a round trip fare, following along with the pantomime that the ticket officer is outlining on his desk to make sure we are both talking about the same thing. He gives me two brass tokens, one for each way. I pop one into the turnstile and wait inside the building. 

  • The Golden Horn is a four mile long natural harbor which served as the main commercial port for Constantinople during the Byzantine era. The Byzantines protected the port by blocking it with a huge chain, which was only breached twice…once by 10th century Vikings, and once again during the Fourth Crusade. In 1453 Sultan Mehmet bypassed this chain by dragging his ships from the Bosphorus, overland on greased logs through what is now the New District, and launched them back into the Golden Horn, in the space of a single night. It made him the stuff of legend.

A short ferry ride criss-crosses this waterway to the large bay at the end, where one gets off the ferry and walks to the funicular. I wait in line for about an hour for a six person tram car that takes a very short ride to the top. The tram car drops us off at the base of a graveyard. I pass a restaurant, and more graves marked by blooming iris. And houses. A passerby tells me I’m going in the wrong direction. It is nearing sunset and I may not reach the mosque in time to enter it, but at least I will be able to tell Baha that I came and I saw. 

  • Travel tip – save yourself the wait for the tram and just walk up the hill. At the top, head south to get to the Eyup Camii.

There is an entire city up here! There’s a bus. And shops. And more restaurants, all perched on top of this vertical graveyard. I see a red sign that looks out of place, and turn onto the path. There’s a group of people waiting at the top, near a gate. Thinking I have arrived at the mosque, I pull my shawl over my hair, and find a place to stand. I see a group of women and try to move closer to them, but the air is thick with emotion and so I keep my distance. Then I observe a cluster of men gathered off in the trees near a grave. Women start to stand up and kiss each other. I start to back away as I realize these kisses are not in greeting, but in comfort.

I am at a funeral… 

I exit as discreetly as I can, thankful that I did not intrude on them to ask directions. After several more minutes, still surrounded by graves and those visiting them, I see the minarets of a mosque. I pass a young boy wearing the circumcision clothing I saw in the shop windows the day I visited the Grand Bazaar. I turn the corner and find myself in a courtyard, surrounded by shops and filled with people. A few steps further brings me face-to-face with two bridal couples who have just exited the Eyup Sultan Camii. 

I see a long line of people carrying bottled water and take-out meals. Two men are handing out programs, so either there’s a wedding, or prayer is soon to begin. I find a place to stand near the wall where I can watch unobtrusively. I see women enter a stairwell and take off their shoes. The staircase leads to an enclosed walkway with stained glass panels, stretching over the courtyard. I follow the women in, take off my shoes, cover my head, and walk up the stairs. 

There are women praying in the walkway, facing the stained glass. Through the windows on the other side, I look down into the courtyard where the mealtime pandemonium is starting to subside. I sit down next to the wall and continue to observe. A few women alternately stand and kowtow. One is on her cell phone. There are children running everywhere. Two other women sit with a prayer book in their lap but do not seem to be referencing it as they converse with each other. To my left, an alcove where women are sitting with heads covered, but not in prayer, or in fact in any form of obvious activity. The imam’s calls to prayer has begun… 

I do not know how long I have been sitting here. Finally, my curiosity takes over and I stand up and quietly move into the alcove. And then I look up. Unbelievably, I am standing inside the women’s balcony of Eyup Camii.

  • The Eyup Sultan Camii is the first mosque ever built in Istanbul and is considered the city’s holiest religious site. It was built on the place where Ayyub El Assari (called Eyup Sultan by the Turks), standard bearer of the Prophet Mohammed, died during the siege of Constantinople in 674-78. The story relates that he was buried where he fell and this mosque marks that spot. It is an important destination point for Muslim pilgrims, and many bridal couples come here for blessings before their nuptials.

The wall in front of me is an iron screen, separating the women’s balcony from the men in the main mosque below. I sit down next to the screen, and peer thorough. An imam is preaching, breaking his pace frequently with sips from his water bottle. Men are sitting on the floor all helter-skelter. There are water bottles, cell phones, papers and books near some of them. Some of the men are trying to control small boys. Unlike the women who are physically engaged in prayer, the men are not following the same patterns of standing and kowtowing. 

There are doors in the screen about the size of a child’s face, one is open and hung with a string of green prayer beads. It’s a perfect camera shot that I do not take because it would also capture the men at prayer.  I put my camera away and listen to the imam. After a while, the men join in as a chorus. I stay a few minutes longer before departing, humbled and moved by the experience of having witnessed a prayer service from behind the screen, at sunset, at this most holy place in the city. 

I walk back to the brick road and am surprised to find that within a few minutes I arrive at street level. Had I known that I would have never waited in line for the funicular. I cross the street and walk back to the ferry dock, slip my token into the turnstile and take a seat in a nearly empty ferry station. It is a 45 minute wait for the next ferry and people slowly fill the station. Finally, the incoming ferry docks and offloads, and we push and prod each other through the double doors, across the rough wooden planks and find seats for the sail home. The sun is setting, the fiery sky reflecting onto the waters of the Golden Horn. What an incredible view. 

I reach the Hotel Han and find Cihan at his usual post. “Choose please,” I say to him with all the energy I have left. I am ushered inside when the weather turns cold and I am seated at the Captain’s table, where Baha joins me for a dinner of lamb on a bed of pistachios and cooked greens, rice, fries and yogurt, accompanied by a glass of Yakut wine. I relate the day’s events, and thank him for sending me on this quest. Baha responds with “only Allah knows when weddings and funerals will occur.”

Upstairs, I pack my bags. Two days remain and I need to make time to buy another suitcase if I need to. I have an appointment at the hamami tomorrow at 9:30, and then I plan to see the palace of Suleyman the Magnificent, and Barbarossa’s tomb, and the Galata Tower if time allows. 

I arrived here, wanting to leave immediately. Now I do not want to leave at all …

For additional photos from this day, please visit Daveno Travels.

Crossroads Tour – The Bosphorus

I awaken from first decent sleep I’ve had since arriving here, to sun streaming through the embroidered and sequined curtain. What a glorious, sunny day! After the traditional breakfast that I now look forward to every morning of peynir cheese, oil-cured olives, sweet breads, and french bread with today’s pair of homemade jams, I consult my new map, and set out to follow the train tracks to the waterfront for a ferry to the Rumeli Fortress. 

I find the Sirkeci train station, the arrival point of the legendary Orient Express. I stop to take photos of the cute little steam engine that sits in the yard along side the station. I had hoped to come to Istanbul on this train, which ran for nearly a century before shutting down in 1977. An Orient Express run by the Venice Simpleton company now runs only twice a year, departing out of London.

  • The original Orient Express began operation in 1883 in Paris, where it took three days to reach Istanbul via Romania, Munich, Vienna, Varna, Budapest and Bucharest. Six years later, the first non-stop train departed Paris for Istanbul, where it stopped at the Sirkeci Station. Passengers could walk from Sirkeci to the ferry terminal for service across the Bosphorus, where they could pick up the Ottoman Railways on the Asian side of Istanbul to continue their journey to Bagdad and other points in the Middle & Far East. 

I find the Eminönü ferry dock but am outwitted by the ticket machines. I ask for assistance from one of the clerks who redirects me to the Bosphorus cruise dock. I grudgingly trudge north, and buy a ticket for TL25 instead of the TL7 that the ferry would have cost. By the time I board, there’s no seating available on the upper deck, but plenty of room below on old wooden seats that remind me of ships from the ’40’s. 

  • The Bosphorus is a nineteen mile long strait that connects the Black Sea in the north, to the Sea of Marmara in the south, and separates European Istanbul from its Asian side. It was a critical factor in the establishment of Constantinople in the fourth century, and remained a strategic waterway for centuries after that. 

We pull away from the dock, and I see the waterfront side of the Ayasofya and the Sirkeci train station, and a little later, the minarets of the Blue Mosque. The skyline is studded with mosques and minarets. We pass the small Ortaköy Camii, and next to it, the Esma Sultan Yalisi, a 19th century mansion that was used to store tobacco during the 20th century. 

After we pass under the Bosphorus Bridge, I queue up for the WC (restroom). The expressions on the faces of the German women in front of me make me wish my German wasn’t so rusty. I find out the cause when my turn comes to use the Bayern (women’s room). 

I am introduced to a traditional Turkish toilet… an oblong ceramic piece with a very shallow bowl, a hole, and two textured areas where you place your feet. Now I know why the German women are grimacing and shaking their hands. The toilet reeks as any pit privy does, and I wonder if the Germans understood that the water tap and pitcher at your right foot is there to flush the toilet as well as take care of any other needs. One more experience checked off my bucket list (no pun intended). 

The Rumeli Hisari comes into view. It is expansive and I am disappointed that the boat does not stop here.

  • Built by Sultan Mehmet II in 1452, it was completed in 80 days and was one of two fortresses that led to Mehmet’s successful siege of Constantinople the following year. 

A pair of yogurt vendors board at the port of Kanlica. One sells you a yogurt, the other hands you a packet of powdered sugar and a spoon. The yogurt is crusty on top and really good. 

Beyond Kanlica we reach Rumeli Kavagi, where the strait narrows and is thought to be the site of the ‘Clashing Rocks’ from Homer’s epic ‘Jason and the Argonauts.’ During the Byzantine period a large column was erected as a warning to ships. It remains a treacherous part of the strait, even with modern day navigational equipment. 

We reach our final destination, the small fishing village of Anadolu Cavagi that sits at the base of a hill, crested by Yoros Kalesi. 

Following directions and maps seems to be beyond me lately, and I am approached by a waiter from the nearby restaurant, whom I try to ignore until I realize that he’s trying to point me towards the castle. The road up the hill is pretty steep, taking me past a cemetery, through a maze of opportunistic eateries, and up to the ruins of the fortress.

A ruin which is closed for renovation… 

I content myself with wandering around the back side. This is the closest I will get to the Black Sea this trip, as the rest of the land on this side is restricted to military access. I turn around and head back to the head of the path, just in time to see a group of men old enough to know better, scrambling over the locked iron gate at the entrance to the fortress. That seems to be a good way to get arrested … 

Treading down the stone stairs is a little treacherous, and I am mindful of the patches of broken glass. Down the path, past the ‘serf’ with the chickens and shanty house, past a restaurant, further down the stairs past a play yard with a wooden swing set, a wooden teeter totter taller than most adult men, and a number of hammocks. It’s inviting but I opt to continue down the hill. 

The boat schedule shows that I still have time for lunch, so I head back to the waiter who pointed me to the castle. My eye contact is returned with a big smile as he seats me for lunch. I choose swordfish, cooked on a small grill just feet from my table. I look around at a terrain built on the side of a hill, with outdoor cafes under tarp roofs, foliage and intense sunlight that make me think more of Greece than Turkey. 

I hold up my hand to get the waiter’s attention and my check. 

  • Travel tip: No one is ever in a hurry here. Choices are made via sign language or gesture, checks are tallied by pen and paper or calculator and if you ask for a receipt you are likely to get the scrap of paper they did the tally on. 

I wander down towards the ferry dock, stopping for a gelato and looking for the elusive silver ring that I ultimately will never find this trip. I buy a glass evil eye key chain from a young gypsy woman in the square. The Hotel Han attaches glass evil eyes to their room keys. It’s the small things that serve as the sweetest reminders… 

I stake a place near the door of the ferry terminal, since the first ones in line get the best seats (though that often means a 45 minute wait). I read a sign at the terminal building describing Andalolu Kavagi as the customs point during the Roman era. The village industries included fishing, gardening and serving the ships while waiting for favorable winds to the Black Sea. When the ferry arrives, I take a seat inside next to a window, in hopes of getting some shots of the Rumeli Hisari and perhaps a nap. Between naps I am rewarded… 

Back at the hotel, the young waiter, whose name is Cihan, stands and smiles as he waits for our nightly game of ‘What’s For Dinner’. Baha later invites me to what I now call the Captain’s Table for a cup of coffee and small talk about soccer and football, and my hats. 

After dinner, I return to Gulhane (Tulip) Park, which surrounds the Topkapi Palace. The birds I couldn’t recognize by voice, turn out to be grey herons. The tops of the trees are filled with their nests, and I break out my binoculars for a better look. What a spectacular sight! More pairs of birds than I can count, building nests and mating, puffing out their chests and making a racket with their calls.  I note the location of the Science Museum which I will visit tomorrow. 

I go to my room to download the photos from the day. Construction continues and the building starts to shake as heavy equipment seems to slam into the side of the hotel’s foundation. It felt like an earthquake that lasted for hours, but at least it wasn’t jack hammers. I doze off and on until finally, at about 2 AM, quiet reigns. I learn later that the heavy work must be done at night as trucks are not allowed on these streets during the day during tourist season. There appear to be no sound ordinances here at all…

For additional photos from this day, please visit Daveno Travels.

Names from the Secret History of the Mongols

By Heather Daveno, 1988

The Secret History of the Mongols was written for the royal Mongol family after the death of Chinghis Khan in 1227 AD. It details the history of the Mongol peoples from the birth of the first Mongol, Batachikhan, through the ascension of Ogodei Khan to the Mongolian throne. The Secret History is considered a primary source for the genealogy of the ruling families of Mongolia up to the beginning of the 14th century. 

I compiled this list of names from my copy of The Secret History as adapted by Paul Khan, published by North Point Press, San Francisco, 1984. I intended it as a resource for the Offices of Heraldry for the Society of Creative Anachronism, as well as any LARP or gaming groups that may find it useful. The names are in alphabetical order, followed by gender (m/f) and page number for reference. Translation, clan affiliation and other notes from the text are included. Tribal spellings are taken directly from the text and may not be consistent throughout this catalog.

After having lost this file for several years due to a series of technology crashes, I found a copy online at the Mongolian University Library, which allowed me to reconstruct my printable list which you can download here.

Many thanks to Crystal Lin Smithwick, whose assistance in setting up the original table on my original website, was invaluable.

For additional information on medieval Mongolian naming practices, please click here.

The Mongolian Invasions of Medieval Europe

“All warfare is based on deception… Feign disorder, and crush him. If he is secure at all points, be prepared for him. If he is in superior strength, evade him. If your opponent is of choleric temper, seek to irritate him. Pretend to be weak, that he may grow arrogant. If he is taking his ease, give him no rest. If his forces are united, separate them. Attack him where he is unprepared, appear where you are not expected.” — from ” The Art of War” by Sun Tzu

  • My editors notes in this article are in (parenthesis). This post is an overview and supplement to my original article which is available by download a little further down this page.

Although Chinghis and Sun Tzu were not contemporaries, much of the opening quote applies to Mongolian warfare, where deception formed a basis of battle strategy, and combined with high levels of discipline, organization and personal strength to make the Mongolian army a fierce force to be reckoned with. The Mongols believed that their Great Khan was directed by God to conquer and rule the world. Resistance to him was resistance to God and punishable by death. Conquest on the scale envisioned by Chinghis¹  needed a high degree of discipline and organization. Their power lay in tribal confederation and non-assimilation of foreign ways. 

The Mongolian Army – Structure

  • Khan / Khagan² – Commander-in-chief.
  • Noyan – The equivalent of prince, serving directly under the khan.
  • Bahadur – The equivalent of knight. The Bahadur served as personal bodyguards to the khan.
  • Yurtchis – Quartermaster of the ordos or camp.
  • The body of the army was made of of units of Tumen, Minghan, Jagun and Arban (which are described in my original article)

The Mongolian Army – Uniforms, Armor and Weapons
White was a sacred color, reserved for the Khan, whose armor and tunic were white or white and gold. He typically rode a white mount. (I hypothesize that white did not become a mourning color in Asia until the disastrous defeat of the Mongolian forces during their failed attempt to invade Japan in 1274 and 1281.) Bahadur wore black armor, a black tunic with red facings, and rode a black horse with a red leather saddle. (The uniforms for all others, as well as the provisions they carried, are described in my article.)

The iron helmet was covered with lacquered leather (I presume to avoid rust) and had a horsetail crest. Rank was denoted by a pair of red ribbons, which hung from the crown and down the back. (It is my believe that the Manchurian hats with their upturned fur brims and ribbons down the back, evolved from Mongolian army caps.)

Mongolian archers wore a stone ring on their right thumb, which they used to release the bowstring (rather than their fingers), which increased the velocity and speed of release of the arrow. Each man carried 2 quivers, which held about 30 arrows each.

The horse was the most prized possession the Mongol owned. Steppe horses were renowned for their courage and endurance. They only needed to be watered once a day, and they could dig for grass under the snow, which eliminated the army’s need to carry feed.

Each warrior had between 3-20 horses, which allowed them to ride non-stop. A Mongolian horseman could string a bow from his saddle, as well as eat and sleep on horseback. Herds of up to 10,000 head accompanied the army and were divided by color, which served as another definition of rank.

The Mongolian Army – Training and Tactics 
The harsh and demanding lifestyle provided Mongolian soldiers with endurance, mobility and other warlike qualities. Mongolians were also very dedicated to their leaders, and were highly disciplined. Their European counterparts however, went to war with little training or discipline, very little experience in fighting as a unit, and as often as not, went to war for profit under the guise of religious crusade. The feudal system allowed men to lead based on their wealth rather than on tactical ability. 

Training for the hulega, or “Great Hunt”, conducted like a campaign and designed to teach discipline, strategy and unity under command.

The most often used method of attack was the tulghma, or “Standard Sweep”, with light cavalry attacking at right angles, and heavy cavalry s charging from the rear.

Another favorite maneuver was the mangudai.A light cavalry of suicide troops charged the enemy, then retreated, leading the enemy into an ambush of heavy cavalry. Units communicated with each other with a variety of signals, including whistling arrows or flags by day, torches at night.

Dispatches were sent via courier, through a pony express system called the Yam. Roads became thoroughfares throughout the Mongolian Empire, with rest stations and fresh horses every 25 miles. This allowed couriers to ride 120 miles a day. Roads also allowed the army to move columns of soldiers at great distances, making simultaneous thrusts, surrounding the enemy, and appearing to be a larger force than they actually were. 

If the Mongolian army was too heavily outnumbered, they would turn aside, putting a day or two’s journey between themselves and the enemy, and then lay waste to whatever was around them, which depleted supplies that would normally have been foraged by the enemy. Mongolian armies might also retreat for 10-12 days, until the opposing army had disbanded, then attack them. Mongolians gained victory by destroying the enemy and progressively dominating the territories of those they conquered. The Mongols were able to do this in Russia by dividing the country and then weakening it.

The artillery stayed behind with the engineers (typically Persians), reserves and remounts. The Mongols learned about siege weapons from either the Chinese or the Persians, and improved upon them when they invaded Iran. Chinese siege engines used by the Mongols are described in my article

Among the Mongolian siege methods was to dam a nearby river and divert its flow to flood a city. The Amo River, used for this purpose, now has a new course from what it had prior to the 13th century.

  • My thanks to the editors of The Elf Hill Times, who first published my article in January, 1998 under the title “The Mongols: Their Attempt at World Domination” which you can download here:
  • This post is updated to include notes from classes I taught in 1998-99 on “Warfare in Medieval Mainland Asia”. This work has been cited in an academic research paper titled “Challenges Facing Mongolia’s Participation in Coalition Military Operations”, written by Lt. Col. Byambasuren Bayarmagnai of the Mongolian Armed Forces, published by the U.S. Army War College in March 2005.

The Mongolian Army – Invasion Timeline and Legacy
1206 – Temujin, after uniting the nomadic tribes of the steppes into the Mongolian Federation of Tribes, is proclaimed khagan, and given the name of Chinghis. He begins a series of foreign conquests the following year.

1207-1210 – Chinghis sends his eldest son Jochi to defeat the Oirat, Buriyat, Turkish Kirghiz and Tumet tribes. The next battle is against the kingdom of Si-hia in the Ordos desert. This is a stronghold of Buddhism and Chinese culture with an army of 150,000. Jochi lays siege until 1210, when the capital city of Chungsing surrenders. —In the meantime, Chinghis takes the kingdom of Karakhitai, of which most subjects are Turks. In 1209 Barchuk, the ruler of the Uighur Turks, joins with Chinghis.

1211-1217 –Jaghatai, Jochi, Ogodei and Chinghis lead three forces totaling 120,000 men across the Gobi Desert against the Chin army of 500,000, and defeat them in 1217. Turkistan is invaded on this campaign and absorbed by Chinghis in 1215.

1219 -1245 are detailed in my original article

1246-1251 –Ogodei’s widow Artedais serves as regent until the new khagan can be elected. Although Ogodei appointed his grandson Kubilai, Artedais succeeds in putting her own son Kuyuk on the throne. However, Kuyuk dies two years later and Mongke, nominated by Batu, becomes khagan in 1251.

In a controversial move, Batu later establishes himself at Sarai (65 miles north of Astrakhan on the lower Volga River) and holds his own khurlitai, where he is proclaimed (or proclaims himself) khagan. Batu breaks allegiance with Karakorum and rules independently as the Great Khan of the Golden Horde (from the Mongol altun ardu). Although Batu’s tribes are mostly Turkish, the official language remains Mongolian, and it remains a province of the Mongol Empire. This is the beginning of the splintering of Chinghis’s empire, and begins the demise of the Mongolians as a coherent ruling force by the 14th century. 

Italian trade settlements at Kaffa, Sudak and Kertch are maintained by Genoese and Venetians. The Mongols take over direct administration in the Ukraine, but allow Russian princes to administer most of the rest of Russia. Tribute takes the form of annual taxes from merchants and farmers, and animals from Russian nomads and cattle breeders. The Mongols interest in land was not political (they did not care who owned it), but rather they viewed land as a source for troops and revenue, assessed through annual censuses which were carried out by the Chinese. Their only political interest was for the Russian nobility to acknowledge their khagan at Karakorum as the Supreme Ruler. Batu’s aim was to keep Russian princes disunited; rivalry was encouraged through the naming of one of the princes as Grand Duke, a title which was revoked and transferred by the ruling Khagan at will. 

1255-1299 –Hulagu, a grandson to Chinghis, conquers Transoxiana, Iran and Iraq and establishes the Iklhan Horde in Iran. Batu dies at old Sarai in 1255, leaving a territory from the upper Ob River to the lower Syr Darya, and from the Caspian coast to the Black Sea. A decline in leadership begins. Berke succeeds him in 1257 and dies in 1266.

Mongke Temur becomes khagan in 1266, but Nogai Noyan is the actual hand of power, and the cause of much infighting among the Mongolian ruling class. Nogai urges the Russian princes to fight against Poland and Lithuania, while he advances on south Poland and Hungary. Mongke Temur dies in 1280 and is succeeded by Tuda Mongke, who later abdicates to Teleboge, who is later seized and given to Tokhtu whom Nogai later proclaims as Khagan. 

Nogai takes dominion in the Crimea, and is later opposed by Tokhtu, who sides against him in a war between Venice and Genoa. Nogai dies in 1299. Kubilai, grandson of Chinghis, conquers China in 1279 and establishes the Yuan Dynasty. Ghazan, great grandson of Hulagu, has become a Muslim and the Ilkhans become the national dynasty of Iran. Ties to the Mongol Khagans to the East dissipate. 

1312-1378 –Tokhtu dies and is succeeded by Ozbeg, who appoints Ivan Kalita of Moscow as Grand Duke. This office remains with the princes of Moscow until the end of Mongol rule in Russia. Ozbeg dies in 1341 and is succeeded by his son Janibeg who dies in 1357, and is in turn succeeded by Beribeg. The Golden Horde loses interest in lands south of the Caucasus. Beribeg is murdered in 1359. Timur becomes a major player and establishes Samarkand as hie capitol in 1335.

The Golden Horde is counter-attacked successfully in 1363 at the battle of Kulikouo by Dmitry Donskoy, Prince of Moscow. This battle is the first major defeat suffered by the Golden Horde.Civil war breaks out between rivals for the khanate and Russian princes attempting to overthrow Moscow. The Lithuanian Grand Dukes extend their power as far as Kiev. The Golden Horde’s territory is divided between the rulers of the Crimea, Astrakhan and Khwarazm. Timur Melik makes himself master of Khwarazm, and helps Tokhtamysh in his possession of Astrakhan and Sarai in 1378.

1382-1430
sees the beginning of the disentegration of the Golden Horde. The remainder of this timeline, running to 1689, is detailed in my original paper.

The Mongolian Legacy The Mongols were the last and most destructive invaders to come from the steppes. Even though Europe was saved from invasion by the deaths of Ogodei and Mansu, the Mongolian campaign had the following far-reaching and negative consequences: 

  • Herring glut – In 1238, the British herring market became glutted when ships from the Baltic didn’t arrive because of preparations they were making against the Mongols. Fifty herrings sold for one shilling. 
  • Genoese monopoly – Subetai signed a treaty with the Genoese, who acted as spies in return for the Mongol destruction of all other trading posts in the Crimea, which gave the Genoese a monopoly there. 
  • Russian economy – Russia suffered a ruined economy and exploited peasantry, as well as self-important and abusive aristocrats. 

However, not all consequences were dire: 

  • Western Europe gained knowledge of Asia and trade routes to China were reopened.
  • China flourished during Kubilai’s reign, since many of the governing officials left court and turned to artistic and scientific pursuits.
  • The Eastern Orthodox Church became self sufficient due to it being isolated from Constantinople and went unchallenged by foreign ideas
  • Novgorod became a center of trade.
  • Russia’s population spread out evenly across the countryside as forests were cut down and agriculture was expanded.

The success of Chinghis lay in the strategies of his general, Subetai, as well as his own skill and organization in battle. The Mongol nation was eventually defeated by their own political infighting, disintegration in their discipline, and their shift from the harshness of nomadic culture, to the soft luxuries of city life. The introduction of firearms to Eastern Europe also played a major role, as they changed the nature of war throughout Europe, and later, the world at large. 

Notes

  1. Although there are many spellings of Chinghis Khan, I prefer this more obscure one, which phonetically resembles the name’s meaning, which is “the sound of iron being forged”. 
  2. Under the Mongolian Federation of Tribes, each tribe had a khan, the Mongolian term for chief. Khagan is the Mongolian term for “khan over all khans” or “Great Khan”.
  3. A silk shirt did not pierce when shot, but instead traveled with the arrowhead into the flesh. The Mongols found that pulling the shirt extracted the arrow point, which kept the wound clean since it never came into contact with the metal tip, which in turn lowered a soldier’s risk of infection.
  4. The Secret History of the Mongols, adapted by Paul Kahn, North Point Press, San Francisco, 1984. 
  5. All sons of Chinghis 
  6. Jebe, also known as Jirghogadai, from the defeated Tayichigud tribe, is one of Chinghis’ four generals.
  7. Subetai, also spelled in some sources as Subedai, was also one of Chinghis’s four generals. 
  8. Batu, son of Jochi and founder of the Golden Horde.Khurlitai, the gathering of all the tribes for the purpose of electing the new khagan. 
  9. By tradition, the wife (khatun) of the deceased khagan ruled as regent until the khurlitai was held. Although this text refers to the next khagan being named (as in the case of Chinghis appointing Ogodei to succeed him) such appointments had to be ratified at the khurlitai before the title was recognized. Being named a successor did not always guarantee the right to rule, if the khurlitai or political intrigue placed someone else as khagan.
  10. Mongke, also spelled Mongge, eldest son of Tolui and fourth khagan of the Mongolian Empire.Ozbeg, nephew to Tokhtu, khan of the Golden Horde, who is also known as Tokhtagha. Ozbeg is Islamic, the Uzbeg tribe is named after him. History of the Mongols by Bertold Spuler, Dorset Press, NY 1988. 
  11. Timur, also known as Tamerlane. 

Additional Sources

  • The Sword and the Scimitar by Ernie Bradford, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, Italy 1974
  • The Devil’s Horsemen: The Mongol Invasion of Europe by James Chambers, Athenium Press, NY 1979
  • The Horizon History of Russia by Ion Grey, American Heritage Publishers, NY 1970
  • The Travels of Marco Polo, translated by R.E. Latham, Penguin Books, England 1958
  • Silks, Spices and the Empire by Owen and Eleanor Lattimore, Delacortes Press, 1968
  • The Rise of the West by W.H. McNeill, Mentor Books, NY 1965
  • The Mongols by E.D. Philips, Frederick A. Praeger Inc., NY 1969
  • Medieval People by Eileen Powers, Barnes and Noble Books, 1963 
  • Cities of Gods, Isles of Spice by Christine Price, David McKay Co., Inc. NY 1965

Crossroads Tour – The Topkapi Palace

  • The Topkapi Palace, built between 1460-78, is a walled complex covering 700,000 square meters, comprised of three courtyards, several gardens and all the buildings you would expect to see in a royal administrative city. It was the residence of the Ottoman sultans until the middle of the 19th century, and also served as the administrative and educational center for the state. It became a museum in 1924, two years after the Ottoman monarchy came to an end.

I arrive about 2 hours before closing. I wait in a line that eats up twenty valuable minutes, and enter the Topkapi Palace through the Gate of Salutation, whose iconic towers were built during the reign of Suleyman the Magnificent. 

  • The sultan alone could ride on horseback through this gate, and the palace women were allowed to remain in their carriages, but all others had to pass through on foot (as I do today), passing under a calligraphed inscription that proclaims the tenant of Islam: “There is no god but God; and Muhammed is the prophet of God.” 

This gate opens out onto the Second Courtyard which is also called the Council Square, where coronations, receptions and other affairs of state were held. The Tower of Justice (used as a council chamber for the Grand Viziers and military judges since the 19th century) and the Imperial Chancery (dating from the reign of Suleyman the Magnificent, early 16th century) are also located here.

I walk past the Treasury, which is now a Weapons Museum, in search of the Palace Kitchen, which houses Turkish glassware and Asian porcelain collections. Disappointed to find it closed, I head towards the Carriage Gate, the gateway to the Harem Apartments, the private residence of the sultan and his family.

  • Built in the 16th century and expanded over the next three centuries, the Apartments are notable as a showcase of architectural history. They contain more than 300 rooms, nine bathhouses, two mosques, a hospital, dormitory and laundry. The Harem also served as a recruitment center for young children who were trained for state service. 

After passing through the Carriage Gate, I walk into the Domed Cabinets, where documents referencing Mecca and Medina were kept. Next is the Fountain Hall, rebuilt in 1665 after a fire, and dizzying in its wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling tile work. Then through the Courtyard of the Black Eunuchs, who guarded the wives and concubines. After half an hour, I stop taking photos. Baha was not kidding. The palace is immense, room after room after hallway, linking to courtyards to even more rooms…

I pass through the Main Gate, which leads to the sultan’s private apartments, the Gallery of the Concubines, and the Courtyard of the Sultana Mother. Each apartment is two stories, though public access appears to only be available to those rooms at the ground level.

  • The majority of girls brought to the Topkapi as concubines were actually employed as servants. Those who were pretty and intelligent would be educated in reading, writing, music, religion, palace etiquette and the arts of the courtesan. From this pool, those who became favorites or whom bore the sultan a child, would become his wives and would receive letters patent, new dresses and separate chambers, and would receive additional training in Imperial traditions.  Wives founded charities, commissioned mosques, and devoted themselves to good works in keeping with their conversion to Islam.
  • There was a complex ranking structure within the Harem, defining specific roles, duties and apartments for every girl,from the lowest servant to the Favorites, Wives, and the Sultana Mother. The Koran required that women slaves be well looked after, stating “Furnish them with anything you eat and wear, and never treat them badly.” They received a per diem commensurate with their position as well as gifts at weddings, birthdays and festivals. Women also had the right to leave the harem after having lived there for nine years, and would receive a trousseau and assistance in finding a husband. Even after their departure from the harem, they remained under palace protection until their death. 

I came back from the Topkapi with enough information about the Harem to write a comparative study of the courtesans of Venice and Istanbul…

The Courtyard of the Favorites housed the wives, in close proximity to the Sultana Mother. Each Favorite had a private room on this second floor, with a fireplace and enameled closets. Those rooms overlooking the Golden Horn also had separate toilets and hamamis. The lower level dormitories housed the concubine servants.

The Sultana Mother’s apartments were also heavily tiled, and included a fireplace and a fountain in every room. In addition to living quarters, the Sultana’s living area also included a prayer room, bathhouse and toilet, making it an independently functioning structure from the rest of the harem apartments.

I cannot remember which of the apartments had this beautiful dome, painted with vines. I was so inspired by the dome that I replicated the design as a hat a few weeks later…

The Privy Room of Sultan Murad III was designed and built by Mimar Sinan in 1579 and was the sultan’s official and private apartment. It is covered with Iznik tile and the room is encircled with a white-on-blue calligraphed band reciting the Verse of the Throne from the Kor’an. It is quite spectacular even in this dim light.

I duck into what would be the first of several gift shops here, and find a book of Suleyman’s poetry. The palace will close soon so I run through rooms of jewelry; coppers, brasses and silver works; weapons and helms, catching the briefest glimpse of the Topkapi Dagger with three enormous emeralds set into its handle. The textile collection is much smaller than I expected, but most of the pieces are laid out flat which gives the perfect view of their construction.

A 17th century Italian velvet that I watched being produced on a video at the Lanterna in Genoa, is here, in the form of a Sultan’s coat. Italian silks and velvets were highly prized by the Ottoman sultans and princes. There are several inner caftans here as well – collarless, and tight fitting, with gussets running from waist to hem. Caftans were worn over a loose robe called an entari, which in turn were worn over shalwar trousers, with a wide waist which was gathered in with a sash which passed through drawstrings on the waistband. In addition to Italian velvets and silks, a metallic brocade called serâser (a cloth of silver/gold alloys produced in Istanbul during the 16th century) and kemha, (a compound weave blending polychrome silks with metallic threads) were also worn.

Towards the 18th century, the heavy silks and velvets gave way to satins, taffeta, gezi (a thick silk), sandal (a cotton/silk blend) and selimiye, a silk produced in Istanbul. I loved the talismanic shirts, which reminded me of the Taoist caftans from some of the Mongolian exhibits I had seen. Verses from the Kor’an and other prayers were meant to protect the wearer from illnesses and enemies, and are thought to have been prepared through a combined effort of the court astrologers and theologians.

I spend the remaining daylight wandering around the grounds, weaving my way through pavilions and admiring the carved marble plaques that line the sidewalks along the Royal Kitchen. Many are in various states of repair and restoration.

I exit the Topkapi grounds through the Imperial Gate, capped with beautiful gold Arabic script against a blue background.  The roundel on the archway is the signature of Sultan Abdulaziz (1861-76). Above it, “Help from God and a speedy victory” which was also the battle cry of the Jannisaries. On the other side, the following script: 

  • “By the grace and assent of god and with the aim of establishing peace and tranquility. This auspicious citadel was built and erected in the blessed month of Ramadan in the year 883 (1478 CE) at the command of the son of Sultan Murad, son of Sultan Mehmed Khan, the sultan of the lands and the emperor of the seas, the shadow of God extending over men and djinn, the deputy of God in the East and in the West, the champion of the water and the land, the conqueror of Constantinople and father of that conquest Sultan Mehmed, may God make his reign eternal and exalt his abode above that of the highest stars in the firmament.”

If I ever came back to Istanbul, I would want to spend at least two days here.

You can see more photos (in larger format) at Daveno Travels.

Back at the hotel, I am greeted by an animated young waiter who is working the sidewalk in front of the hotel. The Hotel Han is right next door to the Barbecue House, which seems to be a pretty popular eatery. I walk up to the large pictorial menu and ask the waiter for a suggestion. After some back-and-forth banter, he seats me at a table on the sidewalk. A very short time later, a large sampler plate arrives, covered with chicken, steak, lamb, and two other meats I could not identify; grilled peppers and tomatoes, a salad of shredded carrots, lettuce and spiced pickled cabbage; rice, fries, pizza and a boat shaped bread filled with cheese. A half a piece of focaccia serves as a trencher below the meats.  An Efes beer to wash it down with, and a dinner show, free of charge as I watch with amusement the young waiter convince passers by to pull off the sidewalk and take a seat.

Thankful for the course corrections of the day, with a happy mind and full belly, I look forward to a full night’s sleep and new adventures tomorrow…

Making a Tibetan Maikhan

By Heather Daveno, early 1980’s. This DIY article is copyright free as long as you credit its author.

The peaked roof of the 13th century maikhan was supported by a ridgepole, supported in turn by two upright poles. Guy ropes served to stabilize these uprights at each end of the maikhan. The guy ropes which were made of yak hair, were adorned with prayer flags, which served to both mark the guy ropes (notorious trip hazards), and to send prayers to heaven for the Buddhist inhabitants. Smaller maikhans belonging to Buddhist ascetics included an iron trident, which probably fastened to the top of one of the two uprights.

If you would like to build one like I did, feel free to download this article.

A Requiem for a Hat

As I was designing hats for an upcoming show in 2016, I was somewhat dismayed to find that I could no longer craft a couple of my favorites. It is with a mix of nostalgia and sadness that I announce the end of the line for the hat that started it all…

“The Classic,” known by some as the “Classic Lao Hat” launched my company several years ago. It was inspired by a medieval Viking model, although this style was also prevalent throughout Europe, Northern Europe, Russia, and Mongolia during the medieval period.

Historically a 5-panel hat with exposed seams, I designed my version with 6 panels to accommodate embroidery on every other panel. That design modification also ended up created a better fitting hat.

Originally made from 70/40% wool felt, I switched over to using wools gleaned from thrift store coats, which felted up when washed and which became fray-proof. This produced a higher quality and longer lasting hat.  But supplies for this quality of wool have diminished in the recycled textiles market, and I can no longer guarantee the selection of colors that make this hat marketable.

I have a few of these hats in my inventory, most of which is now on tour at various gallery shows across the country. I also hope to continue with my leather versions, albeit in a very limited color palette.

Meeting a similar fate is my Sitka, named after the Russian military hat I brought home after visiting Sitka, Alaska. My version was a tall six-panel hat with exposed seams, brocade cuff and embroidered earflap that tied up in front.

Looking on the bright side, if you own one of my Classics or Sitkas, hang on to it.  As of October 1, 2016 it took one more step towards becoming a collectible : ) 

Names from the History of Archers

This index is a list of names from The History of the Nation of the Archers by Grigor of Akanc, written in 1271 in Cilicia at Akanc’ and preserved at the Armenian Convent of St. James at Jerusalem. The Armenian text was, translated by Robert D. Blake and Richard N. Frye. I located this work in the Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, Vol. 2, No. 3-4, published by the Harvard-Yenching Institute in December 1949.

I compiled this in 1988 as a resource for historians, heralds, historical reenactors and modern gamers. You can download the complete list here.


Something tattered this way comes…

Back in 2013, I was introduced to Michael Broder through a colleague at TAFAList, Rachel Biel. Michael had purchased a kufe, but the sizing was off and it was too small for him to wear. I was enlisted to remedy that.

Photo montage courtesy of Afghan Tribal Arts

A year later, Rachel referred another customer to me. Another kufe, this one with straight sides, embroidered with Jerusalem crosses.  An unfortunate victim of the household dog who claimed it as a chew-toy.
The kufe arrived a few days later, tattered and torn, with a section of the embroidery beyond repair.  I sent a cost estimate to the customer, Brian, who approved my plan to reconstruct rather than restore his hat. And so, my next salvage project began.

Rather than walk you through that process, I’m sharing Brian’s story, which he shared with me in printed booklet format. I don’t often receive that sort of feedback from customers, which makes Brian’s story even more special.

“Once upon a time, there was a beautiful woven hat. It sat on a shelf of a religious bookstore in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco, growing dusty as it waited for just the right person…”

“Meanwhile, Brian and his wife Joan were riding the Amtrak cross-country on vacation. They disembarked and enjoyed a few days of sightseeing in Seattle and then Vancouver.  Their next stop was San Francisco.”

“The city was well-known for its vampires, who prowl about after sunset. Obviously, they needed protection.  Brian carried a crucifix and holy water in his backpack, and they purchased other repellants – salt, garlic, rosewater – along the way.  But they did not feel confident that these would suffice in an emergency, and continued to seek “just the right armor.”

“Circumstances led them to the Haight-Ashbury district in search of dinner.  As luck would have it, Brian noticed a small religious book shop and was immediately intrigued by it.  As he perused the items for sale, The Hat sent out its vibes, quietly pulling him toward the shelf on which it sat.  The minute he laid eyes on it, he knew it was ‘the one’. Not only did it fit him perfectly, it was beautifully embroidered in a repeating pattern of Jerusalem Crosses…exactly the vampire-repelling armor he had been seeking.  He paid for it, took his leave of the shop and its keeper, and hastened with Joan to dinner.” 

“Fueled by an exquisite meal, Brian and Joan set off hand-in-hand, knowing the extraordinary hat that Brian now wore would safeguard them on their journey. No vampires were encountered on the way home that night. Or the next day.  Or at all, for the remainder of their trip.  Vampires apparently sensed the power of the hat and kept their distance.”

“It became Brian’s favorite and he wore it everywhere.  It took on his scent and the shape of his head, as if it were an extension of his very self.  But soon the hat, with its familiar scent and broken-in softness, became an irresistible temptation for Brian’s dog, Tailor.”

“Of all the things Tailor loved to chew, he loved hats the most…”

“Inevitably, one day, the hat was left within Tailor’s reach.  Seeing his pointy teeth and mistaking him for a vampire, the hat became overconfident in its powers, and the unthinkable happened…”

“Tailor was severely scolded and hung his head in the sincerest of apologies…but the hat was beyond repair and its owner was heartbroken.  Unable to part with his talisman, he gathered up the tattered remains and stored them away…”

“Months later, Brian received an invitation to attend services at a local mosque.  He thought about his old hat and how perfect it would have been for the occasion.  Wondering if he could ever find another like it, he searched the Internet for the store he had bought it from, but came up empty, almost as though the little shop had never existed.”

“Typing in keywords “kuffe” and “Jerusalem Cross” produced only one match, a Seattle company called August Phoenix Hats, which offered handcrafted artisan hats made from reclaimed textiles and found objects.  He contacted the owner and she encouraged him to send her what was left of the hat.  If the repair was not possible, she could perhaps copy the pattern to create a new one.” 

“Encouraged, Brian mailed the hat off to Seattle and anxiously awaited her reply [which was, eventually, yes…]”

“…Slowly, little by little, Heather the Hat Whisperer worked her magic.  She matched and patched, wove and stitched, lined and resized, expertly blending the old with the new and adding her own chapter to the hat’s tale…”

“When the package arrived from Seattle, Brian and Joan set it aside, saving the best for last.  After sorting through letters and bills and Christmas cards, they turned their attention to the box and carefully opened it.”

“The sight of his hat, intact once more, brought tears to Brian’s eyes.  He turned it around and around in his hands, marveling at the magnificent job Heather had done to bring the hat back to life.”

“Brian placed the hat on his head and it fit perfectly, the reunion of two old friends.  Comfort and Joy in the Christmas season!  He danced around the kitchen, not wanting to take it off.  In the meantime, Tailor stood nearby, curiously eyeing the hat, catching the faint scent of his master still lingering in the fabric. He wondered how such a miracle could have occurred and hoped it meant the end of his probation.”

“And the hat, with its new lease on life, was carefully placed on the closet shelf, where it awaits its next adventure…” 

My thanks to Brian and Joan for writing, and sharing this wonderful story with me. — Heather, Hat Whisperer : )



Crossroads Tour – Firenze Final Day

May 8 – Mother’s Day in Firenze

I wake up at 6:30 AM, but roll back and try to go back to sleep. Forty-five minutes later, a neighbor starts playing Spanish guitar in the lobby just outside my door. There are worse ways to wake up on a Sunday morning…

Today is ‘everything breaks’ day. I have a cold but my blisters are less severe this morning. Paint chips fall from the bathroom ceiling and shatter on the floor. A light fixture near the bed has pulled away from the wall and the other one no longer works. I pop coins into the vending machine for a bottle of water and something I was expecting to be yogurt, but was actually peach juice in a yogurt shaped container. Sadly, the coffee vending machine is out of order today.

I climb back into bed with my fluids and a protein bar from my stash, and catch up on my journal as Italia news and other programming flash across the TV: a home shopping network selling Iranian carpets, I wish they would show more of the loom sitting in the corner. Spongebob Squarepants dubbed in Italian. Italy’s version(s) of America’s Got Talent. It’s just as bad here as it is at home.Five hours later, my journal is caught up, and my feet are much better after being elevated for the last several hours. It’s time to find some food, and some coffee, and perhaps some flipflops. And maybe a garden… 

Sunday is a good down day here as most of the San Frediano district is closed. I had to cross the bridge to find food, and found a pizzeria where I ordered a veggie which included slices of zucchini, carrot, potato, olives and portabella mushroom, imbedded in a piece of focacia and drizzled with olive oil. There’s a potato pizza here but I’m not brave enough to try it. 

I am feeling well enough to take a walk along the Arno, and up to the Ponte Vecchio to look at gold I cannot afford. On my way I find Signum, a great little shop with handmade journals, sealing wax, and Florentine papers. I buy myself a pocket calligraphy pen and a multi-nub pen, used to draw scales when you are writing music. It’s quite ingenious. 

In spite of it being Mother’s Day, the city isn’t horribly crowded and I get some decent shots of the the storefront shutters. One of the locks was stainless steel but of Chinese design. 

I wander through the street with no particular destination in mind, and up at the Loggia where the market is. Everyone sells variants of the same leather bags, scarves, t-shirts and leather folio covers. It’s worth a walk through just to rub the snout of the Boar Fountain (to assure your return here, according to local legend) and to take in the smell of new leather goods. 

A building on the corner is full of bikes. You Must Be Kidding! I don’t know if they are replicas of antiques or if this is an art installation, but the book I bought seems to indicate that they are based on historical models: a barber’s bike with its chest of shaving implements; a Cantastorie with a hurdy gurdy strapped to the front; a portrait painter with paintbox on his handlebars and portrait samples over the back fenders; and my favorite, shown here, a Pompiere – a firefighting bicycle. 

By the time I have finished my walk through I’m laughing so hard I’m nearly crying!  Here are more of my photos from this exhibit.

My next discovery is the Palazzo Vecchio. The ground floor is a public area and covered with some of the most amazing archways in the city.

  • Travel tip:Do Not photograph the polizia in Firenze!  My request was answered verbally with a curt “no”, accompanied by a scowl that read “Hell No.”  Whenever they spotted a tourist with a camera, they were quick to turn away to avoid being photographed.  I will now treasure those shots I have of the two polizia at the Lanterna.

The Uffizi is hosting an exhibit of the works of DaVinci, and the lines are around the block. I look up to notice a “living statue” dressed as a cherub on the steps, posing for pictures. He’s only the first… the next one is dressed as an Egyptian sarcophagi, the one after that a statue from the Duomo.

I hand my camera to a standerby and pose with the statue for a photo. The crowd starts to gather and giggle, and while the standerby is trying to figure out my camera, I feel a rustle of cloth and turn to find that the living statue has slowly moved towards me to provide a better photograph. It was really fun to get my camera back, not with one shot, but a sequence of shots… the statue was very friendly and unwilling to let go of my hand but I finally made my escape.

The last living statue was DaVinci himself, who, after I deposited a coin in his can, motioned for me to approach. He pulled out of his book three squares of paper, “Il codice da Vinci dell Economia,” (For a new constitutional order in the contemporary democratic revolutions).  You can learn more about this manifesto at  which you can read more about at creditosociale. 

I walk back along the row of statuary for a last look, and laugh as I see the woman who followed after me to pose with the Duomo statue is also having trouble retrieving her hand from his affectionate grip.

I find the Galileo Museum – the science museum that I will compare to the one I’m seeing in Istanbul. Photography is not allowed, but at least they have a catalog to take home.  Searching high and low through the gift shop for a replica astrolabe, I come up empty handed. It is the singular souvenir I had hoped to bring home from this trip.

I’m now looking for the Bardini Mansion that I saw advertised at the Pitti Palace. I stop at a grocer and buy a picnic lunch, which I enjoy in the solitude of the steps of an old fortress wall, which turns out to be the Belvedere Fortress which surrounds the Bardini mansion and its gardens. The artworks I came to see are interesting, and although I enjoy them, they’re not interesting enough for me to photograph. The next galleries are a completely different story…

It’s a Roberto Capucci exhibit. I know nothing of this designer, but his work is super impressive in both design and detail. I always appreciate visiting mannequins that I can walk completely around. The “Red Bride” below is one of my favorites from this beautiful and unexpected exhibit.

Down one of the hallways is a glass door with a view of the city. One of the museum staff kindly unlocks the door and lets me out onto the balcony. Although I was told that the best panorama of Florence was from the Michalangelo —- the best view is actually from the third floor balcony of the Villa Bardini.

This part of the city has a number of cutaways in the stucco to expose more ancient parts of the building, an architectural feature that’s a fascinating way to preserve the history of a building. 

My final day in Florence is capped by a beautiful sunset on the Arno. By this time tomorrow, I’ll be watching the sunset in Istanbul.

For the rest of the photos from this final day in Florence, please visit  Daveno Travels.

Crossroads Tour – Portovenere

It’s a pleasant morning as I retrace last night’s route to the train station. I walk past the Benedictine abbey ruins that I saw on the tour bus last night.  Even in ruins it is a very peaceful place, and my heart is touched by a single rose bush, its blooms framed by the marble columns… 

It’s amazing how easily I’m distracted and how quickly I can lose my way, and yet still manage to get to the train station on time.

The train travels through Margherite, Chiavari and Sestri. I see orange trees growing in back yards, and a cemetery in Sestri right next to the train track. Through Levanto, then Monterosso, and now, I have a first class cabin all to myself. 

  • Travel tip:  The train station in La Spezia is very small with a Tourist Information desk is in an unmarked, nondescript building just outside the station. The attendant is very helpful and pens in my route to the ferry terminal on a map which he then tears away from a pad of identical maps. How clever.

I take the stairs down to the Viume and proceed through the piazzas. 

La Spezia must be the home of Benneton. Colors of Benneton. Undercolors of Benneton. Oh, look, another Colors of Benneton. The waterfront in Genova is filled with Jamaican street vendors. Here the same products are sold by gypsies. I pass a pair of gypsy women begging for coin, one is particularly aggressive and shouts curses at me as I pass. 

  • Travel tip: I learned in Venice not to give coins as they will continue to hound you for more, sometimes following you down the street. Better to suffer the curses they fling at you and your offspring, a thing I would also encounter in Cordoba, Spain. 

I walk along the docks until the ferry arrives and find a seat topside. I keep reaching new pain thresholds, and now have a sore throat. Today my feet hurt so much I am tempted to stay on the ferry.  I’m really glad I didn’t try to do the Cinque Terre tour which is best done on foot. 

Castello Andrea Doria

  • “Portus Veneris” was first mentioned in the itinerary of Emperor Antonio in 161 AD, when it was used as a naval station for Romans on their way to Gaul and Spain. The city was fortified in 1160.  Andrea Doria Castle sits on the site of fortification dating back to the 13th century, although the structures standing today date from the 16th century when it was built by its namesake, Andrea Doria, who was a Genoese Admiral. During Napoleon’s rule it was used as a political prison. 

The monolithic skyline of Portovenere comes into view and in spite of my feet screaming at me, I’m eager to explore the fortifications. I am at once irritated with the people in front of me who stop as soon as they debark, preventing the rest of us from getting off the boat. Stupid Tourists! Finally I get past this throng and walk swiftly along the wharf, noticing how green and clear the water is. I can see the bottom of the gulf and schools of small black fish are streaming around the sterns of the boats moored here.

The terrain here is the steepest I have encountered so far. I get a few yards into the market area before turning around and heading back to find the tourist center which has now cleared of Stupid Tourists. I really regret not packing a second pair of shoes, and not renting a locker for my bags at the trains station. 

By some miracle I make it to the top of the fortress. From this vantage point I can see the other older castle and church in the distance, but decide against trying to walk any more distance today. The views are spectacular and I think I get some of the best shots so far this trip.

I edge my way back down the hill. Goodness, the stairs. The STAIRS. Steep, deep, irregular, no handrails in places, and my shoes are wrong and my bags are siding with gravity to nearly pull me over a couple of times. It takes every ounce of energy I have to get back down without falling. 

Here are more of my photos of Castello Andrea Doria.

The beach I had hoped to find here is a 20’x20′ patch of sand, occupied by kids kicking a volleyball. Dipping my feet into the sea is probably ill advised with my blisters, so I content myself with sitting in the sun and watching the world as I wait for the ferry. I have an hour and could probably attend to those postcards. Or I can continue to just sit here in the sun. Guess which one wins…

I had planned to hail a cab back to the train station in La Spezia, but there weren’t any cabs at the stop. Had I taken a cab, I would have missed the key patterned mosaic in the archway above the sidewalk, a house with aqua shutters instead of green ones, and a much needed gelato, where the cafe tables were dressed with linens and outfitted with wooden ashtrays, which I thought was an interesting contradiction between form and function.

At the train station, I scan the departures board for my original train to Firenze but don’t see it. I go to the information desk where I buy a new ticket for the next train home, and am told that I have to connect in Pisa, in even less time than my original ticket! Great… I retain both tickets, deciding I can use the original if I miss the connection on the new ticket.

It’s spring break, and the train is filled with loud chatty teenage girls on holiday. My fingers go into my ears when the noise level becomes intolerable. I commiserate  non-verbally with the distinguished looking businessman sitting across from me, when he does the ‘finger to head, just shoot me now’ gesture which is entertaining in its sheer universal reach. The decibel level finally declines enough to allow me to nod off, but I wake up at every stop, of which there are far too many on this route. Get me home already, please.

We arrive in Pisa. The closest exit is barred shut and the college girls are taking sweet-all time to exit in front of me. “Hurry!” escapes my lips, in a none-too-polite outdoor voice. Another collection of Stupid Tourists blocks the only set of stairs from the subway down to the station.  I push my way through, not caring whom I offend. I rush down the stairs and then back up the other stairs to the lobby to check the schedule. My train is the first one listed and is now boarding. I make a mad dash back down the stairs, and then back up again at Platform 8. And I make the train with minutes to spare.

  • Travel tip: The Pisa Station isn’t so bad after all, and the system works  well once you get the hang of it. Be sure to validate your ticket in the yellow box on the platform, else wise you might end up paying a fine.  

The regional trains are new to the fleet, this one is a double-decker and is fairly luxurious as far as trains go. I grab a window seat for the hour-long trip through Pontedera-casciana, Empoli, Lastra a Signa. This route is different from the others I’ve taken so far, taking me through more modern areas, industrial districts and green belts. In spite of the new architecture, the style remains the same – multi-story stucco buildings with green shuttered windows and ether tile or what looks like red tile composite roofs, the composites having less depth and visual richness than Tuscan tile. The new buildings are void of extraneous detail with the notable exception of the doors, which are still very tall, ornate, some are arched. 

I’m getting my wish to see the countryside by train.

Here’s another gypsy, this one leaving printed requests for money which she collects on her return run through (bowing mutely to those who donate to her cause). I’m amazed at seeing beggars on the trains, clean and not badly dressed, and wonder how many people ride the rails by either begging for fare or riding until they getting tossed off, only to hop onto the next train heading towards their destination.

I am very tired, but I feel much better now that I am on my way home. I arrive at SMN at the time my original ticket had me departing La Spezia. That’s a win.

Travel tips:

  • There’s a station at Firenze Ridifi. Do Not Stop There. It’s industrial and scary looking.
  • Research your routes before you leave home, it would have been really good to have an understanding of the city bus systems.
  • Print out everything you need. Do not depend on being able to access the internet in Genoa (although it might be a different story now).
  • Learn the language well enough to understand it. I’ve been able to ask questions in Italian, but I can rarely understand the answers. I did not buy a cell phone, I’m pretty sure it would have been useless with the language barrier.
  • Travel while you are young and able-bodied. I’m not sure I would have been able to manage this terrain 10 years from now.

Dinner, and a walk over the Carrerra Bridge which now sports several white beanbag chairs among a grove of saplings set in huge white tote bags. Green installation art for the locals to laze in. The next bridge over, lights up. I walk by the now familiar gelato shop on the corner, and the kitchen shop which today has a full size Majolica BBQ in the window. Hysterical!

Back in my room, I catch up on journaling and photo uploads before tucking myself into bed for the night…

Crossroads Tour – Genoa Second Day

I find a guidebook across the street in the Piazza de Ducale Genova and study it over a cup of caffe ginseng at the Arte dell Caffee. But there’s no useful information, not even a map.  I ask the baristo, who points me in the general direction of the Lanterna.

On my way out, I snap a photo of the infamous green door of my B&B, and note the numbering sequence on the street. Starting at 9, then 7, 17, 15, 5 (my door), then a door with no number, and another with no number, and another 7. I was looking for 5/10 and had no hope of finding it short of reading the labels on the doorbells. Which is the only way I have managed to find any of my hotels thus far. Fellow travelers take heed.

It’s a pleasant walk to the waterfront, past a boat in drydock that is being pressure washed, past the aquarium, and the Neptune, a replica of a 17th century galleon that was used in Roman Polanski’s ‘Pirate’ film. An open air tour bus is idling in front of the maritime office. The driver speaks enough English to direct me up the street towards the Lanterna. I said I would be back for a tour, he said, “wait until after 1 PM because there is a labor strike today.” ”Fun for you” I said, and he laughed.

Less than 10 minutes down the street, I meet the rally head on. The Genoans refer to these as a “Public Manifestation.”  The Transportation Union strike has shut the ferries down, and a police escort is clearing the street for about 200 marchers who follow to the beat of music blasting from huge stereo speakers stacked into the back of a pick-up truck. An old man hands me a Communist newspaper and indicates that I need to respond in cash, but I hand the paper back to him. Someone else hands me a flyer, which I replicate here: 

PER COMBATTERE LA DISUGUAGLIANZA SODCIALE, LA PRECARIETA, LA CRISI ECONOMICA PRODUCTTIVA Per difendere il diritto al lavoro e I diritti nel lavoro, per donne e uomini, cittadini italiana e migranti PER UN NUOVO MODELLO DI SVILUPPO CHE VALORIZI LA GIUSTIZIA SOCIALE, L’AMBIENTE I SAPERI E LA RICERCA PER UN FISCO CHE CONTRIBUISCA ALLA RIDISTRIBUZIONE DELLA RICCHEZZA: MENO TASSE A LAVORATORI E PENSIONATI, TASSARE LE RENDITE FINANZIARIE E GRANDI PATRIMONI Per uno stato sociale incluvio e fonte di ricchezza sociale PERDARE UNN FUTURO AI GIOVANI SENZA DIMENTICARE ANZIANI E MIGRANTI Per il diritto delle lavoratrici e dei lavoratori a votare piattaforme e accordi PERDIFENDERE LA DEMOCRAZIA E FONDAMENTALE VOTARE SIAI REFERNDUM DEL 12 GIUGNO CONTRO IL NUCLEARE PER L’ACQUA BENE COMUNE

Past the rally and to my left, I spy my landmark.

  • The Lanterna dates back to 1543, having been rebuilt after the original was destroyed in a fire in 1514. It stands a total of 177 meters (the rock takes up 40 meters on its own) and the light can be seen for 36 nautical miles. This square tower, which claims to be the oldest working lighthouse in the world, is perched high above a working port which dates back to the Roman era.

The boardwalk leading up top the Lanterna is studded with informational signs but I only read every other one, believing I’d find a book with this information in the gift shop (which, as usual, will turn out to not be the case…) 

The first sign describes the Lanterna Promenade (Passeggiata Panoramica) that marks the ancient road connecting Genoa to its Western neighbors, and following the walls that surround the city. The boardwalk leading up to the lighthouse is being coated with marine tar. A police car stops behind me, and a dark haired cop asked if I am here to see the Lanterna. After a minute or two he seems to realize that I’m a tourist, and after several more attempts, communicates to me in pen and ink that the lighthouse is the “Cymbol of Genova.” Our language barrier prevents further conversation which is really unfortunate. I hike up to the base of the lighthouse and go to the ticket office window. 

But the Lanterna is closed! It is only open on weekends. No amount of pleading gains me access to the tower, but I am welcome to wander through the public park surrounding the base of the tower, and visit the museum. Reconciling myself to that fact, I take a seat on a bench at the base of the beacon, and eat a mid-day snack. I look over to my left to see that the officers that stopped me earlier (no doubt wondering what I was doing there on a day the site was closed) were also finishing their break. As they get up to leave, I ask to take their picture. 

The blond cop takes my camera, and without speaking, motions for me to stand with his partner so he can take our photo. The partner asks me where I’m from, and when I say “Seattle” he responds with “Ah, Rainy City.” “Yes,” I reply. 

He then starts to lead me somewhere to show me something, and as I turn to retrieve my purse from the bench, his partner walks over to guard over it. The dark haired officer shows me the garden that lay below the foot of the Lanterna, and that I would have completely missed had he not pointed it to me. What a great interchange that was, and a great trade off for not being able to get inside the lighthouse itself. The 365 steps to the top would have probably done me in anyway. 

Genoa is another city where the building that houses the museum, is in itself a museum. The Lanterna Museum is in the fortified base of the tower, which did not defend the lighthouse, but rather, the Porta Nuovo, the gate that marked the road leading from East to West. The first several rooms are nothing but benches and video screens, each screen depicting a different aspect of Ligurian arts and culture. The range of topics is broad, from modern port traffic, to medieval sculpture and paint, velvet weaving, processing fruit for confectionery, choir boys preparing for a church processional. This cool and restful spot would be a really great place to spend a hot afternoon. 

Deeper inside this building I arrive in rooms filled with the several pieces of the lighthouse and walls covered with schematic drawings.

I find my way down into the park. On the other side of the Lanterna base there are more signs, including one that describes the houses in the distance that were the summer manors for Genoans during the 16th century. Having seen all there is to see, I take one last look at the ‘Cymbol of Genova’ before backtracking back to the tour bus. My feet, which are now both bruised and blistered, are fighting with the heavy cobblestone walkways and are ever so thankful to reach the smoother boardwalk. 

A short distance from the Lanterna is a shopping mall, where I hope to find a bookstore and a history of the Lanterna. But the bookstore is a fail, as is a shoe store where I had hoped to find another pair of shoes. At the end of the mall is a COOP, one of the chain grocery stores in Italy. I see local apples, pears from Argentina, imported tomatoes, Valencia oranges, and red asparagus. Pomegranate juice is prevalent. It’s weird seeing hard liquor on the shelf on the next aisle over from socks and underwear.  Sale flyers were notably absent. I buy lunch — a satisfying spinach ricotta torte and some lemon-sized pears, which are crunchy but have virtually no flavor. Grocery stores have already become my favorite go-to places for a quick and cheap lunch.

  • Travel tip:  In Firenze, you are not allowed to handle produce, the green grocer does that for you. Here you grab a disposable glove from one of the boxes among the produce, and help yourself. You must also weigh and print a barcode for every piece of produce before you go up to the check out. I forgot to do this with a banana, and I was not allowed to buy it.

It’s now about 1 PM. Traffic is at a stand still as a police escort returns to the rally point, marching in front of a motley and angry group of youth from the labor demonstration. I’m making faster progress on foot than the cars are. I arrive at the aquarium just as one of the tour buses is pulling in.

  • Travel tip:  I’ve never ridden a city tour bus before but I highly recommend them. It’s a great way to get oriented and see things that may be too far get to to by foot. It’s also a great way to rest your feet, and let someone else do the driving.

The narration over the headphones talks about the arcaded walkways, covered with arabesque archways (similar to Venice), and how Genova made efficient use of the limited land they had between the sea and the mountain. We pass an opera house that was rebuilt after being destroyed during the bombings of WWII, and a row of delicate archways that is all that remains of a medieval Benedictine abbey.

An ornate building that during the Renaissance functioned as Genova’s stock exchange. An Arc de Triumph built by a prominent Communist architect, and beyond it, a garden dedicated to Christopher Columbus, with his three ships in ‘bloom” on a terraced plot, though I later discover that the visual impact is lost when you actually walk in that park.

The Oriental Market, laid out in concentric circles in an old convent. The Palace of Giants, marked on its corners by pairs of marble men supporting the buildings greco-roman columns on their shoulders. The Abbey of St. Steven, built from pink stone from Liguria, considered to be one of the most valuable building materials in Genova. 

I notice several buildings with Juliet-style balconies, some in wrought iron but most in stone. A few buildings are decorated in elaborate trompe l’oeil. A top floor apartment is flying a pirate flag from its corner terrace. The narration on the tour bus also mentions the trademark striped marble buildings as a main feature in Ligurian architecture. The train station decorated in Neo-Classic style but which dates to 1905.  

Additional photos of Genova can be viewed at Daveno Travels.

The Genoa Aquarium

  • Built for the Genoa Expo 1992, the aquarium houses 63 tanks in its 10,000 meter space, and is said to be the largest indoor aquarium in Europe. The first tank features a reconstruction of a 15 century pier in the harbor of Genova, considered the starting point for the voyage of Christopher Columbus and other prominent Genoan navigators.

I was struck by the intense landscaping of the tanks. Unlike the Seattle aquarium whose tanks are bare, these hold your attention even if there aren’t any fish. Some of the coral is from the coastline along the Cinque Terre. 

The penguin tank was a scream!  The tank replicates the environment of the Falkland Islands and is inhabited by both Gentoo penguins from the Antarctic and Magellanics from the coast of Chile and Argentina. They buzzed the glass constantly and were pretty interactive with us.

I also watched a diver cleaning the tropical lagoon, where Cuba, a playful sea turtle, kept coming up to ‘kiss’ the diver’s face mask and rub along the entire length of his body. Cuba is a rescued turtle who was discovered in 2000 in a box addressed to the aquarium, with a note that gave a birth date of August 1996, and that she had come from Cuba. Another rescued sea turtle is also here. Ari was smuggled into Italy by a tourist from the Maldives and later abandoned, and adopted by the Aquarium.

The Galata Museum of the Sea

I exit the aquarium and traverse the boardwalk, past the farmer’s market and Jamaican vendors selling purses and sunglasses, past the Neptune galleon and on to the Museum of the Sea, which my dad would have really loved. It’s a multistory building housing 10,000 meters of exhibit space separated into 17 galleries, not including the submarine outside. 

The ground floor, housed in what looks like another ancient building with low spreading curved ceilings which shape the room like a Quonset hut, is themed The Age of Oar. There are banks of armor, a reliquary containing some of the ashes of Christopher Columbus, and a full scale replica of a 17th century galleon. The Age of Sail exhibit covered 2 floors and includes a nice collection of globes and navigational instruments, although the room is very dimly lit and it was difficult to get decent photos. 

Replica of a 17th century galleon

The third floor was unexpectedly educational. The Age of Steam walks you through replica rooms of a ship, as athird-class passenger would have experienced them, complete with engine noise and a view of the sea out of the tiny porthole. Towards the end of this floor you are given a ‘passaporto’ and immigration papers, and are taken through the immigration process at Ellis Island. As an American, it was pretty eye opening to see this process from the side of an Italian immigrant. The passport is bar coded and activates a video inspection officer which is apparently pretty amusing judging by the reactions of the Italians in front of me. Yet another reason to master Italian before visiting Italy.

After signing a release and checking my bags into a locker, I put on the hair net and hardhat I am handed, and board a reproduction of the N. Sauro, Italy’s largest submarine. Had I been aware of the pre-show, I would have learned how to use the periscope and hydrophone. I should have opted for the free headset which apparently also had additional instruction.

I did not have time to see more than half of this Maritime complex. But I’m happy to be adding “has been on a submarine” to my list of life experiences. 

Photos of the Aquarium and Galata Museo are available at Daveno Travels, with additional shots of the Galata Museo (including the submarine) on Pinterest.

I opt out of dinner and return to my ‘convent’ room. I take off my shoes to find that one of my blisters has a blister. I didn’t think that was physically possible… I’m really regretting not having packed another pair of shoes for this part of my trip. I end the night with a bath, and packing for an early day tomorrow to La Spezia. 

Crossroads Tour – Arrival in Genoa

May 5, 2011

I set out on the path I took yesterday which led me straight to the train station. Today however, is a different day and inexplicably, I find myself on the Ponte Veccio, the next bridge over…

I’m not sure where I took the wrong turn, but I take the opportunity to take some photos of the goldsmiths’ shops while their windows are still encased in their medieval-esque wooden doors and shutters, including what appears to be a Chinese lock on one of the Florentine doors. The vendors are setting up in the logias and a few yards beyond them, I slow my pace to take in the fragrant blooms offered by a flower vendor. I stop for a lovely but brief breakfast at the Riviori, in the shadow of the Bargello Museum, and watch with amusement as a sparrow hops around the marble floor below my pink linen draped table. Cappuccino and cresta finished, I decide to head over to the Duomo to get my bearings back. My muscles are already lamenting the lack of protein at breakfast.

Apparently I can’t get there from here. Every turn takes me further off course and I have no sense of where I am, which baffles me completely. The first time I was here I couldn’t get lost if I tried, this trip I am nothing but lost.  I finally make sense of my map and despite all odds, manage to arrive at the train station an hour early.

I scan the interior of the train station for a gelato stand but end up with a soft serve and a McMuffin. Fast food is bad no matter what country you are in. The Italians do not seem to eat protein early in the day and so far the only breakfast protein I’ve found has been wrapped in thick slices of focaccia. I go to the platform where my train is supposed to arrive, but after awhile, discover that the gate has changed. I make a mad dash for a train that is boarding, thankful that I didn’t get here early just to miss it for lack of double checking the schedule…

Travel from Firenze to Pisa is uneventful. I choose a seat near the schematic showing the stations so I wouldn’t stress out from not knowing the order of the stops.  But that’s not a problem since Pisa is the end of the line. An older American gentleman sits down across from me and we make idle chit-chat as I try to write postcards, and he focuses on taking video with his camera phone.

The Pisa train station reminds me of the international concourse at SeaTac. The first thing I encounter is a group of Haitian men in an argument that is quickly clearing the concourse. I feel my bags being jostled every time I move, and swing them in front of me so they don’t get rifled through. Panic sets in as I realize that 12 minutes is not enough time to make my connection when I return. I stop by the customer service desk to resolve tickets that do not match my printed itinerary, and find that my return is a direct train from La Spezia to Firenze, with no connection in Pisa. Cool! I am happy in the knowledge that I will not have to pass through to this haven for the seedier side of humanity on my return trip.

I must say that the European train system puts US transit to shame, and makes Seattle’s bus and train station feel like someone’s back yard homework project. We have a lot to learn.

I find my seat in First Class, one of six comfy stuffed chairs in a glassed-in cabin, shared with an older gentleman and a young couple with their toddler. A toddler who quickly becomes fascinated with my netbook and mouse and starts screaming when his parents pull him away. I wrap up my document about 10 minutes later when it becomes obvious that working on my netbook is going to remain a problem, and resort to pen and paper for the duration of the trip.

  • Travel tip: Check the reader boards at train stations continuously just like you would at an airport. Book travel by train in First Class if you are with a group, or if you plan to sleep. A First Class cabin would be fun with friends, not so much with strangers. Economy seating, without the confines of the cubicles, gives you a wider choice of people to interact with and you can move to a different seat if the first one you have chosen is not to your liking.

Pisa’s landscape is quite different from Firenze, and I don’t recognize most of the trees and plants. Many homes have backyard gardens large enough to sustain their families. Even the modern buildings are built in the traditional Italian style, with stucco walls and red tile roofs. The mountains are short but rugged, and there appears to be old stone buildings or fortress walls on the top of some of them. Some of them are blanketed in white which may have been wildflowers. Freight cars are round-topped and look like large gypsy wagons. Red poppies grow wild. We pass several stone quarries, and large blocks of white marble line the side of the railroad tracks.

We reach La Spezia, the halfway point between Pisa and Genova. I catch glimpses of the sea between long expanses of tunnel. Further up the coast, the houses and mansions take on the water colored stucco so prevalent in Venice. There are date palms, and the beaches have turned from brown sand to rugged rock and breakwaters. It is incredibly beautiful and I am now really glad I chose this route.

We speed through one final tunnel and at last arrive in Genova, which more resembles Florence than I expected it to. The train station is beautiful, with its rococo ceiling and stained glass windows. After a few mis-starts and finally finding an English speaking travel agent to point me in the right direction, I set out to find tonight’s lodging. 

I walk through a downtown shopping core that looks like Florence, with wide sidewalks covered with logias reminiscent of those that surround San Marco Piazza in Venice, except that these have neon signs suspended from the vaulting. I remind myself to stop and look up from time to time, reminding myself that this is as much about the journey as it is the destination.

I find the street almost by accident after Google directions fail. But I cannot find the building. I should have looked for a name and a doorbell rather than trying to rely on the building numbers (which are a complete scramble) and I end up walking past the unmarked and unobtrusive green door countless times. I try to call Maria, my concierge, but my phone card fails. It’s now 5:30 and I’m two hours late. I’ve asked at least 10 people where this address is, only to be waved off in the general direction of the street. Finally, on my last pass, I find a note taped to the door with Maria’s cell phone number. I make another call using pocket change instead of the calling card, and get right through. We agree to meet at 7 PM.

My feet are rebelling and I can barely walk. Dinner is a piece of cheese focaccia from the bakery to the left of the Green Door, and a delightful caffe violetta from Bar Pacini to the right, who advertises themselves as ‘L’Arte dell Expresso’. It tastes like a liquid candied violets. I could be in trouble if I stayed here longer than a day. The row of shops in this block includes three pastry shops, two espresso shops, and a Chinese restaurant.

While I am waiting for Marie, a young East Indian man takes a seat near me and offers me a cigarette. Uh-oh, here we go. But he is very nice and we have a lengthy albeit very broken-language chat. He’s lived in Italy for ten years cleaning houses, has a wife and two children, says he speaks Italian well, but English not so well. He asked me where I was from, and when I said the US, he said “America. Beautiful country. Hollywood.” More chatter, much of which I couldn’t understand, and after another fifteen minutes, he shook my hand and left. The conversation illustrated why Italians don’t understand me when I try to speak their language.

I’m so tired that I don’t even have the energy to find a decent dinner. I’m getting cold and starting to feel sorry for myself. My watch clicks over to 7 PM, the church bell peals 30 times and metal doors start rolling down over shop fronts. Marie shows up, and I wave to get her attention as she is looking for a woman with luggage. “Nope, that would not be me” I reply. 

  • Travel tip: Never pack more than you need, and NEVER pack more than you are willing to carry up several flights of stairs.

This building was a convent in the 14th century, and Maria demonstrates the acoustics by flicking on a light switch, which we can hear as it clicks on at the bottom floor. Mother Superior could always hear the front door.

She swings open the heavy green door and closes it behind me as I start to gasp. “Oh My WORD!”  There’s a Marble Man standing in a grotto in the courtyard, and the customary but much more narrow wrought iron gate.

She says I’m clever not packing so much stuff as my room is at the top of the building. Every floor elicits another “Oh MY” and she starts to giggle. She apologizes that the rustic Chinese room I wanted is already occupied but she hopes to at least show it to me tomorrow. She shows me to the room I think is called Luna. I spend my first half hour there, just taking pictures.

This room is three times the size of the one I’m staying in in Firenze and includes a working kitchen, decorated with mirrors and handmade blue tiles. The bathroom — complete with the mosaic ship from the photo on their website — is the size of the main room and includes a full size bathtub, a rarity among European B&Bs.

The view from this room is the courtyard where the Marble Man lives, formed by four 14th century towers. Not the splashy view indicated on their website, but one which is much more quiet and sublime. I could easily take up residence here.

  • Travel tip:  The Ducale Genova B&B is set in a medieval tower very similar to that of the Palazzo Ducale across the street. It is part of a historic building dating back to 1400 and is included in the UNESCO World Heritage registry. Maria, who owns and manages this property, does not accept credit cards, so verify the total due with her as she will require cash in local currency upon your arrival.

The lack of WIFI presents a problem with planning my day tomorrow. The web pages I saved to my netbook are corrupted, and I really wish I had printed this stuff out. A cursory look through this room hasn’t yielded a guidebook yet, so I plan to look for one tomorrow. Meanwhile, I think I’ll take a nice, hot bath…

There are additional photos of this B&B at Daveno Travels.

Crossroads Tour – Florence First Day

May 4, 2011

This morning I take a walk to the train station in preparation for my trip to Genoa tomorrow. I locate it without any problem, walk around inside to make sure I can find all the gates, and then walk across the street to buy a day pass for the bus. My first blisters appear at 11 AM.

I hop onto the D bus back to the hotel, and take a short walk to the Pitti Palace. I spend over two hours in the costume gallery alone, about half of that time sitting at the computer in the back room, looking at slides of all the pieces they have in storage. My note says to ‘see my notebook for notes on those collections’ but it now appears those notes were lost, along with large sections of my original journals from the past two days 🙁

After an obligatory stop at the Library Store and lunch at the cafeteria (a typically Italian caprese salad and a caffe latte) I exit the building in time to hear a cacophony of church bells which you can hear below:

I head out to the Boboli Gardens, where  wander for much of the rest of the day.  My last trip to Florence ended here, so this is my official starting point for this trip.  The grounds date back to 1550 and cover an extensive area behind the Pitti Palace.

I am disappointed to find the Island Fountain (Vasca dell’Isola) is locked. There are a number of tourists, and several of us spot a heron perched on the edge of the fountain on that island. I never find the Perseus on Horseback that is supposed to be partially submerged here, and wonder if it has been moved. I ask a fellow tourist to take my photo next to the sandstone columns that support the locked iron gates which block our path to the garden. They are topped with marble Capricorns, symbolizing Cosimo Medici. The lemon trees are full of fruit.

I wander through the cypress arbors that run the length and breadth of this park, a feature I am exceedingly fond of. I rest for awhile on one of the rustic benches in one of these arbors, just to listen to the birds and relax my eyes in the dappled shade.  There are so many birds in this garden… 

There are several statuary here, displaying such a broad range of styles and time periods that at times the mix is jarring. I find the grotto, one of the buildings I missed the last time I was here. It is dark and in disrepair.

I figure out how to take a movie with my camera, and capture a video of thebirds and running water as I walk along the Mostaccini Fountain.

The Mostaccini Fountain

I come here to drop coins and well-wishes into the mouths of the Mostaccini for friends and family, and walk along the length of it, admiring the fantastical heads, of which no two are the same. It was built in the early 1600’s as a water source for birds, which were then hunted with nets. 

I find the Porcelain Museum, but I’m not as impressed with it as I am the view, and with the garden just outside the door with its pink roses and peonies surrounded by a boxwood maze. On the way back down the sloping grounds, I find a bench overlooking the Forcone Basin, a collection point for water used to irrigate the grounds. In the center of the Forcone stands a bronze Neptune, dating to 1571 and sculpted by Soldo Lorenzi, originally intended for a flower garden north of the Pitti Palace, but moved here here in about 1635. It was common for artworks here to have been commissioned for specific places, and then later moved.

Galileo’s house is supposed to overlook this garden, but I cannot find it, so I decide to walk up to the Piazza Michelangelo and look for the house on my way back. The #12 or #13 buses go directly to the piazza but I can’t find the stop to catch it at, so I start the exhaustive climb up the hill. Once there, the view was the reward…the best panorama of the city outside of the Ghiotti Tower.

Just as I am looking for a place to eat, I find a #13 bus waiting in the parking lot, so I hop on. It seemed like a good idea at the time…

The bus took a lovely meandering scenic route back down the hill, and along the Strozzi Wall which I would not have seen else wise. But I didn’t get off when I should have, and ended up in a completely different part of town. Off the bus, I take my usual ‘turn left instead of right’ navigational style which made matters much worse. I finally ask an elderly passerby to please point me in the direction of the Ponte Vecchio, and she waved me off with some annoyance, in the direction I had just come. I spend the next hour trying to find my way back to the Arno Fiume. I never did find the abode of the great Galileo…

At one point I see the two construction cranes that I had seen from the Piazza Michelangelo, and a few minutes later, the Duomo, so I keep those landmarks in my sight as I trudge wearily along, keeping as close to the riverbank as I can. Walking, walking, walking, oh, look, there’s the Strozzi Wall that I passed while I was on the bus! Finally I arrive back in the land of ‘houses with green shutters’. The heels of my shoes are about an 1/8 of a inch shorter now than they were this morning. 

It has been a long day and I am Famished with a capital F. I pop into Dante’s for dinner. I order a glass of chianti, bread with olive oil, pappardelle in wild boar sauce, and a nice piece of salmon. The boar is a surprise, I expect it to taste like pork but it’s more like deer. I watch the wait staff ignore the line of customers at the door even though there are empty tables. The atmosphere seems a little uptight and I finish my meal quicker than I intend to, just so I can leave.  Back in my room, I pack for Genoa…

For photos of this trip, please visit my supplemental travel blog at Daveno Travels.

Crossroads Tour – Return to Florence

May 2, 2011

It begins. Another rainy day in Seattle. Last minute chores. Last cuddles with OdinCat and a final visit with BusterBird. A side trip to the post office to pay my rent. The 10:15 AM bus to the Metro tunnel which I almost miss, the 10:45 Lightrail which whizzes past the Franz “Slice of White Bread” sign that always cracks me up. My longest sojourn away from home is now officially underway.

I’m glad I followed the extreme-sounding recommendation of allowing three hours for an international flight at SeaTac Airport. It felt like I spent half that time walking from the Lightrail station to the Lufthansa gate, which are at exact opposite ends of each other. The flight is completely booked and they are weighing bags for Economy passengers. Mine is too heavy for a carry on, so it is taken from me and checked. I am several gates away before I realize that the locks for my suitcase are still in my pocket…I am SO glad I repacked again last night, moving my train tickets and back up cash into my purse. I mentally inventory the contents of that bag and decide that a lost bag won’t be a calamity. I still have my netbook and can Google the stuff I need again I may be traveling much lighter than I had planned. Ever the pessimist, my mantra for today is: “what’s travel without a little stress…”

The in-flight movies seem a better diversion than my book, so I watch ‘TRON,’ which is nice eye candy but it is not Jeff Bridges’ best 1.5 hours. ‘The Tourist’ was really great and I was pleasantly surprised to see Sowel and Bettany, two of my favorite actors, in supporting roles. Bettany’s “Liechtenstein” line was a hilarious segue that you would only appreciate if you were familiar with his role as Chaucer in ‘Knight’s Tale.’

I catch about three hours of sleep on the Seattle to Frankfurt flight. I wake up at 3:30 AM to see a blue and purple pre-dawn sky above the rugged, icy expanse of the Arctic.

We land in Frankfurt at about 9 AM Tuesday. Oh Frankfurt, how I am learning to hate you. A full body frisk includes a visual peek down the front of my pants! The alarm was set off by the safety pin I used to secure my money belt, which had to be scanned separately. Bin Ladin may be dead but his legacy lives on.

I cannot get through this airport without leaving something behind. Last year it was jewelry. This trip it’s a water bottle and almost my camera and my hat. My shopping list now includes ‘things to intentionally leave in Frankfurt to appease the travel god…’

The flight to Florence is delayed, but neither the delay nor the change of gate is announced. I make a mad dash to the opposite end of the concourse to the new gate, happy now that I had to check my bag. It’s a short flight but there is significant turbulence during landing. Nauseous and disoriented, I have such difficulty finding the exit that a plain clothes police officer stops me and asks my nationality and purpose of my trip, but lets me pass without requesting my passport.

Finally finding the way outside, I find the bus that will take me to my B&B. “San Frediano?” I ask, and the driver nods, before taking off full speed on twisty roads that don’t seem to have any lanes, and which add to my queasiness. Fortunately, a fellow passenger tells me where my stop is after the driver fails to respond.

I get off the bus and walk up and down the street several times before I remember that in Florence, B&B’s don’t have signs, you have to look for a labeled doorbell. Finally I find one for S. Frediano. But its the wrong S. Friediano! I find the San Frediano Mansion Via Borgo further down the street, obscured by scaffolding

  • Travel tip: In Italy, the ground floor is Floor 0. When you are told that your room is on the 4th floor, add at least one flight to that number. In some buildings, a ‘flight’ has two landings, sometimes with a room on that landing. As I was to learn in Genoa, my room on the 4th floor was actually closer to 6 floors up, with no lift, which is why it is important to pack as light as you can. 

I’m surprised to find a lift here, just big enough for two people with a small suitcase each. Gigantic rolling American luggage will not do you any favors here. The lobby is exactly as shown on their website. My room has no ambiance or view but is adequate and has a small safe and a private bath. Downstairs, at the back of the building, through two immense leaded glass doors, lies a garden with a grape arbor over a bench, where I am sitting as I write this. Calla lilies and iris are blooming here already. The iron gate on the street side overlooks the Arno Fiume (Arno River).

I Love This City! It feels impossible get lost here. And unlike my last trip here where I stayed downtown, here I’m in the San Frediano neighborhood, surrounded by the churches of Santo Spirito, San Frediano and Santa Maria, and within a block of a pharmacy, two laundromats, a couple of convenience stores, and plenty of cheap eats. It’s lasagna for dinner, which has a texture more like pudding than the heavy pasta American version.

See a few more photos for this day at Daveno Travels.

After dinner, I walk around until dusk, and then head back to my quiet room to review my sight seeing plan for the next day, and let dreams come as I drift off to sleep on this, the first day of my grand adventure…

Crossroads Tour – Prologue

This story starts today, December 20, 2010, the day of the Solar Eclipse Solstice. The double celestial occurrence portends a most fortuitous day. I receive a gift – an opportunity to take an extended trip abroad, to any country I choose…

I am new to the world of travel and have only been off continent once before. I had promised myself that if another opportunity ever arose, I would begin where I last ended, in Florence. But I have been given a gift of three weeks – the longest I have ever been away from home in my entire life. I want to see as much as I can in the time I’ve been given, without wasting it on planes, trains, trams and trolleys. I buy a map that afternoon, and spend the evening letting my fingers walk across the European landscape.

I could go west to France, or to Spain. Or north into Scandinavia. Or perhaps south to the Mediterranean. Suddenly, for no explicable reason, my index finger took on a mind of its own and traced a route east, and stopped…

… on Istanbul.

Istanbul? Well, after all, it was once Constantinople, the center of the European universe during the Roman and medieval periods, and the crossroads for trade from East to West for several centuries. So, Italy and Istanbul it is. My Crossroads Tour and my next solo grand adventure…

I spend the next several days locating hotels, matching my criteria for historic buildings located in ‘Old Town / Historical Districts’. In Florence it’s the San Friedano Mansion, housed in a 15th century palazzo near the Boboli Gardens and the Medici Palace, with frescoed ceilings and WIFI. In Genoa, a rustic room in the Ducale Genova, one of three rooms in this bed and breakfast in a 14th century tower that once housed a convent. In Istanbul, a small boutique hotel with red rooms furnished with a riot of color that I equate with Turkish culture, again with private baths and WIFI, and with what appears to be a restaurant. The Hotel Han is a converted Ottoman residence, located in the historic Sultanahmet District, within walking distance of most of the things I want to see.  

The next few months are filled with guidebooks and transportation schedules, and what would be failed attempts to learn even the most rudimentary of phrases in both Italian and Turkish. I am amused with my horoscope on April 3 – “a day for making plans and ‘symbolic beginnings’, and which favors trips and long journeys…” A netbook arrives from one of my brothers, and gifts of money from the rest of my family, enough to put towards the purchase of a Turkish rug. Shopping for shoes, and a watch, and power adapters, and a myriad of other things. Income taxes, and news filled with much ado about a Royal Wedding. Gallery orders and commissions to finish. My gardens have become either very lush or a Great Big Mess, depending on your perspective.

I add additional cities to my tour of Italy. In contrast, Istanbul remains the singular destination in Turkey. I register with the State Department to allay fears from a close friend of being kidnapped in that Islamic country. I use the trip as an excuse to finish some stalled projects, most notably my estate plan. ‘In case I decide to not return,” I jokingly say to my family and friends as they are each given a packet of instructions for how to deal with every facet of my life, should they need to. “Which we won’t need to do,” is the unison response. A final weekend with Odin, my cat and companion.

And then, this remarkable journey begins…

Three Days in Florence

February 17 – Venice to Florence

I arrive at the train station in Venice a couple of hours early, and sit outside on the broad expanse of steps, enjoying the sunset, the church bells filling the chilling air, the sky variegating from grey at the horizon, to rose, to robin-egg blue. I sit outside as long as I can, before heading inside to find my train…

Marie compared the train station here to Hogwart’s in the Potter series. I impress myself at figuring out the timetable and which platform to board the train from. I board, and find my window seat, but it will be dark soon so I won’t be able to see much. The seats are bench seats, facing each other, with a table between, remind me of the BC Ferry. My traveling partners soon arrive, a nice older couple on their way to Rome. I wish I could speak Italian so I could have chatted with them for the next 2.5 hours. 

The train stops at every station but the stops are not called out. Even though my stop is over two hours away, I fight to stay awake, fearful of falling asleep and ending up in Rome.

We pass a stop for Bologna, and I dig a map out of my briefcase to figure out where I am. It looks like another half hour, maybe a couple more stops. Finally, knowing we are getting close, I pull on my cap and look with anticipation out the window. The man across the table from me picks up on that. When we come to that stop, he looks at me and smiles, and says “Firenze” and I look back at him, and smile, and say “I know.” I’m so happy to be here that I wake right up… 

Unlike Venice, Florence is a well planned city, laid out on a grid that looks exactly like the map in my hand. I was struck immediately by it’s size in relation to Venice. And then I was nearly struck by a car — a sudden realization that I am back in a city with motor vehicles.

I find the Hotel Bavaria without any difficulty, and the massive wooden door to the palazzo was still open, so I squeeze through, but the stairwell light went off just as I got there. I tread cautiously to the top of the ancient stone staircase, only to find that I can’t read a damn thing in the pitch black. Back down the stairs I go, nearly missing a step, finding a handrail that isn’t actually attached to the wall, and back outside to the door buzzer. The lights come on, and I am promptly escorted in. 

The concierge walks me back up the stairs, and through a massive common room lined with shabby furniture that is out of place for the rest of the room, except for a heavy, dark wood dining table that will seat about eight people. She takes me to a door, unlocks it, and turns to me to tell me that I have a really big room… 

The room is everything I had hoped it would be. My eyes, are drawn up to the ceiling, all beamed, frescoed. The floor is red, grey and black looks-like-stone tiles. There are three beds, a small writing table and chairs in front of the window, and a wardrobe with a key. The doorways are in alcoves because the interior walls are over a foot thick. This room is as big as my living room and kitchen combined, or the size of a suite in an American hotel. 

I then notice the complete absence of anything electrical; no TV, no phone, not even a clock. Just a room in the top of a building, built in about 1568 by Bartolomeo Ammannati, sculptor and architect to the Medici family. This room could not have been more perfect had I built and decorated it myself. I turn on all the lights so I can study the ceiling all night. 

I make some notations in my log that I forgot to include while I was still in Venice:

  • Seeing a Chinese bed in an antique store there. Wherever I go, I see Chinese! 
  • The ferocity of the crowds in San Marco Square yesterday, and having to crawl out of a circle of photographers on my hands and knees because it was my only path of escape. 
  • Marie finding a wine colored tricorner hat that was a perfect match for her coat, and which helped me spot her in a crowd. 
  • Finding that the rifle mounted in a glass case in the Basilica was an offering of thanks from a woman for the safe return of her husband from war. 
  • The single slits in the concrete every 10 feet or so, that serve as the drainage for the sewer system (rather than the large grates that Seattle has). 
  • Watching a workboat as it installed gondola moorings outside of the Cathedral of the Salute, and then realizing how difficult that must be to accomplish from a boat. 
  • The garbage boats, specially outfitted with dumpster arms, marveling that the boats don’t tip over. 
  • Specialized hand trucks for FedEx and DHL guys to schlep stacks of boxes over the bridges which are actually stairs, not the smooth surface bridges I was expecting, like the ornamental ones in Japanese gardens. 
  • Thinking back on all the specialized tools that had to be developed to accommodate modern life in Venice. And how impassable the city is if you are in a wheelchair, or a walker, or crutches, or have any other issues with mobility. 

A Logia, the Duomo and a Medici Palace 

It’s 4:15 AM and I am wide-awake. I stay in bed, continuing to study the ceiling and the rest of the room. Between 4:30 and 5, a fierce windstorm hits. Heavy wooden doors are fitted with modern locks. There’s a niche in the stucco wall, with a stone basin built into it; I wonder if it was once a fountain. Pigeons are echoing through the ceiling. The church bells have been ringing hourly since 5 AM. The sun comes up at about 6:45. 

Time to get up. 

The bathroom has a bidet, toilet, pedestal sink, and shower all in the same room, without any separate enclosure for the shower. The shower water falls coarsely, like a waterfall. If I were a man I would have opened the shutters for a view to the outside while I bathed. 

Breakfast is served in what must have been a pantry/storage area, with a low ceiling, heavily beamed. Breakfast is yogurt with muesli flakes, sweetened with honey, a hard roll with butter and jam, and thin coffee. Back in my room, I bundle up because everyone who came into the breakfast room was wearing a parka. I’m off to the Duomo.

Florence. Home of the Renaissance and center of the medieval universe for banking and textile trade. Home of the Medici and the artists they patronized, many of whom felt their work to be the extension of God’s work, and who would become global legends in their own right. A city touched by the revival of Greek and Roman classicism. Within my first few minutes of walking around the city, I nearly toss my itinerary into the nearest trash can. 

The austere beauty of this place, with its stone walls and fortifications, is astounding.  I thought Venice was the most beautiful city I had ever seen, until arriving here.  I am in pursuit of architecture and sculpture and I’m not disappointed. The very first thing I see is not one, but several of the sculptures on my list, gathered in La Loggia dei Lanzi, on the Vecchio Square. 

Cellini’s Perseus

The Loggia, built between 1376 and 1382, was originally the place where priors (city guild leaders) were inducted, and later served as a forum for public debate. The Medici family turned it into an outdoor statuary gallery. And what a gallery! The bronze ‘Perseus’ by Cellini, who nearly burned his house down during the casting of it. The Rape of the Sabines, in marble, by the Flemish sculptor Giambologna — the compelling depiction of a Roman soldier tearing a man away from his wife. A half dozen original Roman works. Behind me and to the right, the Neptune Fountain by Ammanati, installed for one of the Medici weddings. 

The stonework in the buildings is roughly hewn, and long expanses of 14th century walls are studded every 20′ or so with wrought iron torch holders. I look up and see 14th century wooden eaves (called corbelling) that were outlawed as an architectural element in the 15th century because they blocked too much sunlight from the street. As I am photographing one of the more ornate ones, I realize that I am looking at a top-floor patio, not glassed in, with framed frescoes on the ceiling. 

A few blocks down, I see a 12th century turret in an alley, nestled between more modern buildings. There are crenelations on a number of buildings dating back to the 13th and 14th centuries. I arrive at the massive Duomo Cathedral, and walk around it at least three times, but never manage to find the entrance to the dome climb. So I climb the Campanile instead, 414 effortless stone steps. 

  • The Campanile, also called the Giotti Tower after its designer, who started building the tower in 1334. Upon his death in 1337 the work was taken over by Andrea Pisano, who in turn left the work in 1348, to have it taken over by Franceso Talenti, who completed the tower in or about 1359. The result is a well balanced and graceful Gothic building, faced with Carrara marble in green and white, and Maremma marble in pink.

I laid down in one of the stairwell archery slots to measure its depth and to peer through the arrow slot in the 5′ thick wall.  At the top of the tower, I have a great view of the entire city, as seen through the graceful Gothic archways of this tower. 

Back down the 414 steps, and through a street of vendors, to the Medici Palace. There’s a substantial number of open air markets here, that feel like Pike Place Market in Seattle, or Saturday Market in Portland, but with a much broader array of manufactured (not handcraft) goods. 

I find the Medici Chapel — a low, vaulted ceiling cloister that now serves as a crypt for many of the Medici family. I manage to miss the Library, but I find the Chapel of Princes, a towering, octagonal, domed structure, with niches for each of the six Medici sovereigns. 

  • Only two of the niches were ever completed; bronze statues of Ferdinand I and Cosimo, dating from the mid 17th century, dominate a room richly colored by granite, jasper, alabaster, lapis lazuli and coral. The altar was finished in 1939 for a visit from Hitler and Mussolini. The crests of each of the Medici’s lines the room, and although the floor is significantly less detailed than the one I walked on in the Basilica in Venice, it is nonetheless, quite beautiful.

About a third of this room is enveloped in scaffolding, a demonstration of the ever popular and ongoing restoration work that continues on these structures. 

The Church of San Lorenzo is part of this Medici complex, and the church the Medici prayed in, married in, and buried their dead in for over 300 years. 

  • Started in 1421 by Brunelleschi, the blank stone façade was the result of a contract rescinded by Pope Leo X, a lack of funding that kept Michelangelo from completely covering it with a wooden façade of niches for a series of statuary he had planned. (A model of this defunct project is in the Museo dell’Opera di Santa Maria de Fiore.) The dome was not completed until 1602.

The interior of this basilica, designed by Brunelleschi at the behest of the Medici, is masterful. It was here that I was introduced to the works of Donatello, who would become my favorite sculptor by the time I left here. His bronze pulpit, supported on four marble columns, rivaled the relief work of the Ghiberti doors at the Baptistry. It was also here that I discovered a reliquary of glass fitted with silver, the size of a child’s coffin, and containing the bones of a saint, upon whose skull rested a delicate, scroll worked crown, looking very much like the inspiration for the coronet that was crafted for an SCA friend of mine, except that this crown also included bezels for stones over the scrollwork. And now I can hardly wait to tell her… 

I enter the Duomo, said to be the fourth largest cathedral in the world, following St. Peter’s in Rome, St. Paul’s in London, and Milan Cathedral. 

  • Construction on the Duomo began in 1296 and the church was finished and consecrated 170 years later, in 1436. The dome, designed by Brunelleschi, considered to be the avant-garde architect of his day, was the first of its kind and the model for all Renaissance domes that followed, as well as modern-day domes like the Capitol Building in Washington DC. The cathedral is faced in the same variety of marbles as the Campanile (the facings are actually Neo-Gothic, dating to the 1870’s) and has probably the most ornate exterior of any church I have yet seen, save the Basilica of San Marco. Its vaulted interior is one of the most important pieces of Gothic architecture in existence.

A brisk wind has picked up, and although the day is clear and sunny, it has turned biting cold. I duck into Café Duomo, where I am presented with a brunch menu, from which I choose a Greek omelet, hash browns, and expresso, which I have learned to drink with just a sprinkling of raw sugar over the foam. Yum! 

My next stop is the Accademia. I walk into a room of recognizable icons, triptychs and other religious works. I study each one, until I get through about two-thirds of the room, at which point, all paint starts to look the same. 

In the center of one of these rooms of icons, stands a plaster cast of “Rape of the Sabines”. Many of the statues that I had seen earlier this morning are replicas, the originals have been moved inside to more protective surroundings. But I appreciate the replicas nonetheless, as it allows me to see these sculptures and bronzes in the manner in which the artist originally intended, freshly carved or cast, and free of blemish… 

I am eager to see a singular original work that is housed here, but I restrain myself from running past several unfinished works by Michelangelo, and on, very slowly, respectfully, nearly religiously, to the man himself… 

…the magnificent David… 

My photo of David’s back

He’s much whiter and more translucent than I was expecting, standing 17 feet tall under a softly lit dome that was build especially for him. The first thing I notice is how large his hands are, and how out of proportion they are with the rest of his features. My guidebook  attributes this to “the hand of a man with the strength of God.” 

Other out of proportion elements that people pick up on, may be due to the forced perspective that Michelangelo used, as this statue was originally intended for installation on the southern roof of the Duomo. The back of the David, with his sling slung over his shoulder and draping down his back, is as detailed as the front. Veins, muscles, carved into stone. He is unbelievably beautiful.

I tear myself away from the David and investigate the room behind him. The Salone dell’Ottocento, filled with shelves to the ceiling of marble busts and plaster cast models that were the “final exam” pieces by the students of the Accadamia. My very first thought upon entering the room is the catastrophic loss that would occur if this room suffered an earthquake. The thought of being crushed to death by so many falling marble busts, was secondary to the destruction of so many irreplaceable pieces.

Several pieces by Bertolinni (19th century) catch my eye, so much so that by the time I am all the way through the room, I can pick them out without even reading the placards. An amusing piece of statuary shows three children in a tumble, representing Lust, Love and Vice, with Love on top of the dog pile, symbolizing that ‘love conquers all.”

Another room of paint contains earlier icons, many pieces by Daddi (13th century) who has a recognizable style, and who becomes my new favorite painter of the medieval period. I make another Mecca-esque circle around the David on my way out. 

I’m pretty frustrated with museum shops here. The one that holds the greatest promise, I revisit several times, looking for a catalog for the Accademia. I visit a bookstore, looking for something on the works of Donatello, but find nothing. 

I walk past gated hotel courtyards, and see one with a piece of installation art in the form of a half scale rhino which appears to be made from paper-mache.  Around the corner, I snap a photo of a line of parked mopeds. The moped is to Florence what the gondola is to Venice… 

The famous bronze Boar Fountain sits at the edge of the Mercato Nuovo, a 16th century open air loggia that houses a street market. Originally, gold and silk was sold here, it later became the place where people met to exchange news about boats coming in and out of Liverno and Pisa. It is said that if you rub the boar’s bronze snout and toss a coin into the fountain, you will return to Florence. I do the same, but by now, I have already made the decision to return here.

The Boar Fountain. Rub its snout to guarantee your return to Florence.

I stumble across the Duomo Museum (Museo dell’Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore). What a find! It turns out to be the workshop for Donatello and Brunelleschi, and where Michelangelo carved the David. The Pieta resides here, the sculpture and self portrait of Michelangelo as one of the three mourners at Christ’s removal from the Cross, and the piece that Michelangelo had designed for his own tomb. The museum houses the Madonna with Glass Eyes; Donatello’s scary Mary Magdalene, carved from white poplar; a pair of balconies carved by Robiba and Donatello; and the original panels from the Ghiberti doors, which are displayed the same way they were when the panels visited the Seattle Art Museum last year. Upstairs, I find a nice collection of Byzantine vestments, made up of brocade, embellished with random squiggles of gold cording. The visit to this museum was worth my while. 

And now, I am off to the Baptistery, and the great Ghiberti Doors. For photos up to this point, please visit my supplemental blog at Daveno Travels.

The Baptistery

The Baptistery of San Giovanni is the oldest building in the Duomo complex, sitting near the Duomo Cathedral and the Giotti Tower (aka the Campanile). The Baptistery is one of the oldest buildings in Florence, and an excellent example of Florentine Romanesque architecture, borrowing elements from both Classic and Byzantine styles. 

  • Some think the original Baptistery was a pagan temple converted to Christian use; others believe it was erected on the site of a 3rd century Roman temple built during the reign of Emperor Augustus, who dedicated it to the god Mars after a successful Roman defeat of the Etruscans. Though commissioned in 394, the earliest reference to the building as it now stands dates to 897, though it’s actual founding date is more commonly considered to be 1059, the year it was consecrated by Pope Nicholas II, Bishop of Florence.
  • The Baptistery’s octagonal shape is symbolic of the Christian concept of salvation achieved by baptism, the baptized soul arising on the “8th day after the 7 earthly ones, and the day without end,” a reference to resurrection and life everlasting in the grace of Christ. 
  • Major artistic work began on the interior of the Baptistery in 1202, including the mosaic floor which is described as “a spread of Oriental carpets” leading the devoted to the center baptismal font, marked now only by the outline of where it stood before it was dismantled in 1577. Most of the exterior architectural details were completed by the 14th century, just as restoration on the interior dome mosaics began – work that continued well into the 19th century. 

The Ghiberti Doors — The Gates of Paradise

Although there are a number of sculptures and other elements that should have caught my attention on the exterior of the Baptistery, I was fixated on the bronze doors which were one of two things that topped my list of “must sees” for this city. I was only mildly disappointed that these doors – like many other pieces I would see on this trip – are replicas. 

  • The original Ghiberti doors were installed facing the Cathedral, where they remained for over 500 years before 18th century refurbishing techniques gone awry combined with increasing air pollution, began to corrode the bronze underneath the gilding. The doors were removed during WWII and transported to a safe place outside of Florence, where molds were made from them. They were returned to the Baptistery after the war, but were again removed (a panel at a time starting in 1970) and were replaced with the gilded bronze replicas that you see now, crafted in a workshop in France from the WWII-age molds. 

The original panels, some of which have been restored and are now encased in nitrogen-filled glass cases (the same panels I saw on exhibit in Seattle), are now housed in the Duomo Museum. But the replica doors are no less stunning, and allowed me to see them as they were originally installed, each panel having a specific forced perspective, depending on where it was placed on these tall and massive doors. 

  • The original Baptistery doors were made of wood by Pisano In 1322, who designed 28 panels,  depicting the life of St. John the Baptist, patron saint of Florence, and allegorical figures of the Virtues. Pisano utilized a lost wax casting method and, after finishing the bronzes with chase-work and gilding, riveted each panel onto its bronze base, finishing his work in 1336. 
  • In 1401 Arte di Calimala (the Merchant’s Guild) held a competition to choose an artist for a second set of doors. Ghiberti beat out Brunelleschi, who would later become the first great Renaissance architect, and designer of the Duomo. It is hard to imagine the turn of events that would have occurred had Brunelleschi’s talents been consumed by these doors, rather than his domes that have left such a mark on architecture around the globe… 
  • Ghiberti began work on the doors two years later, working them in the same style as Pisano’s doors – biblical figures within a quatrefoil, following the terms set out by the Calimala that the style of the second set of doors, follow the first. Ghiberti’s doors, originally commissioned to replace Pisano’s doors, depict scenes from the life of Christ. Ghiberti installed his work in 1424. 
  • The Guild awarded Ghiberti a commission for a second set of doors the following year. But this second set of doors would be a dramatic departure from the first. Ghiberti’s new work would include 10 panels depicting scenes from the Old Testament in high relief and forced perspective. 

One of my guidebooks equates some of the panels, or at least their placement on the door, to the political events of the time. The Joseph panel, showing distribution of grain and an embrace of forgiveness, is thought by some to be a reference to Cosimo’s return to Florence from exile, with other panels seen as pointing to the union between Greek and Roman churches as ratified by the Council of Florence in 1439.

The process Ghiberti used to make the Gates of Paradise followed those of Pisano, lost wax, chasing, and gilding by dissolving gold in mercury, and committing the panels to the furnace where the mercury vaporized, leaving the gold adhered to the bronze. This method of gilding was highly toxic, even by Renaissance standards, and I cannot imagine that the life span of a foundry worker in Ghiberti’s shop, was a very long or healthy one.

When the doors were finally installed in 1452, Michelangelo is credited with saying that the doors were so beautiful that they were worthy of the “Gates of Paradise”, although others cite the reference simply to the doors being the entry way to baptism. Regardless, the colloquialism remains assigned to Ghiberti’s masterpiece to this day. 

Inside the Baptistry… 

Of all the elements that make up this place — the women’s gallery, the baptismal fonts, the marble mosaic “Oriental Carpet” floors, the Roman sarcophagi — the thing that held my attention the longest was the ceiling. This place could make a small fortune by renting gazing cots.

After trying to follow the intricacies of the mosaics in the floor, my eyes drifted up to the glittering gold glass which was the background for what I remember as predominantly blue mosaics, though my books picture it otherwise. 

  • The dome, built prior to 1100, was embellished with mosaic during the 13th century and took 75 years to complete the depictions of “The Last Judgement” and other biblical stories. Some of the mosaics were restored in 1481-90, and again between 1898 and 1907, with additions being made to complete some of the scenes. 

I stood for the longest time, as close to the center of the building as I could, turning in a slow spin, just trying to take the thing in. After a few minutes I gave up and sat down on the footrest of a back pew, just staring and trying to imagine the effect it would have had on a person from a much earlier century. 

I finally pick myself back up for a final walk around. The Roman sarcophagi date from the 4th century, with the lid of one carved in 1299 with a sheep (symbol of the Wool Guild) and two versions of the now recognizable Medici arms, under which lies the remains of one of the many Medici family. The other marble tomb, also dating from the 4th century, serves as the resting-place for Bishop Velletri. Along another wall lies the resting-place of Bishop Ranieri, who served as Bishop of Florence for 42 years. The inscription is worthy of note: “a good and just man, wise and pleasing of appearance…” 

I wish I had been able to figure out how to get up to the women’s gallery, to get close up and personal to the 14th century mosaics that cover the walls there, to stand in the alcove with the bottle glass window, and, of course, to get closer to the magnificence of the ceiling. So many reasons to return to Florence.

You will find additional photos of the Baptistry with its’ Ghiberti doors in my other blog at Daveno Travels.

I chance upon Dante’s House, where I buy a florin, and a book on medieval armor for Jim, a friend of mine.

  • Florins were originally minted in the Zecca, near the Palazzo Vecchio, of pure 24 carat gold, less than an inch across, weighing 54 grains. The face showed a lily, the Fleur-de-lis, the symbol of Florence. The back showed an image of John the Baptist, the patron saint of Florence. The florin was first coined in Florence in 1252, became the standard currency throughout medieval Europe, and remained in circulation until the fall of the Republic in 1531. 

I return to my hotel room and, foregoing a proper meal for lack of appetite, write postcards, letters and journal entries for the remainder of the night. 

The Bargello Museum 

I skipped breakfast and spent my morning trying to sketch a motif from one of the vestments I saw yesterday. The fierce winds of yesterday have died down, and the first impression I get on the street is of heavy cigarette smoke. There must be a very high per capita of smokers here.

The Bargello is remarkable as much for its architecture as much as its contents. 

  • Finished in the 14th century, on land that was purchased nearly a century earlier, this palazzo served as the personal residence of the Duke of Calabria (1326), the headquarters of the local magistrates (1502) and a prison (1574). It has been a national museum since 1865 and houses a very nice array of both Italian and Persian artifacts.

Once you get through the courtyard, past the cistern and statuary, up to the balcony where there are more sculptures and bronzes, you enter a room, very much like the Medici Chapel — low and vaulted, but painted lapis blue, and covered with gold painted stars. I kept reminding myself to look at the building as much as the artifacts. 

Among my favorites:

  • The circular, folding, parchment fan, dating back to the 9th century. Probably the oldest paper I have seen that was not a book or a manuscript. 
  • A 6th century ivory tablet of Empress Arianna, in full Byzantine court garb, thought to hail from Constantinople. 
  • The Islamic Room. The 14th century Venetian-Saracen artworks — trays and boxes made by Islamic artists living in Venice. Carved Syrian Ivory plaques. The three 15th century Damascus Persian helmets. 
  • Juno and the two peacocks, by Ammannati, originally intended as part of a fountain at the Palazzo della Signoria, now installed among several other sculptures in the courtyard.
  • The Atys, a bronze depicting a cupid with chaps and a contagious smile, about the size of a 2-year old toddler. I spend the rest of the day looking for a replica to take home for my garden. I settle for finding him in an Italian art book.
Donatello’s Atys

Dinner, and retracing the day

I have caught myself several times today, wandering, having no idea where I was, yet never feeling lost. I look up, and amazingly I have arrived at my hotel without even meaning to. I unload my pockets and pick up my journal and pen. I visit the concierge, who reserves a taxi for me for 4:30 AM  but doesn’t understand how to confirm my flight. I sit down at his computer and print my boarding pass, much to his amazement. I pay for my room and retrieve my passport, and look for a restaurant. 

The first viable osteria I find is not seating for a half hour. I find the ring I was shopping for, at a shop whose window was full of heavy, silver, Medici-looking men’s rings. I settle on a convex band interrupted by a fleur-de-lis. “The symbol of Florence,” the young man says.  Yes it is. The handmade, sterling piece becomes mine, and I pay for it and wear it out the door. 

The osteria opens, and I sit down for a full course meal. If I ordered correctly, I anticipate onion soup, ravioli, spinach, and white beans, accompanied by a glass of Fonseca. I read my menu choices to the waiter in Italian, and he writes them down. He repeats the order back to me twice before I realize that is what he is doing. My Italian will never be fluent enough to converse here… 

I record the events of the day. Of crossing the Ponte Vecchio, Florence’s version of the Rialto, spanning the narrowest part of the Aron River since Roman times. The bridge is covered with goldsmiths occupying the ground floors of buildings that still have crenelations and battlements at the roof line. Finding Santo Spirito closed, I will have to come back. 

…My onion soup has just arrived, a thick gravy of pureed onion with a thick piece of toasted bread plopped in the center, mounded with fresh parmesan cheese. American “onion soup” ought to be downright embarrassed… 

Back to the day. I wish the Boboli Garden had been my first stop, rather than one of my last. I walk past the 19th century Annalena Grotto, where a marble male and female stand in sheltered and eternal embrace. At the entrance to the garden, two Pompeiian villas, one a replica residence, the other a painter’s workshop, with gardens fenced in with lashed bamboo latticework. Red troughs catch water from the eaves on three sides of the courtyard. Plantings here include roses, pines, and medicinals that have not yet broken ground. The water in the fountains is frozen solid. 

…The main course for my dinner has just arrived…four, lovely, plump ravioli, stuffed with spinach and a sublime white cheese, draped with truffle sauce, bite-sized chunks of porticini mushrooms scattered overall, fresh Parmesan on the side. Absolutely delicious. I look over at the next table, where an English couple are dining. They have ordered, predictably, fish and chips.

I recall the gardens and the olive arbors that stretch the entire length, intersecting with oak arbors running crosswise, dating back to 1620. A break in the arbors draws me up a hill to a secluded path where there’s a stone terraced trough, running the entire length of the road. They are bird troughs, in an area designed for hunting birds with nets. Each trough ends in a medieval bestiary head, which functions as a spitter, letting the rainwater escape through its mouth, into a basin, and down the next trough, to the next spitting head. It is called the Fountain of the Mostaccini, dating back to the 17th century. 

Fountain of the Mostaccini

It is there that I offered coins and prayers for the well-being of friends and family who remain after the calamitous losses of last year, during which ten people within my social circle, and at least as many whom I knew less well, left this world in favor of the next. What an impossible year it was. The last prayer is for myself, to cover all bases for the return flights home.

I had spent about half an hour in the Pitti Palace, mostly in the gift shop looking at catalogs to see what I was missing – shi-shi salons filled with 17th-18th century paintings and textiles. I decide to forgo it this trip, and returned to the gardens. I want to see sunset from the fountain, but I am compelled to leave before sunset in order to return to Santo Spirito. 

…I have finished the ravioli, and the next plates arrive. A mound of spinach, sautéed in olive oil and garlic, which I try to polish off but simply can’t. White beans in tomato and sage sauce, a regional specialty, does not impress me as much, but my body screams for protein. Frank Sinatra belts a song out on the radio, in English, which is rather jarring. 

I had found Santo Spirito Cathedral, after asking a passer by for directions. I sat on the wide expanse of stone stairs, sharing the fading sun with church goers and pigeons, waiting for the doors to open. Once inside, I find this cathedral to be very similar to San Lorenzo, though it feels quite a bit larger. I thought Michelangelo was buried here but I cannot find the crypt. The central presbyter is stunning, flanked by 4-foot tall angels, some with black wings. A working knowledge of Latin would be really helpful before I return here, in order to read the plaques. It is chilly here, and time to leave. 

…The waiter has returned, but I have no room for desert. I finish my wine, and leave as the noisy dinner crowd starts to arrive. 

I want to walk around on my last evening here, and I head back towards the Duomo. It is very cold, and a sharp breeze has kicked up. The homeless are out, and I walk through a pack of Jamaicans, their belongings wrapped in bedsheets. A police car arresting someone,  and my skin prickles as I pass a pair of young men, signaling that it’s time to return to my hotel. 

Photos from my final day in Florence are collected at Daveno Travels.

I need to come back. To visit Venice for a day for Carnivale, and to spend the rest of the week in Florence. Fewer churches next time, more gardens, palaces and museums. More time just walking around the city. Another trip to the Baptistry. An entire day at the Boboli Gardens. Or at least the latter half of the day, so I can see the sunset…