Vietnam: Ha Long Bay

As promised in my holiday blog posting, I return to a recounting of highlights from my summer travels. Sitting with my tablet on a frigid January Monday in Minnesota, it takes effort to recall the incredible heat of southeast Asia. In Vietnam in July, one showers and five minutes later is drenched in sweat once again. Unless located directly under a fan or in air conditioning, one sweats just sitting still. Imagine being a tourist and walking around to take in the attractions. Towards the end of the trip, I had an umbrella in one hand to shield me from the sun and a fan in the other to help evaporate my perspiration.

This tale is from early in the trip, however, before I had learned that cooling technique. Bryn and I had arranged that after visiting Sapa, we would return to Hanoi only long enough to join another excursion: this time to Ha Long Bay. As an aside, we used Vega Travel for both of our excursions and found them helpful and fairly priced. The Vega Travel office is located in Hanoi’s old quarter and conveniently has a room where you can leave luggage and a place to shower and change clothes (although you will just be sweaty again in five minutes).

As with the Sapa excursion, we opted for the longer version: two nights and three days. Arriving back from Sapa in the early morning, we caught a cab to Vega Travel where we clambered into a minivan along with other sleepy tourists and rode three hours to Ha Long Bay. There we boarded our first boat. Ha Long Bay is a UNESCO world heritage site for good reason. The bay includes about 2,000 islets that rise spectacularly from the water.



We stopped at one of the larger islets to visit Amazing Cave which had interesting rock formations. The ones pictured below looked to me like legs dangling down from the entrance.


On our way back to our boat, we spotted a monkey, who was also keenly aware of us.


We were afforded some time in the afternoon to kayak, which enabled us to examine some of the islets a bit more closely.




It was great fun and being on the water provided some relief from the heat.


After a night on the boat, we motored to Tip Top islet and hiked up for an incredible view.



Do I look hot?


After Tip Top, four of us off-loaded onto a smaller vessel, which took us farther into the bay.


Along the way, we admired more karst islets and passed by several floating villages.



People spend their whole lives on the water with regular commerce and activity apparent.




We stopped at Cat Ba Island and rode bikes into a national park.


Then we hiked for a bit and visited a cave that was used for shelter during the “American War”.



After a chance for more kayaking and a swim (I declined because the water must be really dirty with all those floating villages), we spent the night on Cat Ba Island, which appears to be a popular destination spot for upper class Vietnamese families. Bryn took this photo of kids going wild in bumper cars on the main city plaza. It was quite humorous.


It was in a Cat Ba Island restaurant where we saw this strange tribute to Sam Walton of Walmart fortune. Google translate comes up with:”As sales richest BEST”.


The next day, we were ferried back through Ha Long Bay, past karst islets and floating villages. A three hour minivan ride back to Hanoi concluded our adventure and we were once again surrounded by a sea of scooters.


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2013 Holiday Blog

I’ve been stewing about putting together the 2013 edition of the Wall Street Journal, which is what I renamed our holiday newsletter (previously the Holiday Herald) after Mark and I moved to our downtown Saint Paul condo in 2006 (it’s located on Wall Street, so I thought the name a clever one). While the format of that newsletter was kind of cute, I find I am no longer able to write in the objective third person the way I used to. I’ve decided, therefore, to blog again this year. Bear with me.

I’ve also been stewing with a guilty conscience about not having blogged about the remainder of my summer travels. I WILL GET TO IT EVENTUALLY, but since I returned at the end of August I’ve been immersed in my re-entry and have focused instead on reconnecting with friends and family, as well as readjusting to living by myself.

During my first month back in Saint Paul, I definitely experienced cultural whiplash. At Svanholm I shared a bathroom with seven adults and here I have three bathrooms all to myself. Something doesn’t seem quite right. Also, it became clear that I had way too many clothes, as my closet was full before I even started unpacking my suitcases. Well, I’m not planning to move; I love my home, but I did spend a day with the help of my niece Kirstine getting rid of “stuff”. I also deliberately throw away all direct mail catalogs I receive without looking at them. I’ve noticed that if I don’t know about something, I don’t “need” it. Another strategy for dealing with excess consumerism: I opted NOT to connect my television to anything but my computer, that way I don’t inflict ads upon myself.

How’s that working for me? Okay, I guess. In spite of good non-consumerism intentions, I have replaced my camera, which broke down in the extreme heat of southeast Asia, and my netbook, which was so slow that I wasn’t using it anymore, but I’m not buying clothes or much else besides food. I did most of my Christmas shopping during my travels, so I’m not helping out alot with the economic recovery here in the States.

Okay, back to holiday newsiness. As I mentioned earlier, I returned from my magical year at Svanholm and my summer of exotic travels (Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Estonia, Russia and Greece) at the end of August. I promise there will be photos and details about the travel in future blog entries.

Upon my arrival in Saint Paul, my neighbors at the Great Northern Lofts surprised me with a welcome home champagne and hors d’oeuvres reception in the lobby of our building. I love my neighbors. While the Great Northern does not offer Svanholm’s communal living, it DOES offer community living and I feel very lucky to take part in it.

I have delighted in running my old routes, even though they include hills (something I avoided while at Svanholm). My neighborhood is called Lowertown for a reason — it is the low spot in Saint Paul. But, the up side (pun intended) of running hills is that you usually get a terrific view (not to mention that you get to run back downhill on the way home).



In September I drove down to my hometown of Columbia, Missouri for my 40th high school reunion. The drive, which used to take 12 hours in the old days of two lane highways and children in the back seat, only took eight hours!

I no longer have any family in Columbia. My parents are both deceased and my siblings have all scattered, so these high school reunions are the only things that call me back. We had a small graduating class at U-High (57) and some of us were classmates since 4-year-old kindergarten. Our class reunions are like family reunions to me. I was delighted to stay with my dear friend Leslie and her husband Tim, who were gracious hosts even though they were both a bit under the weather with colds. In addition to feeding and housing me, they took me out on the “Katy Trail” (a trail on the old MKT railroad bed) to find the bench my brother had placed in honor of our parents.



I also made an emotional pilgrimage to my family homestead. “Mob Hill”, as we called it (my mother picked the name as a satiric play on San Francisco’s posh Nob Hill), was the only home I knew prior to heading off for college. When my parents originally acquired the house, it came with about 8 acres of land, but over the years they acquired some adjacent property in order to protect their view and their privacy. After my mother died and my siblings and I deeded the property over to the Missouri Conservation Commission, it totaled a little over 9 acres. In spite of being located only a mile and a half from the center of campus, it felt as though one was out in the country. Mob Hill was a special place and during my visit, I was soon overwhelmed with memories of softball games, Easter egg hunts, and my wedding, all of which took place in the front yard. The house was in dismal shape, unoccupied and ignored for years. It was almost a relief to come across a sign indicating that the place would soon be demolished.


Apparently the city has begun the process of creating a park and the house will be replaced by a parking lot and picnic shelter. I think Mob Hill will be easier to visit once the transformation is complete. The house looked so sad and forlorn it made me feel the same way.


Luckily the reunion itself was light-hearted, as 20 of us alumni, plus 10 good-natured and patient partners, and one favorite English/Journalism teacher, caught up on our lives and told stories from our shared past. I came away convinced that the males in my class had been significantly more delinquent than we females. One of their many stories was about being sent off on a cross country run and, as soon as they were out of the coach’s sight, peeling off into the woods for a smoke. They covered their tracks later by sprinting a few yards prior to returning within eye-shot so that they would be suitably winded and sweaty.

This fall also included reciprocal visits with my sister. Barb came to Saint Paul during the fall art crawl when my neighborhood, which is full of artists’ lofts and studios, is abuzz with activity. I went to Michigan when she was participating in her Potters Guild’s fall sale. We both returned to our respective homes with suitcases a little fuller. Here is a picture of Barb with her two dogs, Honey and Rusty.


Fall also brought a reunion with my son. After not seeing him for a year and a half, I was more than ready to see his smiling face in person! Dane came to Minnesota for a long weekend at the beginning of November to attend his own high school reunion. The visit was a short one, but was followed soon thereafter by my two-week encampment at his place in Santa Anna, California.

I can report that Dane looks fabulous. He has lost about 85 pounds and feels healthy. The weight loss happened over the course of two plus years when he was without a car and used a bicycle for his daily 14-mile round trip work commute. In 2013 he purchased a motorcycle and began a new fitness regimen of Muay Thai and other martial arts classes. He still works for Broadcom as a digital engineer doing computer chip layout and nourishes his creative side through writing, painting and sculpture. I look forward to having him in Minnesota over the holidays.


Although I haven’t seen her in person since August, I can report that Bryn also looks fabulous. After we parted ways in Thailand, she flew to California and by the time she stopped in Minnesota on her return to Denmark, she was sporting a spunky new hairdo. In January she enters her final semester of her master’s degree program in Technological and Socio-Economic Planning. Her thesis will look at free trade agreements to learn if they can be structured in a way that does not encourage a “race to the bottom” in developing countries.

In 2013 Bryn moved into a collective in the greater Copenhagen area, becoming one of nine owners of a large house. They have a shared food economy and she enjoys having people to eat dinner with and also enjoys making them happy when it is her turn to cook. Bryn is also still active in her member-driven, local organic food co-op and has helped to spread the concept by making presentations both domestically and abroad. Speaking of abroad, she is currently in Borneo over the holidays and will also be spending time back in Viet Nam before returning to Denmark in mid-January. As for in which country she will locate when she completes her studies, the jury is still out.


While I am thoroughly enjoying being back in Saint Paul, I will be headed to Svanholm at the beginning of March. If you have read my earlier blog postings, you know how much I love it there. I really do feel as though I have two homes now. So my plan is to fly back to Denmark on February 27th and volunteer again in Svanholm’s kitchen group through the end of June. My niece is getting married in early July, which gives me an incentive to return to Minnesota for the glorious summer months.

Happy holidays, everyone. I wish you much happiness and great adventures in 2014.

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Vietnam: Sapa

Sapa, with its verdant green rice paddy terraces. A world so different from my flat Minnesota and Danish homes. My eyes could not soak in enough of its exotic beauty.

I was so excited to share the wonder of the place that I uploaded a few photos to Facebook early in this trip, before I had figured out the logistics of working on my blog from the road. Now comes the full report.

IMG_8392 A visit to Sapa is mandatory for anyone visiting Hanoi and northern Vietnam. Bryn and I opted for a 4 night, 3 day trekking excursion, including a village home stay. Our excursion had us leaving on a 10 pm night train to Lao Cai. We were picked up at our hotel and taken with several other travelers to the train station. The station was crowded and I was grateful there was a travel agency representative there with us to make sure we got on the right train.

Our tickets placed us in a four-person sleeper cabin with a young German couple. We all settled in quickly, stowing our large bacpacks under the bottom bunks and arranging our essentials in our respective beds. Earplugs and eye mask came in handy, but our six am arrival came before I was really ready for it.

Then it was off the train and into a minivan for the 1-1/2 hour drive to Sapa. The road was mountainous and curvey, and our driver took my breath away several times as he passed vehicles without being able to see if there was any oncoming traffic. We arrived safely in Sapa, however, and were dropped at a hotel where we had the opportunity to shower and have breakfast before heading out for a day of trekking. IMG_8377 Kuong was our guide, cook and companion for the following three days. A native of the area, this charming, gentle man, had a sly sense of humor and a deep knowledge of the local flora, fauna, geography and culture. The trails he took us on were challenging and the scenery was spectacular.

KuongIMG_8386 Our trekking group included the Germans we had slept with on the train and four young French people from Singapore. IMG_8468 Our visit to Sapa was in the rainy season. I think the trails would be tough regardless, but when they were wet and slippery, they were particularly rough. Local minority (Hmomg) village women latch on to the various groups of trekkers and offer a hand. Initially wary of what they would demand for compensation, I quickly gave in and accepted the assistance. Kuong said they would expect us to shop from them at the end of the day.

My helper in purple boots

You won’t see any photos here that showcase the challenging nature of the tails, however. During those portions of the trek, I was too busy holding my helper’s hand and concentrating on not falling to take pictures. Here, on a flat portion, you can get some kind of idea of the quality of the trail. You’ll have to use your imagination to envision it going straight up and straight down a hillside. IMG_8410 In case you are wondering, the terraced fields in the Sapa region are mostly planted with rice. Vietnam is the world’s second biggest exporter of rice, following India and ahead of Thailand. The Vietnamese consume the most rice per capita of anywhere and still are able to achieve this level of exports. And rice production still largely occurs without machines, with the seedlings all transplanted by hand. IMG_8393 IMG_8412 Irrigation of the fields is aided by gravity. Irrigation by gravity

Irrigation system

Vietnam’s population is currently 88 million and growing at about a million a year. The government has a two child population policy, but the minority populations ignore this and typically have ten or more children to help with the farm work. IMG_8398 IMG_8424 After a hard day of trekking, I rewarded my Hmomg helper by buying a belt, a headband and a water bottle carrier from her. I would have been happy to tip her for the help she gave me. As it was, I also came away with some beautiful handwork that will remind me of our day together. Our group was all happy to reach our home stay destination. We were ready to sit and relax for a bit. IMG_8443 A few of us helped Kuong in the kitchen as he prepared our dinner, while others enjoyed a beer on the front patio.

The dining room

When Kuong brought out our dinner, our host brought out rice wine (it’s called wine even through it is strong like a schnapps and one drinks shots). We made a couple of toasts, drank our shots and got pretty merry. We guests ate (and drank) on the patio, while Kuong and our host ate in the kitchen. After a while our group drifted in pairs into the kitchen, where four or five village men had joined our host. Each local then drank a shot with each guest. Needless to say, much rice wine was consumed. I lasted through about five or six more shots, but then made my way upstairs to our sleeping quarters.

Our sleeping area

A remarkable thing about rice wine, though, no hangover! Day two of trekking started out just as challenging as day one. More rain made the trails freshly slick. When two young Hmong girls offered me their assistance, I couldn’t resist. “You be careful, okay?” was their oft repeated admonition. IMG_8486

After a particularly challenging section of trail, where everyone fell at one point or another (even me WITH two helpers), we had a group conference and Kuong modified the trek for us along easier trails. We visited a waterfall and a “Red Hmong” village before returning to Sapa via minivan.

We walked past more fields. Here is one with hemp growing admidst the corn. The hemp is the non-mind-altering kind and is used to make cloth and rope.


We passed by women working with the hemp to make thread, which we also saw them using to weave cloth. Below you can see some barrels full of indigo dye, made from native plants, which the Hmong use to color their fabric.


We also passed through villages and past curious water buffalo on our way.


In retrospect, Sapa was my favorite place in Vietnam, due to its beauty and the quality of our guide. My next report will be about Ha Long Bay, also a spectacular natural area.


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Vietnam: Hanoi

Motorbikes, honking horns, and amazing street food — these will forever be associated with Hanoi for me.

After about 24 hours of travel, Bryn and I arrived at the hotel that had been recommended to us by a Svanholm friend. We cleaned up and ventured out.


When it came time to cross a street, we remembered the advice we had been given and just went for it, letting the bikes avoid us, instead of vice versa. The first few times, I was a bit anxious, but my confidence increased with each successful crossing.

Hoan Kiem Lake offers a bit of tranquility amidst the chaos, and we found our way there several times during our stay.

Hoan Kiem Lake

Early on, we stumbled across a stand selling freshly “squeezed” sugar cane juice. Delicious and only 50 cents!

Making sugar cane juice (10,000 dong = $0.50)

It was so good that motorbikes stopped for takeaway.

Juice to go

We roamed the streets, finding our way to the Cathedral and various temples.

St. Joseph's Cathedral


Behind the cathedral was this bas-relief mural that on closer inspection was getting some help from Mother Nature.

Bas relief on wall behind St. Joseph's Cathedral


In spite of our long journey, we had enough energy to attend a performance at the Water Puppet Theater, which included live traditional music.

Muscians at Water Puppet Theater

Water Puppet Theater

Water Puppet Theater

Hanoi’s street scene is incredibly lively 24/7. There is always something to see. We enjoyed watching men playing a checkers-like game.


Street food in Hanoi is both delicious and cheap. The country has an abundance of fresh fruits, vegetables and herbs and the food benefits from that abundance. Most of our meals were eaten while seated on plastic chairs or stools as those below.

Street food


Hanoi is Vietnam’s capital and second largest city, with about 7 million people. The intensity of the city is softened by the number of boulevard trees. There are trees and shade on nearly every street.

Loved this tree

Most of the traditional buildings in Hanoi are tall and skinny, dating back to a tax policy that was related to street frontage.

Typical skinny architecture

We visited a large, indoor shopping complex that was overwhelming with its volume of products and the consumerism that implied.

Doan Xuan market

Here is a stall with beautiful silk fabrics:

Silk for sale at the Doan Xuan market

Here is another one with the facemasks that many motorbike riders wear:

Facemasks for sale

And here are some vendors, taking it easy in the heat.

Doan Xuan market

One evening, we found ourselves at Long Bien Bridge. It called to us and we had to walk over it.

Long Bien bridge

Long Bien bridge

From the bridge we got a view of pineapple trucks being unloaded.

View from Long Bien bridge - unloading pineapples

As we walked out further, we saw some garden plots.

View from Long Bien bridge

View from Long Bien bridge

The sun set and fishermen tried their luck in the Red River.

Sunset from Long Bien bridge

View from Long Bien bridge

Walking back to our hotel, we passed the active Night Market.

Hanoi night market

And, even at night, the motorbikes raced by.


The Temple of Literature was another interesting stop along our way. It is a temple of Confucius and includes Vietnam’s first national university.

Temple of Literature

Temple of Literature

Temple of Literature

Temple of Literature

We also visited the “Hanoi Hilton”, where John McCain and other American pilots were held during the Vietnam War (the Vietnamese call that same war the American War — it was a bit of a surprise the first time I heard it, but it makes sense).

"Hanoi Hilton"

Here is a photo of John McCain’s uniform and parachute:

John McCain's gear at the "Hanoi Hilton"

Most of the former prison is dedicated to telling the story of the French internment and torture of Vietnamese revolutionaries.

"Hanoi Hilton"

The Women’s Museum was also VERY interesting. One can learn about women’s roles and customs in the ethnic minority communities, as well as the role women played in the American War.

Women's Museum

Women's Museum

Did I mention motorbikes yet? They are ubiquitious and it’s startling to see how many people and how much stuff can fit upon them.




They even sleep on their motorbikes!

People LIVE on their scooters!

One does see an occasional bicycle, too.

Chickens for sale

Two final scenes from the street and I’ll be done with this post.



Next stop: SAPA!

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Istanbul – Part Five: City Life

I’m calling this final post on Istanbul “City Life” as a way to include whatever didn’t fit in the four previous topical posts. It will likely end up being a bit of a mish-mash, but I hope it is worth a read nonetheless.

Istanbul is a bit of a mish-mash itself, located partly in Europe and partly in Asia, with its history of Roman domination, followed by the conquering Ottomans, followed by its founding as a republic. The evidence of old Constantinople is present in the Valens Aqueduct, which was completed in the late 4th century AD and still standing.


The influence of the Ottomans is evident in the multitude of mosques that dominate the city skyline.

Blue Mosque

Atatürk is still revered as the founder of the Turkish republic. On this monument in Taksim Square, Atatürk is shown on one side as a general leading a revolution and on the other side as a statesman leading a republic.

Atatürk the general

Atatürk the statesman

The sultans also left behind major palaces. Below is Dolmabahçe Palace, a lavish structure built around 1850. Photos were not allowed inside, or I would share with you the world’s largest crystal chandelier and an unbelievable crystal staircase.


Dolmabahçe Palace:   Imperial Gate

Atatürk spent the last days of his medical treatment in the palace as his health deteriorated. He died at 9:05 a.m. on November 10, 1938, in a bedroom that is now part of the palace museum. All the clocks in the palace were stopped and set to 9:05 after his death.

Istanbul is home to about 14 million people in its 2,063 square miles (5,343 and there are crowds everywhere. From the bustling, commercial Istikal street…


…to the side streets in the historic quarter.


The Princes Islands, nine islands located 20 km away in the Sea of Marmara, are a popular getaway destination for Istanbul’s urban dwellers. My daughter Bryn and I went on a day trip to Heybeliada, one of the islands, and were reminded a bit of our trip to Michigan’s Mackinac Island last year (although there were no fudge shops). Vehicular traffic is limited on Heybeliada and horse-drawn carriages dominate.

No cars allowed on the Princes' Islands

No cars allowed on the Princes' Islands

We got off the ferry boat and wandered around town for a while, watching a youthful soccer game and admiring the boats in the harbor.



We hiked up to a posh hotel and back, appreciating typical Turkish architecture along our way.


Eventually I decided we should take a carriage ride in order to see the entire the island and we passed through peaceful forests and by remote beaches.

A pony ride!

Another day we took our host’s advice and took a bus to the northern part of the city and then hiked up to the Pierre Loti cafe with its spectacular views over the Golden Horn and the city. Named after a French novelist who frequented the area, the cafe is perched just above a cemetery where many important Ottomans are reportedly buried.

Pierre Loti Cafe: on top of Eyüp cemetery named after a French novelist

Back in town, it was typical to see men hauling heavy loads using various contraptions such as the one below. As I’ve mentioned the city has many hills and I did not envy the men (and boys) I saw employed by this activity.

Hauler for hire

There was also an abundance of cats in the city. Some street dogs, but mostly street cats. They were everywhere and for the most part seemed content and well fed.

Cat snoozing at Süleymaniye Mosque

Istanbul also had some interesting store window displays. These two mannequins caught my eye.

Mannequin DJ

Crazy store mannequin

Two “must-see’s” in Istanbul are the Grand Bazaar and the Spice Bazaar. The Grand Bazaar is one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world, with 61 covered streets and over 3,000 shops. One can buy anything from jewelry to carpets to ceramics to turkish delight to clothes to …



The Spice Bazaar is smaller than the Grand Bazaar, although still enormous, with 88 vaulted rooms. One can buy anything from saffron to curry to cumin to apple tea, to kebab spice mix to …

Spice market

Spice market w/ Turkish coffee sets

The area just outside the Spice Bazaar is also an exciting market area, frequented mostly by locals.

Bazaar outside Rüstem Paşa Mosque

These areas look quite different at night, however. Bryn and I got a bit turned around one evening, trying to find our way to a hamami, or Turkish bath, and this is what we experienced.

Market area at night

We eventually found our way to the hamami and totally enjoyed it. No photos, however, you’ll just have to imagine a lot of mostly naked, soaped up women.

I do have photos from another very Turkish experience: a hookah cafe. Bryn really wanted to sample this piece of local culture, so my friend Sungur took us to one. We tried apple-flavored tobacco, apple tea and soaked in the ambiance.

Hot coals for the hookah

Bryn smoking apple-flavored tobacco

Even babies were welcome.

Baby at the Hookah cafe

One of the coolest places we went was the Basilica Cistern, the largest of several hundred underground cisterns and built in the 6th century during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I. This cathedral-size cistern is an underground chamber approximately 450 feet (138 m) by 210 feet (64 m) – capable of holding 2.8 million cubic feet (80,000 cubic meters) of water. The ceiling is supported by a forest of 336 marble columns, each 30 feet (9 m) high, arranged in 12 rows of 28 columns each spaced 16 feet (4.9 m) apart.

Basilica Cistern: 336 columns, each over 8 m (26 ft) high, built in 532

It is thought that the columns were salvaged from other buildings, since they include a variety of designs and materials. Two columns rest on bases with carved Medusa heads. One head is oriented sideways and the other is upside down, purportedly to negate the power of Medusa’s gaze.

One of two Medusa heads in the Basilica Cistern

The Galata Tower is another of Istanbul’s striking landmarks and dates from the 1300’s. The tower offers terrific views of the city.

Galata Tower

View from Galata Tower

I will conclude this rambling post with a series of images that I will let speak for themselves.

Fish sandwich scene at Eminönü

Selling lottery tickets

Morning street vendor below our apartment


Süleymaniye Mosque courtyard

Flowering magnolia


Sunset in Istanbul

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Istanbul – Part Four: The Bosphorus

Istanbul is defined by the Bosphorus. Its Golden Horn inlet divides the historic part of the city from the newer part of town where my daughter Bryn and I stayed. The main Bosphorus strait divides Europe from Asia and connects the Black Sea with the Sea of Marmara (which is connected by the Dardanelles to the Aegean Sea, and thereby to the Mediterranean Sea.)

View from Galata Tower

With the city’s hilly topography, views of the water abound.

Katy at Galata Tower

The Galata Bridge spans the Golden Horn and is the main connector between historic and new Istanbul. The bridge has a dual personality, with fishermen lined up above, trying their luck, and restaurants below, serving fish, what else?

Galata Bridge fishermen

Galata Bridge fish restaurants

My friend and former Svanholm guest, Sungur, came into town one day to join Bryn and me for a boat ride on the Bosphorus. Besides visiting the major mosques and bazaars, it is the excursion he recommends most highly to visitors. We settled into our seats and watched the Tower of Leander fade into the distance.


Over the years, the tower has served as a watchtower and a lighthouse. Currently it houses a restaurant and cafe. The locals also call it the Maiden’s Tower because of a story about an emperor who dreamed that his daughter was going to die because of a snake bite and settled the girl in the tower to ensure her safety. In spite of his precautions, the tragedy could not be averted and the girl was bitten by a snake hiding in a fruit basket.

While we were underway, we were thrilled to spot some dolphins swimming beside us. Dolphins are a sign of good luck, so in spite of the clouds overhead, we looked forward to our adventure.

Dolphins in the Bosphorus!

The banks of the Bosphorus are lined with palaces and mansions that date back centuries. Wealthy families often moved out of the city to the waterside to escape the summer heat.

Bosphorus palace, now a hotel

Our boat made several stops along the way, picking up and dropping off passengers while criss-crossing from Europe to Asia and back again. After about an hour and a half, our final destination came into view. An old castle, perched high on a hill, now in ruins.

Castle ruins

The boat dropped us off and we had three hours to explore and have lunch before it would take us back to the city. We disembarked at Anadolu Kavağı and admired the town’s traditional yalis (waterfront villas).

Anadolu kavagi

A healthy hike got us up to the ruins, where a guard allowed us, but not others, to go into a roped off area and explore.

With Sungur above the Bosphorus

A friendly dog acted as our tour guide, making sure we saw everything.

This dog was a great tour guide

The Bosphorus is the world’s narrowest strait used for international navigation and, as you can see below, it is used by many different kinds, and sizes, of watercraft.


I’m not quite sure why the guard only let us into this area. Maybe Sungur charmed him or maybe it was the luck of the dolphins. We had a leisurely tour of the place and gave the guard a small tip when we left.

With Bryn in the castle ruins

Back down in town we enjoyed a delicious lunch of fresh fish before reboarding our boat and heading back to the city.

View from Gözde restaurant

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Istanbul – Part Three: Food

The food in Turkey was delicious and we experienced it in many forms and many places: from elegant restaurants with white table cloths and doting waiters to the chaos at the floating fish sandwich boats at Eminönü.

Fish boat at Eminönü

The traditional accompaniment to the famous fish sandwich is pickle juice. Some versions of the drink are only juice, while others include vegetables as seen below.


I have to say, the Turks know how to use their spices and their vegetables. Turkey’s typography and climate zones are varied enough that just about everything grows somewhere in the country. Fruits, nuts, vegetables, and meat — there was no lack of variety in restaurants and in markets.

Spice market w/ pepper mills and Turkish tea glasses

The Turks are also ubiquitous tea drinkers. When walking down a street, we were frequently passed by a man or boy carrying a tray with two or three glasses of tea. I assume these were going to a shop owners or workers unable or unwilling to brew their own. Tea is drunk from glasses, not cups, and always served with sugar, but never with milk.

Tea at the hookah cafe

Honey is also extremely popular in Turkey. Most stores carry jars of nuts immersed in honey. We were told that the Turks consume these to get energy. My daughter and I got our own (over)dose of honey the evening my friend and former Svanholm guest, Sungur, took us to Istanbul’s most famous baklava purveyor.


I never knew there were so many different types of this tasty treat. It was hard to choose because they all looked so good, so we tried a few.

That's honey, sonny.

It was also in this establishment that we saw portraits made from baklava. A new Minnesota State Fair category perhaps? See if you recognize anyone in the portraits below.


Obama in baklava

Because we visited Istanbul on the verge of spring, the street vendors were all still selling roasted chestnuts when we arrived, but many had transitioned to ears of corn by the time our week was over. Other popular stands were those selling freshly squeezed juices.

Roasting walnuts

Outside the Blue Mosque we encountered one street vendor who was selling made to order candy on a stick. It was beautiful, but so unnaturally colorful that I was not even tempted to try it.

Candy made to order

Our last night in Istanbul we decided we wanted kebab. We found the perfect place, with a second floor view of the activity below, a very attentive waiter (who ran down the block to get me a beer), and a delicious variety of kebab. I still can’t believe we ate the whole thing!

With our kebabs - I can't believe we ate the WHOLE thing!

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