Monday, November 04, 2013

Istanbul, Turkey

Istanbul is an interesting place with loads of history, heritage and character. Even though it is not the capital of Turkey (capital is Ankara), it is the center of Turkey in all respects. It is the only city in the world located on two continents - Asia & Europe. There is a natural, narrow link called Bosphorus between Black Sea & Marmara sea which defines the border between the continents and Istanbul is situated on both its sides. The place is said to depict fusion of East & West, Asia & Europe, Christian and Islamic culture & traditions.

I managed to visit it thanks to Turkish airlines. Our return flight from Milan to Mumbai had 9 hours layover. Turkish airlines themselves provide free tours for their international transit passengers with layover more than 6 hours. The tour is free including Lunch and museum tickets. Passengers only need to get tourist e-Visa for 20 dollars from Turkish visa website which is as easy as online shopping. The timing of our incoming and outgoing flights was perfectly matching to their 12-6 pm tour. Once the flight landed we made our way to Turkish airline's Hotel desk situated outside the airport. We waited at adjacent Starbucks outlet while waiting for tour to start and collected Turkish currency as souvenir.

At 12 noon we started the tour in a mini-bus. Our tour guide was a charming Turkish lady who explained things very well. We were taken to a restaurant adjacent to Bosphorus waterfront. The day was bright, sunny, a little warm and a Sunday. We could see lots of tourist along the way. Lots of people were angling in the Bosphorus along the promenade. We even managed to see dolphins jumping out of water from a distance which we are told is common sight here. The food was a modest 3 course meal - soup, main course and sweets.

Bosphorus busy with boats

Bosphorus promenade
Spices adorning restaurant wall
Main course of the meal
We finished the food quickly and made our way to Sultanahmet area which hosts all the historical monuments and places of interest from Byzantine and Ottoman empire.

Towards Sultanahmet
This area before Ottoman empire was known as Hippodrome, a sporting arena during Byzantine times where horse racing and other spectator sports were conducted. As it turned out we were going to venture only around this complex and not going to be taken anywhere else due to limited time. So just like Milan and Lugano we are going to spend only few hours here.

There are three main pillar-like monuments from Hippodrome time frame. First up is Walled Obelisk which is a stone pillar built by Constantine VII. It is also known as Constantine Obelisk.
Walled Obelisk @ Hippodrome
Then there is another one called Obelisk of Theodosius, which is an ancient Egyptian pillar transported and erected here.
Egyptian Obelisk @ Hippodrome
Last is a serpent column which has three snakes coiled together. It used to have three serpent heads but they are now vandalized.
Serpent Column @ Hippodrome
Next is Sultanahemet mosque or Blue mosque as is popularly known. There was a prayer going on so we could not go inside but we entered the courtyard which was domed passage around it. The mosque has richly carved conical pillars at each corner which were beautiful to look at against the blue sky. 
Pillar of blue mosque up close

Pillar at the corner of mosque

Courtyard inside blue mosque
Our guide was quite efficient giving us just enough time to marvel, take pictures and immediately giving marching orders. There is a vantage point from where to look at the mosque in its full glory. There are benches perhaps for pilgrims and there's a fountain as well.
Sultanahmet aka Blue mosque

Fountain near Sultanahmet mosque
We then proceeded to Basilica Cistern which is an underground water filtration and storage system constructed during Byzantine period. It is only one of the hundreds of still not discovered cistern under the city of Istanbul. The place is absolutely amazing with platforms to walk around and cleverly placed dimmed orange lights keeping the ambiance dark & spooky mostly. The place was cool and one could spot fishes in the water. At one end of the cistern there are couple of stone blocks with sculpture of Medusa placed under the pillars. There is an interesting story about Medusa and it is unknown who brought these stones to Istanbul and why they are placed like this.
Inside Basilica cistern

Pillars inside Basilica cistern
There is another monument known as Hagia Sophia used to be a basilica during Byzantine, then later converted to mosque during Ottoman and now is a museum. We did not have time to visit the museum so just admired it from outside.
Hagia Sophia
After this we went to the final destination Topkapi palace which was residence and seat of power of Ottoman sultans. It houses gardens, structures, rooms depicting art, craft & architecture of that time. Some of the things on display were lifestyle items of Ottoman sultans like their costumes, jewellery, weapons etc. I was reminded of Salar Jung museum in Hyderabad which displays equally ostentatious items. Apparently Ottomans were equal connoisseurs of art & crafts.
Entrance to Topkapi palace

Inscriptions on one of the gates
The good thing about Topkapi palace was there were a few vantage points from where one could get panoramic view of Bosphorus, the sprawling city and the bridge connecting Europe and Asia. Bosphorus with its sparkling aquamarine water had few white & colored boats criss-crossing the strait leaving a white trail in the water. That particular day it was sunniest and light was perfect for gazing at the view. No wonder, most of the crowd was looking at this view.
panoramic view of Istanbul

Asia side of Istanbul
crowd gazing at the view
 After having a good view and some rest we came out of the Topkapi palace from where we were taken back to the airport. Our guide advised some of the passengers who had flights even later in the evening to drop-off and visit some of the places which we could not cover like Spice market, Galata Tower and Taksim square which is like center of Istanbul. There is good public transport available to go around the city and back to the airport. My take on this short trip was that we had just scratched the surface of this rich city. It would require at least few days to really experience the place.

Lugano, Switzerland

Lugano is a Swiss town some 80 kms away from Milan. While the thought of Switzerland did not occur even once to me but one of my co-traveler convinced us to visit Lugano. Since we had Schengen Visa so there was no legal issue. On inquiry the person at the hotel reception promised to take us in his car for a fee. So it was decided that we start early in the morning like 7 and be back in Milan by 12 so that we have enough time to sight see. In such short span of planning it did not occur to us to check on certain things. For example, how is the weather and whether we would be able to see Swiss Alps? I gave in just for the sake of curiosity and surprise and anything would be a new sight to see.

Next day we started at 7:15 am. Thankfully breakfast was spread out so we had a quick grub. We then started in a typical hatch back vehicle with our friend from the hotel. The fellow was a naturalized citizen of Italy originally hailing from Egypt. While chatting he revealed that he watched lot of Amitabh Bachchan movies back in Egypt and was a big fan.

It was clear from start that the weather is going to be cloudy. When we asked our friend whether we would be able to see Alps he replied in negative and we quietly accepted it. Whatever little I could read the previous night was that the town is around lake Lugano which is surrounded by hills. I hoped that at least that view should turn out well. We quickly crossed Milan and got onto the road to Como which is a border town of Italy and further to that is Lugano. The landscape was undulating with some sparse habitation and fields nothing remarkable. At the border we were not stopped and we continued on. Never could imagine such smooth cross over between countries. After driving around the town we parked at one place in Lugano and decided to walk around. The place where we got out of the car, we were presented with this - a bronze head and an obelisk to commemorate some event.
piece of art at Lugano

some commemorative obelisk @ Lugano
General scene @ Lugano
The lake waterfront was inviting and there is a promenade around the lake. Residents were out talking a stroll and walking their dogs.
Promenade around the lake

Ferry stop - Lugano Centrale
Lake Lugano
We went inside the town and just looked around buildings, alleys, shops, cafes, people soaking in the atmosphere. At a cafe we had one of the best cappuccino coffee of our trip. We paid in Euros and got back Swiss franc coins which were like a souvenir. Though Lugano is in Switzerland it is more of an Italian town. There were small piazzas which were full of activity. There was some preparation going on for some fair and cafes were as usual busy with people.

Credit Suisse building

Fresh fruits on sale

one of the alleys
A piazza in Lugano

While I was wondering what would be occupation of people in this town, there I saw building of UBS. With so many banks in country hoarding ill-gotten money, needless to say it would be hub of ultimate white collar jobs and prosperity. While walking around we suddenly came across a Bata shoe store. We were surprised that a common household brand in India has a store in Switzerland. But after quick check it turned out that Bata is actually a European brand currently headquartered in Lusanne, Switzerland. How many people in India would really know that!

Bata Showroom

After making a circle of the area, we went back to lake front which had become a little more clearer. We wondered whether we could boat in the lake but decided not to due to paucity of the time. We then went to Parco Civico means Civil Park. It was a gorgeous park with well laid out grass, trees and plenty of flowers. This is the summer time here and flowers in bloom. Lot of locals and tourists had also come to the park resting on benches, walking or jogging. The tranquility in the air was amazing. The lake itself seemed quite huge with hills rising from its banks.

Parco Civico
Jay walkers

Flowers in full Bloom

Villa Ciani inside Parco Civico

The distinctive image of Lugano with this hill in background
One of the signages

We started back from Lugano and without any hassle reached in an hour and half. There were lot of picturesque locations but we could not stop in between just like that in India. We mostly zipped through the scenery chit-chatting. In an hour and half we reached back to our hotel. Thus ended our short and hurried trip to Switzerland. We were joking that without a stamp on the passport it didn't really feel like it :)

Milan, Italy

I happened to visit Milan for a technical conference for 4 days. When I heard of the impending visit, I was amused that of all places to visit it has to be Milan. I had very little idea of Milan or for that matter Europe. Its not a regular haunt of IT people (except UK) and quite distant for visiting on my own. Once I came to know of the impending travel I sprang up and started to look what is on the agenda, not the conference but the city :) Milan is second biggest city of Italy with vibrant business, education, cultural and of course fashion activities. Though in terms of art of Renaissance era it is not considered to be at par with Florence or Venice but is home to one of the most famous paintings "The Last Supper" by Leonardo Da Vinci. Initially we thought that evenings would be free so I tried to look up something to do in the evenings but all hopes were dashed when our sponsor scheduled technical events in the evening on 2 days and dinner on 3rd day. Thankfully we kept one free day as buffer so practically left with a full day and an evening of the day we arrive to venture out.
We reached Milan via Istanbul on Turkish airlines. Milan's Malpensa airport is outside the town. Though there are cabs, we thought of taking a bus followed by metro train. It was more exciting than a quick cab ride. There are scheduled buses by private operators like Malpensa Express which drops you at Milan central station in 45 minutes for 10 euros. After that we took MM1 (yellow) line to station Lodi Tibb station which was pretty close to our hotel. Bus and train ride made it clear that public transport was efficient and well patronised. The public transport is of various forms like regular buses, trams, trolley buses (which take power from cables), suburban trains and of course the metro. Our conference and other venues were within walking distance so hardly took advantage of public transport. All these transport come under single management called ATM. There is just one type of ticket which is 1.50 euros for 90 minutes and they are not available inside buses or trams. One has to purchase it from stores, stations and just punch in the device inside the vehicle. After check-in at hotel even though after almost 20 hours of travel since leaving home and completely exhausted we still mustered energy and decided to utilize the evening.

We decided to visit the Navigli district famous for its evening-nightlife. Even though Milan is not known for canals like Venice, it used to have several canals out of which couple of them survive probably to preserve the heritage. Thankfully the place was not too far from where we were staying, a direct bus ride plus a small walk away. The walk from bus stand to the place gave first chance to soak in the surroundings. The place lived up to our expectations. There was a canal with clean flowing water and small bars and pubs around it with open air seating. It was dusk which gave good light for photos.
Navigli Grande @ Dusk

Enthusiasts canoeing in the canal

Navigli Grande with lights
Lots of tourists and local people had gathered to savor not just the ambiance but also gorge on Aperto which is pre-dinner snack time or happy hours for Italians. You can buy a drink at any bar and get buffet of snacks or finger food for free. The food is actually enough as a dinner. We looked for a bar serving a few vegetarian dishes and found it though had to wait for some time to get the open area seating. When it was well past in the evening, the area was a sight to behold. All the bars around were lit and crowd teeming around making merry. There was celebration in the air and we were completely relaxed from our travel exhaustion. There were couple of bridges to cross over the canal which were good vantage point to soak in the surrounding area.
Bridge to cross the canal

Promenade around Navigli Grande

Love locks on the bridge
After spending most of the time around Navigli Grande we decided to walk back along the second canal called Navigli Pavese which was not as vibrant as former but it was nice.

Next three days were spent in the conference and associated technical events. Only on the last day of conference we headed out to a local park, Parco Vittorio Formentano during a break. The park was quite green and had a working fountain even at the middle of the day.
Fountain at the park

Free potable water
At other instance I just headed out from hotel for a longish walk and to travel in the tram. The roads are all named as via which means road like "via Comelico". For directions a plaque of the via name would be plastered to the wall of the first building of every street. On some roads there is tram line going in the middle. Some trams lines were probably abandoned flanked by trees and sprinkled with autumn dried leaves
Abandoned tram line
Even though I so longed for it, I could never make it to travel by tram due to paucity of time and had to make do with just gazing them from outside. Just like Kolkata trams they are a part of the heritage. I read that there are some trams which are 100 years old and have survived both the world wars where Milan was damaged.
Tram at the middle of the road
As far as vehicles are concerned, though cars seem to be the mainstay, somehow we felt like there are more cars parked than moving on the roads. Maybe the residents use the efficient public transport than their personal vehicles. To our surprise we saw some cars which are very common in India like Santro and Wagon R though only a couple during the trip. Two-wheelers were quite attractive. There were some high-powered two-wheelers from auto companies like BMW and others which were seemed quite popular. They are quite distinctive than the ones we are used to see in India.
Stylish two wheeler

Typical street scene

Bicycle is stylish in Milan
There seem to be strong culture of using bicycle. You can see bicycle riding people with basket in front all peacefully managing among bus and tram. These were not people from lower strata or anything. I saw some very stylish people with high-heels and proper suite riding bicycle.

On our last day at Milan we finally headed out for Milan sight seeing. The biggest attraction of Milan is Duomo which is a Gothic style cathedral. It is a huge, magnificent structure situated at Piazza del Duomo. Piazza in Italian is open area where people meet, express, play, show their talent just laze around basically an open community area. Duomo is centre of Milan in all respects. The moment one comes out of metro station and gaze at Duomo he is sure to skip a beat.
Being a Saturday there was huge crowd at the piazza. The structure is made of famous Italian marble and it is continuously being repaired. It has hundreds or spires and statues. It is equally magnificent inside. There were few murals and paintings, altar, confession boxes and stained glass from several centuries.
Inside Duomo
 After that we went on top of the cathedral. There is elevator for 12 euros and for stairs one need to pay 7 euros. From the top one can see entire Milan city. I was thinking about how this magnificent structure would have been built. I believe that compared to our Taj Mahal this structure too could be worthy of being recognized as a wonder of the world.
Piazza Del Dumo from the top
Statues on spire atop Duomo

Hundreds of statues on spires on Duomo

Pinnacle of Duomo
After climbing up and down the Duomo, we were hungry. We had a quick bite at a fast food chain called Spizzico. After that we went to Emmanuel Vittori gallery which is just adjacent to Duomo. It is equally awe inspiring structure with glass ceiling. It is known as oldest mall of the world. It has few stores but I wonder whether anyone would shop there. Probably it would be a matter of prestige to have a store at this gallery.
Galleria Emmanuele Vittorio

Inside Galleria Emmanuele Vittorio
We came out of the gallery to Piazza della scala which has statue of Renaissance hero Leonardo da Vinci.
Leonardo Da Vinci @ Piazza Della Scala

Our next destination was Castello Sfarzesco which is a castle where Milan royal family once lived and was used as a garrison. Here we thought we could take tram ride but we could not make out where the stop is situated. Since the castle as close by we decided to simply walk. The walk took us through via Dante and Cordusio area which was quite busy market with shops and eateries. Here there was intersection of tram lines. We got to see some single car old looking trams. Perhaps they were the century old ones.

Tram intersection near Cordusio

Old style tram on one of the lines
The castle was again teeming with people and had a fountain in front. The castle was huge and there was a park called Parco Sampione behind it. The structure was made of bricks throughout and had a small moat around it. The garden inside the castle and Parco Sempione was all teeming with people. People were playing, relaxing, feeding the ducks in the water body and there was even a professional photo-shoot going on.

Castello Sfarzesco

Inside the castle
Parco Sempione
We came out and tried gelato ice-cream which is another thing to do about Milan. I didn't find anything special in it or maybe the tired soul did relish it properly. Here bought a couple of regular souvenirs - postcards and a fridge magnet. After this we thought of going to Montenapoleone area which is the fashion district of Milan. Though we were tired but still dragged on thinking that when are we going to be back here. Within fashion district there is a specific intersection known as Fashion Quadrilateral where all studios of big designers are situated. Giorgio Armani, Gucci, Christian Dior are all situated here. We decided to just make to that square and then call off the day.

The walk required us to go through Brera neighborhood which is known for its varied and bohemian culture. The area is distinct as at some point it was outside Milan city wall. What we could see was that alleys in the area were a little different. They were narrow and dotted with pubs who had spread themselves on the walking path all brimming with crowd. Perhaps it would require a deeper and relaxed observation to really make something out of this neighborhood.

We eventually came to via Manzoni which is the main thorough fare in fashion district. In our pursuit to the fashion quadrilateral we asked couple of folks but they were unable to help us and map did not point out the exact spot. We were tired by now and had early morning flight to catch so we decided to call it quits and made way to nearest metro station Turati which fortunately was on yellow line which would take us to Lodi Tibb station close to our hotel.

The post could not be finished unless talk about their food. Our breakfast was included in the stay at the hotel. What I read is that coffee and croissant is the staple breakfast of people in Milan. We got that in our breakfast and much more so could not experience the real breakfast. Our lunch and dinner was also taken care of by the conference and sponsors which had nothing much to write home about. Two days we had panini sandwiches which the organizer said were recipe from some part of the Italy. On other days we had some snacks which were native to Sicily. The only time we could choose and order food I ended up having a pizza only. Pasta, Sphagetti or chicken was not even on the menu. Except our Aperto on the very first day, we did not enjoy our food that much on this trip.
Pizza for dinner
Though our time was over but we were not fulfilled. Only if we had one more day we could have visited a little more. My reading of Milan is that its was a big place with lot going on but still relaxed.
It has its own identity and lifestyle. It did not seem like a city with restless people. Hope I would be back here someday to explore the place a little more.