The Cats (and a Few Dogs) of Istanbul

THERE ARE CATS EVERYWHERE IN ISTANBUL! And, I must say, for the most part, they seem in relatively decent shape. Though I’m sure it’s still a fairly tough life out on the street. And, as much as I wanted to, I refrained from cuddling with them. I do love cats, but I also value my stunningly-beautiful countenance and didn’t want it slashed to ribbons.

Oh and there is also a pretty decent size cat population in Tel Aviv – so the last few photos are actually from Israel.

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Jerusalem

Presented myself at the Arlozorov Terminal in Tel Aviv to catch bus 480 to Jerusalem. Bus had AC and wifi, so the hour trip to Jerusalem’s Central Bus Station went by quickly.

Managed to find my way to the Jaffa Gate of the Old City with not too much difficulty and then wandered a bit as I waited for the walking tour I’d signed up for – namely Holy City Tour with Sandeman’s. Essentially, it’s a souped up version of their free tour, going for four hours rather than two and with much more depth – and it was a bargain at €17.

Happily, it was a reasonably small group – about ten people – and our guide, Jeremy, was really great. Originally from Liverpool, he’s been living in Israel for six years. And his enthusiasm for the subject matter of the tour was evident throughout – we explored all four quarters (Armenian, Jewish, Christian, Muslim) of the Old City and Jeremy provided a really solid foundation for understanding both the ancient and modern history of an extraordinarily complicated place. His take on Jerusalem was especially engaging – namely, that it is a city that is made up of stories.

Are the stories true? Well, that’s really not necessarily important, as Jeremy opined, given that the history of the Jerusalem is so intimately entwined with religions – and that faith can make the historical veracity of story beside the point.

Jeremy started his tour off in front of the Tower of David by reading a poem by Yehuda Amichai.

The air over Jerusalem is saturated with prayers 
and dreams 
like the air over industrial cities.
It’s hard to breathe.
And from time to time a new shipment of history 
arrives 
and the houses and towers are its packing materials. 
Later these are discarded and piled up in dumps.
And sometimes candles arrive instead of people 
and then it’s quiet. 
And sometimes people come instead of candles 
and then there’s noise.
And in enclosed gardens heavy with jasmine 
foreign consulates, 
like wicked brides that have been rejected, 
lie in wait for their moment.

It was an apt selection as we began our walk.

Oh, and another great thing about Jeremy? He spoke up! That is, I could hear him throughout our tour – at one point, he was even shushed by the priest outside of the Cathedral of St. James (which Jeremy sincerely blamed on how excited he gets talking about the history of Jerusalem – for example, here pointing out that a long ago proscription on Christians ringing bells lead to the pounding of wooden “cymbals,” here seen hanging on either side of the door).

The tour proceeded at a reasonably rapid clip – we certainly weren’t rushed, but Jeremy wanted to be sure we not only saw everything on his itinerary but also had time to answer our questions.

He took us up to a rooftop overlooking the Western Wall and the Dome of the Rock (we were at the end of a Muslim holy week, meaning access to parts of the Muslim Quarter was limited to Muslims) – it was a rather amazing vantage point. He then told us all about the Western Wall – and that rather than take us to the “famous” portion of it that we could see, would be taking us to the Small Wailing Wall – a tiny section of the same wall that for hundreds of years had been the part of the wall that faithful Jews sought out for prayers and lamentations.

When we arrived, he encouraged us all to hew to tradition and write our prayers on slips of paper and put them into the wall. He also pointed out that both Obama and Romney had visited the Western Wall during the 2012 campaign – but only one put a prayer in the wall… and he won the election.

We also had a brief stop for lunch – I wound up at a falafel place with a group of jolly fellows from Belfast who’d been in Israel to watch a football match, followed up by a few days sightseeing. We kind of got busted for being too chatty (I was just getting tips on visiting South Korea from one of them!) when Jeremy rousted us from our table to get moving once again.

Through the Muslim Quarter, populated by 30,000 residents – versus about 2500 each in the Jewish and Christian Quarters of the same physical size. It’s pretty clearly not an easy place to live…

Followed part of the Via Dolorosa to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, with Jeremy stopping periodically at the Stations of the Cross. Once we arrived at the church, we spent a good amount of time out front with Jeremy telling us a variety of stories about the place (the Immovable Ladder is both an entertaining example of the Status Quo at the church, but also a rather telling symbol of how fraught with the competing faiths and sects Jerusalem remains) – and also advising us that the pilgrims within the church were generally not shy about using sharp elbows to make their way through this holy site.

It was certainly crowded inside – but relatively orderly, all things considered. After visiting the various sections of the church (each under the “control” of one of the six Christian sects), we ended our visit at the Chapel of Adam, the site under Calvary where Adam’s skull is buried – and where Christ’s blood from his crucifixion seeped through the ground to redeem Adam’s original sin. Or so it’s said…

We wrapped up the tour shortly thereafter, back at Jaffa Gate. My only regret? That I had a bike tour scheduled for that evening, meaning I had to decline an offer to hoist a few with Jeremy and the Northern Irish fellows. It was really a great tour – it provided an amazingly robust view of both the ancient and contemporary Old City. I heartily endorse this tour – especially if Jeremy is leading it.

Of course, at this point, I was exhausted and sweaty (and I’m sure I stank), so I was eager to get to my place for the night, Zach and Roi’s extra bedroom that they let on Airbnb. Found their place easily enough and was greeted warmly by my hosts (they didn’t even remark on my odor!). Had a much needed shower and a lie-down, before heading back out to meet up with my bike tour.

I stopped for a bite at Café Yehoshua on my way and had a couple of tasty sliders to fuel up for the evening’s activity. Cool place…

Found my way to the Jerusalem Midnight Bike Ride meet-up site, just down the road from the Jaffa Gate. I was a bit early, but luckily so were some other riders. None of us were quite sure if we were in the right place, but if we weren’t, at least we had company… But we were pretty close – one of the fellows got a message to proceed down the road and look for the guys with bikes in the parking garage.

The bikes provided were pretty nice – though I’ve never ridden a bike with shocks and thought my tire was flat! But they were well-maintained and comfortable. Of course for me (warning: bike snobbery ahead) it was really weird riding a bike with front and rear derailleurs. I’m used to my internal 8-speed hub… which of course led to my dropping my chain early in our ride. Kinda ruined my well-deserved bike cred, but what’re you gonna do?

This, by the way, was the only drawback to the tour – and completely not the fault of the tour company. They are very specific that this ride is for seasoned bike riders – and I’d venture to say I was the only person in the group who met that qualification. The other folks were OK – but I got caught behind one gal who never shifted out of low; some other dude was tailgating and smashed into me at a red light; and a couple of times our guide had to stop and go back when the laggards got lost because they couldn’t keep up… Oh well.

Anyway, despite that, I really loved this tour. After two weeks of traveling and tons of walking, it was great to be back on two wheels. I made a conscious decision not to schlep my DSLR along – and was glad. Though I don’t really have any photos, it was nice to simply be engaged in the activity at hand rather than fumbling for my camera at every stop.

We first rode through the outskirts of the Old City, with a couple of stops for explanations. Wended our way through some parks up to a hill overlooking the Old City, with Jordan visible on the horizon. It was pretty great.

Then back down and biked through the cobbled streets of the Old City. What a difference from that afternoon! It was devoid of tourists, the streets quiet and cool. It was really an amazing ride. If you like to bike (and know how to do so!), don’t miss this tour in Jerusalem.

Headed back to my place, had a great night’s sleep and bade farewell to Zach and Roi as I trudged off to the Israel Museum. And what a trudge it was! Not the easiest place to find, despite being visible at the top of a hill, but I made it just in time to take the hour-long Highlights of the Museum tour at noon.

The lady who gave the tour, who’d studied archeology when she migrated from the Netherlands back in the ‘60s, was a fine guide. She shared a wealth of information in our short time together and had a great sense of humor.

We saw a bit of each of the three major parts of the collection: archeology, Judaica and fine art. Perhaps the most amazing piece was the Ketef Hinnom, a pair of tiny silver scrolls discovered in 1979. The inscription on the scroll includes a Jewish prayer that is still in use today and proves that “some of the material found in the Five Books of Moses existed in the First Temple period.” I tend not to be all that moved by archaeology – but this was breathtaking.

In the Judaica section, one of the highlights was a reconstructed temple interior from Cochin, India. What a marvelous room!

And then, for me, the highlight from the museum’s contemporary wing, Adi Nes’ untitled photograph depicting the Last Supper with Israeli soldiers. What an amazing work.

One of the other folks on the tour asked, “Which one is Judas?” and our guide indicated it wasn’t clear, despite the highly-structured composition of the piece.

Now, my philistinism is well-known – but I opined that the one soldier seated second-to-the-right from the Jesus-figure’s was the only one at the table whose gaze wasn’t actively engaged with anyone else’s. And that the half-eaten apple in front of him could represent Adam’s original sin. And that the silver coffee pot in front of him could represent the 40-pieces of silver. I was quite proud of myself for making a trenchant observation!

Even better: our guide said, “Well, from now on, I can tell people on my tour that ‘according to an expert from San Francisco, this is probably the Judas-figure.’” I like her!

Took a quick look at the Dead Sea Scrolls (probably more interesting if I’d taken the time to do the audio tour – the philistine is back!) and then caught a cab to the Central Bus Station.

I’d planned to take the bus again – but it was a 20-minute wait ‘til the next one. Plus the line was quite long, meaning I might not get on until the one in 40 minutes. So, I went back outside and boarded a sherut – a shared taxi. The driver touts his destination and once all nine seats are full, he goes. I boarded and it took another ten minutes to fill up, then we were off. It was very easy.

Once back in Tel Aviv, I actually knew where I was – sufficiently so that I was able to take the bus back home! That’s really one of my favorite things about staying in one place for awhile – feeling like I’m getting to know the place.

Shower, nap, dinner, then home to pack and head back to Istanbul for the weekend. Shalom, Israel! It’s been great.

Pasha Eric

If you don’t think this photo shoot was worth $25 and the indignity of donning a b.o.-infused robe and sweaty headgear, well, then, you don’t even know me.

BTW, this was shot at the Basilica Cistern in Istanbul – and try as I might, I could not resist the siren call of playing dress-up.

Israel – I’ve lost track of what day I’m on…

Tuesday, I schlepped out to the Design Museum Holon – and quite enjoyed my visit. The current show is by Ron Arad – who also designed the rather amazing building that houses the museum – and featured several of his fascinating metal pieces and his trademark crushed Cinquecentos – or is it Cinquecenti? Non so… Anyhoo, I was quite taken with the building’s interaction with its environment (i.e. I took tons of photos).

Oh, and on the way in, a group of kids – two girls and a boy – asked me something. “Sorry, I don’t speak Hebrew.”

“What do you call that? It’s super cool!” referring to my septum piercing. They peppered me with other questions, amazed that I was all the way from SF and saying “Oh too bad…” when I indicated I was traveling alone. They also recommended a visit to the mall across the street. “Zara!” Nice kids… Oh, and the ticket lady at the museum told me she liked my mustache! I seem to be getting more popular every day – it’ll be good to get back home where everyone hates me!

Had a lovely dinner at Cafe 48, which I’d spied across the street from Mizlala over the weekend. I plan to write separately once I’m home about the restos I went to – but I heartily endorse this charming cafe. Really good food, an extraordinarily kind server (who translated the entire specials board for me and gave me some excellent recommendations – and a shot of gin and cucumber on the house. THAT really won me over!).

Today, I was up early and managed to find my way rather easily to the train station for my trip to Haifa and Akko. Other than getting off two stations too early (and fortunately figuring that out before leaving the station – had to wait 20 minutes for the next train). Good thing I’m in no hurry what with being on vacation and all!

Now, I’m relatively good at finding my way around with a map – so I’m going to go ahead and give a big “eff you” to Fodor’s for the shittiness of their Haifa map. It didn’t seem to relate at all to the actual geography. But given that my destination was the Bahai Gardens, which were gloriously visible from the train when I arrived, I figured I wouldn’t have too much trouble finding the funicular which goes up to the crest of the hill.

I was sort of headed in the right direction and sort of not, when an old dude came up to me, seeing me staring at my guidebook, and asked me something in Hebrew. “Sorry, I don’t speak Hebrew,” I advised.

“Oh, English? OK, I speak English. What other languages do you speak? Oh, French? Bonjour, monsieur! What’s your best language? OK, I speak English. Are you Canadian? Oh, where in United States? OK, here I take you.”

And with that he escorted me about three blocks to the funicular station, explaining to me on our arrival that it is called Paris Place because it was built by the French. I think this was pay-off for my attempts to bring good travel karma by helping lost tourists when I’m home in SF – though I suppose now I ought to start offering to escort them to their destination as a thank you to this very helpful gentleman from Haifa.

Rode to the top of the hill, had some breakfast and then took the noon tour of the Bahai Gardens. It was lovely – a walk down the 700 steps toward the golden-domed Shrine of the Báb, surrounded by burbling fountains and beatiful landscape cascading down the steep hillside.

Back to train station and rode another 20 minutes to Akko. Schlepped over to the old city (it was literally one million degrees out – again) and had a bit of a look around. Frankly, it wasn’t my favorite – I guess I’d seen similar-though-far-more-impressive scenery in Istanbul…

Train back to Tel Aviv and I walked past the Azrieli Center just as it was being hit with the setting sun. A wonderful trio of towers.

I was supposed to be taking an “East-West Tour” of Jerusalem on Wednesday – one with a decidedly political slant. Sadly, it got canceled at the last minute. So, with no plans to get up early the next morning, it seemed wise to re-visit the gay bar – where it was drag night and I got to see “Cher” and “Evita.” Lots of fun actually.

Quiet day after. Thursday I go to Jerusalem for an overnight visit!

Tel Aviv

Some photos below from Tel Aviv, mostly from my walk with the Bauhaus Center or down in Old Jaffa.

It’s funny – this city is not particularly photogenic. Yet it’s a really wonderful and charming place – it’s sounds corny, but it feels almost more of a state of mind. I particularly notice it in the evenings, as I’m walking down Rothschild Blvd. There’s a wide pedestrian and bike promenade down the center, lined with benches and kiosks selling drinks and snacks. And it’s always filled with families with kids out for walk; couples holding hands; groups of friends hanging out having lively debates about who-knows-what. It seems like a really wonderful life people are living here.

And with that being said, it’s hard not to feel a bit lonely sometimes. Of course, that’s mostly my fault – I don’t speak the language, which serves to further exacerbate my social awkwardness. And this is not to say I’m not enjoying myself – but it seems like this would be a particularly lovely place to experience with friends.

Oh, and this is as good a time as any to ask, “WTF is going on with the gene pool over here?” I’d estimate greater than 90% of the dudes are extraordinarily good-looking. It can be distracting – lucky for me, I’m a master of discretion and have trained myself not to stare or leer…

As for today, I visited the Diaspora Museum up at Tel Aviv University. It told an interesting story – though the museum is in dire need of updating. The building’s 70’s design is not standing the test of time and the galleries are dark and surprisingly shopworn – some of the signage is actually missing letters.

This was followed by a trip to the Eretz Israel Museum – which was…odd. Coins, stamps, ceramics, glass, a strangely uninspiring pavilion dedicated to Baron de Rothschild. To be honest, didn’t feel like it was worth the trip uptown – though I did manage to take the bus without either getting lost or having locals point and laugh at me. So, win?

Stopped by my place to grab my swim trunks and took the 20 minute walk to the beach. This was my first ever dip into the Mediterranean Sea! It was very nice – still warm out in the afternoon, the water just a bit cool. The only slight poke in the eye? I could literally see right into the apartment I’d originally booked via Airbnb but that was canceled two weeks before my trip by the a-hole host. Now, the apartment I’m in is fine (for the most part) – but this other place looked pretty fantastic, with the floor-to-ceiling windows and the balcony looking out at the sea. Oh well – it’s fine… But did it have to be right there while I was frolicking about in the waves..?

Tomorrow I plan to visit Haifa and Akko – it may be a bit ambitious for a day trip, but I think I’ll just visit the Bahia Gardens in Haifa, and perhaps some lunch in the German Colony. Hoping that’ll leave me time to hit the highlights of the old part of Akko. I guess I’ll find out!

Israel – Days 3 & 4

On Friday, I took a walking tour with the Bauhaus Center. It was quite interesting, learning not just about the Bauhaus architecture here in Tel Aviv, but also how the style of housing reflected the socialist politics of middle 20th century Israel. Really enjoyed the walk, despite the very large group that showed up for the tour. I took plenty of photos – but frankly I’m feeling to lazy to edit them, so this post will consist solely of my blathering.

After the walk, I stopped for a pita sandwich around the corner from my apartment recommended by my host. Oh, man – it was delicious. Cauliflower grilled and then mixed up with tomato, cucumber and tahini. I’ll def be back to try again.

Wandered south to Old Jaffa and the flea market. Oy. It was kinda cool to check out, given the old, ramshackle feel of this oldest part of the city – but total tourist trap with throngs of camera-wielding foreigners (self included, obv). Lovely views of the city and the sea from atop the hill though. Also home of the world’s most well-hidden and unhelpful visitor’s center… And OH MY GOD it was hot.

Walked home along the sea for a bit and popped into HaTachana – “The Station” – and old train depot converted into shops and restaurants. It was very nice, but didn’t stay long – I’m not much of a shopper.

Dinner at Mizlala – the place I’d failed to locate on Thursday – and it was delicious. More to come on the details in a future post – though I will say I didn’t really appreciate getting the Mary-Ann-Singleton seat at the counter – to keep me isolated from the norms I guess – despite the place being only 1/4 full. Yes, it got a bit busier, but the three seats to my left never got filled. Oh well – the trials of traveling alone…

I did visit some gay bars – kinda fun, though it starts WAY too late for me. Stopped at Evita which was populated almost entirely by tourists, then Shpagat which was kinda meh – though again, it may have been due to it being so early, i.e. only midnight.

The bar scene is kinda hard to figure out. I’d passed a place on Rothschild in the afternoon that was packed with guys, rainbow flags flying. When I walked past again at 7PM, it was empty. And on the way out at 1130, it was packed with straight 20-somethings. Most of the bars don’t even open until 9PM, but no one shows up before 11PM apparently. So, I suspect last night was my one and only trip to mingle with the gays – it’s way past my bedtime! But we’ll see…

Today was spent quietly, since I slept in rather late. Had some lunch, then just hung out chez moi, read and watched a movie – I know, I’m the worst! But after seven ten days of being on the move, I really needed a bit of downtime.

Headed to dinner shortly – got a couple of places on my list, so we’ll see how my luck goes getting a table.

 

Israel – Day 1

So, I actually arrived in Tel Aviv yesterday. The trip from Turkey was something – Ataturk Airport is quite a scene and Turkish Airlines is kinda cray-cray. I actually plan to write all about the various flights on this trip once I’m on my way home.

I’ve really no pictures to post of Israel thus far – which is actually a good thing. I’m just getting into the laid-back vibe of the place. It’s really warm here – a nice change from the unseasonably cold weather in Istanbul. And this city is, despite the insane traffic, quite relaxing in its way. Mostly easy to navigate, very friendly locals (a lady on the street was happy to lend me her phone during the kerfuffle getting into my apartment here). It’s a nice change from the intensity of Istanbul and its 20 million residents. Not better per se – but a much mellower feel.

Plus, my agenda here is a lot quieter. I was concerned I’d be bored – but really I’ve just had to adjust to having only one thing to do or see each day rather than three or four.

Had a lovely dinner last night at Cafe Suzanna – per my gay Jewish podiatrist’s recommendation. Today I had a late breakfast at Orna and Ella, then walked along the shore for an hour or so after that. Home to meet my host Jacob, who explained to me where the washing machine was and where the best wine shop is nearby. Dinner started off disastrously when I got hopelessly lost trying to find Mizlala – but managed to find my way to Abraxas North, had a wonderful meal and then miraculously stumbled across Mizlala on the way home, apologized for failing to show up and was able to book for tomorrow evening.

Tomorrow I’m taking a walking tour with the Bauhaus Center at 10AM. Then I have dinner plans at 8PM. I’m hoping I can make it out to a gay bar or two, but apparently things don’t really get started until midnight. And, jet lag or no, that is asking a lot of this old gal… We’ll see how it goes.