10 Must-See Sites in Istanbul

Hagia Sophia, Istanbul

Hagia Sophia, Istanbul

The Hagia Sophia is a 6th-century Christian basilica, converted to a mosque by the Ottomans, now a museum. If the word awesome still had meaning, I would use it to describe the Hagia Sophia, temple of Holy Wisdom. It set the standard for Byzantine architecture, though it was 1,000 years before another cathedral surpassed its size. From the outside, it’s a red-orange mountain that seems to anchor the city to the Bosphorus shore. It’s not particularly beautiful but the air of greatness can’t be missed. On the inside, it’s vast and filled with the light of heaven. The massive dome practically floats above the wide-open space below. Interior surfaces are decorated with frescos, mosaics, calligraphy and marble.

 

Sultanahmet Mosque (Blue Mosque), Istanbul

The Sultanahmet Mosque is just down the way from Hagia Sophia. Together they are like bookends to the Hippodrome (Roman entertainment center). The Sultanahmet Mosque is commonly called the Blue Mosque after the 20,000 hand-painted tiles on the interior walls. It pairs well with the Hagia Sophia, not only in proximity but also as a complementary experience. While Hagia Sophia draws the attention upward, the Blue Mosque induces inward reflection. Hagia Sophia makes me go Wow! Blue Mosque makes me go ahhh. Inside the Hagia Sophia, I feel small. Inside the Blue Mosque, I feel peace. There’s a lot happening on the walls, with all the painted tiles, but the atmosphere is light and serene. Continue reading

Alpine Villages of Greece – Dimitsana

Dimitsana village, Greece

Dimitsana village, Greece

In the Arkadia district of Greece’s Peloponnese peninsula, about a 3-hour drive from Athens, the beautiful mountain village of Dimitsana crowns the slopes at one end of the Lousios Gorge at about 1,000 meters above sea level.

This small village has a notable history as a center of resistance during the war of independence from Ottoman rule in the 1820s. The town contributed significantly to the revolution by supplying gun powder milled in more than a dozen water-powered mills along the Lousios River. Some of the monasteries secluded in the Lousios Gorge also harbored resistance thinkers and fighters.

Lousios Gorge, with the Filosofou Monastery on the right and the Prodromou Monastery on the left.

Lousios Gorge, with the Filosofou Monastery on the right and the Prodromou Monastery on the left.

With stone houses and cobbled streets, the village’s medieval atmosphere is balanced by lush natural surroundings and expansive views into the Lousios Gorge. Most visitors to Dimitsana come for the outdoor experiences, which abound year-round – skiing, hiking, rafting, kayaking… As complement to the natural scenery, the town itself is an open-air museum of Byzantine architecture, with many churches and monasteries in the village and surrounding area. Dimitsana is built on the site of the ancient village of Tefthis, and remnants of the ancient city walls can still be seen.

The historical Library of Dimitsana was built as a seminary and home to thousands of volumes from a local monastery. A number of 18th and 19th-century Greek leaders were educated here. During the revolution, the pages of thousands of books were used to make gunpowder cartridges, leaving only about 500 intact. Today the library is a museum, with 14-century manuscripts and artefacts from revolutionary heroes among its treasures.

Filosofou Monastery

Filosofou Monastery

Prodromou Monastery

Prodromou Monastery

The Open-Air Water Power Museum is a fascinating stop for a look at pre-industrial power generation. Among the interesting monasteries in the area are the Prodromou Monastery and the Filosofou Monastery, built on the opposite sides of the gorge. Visiting the monasteries involves some steep walking, but if you’re reasonably fit, the frescos inside and gorge views are well worth the effort. Resident monks are very welcoming. Further down the gorge, just outside the village of Astilochos, on the river bank, are remains of the important ancient city of Gortys.

Dimitsana offers a number of guesthouses, tavernas and cafes and shops selling handmade products, such as the hilopites (Greek egg noodles) and local jam.

Apollo Was Here: Daphne & the Laurel Tree

Previously on Apollo Was Here, the four-day old Olympian god had just killed the serpent/dragon Python and claimed the sacred ground on Mt. Parnassus for his own sanctuary. He was very pleased with himself.

When next he saw the cherubic Eros (aka Cupid), with his mini-bow and mini-arrows, Apollo laughed in his face and taunted him, “I slayed a terrible monster with my bow. You couldn’t hurt a fly with your useless little toy!” Continue reading

Apollo Was Here: Delos & Delphi

In the throes of labor, the Titaness Leto searched desperately for a place to bear Apollo and Artemis. Zeus was the father of the twins and his (justifiably) vengeful wife Hera had vowed to curse any piece of land that allowed Leto to give birth. As an extra bit of enforcement, Hera sent the serpent/dragon Python in pursuit of Leto. (Where was Zeus during all of this? That’s what I’d like to know. Apparently he sent the North Wind to help her along, but really, that seems like a pretty feeble gesture under the circumstances.) Continue reading

Jemaa el Fna Square, Marrakech

Jemaa el Fna Square, Marrakech, Morocco

Jemaa el Fna Square, Marrakech, Morocco

Jemaa el Fna square on the edge of the souk of Marrakech is short-attention-span theater en plein air. Early in the day, it can be almost sleepy, with scattered peddlers and juice venders, but as the sun drops in the sky the place begins to sizzle and pop. If there was a lid, it would blow right off. A throbbing mass of humanity swims around the food stalls, story tellers, musicians, acrobats, sellers of potions, magicians, tooth-pullers, henna artists, snake charmers, monkey guys, and vendors of all sorts. A good share of the throbbing mass is tourists, either intoxicated by the surging energy or dazed and confused by it, but the square really belongs to the people of Marrakech. While there’s no shortage of really tiresome and pushy peddling, taken as a whole, Jemaa el Fna is a sanctuary of authentic culture, and has, in fact, been declared so by UNESCO. Continue reading