Lisbon and Barcelona

Back from my trip to Lisbon and elsewhere. I haven’t written a word in ten days, so everything has become a bit of a blur. But a very lovely blur.

The journey was tiring: a lift to Montpellier, train trip to Barcelona, taxi to airport, where the plane was delayed nearly an hour – and lots of queuing, which I find a strain.


In Lisbon, my sister, Deb, arrived from London at the same time, and we took a mad taxi to the hotel- a 70 year old driver, who paid more attention to us than the road and whose gps system was not working (did it ever?). Much of the journey I was leaning over the back seat, showing him my phone and trying to give him instructions. Trouble is that he never got the ‘in 300 metres’ bit and changed direction immediately. We got horribly lost and end up being left beside the roadside a good distance from the hotel and in the dark. Next day I downloaded google maps,which is a much better app and would have got us out of this pickle. We were picked up by a woman (whom I had wrongly assumed was picking up in another sense) and she insisted on finding out hotel and leading us to the door. We parted with enthusiastic hugs.

The hotel was a delightful, quirky place, tucked away in a cul de sac, rather off the main tourist areas, with very friendly staff and (very important for our family) delicious breakfasts. Jude, Ed and the girls were waiting for us, and as usual I marvelled at how Ella and Maddie had grown and were even more of a delight to be with.


Our first day together we went to Belem, a port, now part of Lisbon, at the mouth of the river, which flourished during Portugal’s golden age of voyages and commerce in the 15th and 16th centuries.

The Mosteiro dos Jeronimos is a splendid monastery, financed mainly by ‘pepper money’ – taxes imposed on spices and precious stones – its size intended to display the wealth of King Manuel I. The stone was the same soft colour as Montpellier’s, and the brilliant sunshine enhanced its warmth. The fortress, Torre de Belem, beside the water was also an impressive demonstration of the power of Manuel I.

We then had a hot walk along the water front, past the monumental 20th century Padrao dos Descobrimentos – built to mark the 500th anniversary of Henry the Navigator and in memory of this glorious period of Portugueses maritime exploration. Impressive, even though Salazar clearly had Stalin in mind when he commissioned its construction.

We made a little detour to visit the Museum of Coaches. This turned out to be unexpectedly entertaining. The museum was like a giant spacious hangar, filled with ridiculously ornate coaches, mainly from the 18th and 19th century, with a back cloth of appropriate music and filmed dancing of the period. The coaches somehow succeeded in portraying the huge gulf in the life of the few wealthy aristocrats and the rest of the population.

Back along the water front towards the very modern looking Museum of Modern Art. This was the BPs I was travelling with: their energy – led by Ed, who invariably strides ahead, leading his band ever on and up – is incredible, and the children are accustomed to days with many activities packed in. But Ed and Jude are also sensitive to my growing incapacity to stand the pace, and I was definitely wilting by now. So while Ed, Deb and Ella went round the museum, Jude and Maddie kept me company, watching a sailing regatta outside.

There followed perhaps a bizarre and isolated incident of unimaginative officialdom. I could not sit on the steps, so I perched on the low iron railing in front of the museum – and was ordered somewhat officiously to get off, by a guy in uniform who seemed to have no other role to play. If they were worried about their railing, I observed, it would be cheaper to paint it once a year than hire someone to stop people using it as a seat (god forbid that the museum – a building on which no expense had been spared – should have provided some seats). But then again, in a country with a shortage of work, it kept him in employment of a kind.

Jude was so cross at the absence of seats that she marched into the museum and demanded a chair for me. Amazingly they seemed to have none. Three more officials inside the museum, equally underemployed, seemed to have great difficulty in understanding my need to sit somewhere but then offered a wheelchair, which required an amazing amount of paperwork. I’m afraid it compared very badly to similar situations in London museums and galleries, remembering the time five years ago when I was particularly incapacitated and people bent over backwards to help.

After a collapse in our hotel we went out for what was for me the most enjoyable meal of the holiday. We went to a busy restaurant with a view out over the water and as the sun set, gorged ourself on lots of delicious tapas, washed down by rather a lot to drink. The end to a busy and satisfying day.

Day two: museum, cable car and tuk tuk

The day started with another museum – the Gulbenkian. We opted to view his vast and eclectic private collection of art, objects and furniture. We particularly liked the rooms on Egypt and Persian, and were less enthusiastic about the French 18th century furniture and objects. There is a pretty wide ranging European art collection, notably lots of Guardis (which I liked more than the others), some good Flemish stuff and a Turner (which I missed). The museum is set in a lovely park and for the children (and me!) the turtles were a highlight.

Each day aims to include something for the children, so we then headed down to the waterfront for a ride in a cable car (a particular sacrifice for Jude, who has no head for heights). And then a late lunch in a nearby restaurant, which turned out to be Brazilian (we have come across quite a lot of Brazilians in Lisbon) and included eat as much as you want of a range of meat, which made Ed very happy.

We left Ella, who was not feeling well, and Jude at the hotel and went on for the final activity: a trip through the delightful old Alfama district on a tuk tuk, the transport I so loved in India. Ours turned out to be a slight deviation from normal design – although it conformed to type by having no handbrake, in a city built on hills. It had a completely mad Russian driver, Lucy, whose aim seemed to be to excite Maddie (sitting in front with her) by racing down all the hills.

I would have liked to have returned to this district to explore at a slower pace and maybe listen to some fado music. But the views were splendid – and of course we packed in a quick church visit on the way.

Ella had recovered by supper time, which was in a more up-market restaurant: the Pharmacia, which had a splendid terrace and garden, again with views over the water. But personally I preferred the previous evening’s less formal setting, friendlier service and, for me, tastier tapas.

Tram 28

Next day we started at the 18th century Basilica de Estrela, whose roof top offered more splendid views over Lisbon. And for the children, more turtles in the pleasant gardens opposite. Lisbon seems to have a lot of green spaces for locals to stroll in.

We packed in a trip on the famous Tram 28. Built in the 30s, it is still negotiating streets with bends and slopes that modern trams could not contemplate. Great fun for me, as I am always offered a seat, but not so easy for the family, though they found a viewing point at the back.

One of the negative points of Lisbon (and other European cities) is that we are not the only tourists. Apart from the crowds in the trams and on the streets, perhaps the most tiring implication is the need to queue for everything. Something I find increasingly difficult to manage. (The worst queue was on the first day, trying to get into the monastery. One key is to buy the rather expensive Lisbon Card, which usually means as well as discounts you get the equivalent of Speedy Boarding.)

Down we trundled to the elegant district of Baixa, rebuilt on a grid system after the great earthquake. The main pedestrianised avenue, Rua Augusta, was splendid, but full of other people. Seeing the queues for the Elevator, we abandoned the plan to go up it and, after picking up some delicious custard tarts (we are all fans of these), we moved on.

We were supposed to be taking a tram up to near the Castelo de Sao Jorgio. It was fun watching the driver (a woman) leap out of the tram and change the points so we could descend and then reverse up the next bend – except we soon discovered that this manoeuvre was because the tram had half broken down and could not manage further climbing, and was turning round to descend the hill. So we continued by tuk tuk and then on foot.

It was hot and we were tired, so we did little more than climb the tower of a charming 12th century church in order to admire yet more views – and then, as always, a highlight of the day – lunch.

Then suddenly it was time to leave Lisbon – a day earlier than Deb and I expected. Ed and Jude had brought forward the second part of the trip, to give the children more time in the swimming pool and playing with their friends Henry and Daisy, who were staying in the same hotel.

I was sad to leave Lisbon; I felt I was just beginning to get a feel for it. I recognise that a city built on hills is a challenge for someone with my arthritis, but it is a place to wander round, noticing little details, like the tiled houses – and pavements – and admiring the views that are always there. I like the fact that much of it is a bit down at the heel, and although swamped by tourists, the guesthouses and hotels have not taken over. And apart from a couple of museum officials, people were very friendly and welcoming.

Our journey to Sintra, 30 km from Lisbon, for part two of the trip, was in an enormous people carrier rather than two taxis. The driver kept us entertained telling us his life story. He was born in a Portuguese colony (I forget which) and his father, who had fallen out with the government, sent him – aged seven – and his sister to school in India, before the whole family met up again to start a new life in Portugal. His father died young and our driver seems to have spent much of his life being responsible for his family.


How can I describe our hotel in – or rather a few kilometres outside – Sintra? Well, it was perfect for the children: a choice of swimming pools, a trampoline centre, a carousel, and food they liked. For the adults the pluses were surprisingly good food, comfortable bedrooms, and a view up to the palaces and forts of Sintra that we would be visiting.

Blurred photo from hotel
Fort on left, Palacio Nacional da Pena, Sintra below

But I found the vast pretentious, luxurious, impersonal hotel architecture utterly depressing – and an eyesore on the landscape. Quite a contrast to our quirky little Lisbon place (which Jude said was more expensive!). As soon as I arrived I thought of Jacques Tati, in particular Les vacances de M. Hulot and Mon oncle. So looking at it through his eyes, I could not take this place seriously.

It was also a taxi drive from the town, which given we were now ten people (including Jude’s friends Charlie and Sam and their two children) complicated planning.

Castelo dos Mouros

The next day’s outing illustrated the problem: Charlie’s taxi headed for the Palacio Nacional da Pena, the amazing red and yellow palace we could see from our hotel, while Jude’s and ours went to the Castelo. A communication problem somewhere, but since we were jam-packed in a line of tuk-tuks, cars and taxis, in a one-way road up the hill, not much chance to rectify it.

Anyhow, Deb and I kept to the plan, gave the palace a miss and concentrated on the Moorish castle, which turned out to be one of the highlights of the holiday. The Castelo was built by the Moors from North Africa in the 9th century, fell into ruins when the Christians conquered the area, and was restored in the 19th century. This description does not do justice to the charm of the place, its magnificent views, interesting relics of Moorish and early Christian occupation, and its splendid battlements. The romantic restoration is good: it restored but retained the fortifications and wrapped everything in lush woodlands and plants.

I was determined to reach one of the high points and made it, with the patient help of Deborah. I think if the others had been there at the time I would have stopped earlier, not wanting to hold people up. As it was we were all reunited in time to go down to Sintra for lunch.

As usual our mid-afternoon lunches meant that it was impossible to find somewhere interesting and in the shade for ten people! So after a rather hot snack, everyone was glad to return to the hotel – particularly the children, who were by now fixated on swimming and trampolines.

Palacio Nacional de Sintra

The next day – Deborah’s last – we opted to go to the Palacio Nacional de Sintra, in the central of town, while the others went the quirky palace and gardens at Quinta da Regaleira.

The Sintra palace proved the highlight of Sintra. It is a vast complex, much of it built in the 14th century and added to in the 16th century. It was the royal family’s summer home right up to the 20th century. The outside is charming, with whitewashed walls, moorish windows and dominated by two giant conical chimneys. Inside is much more ornate. What I remember particularly are the wall tiles (I have become very attached to Portuguese tiles) and decorated ceilings. I also coveted some of the huge collection of wooden dressers.

We emerged, well satisfied, ready for lunch, which turned out to be another highlight of the holiday. Jude and Ed had picked the restaurant which looks out over the palace. Good location, service and food! It is strange how late lunches eat into the afternoon. Nobody had much energy for further exploring of this very pleasant town: so back again to the hotel (where this time even Deb – not me – joined the bathers).

I am so glad Jude and Ed invited both of us on this holiday. It is a long time since Deb has had one and she deserves it. Despite having to often prop me up I think she enjoyed the trip.

The seaside

The last day for the rest of us was spent on the beach, or rather, beaches. Part one was a magnificent beach to the west of the village of Colares, though as this is a surfing area, the swimming was not really suitable for the children.

Lunch – once again a highlight… – was in an unprepossessing building set back the wrong side of the beach road, chosen because the prices were less astronomic than on the right side. It turned out to be a little gastronomic delight. Henry chose sea bream (or was it turbot?) and so his dad, Sam, had to have the other half – and got very excited after his first mouthful. The rest of us were more modest but equally pleased, though I’m surprised we had any appetite given how many delicious starters/amuse gueules we had already consumed. (There was a long argument about the difference if any between amuse bouche, amuse gueule and similar expressions for the little delights that some restaurants place in front of you while waiting for the meal itself.)

After lunch we went to Colares, a charming old seaside village, now town, in search of more suitable swimming for the children, who spent a happy couple of hours on a sandy beach with rocks – in the company of hundreds of mainly Portuguese families. I do find it frustrating going to the seaside and not being able to swim, but I enjoyed watching Ella and Maddie’s delight at the simple pleasures of a seaside holiday.

Well, that was it, my last day in Portugal with the family, as I was to set off early in the morning to travel to Barcelona.

I’ve not talked much about the family and have of course not put up photos of them. But it was a lovely to take part in a family holiday with them and sad to say goodbye. Not that I did say goodbye, as Ed and Jude were off to see the palace and Ella and Maddie were already in the water, supervised at a distance by Sam. Great to see their independence even if it means one sees less of them.


Since the times of my flight to Barcelona and the ongoing train to Montpellier did not work, I had decided to spend a day in Barcelona, which I have never seen, and checked into a nondescript but very satisfactory hotel (300 metres from the metro) for two nights.

Sagrada Familia

I had planned to make visiting Gaudi’s masterpieces a priority, but discovered three days before coming that I was already too late: there were no more reservations for three days. Oh well, I thought, at least I can see the exterior and I will get there early to photo without crowds. I arrived at 7.30am and there was already a queue! As it was not a long one I wondered if I could chance it. I said to one of the guards that I had no ticket, bt he waved me into the queue. Once again over half an hour standing and waiting, and chatting to the young couple from Dubai next to me (he was Hungarian and she was Spanish, both in the ‘hospitality’ business).

At last the queue moved, and we went through an airport-style security system. Still nobody asked for my ticket or money. Was this because it was Sunday, I asked myself. A little later, as we were ushered into a packed church, it dawned on me. I was going to Mass!

Well, the church itself is pretty surreal, with its tall, tall nave, bizarre details, colours, figures in unexpected places. But you add to this the whole theatre of a Spanish Catholic mass. But not just any Sunday, this was the Sunday nearest to Ascension Day, a full-blooded affair with readings in English, French and English as well as stuff in what I imagine was Spanish and Latin!

As a non-believer you can imagine I soon got lost (I did recognise the Lord’s Prayer, but that was it, unlike the Koreans beside me). This left me with lots of time to gaze up at Gaudi’s edifice, enjoy the music, marvel at the Catholic rituals and the huge number of priests that seemed involved, and reflect on the dreadful role all religions have played in world history.

At last, at last, it came to an end, after virtually the entire congregation except me had gone forward to receive Holy Communion. Now, I thought, I can wander round the church, look more closely at details, and take photos. But no, we were ushered out, by smiling but firm young women (trained to do the job with a smile?), as the rows of chairs had to be removed and the church tidied up before the public, the paying public entered. I grabbed photos as I was gently nudged out.

Well, I had not intended to spend the morning at Mass, but it was quite an experience. I crossed the road to have breakfast (after 11am) and recover, only to be hijacked by an Australian couple with whom I had to share my table and who wanted to tell me about their Mediterranean cruise… …

Medieval Barcelona and Ramblas

I’ll talk more about my impressions of Gaudi later. Meanwhile, on to part two of the day: heading towards the Ramblas and the medieval centre of Barcelona beside it. Except that I took rather too long a detour along the Gran Via de les Costs Catalanes before arriving, already tired, at the Placa de Catalunya, the starting point for much tourist exploring.

Much of Barcelona is laid out on a grid system, but the old centre is a recognisable jumble of a medieval town, and I wandered through, enjoying the views, until I reached the cathedral.

My heart sunk when I saw the long queue. But when I asked an official if my Barcelona card worked, he replied no, but if I had an internet booking I could go straight in. So I went off into the shade, booked online, returned and was ushered straight in, wondering if I should have told all the poor sods in the queue.

The mainly 14th century cathedral is impressive, but I was surprised I felt a little disappointed. I think we are so spoilt by our magnificent cathedrals in Britain that there is not much outside Italy that match up to them.

When I came out I badly needed to sit and have a drink. The only cafe in sight was opposite and rather grand looking. No matter, I sat. And sat. Without being served. So very annoyed, I got up and told the waiter in passing that I had waited too long. He didn’t seem to care, but I did. I did not see another cafe – or bench – for ages.

I don’t understand it: there seemed a complete absence of seats in centra Barcelona and a curious lack of cafes in an area which you would have thought prime location with year-round tourists. There were shops, usually with discreet fronts, but no cafes.

In search of somewhere to sit I left the medieval streets and walked slowly up the Rambla. I could not really appreciate its historic and architectural attractions as much as I would have liked, as I needed to sit. At last I came to a tapas bar, collapsed at a table looking out at the Ramblas, and had something to eat and drink. It was sad that I was tired, but also I was rather put off by the fact that Barcelona seems to have been given over to consumerism. Yes, there were musicians and entertainers (though not as much as in Lisbon) but I was very aware of just how much this was a shopping centre. Apart from the stalls selling to tourists along the pedestrian centre, there were shops lining each side. And yes, at the top, in the Placa de Catalunya a massive store is about to be opened by Apple.

Still, in these meanderings between the Placa da Catalunya, the old medieval centre and up the Rambla (a tree-lined avenue which is regarded as the centre of tourism), I did see and like a lot:

I had planned to go to the Picasso museum, but I knew I had run out of steam, so when I finally reached the Placa I took a tourist bus round the southern part of the centre of Barcelona instead. This was disappointing: a poor commentary and of course the bus tended to stop in traffic jams rather than in front of a point of interest. But still, I saw the water front area, which I would not have otherwise seen, including the massive development done as part of the 1992 Barcelona Olympic Games. Much of the athletes accommodation is now luxury apartments. Nearby is the World Trade Centre, a singularly unattractive business park reinforcing my impression of Barcelona as a place that is about money. And then, nearby, unexpectedly a park with a statue by Jean Miro.

The bus tour over, my one thought was I needed to get back to the hotel. I felt pleased with myself: I could see on the map that line 6 of the metro went from the Placa to Gracia, a stop 300 metres from my hotel. But every underground entrance I went to was for lines other than 6. I asked a gaggle of police officers and one pointed to a road beside the future Apple store and said the entrance was about 300 metres along there. Except it wasn’t. OK, I thought, I will take one of the other lines and find line 6 that way. I did – but it involved a nightmarish 500 metre plus walk along interminable corridors and moving staircases. One day I will go back to Barcelona and discover the steps down to line 6 on the Placa Catalunya.

More Gaudi: Casa Vicens

On my last morning I knew I did not have enough time for Picasso, so instead I went to another Gaudi house, not far from my hotel. Casa Vicens is the first house Gaudi designed, so relatively early in his career and an interesting contrast to Sagrada Familia, which was designed at the end of his life, during his obsessively religious period, before he met an early death run over by a tram.

This was a fascinating visit: the house, built as a summer house for his client, shows all the influences – Catalan, Islamic, oriental, English – before he developed fully his own modernism. The house included an interesting exhibition with models of houses by his contemporaries, from William Morris to Charles Rennie Mackintosh. There was even a model with small description of a house by Voysey (our grandmother lived in a Voysey house in the Fifties, so this was interesting for me).

There were also several original texts written by Gaudi, showing the development of his ideas about what a house should be. Reflecting the times in which he wrote, when so much housing was insanitary, he places emphasis on the importance of the house as a healthy place for children to grow up in. But he is also interested on the concept of the house as a space for the nuclear family, and for him, the ideal was a ‘manor house’, a house in the country.

So, as I walked round this house, I could see how he saw the functionalists spaces of a family house interrelating, but I could also see the beginnings of all the unusual details which became more exaggerated later on.

I can’t make my mind up about Gaudi. The Sagrida Familia is an amazing spectacle and not to be missed, particularly the inside with its play on height and light and the little details, some of which are delicate and lovely, others just plain bizarre or kitsch. Ultimately I suppose it is Gaudi’s obsession with religion that stops me from excessive enthusiasm for the Sagrida Familia.

I find the Casa Vicens more interesting, both in the study of his evolving artistic ideas and because he was still designing for people not God. I saw another famous Gaudi apartment block, the Casa Mila (Pedrera), from outside. Next time I would like to go round this too.

I want to conclude my rambles through Barcelona with some pictures of windows and banners. I think I have become a little obsessed by these and can see me continuing to build a window collection in other places. The banners were interesting: I have not tried to translate all but I think they reflect the passion for Catalonian independence and of course there were probably more than usual following the EU elections.

To do it justice I need to see Barcelona again, when I am less tired, and perhaps in a month when there are fewer crowds. After all, as the easy journey home demonstrated, Barcelona is only three hours from Montpellier.

My departure

When planning the trip I had not really taken in the departure times – that seemed so far into the future. Now I realised that with departure time of 8.45, I would need to be at the airport two hours earlier, before public transport was working.

I was contemplating a night at the airport when Goksen suggested I should take a taxi.  The price was reasonable and the driver his uncle, so I agreed to set off at 4am to be safe, later brought forward to 3.30 (not sure why).

Thanks to the music along the street, I reckon I had a maximum of two hours sleep and was therefore dozier than usual at the airport, and when at about 8.10 I sauntered to look at the departures board to saw to my horror that my plane was boarding.  Worse still, I discovered that gate 710 was the furthest you could go, and ran-walked along interminable corridors and up and down stairs, thinking this was going to be a disastrous First for me.

I was not the only one, indeed we had to wait till the bus was full of other stragglers and then drove for ever round a perimeter road to the opposite side of the airport,

After an uneventful three and half hours air travel I arrived at Marseilles where my first requirement was a loo.  As usual, there were none to be seen before or in the baggage hall, and when I got outside I could see no signs for Toilettes anywhere.  I queued up for ages at the Information Desk, who told me they were just after the fast food restaurant (forget which).  When I commented that there seemed to be no signs, she agreed.

Still I could not see the loos, so asked at a nearby airline desk.  She was very rude and told me to go to Information.  I was so angry by now I told her she was rude and not nice and stomped off – and eventually found the wretched loos which were substandard.

Anyhow, all that frustration must have woken me up, because I did not need one sleep break during the four hour drive home, despite endless traffic jams and, once again, which buffeted my little car.

The wind dropped when I left the Rhone valley and I was able to have the roof open and enjoy the 24 degree temperature.

Voilà.  And tomorrow I must really finish unpacking, come down to earth, work out how to turn on my central heating and prepare for Monday’s hospital trip.


Apologies for the verbosity and excessive posting of photos.  I was struggling with poor internet access and this left me with inadequate time and energy to prune.


My last three nights were in Kumkapi, a downtown district close to the sea (highway now cuts the district from the fishing boats which provide it with its life) and a kilometre down hill from the historic sites.

The place comes alive at night.  Suddenly all these restaurants fill up, with both Turkish and some tourist clients.  It seems strange that I did not venture out in the evening.  It was not that I felt unsafe.  I never felt unsafe in Istanbul, particularly not here where everybody knows where I am staying.  I just felt I would be uncomfortable, a woman on my own, in an essentially masculine environment – it reminded me of similar evenings in Greece fifty years ago.

But I did have a bedroom window view.  My first evening I could not fathom what was going on down below.  Long after I would expect things to close down, in fact all night, there seemed to be people roaming round, some looking suspiciously rough.  I wondered if this was about drugs, or maybe the van parked with its doors wide open was feeding the homeless.  In the morning I discovered a more mundane truth: the restaurant opposite was being used as the set for a film.

The second evening I was drawn by a different sound: that of musicians, really quite good ones.  The restaurants apparently hire bands, who then supplement their earnings by being paid by diners to come and play at their table.  Down below there was a singer, clarinet and two drummers playing with skill and energy.  The clarinettist in particular was good.  As the evening progressed it was clear that the group of businessmen I had seen arrive had now consumed a fair bit of raki, were joining in the singing – and dancing.  All this only half under cover, with the rain pouring down.

The third evening, when I needed some sleep before a 3.30 am taxi drive to the airport, the music was elsewhere, with persistent drumming that began to get me down. In fact, much as I appreciated the music that second evening, I think it would be hard to live with this relentless level of noise every night.

Revisiting the Blue Mosque

I went back to the Blue Mosque for a third, wetter and chillier visit than the previous ones.

Before the rain started, I walked from Kumbaki to Sultanahmet, through a district that must once have seen better days.  I noticed that several of the houses were built in the same clapboard style as we saw on our island trip. These appear to be in an old Ottoman style, no doubt much reduced in number by fires and earthquakes.

Just before reaching Sultanahmet, I stopped at a (relatively) little mosque not mentioned in my guidebook but which looked promising.  It was.  The Little Hagia Sophia turns out to be another, sixth century, Byzantine church later turned into a mosque. I particularly liked the carved capitals on the columns.

There is no doubt that the Blue Mosque is more glorious when the sky is blue, but nevertheless, it is still an amazing building, and I cannot resist putting up more photos.

By the time I came out, it began to pour with rain.  I revisited our lunchtime restaurant for a coffee and to hide from the rain.  Not quite the same allure as one watches the rain drip off the awnings and feels the temperature dropping. Time to call it a day.




Kumkapi – and revisiting the Bazaar

I took a taxi to my next place with some trepidation.  First, it started to rain – heavily – and the forecast for the next three days is not good.  Also, I had not properly researched the location of the B&B place, simply going on good reviews in, plus wanting to return to the Old City.

It turned out that the taxi driver was equally vague about its whereabouts. He read the address I gave him with much sighing, and stopped increasingly frequently to ask for directions (with much turning around in narrow back streets, often facing traffic in one way streets). I saw he had a  smartphone and wondered why on earth he did not key in the address. (I couldn’t use mine as I had run out of credits).

Eventually I rang Goksen, the owner, and passed the phone to the driver. Within minutes we were there – and Goksen was waiting with umbrella to take me the last few minutes across the pedestrianised (sort of) centre of Kumkapi to the apartment.

The first floor room was pleasant (evidence of shopping in Ikea) and I dried out before setting off to revisit the Grand Bazaar.

What the map does not show is that the one kilometre walk is non-stop uphill.  Kumkapi is after all the centre of fish restaurants and a stone’s throw from the sea.  The bazaar is on one of Istanbul’s hills. The way up is past endless bustling local shops, but uneven almost non-existent pavements and unnerving traffic.

As I approached Yeniçeriler Caddesi, the main road in the Old City, I passed through the shoe shop area.  It is always amazing to comprehend how a business can operate when it is selling exactly the same goods as its neighbour – something one sees a lot in Istanbul.  But as I said earlier to Ed, according to my faint memories of introduction to economics this model of competition assumes that the total sum of prospective shoe buyers is proportionately greater.

Once in the Bazaar I of course had no way to retrace my steps along the route we had taken earlier.  But I did come across a narrow alley of leather goods stalls.  As my family knows, I am a sucker for bags, though never finding the ideal one. Small enough not to be an encumbrance, large enough to accommodate more than the minimum of things (for example room for a guide book), strap to carry the bag across the shoulder, zipped pockets to avoid an anonymous jumble in the bottom of the bag, non-black interior so one can see what is inside … the full list is even greater.

As always I could not resist the temptation and bought a small bag (for thos occasions when the full list of requirements above are not needed…). When I got home I realised the red looked different – and unattractive – in natural light.  Ah well, it cost me about ten euros.  The salesman spoke good English and when he found that I lived in France, exclaimed: Ah, I must meet his patron, Florence, who is from France but has lived here for several decades and is the French Consul in Istanbul.  She has a rug shop nearby. I’m not buying rugs, I said. Firmly.  Not important, he said, just come and meet Florence. Well, I had no pressing engagements, so I allowed myself to be taken to Florence.

Florence was out – back shortly – but the bag salesman left me in the hands of a rug salesman to wait for her.  I repeated my position: absolutely no purchases.  The salesman, also fluent in English, said not a problem, just to show me examples of what they had. And of course I was completely captivated.  Those who have known us know that Chris and I were particularly partial to Middle Eastern rugs and would have bought many more if we could have.

The saleman was interesting and authoritative.  He came from a country area towards somewhere in Eastern Turkey and grew up in a village where everybody – including his family – made rugs.  So, he said, he knew what he was talking about. This was no ordinary rug stall; it was clearly top of the range.  I thoroughly enjoyed being showed various rugs, some of which left me indifferent, others which left me craving to own them.

His uncle was in the process of setting up a modern Bokhara rug for display.  I commented that I did not like it very much.  Just as well, as the price tag was 3000 dollars.  The uncle smiled and produced another Bokhara from the pile, a smaller, old one and like everything in the shop, handmade and individual.  I remarked that as a child I used to love following the patterns on a Persian rug on my bedroom floor, spotting the irregularities.  The salesman said yes, one of the most common problems was that when the weavers started a new batch of wool, often the colours were not quite the same, and he pointed out the irregularities in the rug he was showing to me – we both agreed the subtle changes in the pinky red were part of its charm.

This was the rug I fell for.  The salesman said that the price was 1500 euros (very muddling when they keep changing currencies) but I could have it for 800.  No doubt if I had entered the bargaining I might have got it for 500 euros.  So, so tempting. I felt proud of my restraint when I decided it was time to stop waiting for Florence, thanked the salesman and his uncle for their presentation, and left empty handed.

End of the family trip

Time, sadly, for the short BP holiday to come to an end. Ed has to be in court the next day, while Jude will be juggling work with continuing half term (Michaela, the nanny, is also on holiday).

It’s been a great trip. A lot has been packed into three and a half days. We the adults have loved all that Istanbul has to offer, and the children have had a good time, enjoying cafe stops and above all the boat trip.  They are too young to appreciate the mosques and palaces but are incredibly well behaved while we go round them. A lot of the time they were wrapped up in their own imaginary world, in which elements of what they were seeing were bound into the storyline. They didn’t seem to mind people reaching out to stroke their blond(ish) hair and Maddie certainly enjoyed being made a fuss over in the various Turkish Delight stalls.

We found the general atmosphere wandering round Istanbul very welcoming and with one or two exceptions remarkably free of persistent would-be sellers. And like in Italy, having two young children in tow is a definite asset.

So, the BPs headed off for the airport.  But I stayed, for a couple of days further sightseeing.



Topkapi Palace

Topkapi Palace was built in the fifteenth century and was the sultan’s residence for 400 years. It was here that all the nation’s intrigues and decisions took place.

We only had enough time and energy for a whizz round the palace – a great shame given its evident splendour.  Blame this on the Galata water supply which reversed our plans for the day.

We concentrated limited resources on visiting the harem, which Jude remembered as special from her visit about 20 years ago. The visit starts strangely: you go down steps, underground, to the eunuchs’ guardrooms, including a prison room with bars. Things then get grander and more beautiful as you pass through to the limited number of the many rooms of the harem open to the public.  There is a sense of a highly organised community, with the concubines apparently leading a life of some pleasure, with the sultan’s mother in charge. What I had not appreciated was that the harem had two meanings: not only the place of the concubines, but also the private quarters for the sultan’s household – his wives, children and relatives – as well as chosen courtiers.

Our first view of Topkapi Palace had been from our boat. The vast palace complex dominated the peninsula of the Old City, with a welcome and rare oasis of green gardens and inviting white buildings. these more than lived up to their promise. Pity we did not have enough time and, in my case, energy to do them proper justice.

Afterwards Ed took the usual combination of tram and then walk uphill to get back, while we took a taxi with probably the worst driver ever.  He weaved in and out of traffic, talking into his mobile phone, lighting cigarettes, taking prohibited U turns (fairly common) and leaning across my seat to call out to friends on the other side of the road (without slowing down).  When he braked abruptly, jolting Jude and the children in the back, Jude the Stern took over and reprimanded him firmly.  She said afterwards that she was on the point of abandoning the taxi.

Grand Bazaar

So, on to the Grand Bazaar with its 66 streets. A feast of colour.

An awful lot of predictable tat, but some stalls I wouldn’t have minded stopping at – except the slightest pause in your footsteps and you are prey.
Ed was the first – willing – victim. I discovered he has a love of ceramics and bought a couple of handsome bowls. Then it was my turn: some place mats and coasters.
Not wishing to tire the children we pressed on – except we passed endless Turkish delight and nougat stalls. And at each one the children were offered something to eat. Often people leant over to stroke their hair and exclaim at them. There is a definite dearth of European visitors and the two children with their near blond hair stand out like magnets. They also appreciated Maddie’s enthusiasm for the sweets.
I too had thought I did not like Turkish Delight but discovered there are many which taste more like nougat than the sweet jelly like concoctions.
Finally we tore ourselves away and crossed the Old Town again for the final treasure to visit: Topkapi Palace.

Cleaning ourselves the traditional way

This morning there was still no water. That settled it: today’s schedule had to be rejigged to start with a visit to a hamam.
Jude had found that the Suleymaniye was just for families. So we off we set, not really knowing what to expect.
This hamam was designed in the 16th century by Sinan, probably Istanbul’s greatest architect.
We entered the big entrance hall and were ushered up to carpeted changing rooms. Ed emerged dressed in a bath towel, Jude had put on the shorts and bikini top provided, covered with drapes. One look at the size of the bikini top and i opted for my swimming costume as the foundation garment.
We passed through a couple of ante chambers, each progressively warmer, to the heart of the hamam: a beautiful room with the heated slab as the centrepiece.
There we sweated it out for about half an hour, hopefully sweating out the toxins, periodically sluicing bowls of water over ourselves and each other.
By the end I was definitely feeling a bit overcome. So was Ella, who stuck it out but did not add it to her list of favourite experiences.
Then the (male) attendants arrived: a strong serious Asian for Ed, a good looking young man for Jude and a kindly, considerate one for me. Ed was ushered off to a different chamber while Jude and I adjourned to another (children are not allowed to be treated)
Feeling like a lump of meat, I was helped into my marble slab and the attend rubbed, scrubbed and washed me head to toe in a mass of lather. At this point (whenJude was covered in lather) Maddie, suddenly and justifiably announced she wanted out. The young attendant saved the day by dousing the girls in a sack of foam – and better still carried out the much needed hair wash effortlessly.
Washed, rinsed and squeaky clean we adjourned to the cooler if the warm rooms and finished with drinks all round.
A strange experience and undoubtedly laid on for tourists, but I’m glad to have done it once, in a beautiful building In service as a himam for centuries.
Time for lunch before tackling the next activity. We took potluck on a cafe which turned out to be distinctly tacky and language barriers caused confusion. But the view of the Bosporus was good, the food not bad (though we had no idea what we had ordered) and Ella and Maddie loved their ice creams.

A day at sea

Yesterday was mainly for the grownups. A day of – what Ella says, with an air of patient resignation – sightseeing. Today was a day for everybody, a day on a boat.
This was the luxury day of the holiday: six hours on our very own motor launch. The kind I have always dreamed of having (that is when I graduated from dreams of sailing boats to something easier to control).  Apart from a luxury dining cabin which we never used, there was ample seating outside and, better still, a large sun deck above (which I could only get to when the boat was calm).
We were looked after very professionally by a steward called Attila, who was discreetly helpful as I struggled with my balance.
One of the more mortifying and distressing aspects of this trip is realising how lack of balance – exacerbated by non functioning knees and ankle – is becoming a serious issue. I was further hampered when climbing ladders on a rocking boat by not being able to grab things with my right hand.
It was another glorious sunny day as we whizzed out, passing the famous sight of Galata Tower on our left and on our right, the giant Süleymaniye Mosque, then the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia and finally Topkapi Palace, which we have not yet visited. And as we came out into the Bosporus opposite was Asian Istanbul, stretched out as far as we could see on the left. This trip reinforced our sense of the sheer size of Istanbul- 15 million people living in one of the world’s five most populated metropolitan areas (actually a taxi driver has just insisted 20 million plus 3 million foreigners (Syrians etc).
We were heading out to the Princes’ Islands in the Sea of Marmara.
Ella, in particular, was in seventh heaven and soon wanted to clamber along the side, to be right in the bows. Maddie of course wanted to follow, escorted by Ed, and the three of them spent much of the outward trip there, getting pretty drenched and causing me some nervous anxiety (I have never liked being with children in danger of falling off cliffs or being swept out to sea.)

We headed for Büyükada, the largest of the islands (I was disappointed not to see the house where Trotsky lived).
We landed at the Turkish equivalent of a seaside resort, complete with Italian ices, and opted to use our limited time ashore on a pony and cart trip rather than lunch.
If you can ignore the undernourished look of the two ponies nobly dragging the five of us up and down the coastal route, it was quite a jolly trip.

The island was apparently originally a holiday resort for rich Greek and Jewish families, and certainly some of the houses were large and comfortable. We were struck by the number of clapboard houses, reminiscent of American colonial or Wild West films. Then, just time to grab a huge and delicious ice cream corner and our crew arrived to take us back on board.
The next stop was to a picturesque cove so Ed and Ella could have a swim!
Attila weighed the anchor and then set up a ladder into the water at the stern. After an initial hesitation until Ella was persuaded the jellyfish were harmless, they both jumped in – and declared the temperature as warmer than the St Laurent le Minier (our benchmark for I y water). Maddie tried to follow suit and bravely got into the water, but quickly declared it too cold.

The two swam round the boat and then Ella asked for the landing board to be lowered. She would have been jumping off this all day, but it was time to set back.
This time we passed along the Asian side. As well as a complex of docks we saw some huge army barracks which are, I think, the site of the hospital set up by Florence Nightingale.
Then back to the familiar landmarks – the various palaces and mosques. Maddie is particularly proud of her ability to spot Galata Tower.
Only fly in the ointment of a wonderful day: there was no water in our appartment.