Sunday, May 31, 2009

Goodbye Istanbul, Hello Kusadasi

Istanbul Sites Keep the Travelers Busy, and Sore

We have spent the past few days visiting the most famous sites of Istanbul, including Hagia Sophia, The Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace, and Dolmabace Palace. Hagia Sophia was built in the time of Justinian as a Byzantine Church. It was taken over during Ottoman times and converted to a Mosque, both inside, and out. Today, it is a museum and some of the early Christian mosaics still survive. See Brian's pictures for some great shots of the mosaics. We climbed up to the second level (even Susan with her cane) for a closer view -- what a sight to behold. Sadly, the level of disrepair is disappointing. We have found that many historic Christian sites have not been maintained as well as the Mosques.

Yesterday morning (Saturday, May 30), on our 15 minute walk from the hotel to Topkapi Palace, we walked past the old Sultanhamet Jail. That building is now a luxury hotel - The Four Seasons.

Today we rose early, had a nice breakfast of cheese, eggs, breads, olives, cereal, fruit, meats, halvah and basturma, and coffee/tea etc. We were then picked up by a van arranged by Sunay at our hotel, and we went to Dolmabace Palace. This massive palace compound was designed and built in the mid 1880's by Armenian architects from the Balian famliy for the Sultan. Its construction was the eventual downfall of the Ottoman Empire. With Baccarat bannisters, 4 1/2 ton crystal chandeliers, and opulence that is overwhelming, once can understand why the cost of building this impressive complex ended up nearly bankrupting the country. But, it was lovely!

After our visit to Dolmabace, a van picked us up and we drove across the "new city" to Miniaturk. This outdoor park has the largest collection of miniatures of famous sites throughout Turkey. We found it interesting to see many famous sites attributed to the commission of early Turkish rulers with architectural features hauntingly similar to Armenian church architecture. The most interesting exhibit was the replica of Mardin, the city built in the hills south of Diarbekiyr (Dickranagert) where our grandparents/parents ended up after their march in the desert in 1915. During our visit to Mardin, we will be staying in once of the structures built in the hillside which has been renovated into a hotel.

After our visit to Miniaturk, we returned to our hotel, had an early dinner and started packing for our journey to Kusadasi/Ephesus, and Anatolya.


Just because I know my brothers will never let me live this story down whether I like it or not, I will share it with you.

On Saturday, as we walked back from our visit to Topkapi Palace, tired from fending off pushy tourists, with sore feet, hungry and hot, we passed by the Four Seasons Hotel on our way to have lunch. Walking single file along the narrow sidewalk, I was followed by Brian, Lisa and Susan. As I passed by the guard gate of the Four Seasons, I felt a HEAVY bang on the top of my head. Thinking Brian had thrown a bottle cap at me (for reasons I did not understand) I began to turn around. While doing so, out of the corner of my eye, I happened to catch the wings of a very large bird (probably a seagull) passing over head, high in the sky. Need I say more -- according to Brian and Lisa, the entire top of my head was COVERED with one big bird poop -- Susan ran ahead as fast as she could before she lost the contents of her stomach. I yelled at Brian to open my backpack and get out the WetWipes (never believing for a moment before then that they would be put to THAT use). As I stood paralyzed waiting for him to find the package -- with Brian yelling "stop moving!!" over and over, I could only imagine what was on the top of my head. Three wipes later, with Brian repeating "How disgusting" over and over, my head was "cleaned." I couldn't wait to get back to the hotel to wash my sticky hair -- and I later learned that this was not just a drop -- but a DUMP on my head.

They say that if a bird dumps its load on you, good luck is sure to follow. I sure hope so, because that is one experience I never want to repeat. One half a step behind, and it would have been my face, and not my head!!

Next post will be when we next have WiFi access - not sure when that will be. Check out Brian's pictures on the link to the right of the posts -- he's got some great pictures!

Friday, May 29, 2009

Istanbul - The Crossroads of Civilization

Our journey to Western Armenia started with a four day stay in Istanbul. This city is the crossroads of multiple civilizations dating back mutilple milleniums. One sees the heavy influence of the early Romans, the Byzantines, the Ottoman Turks and the more recent new Turkey under Kemal Attaturk, after World War I. The people are very friendly and helpful, and the city is crowded now with European tourists. Many of the sites we are visiting have hundreds of school children passing through their doors, visiting historical landmarks that date back many hundreds of years.

On our first day, we rode in two cabs around the old city walls, along the Golden Horn of the Bosporous, to a small church known as Chora Church Museum. Tucked away on a tiny street in a little neighborhood, the original church standing at this location was built in the 4th century, when Istanbul was known as Constantinople (after the Roman emperor Constantine). It was then built outside the walls of the city but suffered heavy damage from an earthquake in the the first millennium. The current structure is a Byzantine Church built in the eleventh century. After suffering damage by the 12th century Crusaders the Byzantines started an effort to completely renovate and reconstruct the church. Under its patron Theodore Metochites, the church was decorated on the inside with magnificent frescoes and mosaics. Over the next six centuries, control of the church changed and in the 16th century the Ottomans took control.

Chora was converted to a mosque, and the beautiful and historic early mosaic depictions of Christian history were whitewashed and covered over. Minarets were added and the structure was used as a mosque until the 1940's, when the historic art work was discovered. Over the next many years, the masterpiece of Eastern Orthodox art was restored. Today, one can see portions of the beautiful work on the ceilings and high on the walls of the small church. (Check out the link on this blog to Brian's Travel Photos to see pictures of Chora Church.)

Our next stop was the historic Grand Bazaar -- the oldest structure of its kind in the world. Built in the 18th century, the Bazaar is a building containing a maze of streets lined with everything from high-end jewelers to silver vendors to rug merchants, to leather stores, to low-end souvenirs to leather shops, to pure junk. One can easily get lost here and, if one is not careful, be drowned in tea and coffee from the shop owners who invite you in for a cup of tea to show you their prized merchandise. Its main street is lined with jewelery stores -- diamonds, gold, silver, stones - you ask for it, you got it!

After spending a few hours roaming the streets of the Bazaar and having a kebab lunch upstairs at Brothers restaurant, we moved on to the Egyptian Spice Market. The ESM is a much smaller version of the Bazaar and older, built in the 17th century. The streets leading to the building are lined with shops and street vendors, much like a flea market. This area is heavily inundated with the locals doing their shopping -- the merchandise is much less touristy and looks like it came from the large ships on the Bosphorous who have brought imports in from Asia.

Once in the Spice Market, we found stalls with teas, lokhum (Turkish Delight), spices, basturma (which we are enjoying for breakfast), and the usual scarves and pashminas, and trinkets (including the famous "achk:" or evil eye jewelry), Shop with Debbie and Susan and you will get the best bargain available in the world! They know how to haggle ... their best snag -- a "dolma roller" -- now, who doesn't want or need a sarma roller -- wrapping those grape leaves is so tedious!

Brian, Lisa and Adi left sisters Debbie and Susan, and Harold, to expore and buy-out the Spice Bazaar, and climbed back up to the top of the old section of Istanbul -- Sultanhamet -- where they rested in the Sultanhamet Park. The Park rests between the Hagia Sophia (another massive Byzantine church-converted to a mosque-museum) and the Blue Mosque -- built by a 27 year old Sultan who died at 28, the year after the Mosque was completed.

Then, it was back to Hotel Dersaadet, a nap and then a fish/rakhi dinner in Kumkapi. Kumkapi is a small neighborhood located near Sultanhamet, where lots of Armenians live and work, and where the Armenian Patriarchate of Istanbul is located We enjoyed a fish dinner outdoors with the musicians entertaining us with Turkish music. Sounded awfully familiar!!

New find: while sitting at dinner (after a few glasses of Rakhi) Debbie and I noticed a small nearby shop that had cheese and halvah wheels displayed in the window. At 9 p.m. the store keeper was still there -- we got up from our table and walked over to the store and bought a big hunk of the sweet sesame/pistachio dessert. Our waiter took a chunk, heated it with milk, and then baked it in the oven and sprinkled it with ground pistachios. That was one of the most unusual and best desserts I have ever tasted!!

The Journey Begins - From LA to Istanbul

When in doubt --- fly first class, or use a cane!!

Our journey began on May 26, 2009. All six of us were fortunate enough to fly to and from Istanbul using award tickets booked 9 months before the trip. Susan, Harold, Debbie and Lisa left Los Angeles in the morning and flew via Miami and London to Istanbul on American Airlines. Because Susan is using a cane after knee surgery, they were afforded personal service by American Airlines and were able to get to their connections, and through immigration etc. with personal assistance. Their long trip was made much easier with that help.

Brian and Adrienne left in the afternoon via Paris (and an 8 hour layover) on Air France - no coach class for them! Air France offered them two FIRST CLASS seats (aka mini-apartments) for the "bargain" price of 100,000 (only 40,000 more than Coach). Now -- who wouldn't grab that opportunity? Air France treats its 1st class passengers like royalty in every way. I cannot say enough nice things about the service.

Arriving in Paris at 11:00 a.m., Brian and Adi enjoyed use of the Premiere Lounge at Charles de Gaulle airport. Wow -- now that is comfort at its very best. Showers, decent meals, access to duty-free shopping, free wi-fi, SLEEP! In the meantime, their travel partners were in the air and heading for a 4:15 p.m. arrival in Istanbul. Adi and Bri got there around 11:30 p.m. (yawn!).

Checked in at the hotel and off to bed at 2 a.m. after unpacking.

Days one and two - fait accomplis!

Thursday, May 21, 2009

What a trip! We are off to Turkey!

Why Turkey?

First, some history about "The Amirian Family".

My maternal grandmother and her younger brothers Nishan and Diran, and sisters Zorah and Rose, were survivors of the 1915 Armenian Genocide. They were born in the village of Dickranagert (now Diyarbekir) in the southeast of Turkey. That land was once part of Armenia, including the 17,000 foot Mount Ararat.
My paternal grandmother Ovsanna was also from Dickranagert - she was first cousin to Queeny, Nishan, Rose and Diran.

After seeing their parents, aunts, uncles, and grandmother massacred, the Amirian children walked through the mountainous terrain ending up in the village of Merdin (now called Mardin). Zorah, Queeny and Rose became servants to Turkish families at the approximate young ages of 15, 13 and 10. Younger brother Nishan was taken in by a Turkish family.
Youngest brother Diran, only six months old, a baby at the time, was taken in by a Kurdish family and they thought he had been lost. Brother Karnig disappeared on the journey to Mardin.

In time, Zorah, Queeny, Rose and Nish found each other and returned to Dickranagert. Their family home had been taken over by Turkish families. Zorah married and moved to Syria. Queeny, Rose and Nishan eventually managed, with the support of uncles in California, to make their way to the United States. Their trip was long, and grueling, and they spent 9 months in quarantine in Marseilles before they were able to get on a ship to the U.S. They ended up in Providence, Rhode Island, where they located a relative and, traveled by train to California. Three young children under the age of 18, speaking no English, ended up in Del Rey, California. They met up with their maternal aunts, cousins and began what would be a long, prosperous life for each of them.

Years later, oldest sister Zorah and her husband were able to locate Diran who was lost during the events of 1915. They never found Karnig. Diran eventually followed his oldest sister to Aleppo, Syria, where he married and had three daughters. In the late 1950's, Queeny, her husband John, and sister Rose returned to the middle east where they re-united with their sister Zorah, brother Diran, and they met his family, including daughters Seta (Sandy), Sosi (Susan), and Arpie (Debbie). A few short years later, Diran and his family moved to the United States, reunited with his brother Nishan, and met a family that had waited more than 55 years to meet the "lost" brother. Unfortunately, Diran died of lung cancer not long after he moved to the United States.

Despite their tragic childhood, the Amirian family grew and prospered, along with a large extended family that all saw its roots in Dickranagert. In the 1990's Nishan, Rose and Queeny passed away. But, their legacy and love of family lives on. Susan, Debbie, Brian and Adrienne will be returning to their ancestral home to pay tribute to those who sacrificed their lives to insure that the Armenian culture and history survives. Joining them are Susan's husband, Harold, whose family is from the Cappadocia area of Turkey, and close friend Lisa, whose family is from Kharpert.

See pictures of the Amirian Family.

The Trip!

We are grateful to our dear friend Shake Derderian of Sima Tours who has worked to create a fantastic journey to historic Armenia. We will fly to Istanbul and stay for four days, then travel for fourteen days through Turkey. Among our stops:
  • Izmir and Kusadasi - with a visit to historic Ephesus
  • Cappadocia -- the cradle of civilization and early Christianity
  • Aintap, Sanliurfa, Dickranagert, Mardin
  • Lake Van, including the beautiful island where Akhtamar Church is located
  • Kars, the great city of Ani (City of a Thousand Churches, now in ruins), Mush
  • A close-up view of Mt. Ararat and the Turkey/Armenia Border
  • Kharpert, Erzerum
We return to Istanbul, where we will enjoy a tour of the Armenian sites of Istanbul, a visit to the Patriarchate of the Armenian Church of Turkey, and lunch and a visit to the Asian side of Istanbul. We complete our trip with a few more days in Istanbul, and then it's off to home we go.

Brian and I will stop for two nights and one day in Paris, where we will stay in Versailles at the Trianon Palace and Spa, located at the back yard to Versailles Palace. The rest of the gang heads home a day before we leave and will be home to great us on our return!

So, enjoy the journey with us and I'll try to get back here from time to time with stories, pictures, and the latest "fun".

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Packing -- Who said "pack light"??

(Updated 5-9-2012)

Here's my list of trusty essentials:


  • Ipod and Bose Noise Reducing Headphones (great when your room mate snores)
  • iPad and charger -- no more heavy books to carry
  • Cameras, SD Cards, Extra Batteries for both, and travel charger
  • Macbook Air -- weighs 12 ounces -- how else would I create this blog, upload and label pictures, store trip information and copies of important docs, check emails, etc.??
  • Card Reader -- Digital Foci II is a small 160GB portable hard drive with card reader -- great way to clear your SD cards for additional use; but, if you take a laptop, that works too
  • Power cords for iPod/iPad/iPhone, Macbook Air, video camera
  • Cell phone(s); charger - I can now use my iPhone 4s which is unlocked for international use - buy a local SIM (mini) card; I also use an international phone from and a Mobal SIM Card with permanent UK phone # - great for traveling companion for inexpensive texting when you are separated (international minutes are usually around $1.29 depending on where you travel).  
  • Program your phone with the numbers of those who will be traveling with you ahead of time, as well as any hotels you will be visiting, contact info you might need, etc.
  • AA Batteries (rechargeable and disposable), AAA batteries, Battery Charger
  • Small Post It Notes and two colored pens
  • Mini Flashlight and Magnifying glass (60+ year-old eyes)
  • International Plug Adapters and power strip - carrying a small, lightweight power strip makes it much easier to plug in several cords at one time when you have limited plugs in rural hotels; I also bring a Belkin multi-outlet plug that has to USB plugs - easy to charge up multiple devices.
Did I say pack light??

Travel to rural places like Eastern and Southern Turkey and Armenia (sort-of) require things you wouldn't normally have to take on vacation because there are no drugstores as we know them. So, here is what I take for this type of trip:

  • First Aid Kit - bacitracin, anti-itch cream, band-aids, peroxide, anti-bacterial wipes
  • Sun screen, insect repellent wipes
  • Anti-diarrhea medicine, laxative (it's always one or the other!)
  • Benadryl, Day/Night cold tabs
  • Antibiotic (Cipro by prescription) - A MUST!! Those bacteria can really mess with your stomach!
  • Pain medication (Motrin, Aleve, or stronger prescription meds) - backs, knees, who knows what blows when you are on a trip like this
  • Nail file, Krazy Glue (one-time use mini-tubes)
  • Duct Tape -- ever had a suitcase break? A small roll is always useful
  • Prescription Meds (pack these in your carry-on luggage) and vitamins
  • Shampoo, conditioner, face cleanser, moisturizer, small bar of soap, hand lotion, deodorant, razor (I use Venus disposables with the moisturizer built into the blade - saves on shaving cream)
  • For the girls: Make up -- who needs makeup -- take a tinted moisturizer with SPF 15, colored lip gloss, and you're good to go
  • Woolite/Tide Portable detergent, and a few hanger style clothes pins for a quick wash at night
  • Toothbrush, floss and travel tubes of toothpaste
  • Bubble wrap and tape for those breakable souvenirs
Who said pack light??


If you have room, these are the basics for a decent wardrobe for a spring/summer trip:
  • five solid colored cotton short sleeved T-Shirts
  • 1 lightweight cotton sweater or hooded jacket (hoods are great for that quick summer rain)
  • 1 cotton 3/4 length sleeve t-shirt (for cool evenings)
  • 4 pairs of crop pants, lightweight cotton with spandex (they dry fast)
  • 1 pair neutral colored long slacks
  • 5 pairs of tennis socks (these take a few days to dry)
  • 7 pairs nylon underwear (they dry fast)
  • 3 bras
  • 1 good pair of running shoes
  • 1 pair of good walking sandals
  • FitFlops (or any flip flops) - good for walking around your room when you don't want to wear shoes, into communal showers, or a quick walk to the lobby/pool etc.
  • bathing suit and cover up (definitely don't forget the cover-up) - one never knows if you want to take a dip somewhere
  • 2 pairs of light weight PJs (for a 3-4 week trip)
  • pillow case (cover the hotel pillow cases) and wash cloth (not everyone provides them)
  • brimmed hat (optional)
  • ZipLoc bags for wet clothes, bottles and miscellaneous stuff
Are we there yet??


  • Carry on bag -- 17" - 21" with rollers - intra-European flights often do not permit the standard carry on size used in the U.S. A rolling duffle, or slightly smaller bag with wheels is a better bet if you are flying within the country. Get the lightest bag you can find. I used "Antler" luggage - made in England, exceptionally light luggage.
  • 24" Suitcase (expandable) -- you just don't need a bigger suitcase, and you could probably get away with a 22" (or so says Rick Steves).  Smaller hotels in small hotels don't have "lifts" (elevators), or they may be very tight (like in Amsterdam), and you may have to climb stairs before you get to the reception area. If you are driving, you must consider the size of the trunk and how many bags total your group has. And, they weigh your check-in luggage. It doesn't take a lot of stuff to reach 17 or 44 pounds! Antler's 25" rolling bag weights 7.5 pounds before you start packing. Can't get lighter than that unless you take a Glad Heavy Duty Trash bag!
  • For gals - a purse or tote - I use a Rick Steve's Civita Day Pack which doubles as a backpack for day trips. It easily fits under the seat on the plane, will hold the laptop, a small camera, your book, passport and essential prescription pills (never pack your pills in check-in luggage!) - watch out -- airlines in the interior of Europe may weigh this with your carry-on and you may still have to pay for excess Kilos!
  • For guys - you can substitute a small day pack for a tote in addition to your carry on
  • For day trips -- use the same day pack you carried on -- it will hold your point and shoot camera, map, a guide book, bottle of water, cell phone, etc. -- remember, you have to carry this all day long so make sure you don't overload it!
  • Fold up large tote or bag -- if you have shopped, and have too much for your luggage, this bag can be unfolded and you can put all your dirty clothes (crammed) into this bag for the return flight home. The breakables go in the suitcase.
  • Unique baggage labels, TSA locks (good luck ... TSA often breaks these off your luggage)
  • Money belt -- yes, you HAVE to take one of these with you -- wear it whenever you are carrying more than just the basic amount of cash you need for the day. Use the hotel safe for the rest of your money and your passport. Carry a copy of your passport and lock the real thing up at the hotel!
  • Always take 2 or 3 ATM cards for different financial institutions -- sometimes one card won't work and you could be stuck. Banks charge fees on both ends for ATM withdrawals so pull enough local currency to meet your daily limit -- most cities have ATM machines everywhere - - use one attached to a bank if possible, and pull money during the week so if you have a problem, you will be able to go into the bank for assistance. Airports usually have ATM machines for that first stash of local cash.
  • A Capital One Credit Card or AMEX Platinum Card -- Capital One and Amex do not charge an international transaction fee for charges overseas - however, most smaller towns outside of Europe discourage credit card use and prefer cash; same with outdoor markets and vendors.
  • Notify your financial institutions that you are traveling overseas: If you call your banks and credit card company before you leave, they will put a note on your account, with a contact phone # so that they won't block your account when you charge. It could happen anyway -- so carry the phone #'s of your financial institutions and credit-card companies with you.
  • Take some Euros and U.S. Dollars -- buy a trip pack of Euros (AAA sells them, for example) for use in airports and for that first taxi ride and tips at the airport. Carry some American dollars -- money changers are around if you can't access your ATM.
  • Copy of your passport, driver's license, travel insurance and important docs:  I usually keep those types of documents on my iPad and store them in a cloud-based folder such as DropBox so that I can access them anywhere that I have internet access.  I put a copy of my driver's license and passport in my day-wallet and keep the original with my passport safe in the hotel.
If all you are bringing is clothing -- you can get it into a small 20" suitcase. But, with all the other stuff, a lightweight 20" roll on bag, and a 24" suitcase, with a small carryon backpack, will do the trick. 

Happy packing!