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Archive for the ‘Urban Delights’ Category

Photo found at http://www.cagalogluhamami.com.tr/

I’ve run across two schools of thought with regards to visiting a bathhouse or hamam in Turkey: it’s either a must-do activity or something akin to torture. Or it’s both: I had a friend enthusiastically implore me to take the plunge while simultaneously describing the experience as being “scoured”. It left me curious but apprehensive. So on my last day in Istanbul, I tentatively made my way over to the Cagaloglu Hamami, fully intending to try something new, but knowing I could turn chicken and run at any moment. I am so glad I didn’t succumb to nerves!

The idea of the public bathhouse dates back to ancient Greece and Rome, and the practice continued to thrive throughout the Ottoman Empire. While it was primarily for hygienic purposes (at a time when household bathrooms were unheard of), it also served a social function: inevitably, you’d run across your boss, your cousin-in-law, your neighbour. Business deals would be made, and much gossiping spread.

The traditional bath has multiple stages. First, you undress and are given a pestemal, a thin cotton towel to wear. Bathing is usually done in the nude (go figure), but due to the influx of Western tourists and the opening of co-ed bathhouses, you have the option of wearing a bathing suit. You will also be given a pair of clogs to wear – a lot of bathhouses have marble floors and there is water everywhere – however, you can wear your own flip-flops instead (I did; I found them easier to walk around in). These are public hamami, so there will be others sharing the facilities with you, but if you can handle showering in a locker room, you can handle this.

You’ll be led (so you don’t slip) to an area full of extremely warm air and steam, where you’ll sit for about a half hour – anyone familiar with a sauna will be comfortable with the idea of sweating the toxins away and opening the pores of your skin. Once you’re good and sweaty, you’ll be lead over to a bench where an attendant will bathe you. Warm water will be poured over you and you’ll be scrubbed down – everywhere – with a kese, a rough cotton glove. Depending on how sensitive your skin is, you could find this part uncomfortable, but I didn’t think it was any worse than using a loofah or exfoliating gloves found in most drugstores at home. The next step is a massage, after which you are brought to another room to cool down and relax.

This was the best thing I could have done for myself on my last day in Turkey after an enjoyable but packed two-week tour. I would do it again in a heartbeat. It doesn’t hurt that the hamam I went to was over 350 years old and absolutely gorgeous (it’s on the list of 1000 places to see before you die). However much I want to encourage everyone to go, there are plenty who have gone and wish they hadn’t. You’ll be breathing in steamy air for a considerable time (at least an hour), and your attendent will get personal with parts of you that few others do.

As much as I love travelling, it can be exhausting and overwhelming at times. This was indulgent and relaxing, and I felt fantastic when it was all over. I need to remember to do more of these kinds of things when I’m away.

Photo from http://www.cagalogluhamami.com.tr/
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A few years ago, I read the novel Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, by Patrick Süskind – the main character, Grenouille, finds himself at one point in the story working for a perfumer, Baldini, whose store is one of many buildings located on a bridge over the Seine in Paris. I’ve since been intrigued by the idea of such bridges with multi-floor buildings on them, common in medieval times and surely bustling with people and commerce, indistinguishable from any street on shore. The famed London Bridge was another such example; like most others, it was eventually torn down to make way for newer structures.

Naturally, I was delighted to see the Ponte Vecchio in Florence, Italy – one of the few remaining (if not the sole remaining, I wasn’t able to confirm) medieval bridges still housing merchants within. As you walk along the cobble-stone paved  (pedestrian only) bridge, you pass jewellery store after jewellery store lining both sides. The story goes that one of the de’ Medicis who ruled Florence at the time tossed out the butchers that used to be located on the bridge in favour of gold merchants – either because the smell of meat bothered him or he just wanted to class the joint up a bit.

Midway along the bridge, room was left for an open terrace with arches that offer a view of the Arno River – it’s the first reminder since stepping onto the bridge that you’ve left shore. Above the shops is a passageway built by another de’ Medici that connects the main town square to the Pitti Palace, supposedly so that he could travel between the two without mixing with the plebes below.

Closer look at the de' Medici passageway and the terrace at the centre of the bridge.

The Ponte Vecchio is also the first place I came across a modern tradition that has started to plague many destinations: young lovers locking padlocks to any of the various railings at each end or somewhere along the bridge and tossing the key into the river, symbolizing their everlasting bond (gack). It seems like a silly, romantic kind of thing to do, but it creates a real eyesore in the places where people have taken to doing this and a hassle for city officials who must continually remove them and repair the damage caused by this practice. You can’t pass a post that doesn’t have hundreds of old locks crammed onto any available spot in a jumbled mess, a sad fate for such a pretty piece of history.

And so with that, I’ve taken the Wiccan Rede as my travel credo and hope that more do the same: An it harm none, do what ye will.

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It’s winter – cold, snowy, and grey – and I am longing for the return of patio season. After six months or more cooped up inside, nothing feels better than to spend time outdoors and restaurant patios here in town are packed full of people on warm summer nights. I love a good patio, and Dubrovnik was the ultimate place to hang out outdoors with a coffee or gelato and soak up the sun. But Dubrovnik at night is the main reason I hope with all my heart to go back and visit again.

We had spent almost a full day driving down the coast of Croatia and arrived in Dubrovnik in late afternoon. After settling into our rooms and cleaning up, we headed out towards the old walled city to find somewhere to eat. It had fallen dark at this point, and we could see a part of it, all lit up and looking gorgeous, out our window. It’s always very exciting to arrive at a new place and discover its charms, but I swear when we walked through the gates and into main square, I was blown away. I felt as if I had stepped into a fairytale world.

The city has a long and storied history, and between earthquakes and wars, it’s amazing that so much of it is still preserved. The stone streets are worn smooth from years of pedestrian traffic, and the architecture is typically Old Word, classic with ornate touches, all topped with those iconic red tile roofs. Hanging from every building are electric lamps shaped like lanterns that give off a bright warm glow.

For me, coming from a much newer city with not many buildings older than the 1930s and asphalt streets which are flooded with fluorescent lights, the effect was breathtaking. Great effort has obviously been made by the city’s caretakers not only to preserve this piece of history, but to ensure that it still has life. People still live and work and hang out within these walls, much as they did 500 years ago – some things have changed, of course, but the rhythm of life continues on in Dubrovnik. A modern city has sprouted and spread out around the walls, but the heart definitely still beats within.

And so we found a place to rest, drink a little wine, and have a bite to eat – the only soundtrack was the chatter around us. It was a perfect evening, and though we could not wait to explore the city the next day, nothing could quite top our first glance of the square, glowing and full of history and magic.

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I’ve been accused of being a magpie when it comes to anything sparkly (I can’t resist), and I think that could be easily extended to include things made of coloured glass, particularly stained glass windows.  The colours used in glass are usually vivid and bright, and when light shines through, it can be a stunning sight. The artistry involved in creating such windows or sculpture or even jewellery is something I’ve long admired.

The Bellagio Las Vegas at night.

The Bellagio Las Vegas happens to be home to a gorgeous display of glass sculpture that I was overjoyed to see with my own eyes. Created by the world-renowned Dale Chihuly, Fiori di Como is a chandelier spanning 2000 square feet of the lobby ceiling, comprised of 2000 vibrantly coloured hand-blown flowers. There is a constant group of amateur photographers, heads tipped back and gawking upwards, in the hotel daily thanks to these beautiful flowers.

Las Vegas has the reputation of being tacky, and not undeservedly so; however, hotels like the Bellagio have made efforts to inject some class into to this blinged-out wonderland. Today, Vegas is a unique blend of over-the-top glitz with luxury living. Among the glittering, flashing lights and ringing slot machines are gourmet restaurants run by some of the world’s finest chefs, designer boutiques from every top brand you can think of, and spas offering menus of treatments and therapies, all in the service of pampering yourself. The Vegas of 25 years ago could only brag of the world’s biggest gold nugget (though, I did see that nugget too and it is pretty awesome); luckily for us, visitors today can experience both sides of the city.

I encourage you to use Google Images to explore more of Chihuly’s incredible works of art, and you can visit his website for more information on the artist.

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All of the media saturation surrounding the royal wedding this last week or so has reminded me of my one and only royal sighting. The Queen has come to Toronto a couple of times in my lifetime, but I’ve never made any attempt to be a part of the crowd at any of her public appearances. I’m not anti-monarchist per se, just anti-crowd. Of course, I had to travel all the way to London to find out for myself that the Queen is actually a real live person and not just a figure who appears on all the money in my wallet.

I was in London for a short layover on my way home from another country. I had one day to tour around and see what I could of a city I’d never been to before, but always wanted to. I was travelling with friends who had lived in London previously, and they graciously took me on a walk they’d given many times before, which took us to most of the famous sites in the city.

As we were walking down the Mall toward Buckingham Palace (and that is a long driveway, my friends), we noticed a lot of activity and people around. I seem to remember hearing “God Save the Queen” at some point as well. It occurred to me as we were walking that we were in London on the day of the 10th anniversary of Princess Diana’s death, and I’d heard on the news that the royal family would be attending a service at a nearby chapel to commemorate this.

Sure enough, as we got up to the Victoria Memorial at the gates of the palace, we could see people lining the street, in anticipation of the royal family’s return. We had no idea when they were supposed to be coming, but we thought we’d wait a bit and see if they came.

Much to my delight, maybe ten minutes later, two policemen on motorcycles zoomed around the corner. I whipped out my camera and got the shot of my day: The Queen in her Rolls Royce with Prince Phillip beside her.

Prince Charles was right behind her in his own car, and I quickly snapped one of his car as well. I didn’t have great timing with that one, as the photo shows more of his driver and only a vague shadow in the back that I know is Charles, but his mother wouldn’t be able to tell. More cars sped by: Princess Anne, Prince Edward, Beatrice and Eugenie, and others I didn’t recognize. I didn’t see Princes William or Harry, but a large bus with dark tinted windows flew by, and we wondered if maybe they were in there, in order to be protected from public eyes on such a day.

I was in town for basically a day and was lucky enough to catch sight of the city’s best known residents. I’d had a brief, sweet taste of London and I can’t wait to go back again for more.

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I never did the whole backpacking trip around the world thing after university, as so many do. In fact, I was well past the age of thinking that kind of travel was fun when I stayed in my first hostel.

Admittedly, the only reason we stayed there was because it was touted as one of the best in Europe: Hostel Celica, in Ljubljana, Slovenia, is the “hippest” hostel according Lonely Planet. It’s a former prison that was renovated, and single rooms are former cells that have been revamped by some of Slovenia’s most creative interior designers. I was with friends, so we stayed in multi-bed rooms on the top floor (formerly the attic), which had slanted walls on one side with skylights. Those rooms were not as (i.e., at all) artistically decorated as the singles, but since we were a group, they were cheaper – and with private bathrooms.

The back of the Hostel Celica

Affordability is the main attraction when it comes to hostels. Some cities are just plain expensive, and frankly, I just don’t have the same connections as Paris Hilton when it comes to accommodations in cities worldwide. Hostel Celica was not the last hostel I stayed in, though I have never stayed in one of the dormitory rooms, sharing with strangers with eight to a room. If I’m travelling alone, I shell out the extra for a decent room of my own for peace of mind.

Hostels are not my favourite way to go: am I a bit of a princess? Maybe. I met a couple on one of my trips who, well into their 50s, stayed in hostels where they had the choice. They didn’t see the point of paying for a better hotel, when they spent so little time in their room (they weren’t bothered by shared bathrooms, which is my main sticking point with any hostel). At a minimum, I expect my accommodations to be clean and safe, and every hostel I have stayed in so far has met those criteria so I can appreciate their devotion to affordable travel.

I found this weird building further down an alley behind Hostel Celica

However, judging from my stay at Hostel Celica and other less-renowned locations, the best thing that hostels have to offer is the sense of community when you are away from home. They aren’t the kind of places where you can easily hide away in a room, so you inevitably make new friends bonding over misplaced toothpaste or the lack of t.p. in stall #1. Common rooms are generally hopping, and the parties can go into the wee hours of the morning.

Here’s where the romance of backpacking comes into play, when you can meet other travelers from all parts of the world: drink together, share stories, and hang out before moving onto the next destination and a new community of world explorers.

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Every Barcelona guide book will discuss and rate Parc Güell, and will tell you it’s a must-visit site – and they would be right. In a city with so many wonderful things to see and do, it’s no exaggeration to say this was the highlight of my time there. This park is like nothing I’ve seen before or since.

It’s like someone on an acid trip was flipping through a children’s story book and got inspired to design this park (to be clear, it was architect Antoni Gaudi who designed it, and I have no idea where he got his ideas from). There is so much to look at, so many details to discover, and the whole place is dripping with whimsy. Gaudi had a unique vision, and many examples of his aesthetic can be seen around the city. Actually, one of the best views of Barcelona is from the terrace at the top of the hill within the park.

There isn’t much I can say about it, when pictures tell the story so much better than I ever could. If you are ever in Barcelona, you must take the time to visit – it’s a bit of a trip away from the usual tourist haunts, but it simply must be seen with your own eyes.

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