Today we bid a fond Auf Wiedersehen to Austria, Vienna, and the Teutonic realm. We have been very well treated here. I cannot praise Austria highly enough and look forward to returning someday.
Now here's the morning rant: we have been eating Austrian breakfasts for the past ten days in our hotels. Invariably they are somewhat different from what you would receive in the UK (the much revered 'full English breakfast': slices of thick back bacon, cylinders of sausage, eggs fried to order, cooked tomatoes, fried mushrooms, and (on occasion) black pudding or haggis; good, solid fare that fills the cavity in one's belly and sets you up for the day). The Austrians and Germans favor a selection of cured meats, sliced cheeses, and thick rolls. Additionally, one can often find a variety of breakfast cereals and yogurt. Since I am not a salami-for-breakfast man, I have been surviving on coffee and a muesli/yogurt mix. It is a healthy blend of dairy fats and solid grains that burn slowly and give me a push up the bicycle track. This morning, however, I was horrified to find pieces of chocolate mixed into the hotel's muesli. What sort of abomination was this? What is the point of offering a healthy breakfast cereal and then poisoning it with chocolate? I was outraged; I had to eat a bowl of yogurt mixed with prunes instead.
While I am complaining, here's a further observation: Austrian hotels never bring enough coffee to the table. The common offering is a small, two cup flask, which doesn't satisfy a big American appetite for caffeine. I suppose this is all part of the European heritage — quality over volume — but still...
Unsatisfying breakfast aside, I cannot stop raving about the wonders of Vienna. Here's another fabulous surprise: we chose to take the subway downtown to the airport train rather than shelling out the children's inheritance to use our hotel's convenient airport shuttle bus. Upon reaching the air train we discovered that we could check in for our flight, receive our tickets, and dump off our bags. All of this is handled downtown, before we even reached the airport. How efficient! We climbed aboard the shiny blue airport train and sixteen minutes later arrived at our destination. No traffic to fight, no hours standing in long queues before airport check-in desks. Do the people of Vienna know how lucky they are to live in this wonderful city? I am tempted to remain.
Our flight departed on schedule, and we were quickly whisked above the clouds. Sunlight burst around us, gilding the wings of our jet-liner. Our Austrian August was surprisingly rainy, but I suspect this is about to change. My instincts tell me, as we turn toward the East, that it might be some time before we see clouds and rain again.
The Euro2008 Tour is now moving to the far eastern end of the Mediterranean. I suppose an explanation for this is in order. The most important reason is that we had never been to Turkey, and were eager to see it. We will spend a few days in Istanbul, then cross over into Anatolia for a couple of weeks.
The other reason is strategic. Our Schengen tourist visas only allow us to stay in the EU for ninety days. To extend the duration of the Euro2008 Tour, we decided to depart from the EU for a few weeks, before re-entering through Greece.
The flight to Istanbul was short, no more than ninety minutes. Soon we were descending over Bulgaria, then button hooking over the Sea of Marmara for a long final approach into Istanbul. Freighters scored the blue sea beneath us, dragging long white exclamation points astern.
You never quite know what to expect when traveling someplace new. I had half hoped that we would arrive at an exotic airport, something out of the movie Casablanca: fog muffling dim streetlamps, DC-3s warming up on the taxiways. Alas, it was not to be. The Istanbul airport looks like every other modern glass and plastic airport in the world. It also offered the same ubiquitious immigration queue. There were no clear indications to guide us toward the correct line. We decided to try the “non-Turkish” passport holder's line. That seemed sensible. The line advanced slowly. We moved with it. Finally, when we reached the front, we were told that we needed to buy our visas before standing in this line. Maddening. One simple sign, that's all it would take.
Join the visa line, buy our visas, then back into the non-Turkish line. In the end, we cleared customs, which just goes to prove that if you wait in enough lines for a sufficient amount of time, you will achieve your goal (maybe).
But there was a silver lining to this black cloud: we had spent so long in the immigration lines that our bags had already come out on the baggage conveyor. Even better, when we reached the arrivals area, a driver was waiting to take us to our flat.
The cars in Istanbul are also depressingly non-exotic: Toyotas, Fords, Fiats, and Mercedes. Our driver had obviously received his training in Rome, for he was a bit mad in the best Italian tradition. He spent a great deal of time drifting side-to-side across the lanes of traffic, while trying to unfold the piece of paper with our destination written on it with one hand and talking on his cell phone with the other. Nevertheless, we made it, and there is always something to be said for that.
Our flat was located on a street that is undergoing renovation. All of the windows had been smashed out of the building next door. It's rather interesting: modern apartment buildings have been constructed around what could only charitably be described as decrepit shacks. I would like to think that the owners of these buuildings are stubbornly resisting urban renewal. They are certainly more interesting than generic concrete and tile buildings.
A mid-sized German Shepherd stood on the front porch of our lodgings to discourage visitors. Our rooms were on the third floor of the building and it was sweltering inside – it felt as if we had just climbed into a sponge that was soaked in hot water. There was an air conditioner mounted on the wall of the kitchen/living room where Ann and Grace will sleep, but the cool does not reach the master bedroom where herself and I shall take our saunas.
We hoped to pick up some supplies at a local grocery store for dinner, but a quick look over the shelves revealed that this plan might be sound until we acquire some familiarity with local foods. We procured a few staple items (like coffee). Oddly, there are no price tags on the items we load into our shopping cart. The clerk at the front of the store assesses our purchases and rapidly types numbers into a calculator. When we have been rung up, she turns the calculator to show us the green digits. 35 Turkish lira? Is this a fair price or are we being ripped off? Hard telling, not knowing.
With the “cooking in” plan abandoned, we make a sortie up the street in search of a restaurant. I have to admit that I am struck by the wide avenues. I'd expected narrow lanes, overhanging walls, and dark spaces housing rug dealers. Instead we walk through a major city in the early evening sun, a bit short on atmospheric appeal.
Our flat is located in the Sultanahamet district, a few blocks from the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, and Topkapi palace. Attractions equals tourists, which inevitably support tourist restaurants. We find a suitable candidate, the Dervish Cafe. Turkish men cluster around tables, smoking water pipes – nargiles. A pipe costs 10 lira a smoke, and the tobacco comes with exotic flavors like pineapple and banana. At least they smell better than cigarettes.
Grace decides to try a cheese crepe. Ann and Mary are a little more adventurous by selecting chicken shishkabobs, while I try Turkish meatballs and Ayran, a traditional yogurt drink. I suppose, in ordering this drink, I had envisioned something like a strawberry yogurt milkshake. The taste of Ayran was also a surprise. It was not sweet and cool, but rather, quite salty. It took a few minutes before I realized what it reminded me of: milky cottage cheese. Went well with my meatballs, however.
Having filled our bellies, we returned through the night to our flat. We are here in Turkey, and tomorrow the exploration can begin.