Days 11 and 12: Istanbul

Posted on

After a stopover in Frankfurt, we arrived at Ataturk Airport in Istanbul at two in the morning. Sleepy and jet-lagged, my family and I gathered our luggage and waited for the person sent to pick us up from the apartment rental agency I’d arranged a flat with.

We waited an hour and then we began trying to contact them, to no avail. They finally picked us up, four hours late, saying they had mixed up our arrival time. We arrived shortly at our “flat,” a dilapidated building at the end of a run-down alleyway, adjacent to a police station. After an hour of trying to gather our wits, we left the apartment rental agency scammers, notified the police, and they urged us to leave the neighborhood, helpfully hailing us a taxi.

Without a place to stay, we turned to the one district we knew of: Aksaray. My uncle and his wife would be arriving from Iran the next day, and we had arranged to meet near an Iranian travel agency in this neighborhood. The trouble is, there are endless Iranian travel agencies in Aksaray. Nevertheless, we found the right one, and several hours later, via yet another agency, we secured an apartment. Keyvan and Maryam, the husband and wife team who helped us, not only rented our apartment to us, but showed us around the neigborhood too. Aksaray is a mixed residential area, and it reminded me of some of the older neighborhoods in Tehran.

We wearily stopped at a nearby restaurant, Pacaci Hasan, to fill our stomachs before we settled in for the day. I can’t remember the name of what I had, but it was a very spicy eggplant dish, sort of like khoresh-e bademjaan:

Patlıcan musakka

We were also served green salad, barbari flatbread, buttered rice, and ayran, Turkey’s version of doogh. It was a shame we were too tired to really eat or enjoy the dishes, but the food’s quality still showed. After lunch, we returned to our apartment and rested for the remainder of the day.

The next morning, my family and I awoke to the sound of my uncle and his wife at the door. Keyvan and Maryam had surprised us by bringing our relatives to us rather than us meeting them at the agency! There was much catching up to do – I hadn’t seen my uncle in seven years and I hadn’t seen his wife in ten. We exchanged gifts, and much to my delight, they brought me a small jar of Iranian caviar, one of my most coveted foods:

Iranian caviar

I would spend the next week savoring a bit of it each morning with Turkish flatbread and butter.

Feeling refreshed, we relaxed over tea and fruit at our apartment, before getting ready to explore. We headed out through Aksaray and began walking down Laleli, the main street in our greater neighborhood, full of shopping centers, hawkers, street vendors and the general feeling of the new starkly contrasted with the old, which permeates so much of Istanbul. We walked all the way to Istanbul University’s gates, right on time to hear the call to prayer at a nearby mosque.

Istanbul University

On our walk back, we stopped at Koska, a sweets shop, to buy a variety of freshly-baked Turkish delights. I came to love this shop over the next couple of weeks, not just for the name (I know you Persian-speakers are smirking right now), but for how amazingly delicious their pasha Turkish delights are.

Buying lokum (Turkish delights)

Despite our rough start, we were back on track and falling in love with Istanbul. I couldn’t wait to see more.

Days 9 and 10: Paris

Posted on

Our last couple of days in Paris were more laid back and slow-paced than the others. We still had some sights to see, in particular the Cathedrale Notre Dame de Paris, on Ile de la Cite.

When we came out of the island’s metro station, the first thing we saw was the Marche aux Fleurs, or flower market, which was perfect because it was on my to-see list already:

Île de la Cité

I’m not the green thumb in the family – that honor goes to my parents and sister, who had a ball exploring the little shops selling all kinds of flowers, seeds and garden wares. I bought some lavender-scented soaps and satchels for a cousin and we soon walked the short couple of blocks to the Notre Dame:

Notre Dame de Paris

The cathedral is huge. I’m not particularly into gothic architecture, but it was impossible not to be impressed by the imposing walls, statues and stained glass:

Notre Dame de Paris

Notre Dame de Paris

I spent a good amount of time walking around and exploring inside the church. As one of Paris’ most popular landmarks, the Notre Dame attracted tourists aplenty, but the sheer size of the cathedral meant that it never felt crowded or stuffy.

Afterwards, we started walking towards Pont Neuf, the oldest bridge across the River Seine and reputably the one with the best views. Unfortunately, it was overcast while we walked across the bridge, so it lacked the je ne sais quoi of say, the view you’d get during a balmy evening sunset. But still, it was nice:

Île de la Cité

I had planned for us to pay a visit to Berthillon, the infamous Parisian ice creamery, at the nearby Ile Saint-Louis, but they were closed that day. Instead, we stopped at Jess’ Cafe near the bridge and I had a croque monsieur that didn’t live up to my expectations, but was filling nonetheless:

Croque monsieur and frites

We took our time walking towards the metro station after lunch. Ile de la Cite is full of flower shops, cafes and pet stores; in other words, the place is oozing with charm. By the time we got back to our apartment it was time to pack up and say goodby to Paris. The next morning we took a taxi to Charles de Gaulle Airport to catch our flight to our next destination: Istanbul.

Day 8: Paris

Posted on

My guidebook describes the district of Montmarte as the bohemian heart of Paris, bustling with artists, music, and uh, ladies of the night. My only backround on the neighborhood stemmed from repeated viewings of Amelie and a tip from my cousin to make sure to vist Tati, sort of like a French H&M. Tati turned out to be closed when we visited, but it was on the way to our main stop anyway: the Basilique du Sacre Coeur:

Basilique du Sacré-Cœur

Perched at the summit of butte Montmarte, the Roman Catholic basilica is at the highest point in the city, providing a spectacular panorama of the Paris skyline:

View of Montmarte

It felt like a million steps to finally reach the Sacre Coeur, so my family and I took our time walking up the hill and admiring the view (and the good weather, finally).

Basilique du Sacré-Cœur

Photos are not allowed inside the basilica and silence is observed as much as possible, lending a more solemn air to this house of worship than any of the other ones I visited during our trip.

After exploring the basilica, we took the metro to the nearby Marche aux Puces de St-Ouen, which my guidebook described as the largest and finest antique flea market in Europe. Not so. It felt more like a typical market in Berkeley, complete with mass-produced Bob Marley leather jackets and incense. (Sorry, Berkeley.)

We cut that part of our day short and took the metro back into the city center and stopped for lunch near Les Halles (which happens to be the namesake for Anthony Bourdain’s New York restaurant). I had the plat du jour at Au Pere Tranquille: shrimp salad with avocado and grapefruit:

Shrimp salad with avocado and grapefruit

Afterwards, we walked a few blocks towards Centre Pompidou, a postmodern complex housing a public library, the national museum of modern art, and a center for music research:

Centre Georges Pompidou

It took a few minutes to get a sense of direction in this huge building, and we ended up spending most of our time in the modern art museum:

Musée National d'Art Moderne

Musée National d'Art Moderne

I really enjoyed Centre Pompidou. I just wish I knew what all of the signs meant. Applying my knowledge of Spanish to French was a slow process fraught with guessing games, and I’m sure Parisians got a chuckle or two at my Spanish-accented attempts to communicate. Parlez-vous Anglais? can only get you so far!

Day 7: Versailles and Paris

Posted on

I had read in my guidebook that despite the crowds and more expensive admission, weekends are the time to visit Versailles because all the ornate garden fountains are on, making it all the more worth the trip. With this in mind, we woke up early on a Saturday morning to take the RER train to the Versailles train station.

On our short walk to the palace, my family and I stopped at A La Coiffe Bretonne to have crepes for lunch. I had the cockles and mushroom crepe with Moray sauce:

Cockles and mushroom crepe with Moray sauce

It was more buttery than crepes I’ve had in the U.S. and fortified me for the rest of the morning and afternoon. Once we got to the palace gates, we stood in line for about an hour (!) before we finally purchased our tickets and began exploring Chateau de Versailles.

It was unfortunate that part of the palace is under renovation, and another part of it was closed during our visit. Still, we took our time strolling through the grands appartements, the grand appartement de la reine and the sparkling Galerie des Glaces (Hall of Mirrors).

Hall of Mirrors

Hall of Mirrors

It turned out that a ticket purchased later in the day (we didn’t reach the ticket booth until almost two in the afternoon) does not grant you full access to the gardens. That wasn’t hugely disappointing, since the greatly-coveted fountains had not been turned on all for the weekend:

Gardens at Versailles

I don’t know why, but I sort of expected more from Versailles. Maybe it was the long lines, the overwhelming crowds, the partial renovation and closing off of quarters, or just a general overload from so many museums over the past few days, but I wasn’t as impressed as I thought I’d be. It was beautiful, don’t get me wrong, but in France everything is so stunning that perhaps it just takes more after awhile to really be stopped in your tracks.

Though we didn’t have a chance to visit it, we had fun looking for signs pointing to Saint-Cloud, the little city between Paris and Versailles where my cousins grew up. Since we were running late, we caught the RER back to Paris and headed to our neighborhood for dinner.

We ate at L’Auvergne a Paris, a small restaurant a couple of blocks from our apartment. I had been wanting to try escargots so I was delighted to find and order them from the menu:


They tasted a little like clams, although less flavorful and overpowered by butter, garlic and parsley instead. Still, I was satisfied enough to be able to say I’ve now tried escargots.

By the time we finished dinner, it was evening and we hopped on the metro to visit every tourist’s requisite stop: the Eiffel Tower:

Eiffel Tower

And you know what? Despite the cliches, it was magical. For fifteen minutes at every hour, the entire tower would light up with sparkling lights, and it felt like all of Paris was giving you a great big stinky, wine-soaked, cheese-laden hug. And I wanted to turn around and give it one right back.

Paris, je t’aime.

Day 6: Paris

Posted on

When I was planning our itinerary a few months ago, I knew I was going to have to squeeze the Louvre in there somewhere. Now don’t get me wrong, I know it’s a must-see and I was looking forward to the visit. It’s just that ever since the Da Vinci Code hype a couple of years ago, my interest in the museum waned. I tend to dismiss anything associated with a fad or phenomenon, sort of like trucker hats and Dr. Phil.

Thankfully the Louvre can survive a trend better than any of the aforementioned items, and so my family and I found ourselves at the museum early in the morning to try and beat the crowd.

It turns out you can’t beat the crowd because there are hordes of tourists looking for (a) the Mona Lisa, (b) Tom Hanks, or (c) Tom Hanks deciphering the Mona Lisa, in all her bulletproof-cased glory. This was actually okay, because it diverted the throngs from the Near Eastern antiquities section, which is where we went first. And found oh, about half of Persepolis on display. (I always wondered where so much of the ruins in Iran went.)

Persepolis relief

Pillar from the Apadana palace of Persepolis

We spent a few more hours exploring the museum and finding the must-sees (Mona Lisa and the Venus de Milo, of course), and then walked outside towards Jardin de Tuilieres.

Louvre Museum courtyard

Walking along a straight path, we strolled down Place de la Concorde, passing the Obelisk, the Rue Royale and the Church of the Madeline along the way.

Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel

Finally, we reached the Arc de Triomphe, which was beautifully imposing, albeit a bit anticlimactic after all that walking.

Arc de Triomphe

We looped around and began walking along Avenue des Champs Elysees, mostly window shopping and people watching. The avenue is so much longer and broader than I had ever expected, so we didn’t walk along the whole thing. We did, however, come across Iran Air’s offices on the Champs-Elysees, right by the Louis Vuitton boutique and Laduree shop – who knew?

Iran Air at the Champs-Élysées

We were pretty exhausted after all that walking, so we hopped on to the closest metro back to our apartment where we enjoyed, in typical French fashion, an assortment of fresh cheeses and deli meats with baguettes for dinner.