Tag Archives: Architecture

First Impressions of Quebec- A French Experience in Canada

By Rohan:

We checked into our little hotel in Montreal, thinking there was so much to do and see that we could never imagine conquering it all. Next to us was a family buying train tickets to see Quebec, a city that I thought was similar to Montreal in architecture and culture. I could not have been more wrong. As the day progressed, I noticed more people following in that family’s footsteps and buying their tickets to the city. So as flexible travelers, we decided to see what the big deal was about Quebec.

Our trained pulled into the station on a bright Sunday morning and the lines for the train station coffee shop were already beginning to form. We grabbed our bags from the compartment above us and double-checked to make sure we had our return ticket. Since we only had a day in Quebec and no prior knowledge of any of the attractions, we just decided to wing it. We told the cab driver to take us “downtown” so we could at least get a sense of what this city looked like. The drive was picturesque to say the least. To our right, there was a sparkling river with everything from fishing boats to cruise ships filing in and out. To our left was… a wall?

Quebec was designed by the French to serve as a city rich in art and ideas but also for protection during battles like the French and Indian War. It’s a unique city, boasting a fortified wall that stretches endlessly and several cannons and turrets perched overhead.

As we entered the main city, we noticed the roads began to become steeper and bumpier. We’re not talking asphalt. We’re talking cobblestone. Seventeenth century cobblestone designed for horses to be exact. The cab driver looks in the rearview mirror and grins.

“First time in Quebec?”

After a long nap on the train, I was able to churn out enough energy to nod. The anticipation was building and the sights became more and more inspiring. Busy streets turned into quiet alleys with boutique stores and coffee shops. Modern skyscrapers began to blend into impressive fortresses. Topping it all off was the Chateau Frontenac, a building that is considered to be one of the most beautiful hotels in North America. And boy does it live up to that title! It looks like a palace with strong brick walls, gothic architecture, and Disneyland-like spires. Walk inside and you are treated to furniture from the 18th century, stunning glass chandeliers, and beautiful works of art like the real oil paintings in the lobby.

Exit the hotel and you are at the highest point of Quebec. Here, you can take a funicular to all the shops and restaurants or just kick back, grab a cold drink, and enjoy the view! There are remnants of old battle stations you can explore, making everywhere you look seem special. If you’re in Quebec, I highly recommend first taking a taxi to the Frontenac and then working your way downhill, literally eating through the bakeries and pastry shops as you make your way to the surface. It’s the perfect way to spend a day in French-inspired heaven.

Istanbul In A Day- Topkapi Palace, Hagia Sophia, Hippodrome Obelisk, The Blue Mosque

Hagia Sophia in Istanbul

By Siddhi: 

We have always been the kind of travelers who enjoy spending a week if possible in a city, and have never been fans of doing extensive city-hopping in a single week. There is just too much history, culture, and modernity to truly experience to cram it all into a one or two day itinerary. However, there are always those situations where you only have a day in a city. Maybe as a stopover, maybe as a a brief or spontaneous bridge in your schedule. We took our multi day visits in Istanbul and put them into a one-day itinerary for those of you who don’t have too much time to spend in the city. This may feel a bit hectic, but the stops themselves aren’t too long. And at the end, you’ll feel like you got a dose of the place that is so often regarded the most crucial epicenter of three major world religions.

1)Start off your morning at the Topkapi Palace, where the Ottoman Sultans lived for about four centuries. It a UNESCO World Heritage site, and the lines are huge once the gates open, You don’t want to find yourself waiting that long in the heat  just to get your tickets, so get there early and conquer Topkapi before the crowds become too overwhelming (April though October is considered the “peak season” which can be crazy). Now the entrance fee doesn’t mean you can access everything at the palace. There are additional fees to see the whole complex. So prioritize what you want to do before you get there or the experience can be a labyrinthine series of frustrations in the heat. But make sure you see the Topkapi Dagger, a jewel-crusted emerald gift that was supposed to go from Sultan Mahmud I to Iran’s Nadir Shah (who was assassinated and never got the gift). The dagger is the most popular site in the palace, and although somewhat modest against all the hype that surrounds it, it’s something worth seeing because of how highly regarded it is.

2) Make your way over to the Hagia Sophia, one of the most monumental structures in all of Istanbul and the epitome of first class Byzantine architecture. It used to be a church (A Greek patriarchal cathedral and then a Roman Catholic cathedral), then a mosque, and was finally secularized and turned into a museum. The interior was very ornate, and the most memorable part for me was experiencing the colors. I just love color in any construction, and the intricate mosaic-work was so impressive, especially in retrospect. Another highlight of the Hagia Sophia was seeing some historical remnants of Christian construction in what is predominantly a Muslim design. I remembered when I was in Luxor in Egypt and was able to see the juxtaposition of Christian and Muslim architecture in the Temple of Karnak and Luxor. It’s always so intriguing to see two religions intersecting at places of high cultural significance, and the Hagia Sophia is a fantastic site to visit to see that side-by-side placement.

3) Walk over to the Hippodrome Obelisk in the Sultan Ahmet Square. This used to be the famous circus of Constantinople and one of the city’s most prominent gathering places. Walk around a bit and you can grab lunch at a traditional Turkish restaurant. We ate ate a place where they made thin bread called lavas on hot stones right in front of you. It felt like a real slice of Istanbul, something we found a bit difficult to discover in the midst of the almost overbearing tourism that has, in recent years, taken over the genuine city.

4) Walk to the Blue Mosque, the largest mosque in Istanbul (which, in my opinion, was the more impressive when compared to Hagia Sophia).The architecture of the interior was absolutely incredible. The lit chandeliers were connected to the ceiling in this expansive web of masterful design. I haven’t seen anything like it before. A word of caution so you are respectful to the people inside the Blue Mosque who are actually there to pray: as much as many of Istanbul’s sites seem like they’re tailored towards tourists, they are first and foremost sacred places of prayer for the people of the city. It is easy to forget this and have our photographic instincts and excitement take us over. It is mandated that all women wear scarves inside the Blue Mosque. The guards check before you go in. So as a sign of respect, just keep the scarf on once you get in. You can take it off right when you exit the mosque. But don’t risk insulting the many, many people around you who this place rightfully belongs to first by throwing your scarf on the ground and rushing to take pictures. It can come off very, very demeaning, and that’s not something you want to do.

5) If you’re not totally fatigued after all of this, check out the Grand Bazaar, a massive market that caters to every kind of shopping impulse. But if you’re tired, take a break, and then walk into Old Istanbul at night. where the culture is richer and more closely aligned to a raw Turkish lifestyle than it is in the industrialized city. Walking through the streets at night is like walking through a movie-set. Surreal and like a scene from a fantasy with the misty lights and roadside personalities. End your night with a freshly-baked baklava.

Let us know if you have some one-day Istanbul itineraries that have been successful!

An Offbeat Experience in Istanbul – Biking Buyukada

By Lakshmi:

“A Turkish Idyll Lost in Time”, read the enticing headline of an article introducing readers to the tranquil island of Buyukada, a two square mile  island in the Sea of Marmara.   Less than a month later, on a clear but somewhat chilly August morning, we were on a ferry watching the Istanbul skyline fade away and the small town of Buyukada welcoming us.

For many years, Istanbul held this special place in my heart.  The history was fascinating, the Turks I knew built an even greater longing to visit, and the yummy Turkish food, especially the Imam Bayildi and Baklava we had sampled in Washington and Germany, left me craving for the authentic culinary experience.

Alas, when we arrived in Istanbul in August, it was overrun with tourists.  Every place we went, we had to stand in long lines and crane our necks to see things.  Travel to us is all about blending into the place, experiencing at least a slice of the local people and life, and unfortunately, every place we went to felt like a giant contest to get in line with half of Europe who seemed to be in town.

It was in this frame of mind that we set out to Buyukada, hoping to get a dollop of old world authentic Turkish charm.  And the island did not disappoint.

As we got off the boat and sauntered onto the island, we were immediately drawn by the small town feel….horse drawn carriages, bikes, people afoot and no cars.  This was already feeling good.

After a quick pick-me-up cup of coffee, we headed over to rent bikes.  Our goal?  Spend the day biking across the island, stopping to take in what our hearts fancied.

The day was indeed the ideal antidote to the rest of our trip, giving us a palette of audio-visual treats.

  • The Ottoman era mansions lining the streets were old, beautiful distinctive structures with architectural interest and ample greenery and foliage.  Many an affluent family from the mainland own a home here and rentals are popular among authors and poets.
  • The horse-drawn carriages transporting people to the two peaks, the clickety clack of the horses’ hooves creating a consistent background score throughout the day
  • Children racing one another, yelling and laughing
  • A set of teenagers racing their bikes, trying to pause, gawk and overtake us
  • People weaving through the market place eating lokmas (turkish donuts) and ice cream
  • The spectacular views from Agia Yorgi, a tiny hilltop church
  • The mares resting for a potty break on the roadside, their smells melding with those of the fragrant flowers carried by the fresh breeze
  • The many small restaurants each vying for our attention by yelling out their menus
  • Just us sitting at the top of a peak, with nothing but the ocean in front of us, reminding us of how gratifying even a small moment can be

As we watched the sun going down, we returned our bikes and made our way to a ferry packed to the brim with people heading back to the mainland.  As Buyukada gradually faded away and the distant lights of Istanbul twinkled on the horizon, we reflected on the day and agreed that this would be one Istanbul memory that would stay with us forever.