Jane Austen and Bath

Mr. Knightley

As I mentioned in my last post about Bath, I started off my Bath day… er that sounds weird… my day in Bath… with a Jane Austen walking tour of the city. Since I apparently knew nothing about Jane’s actual life, I didn’t know that Bath played a BIG role in it and was even where she went to get inspiration and do research for her first book (Northanger Abbey). When I thought about it, I realized that Bath is either mentioned or is the main setting in most of her books. It frequently comes up in the context of either going there on holiday or going to get treatment for some illness as it was a big resort town at that time and, get this… in BATH, the old Roman BATHS were thought to have special healing properties. Ah. It’s all starting to make sense, right?

If you hate Jane Austen, then you should probably just stop reading now because fair warning: the rest of this post is about her.

In case you don’t know who Jane Austen is, let me give you a little summary. She was an English novelist in the early 1800s who wrote 6 novels. Four of them were published during her lifetime (Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, and Emma), and while they did actually reach a level of success during her lifetime, that’s nothing compared to their popularity since then. The other two (Northanger Abbey and Persuasion) were published by her siblings after her early death at the age of 41.

Why did people stop wearing this kind of stuff?? Very unfortunate, in my opinion.

During her life, her books were published anonymously because it wasn’t proper for ladies to write as anything more than a hobby. They weren’t supposed to be seeking fame or fortune from their work, and writing as a full-time job wasn’t seen as a feminine pursuit. So, none of her books had her name attached until after her death. Originally, they were published as being written “By a Lady”.

One of the things that’s so interesting about her is the fact that very little is known about her actual life. She and her sister, Cassandra, were very close and wrote each other thousands of letters over the years, but Cassandra burned most of them after Jane died to prevent relatives and others from reading Jane’s “sometimes acid or forthright comments on neighbours or family members” (Cassandra’s words). Hahahahaha. If you read her books, I think you can tell that anyway. Her characters generally aren’t very shy about sharing their opinions of the people they encounter.

Beyond just details about her life, no one is even sure about what she looked like! The museum started out with like eight portraits of “maybe” Jane, and one of the girls working there explained the likelihood of each actually being a portrait of her. The conclusion was that only one of them is fairly certain because it was drawn by her sister Cassandra, but since it shows her from behind, that gives no helpful information about her face.

Me and Mr. Darcy, one of the main characters of Pride and Prejudice. On the inside, I’m even happier than I look in this picture. (Except the character was way more lifelike than I was comfortable with, to be honest. It was kind of creepy.)

Anyway, that’s enough background information. Let’s get back to it. The tour guide was hilarious and did a brilliant job. He was dressed in period clothing and introduced himself as Mr. Knightly, one of the characters in Emma. He explained that Jane’s experiences in Bath and her career as a writer were very intertwined. Her first visit to the city was on holiday for six weeks with her mother and sister, and a couple years later, she spent two months living with her brother who was being treated for gout (a type of arthritis) there. During that two-month period, she did research for Northanger Abbey, and that was her first completed novel.

A couple years later, when she was 25, her father retired, and she moved with her parents and sister Cassandra (they were both unmarried) to Bath. Their first couple of years there were nice, but after her father died unexpectedly, she, her mother, and her sister were left with nearly nothing since women couldn’t inherit. They ended up renting a place on one of the shadiest streets in town, Trim Street, primarily populated by prostitutes, beggars, pimps, and thieves. Our guide said that previously, Jane wrote in a letter that, “I will do all in my power to avoid Trim Street.” So, needless to say, those probably weren’t exactly the best of times. They finally moved away when Jane was 30 and one of her brothers was in a financial position to give them a house.

St. Swithin’s Church, where Jane’s parents were married and her father is buried.

Jane’s father’s grave. The plaque reads, “The Reverend George Austen (1731-1805), Rector of Steventon in Hampshire, married Cassandra Leigh (1739-1827) at the medieval church of St. Swithin’s Walcot, on 26 April 1764.
Their seventh child was the novelist Jane Austen (1775-1817), author of Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, Emma, Northanger Abbey, and Persuasion.
With her parents and sister Cassandra, Jane Austen came to live in Bath in 1801, at 4 Sydney Place, until 1804, and then at 3 Green Park Buildings East, where George Austen died on 21 January 1805. He was buried in the crypt of the rebuilt church of St. Swithin’s.
His tombstone was removed to the present site in 1968…”

There were a few notable early fans of her work including Prince George IV, Prince Regent of Wales. He was known as a very extravagant man who apparently drank the equivalent of £2 million of wine each year. Seems to me that you would need to be drinking almost constantly… Anyway, as you might imagine from that statistic, he was very fat and did as much as he could to hide the full extent of his weight. Some of the things that came into men’s fashion at the time were literally only because they helped to make him look less overweight.

Jane had a very low opinion of the Prince Regent. He, on the contrary, had specially bound copies of her books in all of his houses. Regardless of her personal feelings towards him, it was very useful to have rich patrons, not to mention royal ones. When he invited her to visit his home, she didn’t have much choice but to accept. He didn’t meet her in person, but his assistant asked her if she would dedicate her next book to him.

Of course, she didn’t want to, but how do you say no to a prince? Her next book was Emma, and the dedication she wrote was so sarcastic that they had to revise it multiple times to make it acceptable. Even so, you can still absolutely feel the sarcasm when you read it. It says:

TO
HIS ROYAL HIGHNESS
THE PRINCE REGENT,
THIS WORK IS,
BY HIS ROYAL HIGHNESS’S PERMISSION,
MOST RESPECTFULLY DEDICATED,
BY HIS ROYAL HIGHNESS’S
DUTIFUL
AND OBEDIENT
HUMBLE SERVANT,
THE AUTHOR

That, to me, screams, “I didn’t want to do this, but I did because he told me to and he’s important so here we are.”

Creepy house stalker picture taken from across the street. Their house was the one with the white door.

I may not have known much about Jane Austen at the beginning of the day, but by the end, I was even more impressed and obsessed with her. She’s so funny! And it seems like she was so confident and bold in a time when that wasn’t “acceptable” female behavior. Also, one of the reasons that her books weren’t terribly popular at the time was because they weren’t as dry as the other books that were in style. So basically she had a sense of humor and personality that were ahead of her time.

She died early, at age 41, and the cause is unknown.

After I left the museum, I wandered around town and added a few Jane Austen pilgrimage sites to my list. I did a walk-by of the church where Jane Austen’s parents got married and where her father is buried, and I went to see the house where she lived when her family first moved to Bath following her father’s retirement. I felt a bit creepy because it’s on a normal street and seems like a regular house, though I found out later that it’s a themed B&B. Someone’s bike was parked out front, and that made me wonder (pretending that it WAS just a normal house) if the house would be considered more or less valuable because of its history… maybe more because a famous person lived there, but maybe less because that leads to random people coming to gawk outside.

Sydney Place, the street where the Austens first lived in Bath.

See the plaque to the left of the door?

The house and nearby park were my last two stops of the day, so after I was finished with those, I zombie-walked my way to the train station to head back to Bristol. Another long day, but the random people who told me to visit Bath were right; I did love it there. They have a Jane Austen festival every year where everyone goes to Bath and dresses up in period clothing… I don’t know, I might have to add that to my bucket list…

I walked across this bridge, Pulteney Bridge, on my way across the Avon River to see Jane’s house. This bridge is known for the fact that it has stores lining both sides of the street that runs across it.

Walking across the bridge.

Bath, the city of very unique buildings…

Former location of “the Labyrinth”, a hedge maze in the park across from the Sydney Place house. Jane enjoyed walking in the park and exploring the maze and even mentions it in some of her books.

Railway tracks running next to the park

City views

On the way to the train station

Bath

My adventures of blindly following the advice of strangers continued the next day in Bath. Why Bath? I didn’t know. What’s there? I also didn’t know that. My entire knowledge base going in was that people think it’s beautiful there, and it’s like stepping back in time. That all sounded good to me, so off to Bath I went!

I asked at the hostel about the cheapest way to Bath (because “cheapest” is the key here, not “most efficient” or “easiest”), and I was surprised when the girl told me I should take the train. It was only 8 pounds round trip which was LESS than taking a bus (when does that ever happen??), and it took 10 minutes instead of close to an hour. Woo! Off to a good start.

Bath streets

My first move when I made it to the city was to make a beeline for the visitors’ center because I had no idea what I was supposed to be doing there. That ended up being my best decision of the day because after I grabbed a map of the city and walked outside, I saw a man holding a “Free Jane Austen Walking Tour” sign. You may not know this about me, but I am a MASSIVE Jane Austen fan. Like huge. I think she’s brilliant and funny and knows how to write a darn good story.

Okay, maybe it’s not right to describe myself as a massive fan of HER because I basically knew nothing about her actual life. I’m just a huge fan of her work. I’ve read all of her books, some of them multiple times, and each time I think they get better (probably because each time I understand them a bit better… between the British English and the fact that they were written in a different time period, it can be a challenge to catch all of the humor).

I wrote a separate post about the intimate details I learned about Jane’s life, but the tour was cool because the guide (dressed as Mr. Knightley from Emma) didn’t only explain places that directly related to that; he also talked about major sights in town.

First, let me give you a little background on the city of Bath. Bath is located at the site of the only natural hot springs in the UK. It was originally settled by Celtic tribes who thought that the springs were a gift from the gods, specifically their goddess Sulis. When the area was conquered by the Romans in the first century AD, the city and the baths were Romanized. I’ll talk more about the baths later, but for now just appreciate the incredibly creative naming of the city… It all makes sense now, eh?

Back to the tour. We walked past the Bath Abbey (the main cathedral), and Mr. Knightley explained that none of the aristocratic class used to go there because it was considered smelly and touristy and at least the latter is still true today. Apparently, they used to put the corpses of the rich in the crypt underneath the church instead of properly burying them, so it literally smelled like rotting bodies. EW. Due to this, the shops that were directly against the walls of the church didn’t have to pay taxes. CAN YOU IMAGINE?? That’s disgusting. At some point after that, they decided that maybe it was kind of gross to leave bodies out to smell up the place, and they were buried.

Front of the Abbey

There has been a church on the site of the current abbey since the 700s AD, but this building has been there since about the 1500s with major restorations done in the late 1800s. It’s built in the Gothic style, and one of the major features is these angels climbing up “ladders to heaven” on the front façade. Mr. Knightly told us that there’s a story that the Puritans shot off their heads and wings because they were anti-ornamentation, and who knows what’s true except for the fact that some of them are definitely missing heads and wings…

Bath Abbey

The Roman Baths are right near the abbey, and next to those, there’s the Pump House which was a fashionable place for people to hang out in Jane’s day. You could drink water from the spring which supposedly has healing properties, and I learned later in the day that this water was piped up directly from the bath pools… which means people were basically drinking dirty bathwater.

Next to the Pump House is the King’s and Queen’s Baths which was one of the most popular places to “take the waters”. It also contained a book where, during Jane’s time (the early 1800s), you would write when you arrived in town so that everyone would know you were there. It was a time of people knowing everyone else’s business, including how much everyone was worth.

The Pump House

Architecturally, the city is primarily built in the Georgian style. In 1814, the entire city was rebuilt with one main architect, John Wood the Elder. Important buildings were reconstructed in this style, and less important/older ones were simply refaced with a proper façade.

Townhouses called “the circus”. They form a circle with three gaps for roads.

The middle of the circus

One of the interesting features in town is called the Royal Crescent. This was built by John Wood the Younger, and actually, he only designed the curving façade. People purchased a certain length of the façade and then could build whatever they wanted behind it! So, something may look like two houses from the front but actually be only one. Mr. Knightley said that this was the typical Bath way… it was all about having the appearance of high society. The actual substance was less important.

The Royal Crescent

The backs of some of the Royal Crescent houses. See how icky the back looks compared to the uniformity of the front?

In the center of the city, the three primary streets are Quiet Street, John Street, and Wood Street. He told a story about the meeting to name the streets of the new city of Bath. The architect, John Wood, wouldn’t shut up, so the guy in charge of the meeting yelled, “QUIET, John Wood!” and so, they had their first three street names.

Another random street in town… As you can see, they all look kind of similar,

This was the door handle on one of the churches… I thought it was funny

After the tour, I walked to the Botanical Gardens. It was the PERFECT time of year to go because the flowers were blooming, and things were actually green!

Enjoy these pretty spring pictures!

I continued roaming before finally making my way to the baths. Admission was a bit expensive, but it was totally worth it! There’s a museum portion and then the actual baths. For the museum, there was a free audio guide, and when I got to the bath part, I was just in time for the last guided tour of the day which ended up being fantastic!

The temple in the center was dedicated to Sulis (the Celtic goddess) and the Roman goddess Minerva who they considered the same goddess by a different name. These baths are particularly interesting because of the style mixing between the Roman and local tribal cultures. Archaeologists guess that the Romans probably saw parallels between some of the gods that the locals worshipped and their gods, so they didn’t want to run the risk of offending one of them, hence the mixed styles.

The side of the temple with what they guess is a gorgon head, but it’s unlike anything anywhere else, so no one actually has a clue where the design came from

The baths are fed by 10,000-year-old rainwater that goes 3km underground and comes up at 37 degrees C. The local tribes, and later the Romans, thought it had healing properties, so the bathhouse was one of the first things to be built by the Roman conquerors. The land around the springs was dried, and the temple was built.

In classic Roman form, the design pushed the engineering boundaries of the time. The main bath pool originally had a 20m high roof. The first iteration was made of wood, but that rotted quickly because of the heat and moisture. It was replaced with a roof made of hollow bricks.

Curse tablets

One of my favorite things were curse tablets. If someone was wronged, for example if something was stolen from them, they would buy these little lead tablets and write what was stolen, who took it (or a list of suspects if they didn’t know for sure), and a request for Minerva to curse them in whatever way they saw fit. They would roll these up and then throw them into the main spring pool. If the tablet floated, it was said that the curse would come back on the curser, so people were sure to make them heavy and fold them up really well.

More curse tablets. They had some of the texts written out, and I thought they were hilarious. Here are a couple examples:
“May the person who has stolen Vilbia (possibly a slave) from me become as liquid as water… who has stolen it: [list of names of people the author suspects]”
“I curse him who has stolen my hooded cloak, whether man or woman, whether slave or free, that the goddess Sulis inflict death upon… and not allow him to sleep or have children now or in the future.”
That second one seems like a bit of an extreme curse for stealing a cloak, but hey, what do I know?

We walked through the different rooms of the baths, and the guide explained what each was used for. First was the changing room where people would prepare for the bath process. The baths were affordable, so people of all social classes used them. The rich came more often and had servants to help them and to guard their belongings. The poorer people undressed themselves and didn’t have anyone to watch over their stuff which often led to thefts (and people asking Minerva for curses).

The changing room. They had these funny projections to help you visualize the happenings in each room.

After undressing, bathers moved into the tepidarium, the warm heat room, for cleaning and hair removal. People removed all of their body hair from the neck down. If you were rich, you could afford a blade to shave it. Otherwise, you were stuck with plucking… EEK! When your hair was all removed, you were massaged with oil (to clean you, obviously) and then sent to the next room, the caldarium.

Inside the tepidarium. You can see the simulation people getting massages.

This was the hot room and was like a sauna. It had a raised floor that contained an underfloor heating system. In this room, people sweated, and the oil was scraped off. What was done with this sweaty oil? Glad you asked. If it was used by someone important, sometimes it was sold by enterprising Romans as a face cream so that you could absorb some of the essence of the person who used it. Otherwise, it was probably sent back to the tepidarium and reused. Hygienic, huh?

Caldarium. The stacks of bricks are called the hypocaust. Those are what held up the raised floor.

Lead pipes for carrying water

After being “cleaned”, people moved to the main pool which was a big social hub. You could buy wine, and to sweeten it, they would often add lead powder. The main pool was also lined with lead sheets for waterproofing purposes. Lead pipes carry water throughout the compound… so it’s probably safe to say that literally everyone had lead poisoning.

Main bathing pool

Standing on ancient ground

The waters in Bath were believed to have healing properties, so this bath has a special immersion pool for healing. Rather than being healed, people probably just ended up passing on their skin conditions to other people in the baths.

The “healing” immersion pool

In the early 5th century, the Roman Empire started struggling, and skilled workers were recalled to Rome. No one who was left knew how to maintain the facilities, so the roof started to collapse. By the 12th century, all evidence of the Roman Empire in Bath was gone. The floor level of the baths is six meters below the modern-day street level!

The sacred spring where the curse tablets and other sacrifices were thrown

A recovered sacrifice. I love how delicate it is!

In the late 1800s, people’s basements started filling up with water which led to an investigation to understand why. In this process, they discovered the hot springs and started buying up people’s properties to investigate. This process was delayed by 10 years because one person kept holding out and refusing to sell, so they had to wait for him to die (who wants a basement filled with water??). Since then, the Roman Baths have become one of the major tourist attractions in town… and rightfully so because they’re awesome.

The mineral water that you’re allowed to drink. Ew.

I absolutely loved my time at the baths. I thought it was so freaking cool. At the end, you can drink some of the (cleaned) water. It’s disgusting. There are so many minerals and stuff in it that it tastes repulsive. The guide said that they would bottle and sell it, but legally, you need to have the bottling plant at the site of the spring, and they don’t have the space for that. My question is, would people seriously buy it despite the taste just because it’s supposedly good for you? Not me!

Bristol

Starting the day off right! (with a little sugar boost…)

Bristol day! I started off my day at a coffee shop for breakfast and a hot chocolate. It was way expensive, especially compared to Armenia/Georgia/Turkey prices, but I thought it was okay to treat myself to something familiar. Sometimes you need that. It was also raining which didn’t exactly make me want to walk around just yet. The weekly forecast predicted rain EVERY DAY. Ugh. After leaving the (eventually) perfect weather in Istanbul, I was not interested in cold and wet. Thankfully, it cleared up throughout the day. The rain was kind of off and on, but it wasn’t strong, and I had my rain jacket and waterproof boots (thank you, Armenia! I bought boots there for like $20 which is maybe the best purchase of my life) to keep me at least slightly dry (there’s nothing worse than wet feet).

Enjoying the rain…

So, let’s talk about Bristol. Bristol has been an official city in England since 1155 when it received its royal charter (that’s the most British thing I’ve ever heard…), and it was a very important port city for much of its history. During the years of expeditions to the “New World”, it was the main departure point. When the colonies were more developed, it was one of the primary ports used in the triangular trade routes where manufactured goods were shipped to West Africa and traded for captured African people, the captives were taken to the colonies and sold as slaves, and plantation goods were taken from the colonies back to Britain.

The city was bombed during World War II, resulting in the destruction/damage of 100,000 buildings and the deaths of around 1,300 people. Some of the buildings are still in bombed-out and unrestored condition. Today, Bristol is no longer an active port city, and the old dock buildings have begun to be repurposed for various things including an interactive museum exploring the city’s history.

My first stop was Castle Park and St. Peter’s Church. Since I knew nothing going in, I kind of expected to see a church and a castle. Instead, I saw the very sparse remains of a castle and the ruins of a bombed church. St. Peter’s has been left as a shell, and there’s a plaque on the side listing the names of the people who were killed in the bombings.

St. Peter’s

As you can see, it’s not exactly a complete church anymore…


St. John’s

I walked along the water for a bit and then went to my next church destination, St. John’s Church. This is the only remaining part of the medieval city wall because the church was built into the wall! The sanctuary, unfortunately, was closed, but I checked out the crypt. I didn’t know anything about the people buried there, but it was still fun to check out the architecture. I can only imagine how cool the church must be!

Inside the crypt

I wandered from there and ended up in another church, St. Stephen’s. Finally, a church that I could go inside! Hooray! It was nice and had a lot of intense stained glass. All of it was very detailed with images of different people and scenes from the Bible. Kind of overwhelming. I think you’d have to spend a month in there to give everything the attention it deserves. Honestly, it kind of made me miss the simplicity of the mosque interiors. I love the concept of having no living beings in any of the imagery in order to keep the focus on God. That’s such a beautiful concept! It also makes for some pretty incredible buildings.

St. Stephen’s

Inside St. Stephen’s


Detailed stained glass

There are also a bunch of murals around the city

When the sky finally started to clear…

It was weird being back in the land of churches after coming from the land of mosques. In Istanbul, I really enjoyed the mosques and the feeling of community that they contained. I appreciated the churches in Bristol though because they had people working when you visited, most of them had cafes, and it felt like they were actually operational instead of just old, empty buildings.

A Catholic church that I happened by

Covered market

Interesting brick architecture…


My wanderings then took me to St. Mary Redmond Church (see? Land of churches which means that 90% of the things to see are churches), a massive cathedral. They had guides that you could carry around with you to identify the million different spaces within the church. There was an abundance of stained glass here too, and the ceiling had that classic Gothic ribbing with the weird faces/carvings at the spots where the ribs intersect.

I don’t have any exterior pictures of St. Mary’s because it was under construction, but just imagine the stereotypical Gothic cathedral, and you’re probably at least 90% right

The Lady chapel in St. Mary’s

Looking towards the altar

Nice, clean-looking water

Row houses along the river

My plans were fairly loose for the day (aka I did a less-than-perfect job of planning), so after leaving the church, I just kept moseying around. I walked along the river, checked out an architecture museum that talked about affordable housing, walked across some bridges, strolled through Queen Square, and made my way to Bristol Cathedral. That’s another pretty fantastic building. It’s a Gothic cathedral with some serious buttresses and ribbed arches and high ceilings. Its architectural claim-to-fame is the fact that the aisles and the nave ceilings are at the same height, whereas usually, the nave is higher. It definitely makes the church feel more expansive!

Very brown…

Pero’s Bridge, a pedestrian bridge with big horn-shaped counterweights for the bridge’s liftable center span

Harbor!

First glimpses of the cathedral

Pretty epic, huh?

The cathedral from its courtyard

Some Gothic ribbed vaults…

Exiting the cathedral

Bristol Cathedral and College Green

Do you think I should have worried that this was going to fly off the shelf?

The cathedral is located on College Green, across from the Bristol City Hall and this other church, The Lord Mayor’s Chapel, that was closed. That kicked off a series of visits to things that were closed, and along the way, I stopped in a thrift shop to see if I could find any Iceland-worthy clothes. Mike was making me nervous that it was going to be really cold, and I wasn’t going to be ready for it. I tried on the most ridiculous jumpsuit and decided that I didn’t need to rush my purchase because it would probably still be there in a couple days… I mean, it was obviously incredibly fashionable, just slightly out of season for Bristol.

Bristol City Hall

The Lord Mayor’s Chapel

I also walked through the Bristol Museum which was a mix of archaeological artifacts, art, animals, etc. It was free, and I could have spent a lot of time there, but I wasn’t really in the museum mood as long as it wasn’t raining outside. It’s also the same kinds of stuff you can see anywhere, so I didn’t need to spend my one day in Bristol in a museum. It was nice to see the building though.

Inside the Bristol Museum

One of Bristol University’s buildings

St. Paul’s Church… which was closed

Victoria Methodist Church… also closed

Churches everywhere! Also closed…

My main destination of the day was the Clifton Suspension Bridge, a world-famous bridge that I had previously never heard of… Construction started in 1831, and after a series of delays for various reasons, it was finally completed in 1864 with a span of over 700ft. Since then, it’s become the most widely-known landmark in the city.

Random, interesting facts:
It was the site of the first bungee jump!
A woman tried to commit suicide from the bridge in 1885, but her skirts acted as a parachute, and she survived (and lived 60 more years!).

I don’t know what exactly you’re supposed to do when you visit a bridge, so I did everything I could think of. I looked at it from one side, then I looked at it from the other. I walked across on one side, and I walked back on the other. I concluded that it’s a nice bridge.

Welp. There it is!

Observation tower near the bridge

Another angle because why not?

Enjoying the view

That’s some serious structure! Also, apparently the chains for the bridge were purchased from another bridge… so sustainable haha

Walking across for the first time

Walking across for the second time…

Check out that bridge!

Curved row houses. Apparently this street is another well-known thing that I didn’t know anything about

Queen Elizabeth’s Hospital

Cabot Tower

On the verge of collapse, I made my last stop of the day at Cabot Tower, a tower on a hill in some park. I almost didn’t go because I was tired, and since I didn’t do proper research, I didn’t even really know what it was. Thankfully, one of the google reviews convinced me because it said that it was free and you got a good view of the city. Okay, sold!

I now know that the tower was built in 1890 to commemorate the 400th anniversary of John Cabot’s expedition from Bristol to what is now Canada. Otherwise, there’s not much more to it beyond what I assumed… it’s a tower. After I finally found my way there, I proceeded to climb up the most skinny and windy spiral staircase in existence. The bottom stairs were tight to begin with, and then you made it to the first viewing platform only to discover that you weren’t quite at the top yet. The staircase to get there was even tighter!

Spiral stairs, round 1

Spiral stairs, round 2


Fancy tower

As promised, the view was great. The sky had finally cleared up from the morning storms, so while you couldn’t quite see forever, you could see pretty darn far. I stayed up there for a while, enjoying picking out the different sights I visited throughout the day. At some point, I was gazing out at the city, and this guy came over to show me a picture he had taken… which looked almost exactly like the one that girl took of me on Galata Tower in Istanbul. He asked me if I wanted it, and I said yes and gave him my email address. Nice! I thought the whole thing was pretty funny, and I now know that I have an official “gazing out at cities” face.

Not bad… Looking towards the main downtown area

Another Bristol angle

After that, I was about ready to collapse. This is one of those rare times when I wish I had a step counter or something to know how far I walked because it felt like an eternity. I grabbed some dinner on the way back to the hostel, including some vegetables because I felt like I needed some green in my life. That’s when you know I’m in a serious vitamin shortage! Plus, I needed to power up for the days ahead.

Istanbul version

Bristol gazing

On the Road/Air/Move Again

My trip to Turkey may have gotten off to a slow start (thanks for nothing, rain), but even so, by the end, I felt like I had accomplished a lot. I didn’t know what to expect going in and ended up absolutely loving it there. I left feeling certain that I need to go back someday. When I do, I want to see more of the country beyond just Istanbul. The food, the culture, the apple tea… it all felt “right” to me, like I finally found that sense of home that I failed to feel in Armenia. That was a bit of a weird and emotionally conflicting feeling, but I’ll work through it.

I had a whole plan for what my post-Istanbul travel time was going to look like. I mean, it was still a very loose plan, but a plan DID exist. I say this because when you look at my travel route over the next few weeks, you’re going to shake your head and wonder if I bothered looking at a map beforehand. The plan was to go north from Turkey, working my way up through the Balkan countries to Central/Western Europe and then home. That’s not quiteee what actually happened, and like a good sister, I’m going to blame that entirely on my brother Mike.

When I was in Tbilisi, my mom told me that Mike was planning a trip to Iceland to visit some friends who were living there for a month. My response to that, of course, was, “Um, why didn’t he invite me?” And like a good sister, I invited myself. I’m kidding a little; I did ask him if I could tag along. He said yes, and so my next challenges were figuring out how to get myself from Istanbul to Iceland without going broke and deciding where to spend the one-week gap between the two.

The easiest and least expensive route was through London, so off to England I went! Since I spent some time in London after I left Ghana, I didn’t want to stay there for the entire week. The solution? I asked a couple of Brits who were staying at my Tbilisi hostel where they recommended I go, and I blindly followed their advice. How bad could it be? They did live in England, after all, which meant they had to know SOMETHING about what to do in their own country. They told me to go to Bristol, a city in the southwest of England, and to take day trips from there to Bath and Cardiff, a city in Wales. And so, Bristol became my next destination.

Bristol!

On my way through immigration into Britain, the agent asked where I was going and kind of made a face when I said Bristol. My response to his question of, “Why are you going there??” made him laugh and shake his head a little. He apparently didn’t agree with my random hostel friends. Slightly worried, I asked if he had been to Bristol, and he said no. Okay, his opinion was void. Either way though, my bus to Bristol and my hostel were booked. There was no turning back.

After my flight from Istanbul to London, I had a bit of a trek to ahead. I flew into London Stansted airport which meant I had to take about a one-hour bus ride to the city center followed by a three-hour bus ride to Bristol. Talk about a long day.

You know how I always talk about how you meet the most interesting people when you’re travelling? And often, it happens at the most unexpected of times. I would definitely qualify the bus ride from London to Bristol as an “unexpected time” (though maybe that means I should have expected it).

Not quite the same architecture as Istanbul…
(Wills Memorial Building, University of Bristol)

Anyway, some random guy sat down next to me, he asked what I was doing in England and where I had come from, and from the moment I mentioned Istanbul, we had more than enough to talk about. He was from Northern Ireland and randomly moved to Istanbul when he was in his 20s. He found work at an Irish pub there (because he was Irish, so he was automatically qualified), and somehow, word got out that there was an Irish dance instructor working at this pub… which led to him being recruited to choreograph a show at the Turkish State Theatre. After that, he stayed on and kept working with them for the rest of 5 years that he spent there! You might be wondering why they could possibly need an Irish dance choreographer, and trust me, I asked the same thing. He said that the show they were doing was set in Ireland (don’t ask me what show, I had never heard of it and promptly forgot the name), so they wanted authentic dancing in it. And what did they need from him for the rest of the 5 years? Who knows. But he said that they were some of his favorite years. I can imagine.

That, of course, led me to the question of if he could speak Turkish… which led us to a conversation about languages because yes, he could speak Turkish, and he could speak 16 other languages as well.  He was a linguist, a professor at a university. How cool. Don’t worry though, he’s only fluent in 9 of those languages, so you don’t have to feel TOO bad. Ha. Haha.

The rest of the ride went by in a flash. We talked about Istanbul, about language, about the world. He was absolutely fascinating. He also said that he thought I would enjoy Bristol and that I should visit Bath and Cardiff as well, and in my mind, his opinion held much more weight than that of the immigration agent. At the end of the ride, he thanked me for the good conversation (it’s nice to know that he enjoyed it as much as I did), and we parted ways.

I walked to my hostel feeling great about the next couple of days. Honestly, after that ride, the trip to Bristol already felt like it was worth it. The rest was just bonus!

Buyukada and the Princes’ Islands

When I arrived in Istanbul, I felt like I was going to be there forever. Somehow though, forever wasn’t quite as long as I thought, and soon enough it was my last day in the city. I, of course, hadn’t done everything that I wanted and had no time to finish it all, so I was faced with the decision of how to spend my final day.

My friend Zoe (from Armenia) told me that while she was in Istanbul, some of her friends went to the islands near the city, rented bikes for the day, and just biked around exploring. The weather was beautiful on my last day, and I couldn’t think of a better way to spend it than on a boat and on a bike.

I asked my friend Gareth if he wanted to join, he said yes, and we were off! Yay! There are some things that are way more fun with a friend, and this was definitely one of them.

Dolmabahce Palace from the ferry on the way to the island

The Princes’ Islands are a series of nine islands in the Sea of Marmara, southeast of Istanbul. During the Byzantine years, they were a place of exile for princes and other royalty, hence their name. At the time, they seemed extremely remote, and only the exiles and some monks lived on them. In the 19th century, everything changed with the arrival of the steamboat. Then, they became more accessible and were transformed into a popular resort for the wealthy people of Istanbul. Historically, the islands were dominated by minority groups. There were significant Jewish, Greek, and Armenian communities living on them. Those populations are now much less prominent, but traces of them can still be seen in the buildings on the islands.

Dolmabahce Mosque from the ferry

Out of the nine total islands, five are inhabited. Three have no settlements, and the last one is a private island. The four largest are popular tourist destinations, great for escaping the chaos and noise of the city because there are no motor vehicles allowed besides service vehicles. The popular forms of transport are horse-drawn carriages and bicycles! That’s my kind of place!

One of the other islands from the ferry

We went to the biggest island, Buyukada (meaning “big island”… creative, right?). It’s a little over 5 square kilometers in area and has a population of around 7,000 people which increases tenfold in the summers! It was still early in the season when we went, but even so, our ferry was fairly crowded. The best part of the ride was when this dude put on a live infomercial for a vegetable peeler. From the sound of the crowd, it was like he was putting on a magic show. People were cheering and clapping, eager to see what food he would pull out of his bag to peel next. I’ve never seen anything like it before, and I am nearly certain that I’ll never see anything like it again.

See the guy in the white shirt in the background? He’s in the middle of an intense vegetable-peeler performance. The crowd is completely hooked. My favorite thing was imagining him practicing his presentation at home. He’s surrounded by peeled vegetables and fruits. His wife walks in and shakes her head. “What else can I peel, honey?” he asks.

Remnant of the Armenian community on the island – an Armenian church!

When we got to the island, we walked around a little first to get our bearings and then decided it was bike time. Well, I decided it was bike time because the day was required to consist of two things, remember? Boats and bikes, and we had already crossed off the boats.

We rented some bikes and biked one of the loops on the island. There’s a short loop and a long loop, and we only ended up having time for the short one because we took a long break in the middle to go to the highest point on the island. The bike rental guy told us that we would need to walk up to the lookout point because it was too steep to ride. We decided he didn’t know what he was talking about and started to ride. I made it approximately 5 minutes before I changed my mind, decided that riding was more effort than it was worth, and pushed my bike the rest of the way while Gareth rode next to me.

The streets are lined with big beach mansions, some well-maintained and some on the verge of collapse.

This looks like it’s in great shape, right?

This thing screams “BEACH HOUSE!” Geez, house. Could you be any more obvious?


The view at the top was really nice, so we sat and looked at the sparkling water and talked until it was time to ride back and return our bikes. I guess I was kind of happy to have a bike for the way down the hill, but at the same time, that’s not true at all because the whole way was cobblestones, and the however many minutes it took us to get to the bottom were completely uncomfortable. Plus, you never know how functional the brakes are on a rental bike, so I was constantly braced for the moment when mine decided to quit on me. Gareth, on the other hand, seemed unfazed by the whole thing, so maybe I’m just crazy.

View from the top

Me and Gareth

We returned our bikes and drank some horrible tea with the bike rental guy (seriously, why does any tea besides apple tea even exist??), and I passed out on the ferry ride back to the city. Who knew I was so tired? I guess it’s a good thing that I slept a little because after we got back to the hostel, I had some packing to do!

Mosque Marathon

Continued from yesterday

As soon as I left church, my aggressive sightseeing itinerary started. I walked across the river, back to the southern Europe part of Istanbul, ready to get going on my list. I got off to a great start… I tried to see the New Mosque, or Yeni Camii, but it’s apparently so new that it’s not finished yet. Okay! No problem! 0/1. I continued on.

Walking across the river

Next to that is the spice market. I generally hate markets because they usually involve a lot of people yelling at you, but if you want to see the market, you don’t have much of a choice except to go and deal with it. I walked through, snapped some pictures, did a stand-up job of ignoring everyone who yelled at me, and got out as quickly as I could.

This picture was almost worth the “HEY! Spain! You can take as many pictures as you want over here!” that was yelled at me as I took it. I guess he thought I looked Spanish.

The colors!

I tried to go to another mosque a couple blocks away, but I literally couldn’t find the entrance (and I walked around the block TWICE before I gave up). These seem to be the rules of mosques:

  1. Hidden entrance – I would say that 9/10 times, me entering a mosque involves me walking at least 90% of the way around the building before figuring out how to get inside. The 1/10 time is when I never enter because I can’t find the door.
  2. Beautiful ceilings – They are top notch. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.
  3. Insane chandeliers – I think this might be an Istanbul-specific thing, but I don’t really know. I don’t actually love this feature, but they all have chandeliers that are the size of practically the entire mosque and require approximately 9483958 anchor points on the ceiling.
  4. Comfy carpets – If you’re taking your shoes off, the carpets had better be comfy. Plus people are on their knees a lot during prayer, so it makes sense that they would be wonderfully cushiony.
  5. Construction – It MUST be a rule that at any given moment, at least 70% of the mosques in the city must be under construction or at least have scaffolding up. This is the only explanation that makes sense to me for how SO many mosques could be under renovation at the same time. It must be a quota thing.

From there, I zig-zagged my way across the city to see the rest of the mosques on my list. Zeyrek Mosque was at the top of a hill (ugh), and I managed to find it impressively easily… you might be thinking, “Lara, it’s at the top of a hill… how hard could it possibly be to find?” My only answer to that is, you go to Istanbul and try to find a specific mosque and THEN tell me if you’re impressed. AND I only walked halfway around the building before I found the door.

Inside Zeyrek. I didn’t think it looked like a typical mosque, so I assumed it used to be a church. Sure enough, it was TWO churches AND a chapel. Look at me, basically a mosque expert now.

Instead of taking the main road to my next stop, I decided to be adventurous and go on the smaller streets. Well, I don’t know how adventurous you’re being if you’re following a map, but I felt like it was a big step because I had gotten lost about a million times already (while using the map).

My “back route” took me by a park where a bunch of locals were hanging out, there were shops all around, and everything was bustling. It was cool! So there I went, just bopping along and enjoying the chaos, when out of nowhere, the aqueducts emerged!! I knew that they existed, but I didn’t know exactly where and had totally forgotten about them. They are hard to forget after you’ve seen them. So big and impressive and beautiful! And they stretch for blocks and blocks. On the other side of this particular part, there was a big park FILLED with people. I loved it! Seeing people living their normal lives. And all of that happening with the most epic Roman ruin backdrop you could imagine. How cool to live in a city like that, where there’s so much history surrounding you everywhere?! I did what anyone would do in this situation and got an ice cream to eat while soaking in the history.

SO COOL!

Park yourself in front of some aqueducts

My next stop was Fatih Camii which had been recommended to me by multiple people. The mosque complex was MASSIVE. I walked through the gates, and it was like entering a different world. There were people everywhere. Kids were running around and playing, people were sitting and chilling, and it really felt like the mosque was a social hub. I could have sat there for hours just watching people. I didn’t have hours though, so I found the visitors’ entrance (maybe, who even knows?) and went inside.

Fatih Mosque

Entering into the Fatih grounds… note the excessive Turkish flagging

The inside was marvelous. It was kind of like being inside a frilly layer cake. There was a big central dome and then layers and layers of half-domes that spread out from there. And TONS of stained glass. And another ridiculously large chandelier, hanging low near the ground. I don’t understand why they do that. The painting in the dome was beautiful but standard. It was the rest of the ambiance that made it special.

Just like outside, there were kids running around and people talking and people studying and a guy teaching some kids how to pray. I’m going to say this a million more times, but I just loved how it was like a community gathering place. It felt open and welcoming.

Look at all of the people! And that ridiculous chandelier

The ceiling of Fatih. I’m not a big fan of the abundance of chandelier supports.

Frilly layer cake

Pretty!


The next mosque was a bit quieter… the only other person inside was this dude sleeping in the corner. As far as interior décor goes though, this one is my #1 favorite from my trip. It’s called Pertevniyal Valide Sultan Mosque, and from the outside, it looks like any other mosque. The inside though… A bunch of the mosques have the painting style where the main dome is mostly white except for this circle decal in the center and then little circle decals around it. They’re pretty, but after you see two of them, they start to blur together because they’re all kind of the same. This one was completely different. Blue was the main color (which makes it bound to be a favorite for me), and every surface was painted. It was so elegantly done. I think it also helped that there was just one chandelier string hanging down from the main dome instead of the million support strings that the big chandeliers need. I was totally obsessed and definitely could have stayed there all day.

From the outside, it looks like any other mosque… (Though the towers are actually straight haha… I just had to take a weird picture to be able to get the whole thing in.)

…and then the ceiling is like BAM!

I. Love. This. Mosque.

That made me wish a bit that I had just gone into every single little mosque I passed by. I’m sure some would have been underwhelming, but there must be others lurking that are just amazing. And the smaller the better probably because the big mosques mostly had that boring circle painting deal.

From there, I went to Laleli Mosque, this little one kind of hidden off the streets. I decided to try looking for it in a little alleyway (yes, I know how ridiculous that sounds, but I’m telling you… they’re all hiding!), and there was the mosque, sitting above me! This one was back to the similar painting style, and even though I say that it’s boring, it’s still spectacular no matter how many times you see it. And there are always amazing stained glass windows. There is no shortage of things to marvel at.


Laleli Mosque

Laleli courtyard

Inside Laleli

View of the mosque from my tree spot

Prince Mosque was next, and it was another one of those mosques that’s more than just a building, it’s a compound. This one was a little quieter, not as much chaos on the inside. The ceiling painting was similar to the usual circle thing but with enough of a twist that I thought it was exciting, plus the colors were some of my favorites. The outdoor area had a lot of grass and a nice personality, so I decided to spend some time sitting under a tree. There were families and couples and other people out enjoying the day and the pretty landscaping around the mosque. It was a little oasis in the center of the city.

Prince Mosque. Oasis located on the other side of those walls.

Inside Prince Mosque

Peeking into the courtyard

Some of the trees here looked like the ones at Topkapi Palace. The same tree-gut-eating virus must have swept the city


From there, I had a series of fails. Beyazit Mosque was mostly closed for renovations and the Grand Bazaar was closed because it was Sunday (whoops… bad planning on my part, but honestly, I don’t think I would have loved it anyway). I went to look at the entrance gate to Istanbul University because someone told me to, but it was another one of those “okay so I’m here… but why?” moments.

Istanbul University’s gate

Since I was in the neighborhood, I popped into two mosques near the Grand Bazaar, Nuruosmaniye and Atik Ali Pasa.

Column of Constantine. This was placed to commemorate the declaration of Nova Roma as the capital of the Roman Empire. I know it’s a significant piece of history or whatever, but it just looks kind of sad. And this is it AFTER they did some restoration. What was it before? A pile of rocks? Anyway, what I’m saying is, it’s nice that they’re conserving the past. (That’s what I said, right?)

Nuruosmaniye Mosque

Inside Nuruosmaniye. I usually try to keep people out of my pictures, especially when they’re praying… but this one was just too perfect.

Nuruosmaniye Mosque

Atik Ali Pasa

Inside Atik Ali Pasa. And I kind of like this chandelier (in case you were starting to think I don’t like anything).

My Turkish ice cream

Since one ice cream in a day isn’t enough, I went and got another one. This was one of the special Turkish ice creams which I’ve mentioned before. It’s like Arabic ice cream that uses a binding resin that helps to prevent melting, and the scoopers always put on a big show when they’re scooping it.

My last big stop of the day was Suleymaniye Mosque, and it ended up being the perfect way to end my day. It’s at the top of a big hill, and there’s an awesome view of the city, plus the mosque compound was huge and brimming with people again. The inside was pretty, though it was all pink and not necessarily my favorite one. That’s okay though. They can’t all be my favorite.

Suleymaniye on the approach

Going inside…

In the courtyard!

The ceiling

Such crazy detail!

Around the courtyard

Not bad, right?

Sunset and Suleymaniye

Ignore the questionable looking buildings directly behind me and focus your attention on the pretty ones in the distance.

By the time I left, I was pretty exhausted. I wandered my way back towards the hostel before deciding that I really did need to eat an actual meal (especially since lunch consisted of two ice creams… hehe I love being a grown up). I found my way back to the usual food street and got a couple of lahmajuns before heading home and practically collapsing. Punishment day #2 successful.

Easter in Istanbul

One thing that was on my “definitely do” list for Istanbul was wake up to watch the sunrise over the Bosphorus. The icky weather was a bit of an obstacle to that goal, but luckily, the weather got better and better during the week. If I was going to wake up early to see the sunrise, it was going to be on a clear morning.

Well, time was running out. With only two more mornings, I checked the weather, and it looked good for the morning of Easter Sunday. I thought that given the day, it was an extra fitting start… watching the sun rise on the day when the Son rose. (That gave me a good giggle for at least half the day.) I was, of course, running kind of late, which meant that I was literally running to get to the water before the I missed the whole thing. I forgot about the fact that the published “sunrise time” is when the sun breaks the horizon, and that’s the worst time to watch because it’s when you start going a bit blind. Oh well. I ran and made it there with plenty of time to watch pre-blinding.

Honestly, I had some high hopes, and it was pretty magical. There wasn’t another person in sight, the world was quiet, and the orange sky was reflecting off of the water. It was a good time for some reflection (pun absolutely intended) and prayer. Sometimes it’s nice to just press pause on the chaos of life.

Sunrise series!

Nothing like a good panorama…

That was the last pause of the day because after that, I had my aggressive sightseeing plan for the day. I was going to church at 11, but before then, I worked out, ate breakfast, and had a few mosques that I wanted to cross off my list on the way there. My mosque sightseeing plan was basically this: visit any that someone specifically recommended and then visit any others that I found on google maps or happened to walk by. Very specific, I know.

Hagia Sophia on my walk back to the hostel after the sunrise – a tourist-free shot!

Here are some random pictures from the park where I worked out sometimes. The landscaping is unreal!

This thing spits out water droplets in different patterns. Sometimes, they even spell out words!

My first stop was Yeralti Camii, an underground mosque that wasn’t terribly interesting except for the fact that it was underground. It was good though because I was still getting used to visiting mosques, and since it was quiet, I didn’t feel like I was in anyone’s way.

I happened to walk by another mosque, Kilic Ali Pasa Camii (camii means mosque, in case you haven’t guessed that yet), so I popped in there because why not. This one was more typical than the underground mosque and equally empty which meant I could take my time figuring out the layout and get a system down for taking off my shoes and covering my head. After that, I felt pretty comfortable and confident that I could manage more mosque visits without doing anything disrespectful, and that’s good because I had a mosque-filled day ahead!

Underground Mosque

Inside Kilic Ali Pasa with bonus vacuuming man

The ceiling

I wanted to squeeze in one more mosque before I headed to church, but it looked like it was locked. As I walked by, the groundskeeper called me over and started speaking to me in Turkish. One negative about looking like you fit in is that people don’t automatically assume that you can’t speak the language. Well, he figured it out pretty quickly anyway from looking at my wide eyes and bewildered face. The facts that I couldn’t speak Turkish and he couldn’t speak English were apparently not a deterrent to him, though, because he persisted in inviting me into his groundskeeper hut thing for tea. I refused, he took that as a yes, and that’s how I found myself sipping tea (horrible, horrible chai which I attempted to improve by saturating it with sugar… didn’t work) with a random Turkish man.

I’m certain that he knew I couldn’t speak Turkish, but that didn’t keep him from trying. What I gathered from our conversation is this (I’m giving a 5% guarantee of accuracy): He asked if I was married. I said no (I wasn’t wearing my fake engagement ring, unfortunately). He proposed that I could marry him. He said that he already had three wives. These are all things that I’m making up now because I have no clue what he said, but if I had to guess from the hand motions and the few words I knew in Turkish by that point, that’s about what I would guess.

When I finished my cup of tea, I pointed to my watch, signed that I had to go (because I really was going to be late to church if I waited much longer), and said goodbye. I think that he told me to come back at 4, and I said no. He told me to take a picture of him. He asked for my phone number, and I told him I didn’t have one (I am getting a little better at the whole “no” thing).

The tea stop eliminated all of my “leisurely walk to church” time, so I had to hustle up a ridiculously steep hill and showed up at the church sweaty and out of breath. I attempted to make myself look presentable and like I wasn’t about to pass out, went through security, and entered into the tiniest church on the planet. That’s an exaggeration of course, but it’s VERY small and has more pews crammed in than I ever would have imagined possible. I found a seat somehow, and my pew was so close to the one in front that I couldn’t even straighten my legs to stand up properly.

Easter Sunday at church

Despite the less-than-ideal conditions, I’m so glad that I went. They played all of my favorite songs, and you should be able to sing your heart out on Easter! And I did! And the sermon was good, and it was nice to be surrounded with Christian community. I love going to churches internationally because it’s a little taste of what heaven will be like, with people from all the nations gathered together and worshipping the Lord.

To keep this from being an endless post, I’m going to cut it off here and leave it to be continued tomorrow!