It’s our last day in Argentina, folks! Mike and I had an evening flight back to New York which gave us most of the day to do some last-minute sightseeing. I was excited because it was a Saturday, and Casa Rosada, the presidential palace, is open for tours on the weekends. I made reservations online for the 12:30PM English tour, giving us plenty of time to wake up, get ourselves organized and checked out, and walk over for the tour.

Casa Rosada. We got to make a grand entrance right through the front gate and archway.

We arrived a little early, found the line for our tour, and were chatting to pass the time when the guy in front of us struck up a conversation. This is one of the great joys of traveling – meeting new people in the most random of places. Sometimes you hit it off and become fast friends. Other times… well… you’ll see.

“You two look Argentinian! Why are you in this line?” he asked. I blinked at him. He was asking why we were in the line for an English tour instead of a Spanish one. This, to me, seemed like an unnecessary question because 1. our presence in the English line would imply that we were more comfortable speaking English, and 2. we were literally speaking English to each other before he started talking to us.

Mike, thank goodness, pulled himself together before I did. “Regardless of if we look Argentinian, we aren’t, so we aren’t fluent Spanish speakers.” The guy asked a few more questions, and it eventually came up that we’re Armenian… at which point he said that he was too and asked if he could take a picture of us. OF us, not WITH us. Okay. Weird. After that, they started filtering people through security, and we reconvened inside the building as we waited for our guide and for everyone to get checked in.

The ceiling of the entry area where we waited to meet our guide.

The guy from the line tracked us down again and asked Mike to take a picture of him. Mike asked where he wanted it or if there was something in particular that he wanted in the background. He said, “Oh, no. Maybe just over here with your beautiful wife.” Umm, WHAT?

“Oh my gosh, NO!” I said in horror. “We are NOT married. He’s my BROTHER!” I think some people around us started laughing. I was not laughing. Maybe I overreacted, but this is such a pet peeve of mine. Also, what a weird thing, to request a picture with someone else’s wife??

The guy’s only response, I suppose in place of an apology, was, “Well, all Armenians look the same,” which is a silly thing to say, especially considering he thought we were Argentinian just a few seconds ago. I gave him an incredulous look and was saved from having to respond by the appearance of our tour guide.

The moral of this story is, sometimes, it’s better not to say what you’re thinking. And just because a man and woman are traveling together doesn’t mean that they’re married or even dating. And just because you think someone looks Argentinian doesn’t mean they speak Spanish. And also, what does an Argentinian even look like? Ugh. I’m going to stop before I work myself into a fury.

Admire this floor while I attempt to pull myself back together. There’s nothing like a nice floor to calm me down, ya know?

The Casa Rosada, or pink house, is only “home” to the presidential offices. The president’s actual house is outside of the city, about half an hour away in the suburbs. The fastest way to commute is by helicopter, so obviously that’s how it’s done because heaven forbid that the president should have to sit in traffic.

Anyway, the palace was built on the site of an old Spanish fort, used by the viceroys during the colonial days. After independence, it was chosen as the seat of the executive branch. You might be wondering why it’s pink… why, oxblood, of course! An oxblood/lime/who-knows-what-else mix was applied to the exterior for waterproofing purposes.

If you look closely, you’ll notice that the two sides of the building aren’t symmetrical. This is because it started as two buildings, the Central Post Office on the right and the old Government Palace on the left. Tamburini, one of the original architects of the Teatro Colón, designed a central archway to join the two buildings together in 1890.

Spot the differences!

My personal opinion of the building itself was that it doesn’t quite live up to its potential. There are some cool elements, but the interior decor is erratic. It doesn’t feel like there’s a cohesive design, and maybe there actually isn’t. We learned that when a new president comes into power, they can redesign the interior spaces. They just can’t touch the facade. I don’t know. It just wasn’t my favorite.

A potential contributing factor to my opinion was that the tour itself was incredibly boring. It didn’t have to be, but the guide had no concept of storytelling or determining which facts are interesting and which are unnecessary. Mike entertained himself by pointing out terrible lighting and poorly hidden cabling and laughing at my reactions because he knows how much that stuff bothers me. It’s just… if you’re doing work to update a historic building, you can’t just run exposed cables all over the place! Come on, people! At least TRY to conceal them!

Here are some interior pictures. What do you think about the decor choices?

A meeting room. Looks like they could use a bigger TV. I mean, come on. What is that? A 50″?
I liked this wood detail around the tops of the walls.
A painting of Juan and Eva Perón.
This balcony, with its view out to the Plaza de Mayo, has been used for many famous speeches in Argentina’s history. Eva Perón made her final speech from here during a workers’ rally (she died a few months later).
The balcony has a pretty fab view of the Plaza de Mayo.
Another conference room. And seriously, that TV is way too small. Do people sit at that table with the chairs so close to one another?
Really, the whole building is just a bunch of huge rooms with tables and chairs. I guess it is basically just a palatial office building but like… how many conference rooms do you need? (Also, look at that ceiling!)
Stained glass along a corridor
Here’s a better view of that conference room ceiling. Fancy!
Honestly, this little courtyard was probably my favorite part of the whole building. It’s the only part that didn’t feel overdone.
And also, this hallway.
This is the White Hall where the president is sworn in. It’s also used for press conferences and other important events.
The ceiling paintings commemorate the May Revolution and the Declaration of Independence.
The room is pretty epic, but the lighting is so distracting that it makes it hard to really focus on the details. That chandelier has 456 lamps, and all of them are 100x brighter than they should be. My gosh. It’s like the sun… Don’t look straight at it or you might go blind.
Try to ignore the glarey lights and focus on some of the other details which, while completely overpowered by the lighting, are quite nice.
The floors are also fantastic in this room. It’s more Croatian wood (like the wood floors in the Teatro Colón).
This is one of the staircases, the “France” Stairway. The tapestry on the wall was a gift from the French government for the 100th anniversary of the May Revolution.
The Hall of Honor is full of busts of former presidents. It also has a very intense ceiling and very bright lighting.
This is the presidential elevator which seems like overkill for a 2-story building. Maybe it’s 3-stories in some parts? But the president’s office is on the second floor which means that there’s a ridiculously plush bench in that elevator so that you don’t have to stand for the 5-second ride up/down ONE floor.
One more picture of a nice hallway for good measure.

After the tour, Mike and I hopped onto a bus and headed for La Boca, a southern neighborhood of Buenos Aires famous for the brightly colored buildings on its most famous street, El Caminito. In the 19th century, there was an influx of Italian immigrants from Genoa who settled in La Boca. It was a shantytown, overcrowded and dirty, and came into its colorful existence when the residents used whatever paint they could find to brighten up their dwellings. Now, it’s taken on a more touristy vibe, but it still has a certain charm and is filled with vendors selling artwork and handcrafts.

On the approach. Lots of knick-knacks and souvenirs.
El Caminito
In one of the side shops. The colors were almost as blindingly bright as a Casa Rosada chandelier.
Bright! Bright! Bright!
Cool paintings

Even the school is in on the fun!
Walkway by the water
Already melting (but still delicious) ice cream.

We didn’t have a ton of time to spend exploring, but we managed to stroll El Caminito a few times, eat some ice cream, and walk around the neighboring streets. From there, we headed back to the hostel, picked up our bags, and took a cab to the airport.

Whew! Can you believe it? We’re finally finished talking about Argentina!

Coming up next… get ready for some more recent escapades! We’re headed right back to where we left off in Peru, with me on the way to the airport to meet my parents for 10 days of Peruvian adventures!

We left off last time as Mike and I were headed to Teatro Colón, the national opera house, for a tour. In case you didn’t know, I have a theater/opera house obsession… and while I mostly mean the actual buildings, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t also a fan of the shows. My preference is to go to a performance and just creep around admiring the building before and after the show/during intermission, but we were, unfortunately, in town during the performance off-season. So, our only option for seeing the building interior was a tour which, thanks to the fluctuating exchange rate, had a surprise price of $21ish. Eek! That’s a little steep for my preferences, but it was really the only attraction we were paying for, and to me, it was worth it.

Teatro Colón’s French Renaissance-style facade.

We showed up a few minutes early, and I used the time to scope out the other tour attendees. The tour group demographics were approximately 90% people over the age of 60, 9% ages 40-60… and 1% us. I thought it was funny. I think Mike saw it as proof that we should have been anywhere else but there.

All I can say is, those people know what’s up. The tour was fabulous! And the theater, well, there’s a reason why it’s considered one of the best in the world. As usual, though, I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start from the beginning…

The first Teatro Colón, or Columbus Theater (as in, Christopher), was built in 1857 near the Plaza de Mayo. In 1888, the original theater was closed, and a new one was built, finally completed in 1908 during the city’s golden age. Its construction brought the best of the best to Buenos Aires: architects and craftsmen from Italy, marble from Portugal and across Italy, stained glass from Paris, and mosaics from Venice. The builders worked 16-hour days which sounds brutal, and even so, it took nearly 20 years to be completed. The tessellated floors alone took 2 YEARS. Part of the reason for the long timeline was financial, and part was because the two original architects, both Italians, died during the process and had to be replaced. A Belgian architect was brought on to finish the work, and the result is a mix of Italian and French styles. In today’s money, the estimated cost is $300 million USD.

French with a side of Italian. Whatever it is, it’s awesome.
Hellooo, stained glass from Paris! Looking up in the entry area.
I mean, you look at the floors and can totally understand how they took two years to finish.
It’s a little funny that they have carpets to keep the nice floors from getting ruined by people walking on them… but don’t floors exist to be walked on?

We only visited a few spaces in the HUGE building which is even larger than it appears as two-thirds of it are underground, both beneath the actual building and the surrounding squares. The theater produces everything necessary to put on a show, using its underground workshops for costumes, sets, lighting technology, mechanical special effects, makeup, hairstyling, props, etc. Like I said, EVERYTHING. The underground area also includes rehearsal rooms, offices, and other support spaces. A full-sized practice stage is located beneath the performance stage. Altogether, the theater employs 1,500 people, from performers to technicians to designers and more.

The tour started in the main entry area where the guide explained that builders were brought from Italy specifically for this project. I had just been looking around in awe at the impressive craftsmanship… so that made perfect sense. He said that during the first wave of immigration, 40% of the immigrants were from Italy. These Italian-Argentinians played a huge role in the history of the theater (and the development of the Argentinian “Castellano” dialect).

Walking up the stairs to the second floor

From there, we headed upstairs where the guide pointed out one of the tricks they used to keep costs down. There’s a lot of marble in the building – yellow from Sienna, red from Verona, and white from Carrara, Italy, and pink from Portugal – but there are also places where stucco was masterfully painted to LOOK like marble. It’s amazingly hard to see the difference, a testament to the skill of the painters, but as soon as you touch the two surfaces, there’s no question. The marble, since it’s actual stone, is much cooler to the touch and has a texture, unlike the stucco which feels smooth. Absolutely amazing, though, that they were able to recreate the appearance of marble so faithfully!

The green is real marble, and the white is painted!
On the second floor, looking towards the open air above the entry area.

Just above the entrance is the “Golden Hall”. I bet you’ll never guess the reason for the name…

I know some people think this is too much, but I love it. Come on… it’s incredible!

Inspired by the opulence of Versailles (the French palace), the space was originally a social area for the elite. Now, it’s used mostly for lectures, exhibitions, and chamber music concerts, usually with free admission. The gold leaf is partly real. This is kind of funny… starting from 3 meters above ground, it’s real 24-carat gold. Below that, it’s just painted to look like gold leaf. Another cost-saving measure, I presume?

They could have plucked this room right out of Versailles.
It’s not even fair that other rooms have to exist in the same world with this one.

The chandeliers, unlike so many other parts of the building, were actually made in South America. They each weigh half a ton and have 200 lights! I believe it. Could they BE more blinding? The paintings in the room are painted on canvas and attached to the walls/ceiling, and the wood floors (which you can see peeking out past the edges of the carpet) were imported from Croatia.

Never been happier. 
THERE ARE NO WORDS.

Recently, a big restoration project was completed, making major structural and technological improvements to the building. Some cosmetic restoration was also completed, like in the Golden Hall where workers tackled 100 years of damage to the room and furniture from smoking and pollution. A few areas were left uncleaned to show the difference, and my gosh, if those spots aren’t convincing enough reasons not to smoke, I don’t know what would be.

Can you see the spot left uncleaned? It’s only mildly horrifying…
There’s a stripe left in the molding to show the previous state. Geez! The room is so vibrant now. I can’t picture how drab and dreary it must have been with those grey walls and blackened gold leaf.
Just a few more pictures so that you can appreciate how clean and shiny this room is…
I personally think the chandeliers are a bit much (brightness-wise, not decoratively), but that doesn’t change the fact that I’m obsessed with this room.
I just… I just… I want it.

And, heading towards the auditorium…

Again, I have some opinions about the lighting… but the space is just unreal.
Opposite the Golden Hall is a bust gallery that immortalizes famous composers. These three are Bellini, Gonoud, and Rossini.
They aren’t particularly well-placed for a clear view… but hey, Mozart!
Skylight in the bust gallery.
Okay, it was totally worth importing the stained glass from Paris.

Finally, we got to see the auditorium. It’s the largest in Latin America with a capacity of 2,700 people (300 standing room). Around the main seating area, there are three tiers of boxes and then four more levels of balcony seating. There are also boxes right next to the stage, and looking at them, I wondered why you’d ever want to sit there because the view angle must be terrible. The guide explained that while they do have the worst view of the stage, they are in perfect view of the rest of the audience. Leaders used to sit in these boxes because the most important thing was to be seen, not to actually watch the show. Since those times, the presidential box has been moved to the first level, smack dab in the center with one of the best views in the house.

The stage. Check out the terrible angle of view from those boxes by the stage.
Okay, and now get ready for a bunch of pictures that are basically the same but also fabulous.

Again, we learned about how much was happening out of view. The stage area is actually bigger than the auditorium, with prep areas and lifts to the sides and back to store and transport sets and materials as needed to support the performances. It also is 48m tall (155’) which is the entire height of the above-ground building to allow space for the stage lights. The seating area, in contrast, is only 28m tall (90’).

In the auditorium, there are still more hidden surprises. The ceiling sports a painted dome and low-profile chandelier designed to keep from obscuring anyone’s view of the stage. The dome paintings depict life in the opera house. The chandelier has 848 lights (according to the guide. I guess we wouldn’t want to lie and round up to 850) and weighs 1.5 tons. Geez! But the craziest thing is that musicians or singers can actually hide in the ceiling behind the chandelier! There is space for 15 people, and they use it for any sound effects that come from the sky.

It’s such a satisfying ceiling, isn’t it??

Acoustically, the auditorium is ranked in the top 5 best in the world. It was designed with an awareness of acoustic principles, and the horseshoe-shaped space, as well as the material choices, contribute to its success (the lower balconies use softer materials like fabric and wood to absorb sound, while the upper ones are more reflective with harder materials like marble). There’s also a resonance chamber beneath the seats, created by building a second “floor” two meters below the audience. The 84-person orchestra pit can sit at audience level or be lowered two meters to align with the chamber, sending sound through the space and out into the audience via “vents” under the rows of seats.

The middle box on the first level (above those golden columns) is now the presidential box. Much better for watching the productions than those stage boxes!
It’s so fancy that it doesn’t even look real. But I promise that this is actually how it looked. It’s not some photo-editing magic. I think the “unreal” quality has to do with the lighting.

The theater got a big boost during Marcelo Torcuato de Alvear’s presidency. Remember him? During our mini-tour of Recoleta Cemetery, I briefly mentioned that an Alvear, grandson of General Alvear, served as one of Argentina’s presidents. He also fell in love with a singer, Regina Pacini. Alvear followed her as she performed around Europe, asking her repeatedly to go out with him. Regina refused him time and time again until one night when he bought all of the tickets for her performance, and she went out to dinner with him instead of performing that night.

They fell in love, but she wasn’t willing to give up her career right away. She kept working for five more years, and he followed wherever she went to perform. After the five years, she moved to Argentina, and they got married.

Thanks to Regina’s love of the theater, Alvear paid extra attention to the arts during his time as president. He was responsible for integrating performers into the full-time staff of the theater, whereas it had previously relied on hiring foreign opera, ballet, and choir companies during the season (possible because the summer recess in the northern hemisphere coincided with the winter performance season in the southern). This led to the creation of the Instituto Superior de Arte within the theater, a performance school to train singers and dancers for opera and ballet.

So, you see, the theater really DOES create everything needed for its productions: the sets, the costumes, and even the performers, thanks to the institute. If you’re ever in Buenos Aires and have the chance to go to a show here, GO! And, preferably, bring me with you. Between this and wanting to visit the Museum of Water and Sanitary History, I really don’t think I have any choice. It is imperative that I go back to Argentina! Oh, darn…

I know I already had a picture of the ceiling… but it seems like a phenomenal note to end on, doesn’t it?

Instead of spending another day aimlessly wandering the city, like on our first day in Buenos Aires, we attempted to formulate a plan to make the most of our only full day in the city. The ongoing Lara-and-Mike travel struggle is that, outside of hiking, we have completely different interests. Mike doesn’t understand the point of visiting cities because “What do you do on vacation in a city?” Um… More like WHAT DO I DO WITH THIS QUESTION, MIKE? You go to museums and look at the buildings and walk around and eat ice cream and experience the culture… but the only thing on that list that Mike’s mildly interested in is ice cream (though he’ll say he doesn’t really eat sweets. Get outta here with that), so I’m not quite sure what to do. His input is generally, “I don’t care,” which is not helpful. I try to end up with an itinerary of a few things I hope he won’t totally hate, plus a few that he will but, oh well, because I really want to do them.

We planned to go on an 11AM tour of Recoleta Cemetery and built the rest of our plans around that, picking out some stops to make along the walk there. First, we went to the national theater, Teatro Colón, to get tour tickets for later in the day (a “Lara really wants to do this” activity, in case you couldn’t guess). From there, we did a walk-by of El Palacio de Aguas Corrientes (literally “The Palace of Running Water”) because I read somewhere that it was architecturally interesting. Well, it’s definitely that! I’m mostly confused by it because functionally, it seems like it should be a bland building… like it was built in the late 1800s to be a water-pumping station, bringing running water to the city. Why on earth did they spend the money to import 300,000 glazed tiles and enameled bricks from England and slate for the roof from France, on top of all the cast iron for the structure from Belgium? (Can you say, “World’s Most Beautiful Water-Pumping Station”? I bet this building would win… How much competition could there be in that category?)

The epic Palace of Running Water.
If you were just walking past this on the street, what would you think was inside? Without the benefit of x-ray vision, I can’t imagine that your answer would be “ginormous water tanks and pumping equipment”.

Today, it still is used as an administrative building for the water company, and there’s a museum inside which is the definition of offbeat… The Museum of Water and Sanitary History, featuring (according to their website) pipes, meters, faucets, and “sanitary artifacts” like toilets and bidets. I’m confused by its existence, honestly. But I will say this, if I’m ever back in Buenos Aires, especially without Mike in tow (quirky isn’t really his style), I will absolutely be checking it out.

After taking a lap around the building (a lengthy endeavor, considering it occupies an entire city block), we made our way to El Ateneo Grand Splendid, a bookstore a few blocks away. It’s in an old theater and is, of course, the world’s most beautiful bookstore. Unlike the water-pumping station title which I just made up, this is something that people actually do say. I don’t know who gets to be the authority on these claims, but it’s undeniable… “most” or not, it is very beautiful. I’m biased, though, because books and theaters are two of my favorite things, so combining them is a surefire way to win me over.

The building dates back to 1919, originally built as El Teatro Grand Splendid. In its heyday, it hosted performances by the tango greats (another thing for which Argentina is famous) until becoming a movie theater in 1929, one of the first in the city. It didn’t take its current form until 2000 when, in danger of demolition, it was rescued and converted into a bookstore.

Tell me this isn’t the stuff of dreams.

Except for the seating areas, I imagine that the building looks pretty much as it did in its theater days. The stage is a café. The seating areas have been taken over by bookshelves. There are wrought iron balustrades and gilded balconies. A massive fresco dominates the ceiling. One of the boxes by the stage is a reading nook. It’s a dream.

I don’t know why every bookstore isn’t in a theater. And every library. And really just everything.
“How many times can you take essentially the same picture?” Well, you’re about to find out. And these are just the ones that I couldn’t choose between!
My best attempt at getting a picture of the whole ceiling. It was impossible.
Hmm… I wonder if they’re hiring? I wouldn’t mind working here every day! Wait for meee! I’ll be back just as soon as I can get into the country!
Okay, I have no idea what kind of disaster is happening across the way with the lighting on that wall, but ignore that and focus on the balustrades (the fabulousness underneath the railings). (Hire me and I’ll fix your lighting!)
The bottom box is a reading nook/my future tiny house.
Really I’m just happy that the space was successfully repurposed because what a shame it would have been for this theater to be torn down and lost forever.

I hoped that it would be cool enough for Mike to enjoy even without a love of books or theaters, and I think it was! Maybe it was just the air conditioning that won him over, but hey, I’ll take it. We spent at least half an hour there, wandering around to soak in the general splendor and check out the books. I could have stayed all day (or forever), but alas, the cemetery awaited, so we headed back onto the sauna streets.

The cemetery has free daily tours… in Spanish. Why not, right? Get a little language practice, maybe learn a few things. Well, it was a nice thought, but the only thing we learned was that we were NOT up to the challenge. I caught maybe 40% of what the guide was saying, between the cemetery vocab that I lacked (all of it), the speech rate (rapid), and the castellano accent (strong). My gosh. My Spanish brain maxed out after maybe 20 minutes, and Mike was on the same page. We ditched the group and wandered around on our own.

The entryway to Recoleta Cemetery
Exploring

This is where I discovered that Mike doesn’t have the same appreciation for cemeteries that I do (I love them, in a completely normal/not creepy/not weird or worrisome way). You’re shocked, I’m sure. He lasted maybe five minutes after we left the tour before saying, “Whenever you’re ready to go, I’m ready.” I know he wasn’t trying to put pressure on me, but geez. I thought it was fabulous.

Recoleta Cemetery is one of those sites that everyone says is a “must visit” in Buenos Aires. Established in 1822, it was the first public cemetery in the city, and it’s THE place to be buried if you’re rich and/or important. It’s like a small city, stretching across 14 acres with more than 4600 vaults. It’s a good thing that they took the time to design a layout because without the predictable grid of walkways, it would be all too easy to get lost inside. (As much as I like cemeteries, I am not interested in that. Noo thank you.)

It’s like a city with lots of very small houses.
All of the “streets” aren’t this wide. This is basically a boulevard in the cemetery world. The majority were narrow enough that I could touch both sides by sticking my arms out.

It’s been ranked as one of the world’s most beautiful cemeteries, and while I’m not looking to dispute that, I do think it’s a weird thing to rank. Also, how many cemeteries did the authors of these articles visit before deciding? What were the evaluation criteria? I mean, it is quite nice. But like… what?

The mausoleums are the definition of extravagant. It’s a little strange, actually. A lot of them have windows, so you can see what’s going on inside. Above ground, there are usually one or two caskets and then some skinny minnie staircase leading underground to what I assume is more casket space? And architecturally, they each have their own personality. I felt like I was walking around an architectural style sampler… a little baroque here, some art deco there, classical and neo-gothic sprinkled about.

Because why not build a mausoleum modeled after a Roman temple?
This guy is missing part of an arm, but that’s a case of neglect (the family moved to another cemetery. What a weird concept haha) rather than the original design intent.
I just love the variety!
I’m always a fan of a good mosaic.
THOSE SPIDERWEBS. Seriously, so artfully placed.
Some are like rowhomes, one on top of the next… and some are like this little freestanding mausoleum-hut. Not my favorite design, but it sure knows how to take up space.
This one seems very… secure. Like a bank vault.
And then there’s this one, open and airy and the complete opposite of the bank vault.
This might be my favorite one. The doors!
This one just happened to be open, so I obviously stuck my head inside to get a better look at the layout… The mausoleums are of all different sizes, but this is what the majority look like inside, more or less.
I don’t know what’s going on with these, style-wise, but they’re definitely unique.
Hotel lobby?
This was just me doing my Armenian duty by seeing an Armenian name and taking a picture because I’m sure we’re basically cousins if you go back far enough.

Even though we skipped out on the tour, I thankfully had done a little reading ahead of time and knew a few of the “famous” mausoleums to look out for.

The legend surrounding this mausoleum is the stuff of nightmares. Rufina Cambacérès was 19 when she died suddenly, of a heart attack. She was buried, and cemetery workers heard strange noises coming from the mausoleum. When they opened it up, they found that the coffin had shifted. Rufina’s body was still there… but the inside of the coffin was covered in scratch marks. She had been buried alive and tried to in vain to escape. True or not, just the thought is enough to make you squirm.
The “General Alvear” referred to at the top was a general during the War of Independence. This massive mausoleum (prominently located just inside the entrance to Recoleta) is also the final resting place of his son, a mayor of Buenos Aires, and his grandson, a president. Bunch of underachievers.
This was built for Tomás Guido, a general in the War of Independence. He helped to liberate Chile and Peru from Spanish rule as well, crossing the Andes with his troops. His wish was to be buried underneath the mountains they crossed, so his son had stones brought from there to Buenos Aires and built this mausoleum himself for his father.

We wandered long enough to see most of the graves I was looking for and to admire the general award-winning beauty and then called it a day right around when we found the Armenian mausoleum. It seemed like a fitting way to end our time there. Plus, we had a tour to catch at Teatro Colón, and I didn’t want to risk being late! Coming up next time, get ready for some fab stained glass!

I didn’t have any big plans for my second day in Kraków, so I allowed myself a leisurely morning before setting out to investigate the random collection of things I had on my “to see” list. Mostly, I was tired of chaotic, ambitious days and wanted to leave the day somewhat unplanned so that I could go with the flow and make game-time decisions.

My first move was to the former location of the Kraków Ghetto. In Kraków, the ghetto was placed on the fringes of the city (at the time), and 15,000 Jews were crowded into an area previously occupied by 3,000 people. I took a tram there from my hostel and started at Ghetto Heroes Square where a memorial commemorates the ghetto victims. When the ghetto was operating, this square was where people were gathered before being sent to various concentration camps. There is a memorial there now, a series of empty metal chairs scattered across the square. A nearby sign explains that when the first Jews were being deported, they were told to bring things with them to start a new life. A lot of them brought chairs so that they would have somewhere to sit in their new homes. Reading that… it hit me pretty hard.

Ghetto Heroes Square with the Empty Chairs Memorial

A pharmacy located by the square was the only one that continued operating after the establishment of the ghetto. The owner, Tadeusz Pankiewicz, declined the offer to move his pharmacy to another part of the city. He lived onsite and was the only non-Jewish resident of the ghetto. He and his staff did what they could to help the ghetto residents, providing things like medicine, smuggled groceries, information from the outside, and even hair dye for those plotting escapes. Today, the pharmacy is home to a small museum.

Only a few blocks from the square is the Schindler enamel factory. Many of the Jews who weren’t immediately deported were kept in Kraków for labor purposes, forced to work in a couple Nazi-established factories and others supporting the war efforts. Oskar Schindler, whose story is told in the film Schindler’s List, is credited with saving the lives of 1,200 Jews, shielding them with the help of his factories and endless bribes. The building is a museum now.

Schindler’s factory
The plaque

A few portions of the ghetto wall are still standing, so I went to visit those as well. The one is marked with a plaque that says (in Hebrew and Polish), “Here they lived, suffered, and perished at the hands of Hitler’s torturers. From here they began their final journey to the death camps.” The top of the wall looks like a series of tombstones… I’m not sure if that was intentional or not, but it’s another one of those things that makes your heart hurt because it’s just not right.

Ghetto wall. You can see how the shape of the top of the wall looks like gravestones. Eerie.
Ghetto wall + children’s playground

Near there, I spotted a marker on google maps for a fortress! (Mom, skip this paragraph.) A few reviews said that while it’s closed, there are a few places where you can sneak inside, a prospect that clearly appealed to me. I walked around the building a few times but, much to my dismay, couldn’t find a reasonable way in. I found one spot that looked like it had been recently patched. Maybe that’s what they were talking about. In my assessment, you’d have to be either a child or a contortionist to squeeze inside now. It’s too bad… I peeked through the windows, and it looked like an interesting place, plus there’s supposed to be a great view from the roof!

The fortress

So, I settled for walking around the outside and then continued on my way to the Krakus Mound. What is this, you ask? Well, honestly I’m not really sure, and it seems like no one else is either. This is one of two mysterious prehistoric mounds in Kraków. No one knows when exactly they were built or why. This one has a solid wooden core, covered with soil and grass. Like… what????? IT IS SO WEIRD. It looks like a pimple on the surface of the earth. Legend says that it was built to honor the mythical city founder, King Krakus, and the other was to honor his daughter. But, no one knows. I just went for the view.

The Krakus Earth Pimple.
The view of Kraków from Krakus (hehe)
From the top of Krakus Mound, I spotted this building and was curious about what it was. Turns out, it used to be part of a limestone quarry that no longer operates because the limestone is gone. It was also a concentration camp for Polish prisoners during WWII and was used as part of the set of Schindler’s List. If I’d had more time or an adventure buddy, I would have tried to figure out how to get there to explore. Next time! (Yup, I guess I need to go back!)

My last major stop was Wawel Hill. I was coming from the outskirts of the city, so I took another tram in an effort to keep myself from walking into exhaustion.

Church of St. Bernardino of Siena. It’s near Wawel so while I was walking past, I decided I might as well pop my head in.
Inside. I like the ceiling!

Wawel Cathedral is one of the most prominent sights on the hill today. The first church on the site can be traced back to the early 1000s, soon after Poland became a Christian country. The current structure, however, was built in the 1300s and is actually the third iteration. The first was destroyed, and the second burned down – a common theme on Wawel Hill.

Today’s cathedral is quite the architectural hodge-podge. The 1300s cathedral was built in the gothic style, but portions of the previous Romanesque cathedral survived the fire intact and were retained in the new design. Later on, various chapels were added on to the side, and those are in the Renaissance and Baroque styles. Much of the interior was redone when baroque was all the rage, so it doesn’t even resemble what it would have looked like originally.

This is a great vantage point to see the many architectural layers of Wawel. The white limestone, like the bottom half of the tower, is from the old structure, built in the Romanesque style. The rest of the tower and the other brick area you can see are part of the 14c. Gothic church. The chapel with the gold dome is in the Renaissance style from the 16c. (and the dome was painted black during WWII to protect it. It’s 54kg of gold!). The chapel to the left with the black dome is Baroque from the 17c. So there you have it! Architectural collage.
The front of Wawel Cathedral

The castle has had plenty of its own struggles throughout the years. It fell victim to multiple fires, was occupied by the Austrian army during the partitions of Poland, and was further damaged and plundered during WWII. Kraków didn’t see nearly the destruction that Warsaw faced during the war, however, so Wawel and other landmark buildings did manage to survive. Today, the palace buildings house various museums.

A model of Wawel. You can see the cathedral in the back middle. To the left, there’s a gate into the castle compound, and the cathedral museum is in the building to the left of that. The U-shaped building in front of the cathedral is the royal kitchens, and the building behind that with the arches is the castle. The tower next to the kitchen has rounded corners which were supposed to help deflect cannonball fire.
Inside the castle compound with the cathedral up ahead to the left and the royal kitchens to the right.
There used to be other buildings here as well, as you can see by the foundation remnants in the lawn.

I skipped the castle museums and only bought a cathedral ticket because I wasn’t really feeling up to a big museum experience. With my ticket, I could go up the bell tower (which was all I really wanted), see the crypt, visit the cathedral museum, and walk around the inside of the church like a VIP. All that for just $4! Ha!

The cathedral is beautiful, but like so many others, there’s almost too much going on. It’s completely overwhelming to the point where you can’t appreciate anything inside. “Geez, ya think they have enough fantastic marble statues in here? Who’s this? Another dead guy?” “Ugh, there’s so much shiny gold in here that it’s making my head hurt!” I call it the “Vatican Museum Effect”. If you’ve ever been to the Vatican Museums in Rome, you know what I mean. There’s so much amazing art around you that it all seems “normal”, and instead of looking at each thing individually, you try to take it all in at once and completely lose your mind.

In the bell tower, there are a few different MASSIVE bells. I don’t know much about bells, but they were big. That seems like the most important takeaway. The biggest weights 12,600kg (13.9 tons), is only rung a couple times each year (and requires 12 bell ringers), and can be heard 30km (18.6 miles) away. I suppose that’s all impressive in the bell world. I mean, it sounds absolutely insane to me. Why make a bell that’s clearly a huge pain to handle?? I’m sorry, I’m probably being incredibly offensive to bell-lovers everywhere. Bells aren’t really my thing.

The great bell, Zygmunt
The bell tower was fun to explore…. there are little gaps like this one that you have to squeeze/duck through.

The crypt is filled with dead kings and queens and national heroes. I was excited because it’s the only fully-intact part of the Romanesque church. The cathedral museum has mostly Pope John Paul II paraphernalia. Did you know that he was the first non-Italian pope in almost 500 years? He also has a crazy life story (it’s worth a read!), could speak 12 languages, and is a Polish hero. There is a case of gifts he received during his time as pope, and the coolest was a cross that American astronaut Buzz Aldrin took with him to the moon! I just kept looking at it and thinking, “That cross has been to the moon and back!” Whoa!!

Inside the Romanesque-style crypt
Flowers at Wawel
More Wawel flowers

The final thing on my list was visiting the stained glass museum. I am obsessed with stained glass, so it sounded wonderful! The only problem was that their tour minimum is two people, and I am obviously only one person. You’ll be shocked to hear that it’s apparently NOT the hottest destination in Kraków. No one else turned up, so I was out of luck. That was a bit of a bummer, but it did mean that I had some extra time to relax back at the hostel. A dull silver lining, but a silver lining nonetheless.

This looks like the home of a woodland creature…. but it’s actually just part of the Wawel wall

Following my unexpected Bursa excursion, I went into a mini-panic because I only had three more days in Istanbul, and there was so much more that I wanted to do and see. My days of going out with only a half-baked plan were behind me, and I made myself an ambitious schedule for the days ahead.

I decided to go north for day 7 and try to visit all of the things on my list in the northern part of the Europe side of the city. The first of those destinations was Dolmabahce Palace (pronounced dol-ma-bah-che), another Ottoman palace that was built after Topkapi. This one is more of a traditional palace in that it’s on these big palace grounds and there’s one primary building, whereas Topkapi is more spread out and has courtyards instead of exterior gardens.

Why can’t every season be spring? I was loving the flowering trees on the grounds.

In fact, Dolmabahce was built with the intention of being more similar to the “typical” European palace. Sultan Abdulmecid I decided that a new palace was necessary because Topkapi was “medieval” and lacked the style and luxury of the palaces of other European monarchs. I can’t say that I walked through Topkapi and thought for even an instant, “Hm… I mean, this is nice and all, but it’s a little medieval for my liking. It could be more luxurious because at the moment, only 30% of the ceiling is covered in gold leaf and I think it would be better at 80%.” But then, of course, I’m also not royalty so maybe that’s why my vision for these types of things is inadequate.

Pretty, pretty.
Weird fountain.
Next to the clock museum on the grounds.

Anyway, once Sultan Abdulmecid decided that he needed a new palace, his court architects got down to business designing it. Fun fact… the architects were Armenian. The Balyan family served as court architects in the Ottoman Empire for five generations! That’s pretty cool. Nine different family members served six different sultans. They designed a huge number of palaces, mosques, Armenian churches, and public buildings in the empire during the 18th and 19th centuries. Garabet Balyan and one of his sons worked on Dolmabahce.

Walking around the gardens
The palace and my attempt to cover up the construction scaffolding with a tree.
Gate of the Treasury
Another sea gate. They never got less picturesque.

Want to venture a guess at how much Dolmabahce cost to build at today’s money value? More than $1.5 BILLION. Yeah, that’s right. Billion. Did they have enough money for this? Not quite… This was ¼ of the annual tax revenue in the empire. It was built at a time when finances were already becoming a bit of a problem, but the sultan wanted to make a statement that everything was fine, and the empire was as strong as ever. What better way to do that than to spend an exorbitant amount on a frivolous construction project?

This other building on the grounds now holds an art museum (I think)
Me, a weirdly green pool, and the palace.
I love these things… Shower caps for your feet so that you don’t damage the floors!
I always think they look like little elf shoes.

The palace is like the anti-tiny house. You know how people these days are all into minimalism and not taking up more space than they need? The sultans were totally not on the same page. There are 285 rooms, 46 halls, 6 baths, and 68 toilets in the palace. You know, just in case every wife, girlfriend, and child in the family simultaneously decided to find an empty room to sit in.

Between 1856 and 1924, six sultans used the palace as their residence. After that, it was used as a summer residence by Ataturk, the first president of the republic, and now it’s a museum. You’re not allowed to take pictures inside of course, but I kind of feel like Turkey owes me something, so I didn’t feel bad sneaking a few.


Excuse the crookedness of these interior pictures… that’s what happens when you take discreet pictures.
Every single room is like this. Nothing was left un-embellished.
Ceilings!!!!

Honestly, I can’t even begin to describe the interior of the palace. It’s one of those places where you could spend a month in each room, and even then you wouldn’t have enough time to take in the full splendor. The details are insane. I think I had a crick in my neck by the time I left because I spent so much time staring up at the incredible ceilings. Guess how much gold was used in the gilding of the ceilings? I almost don’t even want to say because it’s too ridiculous. Fourteen tons. Like… what?!?! The extent of my notes for the entire visit was “gold leaf radiators”. Honestly, I think that says more than enough. Why do you need gold leaf radiators???

This other building on the grounds now holds an art museum (I think)
The exterior
What is a garden without some hardcore landscaping?

There were two rooms in particular that I could have spent the rest of my life in. The first was a staircase, and trust me when I say that it’s the most beautiful staircase in the universe. You can look up pictures of the Dolmabahce Palace crystal staircase if you don’t believe me or if you just want to see how marvelous it is. The balusters (the vertical posts that support the railing) are all made of crystal, there’s a crystal chandelier hanging in the middle, and the ceiling/roof is made of translucent glass that floods the space with light. Besides all of that, the surrounding ceilings are amazing. I think I stood in that staircase so long that the guard had time to get a little suspicious of me and then get un-suspicious again because I spent the entire time not touching anything and just staring up with my eyes wide and my jaw dropped.

Entering into the Ceremonial Hall

The other room was the Ceremonial Hall, and I think that my parents’ entire house could fit inside that single room like 15 times. Does anyone really need such a room?? But “need” isn’t exactly the motivating word in these situations, so I’ll stop trying to make sense of things and instead just enjoy the masterpieces that resulted from too much money and too big egos. The world’s largest Bohemian crystal chandelier hangs in the hall, and it weighs 4.5 tons. Ha. The ceilings though… they’re something else. I did manage to sneak an illegal picture of those though, so it’s your lucky day. Don’t turn me in.

Ceiling of the Ceremonial Hall

The grounds surrounding the palace are also quite nice, though they aren’t nearly as big in area as the Topkapi courtyards. It’s right on the Bosphorus, so there are gates that lead directly to the water. The view on the day I went was beautiful because, for once, I was smart and visited an outdoor space when the weather was nice. Imagine that.

Pretty flowers <3
Okay just one more…
Beautiful day!
The Bosphorus
Me with a gate to the Bosphorus

Nearby, there are two other Dolmabahce-related structures. The first is a clock tower just outside the gates, and it was designed by Sarkis Balyan, son of Garabed. It cost $350 million in today’s currency which is, in my opinion, a VERY reasonable amount of money to spend on a clock. You know what they say, time is money!

The second is a mosque designed by Garabed. It was originally commissioned by Sultan Abdulmecid’s mother, and he continued the work after her death. As a result, the building has a bit of a feminine quality to it. The towers are more slender than those of other mosques, and there’s a lightness and delicacy to the design that goes beyond what is seen in most mosques.


Dolmabahce clock tower
The clock tower, and you can see the tower of the mosque in the background.
See how slender the towers are as compared to other mosques?

That’s some serious dome detail!
Inside Dolmabahce Mosque

After visiting the palace, clock tower, and mosque, I felt like I had adequately seen the Dolmabahce collection. I still had a lot more to see, though, so I kept moving!

To be continued for now… I don’t want to overload you (any more than I already have, that is).

By the time I hit day 4 of my time in Istanbul, I decided that I need to step up my game if I wanted to leave the city feeling like I had seen what I wanted to see. I always have these grand plans of waking up early, working out, sightseeing, getting home at a reasonable hour, being productive, and going to sleep at a time that allows me to wake up the next day to do it again without feeling like I’m dying. As you might expect, things rarely go this way. Usually I have one day where I wake up, work out, sightsee… and then end up meeting people and hanging out and getting back late… and then either passing out or staying up late to get work done. And the next day, the plan falls apart before it even starts.

As much as I love routine and being productive, I’m making a huge effort not to skip out on opportunities to spend time with people because that’s always what I remember the most about my trips. I have so many awesome friends that I never would have met if I had stayed in my comfort zone. My comfort zone, by the way, is a place where I never talk to strangers or put myself in a position where I’m uncertain about the outcome. Comfortable, yes. Boring, also yes. So yeah, things didn’t go exactly according to the grand plan, but I think they turned out even better.

Point of that tangent was that by day 4, I still had a lot to see. Since I just needed to get moving on SOMETHING, I picked the Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya in Turkish) as my destination for the day and was off.

We learned about the Hagia Sophia in my architecture history classes in university, but heck if I remember anything from those. That’s not true, I do remember a few things, but apparently not the historic details of the Hagia Sophia because I felt like I was going in blind again. No problem! I had a written guide from the internet, and with no expectations, you’re setting yourself up to be amazed.

Top of a column (capital) from the second church

The current Hagia Sophia started out as a church, built in 537AD by the Byzantines. There were two churches previously built on the same site. First, the Great Church was built in 360AD and destroyed in 404AD during riots that took place in the city. A replacement church was built in 415AD and destroyed in 532AD during a revolt that burned down half the city. When the last structure was built, Europe was in the Dark Ages, and Istanbul was emerging as a center of Christianity.

There are a few remaining parts of the second Hagia Sophia predecessor from Theodosian times
I assumed this was a ceiling coffer, but I could be wrong
You can see how massive the space is

The main dome of the structure is 182 feet tall and 104 feet wide, and at the time of its construction, it was the largest dome in the world. It held that title for 900 years until it was overtaken by the Florence Cathedral (fun side fact: construction on the Florence Cathedral was started before anyone knew a way to complete the dome. They figured that was a problem for the future generations to figure out – since building a church took an eternity – and the final solution was some brilliantly engineered machinery that no one besides the inventor thought would work). The entire Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris can fit inside!

The Crusaders took over in 1204, and for almost 60 years, it was under the control of the Roman Catholic Church. Shockingly (not), during this time, many of the riches inside were stolen and sent to Italy, though the golden ceiling mosaics were left mostly untouched. I guess those are slightly harder to steal than other things.

When the Ottomans took the city in the 1450s, Hagia Sophia was converted into a mosque. This involved covering or removing any images of living beings, and the mosaic ceilings were plastered over and forgotten about. Despite this unfortunate redecorating, the conversion to a mosque kept the building safe and maintained. Four minarets were added to the outside, and the prayer niche was moved to face Mecca instead of Jerusalem.

The minarets were added when it was converted to a mosque. You can see that they don’t match the rest of the building.
Fountain for washing before Muslim prayer
Close up of the fountain

At the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the mosque was closed and converted into a museum. The golden mosaics were rediscovered beneath the plastered ceilings and were in generally good condition. Now, the building is a clear mix of Christian and Islamic elements with many of the furnishings remaining from the mosque, including giant, calligraphed medallions, and the original Christian architecture and décor.

View of the main dome

I had no idea what to expect, I had no idea how long it would take me to visit, and I definitely went a bit later than I should have… oops. It wasn’t a big deal though because I wasn’t in Istanbul at a terribly busy time, so waiting in the line to get inside only took maybe 40 minutes. I people-watched to entertain myself, and before I knew it, I was inside.

The building is under construction, but it doesn’t even matter. I mean, I’m sure it would have been great if half of the main hall wasn’t filled with scaffolding, but even with it, you could see how impressive the space is. The ceiling looks like it’s miles away, and since there aren’t big, bulky columns or anything crowding the dome, it seems even bigger. I spent my first 20 minutes staring at the ceiling and trying not to walk into anyone.

The place is so big that even though it was crowded, it didn’t feel like it was. It was probably loud too, but sound had a way of just getting lost. Sometimes I like to sing worship songs when I’m visiting churches (what can I say? They get me in the mood), but I don’t want anyone to hear me… so spaces like that are perfect. I sang to myself, and as soon as the sound left me, it was lost to the open space and the murmurs of the people around me.

So many chandeliers!

From here, I’m going to use the photo captions to give you a mini-tour… I think that will work out the best.

Entrance and ceiling mosaics


Mosaics in the exit corridor

Doors supposedly made with a wooden core of wood from Noah’s Ark. I’m sure it’s true…
This mosaic is the “Donation Mosaic” showing Mary with baby Jesus. Constantine is on the right offering a model of the city, and Justinian is on the left with a model of the Hagia Sophia

One of the most interesting things, in my opinion, was the variety of marble that was used in the construction. It’s kind of like they went to the marble warehouse, couldn’t decide which one they liked best, and decided to leave with one of everything.
Funky, right?

Weeping column. I’m not sure which is right, but I’ve heard two different stories about what you’re supposed to do here. First is that you stick your thumb in the hole and spin your hand counterclockwise. If you make it all the way around, your wish comes true!
The second is that the column was blessed and sticking your finger into the hole can cure your sickness… though I assume it probably just ended up spreading sicknesses because I can’t imagine they ever cleaned it.


The Mimber, where the Imam stands during Friday services.
The prayer niche, adjusted to face Mecca instead of Jerusalem
I’m obsessed with all of the detailing
The Omphalion, where Byzantine Emperors sat during the service and also where their coronations took place

Golden gates because why not?

Going upstairs…

Ramp to the upper gallery
Leave no surface un-mosaic-ed
Mary holding baby Jesus and sitting between Byzantine Empress Irene and Emperor John II (ruled from 1118-1143AD)
Jesus with Byzantine Emperor Constantine IX (ruled 1042-1055AD) and Empress Zoe.
Jesus with Mary to the left and John the Baptist to the right. This was made at the end of the Crusader occupation of the church.

Casual ceiling paintings


Booo construction scaffolding 🙁
In the upper gallery

View of the Bosphorus
Blue Mosque from the window
Baptistery basin
Buttresses added during Byzantine times

One of the negatives and also sometimes positives of extended travelling is that you don’t necessarily have time to do a lot of research. I make sure that I hit the major sights (thank you, tripadvisor) and put a LOT of trust in the people working reception at my hostel to tell me what I should go see. Sometimes, that means that you know you should visit something, but you have no idea what it is… and then you go there and learn about it and are like, “DUDE! THIS IS SO COOL!”

SO COOL

For me, that happened with the Basilica Cistern, or Yerebatan Sarnici in Turkish (Sinking Cistern). The “basilica” part of the name comes from the fact that there was formerly a basilica on the site. I had no idea what it was, but I saw a bunch of tour groups going and the self-guided walking tour I was following mentioned it, so I figured I should check it out. I know, all of this makes me sound like a complete idiot, but sometimes the best way to learn about something is to just go and experience it (things I tell myself that may or may not be completely true… sometimes it’s probably good to have a clue, but that’s not the way I’ve been operating recently).

The Basilica Cistern was constructed during the Byzantine days, between 527-565AD by Emperor Justinianus I. It’s a ginormous underground water cistern, 140m x 70m and with 9m tall columns. The capacity is around 100,000 tons of water which translates to 26.5 million gallons. There are 336 columns total, placed in 12 rows of 28 columns. These are joined by arches and vaulted ceilings that carry the weight of the city above. The brick walls are over a meter thick, and they and the floors are plastered with a thick layer of special brick dust mortar for waterproofing.

Seemingly endless

The cistern was in active use until the Ottomans conquered the city. They preferred fresh water as opposed to sitting water, so the underground reservoirs went mostly unused with the exception of feeding the nearby Topkapi Palace gardens and a few homes. In the 1540s, a Dutch traveller visited Istanbul in search of Byzantine monuments. When he noticed residents pulling water out of their floors, they directed him to a staircase that led into the reservoir. He explored it using a small boat, took measurements, and published his findings in a book that piqued more Western interest in the cistern.

There were repeated renovations in the 1700s – early 1900s to reinforce various part of the structure, and it wasn’t until a major 1985 restoration that the complete scale of the cistern was discovered. After removing 50,000 tons of mud (and probably trash and bodies and who knows what else), the full height of the columns was visible.


You can see that the column capital (the thing at the top) on the closer column is different from the column behind it

The columns are all made of different materials and are of different architectural styles because, in classic ancient fashion, they were swiped from other structures. They always say that it was from ruined structures, but I like to imagine that there was a big column-pilfering problem in ancient times and sometimes people would wake up in the morning to discover that the columns on the local temple were gone… and then they would go steal some others and so on until someone finally sucked it up and just made some new ones. Estimates are that it took 7,000 slaves to construct the cistern, and that doesn’t even include the workforce required to build the 12-mile long aqueduct that fed it.


Check out those ceilings!

Tear column

There are three columns of particular interest. One is carved with the images of eyes and tears, paying tribute to the hundreds of slaves who died during construction. (It’s a good reminder that all of this amazing ancient stuff usually came at a high human cost.) The other two are normal columns, but the bases are two big Medusa heads that scholars think came from the Temple of Apollo near Ephesus (another city in Turkey), but no one knows for sure. One is sideways and one is upside down, a configuration explained by scholars as showing the change from pagan religion to Christianity. Other legends say that they were placed there for protection and are oriented that way to keep them from turning people to stone. I think that they were just so tired of moving them that they said, “This is close enough, we’ll leave them like this.”


Hey, Medusa
The girl who took this for me definitely thought I was a weirdo
Upside down selfie!
First view when walking down the stairs

Now, there are walkways for tourists to tour the cistern, unfortunately replacing the boats that were formerly used. That would have been awesome.

As I took the steps underground, my jaw literally dropped when I got my first look. It’s huge. I know, like duh it’s huge, but when you see it in person and realize that you’re underground, it’s unbelievable! And it was chilly down there which I suppose would have been nice if it wasn’t also chilly outside. My brain couldn’t even imagine the whole thing filled with water, and with no lights down there it would have been CREEEEEPY. Eek. Imagine going in there while it was full, with no clue what you were going to find in a little boat in the darkness with just a lantern. No, thank you. It probably smelled weird too.


I’m obsessed with this brick work

Anyway, despite the fact that I didn’t get to ride on a boat, it was spectacular. The space seems to go on forever, and when you think about the logistics that went into actually constructing it, it’s mind-blowing. All of that. Underground. Over 300 huge columns. So. Many. Bricks. And the ceilings are super high which means they had some sort of scaffolding. And then the aqueducts to feed it! Geez!

After wandering around much longer than anyone else and in a constant state of marveling, I made my way to the exit. Then, if you aren’t already aware of the expanse of the thing by the time you leave, you pop up on the surface, blocks away from the entrance. And it’s bright outside and noisy and bustling and you’re like, “WHAT IS HAPPENING?” because you just emerged from this underground cave and now you’re in the middle of the city. The whole transition was very confusing, and I felt like a time traveler or something.

In conclusion, the Basilica Cistern is super cool, and if you’ve ever wanted to feel like a time traveler, it’s the place for you. Except now that I’ve warned you, maybe you’ll just go and not feel it and think that I’m insane. Maybe I am.

I had a brilliant idea to maximize my sightseeing efficiency in Batumi: a sightseeing run. In hindsight, I see the million flaws with this idea and also the million better options, but I didn’t see those at the time, so here we are.

What is a sightseeing run, you ask? Well, exactly what it sounds like. Go for a run, stop at any sights, keep running. I thought this sounded like a perfect idea because I wanted to work out, I wanted to go sightseeing, and sometimes, I feel like walking between sights just takes too long. I planned to run along the boulevard by the beach so that I didn’t have to deal with cars and could have nice views of the water along the way.

More beach pictures! The weather was much better on Day 2.

Since I’ve given you no real information about Batumi yet, here’s a little background for you. Like I briefly mentioned, Batumi is the major beach resort of Georgia, located on the western side of the country along the Black Sea. It’s the second-largest city in Georgia after the capital city, Tbilisi, and its economy is centered around tourism, gambling, and its port which is the biggest in Georgia.

The harbor

Historically, the first record of a city on the site of Batumi was an ancient Greek city, Bathus, in the 4th century BC. The Romans conquered it in the 2nd century AD, and after that, it went through a series of rulers along with the rest of the cities in the region.

Architecturally, the city is particularly interesting. This is something I absolutely didn’t expect going in and was pleasantly surprised by (though of course, I knew nothing going in, so it’s not very surprising that I wasn’t ready for what I found). Many of the buildings are from the 19th century and are a mix of different styles: European and Asian, Georgian, Turkish, and Soviet, etc. There’s also a strong sea theme, so you can see a lot of mythical sea creatures woven into the architectural details. And the colors! There are so many pretty and unexpected colors.

The Batumi Drama Theater in the background with creatively-named Theater Square in front of it.

Recently, there’s been a push to grow Batumi, and these historic buildings have been joined by new, modern high-rise buildings. It was already a strange architectural mash-up, and now it’s even more so. Just wait… you’ll see what I mean in the pictures.

Okay, back to my sightseeing run. I hadn’t worked out in quite a while, so I thought maybe three miles (5k) or so would be a good start (I’m not a good runner AT ALL, so even this was kind of a stretch). Plus, with the sightseeing component, it allowed for “photo stops” aka “find something to take a photo of because you don’t want to run anymore” stops. It seemed like a good way to ease back into running. Maybe it would have been, too, but after I had gone two miles and hadn’t turned around yet, I saw some mountains in the distance and decided that I wanted to be closer to them. Very specific, I know. So, I kept going, and I kept thinking that I was going to reach the point where I had some epic mountain view and would know that it was time to turn around and go back.

The sky!!
So many shades of blue!!

The path was nice, too. It went right along the beach, there were interesting buildings to look at, and there were barely any other people around. Then, somehow I was more than four miles away from home and seemingly no closer to the mountains. I could have kept going. I kept thinking that if I just went a litttttttle farther, I would hit a good spot to turn around after the next bend. Or the next bend. Or the next bend. That maybe would have been fine, but I did NOT plan ahead for that kind of adventure and was carrying no money and no bus ticket. Not my brightest moment. Note to self: always bring bus money.

Found a hammock along the way…
???
No clue what this is but weird, right?
There’s also a ton of public art everywhere, including a series of silhouettes doing various things while holding hearts.
More public art
This fountain was cool… Her wheels spun around and kicked up water!
This is a tower celebrating the Georgian alphabet
View on the boardwalk during my sightseeing run
A park along the boulevard
“The Colonnade”, designed as an entrance to the beach. The concept, as you might guess, was developed by someone who had recently gone to Italy. Now it’s just a random and confusing monument, in my opinion. Though definitely pretty.
More interesting architecture

Finally, I had to accept that if I hadn’t gotten a good view of the mountains yet, it probably wasn’t going to happen and that I needed to turn back or risk collapsing from exhaustion. Oh yeah, I also didn’t bring any water. Or money to buy water. And I had only eaten a granola bar for breakfast. I know, I know, but remember that I was planning for a two- to three-mile jog/walk/stop, not an almost nine-mile (15k) adventure. Hehe. Oops.

The closest I ever got to the mountains… so not close at all
Right near my turn around point… good question, random street art. Where the heck am I?

My post-experience thoughts about this whole thing:

  1. What on earth was I thinking?
  2. Why didn’t I just rent a bike?
  3. What on earth was I thinking?
  4. I don’t even like to run.
  5. At least I got a good workout.

After I got back to the hostel, cooled down, drank some water, and ate something, I changed and went out again because despite the ridiculous distance I had covered, I had only seen the sights along the coast and still had the entire downtown area to check out. This time, I aggressively plotted my route to avoid covering any extra distance, and off I went.

I did NOT want to leave the hostel again after I got back and sat down, but it was my last day in Batumi, so I didn’t feel like I had a choice. My legs were killing me, and I walked at an impressively slow pace the entire time.

My loop around the city included a whole pile of churches, whatever parks I happened to stumble upon (because who doesn’t like parks??), some city squares, and a few of the tall buildings that I didn’t get to on my “run”. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves for the most part because it’s not even worth me trying to explain without visual aids!

A building on Europe Square. Does it not look like it was taken straight out of a fairy tale?
More buildings along Europe Square, all so different from each other!
There’s an astronomical clock on one of the buildings (farthest to the left in the picture above), and this was the diagram explaining it. I looked at it for about 5 minutes before deciding that there was too much going on and taking a picture to try to figure out later.
The astronomical clock from below
This statue on Europe Square is of Medea, a daughter of a Georgian king, holding the Golden Fleece. The story goes that she helped Jason, the legendary Greek hero, to steal the fleece.
St. Nicholas Orthodox Church
This thing is called Chacha fountain. Chacha is a classic Georgian alcohol made from distilled grapes, and supposedly you can get free chacha from the fountain for 10 minutes each day. Who knows if this is true or not but either way, hilarious.
This building, Batumi Tower, was designed by a Georgian architect, is 200-m tall (and is the tallest building in Batumi), and was supposed to house a technological university. Instead, it got sold and now it’s a hotel. And there’s a ferris wheel in the side. Did I mention the ferris wheel? Like… what????
Pretty sure these are condos
Rocks!

This is a sculpture called Ali and Nino, inspired by a story about a Georgian princess, Nino, and an Azerbaijani Muslim, Ali, fall in love but are kept apart by WWI. It’s like the Romeo and Juliet of the Caucasus. The two figures move back and forth, literally through one another.
Holy Mother Virgin Nativity Cathedral. Quite the mouthful of a name… maybe it’s shorter in Georgian

Armenian church!

I had a train ticket to go back to Tbilisi the next morning, so as much as I enjoyed my time chilling in peaceful Batumi, it was time to move on to the next adventure. I asked at the hostel about how to get to the train station so early in the morning, and the guy said that the buses weren’t running yet, but I could probably get a marshrutka there.

I walked out to the bus stop around 6:45 because my train was at 7:30, and it was like I was the only person awake in the entire city. As you might imagine, I started doubting that there were even marshrutkas running after not seeing any for the first 10 or so minutes waiting at the bus stop. This one taxi driver kept asking me if I wanted a ride, but I was determined not to take a taxi. He asked where I was going, and I told him the train station (using a very unhelpful Georgian phrasebook I found online). He said he would take me there for 20 lari. HA! I literally laughed at him. I didn’t know how much it SHOULD cost to get there, but 20 lari is like $8 and is completely ridiculous for a 5-minute ride.

After I laughed at him, he lowered his price to 10 lari, and when I said no again, he changed it to free. I apparently am a phenomenal negotiator… This conversation all happened through hand motions and google translate because he spoke ZERO English. When he said he would take me for zero, I typed, “Why???” into google translate. I thought that was a valid question. He just looked at it, laughed, and gave me the “come along” hand wave.

An architecturally-hip Catholic church
And this is a hotel

At this point, I still hadn’t seen any marshrutkas drive by, and I was starting to get a little worried about missing my train. I figured what the heck, and off we went. Let me just say that if I was in practically any other country, I never would have done that, but this was Georgia and I was mostly not worried about it. We got close to the train station, and I started pointing that I wanted to go there. From our broken conversation, I gathered that we’d had a slight misunderstanding. I thought I was saying that I wanted to go to the Batumi train station to take the train to Tbilisi. HE thought I was saying that I wanted to go to the Tbilisi train station. I mean, I guess I technically did, but not in his car!

Thanks to my mostly worthless Georgian phrasebook, I knew how to say, “Stop here!”, and I said it on repeat until he listened. He kept trying to tell me that he would take me all the way to Tbilisi for free, and still I have no idea why. Eventually, I convinced him (in my fluent Georgian) to take me back to the Batumi station, and that was that. He didn’t ask for any money, and I’m almost positive that he would have been insulted if I had offered.

It wasn’t the most conventional method of getting to the train station, and I’m sure my mother is losing her mind right now, but hey, it worked. I’m happy to report that the rest of the trip was uneventful. I took the train, I took the metro, and soon enough, I was back at my hostel to enjoy a couple more days in Tbilisi.

My southern adventure continued with a relocation from Kapan to Goris. The hotel staff in Kapan spoke no English, so I had to rely on my Armenian skills to figure out how to get there via public transportation. Here’s basically how my conversation with the hotel guy went:

Me: Tomorrow I want to go to Goris. Is there a marshrutka?
Guy: Yes, at 9 and noon.
Me: Do I have to call? (to reserve a seat)
Guy: Yes.
Me: Can YOU call?
Guy: Yes.

I crossed my fingers that I had actually said what I wanted to say, and sure enough, the hotel guy knocked on my door at 8:50, right as I was getting ready to walk out. He walked me out to the street, the marshrutka came, and I was off! Nice.

Along the drive from Kapan to Goris. Excuse the fact that they’re blurry… the window was dirty and kept fogging up, so use your imagination.

In Goris, I was staying with one of Kelsey and Olivia’s friends, Mary, who I had never met but has an extra room and was willing to take me in. Cool! She was going to call me when she finished with work for the day, but by chance, we bumped into each other on the street! Goris is a decently big town, so I think that’s impressive. She was walking up the street towards me, I looked at her and thought, “Hmm… she doesn’t fit here,” and I gave her an inquiring look. She apparently thought the same about me and said, “Are you Lara?” So that’s how we met.

Goris is a city (town?) of about 20,000 people. I wasn’t expecting that when I got there. I guess I always think that places are going to be tiny little villages with nothing going on because everyone always acts like there’s nothing happening in the country outside of Yerevan. I was pleasantly surprised! It’s nestled in the mountains, right near the eastern border with Artsakh, so the scenery is stunning. The area has been occupied since at least the 700s BC, and for much of that time, people lived in caves in the weirdly shaped mountains around the town. The caves were inhabited until the 18th century!

I think one of my favorite things about the south is that in every place I visited, the topography was sooo different. The cities aren’t even that far apart, but they look nothing like each other. In Goris, if you walk around the “Old Goris” area, it’s like you stepped onto another planet. I can’t even begin to describe the rock formations, so check out the pictures to see what I mean.

These mountains. Are so weird. But I love them.
Pretty Goris, pretty mountains.

Self timer + rock = pretend photographer

Mary and I walked around Old Goris a bit during the evening after I got into town, and I went on a more intense trek the following day. I tried to follow an actual hike through the mountains, but it was poorly marked and very confusing. Instead, I ended up wandering around on random cow paths that went into some of the strangest places. Oh, well. That was more interesting anyway… at least, I assume it was but couldn’t tell you for sure because I still don’t know where I was supposed to walk.

Cave dwelling

As far as I can tell, the actual path doesn’t go past any of the coolest things. My favorite part of the walk was checking out some of the cave homes. So many of them had doors that you needed to rock climb into, and you could see where the previous inhabitants had chipped hand and foot holes into the rock to help them climb up. Can you imagine having to rock climb into your house?? My reaction to that question is, “IS THAT NOT THE COOLEST THING YOU’VE EVER HEARD?” but I imagine that some of you are probably more on the, “Ummm that sounds horrible,” page. I love enclosed spaces which means that caves are just about my favorite thing, and I’ve now officially decided that my dream home is a cave home (with a very comfy couch inside, of course).

This is one of the caves I climbed into and immediately fell in love with.
Chimney above the window.
Door to the left, window to the right.
Cave window views.

After I finished getting lost in the weird mountains and creeping around abandoned cave houses, I headed into town to check out a few of the sights. I have to say that the buildings in Goris are some of my favorite in the whole country. I love stonework, and the town is overflowing with pretty stone buildings. Even the abandoned buildings look beautiful!

Picturesque
Here’s a series of my favorite random buildings from around town. I’m in love.

I visited two churches in town, St. Hripsime and St. Gregory the Illuminator. St. Hripsime was originally built in the 4th century, and St. Gregory was built in the early 1900s. St. Hripsime is small and pretty and was rebuilt a few times, first in the 1500s and then in the early 2000s. the inside feels like you’re inside a cave… appropriate. St. Gregory the Illuminator Church is slightly more Armenian-church-typical. The inside is plain, and the outside design is nothing extraordinary, but the stone color is a pretty grey that I enjoyed. They also had a very nice gate entering into the grounds, and metalwork is another craft that I’m a big fan of.

St. Gregory the Illuminator Church. Check out the gate in front.
On the side of the church (between the door and the window to the left), you can see artillery shell damage from the war with Azerbaijan

Between the natural beauty of the surroundings and the man-made beauty of the town, it’s definitely on my list of favorite places in Armenia. Mountain views, easily accessible adventure, caves, stone buildings… what more do you need?

St. Hripsime
One thing that consistently makes me sad is the amount of trash that’s just laying around the country. This could be such a pretty river, but instead it’s polluted with garbage.
Field of trash encountered during my hike.
The central square
Spot the little cave door!
Sulfur stream. You can see the baths to the right side of the picture.

A trip to Tbilisi isn’t complete without a trip to the famous Tbilisi sulfur baths. According to legend, the sulfur hot springs are the reason why a settlement was started in that location in the first place. “Tbilisi” comes from the Georgian word for “warm”, tbili. The sulfur baths are still going strong today, and there are a few different bathhouses to choose from, ranging from super shady looking to super expensive looking. Supposedly, the water is great for your skin, and you can get a body scrub and massage to go along with it. There are public baths (separated by gender) or private, and I’m guessing most tourists go with the private option. There are stories about mothers going to the public baths to scope out wives for their sons because that’s not weird at all (everyone is naked, in case you didn’t catch that). I personally don’t understand why I would want to soak in questionable rotten egg water for an hour, but maybe if I go back I’ll have to check it out as one of those “try it once” experiences. Eh. Or maybe not.

Doesn’t this look like something out of a fantasy movie? Elves. Definitely elves in this movie.

 

Do you remember Mike’s friend Hovsep who showed us around Vanadzor? If not, Mike (my brother) has a friend, Hovsep, who he met about 4 years ago when he was in Armenia doing a service project. When my family went to Vanadzor, where Hovsep lives, he showed us around.

While we were loitering by the sulfur baths, plotting our next move, I saw a guy who looked vaguely familiar walking up the sidewalk. I was 80% sure that it was Mike’s friend, but I couldn’t for the life of me remember his name (there are too many Armenian “H” names – Harout, Hagop, Hrant, Hovsep, Hovhannes, I could go on). I wasn’t willing to commit to a hello on the 20% chance that I didn’t actually know him, so I instead stood there, stared at him, and gave the world’s least awkward wave when he looked at me. I could practically see the gears turning in his head and the face of recognition once he remembered how we knew each other. The whole thing was incredibly weird. I don’t even see people I know in Armenia… How on earth did I manage to see someone I know in GEORGIA? He gave us a few recommendations of things to check out, and we parted ways. I think both of us were still baffled by the time we said goodbye. Talk about random.

Windows of Tbilisi

Still obsessed with the river
Etchmiadzin Cathedral

Once I recovered, we realized we were starving and went to grab lunch/rest our aching feet. It was way after normal lunchtime, so by the time we finished and hit the road again, it was starting to get dark. No matter though, we still had things to do and places to see! We were close to the former “Armenian quarter” in the city and decided to head there next. On our way, we saw a sign for Queen Darejan Palace and figured we might as well check it out. We had no clue what we were headed for, but isn’t that half the fun of exploring?

On our way there, we passed a church playing beautiful music on its speakers outside. I thought it was just some mood music, but nope! There was a service going on, and the singing alternated between the priests and a group of five women. I don’t know if it was the night, the church acoustics, the lighting in the church, or just the harmonization, but it was magical. Every time the five women sang, I got chills. I’ve never heard anything so awesome. I know that’s a bold statement, but seriously, they were incredible. I’m sure the ambiance didn’t hurt… I was getting a little lightheaded from breathing the air in there (based on the excessive incensing, I assume it was a Georgian Orthodox church).

When I was about ready to pass out from the fumes, we went outside, looked out over the city, and tried to process everything. My friend Tara said it was the most magical thing she’s ever experienced, so there’s some proof that it wasn’t just me! There was something awesome happening in that tiny church, and we got to be part of it because of a last-minute detour.

View of the city from the palace/magical church… plus a terrifying number of birds (bats??) that happened to be flying by

The palace is right next to the church and was closed, but it didn’t even matter. We peered at it over the fence and then kept moving. We decided to make a new rule for our exploring – no backtracking. That means that if you make a wrong turn, you can’t just turn around. You have to keep going and figure out a new way. If you’re trying to get somewhere on a schedule, I strongly discourage this approach. If you’re in it for the adventure, strong recommend. We wandered past the other Armenian church, Etchmiadzin (creative name, right?), and the Presidential Palace (it has a glass dome!), made a few less-than-ideal street crossings, and eventually made our way to the most futuristic-looking bridge in the city, The Bridge of Peace.

The Bridge of Peace, fully illuminated

Okay, when I said that Narikala Fortress is my favorite thing we saw in Tbilisi, I forgot about the bridge. We can let them share the #1 spot, but seriously… This. Bridge. Is. So. Cool. It’s a pedestrian bridge over the Kura River (the one that runs through the middle of Tbilisi), and I’m sure it’s one of those things that everyone complained about when it was built because it’s modern and doesn’t match anything in the city. I don’t care about any of that. All I care about is the lighting. THE LIGHTING. I was losing my mind and no one else seemed even remotely excited or impressed. Apparently, there are four different lighting programs that change hourly, and if I had been there by myself, I might have stayed for four hours to see them all. There are lights in the canopy over the bridge AND in the glass handrail panels. I’ve never seen anything like those panels before… the LEDs were in a grid between two sheets of glass and looked totally seamless. It was like magic.

The program running when we were there was mesmerizing. The canopy was lit in white and red, making the Georgian flag, and the lights brightened and dimmed in waves. That was coordinated with the handrail lights which turned on and off in waves, so when you walk across, a wave of light shoots past you and fades into the distance. It was like something out of the future. Like I said, no one else’s excitement level was even close to mine. Bummer. I need to go back so I can stare at the lights again, this time unburdened by guilt from making people wait for me while I nerd out.

Sioni Cathedral of the Dormition… quite the mouthful, huh?

Our intended destination after the bridge was a restaurant, but our “no backtracking” rule had us going in all sorts of wrong directions (also because I wasn’t trying very hard at navigating. We’ve already talked about this – going the right way takes the fun out of everything). We popped into another church that we happened to pass (because why not?) and then made a last-minute turn into the Tbilisi History Museum. You usually have to pay to go in, but there happened to be a temporary modern art exhibition opening that night. We walked right in and got to experience the joys of modern art including amusing ourselves by pretending that normal things in the room were part of the exhibition. Tara and I spent a good five minutes scrutinizing an air conditioner and were thrilled when a woman came over and gave it a second look. Otherwise, it was pretty much par for the course on modern art. Some of it looked cool, some of it looked unfinished, and most of it looked weird.

By the time we made it to the restaurant, everyone was ready for a good nap. My feet wanted to fall off. I consider that the sign of an exploration day done right, so hooray for us! I slept VERY well that night.

The ceiling in Sioni Cathedral of the Dormition
Cool part of the modern art exhibit. Don’t ask me what the point is because I don’t know. I just like how it looks.
The main atrium in the Tbilisi History Museum. I love that so many buildings actually have lighting that someone put effort into. What a concept.