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Those Poor Americans

Let’s face it. On a world level, Americans are rich. Not all of them, but most of them. Sure we complain about the high cost of living, excessive taxes and the general lack of economic opportunity based on our perceived lack of material goods. But we are still rich. It’s not only the Americans though. It’s the Australians, English, Germans, Swiss and many more. We know who we are.

 

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Along the Akerselva River- Oslo

 

As we have travelled around the world through the last several years, it is these people we have seen enjoying themselves in the museums, art galleries and expensive cafes of the world. As for us, we have voluntarily sentenced ourselves to a minuscule budget that forces us to count all our pennies and doesn’t always allow us to do everything we might like to. But we still enjoy a standard of living that is at least middle class in almost every country we have travelled to. In fact, in many of these countries, despite our frugal budget, we would still be considered well-to-do.

 

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Bar Code District- Oslo

Very seldom have we been shocked by the cost of living in many of the places we have visited. As long as we have kept ourselves to small apartments and eaten a majority of meals at home we do OK. I can’t say we have ever been hungry or uncomfortable. With the exception of a few cities (Paris, Dublin, Edinburgh, Tokyo) we really didn’t have to worry too much about how much we were spending. As long as we stayed realistic and lived more for experiences than souvenirs we have done just fine. But we may have finally met our match. We now know what it is like to be a poor person. For the last 30 days, we have found ourselves looking at the world from the other side of the fence. The tables have been turned. Norway is not a budget country. We are no longer rich.

 

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Royal Palace- Oslo

For a long time, we have wanted to visit any of the Scandinavian countries. It was our last undiscovered area of Europe. We could never really find an apartment within our budget. Copenhagen was always out of reach and Stockholm was nearly as expensive. We finally found one in Oslo that was new on the Airbnb list and seemingly priced low to generate business. It was perfectly located near downtown and priced within our range. We took a shot and luckily enough, we had found our home for the next month.

 

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Oslo Opera House

After the blistering heat of Athens, the chill in Oslo’s morning air as we hurried to catch our airport bus shocked us. We paused briefly to dig into our suitcases for sweaters we were glad we had. The air felt wonderful and noticeably smelled clean. Not flowery sweet or sea breeze fresh. Just really clean.

 

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Oslo Maritime Museum

We had a choice between well-organized bus, train or taxi transfers into town. For convenience, we might have chosen a taxi since it is usually easier to find our Airbnb that way. Not a good choice in Oslo. The 40-minute ride would have cost more than 100 dollars. Far too rich for us, so we opted for the bus. At 20 dollars US each, it was still too much for us but we had no choice. We hadn’t even left the airport and we already had our first taste of being poor.

 

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Oslo Architecture

We checked in to our tiny apartment. What it lacked in size, it totally made up for with lots of charm. Located in the middle of town near the university, it was convenient to grocery stores and had 3 tram lines just outside the door. After checking in we made our way to the market where we got our second sticker shock of the day. Food is nearly 1/3 more expensive as other cities we have visited. Some items were doubled. We would definitely have to check prices before purchasing. Perhaps this is why all the people we had seen looked so trim and fit.

 

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Oslo Subway

We would need to make our way around the city if we were going to enjoy it fully. We found that 30-day transportation passes were available for around 90 dollars US. 180 dollars was a shock to our budget but the benefit of having “all you can eat” transport for our whole visit seemed like a luxury worth the price. Oslo has excellent public transport. Trams, buses and a wonderful subway are frequent, clean, on-time and go everywhere you would want to go. In addition, ferries are operated on the Oslofjord and they are included in the monthly pass.

 

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Aker Brygge- Oslo Harbor

The weather was cool but clear when we arrived. The citizens seemed to be enjoying the last of the sunny and warm days and the streets were always full of people. Walking in the beautiful downtown area we found throngs of people filling Karl Johan Gate, the pedestrian-friendly main boulevard of town that runs from the train station to the National Theatre. All the designer brands are located here along with classic cafes and ornate hotels. Norway’s fort-like Parliament building dominates one flower-filled square. The Grand Hotel, famous for traditionally housing all the Nobel Peace Prize winners, adds class nearby. The road continues onward up the hill until it reaches the Royal Palace and gardens.

 

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Oslo Waterfall

The Aker Brygge area is popular with visitors and locals every day. This is the harbor area around which the city grew. On one side of the harbor, the Akershus Fortress towers above the various high masted sailboats moored to the piers. On the other side, we found the hypermodern design of apartments and businesses that surround the almost completed National Museum. In the middle, the Brutalist architecture of the City Hall completes the unique mixture of buildings that represent the past, present and future of Oslo.

 

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Oslo Islands

We were disappointed that we would not be able to afford a visit to the National Gallery which features Edvard Munch’s famous “The Scream”. Once free to visit, the prices are now high and no free days are available. However, public art can still be found everywhere. Vigeland Park is a huge park on the west side of town that features the life work of sculpturist Gustav Vigeland. More than 200 figures are on display amidst lakes, fountains and immense green areas.

 

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Oslofjord Sunset

Norwegians love their nature areas. Ekeberg Park is a hilly area on the east side of town. The heavily wooded area is intersected by well-maintained trails and provides grand sunset views over the fjord. Many sculptures and other artworks are uniquely displayed along the trails to add to the enjoyment of the area. The area is used by walkers and nature lovers at all times of the day and evening.

 

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Akerselva River- Oslo

The Akerselva River splits the city. Walking trails follow the river and many of the old warehouses and factories have been repurposed into office buildings, food halls and apartments. The days grew shorter during our visit as Autumn turned the thick foliage along the river to incredibly bright colors. Oranges, yellows and reds reflected in the ponds and waterfalls roared with life each time we visited.

 

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Fall Colors- Oslo

Oslo has some great neighborhoods to explore. We especially enjoyed the Grunerlokka district of town. This hipster area is filled with cafes and specialty shops. Flea markets fill the parks and art galleries and vintage stores line the street. Young families socialize in the coffee shops or over delicious brunches. Dog walkers and stroller-pushing moms and dads enjoy strolls under leafy tall trees. Picnic lunches on warm afternoons were delicious.

 

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Holmenkollen Ski Jump

The snow had not arrived during our visit, but we found that was no reason to not visit the Holmenkollen ski area in the hills just north of town. The entire area caters to anything winter sport oriented. The most noticeable and incredible part of the facility is the massive ski jump. Just picturing the excitement of racing down the ramp at over 60 miles per hour before hurling yourself into the stadium that holds 70,000 screaming revelers made our hearts beat faster. We got a small taste of the excitement by watching the zipliners that were soaring from the top of the jump, most riders nervously laughing and whooping as they sped through the sky. Cross-country skiing is a major sport in Norway and many were already practicing their strides on small skis with rollers on them.

 

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Oslo Fall Colors

Perhaps the most enjoyable adventure was riding the ferries through the islands of the Oslofjord. A cruise through the islands on a tour boat would not have been affordable for us. By using our monthly transit pass, we used the ferries to create our own tour. We visited all the islands in the nearby area. We hiked to abandoned forts and walked through the tiny clusters of colorful summer houses that dot the islands. Ascending the hills and watching the harbor activity on a warm afternoon was a memorable treat.

 

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Oslo Islands

Norway is a rich country. Wealth from oil has turned them from one of the poorest countries in Europe to one of the richest. Judging by the number of cranes in the skies, massive building projects are underway everywhere in Oslo. They seem to be spending their new found wealth well. Universities are free. Health care is free. Everyone enjoys a living wage. Children are obviously well taken care of. Families are valued and well supported. The water from the tap tastes bottled and the air smells clean. The politicians seem honest and are accessible to the people. They are one of the few countries that do not have a National Debt. They have set up a fund to invest their wealth to provide for future generations.

 

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Oslo Autumn

We never ate a meal in a restaurant. A McDonald’s combo meal can be nearly 20 dollars here and the prices for a decent meal are astronomical. We never had a beer. They are heavily taxed and a draft beer is at least 10 dollars in a bar. Drinks can be 20 dollars. We never had a cup of coffee in a cafe. While Norwegian coffee is a specialty, a cup can be 5 dollars or more. Our hair grew long. Haircuts are at least 30 dollars. Our only shopping was done through a window.

 

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Oslo Reflections

But strangely enough, we had a very nice time. The people are friendly, polite and low key. Literally, everyone speaks English, many with a bit of a California accent from watching American media. We enjoyed our excursions into nature. Walks in the woods or along the river as the leaves magically became neon explosions of color will be remembered fondly. Harbor cruises and tram rides through the lovely streets filled with interesting architecture will stay with us. Everyone seems happy and content. It was odd to be poor people and I don’t know if I would want to stay this way forever. But for our month-long visit to Norway, it really wasn’t all that bad.

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From a Window High Above

The tiny room is only slightly lit by the pre-dawn sky. Outside the window, two cruise ships have moored in these last few minutes before dawn. The ships are lit like giant Christmas trees against the grey Rio Tejo. The sky to the east of the river begins to develop a faint orange band along the horizon. The bright white buildings that flow down the hillside to the river reflect the early light and begin to glow with the warmth of the early morning. The red terra cotta roofs, the tiles still wet from the mist of last night, begin to shine. With the growing light of day the maze of tiny alleys and interlinked stairways become visible. The river begins to glow red now as the scattered clouds reflect the first rays of the rising sun. Another day has begun in the Alfama neighborhood of Lisbon, Portugal.

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Lisbon Tram

 

The small café across the alley has set up its tables already. The smell of pastries and coffee fill the air. The regulars are arriving. They have voices that fit their faces. Lyrical, expressive, passionate, energetic with a small wrinkle of humor. They talk in normal volumes but the sounds carry loudly between the narrow walls of the cobblestone street. The men have voices that sound of cigarettes and sea air. The women’s emphasis on certain syllables makes them understandable in any language. Most voices sound of worry, work and struggle. This is the fisherman, boatmen and shopkeepers of the neighborhood. The latest generation of the hundreds of generations of working poor that have lived here since before recorded time. People who live in a world where there isn’t enough for everyone and you have to stay aggressive to get your share.

Returning to the view from the window over the river, the day begins below. The sun rises and the light becomes white again. The gas man carries the heavy bottle up the narrow stairs for an early delivery. Windows open to let the fresh salt breeze clean the night air from the ancient houses on the hills. Soon laundry will fill the lines. Summer has gone and drying will take longer. Practiced hands deftly apply the wooden clothespins in the perfect patterns to catch the breezes. The women wear house dresses and have conversations across the alleys from the tiny windows of the small houses. Rough laughter and animated voices. Your coffee is ready and you take your first sip. The fresh air and caffeine work their magic. The night clears and another opportunity for adventure begins.

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Lisbon Tram

 

 

Perhaps the adventure today takes you on a trip throughout the city. There are many distinct neighborhoods and areas to be explored. Called a “City of Seven Hills” for a good reason, Lisbon presents a challenge for the legs no matter which way you travel. Thankfully Lisbon has a network of trams and funiculars to take you up, over and through the hills with ease. The noisy and crowded cars are a cacophonous introduction to the populous of this busy city. The tram routes look serpentine when viewed on a map for the first time. The map doesn’t do justice to the excess of hills, cliffs and valleys that need to be crossed to get from one neighborhood to another. Perhaps the only route that visitors need to know is that of the famous Tram 28.

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Rio Tejo

 

Starting from the hills on eastern side of town near the castle, number 28 winds its way below and around the hill the castle is built on. It is a steep walk up the hill from the tracks to the castle but well worth the effort to see the views from the impressively restored ramparts. Two beautiful miradouros (lookouts) are easily accessed and also provide wonderful views over the city, especially at sunset. The tram narrowly clears both buildings and pedestrians along the narrow streets. Occasionally it stops to allow trams from the opposite direction to pass. The streets do not always provide room for parallel traffic. You can tell the difference between tourists and locals by their reaction to the narrow misses.

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Lisbon Tram

 

 

Number 28 continues its journey above the Alfama neighborhood with its gorgeous views towards the river. Tall white faced churches tower above the tiny red roofed houses of this oldest of all Lisbon neighborhoods. Continuing down the hill you pass the ancient cathedral called the Se. It is possibly the oldest building in Lisbon. Building began in 1147 but recent excavations underneath have found remnants of Moorish, Roman and even Visigoth settlements from long before the Portuguese arrived.

Finally (but only briefly) you reach the level part of town called the Baixa. After the 1755 earthquake and tidal wave destroyed the city and killed 80,000 people, Lisbon had a unique chance to totally redesign itself almost from scratch. The citizens did a wonderful job. The Baixa has grand boulevards and squares lined by ornate buildings. Some streets are blocked from traffic and covered with wonderful hand cut black and white stone blocks. The blocks are laid to create graphic patterns that add unique beauty and perfectly compliment the shops and restaurants that fill the area. Look for star shaped patterns as they are said to protect from earthquakes.

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Lisbon Nights

 

Starting back up hills on the western side of the Baixa, the trolley strains as it navigates the tight turns and steep streets that lead upwards towards the Chiado neighborhood. The tram is now packed to standing room only and hopefully you have a window seat view. Signs warn to watch for pickpockets. Fat wallets of unsuspecting tourists excitedly enjoying the views of the opulent stores and sumptuous cafes of the area make easy targets for unscrupulous types. Chiado was the grandest part of town in days past. The facades of the cafes and shops are ornate and the day is still passed shopping for the latest fashions in the well-heeled boutiques.

We end our day’s adventure with a ride down the famous Bica to the waterfront. Built in 1892 it climbs steeply from the near the Mercado on the riverfront to the Barrio Alto area high above. Climbing nearly 700 feet up the side of the steep hill, the tiny funicular must have seemed a miracle to people who made a daily journey down the hill to find groceries in times past. The sun is beginning to set along the river as we make our way back towards our tiny Alfama home. The sun paints the sky orange behind the 25th of April Bridge which looks like a twin sister of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.

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Tram 28

 

Arriving back in Alfama we make our way through the tiny maze of alleyways and steep stairs, pausing just briefly to catch our breath. Perhaps we refresh ourselves with one of the favorite local snacks. Pasteis de Nata is a Portuguese custard-like egg tart with just the right amount of sweetness to replenish energy from climbing hills all day. Or perhaps a stop at the local Ginjinha stand to ease your aching muscles. Ginjinha is local liquor made from pouring alcohol (maybe brandy) over top of a local sour cherry. Add large quantities of sugar and maybe cinnamon and drink from shot glasses. Available from a local lady who makes and sells the concoction from behind a split level door in her living room, a couple of shots will go a long way to easing tired muscles.

To finish the evening perhaps you may want to attend one of the many music performances in the tiny Fado clubs found everywhere in the Alfama neighborhood. Fado is a traditional Portuguese music that first appeared in the 1850’s. It is said to be the ultimate expression of the Portuguese emotion called “saudade”. Saudade is a yearning for something no longer at hand or something impossible to attain. Sailors feel it at sea and emigrants feel it for those left behind. It’s saudade that fosters the tightly knit Portuguese communities in the world’s cities and saudade that brings migrants home after long periods away. Fado is the music that expresses the emotions they feel when they are away.

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Alfama Sunrise

 

Standing at the window where the day started many hours before, the sounds of Fado can be heard drifting over the roofs and alleyways of the maze like streets below. The cruise ships left long ago and the churches are lit over the hills of the Alfama. The evening has turned cool and the melancholy sounds of the singers voices carry from below and mix perfectly with the smell of the salt air and wonderful memories of an excellent day exploring the beauty of Lisbon.

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Lisbon Night

Maybe, Istanbul

Maybe it will happen when you are standing on the Galata Bridge. The bridge crosses the Golden Horn from Karakoy to Eminonu where the Ottoman Sultans ruled for more than 500 years. The bridge will be busy, as always. Throngs of pedestrians mingle with fisherman and vendors for space on the wide sidewalks. Boat traffic of every size and variety vies for the narrow space below as they have since time was recorded. Occasionally a fisherman will have luck and pull a sardine sized fish from the gray waters below. Vendors sell steamed mussels and small bait fish to all who pass.

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Hagia Sofia

 

 

Rising up from the bridge on either side, the hills climb sharply from the water. At the base of the hill on the “old” side of town several gaudily decorated and heavily rocking boats are loosely tied to the pier. They sell fried fish sandwiches, probably mackerel, to crowds of devoted fans. The cooks work at unbelievable speed to turn out the sandwiches for the never ending line of hungry patrons. Cement stairs serve as benches to enjoy the simple and simply delicious snack. At the base of the “new” side of town, a busy fish market sells the latest catch to the bargaining masses gathered to find the best choices. Vendors constantly sprinkle sea water on the shiny silver fish to keep them fresh and delicious. The famous Istanbul cats wander everywhere looking for sneakily gained snacks.

It is best to be here when the sunset call to prayer begins. Like a massive, medieval battle of the bands, the call beckons the faithful from amplified speakers on every mosque in the area. The sound is exotic, chaotic, alluring and even a little frightening as it echoes for several minutes off the hills and through the narrow streets of the area. For the perfect end to the show, the sky glows a burning orange behind the giant Suleymaniye Mosque atop the tallest hill to the west as the sun retires after another glorious day.

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Golden Horn

 

Maybe it will happen to you when you are in the Egyptian (Spice) Market not far from the New Mosque. If it is a Saturday, the crowd will reach a critical mass where movement is barely possible. The excited voices of the crowd mix with the shopkeeper’s calls to enter their shops and sample all that they have on offer. Taste, Smell and Sight are all pleased here. Towers of colorful spices of every variety, piled high to perfect peaks are beautifully displayed. Every color of the rainbow from blue to purple and yellow to bright red are all here. A feast for the nose as much as the eyes, the aromas are as various as the colors. Magical blends, pre-mixed for the visitor make easy work of creating delicious treats at home.

Teas of every variety are the specialty of another shop. Black, White, Green, Herbal, Hibiscus, Rose, Mint, Ginger and Chamomile are only a sampling. Exotic blends with names drawn from the faraway places of your travel imagination. Teas to help you stay awake, sleep better and live longer are all advertised under the glaring lights.

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Istiklal Avenue Tram

 

As you slowly make your way, stay within the vendors reach. They will provide samples of delicious treats as you go. They pass trays of dried fruit, exotic nuts and all sorts of honey covered goodness. The best of all are the many varieties of everyone’s favorite, Turkish Delight. This legendary sweet made from a gel of sugar and starch is flavored with everything from rosewater to lemon or orange. Filled with dates, pistachios or hazelnuts and sprinkled with powdery sugar they make a delicious treat to remember your visit to this exotic wonderland.

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New Mosque

 

Maybe it will happen as you walk down famous Istiklal Avenue. High atop a hill in the Beyoglu area of the city, Istaklal is a people watchers paradise. Three million people walk this mile long pedestrian avenue from Taksim Square to the Funicular near Galata Tower every day. They pass boutiques, art galleries, cafes, bookstores, patisseries and restaurants, all housed in gorgeous multi-storied buildings from the late 19th and early 20th century. When Istanbul is called the Paris of the East, this is the boulevard they are speaking of. Roasted chestnut carts are positioned well and a restored historic tram rings its bell to warn walkers of its proximity as it makes its way through the middle of the crowd. Guitar, horn, violin and even bagpipe players entertain along the way. Musicians dressed as Native Americans, a gypsy woman selling an armful of roses and even a man walking a group of geese are included in the group.

The side streets nearby can offer quiet respite if needed. Lined with seafood restaurants, galleries, Turkish baths called hamams or simple tea shops where you could even partake in smoking a nargile or Turkish water pipe. The smell of apple scented smoke is prevalent in the early evenings as students from nearby schools mix with tourists to enjoy a warm drink and a scented smoke. Wonderfully restored hotels offer rooftop terraces where commanding views can be had all the way to the Bosphorus.

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Istanbul Cat

 

Maybe it will happen as you take the ferry from the busy harbor along the Golden Horn. The 20 minute ferry ride across the Bosphorus to Asia costs less than 1 dollar and provides unparalleled views of this massive city of 14 million.

Passing the Topkapi Palace where Ottoman Sultans kept court at the tip of the peninsula, it becomes clear why this city was the perfect spot to center an empire. Istanbul rises on seven hills above the Golden Horn, a narrow body of water that provides a natural harbor and perfect protection from invaders on three sides. Istanbul straddles both sides the Bosphorus Strait which provides the only path between the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara (and the Mediterranean Sea beyond). Controlling Istanbul meant controlling the riches of trade between Eastern and Western civilizations. Roman, Latin, Byzantine, Ottoman and finally Turkish rulers have held this as the center of power for their empires for more than 2500 years. The capital has moved on to Ankara, but the spiritual and financial heart of Turkey still resides here.

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Mosque

 

Children laughingly feed seabirds that fly along with the ferry as it crosses calm seas on the short journey. While most use the ferries as transportation to their homes in distant parts of the city, it seems that many are, just like us, enjoying a sunny afternoon on the water in mid-December. The return trip provides stunning views of another beautiful sunset and opportunity to view the city as the lights turn on like millions of stars on a crystal night.

It happened to us as we entered a seemingly ancient ruin of an old building called Buyuk Valide Han (Great Mother Inn) not far from the Grand Bazaar. We passed through the cavernous arched doorway hidden by a green tinged ancient metal door. The doorway led to an inner courtyard filled with tiny shops not meant for the tourist trade. An ancient stairway, its steps well worn by millions of users over hundreds of years, drew us to a dimly lit second floor where dark and dusty stone passageways lead to tiny shops where craftsmen labored over open fires creating glass and metal creations of great beauty. It was as if we had entered a time hundreds of years before present day.

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Blue Mosque

 

A grizzled old man stood in the shadows of a corner. He showed us an ancient set of rusted keys and conveyed that he wanted to show us something. His smile and excitement were contagious enough that we followed him to a tiny, nearly hidden door nearby. He unlocked and opened the door and motioned for us to enter.

We climbed the twisting stairs that had no rails and were curved from centuries of wear. We nervously moved toward the light coming from above, reassured only by the sounds of faint laughter drifting from somewhere near, and finally arrived on the roof of the ancient building. As we passed on to the roof the most glorious view imaginable awaited us. The entire city seemed laid out below. The Golden Horn, Galata Bridge and Tower, Bosphorus and multiple immense mosques with towering minarets seemed to fill the horizon. Well-dressed teenagers who knew of this enchanted place were busy taking “selfies” with the incredible backdrop behind them. A couple of backpackers arrived soon. We spent nearly an hour enjoying this spectacle as the clouds seemed to magically part and what had been an overcast day became sunny with just the perfect white clouds to provide contrast. We had found our corner of Istanbul.

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Ortakoy Mosque

 

Istanbul is often described with the clichéd phrase, “City where East meets West”, but it is much more. It is a city where opposites not only attract, but also collide to create a truly special and unique destination that everyone should see. Young meets old, modern meets ancient, quiet meets boisterous, intellectual meets physical and artistic meets practical. It is a city filled with friendly people who have hosted visitors for centuries. Maybe you will find what you are looking for in one of the places that we have seen or maybe you will find your own special place in another corner of this fascinating city. Istanbul is now and always has been a place of discoveries and adventures and it won’t disappoint if, maybe, you decide to visit this incredible destination.

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Istanbul