Splashing around underground

Sitting on my table is the latest copy of National Geographic. On the cover is a photo of the Eiffel Tower with the headline “Under Paris: Secrets Beneath the Streets.”

The article looks at the hidden world below the French capital. Apparently there are more than 180 miles of underground tunnels, most of which are “blocked” to the public. Nevertheless, a group of folks known as “cataphiles” bring their boots and flashlights and slog through these dank and moldy caverns in search of adventure. Fascinating stuff and I suggest you pick up a copy (it looks much better in print than online).

I definitely intend to head to Paris sometime in the near future and these tunnels rank near the top of my tourist list. I’m not sure why, but I’m fascinated with such underground intrigue. It just seems so mysterious.

Of course, Paris is not the only city that houses some neat sites beneath the streets. Before I went to Istanbul, I chatted with a friend who lived in the city and asked him where I should go. One of the first places he said was the cistern.

Like the other famous places in this Turkish city, the Basilica Cistern is more than a 1,000 years old. Emperor Justinianus I first built this giant underground reservoir in the mid-500s. It was used until after the Ottoman conquest in 1453.

It’s a very eerie place. More than 300 nine-metre marble columns protrude from the ground, each lit with a red light. Carp quietly swim through the black water as drips from the ceiling fall on your shoulder.

Having no tripod handy, photos were a challenge as it was too dark to take a decent handheld shot. So I turned the ISO up high, kneeled down on the wet platform and tried to grab as much colour as possible. A little fuzzy, but it works.


Random fact: The Basilica Cistern was used in a scene in the Bond flick “From Russia With Love”

Also, returning to Paris, the CBC Radio world affairs show Dispatches ran a piece about the French catacombs. You can listen to it here.

Just south of Taksim Square, Istanbul

I was reading the Ottawa Citizen this morning and I noticed this small brief on a recent bombing in the centre of Istanbul, Turkey. A suicide bomber blew himself up near a group of riot police in the busy Taksim Square area, injuring 32 people. Although no one has claimed responsibility for the attack, there is concern that it may be connected to the end of a ceasefire from the Kurdish separatist group the PKK.

However, according to a report in the Turkish Daily News, members of this organization have denied their involvement in the incident and added that they would be extending their ceasefire until the next general election. One Kurdish representative commented that the perpetrators of the attack may have been intending to break any positive momentum for peace between Kurdish and Turkish security forces.

My wife and I travelled to Istanbul as part of the final leg of our honeymoon last June. We flew in from Cappodocia and landed at a small airport on the Asian side of the city where we hopped on a bus and travelled across the bridge to Europe stopping at Taksim Square.

I really had no idea where I was at this point. A couple of friends who joined us into the city directed us towards a transit stop and we parted ways from there. Taksim Square seemed busy and chaotic and I could hardly wait to get to our hotel, which we found more than an hour later in the tourist centre of the old city after a trip down a funicular, a ride on a light rail train, and an unnecessarily long hike in the wrong direction.

We returned to this area a couple days later sans heavy backpacks. It lies at the end (or beginning I guess) of Istiklal Caddesi in the Beyoğlu district. This was one of my favourite areas in the city – a three-kilometre-long pedestrian walkway lined with shops and restaurants and a single trolley car running up the centre. It was busy when we got there early in the afternoon and seemed to fill up even more as the day went on. With the amount of people strolling this delightful avenue, it is scary to think that less than a kilometre from where this photo was taken someone decided to blow himself up a few months later.

Stripping back the colour

Cappodocia BW

Taken in Cappodocia, Turkey in June 2010.

There is something about a black and white picture. Monochrome has this strange ability to change the way you look at a scene, be it the texture, shading or shadow. I always find it amazing how two colours tend to focus your attention so much better than the clutter of colour.

But how does one take a good black and white photo? I really have no idea.

Some say you have to learn to see in monochrome. Sometimes this is easy when a setting has strong, stark contrasts, but other times I find it difficult to disassemble a scene. Personally, for me, it just comes down to trial and error, and thinking maybe this scene could look pretty cool sans colour.

The shot above was taken in Cappodocia, Turkey. It was a beautiful blue sky day and my wife and I went for a hike outside the town of Goreme. I did not think of this shot as a monochrome, but after fiddling around on Photoshop, it just seemed so much stronger in black and white.

What’s wrong with this picture?

Aya Sophia, Istanbul

Aya Sophia, Istanbul

In light of the ugly debate to the south, this seemed appropriate.

Taken at the Aya Sofia museum in Istanbul. First built around 500 AD, this Christian cathedral served as the central basilica of Constantinople. Following the Ottoman conquest in 1453, the new rulers recognized the value and beauty of this place and converted it into a mosque.

Centuries later, in the 1930s, Turkey’s beloved Mustafa Kemal Atatürk declared that the mosque would be secularized and converted into a museum. Christian mosaics (such as Mary and Jesus centred) that had been covered would be revealed alongside golden Islamic medallions honouring Allah and Muhammed. Essentially, the place would become a shrine to the country’s past – both Christian and Muslim, side-by-side.

Magic carpets

Turkish Carpets

Carpets from Cappodocia, Turkey.

A carpet is a carpet is a carpet. Well, not quite.

It was our last day in Cappodocia, Turkey and we decided to wander through some of the shops in Goreme. In the centre of the town, there was a large shop with colourful carpets piled high and hanging from the ceiling. I really did not know a thing about carpets, nor I did I want to buy one, but it was a hot day and we ventured inside.

I’ve recently been drawn to these shows on TV about hoarders – the people that suffer from a mental health issue and just fill their homes with piles and piles of stuff. That was sort of like this store. Actually, it wasn’t really a store, it was more of a warehouse with carpets stretched across the ceiling, hanging across the walls, and rolls and rolls piled on top of each other. The place was dimly lit, yet seemed to radiate with the dark crimson tapestries around us and it was almost eerie as we walked through this giant store alone.

Finally, we ran into the owner, a tall balding man who’s family had been in the carpet business for years. It was awkward at first as we really had no intention to buy, so I said to him that we didn’t know a thing about carpets and were wondering if he could give us a quick lesson. And so, for the next 45 minutes, we learned about carpets.

Creating a carpet is like any other piece of art. Just as a painter tries to portray a scene, a photographer attempts to convey a setting, a carpet weaver is also trying to tell a story using symbols and colours. A good carpet is intricately woven with fine wool and can take months or years to build. Interestingly, the colours for a high-end piece are created naturally using ground up plants rather than artificial dyes.

In Turkey, it is an industry that is on the wane, according to the storekeeper. Mothers are no longer passing on their secrets as their daughters head off to the big cities to find jobs. Although there will always be carpets in Turkey, the talent pool is shrinking and the price of quality will only increase.

By the end of our class, we had learned how to tell a high-end carpet from a knock-off brand and my wife was sitting on the ground next to an old Turkish woman learning how to properly stitch. With prices starting at 400 lira, we didn’t buy a carpet that day, but the storekeeper told me that if I ever wanted to, he could take me under his wing for a month and train me to be his distributor in Ottawa.

I just might take him up on that.

Like another planet

Goreme, Cappodocia, Turkey, June 2010

Goreme, Cappodocia, Turkey, June 2010

One of my favourite things to do when I am travelling is get up early in a new place and go for a stroll. I think I take the most photos when I see something for the first time. I guess when you have fresh eyes, everything appears unique and surprising.

It was mid-June and we arrived in Turkey’s Cappodocia region at about two in the morning when our plane landed at Kayseri airport from Antalya. I was exhausted, although I did manage to get about 20 minutes sleep on the plane – despite the fact that it was full of babies who seemed to be competing over who could cry the longest and loudest.

We drove for an hour on a dark highway before we were dropped off at the Kelebek Cave Hotel in the town of Goreme. A tired looking man came and took our bags and led us through a courtyard to a giant cone-shaped stone cave. We climbed some steep stairs, opened a wooden door to a room that had been carved into the cave. An old painted cross could be seen across the ceiling.

Some background about Cappodocia: According to the good folks at Lonely Planet, this area was first settled by the Hittites in 1800BC, who were followed by the Persians, Romans and Christians. The latter group came to hide from persecution and left their mark by creating churches and painting religious murals within the many caves (many were later desecrated by Arab invaders). The region is unique for these so-called ‘fairy chimneys’ that cover the landscape; eroded rock formations with a porous interior that inhabitants could use to carve out homes, churches, underground citiies or, in modern-Turkey, hotel rooms.

After a delicious breakfast (one of the best on our trip), I set out on a town that seemed yet to be overwhelmed by its tourist potential. Of course, there were stores hawking postcards and generic memorabilia, but Goreme still seemed very authentic. I climbed a hill along a dusty back road and walked past a rooster (who ignored me completely) and an old woman who was sweeping off her doorstep with a hand-broom. She was covered completely except her time-worn face. I stopped and looked out at this town of sand-coloured buildings and stone fairy chimney dwellings jutting out and heard the call to prayer echoing from the central mosque.

I was very far from home.

A little anticlimactic

Tomatoes and Olives

Tomatoes and Kalamata Olives, Santorini, Greece.

Every year around this time one of my favourite things is field tomatoes. So fresh. So delicious. And combined with bacon on a sandwich … one of the greatest things.

However, this year is a little different. I recently returned from a three-week vacation across Greece and Turkey and here I discovered some of the best tomatoes I had ever eaten. Every morning breakfast comprised of fresh tomatoes, cheese, olives, bread and coffee/tea, but it really was the tomatoes that stole the show. And now? Well, my old friend the field tomato, although still excellent, leaves me longing to go back. Pity.

The above photo? Giant cherry tomatoes from the Greek island of Santorini and some kalamata olives. A wonderful combination with a glass of wine and that island’s beautiful sunsets.