Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Many Feet and Many Layers

In some parts of the world, it’s easy to imagine you can hear the padding of many feet in an old alleyway or sense the layers of history all around.

Istanbul is such a place. My husband and I were just there as part of a springtime tour of the Greek islands and the coast of Turkey.

It was tulip time. Our guide told us that the Dutch, if pressed, will admit that tulips came from Turkey instead of Holland. Tulips of red, pink, purple, black, and every other color swarm all over prehistoric, Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman remains and buildings. Visitors arriving by cruise ship are still greeted by the awesome skyline with the spires of the Blue Mosque, the dome of Haghia Sophia, and the walls and gardens of Topkapi Palace. The seventeenth-century mosque and the sixth century Byzantine church face each other over gardens that contain remains of a Roman chariot-racing stadium, ca. 200 AD.

In the Grand Bazaar, the art of fleecing tourists is almost as old as some of the carpets, and the two wool pillowcases we purchased still smell like sheep. The multiple alleys and gateways invite you to lose yourself in a fantastic jumble of old and new stuff from carpets, pillowcases, wool and silk pashmini, saffron—both the real stuff and colored sawdust—Turkish delight, real gold and junk jewelry, and blue-and-white glass evil eyes.

Then we sailed to Rhodes. Obsessed with archaeology and dreaming of the Colossus, I didn’t realize I was about to visit the best-preserved medieval city in the world. The fabulous quarter of the Knights of St. John, with its multiple stories, cobbled streets, and cannonballs lying around in courtyards and alleys, lacks only the knights and horses to bring it all back to life.

Next, Ephesos—even better than Pompeii. Bright with flowers and a dramatic view of the ancient port, this Greek city still has paved streets, and enormous theater, and almost three stories of its library preserved. It also boasts an ancient latrine with communal seating and a secret entrance between library and brothel (“I’m off to study Plato for a few hours, dear…”).

Of all the islands, Santorini was my favorite for its stunning combination of geology and architecture. We sailed into the caldera, created when the volcano blew up in ca. 1650 B.C., staring up at beautifully clear layers of pumice and magma that look like they were laid down yesterday. White houses with blue roofs perch on the spine of the caldera, cascading down in multiple levels over the steep slopes. We found out just how steep when, having finished our explorations, we took surly donkeys on a white-knuckled ride down the volcano.

I’m jetlagged and my sinuses are clogged, but I am content: I’ve walked ancient streets with prophets and kings and seen legendary Atlantis with my own eyes.