The spiritual heart of Bhutan

The spiritual heart of Bhutan

It’s only 130 kilometers (80 miles) from Wangdi to Trongsa, the geographical center of Bhutan, but the drive takes a solid five hours of hairpin turns up and down a narrow and improbably steep road. Two-third of the way to Trongsa, on a rare stretch of flat road, we make a short stop at the Chendebji Chorten. A chorten, sometimes also called stupa, is a dome-shaped monument topped by a sharp cone, used to house relics or commemorate significant events of Buddhism.

Myths and Chortens

Bhutan -Chendebji Chorten.

The nineteenth century Chendebji Chorten is a replica of the Swayambhunath Chorten in Katmandu, Nepal.

Our guide Kezang explains in approximate English that this particular chorten was built in the nineteenth century, recenctly by Bhutanese standards, to cover the remains of an evil spirit that was overpowered on this spot. It is remarkable for its imposing size, and for being a reproduction of the Swayambhunath Chorten in Katmandu, Nepal. As Kezang has it, every milestone of Bhutanese Buddhism involves the subjugation of some seriously evil spirit by Guru Rinpoche (or Precious Guru, the patron saint of Vajrayana Buddhism that is practiced in Bhutan) or his disciples, sometimes with the cooperation of other helpful deities temporarily incarnated as flying tigers and such.

Bhutan - Trongsa Dzong and Da Dzong watchtower.

The Trongsa Dzong and Da Dzong watchtower overlook a deep gorge of the Mangde River.

Trongsa Dzong, the largest fortress in Bhutan, is built on a spur overlooking a deep gorge of the Mangde River. Its massive exterior walls hold a maze of vast courtyards surrounded by temples, administrative offices and living quarters for its 200 monks. Further up the mountain a watchtower, Da Dzong, rises from the treetops. The view goes on forever, from the sky-high mountain range to the bottom of the gorge, a striking reminder of the dzong’s original strategic purpose.

Demons begone

Bhutan - Musicans at the Tamshingphala Festival.

Musicans at the Bhutanese lingm flute as the Tamshingphala Festival.

The next afternoon finds us at the annual Tamshingphala Festival. In the courtyard of this small fifteenth century monastery, monks and a multigenerational crowd of area villagers are gathered around an open space where dancers in ornate robes twirl wildly to the sound of ancient horns and cymbals. Evil spirits and other ill-intended demons don’t stand a chance.

We are in the Bumthang district now, the spiritual heartland of Bhutan. The landscape is dotted with legendary monasteries, temples and palaces. We are staying in Jakar, the district capital where there are unmistakable signs of development. Our hotel actually has, in addition to passable plumbing, a frequently operational Wifi in the dining room. And the owner is married to a lovely Indian woman who does the cooking, which means a nice curry break from the usual locally grown red rice and chilies (nb. chilies seem to be a food group in Bhutan).

The sacred cave of Guru Rinpoche

Bhutan - Kurje Lhakhang monastery in Bhumthang.

The Kurje Lhakhang monatery is build about a sacred cave.

Guru Rinpoche. In 747 A.D. the Buddhist saint came from India (where he was known as Padmasambhava) to Bumthang at the invitation of the local king who needed his soul retrieved from, you guessed it, a malevolent deity who had cursed him with a terrible illness. Guru Rinpoche meditated in a cave in Lhakhang, subdued eight classes of demons and restored the king’s soul. He then departed for Tibet, but left imprints of his body in the cave, which became known as Kurje (body imprints).


Bhutan -Kurje Lhakhang monastery interior.

The Kurje Lhakhang monastery is a spiritual in Bhutan.

Guru Rinpoche subsequently returned, set up his headquarters in Bumthang and Kurje Lhakhang (Temple of Imprints) became a major spiritual and historical site. There are three temples here, home to giant Buddhas and stunning ancient murals representing Taras (deities associated with wealth and fortune) and a 12-meter (40 foot) high statue of Guru Rinpoche that obstructs the Cave of the Imprints.


Places where time stands still

Bhutan -Tang Valley Farmhouse.

Farmhouse in the most remote of Bumthang’s valleys.

We take a side trip to Tang Valley, the most remote of Bumthang’s valleys, for a close look at rural life. This is a pristine agricultural area where the industrial age has yet to take hold. Farmhouses precariously cling to the mountain, and farmers work their land just as they have for many centuries. What starts out as a dubiously paved road soon stops all pretenses, and our van rocks gamely along the dirt trail until we come to a bridge. It’s on foot from here on, one hour uphill on a narrow path through fields and along a cluster of farmhouses.

Bhutan - Oxdrawn plow in Bumthang.

A woman leads an oxdrawn wooden plow in her Tang Valley field.

A woman guides a team of oxen pulling a wooden tiller across a terraced field. Others spread buckwheat out to dry or spin wool with a drop spindle. We eventually reach Ugyen Choling, a country estate built in the seventeenth century for a local noble family. Their descendants still own it and have transformed most of it into a museum. They have recreated traditional living quarters, including all the everyday objects necessary to sustain the household: kitchen and weaving utensils, tools, farming implements, weapons, as well as religious masks and a rich collection of printing blocks.

Ugyen Choling printing blocks.

Once a self-sustaining remote country estate, Ugyen Choling has fine collection of rare printing blocks.

It’s on foot from here to Tharpaling Gompa, a fourteenth century monastery (altitude 3500 meters or 11,500 feet) still home to 100 monks. The view of Bumthang valley from here is, quite literally, breathtaking. We then stop at the Burning Lake, which turns out to be a gloomy pool at the bottom of a narrow gorge of the Tang Chhu River. But great deeds are said to have happened here in the fifteenth century, involving a reincarnated disciple of Guru Rinpoche diving to retrieve a sacred scroll from the bottom of the pool and returning with his still burning butter lamp. Judging the thousands of Tsha-tshas (small prayer stones honoring ancestors) tucked under the ledge leading to the water, and the bridge disappearing under thick layers of prayer flags, the site is very holly indeed.

Our next destination is Tashi Yangtse, about as east as we can travel without ending up in India’s state of Arunachal Pradesh. Apparently very few Western tourists make it this far.

Good to know

  • Religious Buddhist festivals (or Tshechu) are held yearly in each district of the country. Dates vary according to the Buddhist calendar.
  • Tourism in Bhutan is subject to strict regulations that are managed by the National Tourism Council of Bhutan. All travel within the country must be planned and booked through a tour operator registered with the council. Travel guidelines as well as a complete list of registered tour operators and the yearly festival schedule are available on the council’s website:
  • We selected Blue Poppy Tours and Treks for their responsiveness in tailoring a tour to our personal interests and requirements.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Bumthang, Bhutan

Eastward into the Myth

Eastward into the Myth

Wedged high in the eastern end of the Himalayas, between India to the south, east and west, and Tibet to the north, Bhutan is one the most isolated countries in the word, and the last remaining Buddhist kingdom. Tourism was not permitted until 1974. Television and Internet access did not appear until 1999. Druk Yul (or Land of the Thunder Dragon) as is known in Dzonghka, the office language of Bhutan, is only 180 kilometers and (110 miles) from north to south and 325 kilometers (200 miles) from east to west. Think Switzerland with deeper valleys, higher mountains, and only one main road meandering west to east (paving seems to become optional the further east you travel); no railroad, no air travel beyond Paro, the international airport in the west of the country, and no navigable waterways. Although rivers abound, fed by thundering waterfalls from glacier-clad Himalayan peaks, they are better suited for extreme whitewater rafting than commercial navigation.

Himalayan roller-coaster

Bhutan -Dochu La Pass

The pass is the only gateway between Thimphy and Central Bhutan.

Today we leave the capital, Thimphu, to start our journey eastward into Bhutan’s heartland. It is only 30 kilometers to Dochu La Pass, but the vertical climb from 2,300 meters (7,650 feet) to 3,150 meters (10,350 feet) makes for a slow drive. The only gateway between the capital and the center of the country it is the most visited of the passes, and arguably the most picturesque. When we reach the top, the spectacular view of the Himalayas, “on a clear day” our guide Kesang is prompt point out, doesn’t materialize. We are in the clouds. But this only adds to mystical atmosphere of the place. The hill is covered with chortens, 108 of them rising from the midst. Chortens are religious structures built to honor the memory of eminent lamas or kings or to keep evil spirits at bay, a comforting thought on these roads. Everywhere around us, giant webs of multicolor prayer flags flap in the wind. The clouds drift apart just long enough to reveal a sunny valley far below us.

The Valley of Bliss

Bhutan -Punakha Dzong.

The Punaka Dzong sits at confluence of the Pho Chhu and Mo Chhu rivers.

From the Dochu La Pass the road pitches down toward the Punakha-Wangdue Valley and our main destination for the day, the Pungrang Dechen Photrang Dzong (or Palace of Great Bliss), Punakha Dzong for short. Built in the early seventeenth century, it is one of the oldest and largest dzongs (fortresses housing religious temples, military and administrative offices and monks’ accommodations) in the country. The Punakha Dzong served as the seat of the government of Bhutan until 1975 when the capital was moved to Thimphu.

Bhutan - Punakha Dzong

The Punakha Dzong is one of the oldest in Bhutan.

Located at the confluence of the Pho Chhu (father) and Mo Chhu (mother) rivers, the Punaka Dzong is a sprawling complex of multi-storied buildings opening onto three vast courtyards and a central tower (or utse). The intricacy of the polychrome woodwork that surrounds all the doors, windows and balconies is magnificent. At the time of our visit the dzong is a beehive of activity as the following week it is to be the site of the Royal Wedding when King Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck marries his commoner fiancée Jetsun Pema. The complex is being spruced up inside and out and festive buntings hung from every roof and balcony.

Demons and blessings

Bhutan - Cham dancers at Wangdi Dzong.

Cham dances are a form of meditation in Bhtanese Buddhist festivals.

We get an early start the next morning. We are off to the Wangdi Dzong for the Festival. While the underlying purpose is spiritual, the festival is an extravaganza of dances by masked religious dances and dramas pantomimes depicting the triumph of good over evil and stories of the life of Bhutan’s patron saint, Guru Rinpoche. But it is also a great opportunities for socializing and celebrating, attended by throngs of area people of all ages, dressed in their finest clothes.


Bhutan - Wangdi Dzong Thongdrel Ceremony.

The unfurling of the thongdrel is the closing ceremony of the festival.

We are back at the Wangdi Dzong the next morning for the Thongdrel ceremony. A thongdrel is a giant religious cloth painting that is unfurled from the roof of a dzong into the courtyard. This event only takes place for a few hours on the last morning of the festival to minimize the damage to the thongdrel from exposure to the sun.

After the receiving the blessings associated with the Thongdrel ceremony, we leave the Punakha Valley and its serene terraces of golden rice paddies and drive to east to Trongsa, the gateway to central Bhutan.

Good to know

  • Religious Buddhist festivals (or Tshechu) are held yearly in each district of the country. Dates vary according to the Buddhist calendar.
  • Tourism in Bhutan is subject to strict regulations that are managed by the National Tourism Council of Bhutan. All travel within the country must be planned and booked through a tour operator registered with the council. Travel guidelines as well as a complete list of registered tour operators and the yearly festival schedule are available on the council’s website:
  • We selected Blue Poppy Tours and Treks for their responsiveness in tailoring a tour to our personal interests and requirements.

Note – June 10, 2013. I was saddened to hear today that the Wangdi Dzong had been completely destroyed by fire on June 24, 2012. Fortunately no human casualties were reported. As the Dzong was under renovation at the time, most of the sacred relics had been relocated during the renovations and have been saved. Reconstruction is underway, and is expected to take close to a decade.Thus 2011 Wangdi Festival, which we were privileged to attend was the last to be staged in the historic Dzong.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Punakha Dzong

In the Land of the Thunder Dragon

In the Land of the Thunder Dragon

My Druk Yul (or Land of the Thunder Dragon in Dzonghka, the official language of Bhutan) adventure begins with a midnight e-mail from half-way around the world. Sydney, Australia to be precise, where my dear friend Karen is updating me on the sabbatical travels she and her husband Jan have been planning for the past year. “We are starting in Bhutan,” she writes, “everything is arranged. We are staying three whole weeks (just about the maximum allowed for tourists), timed to visit some of the great religious festivals. We did a lot of research to select the operator that would personalize our tour just right. We’ll have a private guide and driver for the duration. Itinerary attached.” Then le coup de grace: “Would you like to join us?” Karen knows me well. I doubt she is the least bit surprised when within minutes my answer arrives in her mailbox. “YES! How do I sign up?”


Druk Air flight approaches Paro Airport.

Only Druk Air can fly into Bhutan.

I wake up the next morning to a welcome e-mail from our tour operator in London, and the first order of business: “we urgently need to secure your flights in and out of Paro for the trip’s dates. Where will you be coming from?” I am about to discover the logistical challenges of flying into Bhutan. The Royal Bhutan Airline (or Druk Air) is the national carrier and the only one to fly in and out of the country. Its international fleet consists of two Airbus A310 with 124 seats each. It operates out the Paro, the only international airport in Bhutan. There is one daily flight from Bangkok, Thailand, plus several flights per week from a handful of cities in nearby counties. Then there is the disclaimer from the airline: “Due to the geographical location and operating challenges of Paro airport, flights are severely dependent on weather conditions. Schedule timings are subject to change without prior notice.” A quick look at the options confirms that I will be flying in from Delhi, India. I am a bit crestfallen when the answer comes back a few hours later. I am waitlisted on the flight. But within 48 hours, good news, I am now confirmed. Now let’s hope for favorable weather conditions.

Bhutan -Mount Jomulhari.

Mount Jomulhar is sacred to Bhutanese Buddhists.

The flight into Paro has to be one of the most spectacular in the world. We get an eye-level view of the Himalayas gleaming against a robin-egg blue sky, including Mounts Everest and Kanchenjunga and the sacred mountain of the Bhutanese Buddhists, Mount Jomulhari, before floating down into a layer of puffy clouds. When we emerge below the cloud cover, the plane is wending its way along a deep tree-lined valley dotted with farmhouses clinging to its slopes. I understand why only the handful of Druk Air pilots are certified to fly into this airport. One last turn and a feather-light landing onto the short runway along the bank of the Paro Chhu River and we have arrived! Shortness of breath once we disembark has nothing to do with the landing. Paro is at an elevation of 2,200 meters (7,300 feet).


Bhutan - Bridge across the Paro River.

A bridge across the Paro River leads to Thamchog Lhaklang.

It’s a 90-minute drive from the airport to Thimphu, Bhutan’s capital, and with 80,000 inhabitants, its largest city. The road winds along the river. Half way into the drive, we get our first glance at traditional Bhutanese religious architecture with the Thamchog Lhaklang. Built on a knoll overlooking the river, it is a small fifteenth century temple with tall, whitewashed walls topped with elaborately arched windows and roofs held by intricate multi-colored wood trim.On the ancient bridge that leads to it, rows of fading prayer flags flap in the wind.

Bhutan - private temple of Thamchog Lhakland private temple.

Thamchog Lhakland is a private temple on the road to Thumphu

In Thimphu where we spend the next two nights, it is clear that the twenty-first century is beginning to collide with ancient traditions. In the bustling street markets, monks in flowing crimson robes and people of all ages attired in the traditional national dress are carrying conversations on their mobile phones. Later that evening, as we browse through antique shops along the main street, we come across a lovely young sales clerk in her traditional Kira (an ankle length wrap around garment). Her shiny white laptop computer is propped on a display case. She is updating her Facebook page while she wait for customers to drop in.


Thumphu Changangkha Monastery.

Thumphu Changangkha Monastery.

The next morning starts with a steep uphill drive to the Changangkha Monastery. Built on a ridge high above the city it has a commanding view of the Thimphu Valley. The fifteenths century fortress-like monastic school was erected by the descendants of Lama Phajo Drukgom Shigpo, who in the twelfth century founded the Drukpa School (a branch of Tiberan Buddhism) in Bhutan. It is still a repository for ancient scriptures and Thankas (wall-size silk paintings enriched with embroideries depicting Buddhist deities, once used as a teaching tool).

Bhutan - Changankha Monastery in Thimphu.

The Changankha Monastery overlooks the Thimphu Valley.

Another high-point of my visit to Thimphu is the Choki Traditional Art School, located just north of town. It is the only institute in the country to provide training in the traditional arts and crafts of Bhutan. Established in 1999 with five students, it is now a boarding school for over 125 talented adolescents who come from all over the country to master traditional painting, sculpture, carving, weaving and embroidery. They also study Dzongka, the national language, mathematics and English. The skills and enthusiasm of these young people are impressive.

Tomorrow we make our way eastward, over the Dochu La Pass (about 3,150 meters, or 10,300 feet, above sea level) toward Punakha and Wangdi.

Good to know

Tourism in Bhutan is subject to strict regulations that are managed by the National Tourism Council of Bhutan. All travel within the country, starting with the entrance visa,  must be planned and booked through a tour operator registered with the council. Travel guidelines as well as a complete list of registered tour operators are available on the council’s website:

We selected Blue Poppy Tours and Treks for their responsiveness in tailoring a tour to our personal interests and requirements.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Thimphu, Bhutan

Cliff-dwelling through the ages

Cliff-dwelling through the ages

We leave behind Istanbul and the gilded splendors left on the banks of the Bosphorus by two millennia of successive empires for a further jump backward into ancient history. The next stop is Nevsehir, the gateway to Cappadocia, in the heart of the arid highlands of Central Anatolia. In Cappadocia, or “Land of Beautiful Horses” in the language of its Bronze Age Hittite settlers, history is hewn into the rock, by the elements and the various human waves that have inhabited it since pre-Hellenic times.


Turkey - Cappadocia Fairy Chimneys

Cappadocia is an otherworldly landscape of jagged cliffs and soaring towers.

Millions of years of volcanic activities covered the area with layers of lava and compressed volcanic ash (or tuff) that were then eroded by the harsh climactic conditions into an otherworldly landscape of jagged cliffs and soaring towers. “Fairy chimneys” were formed when the lava covering the tuff gave way along preexisting cracks and the remaining protected areas became isolated pinnacles. These pillars of soft rocks topped with conical lava hats can reach heights up to 130 feet (40 meters).

The region is a beehive of cave and cliff dwellings. By some estimates, local inhabitants were carving their homes into the soft tuff as far back as 4000 years ago. Later, some of the first Christian settlements were established in the protective remoteness of the area. Eventually they grew into vast underground cities capable of sheltering tens of thousands inhabitants.

Turkey - Cappadocia cliff city

Kaymakli is a seven-floor labyrinth of tunnels

One of the largest, Kaymakli is a fascinating seven-floor labyrinth of tunnels, some of them quite narrow, with the various living spaces arranged around ventilation shafts. Of the four levels open to visitors at this time, the first floor holds mainly stables and a giant millstone that controls access to the other floors. A stunning church with a pillared nave and two apses is carved into the second floor, its domed ceiling covered in vivid Byzantine frescoes. The third floor contains all the life-sustaining areas: wine and oil presses, grindstones and kitchens.

We spend the night in Uchisar, the highest point in Cappadocia, topped by a sprawling cliff dwelling, the Uchisar Castle. From there the entire city, many of its buildings anchored to the rock face, cascades all the way down do the valley below. Our hotel is nestled in the rock, at the base of the castle. The view is jaw dropping!

Turkey - Frescoed cave chruch in Cappadocia

A richly frescoes Byzantine cave church in Cappadocia.

The next day, we head to the nearby troglodyte (cave dwellers) complex of Pasabagi (more gloriously frescoed rock churches there). This is also the area where the most spectacular “Fairy Chimneys” are located. The site is known as Monks Valley, as the chimneys were home in the fifth century to a hermitage of Simeon monks, who lived in seclusion by cutting shelters high the pillars.




Turkey - Ephesus Greek Amphitheater

Ephesus had the largest Amphitheatre in the antique Greek word.

Because we are “in the neighborhood” (i.e. Turkey), we don’t want to miss the ancient Greco-Roman city of Ephesus. It’s quite a trek from Cappadocia: a three-hour drive to Ankara, during which we ride along the crusty banks of Tuz Gölü (meaning Salt Lake). With its 643 square mile (1,665 square kilometer) surface, it is the second largest lake in Turkey and one of the largest hypersaline lakes on the planet. After a quick stop in Ankara, the country’s capital since it replaced Istanbul in 1923, we fly to Izmir for the night and we are ready to explore Ephesus in the morning.

Ephesus. Turkey.- The Library of Celsius.

The Library of Celsius in Ephesus.

In spite of its long and illustrious Greek history, it is the memory of its Roman grandeur that remains. By the first century B.C. it was one of the largest city in the Mediterranean world with a population of more than 250,000. It had the world’s largest theatre and its largest building, the temple of Artemis. Both can still be seen, although little remains of the latter. But the stunning façade of the Library of Celcius, built a couple of centuries later and the iconic monument of Ephesus, still stands in all its awesome splendor.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!


Back to Byzantium

Back to Byzantium

Like many of my far-flung travels, my recent trip to Turkey begins with two words: “Yes! When?”

At the other end of the phone half way around the world, a friend is telling me of her upcoming business in Istanbul, and can I get myself there for a bit of exploring afterward. As simply as that, thoughts of visiting Turkey “someday” become “next month.” Four weeks later, I am landing at Istanbul Atatürk Airport; and find myself immediately immersed in the mystique of the millennia-old oriental city.

The drive from the airport takes me along the Bosphorus, the legendary boundary between Europe and Asia that flows through the middle of the city, east to west from the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara. On both sides, Istanbul spreads from its endless waterfront over wooded hills.

At the crossroads of cultures

The Byzantine Cathedral Aya Sofia

One a cathedral then a mosque, Aya Sofia is now a museum filled with Byzantine treasures

Fortunately for visitors to this sprawling city, successive dynasties of Byzantine kings, Roman caesars and Ottoman sultans conveniently settled themselves within and on top of their predecessors’ seat of power, in the Old City neighborhood of Sultanahmet. Bound by water on three sides (the Golden Horn, Bosphorus and Sea of Marmara to the north, east and south respectively), and the ancient city walls to the west, this peninsula holds what once was Constantinople and Byzantium before that.

We spend the next three days bouncing back and forth between empires. Our first stop, Aya Sofia, is a metaphor for the evolution of Istanbul. A massive structure whose huge dome is considered to this day one of the world’s great architectural achievements, it was built in the sixth century as a Christian cathedral by Byzantine emperor Justinian. Eight centuries later, following the Ottoman conquest in 1453, Aya Sofia became a mosque, its soaring domes and elaborate mosaics covered with Arabic script and gold for the next five century, until it became a museum in 1931. Now some beautifully restored Byzantine mosaics can be seen again along with the Ottoman artwork.

Istanbul -the Blue Mosque.

The cascade of domed roofs of the Blue Mosque.

From there we walk across a small park toward the cascade of domed roofs and the spear-like minarets of the seventeenth century Sultanahmet Mosque (a.k.a. Blue Mosque). Rumor has it that when Sultan Ahmet I set out to build the mosque that bears his name, he wanted to surpass the grandeur and beauty of Aya Sofia. While I am no expert, I will call the endeavor a draw.

The Blue Mosque is indeed as stunning as its sixth century neighbor. Its central dome rises 140 feet (43 meters), held by four giant columns. The mosque’s interior is covered in elaborate abstract patterns of Iznik tiles. Light streaming from 260 windows set high into the domes plays on the tiles and creates an otherworldly atmosphere. While it is one of Istanbul’s prime tourist attractions, the Blue Mosque is still a place of worship that can hold up to 10,000 worshipers.

Down into the sunken palace

Istanbul Cistern Basilica

The Istanbul Cistern Basilica dates back to Roman times.

After this architectural extravaganza, the small bunker-like building across the street from Aya Sofia that marks the entrance to the Basilica Cistern is a bit of a let down. Inside its non-descript doorway, we start down an ancient stone staircase. Fifty-two damp steps later, we reach a surreal underground world of towering Hellenic marble columns (336 in all, lined in 12 rows of 28 each) rising from a dark pool of water. We are in the Basilica Cistern, or Yerebatan Sarnici (Sunken Palace). Originally constructed in the fourth century by Emperor Constantine, the cistern was enlarged in 532 to its present state by Justinian to meet the water needs of the Great Palace imperial complex. The 30-foot (nine meter) high columns are thought to be “recycled” from various parts of the empire. For me, this unique watery cathedral-like space is one of the most striking sights of Istanbul.

istanbul medieval Rumelian fortress.

The medieval Rumelian fortress on the Bosphorus.

The next morning we board a public ferry to cruise from the Golden Horn, the crescent-shaped inlet that has served as a natural harbor for Istanbul since before it was Byzantium, out into the Bosphorus and east toward the Black Sea. We pass the great 19th century Ottoman waterfront palaces, then the colossal medieval walls of the Rumelian fortress. Further east still, we discover traditional fishing villages and yalis (seashore wooden villas).

No end of Treasures


The Dolmabahce Palace.

What about all the other much vaunted “guidebook musts?” Yes, we do fit those in also. We wander through Topkapi Palace, a labyrinth of ornate rooms that conjure images of turbaned sultans and their harems, before enjoying a panoramic view of the Sea of Marmara from its private terraces. We dutifully follow the crowds through the Dolmabahce Palace – think Versailles on the Bosphorus. And we make the de rigueur stop at the Grand Bazaar. This ancestor of the shopping mall is now overflowing with overpriced goods for tourists. The Spice Bazaar, a vast aromatic market piled high with coffees, dried fruits, spices and herbs feels more enticing. Besides, locals still shop there; always a good sign.

Istanbul Chora Museum.

the Chora Museum is a striking exemple of Byzantine Church .

On the last day, an afterthought visit to the out-of-the-way Church of the Holy Savior in Chora (now Chora Museum) delivers one of the biggest thrills of my stay in Istanbul. The current structure, build in 1081 on the site a fifth century church, is considered one of the most striking surviving example of a Byzantine church. In the early fourteenth century, Byzantine statesman Theodore Metochites endowed the church with exquisite mosaics and frescos that illustrate the genealogy, birth, life and resurrection of Jesus. After the fall of the city to the Ottomans, the Chora Church was converted into a mosque and its glorious artworks plastered over. Thus they remained mainly intact throughout the centuries, to be cleared and restored when the mosque was turned into a museum in the late 1950’s. These are the most breathtaking Byzantine mosaics I have ever seen.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!