Sunday, November 16, 2014

The Candlelit Cathedral (St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Sofia, Bulgaria)

I have seen a lot of churches and cathedrals. A lot. But none of them looked like the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. 

Located in central Sofia, this cathedral is not only one of the most revered orthodox cathedrals in Bulgaria, but in the entire region. In fact, there is only one church that is larger in the entire balkan peninsula. This is not entirely surprising - the church is nearly 35,000 square feet and, at its peak, can hold a cool ten thousand people. 

For me, the most striking feature of the cathedral was the large golden central dome. We were lucky, when we arrived the sky was bluer than I could have imagined, and the sun's powerful rays brought the golden dome to life. In juxtaposition with the soft white painted exterior and the light pastel green of the cathedral's other domes, the gold was impossible to miss. It gleamed, as gold is wont to do. 

Originally, I had thought the clear blue sky was a blessing, and it was, but in my research I came across a photo that led me to believe that the presence of clouds is capable of adding a dramatic touch to the scene. The overall conclusion? No weather is really going to be enough to ruin the majesty of this church. 

The large open expanse of the interior was not entirely what I expected, but this is likely because my expectations were misplaced. I am more used to the somewhat sterile, symmetric orderliness of catholic cathedrals, but the focus in this orthodox masterpiece seemed to be on the lack of these very things. I wandered from mural to mural in the dimly lit setting, re-configuring my expectations. 

I loved the way that light entered the cathedral. The stained glass windows let in only the light they wanted to, which was, appropriately, the perfect amount. I was awestruck by the enormous candlelit chandeliers in the middle of the room, their light flickering off the nearby walls. The floor was an example of the subtle splendour of marble, and the ceiling contained a fresco of absolutely epic proportions. The cathedral was actually only built at the beginning of the 20th century, but, for one reason or another, it felt much older.  

When I wrote about the Rila Monastery, I spoke about the fact that Bulgaria was full of surprises for me because, well, I simply did not know what to expect. There is a certain beauty (and ease) in doing little to no research until you arrive in a destination, a beauty I rarely experience as I often research quite a bit, doting on the possibilities of upcoming adventures. In this case, I was able to turn the corner and...BOOM, the enormity of the structure (and the moment) struck me like a ton of bricks. 

I've come to the realization that places I have visited that are draped in religious symbolism and built as religious symbols feel special because of the care, effort, and emotion that they were built with. They are built as a flagship of faith, and, thus, rarely spare any expense - sometimes taking decades (or the better part of a century) to build. The finite details are all there. I saw this with the White Temple in Chiang Rai, the mosques in Brunei Darussulam, recently with the Rila Monastery, and dozens and dozens of other places that I haven't had the chance to write about. And there's a continuity in arriving in a new city, and going through the comfortable motions of visiting its prominent mosques, temples, churches, shrines, or cathedrals - a continuity I very much enjoy. In general, there is a continuity in an approach to travel, a method of one's own.  

Hm. That last sentence gets me thinking...

My "travelling self" has evolved over the years. Years ago I used to rush through cities, checking off the cities's sights at a torrential pace, and now I take the time to let things soak in a little more. Instead of trying to see 3 cities in a week, in constant motion, I now am more inclined to plan nothing at all, and stay in a city or destination for as long as it captures my interest. And, that way, I take the time to enjoy the small things without a sense of rush, and enjoy that beer or coffee on the main street (or not so main street), an experience which can often be more revealing about a city or culture than a tourist attraction ever could be. 

I've come to the understanding that I will never see all that I want to see of the world in one lifetime, but, it is enough to embrace the notion that through experience and travel, I can come to know a little more about the world (and myself) than I did yesterday.  

Monday, November 3, 2014

Five Epiphanies in Istanbul

I'm not quite sure I ever feel like writing "conventional" blogposts anymore, though I probably couldn't define what a conventional blogpost is. Personally, I think of a conventional blogpost as being dry, and focused only on the chronological, the bland re-telling.

I've come to realize that the re-telling of a story or event, if it is to be without any sort of creative fervour or angle, is better left to one's personal journal. That is definitely something I did not know when I started blogging. I have learned to be more adventurous with my writing, and in some ways, today's post is about learning.  When I awoke today I knew I wanted to write, but I had no idea about what. I decided that, after almost three months here in Istanbul, I might be due for a sort of experimental, over-arching piece on the city.

Today's theme? Five Epiphanies in Istanbul. Ever since I read James Joyce's The Dubliners, (a text notorious for its focus on the use of the epiphany) I've come to love the idea that one moment can have so much impact on a person's understanding of the world. I read The Dubliners in Ireland in 2006, so I can imagine I've had quite a few epiphanies since then. But, for now, let's focus on the one's I've had in Istanbul, in no particular order.

One - Istanbul, The Place I Call Home

There are things that we know that we don't really understand or realize until a later moment. I knew that I was moving to Istanbul about half a year before it happened, and I knew what Istanbul was like because I had visited with Bri in 2010. I knew for certain that it was happening, and I knew it even more when I landed at Istanbul Atatürk Airport in August, and checked into my hotel in the Taksim area. But I didn't realize it until the booming Turkish sun was overhead, and I was a "tourist" again in the Sultanahmet area in late August. 

Shortly after arrival, sandwiched between the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia, it hit me like a ton of beautiful bricks..."this is where I live now." And it was an overwhelmingly positive feeling, as I understood that I couldn't be having this moment in any other city, surrounded by this particular history, and these buildings. I often need to remind myself of this fact when I'm walking through the storied streets, but this was the original moment, the moment I became all doughy eyed, filled with excitement and intrigue. 

I had quite a different vantage point of the Blue Mosque several weeks later, and, yeah, that didn't hurt my impression of Istanbul either. 

 Two - Istanbul, The Delicious 

I had been eating food. I had been eating lots of food, and thoroughly enjoying it, in fact. Turkish food is well-spiced, flavourful, and diverse. It wasn't some fancy dinner that turned me into a believer though - it was, rather appropriately, a certain run-in with a particular kebab stand. 

At the top of the famous Istiklal street, right at the turn off towards the area of Cihangir, there is a man who regularly changes my life. It is the first time he did this that I shall recall. Simply based on the smell of the meat, I ordered two kebabs from him, and I was not mistaken in this. Succulent chicken, slowly roasted tomatoes and peppers, a little bit of tomato and yogurt sauce and a healthy serving of pickles, then lightly toasted for good measure - it was a dream. At that moment, I realized, this city is a foodie's heaven. Of course, I was soon to discover that there are simply endless food options in this city, but I must admit, this kebab is still very high up there for me. 

The real-epiphany here is, If I'm ever hungry, I can be full in 5 minutes or less with an ever friendly kebab. Yeah, it counts as an epiphany. 

Three - Istanbul, The Surpising

Tell me, in what other city can you stumble upon a fourth century, secret palace? 

I was out on a walking tour of sorts with friends when all of a sudden my friend Rebecca says, "Oh let's stop here for a moment." Not knowing why in particular, we followed Rebecca into the chic looking Palatium Cafe and Restaurant. In the back of the cafe, on the outdoor patio area, there was a staircase that lead-down towards the open, cavernous door pictured above. Of course, we followed. 

What we found was remarkable. An entrance into "The Great Palace of Constantinople," a royal residence and the center of imperial administration from 330 to 1081. I repeat, it was an underground Byzantine palace complex. Walking through the palace was surreal, it was a welcomed shock. I knew that this was one of so many surprises I was yet to discover, and I relished every minute of it. And that was my epiphany, that this city is absolutely full of surprises of the highest magnitude. 

Four - Istanbul, The Proud

By all accounts, Istanbul is a proud city, and rightfully so. Many Turkish people I have spoken to complain about the congestion and traffic (something I mentioned in my interview with Expats Blog), or some other annoyance, but I believe that under it all people are proud of the city that Istanbul is. Whenever I find myself talking about my love for this city with a local, they give me a look back like "you're right." On Republic Day, just days ago, people were out in red, celebrating the history of the city and nation. It can also be said that the people are passionate, which I understood after being near my first protest just weeks ago. 

I felt these sentiments after only two or three days in the city. I was on a boat on the Bosphorus sitting near the back, watching as the flag lapped in the wind, and I understood that this was one of the greatest cities on the planet, and, though not without problems, it was a truly proud city with proud people. 

As far as its greatness goes, Distractify was quick to note relatively recently that Istanbul was the number one city to visit in your lifetime. Looks like Briana and I chose a good place to live. 

Anyway, I like to think I understood just a portion of all this, in that moment on the windy boat.

Five - Istanbul, The Great

I was buying books at a book fair in Beyoğlu (accidental alliteration...I shall give myself a pat on the back). I took a moment to veer away from the book vendors and found myself peering over the edge of a wall, which lead to an endless scene. And I was just overwhelmed by being surrounded in all directions by city, in ways that I simply wasn't back in Toronto. Hours in all directions...Istanbul. 

But, in the epiphany, I found solace. I thought about how many people there were in this city I had yet to meet, places I had not even heard of yet, and food that had not found its way to my mouth. It's a theme I find myself writing about fairly frequently when writing about Istanbul, but I think of this moment (photographed above) as really being that true epiphany. A wow moment if I've ever had one (and I have had many, so I can verify that this was indeed one of them.) 


I adore epiphanies because they are moments of pure, intense clarity. Magnifications of what you might have already known, or new thoughts that decisively and decidedly become a part of your outlook.