Saturday, April 03, 2010

And some more cherry blossoms.....

Exhausting day today.....woke up at 6.30 to get the apartment all cleaned out and ready for the carpet cleaners. At about 8 or so, Andy, Raghavan, Penny and I headed to Starbucks for breakfast and then to the dog park. After some time there we went to Safeway, did some grocery shopping and then got home by 10 am or so but the carpets were still so wet, we headed out to the rooftop for another hour. At 11.30 we left to meet Gautam at the Newseum, the wedding venue, to taste some more vegetarian options and finalise the menu. We tasted Mushroom risotto, Mediterranean Panzanella salad, Vegetable tempura with dipping sauce and potato croquettes! We picked 2 out of the 4 and added them to what had been picked previously. Then after a walk through the space and picking out table linen choices we headed back home and took a quick break before heading out again to Enid Haupt Gardens for a photo shoot with the wedding photographer at 4pm. This is easily one of the most beautiful gardens I have seen, in some ways better than the Tidal Basin! Parking is atrocious in DC and especially now in the tourist as usual we had to walk almost a mile from the car to the park. But it ended up being a gorgeous afternoon as you can see in these pics.

             This is the storefront of a Mexican restaurant on the way, I just had to get a picture

Friday, April 02, 2010

DC cherry blossoms

 April 1st, 2010

Today was an absolutely picture perfect day in DC. It was sunny with temps in the mid 70's. The peak bloom date for the cherry blossoms had been moved up to today, so I was so excited to finally see them. Even though the city is studded with cherry blossom trees lining avenues and roads, the PLACE to really see the was the Tidal Basin. We took the metro green line at the U St station to Les Enfant and then the orange line to the Smithsonian station. It was a good mile and a half to the Tidal Basin but oh, so worth it. We had initially thought we would take a 90 min river cruise along the Potomac which would have given us a great view of the cherry blossoms as well as the monuments, but I think half the fun is to walk along and amidst the trees and see them and touch the petals and smell them. After that we stepped into the Jefferson Memorial for a few minutes.

Click here for a slideshow

Monday, March 29, 2010

DC day 3

 March 28th, 2010

Sunday dawned cold and cloudy as forecast. We lazed around till 11am at which time Venkat and family joined us. Then we dropped Penny off at Doggy Day Care and headed to Eastern Market for the Sunday market to see my friend Param's booth. Param is an architect/artist  and we worked together at Callison in Seattle. The market was like any outdoor Farmers Market - locally made products, jewelry, ceramics, clothes, fresh flowers and fruits, scones, doughnuts, jams, jellies......! We shuffled around for a couple of hours - I say "shuffled" cos it was so cold and windy we had to huddle together to stay warm! I met up with Param after 10 years or so...he has some great artwork. Check out his artwork at

We then hooked up with Manu, my nephew, who had spent the last couple of days with friends at John Hopkins and then all headed out to lunch at Sticky Rice in the H Street corridor, near Capitol Hill. Funky, fusion Pan Asian cuisine. Had some interesting dishes while being startled every now and then by this huge metal gong - everytime someone downs a sake shot, the gong is whacked and if you don't see it coming, the deafening sound will knock you off your seat as happened with me. Here are some pics of what we ate.....

 After lunch we headed home for a short break, then Indu and I headed to our favorite store IKEA. Always fun to see whats new there and it never fails to disappoint. Fabulous new items in kitchenware, bed and bath and really hard to resist piling up your cart. Came back, had our usual lively discussions, large quantities of wine and beer were imbibed.....and then Thai dinner again. By 10.30 or so Venkat and family left.......end of another fun day!

Day 1 and 2 in DC

 26th March 2010

Arrived into DC last evening after an easy 5 hr flight to Doha and a "not so easy" 14 hr flight from Doha to DC. Fortunately Qatar has a great entertainment system so it was easy to stay busy and forget you were cramped into a 2' x 2' space...i watched 4 movies. The Blind Side - good, MJ's "This is it" for the second time and enjoyed it as much as the first time, and 2 chick flicks...I don't even remember the names!!!! Anyways, flight got into DC an hour early at 4pm, but spent 30 minutes in a holding pattern waiting to land. Got home around 6pm.....lazed around catching up with Gautam and Andy, had a delicious Thai dinner and then luckily went to bed at 10pm and woke up at 6am!

27th March 2010

This morning we went to T Joes and stocked up on food and groceries for the next week. Then we ordered a take out lunch at DC noodles, came home, had pho noodles, garden spring rolls and leftover Thai for lunch. Left home at 1pm, went to the Smithsonian Mall and spent the afternoon at the DC kite festival. It was a beautiful day, sunny but cold, temps in the high 30's/low 40's F! Quite a change for us Hyderabadi folks who left Hyd at 40 deg C weather! The cherry blossoms are reaching their peak and right now many trees are in full bloom and many are half way there. Colors range from pure milky white to deep pink with all shades in between. It looked like half of DC was out there....! Then we took Penny to the dog park where she frolicked with about 20 other dogs in varying breeds and sizes, came home about 4pm, jet lag hit us and we keeled over and slept. Had to really make an effort to get up at 6pm.

Venkat and family dropped by around 7pm or so. They stopped at DC on their way back to Princeton from N Carolina where they had gone on a college tour of Duke so Nikki could check it out. As always we had a great time with heated discussions on everything from politics to health to food to economy etc. Gautam ordered some delicious pizza and thanks to that along with large quantities of beer and wine we all started slowing down around 10pm or so. They left for their hotel and we are again planning to get together tomorrow...the weather forecast for tomorrow is crappy so we are not sure what our plans are......whatever they are we will have a good time I know!
Check out my other blog for some close up gorgeous views of the cherry blossoms!

Istanbul Istanbul.....

June 2009 - Hyderabad - Istanbul - DC - Hyderabad

Raghavan and I went to Istanbul last June, we were there the 7th thru the 12th. Unfortunately I did not blog during the trip so this is way way later so it will not have the same impact, but nonetheless I hope you enjoy it.
Istanbul - it conjures up images of minarets and mosques against blue skies, muezzins calling for prayer, bazaars selling lanterns and spices, rose flavored Turkish halva, baklava filled with honey and nuts and a city oozing history from every pore ……well I am here to tell you it’s all that and much much more!
Raghavan and I finally got to visit Turkey last month. Istanbul is the largest city in Turkey. It is located on the Bosphorus strait and encompasses the natural harbor known as the Golden Horn in the Northwest of the country. It extends both on the European as well as the Asian side of the Bosphorus and as such has the distinction of being the only city in the world built on two continents.
We landed at Istanbul’s Ataturk airport on a perfect summer day around 2pm on the 7th of June and our cab drive from the airport to the hotel in Sultanahmet district took us along the Marmara coast. It was a Sunday afternoon and the entire coastline was dotted with families enjoying a day out and picnicking with hammocks strung up between trees and barbecues fired up. It looked like all of Istanbul was out there! The first thing that struck us was how little traffic there was on the roads. The second thing I noticed was the abundance of roses everywhere. They were predominantly red roses..…growing profusely along the roadside and spilling brazenly from boxes on windowsills, on terrace gardens, outside stores in containers….everywhere! With blue skies and the heady perfume of roses in the air and I knew I would love Istanbul!
We checked into our hotel in Sultanahmet at around 3pm. This is in the heart of historic Old Istanbul. If you’re looking for a neighborhood close to ALL major sights in Istanbul then this neighborhood is the best base. Of course some might argue that being so close to the sights you tend to miss out on the “off the beaten path” delights…..but all the same being close to the sights definitely has its advantages. We would typically head out after breakfast and come back to the hotel after lunch for a short siesta, and then head out again after 4pm or so and stay out till past dinner time. Our Hotel Dersaadet was a charming comfortable hotel with an incredible view from the rooftop terrace of white sailboats against the blue Marmara Sea.
My husband and I are firm believers of ‘when in Rome do as the Romans do”! We try as much as possible to stay away from cabs and fancy restaurants, instead we experiment with street food and eat where the locals eat, walk wherever possible or if it is too far to walk, use public transportation. And in Istanbul where everything seemed to be a 5-10 minute walk away and the Bus Rapid Transit is cheap, efficient and comfortable and every street corner has vendors selling goodies like simit, which is a circular Turkish bread with sesame seeds, misir or steamed corn, baklavas, dondurma or Turkish ice cream, grilled koftas and dolmas, to do as the Turks do was easy.
Since we didn’t feel too jet lagged we decided to start discovering our surroundings right away. We stopped at a café round the corner for some lip smacking gooey baklava and a cappuccino and then headed off to the Blue Mosque, a mere 5 minute walk from the hotel.

The mosque is built on the site of palace of the Byzantine emperors and faces the Hagia Sofia. Per custom we removed our footwear as well as socks to go inside. The interior is lined with more than 20,000 blue Iznik tiles giving it the name Blue Mosque. A bit of interesting trivia here – after the mosque was completed and the 6 minarets revealed, the Sultan was heavily criticized for being so presumptuous, since it was, at that time, the same number of minarets as the Kaaba in Mecca! The Sultan overcame this problem by paying for a seventh minaret at Mecca! The mosque still calls people to prayer 5 times a day. The only difference is the muezzin has been replaced by a public address system which woke us up every morning echoed by other mosques in the city. Turks and tourists gather at sunset in the park facing the mosque to hear the call to evening prayers, as the sun sets and the mosque is brilliantly illuminated by colored floodlights.

Our next stop was the Underground Basilica cisterns thought to have been built after the Nika revolt in 532 AD. After the conquest of the city by the Ottoman Turks, it was forgotten and nobody knew that it existed. Re-discovered in 1545, it was used to water the gardens of Topkapi Palace. Today it has a rather eerie and mystical ambiance. What you see is a huge tank containing 336 columns and about 12 inches of water on the floor. One of the most famous sights within the cistern is the pedestal with the two Medusa heads carved into it. One head is on its side, the other inverted.

By now it was well past our Hyderabad bed time and jet lag was starting to hit us. We stopped for dinner at a roadside café and ordered their mezze platter. Mezze, or small appetizer-style dishes, are important in every Middle Eastern cuisine, so this part of the menu is extensive and varied. It included six appetizers, each one beautifully prepared, each in its own section of a large plate. There were familiar dishes like white creamy hummus and baba ghanoush with less familiar dishes such as pilaki, which is pinto beans and other vegetables in a light tomato sauce as well as a combination of cubes of eggplant and potatoes. There was a cheese mezze and then finally a mound of thick creamy garlicky dill flavored yogurt in the middle all smothered with olive oil. This was accompanied by a kind of gigantic puffy bread which the waiter called pouf bread. It is sort of a cross between the Indian poori and naan! No meal in Istanbul is complete without the mandatory flavored teas and apple tea seems to be the most common, probably because it is the tastiest! It is like hot apple cider really! It was all so exciting and exotic and little did we know then that for vegetarians like us, mezze platters would become our mainstay and the eggplant our good friend!

Breakfast at the hotel had the usual array of continental choices….toast, rolls, scrambled eggs, cereal etc but in addition there were bowls of olives, raisins, apricots, dates, sliced cheeses, thick yogurt and jars of exotic jams including the mandatory rose jam and various flavored honeys. My favorite soon became a heaping bowl of yogurt topped with apricots and raisins and drizzled with spoonfuls of honey. Fortified for the day, or at least till lunchtime, we hit the Topkapi palace. The Topkapi palace was the official and primary residence in the city of the Ottoman Sultans for 400 years from 1453. When the Sultans moved to the Dolmabache Palace in 1853 the palace lost its royal importance and started to deteriorate. After 50 years of continuous restoration, it was converted into a museum in 1924 at Ataturk’s request. Situated on the Acropolis, the site of the first settlement in Istanbul, it commands an impressive view of the Golden Horn, the Bosphorus and the Marmara Sea.

Our next stop was the Archaeological Museum which is housed in three buildings just inside the first court of Topkapi Palace and includes the Museum of the Ancient Orient. The museum has an excellent collection of Greek and Roman artifacts, including finds from Ephesus and Troy. The sarcophagi collection included that of Alexander the Great which my husband got a big thrill out of seeing. Another huge surprise for us was seeing the Peacock Throne of Shah Jehan in the Museum. How had it ended up here? The story goes that when Nadir Shah planned to extend his territory into Turkey, Sultan Mahmud of Turkey who had been badly defeated by him in Armenia offered him a peace treaty. Nadir Shah surprisingly accepted and to celebrate both parties agreed to a diplomatic exchange of gifts. Among the valuable gifts which Nadir Shah selected to be sent to his counterpart in Turkey, Sultan Mahmud, was the divan-like Peacock Throne, which he had brought down from Delhi during his Indian campaign. There is still some doubt as to whether it is the real Peacock throne or a copy of the original!

Our evening dinner included a ceremony by a whirling dervish. We had been planning to go see a popular touristy one hour show at the Sirkeci train station the next day, so we thought this would be a good preview of what was in store for us the next day.
The Mevlevi Order, or the Mevlevilik are a Sufi order founded in Konya by the followers of Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Balkhi-Rumi, a 13th century Persian poet. They are also known as the Whirling Dervishes due to their famous practice of whirling as a form of dhikr (remembrance of God). Dervish is a common term for an initiate of the Sufi path; the whirling itself is known as the Sema and the participants are properly known as semazens. They spin on their right foot and additionally, they have their right palm facing upwards towards Heaven and their left hand pointing at the ground. The music that accompanies the whirling from beginning to end ranges from somber to rhapsodical. Lulled into a soporific state by the good food, watching the dervish spinning and the mesmerizing music, we headed back for a good night’s rest and decided to skip the show we had planned to see the next evening.

Day 3 started at the St. Sophia, better known as the Hagia Sofia. I have seen incredible basilicas in Rome, Spain and Portugal, but nothing prepared me for the size and scale of the Hagia. At 184 feet, it was the largest cathedral in the world for nearly a thousand years until the completion of the Seville cathedral in 1520. It was the religious focal point of the Eastern Orthodox Church for almost 10 decades till it was conquered by the Ottoman Turks in 1453 and converted into a mosque. The bells, altar and sacrificial vessels were removed, and many of the mosaics were eventually plastered over, signs of which are still evident. The Islamic features — such as the mihrab, the minbar, and the four minarets outside — were added over the course of its history under the Ottomans. It remained as a mosque until 1935, when it was converted into a museum by the Republic of Turkey. The cathedral took us a good part of the morning.
After lunch my husband, ice cream connoiseur that he is, decided to try some “dondurmas”, the Turkish equivalent of ice cream. It turned out to be nothing like the ice cream we are familiar with. It is thicker, chewier and gelatinous and when inverted on the spoon, does not fall! We found out later that it is made with goats milk to which mastic resin is added as a thickening agents. No wonder then that it never melted in the afternoon sun!
After this gastronomic experiment gone awry, determined to fill my one almost empty suitcase with Turkish souveneirs, we headed to the famous Grand Bazaar, one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world with 60 streets and 5000 shops. A labyrinthine maze selling everything from perfumes, spices and silks to carpets, ceramics, copperware, water pipes and jewellry, it is a shopaholic’s dream come true. Fortunately my 3 years in Hyderabad and shopping expeditions to Charminar have fine tuned my haggling skills so we were able to walk away with some awesome – or so we think – deals! We bought rose flavored Turkish delight, apple teas, handmade ceramics and soft fluffy Turkish towels for half the price quoted and kilims for a third of the price. The trick is to walk away – no, really walk away – if they don’t meet your price! After a leisurely afternoon spent exploring the bazaar, getting lost countless times and feeling quite smug with our purchases we headed back to the hotel, tired but satisfied.

Our original plan was to drive to Troy the next day but when we realized we would spend 8 out of the 12 hours in the car getting to and fro, we decided to do the Bosphorus cruise instead. We took the traditional ferryboat that left from Eminonu up the Bosphorus including stops at several villages along the way. The cruise took 1 ½ hours to Sariyer district on the European side of the Bosphorus. Since it was too early for lunch we climbed up the Rumeli Hisari or Rumelian castle, a fortress built by Sultan Mehmet II before he conquered Constantinople. It looked like an innocently easy climb from down below, but after the last 10 minutes in 80 degree temperatures up a 60 degree incline under the hot sky, we got to the top ravenous and thirsty! After a quick walk around, some gorgeous pictures against the blue sea and some ice cold beer and lemonade, we walked back down to the village.

After a nice lunch at one of the waterside cafes, we took the ferry back to Eminonu. On our second day we had inadvertently stumbled upon a fabulous bazaar behind our hotel, Arasta Bazaar, so we decided to go browse the shops there. At dinner time, my husband, determined to sample the local brew, ordered some Raki. This is an anise flavored spirit, often compared to Goan feni or Greek ouzo and is partly mixed with chilled water which causes it to turn a milky white color. Almost as disastrous as the dondurmas, it ended up being way too strong for his liking, after which he decided to stop experimenting and stick to the tried and tested eggplant mezze and apple tea.

Day 5 took us back to the Grand Bazaar for a second bout of shopping and haggling. It was followed by a quick visit to the Suleymaniye Mosque, built on the order of Sultan Suleiman who was credited with the complete reconstruction of the Ottoman legal system. For this he was known in the West as Suleiman the Magnificent and in the East as the Lawgiver. This mosque is his final resting place. After this we took the 1 ½ hour guided city bus tour on a double decker bus which showed us the highlights of Istanbul. The rest of the day was spent wandering through the city and re-visiting some of our favorite shops and cafes. In the evening just like the locals, we sat on benches in between the Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque, drinking in the view of these 2 magnificent buildings against the backdrop of the setting sun, drinking apple tea and chatting with two scruffy but adorable schoolchildren selling postcards and souveneirs to earn some extra money. When darkness fell we reluctantly returned to the hotel to start packing and getting ready for our flight the next morning.

Our 5 day stay went by way too quickly. If I had to do it again, I would allow for a week just to see Istanbul and then another 3-4 days to visit Cappadochia, Troy and Anatolia. I would also make the time to have a Turkish Hammam bath of which we had heard such wonderful things. The Turks are wonderful people, friendly and curious. The food is delicious and exotic. The weather in June is picture perfect. The city is steeped in culture and history. Istanbul is a harmonious blend of the east and the west, the modern and the traditional, the old and the new. We left with 2 resolutions – the first to be sure to vist again in our lifetime, the second to stay away from eggplant for a long time!!!!