The Hagia Sofia

I don’t remember much of my history lessons from high school (sorry Mr. Carroll!) but I do remember reading about the Hagia Sofia.


Largest dome in the world for hundreds of years, an architectural engineering marvel that collapsed several times and had to be rebuilt, this was my first stop in Istanbul.

I love these marble floors, grooved and worn from almost two thousand years worth of people walking over them.


And these low flat chandelier light fixtures that were once oil lamps and now are electric.


The ceiling is almost impossible to photograph because of the height and the scope.


Here you can at least see some of the scale, and the scaffolding that covered half the main floor.


The Hagia Sofia was a Christian cathedral for 1000 years and then in 1453 when the Ottomans took over, they converted the Hagia Sofia into a mosque. They removed all the figurative art – in accordance with Islamic law – and plastered over any mosaics of people. Those giant discs are made of wood and leather and have the names of Islamic prophets and caliphs.


Any statuary is gone for good but you can see the restoration efforts are attempting to remove the plaster and reveal the Byzantine mosaics.


Beautiful cats run wild all over Istanbul. Even in the mosques.


We walked up to the second floor by way of a ramp instead of stairs. Sultans were carried by servants, even in church, and I’m guessing stairs are tricky while holding a massive wooden litter.


The arches in the top gallery are kind of incredible


As is the view


I found the Hagia Sofia to be quite beautiful although it felt empty. It’s been a museum since 1934 and has lost any feelings of warmth or human interaction. It’s also under a lot of construction for restoration and parts of it are quite dilapidated. I’d be very interested to see what it looks like if they can restore the paintings and some of mosaics.


It’s worthy of a grand rebuild. Such an important building in the history of the world.

Berlin’s May Day


April 30 is known as Walpurgisnacht or Witch’s Night. It’s a pagan night of bonfires and fertility rites, like American Halloween, and celebrated with giant parties all over Europe. They call May 1 Germany’s Labor Day. Back in 1889 Karl Marx called it International Worker’s Day.

Historically these were two different events. But in Berlin on May 1, 1987, a peaceful street festival went sideways when the leftist groups got into it with the cops who started throwing elbows and tear gas. The festival goers were pretty lit up at this point so they started flipping cars, throwing rocks, setting fires and creating a barricade around the Kreuzberg neighborhood, which they then proceeded to thoroughly loot. By the time the cops broke through the barricade and dragged the rioters off the jail, the Kreuzberg was trashed and a bunch of people were hurt. Everything eventually settled down but May 1 has never been the same since.

I didn’t know much of the history of May 1 before I got here but the Meetup group of Berlin Expats that I joined were throwing a barbq. Everyone else in Berlin had the same idea, of course, because it’s a holiday, so we all congregated in Gorlitzer Park in the Kreuzberg neighborhood, still the heart of the party/riot.

One small part of the park  looked like this

May 1 Berlin

The streets around Kreuzberg were completely shut down and most looked like this

Photo by Tim/Flickr.

Photo by Tim/Flickr.

However, despite the massive groups of people and the ability to drink alcohol anywhere you like, the entirety of the park was a relatively peaceful place. Lots of music and barbq, a fair amount of sun, beer for days and absolutely no public bathrooms for the approximately 7,000 people. I spent 2 hours of my life standing in line for the bathroom and finally stopped drinking liquids all together.

The Berlin Expats are a diverse group from Israel, Palestine, Australia, Thailand, India, South Africa and the UK. And those were just the ones I met. They were all cool and I had a great afternoon just hanging out and meeting some new people. However, around 8pm I hit my social limit and started to head back to the subway only to find that all the stations around Kreuzberg were shut down and surrounded by polizei

After 1987, the Berlin police force formed a special task force for street fights, mostly in an effort to keep the May 1 drama under control. Despite this heavy police presence, even the crowded streets were pretty chill. I kept saying “where are the riots? I thought there would be riots!” and one of the guys said “Kaitlyn, the sun is still up. No one riots in the daytime.”

I’m not sure that’s true since all the pictures I’ve seen from previous years include marches

Rallies against capitalism

A few kicked in windows

And general mayhem. I suspect that this year was no different but I didn’t see any of it. I’m slightly disappointed… but I’ll get over it.

Instead we watched the sun set over Alexanderplatz

may 1 Berlin

And finally got home after a lot of walking, several closed subway stations and lots of redirection.

Berlin’s survived another May Day. Congratulations! Now let’s see what the rest of the month has to offer.

Aliens in Rachel Nevada

Nevada Mountains

Nevada State Motto: Take your pictures from the middle of the road!

Rachel Nevada

And speaking of that, this is Rachel Nevada. By that I mean that this is the sign signifying the entrance to Rachel and in the background is the village of Rachel. Squint. There’s not much to it but I promise it’s there.

Rachel Nevada is famous for plane crashes, UFO sightings, proximity to Area 51, and for just simply being a teensy tinsy speck of habitation in a wide flat array of empty desert.

Rachel and the surrounding countryside remind me strongly of X-Files episodes where green flashes light up the sky, the cars stall out and all the clocks stop (at which point Mulder gets out his can of orange spray paint and puts a huge X in the road so he can further investigate). I drove through Rachel during the day but I can only imagine that driving through at night begets stories of bizarre happenings. The desert in this area is so alien and uninhabited and the most remarkable thing is this place.

Little Ale Inn Rachel NevadaSome detours are worth taking all by themselves – Escape from Dinosaur Kingdom – and some places are better visited en route to somewhere else. I’d put Rachel in the second category except that it’s not really en route to anywhere and I might think differently if I had stayed the night at the Little A’le’Inn (so bewildered by the apostrophes, btw…).

Little Ale Inn Rachel Nevada

Little A’le’Inn is the only bar/restaurant/inn for 80 miles in any direction so everyone stops here. I came in on a Saturday afternoon right after a memorial service that had turned into a happy hour. The locals were nicely dressed in cowboy hats and button down shirts, sitting outside at the picnic table getting tanked on Coors Light and Black Velvet. That’s a story rich environment if ever I’ve seen one. Had I more time, I’d have joined them and heard every UFO story there is and some besides.

Little A'le'Inn Rachel Nevada

Sadly, I didn’t have that kind of time so I ordered my Alien Stout, brewed for the Little A’le’Inn and quite delicious, and a grilled cheese sandwich. There’s nothing fancy here at the Little A’le’Inn but the food is good, all the locals are friendly and the gift shop and accompanying alien merchandise have to be seen to be believed.

Had I to do this detour over, I would plan to stay overnight in one of the Little A’le’Inn’s double wide trailers ($50 a night, I hear), I’d make sure I had plenty of X-Files episodes loaded on my laptop and while the sun went down, I’d order another Alien Stout and say “Tell me about the woman who got advice from an alien named Archibald…”

Rachel NevadaBye bye Nevada! You’ve been a picturesque treat.

Tomorrow AZ.

See Iowa in the Fall

In Iowa the nights are cooling down, the corn is almost ready for harvest and pumpkins have shown up at the farmer’s market. I love this change of seasons. Des Moines Farmer's MarketDes Moines has an incredible farmer’s market that runs 7am to noon every Saturday and occupies 6 square blocks in the middle of downtown. Go for the live music, the seasonal pumpkins and dahlias, a breakfast bowl from Farm Boys Hearty Food Co. followed by mini apple cider donuts and local coffee.  All of Des Moines turns out on Saturday morning and the market operates rain or shine.

If the weather is clear, take your coffee and donuts and walk around the Pappajohn Sculpture Park

Pappajohn sculpture park

This 4.4 acre park in the middle of  Des Moines has 24 sculptures contributed by John and Mary Pappajohn, 2 of Iowa’s leading contemporary art collectors. The park is open until midnight and the curving walkways allow you to take your time exploring. You can download a cell phone tour or you can pick up one of the brochures at the park entrance and give yourself a brief contemporary art eduction as you walk. Make sure to walk around all sides of this Keith Haring sculpture, see the famous Nomade from the inside and wonder what it looked like on the banks of the French Riviera, eat your donuts while sitting on this sculpture and see the Des Moines skyline through the legs of the spider.

Birdland Park is another fantastic outdoor space in Des Moines

Birdland Park

Running trails, a boat marina, tennis courts, picnic tables, a small lake and the Des Moines River all come together in this park. Bring your bike and your tennis racket or just walk alongside the river and enjoy the weather.

For lunch you should eat at one of Des Moines most infamous restaurants, Zombie Burger or Fong’s Pizza.

Zombie Burger

Zombie Burger + Drink Lab has been serving gourmet burgers (not brains…) to downtown Des Moines since 2011. There’s a Zombie burger for every adventurous eater; particularly the Undead Elvis that comes with peanut butter, fried bananas and bacon, Juan of the Dead with a green chili cheese croquette and chipotle mayo and La Horde (above) with bacon, goat cheese and caramelized onions. The burgers are bashed flat on the grill so they’re crispy and cooked through, the mac and cheese shouldn’t be missed (and comes on the burger if you order The Walking Ched) and all their milkshakes are delicious though my favorite is the Zombie Bride Wedding Cake made with yellow cake mix and vanilla ice cream.

Fong's Pizza

Fong’s Pizza is a pizza parlor married to a tiki bar serving mozzarella egg rolls (above) they call Chinese Cheesesticks and mu shoo pork and kung pao chicken pizzas. It’s a little hipster paradise in downtown Des Moines and the thin crust pizzas are as crispy as a cracker. If you’ve ever wondered how Hawaiian pizza might taste if you went one more step and added kung pao sauce, bacon and green pepper, then Fong’s is the place you’ve been dreaming about. Make sure to try the crab rangoon pizza, chosen by Food Network Magazine as the best pizza in Iowa.

After lunch, take a mini road trip for the afternoon so you can see the Iowa countryside. There are a number of interesting destinations that are an hour or so driving distance from Des Moines, one is the little Dutch settlement of Pella.


I took a tour of the Vermeer windmill above and was pleasantly surprised and fascinated by the inner gears and wheels, which are all wooden and completely wind driven. This is the tallest working Dutch style windmill in the US and on gusty days they grind grain into flour using only wind power. They sell the fresh flour in the gift shop in 2lb bags and also supply the local Jaarsma bakery. The entrance fee for the windmill ($10) includes a self guided tour of the surrounding historical settlement with shops for blacksmithing, cobblers, dry goods, a library etc. I visited on a very slow, quiet Tuesday so I got to poke around all by myself; but I know that during the Tulip Festival in May, for instance, the place is packed and you’ll need a reservation.

Pella’s Franklin Square is full of little shops selling quilts, antiques, coffee and Dutch pastries. Stop by Jaarsma Bakery 

Dutch letter

Get a flaky buttery pasty filled with almond paste called a Dutch Letter and then go by Brew Coffee House for a pour over coffee before getting out of town.

My other favorite Iowa day trip is Winterset, an hour or so southwest of Des Moines to visit the famous covered bridges of Madison County

Covered Bridges of Madison CountyThese beauties surround the town of Winterset and were made famous by this book, followed by this movie and then this musical and if you visit in the next couple of weeks, you’ll be right in time for the Covered Bridges Festival in October. The bridges are lovely, especially seen against the fall foliage, but they aren’t always well marked or easy to find. I’d recommend stopping by the Madison County tourist center in downtown Winterset where they’ll give you a map and some route recommendations and you can buy a bottle of Madison County wine. Most of the bridges are only accessed down dirt and gravel roads so plan to take your time. If you get lost, just roll with it.

Winterset is also home to John Wayne’s birthplace

John Wayne's House

This house museum is extremely small, decorated with reproduction furniture and stuffed with pictures and memorabilia from his 169 films. If you aren’t a serious John Wayne fan I’d skip this stop because it’s only accessed via a guided tour. However, there are plans to open a much larger John Wayne museum in Winterset in May 2015. Being able to wander around a larger museum without a tour guide would increase it’s appeal for me. The current house museum costs $7 admission for a guided tour but the gift shop can be visited for free.

Visit Northside Cafe before you leave town

Northside Cafe

and try their homemade cobbler. I had the strawberry rhubarb and of course I added ice cream. Of course. It’s the perfect late afternoon treat.

If you find yourself  back in Des Moines for dinner, try Trostel’s Dish

Trostel's Dish

That’s a deep fried avocado with cilantro aioli and it was pretty darn good. Trostel’s Dish promises small plates from around the world, both exotic and familiar, and they do a good job with both. We ordered half the sharing menu and my favorites were this avocado, the havarti shrimp and the beef tenderloin with Maytag bleu cheese. I was not impressed with the tuna poke tacos so I’d avoid them but if you like poutine, you’ll enjoy their duck confit poutine. They’ll also bring you a dessert sampler with a little bit of everything on it.

If you roll out of Trostel’s Dish and you need a nightcap, head to El Bait Shop for one last drink on their giant patio.

I hope you enjoyed your day in Iowa under that big open Midwest sky! It sure is lovely.

Iowa road

Airport breakfast in ABQ

Tia Juanita’s burrito.

Quito in T -14 hours!