Sunday, October 30, 2016

From Venice to Istanbul and Back

Hagia Sophia in Istanbul - where Christianity & Islam converge
(Venice, Italy) A couple of weeks ago, I spontaneously decided that I had to take a plane trip outside of Italy. I had not been out of the country for ten years, and wanted to see if I had regained my right to freedom of movement -- a topic that needs a book, not a blog post to examine. Simply, I wanted to go out of Europe, get my passport stamped, get a breath of fresh air, and come back home.

After checking a bunch of cities and airfares, I decided to go to either New York or Istanbul, leaving on Thursday and returning on Sunday; the decision rested on whether an old friend was free to meet me in New York. He was not, so off to Istanbul I went, despite some well-meaning friends who said that I was crazy -- Ataturk Airport was the target of a terrorist attack on June 28 that killed 45 people and wounded more than 230 others, and Turkey is under a state of emergency due to the attempted coup on July 15, 2016.

Istanbul in the evening
I am happy to report that the trip could not have been smoother. I slid through all the checkpoints at Marco Polo Airport, and boarded a direct Turkish Airlines flight (did you know they have been chosen by Skytrax as the "Best Airline in Europe" for six consecutive years?) that zoomed me to Istanbul in 2 1/2 hours, including a nice meal and large selection of movies. I picked The Big Short, which I had never heard of before, which shows how out of the loop I am considering that it was nominated for five Academy Awards and is about the housing bubble and financial crisis.

Mother Goddess in Istanbul Archaeology Museum
I also chose Istanbul because it was familiar. I had been to Turkey twice before, fascinated by the ancient symbol of the female divinity, Cybele, a Mother Goddess that stretches back about 12,000 years -- a lot of that research ended up in my second novel, Harley's Ninth. Plus, Venice and Istanbul aka Constantinople, the capital city of the Roman Empire, have a long, complex history. And, it was inexpensive. (CAT TRAVEL TIP: try to travel during wars and coups because the prices go way down.)

View from Rooftop Terrace of Levni Hotel, Istanbul
I picked a boutique hotel right in the center, the Levni Hotel & Spa, that had a roof terrace with spectacular views, a warm and welcoming staff, and a terrific Turkish breakfast buffet with exotic offerings and honey dripping from the comb. The location could not have been better -- it was within walking distance to most of the major sights, and steps away from the new Marmaray metro system that zooms you underneath the Bosphorus strait in four minutes, connecting the European and Asian sides of Istanbul.

Grand Bazaar
It had been about 15 years or so since I was last in Istanbul, but I felt immediately at ease. The first afternoon I walked around, inhaling the exotic scents in the air, listening to the Islamic call to prayer resounding from the minarets on the mosques, and chatting with the shopkeepers. Everyone was friendly and eager to express how they felt about the political situation, which I knew very little about. Even if they didn't agree with their president, Receo Tayyip Erdogan, who used to be the Mayor of Istanbul, they said they took to the streets to protest the coup because they loved their country, and didn't want to lose it to a foreign power.

Basilica of San Marco in Venice
Although Italy is Catholic Church Headquarters with the Pope down in Rome, and church bells ringing constantly throughout the day, it is a secular republic. The Republic of Venice herself was more influenced by Constantinople than by Rome, which is why the architecture here has an Eastern flavor.

And although the majority of people who live in Turkey are Sunni Muslims, and there are calls to prayer wailing from the mosques throughout the day, it, too is a secular republic. The first President of the Turkish Republic, Musttafa Kemal Ataturk, abolished the Ottoman Caliph, who was also the Sultan, the supreme religious and political leader, on March 3, 1924, and the last caliph went into exile. It would be sort of like abolishing the Queen of England, who is also the Head of the Church of England (Americans don't have this system:-) 

INTERESTING ASIDE: If the Imperial House of Osman were still in existence, the current Caliph would be Bayezid Osman, who is now 92-years-old, lives in the States and used to work in the New York Public Library.

Sultan Ahmed Mosque aka the Blue Mosque
Later the first day, when I finally made it to the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, which Westerners call the Blue Mosque, it was closed except for prayer, so I said I wanted to pray, which was true -- even though I was obviously not a Muslim -- and they let me in. You must take your shoes off and put a scarf over your head. The interior was radiant, with hand-painted blue tiles covering the walls.

Inside the Blue Mosque - Photo by Cat Bauer
Inside the Blue Mosque - Photo: Cat Bauer
Sultan Ahmed I ascended to the throne in 1603 when he was only 14-years-old. When he was 19, he commissioned the architect Sedefkar Mehmet Aga to build the mosque based on the design of the Byzantine Christian church Hagia Sophia, located a few minutes away. The mosque was constructed in about seven and a half years, from 1609-1617; Sultan Ahmed was so dedicated to his project that he personally worked as a laborer.

Hagia Sophia
The next day, I went to the Hagia Sophia, which means "Holy Wisdom." The Hagia Sophia was constructed as a Greek Orthodox Christian church under Byzantine Emperor Justinian I between 532 and 537, which I find astounding. How did they built such a masterpiece in four and a half years?!

Constantine the Great mosaic in Hagia Sophia c. 1000
HISTORY REFRESHER: Roman Emperor Constantine I reunited the Empire under one emperor in 324, and was the first Roman emperor to legalize Christianity, eventually becoming a Christian himself. He did not consider Old Rome for his capital because of its declining infrastructure and dusty old monuments like the Colosseum and Circus Maximus. 

Constantine decided to found New Rome, or Constantinople, on the ancient Greek city of Byzantium, which was strategically located on the European side of the Strait of Bosporus, and closer to the geographic center of the Empire (can you image how humongous the Roman Empire was?). 

So, unlike pagan Rome, Constantinople was inspired by the Christian God aka Jesus Christ, although Constantine constructed plenty of temples to pagan deities. He died in 337 CE. In 391, Emperor Theodosius the Great made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire.
According to legend, Venice was founded at noon on March 25, 421. Before that, it was a bunch of islands in a lagoon, inhabited only by fishermen. Venice became a Byzantine territory, and then grew into a Republic.
The Western Roman Empire ended in 476.
The Byzantine or Eastern Roman Empire was conquered by the Ottomans in 1453.

Jesus on the throne with 
Emperor Constantine IX Monomachos & Empress Zoe donating money
11th Century Mosaic in Hagia Sophia
Hagia Sophia remained Orthodox until 1204 when Constantinople was conquered by the Fourth Crusaders, led by the wily Venetian, the blind, 90-year-old Doge Enrico Dandolo -- who died in Constantinople and was buried in the church. It was then converted to a Roman Catholic cathedral, which it remained until 1261 when the Byzantines reconquered Constantinople, and put it back the way they wanted it -- Greek Orthodox.

Marker of the tomb of Enrico Dandolo
When Constantinople was conquered by the Ottoman Turks under Sultan Mehmed II in 1453, he ordered that Hagia Sophia be turned into a mosque (and destroyed Enrico Dandolo's tomb). Then, the mosque morphed into a museum in 1935 under Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who led the Turkish War of Independence and transformed Turkey into a modern republic, becoming its first President.

It's an architectural miracle that Hagia Sophia is even standing after nearly 1500 years, let alone after going through all that chaos!

Çemberlitaş Hamamı
Another reason I went to Istanbul was that I really wanted to experience the hamam, or Turkish Bath again, an experience that had a profound affect on me so many years ago. I stumbled on the Çemberlitaş Hamamı, which was built by the architect Sinan in 1584, and established by Nurbanu Sultan, wife of Sultan Selim II and mother of Sultan Murat III.  

By researching this post, I have just discovered that there are several theories as to who Nurbanu Sultan was, and one of them is that she was Venetian! She was prominent under the era known as the Sultanate of Women, when women of nobility exerted strong political power in the Ottoman Empire. The most powerful women were the Sultan's mother, whose title was Valide Sultan, and his wife, whose title was Haseki Sultan. As a wife and a mother to two sultans, Nurbanu was both Haseki and Valide Sultan, a strong diplomatic force, communicating with the likes of Catherine de Medici, and maintaining relationships with European countries. 

Çemberlitaş Hamamı
Back to the beautiful energy of the hamam. Men and women are divided into separate baths, which is a good thing because there is something truly divine about the female Turkish energy. They are strong, motherly and kind, with an impish sense of humor. First I was led upstairs to the dressing rooms, where I took off my clothes, put on a pair of black panties, wrapped a towel around me, and stepped into a pair of rubber slippers. 

Çemberlitaş Hamamı
Then I was led into the hot room, and directed to lie upon the impressive marble slab among mostly Turkish women, who were in various stages of being scrubbed and washed. Naked except for the panties, I gazed up at the sunlight streaming through the circles in the dome and relaxed, listening to the chattering of the Turkish women. 

After about ten minutes, a lovely woman whose name sounded something like Susan used a loofa mitt to scrub the dead skin off my body. Susan did not speak much English, but she did manage to tell me that she was the mother of three using hand language. 

Çemberlitaş Hamamı
Next, a bucket of bubbles was poured over me, which made me feel like a child being pampered by a loving mother. Susan washed and massaged my body, then led me over to a marble basin, where she washed my hair.

After that, I was led upstairs for an oil massage. Waiting for me was Halime with a grin on her face, eyes full of joy, who greeted me as if nothing could delight her more than to give me a massage. Halime had the perfect touch, and hit all the right spots, humming a Turkish tune the entire time. She struck a deep chord within me, sharing such beautiful feminine energy that it made me teary-eyed. It was the Mother Goddess come to life. In fact, the experience was so enchanting that I went back the next day and did it all again.
Inside the Harem

There were so many other rich experiences, too many for this post. The Sultan's Palace and its Harem, the Archaeology Museums, more mosques, the spicy food, the Grand Bazaar, the Spice Bazaar, the Bosphorus, the streets filled with tame cats -- and tame dogs -- the Turkish coffee, the Turkish tea, the Turkish Delight, the silks, the gold, the mosaics. 

Istanbul was the perfect place to dash off to, that ancient city that spans both Europe and Asia, exotic and quixotic, crammed with the history of humanity. None of the internal turmoil within Turkey touched me at all; I was obviously American, and was welcome everywhere I went.

Turkish cats watching a big cat sneak up on a kitten in a tree
On the way back to the airport, I decided to try the new rail system, the Marmaray, which was about 30 seconds outside the hotel. I had to make one switch, and ended up chatting all the way to the airport with a Turk named Ali who lived in London. I remarked how friendly everybody was, and he said, "It is because you are a guest, and it is part of our culture to be good hosts to our guests."

When we arrived at the airport, we stopped outside for a smoke. A stranger came over and asked if we needed a light. "You see?" Ali said. "He doesn't know you or me. He only saw us searching for a lighter."

Ciao from Venezia,
Cat Bauer
Venetian Cat - The Venice Blog

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

A World of Enchantment at T Fondaco dei Tedeschi in Venice

Grand Canal from the Rooftop Terrace of T Fondaco dei Tedeschi
(Venice, Italy)  A great deal of my life in Venice has been spent living on the Grand Canal right at the Rialto Bridge, so the Fondaco dei Tedeschi, at the foot of the bridge, has been a major part of my personal landscape. It was my post office, where I waited in line to buy stamps, mail packages and pay my bills. It was enjoyable because many of my neighbors had to wait in the same lines, so going to the post office was like a social event.

T Fondaco dei Tedeschi - Photo: DFS
The Fondaco dei Tedeschi was originally constructed in 1222 as the headquarters and restricted living quarters for the German merchants in Venice, which was then the center of the world's trade. It was destroyed by fire, rebuilt in 1505 and 1508, and functioned as a palace, warehouse and market. Then, under Napoleon, it transformed into a customs house, and morphed into a post office under Mussolini.

Rialto Bridge currently being restored by Renzo Rosso from water entrance of DFS
Just about 17 years ago, on October 1, 1999, I moved into my apartment at San Polo 622 with a balcony that overlooked the Grand Canal, and a full-frontal view of the Rialto Bridge. As time went on, and unregulated tourism became more rampant, I witnessed various forces battle for control of Rialto area.

Aerial view Fondaco dei Tedeschi - Photo: Archdaily
In 2008, the post office sold the Fondaco dei Tedeschi to the powerful Benetton family of Treviso, who hired Rem Koolhaas, the renowned Dutch architect, and his firm, OMA, to transform the beloved structure into a shopping and cultural center. The next player in the picture was the DFS Group, the Hong Kong luxury travel retailer, a subsidiary of LVMH, the French multinational luxury goods conglomerate, headquartered in Paris.

The reconstruction took place behind covered scaffolding, closed to the public. Venetians are always suspicious of change, and braced for the worse.

Thursday night Gala at T Fondaco dei Tedeschi
We have finally arrived in the year 2016. After a VIP bash on Thursday night, the T Fondaco dei Tedeschi once again opened to the public on Saturday, October 1st, and I am thrilled to report that it is teeming with excitement, magic and joy. The restoration of the structure itself is simply spectacular. When it was a post office, the Fondaco dei Tedeschi felt stark and Mussolini-like; now it feels bright and vibrant, like an elegant, exotic bazaar.

T Fondaco dei Tedeschi - Photo: Cat Bauer
Philippe Schaus, the Chairman & CEO of DFS was aware that they "were the guardian of something close to people's hearts," and took that responsibility seriously. According to The Moodie Davitt Report, Schaus said they had three major responsibilities:

1. To make sure that the architecture was consistent with its history.

2. To create something which adds value to Venice and elevates the profile of the city -- to add a dimension so people can stay in Venice longer, and don't need to go to Milan or Rome for shopping.

3. To bring a level of service to the building which that the customers of DFS have come to expect. They created 500 jobs, and had to decide how to fill them -- should they hire people away from other retailers, or train employees from scratch? 

Silva Shehata & Missoni scarves exclusive for the Fondaco
To me, the hiring was the most exciting element of the project -- DFS decided to recruit young people and give about half of them their very first job opportunity. According to the Nuova Venezia, over 400 people have been specially trained to work in the structure; half are in their first job; 80% have been given a permanent contract; and over 70% are women.

I spent several hours in the Fondaco dei Tedeschi on Saturday interviewing dozens of employees, and I have never met a group of people who were so excited and grateful for their jobs. It seemed like most nationalities, languages and skin colors were represented, from every continent in the world (maybe not Antarctica:-). Most of the employees I spoke to were from Venice or the Veneto. Even if they had been born in China, Brazil, India, Africa, Southern Italy or beyond, they had either stayed on after attending university here, or had arrived as children with their families.

The employees were professional, enthusiastic and courteous -- and remember, I was talking to them on their very first day on the job. A 25-year-old woman in the shoe department lowered her voice and said, "I want to tell you something. I have never had a job before in my life. We have created a entire world inside the T Fondaco dei Tedeschi, filled with people from all over the globe. I see this not as just a job, but an opportunity for a career."

A tall, 23-year-old man, brimming with confidence, told me that he had been born in the Ospedale Civile, Venice's ancient hospital. This was not his first job, but it was the platform from which he wanted to launch the rest of his life. He said he wanted to be a manager, and, judging by his demeanor, he has a good chance of achieving his goal. Another young man told me that he was not sure, exactly, what he wanted to do with his life, but he was positive he wanted "to be in this world, the world of fashion."

Fiori from Venice & Giulia from Jesolo in cosmetics
What was personally rewarding was that I encountered people I know in everyday Venetian life, almost unrecognizable in their newly-styled look.

Up in cosmetics, a young Venetian woman smiled at me: "But I know you already. You go to my gym!"

Over in men's fashions, a young Russian student told me, "But I know you already! From the library at the university."

As I was wafting through the perfume section, another young woman asked me if I wanted to try a scent.

"What is it?"

"The Merchant of Venice."

I paused, then grinned: "I know the owner of your company, Marco Vidal. You are in good hands. He is passionate about his product and about Venice."

Chinese-French DJ MIMI XU at opening gala T Fondaco dei Tedeschi
It was like a marvelous mini Venetian empire, filled with an international buzz, with a strong presence of the Far East. T Fondaco dei Tedeschi combines history, culture, luxury and local products under one roof, products that give back to the Venetian community. On the ground floor there are select wines and food, along with a splash of products created by local artisans and businesses.

For example, the Ceccato family has been around for four generations. The Venetian clothing brand, Emilio Ceccato, is the official supplier of gondoliers' uniforms, which you can buy yourselves -- that is a real Venetian souvenir. A percentage of each purchase goes directly into supporting the gondoliers of Venice, helping to keep the ancient profession alive. I was at the very first presentation of the official logo a couple years ago, and I was there when the gondoliers got their very first check, which I wrote about here:

News from Rialto - Gondoliers of Venice Go Global

Escalator at T Fondaco dei Tedeschi
Philippe Starck, the legendary French designer who lives on the Venetian island of Burano, together with Massimiliano Alajmo, the legendary 3-star Michelin chef, and his legendary brother and partner, Raffaele -- they are responsible for the current Ristorante Quadri in Piazza San Marco -- have created a café/restaurant called "Amo," which means "I love" in Italian. The café part of Amo will open on October 15, and the restaurant part sometime in the near future. 

TIP: As soon as you enter the Fondaco, stop at the front desk and ask if you need a ticket to visit the rooftop terrace with a spectacular panoramic view of Venice. Due to space and safety, only a limited number of people are allowed up on the terrace at one time. They are still experimenting with the best way to control the line, so be warned that there could be a wait at the top anywhere from five to thirty minutes, or you might get lucky and score a singular view of Venice.

Once on the top floor, you will enter a contemporary cultural venue and meeting place, which kicked off with "Under Water," a video installation by the Italian artist, Fabrizio Plessi, a familiar face around Venice.

Ancient well in former medieval courtyard
The biggest complaints I've heard is that the ancient well that was in the center of the Fondaco was moved off-center, and that the floor is too contemporary and slick. I've also read some negative comments on the Internet. All I can say is that after living in Venice for nearly two decades, where gossip is an artful weapon, the only way to draw a correct conclusion is to witness something with your own eyes and ears, and form your own opinion.

OMA, the architectural firm founded by Rem Koolhaas, has created a page on its website filled with a description of the project, articles about the gala opening, images from social media and more, so click over there if you would like more information.

Cat Bauer on rooftop terrace of T Fondaco dei Tedeschi gala
Cat Bauer on terrace of T Fondaco dei Tedeschi
To me, the T Fondaco dei Tedeschi has pumped fresh blood into Rialto, the heart of Venice itself, a zone that was in desperate need for a transfusion.

Ciao from Venezia,
Cat Bauer
Venetian Cat - The Venice Blog