Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Where the cool kids are going in 2012

I'm always fascinated by the "Where to Go?" lists that get published in newspapers, magazines and on websites at the beginning of every year. They're usually a good combination of predictable and random, but more importantly, they make me want to immediately plan a trip, as they remind me of all the amazing places I haven't yet been. Where are you planning to go in 2012? More importantly, where should you go? It took me awhile, but I culled through 11 of the 2012 travel lists, from Smarter Travel to National Geographic Traveler*.

The lists are often based on events happening in the upcoming year, so not surprisingly, there were a number of destinations picked multiple times, some of which were terribly surprising. If you are looking for where the cool kids are going this year, here are your top 10 picks:

1. London: The most popular pick by far was the British capital, which appeared on eight lists. Between the the Queen's Diamond Jubilee at the beginning of June and the summer Olympics starting at the end of June, this was no surprise. But let's face it, London is worth a visit any time; it's always at the top of my list.

2. Mundo Maya: The region appeared on six lists because, dontcha know it, the world is ending on December 21. As Smarter Travel said, "Celebrations, themed tours, and ceremonies throughout the year offer a great opportunity to immerse yourself in the ancient archeological sites and modern culture of the Maya people." Some of the lists chose Mexico (Yucutan peninsula and the city of Merida), while others went for Belize or Guatemala. (I'm team Belize all the way.)

3. Portugal: Guimaraes is the European Capital of Culture for 2012, in addition to being a UNESCO World Heritage Site, so I wasn't all that surprised to see the city popping up on four lists. (The New York Times went rogue with the Algarve, while the Lonely Planet Best Value list went with Porto.) But what actually struck me as most interesting was the absence of the other 2012 European Capital of Culure: Maribor, Slovenia, which was only mentioned by Smarter Travel. What, no one wants to go to Slovenia? I haven't been but have heard it's awesome. Seriously, just look at this photo.

4. Myanmar: Travelers have long debated whether Myanmar (otherwise known as Burma) should be on their to-travel list due to its repressive government. But with a thawing of relations with the outside world and Aung San Suu Kyi's dropping of her opposition to tourism in the country, Myanmar seems like a place travelers will now be hearing about quite a bit.

5. Cuba: Speaking of a thawing...It's now easier for Americans to visit Cuba, so no surprise, Cuba also appeared on four 2012 travel lists. However, you have to go on some kind of tour; I'm not exactly clear on the rules.

6. Japan: Generally, I tallied the list by city, not country. (For example, there were some 20 US mentions, but for 20 different places, so I didn't count any as multiple entries.) The exception to this was Japan. Although four lists went for four different places -- two went for Japan generally, while the New York Times picked Tokyo specifically and Frommers went for the model green city of Fukuoka -- every one picked Japan for the same reason: the earthquake/tsunami. Prices have gone down because of a decrease in tourism, making now a good time to visit (and they need visitors back).

7. Panama: The Central American country is going through a general transformation, with a building boom, the canal anniversary and expansion slated for 2014, and the opening of the Frank Gehry-designed Bio-Museum. Fodors' wrote: "Panama’s ongoing building boom is one for the ages. Panama City's transformed skyline features dozens of new skyscrapers, including the Trump Ocean Club and Waldorf Astoria's Panamera (slated to open in June), while once gritty neighborhoods like UNESCO site Casco Viejo, a cobblestoned town of aging colonial and neoclassical buildings, now charms with atmospheric boutique hotels and buzzing restaurants." I know this write-up is supposed to make me want to go, but instead, it made me realize how much a destination's "travel-forwardness" is related to globalization...which made me sad. Does Panama City need a Trump something-or-other and a Waldorf hotel to be cool and interesting? What's wrong with it just being itself?

8. The Northern Lights: This is probably my favorite entry, mostly because the Northern Lights are amazing (and if you've never seen them, this is the trip for you). Apparently, aurora borealis activity peaks every 11 years and this year, one of the 11, is supposed to be especially good, and possibly will be able to be seen farther south than usual. As a result, three lists went with aurora borealis destinations -- Jetsetter went with Reykjavic, Fodors went with Stockholm and Swedish lapland, while the Telegraph just went generic, saying, "in addition to the customary viewing spots of northern Scandinavia, Canada and Russia, the aurora's distinctive green and gold streamers could easily be visible in the skies above Scotland and northern England, and possibly much farther beyond."

9. Ukraine, Jordan and Sweden: Each of these three countries got three mentions each. Ukraine was mentioned as an interesting place to visit if you're already there for summer's Euro 2012 soccer tournament. Jordan got the nod for being interesting and remaining of the Middle East's safest destinations. Sweden is apparently generating interest because of Girl with a Dragon Tattoo, though why anyone would be inspired to see such a lovely country after experiencing it through that uber-violent novel (and movie, which I have refused to see) is beyond me. South Korea and Peru also got three mentions each and while each list cited a different reason to visit, it struck me as interesting, mostly because both places just seem so random for multiple mentions on these kinds of lists. (South Korea is apparently golf's new hot spot, according to the New York Times, while National Geographic Traveler says Peru is the next foodie frontier).

10. And last but not least, Spain got itself four mentions -- two for Cadiz and two for the Girona area. I bring this up because I particularly adore Cadiz. It's such an amazing little city and one of my favorite places in Europe. There's nothing in particular to do, although it does have beaches, a fort and a dazzling white cathedral, but it has a lovely, relaxed vibe. In fact, I snapped the photo accompanying this post there while sitting at an outdoor cafe.

*If you really want to know, the 11 lists I looked at were: Fodors' online list of 21 places, Frommers, Jetsetter's 12 Destinations for 2012, National Geographic Adventure's Best Adventure Destinations, National Geographic Traveler in-magazine article, The New York Times list of its 45 places,  three Lonely Planet lists (on the Top 10 Cities for 2012, Top 10 Countries for 2012 and the Top 10 Best Value Destinations for 2012), Smarter Travel and The Telegraph. Pin It

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Inspiration: Where to travel in 2012

According to the "Where to Travel" lists that make the rounds at the beginning of the new year, here are a few of the more more popular locations for 2012...

From the top left going clockwise, we have Portugal; Cadiz, Spain, Stockholm, Sweden; Tulum, Mexico; Japan; and London. Does anything particularly strike your fancy? Pin It

Sunday, February 19, 2012

This Week in Turkey: Wrapping up week of 2-13-12

As always, there's a lot going on in Turkey. The trial for the match-fixing case -- in which 93 people stand accused of (successfully) arranging match results beforehand in order to get Istanbul team Fenerbahce to the top of the standings -- began on Tuesday, but I'll talk about that another week.

Probably the biggest news in the country also began Monday/Tuesday, when word broke that a specially authorized prosecutor had been removed from his position for summoning important members of the National Intelligence Organization (MİT) to testify in a terrorism case. From what I have seen, this is pretty much all the papers can talk about. Basically, in 2009, the government decided to try and solve the country's biggest terrorism problem through negotiation, and they secretly sent the now-head of MİT to Oslo to meet with the terrorist group, the PKK. The question is, did MİT just do what it was supposed to do (and perhaps infiltrate the related group, the KCK, in the interest of national security), or did some MİT members actually get involved in the group? Obviously, I have no idea, but this is a debate -- along with its thousands of reprecussions -- that has gripped newspaper columnists this week. (I don't actually know if the average person cares.) Some people are saying it's really just a power struggle between various parts of the bureaucracy; the biggest tangible result so far has been that the government is amending a law so that when a prosecutor wants to summon an MİT offical (any or just the important ones, I don't know), they first have to get the permission of the prime minister.

Speaking of the prime minister, Mr. Erdogan had a 30-minute surgery on his lower intestine, likely Friday a week ago. It was the second part of a procedure he had done last November; his doctors say he had "harmless polyps removed," but speculation has been rife that he has cancer. He's 57 and by far, Turkey's most influential and important politician, so his health is a pretty big deal.

In more cheery news, Turkey's most-expensive film to date and probably the year's most anticipated, Fetih 1453, came out on Thursday, with every theater showing the first screening at 14:53 in the afternoon. Otherwise known as The Conquest 1453 in English, the $17-million dollar epic is about the taking of Constantinople by 21-year-old Sultan Mehmet. The trailer looks awesome but alas, it isn't playing here with English subtitles. :(

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Thursday, February 16, 2012

Adventures in Cooking: Valentine's Day pizza

Since pizza is my favorite food (yes, I know this makes me sound like I'm 12), I'd wanted to try my hand at making pizza for quite awhile, long before I even came to Istanbul. But I had extra incentive to give it a go here -- while most of the major American pizza chains have shops in Istanbul, including my favorite Papa John's, it's relatively expensive here. (Eating out in Istanbul is fairly expensive, more so than Dallas, especially if you have alcohol with your meal, and take-out isn't all that more economical.)

But I put the pizza making off again and again, mostly because I was nervous about making the dough. Which, now that I've actually done it, seems like a silly fear. (I used this recipe from the aptly named and it turned out well.)

My first attempt at pizza was about two weeks ago and alas, it was a disaster. (So much so that I'm a little surprised I dared to give it a second go, for Valentine's Day, no less.) I decided to make a pizza margherita, more or less following Lucinda Scala Quinn's recipe on, except that I used the above-mentioned dough recipe and a sauce recipe that I'd clipped out of Parade at some point. In this attempt, the sauce was the issue; it calls for pureed tomatoes and the ones I bought ended up being really bitter. And then I made the mistake of putting on too much sauce, so in the end, my pizza was just a hot mess.

So, for whatever reason, I decided that making pizza on Valentine's Day was a good idea. Valentine's Day is as big here as at home, which means crowded restaurants with expensive meals, but neither Cagatay not I are huge fans of the so-called holiday so we decided to skip presents and just have a nice dinner at home. (We had been planning to ignore it altogether but then we watched the V-Day Grey's Anatomy episode on Monday night and it encouraged us to be a wee bit sentimental.) This time, I used the same pizza dough recipe but bought regular tomato and basil pasta sauce, a pre-shredded mix of provolone and mozzarella cheeses, and an assortment of veggies. It was a vast improvement, and now that I've managed to make pizza successfully, I imagine we'll be making it more at home and ordered it less. I especially appreciate the fact that it's "quick" to make, in the sense that, if you spend the 15 minutes (and 2 hours of wait time) making the dough the night before, it only takes another 20 minutes when you're desperately hungry after work to prepare it for dinner. And I am ALWAYS hungry after work...which has more to do with the crap they serve us at lunch (getting fed is a Turkish work perk), but that's a story for another time... Pin It

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Going to the movies in Istanbul

There are so many things here that used to seem strange to me, but after nearly eight months living in Istanbul, I can hardly remember why. One of these initial strange things was going to the movies. Not surprisingly, we get a lot of Hollywood movies, in the original language with Turkish subtitles (except for animated films), sometimes released at the same time in the US but usually out months later. (For example, last week's new releases were Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, My Week with Marilyn, Jack and Jill, The Help, Drive, Safe House and Star Wars Episode I in 3D.)

Going to the movies here is pretty much the same experience as at home, save in two respects: ticket buying and intermission. When you buy tickets here, you have to choose your seat; the only place I've seen that in the US is at the ArcLight Cinema in Los Angeles. And, you can also make a non-binding reservation for tickets; so what we find usually happens on a Friday night is that most of the good seats have been reserved but some people don't end up following through, so when the tickets are cancelled 45 minutes before the movie starts, we're usually able to scoop up good seats.

The other oddness is that there's an intermission during every showing, a little more than halfway through. I guess it's a pee break, but I still find it strange, especially as it interrupts the experience if you're into the movie. Having said that, it more or less stops people from wandering in and out of the theater during the movie. :) Pin It

Friday, February 10, 2012

This Week in Turkey: Wrapping up week of Feb. 6, 2012

I've decided to do a weekly segment about the things that happened in Turkey this week, partially because the goings-on here can be quite amusing and partially because the original intent of this blog was to record the things that happen during my time abroad. I obviously have no idea what kind of Turkish news reaches the States, so it'll be interesting to see what you've already heard...

Three weeks ago or so, Turkey was being verbally attacked from multiple quarters. First Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan got into it over whether Turkey has been interferring in Iraqi domestic affairs after Erdogan told Maliki in a phone call that he needed to take care of his business (and essentially stop creating sectarian strife). Then, in the Jan. 16 GOP debate, Rick Perry said the US needs to reconsider whether or not Turkey is an appropriate ally and NATO member since the country is run by "Islamic terrorists." And then, probably worst of all in the eyes of the Turks, France went for the jugular and passed a law that any French national in France denying any events deemed a genocide can be fined 45,000 euros and sentenced to up to a year in jail. The only positive was that Obama recently named Erdogan one of his top five international friends.

Right on the heels of all that, right around the beginning of February, American novelist Paul Auster gave an interview saying he refused to come to Turkey because of the number of journalists jailed here. (At just over 100, it's the most of any country according to the Platform of Solidarity with Imprisoned Journalists; the government says they're jailed for participating in terrorist activities but regardless, it caused Turkey to drop some 10 places in the Reporters Without Borders 2011 Press Freedom Index, putting it almost at the bottom.) The funny thing is, it's impossible to find the actual interview -- but it's quite easy to find the prime minister's reaction to it. On Feb. 1, Erdogan angrily declared in a longer rant, "As if we need you! What difference would it make if you came or not? Would Turkey lose prestige?"

I associate Erdogan with these really long, televised speeches (they're often on in our office) and the day after the Auster incident, he also gave a speech in which he said they are aiming to raise a "conservative, democratic generation." The Turkish Republic was founded on secularism, and only in the last few years, has religion really come back into obvious daily life, most evident in my opinion through the growing use of headscarves (women used to not be able to wear headscarves in universities, for example). The ruling party is an Islamic one and has wide support; however, few people seemed pleased by these comments and felt that religion was not for the government to implement. In response this week, Erdogan suggested the alternative would be a generation addicted to paint thinner. :)

The other big political news from within Turkey (because of course, everyone here is talking about Syria and to a much lesser extent, Iran) is that the opposition party essentially staged a sit-in in Parliament on Wednesday night in protest of the ruling party's attempts to amend the parliamentary charter. There were also fistfights. Yesterday, the ruling party apparently decided to freeze any decisions on changes, which for now has ended the mini-crisis. 

And last but not least, Turkey has seen a lot of snow over the past couple of days, hitting almost immediately after the last batch had completely melted. Of course. Pin It