Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Apartment Hunt Update

After making our decision to go for the two-bedroom on Tuesday evening, we set up an appointment for Wednesday afternoon to meet with the estate agent and fill out a rental application.  On Wednesday morning as soon as offices opened we called in to all the places we had made appointments with for that day to cancel them....all except one.  There was one apartment we were still curious enough about to want to see, and we kept our 1pm appointment to check it out.

The apartment was in Harborne, but so close to the university and hospital that it should really be in its own category.  We arrived a little early and were impressed with the front garden, which was raised up from the road and full of healthy bushes and flowers.  The agent arrived and let us in to a huge room with fireplace, laminate flooring, and a spiral staircase up to the second floor.  The kitchen was large with all appliances included.  The back garden was large and as well-kept as the front.  The second floor had two enormous bedrooms, and there was a third floor with another enormous bedroom with a very large (by British standards) closet.  The bathroom was, alas, on the ground floor and beyond the kitchen, and the spiral staircase did seem like it could be a little daunting in the middle of the night, though not as much as those steep carpeted stairs at the earlier place we vetoed.  Seriously - this apartment was awesome, definitely top three.  Since it was only about an hour until our appointment to apply for the 2-bedroom apartment from Monday, we didn't have much time to really comtemplate it, so we made it easy on ourselves and fell back on bad information we already knew.  The grocery store was not close and the EPC rating for the place was F.  EPC ratings tell you how much you can expect to pay for heat, hot water, and lighting in a house and range from A (best, and nearly impossible) to G (worst), with the England/Wales average being E.  Most houses we saw were D and most flats we saw were C.  To quantify this - the estimated cost of heating the awesome spiral-staircase apartment was 2.5 times the estimated cost of heating our 2-bedroom front-runner.  This is a difference of around 1,000 pounds per year.  We don't know why the rating was so bad - it had all double-glazed windows, which is supposed to be a huge help in the heating department.  Maybe it was the sheer size of the place, which was over 100 square meters.  Or insulation problems, especially in the roof which has a room right in it that you'd want to heat.  In any case - bummer.  Hopefully someone with a few extra pounds to spend on heat will find and enjoy that place!

We went down to Stirchley to go to the estate agent's office.  There are tons of estate agents down there.  We wanted to stop somewhere for lunch, but all the curry houses and pizza joints were closed! We finally found a spot called Maggie's Munchies open for lunch and had sandwiches.  D made the mistake of trying to order a pot of tea for both of us (thinking it might be cheaper/easier than ordering 2 teas).  She told him this wasn't that kind of place...whatever that means.  Is putting tea in a pot posh or something?  We are clueless about that stuff for sure.  Anyway, the sandwiches were good and I am sure we'll be there again since it's not far from our new place. 

Well, hopefully our new place.  We haven't been approved yet.  We went to the office, filled out the forms, and gave them 200 pounds as an application fee and half a months' rent as a fee to take the property off the market. (I think this applies to the first months' rent if we get the place.  We get it back if the landlord rejects us.  We lose it if we bail.)  Then we later sent them a reference letter from our current landlord and our bank statements in lieu of a credit check which would be hard for them to do given our foreign status.  I don't know how long it takes to get the landlord's approval, but no word yet.   Fingers crossed, because our second choice - the complete refurb on the pretty street - has been taken off the rental market. It's still for sale - I guess the owner decided s/he just wanted to sell it after all.  The EPC F house (as we've come to call it) is still available...

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

From the Apartment-Hunting Trenches: Harborne, Birmingham. 19.2.13.

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Day two. Slightly fewer wake-ups in the middle of the night, but we're still totally gross. But hey - it's the third sunny English day in a row, and that may be a record!

Our first stop was a flat in a block of ugly buildings that used to be council housing. The previous day we'd seen only houses but in this day's neighborhood, Harborne, our budget range mostly includes places without yards. It was off-putting while I was making appointments, but the neighborhood came so absurdly highly recommended, and has such a nice high street (main shopping street), that we decided to have a look anyway. The estate agent who met us was dressed in a really awesome suit - first time that happened. Does that appeal more to Harborne clientele? The apartment building immediately reminded me of a school when we went inside. All the walls were exposed brick, low white ceilings, and the doors and stairwells were painted bright blue. The apartment itself was fine - better than our current one, but had no outdoor space of any kind and the kitchen was better than our current one, but not bigger. So, that was sort of over before it began, considering we had already seen multiple places the previous day with bigger kitchens and with yards. He wanted to show us another apartment nearby that was being completely refurbished - we'd be the first to see it, and the renovations weren't done yet. He made it sound pretty close so we agreed to just check it out. It turned out to be pretty far away, no longer offering the major Harborne benefit of being near lots of shopping. Also, it was only marginally bigger than our current apartment - although much, much better. The kitchen renovations underway were shaping up very nicely!

Due to this unexpected long detour, we rushed through lunch at the Fallen Angel Bakery and were a couple of minutes late for our next appointment. Again, a guy dressed in a very smart suit, looking like the roguish baddie from a rom-com. Into the apartment - the first room had some cool scalloped embossed wallpaper.  That was the end of the aesthetic appeal.  It was peeling slightly at the tops of the walls.  The carpet was nasty.  The apartment was unoccupied, but no one had bothered to clean up a coffee spill off the counter, or black drops below the boiler.  The washing machine looked like it was from the 80s.  The only really great thing was that it had a third floor - so 2 bedrooms on the second floor and a bedroom with awesome slanty ceilings on the top floor.  We left and D said he thought it was a contender!  It was fascinating how we came out with me having ruled it out almost immediately upon walking in, and him thinking it was going to complicate matters with our contenders from the previous day.  It was that third floor talking...that WAS cool.  But he got to veto the place with the stained glass and I got to veto this one.  A shame - with work it would be incredible.  (And out of our price range.)  I can't understand why they didn't even bother to have it cleaned before showing it.  It just reeked of a landlord and agent who don't care.

On to our next stop just around the corner.  This one was a 2-story apartment above a hairdresser.  It was one of those fascinating apartments that we got to see while it was still occupied.  This is not favorable in the opinion of the estate agents, because as one of them told us "no apartment looks good while people are living in it".  (Do they really believe this??) I enjoy seeing them occupied...after all, occupying it is what I plan to do.  The agent arrived, this time a lady in thick red lipstick and another suit. We could rule it out as soon as we saw the kitchen, which other than a larger fridge was no improvement over our current one.  No one was home but thawed chicken breasts were sitting on the counter.  Not relevant to us, but ...weird.  In the bathroom shower and around the bedroom windows, there was mold aplenty.  No thank you. This place was also home to one of the infamous carpeted bathrooms.  Too bad, because the slanty walls on the top floor were cool. 

The agent seemed to take a shine to us and showed us a place down the street which was being renovated, but the landlord wasn't allowing to be shown until they were complete.  From the outside it did look nice, with a very pleasant and well-kept south-facing patio and black and white shed.  But, we wouldn't have been able to see the inside by Friday and considering we already had two excellent contenders, we didn't really want to drag it all out that far.  So, we let that go.

Our next apartment was further from the high street and closer to the university in a grassy, more modern section of Harborne.  We found the place way too early and spent some time sitting by a nearby pond.  I already thought this place might be out because the neighborhood seemed too quiet and not dense enough.  I'm a big believer in more people = better community and lots of people on the street being what keeps you safe.  The apartment, however, was very nice despite being ugly on the outside.  The estate agent was late so it was shown to us by the current tenant and her young kids (the kids wanted to show us their room and playroom, too cute).  The kitchen was American-style with more of an L shape and an eat-in area.  The living room was enormous, and the toilet was separate from the shower/bath, which I actually think is a great idea.  The yard was nice and bright.  Afterward we walked back to the university and the walk was not pleasant, through a lot of high-car-traffic areas.  That sealed, along with the ugly aesthetics and creepy quietness, that this wasn't a big contender.  I think it's going to be perfect for someone else soon, though.

Finally the end to the day?  No...one more place to see.  This one was a wild card - an apartment directly on the canals downtown!  We just had to see it and it was worth it.  The apartment was two stories above a ground-floor estate agent office, and the building is listed, meaning it has historical significance and is being preserved.  That ended up being the death knell for it, too.  While painters shined the place up, we saw a nice sage-green kitchen and large first-floor room, then went up to the second floor where we discovered that the bathroom - very cool with a wood-trimmed tub - had no standing shower, and could not have a standing shower on account of being a listed building!  I don't even like to book hotels without a standing shower, so living in a place without one was out.  The other problem is that the single-paned windows cannot be replaced with double-paned ones, meaning more noise and less temperature control.  Bummer!  We really enjoyed seeing it, though.

Finally...the end to the day.  By this point we were sick of looking at places.  While walking back to our hotel we made the decision to go with one of the apartments from the previous day.  The one with the downstairs bathroom had been vetoed by D, so we were down to the shiny new refurbished one or the one with only two bedrooms.  We went with the two-bedroom one.  This was not easy.  Relief, regret, relief, regret, back and forth after we made the decision!  But here's the deal - 2-bedroom is 100 pounds a month cheaper, which is money that can go toward the car and house we're thinking about buying.  It is also partially furnished (read: fridge and washing machine and wardrobes!), making our transition much easier since we do not currently own any of those things.  It was less bland than the refurb, and more comfortable because we wouldn't have that feeling of walking on eggshells in a place someone else just completely fixed up.  And, we know the landlord is down with being a landlord. In the refurb, the place is for sale or to let.  Pick one, man.  I don't want to rent it and get booted when you sell it.  So, it was very sad to let go because the location was better, the street more charming, and the kitchen oh my god the kitchen.....I love you, That Kitchen.  But, we let it go and emailed the estate agent for the two-bedroom.  Which also has a pretty decent kitchen.

Then we had some amazing Polish food to celebrate having been spoiled for choice. 

Monday, February 18, 2013

From the Apartment-Hunting Trenches: Stirchley and Selly Park, Birmingham. 18.2.13.

Our start to the first day of apartment-hunting in Birmingham was inauspicious, as we spent a second night in our downtown Travelodge room waking up coughing over and over. Heidelberg has this year apparently been a hellacious den of germs as we've each been sick three times in the past month - more than we usually get sick in a year! But good rentals wait for no man so off we went anyway with painkillers and tissues in tow.

Our first viewing was in Selly Park on Warwards Lane. Although it was outside the borders of a major student ghetto we'd been warned against, after checking street view we were a little worried this road, although mixed student/non-student, might still be too studenty for us. I can take tram noise, car noise, bus noise...but party noise? NO. As we got closer to the address, the studentiness seemed to drop off a bit.

Until we stepped into the house.

Well, it was spacious for sure. Five rooms - a great number that would allow us to have a bedroom, guest room, living room, and office all separate at least, plus an option of dining or TV room for the last one. A dream for me. I hate having a TV or computer in a room meant for relaxing (like living or bed room). But what. a. dump. It was clearly a student apartment - I can't believe the agent even bothered to waste time showing it to an adult couple. There was obvious mold in places, parts where ceilings or walls were flaking away, crap burned onto the stove, piles and piles of dog poop in the backyard, all of the fence collapsed (revealing the neighbor's yard full of trash). To add to the fun, the estate agent tried to tell us the mangy carpet was new when it was obviously from the 80s at best. Really, it was depressing because the property actually has great potential - a feeling I got all through this area and the student ghetto when we passed through it on the way - and to see it left to landlords and tenants who just don't give a shit was depressing.

Anyway...that place was obviously out. Our next hit was on the same street, but further away from the university so the studentiness continued to lessen as we got closer. I didn't have high hopes after the first place.  Therefore, it was a pleasant surprise just to walk in and be able to tell it was an apartment for grown-ups.  Some rooms had laminate flooring instead of carpet.  Others had really interesting embossed wallpapers.  The yard was clean and bright and birds were chirping nearby.  The kitchen included a fridge and washing machine, but the fridge was a tiny one and looked pretty old. I'm sure it'd be an improvement over our current one, though.  It also had a bathtub and a separate shower stall which I think is really cool.  We thought this was not bad, but the estate agent, who was also showing us the next place, thought we'd like the next one better.

Off we went in his car toward the Stirchley/Bournville border area - a place I was really keeping an eye on because it's extremely convenient to both the train (2 stops to the university, 4 stops to downtown) and a big grocery store.  The road the place was on was well-kept enough, but across the street were big warehousey stores that were kind of a downer.  We did like the apartment.  Two rooms had wood floors.  A few pieces of furniture, including a full-size (by English standards) fridge, were included.  I don't consider "neutral decoration" to be a feature so I was pretty happy with the bright red and blue kitchen and bathroom.  The bathroom was upstairs, not a given in British houses and a big plus if you have to pee at night.  The yard was really well-kept and included a shed, a covered area, a picnic table built around a tree, and lots of plants.  Definitely the front-runner of the morning.  On the down side - it only had four rooms, all rather small.  We have two rooms right now so that's still a massive improvement, but given the layout I don't have a clear answer yet on where the dining table and where the office are going to end up.

Break for lunch!  We stopped by the university to pick up an official letter stating D's position there and his salary - hopefully enough for most agents/landlords to accept our application.  (But it's not always.  Later that day when calling around we were told by one agent that it was not enough and 6 months' rent up front would be required since we're coming from abroad.  The agent was told that we were no longer interested.)  Then we had surprisingly good pasties at some crappy-looking chain shop, called some agents to try to get appointments for later in the week (sometimes it's like twisting arms to get any response, while others are super-easy to deal with), and then walked to our next place - again in the border area between Bournville and Stirchley. 

This street was the best we'd seen yet - nearly every house looked very well-kept.  People who looked well-settled were milling about.  We did wonder a little bit about proximity to a canal and creek (flooding?) and huge power lines overhead (driven slowly crazy by not-consciously-noticeable buzzing?) but otherwise it was a pretty charming street.  We got there early but soon the agent showed up and let us in.  He hadn't seen the place yet himself - in fact we were scheduled to see three apartments with him and he hadn't seen any of them yet!!  He was pretty quiet during this viewing.  He had to ask me what the rent was and then he was quiet so I wondered if he thought it was too high...it does seem a little high for the area but here's the reason: it's been completely refurbished.  Everything in the place - laminate flooring, bathroom, kitchen, windows - is completely new and has never been used.  Sketchy side - the owner did all this in less than 7 months (I saw the last sell date online) so it could have been shoddily accomplished.  Maybe not something we'd be in the place long enough to have trouble with, but still something to note.  There were five rooms - good! One extremely small one, but the office doesn't need to be big.  But no furnishings at all included - big startup costs to get a fridge, washer, wardrobes, etc.  And the bathroom has no window. It's usually easier to avoid mold if you can go all the way and open a window. There is, though, one of those weird silent vents that I don't understand.  Yard, a bit small but hey, a yard.  Overall - well, a really nice place.  Lacking in character due to the boring refurbishing, but hey - all new everything is pretty nice regardless.  One hundred pounds more per month than our morning contender.

On to the next one - only two streets down so right in the same charming corner.  Even more well-kept than the previous street - the house next door looked like something from a magazine.  Already you could see some awesome features - stained glass in the front bay windows, and a peacock carved over the front door!!  We walked in and you could smell that it was freshly painted.  Five rooms again - the second downstairs room had a fireplace with painted tiles on both sides.  A lot of furniture was also included, which would really help us in keeping startup costs down.  On the down side - it had a downstairs bathroom, made worse by the fact that it was (as they often are in these parts) beyond the narrow kitchen.  Kind of a pain.  Complicating the downstairs bathroom even further were the extremely steep and narrow carpeted stairs - although completely charming I wouldn't fancy stumbling down them at night to pee.  Bummer, because upstairs things were good again - real wood floors in all the bedrooms!!  Auuuughh...I think we are going to have to say no to that place because of its flaws, but it's going to be very hard for me.  I really like the interesting original features.  D has already ruled it out but I am having a hard time letting go of that stained glass.  Why couldn't one of the last two places have had something like that?  (And these are seriously dumb whines considering the cave we live in now.)

Our final apartment of the day was next with the same agent - we rode back into Selly Park to a smaller road near where we'd been that morning.  The first two rooms seemed fine - decent laminate floors.  Then you noticed the ceiling was a little shabby.  Then the kitchen...there was a ventilation which was essentially a huge hole straight to the outside.  Above the ancient boiler, ceiling was chipping away.  The fence and yard were completely trashed.  A better student apartment than the one we'd seen earlier that day, but still clearly student, or at best, owned by a landlord who does not care at all.  Easy to write off.

So....back on the streets tomorrow to see four more tomorrow.   Will any beat those nice middle three we saw?  Are we dumb to keep going on and not just take one of them?  You (and we) will find out soon....

Meanwhile, words of wisdom on what we've seen?

Friday, February 15, 2013

Birmingham and Alvechurch in December

December feels like ages ago, but I'm determined to catch up!  In December we made our second visit to our future home city of Birmingham.  D had to go to a conference at his new academic home, and I trailed along so we could also look at some apartments. 

It turned out we were a bit early to be looking for apartments for a March move, but we did manage to make a few appointments.  None led to anything but it was nice to start getting an idea of how things work, plus meet some more of the people who will soon be part of our daily lives.

We arrived on a Thursday evening and had the unfortunate experience of staying at a hotel on Hagley Road, which wasn't as convenient to transit and the university as we might have hoped.  (Already a useful piece of information for the future apartment search!)  We ate at a chain pub/restaurant across the road which was incredibly busy with people engaging in after-work drinking shenanigans.  Having seen salaries on job postings I have no idea how anyone there can afford to drink or eat out, but I guess we'll learn more about how it all balances once we settle in there!

The next day we had three apartment viewings scheduled.  It was pouring rain and we not only underestimated the time it would take to walk to our first destination, but we got slightly lost because our map had a marker on it that covered up the fact that there was no joining street where we thought there would be one!  Alas, we also forgot to bring the phone number of the estate agent, so when we showed up 15 minutes late, they were already gone.  Oops.  On to the next one - the first apartment we really viewed was on a beautiful street in a perfect location, but was a tiny dump.  The kitchen was as small as our current one, everything was covered in gray carpet, all rooms were tiny, and the bathroom had weird metal flooring.  So, it could only go up from there!

The estate agent was extremely nice and gave us a ride from the apartment to a place where we could easily catch a bus to our next viewing in a totally different neighborhood.  We had extra time so we hoped to find a cafe near the bus stop to warm up and stop getting poured on - this amount of rain was seriously surprising - but no luck.  It was a particularly depressing intersection and the only thing nearby was an Aldi.  We checked it out just for something to do, then went to the bus stop.  When we tried to board the bus, we discovered that exact change is required to get on the bus (unless you have a card)!!  We didn't have it so we had to go back to the Aldi to buy something small to get change and then come back.  At this point we were soaked and grumpy, but our mood was improved when a passenger on the bus was happy to help us find our stop and tell us directions from there to the street we wanted.  We didn't even ask him - we tried to ask the driver - and he came up from his seat to help out.  And didn't even seem like he was crazy or anything.  If this is normal in Birmingham I'm really excited about that.

The next apartment we saw was with a super-salesy estate agent.  Actually, the place was more spacious than I thought I could ever dream and had a pretty big yard too.  As a bonus the bathroom had both a stall shower AND a bathtub which I think is really cool, and on the useless but fun side, it had two little shriney-looking built-in shelves in the bathroom which would have been perfect for some kitschy Mary statues or something.  But, D vetoed this place because the kitchen was very narrow and hall-like (a common problem in many Birmingham neighborhoods apparently), and it turned out later the current tenant decided to stay until May so it's not going to be available to us anyway.

The estate agent was again really nice and gave us a ride to his office to see if they had anything similar available, but they didn't, so they gave us directions to the train and we headed back to Hagley Road for some curry lunch and to dry off our clothes on the radiators in our hotel room.  Then D had to go to a meeting at the university and I watched TV programs IN ENGLISH - then we met back up with his future "mentor" (not really a boss but something similar?) for dinner at an Italian restaurant in a building called the Mailbox downtown.  There, we saw for the first time something we seriously had not seen before: Christmas crackers!!  There were lots of work Christmas parties happening at the restaurant and when the attendees arrived all their plates had crackers on them, which they opened after a little while, then all wore tissue-paper crowns.  Adorable!  Apparently there's a German equivalent of these which is used at New Year's but I've somehow never noticed them.

On Saturday, we had an appointment to view a place in a very wild-card location: Alvechurch, a village well outside Birmingham which is only feasible for us because it sits right on a train line which goes straight to the university in 20 minutes or the city center in less than 30.  I expected it to be kind of lame and suburban what with that train line right there, but was very pleasantly surprised - it was really a village and it really felt like one.  On the way there, the train passed through sheep pastures and woods.  We viewed the apartment and liked it except for the particularly small size, carpeted bathroom, and lack of included washer/fridge. (There seems to be an all-or-nothing problem - NO furnishings including appliances, or ALL furnishings including appliances, beds, couches, wardrobes, etc.)  Afterward we went to the center of the village and had lunch at a pub with a fireplace, then walked up a hill to visit the Anglican church because it looked cute from below.  It was beautiful inside.  There were several parishoners and the vicar there decorating for Christmas and they were all really chatty and welcoming.  Smitten!  Then we went to check out the canal that goes through town and found that there's a very cute little pub sitting right next to it, and a marina with dozens of gaily-painted narrowboats.  I had a lot of reservations about village life - Heidelberg often feels small to me - especially with no car at our disposal (yet), but all this was sort of starting to convince me.  Later, after much hemming and hawing, we decided we could just try it out for the length of one lease and we called to tell them we wanted the place.  It turned out that another couple had seen it right after us and taken it.  Regardless - that was not our last visit to Alvechurch, I'm sure!

We spent the rest of the day with another couple who recently moved to Birmingham from Australia and work at the university. That's when we stopped through the Birmingham Christmas Market.  At a tapas restaurant, we were given Christmas crackers of our own!  So we got to have our first time pulling them open.  Luckily they explained to us the procedure of all opening them together before we excitedly pulled one open ourselves.  Each cracker contains a bad pun joke, a tissue paper crown, and a small gift of varying quality depending on how much you paid for the crackers.  We ended up with a teeny tiny notepad and a teeny tiny paper deck of cards.  We checked out a few bars in the area (Moseley - nice place, would like to live there, but apartments seem to go fast) then turned in.

On Sunday we wandered around downtown - I'd done this on the first trip while D was interviewing, but it was his first time.  We walked along the canals, checked out the Jewellery Quarter (the part we stumbled into was sorely lacking in cafes), and had some delicious spicy food in Chinatown.  Birmingham has a Chinatown!  I am really excited about this!  We also stopped at a Tesco to buy Christmas crackers, because we wanted to share this cool new find with our Heidelberg friends at our Christmas party later.

The next couple of days were spent at the conference, which I actually ended up attending part of the time too just to meet people and, actually, some of the topics were pretty interesting.  We headed out Tuesday evening, and at the Lufthansa desk saw a sign saying anything containing gunpowder, including Christmas crackers, was not allowed on the plane!  So distressing because I was really looking forward to having them in Germany!  I couldn't bear to throw them away myself so I decided I'd let the people at security do it.  They let the crackers through.  We had them at our party.  So are they actually dangerous or what?


Birmingham & Alvechurch Dez 12

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Goodbye Friends

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Despite the bitter cold, we made it a point to go to the Heidelberg Faschingsumzug one last time today. They had a special message just for us*:

*Okay, it's really for the US military people who are leaving due to the base closing...but still. I'll miss you too, Heidelberg!

Monday, February 04, 2013

Istanbul Travelogue

Last month we finally realized our plans to travel to Turkey, which were years in the making!  I think it was 2008 when we found out our friend M also wanted to go, and we all decided that we would visit Istanbul (at least) together as soon as we could get a time that worked for all of us.  That ended up being almost five years later, but it was worth the wait. Scroll to the bottom for photos if you don't want the nitty-gritty details. They summarize the trip nicely.

For those who want nitty-gritty details:

We flew to Istanbul on Turkish Airlines, which was really nice - the food was not bad, and they handed out menus beforehand so you would know the options and sides with each. They had TVs in the seats with games and a flight cam! I know a lot of this stuff is par for the course nowadays but I actually don't end up on many flights that have that stuff.  When we arrived at the airport, we bought visas for 15 Euro each then went through passport control.  You may be able to do this in advance of your trip (and depending on your country of citizenship you may need to) but if you can just get it there, there's no reason to worry about it earlier.  It was very quick.

M arrived about an hour later from the US, and we got a cab to our apartment, which was my first-ever successful booking through Airbnb. We ended up having to call the owner to give the cabbie directions; he seemed frustrated but we gave him what turned out to be a huge tip anyway. We just felt glad to not be victims of a "scenic" cab trip as so many people report being in Istanbul.  (For the record, we had no bad cab experiences during the trip at all - except that many have no seat belts in the backseat.) We almost got the wrong apartment when someone else was due to show up at the same time as us for a different one in the same building - there were a few awkward minutes when we thought we might have ended up in an apartment bait-and-switch, but thankfully not.

With the apartment came a 10% discount at Cafe Ops nearby so we went there for dinner, which was just ok. My impression of the neighborhood was of a place that was semi-blue-collar with arty young people making significant inroads. (Pretty much the perfect balance for my tastes - like our beloved East Boston.) Afterward we walked over the nearby Galata Bridge to look at the mosque on the other side (which turned out to be the New Mosque). We stopped at a bakery full of baklava and Turkish delight, too. The bridge itself was full of fishermen and food carts on top, including pilaf in glass carts where you'd expect to see popcorn and just-caught fried fish on sandwiches. On the lower level it's full of super-aggressive restauranteurs. A guy in front of us got stopped by one who blocked his path and asked him why he wasn't hungry. It was interesting to see once, but we didn't walk across on the bottom level a second time!

The next day we were awoken at 6:23am by the muezzin at the mosque down the street, coming through loudspeakers right into our windows - with the echoes of others around too. Nowadays they don't go sing on a minaret (like we all learned in school), but just do it through a microphone to speakers on the minarets. It was eerie to hear for the first time.

We had breakfast at a beautiful cafe next door. It seemed a little overpriced but was a nice place to sit. We then went to the Tophane tram stop to ride to Sultanahmet, home of lots of major sites, but there was no way to buy tickets there so we had to walk to the next stop down. We got single-ride tokens because there didn't seem to be a way to buy multi-use cards there. After riding to Sultanahmet we stopped at Tourist Info to ask about multi-use cards and it turns out they can only be bought at certain newspaper kiosks -so they ARE available, it's just not obvious where to get them.

It was easy for the three of us to agree on our first stop - the Hagia Sophia! There was already a line, though it wasn't too long (yet - when we went past later it was crazy) and went quickly.  Admission is 25 Turkish lira, about 11 Euro. A little expensive, as most of the sites turned out to be.  Admission fees, while completely necessary for maintenance of old sites, do generally make it harder for me to really appreciate things - but nothing could hinder my appreciation of the Hagia Sophia.  It was amazing. Any part that isn't covered in painted patterns is covered in mosaics. You should go there (early in the day).

M brought our buddy Rick with her and I have to admit that he came in handy for finding decent food when stuck in very touristy places (where I always just dread having to find good, reasonably priced food). We had lunch in a nearby courtyard cafe that he recommended and it was pretty nice. This was also about the time we first saw people selling spirographs on the street!  I think that's the first time I've ever actually had any level of interest in what one of those people was selling.  (They're the same guys that usually have those light-up things you toss in the air, or the balls you splat on walls, etc...)

After lunch we walked through the Hippodrome, an area where there used to be chariot races back in Roman days.  There's not much left of that, but there are some interesting things - an obelisk from Egypt, the base of an old sculpture, and a fountain given to Istanbul by a German kaiser. It's right next to the Blue Mosque, so we went in there, too. It really is blue inside - gorgeous. At this point I'm going to admit confusion on the issue of non-Muslim women covering their heads inside mosques.  Almost no one was and no one was enforcing it.  Signs did say to do it.  As for removing your shoes, though, there is no question - they must come off and they provide baggies so you can carry them with you.  This is enforced.

Next stop - the Grand Bazaar, an incredible maze of shops. It was really fun to check out all the stuff and feel the atmosphere - I could have stayed for much longer, and do not consider myself a recreational shopper -  but it's annoying that nothing has marked prices so you always have to ask and then it gets all involved and you have to haggle. I know that's supposed to be part of the attraction but having just arrived, I didn't have a good idea yet of the value of anything, so I felt a bit lost. My husband did get a copper coffee pot. I liked the embroidered pillowcases and blankets, fish locks (answering an old question of mine!), scarves, and Arabic calligraphy, but wanted to look around shops more before actually picking a souvenir. We broke for tea and a snack at cafe in the center of the bazaar, then walked to the nearby Spice Bazaar (not without getting a little lost) which was smaller and slightly more chill but still pretty crazy.  We saw Iranian saffron which seemed like an interesting thing to bring home (you can't buy stuff from Iran just anywhere!) but we don't really have a use for it. We still have an unopened pack of saffron my mother-in-law sent us years ago. I thought we might find something else Iranian later, but we never did.

Ricky helped us out again for a restaurant recommendation - we ate at Hamdi right near the Spice Bazaar, which was really good. I had a pistachio kebap and my husband had a yogurtlu which he talked about for the rest of the trip. We also had our first kunefe of the trip - M's first kunefe of her life! (And not the last!) They gave us free tea afterward and I felt obliged to drink it, which was dumb becuase I was totally unable to sleep that night as a result. On our way back to the apartment we stopped at a grocery store for some breakfast supplies and interesting junk food. They had monster sizes of tomato sauce, olive oil, and other stuff! Then we lounged at apartment and talked about ideas for the next day.

The next morning we had breakfast at the apartment then headed out to Chora Church, which isn't so easy to get to. Guide books gave us several suggestions and we ended up going the tram route. We got lost after getting off the tram because we didn't have a map and were confused by historical stuff we read that referred to the church as being outside city walls (it may have been, but it isn't now!), but I liked checking out the area while lost. I like to see non-touristy neighborhoods to get an idea of the life of regular people in a given place. The church was full of beautiful, finely-detailed mosaics...and lots of clicking cameras. It's very worth going out of your way to visit. The attraction extends even to stray cats, one of which wandered in while we were there!  (I wonder if they have to pay the hefty admission fees?) We stopped at a shop outside the church for 5-lira trivets as gifts, then had lunch on a street nearby - doener for only 3 TL (1,25 Euro)! If only everything we ate were that cheap!

We took a repulsively crowded train back to Sultanahmet and visited Topkapi Palace. It is pretty expensive and costs even more to visit the highly-recommended harem, which I didn't think was as amazing as promised. The best parts were all very dark so you couldn't really see them well. It was definitely something special, but as ever I guess I still have some kind of mental block on appreciating castles and palaces as much as I appreciate religious buildings and side streets. And I resented the steep prices. Unless you are a castle grump like me, don't take my disappointment in this one too seriously! Most people love it.

We were really cold after walking around the palace grounds, so we got hot drinks at a shisha joint nearby afterward.  There was an older Australian couple next to us taking hundreds of photos of themselves smoking shisha.  We wandered around and then back across Galata Bridge to a köfte place near our apartment, then had baklava at a supposedly famous baklavaci nearby. We didn't know anything about its fame until we were in there and they had videos about themselves from all around the world playing repeatedly on big TVs.  I thought the baklava was delicious, but really, can you screw up anything that involves that much sugar syrup and pistachio?

The next morning I managed to record the morning call to prayer from our apartment window.  Well, most of it.  I didn't get up beforehand but let it wake me up and then fumbled around with the camera and window, eventually getting it on the outside sill. It's worth checking out if you haven't heard it before. We later found out one of the lines in the prayer is actually "prayer is better than sleep" which we thought was funny. :)

We had breakfast at the apartment, then rode the Tünel - an underground funicular rail - up to Istiklal Caddesi and walked toward the famous Taksim Square. We stopped at a börek joint just for tea and ended up getting börek too since everyone else was eating it and it looked (and was) really good. Then we ducked into an arcade and ended up buying some evil eyes and scarves for friends and ourselves. We made it to Taksim, which was kind of disappointing...there isn't really anything special there.  From the way people had described it, we imagined a place much more full of activity.  To be fair, it's partly under renovations of some kind, and we were there mid-day, so maybe it's crazier at night. I wouldn't necessarily recommend going there.

We had lunch nearby at a place which was apparently popular with business people, but just okay. We walked back to the apartment via Cihangir - mentioned to us by a local as a cool neighborhood to explore - but didn't really go off on the side roads too much because we felt a little hurried to get to our next destination. When we got back to our neighborhood we stopped at a place called Kunefecizade for kunefe. The name would have you believe they were specialists in kunefe preparation, but...they took it pre-packaged out of the freezer right in front of us. Still, they set up a space heater specially at our table and it was nice to be there.

Then, on to our last goal of the day - we took the public transit ferry across the Bosphorus to Kadiköy!  This is symbolically a ride from Europe to Asia, as the Bosphorus Strait divides the two continents at this point.  Considering, however, that Europe and Asia are really one continent by pretty much any normal definition of continent, I guess there's not so much to it.  Still, my first time in "Asia". :)  There were great views on the water but I couldn't really get pictures because the boat was moving really fast! Gulls followed the ferry hoping to get fed. Kadiköy had some cool streets with a big market going on and not as much of the merchandise was touristy stuff. It was just intended as a fun, cheap boat ride, but we all ended up looking back on this neighborhood and the trip over as one of the highlights of our time in Istanbul!

We rode back at sunset, although there wasn't much of one since it was so cloudy. Then we stopped back at the apartment to research restaurant options for dinner in our books and online and ended up at Falls in Galata near Galata Tower thanks to strong Tripadvisor recommendations. It was kinda touristy and drinks were really expensive (20 Turkish lira for raki!) and no one else was there the entire time...so it wasn't really what we expected, but some of the food was good. Afterward we wandered back to the apartment and had some wine we picked up earlier at the grocery store!

The following morning, we headed off to our next destination.  After a couple of nights there, just D & I returned to Istanbul - M had more time and stayed on longer elsewhere - for one night at a hotel and then our morning flight back to Germany.  On that last morning in Istanbul, it snowed and was gorgeous. We stayed at Hotel Albinas, which I can definitely recommend. Even though it was a bit past midnight they offered us tea while we checked in. The next morning after breakfast we had some time to go outside while the snow was falling on Sultanahmet! Earlier in the week I'd thought to myself that it would be cool to see Istanbul in the snow, and then it really happened! We had neither much time nor the proper cold-weather gear so our walk was short but lovely. Then we checked out. The hotel gave me a tiny purse as a parting gift. I have absolutely no use for it and it's kinda ugly, but I was still stupidly charmed by the gesture. Then we cabbed back to the airport. Our flight was delayed 2.5 hours, but we thought we came out pretty well since not many planes seemed to be taking off. By the time we left the snow seemed to be tapering off. Then, back to Frankfurt and reality!

İstanbul Jan 13
Soon: other stuff we did in Turkey!  

Sunday, February 03, 2013

Something New in Heidelberg: Altes Hallenbad

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Yesterday, on our way to lunch at Red, we noticed that the Altes Hallenbad development, which has been ongoing for years, is finally complete and open!  The building used to be baths, but has now been converted and the public areas include restaurants, a wine bar, a cocktail bar, some shops, and a food court.  There's also a new Alnatura in it which has already been open for a while.

Some of the details from the baths have been preserved and are visible in the halls and in the food court.  Here's the edge of an old pool, where the food court is situated:

Lots of neat old fonts around, too:

Above the food court is a cocktail bar with seating all around the edges and on a sort of floating island in the center:

Peacock-like tiles.  They look new but maybe they're inspired by whatever decoration used to be there when it was a bath:

Cool idea for signs!:

Here it is from the outside.  This is the Poststrasse side, across from Lidl.  The other entrance is on the Bergheimer Strasse.

We didn't eat there since we already had lunch plans, but there were about 6 places open in the food court and spaces for more were set up.  From what I remember there was a hot dog stand, a German place, a Chinese place, a Persian place, an Arabic place, an Indian place, and an African place - just of the ones I remember.  One of them is a branch of Falafel - one of Heidelberg's best restaurants - which is good news for anyone who lives in the west part of town and doesn't want to go all the way to the Altstadt to go there!

And on the way out, I took this picture through the window of the former Woolworth about a month ago.  Now the elevators are completely gone, too:

Learn more (auf Deutsch) about the project here: Liselotte Bloggt!