Sunday, May 03, 2015


Blue Mosque
I decided to go to Istanbul because I turned 40 this year and had done little international travel.  I chose Istanbul because I love history and am interested in the culture of a largely Muslim, yet relatively liberal, country.  JC and I went in April – an ideal time to see tulips and enjoy mild weather.

The 12 to 13 hour flight on Turkish Airlines was one of the first direct flights from SFO.  The airline had started flying direct a few days before.  For such a long flight in economy, it was more comfortable than I thought it would be.  The free booze helped.

The airport in Istanbul was easier to navigate upon arrival than upon departure.  Once we had our luggage we exited to meet a large crowd holding multiple signs with people's names and, in some cases, the names of hotels.  I found the guy with my name – he had about a dozen names – he handed me off to someone else, who walked us to the curb and, eventually, handed us off to our driver.

After battling through traffic and navigating narrow, cobble-stone roads, at times going the wrong but tolerated way, we arrived at our destination: the Hanedan Hotel. It was clean, with friendly staff, and close to the major attractions, but otherwise nothing special.  It was evening so we cleaned up and quickly began discussing dinner: "Shit!" I said, "I left my backpack in the van."  It was a nice backpack, but more importantly, it had my camera, my lenses, my ipad, my guidebook, and my prescriptions in it.  The gentleman at the front desk made some calls and finally assured us – the driver had found my bag and would have it back to us by 9:30 p.m.

Hagia Sophia
Crisis averted, we set out to eat.  The area of Sultanahmet we were in had tons of restaurants, though most are not considered very good.  It also had multiple small hotels and hostels, and unfortunately, many rowdy 20-something, Europeans. Navigating through that drunken revelry, we finally decided on a place based on the guy outside trying to convince us to eat there. He was less annoying than the others. The Turkish wine was good, as was the mezze plate.

So we wandered out to see the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia, snapped a few iphone pictures, returned to our hotel, had my bag returned, and crashed.

The next day we took to the streets with a plan to check out the Blue Mosque.  When we arrived, the line stretched out the gate and up the hippodrome, and worse, it was starting to rain.  A handsome young man spotted our distress and helped us out: "The line is hours long to get in. It's because there are two cruise ships in town. Better to come back tomorrow after 4."

Then he started asking us questions: "Where are you from? Are you married? Can I take you to my shop?"

Basilica Cistern
"Uh sure." I was concerned, but we followed him. So our first full day in Istanbul began with a friendly sales pitch over complimentary tea. At least it got us out of the rain.  We didn't buy a rug, though it was on our list as a possibility. But it was too soon. We thanked the shopkeep and headed back out.

Still stormy, we decided to escape underground. The Basilica Cistern was built during the Byzantine Empire to store water for various palaces. It has hundreds of columns holding up the ceiling, most salvaged. The most interesting ones stand on medusa heads. There's still some water and fish swimming around. Not the first postcard you would buy, but still pretty amazing.

Next stop out of the weather was the Archaeology Museums, where there are an overwhelming amount of artifacts from the region, some casually scattered about the courtyard.  We could have spent several more hours there, but we were getting light-headed.  So we set out to find a recommended place for pide.

After the miss from that morning, we thought we'd give the Blue Mosque another try.  The line was considerably shorter by the late afternoon, though it was still about half an hour to get in. Very popular with tourists, but also a working mosque, tourists are shuffled in and kept in a limited area in the back. It's a big beautiful interior, but it's the exterior that really impresses. The courtyard provides some good views.

Despite our jet lag, we checked out two more old religious edifices that day.  The Hagia Irene would have been more impressive if it didn't have a large net, helpfully catching pigeon droppings but unhelpfully blocking the view of the ceiling, draped through its interior. The Little Hagia Sophia was pretty, and in a quiet corner of the otherwise tourist-packed neighborhood.  It was a nice way to end the day.  Plus, there were rabbits, cats, ducks and dogs on the grounds.

There seemed to be a lot of animals all over the city, mostly cats and dogs. People would put out water and food for them, but they lived on the streets. They were surprisingly clean for stray animals. We noticed that some dogs had tags in their ears, but never asked anyone about it. An English woman would tell us days later that the tagged dogs had been vaccinated for rabies.

The next morning the plan was to take a tram to Eminönü and catch a ferry out to the Western Neighborhoods.  At the ferry dock we asked a gentleman at the information desk about how to do that, and he encouraged us to take a bus instead. In retrospect it was good advice. It meant we spent the day walking down hill from sight to sight, rather than uphill.

Fresco at the Chora Church
The bus dropped us off a couple of blocks away from the Kariye Museum (or Chora Church) – our first stop for the day. Unfortunately a major part of the church was closed for renovations, but what remained to see was still beautiful.

We walked through a regular, non-touristy, neighborhood to get to the Fethiye Museum, (formerly Pammakaristos Church, then a mosque, now a museum – a common historic sequence in the former Ottoman Empire).  The grounds were lovely and there were just two other people there, Russian tourists I think.

Continuing through the non-touristy neighborhood, which I found to be almost as interesting as many of the attractions within it, we then found the Church of St. Mary of the Mongols – atypical as it was never converted to a mosque and is not now a museum. It wasn't Sunday, so it was closed.

Finally at our last stop in this neighborhood: the Church of St. George. According to Wikipedia:
Since about 1600, it has been the seat of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, the senior patriarchate of the Greek Orthodox Church and [recognized] as the spiritual leader of the world's Eastern Orthodox Christians.
We may have seen said spiritual leader as a man in vestments with lots of security entered the courtyard just after us, and another visitor, seemingly in awe, walked up to him and kissed his ring.

The inside of the church was very ornate; an entire wall seemed to be covered in gold.

We made our way to the ferry station where we encountered a phenomenon I had read about in my guide book. As we walked along a park adjoining the Golden Horn, I noticed an older man with a shoeshine kit cross a busy road into our vicinity. He started walking in front of us and one of his brushes fell out of his kit. I instinctively picked it up to hand it to him, and as I was lifting it from the concrete, I remembered that my guidebook warned of this. It is supposedly a common trick to try and get tourists to pay for a shoeshine. He quickly tried to spark up a conversation and I sternly replied, while walking quickly away, "sorry, no thank you; we have to make our ferry."

JC thought I was being incredibly rude. But I explained it to him later. "See, I'm not a bad person."

Finally on that ferry we meant to take that morning; now going back towards where we started. We passed Eminönü to disembark at the Karakoy stop (not to be confused with Kadikoy). We rode the Tünel up to the Beyoglu neighborhood and the crowded Itsikal Caddesi or Itsikal Avenue; we then transferred to the Metro to get to Taksim Square. It happened to be the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide – or the day when it is commemorated – and there were some people with Armenian flags in the square, though my understanding was a ceremony was to take place later that night. Perhaps the authorities were worried about whether more of a protest was planned, since they had two large police tanks with water cannons driving about the area.

We walked down Itsikal and took a break on a side street for some Turkish coffee. We declined the shisha because we could smell the smoke all around us anyway; it smelled good, don't get me wrong, but I'm not big on filling my lungs with smoke regardless of the sweet, sweet flavor.

We continued. Checked out a Catholic church, and later made it to a church that interested JC – the Crimea Memorial Church. He's (historically anyway) Episcopalian, and this was an old Church of England church, so that's why. More animals – some ducks, which we followed, and then a turtle came out to greet us.

We checked out Galata Tower, a bit further down the hill. We were essentially going down the hill the Tünel had taken us up a couple of hours earlier. Finally at the bottom, we got on a crowded tram back to our home base.

The most famous, and probably most visited, landmark in Istanbul (I'm pretty sure) is the Hagia Sophia (the big one). It was built in 537, has a huge dome, and has been a church and an imperial mosque. It is now a museum attracting swarms of tourists. We were aware of this, as we'd passed it multiple times. Our plan was to get there before it opened.

It worked! We were among the first handful of people to enter the museum the morning of our 3rd full day in Istanbul. We spent 2 or 3 hours walking around and marveling at the enormous structure, the uncovered mosaics, the huge stone columns, and many intricate details. It's one of the few places with crowds of tourists I would return to upon a second trip to the city.

I can't say the same for the Topkapi Palace. You have to go, of course; and the grounds were beautiful, the harem stunning; but there were tons of people there – mostly part of tours (please, please, do not go anywhere in a big tour group, ever). People were from all over too; and there are very different standards of waiting in line in different parts of the world, it seems. Like, why take your place at the end of the line, when you can walk right up to the front? Also, my legs were sore and I was dehydrated; so I wasn't in a good place to begin with.

After all of that, we grabbed some dinner and I did some solid stretches back at our hotel.

Speaking of that hotel, we had free breakfast every morning – rolls, cheese, fruit, yogurt, olives, and such. And it was served on the rooftop, which had sweeping views of the Bosphorus and Hagia Sophia. We started day 4 with that breakfast and more stretches. Then headed to the Bazaar District.

We started at what I thought was the Süleymaniye Mosque. It had to be it, I thought, because it was huge, it had the tombs, the adjoining structures. It had, in my opinion, the most beautiful interior of the mosques we had visited. But then we walked out the other side and saw a Roman aqueduct. "Oh, I know where we are! This isn't the Süleymaniye Mosque. It's this other one."

Guidebook out and flipping through some pages: we were at the Sehzade Mosque – another big, imperial mosque, but not as famous or visited as the Süleymaniye. I still thought it was amazing and would not recommend skipping it.

We walked on to the real Süleymaniye Mosque. It was huge – it's the biggest in Istanbul – but, in my opinion, its interior was not as beautiful as Sehzade and its exterior not as beautiful as the Blue. The grounds were of more interest, however, and we ate lunch at a restaurant that used to be the Mosque's soup kitchen. Some older English ladies arrived and asked for wine. When they were told that there was no alcohol, because it was part of the mosque, they complained.  Annoying.

Oh, and Johnny got a lesson in Islam from an imam. Apparently giving food and money to people who have neither is a requirement in Islam. So, we ended up giving a fair amount of Turkish Lira to people who approached us on the street. Many were refugees from Syria.

Continuing our day, we walked past the University and made our way to the Grand Bazaar. Maybe we'd find the carpet we wanted to buy. We also wanted a lamp, maybe some Turkish Delight. It was Sunday, but everyone was out and about and it seemed everything was open. The Grand Bazaar, however, was closed. The guidebook didn't mention this. Seems pretty important. Fine, we spent our money at lesser bazaars.

Day 5 was our last. What was left? We had checked off all the major attractions. We didn't get to see the Grand Bazaar, but shopping was not our main interest anyway. We could take a cruise up the Bosphorus, but we didn't want to miss going to the Asian side of the city. I had never been to Asia. So we hopped on a ferry for Kadikoy (not to be confused with Karakoy).

That neighborhood is more of a neighborhood to experience, rather than a collection of sites to visit. We didn't have much time, so I can't say too much about it. We wandered about, ate some lunch, and were back on the ferry by early afternoon.

Back at Eminönü, where many ferries stop, we wanted to transfer to a ferry to get to Eyüp. We decided we would spend the last part of our last day there. When we got to the ferry, it had just left and the next would not come for an hour. Not wanting to wait, we hopped on a cab.

I'm pretty sure we beat the ferry. And, Eyüp was very cool. There were some tourists, but most seemed to be non-Westerners, perhaps because of how important the mosque and tomb there are to Muslims. Locals were enjoying a beautiful day, kids were running around, men were debating something or other. We discovered that there was a cable car up to the Pierre Loti Cafe. My guidebook mentioned walking up, through a cemetery, to the cafe; but nothing about a cable car. We were tired and it was warm, so we took advantage of the cable car.

At the cafe it was Turkish coffee for me and tea for JC. That was followed by a stroll downhill through the cemetery and many cats. Using transport to get to the top of hills and walking down was a technique that serves us well. And more stray animals – it was a continuation on a theme.

Back in the neighborhood adjoining the mosque, locals were out eating and shopping. We bought some scarves and caught the ferry back to Eminönü. We were lucky to get a tram that was turning around at our stop during rush hour, so it was empty when we got on.

That was it. The next day we were back on a 13 hour plane ride to SFO; our adventures in Istanbul were a memory.

Me at at the Blue Mosque