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