Istanbul, part two

I survived Luxor! More on that later. For now, here’s a recap of the rest of my Istanbul trip. Again, I apologize- it took awhile to write this, so I’ll have to come back and add pictures later. Here goes:

Our second full day, Sunday, was much less sightseeing-packed. We allowed ourselves to sleep in a little bit before getting brunch at this great cafe that was actually pictured in our Lonely Planet: Istanbul guide book! The front window allowed you to look in at countertops full of delicious, lush Turkish food to pick from. We chose a few different plates to share before settling in to chow down. My favorites were eggplant stuffed with rice, mashed potatoes, and veggies; tomatoes stuffed with rice; huge portions of chicken; and of course, baklava!

We had planned to go to the Military Museum that day to see the Janissary band perform (the world’s oldest military band), so we hopped on the tram right outside of our restaurant. Margaux and Alex had woken up early that morning and explored a few of the stops already, so they were familiar with the process. After a couple of trams, we arrived at Taksim Square, near Istiklal Caddessi, which is a bustling area full of people, shops, and restaurants. We walked for about fifteen minutes before arriving at the museum, an old building with Ottoman cannons and airplanes scattered outside. Upon entering the building, though, we were told that the band was on a traveling tour for the exact week that we were in Istanbul, so we wouldn’t be able to see them perform- go figure! It was a disappointing discovery, but the museum was pretty cool nonetheless. It had rooms and rooms full of pieces from the Ottoman period up until World War II, including armour, weaponry, and art.

The museum trip had brought us to a different area than we had explored the previous day, so we spent some time walking the streets, taste-testing chocolate, and grabbing a bite to eat. I munched on some “curly fries”, which definitely ended up being straight, but were still delicious! At some point along the way, while a few of us were waiting for the others to finish window-shopping, we sat down on a curb to take a break, which turned into a mini photoshoot. We decided to pose as poor, homeless kids (which is surprisingly close to reality) and considered sending the pictures to our parents. Istanbul was expensive!!

We eventually made our way back onto the tram and returned to Sultanahmet. Before tucking in for the night, we got apple tea, nargile, and baklava and ice cream at an outdoor restaurant in the Arasta Bazaar down the street. The place was packed, and we got to watch a Whirling Dervish dance as we ate. Alex got a “McTurko” from McDonald’s, which ended up being almost exactly the same as the McArabia that we have in Egypt, but with different meat- gross. Kjrstin and I checked out a few small trinket shops along the way, admiring the Turkish tiles, lanterns, and jewelry for sale. We also grabbed some corn on the cob from a street vendor (there are millions of them selling roasted chestnuts, corn, tea, and sweets on every corner), but it wasn’t anywhere near as tasty as good old Iowa corn!

Day Three, or Monday, was dedicated to the Topkapi Palace and Grand Bazaar. The Palace served as the official and primary residence of Ottoman Sultans for about 400 years, and was expanded and altered throughout its use. It’s literally located right behind the Hagia Sophia, on a point which overlooks the Bosphorus and Golden Horn. It’s a huge area, so we woke up early and dedicated almost half of the day to exploring the grounds. The surroundings were beautiful, and completely different from what we had grown used to in Cairo- the grass was green, and trees grazed the sky overhead, their leaves marked with autumn hues. We ventured through the first Imperial gate and into the first courtyard, with a Byzantine church and vast lawn within it. A second gate lead us to another courtyard, which held the palace kitchens and the Imperial Council room with golden decorated entryways, domed ceilings, and plush couches along its walls.

One more gate lead us into the main courtyard, filled with extravagantly decorated rooms and buildings. This is where we spent the majority of our time. Rooms called the “Audience Chamber” and “Conqueror’s Pavilion” held mini-museums of Muslim and Ottoman relics, including uniforms, jewelry, furniture, and artwork. Upon first arriving to the Palace, we rushed past these rooms in an effort to get to the Harem early, before it was too crowded with visitors, and decided to return to them later. The Harem is a designated area within the Palace for women only- the name comes from the Arabic word for ‘forbidden,’ or ‘sacred’. It was home to the Sultan’s mother, wives, and children, and only certain men were allowed inside, including the Sultan and princes. The area is basically a series of courtyards, hallways, baths, and rooms covered in gold Arabic calligraphy, patterned tiles, mosaics, and colored marble. The ceilings were domed, and windows spanned from wall to wall to allow natural light to illuminate the decorations, some of which were made of honeycomb cutouts. Large chandeliers hung from the ceilings, cushioned couches lined the walls, and a fireplace could be found in almost every room. The structure of the entire palace was impressive enough, not to mention the level of detail found on almost every inch of every surface.

After exploring the Harem, we retraced our steps and visited the various rooms and courtyards that filled the site. No room was any less extensively detailed than the rest- it was amazing! The most memorable area was definitely the museum of sacred Muslim relics, although cameras weren’t allowed inside, so I couldn’t take any pictures. I didn’t even know that this area of the Palace existed, and it had the most impressive collection of artifacts that I’d seen so far! Our excitement was a little over the top, especially given our surprise at finding these things here. They had the sword, bow, and cloak of the Prophet Muhammad, pieces of the Prophet’s beard, Fatima’s prayer rug and cloak, imprints of their footsteps, and decorations from the Kaba. It was pretty cool to see these kinds of things after learning about them in our classes for the entire semester. At one point, I was able to read a few of the signs written in Arabic calligraphy, and had to be shushed by a security guard when I exclaimed this in excitement to my friends. Oops!

We continued wandering around the rest of the grounds, and I flipped through our Lonely Planet: Istanbul book to make sure that we hadn’t missed anything. In a stunning display of maturity, I noticed that we hadn’t gone to the ‘Circumcision Room,’ and couldn’t resist loudly announcing this to the group (and anyone within a mile of us). So, we turned back towards the far end of the Palace, and were delighted to find that the room that we had come to visit mostly because of its silly name was actually situated in one of the most beautiful areas of the Palace- we would have completely missed it! We took a few pictures, admired the decorations, and finally headed back towards the entrance.

On our way out, we came across the best looking stray dogs I’ve ever seen. They could have easily been someone’s pets! I insisted that the group stop and wait while I took pictures and hung out with them for a few minutes. We also noticed the stunning view from the entrance/exit of the Palace: you could see the entire silhouette of the Blue Mosque through the Topkapi Palace doors. We all took a few (million) pictures, and made our way to lunch at a small cafe within the narrow cobblestone streets across from the Blue Mosque. Picking out restaurants was great- the owners stand outside to show you the menu, and will often offer you a 10-20% discount, or free coffee and tea to lure you inside. We scouted out the best deal, and sat outside our chosen cafe in the sunshine while munching on bread, Turkish pizza (like a regular pizza, but rectangular with the sides folded in), salads, and fish- the seafood in Istanbul is great.

After a short cat nap back at the hostel, we hopped back on the tram and headed to the Grand Bazaar. The Bazaar was actually mostly inside, underneath domed roofs that were well-lit and ventilated. Shops crowded every available inch of the place, and many spilled out onto surrounding alleyways and sidewalks. It was a little bit different than I had expected, just because of the organization and price of the place. There were actual storefronts throughout the Bazaar, areas were grouped by product, and everything was pretty expensive! It was possible (and necessary) to barter, but the shopkeepers presented prices that were so high that it was almost impossible to get a good deal. Small string bracelets were sold for $15-20, and jewelry in general was pricey because they insisted that we were getting good, real silver. I didn’t even really care about the quality of the stuff- I just wanted some fun trinkets to remind me of the trip! In the end, I only ended up getting a bracelet or two. Most of the things there can be found in Khan al-Khalili (the bazaar in Cairo) for much lower prices, anyways.

We finished off the night by heading to the Bosphorus (the Istanbul Straight, in between Europe and Asia) and eating dinner at a seafood restaurant right on the water, underneath a bridge. Again, we were offered a deal at every restaurant we passed, and settled at one with the most appealing offer. We sat outside and watched fisherman pull their hooks out of the water as the lights of the city illuminated silhouettes of buildings and mosques in the distance. For a minute, I almost felt like I was back in San Francisco because of my view of the bridge spanning the water. I had salmon for dinner (yum!) and Turkish coffee for dessert (not so good- it’s pretty gritty). On the way back to the hostel, a couple of us stopped to admire the Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque at night, and watch the water show in the fountain between the two. Not a bad end to the night!

For our last full day in Istanbul, we had planned on going to the Turkish & Islamic Art Museum, Galata Tower, and Turkish Baths, but our day ended up going a little bit differently- I think it was better that way! We arrived at the Museum at around 10 AM, only to be stopped by a non-English speaking security guard who first told us that it didn’t open until 11 AM, and then wrote 12 PM on his hand. Thoroughly confused, we started to walk away from the museum before spontaneously deciding to take a ferry to the Asian side of Turkey instead! We literally turned in the other direction, hopped on a tram to the Bosphorus, and then got tickets for the ferry. I have to admit that we had almost no idea what we were doing, and just kind of walked onto one of the boats, but it worked out okay! It was a beautiful, clear day out, and the trip provided us with some spectacular views of the coastline, complete with a skyline of minarets and sunshine sparkling across the water.

Upon landing on the Asian side, I flipped through the Lonely Planet: Istanbul book and found a walking tour of the area. We walked about a block before deciding to just explore the town on our own, no map necessary! The coastline was littered with beautiful mosques, restaurants, spice and sweet shops, and townhouses overlooking the water. We wandered through a few cobblestone streets before running into a mosque that was completely empty except for an old man mopping the floor and a few stray cats. We wandered inside, taking pictures of its translucent dome and vine-covered walls. The man allowed us to venture inside the prayer area, so the girls covered their hair with scarves, and we all removed our shoes. After seeing the sights of Sultanahmet crowded with tourists, it was a rare, peaceful moment having the mosque to ourselves. We thanked the man and headed on our way.

Moving deeper into the town and farther away from the water, we happened upon a few more mosques, most of them with vines growing into their windows and stray cats frolicking in their gardens. Some had Islamic tombstones marking graves in their yards. We eventually made our way back towards the water, and walked through another mosque onto a sidewalk right next to the Bosphorus. The ground was wet, and the walkway was lined with fishermen, couples, and families admiring the view. We walked along the water for a few blocks before picking out a restaurant farther up the hill for lunch, with a nice view of the bridge and Bosphorus.

After lunch, we retraced our steps back to the ferry, crossing through the same mosque that we had visited at the beginning of the day. This Asian side of Turkey had a completely different feel than the other side- there were almost no tourists around, and its narrow streets were lined with townhouses. We hopped back on the ferry, and once again enjoyed the ride surrounded by silhouettes of minarets and sunshine. By this time, it was early afternoon, so we returned to the Turkish & Islamic Art Museum right beside the Hippodrome and Blue Mosque, in Sultanahmet. On our way to the front entrance, Alex, Kjrstin, and I stopped in our tracks once the Call to Prayer began playing from the Blue Mosque beside us. It was definitely a surreal moment- we had been surrounded by this sound throughout our stay in Egypt, and we could hear it in the morning from our hostel, but this particular one was special because of its location. Who would have thought I’d get to hear the Blue Mosque’s Call to Prayer? We finally turned back towards the museum, and found ourselves to be the only people there! Its collection was pretty small- we only spent about an hour there looking at Qu’rans covered in detailed calligraphy, jewelry, and giant rugs. Islamic art is unique in that it doesn’t have any representations of figures (human or otherwise), so its beauty is contained in geometric patterns, color, and extensive Arabic calligraphy. Nonetheless, I loved it and took way too many pictures, as usual- I wish my notebook doodles looked like that!

By the time we made our way out of the museum, the sun was on its way towards the horizon. I had wanted to spend sunset at Galata Tower, just as we had done at Cairo Tower during one of our first weeks in Egypt. So, we hopped back on the tram and began the search for the tower. It wasn’t too difficult to find, but we definitely had to work to get there. We trekked uphill through narrow cobblestone streets for about ten minutes, quickly realizing that everyone around us seemed to be doing the same thing. This was probably a good thing- we had no idea where to go, and didn’t know that the tower was literally in the middle of a residential area with a few storefronts scattered about. After a long hike uphill, we were face to face (face to wall?) with Galata Tower! Unfortunately, we weren’t the only ones who had this idea. There was a line of people winding almost halfway around the circumference of the tower, and the sun was beginning to set. We hopped in line, hoping that it would move quickly enough for us to catch sunset.

We must have built up some good karma over the course of the trip, because we got inside in no time! After a long elevator ride, and a good amount of stair-climbing, we reached the top. The balcony surrounding the tip of the tower was annoyingly narrow, so we ended up shoving past people in an attempt to find the spot with the best view, but it was definitely all worth it. We had a 360 degree view of Istanbul, and managed to find places to stand with a view of the Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace, Blue Mosque, two bridges, and countless other mosques. I’ve said it a million times, and I’ll say it a million more- mosques make for the best skylines!

I camped out at my spot for the next hour or so, watching the sun slowly melt into the horizon. Just as we had experienced at Cairo Tower, the mosques all almost simultaneously lit up and began their call to prayer, echoing across the various corners of the city. Once the sun had set, everyone (including most of my group) started making their way back down the tower. I didn’t want to leave! I could have easily stayed there for at least another hour, but was reluctantly led away after both Margaux and Kjrstin came back up to the top to get me moving. Goodbye, Istanbul!

For our last dinner, we returned to the same place where we had eaten lunch on our first full day in Istanbul. Throughout the entire trip, we had a running joke that we were searching for “Baklava Akbar,” or the “greatest baklava.” The first line of the Call to Prayer is “Allah Akbar,” which means “God is the greatest,” so we just altered it a bit to fit our own needs. Anyways, this place had unanimously won the title of Baklava Akbar, so we settled down with the stray cats to chow down on food and dessert. While we were there, it started sprinkling rain! This was definitely the first sign of rain (or weather other than heat and sandstorms) that we had experienced since arriving in Cairo, and a pleasant, refreshing change of pace.

After dinner, we strolled through a few shops on our way back to the hostel, picking up last-minute trinkets and souvenirs. We packed up our things and called it an early night. The next morning was dedicated to getting ourselves up, fed, and ready for the airport. Again, we ended up being ready early (who would have thought?!) so the ride to the airport and plane trip went pretty smoothly. All in all, I really can’t believe how well everything went. Despite living with one another for an entire week, and being in a new city, we got along easily and had no major issues (or issues at all, really!). I was more than satisfied with the amount of sights that we got to, and would go back in an instant. Istanbul, it was fun!

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Istanbul, part two

  1. Karen and Steve

    Sophie, your blog is great. The insights you are providing on people, places and TINA are awesome. What you report is better than what we’d find in any tourist book (including Lonely Planet). Thanks for sharing!

    Karen and Steve (in Des Moines)

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