At my Hungarian lesson last night, Imola (one of my instructors) greeted me with, “Szia, világutazó!” This means “Hello, world traveler!” I hadn’t been to a lesson in more than two weeks, because as soon as I arrived home from my trip to the U.S., it was time to pack for a long weekend in Istanbul.
Richie had already been to Istanbul three times before our trip together, which came in handy with trip planning. I just booked the same hotel he’s always stayed at and liked, glanced over his old version of the Rick Steves’ Istanbul book to get an idea of what I wanted to see, and then made him into my personal GPS.
After his most recent trip, Richie mentioned that he and Phil happened to be in Istanbul during their tulip festival. It’s not held on specific dates, but rather whenever the tulips bloom for the season, so it makes it difficult to plan in advance. We looked at the calendar and selected a weekend fairly close to the time they went last year. From the moment we got into our taxi, we saw tulips everywhere! Success!
We arrived at our hotel on Friday at about midnight. Since the hotel is literally steps from the Blue Mosque, we decided to take a quick ten-minute stroll around the area and see the sights at night, while the streets were relatively empty.
We then took advantage of the nice weather (so much warmer than Budapest!) with a glass of wine on the hotel patio and enjoyed the view some more.
We started our sightseeing the next morning with the Aya Sofya, and thus began three days of craning our necks upward to look at tiny mosaics and domed ceilings. Originally a church, built around 537 A.D., then converted to a mosque in 1453 when the Ottomans conquered the city, it’s now a museum. It is fascinating to see the elements of both religions housed in the same building.
The guidebook mentions that rather than tearing down the Christian mosaics and paintings, they were simply whitewashed over by the Ottomans, which in some cases actually helped preserve the mosaics over the years. In the 1930s, when the church-mosque was converted to a museum, restorers discovered the mosaics beneath the plaster and managed to save many of them.
This mosaic is of Jesus, flanked by Mary and John the Baptist, who were asking him for the salvation of souls. In person, the level of detail found in the tiny glass tiles is stunning.
After we left the Aya Sofya, we discovered we had just enough time to tour the Blue Mosque before it was closed for noon prayers, so we hurried over.
This was my first time to tour a mosque, and I was not sure what to expect inside. I knew we would be required to take off our shoes, and that I should cover my head, so I came prepared with socks and a scarf. The mosque is very prepared for tourists, with a separate entrance filled with stacks of loaner scarves and rolls of plastic bags to carry your shoes while you visit.
The interior was gorgeous. Because there are no pews, and the whole mosque is largely one room, the inside felt so vast. That feeling was emphasized by the fact that tourists were not allowed into the main prayer area, and the worshippers had not yet arrived, so there was this immense open space before us.
After lunch, we toured the Basilica Cistern, built in 532 A.D. to store water for the city underground. It’s about 2 football fields in area.
It’s no longer used, and most rainwater is pumped out to prevent the building from further damage. My favorite part was the Medusa heads used as the bases for two columns at the back of the cistern. No one really knows why they were used, but they add a little whimsy to the scene, no?
Afterwards, we headed to the Grand Bazaar. Richie had warned me beforehand that, because I can’t stand pushy salespeople, or people in my personal space, that I was not likely to enjoy the Bazaar experience. He was right. If you look at an object for more than half a second, a seller is upon you, saying, “Yes please. I give you nice price. Where are you from?” If you make the mistake of responding at all, the seller might follow you partway down the hall as you walk away, or rope you into a conversation if you’re standing still. But if you ignore them, they will still call out things to you for several seconds. One time, after Richie had ignored a seller’s “Yes please, what are you looking for? Where are you from? Do you like black socks?” the guy followed up with, “Hey, you dropped five lira!” Of course when Richie glanced back, the seller said, “Oh, just tricking! But hey, do you want these socks?”
The other problem with the Bazaar is that it is a completely jam-packed maze of stuff. I have no idea how they ensure that everyone has left the building before they close in the evenings, because you can make a wrong turn and get stuck in an endless labyrinth of scarves, lanterns, rugs, and tourist t-shirts. Most shops can’t be used as landmarks because the lantern shop on this corner looks almost identical to the lantern shop three rows away. I didn’t take any pictures because I was concentrating on not getting lost. 🙂
We did manage to find the one thing I really wanted – the leather aisles, where friends had previously gotten beautiful leather jackets for reasonable prices. I’ll let Richie tell you about my awful negotiating skills (you know those phrases they always warn you NEVER to say when negotiating? I think I said all of them…) but at the end of the hour, we both ended up with lovely leather jackets at prices we were happy with.
We then took the most jam-packed tram I’ve ever experienced to the spice market, where we loaded up on probably a year’s supply of tea. While people in the spice markets do call out to you, there’s thankfully less haggling and less invasion of personal space.
Rather than rejoin the somewhat smelly tram crowd, we decided to walk back to our hotel, stopping at the Gülhane Park to check out all of the tulips. This park was once part of the palace grounds, but is now entirely open to the public, and thousands of tulips are planted here in different colors and types.
Random fact: even though we associate tulips with the Netherlands, they originated in Turkey. The Ottoman Empire brought them to Holland in the 16th century.
On our second day, we spent the morning touring the Topkapi Palace, which was built by the Ottoman sultan first as an administrative center, then a century later enlarged as the sultan’s residence. It was basically room after room of opulence, with ornately decorated tiles on the walls, stained glass windows, and mother-of-pearl cabinetry. My favorite room in the place was the sultan’s library.
And of course, we couldn’t visit the palace without a trip to the infamous harem.
Something I never realized is that the sultan’s mother lived in the harem with the wives and the concubines. She had her own private chambers, but she personally selected most of the wives and the “favorites” of the concubines for her son. Ew.
After another kebab-filled lunch, we went to the mosque of Süleyman the Magnificent. I liked this mosque more than the Blue Mosque – I loved the colors and the patterns of the hand-painted decorations.
We perused a few shops outside the mosque, where I had my favorite conversation with one of the sellers. He was a straightforward guy (when I asked if one scarf was made from cotton, he said, “No, that’s a polyester blend made in China. I can show you the stuff from Turkey if you want.”) When he asked where we were from, I answered, “Texas, originally,” and he said, “So am I!” We looked confused, and his shopkeeping buddy started laughing. He explained that he’s from a town in Turkey that has so many guns, they call it the Texas of Turkey. Nice to know our reputation is worldwide….
Our next stop, the Galata Tower, was across the water from our current location, so Richie said we should just head downhill towards the waterfront. We quickly stumbled into an area that most tourists steer clear of, as evidenced by the falling apart homes, the chickens clucking in the streets, and the children that gave us looks that clearly said, “what are you doing here?!” We made it across the river without incident, but it was a very silent and tense walk to the waterfront! At least on my part. Richie probably thought nothing of it.
Galata Tower is my new favorite tower in Europe, because it is the only one I didn’t have to climb! They have wisely installed two elevators. While we were up top, the afternoon call to prayer rang out from several different mosques around us. You can hear it on a short video I made here (click).
On Monday, we had a little time before checkout and our flight, so I asked Richie to get us to the Chora Church (called Kariye by the locals today). Since it wasn’t near the rest of the sights, he mapped out a complex public transit path there. About 40 minutes into it, with my blistered feet aching, I said to myself, “This church better be freaking awesome.” And it was. It’s known mostly for its mosaics, but the tourist entrance lets you into a funerary chamber covered with frescos, and I was entranced instantly.
Once again, this church had been converted to a mosque after it was conquered by the Ottoman Empire, so the frescos and mosaics had been covered up. Unfortunately, there was far more damage to this church than to the Aya Sofya, so many of the mosaics have large portions missing. They are still beautiful to see.
I loved our trip to Istanbul, and I can see why Richie lists it as one of his favorite cities. We saw a good portion of it, but if we’d had a week there, I know we could have filled every day to the brim. Maybe we’ll return one day, especially if Istanbul wins the bid for the 2020 Olympics!
For those of you thinking of traveling to Istanbul, I highly recommend our hotel, the Alzer Hotel Istanbul. It’s well-maintained, and while it’s not luxurious, it’s quite comfortable and the owner and his staff are so friendly and helpful. It’s in the old town, so you’re very close to many sights, but the street is very calm and quiet in the evenings. The only downside is that you’ll be awakened by the call to prayer from the Blue Mosque around 5 am each morning 🙂 However, since there are so many mosques in the city (the most recent count shows close to 3,000), and they generally use loudspeakers today, I doubt you can escape the morning call altogether.
I’ll be posting more photos on Facebook shortly! Check back for the link.