What a great trip it has been so far here in Instanbul. After the long flights from the West Coast to NYC then IST, I paid $20 for my visa at the airport, cleared customs, and found my pre-arranged driver waiting for me on the Arrivals Hall. He was a young guy with a big smile who walked me out to the parking garage so he could get his taxi van. On the way into the city, I chatted briefly with him while noticing the beautiful displays of tulips all alongside the roadways into town. In fact, I was quite impressed with how modern and Western the city seemed. The roads were clean and mostly orderly, the cars modern (and of course micro), not much honking. After about 30 minutes, we were at my hotel which seemed to be on the edge of the old Sultanhamet part of the city, and near some railroad tracks. The driver pulled my backpack out of the van and shepherded me into the small hotel. After tipping him, he was on his way.
I checked in and another man took me to my 1st floor (2nd floor in American parlance) room. It is very tiny with two single beds, a wee desk, wardrobe, flat screen tv, and a minuscule bathroom. I was to have a roommate on this group tour I’m on, so I was curious to see how we’d navigate this small room. After getting settled in, I thought about resting some, but then I decided to just get out and see the city. It was just after 12 pm.
I loaded up my day bag with my two cameras (the newish Canon S100 and my lovely Panasonic G3 micro 4:3), my portable first aide kit, an umbrella, my Lonely Planet, and my Istanbul map. The weather was quite pleasant…about low 60s and cloudy. I decided to walk down towards the Galata Bridge which crosses the Golden Horn. Friends have told me to go down there for fish sandwiches…and I was hungry, so it made sense. I walked down the narrow cobblestone streets leading from my hotel along the train tracks towards the Istanbul train station. It didn’t seem like a big inter city train station as in Europe, rather a suburban rail line station. Also, I noticed the pretty frequent tram cars plying the very thin and twisting streets. Soon, I found the bridge and walked around it to find some touristy fish restaurants…not quite what I was looking for. I crossed under the bridge and saw masses of people congregating around these fishing boats bobbing quite hecticly on the docks. This is where I needed to go. I rummaged around this area getting my feel for what the people were eating…everyone seemed to have these grilled fish sandwiches, so I went to a busy boat and ordered one and sat down at a tiny stool and table to add a dash of salt and some lemon juice from a bottle on the the sandwich. By then, huge (and I mean huge) gusts of wind had come up off the water. Paper, cigarette butts, empty pop cans, and lots of dust were flying everywhere. The awnings of these boats, under which people were eating, we’re flailing dramatically. I honestly thought that these awnings were going to come apart and start smacking people. I braced myself during a couple gusts closing my eyes and shielding my head with my hands in case the awnings did come apart. Thankfully nothing happened beyond getting a bunch of dust in my eyes.
After scarfing down the delicious cheap (5 lira) sandwich, the wind died down quite a but, so I got a small can of Coke and watched the lunchtime crowd scurry along the waterfront. Ferry boats came and went unloading and picking up hurried commuters. This was prime people watching territory. The Turkish people are an incredibly beautiful people. Some Turks are dark skinned and black headed, others are blind, some look as if they could easily be Iowa farm boys or German soccer players. Quite often I saw women in veils, some simple head coverings while others are cloaked head to toe in heavy black attire. At 1:11 promptly I heard the call to prayer at various mosques within earshot. One was right across the busy waterfront road. The call to prayer is a haunting sound to me. The muzelins seem to want to outdo each other by wailing their pleas for worshippers to pray. I noticed that no one around me started praying or rushing off to the mosques to pray.
After lunch and people watching, I meandered what turns out to be the Spice Bazaar. This is a rabbit’s warren of tiny alleys, nooks, and crannies stuffed full of spice shops, truckloads of figs and dried fruit, Turkish delight candy (which I tasted and loved), and a coffee shop with a very long queue outside the door. The shop didn’t sell already-made coffee like Starbucks, rather it sold packaged Turkish coffee. I made a mental note to go back there after my tour.
After wandering the Spice Bazaar, I walked towards the Aya Safya area around Sultanhamet part of town…not too far away. There, I was chased by a well dressed man wanting to take me to his carpet shop. I ignored him and proceeded to the Blue Mosque. This mosque is quite huge (I believe it was the biggest in Ottoman Empire). It also has six minarets, whereas most mosques I’ve seen have four. I walked around outside and took some pictures before headed to the visitor entrance. There, I took off my shoes and put them in a little plastic bag to carry around (much more convenient and safer than in India where you pay to have them watched over by attendants). I stepped into the mosque and my breath was literally taken away. Inside are tens of thousands of blue tiles placed all about the interior of the dome and along the walls. Enough light shined inside through the Venetian windows to make this a truly outstanding beautiful place. The throngs of tourists talked in hushed tones and walked quietly along the thickly carpeted floors. It was quite mesmerizing. I was happily surprised to be able to take pictures from inside the mosque…as every single other person was doing. On this trip, for the first time, I’ve noticed more and more people using their phones to take pictures instead of a dedicated camera. I even saw a handful of people use their iPad to take pictures! I wonder in a few years will people even carry around dedicated cameras? Will camera phones get to that point? (my answer is a strong…”probably”).
After being wowed in the mosque, I walked along the very very very touristy Divan Yolu Cad street full of restaurants and trinket shops towards the Grand Bazaar. I popped I side the huge. Jostling bazaar, but wasn’t interested in shopping. I made a beeline out of there and back to the touristy street. I pulled out the Lonely Planet for a suggestion to visit next and settled in the Basilica Cistern. It was quite near y, so I went to it and traversed down the slippery dark steps into this ancient cistern built by the Byzantines in the 340s AD (yes, 340s!). You gotta hand it to those east Romans…this public works project to store water for the city was quite beautiful with hundreds of columns supporting the underground cistern and even had some art in the form of an upside down and sideways bust of Medusa’s head underneath two of the pillars. Some pillars had Corinthian and others had Iconic capitals. Quite beautiful place. And the fact that I can traipse around in a 1,600 year old facility!
From the Cistern, I strolled back to the hotel for a bit of relaxing. After an hour or so, I set back out to the Beyoglu neighborhood across the other side of the Golden Horn for some dinner and maybe a trip to a hamam (Turkish bath). I asked the hotel front desk to call a taxi to take me there since it was quite a distance to walk. The man said it was far better to take the tram at this hour (about 7 pm) due to the traffic. He showed me which routes to take. So I set out. It was cloudy by now and a bit chilly, so I ran back upstairs to grab my rain jacket. The nearest tram stop is 5 mins walk away. I couldn’t figure out how to get entry to the platform. A turnstile had a coin slot without pricing or English language text, so I dropped in a 1-lira coin. The machine spotted it out. I tried another…same thing. I looked around trying to see a ticket machine, but nothing seemed obvious. I noticed the train station across the street, so I went inside and saw a couple kiosks with pictures of trains on them. Perfect, I thought! I bought a few tiny metal tokens. With them, I went back to the tram platform turnstyle and confidently inserted a token into the slot. The machine spotted it out. Another token..same thing. I tried a different machine, same thing. Soon, an attendant came to me and I showed him my little token. “Wrong token”, he said. “Ahh, ahh!”, I replied, “where can I buy?”, I asked in slow, syllablized traveller’s English. The man pointed to a bank of kiosks just near the platform across the tram tracks. “OK! Thank you”. At the kiosk I studied the instructions for a while (to make sure I wasn’t buying more suburban rail tokens) and a businessman up to me and asked me if I knew how to work the machine. O told him that I didn’t want to buy more of these and showed him my little metal tokens and I pointed back to the tram. He said this was the machine for the tram token and showed me his. I thanked him and bought a few tokens. Three blue plastic tokens were dispensed to the tray making a plasticky sound as they hit. Now, I finally successfully paid my fare and hopped onto a packed rush hour tram. We snakes through the old city and across that Galata Bridge. We went past the cruise ship terminal and I rode all the way to the terminus at the Kabatas platform. There, I transferred to the metro for a short climb up a steep hill to Taksim Square. This particular metro line is just a fenicular up the hill. It was so steep that even the subway cars have a out four or five different levels (about one or two steps separating the levels) per car.
The subway got quite packed and eventually the doors closed and we were on our way up the hill. It reminded me of a mountainous gondola car due to the angle we were climbing. Very interesting. After just over a minute, we were at the station where I got out and noticed the rain pouring down as I ascended from the subway station. Thankfully I had brought my rain jacket. Within minutes I was drenched. Yet I quickly found the pedestrian-only thoroughfare Istiklai Cad which was packed with locals hurriedly walking in this downpour. Along this street were upscale shops and a handful of restaurants. I was quite hungry, but was a bit picky about finding a place. Finally, I settled on a lovely little place called Lades where I was one of a few customers. I had a bowl of creamy vegetable soup, salad, and a delicious lamb kabop with cheesy mashed potatoes and rice. I devoured the meal as I watched people rushing by outside in the rain. Quite a splendid place. Afterwards, I wandered around and found a hamam, where I went in and had a pleasant relaxing time in the baths. Next time, I’ll go to one when I’m not so tired, so I may enjoy it more.
It was time for me to head back to the hotel, so I reversed my subway and tram commute and walked back in the rain to the hotel. I was back and in bed by 11 pm. Quite a long and wonderful day. I crashed and didnt wake up until about 9 this morning.
I dressed and went downstairs for breakfast. While trying to figure out where breakfast was, I started talking to a woman who was asking the front desk where breakfast was. It turns out it was up in the top floor. She asked if I was on the Intrepid tour, and I said yes. Her name is Melissa and she’s from San Francisco. Apparently, she recognized me from the flight the day before. We went up the two-person sized elevator and grazed the buffet line. It was full of delicious food such as pastries, olives, tomatoes, yogurts, bread, jam, fruit. At the table, we sat and talked for over an hour. So far, at least one of the others on the tour are going to be fun.
After breakfast, I showered and set out for the day. I walked up to the Topkapi Palace which was the home to the Sultans during the Ottoman days. There were huge crowds all around this museum. Still, I had a great time learning about the Sultans and the Ottoman life. I saw beautiful artifacts including an Order of the Garter from King Edward III era and a sword which belonged to the Prophet Mohammed himself. The highlight of the museum was the Haram, or private quarters, of the Sultan family, concubines, and royal eunuchs.
After a few hours at the Palace, I had a pretzel/sesame like bread from a street vendor. As I stood in the square between the Blue Mosque and the Aya Safya a friendly man started talking to me. I knew he wanted to sell me carpets, so I brushed him aside and went the Aya Safya. This was originally a cathedral built Justinian in the 300s AD when Constantinople was the seat of the Byzantian empire after the Romans fell. After Constantinople fell to the Ottomans in the 1300s, the cathedral was turned into a mosque. Then, Ataturk turned it into a museum after the founding of modern Turkey. I walked into the building honestly not knowing what to expect. So, when I walked in, I was stupified by the sheer beauty of this place. It was a classic huge domed cathedral yet huge medallions with massive Islamic script hung from the ceilings. I strolled and was just amazed by this place. Towards the rear, I looked up and saw ancient paintings of Mary, Jesus, and Archangel Gabriel. Quite a place, indeed.
After the Aya Safya, I ought a Snickers bar and a diet Coke from a sidewalk vendor and walked back to the hotel. The tour had an orientation meeting at 6. There, I met all the other folks on the tour, and the guide. The guide is a young Turk with Kurdish roots. The rest of the group is a mix of Australian, European, and Americans. I am the only single male (lucky me as I have the room to myself!). The age range seems to be 30-60. It should be a good group. After the orientation, 9 of us (out of 12) went with the guide to dinner. I sat next to a Frsnch woman who has lived in Edinburgh for 9 years. I talked about the upcoming French presidential election for a out 15 minutes. I also talked with the guide briefly about Turkish politics and the EU and the AK ruling party. This promises to be wonderful time to meet and learn from others and to experience this tremendous Turkish culture.
OK, I’ve written enough. I should head back to bed. After sleeping for a solid 4 hours, I got up at 3 am. The hotel has WiFi, so I can post to my blog from my iPad in bed. It’s now 4:30am, and I should try to catch some more Zzzzzs before my day sets out at 8am with our first walking tour.