And I think to myself, what a wonderful world!
My Trip to Istanbul March 2015
I had a week to spare which had to be taken during March. My first thought was Athens, a city I love, but there are no direct flights at this time of year. The thought of two separate flights with a lengthy changeover didn't appeal to me. So I decided on Istanbul for a few days. This is the number one tourist destination in the world at the moment, with 8 million visitors a year. Most of these must go in the summer, because I didn't encounter many other tourists. I've been in Istanbul before, in fact this time last year, so I thought it would be a good chance to visit somewhere I was interested in, was reasonably familiar with and could get there without too much hassle.
So on the Monday of my week off, I caught the bus to the airport, checked in my large and fairly empty suitcase and proceded to do all the usual airport stuff, without any great incident. The flight was about 4 hours. We had individual screens at our seats, so I could watch any of a selection of movies – I chose The Grand Hotel Budapest – but after about 10 minutes I realised I really couldn't hear it. The noise from the engines was too loud and I couldn't really figure out what was going on. I left it for a more appropriate occasion.
The service on Turkish Airlines is good. We got a little piece of Turkish delight to welcome us to the flight, then the meal which was very palatable, accompanied by a choice of drinks. Readers will not be surprised to find my choice was red wine. I got through two little bottles of it, all included in the price.
Landing in Istanbul Airport, I was retrieved my suitcase and was met by a helpful man who passed me on to another man who located a third man who drove me to my hotel. This was useful, albeit slightly pricey. I could have got there in an hour on the metro and the tram, but without any Turkish money it would have been cumbersome. The cost of collection was added to my hotel bill.
I was staying in the Hotel Empress Zoe, which I can thoroughly recommend unless you are allergic to cats, or can't climb stairs or don't like being woken at 6:30 am by a Muezzin's call to prayer from the mosque next door. Put this last one down to the experience of being in a 99% Muslim country where the residents don't seem to care much about religion. The hotel is very picturesque, extremely friendly and right next to all the places that tourists want to visit in Istanbul.
After a little rest in my room, which was tiny but had a view of a ruined Turkish baths and out over the Bosphorus, it was time for dinner. My guidebook recommended 'Rami' as a slightly expensive but authentically Turkish restaurant with a roof-top terrace with great views. Sure enough, the view was great, of the floodlit Sultan Ahmet Mosque (also known as the Blue Mosque). The food was delicious. The only problem was that there were only three other people in the place. Clearly March is the off season.
My first full day in Istanbul. The weather was cold and dry, much the same as at home. After a delicious breakfast in the hotel of fruits, vegetables, muesli, cheeses, bread and a sort of stewed tomato and cheese mixture, I ventured out. First on the agenda was to change some euros into Turkish liras. Not everything is available on credit card, so I felt it prudent to have some of the local currency. Then I strolled over to Hagia Sopha – the number 1 tourist sight in the number 1 tourist detination. It's the giant church built on the orders of Roman Emperor Justinian in the 6th Century. It was the biggest church in the world for nearly a thousand years. It's built to an unusual design with a huge square space in the middle with a very high domed roof – it gives the most wonderful feeling of vastness. In the 15th Century Constantinople as it was known at the time was conquered by the Ottoman Turks and Hagia Sophia became a mosque. The holy mosaics were covered over and giant calligraphic panels were hung aroun he building, the biggest calligraphic panels in the world. In the 20th Century it was converted to a a museum by the a-religious government of the Republic of Turkey, and it is well worth seeing. They've uncovered most of the mosaics so you can see Christ, St Peter and Mary alongside the names (but not the images) of Allah and Muhammad.
Next I went to the Archaeological Museum. I was in two minds about this, as it was listed in my guide book as one of the major sights but the description didn't sound all that wonderful. It turned out that a lot of the museum was closed for restoration. What I saw I found interesting – there were some amazing Hittite carvings, and some glazed tile animals from the Ishtar Gate of Babylon, but in general there was too much of the museum off limits to make it worth a visit.
I was now getting to lunchtime. I bought a lovely cinnamon bread roll from a street vendor for 2 TL which is about 70 cents. There are bread vendors all over the city with little carts with glass sides, mainly selling 'simit', a sort of bread in the shape of a bagel and covered in toasted sesame seeds, but they have the occasional other sort of bread as well. The cinnamon bun was nice because it was savoury, something I wasn't expecting. Turkish food often uses things that I would think of as only for desserts in otherwise savoury dishes. I wandered through Gulhane Park and saw the Column of the Goths, a pillar celebrating a Roman victory over the Goths. This may date from about 350 AD, or it may be older making it the oldest thing still standing in the city. I then walked along the sea coast, which are completely lined with the Sea Walls, built in the 5th Century. They are about 12 km long but I only walked about 3km. Next on the agenda was the Little Hagia Sophia Mosque, one of the oldest churches in Istanbul and again converted to a mosque when the city became Muslim. It is interesting but probably deserves a full entry in the Guide. One thing about it I thought was particularly fascinating was that it was carpeted throughout, and the lines on the carpet showed you which way to kneel to face Mecca. Since the church hadn't been built with this in mind, the pattern on the carpet was at an angle of about 35 degrees to the walls.
From the mosque, it was a short walk up to the old Roman hippodrome, the chariot racing arena. There's almost nothing of this left, but you can still see the big semicircular end of it, and the actual horse track hasn't been built on, so the shape of it is still evident. Here I visited the Turkish and Islamic Arts Museum. I have to say this was a waste of money for me. As an atheist, I wasn't particularly interested in the footprint of Muhammad or the very early editions of the Quran. The general attitude of the presentations was that since the early Qurans were the word of God, they could never be equalled so that all subsequent art was only an imitation, which I frankly found insulting to the artists of the wonderful later calligraphic works. On the other hand, when the Turks tried their hands at pictorial art, they never really developed beyond the level my daughter reached when she was aged seven.
I'd had a full day so I returned to my hotel for a rest, then went out for a nice meal. My own food was good but unremarkable. One of the other tables ordered a Turkish specialty which is food cooked in a clay pot which is broken open at the table to reveal the contents – the pots were shaped like a Greek urn, and the waiter struck them with a metal implement which caused the top to fly off and land safely in his serving tray. Apparently this not a particularly local dish but the spectacle of it has made it popular in all the touristy restaurants.
Today I decided to see the 19th Century Dolmabahce Palace in the north of the city. I had seen the very oriental-style Topkapi Palace last year. The Sultans decided they wanted to be more European so they needed a proper European-style palace – the money they borrowed to build this more or less bankrupted the Empire.
I caught the tram northwards and was soon whisked across the Golden Horn, the deep sea channel that separates Old Istanbul from the modern centre of the city. It was a short walk from the tram terminus to the palace which is located on the shores of the Bosphorus, the sea channel which divides Europe from Asia and West Istanbul from East Istanbul. I joined the hordes of school children and entered the palace.
If you've seen one European royal palace, you've seen them all. This was just mile after mile of ornate gilt furniture, fancy carpets and chandeliers. I'll admit that the palace is worth a visit – the Great Hall is very impressive. It was supposed to be able to accommodate 2,500 guests, and the English chandelier weighing 4.5 tonnes was quite something. The crystal staircase, with balisters made of glass, is also worth a look. But all in all, it was badly presented – by a compulsory guided tour in which the guide said almost nothing – and not particularly Turkish.
I returned on the tram to the area known as Karakoy (Night Town). It was the red-light district in former times. Here there is an underground funicular railway that brings you to the top of a steep hill. This is the start of Istiklal Street, one of the trendy shopping streets in the centre of the modern city. I chose instead to walk back down the hill along the stree of musical instrument shops. I didn't buy anything but was interested to look at the sazes, which are similar to my Greek bouzouki (perhaps another Entry here?). At the bottom of the hill, I grabbed a simit (sesame bread) from a street vendor and walked across the Galata bridge back to Old Istanbul.
Just south of the bridge is the bazaar area, with lots of stuff for sale. The Spice Bazaar building is centuries old, and sells not just spices but just about everthing. I got some Turkish sumach and some Iranian saffron, a gold chain for a pendant and some Turkish delight – real Turkish delight is amazing.
Next I went a few hundred hards west and found a peaceful spot in the hubbub – the mosque of Rustem Pasha, an Ottoman Grand Vizier. He paid for the mosque but it was designed by Mimar Sinan, the greatest Ottoman architect. It was small but absolutely beautiful inside, decorated throughout with blue and white tiles from Izmik. Visitors are always welcome in mosques, although you're better off keeping away during the times of prayer. You don't want to be wandering around taking photographs when the mosque is full of people praying. You have to remove your shoes (there are racks at the door to leave them) and women must cover their heads – scarves are provided if you haven't got any sort of head covering.
Back to the hustle and bustle, I walked up to the Grand Bazaar, the biggest shopping area in Istanbul with over 5,000 shops in a maze of streets that would confuse anybody. Here I bought a nice little ceramic bowl with a geometrical design, and a calligraphic signature of one of the Sultans. I strolled back from here to my hotel, giving directions to a lost Englishman along the way. Another pleasant dinner in a restaurant near the hotel.
The weather forecast actually predicted some sun for this day, and sure enough the sun came out, although it was still cold. Today was my planned walking day. It didn't go quite as I expected but I did end up walking about 15 kilometres. I started out by getting the tram outwards from the centre, as fall as the old walls of the city. These were built in the 5th century and are massive – about 6km long, there's a huge inner wall about 30m high, with 96 towers, and a smaller outer wall only about 30m high, also with 96 towers. The walls successfully repelled invaders for about a thousand years, and even after the Turks broke through and took the city they rebuilt them, so they are in reasonably good state of repair considering their 1,500 year age. My plan was to walk a short stretch of the walls, then double back on my tracks and go the other way to a section which has been reconstructed to give an impression of the original state.
I got as far as the Edirne Gate, where there is a lovely church, the Church of the Holy Saviour in Chora. It has the best collection of Byzantine mosaics anywhere in the world (with the possible exception of Daphni in Athens). Some of the church was closed for restoration but there was enough visible to make it well worth the visit. After visiting the church I had a coffee and a sort of stick pastry soaked in sugar syrup, something the Turks are very fond of.
At this point I should have turned back along the walls, but instead I continued on and say the outside of the old Tekfur palace, a building set into the walls about which not a lot is known. It seems to have been some sort of a palace annex. My guide book showed it as the shell of a building, but it has been rebuilt, with a new roof and windows. It's not open to the public, though, so I don't know what's going on there. Around about this point in my walk I entered an area where all the women wore black dresses and veils. This was the only place in Istanbul I saw this, and it wasn't at all intimidating. The Turks are such friendly people that I felt perfectly safe wherever I went, more so than I would in Dublin.
I continued my walk along the walls all the way down to the Golden Horn inlet. I was now only about 2km from the district of Eyup, a holy place for Muslims, so I thought I'd pay a visit and see what it was like. Eyup Ensari was the standard bearer of Muhammad. The Prophet led an attack on Istanbul, or Constantinople as it was then called, which failed. Eyup died at the scene and was buried. A thousand years later, a grave was found outside the walls and it was declared that this was the grave of Eyup. The area became a place of pilgrimage and was named after the man. Even today, the tomb of Eyup is still revered by Muslims. I was there during the midday prayer time. While all the men were in the mosque praying, the women all gathered at the window of the tomb and prayed looking in at Eyup's grave.
The area of Eyup is lovely. There's a big paved square in front of the mosque, with lots of people selling food, candy floss for the children and tacky souvenirs.
I walked back along the Golden Horn to the centre of Istanbul, a distance of about 6km. Almost back at my hotel I was waylaid by a nice Australian lady who mistook me for someone she knew, then invited my back to her shop for tea, where lo and behold, it was a carpet shop! I didn't mind. I intended to buy a carpet for our sitting room. They had just the thing I wanted, but were asking a huge price. Since I hadn't gone into the shop intending to buy a carpet, I really wasn't that interested, so the salesman dropped the price down to something I could afford. I ended up with what I thought was a bargain, and he no doubt made a profit, so everyone was happy.
Back at the hotel, I packed up all my purchases – luckily my half empty suitcase had room for a small folded carpet in it. That evening, I had one final delicious Turkish meal.
After breakfast, I said goodbye to the cats – did I mention the cats? No? Istanbul is full of them, and they are all very friendly. In other cities I've been to, cats would hiss at me or run when I called them. Here, they all come and expect to be stroked. It may be a Turkish thing, but everybody loves cats. My hotel had three, that would wander around the breakfast room, without intruding.
I decided not to pay for the bus to the airport but instead took the tram, changing to the metro. It was very simple – the only difficult bit was getting my suitcase through the barrier at the tramstop. But this being Turkey, people are very helpful. As it happened I was able to lift it over, but someone would have helped me if I had problems.
The only odd thing about Istanbul airport is that you have to put all your luggage through a security scan as you enter the airport. This can take a little while. Once in, everything is as you would expect in any airport. I had an uneventful flight and was at home in my kitchen drinking coffee by 5pm.
A most enjoyable experience.