Published: May 20th 2012April 7th 2012
Ground Floor, Aya Sofya
The inside of the Aya Sofya had an awesome historic and spiritual atmosphere that felt really cool.
Istanbul has been near the top of my to-go list for as long as I can remember.
A vibrant melting pot spiced with a unique, exotic blend of European style, Islamic sensibility, and local passion, infused with a rich history and served on a plate that covers two continents - the evocative metropolis that is Istanbul would entice any visitor to an intriguing experience upon its shores.
The shores that I promised I'd be visiting next in my last memoir were Norwegian ones and indeed I have reneged upon that promise once again.
As a result of policy failure and a general lack of efficiency at the UK Home Office, a postponement of my weekend in Bergen was forced since Kiwis of the Sag variety can't fly, and they definitely can't do so without a passport.
Not content with depriving me of friends for one holiday, the Home Office weren't finished there. My good friend Kelley - who you may remember from previous visits to Krakow
- had his passport with the Home Office as well and with less than twenty-four hours before we were due to fly out to Istanbul, there was no sign of its
I didn't think it looked particularly nice on the outside but as one of the most famous sights of the world it is majestic nonetheless.
imminent arrival and thus we were one man down before we had even started.
Pre-holiday friend-deprivation was soon joined by pre-holiday sleep-deprivation. Despite only having a three-day week, a lack of bodies and too much work meant I pretty much did a whole weeks work in those three days and I was kept at the office late enough that I had to take a rare trip home on a London night bus while sober, the night before I flew out to Istanbul. I hadn't even packed yet.
After meeting Claire (of Greek
fame) at Stansted Airport the next morning, the only thing that kept me awake on our Pegasus Airlines flight to Istanbul was the heat. That cabin was boiling for some reason.
Touching down at Istanbul's Sabiha Gokcen Airport, I finally appreciated where I was as our bus into town passed the bright lights on the Asian side of of the city before crossing the Bosphorus Bridge.
With a population of over 13 million, hustle and bustle is inevitable in Istanbul and our first experience of the famed crowd chaos came as soon as we hopped off the bus in Taksim Square. Even as
Even cisterns back in those days had to be constructed in style, as the rows of Ionian and Corinthian columns attest to.
Londoners, we found it a little unsettling.
This had absolutely nothing however, on Istiklal Caddesi, the main street running through Beyoglu, the more 'modern' area of Istanbul where our hostel was located. Three kilometres long, this pedestrian promenade seemed to go on forever. Flanked by shops of all the usual shopping brands, it seemed that every single square metre of this street was occupied by a person. To give you an idea, Istiklal Caddesi can see just under 3 million visitors in a single day - just under a quarter of the city's population.
Speaking of the local population, I notice that Turks come in many aesthetic varieties. You have your 'normal' dark-haired, dark complexion, brown-eyed, Middle-Eastern-looking Turks, yet you also have locals who look completely European, some going as far as having fair skin, blonde hair and blue eyes. You also have any number of combinations in between.
Our hostel is on a dodgy-looking pedestrian street of strip joints parallel to Istiklal Caddesi and the the Liberta Hostel is clean and basic. The hostel workers aren't particularly helpful when it comes to suggestions although their groupies who hang out in the lounge are friendly enough.
Claire and I
We all took ridiculous amounts of photos of this.
end up having dinner at a cheap and cheerful place a few doors down from the hostel that seemed to be popular with locals. I order the house special which is a large
mixed grill including a grilled mincemeat sausage inside an aubergine. I order a "buttermilk" to drink, which comes out in a copper bowl and a huge copper ladel. The buttermilk itself is in fact ayran
, a yoghurt drink that is delicious.
The mixed grill is absolutely massive. Claire challenges me to finish it. Silly girl. There is absolutely nothing left on the plate in the end. Best meal I had in Istanbul.
While Kelley was stuck in London, his now-fiancée Penelope and her sister Rebecca were not, so for the next few days it would be me and three girls. Claire and I were asleep when Penelope and Rebecca arrived on their later flight, so we saw them for the first time the next morning before we set out for Sultanahmet, Istanbul's historic quarter with all the sights.
The truly great sights of the world induce a gasp of awe upon seeing them, but the Aya Sofya really only did this in terms of fame and
This one is at the end of the bridge and is a bit bigger than most of the other mosques. Otherwise it looks like any other mosque in the city bar the Blue Mosque.
size, as the from the outside, it merely appears as a weathered mish-mash of different buildings.
The same can't be said of the Blue Mosque, standing majestically just a few hundred metres away. You can see the Blue Mosque from just about anywhere in the immediate area and each location seemed to produce a new angle with which to photograph what became the most-photographed sight of the trip.
The queue for the Aya Sofya was as awe-inspiring as the sight itself so we decided to visit the nearby Basilica Cisterns first.
The cistern is a massive underground structure that stored water for the Great Palace of Constantinople as well as Topkapi Palace, which we would later visit. The cistern was built in place of a basilica that once stood in the same location. The temperature is cool down there and the eerie lighting of the place is accompanied by a haunting soundtrack that echoes through the cistern.
After lunch at a rooftop restaurant that overlooked the Aya Sofya (where a misunderstanding with the waiter caused him to accuse us of thinking he was 'stupid' (he actually was stupid, although my baked meatballs with aubergine, tomatoes and cheese was delicious
Inside The Aya Sofya
More impressive inside than out in my humble opinion.
and didn't appear to have been laced with spit) the queue had shortened enough to allow us inside to visit the place.
If the outside of the Aya Sofya didn't overly impress me, the inside of it certainly did. Originally built as a cathedral, it was used as a Greek Orthodox basilica (apart from about 60 years when it was used as a Roman Catholic cathedral) for most of its life before becoming a mosque when Istanbul (then called Constantinople) became part of the Ottoman Empire.
I'll let the pictures do the talking, although I will say that the size, detail and atmosphere of the place were the things that really registered. You could really feel that this was a place of significant history and deep spiritualness.
It was a Friday, which meant that there were more prayer sessions at the Blue Mosque than normal, which meant more closures to non-Muslim visitors than normal. Add to the fact that the warm weather meant that I was wearing shorts - attire not suitable for such a holy place - we decided we would come back to the Blue Mosque tomorrow. Heading to the Grand Bazaar instead, we pass a large square,
The old chariot racing stadium is long gone and in its place is a large rectangular square, the old track now a road running around the outside of it. The obelisk is a remaining artefact from the original stadium.
more like a rectangle, on which once stood the old Hippodrome of Constantinople, used back in the day for horse and chariot racing.
One of the oldest and largest covered markets in the world, the Grand Bazaar has 61 covered streets and over 3,000 shops selling mostly clothes, lanterns, leather and carpets.
Feeling like a cleaner, more modern version of Marrakech's medina
, thankfully the Turkish merchants weren't as pushy or persistent as the Moroccan ones, although I was still pretty annoyed at the shouts directed at myself, Penelope and Rebecca of "Hey China!", "Japan?" and "Korea?"
The merchants are however, a lot more relaxed here and aren't as desperate to sell to you as they were in Morocco. Perhaps because they are better off here in Turkey. Some will in fact follow the old tradition of inviting you to sit for a cup of tea or Turkish coffee (which is amazing by the way) to talk about a potential sale. There is even a tea-man for each area of the bazaar, who hurriedly serves and takes orders from all the merchants. No-one tries to put any pressure on you to buy anything. There are several different sections within the
The bazaar was established as a textile trading centre, not long after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople.
bazaar, including a nicely renovated section for all the jewellers.
Exiting the bazaar, we seem to lose all the tourists and are surrounded by hardware stores, and quite bizarrely, shops selling nothing but clothing buttons. Rebecca is of a creative bent and was having multiple orgasms as she encountered shop after shop selling all kinds of buttons. She eventually managed to buy some without having to buy a whole bag - these button-traders are all wholesalers by the looks of things.
We then tried to make our way to the nearby Spice Bazaar, with 'tried' being the operative word.
We know that the Spice Bazaar is near the Galata Bridge, so seeing water, we naturally walk towards it. We ascertain that we can't be too far away from the water so we are surprised that after every turn north, we don't see water, but rather more and more shops selling clothes, mainly of the kid and baby variety. Worryingly, the tourists have all but disappeared and you know you must be going in the wrong direction if you've lost all the tourists. We try using mosques as landmarks, which was a fruitless exercise since every mosque in Istanbul apart
Looking across the Golden Horn towards Beyoglu and the Galata Tower.
from the Blue Mosque seemed identical in size and look.
With three foreign girls who stick out like sore thumbs and locals are giving us weird looks, the area is getting sketchier and I start to worry a little. To hell with the Spice Bazaar, we just need to get out of here. After about an hour spent hopelessly lost, we eventually make it to the water which we walk along back to the Galata Bridge. Or so we thought.
The sun was setting, so if we were walking west towards the Galata Bridge, then in theory the sun should be in front of us. The sun was actually behind
us. We should be able to see Beyoglu on our right as well - but there was nothing on our right but sea. Consulting the map, we work out that we had somehow ended up on the other side of the peninsula - it would be hours before we reached the Galata Bridge. Not all was lost however - we would eventually get to a shortcut road which would take us back to the Aya Sofya. Let's say that I was happier to see the Aya Sofya and tourists that
The heart of Beyoglu, or "new Istanbul".
evening then I did that morning.
We sit down at a Cappadocian restaurant where we are seated cross-legged on some cushions, traditional-stylee. While the food is OK (the Bosphorus sea bream was OK) it was the Turkish delight shops on the way back to Beyoglu that were outstanding. Who knew that Turkish delight came in so many varieties? Some had pistachios, some had walnuts, others had peanuts. There were some that were more like marshmallow and some that came dusted in dessicated coconut rather than icing sugar, not to mentioned the myriad of flavours and colours available. The best one I had was a raspberry number that was stuffed with pistachios.
As we would be departing super-early on Sunday morning for Gallipoli, tonight would be our only real shot at a night out, perhaps for the whole trip. However, having walked half of Istanbul today, the girls weren't having any of it. Istanbul's famous nightlife will have to be set aside for another trip...
Our first stop the next morning was the opulent Dolmabahce Palace which housed the ruling Sultan and served as the administrative centre for the Ottoman Empire between 1856, and the fall of the empire
Gate Of The Sultan, Dolmabahce Palace
Main gate into the grounds of Dolmabahce Palace.
Again we were battling queues and we must've have queued for about an hour in total, which when you are on a tight schedule, is rather annoying. After being issued with compulsory pink plastic shoe covers for our feet, our compulsory guided tour of the palace begins - no photos allowed.
Firstly we are lead through the second-most impressive area of the palace, the Crystal Staircase. Lined with fine red Turkish carpets and built with brass and mahogany, the feature of the staircase is the crystal chandelier made of English crystal that hangs from the glass roof. Passing through the many reception halls in the palace it became apparent how much of the furniture that existed in the palace would hardly ever have been used. We then come to Ataturk's bedroom where the clock is fixed to 9:05am - the exact time Ataturk died in the very bed we were looking at. For a head of state, Ataturk's bedroom is very modest. I generally like touring palaces - simply as a way of vicariously living like the 0.001% of the population that actually do live in palaces.
The most impressive room of the whole palace is the grand
Grand Ceremonial Hall, Dolmabahce Palace
Couldn't take any photos of the palace's interior but outside is almost just as impressive.
ceremonial hall which looks like the inside of a basilica, with a 36m-high dome and several detailed frescoes. Hanging from the top of the dome is the largest crystal chandelier in the world, with 750 lamps and weighing in at 4.5 tonnes. The chandelier was a gift from Queen Victoria.
The tour was now over and we were free to wander around the palace grounds which weren't overly impressive apart from the garden and fountain in the palace's forecourt.
Next on the list today was Topkapi Palace, where the sultans and their administration function lived before moving to Dolmabahce Palace.
The Topkapi Palace complex can be roughly divided into four main courtyards, the first and largest in which we again battled queues under the hot sun.
Like the first courtyard, the second is also pretty much a park albeit better maintained as a formal reception area. The imperial kitchens, arsenal, stables and the The Tower Of Justice are also located in the second courtyard.
The third courtyard is a well-kept garden surrounded by pavilions that included a ceremonial hall, the treasury, galleries and living quarters. The third courtyard also contains an Islamic museum whose exhibits include actual beard hairs
Terrace View, Topkapi Palace
Upper terrace with kiosks and pavilions looking over Istanbul in the fourth and innermost courtyard in Topkapi Palace.
of the Prophet Muhammad.
The fourth courtyard was the most private part of the palace where the sultan and his family hung out. It was probably the most impressive of the courtyards with several pavilions (including the rather disconcerting "circumcision room") and kiosks
as well as great views over the city and the Bosphorus, which we enjoyed over an ice cream and a Turkish coffee at the palace's cafe.
I have to say we weren't as impressed by Topkapi Palace, mainly because it is older and also because we had also just seen the opulence of Dolmabahce Palace that morning.
Where the Aya Sofya looked better on the inside than the outside, the opposite applied to the Blue Mosque when we finally managed to get in there. While still impressive in scale, it didn't quite have the same atmosphere inside as the Aya Sofya did. Although intricate, there wasn't a lot of variety in terms of wall decorations. As you have to remove your shoes before going inside, the place also reeked of toejam. We didn't linger long.
Second-time lucky, we finally made it into the spice bazaar which was heaving with people. Nothing overly interesting in here,
Fish Sandwich Boat
Where they catch 'em, grill 'em and sell 'em for five lira a sandwich. Awesome value.
just lots of shops selling lots of spices. The girls almost end up buying some crockery.
On the way back to the hostel, we come across these boats on the water right next to the Galata Bridge selling fish sandwiches. These guys are grilling hundreds of fish, before shoving them in half a baguette with some lettuce and chucking them onto the shore where a guy hands them out for 5 Turkish Lira (1TRY = 0.34GBP) a pop to the waiting hordes, who then grab a stool under a large marquee to eat them. The whole thing is rather efficient and kudos must go to the fish grillers on the boat, as that boat was rocking and it would've been hard keeping your balance let alone having to make hundreds of sandwiches while doing so.
The sandwiches were pretty good and pretty good value, so much so that I smashed two of them.
With a 5am start the next day, we headed back to the hostel for an early night after dinner but not before Rebecca had a jandal blowout on the home stretch, meaning we had to make an unscheduled pit stop at Accessorise to replace them.
Sea Entrance To Dolmabahce Palace
With a stunning view of the Bosphorus.
With the number of stray dogs that running around Istanbul, you probably want to avoid going barefoot here. Istiklal Caddesi is probably the worst place you could possibly have a blowout too, even if it is the equivalent of popping a tyre in the pit lane.
I would have to say that Istanbul is definitely the most liberal and most 'European' Muslim city that I have visited. This Euro-Muslim clash results in a unique, cosmopolitan vibe and the place has a lot of energy. I really like the place as a city.
The rich and fascinating history of the place also makes it one of the more intriguing cities I have visited too. Awesome place, definitely recommended.
Tomorrow, we will be learning the history of a place close to the heart of New Zealanders - Gallipoli.
There are more photos below