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Published: June 25th 2008
Aya Sofia, Istanbul
The first and most famous point of interest on every tourist's visit to Istanbul. We were lucky to be there in glorious spring weather.
After a tough transit from Marrakech, we were in a state of somewhat exhausted excitement when the cross-Bosphorus ferry finally cruised into the Golden Horn and deposited us, our bikes, and a boatload of fellow commuters on the quay at Eminonu. Our initial impression of Istanbul, formed by the shifting views of the hilly skyline seen from the ferry and solidified by the sheer mass of humanity we encountered on the pier, was of a modern metropolis combining the character and geography of San Francisco with the intensity and scale of New York, and punctuated with a profusion of eye-grabbing landmarks unmatched by any other city.
It was immediately apparent that Istanbul was going to be a very challenging place to manouever on bicycles, as we pushed them along the docks through the late afternoon throngs and tried to cross the waterfront expressway to get headed in the direction of the cluster of guesthouses shown on the Lonely Planet's Sultanamet map. (We eventually discovered that the shortest bike route across the old city was around
the city, on the wide pedestrian/bike path that edges the Bosphorus below Sultanhamet from the Eminonu to Marmaris ferry piers.)
After checking out a
Bophorus ferries at the Eminonu docks, Istanbul
The ferry action is non-stop along Istanbul's busy waterfront.
couple of cramped and expensive backpacker-style places that would require hauling the bikes up multiple flights of stairs, we bailed on the Sultanamet neighborhood altogether. Instead, we shifted to a cheaper district close to the Grand Bazaar and checked into the Hotel Inter, a place that had been highly recommended by our friends Hassan and Malin in Marrakech. A rather characterless place that seemed to cater mostly to the beefy-looking Turkish and Russian businessmen who sat in the lobby chain-smoking and drinking beer, Hotel Inter nevertheless featured a generous Turkish breakfast buffet and good WiFi coverage on every floor, and our comfortable 45 euro room made it a decent base of operations for a week's interlude in Istanbul.
The first items on our agenda were to acquire the best possible Turkish roadmaps - I had tried but failed to find digital GPS maps of Turkey compatible with my Windoze Mobile device. We started at Taksim Square and worked our way down to the many bookstores along Istaklal Caddesi, Istanbul's famous pedestrian-only shopping street, where we were overwhelmed by the crush of Saturday afternoon strollers and where I survived yet another unsuccessful pickpocketing attempt (they went for the wrong zipper
Saturday throngs on Istiklal Caddesi, Istanbul
Istanbul's favorite shopping street is home to great cafes, boutiques, bookstores, art galleries and, unfortunately, pickpockets...
on my fanny pack.)
After our great Michellin map of Morocco I had hoped to find Michellin coverage of Turkey as well, but had no luck after combing many bookstores. I rejected the otherwise excellent "Köy Köy" ("village to village") bound road atlas recommended by the LP as too bulky and expensive and eventually settled for a tourist-oriented folding roadmap. While in the bookstores we also looked for Turkish phrasebooks, and not being able to choose between the Lonely Planet and Rough Guide editions we employed our typical method of compromise and bought both (his and hers).
Kate then found the great Pedal Sportif
bike shop in Eminonu mentioned in the Lonely Planet. Bulent Birson, the very helpful proprietor, adjusted my headset and straightened Kate's rear dropout, both of which had come through the EasyJet experience a bit worse for wear. He assured us he was used to providing support to foreign bicycle tourists and urged us to email or call him in case of any future mechanical problems from wherever we were in Turkey - it was nice to know we had a "bike angel" out there in case we should ever need one.
We also put
Kate brunching at the Four Seasons, Istanbul
Our friend Ron treated us to the most elegant and elaborate brunch we've ever had, served in the hotels beautiful gardens in the shadow of the Blue Mosque.
in a call to a family friend from America, the irrepressible Ron Gamba, who has lived in Istanbul for the last 5 years. Ron immediately swept us up into his orbit by taking us to dinner at the uber-hip 360 Restaurant
in Istiklal, where his status as some sort of VIP rated us the best table in the house, with panoramic views of Beyoglu and the Bosphorus from the roof-top dining room. The next week he solidified his reputation as a host non-pariel
at a mixed party of tourists, expats and Istanbulu friends that he gathered together for the extravagant brunch served Sunday mornings in the garden of the Four Seasons Hotel in Sultanhamet, in the shadow of the Blue Mosque. After that, we made sure Ron's number was entered prominently in our speed-dial list.
In a couple of focussed days our travel errands had been accomplished and we were able to shift back into tourist-mode, working our way down the long list of Istanbul's "must-see" landmarks and activities. We were fortunate to have arrived during Istanbul's recently-inaugurated Tulip Festival, with vast plantings of bulbs blooming all over the city in response to the excellent Spring weather and perfectly timed
Tulips near Topkapi Palace, Istanbul
We were fortunate to arrive in Istanbul during the week of the annual tulip festival.
for the week of cultural festivities and music.
First on most tourist agendas, and ours was no different, was a visit to Aya Sofia, the vast Byzantine church orignally built by Justinian in 537, re-purposed as a mosque in 1453 by the Ottomans, then rechristened as a secular exhibit of the nation's heritage by Ataturk in 1935. We spent a couple of hours wandering through it and perusing the historical exhibits (pleased to confirm that, in Turkey, English seems to be the 2nd language in multi-lingual presentations.) We marvelled that the enormous dome that covers the main sanctuary could have been engineered 1500 years ago, on the cusp of Europe's "dark ages."
We walked from Aya Sofia past the fountains and tulip beds in Sultanhamet Park to visit the Blue Mosque, purpose-built by the Ottomans as a mosque nearly a thousand years after Aya Sofia but remarkably similar in its overall scale and profile. We were surprised to find that, unlike most places in Morocco, non-Muslims are allowed into the interior of Turkish mosques (excepting prayer times), so we doffed our shoes and donned paper booties - plus a headscarf for Kate - to walk through the cavernous
Blue Mosque, Istanbul
View of the stacked vaults, arches and domes of this 17th century construction as seen from its courtyard.
prayer hall surmounted by its own elaborately domed ceiling. Almost more impressive than the interior, however, was the vast courtyard where worshippers perform their pre-prayer ablutions and where the mosque's structure of stacked vaults and domes can be appreciated up-close.
From Aya Sofia and the Blue Mosque we ventured across the street and then underground to visit the vast Basilica Cistern, built by Byzantine emperor Justinian in 532 to store the city's water, but forgotten until its rediscovery a thousand years later. The columns and capitals of the 336 stone piers that support the 20-foot ceilings of this 2 acre tank are in a mishmash of styles - including a couple of inexplicablly inverted Medusa's heads - having mostly been reused from previous edifices. We agreed that kayaking around in the cistern's theatrically-lit semi-darkness would have been the coolest way to explore this spooky site, but we had to be content with walking the circuit of pedestrian platforms raised above the waterline. (We also had to be tolerant of the tour groups of shrieking schoolkids who seemed to think that Justinian created this mammoth echo chamber expressly for them.)
Also in Sultanhamet, we spent most of a day
Basilica Cistern, Istanbul
No one really knows how an upside-down capital with a Medusa's head came to be reused as a column support in this cavernous Byzantine water tank.
touring sprawling Topkapi Palace, the tiled and gilded royal residence set in vast manicured grounds - and perched on prime real estate overlooking the Bosphorus and Golden Horn - that was home to a succession of Ottoman sultans from 1453 until 1839. Besides housing the sultan's harem and serving as the administrative nerve center of the empire, Topkapi was, and still is, the repository for a collection of Islamic relics that were entrusted to the care of the sultan in his capacity as caliph. (Among other things, we saw whiskers from the Prophet's beard and, inexplicably, the silver-encased remains of the hand of St. John the Baptist.) Especially engaging was the exhibit of royal jewels and precious artifacts that comprised the core of the sultan's personal wealth - that is, until Ataturk evicted the last sultan, Mehmet IV in 1935 and sent him into exile, nationalizing the sultanate's assets in the process.
Not yet "palaced out", we also walked across the Galata bridge to see the Dolmabahce Palace, an opulent, Versailles-like waterfront residence built in baroque and neoclassical style by Sultan Abdul Mecit in 1856 - a period when his desire to ape European conventions coincided with an extravagant
Main gate, Topkapi Palace, Istanbul
Hidden behind these gates was the oppulent harem of the sultans and the nerve-center of the Ottoman Empire for 400 years.
ignorance of his empire's advanced state of decay. The guided tour, while somewhat rushed, gave us glimpses of the ornate ceremonial suites and wound up in the cavernous royal reception hall where the sultan, ensconced on his throne, periodically received members of the public. This hall was also where Ataturk - Dolmabahce's last resident - lay in state after his death in 1938 (we passed a number of clocks in the palace, all frozen at 9:05, the time of his death.) We also caught the changing of the Dolmabahce guard, a Buckingham-ish affair still carried on with a troop of imperturbable, stone-faced soldiers in polished chromed helmets.
While on that side of town, we made a stop at Istanbul's new Modern Art Museum, spectacularly sited on the Bosphorus at the water's edge and housed - au courant with contemporary art fashion - in a repurposed industrial building. Another day we chanced across a photo exhibit at the Yapi Kredi gallery in Istaklal by Pina Yolacan
, a young Turkish phenom (US educated, naturally) who showed large-format portraits of poor Brazilian women wearing elegant garments fabricated from fresh tripe and other offal purchased from Sao Paulo butcher shops - simultaneously gorgeous and
Ottoman Mansion, Buyukada, Prince's Island
The elite of Ottoman society escaped the summer heat of Istanbul by retreating across the Sea of Marmara to these "summer cottages" in the Prince's Islands.
For a break from the city, we put our bikes on the ferry to Buyukada, the largest of the Prince's Islands and about an hour across the Sea of Marmara from the Bosphorus docks at Besiktas. For generations the Prince's Islands have been a summer escape for Istanbulus, cool green havens adorned with grand Ottoman-style wooden mansions perched on the islands steep slopes. Like the locals do, we had a delicious al fresco lunch of fresh fish at one of Buyukada's many waterfront restaurants, featuring elegant service and brilliant views of the Istanbul skyline across the bay. Then we took off on our bikes for a hour's circumlocution of the island, constantly dodging parties of day-trippers being propelled at a swift clip along the shoreline by the island's extensive fleet of horse-drawn carriages (the islands are off-limits to private vehicles, a la Michigan's Mackinac).
We also took a couple of opportunities to explore the Bosphorus north of old Istanbul. On one day we took an excursion ferry from Eminonu that cruised the entire 32km length of the straits up to the village of Anadolu Kavagi, on the Asian side of the Bosphorus at the mouth of the
Supertanker at the Black sea entry to the Bosphorus
Although we couldn't see the far Russian shores, we could certainly see lots of tankers carrying Russian oil queued up in the Black Sea to bring their cargo down the Bosphorus.
Black Sea. We climbed the hill above the old Byzantine fortress that guards the straits and were rewarded with views of the Black Sea that, if not quite reaching the distant shores of Russia, clearly revealed queues of supertankers bringing Russian oil down the straits on their way to the world's petroleum markets. On another sunny Sunday morning we rode the bus up the Bosphorus to the remains of Rumeli Castle, built by Sultan Mehmet the Conquerer in 1452 as a staging ground for his (successful) siege of Byzantine Constantinople. The castle's towers and walls, built high along the steep embankments of the straits - and now shadowed by the magnificent cross-Bosphorus Fatih suspension bridge - form an M.C. Escher-like maze of stone stairways and parapets that enclose a modern amphitheater and a rambling garden, blooming during our visit with the brilliant pink flowers of redbud trees.
On one of our last nights out, we showed up at one of the reverberant old waiting rooms of the Sirkeci train station to see a sema
ceremony of religious music and dance performed by devotees of the Mevlevi Sufi order, or "whirling dervishes". These dervishes, dressed in the long robes and
Rumeli Castle, Istanbul
Built as a base for the succesful 15th century Ottoman siege of Constantinople, the ruins make a great vantage point for views of the Bosphorus and Fatih Bridge.
tall hats representing tombs and headstones (signifying the death of the mortal body) truly did whirl around in a series of spinning dances intended to provoke bodily dissociation and induce an ecstatic trance in the dancer. Though the presence of the packed crowd of unsophisticated tourists pointedly ignoring the "No Flash" signs detracted from the performance, the atmospheric environment, hypnotic music, and the dancer's obvious absorption in the ritual made this a memorable and quintisessentally Turkish experience.
The strategy for resuming the actual "biking portion" of our bike tour was to shortcut our way out of Istanbul's urban sprawl by ferry, crossing the Sea of Marmara to the town of Bandirma, 170 km from Istanbul by highway but only 90 minutes by the fast catamaran service. From there we'd cycle along the Dardanelles straits, past the Gallipoli peninsula and continue down the crennulated coastline of the northern Aegean. So on our last morning in Istanbul we rose early, packed up our bikes and coasted down the hill from the Hotel Inter to the Yenikapi ferry terminal. Having bought our 25 lira tickets the previous day, we paid only a 5 lira premium to get our bikes on the passenger-only
Whirling dervish, Istanbul
These devotees of the Mevlevi sect of Islam performed their whirling sema ceremony in the modern-day venue of Istanbul's atmospheric Sirkeci train station.
ferry, pushing them across the gangplank and bungying them securely at the stern. In just a few minutes we were watching Istanbul's famous landmarks receding beyond the ferry's powerful wake, with that now familiar-feeling of nostalgia at leaving our temporary home mixed with excitement and a slight trepidation of the unknown challenges ahead of us...
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