Roaming Byzantine: Istanbul (not Constantinople…)

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Middle East » Turkey » Marmara » Istanbul
December 30th 2008
Published: February 14th 2009
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Our flight from Amman arrives into Istanbul airport without fuss, and despite the snow (which we weren’t expecting) we jump on the tram and head for the backpackers. Istanbul clearly needs a metro or heavy rail system because we’ve never experienced a more sardine experience like this tram ride - at one point with all the pushing and shoving to get on and off, a fight almost breaks out! It’s quite a contrast to calm Jordan where we’ve spent the last 8 days, although we are just a little surprised at how ‘normal’ Turkey already feels.

The tram eventually pulls into Sultanahmet - our stop, right in the middle of Istanbul’s old town. Walking through the snow we head past the Blue Mosque and Aya Sophia and down a couple of side streets to the backpackers. We can’t quite check in yet so we dump our backpacks and head back out for some breakfast.

We find a cosy warm café, and even though the food is average and the coffee terrible, it gets us out of the cold and lets us plan our morning. We’re not allowed into our room until 1pm so we’ve got a couple of hours to kill before we can catch up on the sleep we missed on our early morning flight. Seeing as it’s not far away, the consensus is that our first port of call should be the Blue Mosque.

Back out in the snow we join the busloads of tourists on organised tours and make our way up to the Blue Mosque. The first thing that’s rather obvious is that it’s not very blue - in fact it’s decidedly grey! We’re still chuckling about this when we take our shoes off and step inside. Ahhh….the reason why it’s the blue mosque is because its blue on the inside…

We spend a good half an hour wandering about the vast interior, admiring the ornate patterns of shapes and colours that cover the walls and ceiling (most of which are blue). For Lachlan and Ariana it's a first for us - we’ve been to churches, Shinto shrines, Buddhist and Hindi Temples and Synagogues, but this is the first Mosque that we’ve been inside - and it is impressive!

Time’s getting on so we summon our courage and duck back outside. From the Blue Mosque we head off to find a good
Blue Mosque  Blue Mosque  Blue Mosque

Grey on the outside, blue(ish) on the inside...
restaurant to grab an early lunch. Just yesterday Ariana had read us a quote about Turkish coffee being hot as hell, black as death and sweet as love, so we can’t resist and each order one. When they arrive at the end of the meal our coffees are certainly black, hot, a little bit sweet, and we must admit that we’re almost instantly fans of Turkish coffee.

It’s now just after 1pm so we pay our bill and head back to the Backpackers where we check in, and crash out.

When we wake up, things have warmed up a little bit, the snow’s stopped, and with an extra couple of layers on (it’s hard to imagine that we were lazing around on a Dead Sea beach at this time yesterday) we head off for our first experience of Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar.

Entering into the massive sprawling indoor market place, we weigh up our options. So which way do we go? Let’s try a left. We pass two stalls before Sally’s souvenir shopping bug takes over:

“How much for this?”
“20 Lira”.
“How much for three?”
“50 Lira”
“Will you take 25?”
“No. 45 Lira”

Cool cafeCool cafeCool cafe

Grand Bazaar
so it goes on. But Sal’s not convinced, so we mark the stall on our guidebook’s Grand Bazaar map and move on. Three stalls up, the process starts again. Still not convinced this stall is also marked on our map and, again, we move on. Somewhere towards the middle of the bazaar we get a good deal on some crockery and decide that all this shopping is hard work. We need a break.

Just a bit further on, on the edge of the “Old Bazaar”, we find a rather stylish café, pull up a seat and order another round of Turkish coffees (yep - we’re hooked). Just as we finish off our drinks the stalls around us begin to pull down their shutters so we head back out to the street then off towards the backpackers. Along our way home we find a modern Turkish restaurant with a good deal on its set menu. The food is really tasty - all three of us end up with at least one dish with eggplant and one with lamb and accompanied by some good Turkish wine (we never knew…) it’s a great end to our first day in Istanbul.

On Tuesday morning we get out of bed early, firm in the belief that we’re going to get to the Aya Sophia before the tour buses. With a little sprint to the ticket booth we manoeuvre ourselves ahead of two tour groups and with no line for tickets we’re soon walking through a massive doorway into the grand ancient building.

Aya Sophia was built during around 530 AD as a Byzantine Church. However, unlike most of the Byzantine cities that we saw in Jordan who were taken over by Arabs in the 8th Century, Constantinople, with her massive city walls was impenetrable and for nearly 1000 years Aya Sophia was the biggest church in the Christian world.

But when the city was breached properly for the second time (the first time was by Western European Crusaders on their way to the Holy Land) the conquering Ottoman Turks had Aya Sophia converted to a Mosque. It stayed this way for 480 years before Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, had it converted to a museum following the end of WWI.

We must say it’s absolutely massive - even for a museum. For height this could easily be the tallest
Aya SophiaAya SophiaAya Sophia

For nearly 1000 years the largest church in the world
interior space that we’ve ever been in. The walls are covered in fabulous Islamic patterns and colours, all except a far-flung corner of the ground level where we stumble across a pair of Christian crosses that hadn’t been re-decorated. Even 480 years wasn’t long enough to repaint it, it seems.

We take our time wandering around the vast interior, with Sally giving the guidebook’s explanations of the history of the various rooms and paintings. It’s such a relaxing pace to explore and we make sure that we cast our eyes over every inch of each floor of this fantastic building before concluding that it’s ‘done’.

We obviously spent a fair while in the Aya Sophia because by the time we make it across the road to the Basilica Cistern we’re again mixing it with the organised bus tours.

Eventually we collect tickets and head down the staircase into the underground water reservoir that is the Basilica Cistern. Once inside we stroll along the boardwalks, avoiding the constant dripping water that is falling from overhead, and admire the cistern’s solid Roman construction. In one corner we find a pair of Medusa heads carved into the base of the
Basilica CisternBasilica CisternBasilica Cistern

Built by Romans to ensure that Constantinople had enough fresh water to last out a siege.
pillars, which serve as a reminder of how old this glorified water tank really is.

On our way out, we spot a café just next to the stairs leading to street level and we can’t resist enjoying our first Turkish coffee of the day inside such an historic, and unusual place.

Back above ground our next plan is to check out some more modern aspects of Turkish culture, so we jump on a tram headed for Istanbul’s Spice Bazaar.

It should be straight forward - we’re supposed to be able to jump off the tram, go straight and then there it is - but no. We’re lost. It’s pouring rain and we’re walking around tiny little backstreets trying to find the spice bazaar. Eventually we spot a little neon sign hanging over a grimy archway and we figure that we’ve recovered. All is not lost.

Out of the rain we gladly waltz into the covered bazaar and are impressed to find shop after shop selling all sorts of spices, teas, coffee, dried herbs, herbal remedies, and our favourite - Turkish Delight! Wow!

By the time we reach the centre of the bazaar we’re feeling a bit like Augustus Gloop and Verruca Salt in Wonkerland so we step out of the crowds and order three of those, three of those, three of those…. and oh, three more of those. Now armed with a bag of every sort of Turkish Delight imaginable we wander about the rest of the market place checking out the various sights, smells and tastes that are on offer.

Still keen for more shopping, we make a beeline from the Spice to the Grand Bazaar. It’s a fascinating walk that takes us through busy narrow backstreets filled with locals and there’s not another tourist in sight. In some ways it feels like we’ve stepped back in time by 100 years.

As usual we get lost (‘I told you we should’ve gone right back there’) but with some advice from some friendly local shopkeepers we sort ourselves out and soon enough end up arriving at our intended destination.

The areas of the Grand Bazaar are broken down into different goods - there’s the antique section, the crockery section, the shoe section, the leather section, and so on. We’ve only just entered, just near the carpet section, when a stall catches Sal’s
Exotic flavoursExotic flavoursExotic flavours

Spice Bazaar
eye. Next thing we know we’re seated inside, a glass of delicious sweet apple tea in each of our hands, and Sal’s casting her eye over some of the most beautiful hand made Turkish rugs we’ve seen.

The process takes some time, first Sal decides what sort of rug (carpet, silk carpet, flat woven rug), then a size of rug, before getting down to the business of colours, and price. The final choice comes down to two, and not being able to split them, Sal takes both.

The two rugs are folded up into a neat little polythene bag (carry on luggage size), we thank the stall owner, and we’re off. To us, the little bag that Sal’s rugs came in looks fairly unremarkable however to every other carpet seller between the centre of the Grand Bazaar and the backpackers, that little black bag clearly says something else. All of them stare and most of them try to convince us to look in their store (some are even quite aggressive about it). The unwanted attention makes us feel a little uneasy and it is a relief to the get the little black bag inside a locker back in our room.

Now we can relax - after all it’s New Year’s Eve!

To start the celebrations, the Backpackers have organised dinner, drinks, and a belly dancer to keep us entertained until midnight. For the countdown we head to the roof top terrace on watch the spires of the Blue Mosque and the natural harbour of the Golden Horn lit up by fireworks.

Following the fireworks those who want to, load into two minibuses for a trip out the nightclubs. We end up in one of the busses with a group of very drunk Spaniards singing their third division football team’s song at the top of their lungs the whole way. It’s a lot of fun, especially joining in (and starting them up again once they stopped). Once we eventually do make it out we hang around to watch a cover band play a couple of sets at a heavy rock type club before we call it a night. Happy New Year!

One of the cool things about Istanbul, and one of the reasons that we wanted to visit, is that it’s a city that spans two continents. Apparently nearly six million inhabitants live in Europe
Waterfront MosqueWaterfront MosqueWaterfront Mosque

On the Asian side of the Bosphorus
and eight million in Asia. To get a feel for this, our plan for New Years Day is to see the continental divide, the Bosphorus strait - by boat!

Leaving out of Istanbul’s Golden Horn estuary we head east around the headland into the Bosphorus. The skyline behind us is littered with the towers and spires of many of Istanbul’s grand mosques and in front us it seems that every inch of space along the shoreline and every bridge is taken up with fisherman. To our left is Europe. To our right is Asia.

To be perfectly honest it’s not quite as dramatic as we’d pictured in our minds - it’s not as if the Asian side is full of five story pagodas, neon signs and skyscrapers with the European side full of cobble-stoned streets, gothic Catholic churches, and outdoor cafes. In fact, most of the modern water facing homes wouldn’t seem out of place on the Aussie coastline.

That said, we still enjoy the rest of the cruise, passing a grand waterfront palace, Ottoman era castle, and many more mosques along the way. Under the second bridge over the Bosphorus the boat does a u-turn and
Sweets StallSweets StallSweets Stall

Hand made sweets while you wait and watch...
we head back the way we came.

Pulling back into the jetty we find out that surprisingly our tour isn’t over yet (bonus), and so we pile back into the minibus as apparently we’re headed to a lookout on the European side. Reaching it, we stay for only a short period to watch the sunset before we catch the cable car to the bottom, which concludes our city tour.

On the way back to the backpackers we jump off at the Spice Bazaar. We’ve booked tickets to a Sufi whirling concert that’s just down the road from the bazaar, but first things first - we’re after something to eat. We survey the menus of a few restaurants before wandering down by the waterfront to find a row of fish sandwich bars. Each one is full of locals and on the boats moored in front of us we can see large grills frying up fillet after fillet. The prices are really cheap, the food super fresh and most importantly authentic - so our last dinner in Istanbul is fish sandwiches all round.

After eating we head towards Istanbul’s main train station where the concert is on soon. It seems a strange place to hold a concert, but sure enough we follow the signs through the station into a large, grand room with chairs laid out around three sides. Apparently this was once the terminus for the Oriental Express trains and the high ceilings, stark white paint, and stained glass must’ve given quite a welcoming reception to the wealthy 19th century tourists.

We are enjoying checking out our surrounds when a six-piece ensemble strolls out, tunes up, and begin playing. The music is a completely foreign mix of sounds and rhythms for us, and whilst it’s not quite as haunting as the Bedouin music we heard a week ago at Petra it’s beautiful and hypnotic all the same. After half an hour of music the dancers emerge, dressed head to toe in white robes. As the music continues they start to spin, whirling around and around and around. They continue for about 15 mins, after which they break to pray, then continue whirling. They have all fallen into a complete trance and are ‘at one with God’. The ceremony is part of their religion, the Mevlevi order of Sufism, and it is absolutely fascinating to watch.

At the conclusion of the show we catch a cab back to the backpackers and crash out - tomorrow morning we’re flying back to the UK. Just as we do at the end of every holiday we take a minute to think back over all the cool stuff we’ve been doing, and thinking about it, we both agree that Roaming Byzantine is one of the most enjoyable holidays we’ve had yet! It’s going to take some beating…


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