Istanbul Day 1: Arriving in Istanbul

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May 13th 2009
Published: May 17th 2009
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Istanbul's Mushroom BurbsIstanbul's Mushroom BurbsIstanbul's Mushroom Burbs

Tackiness and lack of creativity seem to be the hallmark out here, this is quite a ways out from the city center.
My favorite quote from Day 1 in Istanbul, a rug merchant in the Spice Bazaar: "You see all of these old people who come here to visit, and they can barely see and are tired of walking after five minutes . . . they save up their money their whole lives and then spend it to come here when they can not really enjoy it. Here in Turkey, we live life now, why wait to see the world? Do it when you are young and can enjoy it. We don't live long in Turkey, maybe not past 75 or 76, because after that, can you really enjoy life where you are required to have others take care of you? If you do live past that here, people will take care of you, but that's not what I want, it's a lot of trouble for people." A delicate topic evidently, I will not debate it except to say that Jennifer and I agree with traveling while we are young, die broke, let each make his own way.

Phinalizing Philia

A rough ride when all was said and done, the most unpleasant sleeping car experience we have had, but this was
Megalo RoomMegalo RoomMegalo Room

At the W Istanbul
really precipitated by two factors, the most significant one being that we had spent all of yesterday running around Thessaloniki; the second being that the compartment was very cramped as the cabins in the railcar are stacked in a highly-efficient, highly uncomfortable crenelation configuration so that every other cabin is partially placed over its two adjacent. This means that the bottom cabins (ours) had a nice big window but as the OSE conductors are lazy, beds were already deployed and so there was not place to sit and the top cabins had their seat encroaching on the standing room in the lower cabins.

We crossed the border with Turkey at 3AM which was of course unpleasant as it was guaranteed that you would be awoken by all of the hubbub and then most people had to get off in order to go purchase a Visa. For Americans it is reasonable at 15 Euros, but for the Canadians it is 45 Euros and one old Canadian gentleman was worked up over this fact, I told him someone in Canada must have upset someone in Turkey, and there you go. They also had these guys coming aboard with sugical masks and

At the W Istanbul
labcoats handing out poorly photocopied questionnaires for everyone to fill out for Swine Flu tracking purposes. I guess those guys were chosen to live with their masks but the border guards are doomed.

We arrived a Sirkeci Station which is just below Topkapi Palace in Istanbul and is a very unassuming station, as was the Athens one. There is a larger station called Haydarpasa on the Asian side which is particularly beautiful, I am surprised the European one was not more impressive, perhaps there is another one, or the old one has been destroyed. The taxi drivers are of course waiting for you like hawks out front, but NOT inside (must be a rule or something), so I of course summarily march past them. There are ATMs in the station, convenient for withdrawing the Turkish Lira, but the challenge then becomes how much to withdraw when I have no idea what the exchange rate is, nor does the ticket booth guy. 200 sounds good. There is a tourist office also inside the station and our Greek friend from the compartment next door says that they are not yet open since there is no one sitting in the chair, but
Dolmabahce Palace GateDolmabahce Palace GateDolmabahce Palace Gate

The "side" ceremonial entrance.
the door is open and there is a guy milling around inside, so I say "well you just have to go in a help yourself in that situation." Evidently the guy inside had his little panties in a wad (he was the pantie type) and did not like that despite the fact that he was 10 minutes late opening, we did not wait until his little priss self was good and ready to accommodate us, the tourists. So I grab whatever useless pamphlets I see sitting around his office, intent on throwing them away as soon as possible, but more intent on making a point. I ask him if he has a map but think it is better to go with a latin root and exclaim "carte! carta!" to which he scornfully responds, "what is this carta carta?" and I say map and he pulls one out in Italian. He only has them in Italian. Real useful this guy.

Greece vs. Turkey

This is not a fair comparison, nor an easy one if I was to attempt it as every place is so different, and seeing Thessaloniki gave a bit of a prelude of the more hectic side
Dolmabahce MosqueDolmabahce MosqueDolmabahce Mosque

I thought this was Ortakoy Mosque for a while. Jeez. Don't eat at the cafe, food and service are lousy.
of Istanbul. A better comparison would be Athens vs. Istanbul, with the caveat being that we visited the historic centers of these and that the little we did see of the suburbs indicated more similarities there as these are both emerging world business centers with a large educated and sophisticated professional class that has similar expectations in quality of life. The readily apparent points are as follows:
- Athens Taxis will rip you off; Istanbul Taxis are surprisingly very honest
- Greeks are very particular about the cleanliness and availability of their restrooms; the Turks, not so much
- Greeks don't negotiate enough; the Turks do it too much
- Greek monuments are free or very inexpensive; Turkish ones fleece you for the max, even for trivial things
- Greeks have good cheese dishes; Turks have good meat dishes
- Greeks have community cats and dogs, with a penchant for the latter; Turks have countless community cats and very few much maligned community dogs.
- The muezzin's call to prayer beats the ringing of church bells
- The Greeks still call it Constantinople (get offer it already) and the Turks call it Istanbul

Finally, a common observation to both
Palace GuardPalace GuardPalace Guard

A little more threatening looking than the Greek guys wearing skirts.
cities, but even more so to Istanbul, is how expensive even the smallest Kebap House has become. I don't think there is any reasonable explanation other than inflationary exuberance that will be interesting to see how well it corrects itself with the downturn. I don't think the Turks will get the message as easily as the Greeks may since the last have become accustomed to inflation over the years and their is something cultural that makes them want to keep increasing prices like a persistent itch.

W Istanbul

It seems Starwood just doesn't give as much love as Hilton in the freebie domain, but their properties are so much more interesting and modern, the two balance each other out. In this case the W Istanbul is an absolutely amazing hotel with what was mostly excellent and attentive service. We were upgraded to a Magna room which was amazing and came with a miniature hamam shower stall and an impressive lighting and technological package that would completely transform the room for different uses. This last could be a little disconcerting at times because certain areas just didn't have enough light. The W is located north of the Dolmabahce Palace
Palace GuardsPalace GuardsPalace Guards

That first guy is totally Axel.
and is part of a luxury retail, hotel, and condominium redevelopment of the high ranking officer's quarters from the Ottoman Period. The downside is, no Executive Lounge and no free breakfasts. But Jennifer is managing fine nonetheless.

The trains have this kind of hospital stale smell about them that completely imbues all of your clothing and skin with the same smell so, needless to say, we enjoyed our hamam shower very much before heading back out into the city.

Dolmabahce Palace

Because of its proximity to our hotel, we headed over here first where there was some big to-do with police officers everywhere, guys in suits with shades and earpieces, and limos with flags driving up to the side gate. After NOT enjoying a miserable little sucuk tost on the Bosphorus next to the Dolmabahce Mosque (bad introduction for Turkish cuisine), we went into the first of over-priced Istanbul sites. Not only is the entry fee high at 20 Turkish Lira per person (about $14, but based on cost of living I view it as $20), they then hit you up for another 6 Turkish Lira if you have any sign of a camera on you, which
Palace GardensPalace GardensPalace Gardens

Not very large, and only the parts that are seen by visitors are given any considerable attention.
would be just about any tourist . . . so why don't they incorporate it in the original price. Every dirty sales gimmick is in action in Istanbul - the bait and switch; the fuzzy pricing; the special fees; and the consistent lack of posted pricing, or worse, the honoring of high marked prices only for tourists, with a separate cheaper and "understood" price given to locals. It's all fine, but it is a pervasive and underhanded mentality that seems to be getting worse.

The Palace was interesting as you visit not only the rooms for state functions but also those of the harem, or private living quarters of the Sultan. The Sultan could have a maximum of four wives and any further number of concubines, all of these governed by the mother of the Sultan who had a prominent suite of rooms that we also had the chance to visit. The palace does belie the waning power of the Empire as it is ornate only in the most visible of areas and ultimately its most powerful design element is the fact that it is built along the Bosphorus.

Rounding Out East of Golden Horn

With only
Selamlik EntranceSelamlik EntranceSelamlik Entrance

This where state affairs and receptions would occur, the Harem, or living quarters, are to the rear of the palace.
three days in a "four day" city, we were on a bit of a mission to get a certain number of places visited each day, so we next walked up to Taksim Square, the main large square of Istanbul and then walked down Istiklal, the main commercial street all the way to the Galata Tower. Istiklal is commercial in that it has a mass of people on it, but is uncommon in that it does not have the high end shops of town. These are located in the area of the W Hotel or at the open air mall Istinye Park. One thing I had forgotten was that Istanbul is a very very hilly city with some quite arduous climbs in many of the older areas that are compounded by poor paving and having to share the road with throngs of people, parked cars and large delivery trucks. We went up into the Galata Tower which was worth yet another exhorbitant fee if only because we have been blessed with perfectly clear skies for the entire final half of our trip. We then walked down to the Galata Bridge, had some beer at one of the cafes there and played
Is that another lion?Is that another lion?Is that another lion?

Okay another picture with a cat lawlers.
a few rounds of backgammon where I won resounding victory after victory.

Back on the Golden Horn

Back where we first started in the morning at Eminonu, we headed over to the Spice Market for some people watching that ended up with some carpet shopping and plenty of free Turkish Tea . . . it was nice to get something free in Istanbul. We didn't look at anything too fancy, you really can't in these tourist places anyway, plus we did not want to put forth the correct budget, but they had some nice Sumac rugs that had first caught our eye in Greece when I was told by a merchant there that they were Kazakh, then I was told by the Spice Market merchants that they were from Kurdistan or simply "Turkish". We were intercepted later in the day by another carpet merchant, Hasan, who spoke good French and thought we were French by our dress who told us that these Sumacs were not Turkish and were more likely Persian. Hasan was a very interesting character, from Lake Van region in Eastern Turkey, skinny and animated, a French air about him with an accent of the Levent
Dolmabahce Bosphorus FacadeDolmabahce Bosphorus FacadeDolmabahce Bosphorus Facade

Impressive from this side.
when he spoke French. His tucked away carpet shop in a dusty basement off of the main road to the Grand Bazaar did not offer him a stream of customers and so his method was to come out and grab them on the street corner. When ascertained that we were not French and that I was born there he conceded that I did not have the "mentality" of the French which was, of course, a good thing. As I understood it, his interpretation of the "mentality" is that the French would look at his rugs and not buy them. So we humored him and followed him to his shop since we had an interest in purchasing rugs. I had an instant impression that I was inhaling asbestos as soon as we got down there which was realized with some coughing as though I had some small hairs stuck in my throat. Surveying his room, I could see why the French had such a mentality problem, there was nothing that I would want to buy in there, not because there weren't some decent items, they just didn't fit into my aesthetic sensibility. Hasan was not a pushy salesman at all though
Crystal StaircaseCrystal StaircaseCrystal Staircase

This is the third largest chandelier in the palace.
and instead embarked on an explanation of how the rug merchants at the Bazaars worked, what we were being sold with a number of generalizations in his general favor that one had to sift through and derive one's own value from. Desirous to get out and see the rest of the city and seeing that Hasan just liked to talk, I pushed him onto the matter of what he had in stock which, from the unrolling of his first carpet, indicated the source of my respiratory troubles - the fact that his rugs were "old" and were chock full of dust and loose fibers that would billow out from it andonto us as he flund it out. A few of his rugs were rather interesting, his pricing was very aggressive but I must admit that as much as he may have been correct about the merchants at the Bazaar, I am very certain they could have had their own comments about the bag of tricks he was rolling out before us.

After an ill-fated attempt at getting some Turkish Tea (he seems to unfortunately have too many ill-fated attempts), we convinced him we had to go since we had
Elephant TuskElephant TuskElephant Tusk

Given by an Indian I suppose, I don't think the Africans produce that kind of silversmithing even today, so I'll bet on Indian.
already gone through half his inventory and frankly our lungs were at wit's end. So we got up to leave and Jennifer asked if there was a place to go nearby and eat, which I cringed at, since I really did not want to give Hasan any more subjects to talk about. Well, Hassan latched on and said he would accompany us to the restaurant which turned into his hanging out and having a small glass of wine at our table before departing despite our polite attempts to offer him a place at our dinner table. He lamented that prices were ridiculous in Istanbul and ceremoniously requested that I hand over the wine list so that he could check the prices and then summoned the server after I had made a selection and instructed him that we were to receive a reduction since he knew the "proprietaire". We got 5 TL off. The food was good, a romantic little place with old masonry on the walls, across from a nice hostel, another place that I could never find again, despite my usually good sense of direction. The twists and turns and chaotic nature of storefronts in Istanbul make it impossible
Bear SkinBear SkinBear Skin

Given by the Russian Czar
to find your way more than once. In parting our new friend Hasan hoped that we would cross paths again (since it implied he would make a sale) and promised he would buy us a meal if the occasion were to occur (or we could have taken a discount on the rug equivalent to the cost of the meal). A thin face, dark hair balding with a patch in the front that he kept sweeping back and an air of grandeur beyond his present circumstances made Hasan a bit of a sad figure. He admitted to me in French (although it was partially a sales tactic) that he would be liquidating his store as he had family matters to tend to, that business was challenging and that besides his education level afforded him better opportunities that had resurfaced after a temporary period of inactivity.

We left the restaurant around 10PM and enjoyed the call to prayer at the Blue Mosque around that time and photographed it and Hagia Sofia. One hour and a half after our parting, Hasan ran into us at the Blue Mosque and nervously explained that he had just finished some business and was heading home,

Given by an Egyptian ruler to the Sultan.
in direction of Topkapi. There are no homes down there to my knowledge and our sad, momentary friend departed off into the night.

The darnedest thing, I don't recall how we made it back home that evening? I don't think we walked, I guess we took a taxi.

Additional photos below
Photos: 37, Displayed: 33


Sultanic ToiletSultanic Toilet
Sultanic Toilet

There's the real deal . . . a Turkish Toilet.
Harem's HammamHarem's Hammam
Harem's Hammam

Beautiful ceiling detail.
THE Mother's RoomTHE Mother's Room
THE Mother's Room

The Sultan's mother ruled the roost, I don't think I would want to mess with that lady.
Main BallroomMain Ballroom
Main Ballroom

This is the largest chandelier in the Palace, the room is amazing but the columns are painted plaster and most of the detail is trompe l'oeuil.
Is that ANOTHER cat?Is that ANOTHER cat?
Is that ANOTHER cat?

Has peanut and looloos seen this?

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