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Middle East » Turkey
April 21st 2012
Published: April 21st 2012
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Yesterday after breakfast at the Sultanhan hotel, while Janel busied herself with email from the office, I wrote a blog entry. It was a nice long blog about our day in the Galata district. My head was a little pressured from one too many Rakis from the night before. But I was happy with my entry, and looking forward to publishing it, and showing my best zingers to Janel. I hit “save,” and was shown a message “UNAUTHROIZED ACCESS.” Backspace. Where’s my text? This bleepity bleep travelblog site had timed out, while I left my computer on over night, and now had just dumped all my work in to the ether.

It couldn’t be recovered by backspace, in history, in auto saved text…it was gone. Steam started coming out my ears! An hour of work down the drain, and we had to get going with our day of tourism. I didn’t have the time or the emotional fortitude to try and reproduce what I’d written, although I tried to drum it up by pacing around the room flailing my arms and ranting and raving about how bad the travel blog site sucked…so off we went.

Our plan was to take one of the tour buses that circles the city. On the way we were accosted by a well dressed Turkish man in front of the Blue Mosque. “Have you been to the Blue Mosque?” he said.

“No,” I said, “We’re going on the tour bus now.”

“I’m not a guide,” he said.

“I know, you’re a carpet salesman.”

He looked surprised. “Is it written on my forehead?”

“This isn’t our first day here.”

“Are you going to take the red bus or the blue bus?” he said, sticking to us like glue.

“The red bus.”

“I recommend the blue bus. Why? Because the blue bus has 3 routes, the red bus has just one. I am not affiliated with the bus company. Sure, I wish I was. I would then be a rich man. But I am a carpet salesman…”

We arrived at the bustle around the red double decker bus, me still irritated from the failed blog, and exasperated by the carpet salesman, who was trying to set up a post tour meeting to look at carpets, while the bus company was trying to sell us extra services, a cruise on the Bosporus, etc. I was trying to tell Janel that I’d wandered up to a pier with Bosporus cruises while she was in meetings, and they were considerably cheaper than the 20 Euros they charged here. Janel started to get pretty irritated too, between my frustrations with the lost blog, the pushy carpet salesman and the bus driver all hawking their wares. So we finally bought our tickets amidst yelling from every direction.

Off went the bus, and we stuck our little earphones in our ears, and found the English version of the tour. We wound down from the Blue Mosque and across the Galata bridge, passing the old railway station that served as a terminal for the Orient Express. We passed the men fishing off the bridge…no explanation from the guide why their fishing lines don’t get caught in the boats passing underneath, and drag the guys into the Golden Horn.

On the other side of the bridge, we linked up with the place I’d walked on my first marathon day, while Janel was in the conference meetings. There was the pool supplies district. There was the sector of the Nargila cafes with 1001 purple beanbag chairs. Pretty soon we came to the Dolmabache palace stop, and jumped off. Surprisingly, the bus didn’t stop, but some other people flagged it down, so we took that opportunity to hop off. According to the map, this was a HO HO spot…so we thought it might have stopped for us.

Anyway, we went through the metal detector, housed in a black cube, perhaps made to resemble the kaba in Mecca, and entered the Palace grounds. The buses ran every 45 minutes, and we were discussing whether this stop would take 45 minutes, or an hour and a half, and what else we’d do afterwards. Inside, we promptly encountered a line snaking all over the grounds.

“Is this the ticket line?” I asked someone in the middle of the line.


“Wow, it’s long. How long have you been waiting?”

“10 or 15 minutes.”

So we went to the back of the line, a bit peeved. We guessed it looked like this stop would take at least an hour and a half now. That would put us well in to the lunch hour. So we figured after the palace, maybe we’d have lunch on the shore of the banks of the Bosporus, before returning to the Ho Ho spot to catch the bus. But the line moved even more slowly than we expected. After a while, Janel and I went out scouting, while the other held a place in line. It turned out they were periodically closing the ticket booth, due to “overcrowding” in the palace. My irritation over the lost blog hadn’t quite evaporated yet, and now it began to escalate again.

The line creeped along for an hour, and we still weren’t to the ticket booth. And now they closed it again. Irritation began to bubble over in comments. “I’m only peripherally interested in their ***ing palace in the first place. Who do they think they are. I don’t give two *** *** about their *** palace.” Pretty soon, I announced to Janel that I was going to go seek out someone to yell at. I went to the Palace entrance, looking for anyone associated with the place. There were some guards. I yelled at them.

“What’s going on?!” I demanded. “We’ve been waiting in line for an hour!”

“Problems,” said the guard. “Problems in the Palace.”

I wasn’t satisfied. I went in to the entrance, and found some men in suits sitting in room. “The ticket booth is closed!” I told them sternly. “We’ve been waiting in line an hour. ONE HOUR!”

They shrugged.

We were almost ready to drop out, when the line started moving again. We reached the ticket booth at an hour and a half, and the ticket seller tried to tell me his credit card machine was broken. I stood my ground and kept waving my card in his face until he decided to try and run it. It worked, and we had our tickets.

By now we were hungry, and could use some sort of libation to fortify us. So before going in to the palace, we decided to go over to the Palace café, with a hundred crowded tables lining the Bosporus. We found a seat, and waited…and waited. It was getting cold and windy. Soon, I went and rooted around in a serving station, and found ourselves menus. We rifled through the pages. No alchohal! That was the last straw.

“Let’s just hot foot it through the palace,” said Janel, “then we can go have lunch.”

So we went in.

We powered through the gaggles of Japanese people huddled around the swan fountain, snapping pic after pic of themselves in front of the many colored tulips shuddering in the cold wind. Then we got to the palace itself. There was a huge line in front of it. You can imagine our reaction. Bleep that. We went on, walking along the Bosporus side of the humongous structure, until we saw the outlet. People were coming out, taking pink plastic bags off their feet, and handing them to an old Turkish lady, who stuffed them in a giant garbage bag.

We decided to try and go in through the out door. We went and asked the old lady if we could have some of those foot bags. She complied, and we began trying to install them on our feet. When it became clear to the woman that we intended to enter the palace, she became alarmed. She began screeching at us in rapid fire Turkish. She was so upset she convinced us, and we decided to move on, and try to see the “Harem” first. We’d bought tickets for both the Harem (which was the living quarters for the Sultan’s family) as well as the main palace.

When we found the entrance to the Harem, we tried to go in, but were stopped by a rope. The guy guarding the door wrote 14:10 on a white board. That was the next time we could enter, fifteen minutes from now. Apparently they let people go in in blobs. “Forget it,” said Janel. “let’s go have lunch.” But now I was insisting that we go to at least one thing. So we went back to the main palace entrance, and joined the huge blob of tourists.

After a short wait, we were issued our little pink foot bags, and admitted with about 100 people in the English speaking group. Now we understood that groups were admitted as tours. Our guide was named Memet. He didn’t have to wear the pink shoe bags.

By this point, I was primed to view the whole scene through a filter with an attitude. Between the waiting, the foot bags, the admonishment not to take photos, etc. etc. the 1000s of visitors a day were treated like dirt, like peons. As if some lingering aura of the old timey oligarchs was infused in the atomic matrix of the place, and just carried right on looking down it’s noses at the masses, even after those noses were but dust and memories.

The palace inside was nice, sure, grand…and every wonderful, artistic, breath-taking item in it pissed me off. There was crystal everywhere. Crystal banisters on giant swooping stair cases. Crystal fire places, giant chandeliers sticking out of the floor and ceiling like stalagmites and stalactites. Parquet floors that Memet said had painstakingly been assembled piece by piece. Load of Ormalu furniture. What a waste! The height of human artistic and architectureal achievement for the time, and for what? What percentage of the population those sultans ruled lived in poverty?

At least, I had to admit, when the government wasted money nowadays, it tends to flow through the salaries of increasingly vast numbers of employees, who may or may not do anything useful in the world. But is there any difference between the crystal fire places of the sultans and the modern $1000 toilet seat?

The Dolmabache Palace struck me like a symbol of, the quintessence of, government waste. Memet oohed and awed about how cool this or that feature was. We passed down hallways full of historical paintings not even worth a mention. Memet also didn’t point out the bathroom, where you could glimpse the hole in the floor style toilet. For all that grandeur, the grand folks of yore were still reduced to that.

Finally, we ended up in the grandest place of all. A hall way with a dome that looked nearly as big and high as the one in the Hagia Sofia. In the center there was a huge mess of crystal…the biggest chandelier in Europe. 4.5 tones of glass. He told us how it lights up like the sun, if you’re important enough for them to turn in on for you. Whatever. Let’s go have a late lunch.

We went out of the palace, with the idea to find a café along the water. But we decided if we saw a bus while we were passing the Ho Ho point, we’d jump on, since otherwise we might have to stand around waiting for it for 45 minutes, and there was no guarantee we’d find a café that had wine around here. A bus did come, and we snagged it. We didn’t want to jump on and off any more, so that pretty much put the kibosh on lunch.

As the bus came to the end of it’s tour, it entered the city below the Blue Mosque, at the same point where the ostensibly lost taxi driver had first taken us, before he wandered around and around with the meter running. Sure enough, the road went directly up from there to the Blue Mosque, right by our hotel.

It was too late for lunch, but we went for tapas to one of the restaurants looking out over the domes and minarets. It was a beautiful view, with plush chairs that we melted in to, with a bottle of wine and some fried cheese.

The funny thing is, the most entertaining travel experiences in writing are sometimes the ones that are the least fun at the time. For instance, most of our nights here the food has been delicious, and I’ll tell about some of the great places we found. But on the Dolmabahe night, after we went back to our hotel room, to do a few business emails, and play some scrabble, we went out, and tried one of the worst restaurants of our trip (not that it compared with the mind bogglingly bad Pera Palace…that was in the lost blog that I’ll have to re generate.)

The place we went on the Dolmabache night, Swa, was right next door to the nice place we’d eaten the night before. The Swa had sold us on by pulling us off the street, showing us it’s plush interior, explaining that all the food is organic, the meat specially raised, etc. But apparently their street hawker/maître d was the only guy in the place that spoke any English…including the guy who wrote the menu.

Basically what they had was kabobs. Kabobs made of something described in Turkish, the contents of which a series of several waiters could not convey to us. Also, various ones were offered on the 1st, 3rd, 7th month of the years…some sort of weird seasonal concept…although I’m not sure what seasons run like that. I tried to order one from the right month, but the waiter said I should have this other thing from a different part of the menu. Fine. I had it, it wasn’t very good. Janel had a piece of pizza, which was flavorless, just like the olives, from which they had somehow managed to extract the flavor.

I had the good seat. Because we were sitting on the street, and there was a hole in the street about 10 feet in front of me. Taxi after taxi, and some other cars, rushed up and came to a screeching halt in front of the hole. Then each decided on some different strategy to avoid the hole, some driving over the side walk, others angling their vehicles…one or two going straight and scraping. It was like some kind of psychological experiment or optical illusion. The hole wasn’t really even that deep. But it kept freaking people out, even people that approached it on foot.

Anyway, we capped the day off by going to the rooftop restaurant at the hotel next to ours, where we had a late drink, and happily decompressed, looking out over the magically lit minarets, domes, castle crenellations, all scattered like generous sprinkles of fantasy throughout the ancient and modern mix of this beautiful city.


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