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Friday, October 31, 2014

Istanbul - day three

The weather deteriorated in Istanbul during the course of our stay and on the way home last night we go pretty wet though the first part of the day was nice. Day three also started ok and Sam and I set off for Aya Sofya. The Aya Sofya was commissioned by the great Byzantine emperor, Justinian, consecrated as a church in 537, converted to a mosque by Mehmet the Conqueror in 1453, and declared a museum by Ataturk in 1935. As Lonely Planet says, "the Aya Sofya surpasses the rest due to its innovative architectural form, rich history, religious importance and extraordinary beauty." As with the Blue Mosque, I'll let the pictures speak for it.

After the Aya Sofya we visited the Istanbul Archaeology Museums, a cluster of museums housing archaeological and artistic treasures from the Topkapi collections.

Onwards to the Basilica Cistern, an underground cistern also commissioned by Justinian in 532 using 336 columns and capable of holding 80,000 cu meters of water delivered through 20km of aqueduct.

Then a tram to the spice market with a tasty döner sandwich along the way. The spice market was similar to the Grand Baazar in being a tourist trap with very aggressive vendors. Not worth much time.

In the same area is the New Mosque. Only in Istanbul would a 400-year-old mosque be called new. It's another beautiful, richly adorned mosque and, of course, is in use so we removed our shoes and checked it out.

That night was our crowning food experience in Istanbul. We went back to the Taksim area and found the restaurant, or rather, Sam found the restaurant we'd looked for previously, Zubeyir Ocakbesi. There were two levels and in the middle of each dining room was a grill where the grill man cooked the kebabs, roasted peppers and warmed the pide (pita) and wraps. It was fun watching him cook amidst clouds of smoke and the food was delicious.

So ends our last evening in Istanbul



Istanbul - day two

In Victoria I'd made a connection with a woman in Istanbul through a mutual friend and on day two we arranged to meet in the Sultanamet, the old historic part of Istanbul.

Ilknur is a teacher at a university in Istanbul and Sam and I spent the day with her touring some of the major attractions starting with hippodrome, site of the chariot races and gladiator events, moving on to Topkapi Palace, a huge edifice with vast grounds, audience chambers, courts, multiple palaces, treasuries, armouries and, my favourite, the harem with its labyrinth of rooms decorated with beautiful tiles and that lovely Arabic calligraphy.

Sam and Ilknur



Topkapi was started by Mehmet the conqueror in 1453 and, in Lonely Planet's words, and is "the subject of more colourful stories than most of the world's museums put together. Libidinous sultans, ambitious courtiers."

Then on to the mosaic museum that contains large mosaics from the Justinian period, 300AD or so.

After that we went for lunch at what Ilknur described as an iconic place in the Sultanamet operating since 1920 where the journalists who worked nearby in a sort of media centre went for lunch. It was pretty touristy and the food was so so. After lunch it was time for the Blue Mosque. We'd tried there earlier but were daunted by the long lines and they were still long, we decided to que up and it didn't take too long before we got in. You have to take your shoes off before entering as it is still an operating mosque and men can't wear shorts and women must cover their hair. There is really no way to describe this enormous structure so I'll let the photos do the talking.

After the Blue Mosque we forged onward to the Grand Bazaar, another of the iconic places in Istanbul but, I think we were a few years too late to see it in anything resembling its glory days. Built by order of Mehmet the Conqueror in 1461, it grew to cover a vast area of labyrinthine sprawl but is now just another tourist attraction full of tacky junk duplicated in dozens of shops, but also containing some high quality goods (carpets, ceramics, metalwork, etc) if you are discerning enough and, of course huge crowds.

Finally we caught a ferry for the Asian side with Ilknur, walked along the shore with the many locals out for a stroll to the Maiden's Tower (Turkish: Kız Kulesi), also known as Leander's Tower (Tower of Leandros) since the medieval Byzantine period, a small tower fortress, built in the water off shore a few hundred meters. Then a forgetable dinner at a place Ilknur suggested, full of locals but I think we were all disappointed. Eating in Istanbul has definitely been hit and miss.

That was day two



















Istanbul - day one

Our first day dawned clear and I looked out over the Golden Horn where little fishing boats circulated back and forth and rows of guys fished from the shore.

These fishermen seem to be a fixture here, probably thousands of them lining every available space on the shore and bridges all around the Golden Horn and Bospherous.

Being a lovely day, we decided to do a ferry cruise up the Bospherous, one of the obligatory activities in Istanbul. After a typical Turkish breakfast of pita, hard boiled eggs, tomatoes, peppers (not hot sadly), feta, grapes, and, of course tea we walked along the waterfront, the Golden Horn and new city on one side, the old city with huge, beautiful mosques everywhere, minarets spiking the horizon.

We're not in Kansas anymore.
Istanbul is totally overtaken by motordom, hardly any facilities for pedestrians, like may countries. Apparently there was a tiny bike sharing system at one time and I noticed the defunct stations along the waterfront. Bare wires dangling. Suffice it to say that, once the waterfront path ended, things got chaotic and negotiating street crossings was perilous. No crosswalks, or, if there were, they were ignored, so you just have wait for a break in traffic and dash across. Sidewalks are equally chaotic, ending suddenly leaving you prey to the motorists. Before the cruise we went in search of an Istanbulkart, a pass that you put money on that works for all of the public transit, buses, trams, subways, ferries and, I discovered, some of the pay bathrooms. It wasn't easy to find a place that sells them and we asked around. Many big tour buses were parked along the street there and we asked one of the drivers. He said, yes, he could help us and set off down the street in a stately manner, occasionally talking on his cell phone, us trailing behind, for block after block, him occasionally asking others where to get the card. Finally we found a kiosk where they sold the passes and we were on our way (never saw the kiosk selling them across the street from where we found him). We reached the tour boat pier and bought tickets for the hour and a half voyage. And a lovely voyage it was, cruising first along the European side, huge, elegant castles, some that have been converted to hotels, mosques, opulent homes and the vast city skyline and sweeping views over the Bospherous. Then across to the Asian side with more of the same.

Returning back to the dock we went for fish sandwiches, another of the must dos in Istanbul and another chaotic scene. I guess the fish are those that all those fisherman are trying to catch, bony, rather tasteless little things in a crusty bun.

Kids roam around handing out packets of wet wipes and I thought, what a nice touch. Naive me. When you get up to leave, there they are asking for money and our kid tried to scam us further, charging 5 lira each, about $2. I said, no way and he became argumentative until some other kids came over and said, no, 1 lira was the price. He got pissed off, I got pissed off and demanded my change, cursed him and we went our way back to the airbnb. As we were walking along, a shoeshine guy passed us and dropped a brush. I yelled after him and returned it to him. You would have thought I'd just rescued him from certain death. He almost prostrated himself on the ground and kissed my hand. Then he insisted on polishing my shoes. Naively I let him and he insisted on polishing Sam's runners. When he was part way through, he said, 19 liras please. That was it! Not a dime for you buddy. We'd let our guard down but after that it would no more mister nice guys. We spent the afternoon and evening on the new city side starting at Taksim Square, site of the big student protests some months ago. There is a big pedestrian mall off the square with all the favourites: Starbucks, Burger King, Levis, KFC, jewelry, clothes, cell phones, the usual, wall to wall people.

Sam bought some new clothes at the Levi's store, we went for a drink and chatted for a while then went in search of dinner. We had found a place in Lonely Planet that had good reviews but, for the life of us, couldn't find it so settled on a vegetarian place, also in Lonely Planet. Turned out to be another mistake; cold, tasteless food but at least it was expensive. Unsatisfied, we went and found a place Sam had seen featured on an Anthony Bordain show, just a little place full of locals where they made great dürüm, like a döner in a wrap.

This was the start of a trend where Sam became the dining choice expert. Never steered us wrong. I'm happy to have a foodie grandson.

Thus ended day one.