Monday, 15 August 2011

Exploring exotic Istanbul

Sunday 14th August: Selcuk to Istanbul
Today we had a day of travelling and the last move before we head for home next Thursday.
We all had a sleep in, much to Erin's delight, and then headed for the Selcuk train station in the hope that we could get a train directly to Izmir Airport. This involved wheeling our luggae over lovely cobblestones and praying that the wheels wouldn't fall off!
Surprisingly there was noone at the Train station to sell us a ticket...or so we thought. One of the local ladies arrrived and when she couldn't see anyone in the Ticket Office yelled a lot until someone appeared. We bought our tickets for a whole 4 Lira each (about $2.40) which was a good deal as we were 80 kilometres from the Airport. Only a few carriages on the train but very nice, although we didn't get a seat. We were delighted when we arrived at the door to the Airport 45 minutes later. With a couple of hours to spare before our Pegasus Airlines flight to Istanbul we read our books and observed the other passsengers: always an interesting pastime in a foreign country.
The flight also took about 45 minutes and before long we were in a taxi hurtling through the back lanes of the old part of Istanbul. You may have noticed that we always seem to end up in the old parts of many of the cities we have visited, but they are the most interesting. Istanbul has a population of 8.8 million in the city, and if you count the surrounding area the population is estimated at 13 million, which is a bit scary when you add in tourists too. We could have ended up miles away from the ancient historical things we wanted to see if we'd gone to the suburbs that's for sure.
The Old City Viva Hotel is in a very central location and is on the Tram line, the only one they have in Istanbul so that will be very handy if we can work out how to buy a ticket of course!
We decided to have a bit of a wander around, sticking close to the Tram line so we could find our way home. We ended up at the Galata Bridge where there is a whole level of the bridge taken up by restaurants devoted to Bahlik Ekmek: fish sandwiches.Tthey consist of a small whole fish ( minus head) cut in half and grilled, in a bread roll with salad. It seemed as if half of Istanbul had decided to get one for dinner as there were people everywhere. Lots of touts tried to persuade us to take a boat trip on the Bosphurus in tiny boats. In the end we decided bigger was better and paid 12 Lira ( about $7.20) for a 90 minute trip on a large ferry boat. It was very stable - phew! - and gave a great view of the the mosques and palaces we are hoping to see. Of course just as the sun was setting, and the perfect picture of the mosques at sunset emerged, the batteries in the camera were exhausted so that was that! Oh well, we'll have to buy a postcard!
There were a couple of waiters selling fresh orange juice, tea, and other treats which we appreciated as it was getting late. Once we were back on terra firma we wove our way through the crowds, the various food stalls selling roasted chestnuts, pink pickles (?!) corn, doner kebab, icecream and of course, Bahlik Ekmek. Finally we found a restaurant with great doner kebab and had dinner. With lots of planning needed to make the most of our few days in this city we headed for the Hotel and had an early night in anticipation of big things to come on the morrow.
Monday 15th August: Istanbul
After consulting the trusty Lonely Planet guide about what was open and when, we headed off early for a ten-minute walk to reach the Topkapi Palace at 8.30am. This turned out to be a good move as the ticket office opened at 9.00am and Ewan was third in his queue with lots of people queued up behind. It also meant we could get the tickets to the Harem early too.
Let me explain - Topkapi Palace is a huge palace which was originally built for the reigning Sultan in the 15th Century and was rebuilt or expanded through the reign of various Sultans until 1839. It's a huge complex with superb views over the sea, gardens surrounding all of the buildings form various eras. We were intrigued by a building which housed the personal efffects of the Prophet Mohammed, including a handkerchief, hairs from his beard and a footprint.
There was the walking stick that Moses is supposed to have used to part the seas too.These are all considered sacred objects of course so we were creful about our reactions to them! The buildings are stunning with beautiful traditional blue tiles, stained glass and lots of gold. They had left a small section where they had renovated any of the paint or tiles so you could see the difference. The Harem for the Sultan's 300-500 concubines was marble, tiles, beautiful domes and painted walls . It's tricky to work out how often they might see the Sultan if there were so many of them! The Sultan's mother and black guards from North Africa, who had been castrated, kept them in line apparently. Fun job!
We spent nearly 3 hours wandering through the whole complex as there were pools, terraces, a parliament, a hospital and a treasury. The Treasury had some amazing jewelled boxes, rings, swords all covered in emeralds, rubies, diamonds and gold. They were so ornate they were barely able to be used for their original purpose. Ewan commented that he understood where Franco Cozzo got his style from!!
After a cold juice to help us revive we headed for the Blue Mosque. Erin and I were dressed in long pants and more modest tops so that we could go inside, as it is a functioning mosque. For those visitors whose shoulders and legs weren't covered they provided blue scarves to serve as skirts or tops. We arrived in time to have a look around before prayers at 12.30 when all visitors had to leave.
When we walked in we were amazed at the height of the roof, the number of domes and the thousands of tiles used to decorate it. Erin commented that it was hard to take it all in. I tried to photograph it but it is impossible to get a real sense of the beauty and size of it. In muslim mosques there are no paintings or statues of animals or people so they can be very bare., however the tiles here and the designs were very intricate, with the predominant colour being blue, as the name suggests. Ewan was impressed by the 17th century engineering that was required to construct a building of this size.
Erin and I suitably attired for mosque-visiting
We wandered around the Sultanahmet area passing various tombs and smaller mosques. Eventually we found a restaurant that was self-service: you point and they put it on a plate for you: stuffed eggplants, creamed spinach, fresh beans, turkish shepherds pie ( !) and other delicacies. Delicious!
Fortiified by the food we decided we could face the challenge of the Grand Bazaar for which Istanbul is famous. After a few minutes Ewan decided he would enjoy it more without tagging around with us ( and vice versa!) so we agreed to meet at the Hotel later. He soon tired of the millions of shops in the Bazaar and wandered off to check out yet more mosques and old buildings. Erin and I set off with great intentions and great concentration, which was needed to not get hopelessly lost! It wasn't as chaotic as I anticipated but there were so many shops it was overwhelming. I htink we were asked "Where are you from ?" at least a hundred times by hopeful shop keepers. I did get lured into a leather shop and tried on a few jackets, but when Erin glanced at the price tag on one that I did like, we beat a hasty retreat: it was worth well over a thousand dollars! My bartering skills are not good enough to reduce that to a reasonable price! We did manage to buy some lovely silk scarves and a pair of turkish floppy pants for Erin, but that wore us out completely so we decided to face the challenge of the tram to get back to the Hotel. It was actually very simple - you find the token machine, insert two lira which gets you a red plastic token, insert that into the gate to enter the tram stop and then you wait for the train. The first one that arrived was so full, despite having four carriages, that we couldn't squeeze in. Fortunately the next one was better and we managed to find the right stop to disembark. They are very impressive, and very frequent, so we will be using them over the next few days.
We collpased in a heap until Ewan arrived with stories of fabulous buildings and a box of fresh baklava. Yum! It's clear that I should have been born turkish because the women here, as they get older, just wear loose baggy pants and grow wider: there's something to be said for that approach to ageing!
Finally we dragged ourselves to the lane at the back of the Hotel and had dinner and then home for an early night to prepare us for another day of non-stop action.
Fishermen on the Galata Bridge
catching very small fish!

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