Wednesday, 17 August 2011


Tuesday 16th August: Istanbul
Today's major event was a visit to the Haga Sophia which is now classified as a Museum. It started it's life well before the Blue Mosque as a Christian church in the 6th century before becoming a mosque in Ottoman times in the 15th Century, surviving a few earthquakes and finally being declared a Museum by good old Ataturk in 1932.
As it is closed every Monday we assumed that there would be lots of visitors today so again we queued up early. It is a huge and very spectacular building with both christian and islamic features. There were finely detailed golden mosaics of Jesus, Mary (sittiing alongside the Emperor of the times and his wife) with beautiful angels and lots of crosses. But there were also huge islamic discs with the names of prophets in gold, prayer areas with separate areas for women as in Muslim mosques. But most of all there were enormous domes with gold and rich colours everywhere, either painted or mosaics. The buiding has been in a constant state of renovation/repair for centuries it seems, but it is still very beautiful. We walked up a spiral marble ramp to reach the balcony which runs around the inside walls and gave us an even better view of the workmanship involved.
Whilst Erin and I fastidiously followed the audio guide like the perfect tourists we are, Ewan just wandered around and eventually headed off for the Archealogical Museum on his own. The good news is that it has over a million works , none of whch Erin and I were desperate to see as we felt we had done quite enough Museums for one trip! Having visited most of the sites where these pieces have come from we didn't really feel a desperate urge to go with him. Of course Ewan thought it was fascinating, and he also visited the Museum of Muslim Art too! He's now a total authority on muslm carpet designs and tiles - very useful I'm sure.
After a couple of hours absorbing the beauty of the Haga Sophia, and battling the tour groups, Erin and I set off for that other Holy Grail - the shopping centre.
I always find it fascintaing to go to markets, supermarkets and shopping centres to see how the locals live. We discovered that most turkish supermarkets have a baklava and turkish delight counter rather than a bakery, for example. We decided to go to an outlet shopping centre called Olivium, by suburban train. It also proved to be the place where most of the leather jackets and coats are made, as we saw some of the basement sweat shops as we wandered around. I wasn't tempted as most of the designs were way over the top and most of them seemed to be made for small tourists, not my size!

The first part of the adventure was to get there via the suburban train, not an easy exercise when faced with the least helpful ticket seller we have come across. She totally ignored us but managed to sell a token for the train to a turkish girl who was behind us : very annoying! We haven't encountered that behaviour before: most people have gone out of their way to help us. No customer service prizes for her!!! Finally, after we became a bit more assertive, she glumly sold us the tokens we needed to get on to the station and board a train. The only problem was that although the platforms were numbered they didn't indiacte anywhere which train was going to our destination. Finally Erin asked the guy at the train station cafe and he happily pointed us in the right direction. So off we sped along the coast for 6 stations. Strollin gpast the leatherr shops we reached the shopping centre and spent a couple of hours shoppping.
We came to the following conclusions:
1. If we'd needed a raincoat there was a choice of hundreds. The Muslim women wear black ankle length raincoats in winter and in summer wear beige or pale colours instead. They are for the fashion-consciuos women so there are lots of variation on a theme: pintucks, buttons, belts, some frills and every style imaginable. They have long sleeves, high collars and reach the ankles so thay they cover as much of the body as possible.
2. Turkish women are a lot shorter than we are: Erin tried on a few dresses which looked like tops on her as they were clearly designed for someone a lot shorter. She did buy a couple of tops though, and very cheap.
3. There was one bigger ladies shop, and clearly if you are a bigger lady you are supposed to wear everyhting very long and wide. Couldn't find anyhting I would wear.
4. All of the tops have long sleeves, except for a few t-shirts and singlets:absolutely nothing has three-quarters sleeves at all: this is again due to Muslim customs.
It was all fascinating though and we rewarded ourselves with a treat : a cup of fruit and white chocolate, from the food court. Back to the train station (where a young guy told us he'd never seen a tourist before!).
Here's our packets of spices on the counter
Then we headed for the Spice Bazaar, just to do some more authentic tourist shopping. It makes you very hungry as there are endless stalls with huge baskets of spices, dates, nuts, dried fruit, turkish delight as well as the usual souvenirs and an assortment of everything else. We bought lots of spices for presents and the guy vacuum sealed each packet on the spot so we could get them through Customs. So there'll be some nice meals from them I'm hoping. After a look around we headed back to put our aching feet up for a while.
When we had recovered we set off for one of the 'self-service' restaurants nearby. This doesn't mean that they are cheap, but you can select your meal from a huge array of hot and cold dishes, or they will grill any kebab you fancy. After eating aubergine sald, yougurt dip, creamed spinach, roasted red peppers, garden salad, stuffed aubergines, grilled chicken and lamb chops, we staggered home (some of us cursing the fact that we didn't leave room for any baklava or rice pudding or halva or.......).

Self-service cafeteria food: delicious!

Istanbul trams

Wednesday 17th August: Istanbul

To make the most of our last full day of sightseeing we jumped on the tram outside the door of the Hotel and headed for the end of the line and the Dolmabahce Palace. This is known locally as the 'new palace' as it takes over from the Topkapi Palce and was bulit in the mid 1800s: there is no resemblance between the style of Topkapi and this palace at all. Despite having been built by one of the last Sultans there was no ottoman design used. The closest Baroque design I have seen was Versailles and clearly no expense was spared ( which might explain why the peasants revolted and a Republic was formed in 1923!). It consisted of a high wall around some large stately buildings (with more than 625 rooms) and a beautiful garden. Inside there were chandeliers of all shapes and sizes, intricate parquetry floors and rugs, gold-framed giant mirrors, trompe d'loeuil ceilings( or however you spell that!), painted domes, ornate ornaments and rooms of huge proportions. Artists from France and Italy had been employed and lots of the china, porcelain, clocks etc imported from elsewhere. They'd gone to town with huge pillars of 'marble everywhere but in fact they were all false - made from plaster or stones and stucco. One of the chandeliers weighed 4 and half tons: they clean it every 6 years and it takes two months to clean each piece and reassemble it. What a job! And all this to house one Sultan, his wives, concubines and slaves - no wonder the peasants revolted!
We were only allowed to view it on a tour and wearing very attractive plastic overshoes so we wouldn't hurt the floor coverings. We weren't even allowed to touch the bannisters on the way up the grand staircases. We revived ourselves with some turkish coffee and decided to use the funicular railway to get to the top of the nearest hill to see the Taksim monument. Yes, even Ewan agreed to get a lift up the hill so we could then walk down rather than the opposite. The walk was through a huge shopping boulevard ( four Starbucks and two Gloria Jeans) but eventually ended in some tiny steep cobblestoned streets full of music shops. Clutching two new pairs of shoes we finally emerged at the Galata Bridge again.
A quick whiz through the Spice Market, and some purchasing of jewellery, and we were home again.

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