24 hours in Istanbul
After a few hours sleep I met dad for the buffet breakfast provided by the hotel. I suspected that food in Turkey would be something of a challenge for him, but he got on with it. Not that it was necessarily a doddle for me. But fortified in some way, we met again a short time later to start our walkabout.
Out hotel was in the old city on Istanbul’s historic peninsula, very close to the big old-city attractions. I didn’t really have my bearings so we started off before I realised we probably needed to be walking in the opposite direction. I seem to be doing that a bit recently. There was no particular plan for the order in which to see things as I was still working out where everything was.
Because we probably we didn’t look like we knew where we were going, a man approached us. Polite conversation ensued and he was helpful in that he did point out the three sites in our immediate vicinity. And after we see them, perhaps we would like to visit his carpet shop just over there? Ahhh, I realised in my head. It begins. No, we don’t want to buy any carpet. Why? Surely you wouldn’t want to leave without buying a quintessential part of Turkey? Actually I’m ok with that. Dad and I thanked him for his offer and managed to extricate ourselves.
We walked to the very nearby Blue Mosque, a big beautiful blue-tinged rounded building with the large minarets poking up. We would see many, many more of those before our time in Turkey would be up.
We wandered, looking for the way in. Another man approached us, pointing out where to go. He also said the queues were very long and the mosque was closing in an hour for prayer, but he could show us how to get in without queuing. (We would see later in the day that guided tours go straight in and many guides would walk up and down the lines touting their services. Some found business like this.) We declined our guy’s offer and I added that we were also not interested in any carpet which hadn’t been mentioned at that point. Nonetheless it was true and we had more questioning about why we would even contemplate not buying some beautiful genuine Turkish carpet while we have the opportunity.
Having finally disconnected from that conversation we queued for the Blue Mosque. We read the signs which said that men can’t wear shorts. Dad was wearing shorts. But this was ok as he was given a skirt to wear; a lovely blue wrap skirt which covered those offending knees. No doubt he wasn’t the most comfortable man in Istanbul at that point but to his credit he went along with it.
I was wearing a long skirt and t-shirt and had a scarf with me which I had thought may need to be worn over my head. But as we walked in, barefoot by this stage, the lady said I needed to cover my arms. So that is what I did with the scarf.
The Blue Mosque is stunning (also no cost to go inside). My photos are not good enough to do it justice but they are a reminder if nothing else. The mosque is still used for prayer but that it was closing in an hour was in fact a crock. That scoundrel. We joined the hundreds of other tourists inside milling around gawping, mostly at the amazing stuff above our heads.
We re-entered the hot sunny Istanbul day. Even at this relatively early hour it was a mad place, and would get more and more busy as the day went on. Yes it’s a big city with an enormous population but it is also a massive travel destination, indicated by the kajillions of other foreigners doing what we were doing. We had also landed this big sightseeing day on a Saturday which I’m sure compounded matters.
I looked at the queue for the Hagia Sophia, spitting distance away, and foolishly said nah let’s come back later. Instead we went across the road to the Basilica Cistern, also very close by. At 10 TL (Turkish Lira or about NZ$7) this was the least expensive paid attraction we would go to.
The Cistern was developed as a backup water source for the city. Once discovered, it was given a jolly good clean out and walkways installed so that people could come and see it. It is subterranean so you walk downstairs into a dark, cool, damp but massive space. It was fantastic.
We bit the bullet for Hagia Sophia and of course by now the queue was much longer. Much of it also required standing in the sun – it was a mid-20s day, so rather warm for Kiwis. Not so much for the locals. While the ticket line took a really long time, there was always stuff to look at. I have no idea how the muslim women cope in the heat in their full length coverings. The black things are bad enough in the sun, but other women wore full length coats over top of their skirts etc. And colourful headscarves. No wonder loads of them were sitting in the shade.
In amongst all the people watching I had many inviting offers. Did I want to buy a guide book / guided tour / Turkish hat / spinning top on a string? No, no, no, no.
Finally I was able to fork out 25TL each and we went on in. Aya Sofya used to be a basilica and later a mosque but is now categorised as a museum. It was breathtaking in size and scale. Just amazing. Enormous, and beautiful (unlike in my opinion the outer view of the building).
The lights were suspended on long wires from the ceiling so far above our heads and the wires were actually a bit distracting, but in photos the lights just seem to float.
Topkapi Palace was next up, being just behind Hagia Sophia. How convenient of the old city to be so compact. We scoped out the lay of the land but I didn’t want to attempt it on an empty stomach. Plus by then I had acquired a juicy headache. We trotted down the hill and picked an al fresco restaurant in good view of the palace outer wall.
I don’t much care about acquiring food experiences while travelling. Food allergies are a hassle to try and work around but even before I became aware of those, I was basically unadventurous and fussy with food. And I’m ok with that. But I still wanted more from our time in Turkey than western looking food outlets or meals. And I was happy to find that among the staples of Turkish cuisine is meat and fresh veg. Also bread, though I tried to moderate that given gluten considerations. In our short stay in the country it was breakfast that was the trickiest given the food options typical of that; other meals were easier. So we had a good lunch.
Returning to the palace meant going back up the hill. I joined another long line to purchase two 25L tickets, amused for a time by a heated argument a couple were having with one of the staff. Dad went to find shade.
There were a couple of armed military guards decorating the entry to the palace. While not initially sure why that was the case, given some of the invaluable items on display in the complex it’s probably not surprising. One was happy to let dad take his photo; the other not so.
We wandered around. A few of the buildings had been turned into museums with display cases of stuff – we queued just because we were there and may as well see them. We found we queued for far longer than it took to rip round the displays.
So far I was a bit underwhelmed. One part of the palace which I had missed seeing but which had been highly recommended was the Harem. We retraced our footsteps and there it was – another ticket queue. Sigh. Dad wanted to sit this one out so I left him in the shade with an orange juice. I think this was 10TL. And it was the highlight of the palace for me. Such an interesting building, not to mention background, and the route led you on a surprisingly long route from room to corridor to room to courtyard to room etc. What stood out for me most of all was the painted tiles – so many beautiful patterns and colours. I wish I’d taken more photos of those!
I found dad and joined him for another OJ. We were both really tired and achy one way or another, so it was time to go back to the hotel for a rest. I didn’t like to waste time doing this but it was a physical necessity – and I knew there should be another few hours when we got back to Istanbul in a couple of days.
We met up again in the evening and went for a walk, mainly to find dinner somewhere but ended up walking to part of the waterfront. Congested traffic produced a fairly constant beeping of horns and people where everywhere, many going to or exiting from the ferries across the Bosphorous River. We watched it all for a time, including the last of the sun setting over the city behind us, before finding dinner.
The end of a good day. While I wasn’t that ‘at one’ with Istanbul, I loved being somewhere so historical and with fantastic larger than life reminders of the ancient past on my doorstep. No time to stand still though, tomorrow we were off to Gallipoli. I didn’t appreciate just how much phaffing that would entail!