The Treasures of Old Istanbul

Trip Start May 03, 2013
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Trip End May 22, 2013

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Saturday, May 4, 2013

Saturday May 4 Day 2 Arrive Istanbul

We land in Istanbul after 12 hours. It is now Saturday 4:30 pm. Back in SF it's Friday 6:30 AM. We all exit the plane's stairway since it appears there's no gate available. A crowded bus takes us the short way to the terminal where we enter our first queue. This one is to buy a visa. The next one is for passport inspection (I use that term very loosely). The last is for baggage claim. Technically, there was also customs to pass through, but that was like water flowing unimpeded to the sea- just keep walking.

We locate our tour director who introduces himself as Mustafa (with the accent on the 'MU'). He sends us on to our tour bus located outside- a big white one he says- (after a few days, it becomes apparent that ALL tourist buses are white)- where  we begin introductions to our tour companions who arrived earlier. We all wait together a short while for 4 more to join us.

On to our hotel, which is located in the popular Taksim Square area across the Golden Horn from the "old town" where we will spend our days. Mustafa recommends an Italian restaurant up the street with a nice selection of wines. Jeanne and I do a little pasta and then head to bed.

Sunday May 5 Day 3: Istanbul

"Today we encounter Old Istanbul, beginning with the ancient Roman Hippodrome, home of the 3,500-year-old obelisk brought from Egypt in 390 CE; This morning we tour the Blue Mosque, with its 20,000 blue Iznik tiles, and six signature minarets; then Hagia Sophia, the 6th-century church that was Christendom’s most important before becoming a mosque in the 15th century. This evening we take a short walk to a local restaurant for a welcome dinner of traditional Turkish fare."

Morning arrives and of course we didn't sleep the whole night- the usual wall about 4 am. The wake-we-me-up is the encounter with the bathtub.

The hotel isn't large and has some characteristics of grandness on a smaller scale. Our doorway opens on to a hallway with dark wood siding and two closets. The bathroom on the right, which is modern yet stylish with a wooden sink counter, is off the hallway. The bedroom has a wooden headboard across the space with our two beds. The opposite wall has a desk and a storage cupboard with out little fridge. Above it hangs a large HD TV surrounded by a gold-ish baroque frame. A comfortable chair and ottoman hug the corner next to the cupboard. The far wall is nearly all window which looks down onto the narrow street (more about narrow streets later). One window pulls open to a very tiny balcony, designed only for decoration.

Now, back to that modern bathroom. Closer inspection reveals a tub in the corner shaped like a fat pie wedge. The tub part of it is actually quite small and shaped something like a narrow crescent. The rest is taken up with a little seating area and diverse controls, spouts, and knobs. A shower arm hangs from the back corner above the end of the tub crescent. Now, that's somewhat unusual, but not cause for alarm. Unfortunately, the base of the tub crescent is contained by a curved shower door that slide open to either side, but only slightly. The top of the tub is a good foot above the normal height. Add to that the narrow opening between the two door halves and the metal runner along the narrow tub shelf- and not a single handle to grab! There is really no easy way to maneuver a body no longer agile into the tub without endangering life and limb. Add to that the confusion about all the buttons and knobs. And all I want to do is bathe myself. Why is this made so difficult?

After our buffet breakfast,we all gather for introductions of our fellow travelers and discussion by Mustafa. Then we're off to the old town.

We arrive at the complex in the old town that contains the Blue Mosque and the  Hagia Sophia in a park-like area called the Sultanahmet (named for Sultan Ahmet- why it's now one word is  not explained) that also includes the 'Hippodrome'. The line to HG is already quite long. Our driver drops us in the area between the two structures. We walk through the Hippodrome, which is really just an open park area containing obelisks from Luxor brought during Theodosius reign in 390 BC. It's mostly just a stroll around with commentary by Mustafa and then we disperse to grab a quick lunch from one of the many eating establishments in the area. We pick a kebab place where we're served chicken kebabs and a coke- more on the kebabs later.

We all get in line to enter the Blue Mosque and shuffle along around the corner before we finally make our entrance. We grab plastic bags off of a roll for our shoes. The women are given large scarfs made of heavy blue material. I try to point out the baseball cap to escape the process, but no luck. So, I hurriedly pull off my shoes, stuff them in the bag, tie it around my belt, then wrap the blue scarf around my head over the baseball cap, all while shuffling along in line to keep up with our group. The place is packed and I fear getting separated.

It's "blue" due to all of the beautiful tiles lining the walls and domed ceilings. We gather in a corner while Mustafa talks to us about the mosque. My attempts at photography are complicated by all of the wires supporting the chandeliers. The scarf is hot and awkward. It continually slides off requiring me to readjust it. Eventually, we cross through in our stockings to the other side and exit. I can finally free myself of the scarf and put my shoes back on. The Blue Mosque is unique among mosques in this mosque filled city with its 6 minarets. Architecturally, it would stand out anywhere. The tile work is magical. But all the wires and trusses (and the crowds and hot scarf) unfortunately detract from what must have been something quite special when it was built.

On to the HG, which is just across the park. The line has gone down and we get in fairly quickly. The interior is actually quite sad. I can only dream of what it might have looked like 1500 years ago. Scaffolding covers half the wall and the area is also filled with hanging chandeliers. The  walls are not in good shape, impacting the mosaics and frescoes. There is a somewhat confusing mixture of Christian and Muslim artifacts.

We head out for a trip to the spice bazaar. The bus lets us out and we walk through an open square to the enclosed market entrance. The nearby New Mosque ( how new is new in this city?) is apparently the home to hundreds of pigeons.

Dinner is at a kebab restaurant a short walk away from our hotel. The delicious breads and sauces and tasty grilled meats put our quickie lunch to shame. The sun is setting off beyond the trees. Wouldn't it be nice to get an unobstructed photo?

Monday May 6 Day 4: Istanbul
"Today we visit the splendid Topkapi, the medieval palace of Ottoman sultans that today is one of the world’s richest museums. We visit the Grand Bazaar, housing some 4,000 shops. After lunch at a local restaurant,  we take a private cruise on the Bosphorus, the water­way that separates Europe from Asia."

Early rise to get  a head start on the lines. We bus back to the old town across the Golden Horn and the entrance to Topkapi palace. The palace is at the triangle formed by the joining of the Golden Horn, the Sea of Marmara and the Bosporus. The sky is overcast and grey and it's a little chilly. We arrive before the official opening, but the large first courtyard area is beginning to fill up as we wait. The little souvenir store (and restrooms- can't be too careful) are inviting. I pick up a small book about the palace containing many photos- since we won't be able to take any inside the palace itself.

What follows is a fabulous display of bling. We all shuffle along in line formation, in the door, shuffle to the right, counterclockwise shuffle around the room, shuffle out and on to the next room, repeat. All accompanied by quiet 'oohing' and 'aahing' at the amazing uses of jewels and gold. Brief pause when we shuffle out onto a courtyard to view the Sea and the Bosporus- still engulfed in grey sky- and then back to shuffling again.

Eventually we run out of rooms to shuffle through. The courtyards are now VERY crowded as we make our way back out to the front gate and board the bus for the short drive, through narrow streets, to one of the entrances to the Grand Bazaar.

Much like the Spice Bazaar, but much much larger. The Grand Bazaar's domes and arches are beautifully edged with tiles mostly in blues and covered by geometric designs. It reminds me of the Blue Mosque. I'm a little afraid of becoming lost. There are crowds of locals and tourists swimming along in both directions. We cross side streets, but stay on the main route to avoid confusion. That route comes to an end and we head back along the opposite wall. We eventually take the chance and dive into a side street, swimming with the crowd up one side and then back down the other.

I'm snapping photos like crazy! Although I'm not much of a shopper, we both become interested in a small shop displaying illustrations from a Sufi book. I end up buying one of an old man with a red cap twirling his long white gown around him, arms lifted with hand cupped. I hadn't seen anything like it at the bazaar- but saw several more on our walk back to the entrance.

We leave the bazaar and head out a short distance on the bus and walk up narrow streets to a small hotel restaurant. Our lunch is on an open second floor veranda looking out at the domes of mosques and surrounded by flowering trees. I sneezed my way through lunch.

THEN back to the Golden Horn square to pick up our cruise boat. We headed up one side, seeing old and new side by side- mosques, office buildings, home, palaces, forts, mobs of seagulls- before finally returning to shore, our bus, and dinner back near Taksim Square.

BUT was our day over? Ah, but no. We still needed to capture that last lovely ray of sunset over Istanbul. Mustafa advised a trip to the Galata tower for the best view over the Golden Horn toward the old town to the west. He quickly described how to get there- not far at all. We checked again, with map in hand, at the desk. Oh, yes, short walk- 20 minutes. Turn left at the second street.... What we came to understand during this trip: Turks don't do directions. Even if they did, there's no street signs to check against. This was not the last time we came up against this problem.

Well, a couple hours later, after asking directions from a police man and from a hotel porter, and as the sun was already below the horizon, we finally found Galata Tower. Was it worth the effort? A hundred times over. The lovely lights on the street and the tower, the somewhat hazardous walk up the dark, circling stairway, the wedge of people coping with a walkway one person wide yet still circling in opposite directions, the surprisingly harsh cold wind when you came around to the east side, and the glorious view across the Horn of the delicately lit up bridge and mosques. Then an exhausting walk uphill until we found a taxi, collapsed in the back seat, and gave ourselves up to the good will of the driver to get us back to the hotel. The little hotel card with the location marked on a tiny map? Priceless!

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