Istanbul, Turkey

Istanbul

Ken and I must have been feeling the travel bug by the end of 2014, because we hopped from one place to the next. Our last stop of 2014 was Istanbul, Turkey. After what seemed like months of planning and coordinating, we were on our way to join a few friends in the city between Europe and Asia.

Istanbul is a city divided, not only physically along the river Bosphorus, but also ideologically, religiously and socially. Istanbul felt at the same time both very religious, and very secular; modern but traditional; developed yet undeveloped.

Another interesting experience was hearing the daily call to prayer which could be heard no matter where in the city you were. When we were waiting in line for the Hagia Sophia, the call to prayer volleyed between the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque across the garden. It was a very sacred and even comforting sound.

Harem_01

It was so busy; busy with people from all over the world. I have to say, it was the first time in my life where I encountered accents and languages that I couldn’t place at all! There were people with ethnic looks that I’d never seen. It was exhilarating. Truly a meeting point between the Middle East, Asia and Europe.

The weather was crap  – it was raining and snowing and cold and I was still sick from when we had been in Prague. Again, I ended up spending a day in bed just to rest up and get my strength back! We sat on the roof drinking tea, wearing five layers and watching peoples’ umbrellas blow out the other way. The city was littered with broken umbrellas!

trolley

Despite the hoards of travelers, we still managed to see and do a lot. Our first day we went to the Hagia Sophia. Oh My God. I don’t even think my photos can do the building justice. The first church in this spot was built in the 3rd or 4th century by Constantine’s son. Constantine was the first Roman convert to Christianity. After a few wars and fires, the structure for the current Hagia Sophia was built in the 6th Century. For years the Hagia Sophia acted as a church until Constantinople was taken over by the Ottomans in the 15th Century, and the Hagia Sophia was converted into a Mosque. The layers and layers of history are being uncovered and restored. Byzantine mosaic work under frescos under white wash. The building felt ancient and alive.

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The following day we visited the Topkapi Palace. We started by strolling through the old harem section, which was also apparently where the royal family slept! It was very crowded and dark when we were visiting, but the tile work and paintings all over the exterior and interior were amazing. We also visited sections where some of the most precious crown jewels are on display, and an arabic calligraphy exhibit showing the work of the calligrapher who drew the letters inside of the Hagia Sophia.

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Harem_03

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We spent an afternoon looking for trinkets in the grand bazaar. We were approached time and time again by men trying to sell us rugs. Then spontaneously, much to Ken’s surprise, I figured…what the hell…and we were lured into a shop. I don’t know what happened, but an hour later, we walked out with two small Turkish rugs at a fairly reasonable price with unique stitching which I had never seen before. Ken was a master haggler, and saw how much I was aching for a unique Turkish rug even though I’d done tons of research that lead me to believe that Turkish rugs were totally NOT my style. They’re both currently in our bedroom, and I am exceedingly happy with them!

Having spent a good hour buying rugs, we didn’t have much more time to comb the Grand Bazaar. What I did notice though, was that everything they were selling there, I could get at a more reasonable price in our neighborhood near to the Galata Tower.

Details

Another memorable experience was visiting the Blue Mosque. We waited on line about 10 minutes before the Mosque would close for the final prayer of the day. We stood in the pouring rain, frozen to the bone, and upon entered needed to remove our shoes. Imagine a hundred people trying to move forward while simultaneously trying to remove shoes. The smell of damp stinky feet permeated everything, and I felt like we were part of a cattle drive. But as soon as we entered, my breath was taken away. It was just beautiful inside – absolutely amazing. Incredibly high ceilings with lamps that hang until 10ft above your head. It looks like fishing lines all over. And the arabic calligraphy is everywhere. We only had about 15 minutes inside until we were herded out so evening prayer could begin, but it as just overwhelmingly beautiful.

BlueMosque

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We spent an evening walking over the Galata Bridge headed towards the Spice Bazaar. We got distracted along the way and started shopping, and then stopped for a fast blue fish sandwich on the side of the bridge. The Galata Bridge is just jam packed with men fishing for blue fish. Considering how many lines there are, it’s amazing anyone catches fish and not each other. Ken and I watched as they artfully cast their lines without snagging on each other’s poles and hauled in blue fish after blue fish. I don’t know how clean the Bosphorus is, but those fish were yummy! We sat and were served pink pickled cucumbers and onions and ate our sandwiches covered in lemon juice and salt. By the time we finished we only had a half an hour to walk through the Spice Bazaar before it closed. It was like the grand bazaar except a little cheaper and home to a lot more turkish delight shops than trinket shops.

Bosphorus

fishing

Our last adventure was an afternoon / evening trip to the Asian side of Istanbul. After a short ferry ride across the Bosphorus, where unbeknownst to our companions, I almost locked myself in the onboard toilet, we made it to Asia. I thought the Asian side would be dead, but it was really busy and we walked through the narrow streets filled with shops and restaurants until we stumbled upon a really yummy fish place where I successfully ate my first whole fish of my life! We ended up prolonging our dinner a little to listen to local musicians play ballads while the gentleman behind our table sang along while slinging back Raki, an interesting and potent anise alcohol.

We had our own Raki experience the following night. Raki is drunk mixed with water which turns the clear liquid into a cloudy milky looking substance! It’s strong and tasty and totally dangerous. We all had fun trying it.

BlueFish

What else did we do…let me think. We ate a lot – kebabs, local blue fish, huge baklava, various turkish delight, a tiny ravioli called Manti, künefe (Shredded phyllo dough encasing a sweet cheese, topped with pistachios and honey), gozleme (pancakes, which for some reason are always made by women who sit inside the restaurant to make them) and lots and lot of tea. Turkish tea at almost every meal – bitter and delicious. We had Turkish breakfast a few times, which is usually bread with various olives, cheeses, falafel and spreads. There were kebab stands all over the city – so much meat it was insane.

Food

Istanbul, what an amazing amazing city. I would love to go back when the weather is nicer and it’s a little less crowded so we can actually spend time in the Hagia Sophia, and have a hammam experience (which we didn’t do since our companions has such a bad experience). Istanbul is huge and crazy, and always open and alive. It is a city straddling two ways of life, and it seems to be doing a fairly good job of maintaining this delicate balance. I never felt unsafe or uncomfortable even though some crazy things happened when we were there. But a large city is a large city – this just happened to be a large very cool city that I hope to visit again soon.

Snacks