"If the world were a country, Istanbul would be its capitol" - Napoleon
25.08.2010 - 31.08.2010 33 °C
"If the world were one country, Istanbul would be its capitol" - Napoleon
Istanbul… Where do I start? Perhaps by a summary? Lively, vibrant, exotic, chaotic and noisy… *
Ok, before I start, I'd like to thank Ishwari for providing me a great list of things to see and do in Istanbul, as well as information to help me navigate my first few days in Istanbul. Thank you Ishwari!!
- I apologize in advance for any errors that may appear in my text or impressions that may not entirely reflect reality, but this is how I perceived this experience. :-)
Arrival… After an uneventful flight with Turkish Airlines, except for developing a new addiction (sour-cherry juice…), I arrived mid-afternoon in Turkey. Oh, uneventful, but the Australian National Basketball team (the Boomers) was on the flight as the 2010 basketball championship is in Istanbul. Anyhow, after getting through the customs (note to self - take Swiss passport next time to avoid the 60$ visa fee for Canadians…), I took a bus to Taksim square close to my youth hostel (Arch-Ist). The first thing that struck me was the line of tankers and cargo ships waiting to cross the Bosphorus. Secondly, I was struck by the heat. It's hot! (not that I'm complaining…)
After dropping stuff off in my hostel, I headed to Istiklal Caddesi which is a pedestrian street that is perpetually crowded. I was on it at odd hours between 7am and 4am and within that 21 hour span, it was always crowded and lively. Lots of shops and little covered alleyways that lead away from it. On it you find various palatial consulates (Holland, Russia and Sweden, for example), restaurants, stores and a tram. I grabbed a beer and some chips (fries) and then headed back to the hostel.
This morning was the first time I stepped foot in Asia. Ishwari offered to show me the Prince's Islands as well as part of the asian side of Istanbul, so I was to meet her in Kadiköy by taking a Dolmus across the bridge joining Europe to Asia. Dolmus in turkish means "full" or "stuffed". Well, these are sort of like taxis that do defined routes and people hop into them. They have about 8 places and as soon as they are full, they leave for the destination. You then pay the driver the fare. If you are sitting in the middle row, it is common for the people in the rear rows to hand you money to hand to the driver, and then you pass the change back. On the hot days, the side door (it sort of a van) is sometimes left open for cooling and there are no seats belts available. :-) Fun! So on my Dolmus, I headed off to the asian side and met up with Ishwari.
We then took a ferry to the largest of the Prince's Islands, Büyükada where we met one of her friends. On Büyükada, there are no cars, so if you want to get somewhere on the island and don't want to walk, you get to take horse drawn carriages. There is a carriage "terminal" close to the port and you get to queue to take one. The honking and car pollution is replaced by the quiet trotting of the horses, the creaking of the cart and the, um, aroma of the horses. That being said, it is a pleasant way to travel and sure beats a long climb on a hot day (and it was hot!). Some of the houses on the island are quite old and are lovely mansions. We headed up to the top of the island to see a small orthodox church (Aya Yorgi) and then walked back to the centre of town under high heat (perfect training for the Egyptian part of my trip).
From there, we took a ferry back to the asian side for a late lunch at the restaurant Sahan. I got to try a few local specialties: the lahmacun (sort of a pizza with minced meats, typically beef and lamb sprinkled with lemon juice that you roll around lettuce and onions - really good). [I figured that this trip was a bad time to try being vegetarian (except in India); I'm planning on trying that back home in January…] and an yoghurt kebab. For dessert I had Fistikli Tel Kadayif which is a form of vermicelli pastry (sort of like shredded filo) with pistachios in it and soaked in sweet syrup (really nice! Not particularly light, though…).
After that, it was time to go our separate ways and I took a ferry across to Kabatas and a funicular back up to Taksim… and made roesti for supper in the hostel from a pack I'd brought from Switzerland.
Sultanahmet… On the 27th, I visited several of the main sights in the older part of Istanbul. In particular the Galata Tower, a medieval tower dating back to the 14th century that provides a wonderful panorama of Istanbul.
Topkapi Palace with the Prince's Islands in the background:
After that, I headed to Sultanahmet to visit the Blue Mosque (more impressive from the outside than the inside) that dates back to the 1600s and can house 10000 worshippers. Honestly, other than the nice tiling inside, I found it a little hum drum. But it might be cultural and I might simply not be sensitive to that type of beauty. That being said, the blue tiling on the inside was rather nice, but the smell of feet (as all visitors had to remove their shoes) was rather pervasive. A guy was walking around spraying deodorant against the walls!
I then visited Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom) which was the world's largest cathedral from 360 till 1453 (an orthodox patriarchal basilica, to be precise) - at which point it became a mosque when Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks is a beautiful building that has been a museum since 1935 when the state secularized it. It has many relics of both christian and muslim origin.
I then visited the Basilica's cistern that was used to store water for the basilica and Sultanahmet. It was eerily beautiful and calm (and cool for a change) with fish currently in the reservoir and two medusa head columns of which one is upside down - nobody knows why for sure.
I then headed off to the Grand Bazaar where I did not exercise my haggling skills as there was nothing there that interested me (buying stuff when you are limited to 20kg of luggage is impractical to say the least!)
After this rather full day, I headed back to the hostel for a blissful yoga session which provided me with enough energy to join the hostel pub crawl (though it was mostly clubs - the first one was on a roof) till 4am. The pub/club/night scene in Istanbul is very lively and at 3-4 in the morning there are still plenty of people out there partying the night away on and around Istiklal Caddesi. The last club we were at had a live band that was very good.
My head hit the pillow at 4:36 and nine minutes later at 4:45, I heard the muslim call to prayer and contemplated the fact that people were waking up as I was going to bed.
After a long 2 hours of sleep (what can I say, I wake up with the sun), I decided for a more relaxed day, had a breakfast of börek (filo pastry filled with cheese) and simply went to the Spice Market (nicer than the Grand Bazaar in my opinion - or perhaps it is just my interest in food that is manifesting itself) but ended up in the "animal market" where a variety of pets (I hope they were destined as pets as I am referring to cats and dogs), rabbits, birds and even leeches were for sale. I had been expecting to see the nicely shaped stacks of spices and I saw nicely shaped stacks of cat food, dog food and bird feed. I finally found the Spice Market and it was nice.
I then headed off to Topkapi palace which was the residence of the sultans from 1465 till 1856. It is very interesting with nice architecture and is very big (housing up to 4000 people at one point). Of course, having been brought up in the a western country, my history of the life of sultans is sadly missing so a lot of it was lost on me - I should have taken a guided tour. But it was a nice and opulent palace.
That evening, I went to see the Whirling Dervish ritual which was fascinating. The order of the Mevlevi was founded in memory of the poet Rumi and the Sema ceremony has four parts, the third of which is when the dervishes will spin upon themselves like it is said Rumi did when he heard, within the sounds of gold being beaten "la elaha ella'llah" (there is none worthy of worship but God). It was held in a former hamman. I then returned to the hostel and chatted with other hostel guests from Ireland and France till a little past midnight.
Late start to the day, headed for a quick neighbourhood tour then off to a hamman. That was quite an experience. You change into a towel that you wrap around your waist. Your are then led into a room where you wash yourself and then lie down onto a large marble slab in the middle of the room. The room itself is probably around 45C and the slab is hotter still. The purpose of lying on the slab is to heat you up and open up your pores properly as you have to sweat quite a lot. 20 minutes later, your masseur enters and starts by rubbing you down with a hoarse wash-cloth which will literally strip layers of dead skin off. After that, you return to the slab and the masseur will then cover you in soap suds and then the torture starts… Imagine a sumo wrestler in a bad mood giving you a thai massage and you'll get a bit of an idea of the experience (except the guy wasn't in a bad mood and would even sing at times…). For the most part, the massage was good, but he insisted too much on two knots in my calves such that two days later, they still hurt. After that, rinse off profusely, cool off and then it is over.
On the positive side, lying in the beautiful room on the slab with the sound of running water is extremely relaxing and upon exiting the hamman you feel very clean and the sweltering heat outside actually feels cool after a half hour on the slab. Would do it again for sure, but minus the leg torture… :-)
Went back to the hostel to relax as I'd seen a lot the previous days and was a little tired. A few of us from the hostel went out for supper that evening which was pleasant. I got to taste a lentil soup, stuffed aubergine (excellent), circasian ravioli (excellent - I seem to be writing this a lot…), and a rice-lentil-fried onions mix.
Then I finally found some postcards!
Next morning, got up late, wrote my postcards and then went off to the Asian side of Istanbul to the Kadiköy district for a special meal (can you tell I'm a bit of a foodie?) in a restaurant called Ciya Sofrasi. It was, once again, excellent. The appetizers were varied (you served yourself at a buffet and the plate was weighed) though most I couldn't identify and as a main, I had a type of dish made with little meatballs, sour cherries, parsley and pide bread accompanied with a rice-lentil-fried onion mix. For dessert, it was a a pistachio pastry with a foam made from the sap of a root with a sprinkling of cinnamon. Once again… excellent!
After that, brief walk around Kadiköy. The prices seem lower than on the European side and there was also a nice food market with lots of very fresh fish, judging by the exposed gills.
Took a boat to the European side and walked by Dolmabahce Palace. I still have lots to see in Istanbul and could easily see myself returning for a week sometime in the future. I still need to do a Bosphorus evening cruise and there is an archaeological museum, a historical museum, the D. palace and several neighbourhoods I should see. I just really like the vibe in Istanbul.
Finished off my day with a long walk along Istiklal Caddesi followed by a supper of Iskender kebap which is a kebap where below the thinly sliced beef, there is a layer of pide bread in tomato sauce. They then pour melted butter on top and at the side there is yoghurt. It is also served with a chilli pepper and some tomato slices. Really good. I then had a sour cherry pudding (I really like visne) and then had Kadayif that is the baklava that looks like a mess of hair (thinly chopped filo?) soaked in a sweet syrup. A great end to my stay.