Wednesday, 21 January 2015

... Gorillas in the Mist: Diamonds Are Forever

After a far better night's sleep, I was up n' out the door walking down Istiklal Caddesi with a Java in hand just before 9am. I was heading for the ferry terminal in Eminönü across the Galata Bridge and it didn't take me long.

The Bosphorous connects the Mediterranean to the Black Sea (only a mere 20 miles away) via the Sea of Marmara, Dardanelles and the Aegean Sea It forms the boundary between Europe and Asia thus dividing Istanbul in two continents.

TurYol is a private ferry company primarily running ferries for locals as an alternative to the city ferry line. However it pleased me to learn that they also run a 90 minute tour along the Bosphorous for an crazy low price 12 TL every hour with the last sail around 7pm I believe. Tour companies up in Sultanahmet want to charge over 20€! It was time to test my sea legs.

The boats are large, modern & clean and a really nice elderly gentleman walks up and down plying you with hot tea, orange juice and snacks for very little cost. I got a seat right near the back port side as my research had led me to discover this was the best side for the tour if you wanted a closer view of the coastlines. Both coasts are lined with palaces, ruins, villages, old Ottoman wooden houses (Yali) and gardens. The baroque buildings of Dolmabahçe and Çiragan Palaces are there to in all their grandiose glory and the latter is now a hotel. A glimpse of old versus modern is with the Ortaköy Mosque, absolutely dwarfed by the Bosphorous Bridge which connects the two continents. Rumeli Hisari (Europe), just before the Fatih bridge where we turn to head back down the Asian coast, and Anadolu Hisari (Asia) are two fortresses adjacent to each other. Of course a highlight for me was sailing pass the Maiden's Tower (Kiz Kulesi) whose original structure dates back to 341BC. Legend has it that a young princess who was locked here as a means of protection died here after being bitten by a snake, as an oracle had predicted leading to her being sent there in the first place. Today the tower has been fully restored and transformed into a luxurious restaurant. It has been a watchtower, a lighthouse, a quarantine station and these days a cafe/restaurant. More importantly it is where Elecktra King holds MI6's M (Dame Judi Dench) captive and where she later tortures 007 with a garrote in the 1999 "The World is Not Enough" (the one where Denise Richards is laughably a nuclear physicist).  The tour was great value for money and audio guides are available for an extra price.

Any place that is famous for its Harem is going to have a colourful history, and I'm not talking about the colour of the interior decor here. Topkapi Palace is basically a historical soap opera with tales of randy Sultans, concubines, scheming eunuchs during the Ottoman Empire. The exceptionally well maintained buildings and grounds are simply stunning. Even the "circumcision room" is opulent - you could literally lie back and think of the Ottoman Empire. Ah the life of the privileged.  There are more rubies, emerald and diamonds than at De Beers, the bones of Saint John Baptiste, several belongings of the Prophet Muhammad and allegedly the staff of Moses. Perhaps the most stunning item I clapped my eyes on was the 86 carat, yes 86, colourless (grade D) Spoonmaker's diamond. It is considered to be the 4th largest in the world and has a further 49 old-mine cut diamonds around it in two rows. Now that's some serious bling! It apparently gets its name from the fact a jeweller gave 3 spoons for it to the poor fisherman who found it in amongst some litter. There are also tales linking it to Napoleon and also to Marie Antoinette. The entrance fee for both the Palace and the Harem are both covered with the museum pass. Note that you are forbidden to take photographs in many of the rooms housing artefacts but it is well worth the visit. You will need to devote a couple of hours to truly get a feel for the place. Also on the grounds is the Aya Irini, a Byzantine church almost as old as Hagia Sophia. It is now mostly empty bar the pigeons that nest here but it's serenity might prompt you to wonder why you never ever see a baby pigeon. The Istanbul International Music Festival apparently gives it a facelift and uses it as a venue for classical music due to its exquisite acoustics. Entrance is covered by the museum pass but I wouldn't pay to go in otherwise.

By now I was feeling hungry and so I headed back down to the docks where I caught the ferry from this morning. Istanbul's favourite fast food can be bought here, the balik ekmek (fish sandwich). You queue up with all the locals in front of boats tied to the quay that are grilling mackerel fillets and stuffing them into fresh bread with a generous serving of salad. For a mere 6 TL you get a very tasty lunch (made even tastier by a very generous serving of lemon juice) and if you want to be truly local you wash it down with a 3TL cup of salgam (pickle juice with chunks of pickles & paprika). Of course I did both, being British I do have the pickle gene after all located just after my queuing gene in my chromosomes.

I wouldn't have been much of a traveller had I come all this way to Istanbul and not tried Turkish coffee. If you are in a rush for your caffeine fix then this perhaps isn't a drink for you, it is a method of preparation and not a kind of coffee. I was asked how sweet I wanted it. To be honest I had no clue if I was meant to have it sweet or not so I was asked how I normally drink my coffee. Result? I was going to have my Turkish coffee sade (no sugar). Apparently a well-prepared Turkish coffee has a thick foam at the top (köpük), is homogeneous, and does not contain noticeable particles in the foam or the liquid. I checked my teeth after the first sip. So far so good! I didn't look like I had just taken a mouthful of black treacle! It was delicious and creamy tasting yet didn't have a drop of dairy in it. There was a piece of lokum too which was equally as yummy. Admittedly I had to look up what the glass of accompanying water was for, this was after I had started pouring it into my coffee to "spread it further" and apparently you're supposed to leave the grounds in the bottom of the cup. No wonder I was buzzed. The girl in the shop must have been horrified! You can take a lass out of Lancashire.....

I stayed at the coffee shop for a couple of hours reading and ordering another drink, this time a fresh lemon & ginger tea served with a cinnamon stick. Still feeling decidedly full from the balik ekmek (or may be it was the overdose of coffee grounds that was satiating my hunger) I opted to buy a sesame seed coated Simit (Turkish bagel) from a street seller for 1 TL and a banana for dinner as I slowly headed back to base. I can always rely on ye olde faithful banana "sandwiches" no matter where I am!

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