Tuesday, 20 January 2015

... Gorillas in the Mist: Turkish Delights

Just because I slept "overnight" on my flight I didn't for one minute think I was going to get away scott free without any jet lag woes. She didn't disappoint. I was asleep around 8pm and woke just after midnight, staying awake until well after 3am, re-waking at 530am and basically tossing and turning until my alarm at 8 (yes I had set an alarm).

After a quick shower and packing my daypack, I headed out the door. I had things to do and places to go! Admittedly first on my list was Starbucks - I was in need of some Java. I chose one part way down the pedestrianised boulevard of Istiklal Caddesi, which starts out at Taksim Square. I really could've gone anywhere and found one though, they are everywhere which is kind of sad. I passed at least 4 before I walked into one. Istiklal means independence (given after the formation of the Republic of Turkey) and it is said that you come here to witness the city as a local. That did make me wonder why, aside from the Starbucks, I was also greeted with Burger King and McDonalds.

The neighbourhood of Galata has its roots from the 14th Century. You walk along cobbled streets which all seem to converge on Galata square, home to the Galata Tower. For a fee of 25 lira you can actually go up the tower and be rewarded with outdoor 360 degree view of the city. A little pricey but if you time it right, like I did by going back to watch the sunset, then it is worth it.

You can take a Metro tram to many places within the city but I opted to walk. Although a little chilly (it is Winter after all), the sun was out and after the previous day of numb bum-itis there was no way I really wanted to spend time sitting on my backside unless it was absolutely necessary. Although distances look huge on a map, they're really not and I got from place to place very easily. To be a little less obvious, I had pinned a couple of places to my Google Maps app. It was very easy to fire it up and look like I was merely fitting in with everyone else with their face glued to a smartphone, although I didn't have to use it all that often.

I walked over the Galata Bridge, littered with restaurants and fishermen, across the stretch of water known as the Golden Horn from the Galata neighbourhood to Eminönü. I was greeted with the sight of the New Mosque, a rather odd name considering it dates back to 1597. That was when I actually managed to dodge traffic and cross the road. I've learnt in my short time here that vehicles are loathe to stop for pedestrians.

You can actually follow the tram line to get to the Byzantine and Ottoman-infused neighbourhood of Sultanahmet. The belief is though that all roads in Istanbul lead here anyway so technically does this mean you can never get lost? The sights, shops and hotels are all in easy walking distance and then before you know it you're in the next neighbourhood you want to explore. This is the heart of Old Istanbul and used to be known as Stamboul. It is home to some of the heavy hitters sight-wise, hence why I had made it my first port of call.

Sultan Ahmet Camii or Sultan Ahmed Mosque is more popularly known as the Blue Mosque due to the many blue tiles adoring the interior walls. It was built in the early 1600s during the rule of its namesake, Ahmed I, and his tomb lies here. It is absolutely stunning inside and more than 200 stained glass windows admit natural light adding the a sense of tranquility. It is a running mosque so prepare to wait if it's prayer time, and remember to bring something to cover your hair, shoulders, and knees (I believe head scarves are provided to females but I brought my own). You are provided with a plastic bag to carry your shoes rather than leaving them on shelves. Entrance is free.

A 72 hour museum pass costs 85 lira and gives you entrance to Topkapi Palace & Harem, Hagia Sophia (Aya Sofia), the Archaeology Museum plus several other sites. If you visit them all you save about 40 lira on admission wee you to pay individually but the biggest bonus is you bypass the ticket queues! I snapped one up in front of the Hagia Sophia.

Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque face each other but the former is the elder of the two. This amazing feat of engineering is almost 1500 years old. The interior is simply stunning, with the main attraction being the huge and beautifully decorated space supporting the dome. It was consecrated as a church in 537, converted to a mosque in 1453 and then became a museum in 1934. Look out for the Weeping Column - a hole in a pillar which you stick your thumb in in the hope it emerges wet thus curing you of ailments (the translation actually used the word sweat which was a little off putting), Viking graffiti carved into a marble banister, the beautiful mosaics and the Ottoman tombs. Some restoration is going on inside so certain parts of blocked off/covered.

Not included in the museum pass is the huge underground water storage cistern known as Basilica Cistern. This highly unique experience was well worth the 20 lira admission. At nearly 1500 years old, it consists of 336 30-ft high marble columns, and is capable of holding nearly 3 million cubic feet of water. There's still a couple of feet of water in there packed with what looked like Koi and you actually get to walk around and through the cistern on an elevated wooden walkway. It felt like I was going into some vampiric lair or the Chamber of Secrets from Harry Potter! Try and find the upside down and sideways Medusa heads plus the weeping column aka the peacock column. However, a pretty famous British spy was actually here before me... James Bond came here in the 1963 "From Russia with Love".

Lunch came courtesy of The Cihannüma, a restaurant known for its panoramic views and admittedly rated for that very thing in my Lonely Planet guide. I had an incredibly tasty hummus followed by a dairy free mushroom casserole (should've included cheese but they catered for my needs) which was delish. It wasn't cheap however but I figured that with how full I felt it could suffice as my main meal for the day and I would just snack later. Without realizing the close proximity, I actually walked past the Tourist Police station that was the target of a suicide bombing a few weeks ago. It was taped off and several police with big guns were stood outside, I didn't stop not that I needed or wanted to in any case.

Feeling very full I made my way back down the hill (I don't think I've yet mentioned Istanbul is quite hilly) only to walk up another one towards the Istanbul Archaeological Museum and Topkapi Palace. Both are covered under the museum pass. Topkapi Palace isn't open on Tuesday's but in retrospect that was actually ok because the Archaeological Museum is huge and I likely would've had a museum meltdown in any case.  You won't see everything right now either because it is undergoing restorations and yet there is still plenty to see. A few thousand years of history is housed in the buildings that make up this museum, there's even stuff from ancient Babylon. The information labels are very informative for those of you who like to read when visiting a museum and there's also the option of an audio guide for an extra cost. Sadly due to the restorations you won't be able to see the Alexander sarcophagus at this time.

The  Karpali Çarsi or Grand Bazaar is as the latter name suggests, very grand meaning huge. It would be very easy to get lost here. After walking up yet another hill, I went to go and have a look at the place rather than look for anything to buy. After a while it all started to look the same. Lots of jewelry and more carpets than I've ever seen in my life. The bazaar has been in operation for centuries so it worth a visit just for the historical aspect. If, like me, you do not want to buy anything, just stroll through the market exploring it and pretend not to hear, for the umpteenth time, "special discount lady, just for you." Make sure that you remember which entrance you came in and have an idea of how to get out. Google maps was my friend here and I had no problems in leaving from the right exit to take me to the highly recommended Misir Çarcisi (Egyptian Bazaar/Spice Bazaar). The smell is intoxicating, it's a tea and spice lovers heaven. You could probably walk around the entire thing and be fed your weight in lokum (Turkish Delight) samples, with no pressure to buy.

By now the sun was beginning to set so it was time to haul myself back across the Galata bridge to the tower. Admittedly I had been starting to fade until the sugar boost of lokum gave me a much needed kickstart. The views during sunset certainly didn't disappoint and were made even more magical when prayer rang out across the city.

And now I sit in the ironically named Caribou coffee house with a jolt of caffeine and a Zeytinli açma, Turkish bagel filled with olive paste whilst I plan my adventures tomorrow.

Old Constantinople's still has Turkish delight on a moonlight night.....

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