What with our insatiable appetite for perpetual movement we found we could only allow 1 full day to explore the city. Guidebooks and blogs, none of which are to be trusted of course, all seemed to suggest that 2 days was the very least amount of time necessary to fully appreciate Istanbul. Undeterred, we went to bed last night looking forward to an early start and a long day of exploration.
We actually awoke to thunder and lightning accompanied by torrential rain. So our morning began with a lazy breakfast at our hotel and a lengthy amount of consideration as to whether or not we should take a taxi to the first destination. We don’t often use taxis as walking is far more interesting. Fortunately a cheaper option presented itself in the form of a loaned umbrella, so we set off through the growing puddles.
First stop, via the excellent tram system (which seems to cost about £1 for any single journey you like), was the Hagia Sophia. This huge and striking building sits atop a hill and is visible from all directions. It was built as a church in AD537 by the Byzantine Empire, was converted to a mosque by the Ottoman Empire in 1453 and then finally it became a museum in 1931. The size of the building is astounding. Especially given when it was built. I’m no historian but I suspect that the residents of the British Isles were barely past wattle and daub at that point in time. A quick search on the internet shows I’m nearly right. Some church in Canterbury was all we had to show off at that time and it doesn’t bare comparison. That’s not to say that the Hagia Sophia was perfect. The Domes had a habit of collapsing. But they got it right in the end.
The interior is cavernous. It has the effect of rendering the beholder a little speechless, aside from the occasional mumble of “wow” and “look at the size of that”. A lot of the Christian decoration is still present with some impressive mosaics and paintings, particularly in the dome some 55m above. The Islamic influence comes in mainly in the form of 4 huge medallions bearing some Ottoman calligraphy. They look rather out of place and it seems there are calls to have them removed. My theory at the time was that they were hiding some overly Christian symbolism, and our usual retrospective research proves me right.
Some of the best views are from the upper gallery, both into the building and also out through the windows. Note the vertigo inducing scaffolding in place for some works on the dome.
Next on our hurried agenda was the Blue Mosque, which you can see in the photograph above – it’s located just the other side of a park from Hagia Sophia. Or is it a smoking area? Hard to tell. These Turks like to smoke as much as the Moroccans.
The Blue Mosque is far more impressive than the Hagia Sofia, at least from the outside. It’s six minarets rise into the sky like something from a Disney castle. It has one huge dome and eight smaller domes which give it an appearance nothing like I have ever seen before – aside from the Hagia Sophia. It seems that 200 years after they converted the Hagia Sophia, the best the Ottomans could come up with was a hefty dose of plagiarism. Though that doesn’t detract from the effect of walking right up to the mosque. It is immense and quite imposing, and the superior quality of the craftsmanship is clear to see.
But enough about that. We got our first dose of pressure selling at the Blue Mosque. As we approached we were undecided as to whether to go inside. As a man wearing shorts I would have to wear a loaned skirt to cover my offensive legs, and Claire a head covering of some sort. I didn’t greatly fancy the skirt, though I was resigned to it about the time the “tour guide” approached. He spoke good English and bestowed us with compliments, which he then ruined by telling me I looked Russian. I didn’t stink of Vodka and I don’t even own a shell suit, so it must have been my pale sun deprived skin tone.
He told us that it was prayer time so we would have to wait. That part was true. I could tell this by the incredibly loud call to prayer that had just commenced. But he was insistent that we should wait with him so he could give us an excellent tour once prayer time was over. The one thing we have learnt is when you aren’t interested you need to show it. So we hit him with a barrage of “no thank you” interspersed with one or two half hearted “maybe laters”. This prompted him to turn and accuse us of calling him a bad tour guide. Undeterred by his faux distress we finished him off with the old turn and leave. I heard him mutter under his breath as we walked away.
Which reminds me. I had to utilise the backpacker’s number one weapon yesterday. The backpack. Long term readers may recall that I developed this useful skill in Vietnam, where a backpack is just right for fending off all of those pesky Vietnamese queue jumpers. I also delivered a backpack blow to a pervert in Morocco last year. It was another pervert who got it yesterday. This chap, who looked a little unsavoury right from the moment I spotted him, loitered near us on the crowded tram. I could see him watching us…or to be exact, watching Claire. Or to be even more exact – watching Claire’s chest. Then he walked across the tram and tried to stand between us, for absolutely no reason at all. It was ludicrously unsubtle. Using my superior height and weight I gave him a gentle push under the pretence that I was getting ready to leave the tram. As we pulled into our stop he shoved back quite forcefully at me in an attempt to get past me to stand right behind Claire. She was totally oblivious to all this at time. I was forced into action. As the tram stopped I pulled off a superb fake stagger with a last minute pirouette. My fully loaded backpack connected with his shoulder. As I completed my pirouette and arrived back next to Claire I shouted a “sorry” over my shoulder. I turned to see the man picking himself up from another man’s lap. As I left the tram another passenger, a guy about my age, patted me on the shoulder and said “well done”.
So, back to the turbo-tour. Next we went to look at the Bucoleon Palace. This was something I wanted to see as it sounded like a Byzantine era building that was not changed in any way by the Ottomans. The reason became clear when we got there. It is certainly no longer palatial. It was built in the 5th century though.
Then we stomped back up the hill, map in hand, in search of the Grand Bazaar. We were both excited about this. In Morocco last year one of the highlights was the crazy souks and we were expecting the Grand Bazaar to be similar. Before entering we had lunch. I had a doner kebab. I was intrigued to find out what the UK’s favourite drunken brawling snack was before it was adapted for our pissed up masses. As it turns out a genuine doner kebab is really good here. The meat is like thin strips of the tastiest roast lamb marinated in something delicious. It came with some rice, some excellent flat bread and rather amusingly about 8 chips. This was also the first time I had eaten a doner with a knife and fork, rather than out of some paper whilst leaned up against a wall with chilli sauce dripping down my chin. Sadly I forgot to take a picture but rest assured that it looked as awful as it tasted good.
The Grand Bazaar was indeed an impressive building. It houses 61 streets and nearly 3,000 shops. It is entirely covered and has toilets, signs and is organised into different areas for different products. There is a gold area, another for carpets, a small area for handbags. The list goes on and on. Strangely the shopkeepers weren’t very lively. Only a couple tried to entice us into their shops and they were selling carpets. We are experienced at fending off carpeteers and they could tell. I have no idea who that yellow cowboy is by the way.
If we are honest we found the Bazaar a little underwhelming. It probably didn’t help that we weren’t buying, but the souks in Marrakech win hands down in terms of the experience. Istanbul could rectify this by making shopkeepers hassle every passer by mercilessly. They could also muck all the signs up so everybody gets lost and maybe remove a few light bulbs to improve the mood. That would make it more of an experience. Meanwhile, all the shoppers seemed happy as larry so I suspect my point is a bit invalid.
After visiting Morroco last year I got to thinking about which city or country closest to the UK is the biggest departure from our westernised ways. Istanbul, right on the border between Europe and Asia, seemed likely to be the answer. By this point I was doubting it. Istanbul was feeling very European. Not that that is bad thing, but I do like a completely alien cultural experience.
Next we headed downhill back towards the Golden Horn in search of the Spice Market. In truth I had no idea where we were at this point as despite the endless signs in the Bazaar I couldn’t be bothered to read them. But on the basis that the Spice Market was near the water we kept heading downhill, through the persistent rain and eventually walked straight into the Spice Market. And straight into the sort of experience we were looking for.
The Spice Market was heaving with shoppers. The smell of the spices was pungent and I quickly spotted the Turkish Delight shops up ahead. We battled through the crowds and found ourselves confronted with a huge choice of Turkish delight of all colours and shapes. Some with nuts on the outside, others with nuts on the inside. We were Edmund, fresh out of the wardrobe, and on the other side was the Quee….oh. The shop was run by some young guys dressed for a night out on the town. But they spoke English, mainly to Claire as I was obviously invisible. So whilst she ordered a selection box I took a photo.
I’m getting tired writing this. You are probably fed up of reading it too, but I’ll continue anyway. Next we jumped on a passenger ferry to Üsküdar for about £1 each way. We had no idea what we would find there, and nor did we really care. We took this ferry trip because the main part of Istanbul where we are staying is in Europe. But Üsküdar, a district of Istanbul home to half a million people, is in Asia. I will explain just in case you don’t know this. Istanbul has a strait that runs right through the city called The Bosphurus. The Bosphurus joins the Black Sea with the Mediterranean and forms part of the “border” between Asia and Europe. This may well be the only trans-continental journey you can take without a passport.
Üsküdar was pretty unremarkable, aside from the Turkish Coffee I tried. In the guidebooks it is described as thick. They aren’t wrong. It was so thick that it would barely come out of the cup. Having been on a reduced caffeine diet of late I was buzzing as we boarded the ferry back to Europe.