Even old New York was once New Amsterdam
22.03.2010 - 29.03.2010 15 °C
In Turkey, do they just call it 'delight''?
As soon as we set foot in Istanbul we were impressed. Impressed with the efficient trams, impressed with the funicular (Banks, are you reading this?) and impressed with the modern, cosmopolitan feel. Istanbul was definitely east meets west.
We had five days to see the city and the must-visit-for-all-Kiwis, Gallipoli, before Jac's friend Lisa joined us for two weeks from London. Looking at our guidebook, the list of sights in Istanbul were overwhelming, and Jac ended up earmarking everything... which defeated the whole purpose of earmarking.
First on our list was the grand Topkapi Palace, which dates back to the 1400s. The palace was huge and almost entirely decorated in opulent mosaics. Among the various rooms, we visited the Harem, which turned out to be not for purposes salacious as we thought, but was actually the imperial family quarters. Slave girls were present, but only as ladies-in-waiting, not as slinky gold bikinied temptresses as we'd imagined. Unfortunately the highlight of the Palace, the Treasury was shut so we spent the rest of the time simply wandering the huge, hall-like rooms and snapped away like the studious tourists we were.
We next visited The Blue Mosque, which was built by a sultan to rival the nearby Orthodox Christian church, Aya Sofya. It boasts the largest courtyard of all Ottoman mosques and decorated in tens of thousands of blue tiles. It truly was grand, although didn't look as bright blue as we expected inside. More of a browny-blue. Still were thankful that us non-Muslims were allowed to view this magnificient mosque, albeit in the presence of some 200-other tourists all jostling for photographic position.
We crossed the square to Aya Sofya, which was definitely the highlight of Istanbul for us. It was built in 1st century as part of a Roman Emperor's quest to restore the Empire's geatness. In the 1400s however, the Muslims took over and it was converted into a mosque. Aya Sofya was stunning. As we entered the huge Imperial Door the sight of the soaring interior was impressive (sorry, have you had enough superlatives?). Giant black and gold discs with Arabic calligraphy flanked the apse, part of the church's conversion to a mosque. What was pleasing was that the Christian mosaics throughout the church remained, rather than destroyed by the faith's mortal enemy. As we looked up we could see four angels painted around the main dome, and we overheard a guide saying that their faces had been previously covered up by metal sheets and one had just been revealed for the first time ever. We walked around the church in awe at the grandeur of this famous building.
How many leather bags and ceramics can one buy in the Grand Bazaar? Answer: Quite a few, particularly if you're on a haggling roll. The Grand Bazaar was a lot more shiny and modern than expected, after the souqs we'd wandered through previously. It boasts more than 4.000 shops and is somewhat of a maze, we discovered. Again we were astonished at how the shop owners would immediately call out "Kiwi" or "Aussie Aussie" to us in an effort to get our attention and step inside their carpet/ceramic/copper/leather/jewellry shop. It must be because we look like world-class rugby players or something. That or sheep shearers.
We must say that the real bonus of Istanbul for us was Lisa's arrival! She joined us after catching the red-eye and only getting two hours of sleep, then hit the sightseeing with us, then went on to go hopping hip Beyoğlu's bars with us! Most people would nod off once martinis and wine were added to the jetlag equation, but not our Lisa!
We froze our way along the Bosphorus river on a boat cruise, strolled through Gülhane Park to see the just-blooming tulips (bit of trivia: cultivated tulips originate from Turkey, not Amsterdam) and visited the atmospheric Basilica Cistern. To quote our guidebook, when those Byzantine emporers built something, they certainly did it properly. It was built in the 1st century and used to store water. However gradually it was forgotten until the 1500s when an antiquities researcher was told by locals they could 'miraculously' source water and fish from below their basement floors. However upon discovery the Ottomans didn't appreciate the elegant cistern and used it dump stuff, even corpses.
Sadly, it was time to farewell Istanbul. We hired a car, reiterated the need to stick to the right, and unarmed with maps (maps, schmaps!) set off for the Aegean sea.
The Blue Mosque
Chalky among the throng of tourists
Jac in the Blue Mosque
The recently uncovered Angels on the ceiling
Chalky tries out the weeping column
Jac in Aya Sofia
One of the many Christian mosaics
Inside the Grand Bazaar
Chalky unladen with souvenirs... so far
Towers of Turkish treats
Chalky making friends with the kebab man
Galata Bridge to Beyoğlu
Fishermen on Galata Bridge
Traffic jam in the underpass
In the Spice Market
The Spiral Column and Obelisk of Theodosius
Colourful Turkish headwear
A Van Cat, unique to the eastern town its named after, and famous for being a feline David Bowie
Lisa arrives! Drinks in a rooftop bar in Beyoğlu
Storks' nests in Gülhane Park
Tulips beginning to bloom
Us in the Cistern
Sultanahmet by night
Aya Sofia by night