Istanbul Birthday Weekend

Istanbul is the only city on the planet that straddles two continents. Most of this sprawling megalopolis of 15 million souls is situated in Asia. But there’s also a chunk of it across the Bosphorous Strait, in Europe. That chunk is where most of the historical points of interest are located, and it’s where we were headed. Unfortunately, although there is a major international airport on that side, not far from where we’d be staying, the only flights we could get into town from Spain landed at another airport, the Gokcen Airport on the Asian side, which was a 2-hour commute by bus and train.

So after we landed and underwent the customary immigration initiation, we had to hit an ATM to withdraw some currency in the form of Turkish lira (about 7 lira equals one U.S. dollar). Then we went outside to catch a bus. The ticket machines were rather confusing, especially since only one of us (Dennis) had any grasp of the Turkish language at all. And we tried the patience of the line of passengers waiting behind us, but they at least had good manners about it.

Finally we were on the bus, and after a ride of about an hour and some assistance from a couple of fellow passengers, we got off a couple of blocks away from a subway station. And entering this station, we found more ticket machines that were problematic — not because the instructions were hard to understand, but because we didn’t have, and could not obtain, the proper change. ATMs tend to dispense big bills by default; so it’s a good idea to withdraw an oddball sum so you’ll have a mix — which is exactly what we neglected to do.

There was no attendant on duty, but there were a couple of policemen keeping tabs, with whom we managed to communicate in gestures and fragments of mangled Turkish. They were friendly and helpful — one of them even whipped out his wallet and tried to make change for us. Finally, however, we understood the system so that we could use our bus tickets (which still had money on them) for train fare, and even get a refund for unused portions at some stations. So then we caught a train into the historic district, got off, and walked a few blocks to the hostel where we’d be staying.

This hostel, called Social House, was one of the best places we’ve ever stayed. It was clean, quiet, well-equipped and meticulously managed, with every little detail thought out. We had a private room with a comfortable bed, rather like a hotel except that the bathroom and shower were across the hall. There was a refrigerator on each floor, with a clever system for designating a space for each room. There was a fully equipped kitchen, and a nice lounge area with a view of the city, as well as free coffee and tea at any time. And the tea wasn’t the green stuff that was so ubiquitous in Morocco; it was dark, high quality, genuine Turkish tea — and Turkish tea is even better than Turkish coffee. There were even (oh joy oh bliss) a washer and dryer. And we were within a short walk of many historical points of interest. Oh, and the price tag for all of this was a princely 20 bucks a night.

The next day, we wasted no time in getting out and seeing the neighborhood, a district called Fatih. We’d read that many visitors to the city never get out of Fatih, and it’s not hard to see why. It’s where the greatest amount of Istanbulishness is located.

Our first point of interest to hit was the Grand Bazaar, which we actually found to be a bit of a letdown after all its hype. It is indeed an impressively enormous marketplace, but to us it seemed a bit too modernized and sanitized. We were hoping to would be something more on the order of the souqs we frequented in Morocco, existing mostly to supply the needs of locals; instead, it definitely caters to tourists, and is therefore little more than a mall. But there were some traditional touches, including the vendors of hot Turkish tea served in tulip-shaped glasses, and carried on a round tray suspended from three chains (the vendors we saw, though, used a more stabilized tray that substituted metal rods for chains, which seems to be the modern innovation).

One thing we absolutely had to do was purchase a couple of simits from a street vendor. A simit is sort of a Turkish bagel, but the hole is bigger, and the bread is coated with sesame seeds. It was also on our priority list (well, at least on Dennis’ — he’s become a real bread freak) to buy some real Turkish lavaş (lavash) which is a traditional flatbread — though the kind we like most is shaped into a hollow loaf. A few years ago, we had some at a Turkish restaurant in Orlando, and it was superb. But we’ve never been able to find any more to equal it. Alas, we didn’t find it in Turkey, either. In fact, although lavaş was on the menu at restaurants (where we did not eat) we never found any at all for sale in stores or bakeries. Go figure.

One culinary treat that was absolutely on our Turkish bucket list was ice cream. Turkish ice cream, to be sure, is really good. But that isn’t the only reason to buy it, or even the best reason. The real experience is watching how it’s served. Many of the ice cream vendors are skilled comics who pull all kinds of hilarious little sleight-of-hand tricks while serving your ice cream cone. It really must be seen to be appreciated. Their high jinks are assisted by the really long serving spoons they use, and the composition of the ice cream itself — it includes ingredients that make it more durable and pliable, and thus more easily manipulated. One of the vendors we patronized — and of course we had to do it more than once — pulled out, at one point in his routine, the entire chunk of one flavor from its pail rather than just a cone-sized scoop. We of course had to order pistachio flavored, since the pistachio is one of the products for which Turkey is famous — and we weren’t disappointed.

One of the days when we had ice cream was Sunday, which was Dennis’ birthday. Turkey is one of the top countries he’d always wanted to visit and Istanbul was the top city on his list. To be there on his birthday was a dream come true. For the occasion, we planned to visit the two famous mosques which were only a few blocks from our hostel: Hağia Sophia and the Blue Mosque.

Along the way, as we were gawking and gandering the way tourists do, we were approached by a friendly local who introduced himself as Ahmed, and asked if he could help us find anything. Immediately our alarm bells went off, after spending time in Morocco and being repeatedly targeted by hustlers who tried to come off as friendly and helpful while in fact trying to lure you into some shop to buy something — or just hit you up for spare change. But Ahmed seemed genuine, so we chatted with him a bit, and he told us about a certain historical landmark around the corner, and led us to it, and explained a little about it.

And then he said that, by the way, he had a shop nearby, and he’d like to show it to us. Well, out of sheer curiosity to learn whether he was just another con man, we accompanied him into the little shopping center next to us. First, he said, he wanted us to meet a couple of friends, so he took us into a rug shop; and as soon as we walked in the door, a couple of gentlemen went into their well-polished routine of unrolling fancy rugs with a flourish and a smile. People really think we’re in the market for rugs to stick into our backpacks.

Then Ahmed invited us to have tea with him, and at that point we’d heard enough. We knew that in some cultures sharing a cup of tea is a ceremony to seal a business transaction, and we were in no mood to transact. So we said we had pressing matters to attend to, and bid him farewell.

Then it was on to the mosques. But would you believe there were a lot of other people there who wanted to see them too? Far, far too many, we decided, to make for a comfortable visit, so we decided to postpone it until the next day, which would be Monday, and we could get an earlier start at it. We did, however, stroll around the plaza and found an Egyptian obelisk, which looked much newer than anything else in the vicinity. We guessed that it was a modern replica. But upon reading a nearby plaque, we were surprised to learn that it dates back to the year 390, and was actually transported to Turkey from Egypt.

So the next day we returned right after breakfast with the intent of entering Hağia Sophia, which is pronounced something like Aya Sofya (with the “y” in Sofya like a long “i”) — sometimes you’ll even see it spelled that way on signs. It is, more than anything else, the iconic landmark that immediately proclaims you’re in Istanbul. It’s the one feature that filmmakers shooting a scene that takes place in this city inevitably frame in an establishing shot. And on this day, it was also something else: closed when we arrived. And wouldn’t open for another hour or so.

So in the meantime we awarded ourselves the consolation prize of the Blue Mosque, just across the plaza. The Blue Mosque gets its name from its blue tiles on the interior; but just to drive home the point, it’s also flooded with blue light at night. It was constructed between 1609 and 1616 when its neighboring mosque already had been going strong for centuries, so we’re not quite sure why anyone felt a competitor was needed.

The Blue Mosque

Upon entering a mosque, of course, you must deposit your shoes at the entrance. (When a mosque is really crowded you can whiff the toe jam.) And if your legs are not covered you’ll be issued a poncho. Women will be issued a head covering if they don’t have their own.

There wasn’t a great deal to see in the Blue Mosque. In general mosques don’t go in for a great deal of ornate decoration in comparison to churches. Plus, it was heavily under renovation, and there was a great deal of scaffolding. But yes, there are tiles that are sort of bluish.

Hağia Sophia

Finally, we headed across to the big enchilada. The central dome of the Hağia Sophia was constructed as a church around 537, and at the time it was of unprecedented proportions; it had a profound influence on the history of architecture. In 1453, when Muslims took control of the city, the church was converted into a mosque. Not long afterward, the distinctive spires were added, lending this majestic edifice the finishing touch it needed all along. It served as a mosque until 1935, when it was converted into a museum, which existed until 2000; and in 2018 it resumed its function as a mosque — and an extremely popular tourist destination.

Many of the Christian elements inside the dome were long ago removed, plastered over or covered up, but some of them later were restored, though some of them you have to look for closely. Among the more conspicuous features are mosaics of the archangels Gabriel and Michael. There’s something called the Nice Door, which was added in the year 838, but is actually much older, having been reportedly ripped off from some pagan culture in the Second Century BCE. The largest entrance is called the Imperial Gate, dating back to the Sixth Century; but its wood is claimed to be much older, and reputedly was once part of… drum roll…Noah’s ark. And there’s something called the Wishing Column, the touch of which is supposed to heal you. (If nothing else, it might cure you of gullibility.) All over the place, if you stare at the walls long enough, you see some curious detail pop out at you, and you wonder what it is, and almost wish you’d caved in and paid ten bucks to one of those tour guides hustling you outside the entrance.

The mosque was extremely crowded, though not as crowded, apparently, as it had been the day before, with plenty of tour groups bumping into each other. At one point, Kimberly was requested to snap a photo of a young couple with all the ancient splendor in the background, so she obliged..

Having seen the gem of the city (and resolving to return –admission is free), we strolled down to the waterfront and just did some aimless rambling through the city. And Istanbul is a great town for aimless rambling. At one point we passed an ancient aqueduct that we didn’t know existed. And then there was the green marble pillar, subtly embedded into a wall, with a plague stating that it was stuck there in the Sixteenth Century or thereabouts to mark the geographical center of Istanbul at that time. We’d discovered the center of Old Town without even trying. It is indeed a city full of surprises.

Birds of Istanbul

May 20-23, 2022

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