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Culture and colour- one city in two continents
Member Name: catsholiday
Date: 24/05/09, updated on 15/08/11 (276 review reads)
Advantages: Fascinating culture and sights to visit
Disadvantages: I can't think of any
WHEN WE WERE IN ISTANBUL:
We spent five days in Istanbul just before Easter 2009 and we stayed at the Orient Express Hotel in the Sirkeci area of old Istanbul. (Another separate review)
Istanbul is the only city built on two continents and split by the sea. The Bosporus is the section of water which unites the two continents and joins the Sea of Marmara to the Black sea.
The first thing that struck me as we drove from the Airport to the hotel (apart from the speed and interesting lane changes) was the number of spring flowers along the roadsides. There was a mass of colour which constantly changed from red to blue to yellow then orange, purple and so on. There were tulips en mass and I just was not expecting this in Istanbul, it was the sort of display found in Holland in spring. It was a sunny and bright day and along the shores of the Bosporus people were enjoying picnics, children were playing and everyone was out walking - it was a wonderful and we couldn't wait to be there so we could be part of it and not just observers.
SUNDAY IN ISTANBUL:
Once we had deposited our cases in our rooms and sorted ourselves out in the hotel we headed out into the city to become part of the Sunday afternoon in Istanbul. We turned left out of our hotel and followed the tram tracks towards GULHANE PARKI which was once the Palace Park of the Topkapi Palace. It was really quite crowded but people were walking in all directions not like a football crowd all heading the same way. The park was really colourful with spring bulbs, tulips of all colours and lots of primroses. Above us in the trees were large storks building and renovating their nests and loudly telling everyone about it.
At the entrance gate near the Topkapi Palace entrance there were several street vendors with trolley stalls selling candy floss, Turkish bread, chestnuts and other interesting snack types of food. We walked through the park enjoying the sunshine and flowers taking photos and generally soaking up the atmosphere of Istanbul/. At the other end of the park you come out onto the road running along the Bosporus towards the Galata Bridge. It was quite difficult making your way along the pavement because of the sheer number of people but we shuffled, dodged and wound our way to the area around the Galata Bridge.
THE GALATA BRIDGE:
On Sundays it seems that a huge number of people grab their fishing rods and come to the Galata Bridge to dangle their rods from the top level of the bridge into the Bosporus. Although it is not an old bridge it seems to have a big part of Istanbul Sunday as people gather on the top level to fish and the level under the road on either side has restaurants, cafes and shops. There were almost as many people enjoying the cafes and restaurants underneath as there were fishing on top.
The thing to eat here is a fish sandwich. Mackerel is cooked fresh on a griddle and then slapped between two halves of a bread roll - you could have it plain or with some salad. We had to try it so we shared one between the four of us and it was certainly very tasty.
As we walked along the under level of the bridge we had a curtain of spider's web fine fishing lines running past us into the water from above. We looked over the side into the water and were stunned to see thousands of jellyfish. I certainly wouldn't want to fall in the water round there, I've never seen so many. At the end of the bottom section of the bridge was one cafe that had lots of brightly coloured bean bags to sit on and enjoy coffee, other drinks and a smoke of the hookah pie and shisha tobacco.
We were beginning to get tired so decided to head back to the hotel. We used the underpass to cross the road. We stood at the top of the stairs and looked down on the seething crowds going through the underpass with market stalls and we wondered if we would ever get through. We sidestepped and shoved our way to the other side and breathed a sigh of satisfaction before we walked on passed the New Mosque and towards the spice bazaar MISIR CARSISI. We saw how crowded that was and decided it was too much and walked on passed. We came back this way on other days and it was nowhere near as crowded as on this Sunday.
We planned to get to the Palace as it opened in order to avoid the crowds so we headed on turning left out of our hotel towards Gulhane Parki and then on up the drive towards the Palace entrance. The tickets were 20Turkish Lira for the Palace and another 15 Turkish Lira for the Harem. We were there early so we headed straight for the Harem as queues build up quickly as numbers allowed to enter are limited.
Originally the Palace was built for Mehmet the conqueror not long after he took over the city of Constantinople in 1459. The Palace is a huge complex of several courts and living quarters and in its heyday it held a population of over 3,000 people from servants to concubines to officials and royalty. It was the last word in luxury and opulence and was the home for the sultans for over 300 years. It was really an entire city within a city and allowed the Sultan's family some privacy within these walls. Originally the Palace was named Yeni Sarayi (New palace) and the name change to Topkapi Palace came in the 19th century and it was named after a gate which no longer exists.
The Palace has had parts destroyed by fire and other parts added over the years and covers a huge area of about 700,000 sq metres from the Gulhane Park to the Sea of Marmara on a high promontory. The Harem was where the Sultan's mother, wives, concubines and children lived and of course the eunuchs who guarded the women. There are many rooms connected by corridors and courtyards within this complex. Many of the rooms were beautifully tiled and highly decorated and I particularly liked the Privy Chamber of Ahmed III which had walls covered in paintings of flowers and fruit and may have been a dining room - it is called the fruit room (Yemis Odasi) today .The Sultan and the Queen mother's baths were also rather spectacular with golden grills and in the Turkish style with hot and cold bath areas. There are many other areas of interest in the Harem from the Golden corridor or road so called as the Sultan was supposed to have thrown down coins for the concubines on festival days. It is well worth a visit even if you do have to pay extra as it does give an idea of how the women lived and many rooms are beautifully decorated in an Ottoman style which is quite different from our style of this era. As you go through the Harem you are taken from room to room and eventually end up back in the main Palace through the Aviary or Harem Gate.
You could spend a whole day in the Palace but being unable to take in too much historical information in one go we chose a few buildings that we thought would be of interest to us and visited them.
The place that we found most fascinating was the Privy Chamber where there was the most incredible collection of sacred relics including; the staff of Moses presumably the one used to part the Red Sea, locks from the Kabah in Mecca, Joseph's turban (not sure if this was Jesus' dad or the one with the many coloured coat!), swords from the first four Caliphs and a carpet that belonged to the daughter of Mohammed and also John The Baptist's arm encased in a metal sleeve. The most prized relics for Muslims are those that belonged to Mohammed; his cloak, his sword, one of his teeth, his battle sabres, an autographed letter and several phials containing hair from his beard. These items were considered so sacred that even the sultan and his family only visited them on the 15th day of Ramadan each year but luckily although Muslims still make this visit as a pilgrimage it is possible for anyone to see these items whenever the Palace is open. It is hard to believe that some of these are actually what they are believed to be but if they really are then, amazing and weird pieces of biblical and religious history is there for all to experience.
Another building that held a bit of a macabre interest for us was The Circumcision Room. This room was built in 1640 as a room for the circumcision of the Princes as circumcision is a rite of passage in the Muslim faith. Today it is of course empty apart from the decorative tiles which cover the outside walls and interior. They are recycled antique tiles from other palaces and are extremely beautiful. Inside the room is symmetrical with stained glass windows and fountains in the window bays. I am not sure whether the young princes would have appreciated the decor at the time but it was very beautiful.
The gardens in the Palace were once again full of spring bulbs and colourful. Some of the trees were interesting as they were hollow. Apparently they had been affected by a fungus which hollowed out the trunk but the trees are still alive but it does make them look a bit odd or very intriguing if you are a young child as it is somewhere good to hide.
We spent about four hours in the Palace and walked for miles in and out of the various room, kiosk and buildings. There really was a lot to see but it is hard to do it justice so I have picked on a few areas that most interested us to share with you.
The day that we decided to visit the Sultanamet Camii was unfortunately for us, the same day that Barrack Obama also decided to make his visit. This meant that all the streets and pavement surrounding the area were closed from early in the morning until about 1pm. Initially we were quite excited by the prospect that we might see the man himself but as every avenue we tried was blocked we rethought our day.
We found a place we felt would be good for a sighting of the Presidential Carcade and waited along with a group of other locals and foreigners. This was on the corner near Gulhane Parki. After about an hour and a half of hanging around on the street corner we were rewarded with a sighting of the armoured cars with darkened windows travelling past about 100 metres away. A little underwhelming but we did see the cars and one of them was carrying the President. So having been thwarted in our attempt at the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia we decided to give up and make our way to the water front area and try to visit the Yeni Cami near the Galata Bridge and then make our way back through the spice Market.
As we made our way past the Sirkeci Train station we noticed the crowds were lined along the street along the front and again there was a huge police presence so we stood on another street corner holding our breathes in anticipation for about 5 minutes this time before we were rewarded with the Presidential Carcade driving past once more. This time was far more exciting as Barack Obama had wound down his window and was waving, we actually saw him in the car. My daughter was jumping around in excitement squeaking, 'We actually saw the President of the USA .WOW!!'
This mosque is similar in style to other mosques in Istanbul with a number of rounded domes and then two tall minarets sticking up into the air, the number of minarets vary but this is the style of mosque seen in Istanbul it seemed to me. Building began beside the Bosporus on the sight of a former slum area in 1597. There were many problems during the building, water seepage, the death of the Sultan and money problems but after 40 years it was finally completed. It is not as well known as the Blue Mosque or the Suleymaniye Mosque but it is part of the water front skyline and is right near the Galata Bridge so someone arriving by boat would see this Mosque's silhouette most clearly.
The Mosque was part of a larger project which included a hospital, school and public bath as well as the Spice market. We arrived just before prayer time so we did not spend too long inside. Outside on the steps were several street vendors selling bird food and Mary Poppin's song kept on coming into my head no matter how hard I tried to think of other things. Also on the steps was a with a bucket of water and brush cleaning off the pigeon poos - obviously the street vendors were keeping him in work too.
As you entered the mosque courtyard there was the usual water feature for washing prior to prayer which looked like a small building or summer house and then you went in towards the door where you collected a for your shoes (re-cycled supermarket bags) and put on your head covering or borrowed a wrap if your shoulders or legs were uncovered and entered the mosque. It was very similar to other mosques in Istanbul with highly decorated inner domes and carpeted floor with a slight odour of feet pervading. I always feel slightly awkward in mosques prayer time and always do my best to cover up and not walk where I'm not welcome etc but all this does take away slightly from the beauty of these buildings. I am not religious but I do find there is an aura in churches and mosques, you speak quietly and look around in wonder because that is how they make you feel - in awe.
MISIR CARSISI OR EGYPTIAN SPICE MARKET:
We continued on through this area to the Misir Çarsisi or Egyptian Spice Market, which was not nearly as crowded on a week day as it was on the Sunday. It was an array of sights and smells with spices of all colours piled into neat mountains, huge lumps of Turkish Delight the size of a large kitchen bin filled other stalls, fantastic soaps and lotions using olive oil peanuts, dates and dried fruit and nuts of every conceivable variety and many other local specialities were on offer. As we wandered through sniffing and looking we were offered tastes of baklava, Turkish delight, flavoured nuts and dried fruit. I smelled so many soaps but restricted myself to purchasing only three to enjoy at home. The stall holders were friendly and pleasant, they were happy for you to smell, look and taste, bargain or buy if you wanted but there was not the tense unpleasant atmosphere that we have encountered in North Africa , they were nothing but pleasant and we felt at ease and unthreatened throughout our stay.
ALI MUHIDDIN HACI BEKIR:
We walked on through this area a couple of streets to Hamidiye caddesi 81 where we visited the original Turkish delight shop of Ali Muhiddin Haci Bekir. Initially we thought we would just have to buy some Turkish delight as there were only three tables inside and it was too cold to sit outside but the owner welcomed us in and invited us upstairs to sit. It was tiny upstairs with very low ceilings which was interesting as my husband and son-in-law are both over six feet tall but daughter and I at just over five feet only had to bend a little. We were not sure what to order apart from coffees as there was so much choice and so the helpful owner said he would bring a plate with a variety of pastries. He also brought us a plate of Turkish delight sample on the house to try.
I had tried Turkish coffee before and not enjoyed the thick mixture so I joined my daughter and asked for hot chocolate, the other two had tiny cups of thick Turkish coffee. After eating a plate of baklava type pastries and Turkish delight (I did put some in a paper napkin) so we did not offend our host, we felt just a bit icky from the sweetness. We asked for the bill and they brought us ANOTHER small plate of Turkish delight which I had to decant into my napkin in my bag as none of us could face any more. It was an interesting experience and we felt very well looked after by the owner and his staff.
The story goes that Ali Muhiddin Haci Bekir made the original for the sultan I who was fed up with hard sweets causing him to break his teeth and so Ali Muhiddin came from Anatolia to create this sweet for the Sultan in the 1700s and it was instantly popular with the Sultan and has been made in Turkey ever since. I'm not sure how true this is but it is a nice story.
In the evening we went to see the Sufi concert and Whirling dervishes at the Sirkeci train station (i wrote a separate review about this experience)
THE BLUE MOSQUE OR SULTANMET CAMII:
The Blue Mosque gets its name from the decorative tiles inside the mosque, prior to my visit I thought that it was from the grey blue stone from which it is built. This mosque was built between 1610 and 1617 and is the only mosque in Istanbul with six minarets. It can be seen rising up on the hill as you enter Istanbul from the Bosporus and is one of the many mosques seen on the skyline of the city at dusk.
As you enter the mosque, covered as you need to be out of respect and shoe less, you are immediately aware of how much light is coming through the 260 windows. The wonderful blue tiles - 20,000 of them are decorated with plant and flower motifs. It is a huge space inside and looking up to the dome you are made to feel very aware of just how big this building is. It is beautiful inside and very peaceful but I was almost more impressed with it from the outside as it is a lovely grey blue colour and the six minarets stand up like candles on a birthday cake.
I just stood between the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia and looked from one to the other as they are both such lovely looking buildings so close to each other - very special indeed.
Behind the Blue Mosque is a bazaar known as the Arasta bazaar which was excavated to expose 42 columns and mosaic floors of the lower court of the Great palace, today this is a mosaic museum. above the mosaic museum are the shops of the Arasta Bazaar which is where we sat at a small restaurant for lunch waiting for prayer time to end in order to go into the mosque.
THE HAGIA SOPHIA:
This beautiful building faces the blue Mosque across the square and it has had a very up and down history. It was first built in 60AD and was burned in 404 and destroyed in 532 in the Nike riots. It was rebuilt between 532 and 537 as a church with a dome supported by 107 pillars. One of these pillars is known as the sweating Pillar and if you put your finger in this hole it feels damp and it is meant to bring you good luck which we had to try of course.
The Church was converted into a mosque in 1453 by Mehmet the Conqueror. It has since been renovated and restored and finally in 1934 it was closed as a religious building and is now a museum with no religious ties but there is still evidence inside of both mosque and church features. Unfortunately when we visited there was also evidence of restoration with huge scaffolding dominating the central interior which did rather spoil the interior's beauty and a lot was covered up. Entrance was 15 Turkish lira per person when we were there.
THE GRAND BAZAAR OR KAPALICARSI:
This is one of the largest covered markets in the world, it has over 4000 shops in 64 streets and 25000 people work in there. As well as the shops there are two mosques, twenty two gates and four fountains. It is a shopper's idea of heaven but it is also very easy to get lost in there as you wander from one temptation to the next. You get lured into one shop to look at carpets then sit and enjoy a coffee before haggling with another shop keeper over a Turkish tea set or leather handbag. The shop keepers were not in the least aggressive; indeed rather than hassle you then joked and chatted in a cheerful banter which made the entire experience a pleasure.
We went in expecting to be hassled and pressured as we had been in Tunisia and morocco but this was quite different and because they were so pleasant we actually spent more as we did not feel uncomfortable at all while we looked, touched, smelled and admired different items while chatting to the various shop keepers.
The carpets were quite pricey so you would have to actually want a Turkish carpet before buying one rather than thinking it is so cheap I'll have it as a souvenir. The cushion covers were good value and very nice in a kind of kilim weave - I bought several. The leather goods were also not really cheap but again I didn't really want a handbag so they may have been really good quality but i don't spend big money on things like that. We had a lovely time not buying very much but enjoyed the whole atmosphere of the place.
We had planned a boat trip on the Bosporus and tried to select a day when the weather was warmer. The ferry called the Eminonu - Kavaklar Bosporus Special Touristic Excursion leaves from the Bogaz Hatti dock at Eminonu every day at 10.35. However if you want a good seat then it is advisable to get there at least half an hour early as everyone just rushes on and the seats with views are limited. Indeed even if you get a good seat people seem to walk almost on top of you when they want to take a photo. The trip is a real bargain at 12.50 Turkish lira per person return for a trip which takes an hour and three quarters each way.
On the way the ferry stops at Besiktas, Kanlica, Yenikoy, Sariyer, Rumeli Kavagi and finally Anadolu Kavagi (in Asia) which is the turnaround point. If you decide to get off at any of the places on the way then you'll need to buy a new ticket to go onwards - you can of course return with a return ticket. Initially the ferry was packed but as we continued on to the turnaround point it became less crowded and we were able to enjoy the views without people walking over us and standing inches in front of where we were sitting, thus totally blocking our view.
On the way waiters bring coffee, tea, Turkish bread, yogurt and other temptations which you are able to buy from them. The poor young lads spent their entire time walking between the crowds of tourists balancing trays full of various offerings.
We stayed on till the last stop, Anadolu Kavagi, as we wanted to visit the Asian side of Istanbul. We didn't get there until about 12.30 and as soon as we got off at Anadolu Kavagi we were in amongst a multitude of wonderful fish restaurants. We chose one was right at the water's edge. Once again we decided to start with a meze but this time it was all seafood - smoked octopus was my favorite dish. The main courses were all different types of fish or seafood and so fresh and tasty. There were several cats hanging around and they did try and jump on the table but I'm afraid they were firmly pushed away by our table and most of the other diners too.
After lunch we walked up the hill Yoros Kalesi which was extremely steep and i could feel the calories being burned off as we walked up to the ruined castle. The main reason for the mammoth effort walking up is to be rewarded with a view of Russia over the wonderful blue water of the Black Sea. We had a few minutes at the top for photos and to recover our breath and then had to come down again to catch the ferry which left at 3pm. Coming down I found much harder on my knees and we developed an interesting zigzag walk across the path which seemed to ease the pressure on the knees.
The return journey on the ferry was very warm and sunny so we sat on the front deck on the floor. Everybody else also had the same idea but it didn't stop a group of local men playing music on their mobile phones and clapping and dancing which provided free entertainment for the rest of us.
The views as we approached the city of Istanbul were lovely with a skyline of mosques with their minarets. As the sun went down we were walking back to our hotel quite tired after our day on the boat and the hike up the mountain to look at Russia. A really great day out with something different to see at every turn, a nice sunny day and delicious fresh fish and seafood for lunch; what more could anyone want?
This is by no means an exhaustive list of sights to see in Istanbul. I think you could spend months there and still be finding something new to see but my review will hopefully tempt someone into a visit or give someone some ideas of what they might like to see if they visit Istanbul. I was most impressed and Istanbul is now certainly one of my favorite cities, there was lots to see, the food was good and it was easy to get around with friendly helpful people.
This review may be posted on other sites under my name.
Summary: Interesting sights, good varied food, reasonably easy to get to and not expensive