There and Back Again – Part 2 – “Istanbul”


Istanbul is most beautiful at dusk.  The harsh light of day gives way to a sense of mystery, romance, and possibility.  It’s the Istanbul of legend, gateway to the east.

Istanbul by day, however, is quite different.  It’s hot, dusty, and many an aroma crosses your nostrils.  It’s the kind of place I feel completely comfortable, and to be honest, I was a little disappointed at how familiar the place felt.  Part of the joy of traveling is discovering things new and unimagined.  Istanbul was neither, but that didn’t stop me from attacking the city with my usual fervor.

I arrived in the city midday, and was happily transported by bus (included in my package deal) to the Laleli district of the Old City, and the Carlton Hotel.  Do not confuse the name with other similarly named hotels with more illustrious reputations.  I was happy enough that the shower worked, the room was clean, and mercifully sported an air-conditioner that sputtered and coughed.

The best way to explore a new city is naturally on foot, and I take great joy in simply letting my feet carry me forward.  I have a solid sense of direction, and I’m good at instinctively finding my way around.  I did have a map, but a map doesn’t divulge the secrets of the back streets and alleys of a foreign city.

As the sun was settling in the for a night’s rest, I headed out on to the narrow and winding streets of the city, instinctively heading up.  I found myself passing the Istanbul University, which sports a beautiful campus, sadly off limits to everyone but students.  This is due to massive political rallies and demonstrations that occur from time to time and have at times gotten out of hand.

Passing the university I wound my way up and found myself looking up at an absolutely magnificent piece of architecture, the Suleymaniye Mosque.  Istanbul’s mosques are open to everyone, although you must remove your shoes, where long trousers, and naturally respect the place and those worshipping in it.

Stepping into the mosque I was quite literally breathless at the majesty of the space.  The dome rising above me, the intricacy of design, and the simple quiet that pervades the entire place.  Filled to the brim with worshipers, I imagine it to be a truly spiritual experience.

It also struck me that I don’t think I have ever been inside a mosque before, despite growing up in Israel.  I would have remembered a space like this and none came to mind.  I guarded the Al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem when I was in the army, but I don’t believe I ever went in.

Later that night I had dinner along the Istiklal, Istanbul’s center for nightlife in the Beyoglu district in the far more modern New City to the north of the Golden Horn (the body of water than separates Old Istanbul in the south from the development to the north.)  The best discovery that night was Raki, Turkey’s traditional alcoholic beverage.  Similar to Arak or Ouzo, it tastes like aniseed or licorice, and is drunk with a little water and a couple of ice cubes.  I don’t normally care for the flavor but this stuff, quite simply, makes you feel GOOD.

The following day I headed out on foot in a generally eastern direction.  My goal for the day was to check out Topkapi Palace and whatever else I might come across.  I had slept in till 12pm, so I wasn’t exactly getting an early start.  I was also a little hung-over from all the Raki.

Very quickly I found myself at the Grand Bazaar, a multitude of covered passages where vendors sell primarily a lot of junky tourist crap.  Yes, there are Turkish carpets and vast amounts of gold jewelry or antiques, but for the most part, the Grand Bazaar feels more like a tourist destination, and not a viable shopping district for locals.  Not surprisingly, it reminded me a bit of Shuk (market) in Jerusalem’s old city.

Heading out of the Grand Bazaar, I found myself wandering through a myriad of streets that were just as much a market as the Grand Bazaar, except that this is where the locals seem to shop.  Densely packed stalls, shops, and mainly people, make this a massively bustling place and not somewhere for the claustrophobic (which I am not).  Even so, I lost all track of direction and after ages of heading what I thought to be due east I found myself at the gates of a beautiful mosque that looked vaguely familiar.  Turned out I had don’t an almost complete circle and was now standing in front of Suleymaniye mosque again, totally on the wrong side of the city from where I wanted to be.  I think I was more disappointed in my failed sense of direction than in having gotten lost.  After all, getting lost is what it’s all about.

I can’t understate just how hot it was in Istanbul.  You can’t drink the tap water, so people walk around clutching plastic bottles of mineral water, devoured with as much regularity as breathing.  That said, I never once had to find a bathroom and only went to the toilet in my hotel room.  For the most part I had not idea how hot it was, save for my last night there, where I saw a thermometer which read 35c, at MIDNIGHT!  That’s 95 Fahrenheit.   Apparently it was about 45c during the days, which is in the 110-115f range.  Hot indeed.

I did finally make it to Topkapi Palace, which was the traditional Sultan’s abode.  The palace is sprawling and immense, and one only has access to smallish portions of it (including, at extra expense, only a small fraction of the Harem.).  I should clarify that Harem actually refers to the private chambers in a household that are off limits to visitors.  Every house has a Harem, from grand to small.

The palace itself is impressive, although there wasn’t quite enough literature on it and I was glad for the guidebook I had brought with me.  Still, the views from the Fourth Court over the Bosphorus and across the Asian side are spectacular.

At the end of each day I would always find my way back up the Beyoglu district in the north for dinner and drinks, having showered and taken a nap back at the hotel.  It’s a very lively district and has a reputation for being busy at all hours of the night.  There’s a solid mixture of locals and tourists, although for the most part I tried to stay away from the touristy restaurants and instead seek out the more interesting ones down back streets and away from the hustle and bustle of the main drag.

My third day there, I made for the Aya Sofia and the Blue Mosque.   The Aya Sofia was built as a Byzantine Church then converted into a mosque in later years.  It’s now a museum and apparently the most visited attraction in Istanbul.  It’s architecture is certainly impressive, although Suleymaniye had really captured my heart and by comparison Aya Sofia didn’t seem as magical or impressive, even though it really is.

Walking across the hippodrome (which is now just an open park area) I then went into the Blue Mosque, which once again is magnificent and impressive in scale and grandeur.  Istanbul is ultimately to mosques what Italy is to churches.  After a while they tend to run together, even though each is a total work of art.  I have a low saturation point for art, meaning that I quickly get overwhelmed with great works of art and have to take them a little bit at a time.  After a while, my brain just goes numb and I can’t take in any more information.

Given that state of mind I wound my way south, ending at the Little Aya Sofia, a tiny church turned mosque that is supposedly similar in style to the other Aya Sofia, although I couldn’t say if that were true or not.  The mosque was indeed tiny and subsequently a bit of a relief from it’s enormous counterparts elsewhere in the city. There was an old man overseeing the place who forced you to give a 5 Lira donation (even though all mosques are supposed to be free).  Still, he was quite a character and gave a mini tour of the place with his broken English, or should I say virtually non-existent English. And of crouse I don’t speak any Turkish.

A quick aside on Turkish.  It’s related to Hungarian (my experience of which was just as painful in Budapest) and as such is virtually impossible to pick up.  I pride myself on having a good ear for languages but Turkish got the better of me.  Sounding like a cross between Hungarian and Arabic, I gave up and can only say a couple of words: Teshekur/Thank you, and Chereve/Cheers.  That’s it.

After the Little Aya Sofia I collapsed, exhausted, at a little café with a covered tent.  The heat was just as sweltering in the shade, but it was a relief to sit and dose for a while.

My final day in Istanbul I headed out of the city by taking a ferry across to Uskudar on the Asian side.  I love being on the water and the ferry rides across the Bosphorus were my favorite thing of all in Istanbul.

First I headed across to Uskudar, where I wandered about, had a decent lunch, and visited another mosque.  From there, it was back on the ferry across to Besiktas (pronounced Beshiktash) and on to Dolmabahce Palace, a 19th century palace that housed the family of the Sultan from Abdul Mecit up through Ataturk (who died here in 1938).  The palace is literally dripping in crystal, and could easily pass for a Vegas casino.  The piece de resistance is a 4-ton chandelier in the coronation room that it actually quite impressive in grandeur.  You have to take the guided tour, and they also make you wear these little plastic bags on your shoes, presumably to protect the floors (which are covered in tourist-proof carpets anyway.)

I was looking forward to taking the ferry back to the old city but much to my dismay found that the ferry was done for the day and I was stuck taking a bus.  Let me remind you that this was a non-air-conditioned vehicle driving through a packed city in 45 degree heat.  Fun.

Ultimately, I left Turkey feeling like I had gotten a good feel for the city.  As I often find, it takes a few days to pick up the rhythm of a place and Istanbul was no different.  Nonetheless, I was happy to get back to Israel and a final week of R&R.

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