Sunday, October 24, 2010

Istanbul, Turkey

The Blue Mosque from the hidden roof top at my hotel.

Istanbul treated me very well. I took in the sights, but more importantly, I met up with an old friend, I made a new friend, and I relaxed. I enjoyed it so much I gushed while writing and had to split this entry over two posts to make it bearable. That might just be a reflection of poor writing though.

Blue Mosque's male prayer area.

On the overnight bus ride, that Japanese girl, Reina, and I hit it off. Somewhere along the way she mentioned her hotel and was worried about it costing too much. She had been staying in backpackers, but wanted to live it up a little for her last nights of vacation. Knowing the worry about cost, knowing that the single rooms usually still have two beds, not having a reservation, and wanting to stay in a better place, I suggested that we split her place. As long as there was two beds, she was game. It wasn't going to be that easy though.

Blue Mosque tiling.

After a ferry ride in the dark across the Marmaris sea on our bus, we finally came to the big bus stop outside Istanbul. From there, we would transfer to a minibus and go right into town. Despite my ticket seller's assurances that I could take my bike all the way in, they were having none of it. They told the bus driver to go slow so I could follow him. For some reason, they would not give me directions. It was a very unpleasant interaction. Anyway, I followed the bus, directly on to the highway. It is the worst traffic I have ever ridden in. I was a bike messenger in Pittsburgh. I've relished the insanity of New York City traffic in Manhattan and Brooklyn. Istanbul is different, very different, which is why I wanted a bus ride all the way in. Grr!! Oh well, I biked it. I survived. I even had a little fun. I took a video, but it isn't the worst part and is way too shaky to have you sit through. After losing the bus, I ended up beating Reina to the hotel because she had to take a tram. I found her wandering the streets.

Blue Mosque domes.

Blue Mosque (there are two more hidden minarets).

We got settled in and then got to exploring. The 400 year old Blue Mosque was less than a quarter mile from us and completely captivated our imagination. I took so many pictures while I was in there. We even went back in a second time. It gets its name from the tiling and painted dome that tint the inside blue. Half the mosque is off limits unless you are praying, but non-praying muslims go over the line and take pictures anyway. That line is also a male-female line. Women can't cross over, praying, muslim or not.

Hagia Sophia

Inside the Hagia Sophia

Across the street from the Blue Mosque is the Hagia Sophia. It is a 1500 year old church. It is supposed to be one of the most beautiful in the world. It is pretty cool, but it just didn't inspire me the same way as the mosque. I want to say that is because I am more familiar with churches and familiarity breeds contempt. However, Reina was more taken by the mosque as well and is not familiar with churches or mosques. It was really interesting how much interest she showed in the churches we went by because they are new to her. It allowed me to rediscover the joys in them instead of just being ABC (another bloody church) about them.

This piece inside the Hagia Sophia was made out of a single piece of marble.

Another view inside of the Hagia Sophia

After checking out those two sights, we took a seat on a bench. A friendly guy came over to chat. He was super nice and I started to get caught up in the conversation. Then he steered it towards his restaurant and store that were up the street we were sitting near. We had planned to go up that street to find lunch, but Reina smartly decided we should go the other way to ditch the guy. She was also sick of the touts always touting their wears, especially under the guise of something else. On our last visit to the Blue Mosque, a kid showed us the sign with rules. Then, he followed us and told us not to worry because he wasn't a tour guide, but he would like to show us his store after our visit to the mosque. Ugh, grr, grumpy. I flatly told him we would not be visiting his store. He asked why. It took a couple tries, but he left.

A random hallway in Topkapý Palace.

The harem entrance at Topkapý Palace.

After finding a bite to eat, we headed for the Topkapý Palace. We figured we might as well see all the major sites in a day and leave our second day wide open. The 500 year old palace has four giant courtyards and a ton of buildings for various imperial functions. They even had a room reserved for the prince's circumcision ceremony. You need a map in the palace because there are so many different ways to explore it. We were definitely lost a couple times. In the hot afternoon, the tree shaded courtyards were a major hit. Though almost taking a nap in the shady areas was fabulous, the palace's harem was probably the best part.

The inside of the harem at Topkapý Palace.

The harem at Topkapý Palace.

The harem is a huge set of rooms. Some were ornate, but others were more simple. I liked it. It was cozier than the imperial rooms which had official state functions. Those tended to be filled with things that would impress people. It reminded me of the Victorian Age furniture and decorations in Europe. I think every picture I have here the palace is from the harem.

Part of the harem at Topkapý Palace.

After seeing the palace, we wandered around town. We found the major shopping areas. We found freshly squeezed pomegranate juice. We found a quiet part of the Grand Bazaar when the rest of it was teeming with people. We found three or four other giant mosques, including the Mosque of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent who I mentioned in my Rhodes post, that fooled us into thinking that they were the Blue Mosque which we thought was so big we could use it as our compass. We were wrong. You could rarely see it and we aren't familiar enough with mosques to easily tell the difference. The Blue Mosque is the only one with six minarets, but you could usually only see one or two. We went down to the waterfront for Reina to get a fish sandwich based on her brilliant guidebook. Her guidebook had a special section for food and showed pictures for each dish and its Japanese and Turkish spellings. It told you what was in it and their recommended place to get it. That type of section is a brilliant idea that all guidebooks should have.

Standard street scene, sidewalk vendor, cars, and a mosque.

On our walk around town, I perfected my leave me alone vibe. The touts were not talking to me or if they did, after a single response, they left me alone. I wondered if I was being rude and started to feel guilty. I was only sternly saying no and putting my hand up. Not feeling harassed made my time in Istanbul much better. It reminded me of learning how to say 'I don't want it' in Mandarin Chinese. The touts in China assumed I lived there because my accent was spot on so they stopped hassling me like the tourist that I was. Beautiful. I just had to make sure not to say another word that would give me away.

The roses were still blooming! I thought it was late in the season, but their climate is warmer.

That night, we opted to have dinner in the Sultanahmet area. We knew it was the tourist area, but were just too tired to go anywhere else. Every two meters another guy was hassling us about his menu and food. Unlike the afternoon where I could keep them at bay, we were stopping to look at menus which gave them an opening. One guy would not move out of the way to let us see the menu. Another, would not shut up long enough for us to read it. I asked him to just let us look in quiet two times. When he started talking a third time, we just walked away. All the restaurants had pretty much the same food at the same prices. It was a little disappointing. I remember one place was different, because it served Indian, but the rest were the Turkish tourist specials. We ended up choosing a restaurant that we had already walked by because the 'tout' said good evening as we walked by and that was it. The meal was quiet. I think we closed the place out. I have no idea what I even ate. It was just a beautiful time of quiet at the end of a long day of chaos.

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