|Subject: Long Trip Report Part 7 Istanbul|
Our journey to Istanbul was uneventful until we came to check in for our
Turkish Airlines flight from Athens. Much to our surprise and bewilderment
we had business class tickets. Not an upgrade but the real McCoy. We were
checked in and advised that 'we are using the Aristotle Onassis Lounge
today' We didn't need telling twice and can highly recommend the leather
sofas and recliner seat/beds. The breakfast was most welcome as we had
left Oia much too early for that. As luck would have it our flight was
delayed so we got to live it up for several hours. I could get used to
this. We still have no idea how this came about. Jean booked all the
flights in the UK and the cheapest combination was what we asked for and
paid for. Good job I was raised not to look a gift horse in the mouth.
Because of the early start we had arranged airport pick-up (a first for me) and our driver was waiting, what luxury. A short and very pleasant drive brought us to the Empress Zoe in Sultanahamet. The hotel was recommended by a friend and at her suggestion we had reserved room 41. The rooms are very small and this is the largest room short of a suite. It is a small boutique hotel, heavy on charm and light on such things as elevators. The reception area is below street level and from there our room was reached by a spiral and regular flights of stairs. As well as room 41 the 4th floor boasts a lounge bar and terrace which overlooks the Sea of Marmara. If you crane your neck in one direction you can see the Blue Mosque and in the opposite, Aya Sofia. From my morning shower I could watch the young men putting up the deck chairs on the roof top garden of the Four Seasons Hotel. I guess in theory if I could see them going about their work, they could see me going about my ablutions but I figured I had the best of the bargain. (I could always have closed the window of course!) A great buffet breakfast is included in the price of $85 US less 10% for cash, and may be taken in the dining rooms or in a tiny walled garden. Next door is an ancient ruined hamam. Jean and I really enjoyed Empress Zoe and the young men on the front desk were very friendly and helpful. They gave us good information and their recommendations always proved spot on.
Sultanahamet is the Plaka of Istanbul and in my opinion the only place to be. All price levels of accommodation are available and we felt completely safe at all times. Within walking distance is an incredible amount of things on everyone's 'to do' list. Aya Sophia and the Topkapi are a five minute walk away, the Blue Mosque another few minutes and the Cistern just a 'cock stride' from Sultanahamet Square. Don't miss any of these.
Aya Sophia isn't the most beautiful building you have ever seen, it's been falling down and buttressed so much it's architect wouldn't recognise it. The interior is badly in need of the renovation which is in progress but it has some of the most beautiful sacred mosaics anywhere.
The Topkapi is a gem. The entrance fee of $7 does not include the Harem so as soon as you get through the gate go and line up to purchase the additional ticket. It's a guided tour at a set time and sells out quite early in the day. Best to be there as they open and get on the first tour of the day and have the place to yourselves. It is well worth the wait. We were very disappointed to find the Treasury was closed for renovation so we didn't get to see the famous dagger. We did however find a treasure of a different kind. An exhibition of tents! These portable palaces blew our minds away. They had several complete small (relatively) imperial tents and sections of huge structures, some with seven layers of appliquéd coloured silk all beautifully embroidered, what a find, tucked away in the stables and not too well signed, we were the only visitors. All the way back to the main gate we were accosting unsuspecting visitors and exhorting them to 'go see'. I had some success photographing the harem with 1600asa film. Tripods are not allowed and permits for still and video photography must be purchased.
Sultan Ahmet Camii, better know as the Blue Mosque takes it's name from the blue Iznik tiled interior. It's an awe inspiring sight by day when you may visit in between the prayer sessions and at night when it is floodlit and circled by seagulls. We couldn't work out what the white flashes were at first, then realised it was the white undersides of the seagulls reflecting the light. We went back every evening before going to bed to marvel at the sight. Sitting in Sultanahamet Square Park during the call to prayer will be one of our enduring memories of Istanbul. Not just the Blue Mosque, we counted six separate calls, echoing around us. We wondered if they were recordings until we heard a cough. I never tired of hearing it and the early morning calls didn't disturb me at all. It is almost impossible to photograph the Mosque without a tripod and amazingly they do allow them.
The Basilica Cistern was a nice surprise as we didn't expect the sound and light show. We walked along pathways between the 336, 28 ft columns accompanied by the sounds of classical music and dripping water. An amazing feat of Byzantine engineering and a most unusual tourist attraction.
We also walked from our hotel to Eminomu the area of the New Mosque, Spice Market, and ferry dock, It's a bit of a hike but there is a tram for those too weary to walk in the heat of the day. From here the Galata Bridge spans the Golden Horn. The traffic on the water is fascinating to watch. The busy waterway rivalling Hong Kong. For a panoramic view ascend the Galata Tower. If you can find your way through all the tiny streets check our the Suleymaniye Mosque with it's light bright soaring dome. I haven't mentioned the Grand Bazaar yet, surely one of the most famous in the world and a labyrinthine maze of shopping alleys. Many visitors get lost but there is always someone to help you find yourself. In fact that is the case throughout Istanbul. We only had to stand on a street corner with a map in hand and a confused expression on our faces (not difficult) for someone to stop to help. Mostly they didn't speak English but with good will on both sides we always managed to find our way a little closer to our destination where the map would come out again and another lovely Turk would come to our aid.
One day we took the local tram and bus to the Dolmabahce Palace. A European style palace built for the last of the Ottomans and eventually home to Ataturk. Here it was that he died and the clocks stopped for all time in November 1938. To me the real magnificence of Dolmabahce is in its location on the shores of the Bosphorus and the imperial gardens. The palace is vast and there are two tours. We took both, the Selamluk which includes the men's quarters and state rooms and the harem. The Selamluk was the more impressive of the two. The shades are permanently down for obvious reasons and the interior is dark. It would be wonderful to see the furnishings carpets and wall coverings in the full light of day but they wouldn't last long at that rate. Most notable is the vast amount of crystal used. The main double horseshoe staircase has balustrades of Baccarat crystal and the chandeliers are magnificent. The bathrooms are spectacular as befits the race who invented the towel.
On our last full day we took the morning ferry up the Bosphorus. This is by far the best and cheapest way to do a Bosphorus cruise. There are two trips a day, we took the early one sailing past palaces, yalis built on the waters edge with boathouses underneath, forts and of course mosques. Arrival in Anadoulu Kavagi on the Asian side and not far from the Black Sea, is in time for lunch. Because we had to be back in Tunel by 4.00pm at the latest and had no idea how we were going to get there we left the ferry here and made our way back by bus. There was one leaving for Uskudar in 30 minutes and according to our map, ferries could be boarded there for Besiktas which we knew was a short walk from Dolmabahce.
It was a long ride by bus to Uskudar but the scenery was interesting, also Jean and I got very excited when we discovered that the old name for the town is Scutari. Any little girl going to school in Britain during the 1950's &60's will recognise Scutari as the location of Florence Nightingales nursing station during the Crimean War. As we got off the bus we saw the ferry about to leave and hopped on. We were really beginning to feel confident about getting around Istanbul, such a pity our five days are up.
Back on dry land we walked towards the Dolmabahce Palace as we knew we could get something for lunch there and discovered a mysterious event about to unfold. Our first clue was the martial music blaring from vans parked by the palace entrance. Next came teams of ponies with elaborately decorated saddles, by this time we were ourselves at the palace gates and saw the cause of all the activity. There pulled up on shore was an ancient style boat with ancient style mariners, bandsmen, soldiers, dancing troupe's and even a Sultan all elaborately costumed. We were the only tourists around, passing through the security guards we noticed that only the men were being frisked, women and children were admitted freely. Strange, as the women could have had howitzers under their long full coats. A band of merry pseudo sailors hammed it up for our cameras and told us that at 2.00p.m. they would be hauling the boat by ropes over the main road and into the football stadium where the previous day Istanbul had won the equivalent of the British FA cup. Their English wasn't good enough however to explain just why they were doing this. Two o'clock came and went, likewise 3.00p.m. and I was beginning to worry, we had to be in Tunel by 4.00p.m. Eventually a motorcade of vehicles swept in, security men jumped out followed by someone important (we assume) the crowd seemed to be pleased to see him but we certainly weren't. He must have been a politician as his speech droned on and on well past our scheduled departure time. Eventually we had to leave and the boat had still not move an inch. Still we had great fun, everyone was in high good humour and I had a purse full of addressed to send photos to.
We grabbed a cab which dropped us off at completely the wrong end of Tunel for our date with the Whirling Dervish at Mevlevi Monastery. He told us it was a short walk away but turned out to be a good 20 minute sprint. I was very upset, I had been looking forward to this for many months and had promised myself I would be there in time to secure a seat on the front row. Needless to say we were late and the line up to get in was long. We settled into chairs three rows back and with an obstructed view. In the front row I could see an empty chair with coats on it and eventually asked if it was taken. The owners of the coats sheepishly admitted it wasn't and removed them. Wow, I almost found it in my heart to forgive the cab driver at that moment, almost.
The Whirling Dervish are tolerated by the powers that be as they provide a tourist attraction but the Sema ceremony at Mevlevi was I think quite authentic. The participants seemed very devout and issued a general invitation to visit them at their own premises to discuss their beliefs with their Sheik. I have seen this group described as 'new age' and certainly the coloured gowns and female 'turners' surprised me. I knew there would be no opportunity to use flash so I took along a roll of 36 exposure 1600asa Fuji print film. I hand held at 1/30th of a second. In spite of this my camera was still indicating insufficient light, so I took deep breaths, said a few prayers and shot off the whole roll of film. I couldn't see what I was getting because it was too dark in my viewfinder. Of the 36 shots, almost all are acceptable a few are wonderful (my opinion). I had thought I might follow up with a tourist version so I could get some flash shots but am so glad that I didn't. I like the blurred look and the ceremony was so moving in it's perfect setting that to have gone to a bar or restaurant or one of the barn like buildings they have in Cappadocia would have been a mistake. If you want to attend the ceremony at Mevlevi on the middle or last Sunday of every month you need to get a ticket ahead of time. The only way to do this is to go to the Museum. We went on Thursday morning and picked up our tickets, the ceremony was sold out by the afternoon of the performance.
Our last evening in Istanbul ended with a long walk back over the Galata Bridge to the tram stop at Eminomu. It was my turn to treat and we ate at a restaurant near the tourist office and the Sultanahamet tram stop. It was recommended by the 'boy's' at Empress Zoe and was perfect for us. Walking back we stopped for one last look at the seagulls flashing around the Blue Mosque.