Mosques, Minarets and Bazaars
08.04.2009 - 12.04.2009 -20 °C
The short holiday in Istanbul in April 2009 was my sixth visit to Turkey’s number one city. Ankara remains the capital of the country but it’s in Istanbul (formerly Constantinople) that the main sights can be found.
All of my previous trips to Istanbul had been with work – there and back in 18 hours, that sort of thing. But those visits were enough to convince me that the city had enough to warrant a proper look around.
Ataturk Airport has in recent years been modernised but can still be a challenge if you aren’t used to it. Many people have spent a considerable time queuing to get through immigration only to be told at the desk that before they can pass through Passport Control they have to first go and queue and pay for their entry visa. It’s useful to know beforehand.
The fee for the entry visa is $15 or £10 and for that you gain a decorative sticker that then gets pummelled with a rubber stamp when you eventually get back to the desk at Passport Control. The good news is : that’s the difficult bit over with. Baggage Reclaim is reasonably efficient and getting a taxi is also a simple process provided you agree the fare before you get in and you get a taxi driver that actually knows his way around his city. Ours wasn’t overly confident and even resorted to winding his window down and asking passers-by where the Centrum Hotel in Sirkeci could be found. I could have hired a car and done that I thought; but at least I didn’t have to contend with the traffic from behind the wheel.
We arrived at our hotel in mid afternoon which gave us just enough time to settle in and then talk to the hotel receptionist before taking a walk to get our bearings. The Hotel Centrum was within easy reach of Sultanahmet and both the Blue Mosque and Haghia Sophia so that’s where we headed in late afternoon. The two buildings are either end of what is effectively a city centre garden; albeit split down the middle by a narrow road that taxi’s use. Haghia Sophia was nearest but the queues to get in were long so we continued walking towards the massive structure of the Blue Mosque with its six minarets.
Shoes off and bagged, we were permitted to go inside. It is huge and made to feel this way more so by the lack of clutter. No pews, no statues, just a massive carpeted area with its appeal lying mainly in the domes and pillars of the building itself.
Shoes back on; the exterior of the Blue Mosque is equally impressive with its curves and angles and towers creating an architectural blend that reflects its location on the border of Europe and Asia. There is a row of open plan cubicles with taps for the traditional washing of feet for those wishing to enter for prayer. And around the back, the inner courtyard acts as an efficient suntrap even in April.
Between the two mosques the area is basically a well tended garden with fountains. And Springtime is the perfect season to visit Istanbul as the city shows off its passion for flowers and in particular tulips which it claims to be the originator of.
We walked back towards Haghia Sophia and it soon became obvious that the decision not to join the queue earlier had turned out to be a good one – this time we paid and went straight in. Blue Mosque probably has the edge over Haghia Sophia from the outside but the inside of the latter is possibly even more impressive than its younger neighbour. The full impact was diluted a little by the inevitable scaffolding that nine times out of ten will mar the appearance of at least one attraction on every holiday. Years ago in Moscow it was St.Basil’s Cathedral, here in Istanbul it was Haghia Sophia. Oh well.
The building, now a museum, started life as a cathedral and was then converted into the solid and far from delicate structure that it is today as a mosque. Nevertheless, it is an impressive and imposing sight and the interior restoration work is uncovering colours and designs that reflect its unusual evolution.
The Hotel Centrum was on a pedestrianised crossroads on a hill in Sirkeci between Sultanahmet and the port at Galata Bridge. And on two of those corners were competing restaurants both trying to win us over for our first meal but we had already decided which one we would choose that evening and so a promise was made to the other that we would go there at some point over the next few days.
The food was good – lots of fish – and the wine also surprisingly decent although we avoided the bottles without labels that were offered as part of the wine list. The restaurant was convenient to the extreme; possibly eight to ten steps between the table that we sat at and the hotel entrance. Perfect for the first evening.
The first day had been an interesting one and the early hours of day two were equally as entertaining when, after being woken up suddenly at around 2 a.m., I investigated the noise that I could hear outside of our hotel and discovered some of the locals having a go at each other. Some of the staff at the restaurants were involved and one had his hand covered in a blood stained towel. More shouting and then the group started running down the road amidst what sounded like three gun shots. I'll never know if it really was a gun but the incident had certainly put an end to any prospect of getting back to sleep. While lying there wide awake I could hear the sound of glass being swept up and by the time we investigated the area next morning everything had been tidied away. Peace had been restored following just another ordinary night in Istanbul.
The breakfast room at the hotel was on the top of the building with views across to The Golden Horn and Galata and also to the Topkapi Palace which was almost within touching distance. After breakfast we headed straight to Topkapi Palace, located just five minutes stroll away from the hotel and just over halfway along the walk to Sultanahmet. Security is unsurprisingly tight in Istanbul and we had to put bags through scanners before we were allowed entry to buy tickets for the Palace and the Harem. I had taken a small tripod with me as a part of my photography kit but this was promptly confiscated for the duration of our visit to Topkapi. The grounds of the Palace were extremely well kept and the spring flowers added a colourful border to the pathways that led from the entrance up to the main palace gates. Inside the main area you soon realise how big the palace is and it was clear that to see it all properly was going to take some time. The main rooms, the armoury, the treasury etc all took a while to get around with many visitors taking their time especially in the treasury, gawping at the sizeable precious stones and the bejewelled turbans, swords and daggers belonging to the Sultan. And when that was all done, there was still the Harem to see.
Entrance to the Harem required a separate ticket to gain entry. Not sure why. Perhaps some people simply choose not to see it or maybe others only want to see the Harem and nothing else. Whatever, we did both anyway (why wouldn’t you??) and walking around the corridors and through the rooms of the Harem listening to stories of eunuchs and the Sultan’s lifestyle certainly created an image or two. And by the end of the tour at Topkapi it was clear that it was the Sultan’s mother who was the all-powerful one at the Palace and the Sultan played second fiddle. On the way out I retrieved my tripod from security and we made our way out and back to the hotel..
In the evening we found The Pudding Shop, a restaurant close to Haghia Sophia and the Blue Mosque that has gained a decent reputation for its food in Istanbul.
The Bosporous runs from Istanbul all the way up to The Black Sea; ferries operate up and down stopping at three or four points on route on both the European and Asian sides. It takes just over two hours to get from the port at Eminonu up to Anadolu Kavagi on the Asian side at the furthest point North on the Bosporous where the massive expanse of The Black Sea suddenly opens up in front of you. We decided to get the 10:30 ferry and were queuing up to buy tickets by 9:30 as suggested. Ten minutes later, tickets in hand, we were stuck with what to do for the next 35 minutes until the boat arrived. Being so close to Galata Bridge it was an obvious decision to walk the bridge - and I challenge anybody to cross that bridge when there are no fishermen on it. No matter what time of day or night, whenever I have been across Galata Bridge there have been many, many rods being wielded in the hope of either catching the big one or, more likely than that, catching enough of anything to take some pressure off of the weekly family food bill. But it wasn’t only fishermen busying themselves on Galata Bridge. A shoe shiner dashed past me and without stopping dropped one of his brushes. I called him back to return his brush and he, in turn, insisted on shining my shoes despite my insistence that he needn’t bother. Thinking that this was simply the return of a favour (silly me!) he started conversation by asking where I was from and swiftly moved on to telling me how many children he had, how poor they were and how unwell he was. By this time, I was suspecting the inevitable - this wasn’t going to be a freebie!! And sure enough, moments later, with hand outstretched and without looking me in the eyes, “35 Lira sir”. At around 2 Lira to the £1, it would have been cheaper to buy a new pair! Anyway, he got ‘5’ which was unfortunately the smallest that I had at the time.
We joined the queue to board the rusty white ferry. Travelling up the Bosporous from the city, the properties slowly become larger and more detached as you leave behind busy Istanbul and its estimated fifteen million inhabitants. And it would have been nice to be able to get off at each stop and explore but we decided to go to the ‘end of the line’ and at least be able to say that we had been to Asia and crossed two continents during our trip.
The ferry stops at Anadolu Kavagi for two hours before returning to Istanbul; just enough time to walk around the village and find somewhere for lunch. We were lucky; it was a lovely sunny day and, sheltered from the strong breeze that was coming back at us from the Black Sea, we found a restaurant and a table right by the water. Anadolu Kavagi is a small fishing village which gave the camera some exercise and the handily placed market stalls close to the ferry dock also gave the wallet an airing.
The journey back was downstream and therefore quite a bit quicker and we had already decided to get off at Dolmabahce rather than carry on to the main port in Istanbul. The Dolmabahce Palace was the main residence of the old Sultan’s and was somewhere that we had listed to visit. Unfortunately, by the time we got there it was five minutes from closing and therefore, to see it properly, we decided to return the following day. Instead, we started walking towards Taksim Square and the main shopping area. Taxi’s are always an option but for whatever reason we just carried on walking and within a relatively short time had arrived at the square and quickly found a place to sit down for a drink.
Taksim is at the top of Istiklal Caddesi which, to the rest of us, is the “commercial road” in Istanbul. A long, straight and mainly pedestrianised thoroughfare with the occasional vintage tram to compete with as you zigzag between shops among the hundreds of other people out spending their hard earned Lira. At the bottom of Istiklal Caddesi is Galata Tower which was another of our targets but not today. So, we carried on down the hill to Galata Bridge - a great location for it crosses the Golden Horn at the point where the Sea of Marmara meets and then veers off alternatively up the Bosporous. And you can also glimpse the corner of Topkapi Palace and the tops of both Haghia Sophia and Blue Mosque on one side, Galata Tower on the other and the typically sturdy New Mosque that guards the bridge at roadside on the Sultanahmet side.
Seeing the Grand Bazaar and the Spice Bazaar during our visit was a must as far as we were concerned. They were close but not close enough to get there without using public transport so we worked out how to use the trams and found our nearest tram stop was Chemberlitas. We then walked conspicuously through the crowded side streets that eventually wound their way down to one of the arched entrances to the bazaar. It was great fun wandering around the 4,000 shops, fending off the friendly advances of the carpet sellers. And whereas the colour and sheer volume of the shops in Grand Bazaar was impressive it was the colours and smells that hit you at the Spice Bazaar.
Sulimaniye Mosque is regarded as one of the most significant buildings in Istanbul and so we decided to again take the local tram to Beyazit. Unfortunately, when we arrived at the mosque much of it was closed to the public due to refurbishment (here we go again!!) but what we saw of the building and the surrounding area was worth the trip.
An opportunity to go and watch the Sufi Dancers (or Whirling Dervishes) presented itself on our last night in Istanbul and conveniently it was an easy walk from the hotel, at the Hodjapasha which was a small mosque, no longer used as a mosque but as a setting for the Sufi shows. The show itself was only just over an hour long which made it even more appealing as far as I was concerned. We arrived in good time and found good seats from which to take photographs and not bother other people whilst doing it. Eventually the place filled up and the musicians arrived and started playing and this was followed by four Sufi mystics entering the small arena who then over the course of the hour went through a traditional ritual in four parts involving spinning and moving in pre-determined poses and patterns; all the time with their eyes closed which, to me, was the clever bit because I would surely have lost balance and ended up on the floor. It was unusual, strange and a spectacle and it was good to see ……………… but an hour was enough!
We had eaten well in Istanbul but really wanted to try a dedicated fish restaurant so that is what we did on our final evening. Again, we didn’t have to venture far from the hotel to find one.
On our final morning we decided that there was enough time to go and see the Basilica Cistern (in Sultanahmet, near Blue Mosque). The Basilica Cistern is an underground water system that dates back to the year 532 and it provided a water filtration facility for Constantinople.
We also paid a second visit to a small café in Sultanahmet that sold Baclava. We wanted to take some home and so spent some time choosing enough to fill one of the boxes that were then packed in for the journey.
Having emerged from the underground Basilica Cistern we squeezed in another visit to the Blue Mosque ……………. and it could easily have caused us to miss our flight home!! The day of our departure had coincided with a major national cycling event and Istanbul was at the centre of it. Not only that, the Turkish Prime Minister was arriving to start the race and security was at its most prominent. Automatic Rifles, Armoured Patrol Vehicles, Water Cannons, they definitely know how to have a good time!! Race Marshalls and Stewards were placing barriers around the roads and, with the help of the police, were creating the track along which the cyclists would race. In doing so they were also making it more difficult for the general public to walk freely around Sultanahmet but were, at various points, allowing people to cross the cordoned off road to get to the Blue Mosque and Haghia Sophia. So, we negotiated the restrictions and made our way into the central garden area for one last look around Blue Mosque before we prepared to go home. We realised that our time was limited and so spent a relatively short period of time looking around before heading back to the hotel. However, things had moved on as far as the race preparation was concerned and we (and others, including locals) suddenly found ourselves unable to get back across the race track because the police had now closed off the small gaps in the barriers where they were once allowing people to cross. Help! We had to get back to the hotel because we had a taxi booked for the airport but we weren’t having much success in explaining to the Istanbul police our predicament. However, after several attempts we made enough of the right noises to be allowed across. This temporarily opened the public floodgates as we were followed through a relatively small gap in the barriers by a number of others keen to get across to the other side.
After hurrying back to the hotel to get ready in time for our taxi we were greeted by the Hotel Receptionist with a message that the taxi had cancelled because it couldn’t negotiate the chaos in the City Centre that was being created by the cycle race. “What do we do now!?”
Trams to the airport would normally be an option but not today and Taxi’s were proving difficult. The Receptionist offered to dive us in his ‘Private Taxi’ for the same price as we had been quoted by our originally booked taxi; however, he didn’t finish work until half an hour after we needed to check in at the airport!!
Eventually, with the assistance of the Receptionist, we found a taxi firm willing to take us. But that wasn’t the end of it. Suspecting that, due to circumstances, we may end up paying a premium for this ride I kept an eye on the clock in the cab as the Lira slowly mounted up. I had expected to pay around 30 to 35 Turkish Lira which is what it cost for the half an hour journey when we arrived and also what the Hotel Receptionist said we would be charged (although he did say, “maybe 40”) - and about a mile outside of the airport I noticed that the fare had just passed the 29 Lira mark so it looked about right. It was therefore a surprise when, about two minutes later, the clock read 56 Lira!!!! Not being willing to go down without at least a bit of a fight I challenged the fare in English as the driver argued in Turkish. We were down to our last 60 or so Lira anyway and we needed some spare for the airport so no way was he getting his 56. Eventually I got our luggage and parted with 45 Turkish Lira which left us with a small amount of currency to spend in departures. Taxi drivers – don’t you love ‘em!!
Istanbul is a fantastic city. It’s attractive without being pretty. It never sleeps but then with 15 million or more inhabitants it probably doesn’t get an opportunity. Historically, few places can boast more and with its location straddling two continents it can claim to be fairly unique among the world’s cities. It is a culturally fascinating place and its people appeared generally friendly and helpful – with the possible exception of one or two taxi drivers!