This has been a rough week for Istanbul. And Jakarta. Two places we immensely enjoyed. We were right there in Istanbul’s hippodrome less than a month ago. And earlier in 2015, we spent many hours in Jakarta at our favorite museum (of the whole trip) about a kilometer from where the bombings were. Despite the events of this week, we still highly recommend Istanbul and Jakarta as travel destinations. They are rich in culture, food and architecture. We hope they recover and are not plagued with any more acts of terrorism. With that, here is a recap from our Istanbul trip. The Jakarta blog can be found here: RIKI’S FIRST TRIP OVER THE EQUATOR….JAKARTA, INDONESIA.
Conveniently on our way to DC, Istanbul has been on our list for a long time. We’ve spent a few hours in the airport last year, naively looking out to windows trying to spot the Hagia Sophia (not knowing we were 45 minutes from the city and those minarets we spotted belonged to one of the other many giant mosques in town). So it was high time we got out of the airport. We booked a 4 night layover, immensely cheaper than flying direct from Zurich to DC and even booked a hotel. Yes, a hotel, not a hostel. We splurged and spent $30 a night on a tiny room including a massive Turkish breakfast and a view of the Blue Mosque. Albeit, to get this view, I had to stick my head out the window and turn 90 degrees. But it had a window, and a safe and even a mini-fridge. A huge step up from our standard accommodation in Asia.
Upon arrival, Riki promptly forgot the ATM pin he had used frequently for 10 months earlier this year. Just gone. So we spent a few minutes trying to remember and practicing in the air possible combinations before we gave up and exchanged some US dollars we had leftover from travelling in Myanmar. Enough for a taxi and a few days of food and sight-seeing. Yes, a taxi. Not our standard form of transport, but as we were heavily laden with gifts, we were not backpacking it this time.
It was just getting dark when we were finally checked in to the hotel, so we took advantage of the last remaining minutes of daylight and went to explore. We discovered the old area to be very walkable and we were a lot closer to many of the attractions than we had thought when we booked the hotel. An easy 2 minutes up hill and we were smack dab between the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia. 10 minutes later we wound up accidentally at the Grand Bazaar just before it was closing. It was practically empty and we were relatively ignored as many shopkeepers were closing up already.
We found a hole-in-the-wall doner place for dinner (vertical rotisserie meat, usually lamb), where the owner spoke German and insisted on showing us his travel agency and leather coat shop when we had finished. Not as pushy as people we encountered later.
The next morning we woke up to a bit of haze, but the clearest skies we would have for the next few days. We ate a huge Turkish breakfast, with fruit, cheese, bread (particularly good simit – which is like a light bagel covered in sesame seeds), meat, juice, veggies, more cheese, coffee, tea and more. Included from our hotel. To top it off, there was a loud feline friend complete with kittens hanging out on the patio outside of the breakfast area. Just an overall great way to start the day.
The weather looked the best for our first day, so we used that day to wander, something we are rather good at by now. Riki had researched two neighborhoods that were walkable, but not touristy.
However, to start, we went back to the Grand Bazaar in search of a Han with a view. A Han is usually a building enclosing a courtyard that was used for merchants, their animals and merchandise. It would also have an inn and shops. The directions Riki gave me were pretty much “coming out of the Bazaar, take two lefts, find a Han and go to the northwest part and look for an old guy who has the key. Then pay him 5 lire.” In actuality, they were a bit more detailed, but I just found that out today.
If you would like to visit the above rooftop, here are the more detailed instructions. Though even with these, we wandered around a bit and had to ask, mostly by gesturing toward the sky until someone pointed us in the right direction.
- Leave the Grand Bazaar via Mahmutpasa Gate.
- Walk down toward the Spice Bazaar along the route past many old hans
- Walk along Mahmutpasa Yokusu and turn left along Tarakcilar Caddesi. Buyuk Valide Han is at the end.
- Stair is in the northwest corner.
- Find the caretaker, Mehdi Bey, who is usually on the NW corner of the second floor.
- Offer him a tip to unlock the door to the stairs.
After we descended, we continued on our wander to the Fener and Balat neighborhoods. We passed a number of mosques along the way, as well as an old Greek school. The terrain got more hilly and the streets more windy.
As we got further from the touristy area, we encountered less and less shops and restaurants. Of course, this is always the time when I start getting hungry and tired of waiting around while Riki takes a million photos. When he stops to take the picture below and I look down at his feet, I notice something peculiar. As he is snapping away, he is also stepping on rather large shell casings that are littering the sidewalk. This, combined with my hunger, convinces us its time to head towards the water and the more commercial areas.
After an excellent doner sandwich in a tiny shop, we continued our wander across the water (I haven’t been able to figure out what to call this piece of water – inlet, harbour, Golden Horn, river-ish thing). We ended up on the very crowded walking street, Istiklal. It was absolutely packed with people and every few blocks we would come across an astronomical number of heavily armed policemen with riot gear and large clear shields. They have a touristy little tram that runs through every so often and ends at Taksim Square, which was the center of street politics in Istanbul and has been the site of protests, football riots and a bombing (though not the most recent one).
The street is lined with shops and restaurants. We couldn’t help but ogle at the delicious looking desserts, though most look better than they taste in my opinion. At least the variety with the gooey interiors. I much preferred the pastries, of which we happily sampled every kind.
The next morning, we had another fabulous breakfast at our hotel and then rushed to the Hagia Sophia to beat the crowds. It being December, and right before Christmas, it wasn’t very crowded anyway, but as I had been awake since the 6:20 call the prayer, it wasn’t much of a rush to eat and walk the 2 minutes to the entrance to be there when they opened.
We found the Hagia Sophia to be as amazing as expected. It was built in the 500s as an Eastern Orthodox basilica, yes, church. In the 1400s it was converted to a mosque (minarets added) and was used as such until 1935, when it became a museum. It was the largest cathedral for 1000 years. Part of the building is under scaffolding, but you can still get a sense of the massive space and the incredible dome. What is incredibly striking is the combination of church and mosque decor. Mosaics of Christianity just feet from giant calligraphic Arabic medallions inscribed with “Allah,” “Muhammed” and others. Not a common sight.
After visiting the Hagia Sophia, we went next door to see the Ottoman sultans’ tombs, which are free. The tile work in these tombs is amazing – blues and intricate and calming. I was required to cover my head here, but not in the Hagia Sophia, as it is a museum and not used as a religious place anymore.
We then headed toward the archaeological museum, which is housed in a number of buildings, some better thought out than others. The ones showcasing different examples of tiles was in a gorgeous building and well displayed. We found the other buildings, one of which was under construction, to be a maze of seemingly disconnected artifacts. But perhaps that is because they have so much to display. They have an impressive number of items and most are labeled.
So yea, along with a huge population of big stray dogs, there are stray cats everywhere. But they don’t look like your typical strays. They are clean and we even saw one that had recently had stitches. And everybody feeds them. Little cardboard “cat houses” are everywhere and right next to those are bowls of food left by residents and shopkeepers. We’re not sure where the dogs eat, but they are all tagged on the ears and generally look well fed. We did see two in front of the Hagia Sophia gnawing on some giant rib bones. Riki is convinced they are spies (the dogs, not the cats obviously), trained by the government to keep an eye on things.
From the archaeological museum, we headed to check out the spice bazaar and then across the Galata bridge again, where hundreds of men gather every day to fish. For what seems to be a small reward. They line every available railing, hang out, drink coffee and chat amongst themselves.
I again woke to the 6:20 call to prayer on our last full day. We walked just past the Hagia Sophia to the Basilica Cistern.
The Basilica Cistern is an immense underground cavern. It used to be under a basilica, hence the name. The 336 columns, which are 9 meters tall were taken from different places and reused, so they don’t all match. There are even two Medusa heads at the base of two columns. It is the largest cistern in Istanbul and is surrounded by a 4 meter thick brick wall. It can hold a lot of water. Though right now it only holds a few feet, which is just enough for some large fish to occupy. But don’t feed the fish. That is not allowed. I tried.
We spent some more time wandering around the Grand Bazaar and Spice Bazaar before returning to the Blue Mosque after afternoon prayer. The tiles were amazing, but I was not too keen on the prayer separation. Tourists are asked to stay in the back, behind a barricade. Fine, no problem. I don’t want to interrupt anyone praying. However, Muslim women are also not allowed in that area, which happens to be front and center. The women are cordoned off behind a screen along the wall. But then, many of the men who do go into the prayer area, bring their phones and are taking selfies left and right, complete with sticks. Seems like they are not prohibiting all the right things. Also, I think they should change the lighting plan so the dome is not blocked by all these lines coming way down to hold up the massive chandeliers.
After the Blue Mosque, it was frigid so we took a quick break at our hotel before venturing out for an excellent dinner (more doner meat) and a walk to the Galata bridge again.
I took advantage of the 6:20 wake up “call to prayer” to pack, eat breakfast and head out to buy fresh baklava to bring back to DC before our early afternoon flight.
Considering our flight karma, this trip went well. We only almost had to land in Canada because of a medical emergency on a plane, and we were not at the other Istanbul airport when they had an explosion that same day we departed.
To top it off, we were met in the States with giant homemade tacos. Not too shabby.