After a long.... long... flight we finally arrived in Istanbul. As much as we enjoyed the service of Emirates, by the end of the 30 + hours we were busting for some fresh air. Suprisingly our bagage was connected from Wellington all the way to Istanbul with no worries. We walked out of the Artatuk airport withouth batting an eye at the Customs officers loitering around with nothing to do.
Backpacks on, we managed to navigate through the metro system, with a connection onto a tram line strainght into the heart of Istanbul: Sultanahmet, all for the cost of 3TL. We landed amoungst the tourist crowds, bus loads of colouful foreigners, all agast at the sight of the Blue Mosque and Aye Sofia. We managed to intuatively navigate towards our hostel to unload and refresh, before venturing out to explore.
Sultanahmet: the heart of Istanbuls historic district, featuring the magestic structure of the he Blue Mosque, AyaSofya and Topicali palace. This peninsular full of historiacal reference, located by the Golden Horn and the Bosphorous straigt is truly enchanting!
Although today the majority of the area is swarming with tourists. Hence all the amenities and services around the place are aimed at targeting the wallets of tourists. Turkish food kiosks, suveneer shops are everywhere. The merchandising dislayes are impressive, the selling techniques are persistent: so prices are high and most frequently buyes get raw deals for the first few days of arriving in this city.
We started out by roaming the large square infront of the closly built Blue Mosque and Aye Sofia which stand only 200m apart. The blue mosque is very impressive with its 6 minureetes and a ghostly blue tinge. We peaked in side the coutyard of the Mosque, at which point Tatyana relised that her shord dress would breach the dress code, so we didn't venture insde.
The Aye Sofia is impressive in size and its Byzantine architechture. It is the postcard friendly image of old Istanbul. The grandure of the architechture and its ability to withstand the volatile transformations between rulers and times, has etched this building into the history books: rebuilt 3 times, the largest former Orthodox basilica for over 1000 years, later a mosque and now a museum.
Not to far from the Mosques is where the old Hippodrome (Hourse racing statium) used to be, now the place is a park. On the site stand three large obilisk from differend eras, in varing degree of preservation and incapsulating their historiacal relavance. One of them Obelisk of Thutmose III is a massive 40m high solid granite tower brough from Egypt in 390 AD but is known to be 3,500 old. How they got it there amazes me. All the obilisques bases now sit about 6m below current ground level. This is due to earthquaqes and the modern city being built around them.
Also in close vercinity to the parks is the Mile stone, once an archway it was the original marker for which all measurements of the ruled land were taken. Well I guess we have reached " the mile stone".
We wondered around the central square getting hungry, then stumbeled upon a small artisan market by the side of the blue mosque. The range of merchandise is impresive: everything from leather bags, shoes, trinkets, clothes and carpets. Our fresh faces and western clothing meant that we stood out a mile away as shop keepers picked us out insisting we enter there shop and buy, buy, buy. Although the carpet sellers didn't waste their breath on inviting us over, as we probably dont look like we have a 1000TL to spend on carpets.
We soon were intised into a very nice garden restaurant, surounded by crumbling 'ruin' walls, with the view of the Blue Mosque, and the promise of live Sufi music. With the stern insistence of the waiter we ordered the mixed kebab platter. It was delicious meal, and the service was outstanding. For our first night in Istanbul it was obvious we were easy prey, as we would later find that the price tag for our meal was highly exhagerated.
We took a walk down to the waterfront, to get the first glimpse of the Sea of Marama and the Bosphorous as the sun was setting. Once we witnessed the volume of cargo ships moving through the straight, we really started to get the sence of how important this location is for trade. Looking across at the Asian cite of the city the
Awake at 5am with the first call to prayer, I manged to contain my exitement and keep still for a bit longer. Stiring Tim awake sometime before 7am, our breakfast not served till 8.30 we had a bit of time to walk around and get our the orientation of the city. Somehow we managed to get a hostel in the heart of the city one block away from AyaSofya. So its very charming stepping outside to great the walls of the four seasons hotel (a building complex which used to be a prison up until the 90 s, I wonder if their guests know this?)
The city's narrow cobble stone street afresh after some morning rain. The town was very much just begining to stir on Saturday morning. We walked towards Gulhane park, where we first witnessed some the animal inhabitants of the city. The tree in the park are home to large Herons and cheeky ravens. Later on we were witness to the morning garbage rade by a few street dogs, however these are much fewer in number compared to the many skinny and dirty cats slinking around scavenging food.
After breakfast we intended to visit the big sites of the city, but once we looked at the huge tourist crowds in from of Haga Sophia we decided to take the back roads leading to Topicali Palace (the Sultans residents). Although there was no escaping crowds here either. After paying the 20TL entry fee, we found ourselves wondering the many couryards of the Palace. We were agast at the beauty of the interior spaces decorated with a variety of blue tiles. The crown jewles were sertanly impresive, the collection includes one of the four biggest diamonds in the worls. The view of the city from the palace terraces gives a great understanding the cities layout as well as glance at how the Sultans once lived and ruled this land.
The whole place was swarming with tourists from all corners of the world, at times we were sholder to shorlder tring to view some exhibits. A large majority of the crowd was Muslim families, on a pilgamige to witness all the relics of the prophet: jewled swords, cuttings of a beard enclosed in a chest, cast of a hand etc. It was a little dissapointing to find that to entre the site of the Sultan's Harem visitors had to pay an extra cost. But the place was impresive although a little suffocating from the crowds of visitors.
To get away from the crowds and fight our jetlag we needed coffee! Even as we exited the palace the line of tourists outside only seemed to double. We tried our first Turkish coffee which didn't quie live up to its reputation. Wellington coffee culture has sertanly refined our tastes. Getting weary we thought to go find some food, the Grand Bazar being a great place to sample cheep local quizine.
The Grand Bazar
Its wasn't hard to stumble upon the place and its vastness. The place is impressive! My eyes were wide at all the merchandise, everything you can imagine..EVERYTHING is here. I tried on a few leather jackets and tried my hand at barganing. But its sertanly hard getting away empty handed from that place, but the leather jacket will have to wait until our return on the way back. I managed to negotiate the middle price with the retailers, talking them down 300 Tl from from the original price. I am learning fast. It seams they hike up the prices twice fold and then hope to get the silly tourist to submit and most do unfortunatly. But I'm also guilty of getting cought out buying dried fruit with no prices, only later to realise that we were ripped off. But its so easy to get cought up in all the vivid sensuory input: all the variety, colour, smells and persistent banter from the sellers. I have never seen Tim so patient and interested in shopping! We managed to get away without capets, leather or jewlery but it took some self restraint.
Even when we though we were getting away from the place, we managed to be getting lost amongst the suburbs of the grand Bazar, spread across the adjasent streets was more merchandise. Every block seams to specialise in something: a block full of clothes, assecories, shoes, fabrics. And as we got closer to Emononu (Goldern Horn Bridge) there was more food and spices, all for for sale.