*Make yourself a cup of coffee or tea, relax, and settle in…this is a long one!*
I know I have been putting up a lot of travel posts recently (ahem…5 on Vienna alone!), but with the absolutely amazing travels I’ve been blessed with the past few months…I can’t help it! Because Istanbul is so fresh in my mind, I am going to tackle it first and then finally get around to posting about our AMAZING cruise a few months ago (where does the time go?!). Vince and I don’t have anything major planned for the next few months, just a few trips here and there in Bulgaria (and possibly a weekend trip to Greece if we can afford it), so expect more varied posts coming up.
Alrighty…Let’s talk Istanbul!
Istanbul is a surprising city. It’s likely not what most people would expect. While it is heavily influenced by the Muslim faith; everyone seems to live in relative harmony, no matter their religious beliefs. Simply standing in one spot and thinking about all the world changing events that occurred there is, at times, overwhelming. Istanbul is right up there with Rome and Athens when it comes to sheer historical significance. The city itself is sparkling clean (in most areas) and seems to be very safe. I don’t know why these two things surprised me, but they did. It does still have that gritty feel that huge cities inevitably take on over time–and that makes it even more appealing and interesting. The juxtaposition of old (we’re talking ancient, here!) and new is nearly seamless. Based on the look and feel of Istanbul alone, it is hard to believe that Turkey is not yet a member of the EU. I hate to admit it, but in many respects it seems to deserve membership more than Bulgaria. The differences in the border facilities alone are staggering. One definitely knows when they have crossed over from run-down, litter-strewn Bulgaria into shining new and tidy Turkey.
My friend K. and I booked a night bus from Plovdiv to Istanbul with Metro bus lines. It was my first experience riding a bus from one country to another and now I am probably spoiled for life. The actual bus itself was really nice and seemed more like a plane set-up; complete with TV screens in the headrests (unfortunately w/ everything in Turkish) and an attendant that handed out waters and snacks. The bus wasn’t full so everyone got to spread out over two seats. As always, I slept pretty much the entire time save for the nearly two hours we spent at the border. The border itself is rather intimidating. Well, the Turkish side anyway. On the Bulgarian side all we had to do was line up in front of a customs agent who put an exit stamp into our passports. Then it was back onto the bus to the Turkish side where we got off multiple times for customs, security checks, and baggage screening. K. and I were the only Americans aboard (the only non-Turks, really), so we were directed to a separate building to buy our visas. The agent was asleep on a couch inside (classy, Turkey) and when he did come to the window he said the visa was $80. Um…NO! We knew it was only $20 and said so. He just took our money and put the visas in our passports (and went back to sleeping on his couch, I am sure). Moral of the story: if you are crossing the Bulgarian/Turkish border and have to get a visa–DON’T LET YOURSELF GET RIPPED OFF!
I fell asleep again after the border and woke up to the hellish Istanbul morning rush hour. We were unceremoniously dropped off at the main bus terminal in the city. No one at the Metro counter spoke any English so we couldn’t find the promised transfers into the city that the agent in Bulgaria had told us about. We debated for a bit but due to completely overwhelming nature of the place, we decided to just snag a taxi to our hotel, Albinas Hotel Old City.
I don’t often sing the praises of places where I stay during my travels; even if they are good, but I have to this time with Albinas. The small, 32-room hotel is located a mere 5-minute walk from the Blue Mosque and Sultanahmet Square. The rooms are well decorated, clean, and come with many free amenities (the slippers were nice and I brought them home–can’t have enough slippers in Bulgaria!). However, the two best things about the hotel are the free breakfast buffet in the mornings (which runs until 11am for late sleepers) and the stunning views. You can’t beat a view of the Blue Mosque on one side and the Sea of Marmara on the other!
Our first few days in the city were spent exploring the Sultanahment Square area; which includes the immense Blue Mosque, Hippodrome, Hagia Sophia, and the Basilica Cistern.
These attractions alone easily take up a full day, if not multiple days.
The Blue Mosque (also known as Sultan Ahmed Mosque) is impossible to miss. This huge structure, dating from the 1600’s, dominates the skyline in the old part of the city. Its 6 minarets and gold-topped domes draw the eye upward and toward the ever-circling flock of seagulls that can be seen day and night. It is from these minarets that the Muslim call to prayer – or Adhan – is called out five times per day. With at least 10 mosques within walking distance from our hotel, we could hear the call loud and clear throughout the day.
The interior ceiling of the mosque is covered in geometric tiles and its floor in the largest carpet I have ever seen. Tourists must remove their shoes, can’t be wearing shorts, and it is suggested that women cover their heads. When I last visited in 2009 I seem to remember head coverings being required–but it’s now optional. Leggings on females are a no-no as well; we saw one girl being asked to put a gauzy cover over her legs before entering.
*Sidenote: Beware of overly-helpful men outside the mosque and in other touristy areas of the city (especially at the Grand Bazaar and the Spice Market). We were approached by many men, some who even continued to harass us after being told we didn’t want to go to their “cousin’s” carpet shop. I WISH I could afford a $5,000 rug! And if I could, I certainly wouldn’t get one from a shop suggested by some guy on the street! After being in Istanbul before and spending time in India, I have learned to simply say “no thanks,” avoid eye contact, and keep walking. Some men made rude cat-calls and things at me for not paying attention to them, but I’m not fazed by it.
After staring up at the tiles at the Blue Mosque (there isn’t much else to do there), we walked around the large adjacent square, known as the Hippodrome of Constantinople. This large areas was once the sporting/circus area of ancient Constantinople and home to epic chariot races. Works of art and monuments were brought from all over the world to decorate the Hippodrome and those that still stand today include the Serpentine Column, the Walled Obelisk, and the Obelisk of Thutmose III, which once stood at the Temple of Karnak in Luxor, Egypt. Today, the square seems to be the place for sitting in the sun and chatting with friends in the shadows of some of the most iconic buildings in not only the city but the world.
A short walk from the Hippodrome is the Basilica Cistern. The Basilica Cistern–which once held 100,000 tons of water–is the largest of the ancient cisterns that lie beneath the city’s streets. It was built under the direction of Emperor Justinian I to ensure a water supply for residents in the event of a siege. Visitors descend 52 stone steps into what seems like an entirely different world (a friend who saw one of my photos equated it to Mordor in LOTR–very good analogy, N.!). The lighting and music make the entire experience a bit eery but in a good way. Likely the most famous items within the cistern are the two Medusa head column bases. One is upside down and the other on its side; no one really knows their origin or why they are placed as they are. Apparently, tours used to be given on boats but in the late 80’s platforms were built and are still in place today. The water is only a few feet deep these days and is filled with writhing fish–only adding to the creepiness! Taking pictures in such a dark place is tricky, so most of mine turned out a bit blurry.
Hagia Sophia is a spot that I sincerely regretted not being able to see last time I visited Istanbul. We studied it in Art History in college for over a week, for goodness sake! (*Truth time–I slept through 98% of Art History. The second the lights went out and the projector slides started clicking…off to dreamland I went! I totally regret this now as I have traveled to so many museums and destinations with famous works of art and architecture and I have no recollection of what I was taught.) This time around I made sure to spend a lot of time in the building and on the grounds. It really is a highlight and not to be missed.
In its storied 1600+ year history, the building has served as a Christian Orthodox basilica, Roman Catholic cathedral, and mosque. It is has functioned as a museum since the early 1930’s and has long been one of the most highly visited sites in Istanbul. The massive dome that tops the structure was revolutionary at the time it was built and still remains a marvel of architectural design. The building itself is huge and, in fact, was the largest enclosed structure in the world for 1,000 years. When the building was converted into a mosque in the 1400’s, the Christian mosaics were plastered over. Since being converted into a museum many of the mosaics have been uncovered and restored.
Apparently, the lines to get into the building can be hours long during the peak summer season when multiple cruise lines dock in the city. Visiting in January, on the other hand, meant we were able to walk right in and could enjoy the site with only a handful of other tourists.
The grounds between Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque are full of food carts, lounging locals, and wandering tourists. There is a huge fountain, rows of gorgeous palms, and little white fences that encircle sections of landscaped grass and flowers. It was a beautiful spot that made from great people watching and photos. Oh, and it helped that the weather was downright GORGEOUS! It felt like late spring rather than mid-January!
In Part 2 I will cover our visit to the Spice Market (Egyptian Bazaar), cruise on the Bosphorus, and detail some survival skills essential for surviving the Grand Bazaar.
More photos on my Flickr photostream.
(Kudos to you if you made it through this post!)
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