Thursday, March 18, 2010


Another weekend, another destination that we didn't want to leave, another... continent.

Istanbul is an incredible place. It has truly amazing sights and attractions, but it's also the kind of city that can catch you off guard: if you happen to look up from your path, the city tumbles down to deep, vibrant blue water on all sides; the skyline is softened by the arcs of domes and punctuated by proud minarets; seagulls swirl in flocks in the graying sky; beyond the water, hills roll away, more minarets, more domes... And I'm swept away.

Up close, too, it's a rich, rewarding place. The food and desserts are wonderful, the people are some of the nicest we've ever come across... and on and on. Enough. What did we actually do?

We arrived in the afternoon and set out from our hotel to do a bit of exploring, starting with the Grand Bazaar. If ever there was an idea taken to its absurd extreme, surely it's the concept of a market transformed into the Grand Bazaar. A photo would be useless — what amazes is how long one walks down passages crowded with stalls (largely selling the same things as their neighbors), all the while crossing further passages that extend to the right and left as far as one can see. It's a labyrinth. It makes suburban mega-malls of America look unambitious and hopelessly plain.

Many of the shops/stalls have barkers, but they're (mostly) not the aggressive, annoying kind. We struck up a conversation with one and, even though we had no intention of buying a Turkish carpet, let him show us some silk carpets that change color depending on the angle from which you look. There was also the most incredible assortment of colored-glass lamps and chandeliers I've ever seen. Here's one of our favorites.

The Bazaar is a bit of a sensory overload, so we basically walked straight through (which, mind you, takes plenty of time even in a straight line) up to the city's main harbor. The river that runs through the city is called the Bosphorus, and it is the dividing line between Europe on its west bank and Asia on its east. It branches off on the European side, so the city is divided into thirds, and the old town where we spent most of our time is surrounded on three sides by water.

From there, we took a ferry on an evening cruise of the river.

See what I mean about getting swept away?

Even the modern suspension bridge that links the European side to the Asian side is lit up in a kind of twinkling, glittering effect.

And when we got back to our hotel, the view from our hotel room was incredible.

In fact, the view from the breakfast terrace the next morning was something to see as well.

The building in the foreground (and in the night picture above) is the Blue Mosque, and in the background is the Aya Sophia. And if you drew a line through them, then continued the line into the distance, you'd get to our first stop the next morning: Topkapi Palace.

The sultans of the Ottoman Empire called Topkapi Palace home for centuries; like all such palaces around Europe, it's no longer in use — in favor of drab government buildings — and is instead a tourist attraction. It has the usual palace stuff (ornate banquet halls, crown jewels, etc.) but my favorite part was the complex in the corner furthest from the entrance. It also happens to be the corner of the peninsula, so the views are incredible.

You can see across to the military barracks on the Asian side of the city where Florence Nightingale practically invented nursing during the Crimean War.

There's a small museum there, but it wasn't open during our time in the city.

Teriann's favorite thing about the palace, however, was its band of feral cats. Cats and dogs roam the city, but they're all friendly and, for the most part, oddly clean. The encounter below, Teriann told me, was pretty much the highlight of her trip. Strange lady.

From there, we headed to my favorite thing we saw all weekend, the Aya Sophia.

It was completed in 537 — a thousand years before the great buildings of the Renaissance — when Istanbul was the Roman city of Constantinople. Built as a church, it was converted into a mosque and finally into a museum, somehow managing to stand through the centuries and regimes.

Let me explain something about Roman buildings. In Rome, you can see many ancient buildings, like the Coliseum, which is enormous but very much a ruin, or the Pantheon, which is incredibly well-preserved and beautiful but only the size of an average church. But the Aya Sophia is all three: ancient, preserved, and breathtakingly massive.

And right across the park is the Blue Mosque. To be honest, I was slightly ashamed that I had never been in any other religious building other than a church. Why should that be the case, especially since I'm not religious?

The building itself was spectacular, but it made me feel a lot like visiting the Vatican: at the same time that I was impressed by the structure, I was very aware of how deeply I disagree with some of the tenets of the religion.

More than anything, though, it made me interested in visiting other houses of worship, Hindu temples, synagogues, etc., in the future.

We ended that night with a whirling dervish show — which was pretty average. The ceremony was slow and reverent, but I, uninformed, was expecting something with a bit more energy.

Our last morning in the city was spent poking through a few shops on our way to another Roman-era attraction, the cistern. Essentially a giant holding tank to provide the city with water, it was built by the same Emperor who built the Aya Sophia. We had a limited amount of time before our flight back to London, so it seemed like the best option.

On our way, however, a local struck up a conversation with us. He guessed that we were Americans (in London they're more polite about it and guess Canadian... hehe) and told us that his son recently got married and lives in Queens, New York. We smiled, told him congratulations, etc... It's not uncommon to find yourself in small conversations with strangers. As I said before, the people are genuinely very kind. We asked where exactly we could find the cistern, and he changed his own direction: "Follow me."

He was still chatting up a storm: his son this, his wife that. "Come into my shop," he urges, "have a look around." Before we know it, we're not at the cistern but in his carpet shop, and he's showing us his old family pictures. I'm not kidding — he had a full-on black-and-white photo of a family, in which he pointed out which young boy was himself. Riiiiight.

Now all this is probably a little sleazy, but when we kindly explained that we weren't in the market for a rug, he just apologized and took us to the road where we could find the cistern. He wasn't rude or anything. In fact, he was so jovial the whole time that it didn't even feel sleazy — it just seemed like kind of a funny thing to have happened on our morning walk.

The cistern itself — we were still smiling when we got there — was quite interesting. There's a handful of these things to see around Europe, but most aren't nearly as old. This one is from the 6th century, and re-uses some Greek columns — which would have been about 800 years old at the time of its construction.

Before we reluctantly made our way to the airport, we spent a couple of last minutes in the park between the Sophia and the Blue Mosque. It was a beautiful morning. We had seen some amazing highlights but hadn't had the time to dig deeper into the city.

More than anything, though, it was simply relaxing. Sitting in a park is always a good way to spend time; doing nothing is never as rewarding anywhere else.

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