We spent these days exploring more of Istanbul’s many charms. We started by trying to get into the Blue Mosque… Didn’t quite work out. We arrived about an hour before prayer (they close the mosque to visitors during prayer times) but the lineup for visitors to get into the mosque was quite long and we didn’t think we’d get much time inside before they closed it. So we left and headed over to the Museum of Archaeology – very well done museum. The displays are a bit dated (lots of 1970s wooden cabinets) but they have a good collection of Greek and Roman stuff and lots of stuff from the various epochs of Istanbul’s history. Unfortunately, they are renovating the “old building” where a large part of the collection is housed so we did miss some stuff because it wasn’t on display – but in all, we spent a couple of hours there and all enjoyed the time. One of the best parts of the museum is that much of the signage is in English so you get the full story on the pieces (other museums… like the Louvre… could take notes).
By the time we finished with the museum, it was perfect timing to head back to the Blue Mosque for the afternoon session between prayer periods. We arrived just as they were opening it back up to visitors and had to stand in line for about half an hour before we made our way in. The mosque is pretty but to our – very westernized – eyes wasn’t as interesting as the Hagia Sophia or many of the churches we’ve seen. I suspect it has a lot to do with the different decoration – with the prohibition on icons in Islamic art, everything is geometric or floral patterns instead of the scene based decor we’re used to seeing in western churches. It’s not that one is better than the other, it’s just different and our eyes are accustomed to the more representative art of Christian churches. The other problem with the mosque is the interior space is filled with longs chains holding up light fixtures – I found the chains very distracting visually. Especially because the interior decoration is quite “light” while the chains are very “heavy” visually and seemed to dominate the more subtle blues and whites of the mosque. The other criticism is that the vast majority of the mosque is off-limits to visitors who are restricted to a small section of the main floor.
Don’t get me wrong – it’s a stunning architectural wonder and is very beautiful… it just didn’t blow our minds like it does for some people.
After the Blue Mosque we headed back to the Mahmut Pasa area so Caitlin could take a look at a dress she was interested in for her winter grad. We ended up roaming around a fair bit while she tried on a few alternates and we looked for souvenirs. We ended up buying some of the usual Istanbul tourist stuff (Turkish tea pots, an “Aladdin” style oil lamp, the usual stuff). The highlight of this part of the day, by far, though was the weather. Around 4pm the skies darkened and took on an “end of days” kind of look so we started making our way back to the Grand Bazaar (which is covered). Just as we were entering, the heavens opened up as Istanbul experienced one of the most intense lightning storms they’ve had in recent memory (we read later that planes were grounded for over an hour and that a tornado warning was issued). It was very impressive… After watching people cope with the torrential rains, and having a run-in with an officious shop owner – you need to imagine a fairly large doorway (like 20 feet wide and 15 feet high) with about 1000 people standing 50 or 60 deep in front of the doorway watching the rain come down and the lightning flash and a bunch of people trying to get into the bazaar to get out of the downpour… it’s all working pretty smoothly… now add into this a rotund (I’m being polite remember) guy who starts telling us (we would be the only people he speaks to at all) that we need to move… now consider that we are standing as far to one side as it is possible to do and are not in the way of anyone or anyone’s shop… but this guy is gesturing and telling us quite loudly that we need to move… So we take a look back at the crowd of people that isn’t going anywhere and ask him if he would like us to shove our way back or if we should just knock some people down and where exactly is it that he would like us to go… He wasn’t amused… Gave us (me) quite a lecture… It wasn’t until afterwards that we clued in that he never spoke to anyone else… just the tourists… And just in English… The best part was the quite elderly Turkish gentleman who had witnessed the whole exchange who just smiled at us and made a gesture at the guy that eloquently communicated complete dismissal… It was beautiful… In the end, we just ignored the guy and he stopped talking… Eventually we did make our way through the Grand Bazaar and worked our way back to the Spice Bazaar where we did a bit more shopping.
It was here that I learned of the existence of white bronze and silver copper… Caitlin and I wanted to pick up one of the traditional Turkish stacking tea pots. They varied in price from about 50 lira outside the bazaar to over 150 inside and came in a variety of colours and finishes… but one thing is clear… they’re all copper. Nickel-plated copper or lacquered copper or god only knows what plated copper but they’re copper – and you can usually tell by looking at the underside of the lids where the plating is incomplete and you can still see some of the copper colour. Some of the guys were really upfront about it while others tried to pass their pots off as something special… like silver copper or white bronze (things that do exist but aren’t plated copper). Realizing that they’re probably all made in China (despite protestations to the contrary and assurances of “my pots are made right there in Istanbul”) we went with something that looked nice and was cheap… If we want to make tea the Turkish way (by making a pot of very strong tea and diluting it to the desired strength) we’ll probably just use a kettle and a tea pot but the sets look nice… But it was funny watching some of the sellers tie themselves in knots trying to explain how their pot wasn’t like the exact same pot next door that was half the price…
After shopping we took advantage of a break in the weather and headed back towards our apartment for dinner. We stopped at the same place we’d eaten before and our server treated us like royalty… Free tea, free desserts, the special bread, extra servings from the kitchen, the whole nine yards. It might have had something to do with dumping a cup of hot tea in Caitlin’s lap the night before… The young Italian and German tourists beside us kept looking at what we got and comparing it to what they were getting and wondering what was up… When I asked him what the spice on the side salad was (Sumac) and mentioned that it was delicious, he ran into the kitchen and returned with a take out container full of it for us to take home. Needless to say he got a big tip… unfortunately we found out afterwards that all tips are pooled but it didn’t seem to bother him. Tips aside, it is interesting to watch the different touts and servers work – Nemet (our server) is a natural at his job – he has an amazing ability to make you feel like a regular and a friend in a single visit (and it isn’t just the free stuff). After our second meal, he gave us his card with his phone number and asked us to call him if we needed anything while we’re in Istanbul… He appears genuinely pleased you’ve come back to his restaurant (hugs and handshakes for everyone) and goes out of his way to make the meal enjoyable (and keep in mind this isn’t a gourmet restaurant – it’s basically a self serve cafeteria with a section set aside for table service). The food was good but years from now we won’t remember at all what we ate but will remember for years the experience of eating there… Contrast that with some of the other touts who were just plain sleazy and creepy and made you want to eat anywhere but at their restaurant.
For those looking for a different salad, try this: Slice a red onion quite thin. Chop up some flat leaf parsley and mix the onion and parsley together. Then squeeze some lemon (just a little bit) on them and drizzle them with some olive oil (again just a hint)… Then sprinkle sumac on it… Simple, light, refreshing and incredibly delicious… The sumac has a kind of sweet-peppery-lemony flavour that balances the onions perfectly. With spiced meat it was delicious! Another dish we’ve enjoyed is acili ezme – basically a Turkish salsa eaten with bread or added as a condiment to doner or kebaps… There’s lots of different ways of making it and it can very from quite wet and runny to dry and pasty but it’s delicious and can have a fair bit of a kick (it’s usually made with a chili paste called harissa – which can be hard to find – but here’s a recipe that seems pretty close to what we’ve been eating http://www.giverecipe.com/turkish-spicy-ezme-salad.html
After our late dinner it was back to the hotel to call it a night.
The next day we woke up and headed to Mahmut Pasa so Caitlin could buy her dress (a night’s sleep had convinced her it was the one and Marie got to bargain on the price so everyone was happy) then decided to head for the other side of Istanbul – the Istiklal Street and Taksim Square area. Before we left the Mahmut Pasa area, though, we got caught up briefly in a “march” of some sorts – we think (based on the number of people flanking him and the media recording every move) that it was the current Prime Minister of Turkey (Recep Erdogan) and the front runner for the presidential election to be held on Sunday out pressing the flesh… Not really knowing what he looks like (except from his pictures on the all the election posters around town) it was hard to be sure but people sure seemed excited to see him and there were a ton of people flanking him so it might have been.
Eventually we made our way to the other side of Istanbul – the more modern, cosmopolitan side of Istanbul (where we’ve been staying is the old town and our neighbourhood is kind of a rough around the edges part of the old town). Getting to the square was easy on Istanbul’s modern tram system (although it’s funny to see these super modern trams running through these old neighbourhoods) – in one place people are eating in little cafes so close to the tram line they could reach up and touch the cars as they go by – and the trams run along the roads so they’re subject to traffic as well… and pedestrians dashing across the street in front of them and delivery trucks, etc.
We explored this area for a bit (lots of the usual shops – Gap, H & M, etc.) – and a lot of bars and restaurants made this area a lot more touristy but we still enjoyed wandering around for a couple of hours. We even rode the historical street car that takes you from one end of the street up to Taksim Square (the site of most of Istanbul’s political protests). Along the way we passed the riot police (not sure why they were out in force as nothing was happening. They weren’t in riot gear but they were heavily armed and had the crowd control vehicle armed with water cannons parked nearby…). We also checked out a very beautiful neo-gothic style Catholic cathedral (St. Anthony of Padua) – it was built at the start of the 20th century in the style of the gothic cathedrals… It was one of the most beautiful churches we’ve been on in our travels (and believe me when I tell you we’ve been in a lot of churches – Marie gravitates towards them like I do towards museums). We ate lunch in one of the doner places on the strip (food was good but service was lousy and prices were a fair bit higher than in our neck of the woods) and then decided to head for Dohlmabace Palace – built by the sultans in the middle of the 19th century as part of a movement to “westernize” the Ottoman Empire.
It’s very impressive – particularly the crystal chandeliers – including a 4 and 1/2 ton one in the great hall. The only downside to the palace is you can’t explore on your own so you have to take a tour (ugh) and you can’t take pictures. Our tour group was huge and poorly behaved (lots of talking, taking pictures and getting chewed out for it, etc.) but the palace was very interesting and our tour guide tried hard.
After that it was back to our side of the water to take one of the short Bosphorus boat cruises… We paid our 12 lira ($6 cdn) each and piled on a large tour boat crammed with people – there were no good seats left so we staked out a place as close to the bow as they’d let us and enjoyed the cruise up and down the Bosphorus (the body of water that separates Istanbul). We passed a couple of palaces built by more Sultans (it used to be custom to live in the palace your ancestors built… ie. Topkapi Palace… but in the 19th century they adopted the practice of building something of your own), a bunch of yalis – wood frame mansions right on the water’s edge that are some of the most desirable properties in Istanbul (easy to see why… they’re gorgeous and are literally right at the water’s edge). Aside from a near miss with another tour boat, and a wave that gave Caitlin and Marie a good dousing (hazards of being close to the bow) the whole thing was quite enjoyable and seeing Istanbul from the water gives an idea of how diverse this city is… As boaters, we had tremendous respect for the skills of the captains of the boats – there’s a wicked current in parts of the Bosphorus and these guys (we assume they’re all men) handle these large tour boats like they’re little runabouts…
After the cruise, we grabbed a light snack to tide us over while we picked up some last souvenirs then regrouped at the hotel before heading out to the festive Kumkapi area for a fancier dinner (it was our last night). Big mistake. We settled on a restaurant that seemed to be having a good time (and that promised free fruit, free tea and coffee and free dessert!). Well we placed our order (no appies and only 2 mains because Marie and Caitlin always share) it became clear we weren’t up to their table limits… We managed to get a drink and then didn’t see our waiter again for 20 minutes… No bread. No fruit. No followup… So we left. Told the tout at the front we weren’t pleased and went looking for someplace with better service. Kind of a bummer on our last night… we should have just eaten at Sars again… In the end we wound up at a little kebap place across the street from our hotel – food was okay but we saved on the prices so it was all good.
Then it was back to the room at 11:00 pm to pack and get ready for our 5:30am wakeup to get to the airport for our flight to Cappadocia.
We’ll end with the story of one of the very charming young street vendors who (like many of the young men we interacted with) took a shine to Caitlin… even offered 5 camels and a 1/2 kilo of gold for her… Marie was having none of it (something about Caitlin being a keeper) but I was willing to see what kind of shape the camels were in…
If you’re looking for an exotic but accessible place to visit, make it a must do. We loved Istanbul… but we are looking forward to a bit smaller places and a little less hecticness. Istanbul is friendly and charming and vibrant and everything you’ve ever heard… but it’s also crowded and crazy and very tiring (at least when you’re walking everywhere and everyday starts and ends with a 1km trek up or down a massive freaking hill!)