Burning up the tourist track in Istanbul.

Istanbul Travel Blog

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Sunlit frescoes. Hagia Sophia.
Several days ago I commented on the absence of tourists in Eastern Turkey. Well, we found them. They are all here in Istanbul. Today we (and about a zillion other people) visited some of the Old City’s major sites. We had excellent, beautiful, gorgeous weather, and a really wonderful day. I didn’t mind sharing Istanbul… it’s big enough for all of us!

We took a taxi from our northern neighborhood of Rumeli Hisari to Sultanahmet (the Old City), where the biggest concentration of “old stuff” can be found. Istanbul is rich with history and culture. It has been estimated that the first settlement in this area was in 5500 B.C.  It did time as the capital of the Roman Empire, then as the capital of the Byzantine Empire, and of course, the Ottoman Empire as well.
A brooding Hagia Sophia.
.. it’s a very complicated history. All these ruling bodies had to “make their mark” in the form of incredible architecture. Some of which stands to this day, and makes for some great sightseeing, I might add.

Our first visit was Hagia Sophia (Aya Sofya). This is enormous domed structure was built as a church starting in 537 and for ONE THOUSAND years it remained the world’s largest religious monument (it was usurped in the 17th century by St. Peter’s in Rome). The dome was a feat of architectural brilliance, for nothing like it had been done before. The cathedral was sacked by The Crusaders in 1204 (by the way, many of its treasures can now be found in Venice). When the Ottomans took over in 1453, the church was converted to a mosque, and the beautiful mosaics were plastered over and forgotten.
This photo shows the expansive interior of Hagia Sophia, which I couldn't get from the ground. (Photo taken from Wikipedia.)
Over the subsequent years, many structural renovations and improvements were made, which is maybe why the structure still stands today. In 1936, President Ataturk turned Aya Sofya into a museum, and the frescoes and mosaics are being restored to this day.

I just loved this place. The window light was moody and beautiful on the frescoes, and the church had a dark, haunted quality I can’t describe. There were many tourists there, but the structure seemed to absorb us all easily.  There were areas where Steve and I felt we had the place to ourselves. Really, really, fantastic. 

Then we walked through the park where there are fountains and the Baths of Roxelana (she was the wife of Suleyman the Magnificent). We strolled around and loitered there.
The fountain in the park between the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia.
As I mentioned, it was a gorgeous day.  

On the other side of the park is the Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmet Cami), a 17th century mosque that is perhaps one of Istanbul’s most famous sites. The exterior is beautiful, with six slender minarets and a series of cascading domes and half domes. It is a huge structure (although not as big as Hagia Sophia across the park), but somehow manages to look elegant and delicate. It’s beautiful.

There were separate lines for worshippers and tourists. When we saw how HUGE the tourist line was we considered converting!  But it moved fairly fast, and soon enough we were at the door, taking off our shoes and putting them in bags to carry with us. For me, this is where the unpleasantness started. I can take standing in line, no problem.
Blue Mosque.
But the smell of stinky feet? Forget about it! The whole place reeked -- not just at the entry, the smell of feet was everywhere inside, too! This was a huge distraction for me, as I just wanted to get away, quickly.

Of course, I did pause to look around. The interior was gorgeous, as has been reported by everyone who has seen it. I was surprised to see it was predominantly white, with blue accents. I expected all the tiles to be cobalt blue for some reason. Although the overall effect was brighter than at Aya, the windows were smaller and the place actually had less light (as judged from the exposure times needed on my camera). I couldn’t help but compare the two places, and for me, the famous Blue Mosque fell short.

There were carpets underfoot (all the better to collect and store the smell of feet I guess) and large areas were cordoned off for prayer, leaving the tourists to crowd together on one side.
Washing before praying. I wished the people on the tourist side were required to do the same.
Neither Steve nor I like the feeling of gawking around a live place of worship. Plus I was hot (I covered up with my long sleeved, hooded shirt in accordance with the posted rules) and the foot smell wasn’t going anywhere. So I finished my few photos, and we left to find lunch.

Fodor’s recommended a lunch spot near us called Doy Doy, which was tucked away on a street outside of the main tourist area. We sat on the top terrace by ourselves (later, another foreign couple came up), while local working men feasted on huge plates of hearty food on the main level. It's always a good sign when the restaurant is packed with locals! I had a salad that featured pureed eggplant, and Steve had his usual plate of meat which he wrapped in flat sheets of bread.
Steve digs in.
We decided to taste a popular beverage here called Ayran -- thin yogurt mixed with water and salt. Oooh, it was awful. Typical Midwesterners, we choked it all down so as not to offend the waiter, who surely didn't care whether or not we drank it. Other than that, it was all completely excellent.

Refreshed and full of food, we were ready to tackle more sights. So we made a brief stop at the nearby Hippodrome, formerly a Byzantine stadium that seated 100,000 and now a small, flat park with some very old statues. There is an Egyptian Obelisk from the 15th century AD, a ragged looked Column of Constantine from 10th Century AD, and a Serpentine Column whose age I didn’t note.
Great hat at Arasta Bazaar. Steve said he would give me $1 every time I wore it at home. No deal though.
All impressively old and worth a look.

Next, we walked though the quiet and mellow Arasta Bazaar. There were rugs, metal goods, jewelry, woolens and many other tings for sale there, and Steve bought a t-shirt that looks like the flag of Turkey. The vendors were very low key and didn’t call out or hassle, so this was a pleasant place to shop.

The real reason for going through this bazaar was to get to the Mosaic Museum (Mozaik Müzesi). This museum houses the ruins of the Grand Palace, which basically consist of a huge expanse of mosaic flooring, which has been restored (with help from the Austrians) and placed essentially where it was found. The museum has been built around this. Having seen mosaics recently in Gaziantep, I am a big fan.
Steve looks over the ruins of the Grand Palace...it's mosaic floor.
These were not nearly so pristine and whole as those, but they were much larger. We viewed them from a walkway on the perimeter of the building, and there were also pieces mounted on the walls. There were signs in many languages explaining the history of the Grand Palace, and also the history of these ruins, which were in very bad shape at one point due to poor restoration attempts and shoddy maintenance. The signs described exactly how the restoration was done -- no small task and I found it to be really interesting. Also, this place was very quiet, with just a few other visitors. If you have the time, this is a nice stop and a good break from the crowds at the more major sights.

Believe it or not, we weren’t done yet!  We were getting a little tired, but still feeling pretty good, so we headed to the Basilica Cisterns (Yerebatan Sarnici).
Columns, arches, and their watery reflections. Basilica Cistern.
We were led to believe by Fodor’s that this was a quiet, relatively unknown place. Well, I guess the secret’s out, because there was a long line (although it moved very fast) and the place was very busy! No matter though… this was a fantastic place and well worth the visit. The underground cisterns are oddly decorative, with 336 closely-spaced columns, some of them quite fancy. It was built in the 4th century (and expanded in the 6th century) to hold water for storage in case of siege or draught. The shallow water underneath our walkway was filled with fat fish. In some places, water dripped down from above, and of course the whole place was damp. Things were lit with red and white lighting, but it was still very dark -- the photos I took required 10 to 13 second exposures. It was surreal, slightly spooky, and completely fascinating.
We live below that bridge, but can't seem to get down there...
Excellent visit!

It was definitely time to go home at this point. Since our cab ride in had cost 25YTL (and the sights themselves were almost all 10YTL per person), we decided to figure out how to use public transportation. After some floundering around with the map and our book, we found an information booth where the man told us to take Tram 38 and then Bus 25E to our home. The tram was jam-packed so that wasn’t too much fun. And when we got to the bus stop, we wasted time trying to find a ticket booth, when actually you can just pay onboard. The correct bus didn’t come so we got on one that said “Rumeli Hisari” which is the castle down the street from us and the name of our neighborhood. We figured it was at least going to our general area… This was a bit of a mistake, as we were dropped on the hill to the south and far ABOVE our home.
If you want fresher vegetables, you'll have to pick them yourself.
It was hard to find our way down the hill, but finally someone pointed us in the right direction, which brought us through a wonderful vegetable market where I wanted to shop. Steve was tired and anxious to get home at this point, so I got out with just broccoli and some delicious-looking grapes.

The path from there was steep and I slipped and fell once on the way down. Finally we made it! What a chore. We won’t make the same mistake with the bus again.

We relaxed a bit and enjoyed our balcony (wishing I had a glass of crisp white wine).  Then later in the evening we ventured out for a big Saturday night on the town, which involved a meal at one of the many waterfront restaurants down the street. No wine there, either. I had a fantastic salad, and Steve had another plate of meat, this time with French Fries.
Ships go by at all hours.
And that was our "big night out." We better rest up for tomorrow… we saw many of Istanbul’s sights today, but there is soooooo much more to do here!
cmgervais says:
It's better than it sounds :^)
Posted on: Jul 14, 2008
yheleen says:
a pureed eggplant :) wow..
Posted on: Jul 14, 2008
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Sunlit frescoes. Hagia Sophia.
Sunlit frescoes. Hagia Sophia.
A brooding Hagia Sophia.
A brooding Hagia Sophia.
This photo shows the expansive int…
This photo shows the expansive in…
The fountain in the park between t…
The fountain in the park between …
Blue Mosque.
Blue Mosque.
Washing before praying. I wished t…
Washing before praying. I wished …
Steve digs in.
Steve digs in.
Great hat at Arasta Bazaar. Steve …
Great hat at Arasta Bazaar. Steve…
Steve looks over the ruins of the …
Steve looks over the ruins of the…
Columns, arches, and their watery …
Columns, arches, and their watery…
We live below that bridge, but can…
We live below that bridge, but ca…
If you want fresher vegetables, yo…
If you want fresher vegetables, y…
Ships go by at all hours.
Ships go by at all hours.
Minaret of Hagia Sophia.
Minaret of Hagia Sophia.
Lovely drawing of Hagia Sophia tha…
Lovely drawing of Hagia Sophia th…
Hagia Sophia window light.
Hagia Sophia window light.
Hagia Sophia interior dome.
Hagia Sophia interior dome.
I overheard a guide say this scaff…
I overheard a guide say this scaf…
For a sense of the scale, note the…
For a sense of the scale, note th…
Daylight on the frescoes at Hagia …
Daylight on the frescoes at Hagia…
Tour groups gathering.
Tour groups gathering.
The marble floor was worn down and…
The marble floor was worn down an…
Christian fresco scene.
Christian fresco scene.
The sights are EXPENSIVE. Time to …
The sights are EXPENSIVE. Time to…
Headscarf girls at the fountains.
Headscarf girls at the fountains.
Headscarf girls at the fountains.
Headscarf girls at the fountains.
Thirsty dog cant quite figure out…
Thirsty dog can't quite figure ou…
The Blue Mosque.
The Blue Mosque.
Hagia Sophia.
Hagia Sophia.
Whimsical details on the Blue Mosq…
Whimsical details on the Blue Mos…
The tourist line for entry to the …
The tourist line for entry to the…
The tourist line for entry to the …
The tourist line for entry to the…
Inside the Blue Mosque.
Inside the Blue Mosque.
Blue Mosque arches.
Blue Mosque arches.
Blue Mosque tilework.
Blue Mosque tilework.
Blue Mosque.
Blue Mosque.
Blue Mosque.
Blue Mosque.
Blue Mosque.
Blue Mosque.
A peek at the Blue Mosque from the…
A peek at the Blue Mosque from th…
He always finds the bench!
He always finds the bench!
Our lunch at Doy Doy.
Our lunch at Doy Doy.
The column of Constantine Porphyro…
The column of Constantine Porphyr…
The Obelisk of Theodosius, 380 AD.
The Obelisk of Theodosius, 380 AD.
Detail at the base of The Obelisk …
Detail at the base of The Obelisk…
Time for some roof work.
Time for some roof work.
Quiet street behind the tourist cr…
Quiet street behind the tourist c…
Jewelry at Arasta Bazaar.
Jewelry at Arasta Bazaar.
Mellow Arasta Bazaar.
Mellow Arasta Bazaar.
Riding the Dromedary at the Mosa…
"Riding the Dromedary" at the Mos…
Carnage captured in mosaics.
Carnage captured in mosaics.
Deer and serpent mosaic.
Deer and serpent mosaic.
I like this one of the elephant ki…
I like this one of the elephant k…
The Im outta here mosaic.
The "I'm outta here" mosaic.
The beautiful Basilica Cistern.
The beautiful Basilica Cistern.
Basilica Cistern.
Basilica Cistern.
Columns at Basilica Cistern.
Columns at Basilica Cistern.
Plump fish at Basilica Cistern.
Plump fish at Basilica Cistern.
Basilica Cistern arches.
Basilica Cistern arches.
Steve makes a wish at the Sacred C…
Steve makes a wish at the Sacred …
The line to enter the Basilica Cis…
The line to enter the Basilica Ci…
A vegetable market we stumbled upo…
A vegetable market we stumbled up…
Peppers for sale, 2YTL per kilo!
Peppers for sale, 2YTL per kilo!
Afternoon on our balcony.
Afternoon on our balcony.
Our jacuzzi is also home to our cl…
Our jacuzzi is also home to our c…
Istanbul
photo by: Memo