Burning up the tourist track in Istanbul.
Istanbul Travel Blog› entry 142 of 251 › view all entries
July 12th, 2008 – by: cmgervais
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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