December 17th, 2008 – by: sayohat
The Prince Islands from Maltepe
After such an exhausting weekend and still trying to recover from the transition from Central Asia, I decided to take a day off from touring and pretty much stayed at İsmail's apartment for much of the day. I ventured out for a few hours and walked around Maltepe municipality, which is really like a separate city in itself. My first stop was the water's edge, a 15-minute stroll from İsmail's along a nice park with a pretty view of the Prince Islands. The weather was cool and since it was a Monday around mid-morning the atmosphere had a calming effect on me. The partially cloudy skies yielded to some rays of sun breaking through enough to shine on distant ships, golden waves and the broccoli-tipped green Prince Islands. It was a good day to reflect on all I'd seen and been through.
Seagulls following the ferry...kinda reminds me of Hitchcock
For lunch I meandered to the "downtown" area of Maltepe and enjoyed a delicious meal of meat and vegetables, bulgur and chickpeas and a can of apricot nectar. After eating and paying, the waiter doused my hands with cologne, as is a common custom here after meals. I left smelling good and full, aimlessly wandering back to İsmail's through the winding streets of Maltepe. For dinner İsmail cooked another delicious meal of şarma (stuffed grape leaves) and meze (appetizers). It was a quiet relaxing evening that we spent talking and listening to music through the Internet.
Tuesday (December 16th) was back to business and even though I lazed around a little bit in the morning I spent the afternoon walking around Eminönü and Sultanahmet before visiting the Hagia Sofia, now officially known as the Ayasofya Museum.
The history of this giant of a building is interesting and complex, having the distinction of being the largest cathedral in the world for a millennium and acting first as an Eastern Orthodox basilica then a mosque and now a museum. The structure dates from the middle 500s (as in the year 500 AD, or whatever they're calling it now) and is also the pattern from which many other churches were built in the Byzantine style. It has been a museum since 1935 and although it's obvious no services are held there it retains the atmosphere of a sacred place. The golden frescoes of Jesus, Mary and saints look down from the ceiling upon the mihrab and minbar, Islamic features. It is here that harmony is found and a peaceful balance struck that awed me most.
The mihrab inside the Aya Sofya
By the time I left the Ayasofya it was too late to go to another museum so I killed some time with checking emails before heading to Taksim to meet up with some local Couchsurfers.
I was ready for something more substantial for dinner than my small lunch at Bambi Cafe and after having an obligatory tea at a carpet shop, I found a falafel restaurant on a sidestreet in Taksim. It was an excellent meal of homemade hummus, unique falafel and some delicious dipping sauces that were so good I nearly drank what was remaining. Then I met Cihan in front of Burger King along with Gulay, Hakan, Hossam and İbrahim. The five of us walked to a place somewhere in Taksim, up several flights of stairs to an enclosed rooftop cafe with a nice view overlooking the city. They didn't serve alcohol there so I had a cranberry tea and shared a nargile with Hasan and a friend of his who joined us later, Işıl. Time passed too quickly and since I was so far away I had to leave at 10:30 before the night had a chance to get started, so I was a little disappointed I couldn't hang out more.
The Aya Sofya
Still it was fun to meet up with some people even for a short time. Gulay was leaving and offered to walk with me to the bus stop so we chatted along the way. It took me nearly two hours to get back to İsmail's because the Taksim bus dropped me off in an unfamiliar location and I still had to take a minibus to Maltepe.
Sultanahmet from the ferry
Wednesday was my last full day in İstanbul and I was planning to visit Topkapı and Dolmabahçe Palaces, but I ended up only having time for Topkapı. With that I was not disappointed. I first wandered around Sultanahmet again but spent about three hours taking my time going through the immense Topkapı Palace. This palace was truly a testament to the luxurious lifestyle of the sultans of the Ottoman Empire.
From 1465 to 1853, Topkapı was the official residence of the sultans but even this sumptuous place was not good enough and they moved their headquarters to Dolmabahçe Palace across the Golden Horn along the Bosphorus. The royal kitchen was probably the size of a mid-sized gymnasium. There were several buildings used for various purposes, like the treasury, library and stables. The harem was in another section of the palace so large that it was a separate admission ticket but by the time I got there it was closed. Aside from the grounds and buildings, the various treasures and relics on display were well worth the price of admission. Diamond-studded swords, emerald-encrusted goblets, ruby-laden thrones and jewelry with every gemstone imaginable were just some of the treasures.
Entrance to one of the halls in Topkapı Palace
The relics on display included a cane that was used by Moses, artifacts from several saints and several items belonging to Muhammed himself, including fragments of his beard, a tooth, the holy mantle and even his footprint. Another room displayed several holy relics like a piece of black stone from the Kaaba in Mecca. A live imam was chanting verses of the Qu'ran that softly piped throughout this section of the museum. Quite moving indeed!
Scary tree at Topkapı
I certainly lost track of time here as well as my appetite and when I was done touring I realized it was 4:30 and I hadn't had any lunch, so I stopped at a nearby cafe for a couple lahmacun, which is kind of like a super-thin crust pizza. It would easily tide me over until I met up with İsmail for dinner. Our timing was such that we met at Haydarpaşa and then walked around the bay to Kadıköy.
We chose a restaurant called Anadolu among many good-looking options and sat down to review the menu, which was literally a book with hinges for binding! I let İsmail choose and we would split the two dishes. One was the "Anadolu special" and the other was the Nazik kebap, both absolutely outstanding. I almost wished I hadn't had the snack so I could eat more. The special contained a type of chicken gruel (it sounds bad but was yummy), curried potato fritters and that bulgur wheat. The kebap contained meat, spices, eggplant and other vegetables. Again it was so good and I continue to wonder why in the heck aren't Turkish restaurants more popular in the US?
Beautiful fountain and courtyard at Topkapı Palace
It took awhile but İsmail and I finally made it to the nargile place his previous boss had recommended.
It was in a part of Kadıköy called Moda and was set overlooking a small inlet in a quiet neighborhood. We chose a mixture of apple and melon for the tobacco while I ordered Fanta and İsmail had tea. It was smooth and tasty, more melon than apple but worth trying. İsmail kind of got to liking it after admitting that it was only his second time smoking. I enjoyed it but even though it's smooth, it is still smoke and I started to feel it in my lungs. Besides it was getting late and we both had to get up early in the morning and still had to make it back to his house. It was rather sad to have to go but I knew there were many more places to explore and I had to hope that someday I would return. Even though İstanbul itself was rather impersonal because it is so large, I had a very good time and İsmail's hospitality was certainly a welcoming introduction to a country and culture that I think I am going to fall in love with.