... and a shave.
Today was going to be different. It wasn't just the three of us; we'd meet up with a group of couch surfers that Biedjee had been in contact with. Couch Surfing is a community of travellers that offer each other a cheap place to stay as an alternative for a hotel or hostel and some of them were planning a meet-up in Istanbul
. Biedjee had signed us up and we'd meet them at the Aya Sofia square. But first, Biedjee and I decided to get a shave at the barber across the street. While I was there I also decided to get my hair cut short again. The barber was a nice, friendly man although he didn't speak a word of English. Eventually though, we probably got ripped-off again since we paid 25 Lira for a shave and a haircut.
Meeting the Couch Surfers.
We would later be told that outside the tourist area 15 Lira is the regular price. Nevertheless, it was a fun and relaxing experience.
At half past 10 we met Sylvia (from Rumania) at the meeting point and we were soon joined by Bülent and Güven (from Istanbul), Sebastian (from Italy) and Mark (a German currently living in Prague). Bülent was today's tour leader and he first took us to the Hippodrome (a Greek stadium for horse racing and chariot racing). In Byzantine times chariot teams used to race here, with the emperor's rulership sometimes depending on the outcome of the match. In Ottoman times the Hippodrome would also often be the place where riots and revolutions started. Unfortunately all that remains of the Hippodrome are a couple of pillars. The many statues were stolen by soldiers of the Fourth Crusade in the early 13th century.
The Spiral Column and the Obelisk of Theodosius (Hippodrome).
On one end of the Hippodrome stood an Egyptian obelisk that had a remarkable history. It had been made by Pharaoh Tutmoses III in 1450 BC for the Karnak Temple in Luxor. This was quite remarkable since I'd seen a similar pillar there in 2007. Roman emperor Constantius II had moved it to Alexandria en later, in 390, emperor Theodosius moved it to Constantinople.
At the other end stood a rough-stone pillar from which the crusaders had ripped the bronze plates, thinking it was gold. Between these two pillars lies the broken Spiral Column that was once headed by 3 serpents' heads and originally came from the Temple of Apollo in Delphi.
Next to the Hippodrome lies one of Istanbul's most famous mosques: the Blue Mosque. It was built by Sultan Ahmet (hence the name of the area) in an attempt to rival the nearby Aya Sofya.
Inside the Blue Mosque.
It's one of the prettiest mosques from the outside, with six instead of four minarets and the biggest courtyard of all Ottoman mosques. Inside, tens of thousands of blue (Iznik) tiles inside the mosque give it its name and there's 260 windows and a enormous prayer hall. The roof of the Blue Mosque (built between 1606 and 1616) is constructed of stacked domes but needed four 'elephant's feet' pillars to support it, while the Aya Sofya used a different method (more about this later). All in all an enormously impressive place.
We walked to the Aya Sofya through a small park and Bülent bought us some 'semet' bread along the way. The Aya Sofya is the most famous and visited monument. Byzantine emperor Justinian had it finished in 537 as part of his effort to restore the greatness of the Roman empire.
Inside the Aya Sofia.
When Mehmet the Conqueror took hold of Constantinople in 1453 he had it converted into a mosque, which it remained until Atatürk proclaimed it a museum in 1935. Restorations are ongoing (resulting in ever present ugly scaffolding) and certain parts of the interior are in dire need of some patching up. Regardless of this, the building's interior (unlike it's squat exterior design) is quite impressive, although I'm in serious doubt if I should not consider the Blue Mosque a tad more atmospheric. Unlike the Blue Mosque there are no visible pillars supporting the enormous dome; 40 massive ribs are concealed in the walls. An eye-catching aspect are the huge medallions with arabesque inscriptions carrying the names of Allah, Mohammed and others.
People were queuing up at one of the columns outside the main hall.
Poking a thumb for good luck.
This turned out to be the Weeping Column. If you put your thumb into the hole in this column, turn it and take it out a wish will be granted when it comes out moist. While I was waiting for my turn I was wondering what to wish ... everlasting love, eternal happiness, world peace ? In the end, when I turned my thumb I actually ended up thinking 'I wish someone would take a picture of this!' How incredibly stupid of me. Well, someone did take that picture ... and it turned out blurred. ;-) Via a switch-back ramp we arrived at the upper floor, offering nice views over the main hall and the many mosaics, including one of the Madonna and Child and the 30 million gold mosaic tiles that cover the dome's interior, which measures 30m in diameter.
Since we were getting hungry it was time for lunch.
Having lunch at the Tarihi Sulthanamet Köftecisi Selim Usta.
Bülent took us to a restaurant that was famous for it's köfta (meatballs): Tarihi Sulthanamet Köftecisi Selim Usta. Judging from the number of locals and the fact that they had one of the most minimal menu's I've ever seen - (a choice out of 2 mains, 2 salads and 2 desserts) - he probably wasn't kidding. So, we had köfta with ayran, a refreshing traditional Turkish drink made with yoghurt and salt (a bit like buttermilk, but much softer and tastier). Bülent also ordered a portion of the two desserts, balls of dough soaked in syrup and something that resembled semolina, both very tasty.
The last historical sight of the day was the Basilica Cistern. This Byzantine water reservoir was built by Justinian in 532 below the Stoa Basilica and used to store water for the Grand Palace (that was ones located in this part of Constantinople) and surrounding buildings.
Inside the Basillica Cistern.
Eventually it was closed and forgotten until it was rediscovered in 1545 during investigations trying to explain how locals could get water and fish by lowering buckets in the floors of their basements. The Ottomans proceeded to use it as a dump for garbage and corpses afterwards.
The cistern measures 65m x 143m and the roof is supported by 336 columns in 12 rows. Two of the these pillars have strangely rotated Medusa heads as a base. To be perfectly honest, although the cistern makes for marvellous pictures, I found it much ado about nothing. If you take away the atmospheric lighting a big hall of pillars remains. And I also found the corner where you could dress up and have your picture taken as a sultan quite tasteless.
We had a cup of çay (tea) at a nice terrace (The Green Corner) before continuing to the Spice Bazaar.
Ed, Sylvia, Biedjee and a box of Turkish Delight.
Along the way Bülent pointed out a Turkish Delight shop which I recognised as the original shop of the inventor of the sweet candy. I made a mental note to buy some stuff at this place tomorrow (I should have bought it that day though, as it turned out to be closed on Sunday). The last stop of this group of couch surfers was at the string of nargileh cafes in Tophone, across the Golden Horn. Here we had a relaxed couple of hours while everybody chatted and exchanged travel experiences, played backgammon and Derk, Biedje and I had the obligatory nargileh. ;-)
Around eight most of the group headed off to their own plans for this evening, but Bülent - having heard how much we liked Nevizade Sokak yesterday - offered to guide us to a similar street of restaurants.
Dinner with Bülent.
A short walk back to the Istiklal Cadessi indeed brought us to another atmospheric street and after a few pleas from our side Bülent decided to join us for dinner ay the Arslan Meyhane. He asked if we were having raki and when I told him I most certainly would, he said 'I'm a Turk, then so I must drink raki as well'. I was really pleased that he'd joined us since I'd gotten to like this friendly Turk. While we ordered a few meza and some mixed grilled meat we chatted some more and found out that he'd been born in Germany but had moved with his mother to Istanbul at the age of eight. He's been living there ever since. He told us many interesting things about the city and made some good suggestions for the food, so as a way of thanking him for his company and guidance during the day we'd offered to pay for his dinner, which he accepted after a couple of light objections.
Inside the trendy Leb-i Derya.
The last stop of the evening was a rooftop bar that Bülent had suggested, but not before we had said goodbye to this excellent guy. And to stress this new friendship we did this in the traditional Turkish way by gently joining heads at the temples. I sure hope to meet him again in the future. The bar itself, Leb-i De rya, turned out to have the most breathtaking views and a nice atmosphere with a lounge DJ. The mood and views over all of Istanbul were so good that we had a second pricey drink before grabbing a taxi back to the hotel. All in all a most excellent day!
Pictures by Biedjee, Derk and Ed. Click here
for the story from Biedjee's point of view.