Getting ourselves a stash of Turkish Delight.
We were off to a late start this morning. When I woke up at 9:00 AM Biedjee was already fiercely typing away on his netbook. The original plan of getting the boat to the Bosphorus today seemed hard to accomplish considering the time, so instead we took it easy. After breakfast we took the tram to Biedjee's favourite bus company where he bought a ticket to his next destination after Istanbul. We then made our way to the harbour to get information for tomorrow's postponed trip up the Bosphorus.
We hadn't had enough time to visit the Spice Bazaar yesterday, and now that we were in the neighbourhood we decided to pay it a visit. True, this bazaar sells spices, teas and Turkish Delight, but these are getting increasingly harder to spot between the shops with souvenirs and jewelry.
Derk at the Yeni Mosque.
Nowadays most locals even shop in the streets outside the bazaar. Still, it's much more interesting the the Grand Bazaar we visited yesterday. We had a cup of coffee in a nearby street before getting ourselves two boxes of regular and honey flavoured Turkish Delight (the famous soft sweets).
After a quick peek at the courtyard of the Yeni mosque we walked eastwards to today's main destination, the Topkapi Palace, but not before first getting stuck between parked trains at the Sirkecu Railway Station, once the end station of the Orient Express. Further on we had an argument with a shoe polisher. This guy had dropped his brush while walking past us and when we told him he was so 'thankful' that he offered to polish our shoes for 'no money'. I felt that something fishy was going on so refused and after Derk and Biedjee had a quick brush the expected scene rolled out before my eyes.
A tea terrace with a view !
Our 'friend' demanded money and claimed that he'd never said that he would do it for free. Of course the dropping of the brush was part of the scam. We walked away without paying ...
Next to the Topkapi Palace lies the Gülhane Park, once the park of the palace and now a popular hangout place for tourists and locals alike. At the Set Ustu Cay Bahçesi on the northern end of the park we had a nice pot of tea (actually two stacked pots, one with the tea and one with hot water to mix it according to your own preference of strength) and enjoyed the excellent view over the spot where the Golden Horn, the Sea of Marmara and the Bosphorus Strait meet.
The Topkapi Palace was build after Mehmet the Conqueror captured the city in 1453 from the Byzantines (and Constantinople became Istanbul).
Double potted !
Many sultans after him lived in this palace until they moved to other palaces along the Bosphorus in the early 19th century. The palace is made up of four courts surrounded by buildings and a completely separate Harem. In Ottoman times the first court was open to all people, the second to imperial business, the third to the imperial family, VIP and palace staff and the fourth were 'family quarters'. Unlike European palaces that tend to be one large building, Topkapi is a series of pavilions, kitchens, barracks, audience chambers and kiosks built around a central enclosure.
The Gülhane Park lies within the walls of the first court, so we proceeded through the 'middle gate' into the second court. There were still a few crowds so we opted to visit the Harem first (this required a second ticket but was well worth it since the Harem included the most impressive rooms of the palace).
Topkapi's Middle Gate.
The Harem was once actually the private living quarters of the imperial family. The women that populated the harem were often bought as slaves (and sold by their parents). They would receive training in Islam and Turkish culture and various arts (music, dancing, etc). The harem's hierarchy consisted of the sultan, his mother (the ruler of the harem), his concubines and the 'ladies-in-waiting'. Male staff of the harem consisted of black eunuch servants. By law the sultan could have 4 wifes, but he often had a few hundred concubines. In Ottoman dynasty there was no right of the throne for the first-born son, resulting in many deadly struggles between brothers and half-brothers.
The Harem consists of about 300 rooms (a few dozen of which can be visited) and 400 - 500 people used to live here.
The Imperial Hall.
The large Imperial Hall is the most impressive room here, but a few other rooms had stunning decorations as well, featuring huge mirrors, fireplaces, hamams and more. From the terrace of the 'Courtyard of the Favourites' a building with many small dark rooms could be seen: the Private Prison, where the unwanted sons and brothers of the sultan would be locked up!
After the Harem we visited the rest of the palace. All quite interesting, while especially worth mentioning are the Sacred Safekeeping Rooms (with many highly sacred items, like a footprint of Mohammed in clay) and the Treasury (including enormous gold and diamond candlesticks and the Spoonmaker's Diamond, the world's 5th largest diamond). The Fourth Court a.k.a. The Tulip Garden did not hold the expected flowers, but there was a nice viewpoint over Istanbul (as well as a special Circumcision Room!).
Enjoying a nargileh and beer under the Galata bridge.
All in all, the palace was well worth a visit, although I have to admit that it's no competition to the splendorous Alhambra of Granada I saw last year. Once again I realise that travelling has the danger of spoiling you ...
After this healthy dosis of culture and history it was time for some relaxation. We made our way back to the Galata Bridge and spend a couple of hours enjoying a nargileh waterpipe, a few beers and a magnificent sunset over the Golden Horn and Istanbul's mosques. Next on the agenda was a visit to one of the hamams of Istanbul to get washed and scrubbed. The Lonely Planet suggested the Çemberlitas Hamam, popular with tourists because it is housed in a 1584 building that was designed by one of the architects of the Topkapi Harem. The building was indeed impressive, especially the enormous hot stone below the central dome, but for the rest this was a real case of being in the 'wrong place at the wrong time'.
Sunset over Istanbul.
To begin with, the entrance fee for a wash & scrub was 55 Lira (25 Euro), which is so much that locals don't visit this place any longer. I had expected a couple of pools and a steam bath, but the visit basically only consisted of a 15 minute treatment (which more probably was closer to 10 minutes with my masseur, who continued to ask me for a tip!). Sure, it's nice to be scrubbed and washed and have water thrown over you, but I can spend a whole day at the sauna at home for this amount of money. Here we were back outside in 30 minutes, feeling seriously ripped-off. To make things even worse, there was a large group of French students in the hamam when we came in. This guys were so damn noisy and childish that there was no way to relax and chill out.
It definitely wasn't the best night we'd have because the kebab restaurant that lured us in proved to be another disaster.
In the hamam.
They tried to sell us the buffet grub but we had set our minds on a kebab. Biedjee received an incomplete dish while my Iskender Kebab was cold! When I complained about it they gave it a few minutes of nuking in the microwave! When Biedjee complained about his dish the waiter started to loudly blame the chef. I argued that as a waiter it was his job to get the ordered food on the table and he shouldn't blame his colleague. What followed was an argument between chef and waiter, the latter seemingly telling the waiter that he shouldn't have sold the kebabs at this time in the evening. When Biedjee suggested that the waiter should listen to the chef he snarled 'In our country ....'. I quickly relied with 'Well, in our country we don't have an argument in front of customers, because we consider that to be very unprofessional'.
Best place in town if you happen to like microwave kebab (we don't!).
All in all, a bad experience. Fortunately this night turned to be the only disappointing one we'd have in Istanbul. There were much more excellent experiences to come. And on our way back to the hotel we bought some tasty baklava that cheered us up a bit.
Pictures by Biedjee, Derk & Ed. Click here for the story from Biedjee's point of view.