Day 26: My first couch surfing experience

Istanbul Travel Blog

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Meeting the couch surfers
People I met here and/or traveled with: Derk & Ed (Netherlands), Sylvia (Romania), Bülent (Turkey), Marc (Germany), Güven (Turkey), Sebastien (Italy)

I first heard about couchsurfing a few years ago through my colleague Hendrik. I immediately liked the idea, a global network of travellers who offer each other to stay over at one other's place (stay on the couch, hence the name couch surfing).
Though I signed up quite a while ago, I was too busy with other insignificant things (like work and preparing for this trip) to ever do anything with my profile. Upon my arrival in Turkey I had started becoming more active on the site though, trying (unsuccessfully) to meet other couch surfers in Turkey (although Ali, the Iranian guy I'd met in Antalya, is a fervent couch surfer).
Two obelisks at the hippodrome


When I found out there was a CS meet-up happening in Istanbul during our stay, I immediately e-mailed Derk and Ed to check if they liked the idea of joining, which they did.
And so we found ourselves in front of the Aya Sofya (Hagia Sofia) in the morning, trying to meet up with people we'd never seen before in our lives.

As the organiser (from Belgium) had cancelled his trip to Istanbul, we weren't even sure if the meet-up was still happening. I had been in touch with a girl from Romania, Sylvia, and had her phone number. I called her up, and a few minutes later we had found each other at the entrance of the Aya Sofya. Some time later our little group had grown to 8: Bülent (Turkish, but born in Germany), Güven (Turkish), Sebastian (Italian), Marc (German), Sylvia and us three.
Blue mosque
A nice little international group.

As soon as it became clear that no more people were going to join we set off to do some exploring. The last few days we had chosen our itinerary so that it would fit with the suggested itinerary for today's meet. This meant we had saved two of the most impressive sights in Istanbul for last: the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sofya.

We walked over to the Blue Mosque via the ancient hippodrome. Though little is left of the hippodrome apart from its oval shape, the three pillars that once adorned the centre of the oval are still standing. Well, make that two of the three, as the middle one, a brass spiral column which had been stolen from the Apollo in Delphi by Contantine the Great, had not survived the visit of the Fourth Crusade.

Far more interesting is the near-mint obelisk of Theodosius, which had originally been erected in front of the Amon-Ra temple in Karnak, Egypt, in the 15th century BC.
The Aya Sofia
It was brought to Constantinople by the Byzantine emperor Theodosius in 390 AD.
The third pillar is the rough stone obelisk (once adorned with gilded bronze) of which very little is known, other than that it has stood in this place for at least 1200 years.

Around the corner from the hippodrome lies the Blue Mosque, the grandest and greatest of all mosques in Istanbul. Officially called the Sultan Ahmet I mosque, it is dubbed the Blue Mosque because of its blue roofs and the tens of thousands blue tiles which adorn the inside of the mosque. It was built in the 16th century, when Sultan Ahmet set out to build a mosque which would surpass the Aya Sofya in grandness. From the outside he has definitely succeeded. The Blue Mosque, with its many domes and six minarets, is definitely a stunning building.
the famous dome of the Aya Sofya (as said, photos don't do it justice)

From the inside I wasn't all that convinced though. Sure, it is big and grand and beautiful, but not all that different from the many other mosques I have seen. Especially the four pillars on which the giant dome rests are far from elegant. People have dubbed these pillars the “elephant's legs”.
Constructing support for the main dome is something which has been far more elegantly done at the Aya Sofya (1100 years its senior!)

So that is where we went next. The Aya Sofya is one of those great buildings in the world, one which should be regarded a wonder of the world (I don't particularly like the list of “New 7 wonders of the world” which was released a couple of years ago. Instead, I prefer the Hillman's 100 wonders of the world, where the Aya Sofya ranks at number 50)

The Aya Sofya was built as a Christian church in 537 and after the conquest of Constantinople it was converted into a mosque (two minarets were added and all the Christian mosaics were covered up).
Christian mosaics uncovered again after 600 years
The building was converted into a museum in the 1930s.
Well, museum, it is not that it holds any expositions or anything, I reckon the museum bit is mainly an excuse to charge money for the entrance, which in this case is fully justified. A steady income means that the extensive restoration works can continue in order to prevent the 1500 year old building from crumbling.

The Aya Sofya might not be much of a looker from the outside (though it is quite impressive when seen from a distance), the inside is absolutely stunning.
Upon its completion the Aya Sofya was the largest cathedral in the world, a title which it held for nearly 1000 years. The dome is 55 metres high and has a diameter of 31 metres and seems to float unsupported due to an ingenious architectural feat which uses 40 support beams in the dome itself, which rest on 4 pillars which are concealed in the walls (thus eliminating the pillars in the middle of the hall which so spoil the interior of the Blue Mosque).
The Basilica Cistern: looks so much better with the sound switched off
The dome contains 40 windows, which make it look like the dome is floating when seen from below. This optical illusion is impossible to photograph.

Though the inside needs a fair bit of restoration work, the art on the walls is quite impressive. Some of the original mosaics, which had been plastered over when it was converted into a mosque, have been uncovered again, while some of the Islamic decorations remains as well.

Nearby the Aya Sofya and the Blue Mosque is the Basilica Cistern. Another one of Istanbul's great buildings, though this one is entirely underground. Only a few decades younger than the Aya Sofya, this ancient 143 metres long / 65 metres wide water storage is another marvel in construction, although it is somewhat harder to appreciate. Its theme-park style entrance and the big, loud crowds in a relatively confined space don't do the place any justice, as this is the type of place that is best appreciated in quiet solitude.
Marc and me sharing a nargileh


Atmospheric lighting is placed on most of the 336 columns which support the roof, which gives the cistern a very nice and somewhat surreal atmosphere and result in wonderful reflections on water that still resides in the pool.

After a quick detour via the spice bazaar we finished our day in the Tophone district for more çay and our daily nargileh. The Tophone district is particularly popular with local students, with not a tourist in sight. I was relieved to find that Istanbul is as expensive for locals as it is for tourists, as prices here were the same as they were under the Galata bridge. I must say that I like the location under the Galata bridge better though, despite the tourists. That said, we were in excellent company and we spent several hours pleasantly chatting away and sharing travel tips and experiences.
Obelisk of Theodosius


In the early evening everybody went their separate ways again and it was time for us to find a place to eat. Bülent offered to walk with us to a street similar to the one we had eaten last night. We invited him to join us, but he declined as he preferred to be home early. However, when we mentioned the magic word 'raki' he succumbed.
It was really great having him join us for dinner. Not only because he is very pleasant company, with many interesting stories to tell about a wide variety of subjects, but having a local with you in a very local restaurant also results in ordering and tasting food you otherwise wouldn't. Once again we went for a selection of Mezze, and Bülent made sure we tried some of the house specialities, like  a local, Tuna-like fish which was 'baked' in salt.
The Blue mosque is so popular that visitors have to queue to get in
Very delicate and utterly delicious.  

After dinner we said our goodbyes to Bülent and finished our day (and more or less our Istanbul trip) at the trendy Leb-i De Rya bar, which boasts sunning views over Istanbul and the Bosphorus. Even though the setting came at a hefty premium (cheaper beers can be found in the trendiest bars in Amsterdam) the mood and the setting were well worth the price.

(You can also read Ed's Blog here)
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Meeting the couch surfers
Meeting the couch surfers
Two obelisks at the hippodrome
Two obelisks at the hippodrome
Blue mosque
Blue mosque
The Aya Sofia
The Aya Sofia
the famous dome of the Aya Sofya (…
the famous dome of the Aya Sofya …
Christian mosaics uncovered again …
Christian mosaics uncovered again…
The Basilica Cistern: looks so muc…
The Basilica Cistern: looks so mu…
Marc and me sharing a nargileh
Marc and me sharing a nargileh
Obelisk of Theodosius
Obelisk of Theodosius
The Blue mosque is so popular that…
The Blue mosque is so popular tha…
sampling some Turkish delight whil…
sampling some Turkish delight whi…
Blue mosque interior
Blue mosque interior
Blue mosque interior
Blue mosque interior
Blue mosque interior
Blue mosque interior
Inside the Blue Mosque: Marc, Sylv…
Inside the Blue Mosque: Marc, Syl…
Dinner with Bülent
Dinner with Bülent
So why is it called the Blue Mosqu…
So why is it called the Blue Mosq…
Blue mosque interior - notice the …
Blue mosque interior - notice the…
Aya Sofia
Aya Sofia
Inside the Aya Sofya
Inside the Aya Sofya
Discussing which direction is best…
Discussing which direction is bes…
Inside the Aya Sofya
Inside the Aya Sofya
Inside the Aya Sofya
Inside the Aya Sofya
Inside the Aya Sofya
Inside the Aya Sofya
Christian mosaics uncovered again …
Christian mosaics uncovered again…
Inside the Aya Sofya
Inside the Aya Sofya
looking out one of the windows in …
looking out one of the windows in…
Bülent and me going for a stroll
Bülent and me going for a stroll
Sylvia likes the Aya Sofya
Sylvia likes the Aya Sofya
Lunchtime!
Lunchtime!
The place where we had lunch: smac…
The place where we had lunch: sma…
Basilica Cistern
Basilica Cistern
Im getting told off by a guard fo…
I'm getting told off by a guard f…
Basilica Cistern
Basilica Cistern
discussing our next plan
discussing our next plan
Güven starts a camera war
Güven starts a camera war
Sylvia and Bülent
Sylvia and Bülent
Getting arty with mirrors
Getting arty with mirrors
I love a nargileh at sunset
I love a nargileh at sunset
and so does Derk
and so does Derk
Bülent and Derk
Bülent and Derk
Ed and Sylvia
Ed and Sylvia
Turkish delight doing its rounds a…
Turkish delight doing its rounds …
Sylvia joining the camera war
Sylvia joining the camera war
Nargileh Ed
Nargileh Ed
Sylvia, Me and Marc
Sylvia, Me and Marc
Its mezze time again!
It's mezze time again!
delete
delete
nicely lit mosque at Tophane
nicely lit mosque at Tophane
Night over Istanbul
Night over Istanbul
the Leb-i Derya bar
the Leb-i Derya bar
Inside the Leb-i Derya bar
Inside the Leb-i Derya bar
Istanbul
photo by: Memo