Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Istanbul, not Constantinople

Why did Constantinople get the works? That's nobody's business but the do doo...doo doo do do do do...

Aside from letting myself fall for a tourist scam (read scam posting as I won't recount here) Istanbul was a lovely, exciting city. Though my trip there was tainted, I did end on a good note.

I arrived at Ataturk International Airport on Thursday evening and after bearing a long queue at passport control and a longer, nerve-wracking wait for my backpack at baggage claim, I took the bus to Taksim Square, the heart of today's Istanbul. My first observation was that it's REALLY HARD to find your way around. There are almost no signs naming streets, and even with a map it still took me an hour to find my hostel. And this only happened because of the kindness of a local who, seeing me with a backpack looking bewildered, pointed me in the right direction.

I was staying at the Stray Cat hostel, very appropriately named as there seem to be outdoor cats everywhere in Istanbul. I've never seen anything like it. Dogs are far less popular with the Turks and are far outnumbered by the cats. My hostel owner had three cats of his own and they would roam free on the streets with all the other cats when they weren't sleeping on the hostel couches. If you have a cat hair allergy, you may want to stock up on Benadryl before visiting Istanbul.

I started Friday with a really delicious and free Turkish breakfast at my hostel -- Nutella, bread, yogurt with sweet jam, tomatoes, cheese, and these devilishly good spinach pastries. I then caught the tram to the old city.

Much like Rome, Istanbul is a very old and historically important city. It was the capital of the eastern part of the Roman empire for almost 1000 years before being captured by the Turks and becoming the capital of the Ottoman Empire. As the only city in the world which physically spans two continents (Europe and Asia) it also serves as a meeting point between Christianity and Islam.

I started at the Aya Sofya, a place which perhaps best epitomizes this blend of religious traditions. Built by the Byzantines in the 6th century, this was the largest cathedral in the world for several hundred years, then in Ottoman days was hastily converted into a mosque. After Ataturk's secular revolution in the 1920's and 30's, the mosque was converted into a museum and is now open to the public.

Aya Sofya was impressively huge, and is very old, but I don't think is nearly as impressive as St. Peter's at the Vatican. It does contain some interesting Christian mosaics, uncovered by archaeologists as the Ottomans covered them in plaster, but they look a little sad as at first glance it looks like they are falling apart.

I then headed to the nearby Blue Mosque, a more recently-built and still active house of worship. It takes the name from the blue tiles which decorate it's interior. Unlike Malaysian and Emirati mosques, those in Istanbul are more open to receiving visitors outside of prayer times. The mosque is really cool looking from afar but not spectacular on the inside, though pretty good. I didn't get much time there as I snuck in just before Friday mass (the Islamic holy day) and was soon kicked out.

Next to all this are the Yerebatan Sarnici, cisterns used for filtering and storing water underground during the Roman times. Contains rows and rows of Roman columns underground, with enormous carp swimming around under your feet. Also a nice temperature drop as you descend. Pretty neat thing to see.

After lunch I visited the Topkapi Palace, the home of the Ottoman sultans for 400 years. Topkapi Palace was underwhelming on the inside, but the gardens in the courts were very nice, and I got my first great view of the Bosphorus. Does contain several items belonging to historical religious figured including a sword belonging to the Islamic prophet Muhammed.

I walked from there to the Suleymaniye Mosque, supposedly very impressive on the inside but closed for restoration. Again, despite having a map this was very hard to find, and I mostly navigated by using the sun as a compass. On my walk I took in the delights of Istanbul street food. There's an abundance of vendors selling corn on the cob and these rings of bread covered in sesame seeds. Neither are amazing but both make very good and cheap snacks while walking about.

In the evening I watched the World Cup matches and ate at a good kabob place on Istiklal Caddesi in Taksim. This area is a really cool pedestrian street and with neighboring side streets seems to stretch on forever, and is packed with Istanbulites out for a night on the town. I would have loved to settle in with a traditional Turkish water pipe but being alone this didn't seem like an option.

On Saturday morning, I headed to the ferry docks to catch a cruise of the Bosphorus Strait. The boat trip takes you north from the city, almost to the Black Sea. I recommend this as a must-do if you visit Istanbul. The trip north takes about 90 minutes and Istanbul's hilly landscape dotted with mansions and mosques overlooking the coastline.

Rather than waiting around three hours for the return boat trip to the city, I boarded a bus back to town, getting off in the Besiktas neighborhood so I could walk along the coastline. For lunch I ate a traditional Turkish "kumpir", a big baked potato. I ordered mine stuffed with all the fixings, including ham, pickles, corn, radishes, ketchup, and spices. A ton of food and I felt comatose afterwards.

I spent a couple hours from there walking along the coastline, taking in the lovely waterfront on a perfect summer weekend afternoon. Reached most of the districts along the coastline -- Besiktas, Ortakoy (which has a gorgeous little mosque by the water), Kurucesme, Arnavutkoy, and Bebek. They appeared to be the wealthy suburbs of Istanbul -- lots of nice cars and cafes. Many people were out fishing or walking around. Really relaxing.

The two suspension bridges crossing the Bosphorous are also really cool to look at. Not quite as great as the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco but still picturesque. It's no surprise that the most famous nightclubs in Istanbul are placed underneath the first bridge, with a view.

There's a lot of national pride in Turkey. I saw the red Turkish flag with its crescent moon and star flying everywhere along the water and on boats. I think there's even more flags here than in the US, a place more patriotic than most. Also a lot of statues and images of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey in the 1920s. When I tired from walking I drank an Efes beer at an outdoor pub -- a large picture of Ataturk staring at me from the window.

So my visit was going quite well until Saturday night, which was of course quite the painful buzzkill. You can read about it below but needless to say I wasn't much in the mood for being a tourist on Sunday.

To break up my day of walking between police stations I walked to the Galata Tower for a view of Istanbul. There was also a movie crew outside the tour filming some Turkish film, hopefully Oscar-worthy.

Sunday evening was far better. A few Australians at my hostel insisted I go out with them, as I needed to celebrate my country's independence. Feeling better safety in a group but still on guard, we headed back to the Istiklal Caddesi nightlife area and sat down at a cleverly named bar, Beer House, for some 50 ml glasses of the local Efes beer. It was packed for a Sunday and tons of fun. There was a Turkish band playing and locals out of their seats dancing. We also tried some of the mussels that we saw other tables eating -- delicious! Shells were stuffed with rice and if you see a street vendor in Istanbul selling "midye" you should definitely give them a try.

On Monday morning at the hostel breakfast I met Borge and Linn, a couple of self-proclaimed social activists who claimed they were trying to brainwash me with their "Socialist propaganda". Nevertheless, we became friends and decided to head out together for a day at the Princes Islands, in the Strait of Marmara off the coast of the Asia side. So we took a bus from Europe to Asia (!) and from there boarded a ferry for the islands.

The islands were gorgeous! We had such a great day out there. Linn had a Turkish friend to show us around named Hikmet, who spoke fluent English (uncommon in Turkey) and insisted that I was a doppelgänger for someone from his Anatolian hometown named Seljuk. I figured with my green eyes that I wouldn't fit in Turkey but Hikmet said no one would believe me if I claimed to be American.

We disembarked on the Burgaz Adasi island and it was terrificly quiet as there are no automobiles allowed, but plenty of horse taxis! We walked around and picked wild plums along the road. Lots of big, beautiful homes on the cliffs overlooking the water, the second home escapes for Istanbul's wealthy. Taking in the view of Istanbul we headed to a small rocky beach, rented some chairs, and sat down. Water was very cold for swimming!

After the Norwegians got their fair share of sun we went for soda and tea, then caught a ferry to the Asia side. The boat was flocked to by seagulls used to being thrown bed by the ferry riders, some even catching the bread flying in midair. Not good for Borge, who has a fear of birds! (blame Alfred Hitchcock)

When we landed in the Kadikoy district our destination was a restaurant called Ciya, renouned for bringing the tastes of eastern Turkey to Istanbul. Even our Turkish friend didn't know all the plates we were eating, but they were all delicious. A great meal. We finished the night with a water pipe (nargile) and Hikmet taught us how to play backgammon, a game the Turks love to play in pubs and cafes.

So my trip to Istanbul ended well and I made some new friends along the way. It's a fine city and you'll stay safe there if you exercise common sense.