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Posts Tagged ‘Istanbul’

If you have heard of the famed Turkish hospitality, we have experienced it and I can tell you it is no lie! One afternoon, we were trying to figure out the (confusing) roads in Sultanahmet in an attempt to find the tram station, which should have been only a 5-minute walk from our hotel. A young man walking past stopped to help us when we asked if he spoke English. Next thing we knew, he was walking us all the way to the tram station to show us where it was, and then helped us figure out how to work the token machines. Since the machine was refusing to take the bill we were putting in it, then he insisted on letting us through the gates with his public transit card! After going so far out of his way to help two strangers, he also invited us to have tea with him at the souvenir shop where he worked, so two days later, we stopped by for a cup of tea before we left town. This was the most overwhelming, but certainly not the only, experience we had with Turkish hospitality while visiting Turkey. Everywhere we went, people were friendly, and often would ask if we needed help even before we had to ask. Especially after often experiencing very indifferent customer service in many parts of Europe, this was a refreshing and welcome change. Turkish tea is also really good, so I recommend having that while talking up some locals if you visit Turkey.

The Hagia Sophia is huge, and there are many things blocking the view so that you can't get far enough back to capture the entire building in a photo.

The lighting was dim, with low chandeliers, which made most of my pictures blurry and just generally low quality, but this view of the dome gives a small sense of what the interior is like.

We saved the Hagia Sophia for our last day in town since it was close to our hotel and we had plenty of time to devote to it. This was probably the highlight of Istanbul for both of us. It’s hard to describe the sheer vastness of the construction, and the feeling of antiquity you get when you are inside is almost indescribable. Yes, there are many older constructions in existence, but this building is 1500 years old and is humongous and still completely whole. It is hard to imagine what the interior looked like when it was new. Several sections of brilliant mosaic work remain that give you a small glimpse, but many of the original interior decoration is gone. Additionally, many of the painted colors in the decorative work are very dark and muted, so I found myself wondering how it must have looked new. However, this does not make it less enjoyable, but rather adds to sense of age you feel about the building when you are inside. In reality, my description and photos hardly do the place justice, so my best recommendation is to go and see it for yourself!

One of the gorgeous mosaics in the Hagia Sophia

Another brilliant mosaic, though the colors, especially the gold, appear much duller here than in real life.

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Okay, I admit it: this post doesn’t really have anything to do with its title, except maybe that it is about two of our dinners in Istanbul, which I suppose can qualify as dates. I can’t help myself, I love this song and it’s just to easy to start throwing out the lyrics when you actually get to Istanbul! Anyways, this post is actually about rooftop dining:

Rooftop dining is a popular and fun way to eat in Istanbul; on our trip we enjoyed two dinners on the rooftop terraces of Istanbul restaurants. The first time, we tried a restaurant recommended by the guidebook that sadly did not have the great service indicated. However, we had a great view of the Bosphorus and a bridge that lights up with color at night, so that was quite enjoyable. Our second attempt at rooftop dining was a bigger success. After some guidance from our hotel, we figured out how to get one of the major nightlife areas of town, on the northern side of the Golden Horn. Once you get to the northern side of the bridge, you get on a really, really old subway car that takes you through an uphill tunnel. This is definitely a tourist attraction, because it doesn’t go very far and seems to be mostly for show—but it did save us from an uphill walk. Once you exit the tunnel, you are at the end of a long street full of people, restaurants and shops. Further up the street, there are some side streets that are just packed full of restaurants. These are known as meyhanes and they are a really great place to go out to eat. One price gets you a set menu of mezzes, salad, hot appetizers, main course, dessert and drinks—there’s a lot of food. We paid 60 turkish lira apiece and literally got a bottle of wine each with our meals. Entertainment is provided by a house band playing traditional music; they come over to your table to play for tips. We mostly watched the other tables, full of locals, who really got the band going playing songs to which they were all singing along. It was great fun, and all happening on the rooftop terrace of the restaurant, so the air was nice and fresh as well. Food was great all over Turkey, but this was truly the most fun and unique dining experience we had on our trip.

Unfortunately, I didn’t manage to get any good photos from our dinners out, but we did have lunch on a rooftop in Sultanahmet on our last day in Istanbul, and it had the best view by far of the Blue Mosque.

A perk of rooftop dining: the great views! Here you can see the Blue Mosque.

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There’s nothing like a cool sea breeze on a hot and sunny day. Day two of our Istanbul visit, we took a 90-minute boat ride up the Bosphorous and back. Already drenched with sweat when we arrived at the harbor area where the boats leave, we immediately cooled off sitting on the covered boat and feeling a refreshing breeze hitting us. We opted for the shorter, no-stop cruise so we could get a taste of the Bosphorous while still having time for other activities in Istanbul, and it was a good choice. None of the little towns where the ferry stops sounded interesting in the guidebook, and they honestly did not look that interesting from the boat, either. Had we more time, we would have certainly gone on a day time excursion out to the Black Sea, but with the time we had, the short cruise was definitely right for us.

This view from our Bosphorus cruise captures the ancient/modern vibe of Istanbul.

We saw quite a few yachts in Croatia, but the one we saw in Turkey had its own helicopter!

Once back in Istanbul, we ate lunch near the Spice Market, and then walked around for a bit, stopping at a spice seller’s shop to buy apple tea and zahtar. Then we headed back towards Sultanahmet to the Basilica Cistern, which was definitely a unique experience. This man-made underground cavern, supported by marble columns, is both eerie and wondrous at the same time. It was even bigger than I imagined it would be—so big I felt none of the claustrophobia I feared I might from being underground. The curious and unexplained Medusa heads at the bottom of two of the columns in one corner of the cistern add even more mystery to the place. Our guidebook informed us that the Cistern itself was all but forgotten, and it wasn’t until the 1500s that it was rediscovered by an inquisitive gentleman who found out that people living in the area could get water in buckets they lowered beneath their basements. Today, there is very little water in it, just enough for some fish to swim around, and you walk around on platforms raised above the water.

Looking into the depths of the Basilica Cistern

Upside-down Medusa head at the base of a column--the other Medusa head lies on its side

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Our 10-day visit to Turkey began in Istanbul. We arrived at night, so we didn’t really see that much until the next day, which began with a delicious and large Turkish breakfast, and was followed by a visit to the Topkapi Palace. The palace was really lavish, and quite a change from the various palaces you see in Europe, but after a while we got the same feeling you get when visiting a European palace such a Versailles: something that is hard to describe, but kind of like “oh, more palace, it looks just like the last part of the palace.” I think I shall call this feeling “Palace fatigue.” I’m by no means trying to say you shouldn’t see the palace if you go to Istanbul, just that neither of us had the patience to spend 3 hours-plus in it like the guidebook recommended. However, I do recommend spending the extra money to visit the Harem; this requires an extra ticket but is worth it because lots of people don’t want to buy another ticket so it is much less crowded than the other interior exhibits.

This is the first entrance gate into the outermost area of the Topkapi Palace.

We spent the rest of the afternoon at the Grand Bazaar, which is unlike anything I have ever visited. Actually, that’s not entirely true, I once visited the weekend market in Bangkok, which is similar in its sheer vastness and chaos—but the Grand Bazaar is still quite unique and almost impossible to describe. The merchants trying to get you to look at their wares can be a bit overwhelming, but you get a little more used to it after a while. The funniest experience related to this was when a carpet merchant was asking me “Don’t you need to buy a carpet?” When I told him that I definitely did not need a carpet, he responded in what almost sounded like a desperate plea, “But I have too many carpets!” Many hundreds of dollars later (yes, hundreds), we finally escaped the Grand Bazaar, though possibly only because it was closed. It clearly had some sort of effect on us, as we are not usually the souvenir-buying types!

This is a building in the innermost, or fourth, courtyard of the Palace

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