It had been raining in Bucharest, it rained all the way across Bulgaria and it was raining when we reached Istanbul. My first impression of Istanbul is that it is a beautiful place with flowers decorating its congested streets and crammed city. The bus dropped us at Sirkeci train station in the old city at about 9.45 am. The cobbled streets are narrow and bustling. I almost brush my shoulder with the passing tram.
Having left Stuttgart on the 21 September 2013, travelling by train with stops in Prague, Budapest and Bucharest, we have now arrived at our last destination for this long journey. The train journey itself was written in another article, see –http://budgetglobaltraveller.com/133/ .
One of the first shop I saw was one that sells baklavas and desserts. There are so many varieties of the sweet pastry and also many types of puddings arranged in neat rows on the shelves. The shop next door sells another equally tempting sweet, the Turkish Delight.
Our hotel, Viva Deluxe Hotel is one of the many small hotels in this area, which is packed with restaurants, cafes, souvenir shops and travel agents. Once again we are in the hub of a tourist district, meaning things are far from cheap.
Later in the afternoon we went out for a walk near the hotel. It was purely by chance that we arrived at the Spice Market (Misir Carsisi). There are many shops selling a great variety of spices for cooking as well teas. The teas available here are herbal and fruit teas. It’s a clean, neat and bustling bazaar which also sells ceramics, cotton products, jewellery, rugs and carpets, fresh and dried fruits and cheeses. Unlike our bazaar, the shops here sell good quality products. One noticeable fact is the absence of the overpowering smell of spices despite their availability in large quantities. And, for more than 2 weeks we have eaten nothing but, Turkish food, which to me is not so flavourful. Thus, I am wondering as to what becomes of the large amounts of spices. The vibrant colours and the cheerful atmosphere of the bazaar make it worth a visit even if you don’t plan to buy anything.
Topkapi Palace is about a kilometre from our hotel. The wide yard leading to the palace entrance has tall trees. The vast compound occupies an area of 173 acres overlooking the Marmara sea. It consists of several courtyards, gardens, offices, kitchens, armoury, halls and a harem. For nearly 400 years it served as the residence and administrative office of the Sultans of the Ottoman empire. The once glorious palace, which is decorated with hand-painted Iznik tiles is now a museum. It is a vast treasure of Islamic culture, science and weaponary. A section displayed the jewelled throne and other equally gem studded treasures of the Ottoman sultans. Porcelains, clocks, robes (kaftans) and jewellery are also exhibited. Swords belonging to Prophet Muhammad and those of his companions, Moses’ walking stick and belongings of other prophets are also on display.
The Imperial Harem occupied one of the sections of the Sultan’s private apartment. It was home to the Queen mother, the Valide Sultan, the wives and concubines and the rest of the family and their servants. No male except the sultan was allowed into the harem.
Throngs of tourists were seen entering the palace grounds and most doors already had long queues. Every tourist seems to head to Topkapi Palace, the most popular tourist attraction in Istanbul.
Leaving the Topkapi Palace, a short downhill stroll brought us to Aya Sofia. Once a magnificent church, then a mosque, now a museum under going restoration.
We had lunch at one of the nearby cafes. It was cold and grease from the meat solidified while we were eating.
The open area between Aya Sofia and the Blue Mosque is known as the Hippodrome. It is the place where tour buses drop off their passengers and is rarely quiet during the day. I couldn’t tell apart a local from a tourist though.
The Blue Mosque was built by Sultan Ahmed and was completed in 1616. It’s domes and minarets are visible from a far distance, but then almost all the bigger mosques here look like the Blue Mosque. We had planned to perform our noon (zohor) prayers here, but, unfortunately the taps were dry. No water, no ablution, and thus, no prayers. And, that was disappointing. We entered the mosque to admire it’s amazingly beautiful interior. On the ceiling the geometric motifs are exquisite and awesome. This mosque is opened to non-Muslim visitors and every female is required to put on a head scarf and be dressed in a decent attire.
We headed to Aya Sofia before returning to the hotel. This is another awesome and enormous structure which over the years had been affected by time and disaster, but it has survived and had been rebuilt a few times. There are images of Jesus and the words “Allah” and “Muhammad” and other Arabic inscriptions, but, the cross is missing. It must have been removed when Aya Sofia was converted into a mosque. It’s my first time seeing the image of Jesus, and the words Allah & Muhammad, all written on the same wall of a building. Even though Jesus is a prophet of Islam, Muslims never portray him or any other prophets in any form of image. The colours on the painted ceiling have faded, but the glory of time passed still remains.
BELOW:PHOTOS TAKEN INSIDE THE AYA SOFIA
Next was a visit to the Basilica Cistern, an underground “reservoir” constructed by emperor Justianius in 532. Water was brought from another area several kilometres away via aqueducts and stored here to provide supply for the city’s population. Now there is little water in the cistern, but it could hold a volume of 80000 cubic metre then.
A chance to use the Istanbul card came after the short visit to the Basilica Cistern. It’s like our “Touch n Go” card only that the Istanbul card is the ticket for the city’s public transport. Minimum credit for the card is 5 lira and credit can be purchased as necessary at the Jentomatic machines near the tram stops. As in other cities, it is convenient to get about on the tram.
Yesterday Nik bought the MusePass for 85 lira which allows entry to several museums within 72 hours. Since we have more time here than in other cities, it was worthwhile buying the pass and educate ourselves by visiting the museums.
The Islam Museum for Science and Technology situated in Gulhane Park is near the Topkapi Palace and only a 10-minute walk from our hotel. Few people visit it, but the museum holds so much information regarding the achievements of early Muslim scientists. The exhibits here are replicas of the original instruments or reproductions based on original items or drawings. Astronomy is one field that is well covered. It amazes me that just by using the naked eyes, without any telescope, so much was achieved. Other fields such as mathematics, physics and chemistry were also well studied by Muslims.
A large section of The Museum of Archaeology is dedicated to the history of Istanbul or Constantinepolis as it was known during the Byzantine rule. The Ottomans succeeded in conquering the city during the fourth attempt and thereafter became one of the greatest Muslim empire until the early 20 th century.
Nik has for three consecutive weeks missed Friday prayers, so as not to miss another one, he took an opportunity to perform it at the Blue Mosque.
The Grand Bazaar is two tram stops from the Hippodrome. It is much larger than the Spice Bazaar and the stores sell similar goods. There are a lot more jewellery stores and cheap clothings here.
Day tour of Bosphorus with Senkron (Travel agency)
Saturday was a tad warmer, but not taking any chances, I dressed warmly for the boat tour. We cruised along the Bosphorus Sea passing the Kabatas area, Dolmabache Palace and some more smaller palaces of the later Ottoman sultans. The Rumelli Fortress was another construction made by Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror. More than 500 years old and the stone towers and walls are still standing. Incredible.
The Bhosporus Bridge connects the European side of Istanbul to the Asian side. It is a bridge suspended at the two ends, unlike the Penang Bridge which has a middle suspension. The Asian side of Istanbul has many exclusive and multi-million dollar villas and mansions and a few more palaces of the sultans. Both sides of the waterfront are beautiful with villas at the water edge and forested hills behind them.
We left the boat and got on the bus for a short drive to the Golden Horn area. Along the way we passed by the old city walls which had protected the city from the Ottomans and other enemies. Much of the 2000 year old structure are in ruins, however, reconstruction is taking place in some parts.
Pierre Loti Hill offers a panoramic view of Istanbul with the Golden Horn just below and the old city towards the right. To the left is the new and modern city. A short ride on the cable car brought us to flat ground where our bus was waiting.
Lunch was included in the tour. The lentil soup was superb, followed by a serving of fresh salad. As expected, the main meal was kebab. It was a platter of grilled chicken and minced beef. After our meal, the tour guide directed us to a nearby mosque for prayers.
The afternoon tour covered Dolmabache Palace and Camlija Hill on the Asian side of the city. After some 400 years, the latter sultan decided to build a new palace on the other side of the sea. A small and pretty garden lies in between the gate and the palace entrance. Dolmabache Palace is a grand and lavishly decorated palace. Crystal chandeliers and balustrades and gold painted interiors reflects the on the ruler’s expensive tastes. Even the radiator was painted in gold. There is a limit on the number of visitors and we were required to cover our shoes with plastic slip-ons to minimise the wear and tear on the floor. The furnishings are original ones. Only about a dozen rooms out of the 285 are opened for public viewing. And, visitors are not allowed to take photographs inside the palace.
It was a slow crawl across the Bhosporus Bridge to the Asian side of Istanbul. Visit Istanbul or Ekaterinburg in Russia, you’ll get the rare chance of transversing two continents in one visit. We were advised to have our cameras ready for the “Welcome to Asia” sign board, but it was not easy to snap a photo from a moving bus. We had tea and shared a piece of cake at Camlija Cafe. The sun was already low on the horizon, however, the hazy view over the city spoils the chance of a gorgeous sunset. Camlija Hill is another good viewing point of the expansive city. By the time the bus dropped us off near the Sirkeci station, night has fallen. It was a plate of grilled fresh anchovies each for dinner.
On our last day, we checked out in the late morning leaving our luggages at the hotel. We had booked the 9 pm shuttle to the airport.
We had lunch at a restaurant near our hotel. A short walk later, we found ourselves outside the Sirkeci Station. We headed towards the 400 year old New Mosque which was just to our left. It looks similar to the Blue Mosque, perhaps a little smaller. I used sign language to ask for the ladies room to go for ablution. At the end of the row of shop, I came upon the public lavatory which was actually right at the back of the Spice Market. It was rather a long way and at an inconvenient location.
While walking on the bridge to go to the modern part of the city, we came upon many anglers. Fishing, it seems is a favourite weekend activity for the men. Nik and I took a peep at some of their catch. It was mainly anchovies and other small fishes. It was a fine and cool morning, ideal for such an outdoor activity.
Before we hopped on the tram at the other end of the bridge, we sampled some freshly squeezed pomegranate juice. A tinge of bitter taste lingered on my tongue for some moments. At the end of the tram line in Kabatas, where we got off and started walking ahead until we came to a cafe at a junction. To walk uphill would be rather tiring, so, after a short rest we walked back to the tram stop. This time we asked a local and found the funicular train station. The trip from Kabatas to Taksim Square on the funicular train took about 2 minutes.
Finally, we were at the famous Taksim Square which made headlines some months back. The square has been an important venue for political protests during much of its existence. We posed infront of the Monument of the Republic, absorbing the sight of the weekend crowd going about its business; a passing tram, a man attending his roasted chestnut kiosk and the meandering tourists mingling with the locals.
We strolled down a nearby street. As we passed by a restaurant, I cannot help peering into the shelves displaying scrumptious desserts. The crowded street was like any other High Street on a normal weekend, where people seemed to be heading to nowhere in particular. A few minutes later we turned back and stopped to sample some yoghurt dessert and tea.
As the evening crawled, we returned to the hotel for a short rest. We went to a nearby mosque located amongst the many restaurants. Only a handful people joined the congregation. A simple dinner wrapped up our visit to historic Istanbul.
MAIN TRAIN STATION: SIRKECI TRAIN STATION