Day 7-9: Istanbul Pt.1, Turkey

by - August 07, 2011

Day One: Fish at the Galata Bridge

The impressive fish menu
Istanbul is a city that is and always will be tremendously important to me.  In 2009, a combination of inset days at school coincided with my 18th birthday and I was able to spend a four day weekend here with my family.  The weekend in question corresponded with the Muslim festival of Eid, which meant that the major shopping areas, including the Grand Bazaar and Spice Bazaar, were closed.  My plan to see the bazaars, along with the fact that Istanbul is the gateway into Europe from Asia, meant that it was going to be the switchover point between backpacking with my family and backpacking with my girlfriend.  The start of this change over was the 5 hour drive from Gallipoli, which me and my family undertook on Friday morning. The route pretty much followed the Sea of Marmara and the Dardanelles and it was a good way to appreciate the strategic value of Gallipoli, as well as some amazing views.  On the way we stopped for a break at the city of Tekirdag, where we had originally considered spending a night.  While it was a fairly nice seaside town, we are glad that we spent the extra day at Gallipoli, particularly as the journey was proving a lot shorter than we had anticipated.

We were staying at the Hotel Ambassador in the Sultanahmet district of Istanbul.  This is where we had come last time and when we checked in at about 4pm, we found that we remembered many of the staff.  We were pretty exhausted after the journey and with this being the third time Mum and Dad have come to Istanbul there was no obligation to do any sightseeing.  We therefore took our time walking down to the bridges over the Golden Horn, where (need I say it) we had come for a meal before at a fish restaurant under the Galata Bridge.  We shared a massive Scorpion Fish between us - a great way to finish the family holiday, before slowly wandering back to the hotel to have a few drinks on its amazing terrace.

Day Two: The Bazaars and Hagia Sophia

The Grand Bazaar, Istanbul
The next morning the three of us went out to visit the bazaars.  Mum and Dad hadn’t been for 20 years and my last experience of a bazaar was at Khan-El Khalili in Cairo, which was total chaos.  We were therefore all surprised to find that the Grand Bazaar was fairly quiet, hassling from shopkeepers was minimal and the clean, well ordered shops made it seem more like a reasonably classy shopping arcade rather than a chaotic bazaar. It was a far cry from what I had seen in Cairo and what my parents remembered seeing 20 years ago.  We know that it is Ramadan at the moment and therefore people aren’t out until later, but (and I know that the similarities couldn’t be more tenuous) a visit on a Saturday morning to Waitrose would be the busiest time of the entire week.  I will be coming back later in the week with Ellie and we will try and come at a different time to compare.  Our next stop was the Spice Bazaar, which is to the north of the Grand Bazaar, through a large shopping district.  The roads of the shopping district were a fair bit busier than the bazaar itself and the fact that the prices were lower might suggest that the Grand Bazaar has outpriced the locals and just become a tourist trap.  This idea was strenghtened by the fact the Spice Bazaar was a lot busier and seemed to be a lot more like the real thing than…the real thing.

The Spice Bazaar, Istanbul

Hagia Sophia, Istanbul
All the while we were strolling through the shops of Istanbul, Ellie was arriving at Ataturk Airport and with a good bit of timing we all met at the Ambassador Hotel at about the same time.  There was a two hour cross-over between Ellie’s arrival and my parents’ departure and we spent this time in Sultanahmet Park in the area between the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia.  We waved mum and dad off and then decided we had time for one site - the Hagia Sophia before everything started to close and we would start to get hungry.  The Hagia Sophia is arguably the most famous monument in Istanbul.  It was built by the Emperor Justinian in 532 AD as the grandest cathedral in Christendom and has since survived earthquakes, invasions and even a crusade by fellow Christians.  It was converted to a mosque during the Ottoman Empire and since the secularism introduced by Ataturk has become a museum.  Last time I came, Istanbul was gearing itself up to be European Capital of Culture 2010 and as a result much of the city was covered in scaffolding (story of my travels…), so it was impressive to see the inside of the dome free of construction work.  We finished with a walk down to the bridges over the Golden Horn where I had eaten dinner last night, before heading back to have a meal at the restaurant where I had my last meal as a 17 year old last time I came.

Inside Hagia Sophia, Istanbul

Day Three: The Blue Mosque and Topkapi Palace

The Blue Mosque interior
The plan for today was to start with the Blue Mosque, the blue and Muslim reflection of the Hagia Sophia on the other side of Sultanahmet Park.  The mosque is actually called the ‘Sultan Ahmed Mosque’ (Sultan Ahmed/Sultanahmet) but has got its nickname due to the heavily blue dominated interior.  It was built on the site of the old Byzantine Emperor’s Palace and was completed in 1616.  As one of the most famous (and accessible) mosques in the world, the strain from tourists is quite heavy and as result worshippers are given their own entrance and sections inside.  It is a really stunning building from the outside and with the Hagia Sophia gives Istanbul one of the most easily recognizable and dramatic skylines in the world.  The interior is equally impressive, though it is very difficult to quite capture just how blue it is in photos.

Gates of Topkapi Palace
The next place that I wanted to show Ellie was the Grand Bazaar, which I had only seen for the first time yesterday. When we arrived however it turned out to be closed - it turns out that it is closed on Sunday which I probably should have worked out.  The bazaar district is quite pleasant anyway though and we had our lunch close to Istanbul University while deciding what the alternate itinerary would be.  Looking at the 'to-see’ list we decided on the Topkapi Palace, back in the Sultanhmet area of the old town.  This palace was home to the Ottoman Sultans for 400 years of the empire and as such was once arguably the most important buildings in the world.  While the Sultans are long gone, the building remains along with a lot of Ottoman treasures and artefacts.  It cost us 20 TL to get in and would have cost us an extra 15 TL if we had gone to the Harem as well (where the Sultan actually used to live - we didn’t go in last time or this time).  The grounds and palace building are enough to dedicate an afternoon to and the treasury in particular, home to the famous Topkapi Dagger as well as hundreds of other priceless items, is enough to wow you (and make you realise why the Ottomans ended up bankrupt…).  The views over the Bosphorus and the Golden Horn are really good too, so the entrance fee is worth it just to get these unique photos back over the city.  The last room we went in was the Privy Chamber, tucked away slightly in one of the courtyards.  Contained in the chamber, as tucked away as it may be, are some of the most amazing religious objects you are ever likely to come across. In the dim light (used to protect the artefacts) the Prophet Muhammad’s cloak and sword, the Staff of Moses and the turban of Joseph.  The Sultans themselves were only allowed into the chamber on one day of the year (the 15th day of Ramadan) to see the objects so it is understandable that staff ask tourists (and Muslim pilgrims) to keep quiet as they walk round.

Inside Topkapi Palace

After finishing at the palace we grabbed our first Turkish coffee of the trip and then headed back to the hotel. At 7 we got picked up and taken to Istanbul Otogar (bus station) where we started our 12 hour journey, costing 60 TL each way, to Cappdocia.  We would be returning to Istanbul later in the week but we had taken a chunk out of the long list of sites in the city.

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