Istanbul is a dramatic city where history is found and made on every street corner. The Turks are wonderful people and go above and beyond to welcome you to their country. The central tourist area, Sultanahmet, is easy to cover on foot making it possible to see many of the major attractions in a couple of days. We had a general idea of the major sites and set out the morning of day one from our hotel to see The Blue Mosque and Aya Sofya. We seemed to have an early start on the tourists as there were few line ups which suits me fine “thankyouverymuch”!
The Blue Mosque, which began construction in 1609, is still in use today as a place of worship therefore, as a woman, one must cover up to be allowed to visit. There are scarves and sarongs at the entrance for those who are dressed “inappropriately”, that being us, we three girls covered up. We slipped off our shoes and padded onto the very soft carpet to view the inside of the mosque. The ceiling has been recently restored and is glorious. Predominantly blue, but also gold and yellow, iznik tile mosaics adorn the ceiling giving the building its auspicious name.
As we gawked at the ceiling, I read from the tour book, however we began it eaves drop on an English speaking guide who was touring a couple through the mosque. I must say I am disappointed I hadn’t arranged a private tour guide or known about the option. I think our visit to Istanbul would have been enhanced immensely. Next time….
After the Blue Mosque we crossed the square and went into the Aya Sofya. If you plan to visit, do the reverse as the Aya Sofya is older and functioned as the central mosque prior to the construction of the Blue Mosque. The Aya Sofya, “the Church of Divine Wisdom” was built sometime after 532 and for almost a thousand years was the largest enclosed space in the world. It had been functioning as a mosque until 1932 when it was transformed into a museum – unbelievable.
A massive dome hovers over the main body of the church and on either side there are galleries with two stories. Throughout the church one can see the remains of the many splendid decoration, stone carvings, mosaics and frescos. The stairs to the upper galleries were more ramps made with uneven size stones and were not easy to walk across but he views from the upper level were worth the effort. It is awe inspiring to walk across the very worn stone floor and feel the weight of all those who have come before you.
The morning now behind us, all that touring made us hungry indeed! We got a good tip from our hotel on a local haunt for lunch, le Limon. We arrived to the ground floor, noted a buffet of sorts but were told to go upstairs. We were given a menu in Turkish (hmmmm…perhaps just looking at the food downstairs might have been easier) and the girls decided that best bet looked like the baked eggplant menu (since that is what the table next to us was having). Cliff, a man of his own mind, went for the meat balls.
Our cold cucumber soup arrived within seconds of ordering so we waited for the drinks. No worry about the food getting cold! The roast eggplant main arrived shortly thereafter and was really the star of the show. Move over soup! The eggplant was delicious, served in a tomato based sauce and accompanied with steamed rice. I am working on finding a similar recipe, I think a new cookbook out by a London chef called Plenty might be the ticket. We were all but finished when Cliff’s meal arrived – poor man!
In the afternoon we made our way first to the Yerebatan Sarayi (Sunken Palace or Basilica Cistern) and then to the Grand Bazaar. The historians believe the cisterns were built by Constantine in the 4th century. They supplied water to people and mainly the palaces for centuries and were discovered again when a French man in the early 1545 notice fresh fish being sold in the streets close to the cisterns. He found out the locals had boats in the cistern and were fishing it’s depths.
We decided to pose for a cheesy photo of Cliff and his haram at the entrance to the site – what a lucky man! The cistern was cool and damp with a series of walkways leading above the water supply spread through the supporting columns. Originally tourists would explore in boats which I think would have been much more fun. There are several columns that are carved throughout the cisterns –one such is of medusa. Very eerie!
We re-emerged to the surface and made our way to the Grand Bazaar to round out the days touring. The Grand Bazaar is a maze of building lined with stalls selling everything from fine gold jewellery to lokum to underwear! It is reminiscent of the covered shopping arcades in Europe and the UK, like Covent Gardens or la Boqueria in Barcelona.
I have to admit I was intimidated at the outset as I am not much of a barterer. The hawkers were a comedy act and would try to grasp your attention with bold comments such as “Sir Madam – how can I take your money today?” Given their less than serious attitude regarding brow beating the tourists, after an hour or so, I relaxed enough to buy a couple of trinkets for my nieces (ha ha if you are reading this you will have to wait to see what I bought you when I am home in the fall). Once broken in I managed to pick up a lovely necklace, earrings, a shirt…you can see where this is going right? It was much fun and thankfully we resisted the urge to buy a carpet!
As I reflect on the day our only folly during the day was drinking the gratis Turkish wine the hotel provided in our room and agreeing to dine at The Sunset Restaurant. The wine was called Buzzbag, how appropriate – terrible swill! The restaurant we chose was in a lovely setting overlooking the Sea of Marmara and very swank, but a ½ hour cab ride from our hotel. If I could do it again I’d find a local joint and enjoy some traditional Turkish food.