We trail along behind our driver who leads us out of the terminal where we squint as our eyes try to adjust to the brilliant sun that is shining in the Turkish sky. Our driver takes us to his car and we load our luggage and ourselves into the auto, finding ourselves knee to knee in the face to
face seats. Paul and I haven’t seen this arrangement since our Russian adventure where we traveled most of that journey facing the back window! It doesn’t really matter as the thoroughfare leading into Istanbul is beautifully landscaped with colorful flowers on both sides of the road. The Marmara Sea flanks the road to the right of us as some of the city of Istanbul rises to the left. There are ships of every size and shape waiting their turn at the mouth of the Bosphorus River where they will traverse the narrow strait and enter the Black Sea at the end of the river, or vice versa! Besides being an important strait for international navigation the Bosphorus River also divides Istanbul into the Asian and European parts.
Our driver turns the car into a narrow street in the part of Istanbul known as Sultanahmet or the Old City and he navigates the vehicle through the narrow, cobblestone streets to Hotel Uyan where we will spend the next two nights. The ancient history of this place practically oozes from the historic buildings that dot the skyline all around us.
We check into our rooms and have to admit they aren’t much bigger than our mobile tent. O.K. it isn’t that small but Paul and I really do have to stand against the wall to let the other one pass if we happen to be walking around the bed at the same time! There is a cute little balcony where the door can’t open fully due to lack of space, but we manage to squeeze through the narrow opening so we can look down at the street life below us. `We’re a couple of levels above the street which is nice too.
Once Paul and I have stacked our luggage as much out-of-the-way as possible, we leave Hotel Uyan to explore the Old City and find a cafe to eat lunch. There are lots of tourists and lots of Turkish residents trying to sell the foreign visitors something, including us. There seems to be Turkish carpets for sale around every corner and plenty of shops with all kinds of souvenirs for visitors to peruse. One of the best lines we hear from a merchant is “Can I sell you something you don’t need and really don’t want”? It sure made us laugh but the young man didn’t get any of our money.
Paul and I enjoy the water fountain that is between the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia. Tourists and natives alike sit on the benches around the circular fountain and watch the jets of water shoot into the sky in a variety of different designs. Unfortunately, all of the buses that park and disgorge tourists onto the square, park in close proximity to this area, taking a little bit away from the splendor of this dancing fountain and the two famous buildings whose domes and minarets dominate the landscape. Nevertheless, the exotic and ancient architecture surrounding us commands our attention despite the modern mode of transport that clutter the outskirts of the square.
We meander along narrow streets not really finding a restaurant that appeals to us. We end up eating at the cafe across the street from our hotel called the Lady Diana. I know, not exactly a Turkish name but the food offered was Turkish and quite tasty. After lunch we decide to venture further into this ancient city and begin walking with no particular destination in mind. We are admiring the stone work of arched doors and old fountains as we make our way through the throngs of people and by chance we run into Daktari and Brian who are munching on roasted chestnuts. They offer us one of the roasted nuts and we accept it, but must admit we aren’t all that impressed with the taste or the consistency of the nut meat. There are little vendor carts selling the chestnuts everywhere so obviously other folks do like them. Other food items that are being offered from the moveable carts are wedges of red, juicy watermelon, and steaming ears of corn.
Paul and I decide to walk to the Spice market which is close to the Bosporus River. Paul is using his guide-book but after walking what seems like miles, we finally stop and ask a waiter if we are near the Spice market. The personable young man nods and points in the direction we were walking and tells us to continue a few more blocks. When Paul and I arrive at the building that holds the famous Spice market we walk through a door to find, not spices, but huge stalls where pet food, birds, and rabbits are being sold. The pet food is sold not in bags but is scooped up out of bins so you can buy whatever amount you prefer. A wild dove is helping itself to some millet type grain in one of the plastic bins and the bird looks quite healthy! We wander through the section where there are birds and rabbits for sale but we don’t stay long. I can’t stand to see the parakeets, lovebirds, rabbits, etc. crammed into small cages with little room to move, while they are waiting to find a home.
We finally end up in the main area of the Spice market to find that there is much more than spices for sale here as jewelry, perfumes etc. are also on display. Paul and I do find an area where the spices are piled in colorful pyramids for shoppers to buy or just admire. The spices are lit up under odd yellow lighting which ends up making it hard to get a decent photo. One woman asks for money after we have taken a photo of her shops display but we just shake our head in disgust and walk on. Come on.
On our walk back to our hotel, we stop at the little sidewalk cafe where we asked for directions. They sell ice cream here and we decide to have a treat. Once we have chosen our flavor and the type of cone we want, the ice cream server scoops my choice into the cone. When I reach for the cone, I suddenly am grasping air as the waiter/performer yanks the cone away at the last-minute. He pulls a couple more tricks on me which leaves me laughing loudly before he finally allows me to actually have the ice cream I ordered. Paul is next in line and the trick he pulls on Paul is having two cones stacked together and when Paul grasps the cone, he ends up with an empty shell as the comedian pulls the loaded cone out of the bottom one. It was all great fun and the ice cream was delicious.
Paul and I continue moseying towards the main square while admiring the ancient stonework particularly all the arched doorways that are often embellished with designs chiseled into the stone. We are already becoming immune to the pleas from the male merchants asking us to come into their shops and look at what they have to offer. One man hooks us by pointing to Paul’s Cowabunga t-shirt he is wearing, asking if we have been on safari. The salesman pushed the right button and soon he and Paul are in conversation and Paul is showing him a few photos of our African safari on his camera. Soon we find ourselves inside the shop and end up buying a small trivet because we know it will be easy to pack and I can always use a trivet. I’m sure the shop owner had higher hopes than that but he still hooked us with an age-old tactic of flattering a customer by making things personal, which for some reason makes one feel obligated to reciprocate the sales persons interest in you. Gee, we fell for that trick like a couple of rookies!
By the time Paul and I are nearing our hotel we are hungry again and by chance there is a small bakery a half block away from the hotel. We can’t pass up the delicious looking goodies and purchase a baklava and an orange tart. It is a good thing we will only be here one more day because I could live on the bread and the pastries that are offered in Istanbul and I’m sure the pounds would accumulate in a hurry. The pastries are melt in your mouth good.
As we sat at the single table that sits outside the small bakery to enjoy our desserts, we watch as a man exits his rug shop and puts cat food into a pan across the street. Soon a handful of half-grown kittens appear and begin gobbling up the preferred food. The man comes back to where we are sitting and pours more food in a pan next to us for a healthy dog that is lying on the sidewalk. We strike up a conversation with him and he explains that not only the cats but also the dog are “street animals”, meaning no one owns them but lots of people feed them. He tells us that the government vaccinate and neuter the dogs and uses ear tags to mark the dogs that have been taken care of. He doesn’t say anything about the cats being vaccinated or neutered like the dogs, and by all the kittens plus the fact that a lot of the cats appear to be semi-wild probably means that the cats aren’t taken care of in the same way as the dogs.
I pay more attention to the street animals after this and soon notice pans of feed and water dishes everywhere we walk. The dogs are healthy as are many of the street cats although I do see some cats that have some health problems. I notice many of the shop owners, who often sit outside the door of their shops, will stoop down to pet a cat or dog that is walking by. I found this kindness to the street animals to be an especially endearing quality of the Istanbul people.
As dusk begins to fall across the Istanbul skyline, Paul and I climb to the rooftop terrace of our hotel to watch the city light up. We have a good view of the Blue Mosque on our left and the Hagia Sophia on our right, and Paul and I enjoy watching these incredible architectural wonders become more brilliant as the sky continues to darken. Not a bad way to end our first day in Istanbul.
Paul and I slept well in our tiny room last night with little street noise to bother us. We make our way to the dining room and fill our plates from the variety of cereals, eggs, breads, cheeses and yogurt, etc. from the breakfast buffet.
The five of us meet at the hotel lobby at 8:30 and walk to our designated meeting place with the guide we have hired to take us on a walking tour today. We find the entrance to the Basilica Cistern and we wait for the appearance of our guide Ozgu Unal. Since we only know our guides name and that she is a woman we must just be patient and assume she will approach us since we seem to be the only group hanging around the outside of the Cistern, it should be easy for her to spot us. Soon a young, dark-haired, woman approaches us and asks if this is the Miller group (Paul organized this tour) and we acknowledge that we are. The t-shirt, jean clad woman introduces herself and says to make things simple we can call her Oz. A bit ironic considering three of us are from Kansas! From the time Oz introduces herself I am fairly certain this was a good call by Paul in specifically requesting her as our guide, due to reviews he had read about Oz. She is bubbling with energy, speaks perfect English and when she begins to give us some background on the Basilica Cistern it is obvious she is a walking encyclopedia.
Oz leads us to the entrance of the Cistern and right away we see the perk of having a guide. Instead of standing in line with the other tourists, guides have a separate entrance for their clients. Sweet! We arrived just as the tourist attraction is opening this morning so we have definitely beaten the crowd.
As we walk through the entrance into this underground structure the air grows humid, the light grows dim and the sound of dripping water echoes through the chamber. Once we descend the stairs to the wooden walkway that wind through this subterranean wonder, my mouth practically gapes at the beauty of the carved columns that support the roof of the cistern. There are strategically placed spotlights so tourists aren’t bumping around in the dark, and the light shimmers pleasingly over the water where large white carp lazily swim.
Oz recites the history of the Basilica Cistern, explaining that it was built in 532 AD. I have a hard time getting my mind around that date! The beautiful pillars, many with fantastic designs carved into them, are thought to have been pilfered from ruined temples in the area. There are 336 columns supporting the structure and I wish I had better photos of the pillars.
According to Oz the Basilica Cistern fell out of use and forgotten, then was rediscovered in the 1500s, but the Cistern was not renovated until 1985. One of the oddest things in this awesome place is a Medusa head that was placed upside down and no one really knows what that is all about. Oz also tells us the Cistern plays an important role in the book by Dan Brown called Inferno, which by chance Paul and I are reading on this trip. Oz promises not to give anything away since we have not reached the part in the action thriller which takes place in Istanbul. Again we see that it pays to get to tourist attractions early because as we are leaving the Underground Cistern is beginning to fill with tourists.
Blinking in the bright sunshine to adjust our eyes after the dim light of the Cistern we continue our walking tour of Istanbul. Our next stop is the Blue Mosque and there is no jumping line this time. We line up with the throngs of tourists that are waiting to enter the ornate doors on the West side of the Mosque, and we slowly shuffle our way towards the dusky- grey, multi-domed building. Once inside we must remove our shoes and women must put a covering over their heads. I have come prepared with my own scarf although the Mosque loans scarves to women who don’t have their own headwear.
Now that we are appropriately clad to enter the Mosque, we bump and shoulder our way to the main area where Oz talks to us about the origins of the Mosque. Oz informs us that the real name of the Mosque is Sultanahmet Mosque and it was built in the early 1600’s. It derived its nickname the Blue Mosque due to the blue tiles that are on the interior walls. After dispensing more information that has long since escaped my brain, Oz says she will meet us outside the Mosque at an allotted time. We now begin to take photos of the incredible interior and the mind-boggling, colorful arches that are overhead. I can’t get a grasp on how anyone can build such a complex structure and I truly get dizzy after peering up at the large dome overhead that is filled with busy patterned arches. The photo of Paul and Brian with their mouths open in awe, pretty much says it all!
Oz leads us to a lovely area known as the Byzantine Hippodrome where races and political rallies were held in ancient times, but the place now serves as a city park. There is an Egyptian Obelisk, (3500 years old) that stands here, spoils from a long ago war with Egypt.
We move on to the Hagia Sophia Museum which is much more impressive on the outside than the inside. A good part of this Museum is under renovation so scaffolding and restoration material cover a large portion of the main part of the Museum. Oz tells us that this so-called renovation started when she was twelve and almost no progress has been made in the twenty some years since she visited as a preteen!
After we leave the Hagia Sophia, our guide takes us to lunch at one of the many restaurants in the area. We are treated to puff bread, (wonderful stuff), chicken kabob, fruits and baklava with ice cream for dessert. After all the walking we have done we are all very hungry and appreciate the tasty meal.
Oz takes us to a carpet store where we sit through a presentation of Turkish carpets. Paul and I have experienced this in India but the showmanship that goes on to show off the merchant’s carpets is still quite interesting. The owner also gave us free drinks to sip on during the performance, but for all their trouble they only sold one person in our group a lovely pillow case. The prices on the beautiful carpets took Paul and me out of the market in a hurry, although there were a few of these works of art I would have bought if money was no object!!
The grand finale of our walking tour is the Grand Bazaar but it doesn’t take long for our group to decide this place isn’t for us. After a short walk into the crowded, noisy place, Brian and Daktari wave goodbye and go off to see another Mosque. Bwana Cheka and Bibi Vitabu make a quick purchase and walk back to the hotel. Paul and I go in search of some decorative boxes for three kids in Kansas, but after a few minutes we are overwhelmed by the glitter, narrow aisles, and crowds of people so we leave the Bazaar. Before we strike out on our own we tell Oz how much we enjoyed the tour and pay her our share of the tour plus add a tip. Paul promise to give her an excellent review on Trip Advisor which is where he found Oz in the first place!
As we wander the streets looking in various shops, we soon find boxes we like but they are high-priced and the vendors will not bargain with us. We finally settle on fabric coin purses that have Istanbul embroidered on them. Making our way towards the hotel, Paul and I buy and share a fresh squeezed orange juice and call the day a success.
Tonight Paul and I splurge and have dinner on a roof top restaurant that is two doors down from our hotel. All the tables that line the edges of the roof top restaurant have been reserved, but the interior tables still have a wonderful view of the Bosporus River and the Asian side of Istanbul. We again enjoy watching the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia light up as the sun disappears over this ancient city. We are just as impressed with the beauty of the famous buildings as we were last night.
We have another restful night at Hotel Uyan and are up early to pack up our bags. This morning we find that the buffet food is cold and when we point this out to one of the servers he discovers that the warmers for the hot food have not been plugged in. We stick with cold food from the buffet this morning, no sense taking a chance on bad food!
Since we don’t leave for the airport until late morning, Paul and I walk to the Marmara Sea. The streets are very quiet here and when we reach the sea, there is a small fishing boat not far from the shore that is hauling up a net full of fish. A pod of dolphins are swimming nearby, so our foray to the sea was well worth the time. We also walk by old ruins and walls that are still standing among the more modern buildings of this part of Istanbul.
Paul and I go in search of pastries which leads us back to the city center. When we reach the dancing fountain, there are lines of buses emptying themselves of tourists. Yikes, we thought yesterday was crowded; it appears we are leaving just in time. We continue our quest for pastries and finally find a bakery that has much more variety than the small shop near our hotel. We buy several tasty treats to take with us to the airport and then return to the hotel. Paul and I shower, check out at the front desk, and join the rest of our group in the hotel lounge as we wait for our driver to appear and take us to the airport.
Paul and I are so glad we did this layover in Istanbul for two days and we enjoyed it so much that we hope to return to Turkey and travel more extensively someday. Nancy