Visiting every single thing in Istanbul - honeymoon day 3 (Fri 8th June)

15 June, 2012 - 10:07

Scott wears a tiny device called a FitBit. It is a detailed tracking device and tells you just how far you've walked. Thanks to this we knew that on Thursday we walked 14km, and on Friday we would hit the 14km mark for a second time. Both days were intense.

We started off our Friday with a leisurely get-ready and then broke our no-internet rule and called our dear friend Sal for her birthday. It was a good, gentle start to what would turn into a very hectic day of being tourists. We'd resolved to see and do every single thing in Istanbul this day.

Our journey began amusingly. We'd purchased tokens for the tram and promptly pushed through the turnstiles in the wrong direction and had to come back out again and buy a new set of tokens to head in the direction that we actually wanted to go.

First stop: Hagia Sophia. My travel guide for Istanbul lists this as a must-see for being 'one of the world's greatest feats of architecture' but we would happily have given it a skip had we known the mess of queues, touts, tour guides and con-artist simit salesmen that we were about to face, all in thirty-something degree blazing midday heat. By the time we made it inside we were both so agitated that we each wanted to find a separate corner somewhere, curl into a foetal position and hum something monotone. I am glad that we suffered through it though because it turned out to be spectacular.

One should respect Hagia Sophia because it is very, very, very old. Verrrry old. We're talking like 360 AD old. It began its life as a Greek cathedral, then converted to a Roman cathedral, and finally into a mosque from 1453 until 1931 when it was then secularised.

Hagia Sophia inside is mainly one large hall. Because of the size of the building and how wide across and high up it goes, it was tricky to take pictures of. I attempted to get a panorama using the Photosynth app on my iPhone that Charles showed us (which, oddly enough, is made by Microsoft). The result was bizarre and jagged (I suppose this takes a little practise and a novice like me should not have attempted to snap this entire hall) but I love the picture that came about!

From here we walked the short distance over to the Blue Mosque. The heat had become even more intense but the crowds had thinned out. On our walk we encountered this couple wearing matching umbrella hats:

The truth is that we made fun of them, but those two got the last laugh. It wasn't long before we were about to melt into an ugly stinky puddle from the extreme heat, and were plotting ways that we might be able to temporarily stun them and steal their hats. The Turkish sun is no joke.

Our arrival at the Blue Mosque coincided with prayer time and so we weren't able to enter. It is amazing to see something so ancient (this one dates from 1616) still in use today, and according to Wikipedia the building has a capacity of 10 000. We peeped in to see what prayer time looked like but were forbidden from taking any photos. On the outside area there was a series of taps where people could wash their faces, hands and feet before going in to pray. The taps are really ornate and beautiful, and similar ones are installed throughout the country.

Next stop: Grand Bazaar. I have to say that I was nervous about this one and the effect that it might have on Scott's fragile tolerance for confined spaces filled with people and vendors all pushing and yelling, and shopping (especially after the chaos at Hagia Sophia). This market was an amazing thing to behold though. It is the oldest and largest market in the world. It opened in 1461, has over 4000 shops, 58 covered streets and attracts between 250 000 and 500 000 visitors per day!

We began not by shopping, but by finding a cosy coffee shop and sampling the famed Turkish coffee. Well - Scott did. I was not brave enough :) Look how pretty it was:

You can buy all things Turkish here, and most notably boat-loads of gold! We didn't buy anything (especially not anything gold) because apparently everything is marked up for tourists in the Grand Bazaar but it was fun getting lost and wandering up and down the tiny alleyways.

We decided to hit up the Spice Bazaar next. I was a complete mess by the time we got there, because like a fool I had decided to buy a mielie (corn on the cob) from one of the local street vendors and it turned out to be the stickiest messiest vegetable I have ever eaten. I have never known a mielie to be so damned sticky and messy. They cook them over an open fire and they look and smell delicious, but this is one mistake I will not be making again. The thing managed to cover me the whole way down my front, and it took me hours to get the bits out of my teeth, clothing and hair (I don't carry dental floss around with me when I go walking but I think now I will) and tainted the flavour of the freshly made Turkish delight that we tasted in the market. He was very nice about it but I'm sure Scott was even embarrassed to be seen alongside me.

The Turkish delight in Turkey is nothing like what we in the west know Turkish delight to be. It has more of a nougat-like consistency and often has whole pistachios and hazelnuts in it. We bought a few pieces thinking that they would tide us over for the rest of our time in Istanbul but they did not even make it out of the market. They come in 'cakes' of fresh made candy, and you select the flavour that you want (for example they had pomegranate, hazelnut and coconut, or regular pistachio) and tell them how much you want and they sell it to you by weight.

After the Spice Market we walked to the extremely grandiose bridge that crosses the Bosphorous River. My Wallpaper Istanbul City Guide claims that this bridge and general region has been compared to Montmartre in Paris. The odd and interesting thing about it is that even though there are tonnes of boats carrying tourists and who knows what else (cats, perhaps?) under it, there is a huge contingent of fishermen fishing down off the bridge into the water 1000 metres below. And I say fishermen in the most literal sense, because there was not single female fishing. A lot of these people were dressed as though they had stopped to cast a quick line in on the way home from their office jobs.

More walking back towards Taksim Square which is near our hotel, and on the way up the shopping walking street connecting to it, we inadvertently got caught in a gridlocked crowd of protestors, and there were millions of riot police everywhere. Amazing how it really came out of nowhere, and it was quite a panickey, scary experience. Eventually we were able to remove ourselves from it and slip into a side street where we bolted back to our hotel as quickly as we could. We still have no idea what was going on or what any of it was about, and there were really a terrifying amount of police all wearing full riot gear and brandishing large weapons that they kept their fingers on the triggers of.

Back at the hotel we were completely wiped out. We'd planned to use the hotel's jacuzzi, Turkish bath and sauna again but we collapsed in a heap and passed out. I'd call day 3 a success.

Exploring Istanbul (Honeymoon Day 2)

12 June, 2012 - 12:02

First full day in Turkey, and by now it had properly sunken in where we were which caused me to bolt out of bed with excitement really early. Scott had barely slept on any of our flights (I'd slept a whole lot) and I killed time waiting for him to wake up by writing a blog post.

Architecture in Istanbul is varied

Our first plan for the day had been to try out some of the Turkish coffee that we'd often heard about, supposedly guaranteed to wire you better than any other legal substance. We'd apparently miscommunicated what we were looking for when we asked the hotel porter where to find this, because when we got to where he'd directed us it turned out to be a crappy local chain called Simit Sarayi and the latte that I ordered was thimble-sized, weak and watery. But not enough to dampen my spirits! Scott got a simit (sesame seed bagel) which seems to be a local staple and the simit vendor is to Istanbul what the hot dog vendor is to New York.

We'd decided to visit Istanbul's modern art gallery as a first activity, and chose to walk there instead of using transit.

Mosque near Istanbul Modern

This city is not only scenic. This city is filled to bursting with free cats! Cats are everywhere! Even though they are nearly all ferrel and rather scrappy looking, they are friendly and will give you a whiskery smile and a miao when you walk by. People's reaction to the cats is interesting. In any other place I could imagine them being regarded as pests since there are so many of them and they don't belong to anyone, but Istanbulites often here stop to talk to the cats and pet them, and put out little dishes of food.

Cats of Istanbul

Istanbul Modern did not disappoint. It was a perfect size. We managed to make our way through every one of the exhibits without collapsing in an exhausted heap afterwards - perhaps a first. They had some fantastic installation work, lots of video pieces and they even had an elaborate work with 2 drawings and some sort of a kaleidoscope by South Africa's William Kentridge. I didn't get to look at it properly though because it was being hogged by a group of museum-visiting Turkish men.

Architecture in Istanbul is varied

On our way home from the museum we gave in and sat down for a predictable Starbucks coffee and a solid dose of silent people watching. I stole a shot of this Starbucks man with the cat companion who adopted him and melted down his laptop bag.

Starbucks man hanging out with a local cat

More walking back in the direction of our hotel and I was able to sneak in a little shopping. It seems that in Istanbul, you cannot go wrong with red. I have never seen more people wearing red and it always looks absolutely striking. I've been wanting a pair of red pants for a while now and was excited to pick some up from the Mango here where they had 5 styles of red pants to chose from.

Red in Istanbul

On our walk back home we turned into a really peculiar part of town. We haven't been able to figure out why, but it is an entire abandoned neighbourhood and in a prime part of the city. The more we tried to get away from this ghost town, the deeper in we seemed to get and the empty buildings were peppered with dangerous looking cats and children. Eventually we got past it and found ourselves in dodgeville, and it felt like we were seasoned fresh meat being dropped into a pit of hungry hounds. The eyes and heads of every local followed us as we walked by and we were feeling quite unsafe, though we have no idea whether or not we actually were. Either way, we were definitely more conspicuous than we'd liked to have been.

Graffiti in Istanbul

The final walk out of dodgeville was up a large and very steep hill which our unfit selves were only able to make it up thanks to a dose of adenaline. Back in our hood Scott decided to take off the edge with a food item that really should never be allowed, but is to be found all over the place here: a french-fry filled hot dog.

Our hotel in Istanbul was very fancy and came with a heated indoor swimming pool, a jacuzzi, a Turkish bath hot room and a sauna. After we'd gotten home and scrubbed the city filth off, we went downstairs in our cushy robes and made use of every one of them. We rounded it all off with some lovely Stoney Brook wine that we'd brought along, freshened up and headed back out for dinner to a place recommended by Time Out Istanbul called Meze by Lemon Tree. The restaurant was tiny and only had about 8 tables. The service and food were both impeccable, and the decor was simple and beautiful with Turkish-style geometric mosaic floor tiles that I could not stop staring at.

It is rare that Scott and I visit a place that is new to both of us, and so far this has been an absolutely incredible time. We've been having the best time discovering things and places together. It has been an adjustment doing this all without using our phones or computers along the way to work things out but what we've lacked in preparedness we have more than made up for in adventure.


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