Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Turkey Part 2: Istanbul - where East meets West..


And a good evening to you from across the Pond on this fabulous Tuesday. Okay, without further ado, I present to you Round II of Turkey and the magic that is Istanbul.

Day 5: Byzantium architecture and a walk through history...

Okay, talk about a FANTASTIC DAY. We get up, have breakfast at the hotel on the rooftop terrace, overlooking the Marmara Sea on one side (busiest port I have EVER seen) and the Blue Mosque on the other – AMAZING.

10 minutes walking up the road, we come to the Hippodrome – the seat of power in Constantinople for a thousand years. First up is Constantine’s column, at which point I launch into this history lesson about how this signified the change in power from Rome to Constantinople, heralding the shift from a “Roman” empire to a “Byzantine” empire.

It was only then that I realized I was looking at the WRONG COLUMN, and the little stack of rocks I was raving about was NOTHING of consequence. Yeah..that’s Dr. Taylor, PhD in History…

Next up was the Blue Mosque. Much like the Aya Sofia (which we went in next), it was just so amazing to be in the presence of and inside two of the world’s most famous and architecturally fascinating buildings. Both of them were beautiful from the outside and packed with history on the inside, so it made for some GREAT sight-seeing.

We also made time for a street vendor snack of roasted (well, let's call this incinerated) corn before hitting the Basilica Cistern, an underground chamber where water flowed in from aquaducts and was stored.
After that we walked along the river, known as the Golden Horn, and across the Galata Bridge. You wouldn’t BELIEVE how many fisherman are out, plucking fish out of the water and selling them to the cats who grill them right by the poles.

So we crossed the Galata bridge, celebrating because we’d “just walked to Asia.” We were so proud of ourselves that we’d crossed “the Asian shore” off the list. 20 minutes later, atop the Galata Tower (apparently the world’s oldest tower still in use), I came to the realization that we still WEREN’T IN ASIA, but rather had just crossed to another section of Europe. Details, details…at least we were treated to a MAGNIFICIENT sunset from atop the tower.

The Walk home was awesome – not only did we get the best meal we had the entire trip (including my beer served in an espresso glass…), but I even bought new shoes! So here’s the deal – people are selling stuff in EVERY NOOK AND CRANNY of the city. This includes the underground walkways, which were hilarious. So I roll in and see a pair of shoes (about as thick as a sheet of paper, but details) selling for 10 Lira ($6.50). Gang – I had no choice – after all that chatter, laughs, and trying the shoes on when clearly NO OTHER FOREIGNERS were down there was priceless. In fact, here’s a photo with my new best friends.

Day 6: A day of religious exploration in Topkapi

We popped up this morning for one of Sultanhamet’s feature attractions – Topkapi palace. This was the spot from which many a Sultan ruled between the 15th and 19th centuries (between moving to the Bosphorus and erecting new palaces).

The guide books told us to plan for a full day here, and they were right. We spent 5 hours in this place, including hitting some of the following highlights:

1. The Harem, where the Sultans kept their 14 billion concubines. And get this, apparently the Sultan’s mom picked who went to his room every night…I mean, come on…

2. The Treasury, we saw enough rubies to end world poverty forever AND the world’s 5th largest diamond (the Spoonmaker’s Diamond, weighing in at 86 karats)

3. The Chamber of Relics – okay, now you guys know me and know that I LOVE to believe in the authenticity of artifacts (I am thinking of me trying to convince my mom of aliens during our visit to Roswell). However, a few of these have me shaking me head:
A. The sword of King David (as in vs. Goliath)
B. The cooking pot of Abraham (and we’re not talking Lincoln)
C. The turban of Joseph (yet the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat has been lost)
D. The Staff of Moses (as in yes, he would have parted the red sea with that)
E. The skull and arm of St. John.

I really want to believe they are all real. However, some of them looked to be in mint condition, and it left me wondering just a wee bit…

After that, it was off to fish sandwiches down by the water. They are literally catching these, frying them, and putting them in bread (you have to rip the spine out yourself). SO GUUUUUUUUUUUUUD. And 3 sandwiches? Yep – a grand total of $8 USD!

After that, we hit the Yeni mosque and then turned for home, where we had one of the best surprises of the trip – the Whirling Dervish. So here’s the deal – there are a lot of shows with Dervishes, belly dancers, and Sufi music, the latter 2 JT and I saw in Egypt. Given that, we didn’t want to drop cheddar on another show. But we found out that there was a hotel that had free “dervish whirling” at 6:30 PM. So we rock up to this place, only to be told that, if we want to see them, we have to have dinner there. We can’t just sit at a table, because there is no alcohol on the premises.

Two seconds later, Jenny asks, “What is that bar there with spirits and a wine rack?” So we walk over there, only to be told that there is booze, but you can’t take it up to dinner with you. Really? REALLY?

So then we find out that we CAN go upstairs and drink, but the dervish isn’t whirling until 8 PM (the sign was apparently wrong). So I’m all in a right strop – I’ve paid too much $$$ for beers and am not going to see the dervish. Only then does some cat from the hotel walk right out in front of mine and Jenny’s table (we’re on the outside balcony) and drop some powder in front of us. One minute later…that’s right – the Dervish comes out and spins RIGHT IN FRONTOF US FOR TWENTY MINUTES. Check out this footage from Muffin Puffin.

After that, we went home and cracked open a bottle of Turkish wine. So you guys know – Turkey imposes a 400% tax on imported wine to support the local vineyards. After having finished a bottle, I’m gonna recommend you cats jack that up to about 800%...

Day 7: The Taylors vs. a Monsoon

Okay, so this day started out SCORCHING. Given that, we walked to the pier to book a cruise. 30 minutes later, it is POURING like a Class 5 Hurricane. So, rather than sail, we go “mosquing,” hitting lots of various and sundry mosques along the way. First stop (after being lost for what felt like a decade), was the Sultanameyi Mosque, one of the most recognizable landmarks in the Istanbul skyline. However, because it was Friday prayer, the mosque was closed for an hour. So JT and I got our first (and last) Turkish coffees whilst waiting, and then entered only to find the that THE ENTIRE PLACE IS UNDER RENOVATION UNTIL 2010. So we left there and rolled down to see the Aquaduct of Valens (HUGE) and then the Shezerade Mosque, which JT and I both agreed was our favorite.

Then it was off to the Bazaars, where we haggled ourselves into oblivion, picking up more than a few trinkets. Talk about a good time!

We then had a stopover in the Spice Bazaar as well before heading for home. However, as we were tired of always being the ones who looked like boozers in restaurants, we opted instead to drink at the North Shield (a chain of “British pubs” in Turkey). This place was great – filled with Brits, dark and nasty like a good pub should be, and filled with tellies covering sports. We had Efes at first, but when we noticed a lemonade flavor to the beer (Shogun – think Radler), we opted instead for Becks.

Then it was more food and home after another amazing (BUT WET) day.

Day 8: A great cruise and lots of nasty, sweaty Turkish dudes

Okay, so this day started out with a BANG. We hit the water, find a cruise, and we spend the next 2 hours sailing on the Bosphorus (that's right - I was ON A BOAT!!!) on a perfect day (including FINALLY setting foot on the Asian shore). After that, JT and I went for the last thing we needed to do to cross off our “Turkey List,” the fabled, the mythical, and the truly unique, Turkish Bath.

Okay, so simply put, here’s how this goes:

1. First sweaty old dude marches you upstairs and points at an Alcatraz like cell and says "change." Mercifully, he doesn't watch you.

2. Second sweaty old dude points to a huge marble slab filled with dudes in just wet towels and you are told to lay on it and "start sweating." This involves a LOT of dude touching and more than a little athlete's foot. All the while, scores of sweaty old dudes are walking around us in a circle like we’re fresh meat on a sacrificial altar, deciding who they’re going to eat.

3. Third sweaty old dude pours 9 THOUSAND degree water on you and then scrubs the absolutely DONKEY @#$# out of you until you have no leg hair left (and look like Tom Price – sorry, I just couldn’t resist).

4. Third sweaty old dude then asks for a tip. Well, he doesn’t really ask, since he can’t speak English. Instead, he rubs his fingers together and gives you the look that says “I’ll eat your children if you don’t pay me.” Either way it’s odd, especially since he knows you have no money SINCE ALL YOU'RE WEARING IS A TOWEL THAT HASN'T BEEN WASHED IN 6 YEARS.

5. Fourth Sweaty old dude rubs you with oil for 30 minutes while the theme from Brokeback Mountain plays in the background.

6. Rinse. Repeat. Run like HELL.

7. You walk up the following morning with weird bites all over your body, having no idea at which point Ebola chased you through the hallowed halls of the Turkish bath.

After that, muffin puffin and I needed BEER in the worst way, so we rolled over to a GREAT little place with live music and outdoor seating and had a few Efes. We were treated to a full blown concert, as some dude walked in from off the street and started requesting all these songs (which he then proceeded to sing – and quite well, for the record). That, coupled with a final mixed grille and beer in an espresso glass, capped off what was, for us, the perfect trip.

Day 9: They know we have a flight, right?

So this day started great. Great breakfast, beautiful weather, we’re already packed. All we’re awaiting is the 10:40 airport shuttle, which, oddly enough, doesn’t arrive until 10:55. When it does roll in, we proceed to start driving back through the crowed streets of Istanbul, only to find out that we need to go to ANOTHER hotel to pick some cats up. The result is that, at 11:20, we still haven’t left for the airport.
But finally our boys gets on the road and tries to get to the Interstate…only to collide with the road block that is the 31st running of the Istanbul Eurasian Marathon. The look on his face – priceless. Everyone else on two continents knew the race was happening, and JT and I assumed he’d have a new route planned out. But come to find out, he did have a backup plan – DRIVE LIKE HELL IN THE NOW POURING RAIN UNTIL YOU SEE AN AIR TRAFFIC CONTROL TOWER. Priceless…

But we got there and we got here, and now we’re looking forward to 2 weeks of no travel and enjoying life in London.

In summary – if you are a traveler, add Turkey to your shortlist. If you’ve got 2 weeks, you can really see a ton, and you will have a blast. If you’re not a traveler but figure you’ve got a few international destinations in you, I would highly recommend this be one of them.

Okay, that’s all the news that’s fit to print. Chat tomorrow!


Sam and Jenny

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