What a relief to arrive in Istanbul after three other attempts! And with minimal effort – an uneventful flight on Turkish Airlines (where although we were still pretzelled into our seats, the airline lived up to its t), then followed by uncomplicated journey into the city first with the help of a cheeky urchin instructing us how to use the automated token machine and then extending his hand (and not for a handshake); then a Russian living here transfers us from the metro to a tram for Sultanhamet, where in turn street vendors direct us to our guesthouse buried in a maze of lanes surrounding the Blue Mosque and the Aya Sofia. Marmara Guesthouse is a four-story building with a few rooms on each floor and a terrace overlooking the Bosphorus; the proprietor, a pleasant faced young woman gives us a warm welcome.
In contrast, it took monumental effort to leave Boston. Our Victorian townhouse refurbished 17 years ago is always calling for more attention. When we returned from India last March, Gerard spent an inordinate amount of time repainting windows, working on the front stoop etc. As we now tried to ready for new house sitters, first the washing machine packed up; then within a week of our departure, we woke up to no hot water, only to realize the house was colder than normal…there was also no heat. It took two plumbers to sort out the problems with only a few days to spare. Meanwhile getting our India visa is always a complicated process but this year was worse. After wondering why our application was delayed, we were notified Gerard’s passport did not have the mandatory two blank pages. The agency assured us they would take care of this for a steep extra fee…and so it went on. With all these tense moments, it wasn’t surprising when Gerard developed TMJ. Then my finger blew up like a balloon with an infection for no apparent reason. The dust settled just in time for us to make our 11pm flight only forgetting a few non essentials – primary of which was Gerard’s stash of coconut Mounds bars.
Istanbul is definitely not India to which we are so accustomed. No adjustment required to levels of cleanliness and living standards. For us, the guesthouse seems luxurious – spotlessly clean, hot water and a soft bed, not to mention a lavish complimentary breakfast. Gerard mutters, of course at the price we’re paying. Even though this is a Muslim country Istanbul definitely feels European. Reminiscent of Athens with its outdoor cafes with one exception – so far the people seem a lot friendlier. And for me the eastern European element is nostalgic of a city I loved, Sarajevo – but without the war scars.
In November, Istanbul is a study in grey – grey skies, grey architecture, grey Bosphorus.
The season may be over but the vendors, still trying to keep the party alive, are so pleased to see us. Close to our guesthouse is a street filled with restaurants spilling out on to the sidewalk with covered outdoor seating. As we walk by, waiters beseech us: “Come in and we will give you good price…extra food.” Surprisingly, they all have a few vegetarian dishes. Amused by a particular waiter’s antics, we enter his restaurant and order “saffron casserole.” For the price of the dish, the waiter also brings us complimentary humus, and baklava with delicious apple tea for desert. Returning the next night, all three waiters give us a hearty welcome. We sit snuggly under a heat lamp, Turkish music playing over a silent football game on the big screen. All is well with the world – until an Arsenal player trips up and scores a goal for Munich. Our English neighbor groans in disbelief at the faux pas of his home team. The third night, we are less of a novelty, the welcome not so enthusiastic, perhaps because we never order alcohol. Time to try another restaurant along the strip
Because the weather forecast is not great, the first day seems the best for taking a more ambitious city walk. Tram to Taksim Square and then hike back through winding streets and covered bazaars abuzz with activity. One bazaar is all second-hand books.Where do you see bookstores anymore? Another has an abundance of stationery stores with fountain pens etc. Maybe computers haven’t completely taken over in Turkey.
Then a cute little antique tram crosses our path. Continuing down the hill to the bridge and over the Golden Horn where men line up wielding fishing rods. On the way back to our guesthouse we eat lentil soup at a workman’s café and then stop off at the “New Mosque”. Pointing to the marble threshold that is worn completely flat in the middle, Gerard wonders how new the New Mosque really is! Finding it unusual to be able to enter a mosque especially during prayers, I feel quite at home there, warm and comfortable sitting on the soft-carpeted floor in the area cordoned off for tourists but with a good view of the praying men in front. The women worship further back in a room behind a wooden screen. The only thing that breaks the silence is a man chanting verses from the Koran. It’s a peaceful place to rest, contemplate or pray.
The next morning we wake to a power cut – something to expect on a regular basis in India, but not here. The grey skies are now
leaden with a raw drizzle. Wearing as many layers as possible under a rain jacket, we venture out to the Suleymaniye mosque. Why is there such a large police presence? Unlike the previous day this mosque will be closed for an hour during prayers. So along with many others, we adjourn to a restaurant across the street for Turkish tea. Time stretches on; the doors to the mosque stay closed long past the hour. The street is now swarming with police, men and women, all with holstered guns. They are either anticipating a terrorist attack or the visit of some dignitary. Once the professional camera crews arrive, I guess it’s the latter. I need to use the toilet; the only public WC is in the mosque… After eternity a very long caravan speeds by, two limos wedged in the middle touting both Turkish and American flags. But why are they stopping here? Maybe there’s something special about this mosque we don’t know? Perhaps the dignitary is also in need of a WC? Later learning from the Internet, Joe Biden is visiting Istanbul.
In a nondescript neighborhood nearby, we discover some fine 19C wooden houses in the process of being restored. They have a striking resemblance to Victorian houses in San Francisco. Further on, is the Spice Market, an oriental riot of color and exotic smells and of course mobbed, as any good bazaar should be. In spite of the drizzle it was a good day out.
Exploring Topkapi Palace took the best part of the next day. Built by Mehmet the Conqueror in 1453 it was the court of the Ottoman Empire until the 19th C. when the Sultans moved to their European style palaces built on the Bosphorus shores. Topkai provides a vivid record of the Sultans, concubines and eunuchs who lived and worked there. Wandering through this remarkably well-preserved palace, Gerard comments that the one benefit of traveling in an Islamic country is that the Muslims have not destroyed the old architecture as they have in India.
Topkapi is also a museum of beautifully displayed artifacts of the period. The Treasury is loaded with objects of gold, silver, rock crystal and precious gems. There’s the Topkapi dagger with three enormous emeralds on the hilt and a watch set in the pommel – and 250 years later we thought we were so smart putting a watch on the cellphone! The Kasikci diamond is a tear shaped 86-carat rock surrounded by dozens of smaller stones. Gerard is moved to make another comment of how unusual it is to see such opulent national treasures sitting in their own country and not the Victoria and Albert!
After hearing stories of the Grand Bazaar being so crowded that you’re literally pushed and jostled from one end to the other, we find it relatively empty on this Tuesday morning in November. The vibe is surprisingly low key and the merchants seem happy to chat with us. Started in 1461, the Bazaar grew, engulfing neighboring streets and warehouses, and finally assuming the vaulted labyrinth it is today. A kaleidoscope of color and light – hanging lamps, silk carpets, bejeweled sneakers, shiny colored stilettos with silver ankle straps and designer handbags. A shopper’s paradise but no bargain basement.
Traveling back in time we arrive at the Basilica Cistern. It was built in 532 using a total of 336 columns, many salvaged from ruined temples. Servicing the Great Palace it was fed by an aqueduct beginning near the Black Sea. After the Byzantine emperors relocated it was no longer used and forgotten until in 1554 a local resident miraculously obtained water by lowering a bucket into the dark space below his basement floor! Even after their discovery the Ottomans didn’t treat the so-called underground palace with respect and it became a dumping ground. Finally in 1985 the city authorities renovated and cleaned the Cistern, opening it to the public two years later. Descending into the cavern we were silenced by the grandeur of the illuminated pillars positioned in the dark water in perfect symmetry.
While checking the forecast on a daily basis in hopes of the weather improving in Istanbul, our guesthouse manager made an offhand remark about how cold it is in Konya and Cappadocia. Sure enough, both places predict snow. Istanbul is about as cold as we can handle, so the whirling Dervishes and fairy chimneys are going to have to wait for another trip. Instead of spending just a few days in Ephesus on the Mediterranean we plan to stay for nearly a week before returning to Istanbul. So much more still to see.