Monday, March 4, 2013

And on the insanity of Istanbul .....

Fezzes for sale
 It smacks you in the face. The winding, twisted streets of Sultanhamet, like a maze, dotted with centuries old relics, mixed with storefronts selling fezzes, carpets and evil eyes. If I had been drinking on the 9 hour flight from New York, the pre-dawn taxi ride to our small boutique hotel, ( the White House), would have sent me reeling, head out window, trying to contain my stomach.  But alas, my only inhibitions were from the long trans-Atlantic flight, lack of sleep, and time zone shock. I had traveled with my mother during my school vacation- only a week- Not nearly enough time to even scratch the surface of the largest city in Europe.

Dusk in Byzantine

Sultanhamet, the city's old quarter, is home to the must-see sights; the impressive, yet sad Hagia Sofia, the immense and beautiful Blue Mosque, the remains of the Hippodrome with its Egyptian Obelisk and Column of Constantine, The Gand Bazaar and the Spice Market. This is where you will find the majority of tourists, and locals eager to please or more than likely take their money. Tourism has seemed to boom the economy here. And, it can be an annoyance, to be haggled and harassed and shaken down to buy a rug, or Chanel Number 5, a leather jacket, Turkish saffron, or any other wares you can think of. We were chased down to eat in restaurants, buy perfume, olive oil soaps and pocketbooks. Guidebooks were correct in saying a more enjoyable shopping experience  will take place across the Golden Horn, in the area of Taksim Square, in the "New Quarter". However, as you wade your way through the endless barrage of peddlers, you begin to realize the historical importance this city has held in its days of Constantinople and even in its recent history as Istanbul.

The Grand Bazaar

Hagia Sofia

The Hagia Sofia is beyond impressive in its mass and in its history. Built by the emperor Justinian in the 6th century as a church to serve the Eastern empire, Justinian was said to have uttered upon his entrance to the Hagia Sofia, "Solomon, I have surpassed you". (Thanks Lonely Planet). However, the sad aesthetics of the museum today make you  realize how much damage the fundamentalist beliefs of all  religions  have destroyed ancient treasures of the world. I set foot into my first mosques in Istanbul. An interesting experience, only men are allowed in the front prayer area, we had to remove our shoes, cover our heads, and the aesthetics are so much different than what I am used to in a house of worship. But, beautiful nonetheless.

The Blue Mosque

The Mosque of Sulyeman The Magnificent
The whole city is a rush to the senses. Your eyes drift upward towards minarets, as you marvel at the unique architecture and unusual skyline. The call to prayer from those same minarets, five times a day and the unusual Eastern European tinge of the the Turkish language resonates on the streets. The smells of the baklava, rotating meat, kebabs, surprisingly good Turkish wine, and exotic spices follow you through your sightseeing marathons. And all that food and wine I just mentioned, yeah you get to eat that too. 

Pistachio Pastry
Spice Market

Istanbul seems to have a case of multiple personality disorder. It sprawls itself across two continents and several distinct neighborhoods, all with their own unique vibe. Kadikoy, on the Asian side, has parallel streets overflowing with fresh produce, fish, cheese and grapeleaves. And just a short walk away, you stumble upon the antiques district, with furniture lining the sidewalks and objects of someone's past shining through windows. Sultanhamet has a dizzying effect. Its mass of historical monuments and hordes of souvenir shops make it a tourist's dream. Eminonou, along the Galata Bridge is a ferry port, dwarfed by enormous mosques and the point of entry for many locals coming to and from work from other ports along the Golden Horn or further up the Bosphorus. The fishing boats serve up mackerel sandwiches to tourists and locals alike. 

Selling Fish Sandwiches

The area across the Galata Bridge is deemed the "New City". You may find yourself on a street lined with music shops, department stores, restaurants,  rooftop bars, and 13 million of your best friends. 

Promenade from Tunel to Taksim
We took a trip up the Bosphorus, which took about 7 hours round trip. Many reviews that I read said that this was a highlight of their trip. I wouldn't necessarily agree with that. It was a nice boat ride, and I got to see the Black Sea and step foot in Asia, but other than that I found it uneventful and wished we had opted for  shorter Bosphorus cruise. 

Galata Bridge

I love guide books. I traditionally choose Lonely Planet, however Lonely Planet's new edition of its Istanbul Guide was not available until March, so I chose the Turkey edition. I also purchased Rick Steves, which I found to be quite awesome. It highlighted self guided tours of every possible place that you would want to spend time in Istanbul, including, The Hagia Sofia, The Grand Bazaar, THe Spice Market, Topkapi Palace, The New District, among others. The city is massive. And its exhausting. You need to pace yourself and allow time for it to sink in. Unfortunately, my time there was too brief. I had whirlwind experience that only encouraged me to return. Someday maybe. 

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