Thursday, July 1, 2010

Day 10: Goodbye Istanbul

And then, the trip was over. Shortly before 11am, I zipped up my luggage, tied my shoes tight, checked out of the hotel, walked to the metro, rode back to the airport, said "goodbye," and got on my flight bound to Paris, then Canada (on Canada Day - how perfect!)
It's never easy to sum up an experience like this. I hope that these photos and thoughts give a glimpse into Istanbul life, and hopefully make someone's visit that much more enjoyable. And hopefully that someone is you!
Before I go, here are few notes that I've scribbled in my journal over the past week that I'll never forget:
  • Muslims pray five times per day, and the mosques announce a call-to-prayer over loudspeakers. The sound carries over the hills and through the city. It's a little jarring at first, but you'll find it becomes normal part of the day. (I kind of miss it now.)
  • Don't flush the toilet paper. Put it in the garbage.
  • Turks love Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish Republic. He's everywhere. Read up on him. And whatever you, don't disrespect him in public.
  • There is no YouTube in Turkey (because of videos posted that insult Atatürk. No joke.) UPDATE 31 Oct 2010: YouTube ban lifted!
  • You won't see cigarettes on TV - they get blurred out (or blotted with a smiley face).
And, some final words of wisdom:
  • Every person everywhere deserves dignity and respect.
  • Everything you think you know could be wrong.
  • Unless you're dying or in danger, you probably don't need to worry about it.
  • There's always time for çay.
  • Aqueducts are amazing, but so is air conditioning.
Thank you for stopping by. Good luck in your travels.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Day 9: One last look

One week after arriving in this fine city, it was time to get ready to go home. Appropriately, it rained all morning (I like to think the city was also sad we were leaving), so we had an extra cup of çay and took our time getting ready. Today was dedicated to getting things in order, buying a few souvenirs, mailing some postcards - no more major tourist action. After a lazy (read: lovely) morning, we headed back down towards the Bazaars and bought a few things, including Turkish Delight, and pistachios!) I even managed to barter with a salesman and get him down to more than half his original price on one gift! Once all my Turkish lira were spent (pretty close), we started packing and organizing. For dinner, we returned to Melekler for one last kebab plate. And just like that, the day was gone.
Since I didn't really spend time taking photos on Wednesday, here are some more of my favourite moments that didn't quite fit into my little narrative. Enjoy.


Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Day 8: Kariye Museum and the Fener

With a good majority of the tourist sites taken in (with the help of our travel guide book), we decided to go a little off the beaten path for our second last day in Istanbul. We hopped on a bus at Taksim Square, showed the driver where we want to go on our map, and he promised to give us a signal when we had arrived. This was our first experience of road traffic (since we had successfully managed to avoid taking a cab once during the entire trip), and it was kind of exciting! We even caught a glimpse of an ancient aqueduct that wasn't even mentioned in my book (perhaps the aqueduct bringing water to the Basilica Cistern?)

After about 30 minutes on the bus we arrived at our destination - Kariye Muzesi (Kariye Museum). Admission: $15 TL.
This tiny 11th century church is home to frescoes and mosaics dating back to the mid 1300s, considered by some historians to be the finest surviving Byzantine art. When the church was converted to a mosque in 1511, all of the artwork was plastered over (as it is forbidden to represent the human form in Islamic art). Even the remaining sculptural elements had the faces (and, hands) removed or vandalized.

Since this museum was a fair distance from downtown, there were very few tourists, which made it even more enjoyable. It was remarkable how well the artwork had been preserved by the plaster - the details were incredible.

For the rest of the day, we simply walked around the Fener district, which became the "sanctuary" to the Greeks in Istanbul after the fall of Constantinople in 1453. After climbing some pretty steep cobblestone roads (like the one above), we managed to find St. Mary of Mongols Church. This tiny, unassuming church is the only remaining, functioning Greek Orthodox church that was not converted into a mosque, by special decree of Mehmet II. We were the only ones there, and actually had to ring for the caretaker, who gave us a private tour. The most amazing part was the entrance to a secret underground tunnel below the floor that once led all the way to Hagia Sophia (over 3km away!) No photos were allowed.

We also passed the oldest Greek school is Istanbul, which looks more like something out of Harry Potter. Sadly it was no open to the public, but you could hear children laughing and playing in back.
And the final stop in Fener was the Greek Patriarchate - kind of the like the Vatican for Greek Orthodoxy. It was a busy place, with an traditional Greek baptism happening at the altar. It didn't feel appropriate to take photos, but it was amazing to experience - a Christian baptism taking place in a country where Christianity is not the majority.
This day really was more about absorbing the sights and sounds of real life in Istanbul. Men washing their rugs, women shouting produce orders from their 4th floor window down to the truck below, children kicking with soccer balls in the may be a vacation for us, but this is also where real people live. And even though their way of life may seem different to our Western sensibilities, it is not wrong. It is just different.

Our day was rounded out at a stunning cafe called Markiz Patisserie (172A Istiklal Ave.), which had two huge, unbelievable Art Nouveau tile panels by French artist J.A. Arnoux. Apparently, there was a panel for each of the four seasons, but only 2 remain today. Magnifique!
And then, Tuesday was over. Another great day.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Day 7: Bosphorus Tour and Galata Tower

On Monday, the sun was shining and we decided to take a tour up the Bosphorus. Admission: $25 TL. (Tip: To find the right tour dock, look for the sign that says IDO tours.)

We crossed the Galata Bridge, picked up some dried apricots, and boarded the boat.

We cruised north, and passed by some amazing landmarks, including palaces...


...and castles.

We continued north, zigzagging from the European (west) side to the Asian (east) side of Istanbul. There was some amazing beachfront property that must have been worth millions.

After about 90 minutes, we arrived at the northernmost point on the tour, which happened to be a small fishing village called Sarıyer.

It was a perfect moment, listening to the waves crash against the shore and watching Turkish gentlemen literally tie their own fishing nets from scratch, strand by strand, knot by knot. Part of me never wanted to leave.

After about 90 minutes on the boardwalk, we got back on the boat and made a U-turn back towards Istanbul. In the distance, we could see the mouth of the Black Sea on the horizon.

And for 90 more minutes, we just sat back and enjoyed the cool breeze and the beautiful aqua green waves.

Just before docking, we caught a glimpse of another famous Istanbul landmark, Kız Kulesi (The Maiden's Tower). Legend has it that an oracle predicted that the sultan's daughter would die on her 18th birthday from a serpent's bite, so he built this tower and imprisoned her there to protect her. Tragically, the prediction came to fruition when, on her 18th birthday, after the sultan brought her a birthday basket of exotic fruits, an asp hidden in the basket bit the daughter and she died in her father's arms.

After an invigorating boat ride, it was time to eat. We found a restaurant called Güney Restaurant (3440 Serdari Ekrem Ave.) that served excellent lahmacun (pizza). The flatbread, covered in herbed tomato meatsauce, is topped with lettuce, tomato, onion, squirted with fresh lemon juice, folded in half (like a taco) and enjoyed. Yum!

Just as the sun was setting, we decided it was time ascend the Galata Tower. Admission: $10 TL. This tower was built in 1349, and gives an unobstructed, panoramic view of Istanbul. (Note: the image used in header of this blog was also taken atop the Galata Tower.)

I don't think we could have asked for a better day. Good night Istanbul.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Day 6: Topkapı Palace

We started with a early lunch at Babi-Hayat (39/47 Misir Çarşısı), a beautiful restaurant tucked on the east end of the Spice Bazaar.

The decor was stunning and included elaborate tile work and ornamentation on the walls and domes.

To my delight, we were brought this loaf of fresh flat bread covered in roasted cumin seeds. It was served with butter and crumbly white cheese. I was in heaven.

And then our meals arrived. This was probably the fanciest kebab plate during our vacation, and surprisingly inexpensive! Definitely worth stopping by if you are in the bazaar district.

Our afternoon plan was to check out the massive landmark, Topkapı Palace. Admission: $20 TL.

Some of the facts:
  • it was built by Ahmet II in 1478, at a strategic point overlooking the Bosphorus and Marmara Sea.
  • it was the private residence to Ottoman sultans for over 400 years.
  • it would have accommodated several thousand people (a city within a city).
  • it covers over 80,000 square metres.

The highlight of this visit was the Harem. Admission: $15 TL. This private area was exclusive to the Sultan, and housed his mother, his wives (and concubines), his children, and all of their respective servants and eunuchs.

The harem was haunting and beautiful - walls covered in tiles and mosaics, gates gilded in gold, corners furnished with faded area rugs and low sofas. Every detail revealed a little part of the story that would have been life in the Harem.

As mentioned, the palace was built at key viewing point of the waterways. The view from the northeast corner was spectacular.

After 4+ hours of exploring the grounds, we got some watermelon from a street vendor, and headed home for a much-needed catnap.

Just before we were ready to head out for dinner, we heard cheering and shouting and drumming from Istiklal Avenue. To our surprise, it was the Istanbul Pride parade! Admission: free!

This was truly incredible to experience a pride event in a country where homosexuality is - for all intents and purposes - illegal. I couldn't have put it better than the organizers did on their website:
Unfortunately, most of the people who participates (sic) in the celebration in 'Western' countries, do not know what they celebrate. Despite the participation of some political organizations, pride activities of the big cities of 'Western' countries have mostly turned out to a big party where the big local and multinational cooperation use LGBT consumer group for their marketing advertisements. Furthermore, it has turned out to a commercial activity where some insincere politicians show up for being sympathetic to LGBT voters. On the other hand, in Turkey, maybe timidly or excitedly, it is an important possibility for most of us to mention that 'I am here'. In most of the old Soviet or Eastern Block countries, it is an activity where LGBT people are exposed to attacks, sometimes cannot be carried out but eventually just the attempt itself becomes the part of the struggle.
After seeing the Toronto Pride parade 2 years in a row, and experiencing Istanbul Pride, there is a distinct difference in intentions and motivations. I think the West has forgotten what pride is all about - perhaps it is time that Western cities rethink the meaning of their pride parades. But I digress...
Another exciting day in Istanbul!