When I go to new places, I like to see the things that one should see in those places. Or at least, I have liked that. I don’t know that I do anymore.
Last time I was in Istanbul, I felt like I should see Topkapi palace. Upon visiting, I found hordes of tourists lining up to see relics and jewels. I found an admittedly gorgeous place filled with people that I didn’t want to be around. I hated it!
While I’m sure I would have enjoyed wandering around the palace if it was deserted or having a private tour with a guide, I didn’t enjoy the pressing crowds around the Topkapi dagger or the huge cues at the harem or the fact that to get a picture without someone’s head in it was a matter of divine intervention. In fact, I just put my camera away and wandered around. That’s why there are no pictures in this post.
Admittedly, I was a tourist just like every other tourist there that day and what in fact were we? We were commoners crowding to see the trappings of the sultans. We were all trying to feel, or see, or experience something and for what purpose? To show the people back home pictures of it? To blog about it? To see what it was like to be Ottoman?
Here is how I feel about historic and beautiful things. You need to spend time with exquisite things to truly appreciate them. Like a beautiful woman or an extraordinary wine, you aren’t going to get the most out of them if you are in a crowd or in a hurry. I would have liked to spend an hour contemplating the sword of the Prophet Mohammad (or a year) but I was rushed through by the crowd around me. Same goes for the staff of Moses and the many other religious artifacts displayed in Topkapi palace.
As for the bejeweled dagger and the 3rd biggest diamond in the world…I’ve got no use for those unless I can put them in my pocket and walk out the door with them. I’m much more interested in the cushions and textiles, the architectural features, and the subtleties. I’ve no desire to gulp down a fine wine and my trip to Topkapi made me realize that I’ve no desire to gulp down a place or a work of art either. When you go to a fine restaurant, you don’t get rushed out by the wait staff – that happens in 3rd rate places that want to produce as much food as possible instead of producing the best food possible.
Tourism has become like that. Get in and then get out so the next person can get their ticket or the next tour can come through. I like to take my time with things and my advice to you is that if you want to enjoy Topkapi Palace, arrange a private tour, or get a coffee table book and go through it slowly with a fine glass of wine in your hand.
Since we tried booking at the last minute, we were unable to get a bus from Cappadocia direct to Istanbul when we needed one. We’d been given advice that wasn’t really great, he was right that there are a lot of buses, but there were apparently more people than seats. So, my advice is to book your direct overnight bus tickets in advance.
As it was, we took a bus to Ankara for 25 lira. I figured we had three options 1) stay the night in Anakara 2) catch a sleeper car on the train or 3) catch a different bus to Istanbul.
So, we woke up and lounged around our super high end cave for a while enjoying all the amenities before going to the bus station and catching our bus to Ankara. It was about 5 hours to Ankara and the bus stopped at one fairly expensive tourist shop/roadside restaurant along the way. At the stop, I started talking with a man near us named Ramazan. Ramazan is the comptroller for a Turkish Bank and is fortunate to be able to travel all over Turkey for business. He was a very friendly, good natured guy who was excited to get back home and see his pregnant wife in Ankara.
I asked him what he thought the best option was for us out of the three above. He said we should definitely get the train but if the train was full, he knew of a fairly cheap hotel near the train station. I asked him how to get to the train station and he said that since it was on his way home, we could share his cab and that he would help us to book our tickets. Another very nice man offering to help us on the bus in Turkey!
From the Otogar in Ankara which was truly massive with hundreds of buses going to all points in Turkey, we followed Ramazan and got into a cab which took us to the modern and architecturally interesting train station. It was situated near a giant amusement park that made me remember going to Disneyland and Knotts Berry Farm when I was a kid.
The sleeper cars were full on the train. So were the regular seats. So were the first class seats. Apparently since Ramadan was coming up, lots of people were on holiday and heading to Istanbul. Ramazan told us to follow him and he would lead us to the hotel. He was apologetic and told us that if his wife weren’t pregnant, he would let us stay with him. He couldn’t find the hotel he thought he remembered though and so he started to make calls as we took a long walk around the amusement park.
The truth is that every hotel in Ankara was beyond our budget. Since it’s not a tourist place, the hotels are priced around business and politics and thus are priced high since the people in both fields usually have someone else footing the bill.
Ramazan walked us back to the Dolmus station and showed us which Dolmus to take back to the Otogar. That was what we saw in Ankara.
The Otogar, the train station, an amusement park, and a Dolmus station. With only that to judge by, I have to say that I think Ankara must be a beautiful city and I look forward to seeing more of it. I also felt that in that time I made a good friend in Ramazan. I hope we get the chance to spend more time together in the future.
At the Otogar, we found that nearly every bus was full but finally we managed to catch a bus with Metro Bus Lines, the only catch was that we had to wait five hours during which we ate, drank tea and orange juice, and browsed the many book vendors in the Ankara Otogar.
When the time arrived, the Metro bus was very nice and got us all the way to the ferry on the Asian side of Istanbul by about 8 am. It was 35 lira each from Ankara to Istanbul.
We woke up early and Alp helped us to get to Bostanci where we caught the ferry to Yenikapi. Bostanci is the big ferry port on the Marmara Sea which has all the ferries out to the Prince’s Islands.
We hope to make it out to the Prince’s Islands someday on another trip. As it was we said our goodbyes to Alp and used the time before our ferry to Yenikapi on the European side to try to figure out how we were going to get to our next stop, Bursa.
Bursa was the first capital city of the Byzantines and is filled with historic buildings and sites. It sits on the slopes of a huge mountain called Mt. Uludag and has famous thermal baths, but none of that is the real reason we were going there.
We were going to Bursa because it was on the road to Manisa (much more on Manisa later) and we had found a couchsurfing host in Bursa before we left Morocco, but as you probably already know, our couchsurfing in Bursa didn’t happen, for which I wasn’t entirely disappointed because sometimes it’s nice to get a hotel room and have the freedom to come and go as you see fit. In particular this is true after staying with hosts for a few days. The reverse is also true, it’s nice to have your own house to yourself after hosting for a few days too.
So, in any event. We found ourselves at Bostanci with an hour before our ferry to Yenicapi and so we thumbed through the lonely planet and tried to figure out the best way to get to Bursa, what we would do when we got there, and of course, we watched the other people in the ferry terminal as they read newspapers, kissed in public (which was particularly shocking to Hanane since that is another thing you can be arrested for in Morocco), and wore fashions that were sometimes amusing and sometimes painful.
It looked like the best bet was to go to Yanikapi, catch the ferry to Yalova, and then take a bus to Bursa. That was what the LP said, but when I looked at the ferry schedule, I saw a ferry that went straight from Bostanci to Bursa. Looking at the map, I didn’t really see how that was possible since Bursa seems to be landlocked, but I thought it was worth a try. Our other option , since by this time I’d found out that we didn’t have a couch there anyway, was to take a ferry to Bandirma and skip Bursa all together.
Since I was thinking that, I should say that Bursa had started to look like a place to eat an Iskendar Kebap and see more old buildings. That being said, I really have to admit that I’ve lost my excitement for seeing old things unless they have some special significance to me like having been in a book I read, in a movie I’ve seen, or even in a game I’ve played. I’d rather sit and drink a pint in a place where Steinbeck used to hang out than to look at some 2000 year old building where Blahblah the Great who I never heard of changed the style of dress for the Ottomans. Of course, maybe it’s just a phase I’m going through…
The nature in around Bursa sounded great but I was starting to be in a bit of a destination instead of the journey mode and so decided that we would only stay one day so that we could get to my destination before the weekend came.
In any event, we got to Yanikapi and the direct ferry to Bursa was already gone so I wasn’t able to find out if it was a land ferry or how that worked. I asked a Turkish friend later and they said that it takes you to a spot where you can catch the Bursa Metro. I like to think of the land ferry though.
We also got there a few minutes too late to go to Bostanci. We were just in time for the Yalova ferry but it was full, so we had to cool our heels for 2 ½ hours while we waited for the next one.
I know, we could have done some great exploring, had a nice meal, sat in a park or done lots of great things, but instead we pulled out my netbook and watched a film in the ferry terminal. The trip from Bostanci was 6 lira each, from Yanikapi to Yalova was 28 each, and from Yalova to Bursa Ottogar we would need a bus for 9 lira each, and finally another bus from the Ottogar to the city center for 2 lira each. So 45 Lira each to get from Istanbul to Bursa.
The ferry had assigned seats and some of the most expensive food of any transport I’ve been on. A slice of pizza, a coke, a coffee, and a sandwich cost us 18 lira. It was far less food than a meal would have been. The views from the ferry of the Prince’s Islands and the Marmara Sea were pleasant if not spectacular.
I expected to find the hassles and touts at the ferry port like we would find in Morocco, but Turkey was one of the most hassle free places I’ve ever visited. No one approached us at all. I found the bus to the Bursa Ottogar and we ended up sitting surrounded by an Algerian family who Hanane eavesdropped on to find out if they knew a good hotel. Since they didn’t seem to be saying we decided to pick the cheapest place recommended by Lonely Planet.
We arrived at the Ottogar and I found us a bus to Central Bursa, we asked three young girls carrying their English lesson books if they could tell us which stop to get off at so we could find the Hotel Gunes, but they didn’t know so they asked a guy wearing a cheap suit who was sitting nearby if he knew. He told us to just follow him when he got off the bus. It seemed like a bad idea to follow a guy in a cheap suit off a bus in a strange city, but we did anyway.
Traveling sometimes brings images up that I don’t remember i real life. Images of exotic places, ancient times, and Ben Hur. The Hippodrome is one of those tourist locations.
The Hotel Ayasofya is located near all of the wonders and sites of Sultanahmet in Istanbul. Our walk took place just after the wonderful breakfast of cheese, plump dried figs, cereal, juice, toast, yogurt, and Turkish tea that the hotel serves for its guests.
Since I knew we would be Couchsurfing (although I thought we would be with more than just one host), I bought a TURKCELL Sim card for 40 Lira which gave me a local number and 20 Lira worth of phone time. I have multiple pay as you go SIMs for the countries I visit because I’ve realized that temporary SIMS with prepaid amounts end up costing me less than cell phone contracts. The Turkcell Sim can be bought at any of thousands of phone shops throughout Turkey and can also be recharged just about everywhere you see a Turkcell logo. With light use, my credit lasted me throughout our trip and left me with about 3 Lira of call time when we left.
From the hotel, we walked up the hill, past the ancient city walls and to the Aya Sophia and the Blue Mosque. I have to be honest here and say that while I kept hearing people mention the Hippodrome, I expected it to be a building and it wasn’t until later when we bought a guidebook that I realized the lovely park we walked through to get to our first sights was one of the great sites of Sultanahmet. We wanted to get some lunch so we found a kebap restaurant that smelled good, looked good, wasn’t aggressive in getting us to come in, and had modest prices. I can tell you, it’s not an easy thing to find in Sultanahmet. We had two kebaps and a couple of drinks for 20 lira which is a little expensive in most of Turkey, but not bad in such a touristic place. It was while we were sitting there that I realized what the Hippodrome actually was.
What I saw as a nice rectangular park with some old monuments in it was actually a Byzantine race track which used to have two levels of seats on the outside and where chariot races used to excite the crowds for more than 1200 years. The chariot teams were really political parties called ‘Greens’ and ‘Blues’ and so it was part politics and part sport for the Byzantine Emperors and chariot fans.
It was here that the janissary guards of Sultan Mahmet II were slaughtered thus freeing his mother to rule through him. Since it was a place of such great interest, the many monuments placed here by the Emperors of the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires are astounding in their age and beauty. The Crusaders stole most of them in 1204 but left the heaviest one’s for future generations to see.
The first we looked at which Hanane immediately declared another fake was the Obelisk of Theodosious which was carved in Egypt in the 1500’s BC and brought by the Emperor Theodosius to Istanbul in AD 390. Hanane just couldn’t believe that something so well preserved could be more than 3500 years old.
Further on is a brass spral column stolen from the Temple of Apollo at Delphi where it was erected in 478 BC. It was brought to Istanbul by Constantine the Great in AD 330.
Another big rough stone obelisk looked worn enough for Hanane to acknowledge it might be real, mainly because the Crusaders had stolen all the brass covering from it. I never figured out if Hanane was only joking with me or if she really doubted the ages of these things, but either way, we both enjoyed looking at them and trying to figure out how old they might be.
There’s no charge to wander around the Hippodrome and the park is a great place to people watch. In a short time we saw people from all over the world there. Since it is such a busy place, the Asian tourists we saw and heard probably didn’t realize that it was the sound of their language which caused Hanane to go into giggling fits. That’s going to be difficult when we travel to Asia someday.
I’ve had a fascination with Sufism since I first learned of it. Interestingly, I was reading the poems of Rumi, way before I ever knew what a Sufi was.
I thought they were beautiful and ephemeral and spoke to what I felt was true. At the time, I was deep into Taoism and the Tao te Ching and I was amazed that this Persian poet had captured the essence of the Tao so well.
Later, through my brother, I met a profoundly interesting man, Sharif Baba. Sherif Baba is a Turkish whirling dervish. He was living in Chapel Hill, North Carolina and having zickers in the basement of a tea house called Silk Roads. He liked my brother and the three of us connected well in conversation both at the tea house and in the house where Sherif Baba was staying. I would say that in the short time I knew him, I picked up some of the most interesting pieces of spiritual wisdom that I have come across. Probably the most interesting thing was that God needs to be taken with a sense of humor. As Sharif Baba said “All the buses lead to the same bus station.”
It was at this time I discovered that my favorite poet was the founder of the most important sufic order. I began reading a lot and fell in love with Sufi parables and realized that while this was definitely Islam, it was all inclusive Islam. I asked Sharif Baba why whirling was important and he told me something like this
“The dervish whirls so that the true form of the world can be seen. When we whirl all the individual pieces we think are separate blend together and we begin to sense the totality that is God.”
Needless to say, my mind was blown as I immediately saw the truth in his statement. Like the Hindu story of the blind men who are arguing over what an elephant looks like based upon which part they touched, humans argue over what God looks like based on which part they’ve touched or been told that others touched. It was around this time that I truly became a Muslim, one who submits to the will of God. The reason was simple, I recognized that there is no choice in the matter.
As I have said before, being a Muslim shouldn’t be about the pillars, not about the Quran, not about fasting, not about anything except that understanding, that submission, that recognition. Don’t confuse the forms with the reality.
So, needless to say, I was excited to see dervishes whirling in Turkey. It is only in the west that we call them Whirling Dervishes, they call themselves the Mevlevi Order and they were founded by Mevlana Rumi in the 13th century. Yes, that’s the same Rumi. The basic tenets of the order are tolerance, forgiveness, and enlightenment and while I’m still failing pretty hard on all those counts, I recognize that my life would be better if I had stronger versions of all three.
Essentially, the zicker (rkir) is a religious ritual which is a prayer to Allah (aka God and many other names). The basic idea is to let go of ties to the forms and to merge with the totality of the divine. Music and dance are an integral part of this.
The Mevlavis played a huge role in Turkish culture in music, art, calligraphy, dance, poetry, and religious thought.
We went to a refurbished Hammam and we sat in an audience. There were clear signs not to take pictures since it was truly meant to be a religious experience. There were also signs not to applaud and not to speak during the music and dance. It seems that I was one of the only ones who read them though. Pity.
The dervish pictures in this post are from internet sources.
For the most part the audience was respectful but we had three Russian Israeli’s (Israilis who spoke Russian) next to us who spoke in loud voices, cracked jokes, and took pictures during the entire thing.
It was an incredibly moving performance even with the distraction. It brought tears to both of our eyes. The whirling of the dervishes was mesmerizing and the music was trance like and completely divine. Most of the crowd stopped applauding and talking and looked as moved as we felt. Not those three next to us though.
When we left, we were surprised to see that they were staying for a second performance.
Istanbul may not be the first place you think of to take a family vacation, but the city that bridges two continents is an extraordinary place to take a family vacation. While there may not be an Istanbul Disneyland (yet!), the city abounds with activities that are worthy of inclusion in any magic kingdom.
The Istanbul Aquarium is filled with more than fish. Educational multi-media displays, 4-D films, hands on exhibits, and then there are the tons of fish, tunnels, old boats, and everything a kid of any age could want. (http://www.istanbulakvaryum.com/en-US/)
Koch Transport Museum
The Rahmi M. Koch Transport Museum has collections of just about everything you can imagine from dolls to bicycles, baby carriages, motorbikes, classic cars, boats, boat houses, locomotives, engines, toys, and even a submarine. Plenty of hands on exhibits and you can even schedule a boat ride and a submarine tour. (http://www.rmk-museum.org.tr/english/index.html)
Go to Sultanahmet in Istanbul and you will pass brightly dressed guys who offer Turkish ice cream, called Dondurma. The price is a bit high but this is an especially delicious treat on a hot day. Of course, the real treat is the way they serve it. Expect to be tricked, but in a good way. Laughter can’t be contained around these guys.
Cruise Up the Bosporus
Could there be a better family excursion than a trip up the waterway that divides two continents? You can make stops in Europe and Asia and visit the Marmara Sea and the Black Sea before coming home. Plenty of treats along the way like the special yogurt of Kamlica and the delicious hamsi (Black Sea Sardines) at the Anadolu Kavagi village at the top of the Bosporus just before the Black Sea.
Turkish Dance Extravaganza
This family friendly dance show has something for everyone. Belly dancers, Black Sea folk dance, and even a little bit of Sufi sacred music. This show is more kid friendly than the Whirling Dervish specific show but both are great.
(I wrote this back in 2010, but happily share it again – though President Erdogan has moved the city backwards by a lot since I wrote this – it’s a shame, he’s sold the collective property of the Turkish people to his capitalist buddies, re-Islamicized society, and gone to great lengths to undo the amazing work of Kamal Ataturk)
Istanbul, Turkey is a city of neighborhoods and timelessness. It is a place that is utterly modern and yet so steeped in historical places and persons that it defies any attempts at placing it as a city of a specific time or civilization.
The first city was founded by a guy named Byzas about 700 years before Christ. The Delphic Oracle in Greece told him to start a city in a place that was ‘opposite and blind’. They called it Byzantium and figured everyone else must have been blind not to see this spot, since on the opposite side of the Bosporus there was a city in a less perfect spot.
And so it went until 196 AD when the city was destroyed and rebuilt and named Augusta Antonia. Personally, I think Byzantium sounds better. It stayed a Roman City and in 330 AD it was renamed again, the more familiar sounding Constantinople after Emperor Constantine became a Christian and made it his capital. Later in 537, Emperor Justinian had the Aya Sophia (Hagia Sophia) built and it remained the largest Christian church for 1000 years.
In 1451, the chariot races at the Hippodrome came to stop when Sultan Mehmet II of the Ottoman’s conquered the city and turned the Ayasophia into the world’s largest mosque. He also had the Topkapi Palace built. Sutan Ahmet later built the famous Blue Mosque.
After picking the wrong side in World War II, the Turks struggled to get their independence and Mustapha Kamal (Attaturk) moved the capital to Ankara so that it wouldn’t be vulnerable by sea. This left Constantinople as Istanbul. (That’s Istanbul not Constantinople) The city was a bit of an aging and decrepit place but in the past four decades she has undergone some massive beauty treatments and is now once again the Paris of the East.
Frankly, I like Istanbul better than Paris. Like Paris, Istanbul has been the home of writers, painters, great intellects, and radicals. She’s a city I’ll gladly pay for again and again.
Estimates say that there are approximately 20-million people living in Istanbul. No one really knows for sure. I was one of them for about six-months in early 2011. I loved living in Istanbul.
As mentioned previously, my wife had left Manisa and returned to Morocco and the comfort of being around her mother and sisters when we discovered she was pregnant. I went to Izmir to look for a better teaching job but found mostly empty promises. My friend Gaye owned a hotel in Istanbul and when she heard that I was looking for work offered me a position. It was a sort of strange role as IT manager and hotel manager combined. In any event, the pay was good and the position worked for me. I rented a tiny little apartment with a view of the Bosphorus and set about trying to build a life for my wife and our coming baby.
Here’s a funny note – when I was a stock broker in Portland, Oregon – I was chatting with one of my clients about life and travel – we got philosophical and this wealthy and intelligent guy stopped me and said “You know what you need to be doing? You need to be running one of those amazing old guest houses on the shores of the Bosphorus in Istanbul” Nearly a decade later, it was exactly what I was doing.
Things went pretty well. My website businesses were taking off and I made a lot of friends quickly. It’s easy to make friends with Turkish people. I drank a lot of black tea, enjoyed a lot of performances and gallery shows, and sometimes drank a bit too much rakia – the anise flavored Turkish liquor that goes hand in hand with delicious fish. I fell completely in love with Turkish cuisine and I took cooking classes, explored ancient parts of the city, and became an active member of the local couch surfing groups. Life was beautiful – the only problem was that my pregnant wife was on another continent. I wasn’t happy about that – Turkey had a far better health care system than Morocco and our plan had been that when I found a new place to live and a job, she would return to Turkey. It was her first pregnancy however (and mine) and I understood that being around her family, her mother, her sisters and people who spoke her own language were important for her sense of safety and well-being. As we got closer to the time of birth – with summer in glorious bloom and Istanbul bustling with activity – my friend offered me a better and more permanent position – I was ready to accept – but I needed to have my wife as a part of the decision.
At this point, she informed me that she wanted to stay in Morocco after the baby was born. I could understand wanting to stay for a little while – but that wasn’t what she was talking about. I had to choose between being a father in a country that I loved but didn’t particularly want to live in any longer – or having a great job in a city that I was completely in love with – but not really playing a role in my baby’s early development and life. It wasn’t really a choice at all. I packed up my life, stored what wouldn’t fit into two suitcases in the basement of the hotel, and went back to Morocco.
I rented an apartment in Sefrou and dove into the process of getting my wife a green card. I knew one thing for sure, I didn’t want my baby girl to grow up in a world where women were relegated to far less than equal. If we couldn’t live in Turkey – I would take them both back to the USA – even though I never really had any desire to return once I had left. Our daughter was born. I wanted to name her Aya Sophia but my wife asked the Moroccan authorities and they said she couldn’t be named Aya because it meant ‘Saint’ – it turns out it was some clerk who didn’t actually know but simply expressed his opinion as a law – which my wife took it as. So instead we named our beautiful little girl Sophia, meaning ‘wisdom’ in Greek. The Aya Sofia Hotel was where I had been working and the Aya Sofia Mosque was the largest Christian cathedral for 1000 years and the largest Muslim Mosque for almost as long. It had become a secular monument under Ataturk. I felt like it was a beautiful and symbolic name which held where she was born, who her parents were, and our hopes for her future. As to a middle name – I never liked my own – so I decided that we would leave that space blank and let her fill it in on her own someday. I hadn’t really expected to win the naming battle, but it turned out that because Morocco still functions as a patriarchy – it was my decision. For that, I am grateful.
Back in Morocco, I focused on my web and blogging businesses with some success while jumping through the many hoops involved in getting a green card and making sure my daughter got American citizenship from the beginning. When she was 18 months old – we finally had approval for my wife’s green card. It was time for us to emigrate to the USA.
Istanbul has been variously known in history as Byzantium and Constantinople. It sits squarely on the intersection of Asia and Europe with the city having an Asian side and a European side. The Bosphorus Strait runs between. Official estimates put the population at somewhere around 15 million but unofficial estimates are much higher. Officially it is the world’s 4th largest city and the largest in Europe. It was the Roman imperial capital for nine centuries and then the seat of the Ottoman Caliphate for another five centuries. All told it served as an imperial capital for sixteen centuries! There are few cities with as much history as Istanbul. Istanbul is one of the great cities of all of human history, the art, the architecture, the bridges, the sport, the food, the culture. There is nowhere else like Istanbul.
So far, I haven’t exceeded this record that I set back in 2011. To be honest, it was a little too much, too fast.
This was a new personal best. Skopje-Sofia-Istanbul-Casablanca-Fes-Sefrou and all in time to give flowers to my sweet wife on Valentines.
What’s your personal best? Comment below.
I was pretty proud of the hell bent for leather nature of this trip.
From Skopje I took a bus to Sofia where I said hi to Tim and Peppy and then caught an overnight train to Istanbul. That day I caught a flight from the Asian side of the Bosphorus to Casablanca, Morocco thus leaving Europe going to Asia and then to Africa.
From Casablanca, I caught the train to Fes where I then took a taxi to Sefrou. Once in Sefrou, I just caught my breath and spent a lovely ten days with my wife and her family (though, it can be exhausting to be around the family- but that’s normal with in-laws, right?)
So – Europe to Asia to Africa
Macedonia to Bulgaria to Turkey to Morocco
Skopje to Sofia to Istanbul to Casablanca to Fes to Sefrou
Not bad for a day’s travel.
Total distance: 4090 Kilometers
I’ve gone further in a day, but not covering as many countries, cities, and continents.
In 2010, my wife and I were married in Morocco – two months later we took our honeymoon trip to Turkey. At the end of our trip, we were again at the Ayasofia Hotel where we had begun it.
Checking into the Ayasofya Hotel, we found ourselves with one last day ahead of us. Hanane was exhausted but there were a few things I still wanted to see before we left Turkey.
I walked up the street past the Blue Mosque and across the Hippodrome to the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts while Hanane showered and took a nap in our big plush bed. The museum holds a wealth of Turkish and Islamic art from the Ottoman and Seljuk periods along with beautiful pieces and implements from as early as the 8th Century A.D.
The museum building itself is the palace of Ibrahim Pasha which was built by Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent’s own architects. Ibrahim Pasha was Suleyman’s Grand Vizier from 1523 to 1536. The building has elements which date back to 1500.
Ibrahim was choked to death and his wealth taken by the imperial government when after the Sultan’s death he voiced support for the wrong prince. That’s why I usually don’t pick one Prince over another.
The museum is filled with Turkish carpets, illuminated Qurans, calligraphy (at which the Ottomans excelled), carved and inlaid wood, glass, porcelain and stone treasures. I went through quicker than I would have preferred but felt that this was more of an exploratory mission.
The Turkish ethnographic exhibits were interesting though quite a bit like modern life in rural Morocco, I saw many things that are used daily in the house of my in-laws laid out as museum pieces.
I would have enjoyed lingering but a Canadian film crew was there and had set up some very hot lights for a TV shoot in that section.
A modern Turkish arts section in the front was small but had an interesting exhibit of claiigraphic embroidery which I enjoyed a lot.
While I was out I booked us seats at a Whirling Dervish performance. Originally, I had thought we might be going to Konya to see the real thing (no admission and not really for tourists) but since we hadn’t I thought it would be a shame to leave Turkey without seeing the whirling dervishes for which the country is famed.
The Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art is open from 9 to 5 (closed Monday). Admission is 10 Lira.
Back in 2003, I worked as a stock broker. I enjoyed the interaction with customers, but didn’t really like the pushy sales aspect of it. I would sometimes have long and wandering conversations with my potential clients – one of them, a New Yorker named Joel stopped me during a pitch for Krispy Kreme donuts one day and said out of the blue “What the hell are you doing working as a stockbroker? You need to quit that job, move to Turkey and open a guest house on the shores of the Bosphorus!” I should have listened to him, but instead slogged through stock broking for a while more, wrote some books, worked as a commercial fisherman, and eventually became a tour guide in Hawaii – before finally ending up on the shores of the Bosphorus nearly a decade later…now in 2019, I look back at the time I was in Turkey (from 2010-2012) as one of the most deeply fulfilling periods in my life – largely because of my connection with the Bosphorus…I have no idea how he knew – but Joel was right. I wrote the following while I was there.
It’s impossible not to love Istanbul. This magnificent city of 17 million people, more than 5000 years of history, and more than a little bit of shopping, sight seeing, and culinary adventuring.
Istanbul is divided into two major parts…Europe and Asia. In fact, Istanbul (that’s Constantinople) is made up of the oriental, the occidental, and everything in between.
Those who come here and have the money, like to stay at the 5 star Ciragan Palace Kempinski Hotel which sits alongside the Bosphorus and boasts gardens, shops, and ultra fine dining.The high school next door used to be a harem. There is a helipad so you can land your helicopter. The master suite is just 15,000 Euros per night (About $22,500 at current exchange rates)Those who don’t have the money can find plenty of other options like the Four Seasons which used to be a famous jail. Or maybe you want to search Istanbul hostels.
In terms of transportation, the tram (metro) is by far the easiest and most hassle free, but in Istanbul, the taxis aren’t too expensive, they just take longer to get anywhere because of the traffic. As for buses, too crowded for me, but sometimes necessary. It’s that or driving and frankly…do you want to drive in a city of 17 million? No freaking way.
Turks are incredibly nationalistic and you see the beautiful red flags and the images of the modern day founder of Turkey Mustapha Kemal Ataturk everywhere -as you should. Ataturk created a state that could have easily become fascist but instead, he turned it into a Republic and handed over the reins of power. A rare and amazing hero.
Still, it’s not all wonderful. Plenty of cabbies will charge unwitting foreigners Euro fares and give change in lira. There are rip offs in rug merchant shops, restaurants, and souvenir shop. Just the other day, a longtime Istanbulu immigrant friend and I sat down for lunch without asking the prices first. Complacency is not your friend. The cost was a staggering 47 lira…about three times what we normally would pay. The moral, Pay Attention or Pay Too Much.
Here’s an example: you give the cabbie 50 Lira. He drops it when you aren’t paying attention and then tells you that you only gave him 5 lira and he demands the rest of the payment. Since the notes are the same color and you are new to Turkish money, you apologise for the mistake and give him a 100% bonus. Lame, but it happens.
One of the things I love about Istanbul is that it is a friendly city to not only western tourists but also to eastern and Muslim tourists. In this city you see fully veiled Saudi women and their families eating next to distastefully clad housewives from Orange County and their families. It’s equal opportunity for East and West. Same goes for when you go to the hamams, the bazaars, or into the mosques…of course, in the mosques, hopefully everyone is covered appropriately.
Istanbul is a city filled with bars, restaurants, shops and ancient historical sites. From museums to the nightlife in Taksim to Friday prayers to just wandering around Beyoglu and finding Ottoman Palaces that are falling down and held up by nothing but vines right next to brand new apartment buildings. Compare and contrast and no wonder so many American’s ask why the city is so rundown….it’s not rundown, it’s 5000 years old. The decrepit next to the sparkling new is something we don’t see in the segregated west. In Istanbul the poor neighborhood might have rich people and the rich neighborhood will certainly have poor people. No economic segregation going on here. It’s real. Modernity becomes part of history eventually…and in Istanbul you can see what was once modern but now is ancient.
And then there is the food. Far from being just kebabs and chorba (soup) there is a wide and varied cuisine in Istanbul from pide and pizza to homemade ravioli, balik ekmek (fish sandwiches) and then there is the palace food. Palace food tends to be the over the top stuff the Ottoman Sultans enjoyed. Things like quail inside duck inside goose inside something even bigger. The Ottoman version of Turduken.
If you prefer you can find Indian, Chinese, and even Mexican food. I have to say though, the tacos aren’t as satisfying and the sushi, well…it’s expensive and not quite right. Still, it is here. And then there is the view although I find this equation to be fairly good: the better the view the worse the food up to about 40 lira. After 40 lira the food begins to taste good again. So, want a good view…make sure you don’t scrimp or the taste will ruin the view for you.
And the view is great whether you are looking at the famous Blue Mosque, the amazing wonder of the world the Aya Sofya or even the tree lined and ancient Constantinople Hippodrome. Mosques, Churches, Greek and Roman Ruins, and plenty of museums showing everything from ancient Lydian to modern Istanbulu art. The view in Istanbul is like no other.
Even the over the top Topkapi Palace which sits like a jewel on the crown of the Sultanahmet area is now available for you to sip tea in or have your breakfast next to. It wasn’t always this way since this was the political and cultural center of the Ottoman Empire when it was the strong man of the world, rather than the sick man of Europe.
Like all of Istanbul there are more than a few fat cats, plenty of wild (though tagged) dogs, and no shortage of grassy places to enjoy a picnic. Plus you can see the staff of Moses and the sword of Mohammad among other religious relics. No one seems willing to tell me if they’ve tried throwing the staff down and making it into a snake though. if you tend towards the more worldly treasures you might enjoy seeing the Topkapi Dagger or the Spoonmakers Diamond (5th largest in the world). One local friend told me that the Prophet Abraham’s missing saucepan is also in the museum…now how in the world did that happen?
Still, Topkapi is for Amateurs, the Pros head to Dolmabahce Palace over on the other side of the Golden Horn.
The Versailles of Istanbul is worthy of the name and whereas you don’t get to see all of Topkapi, Dolmabahce is thrown in front of you like a white slave before the potential Ottoman buyers looking to diversify their harems. Beautiful, dangerous, and well…expensive. All the yellow metal you see there is real gold.
Go out at night in Istanbul and you will find that the gold changes hands quickly and easily as the frantic hustle and dance of one of the world’s largest cities never stops. From the junk buyers to the carpet sellers, everyone is still working at night and those who aren’t are taking vanity to extremes as they show what modern, hip, young, rich Istanbul is all about. Watch a Turkish soap opera and you might think things are exaggerated. They aren’t.
As for food, you can spend little at the food stalls in Mehene, Nevisade Sokak and Kumkapi. Or you can spend as much as a corrupt Vizier somewhere else. And if you want to spend, there isn’t a better place to do it than in the clubs. Step into a club and the price of drinks goes 3 to 20 times higher than elsewhere but that’s all about the status of being there. You are there drinking, so obviously you have plenty. This is where you go if you want to impress the other sex and there is one thing that impresses Turkish women more than anything else…. When I was teaching, I would ask my students what was more important Love or Money…out of hundreds of Turkish students only two girls ever said love. Money is where it’s at and if you aren’t flashing it, you’re missing out on the ‘action’ in Istanbul.
But hopefully, you won’t miss out on experiencing real life here. The life on the streets, drinking tea, riding the ferry with commuters, playing backgammon on the streets, or just walking around the next corner to see something that is unexpectedly beautiful.
There is one more area where you will need your wallet…shopping. Istanbul is filled with shopping and while the prices can be very reasonable, you can also spend as much as you want. Prices will vary by as much as 1000% from shop to shop. Seriously. Where is the shopping in Istanbul? …everywhere. Literally.
But there is no place to shop like the Grand Bazaar (even if the prices are two to three times higher there for most things) With more than 4,000 shops spread in some 60 streets along with a post office, a bank and a mosque of its own with even a health centre within the Grand Bazaar. And I might add, this is all covered. It’s the first indoor shopping mall and it is filled with carpets, ceramics, antiques, jewellery, gold and well…everything else.
Pay a visit to Café Bedestan. It’s worth the trouble and finding it will be your adventure. Just go in the Grand Bazaar and start asking.
Also everywhere is the ambiance, the feeling and a part of that is the smells. From the spice market to the smell of coal being used to heat samovars to the smell of cigarettes wafting out of a chai shop. It’s all a part of this incredible place.
And as we are talking about tobacco, it is a good idea to mention the nargile (hookah) cafes. Sheesha is usually just tobacco with some molasses and maybe a bit of apple. It’s smoked without contact to the fire and filtered through water. Nope, it’s not dope. Used to be it was opium or weed, but now…sorry hippies, just tobacco. Still, it can be fun, relaxing, and more than a few people claim it gives them a buzz.
The real buzz though is just wandering around the streets of Istanbul and seeing all the wonders that exist here…
On our honeymoon trip to Turkey back in 2010, my wife and I were excited to visit the famed Blue Mosque in Sultan Ahmet, the monument and tourist section of Istanbul.
The Sultan Ahmet region is named for Sultan Ahmet I who ruled from 1603 to 1617 AD. The Sultan Ahmet Mosque, known as the Blue Mosque was built near the Aya Sophia to provide a greater wonder than that of the Hagia Sophia. It was commissioned by the Sultan and designed by Mehmet Aga and what the Aya Sophia offers in terms of interior is surpassed by the exterior of the Blue Mosque.
Just a short walk from the Aya Sophia, the Blue Mosque was also crowded with tourists.
In all of Morocco, the only Mosque that non-Muslims can enter is the Hassan II mosque in Casablanca. In Turkey, anyone can go in. We entered the Blue Mosque with reverence but some Muslims from other countries get a little outraged to see Buddhists, Christians, women in shorts, and other non Muslims inside one of the world’s great mosques.
As we entered it was nearly the time for prayer and the guards were getting the non-Muslims to leave. Prayer was a little different from prayer in both Morocco and Hawaii.
The call to prayer in Istanbul is coordinated between the many mosques so that you don’t get the same warbling effect you get between mosques in Morocco all sounding the call to prayer at slightly different moments. Instead, it is more like a symphony with the various mosques singing point and counterpoint. The call to prayer itself is different than that in Morocco and many Turkish Muslims don’t know how to read Arabic script, the language of the Koran. They often know the words, but not the meanings and thus the prayers can be less detailed than those of Arabic speaking countries.
When the mosque was built, it rivaled the Kabaa mosque in Mecca and the six minarets were equal in number to those of the Kabaa. In order to keep the peace, Sultan Ahmet built a seventh minaret in Mecca in order to show that he wasn’t moving the center of Islam to a new capital, though in effect, that is what he did, at least for a time.
The Blue Mosque is a geometric wonder in that the outer courtyard is exactly the same size as the interior and it’s proportions and measurements all align with the concepts of sacred geometry. It was built in the ten years between 1606 and 1616. Sultan Ahmet I died just a year after the Mosque was completed. His tomb is located in a separate building nearby.
Entry is free but restricted to Muslims during the time of prayers.
The Istanbul Archaeology Museum is located near the Topkapi Palace inside Gulhane Park in Istanbul. I first visited it when my wife and I honeymooned in Turkey in 2010. The museum has more than a million objects in its collections many of them from Byzantine, Greek, Roman, and even earlier civilizations.
This visit was not the most exciting part of our trip, especially for my wife, but she enjoyed the incredible collection of statues and the ancient sarcophagi, some of which date back as early as 400 BC.
As you enter the museum grounds there is a statue of a lion which comes from one of the ancient wonders of the world, the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus.The museum is massive. It took us nearly half a day to stroll through the main collections at a rapid pace.The sarcophagi are definitely worth seeing, though I was disappointed to read that the Alexander Sarcophagus is actually the tomb of a king named Abdalonymous.
One of my favorite finds was the snake’s head from the Serpentine Column in the Hippodrome. I thought the serpents looked rather headless. The Museum of the Ancient Orient was closed for renovations while we were there.
If you want to visit the museum, it is open Tuesday – Sunday from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm. Admission is 10 lira.
In 2012 while living in Istanbul, I was fortunate to make many friends and have many adventures. This was the beginning of one of them.
If a Turkish night train sounds dangerous to you, you might want to consider getting some travel insurance before you begin your cheap trip to the Balkans.
Leaving Istanbul is like leaving home. As I say goodbye to my friend Gaye, I can’t help but feel sad to be leaving this incredible city that delights the eyes, mind, body, and soul.
Still, the fact that the bag with all my ‘good’ clothes in it and another bag with the rest of Hanane’s and my things from Turkey both sit in Gaye’s basement means that I’m coming back.
Not to mention, I’ve got a flight to catch to Malaysia at the end of the month. And then another flight from Istanbul to North Africa when I get back. So, like friends and those we love, for Istanbul it is really only a ‘see you later.’ That helps.
Also helpful is the fact that I’m boarding an overnight train from the former Constantinople and into Sofia, Bulgaria. Not only is Bulgaria new and unknown to me, I’ve got a berth on a sleeper car. There’s something just incredibly cool about that. The cost of the ticket…about 30 euros including the sleeper.
The train itself looks old and as if it has come out of a Soviet Republic. I admit I knew nothing about Bulgaria before leaving and it was only when I mentioned on Facebook that I was going into the former USSR, that a friend told me I was wrong. Still, it was Eastern Block and hardcore communist, so I suppose that excuses my American ignorance a bit…that and the fact that I am American. Usually I do better, at least I don’t think Cuba is in Australia or Asia.
An American couple are in the cabin next to the one I share with a Bulgarian mountaineer who is just returning from Nepal. He actually lives in Seattle, he tells me Nepal was the most disgusting place he had ever visited.
The story continues below, but I thought you might want to see all the pictures I took first…the the slideshow is next with the story below it.
Next door, the American man and woman are getting progressively more smashed and I swear I hear one of them crash down from the bunks to the deck. At the border crossing at 3 am they go to the tiny duty free stall and carry back what looks like a bottle of whiskey. When we arrived at the border the Turkish engine detached while we went through a relatively painless customs procedure. The conductor had to wake the Americans by pounding on their door for about five minutes. This was, of course, before they went to the duty free.
The two hour wait at the border was because we had to wait for the Bulgarian engine to come to us. We arrived in Sofia about 3 and a half hours late at right around 1:30 pm. Prior to that we made a stop in Plovdiv where the conductor this time spent ten minutes waking the Americans who staggered out with their clothes hanging on them the wrong way. As I had gone to sleep I heard them having progressivly more slurred conversation. Something like “Just because you fell, doesn’t mean you can’t be proud of getting up there, I mean you did it.”
I kind of loved these two. Getting shitfaced on a night train from Istanbul to Plovdiv. I didn’t want to talk with them because I was afraid it would spoil the nice spell they had charmed me with. when they staggered past to get off the train at Plovdiv the man, who looked a bit like Johnny Depp said “Hi” to me in the drunkest tones and the smell of bourbon wafted up. I took their pictures as they looked around the platform completely confused. I just didn’t want to forget them. Even if they wouldn’t remember their trip.
Arriving in Sofia, it was cold. The train station was freezing and the effect of having cyrillic alphabet all around me was that giddy feeling of culture shock that I both love and hate. I felt completely disoriented. My phone wouldn’t work in Bulgaria, but I was very pleased to find that Bulgaria has the decency to put a wifi hotspot in the train station. Sitting in the cold station, I found my couchsurfing host’s number and then called him with Skype. You have to love technology.
He told me to go to the bus station and get a cab to his house instead of using one from the train station since the guys at the station would rip me off.
The cab was just about three euros and that took me to Tim’s door. In my pocket was the drunk American girl’s hat which I’d spotted in their cabin as i got off the train, picked up, and kept as a souvenir. It was very fluffy and very blue. I imagine it was how the two of them felt when they woke up later.
From 2010 to 2012, I was fortunate to live in several Turkish cities. Istanbul, Izmir, and Manisa. Turkey and Turkish people won my heart over and over. There is nowhere like it on Earth or presumably anywhere else in the universe. I am grateful for the time I was able to spend in Turkey. For a time, I began to feel like a true Istanbulu, a resident of Istanbul. This was written during that time….
Istanbul is the only city in the world that sits in both Asia and Europe. The amazing part of that is that many visitors to the Queen of All Cities never leave the European side. In fact, a day trip to the Asian side can be interesting, delicious, and won’t cost you very dearly.
The ferry from either Eminonu or Kabatas will cost you 2 Turkish Lira each way. The trip itself across the Bosporus takes about fifteen minutes and while you are gawking at Sultanahmet from the sea on the right side or the Bosporus Bridge on the left, don’t forget to pay attention to the little tower that rises from an island in the middle.
The Princess Tower is a place of legends and fairy tales and dates back to the Byzantine era. While there are more than stories than one, the most famous is that of a king who wished to save his little girl when a seer told him she would die. As in most such stories, his plan backfired. In any event, keep your eyes open on the left side of the ferry.
Arriving in Kadikoy you will notice the big thing that looks like a balloon. In fact, it is a balloon. Filled with helium, the Turkbaloon takes passengers up for sight seeing during the summers.
After you disembark from the ferry you will see a lot of construction work underway. This is for the tunnel under the Bosporus. In a city with 5000 years of history, every inch yields new archeological finds…and bureaucratic red tape to hinder completeion. It should be complete in a couple thousand years more.
Passing the construction head into the backstreets of Kadikoy and enjoy some shopping without the hassle of the Grand Bazaar or other touristic areas. Duck into the passageways and you will find both treasures and oddities. One passageway is filled with the odd collection of comic books, military gear, and sporting equipment. Somehow the three go together.
Different passageways have different themes so you can find book areas, clothing areas, and of course there are the street vendors offering all kinds of deals on all kinds of things. In fact, Kadikoy is home to the biggest food market in all of Turkey!
Further along pull a chair up to one of the tables at Hamsi. Hamsi is one of the best kept secrets in Istanbul. Here you can enjoy great mezas, fresh black sea sardines (Hamsi), and a couple of pints of cold Efes beer. If that doesn’t appeal to you, right next door is the most delicious lahmacun (Turkish pizza) in the city. Some may argue about this, but when you taste either the meat or the cheese version, you will know the truth. Don’t forget to sprinkle the purple spice on it. It’s a form of poison ivy, but don’t worry, it’s not poison, it’s slightly bitter and delicious. Make sure you also sample their fresh Ayran (yogurt drink).
In fact, Kadikoy is filled with bars, restaurants, and even cinemas. This neighborhood dates back to about 5500 B.C. and today has approximately a half million residents. With all that, a trip to Kadikoy is definitely worth your time.