Thursday, December 11, 2014

Turkey Part I: Istanbul

Last month just before Thanksgiving, Kyle and I made a trip to Turkey.  We did not see or eat any turkeys in Turkey, and our weather was pretty gray and gloomy, but we had a wonderful trip anyways.  We started our tour with a few days in Istanbul before going to the central region of Cappadocia.  We were both amazed at the incredible history and sights, great food and the welcoming people of Turkey.  

Istanbul straddles two continents;  Europe and Asia, separated by the Bosporus Strait.  Most of the historical sites are on the European side, which is divided by the Golden Horn into the Old Town (Sultanahmet) and the New Town.  The Sultanahmet was colonized by Greeks back in 667 BC. It is such a blend of cultures.  Istanbul has been inhabited by many great civilizations such as the Greeks, the Romans, the Byzantines and the Ottomans.  That blend of cultures, past and present, is certainly visible in the sights of Istanbul.

We arrived in Istanbul early in the afternoon, so we had plenty of time to do some touring on our first day.  We stayed in a nice hotel very close to the iconic sights of the city.  We started off in the Underground Basilica Cistern, which is the largest of hundreds of water storage cisterns built in the 6th century by Justinian I.  It is a really unique, surreal place.  It almost looks like a cathedral that's been flooded and forgotten.  We've definitely not seen anything like it before!



Our first glimpse of the Blue Mosque...so impressive!

From the cistern, we went on to check out the Spice Bazaar.  While there are a lot of spices, teas, and sweets sold there, it also has a lot of other stuff being sold as well.  Walking through the bazaars in Turkey reminded me of  the kiosks in American malls where they are trying to get you to try their nail products...they're relentless!  Kyle had to be sneaky about taking pictures too...



The busy streets outside of the bazaar

Relaxing with the cutest cappuccino ever after dodging salesmen at the bazaar 

That evening we went on a dinner cruise on the Bosporus Strait.  The skyline of the city looks really beautiful lit up at night.  There was entertainment on the cruise, such as a belly dancer and performers that did traditional Turkish dances.  Touristy and cheesy?  Yes.  Fun and entertaining?  Absolutely!





Kyle and I aren't always into guided tours, but there is so much to see in Istanbul, and so much history, we thought a guided tour would be a good way to see and learn as much as possible.  We started off at the Hippodrome of Constantinople, which was a center of sporting and social activities dating back to AD 203.  The only thing left of the Hippodrome today are a column, and a couple of obelisks, which were all brought in from other places long ago.  The Serpent column dates back to the 5th century BC, and the Egyptian obelisk of Thutmose III dates back to 1490 BC.


One of the most well know sights in Istanbul is the Hagia Sophia.  It has such an interesting history.  It was once a church built by Constantine, was later turned into a mosque and is now a museum.  The original structure dates back to 537, but has been changed and reconstructed throughout its history.  The interior is incredibly beautiful and is an interesting mix of Islam and Christianity.  I really loved the beautiful mosaics.


The Deësis mosaic dates from around 1261

Of course no trip to Turkey would be complete without a carpet demonstration and sales pitch.  It was actually pretty interesting and was quite a spectacle.  They rolled out tons of different types of carpet, telling us the history of the patterns, how they're made, etc.  There were a couple that caught my eye, but several hundred euros is a bit much for an impulse buy!


From there we spent a little bit of time at the Grand Bazaar, a famous covered market that dates back to medieval times.  The Grand Bazaar is a colorful maze of shops selling everything from carpets, lamps, and scarves to cheese and pastries.  There are over 3,000 shops on 61 streets.  We barely scratched the surface during our short visit there!  It's kind of stressful for us shopping there, because we hate to haggle, and if you don't haggle you'll get ripped off!  It's a very interesting place to stroll around.




In Islamic countries, you'll hear the call to prayer coming from the speakers at every mosque five times a day.  Our tour was on a Friday, which is the Islamic holy day, and the mosques were overflowing, so people prayed in the streets.


Our next stop was the Blue Mosque, or the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, probably Istanbul's most recognizable sight.  It's a huge mosque situated across a large square facing the Hagia Sophia.  The mosque dates back to 1609, and is called the Blue Mosque because of it's gorgeous blue interior decoration.  It was very crowded inside because visitors are not allowed in during prayer time, so they crowd in when they can.  It's a very impressive space.

The area for ablution outside of the mosque


The Blue Mosque at night

Our last visit of the day was the Topkapi palace.  It's a beautiful palace complex that visits more like a museum rather than a traditional palace tour.  The palace was where Ottoman sultans lived for about 400 years.  It's a huge place, and you can see a wide variety of things, from treasury items, to sumptuously tiled relaxation rooms.  (Pictures were not allowed in many places.)


The next day we headed to another equally beautiful, but less touristy Ottoman mosque called the Süleymaniye Mosque.  It's the largest mosque in Istanbul, and dates back to 1550.  There were far fewer people inside, so it was much easier to take our time looking at the beautiful decoration.  On our way there, we walked through non-touristy areas and got a feel for what the city is like for "real people."





After our mosque visit, the weather turned pretty ugly.  It was rainy and very windy, which makes an umbrella kind of useless.  We kept going anyways.  We wanted to see a little bit of the new town, so we headed down to the Golden Horn.  We crossed the bridge where tons of fisherman were working, despite the unfavorable weather.  We took a funicular up a hill to the main pedestrian shopping street. The famous Galata tower was very close, but it was too cloudy and rainy for a good view, so we skipped it.  Instead, we walked up the very European looking shopping street, and ducked into a cafe for a while waiting for the rain to let up.  We then made our way up to Taksim square, which is a huge open square known as the heart of modern Istanbul.  It's also where the large protests took place back in 2013.

These fancy boats sell fish sandwiches and were very popular.


Looks like this could be any European city

The Republic Monument in Taksim Square

We turned in early that night since we would be heading out at 4:30 am the next day to catch our flight to Cappadocia.  (Stay tuned for the Cappadocia post!)  Kyle and I were both very impressed with Istanbul.  It's a very cool blend of eastern and western cultures.  They are very kind and welcoming to visitors.  The history and sites are pretty incredible, and the food was very good, which is always a plus!  (A note to others who might go to Istanbul: go during the low season!  I think the crowds and heat in the high season could make a person kind of miserable if they're anything like us!)  It is definitely a city you could return to many times and still not see everything.  Good thing it's just an easy flight away from Stuttgart!



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