Turkey — Day Twenty-eight — Istanbul

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Our last day in Istanbul. Steve woke before dawn.

Our first evening at the Med Cezir, Steve had scouted around and had found a rooftop terrace just at the end of the hallway and up some stairs: it was closed for the winter, or at least all the tables and chairs were stacked up, but it still gave an astonishingly good view. The Hagia Sophia glowed to the right, the Baths Of Lady Hürrem and the Mavi Ev Hotel at immediately in front, and the elegant minarets of the Blue Mosque reached for the sky on his left. Having been on the go from morning until night, I hadn’t even tried to look at it, taking his word that the view would be spectacular. Given the weather, he hadn’t lingered up there either.

On this day, though, our last, much-cherished last day in Turkey, we woke to clear blue sky and glorious sunrise, unexpected given the previous clouds and impending winterness. For once I couldn’t resist getting up early myself, and I joined Steve before seven for sunlight on the golden spires of the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia. It was amazing. It was indescribable. It was a washed clean sky backdropping the faded red arch of the Hagia Sophia, set like a fire-hearted ruby against tuquoise, lit by the golden sun. We stood in the long morning rays, both feeling as if you could see the warmth in the air, could reach out into the sunshine and your hand would come back with a powder of gold clinging to the surface. A half turn left brought the eye to the spires of the Blue Mosque, each crescent moon on the tip of each minaret a glittering treasure and the white gleaming so perfectly…

After an hour or more, we tore ourselves away from the spectacle and, after a nice warm shower, went down for breakfast with Sabo, who was very chatty and entertaining. He teased Steve unmercifully and Steve gave as good as he got. We liked Sabo very much.

The Ottowonians hadn’t called, so we decided to head off into Kumkapi ourselves. We stopped by the Arasta Bazaar to see if we could find Jedi’s owner and get an address to send the photos Steve had taken our first meeting, but he wasn’t there.

Wandering through the streets, south and east and down the hill to the Sea of Marmara, we followed our map to the ‘Küçük Aya Sofia’, or ‘little Hagia Sophia’ – a beautiful little church in the Kumkapi neighbourhood. While we could have found it quite handily ourselves, a young boy walking by decided to escort us to the gate… and then held out his hand for coins for the privilege of having guided us. Not wanting to cause a scene, and chagrined that we hadn’t told him no thanks at the outset, we gave him a few kuruş, even though we were sure it wasn’t what we were supposed to do.

It had only taken some twenty minutes or so of gentle strolling through cobbled streets to reach the Küçük – little – Hagia Sophia from our hotel in the heart of Sultanahmet. We were surprised to see very few tourists at this lovely and spiritual church which was begun five years before the Büyük (?) Hagia Sophia. Just as old, and almost as uplifting, as its larger step-sister (Justinian was father to them both), the little one was a wonderful thing to see. The very kind Imam (as the little ‘un is now a mosque) led us up the circular stairs to what was once perhaps a pulpit – it gave a splendid view of the whitewashed domes and cobalt blue medallions. It was lovely. He mentioned on our way out not to feed the animals pay the children for guiding us there. Oops!

On our way back up the street, we stopped to admire some cats. Ah, Istanbul! Full of kedi!

We decided our next stop would be the St. Saviour of Chora – once church, then mosque, and now the Kariye Müzesi. The frescos and mosaics were reputed as being truly incredible and we were keen to go. From my eBay-purchased Istanbul street map, it looked like we should be able to walk there in an hour or so…

The rest of Kumkapi that we saw was lovely, in a run down sort of way, which is actually how we found most of Istanbul that we saw. There were these great old wooden buildings with wooden-framed bay windows on the upper floors. Some had been carefully restored, and the wood gleamed against the subtle white of the stucco. Others looked like they had had a bomb go off inside them some hundred years ago, and their windows drooped and hung and clung to the walls. Sometimes these were right beside each other. In that moment, I would have given almost anything to buy and repair that old house, and live the rest of my days in Istanbul.

The streets were bright with Turkish banners – a leftover from National Day or general pride?

After a while, we turned right and headed straight uphill, aiming for the Divan Yolu where we could walk down to the old walls of the city and turn up to the St. Saviour Museum. Passing numerous stalls on the streets that gave me the secret hope that perhaps the reported closing of the Grand Bazaar was not so – unfounded, as it turned out – we came up onto the Divan Yolu almost right at the entrance of the Grand Bazaar. Turning left, we followed the tram line down to just past the university, stopped to admire a mosque under restoration, and turned right a street before Ataturk Boulevard, thinking the Museum was just down there.

We got just down there to the Fevzi Paşa Caddesi and I, in a fit of brilliance, realized I had missed an entire fold of the map. The St. Saviour was further away than all the distance we had already walked that morning, and it was rising noon. We sat in a little park attached to a mosque and considered our options: sit and watch the kedi gambol on the grass all day (very appealing, as it didn’t involve walking any more that day), take a taxi to the Museum (which would break our perfect record of taxi-avoidance) or walk a little further down to where we might be able to catch a bus (of limited appeal, as it involved applying feet to pavement).

After a little whining, and a little resting, and a little watching kedi play, I mustered my blistered toes to walk over to the bus stop where the bus was blessedly not too far behind. The Lonely Bastard had given clear directions as to which bus to catch and the driver obligingly confirmed his destination. Standing in the crush, we barely had a chance to register the sights we sped by: a kedi on a stone wall, a knot of black-clad young women with brightly coloured handbags, a football stadium with a tank parked in front.

Disgorged from the dolmuş, we popped out onto some very working class streets. The bus ride was surprisingly short: no more than fifteen minutes for what would have taken more than an hour to walk. We picked a random twisty street that looked as if it would lead in the general direction of the Museum.

The twisty street was picturesque and teeming with kedi. Feral cats sat in lumps on every wall, curled their tails around their delicate feet on every doorstep and one – just one – shot across the road on three legs, the other curled underneath, its front leg a shattered mess of blood and shocking white bone. Tired and overwhelmed with the last day of Istanbul, I nearly burst into tears on the spot. The broken cat was gone in a flash, and if I could have caught it, if in a million years, what could I have done? Rushed it to the veterinarian? Given it a shot of Phenobarbital? Swung its head into a wall or broken its neck, quickly, giving it an easy death? I was devastated.

With me not exactly in the best mental space to admire a bunch of dead rocks, we decided to stop for a quick lunch before we ventured into the museum proper. First we checked out Asitane, a recommended restaurant, which is a few short metres from the museum and its accompanying souvenier stalls. Asitane looked lovely, being in the basement of a graceful old house, but there was literally no-one in there for lunch and the wait staff looked quite disgruntled at our arrival. The menu looked appetizing but expensive by our standards, and I felt a little dusty for crisp white napkins and uniformed staff, so we headed back out and got a quick tavuk döner and urfa şiş at the café right across from the museum. It was certainly adequate, and it was a bit of a relief to be able to throw bits of chicken at the waiting kedi. This was definitely a tourist place, though, like almost everywhere we had been in Istanbul.

Slightly more heartened, we walked around the gate and bought our ticket. The approach to St. Saviour is really neat: instead of walking straight in, they wind you around the back of the building across a lawn, give you time to admire the architecture and striped brick exterior and in through the side… to come straight at a hall of the most splendid frescos.

After the Ottoman invasion, this little church in the country (Chora: country, from it being a ways out of the city proper, right up against the city walls) was repurposed into a mosque. Instead of destroying the mosaics and frescoes, the clerics plastered over them, unwittingly preserving them for the next 500 years. Now the plaster has been removed and the paints and tesserae glow almost as brightly as they did when first made in the 11th century.

We were overwhelmed. We were awestruck. We were… lying on the marble floor taking pictures of the glorious ceiling. Well, Steve was. Good for Steve. The other patrons looked at him like he was crazy, but we caught several of them flat on their backs in the same spot.

A large Spanish tour group crowed the place when we arrived, but they left after not too long and we had the place – well, not to ourselves, but relatively sparse. The tourists who were in attendance were rapt and respectful, which you cannot help but be in such a place.

It’s so hard to know what to say about the St. Saviour at Chora except “go there” – at once, or as soon as you can, or at some point in your lifetime – it is not to be missed. It’s not just the frescoes and mosaics, as amazing as those are. It’s the carved angels above the door, the green marble flagstones, the little Byzantine heads carved of stone peeking out from corners (all but one with the faces gouged out; I almost killed myself trying to get a clear photo of the one that remained), the vaulted domes (oh! the domes!) and every single surface is decorated with some lovely thing. What an amazing, amazing thing to see.

I almost cried all over again the beauty and the sadness of so much lost, including one poor little kitty with a shattered leg. I did look out the door into the garden one time to see a young man scooping kibble out of a backpack onto the grass in front of a few cats – he told me that he came around to feed the strays and look for any injuries. I told him about the broken one and he had seen her too; he hadn’t been able to get a hand on her, but he said he’d look out for her. I couldn’t have been more relieved and I almost cried some more.

In better spirits, we left the St. Saviour and thought we’d head back to Eminönü to check out the Kahve Dunyasi and get some cups and chocolates and chocolate spoons. Mmm… spoons! Fortunately the bus going back down the road dropped us off at the bus loop across the street from the spice market in Eminönü. We moved like eels in the crowd in the underpass, walked briskly across the Eminönü Square in front of Hamdi and practically ran the rest of the way to the coffee shop… which was closed. Yes, closed. On Sunday. The prime-est coffee drinking day of the week in Vancouver, and it was closed. I was very sad. Very, very sad. Steve was sad too – sad that he hadn’t let me buy the crack coffee yesterday, though he couldn’t have known.

Desolate, we walked back across the square to the underpass and through to the Galata Bridge. Well, maybe only I was desolate. Fortunately, it’s impossible to stay desolate on the Galata Bridge: the fishermen are so happy when they pull up a shiny wriggling fish comma-quote-comma, and so happy when they don’t. I guess it’s true that a bad day fishing is still better than a good day working, and the men we saw were living proof. Some had buckets full of living proof that they were having a good days fishing as well. The pale sun and weak blue sky were a gift on a Sunday afternoon in November and they knew it as well as we.

We thought we’d experience the Tünel, which is the 19th century funicular that carries passengers up the hill to the end of Istiklal Caddesi. It is a phenomenally short train ride, lasting something in the area of a single minute. We weren’t to find out in person, as the signs at the entrance advised it was closed for repairs. Standing around trying to figure out an alternative to walking up the hill, a dolmuş pulled up and the driver advised he was there to take people up the hill. For free. Yay! We climbed aboard and got the first seats. We thought we had been the only confused tourists stymied by the lack of Tünel, but apparently not. People of all shapes and sizes squished onto the bus. It was the most dolmuş-ed dolmuş we had been in in Turkey. The Tire bus was palatial in comparison.

After a very quick (I think I’ve mentioned Istanbullus drivers) and scary ride up the hill, we were disgorged in the same square we had bought the prints and cards in – just up from the street of musical instruments.

Feeling peckish, we stopped for a panini in a coffee shop called ‘Gloria Jean’s Coffee’ which loomed over the eastern side of the square. Wow, what a disappointment. It was easily the worst panini either of us had ever had, which was even more shocking given that the food in Turkey was so superlative. All I can say is ‘yuck’ – overpriced, overrated, and the coffee was crap too. It was rising 4pm and there might have been a sunset, so we walked a few blocks down Galip Dede Caddesi to the Galata Tower, paid our 10YTL each at the entrance and joined the queue at the elevator.

Let me point something out to the uninitiated, as there were many uninitiated on the Galata Tower that day: the signs indicate that you should turn to your right upon exiting onto the rather narrow deck that rings the tower top. You should then continue to your right, in a clockwise fashion, until you return to your starting point and exit. Turn to your RIGHT, people! Since we were not the only people having thought to enjoy the sunset from the vantage of the lovely Genoese tower that peered right out over Beyoglu, the Galata Bridge and Sultanahmet to the Sea of Marmara lost to the haze beyond… not really a surprise, I suppose – the deck was crowded with eager faces and a silver fortress of digital cameras and cell phones all raised to the view and taking pictures as fast as ever they could. The few individuals who had, inexplicably, decided to turn LEFT made life very much difficult for the rest of the people on the deck. Clockwise! Come on!

Fortunately Steve could tell that the sunset wasn’t going to be very much of anything, and we hastily (and irritated-ly, in my case) made our retreat to the stairs that led back down to the very cool bathroom and the elevator landing and emerged, flushed and triumphant, back onto the cobbles surrounding the tower.

Back up Galip Dede to the square, we found ourselves next to a little cd store. Having a few hundred YTL burning holes in our pockets, we thought we’d load up on some Turkish music to bring home. We picked out a half-dozen cds and asked the total less than 65YTL! Most of the cds were 11 lira or less – incredibly cheap by Canadian standards. Steve and I took one look at each other and picked out another six cds.

Our feet not feeling quite battered enough, we decided to walk up the Istiklal Caddesi to find the orginal lokum shop of ‘Ali Muhiddin Hacı Bekir’ who, according to the Time Out Istanbul, invented the now-ubiquitous Turkish delight in the 18th century.

What a bad idea. We knew we wouldn’t have considered walking along Robson Street on a warm Sunday night. It just isn’t our kind of place. Istiklal Caddesi was not our kind of place. It was very crowded, and the people were rather terminally hip. In some ways it was very interesting: certainly a side of Turkey we hadn’t seen. Most of the people we saw in Sultanahmet were dressed quite conservatively, as were most of the people in the countryside. This was our first look at that modern Turkey that sits with one foot in the Ottoman past and the other firmly stepping into cutting-edge Europe. The girls and boys were fashionable and fine, and very, very conscious of that fact. Like I said, not our kind of place, in our grubby pants and fake shoes!

All was not lost – I picked up an ‘Istanbul’ cup from Starbucks and we found a neat little bookstore where we bought some cookbooks of Turkish cooking – in English, even! We never found the lokum store… we found where it was supposed to be, at 129 Istaklal Caddesi, and scouted around a bit, but never found it.

It was full dark when we gave up on the lokum hunt and turned around. We were tired, a little hungry and exceedingly footsore, and we wanted off the Istaklal Caddesi train so badly it hurt. We took a random street to the left, back down to the Bosphorus and walked down to Kemeraltı Caddesi, which is the street the streetcars run on; the street which spills onto the Galata Bridge and home. The walk downhill was reasonably pleasant, except that it involved being upright.

We were pleased to arrive almost exactly at Tophane tram station, bought our tokens and settled with great relief onto the benches of the tram. It was about quarter to seven when we crossed the Galata Bridge to Eminönü, and we took a quick look at each other and decided to subject our poor feet to another indignity: we exited at Sirkeci station, walked across the street to the Sirkeci Istasyonu, and joined the lineup for the Dervish sema – the sufi ritual that puts the ‘whirling’ in ‘whirling dervish’ – that is held Sunday nights in the former waiting room for the Orient Express. We thought the performance – I hesitate to call it a ‘show’ – began at seven, but apparently it was seven-thirty. Had we known it would involve that much standing, we might have skipped it. We didn’t know, and we couldn’t quite bear to have our last night in Turkey whining away in our hotel room. So we stood. And stood. And shuffled, and whined a little bit, and made friends with the other tourists in line, and stood some more.

When we finally reached the front of the line, I found myself frantically learning some new Turkish words: flipping through my phrasebook, I explained, while pointing at Steve, göz (eye) and ön (front). The young man who was acting as usher figured it out, and told us in limited English that there were reserved seats in front for us.

Other than telling the car rental people that I would be the only driver and a few curious stares, this was the only mention we had to make of Steve’s eyesight on the entire trip.

We were so very happy to sink onto our chairs in the front row: there were chairs arranged in rows on three sides around a roped-off area in the centre of the room. We were dead in front, in the centre of the row, facing the chairs where the musicians were to sit against the windows of the old train station. Amazing! It seemed quite remarkable that we would just be able to show up for a performance which we hadn’t booked for, hadn’t planned on, hadn’t bought tickets – just show up, and get the best seats in the house.

Precisely on time (not Turkish time!), the musicians filed in and began to play. It was exquisite – we were unprepared for how lovely it was. Steve noted that they didn’t seem to be as tight as a band that played together often would be, but they still did an excellent job. The room collectively held its breath as the… dancers? whirlers? derviş? dervi? entered the room, carrying rolled up sheepskins. They entered reverently, with grace, and their long white skirts swept the floor. They unrolled their sheepskins, made their obeisance, were gathered into a little knot by the head derviş, and, as the music grew, each took – in their own time and manner – to spinning.

They sema unfolded with a billow of white skirts; they spun around open space; we watched, each caught out of our mortal coil. It was heart-breakingly beautiful. It was a poem, a painting on air, a prayer so deep and moving that I almost cried. As we watched, we got a sense of each of the derviş: the head man, whose face bore an expression of profound serenity, and whose feet made barely a whisper on the stone floor; the older man who whirled with a strong and focused energy – we wondered if he had come late to the Sufi, and what he had done before; two youngsters whose long limbs floated like spiders on the wind and a third young man, burning with desire to do it all so perfectly as he whirled, and thought, and strove for communion. “He’ll get it someday,” I thought. “He’s so young still.”

Within the sema, the dancer, holding up one hand to gather blessings and dispersing them to the crowd with the downturned hand, with a thousand shades of meaning and faith in every movement, the audience is to feel more blessed, closer to God. We felt closer.

When the derviş rolled up their sheepskins and left, followed by the musicians, there was a pause before the applause. For something that was put on for tourists, it had a sense of authenticity which I think was felt by virtually everyone in the audience privileged company of watchers.

Feeling replete with the day, we bought more tokens (our last tokens) and got back aboard the tram up the hill to Sultanahmet (our last tram!) and walked past the glorious Hagia Sophia, all lit up for the night (our last night!). Ah, we were going to miss Istanbul.

At the Med Cezir, we ordered a plate of mixed mezes and chatted with Sabo and Erol. Before dinner was served, I ran down to the little corner store for cookies and Nescafe sticks and a few little souvenirs. Steve got a little antsy when I was gone for too long; back at the hotel and with food in front of us, Steve regained his good humour enough to give Sabo advise on married life; Erol commented on the spending habits of wives. I was wise enough to not make a fuss. We shared some of our snacks and chocolate with the hotel staff before creeping back up the stairs to pack.

Packing was a painful and traumatic experience, even more so than our poor toes (recalling that before Istanbul, we hadn’t worn proper shoes in almost a month). Exhausted and sad, we rolled into bed later than we should, knowing we had to be up at oh-dark-thirty for our pickup at five in the morning.

Turkey — Day Twenty-seven — Istanbul

Saturday, November 3, 2007.

Saturday morning we were up fairly early, and had a lovely breakfast – Istanbul style Turkish breakfast was a bit of a surprise, which is itself a surprise given the consistency of the ubiquitous Turkish breakfast. Breakfast in Istanbul usually has a boiled egg, rather than the scramble we’d gotten used to. It also has that piece of salami and the cheese was in a container – not bad, certainly, but not quite as good as the pots of apricot jam and fresh fruit and cheese we were getting in the south.

First thing, we headed over to the little PTT (post office) kiosk outside the Baths Of Lady Hürrum to get some stamps to send out our sadly-overdue postcards. At least we were sending them from Turkey, and not Vancouver, which had seemed more and more likely.

After obtaining stampage, we wandered back to the southern side of the Aya Sofia and up the very short road that leads to Topkapi Palace. We weren’t quite early enough to beat the crowds, but the place is big enough so that it didn’t matter much.

We walked through the first huge gate and into a beautiful, lushly grassed park, dotted with enormous trees and peppered with kitties! We watched some cats carefully eyeing a little girl who was eager to pet them, and then running away when she got too close.

There was also an armed guard who good-naturedly allowed us to take pictures of him, AK47 and all.

You would think you’d buy your tickets at the next gate, or at the lovely gift shop set into the wall, and many tourists (including us) were confused. However, the tickets are purchased at a few openings in the wall right beside the Dosim, or government gift shop, in the next gate down. There were also tons of tour guides, complete with authorized guide cards, offering their services. We opted not to take the tour, but instead bought ourselves the Topkapi Palace book at the museum bookstore just inside the main gate. We were once again confronted with having our bags and ourselves x-rayed before entry, which makes sense given the value of the objects contained in the museum.

Upon entry, we made a beeline for the Harem, as we wanted to see it before the real hordes arrived. It really was an amazing structure, with halls and courts and dormitories for both the concubines and their eunuch guards. The tile work, mother-of-pearl inlaid doors and the marble floors were amazing, as was the strong sense of history: this is where emperors were born, where palace intrigues and so many closely cloistered lives were drawn out. We liked the Harem very much and were pleasantly surprised at how many rooms were on display, as we were under the impression that only a few rooms were visible.

After the Harem, we found ourselves in the First Court, where there were lots of lovely Ottoman salons and a small café. The views over the Bosphorus and the Sea of Marmara were spectacular. Many of the buildings in this area were closed for restoration, which is actually reassuring: we liked it that laurels are not being rested on. One of our favourite buildings had ornate tiles from the 15th century on the exterior. Amazing!

We wandered back up to the Third Court, which is where the treasury is located. We were able to walk right into one of the galleries and joined the queue shuffling around the room, looking at all the sparkly things. The sheer quantity of diamonds sent Steve into small-glittery-object-overload, but we I managed to join the line of people stringing around the walls to look at the Spoonmaker’s Diamond and the Topkapi Dagger (which would be much more impressive if not for the cheesy enamelled basket of flowers on the hilt, which looks like a some kid stuck a crappy sticker on an otherwise stunning object). Some of the items were on loan to a display in Japan but the quantity did not seem diminished.

Even though there are signs EVERYWHERE stating that photographs or video of any kind are NOT allowed in the Treasury, there was a woman who kept taking photos. You’d think when the Man With The Really Big Gun told her to stop it, repeatedly, she might have opted to follow the rules. When we saw her surreptitiously taking photos with her camera phone, we decided to leave rather than be present for the (seemingly) inevitable takedown of her and her phone.

By this time, our feet were getting sore, and we were way overwhelmed by the sheer size of the complex. It is some 700,000 square meters, about half the size of the country of Monaco. We were ready to go, and drifted back towards the entrance with the Hagia Sophia looming redly overhead.

We popped briefly into the armoury to take some photos of weapons and armour: lots of chain mail and nasty-looking axes. The reception room was a little underwhelming as it is mostly a display of textiles, but the council chambers were overwhelming in their opulence. It was interesting, because we usually think of ornateness as being somehow tacky or decadent. Topkapi was certainly ornate, but because everything seemed themed with repeating motifs and colours: grey marble, blue tiles, stars and arabesques of stone and shell made the whole quite cohesive… except for the council chambers. They were pretty tricked out. Someone should have lost their gold leaf license for that room.

I took a photo of a Turkish family and found myself counting them down in Turkish: üç, iki, bir, *snap*.

We wandered… ok, limped back through the park and back to our hotel, for a little lay-down before joining the fray of Istanbul. This was my second day in ‘real’ shoes, given that I had abandoned my faithful Tevas in Selçuk and we were doing way too much walking for flipflops. I was in the 20YTL Puma-esque runners I had bought back in Fethiye and was developing some blisters. One of the security guards in Topkapi had ‘tsk-tsked’ Steve for wearing sandals, so he was thinking it was time to bow to the fact that it was, in fact, November – especially as it was starting to look like rain.

It was funny, actually. We had arrived in Istanbul a month earlier for 20C weather, and were unbearably hot. Now, back in Istanbul for 12C weather (which would be balmy for November in Canada), we were bundled in every sweater we’d brought – I guess we acclimatized!

After our nap, we were raring to hit the road and lit out for the tram station yet again. We had one umbrella between us, which we had purchased for just a few lira at the Tire market. In the Sultanahmet Park, we were approached by a tout carrying umbrellas for sale. When I asked “kaça?” he replied “on-beş” – fifteen lira. I offered beş lira, and his eyes nearly fell out of his head – maybe at my lowball offer? or that I was making it in Turkish? His surprise must have thrown him off his bargaining game, because I bought it for seven lira… though he recovered his composure enough to tell me he only had two lira change for my ten-note. Ah, touts!

Just after the umbrella purchasing, we were delighted to randomly run into our Canadian friends – they had had some splendid adventures: Sharon (or Barb?) was exploring her Armenian heritage and they had met some people in Kumpkapi who might be able to give her more information about her family, so they were off to meet with those people again. We discussed meeting on Sunday for a hamam, which none of us had tried – having given them the Med Cezir’s phone number, we parted company.

We popped into the Tur-ista office to see Davut and thank him for his excellent advice and let him know the travel was seamless and the tours of Cappadocia enjoyable. He was surprised and happy to see us, and we were brought more cups of tea. During our conversation, we mentioned that we were leaving Istanbul dark and early Monday morning: turns out Davut was able to arrange our shuttle bus to get us to the airport in time to make our flight – yet another potential taxi ride avoided! The shuttle was cheap: less than 10YTL each, and it would pick us up right from the hotel. Yay! With that part of our journey arranged, we walked out onto the street and up the twenty or so steps to the Sultanahmet tram stop. Tur-ista: helpful and convenient!

After tramming down to Eminönü again, we joined the crush in the underpass heading towards the Spice Market. So this was Saturday in Istanbul! Good lord. We recognized that we were getting a little snappy at each other and decided that lunch was in order. We were right in front of the restaurant we had eaten at the on our second day in Istanbul: Hamdi. At our previous visit, it had been the best food we’d eaten in Istanbul and we wondered if it would stand the test of time.

Actually, Steve wasn’t super happy about eating at Hamdi again – he would rather have tried somewhere else. On the one hand, I could understand that. On the other, I knew that we really only got snappy when we were hungry or tired, and I wanted us to have food in our faces before we started spatting. I guess I ‘won’ that one, but it wasn’t a victory… at least from the panoramic balcony at Hamdi, we could see the roof of our next destination, the Rüstem Paşa Camii, as well as the river of Istanbullus walking across the square to the Spice Bazaar. It was a little chilly for the balcony, but the wait staff brought out blankets to wrap around us. The food was adequate. Well, that’s a little harsh: it was nice, and it was tasty, but we’d certainly had better outside Istanbul… at Dibek, at the Canada Hotel, at the Park Café, at the Hotel Bella… this wasn’t anything special, and I regretted for both Steve and I. It was also expensive: almost 50YTL for an un-extravagant lunch without any alcohol. Note to self: bring snacks so you can hold out for a new experience.

Turning left out of main entrance of Hamdi, we walked down the street towards the Rüstem Paşa Camii – the Rüstem Paşa is a little, notoriously hard-to-find mosque that dated from the 16th century. Steve had heard that the tiles were just about as spectacular as those in the Blue Mosque, but with way less tourists.

About halfway down the block, we passed on the left a little coffee shop called Café Kahve Dunyasi that looked just like the kind of modern Vancouver-style coffee-shop I know and love, perfect down to the jumble of crowded patio tables sprawled all over the sidewalk. I veered into the doorway, as if pulled by caffeinated magnets. Inside, I realized how much I had missed the smells and sounds of coffee: after a month of (albeit delicious) tea and the occasional watery Nescafé (the general term for instant coffee), I was jonesing for some java in the worst possible way. Steve is familiar with my affliction… addiction, and patiently joined me at the counter. The Kahve Dunyasi beat the pants of any Starbucks I’ve ever been to, with stacks of boxes and jars of chocolates on the counter and shelves full of coffees and beautiful coffee cups all bearing the Dunyasi logo, to say nothing of the smell of rich coffee and chocolate which actually made me drool. When asked our order by the barista, Steve went the safe route and opted for hot chocolate. While my usual tipple is a latte, I decided to resist the urge for normal and ordered a Türk kahvesi. Two nice ladies at the bar in the corner got up and let us have their spot. We perched ourselves on two tall stools and watched the coffee parade.

Again, Starbucks this was not. The cacophony of tables outside had actual waiters heading out to service a cheerful clientele, rather than the snakey line of snarky customers waiting to be served their early-morning hit at the counter of every Starbucks I’ve been in. We were delighted to see every cup heading out the door with a little chocolate on the saucer: some had chocolate spoons, some a little bonbon, and others had a little dish of chocolate covered espresso beans. We were fascinated to see what kind of chocolate came with our orders and soon enough it was revealed. Steve had a chocolate spoon – not chocolate-covered, mind you, but an actual spoon made of chocolate. I received an exquisite little chocolate-covered lokum which was unbelievably delicious. By looking pitiful, batting my sparse eyelashes and looking up (and repeating about twenty times) the Turkish word for spoon (kaşık), I got one of the baristas to hand me over a chocolate spoon as well. I was very pleased, and wanted to buy a bunch of cups and boxes of chocolates to take home. Steve was anxious to get going and convinced me to come back the next day to buy all that stuff; otherwise we’d have to haul it around the rest of the afternoon.

Empty-handed but full-bellied, we exited to our left and walked straight into the maze of streets that circle and spiral around the Rüstem Paşa Camii. Unlike the last time we were here, when we visited accidentally while looking for the aforementioned Hamdi restaurant, we had a purpose, and this time purpose bred achievement. Achievement and a half-dozen stone and fragrant wood prayer beads bought from an old, old man who spoke exactly zero English, but we were able to communicate enough to exchange a handful of lira for a handful of beads and a meaningful glance as I thanked him. It was a lovely crystal moment and every time the wood of the prayer beads warms and breathes in my hands, I am taken back to that alley, facing that old man with those ancient eyes gazing into my own.

A left at the next alley and a duck down into a passageway and up some stairs, we arrived on the terrace of the Rüstem Paşa Camii. At the far end of the terrace was the turist entrance: I flipped my headscarf over my head and slipped off my sneakers. When we entered, I knew immediately that this was completely unlike the Blue Mosque. Here there was a reverence and a serenity that other structure simply couldn’t know. Perhaps it’s the constant string of tourists stomping through the Blue Mosque, or that the few competitive drops fouled the gallons of sanctity (the maker wanted it to rival the Hagia Sophia in grandeur), or just that the blessed intimacy of the Rüstem Paşa could not be recreated by acres of mosque and the huge, clumsy domes.

As we stood and gazed at the dome full of light (where did that sunlight come from?), Turks from the street came in to pray, unselfconsciously. The fluidity of the movements brought tears to my eyes. Even the tourists were reverent: I suspect that if a tourist went to all the trouble to get to this particular, secretive mosque, then they knew the drill. That may sound a little snarky, and I don’t mean it to, but it was nice to see people with their shoes off and headscarves on, making donations at the exit.

Needing to use the washroom, I headed down the ‘near’ set of stairs: the ones meant for tourists (I couldn’t have found that entrance if my life depended on it; we came up the believer’s stairs). Knowing that every mosque I’d been to had a reasonably clean tuvalet available for a few kuruş, I found the room where the ablutions would occur and walked up to a man in a little booth by the entrance to the tuvalet… he looked a little surprised to see me, which I understood when I, surprised, found myself looking at a line of Turkish male bums using a 16th century urinal. Huh. I backed quickly out of the line of sight and waited what I hoped was a decent amount of time before ducking back to the booth. When I asked the man for the bayanlar (lady’s), he gave me an UTS and indicated one of the stalls with a door, located right beside the (exquisite marble) urinal. Huh. As the need was pressing, I handed over my coins and dashed into the stall, where I found the floor wet and I suspected NOT with recent mopping. It was altogether a disgusting little incident and I determined not to let the terrible tuvalet ruin my fond memories of the Rüstem Paşa.

Steve and I headed uphill and slightly to the left, hoping we’d run into one of the many entrances to the Grand Bazaar. The streets were a little twistier here, which is saying quite a bit as they weren’t exactly die-straight up from the Spice Bazaar. Keeping the approximate location of our destination in mind, we found it with surprisingly little trouble. The Istanbul map we had was detailed but frankly unhelpful as the street names did not seem to correspond to what was actually on the signs – when there were signs. We had been warned of this and were unfazed. Walking through the back streets of Istanbul was just as interesting as any destination we could find, which was good; without a useful map, it was either sheer luck or the will of Allah that led us to the alley of knockoff t-shirts that led to the Grand Bazaar.

Ah, Grand Bazaar, how I love you. The riotous colours, the chaos and cacophony and chorus of touts offering everything under the sun, or under the glowing jewelled lamps, as the case may be. Still on the lookout for şiş çatal, I asked a man with a stall full of fancy-schmancy pottery and cooking utensils if he had any. Without looking away from my face, he pointed at a crock on the floor full of skewers with decorative tops. I spent a happy few minutes making sets (oh, too many fish in that one) and bought a number for what seemed like a very reasonable price. One mission done, and we hadn’t even walked 100 feet!

We drifted around the corner, and perhaps another corner or two, when we saw a shop full of shoes. I went to take a look at their stock of almost certainly fake Pumas, and pointed out a few pairs of sneakers to Steve, who was still in sandals. The shopkeeper leapt on us like a hyena on a three-legged gazelle: “ah, the gentleman has picked up our Pradas – these are genuine antelope leather! These are 300 lira shoes, but you – I give YOU brother-price!” He then proceeded to whip out his lighter and wave it in the general direction of the shoes in order to prove they weren’t made of nylon and therefore going to melt. It continued much in this vein for some twenty minutes and two glasses of apple tea each, until Steve bargained him down to 60YTL and got him to throw in the ‘Puma’ brand socks he was trying the shoes on with.

The shoes were nice, and they were (genuine cow) leather, but they sure weren’t Prada. In fact, they lost one of their labels before we left the Grand Bazaar, and the other was gone within two weeks of being back in Canada.

We encountered some interesting people as we wended through the streets and squares of the Grand Bazaar – the touts that called to us in every language, starting with German; the old men walking through the bazaar that would grab me by the arm and ask me where I was from: “Canada” “Ah, Kanada!” all big smiles; the greasy young man who hit on every pretty girl who stopped to fondle a cheap pashmina and told Steve while looking at me out of the corner of his eye that he had ‘millions’ of American women in his bed, and had a date with one that night. Huh.

We attended a few shops mentioned in the Lonely Bastard as must-see places and, frankly, they were making hay out of the exposure afforded by the L.B. In some cases the items were interesting but in every case, they were shockingly overpriced. We declined to spend our money there… it’s not like there weren’t plenty of other shops to browse in, and a million wonders for sale.

The Grand Bazaar is a wonderful blur and remembering all the things we saw is like trying to recall everything you see on the PNE midway when you’re drunk on cotton candy, flashing lights and rollercoasters. I know there were acres of knockoff clothes and the softest, plushiest robes you ever felt; glittering lamps and belly-dance outfits for little girls; forests of nargilehs and deep blue pools of ceramic bowls; walls of diamonds and gold, and, wonderfully, a whole area dedicated to antiques.

Most of the antiques I saw were either obviously passed through a goat not antique, were so antique they wouldn’t make it out of the country, or were shockingly overpriced – often at least two of the three. One ring I liked very much was over twelve hundred lira. Eep! By this time Steve was getting a little cranky – his vision tends to get overwhelmed by ‘small object overload’ and lunch was some time ago. I saw the last store before we would be leaving the antique area, heading south, and thought I’d make my last-ditch effort for my last, most improbable mission…

Since my first day in Istanbul, I’d been coveting a tap – a brass tap like the kind that turn on the water for the prayerful to wash before they enter the mosque.

I had had Erol write down for me the word for ‘faucet’ (musluk) since my phrasebook wasn’t prepared for a leaky tap (among many other things) and I had asked every likely antique seller if they had such a thing. Most of them looked at me like I had two heads or worse, so I had pretty much given up hope. I was kicking myself for not purchasing the one I saw at the Citadel in Ankara; schlepping a pound of brass for 27 days would have been worth it, I told myself. Worse yet, I resented Steve a little for talking me out of buying the one in Ankara, a fact which was not helped by his irritability at my asking countless incredulous shopkeepers if they had a faucet.

This last shopkeeper – I wasn’t holding out much hope. After I asked him, and answered his quizzical look with another butchered Turkish request for a faucet, he led me around the corner to a basket on the floor that was… full of taps! Oh my! I couldn’t have been more excited! I pawed through, found one that was ornate but not too ornate and, dreading the response, asked how much it was? He looked me up and down and requested 45YTL – about $35. I offered 40YTL and, not surprisingly, he took it. I was probably overcharged by about 10YTL but for the eight dollars and Steve’s priceless patience, it was worth it.

At this point Steve and I had a miscommunication: he wanted to eat something and stop looking at little objects; I thought he meant he wanted to leave the Bazaar and eat a proper meal, when really he would have been happy to sit for a few minutes and have a snack at one of the little cafés in the Bazaar. Instead, we left the Bazaar and walked up the road towards Divan Yolu thinking we’d find a place for dinner. The sound of music stopped us in our tracks and we looked over at a bustling tourist spot called… well, it might be called ‘Safran’ since that is the sign on the wall in my pictures, but really I was so tired that I didn’t pay a heck of a lot of attention. I might have wanted to walk around the Grand Bazaar until my feet were bloody stumps, but it’s not to say that would have been good for me. Sitting on divans on the floor around a low table, listening to what was no doubt cheesy tourist music was very, very good for me. The food was tasty, if not fancy, and reasonably priced – I guess we were just far enough from Sultanahmet to avoid the really exorbitant prices.

The band came around and played very entertainingly for each table, collecting tips along the way. During the intermission, Steve went and chatted with the musicians a bit and ended up playing on one of their instruments, a kind of banjo-oud called (Steve thinks) a dhadak.

Dinner over and nerves soothed, we walked hand-in-hand down the Divan Yolu towards Sultanahmet and home. Everything seemed right in our world with the possible exception of having to leave Turkey in some 36 hours. As we were humming over our good fortune at being together, in that marvellous place, I saw something I hadn’t seen before in Turkey: an older man, dressed like any other in a dark sports coat and pants, squatted on the sidewalk with his cap in his hand laid upon the sidewalk, begging for coins. His face was turned away from the stream of people, hidden by his other hand. Every line of his body indicated defeat and an almost-unbearable shame. I walked on a few paces, contemplating that this was the first beggar I’d seen in almost a month in Turkey.

I was reminded of the drunk in Selçuk, and Marco’s brother explaining that no-one in Turkey would be homeless or hungry because they would have a family to take care of them. Did this man not have a family? Or was this his way of taking care of them? Or was the curl of despair in his fingers an act, shaped just so to draw in the sympathetic tourist? I couldn’t bear it. I stopped and walked back, dropped a few lira in his cap, and moved on. He didn’t move a muscle: didn’t show his face, didn’t lift the veil.

Saddened and suddenly dissatisfied, we walked back down to Sultanahmet, where the crowds added to the midway feel, and our spirits lightened again. Back at the Med Cezir, we found Erol sitting in the dining room with Sabo, a friend and a guitar: they wanted Steve to get his oud so that they could play together. Steve obliged and they had an interesting thing going on with Erol on the guitar, Steve picking away on the oud and the friend singing a folk song. I ran up to get the computer to record the spontaneous amazingness, but by the time I got back down, Steve didn’t want to be recorded, so I only was able to capture Erol and his friend. It was still pretty cool, though. We had a great time chatting and hanging out, drinking endless complimentary cups of tea until our eyelids drooped. Steve and I staggered up the stairs to bed, replete with all the wonders of Istanbul.

Turkey — Day Twenty-six — Istanbul (oud shopping)

Friday, November 2, 2007

We woke early to the endless suburbs of Istanbul rolling by. Breakfast was decent enough, though not quite as good as on the Ankara run – ah, back in the land of salami slice on the breakfast plate! We were back in our cabin in time to pack up and watch the blue Marmara sea disappear behind football stadiums and industrial parks.

We pulled into the train station and discovered the bad thing about first class: the sleepers had been at the ass end of the train the whole time, keeping away from the noisy engine, but now they were the furthest from the exit, and we felt every inch of the marble-covered platform as we pulled the RSFH the length of the train. Knowing that this was the easy stretch didn’t exactly help.

We exited onto the street and went to the same ferry dock that we had arrived at, some twenty-four days earlier. Breakfast was not so decent that we didn’t pick up two simit on the ferry dock. Fifty kuruş each: we must be in Istanbul.

Manoeuvring the RSFH through the turnstile along with about one hundred irritable Istanbullus commuters sucked.

Launching it and us onto the ferry sucked a little more. We had repacked it to be a little lighter, but that meant we had the RSFH and an equally heavy duffle bag full of carpet. With our packs, that meant that we had two pieces of luggage each, which wouldn’t have been so bad except that the considerable weight of the carpet bag (ha ha) slowly cut off the fingers of the wielder, and the RSFH often required one person at one end and the other person at the other end to lift it over, say, the gap between the dock and the ferry. It was challenging. Did I mention one hundred irritable commuters? Yeah.

I’m being overly dramatic – while getting ON the ferry was a challenge, once we were on, people very nicely made room for us and our irritating luggage.

Even though I was a little trepidatious about being back in Istanbul, armed with teşekkür ederim and lütfen, even with our RSFH, things seemed easier. Well, except for the lifting part.

Rinse and repeat for offloading, with the addition of the gap we had to leap over as it took so long to get the luggage to the door that the ferry was just about pulling away… very exciting!

When we got to Karakoy on the European side, we at least knew approximately where we were heading: back to the Galata Bridge, through the underpass (scary), right at the fish market (smelly… ok, not really), right into the gun bazaar (scary… really!) and up the stairs (hernia!) to the Beyoglu tram station, where we purchased two tokens and joined a whole new set of irritated commuters trying to get onto the trams.

We just managed to get all the bags off the tram at the Sultanahmet stop and stopped to regroup on the sidewalk. I’m still not sure how we managed it (certainly parts of it have been blocked from my memory), but we lugged all that crap to the hotel over endless miles of cobbled sidewalks. Actually it wasn’t miles – the hotel was just as close as advertised. The Med Cezir is basically opposite the Four Seasons, just down the street from the Baths Of Lady Hürrem and around the corner from one of the ‘Ev’ hotels. It’s in good company!

From the outside, the cheerfully-painted Med Cezir looked like it belonged – a pale lemon-yellow building with a cute little café-style restaurant on the left and the hotel entrance on the right.

We staggered into the hallway that led to the admissions desks where we were kindly, and amusedly, greeted by Erol, the owner. The kindness seemed very typical of him, the amusement mostly generated by the fact that we now had to carry the luggage up three narrow, spiralling sets of stairs to the third floor where our room was. Yay! The first flight was fairly normal, the second, a little tighter and steeper. The third flight of stairs was just as steep and incredibly narrow at the top, and the light in the hallway was controlled by a motion detector that unexpectedly turned off after there had been no movement for, say, twenty seconds. Pretty much the amount of time required to find one’s key, for instance, or to take a breather after hauling a large and unwieldy suitcase up three flights of stairs.

After waving our way down the hallway to get the light on, we made our way into the room, and were pleasantly surprised. There was a double bed, a reading lamp (our first in Turkey), a wardrobe, and a pile of clean towels on the bed. After doing a recon in the hallway, we found two bathrooms to serve three bedrooms: one was possessed of a half-sized bath with shower and the other was a powder room. There were actual little hotel soaps (which we ignored, preferring our Tire olive oil soap during our quick showers) and plenty of spare tp. Everything was spotlessly clean, if not glamorous.

This was so worth the 60YTL per night we were paying: the room was good, the stairs were… healthy, and the location was un-freaking-believable, as we realized when we abandoned our luggage, walked back down the stairs and twenty short steps into the park I only know as Sultanahmet Park between the breathtaking Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque.

Steve wanted to be sure we got to Beyoglu today to check out the street of music shops. We had asked Erol if he knew of anywhere to go and he had told us, being an oud and guitar player himself, which streets to visit.

We first headed over to the Divan Yolu where we veered off onto a sidestreet and walked a block to a small music shop. The shopkeeper was nice, but not very interested in us, which was fair, as his ouds were nice but not very interesting.

The tram station was close and we had the hang of getting our tokens, so it took no time at all before we were whisking across the Galata Bridge. Just for the sake of entertainment, we decided to deliberately miss the Beyoglu stop and got off at the next one down the line, where we walked back along the street to the bottom of the hill we were to walk up the street of music. We passed storefronts full of Vespas (Alex would have just died) and sidewalks full of astonished Istanbullus (we weren’t in a tourist area) before we found ourselves at the bottom of a fan of streets spreading up the hill above us.

We knew we had to walk up Yüksek Kaldırım Caddesi which would turn into Galip Dede Caddesi, which is the street of the musical instruments. Yüksek Kaldırım was easy enough to find, now that I had the hang of finding the street signs high up on the building on the left corner of the street. From my up-since-six-am perspective, however, it didn’t look all that easy to walk up. From sea-level, the streets of Beyoglu head straight up the hill – there is the Tünel that can take you up from near the tram station to the top of the hill at the end of Istiklal Caddesi, but that would have bypassed the entire street of the musical instruments. We needed to walk up.

Daunted, we stopped to take a look at the street signs to make sure this was actually the right street and were promptly accosted by a döner seller. We weren’t a hard sell, as the tavuk on the pole looked fantastic and the price was just a few lira. We sat under some trees at little tables with little umbrellas and a very aggressive, skinny little cat. He ended up with quite a bit of my tavuk, but his kitty desperation when the food was gone was heartbreaking. It was hard to reconcile the thousands of starving strays creeping around Istanbul: you just wouldn’t see that in Canada. Instead, they would be rounded up and sent to the SPCA where some of them would be adopted into loving homes, and others would be put to sleep. Which is best? In Istanbul they have a chance, I guess, especially with soft-hearted turists possessed of a liberal hand with the tavuk.

Full and fortified, we headed up the caddesi, stopping in what seemed like every musical instrument shop along the way. Now I know how Steve feels when he’s tagging along with my shopping! Only when I’m shopping, we’re not brought constant cups of tea and invitations to sit and visit. Well, not everywhere was that friendly, but most shopkeepers were very pleasant and they all seemed pleasantly surprised that Steve could illicit vaguely appropriate noises from the ouds he tried. Every so often he would also pick up a guitar and blow them away.

We finally found a shop where the ouds were better than good and the salespeople were very nice. Since a lot of this trip was paid for by an inheritance from Steve’s grandmother, and she would have wanted him to have a musical keepsake from it and her, we had kept money aside specifically for an oud. The one that Steve liked the best was a little higher than his budget, but I kindly offered to put his Christmas present money towards it! Suitably revenged for his offers regarding the kilim we bought in Selçuk, Steve decided to bite the bullet and get the one he wanted. Purporting to need some time to think on it, we left the shop and decided to head uphill a bit to see what we could see.

After what was actually a very short time and an easy hike, we came to an open square which marked the start of the Istiklal Caddesi, a long pedestrian-only street which lead eventually to Taksim Square and which seemed to be Istanbul’s answer to Vancouver’s Robson Street. This was also where the Tünel ended up, so I think the neighbourhood is also known as Tünel.

There was a little tram that appeared every so often, carrying the lazy or footsore down Istiklal Caddesi. We didn’t really feel like doing the full-on stroll as dark was coming on and the tram never seemed to be leaving when we weren’t busy looking at something interesting. Not to put too fine a point on it, but the street looked like it was mostly occupied by the young, hip and terminally fashionable. Besides, right in the little square we could see a few little art galleries and went to look for post-cards or other interesting things.

We sure did find interesting things – copies of old lithographs of the city, decorated words in Arabic script, sketches of dervishes and a bunch of delicate watercolour Istanbul skylines with pen & ink boats and seagulls in the foreground. Lovely things! We were delighted to find out that the prices were very reasonable for original works: even though they were made very much to a formula, the execution was still quite wonderful. When we told the shopkeeper that the frames (brown) and matts (not white) weren’t to our taste, he offered to have his wife come to the shop and do some custom frames for us. Even with the custom framing, the price were still very reasonable, so we assessed our Christmas gift needs and picked out a half-dozen paintings.

By the time our order was framed, wrapped and bagged, it was almost full dark, and we had quite a distance to get back to our pension. On the upside, the walk down Galip Dede Caddesi was much easier than going up, and we passed amazing sights including the Galata Tower and cars attempting to drive down a street full of people. We stopped in at the music shop and purchased the oud, which Steve cradled like a babe for the rest of the night.

I couldn’t resist the sight of an open shop manually squeezing fresh orange juice where you could buy a glass for a lira, so we stopped for juice. Steve declined, as his hands were full of oud, but I found it delicious and worth every penny.

Back down the hill, back on the tram, back to Sultanahmet – we felt like old hats at this and my enjoyment of Istanbul increased with every step on a marble paving stone I took. I was no longer overwhelmed by touts and trams and every little thing; more comfortable with Turkish and the Turks, I finally felt able to handle and truly enjoy this amazing city.

We strolled into the Med Cezir with our purchases in hand. Erol and his assistant, Sabo (which means ‘loyalty’ in… Kurdish? we were proudly advised by the young man in question) were delighted to see us. They fixed us some very passable mezes at a fairly reasonable price (by Sultanahmet standards) and watched Steve explore his oud.

It had been a long, long day and we weren’t really up to going out or even visiting that much. We hauled our very sorry rear ends up the stairs, waved at the motion light, got out our keys, waved at the light again and were in our room, soon to bed. It only took a second or two before we realized that the ‘double’ bed was actually two twins pushed together. The foam topper helped a little, but it still wasn’t as perfectly comfortable as it might have been, with a bit of a raised seam where the beds joined. That said, we had no regrets and we felt that we were very lucky to have come across this particular pension; we snuggled across the seam and slept very well.