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.