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.