Turkey — Day Two — Istanbul

We were awoken at just before six in the morning by the call to prayer: after this time of morning, practicing Muslims won’t eat or drink until sundown during Ramazan.

We headed down for breakfast at eight and were pleasantly surprised by the very good breakfast: fresh bread, butter, jam, hardboiled eggs, a slice of cake, a slice of salami-ish meat, a slice of very nice cheese and… olives. A little pile of olives. I cheerfully traded my pile of olives for Steve’s egg, so we were both very happy at breakfast.

Even though Nazur had said he’d come at about nine, we were raring to go 20 minutes after eight. We made our apologies and left for the Hagia Sofia. When we walked by, it wasn’t yet open, though it already had a small tour group and a rapidly talking guide outside the gates.

We decided not to join the horde and wandered off around the Blue Mosque. Everything was so much more serene compared to last night. There were stray dogs sleeping everywhere and the city was out in force, cleaning the cobblestones and sweeping up garbage. They even had little ride-on vacuum cleaners complete with power-heads!

We walked around the mosque as well, which was much different without the throngs of people. We found the area where the men were doing their ablutions (ritual washing before prayer) which was stunning. The marble seats and drains were lovely, but the brass taps which looked like fans were even nicer. I covet these taps!

Just past the Blue Mosque is the Arasta Bazaar, which is part of the Mosque complex. Apparently the shop owners still pay rents to the mosque. Nothing was open or awake except for some kitties. There was one exceptionally cute pair with one in a store window, all over some no-doubt priceless carpets, which was playing with a black&white friend outside the window. Very cute!

We headed back to the Hagia Sofia for nine and entered with the crowds. We paid 10L each to enter, and this came complete with an x-ray machine that we had to run our bags and camera through.

The Hagia Sofia was built in the 6th century by the Emporer Justinian and was then changed to a mosque in the 15th Century with the arrival of the Ottoman Turks. Attaturk turned it to a Museum in 1925 with the inception of the secular Republic of Turkey. The name means ‘Church of the Divine Wisdom’ and the Turks call it the ‘Ayasofia’.

It is, without any doubt, the most impressive building I have ever seen.

Everything about it is beautiful and elegent and spiritual and steeped in more time than you can imagine. I was struck by the way the marble step into the nave is worn by the passing of countless reverent feet. The dome soars so high you can just hear the passing of pigeon wings. The marble floor is cracked but still glorious and the details of relief work, frescoes and mosaics made a millenium ago astonish the eye. Even the imperfections are beautiful: in some places upstairs there is marble on the lower wall and painted plaster meant to look like marble above; many of the marble railings in the gallery have graffitti — some modern, some Greek, some Norse! Those 9th century Vikings just had to scratch their little Johan Henry into the most impressive church in Christendom of the time! Ah, Vikings.

There is some restoration going on, but the scaffolding is remarkably unobtrusive.

Proving my point that Istanbul is full of kitties, there was a little church moggy just soaking up the attention.

We left the Hagia Sofia reluctantly, but the crowds were getting a little much.

The park between the H.S. and the Blue Mosque was a little more lively and the dogs were gambolling on the freshly cleaned grass. We had overheard a tour guide saying that the dogs are picked up by the city, given shots and ‘operations’ and let back out on the streets. They are the Sultan’s dogs and are never killed.

Since it was a tourist-time, we were allowed in the Blue Mosque without head coverings, though we had to take our shoes off and put them in little plastic bags. The interior of the mosque is beautiful, and people were busy vacuuming what seemed like acres of carpet. To be frank, I felt a little uncomfortable being in such a reverent place as a tourist, though Steve got some great photographs. There was a remarkable scroll done up, so lovely that a few young girls in full black garb were taking pictures of it with their cell phone cameras! I wished I could have read the scroll.

When we left the mosque, we passed all the people putting on their shoes in the area specifically designated as ‘do not put shoes on here’. The marble of the steps was cool and smooth on our bare feet. We were the only ones to give a donation to the mosque (admission was free).

It was still only mid-morning, so we decided to head down to the neighbourhood north of Sultanameht called Eminonu to try and buy a transit pass called an Akbil. We walked down where the tram goes, past huge city walls and more affable carpet sellers. No where did we find any pushy touts, much to our surprise. Everyone was really reasonable and, more often than not, really funny! There is a very clever sense of humour to most of the Turks we met in Istanbul.

About halfway down, the need for a bathroom became acute. Fortunately, there was a convenient tiny mosque with a small but impeccably clean bathroom. Mosques are a reliable source of public (pay) bathrooms. Make sure the stall has paper before you sit… I mean squat. Really, .50L is a small price to pay for the convenience of having a bathroom every few blocks (mosques are frequent).

We made it to Eminonu, which is at the south end of the Galata Bridge. The Galata Bridge is where Englishmen famously frequented the cafes under the bridge and bastardized the card game Whist into the more widely known Bridge.

Irritatingly, the man in the Akbil booth wouldn’t sell me an Akbil. He had no English, and I had no Turkish, so he spread his hands in a ‘no more today’ kind of way and I was unhappy.

We decided to go get some lunch as Steve was getting hungry, which was its own challenge. We wanted to go to a restaurant recommended by the Lonely Planet (we are such slaves to the L.P.) called Hamdi which was highly recommended. Unfortunately, nothing is easy to find in Istanbul and we were a tiny bit lost. This wouldn’t have ordinarily been a problem except that we kept walking past fish-sandwich vendors. Did I mention Steve was hungry? Yeah. Fortuntely, a kind local looked at our map and directed us to the restaurant just in the nick of time.

The food really was very good, and the view from the glass atrium we ate in was superb. We were brought bottled water to drink, which we thought was very swish (before we realized that EVERYWHERE gives you bottled water with your meal). The bread is unlimited and free. The only problem with Hamdi is that there were a ton of tourists there, including large tour groups. Apparently we aren’t the only slaves to the Lonely Planet! Lunch was about 50L with tip, which was pretty good for such a classy joint. I don’t like it that the L.P. quotes in euros, which means we have to do math twice: once to get CA$, and again to get Lira.

From lunch, we headed a block over to the Spice Bazaar, which was lovely. When we first entered, a man held out a scoop of dried leaves:

“Here, this is apple tea.”
“Yes, it smells like apples.”
“This one, this is love tea!”
“Yes, smells like love!”

Apparently ‘Turkish Viagra’ is a big hit with shopkeepers (and tourists?).

We were given a sample of ‘lokum’ — Turkish Delight — with pistachio nuts. Yum!

I stood at a stall looking at headscarves. The shopkeeper was very funny and nice, and thanked me for wanting to be respectful when I went into a mosque. He didn’t give us much of a deal, however! I suppose 4L for a cotton scarf isn’t exactly breaking the bank, but we expected more haggling. The scarf-seller decided to have his photo taken with me, though in a very respectful way!

We found the bathrooms, which were out and beside the bazaar, in an area of pet and gardening supplies. The bathroom was downstairs, was wickedly hot, and was full of women pushing their way into four little stalls. A nice woman in a t-shirt came out of a doorway and, while patting and rubbing my arm, budged me into line in front of a few other women, none of whom seemed to mind. The tshirt women stood beside me, occasionally absently patting my arm, until I had made my way into the stall. Yay, paper!

When I emerged, I joined the crush for the sinks. Because this little bathroom is close to the Rustem Pasha mosque (which we’ll see when we’re back in town), there were women doing their ablutions. This involved washing hands (including fingers), arms (including elbows), and feet! (including toes, which involved removing shoes and stockings and lifting their legs right up into the sinks!). I felt very inadequate just washing my hands.

I came up into the light and found Steve waiting for me beside a plastic barrel full of leeches. Yes, leeches. They floated in the water and affixed themselves to the edges of the bucket. I wondered how you got them out… does the seller stick his arm in and whatever comes up attached to him is what you buy?

There were turtle sellers, white peacocks, doves, pigeons and chickens of all kinds, and a stall selling puppies (which looked to be in good shape). There were also food and containers for all manner of animal, and gardening supplies to boot.

Zehra, a young woman in a headscarf, offered (in English) to take us back to the Akbil dealer and figure out why he wouldn’t sell us one, but our desire to go back to the chaos of the bus station was pretty much nil. We thanked her and decided to head uphill to the Grand Bazaar. Not only did we want to see it, but I decided to get a shirt with longer sleeves (and not stretchy) as I did feel a little self-conscious last night. Mind you, the covered nature of the women in Istanbul could have been a) because it was Ramazan and b) because it is October in their world (24 Celcius!), but I still wanted a new shirt.

Getting to the Grand Bazaar involved hiking up a fairly steep cobbled hill, where the sidewalks were about 18″ wide and sometimes dropped into pits. The road was full of people and touts and simit wagons and cars — yes, cars. The cars barrelled down the hills with ill regard for human life. Virtually every car, van, motorbike and taxi I saw had serious dents and scratches on the front corners. I’m not surprised! given the driving conditions. I would never want to drive in Istanbul.

The Grand Bazaar was amazing: brightly lit and with goods glittering in every window. We were expecting lots of hard sell here, but actually everyone was really nice: “Come, let me help you spend your money.” When we replied with good humour, the shopkeepers laughed with us and we shared some banter. No-one was pushy or obnoxious and I gone one compliment on my tattoo 🙂

The only problem with the Grand Bazaar is that we kept not buying things! Every stall was piled high with interesting things, like (fake) designer leather handbags and (fake) Puma runners. The gold street was absolutely stunning, with a fortune in every window. However, there wasn’t a shirt to be found that wasn’t either a sweater (like I needed to be warmer!) or covered in sequins (not really my thing, and the object was to feel LESS selfconscious). Everything else we liked, we couldn’t quite face the thought of hauling it around for the next month. I also felt a little reluctant to look at anything too closely, as I was expecting at any minute to have the famed hordes of shopkeeps come and force me to buy many useless, heavy things. It didn’t happen, of course, but it might have!

We did locate the music store area of the Bazaar as Steve wanted to take a look at the available instruments. I believe it was Blaine who threatened bodily harm if Steve didn’t come back from Turkey with an uud… so we thought we’d take the temperature of prices and maybe learn a little about what to look for for quality in a Turkish instrument. We found a great stall staffed by a young man with an obvious passion for music. He told Steve the cheaper instruments were “only good for the wall” and I got the impression he mostly sells to tourists who want exactly that — a decoration. Steve flailed away on both a saz and an uud and made some rather pleasing noises (though he says it wasn’t music at this point).

In the Bazaar, I figured out street signs. They are about four inches by six inches, blue and white, and high up on the wall of the building on the corner of the intersection. However, the street name is often not the one on the map, so they weren’t very helpful.

We still got lost coming back to the hotel from the Bazaar, but not too badly. You’d think it would be easy to navigate, considering the tallness and prominence of several major landmarks, like the Hagia Sofia and Blue Mosque, but the buildings are all so tall (three or four stories), and so close together, that you never get clear sightlines.

Back at the hotel, we had a nap and woke up starving. We emerged onto the street, thinking to head back up to the Ramazan fray to find some more expensive simit, but were accosted by a very nice man from the restaurant on the corner who invited us to look at his menu. While we were looking, the man’s helper ran out with a piece of chicken doner for us to try. It was good, and we were hungry, so we sat down to a very good, plain dinner. We had flat breat (not pitas, more like tortillas), chicken doner (grilled on a rotisserie), yoghurt-garlic dip (like tzatsiki only better), spicy paste of tomatos and eggplant, chopped tomato and onion, and slices of tomato and lettuce. This is a meze platter and it was very, very good. The man, Ugur, spoke incredibly good English. Actually, he spoke good German, some Korean, Spanish, Japanese and god knows what else.

We had some great conversations about the US and Canada, and why he fasted (he was breaking his fast with his iftar as we spoke). He had some great insights and was funnier n’heck to boot.

He said that fasting… well, he didn’t know the idiom, but it killed four birds with one stone: first, it was good for the body to not be filled with crap every minute of the day all year; second, it made one more empathic to the poor by showing you what it is like to be hungry; third, it reminded you to give to the poor because you felt empathy to them; fourth, it was good to subject yourself to the will of something higher — it humbled you.

All good reasons, though I was glad I wasn’t fasting!

We stayed late chatting at the restuarant, and dranks lots of tea. Ugur offered that if we needed any assistance at all, we should call him, and gave us his card. Everyone has cards in Istanbul! Just like the kitties. Speaking of kitties, Ugur’s brother, who was his helper, brought a paper full of leftover doner for a politely waiting kitty. If that is the charity Ramazan brings, it is lovely indeed. Dinner was about 30L, but we had lots of extra chai and waters. Chai is not refillable!

We staggered, replete with talk and good food, back down the 40 or so feet to the hotel. We charged the batteries, and found enough stolen internet signal to give the ‘all’s well’ on the blog. One more gravol, and to sleep by nine.

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