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111op's Short Trip to Istanbul

Old Nov 27th, 2006, 03:46 PM
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111op's Short Trip to Istanbul

I spent Turkey Day flying to Turkey -- more specifically Istanbul. I was there on Friday and Saturday and flew home yesterday. I used Delta FF miles so the ticket was free. People will be glad that the report will be relatively short with few snotty art historical references.

Flying Over

My trip wasn't off to a good start. Right before I was about to leave for the airport, I read the confirmation e-mail for the second hotel I had booked (Buyuk Londra/Grand Hotel de Londres). I had been asked to acknowledge receipt of the e-mail, and I didn't, so the hotel would not be honoring my reservation. Instead I hastily booked a double at the sister hotel Troya for 50 euros. I was disappointed that I didn't get a chance to stay at Buyuk Londra, a faded grand hotel, especially since I had booked the cheapest double for 40 euros.

I arrived at the airport with plenty of time to spare, but an over zealous TSA agent was arguing that I couldn't carry a nearly empty container of hair wax because there was no indication that the container could hold 3 oz or less. Finally I pulled a trick and carried it on anyway. Since I didn't have much time in Istanbul, I didn't want to waste my time by checking in a bag.

It had been raining in the city on Thanksgiving Day, and the flight was scarily choppy initially. The plane was moving so much that the flight attendants had to sit down a couple of times during service.

Then a flight attendant decided to spice things up some more for me by spilling some orange juice on my seat. Fortunately my clothes were largely spared. Then I thought that the flight attendant threw out my glasses while cleaning up the mess. Fortunately they had just fallen underneath my seat. Anyway, the plane was rather empty, so I moved to a different seat and still had an empty seat next to mine. But my mood was rather sour.

We arrived far ahead of schedule -- well over half an hour early. I paid $20 for my visa, which was a sticker on my passport. After clearing immigration, I withdrew some cash and took a cab for my hotel. Immediately I was glad that I chose Istanbul over Poland for my getaway. The weather was perfect, and I was comfortable with my long T-shirt and sweater (the temperature was probably in the high 50s/low 60s). The highway was close to the water, and I found myself liking the city.

My first hotel (Romance) was in Sultanahmet, close to the main sights. After leaving my bag, I headed out right away for Topkapi Palace.

Day 1

Topkapi Palace

Home of Sultans until the mid nineteenth century, Topkapi Palace brought to mind the Alhambra and the Forbidden City in Beijing. This was a bit of a sprawl, but there was a great deal of open space and a sense of calm. The setting was also stunning, as it was built on a hill surrounded by water. The innermost fourth courtyard, where the restaurant and cafeteria are located, offers the nicest views.

I decided to visit Topkapi first because Time Out Istanbul suggests that the harem (separate admission) is closed between 12 and 1. Since it's open only by guided tour, I headed there first. I had just missed the 11 am tour, as had a group of disgruntled tourists who were on a rush. As befits the image of Turkey one may have, a few complaints and protests got us all admitted right away.

Our guide's English wasn't the greatest, and we were herded from room to room, and I didn't really have enough time to listen to the audio guide in great detail. I thought that the decor tastefully combined East and West. One room had an old grandfather clock that was given by Queen Victoria. The clock read 9:05, which I believe our guide said was when Ataturk died. I also remember a special room of baths that separates the men's quarters from the women's, designed by Sinan. And I enjoyed the views from the Favorite Concubines' Courtyard with a pool that was also designed by Sinan. If I understood our guide correctly, the official Olympics pool follows the measurements of that pool.

After the harem, I went to the Treasury. I had read about an 86-karat diamond first uncovered in the 17th century. The label told the story that it was initially discovered in a garbage dump (talk about lottery tickets and windfalls!). Nearby was the Topkapi dagger, decorated with gemstones. Another room housed a selection of thrones. Most of the thrones extended horizontally, except for one that was rather tall. I think that was designed by Aga, the architect of the Blue Mosque and a Sinan disciple. Most of these precious objects evoked understated elegance and opulence rather than sheer pomposity.

Also worth mentioning is a room in the Palace that houses relics of the Holy Prophet, including weapons used by him, a letter written in the 7th century, a footprint, and various reliquaries containing items like teeth.

Archaeological Museum

The Archaeological Museum is located in the first (public) courtyard ofthe Topkapi complex. Since there was construction, I had a hard time finding it as I wasn't expecting to walk on a dirt path to get there. The crowning treasure is the Alexander Sarcophagus, elaborately decorated with relief sculpture illustrating Alexander's battles. The tomb dates to 4th century BC and was unearthed in a royal necropolis at Sidon along with other tombs also exhibited in the museum. They are believed to house the remains of Phoenicians.

The museum also houses a nice collection of sculptures from antiquity. Michelin Europe especially singles out the ephebe (a young athelete) from Tralles. Finally a separate building houses artifacts from ancient civilizations --such as relief sculptures from Babylonian gates reminiscent of those found in Berlin's Pergamonmuseum.

Kariye Museum

I was doing quite well with time and figured that I would make an excursion for the Kariye Museum. This isn't located near the cluster of attractions and is not really within walking distance. I took a cab from Topkapi and encountered my first scam in Istanbul. The meter showed old currency and was fluctuating wildy during the ride. Finally I reached the museum and engaged in a shouting match with the cab driver. I finally escaped by throwing down a 10 YTL note and running into the museum.

The museum is renowned for its mosaics as it was initially founded as the St. Savior in Chora church. It subsequently became a mosque. I didn't get much from my visit, but I noticed that the restaurant Asitane is next door. Recommended by various sources, it's known for its attempted recreations of Ottoman feasts.

Getting Lost

After the museum, I wanted to return to Sultanahmet, but I was hesitant about taking another cab. I decided to try the bus and had to ask locals for directions. Since many didn't speak English, this was difficult. It seemed that no bus would actually take me where I wanted to go. Finally I got on what I thought was the right one, and the bus driver gestured that this wasn't the bus I wanted, but one passenger signaled for me to remain. We then got off together, and I went into the first mosque I saw while thinking it was the Blue Mosque.

I think that this was actually the Sehzade Mosque (also designed by Sinan). I learned that I had to remove my shoes before setting foot inside the main area for worship.

Suleymaniye Mosque

After studying my maps, I discovered that Sinan's masterpiece is nearby. According to the Style City guide, Le Corbusier thought that Sinan was one of two architects who really understood the concept of space. (I wonder who the second one was.) I find mosques antithetical to Gothic cathedrals in their architectural structure. Mosques extend horizontally whereas cathedrals seem much taller. Though I didn't study the architectural and religious ideas behind mosques, I still found them peaceful and welcoming.

Suleyman the Magnificent was buried in this mosque complex. Sinan's tomb is located nearby but outside of the complex proper. Instead, it can be found at the triangular corner formed by the intersection of two streets. Since the mausoleum wasn't open to visitors, I couldn't enter. From the outside, it looked unremarkable and one could easily have missed this.

Ayasofya

Since it was now around 4 pm, the sun was beginning to set and I walked over to Ayasofya. Navigating the labyrinthian streets of Istanbul wasn't easy, but I knew that I had to walk east.

I arrived at Asysofya around 4:30 pm. Since the Upper Gallery would close at 4:45 pm, I was advised to go there first. I was pretty excited to be climbing the ramp for the Upper Gallery and visiting a building that was first constructed in the 6th century. Presumably I was retracing the steps of believers from centuries ago. I was surprised by how dark the interior was. There are very few windows, but perhaps I chose a time to visit that was simply too late, given that the sun has basically set. The Upper Gallery contains mosaic panels and a slab that marks the burial place of Doge Dandolo (who participated in the Fourth Crusade and whose burial place was desecrated when Constantinople fell to the Ottomans).

The Ottomans had modified Justinian's church when it became a mosque. Some of these modifications could be seen in the lower level. A mihrab was added, as well as a library (closed to visitors). The scaffolding that obscured views of the main dome that Matt Gross from NYT saw during his visit and likened to "a beautiful intrusion, like the monolith in '2001: A Space Odyssey'" was still there.

Ayasofya is now a museum.

Finally I left around closing time at 5, amazed that I actually visited a structure that had survived about 1500 years. I also felt that mosques owed a great deal to Ayasofya in terms of their architectural styles.

Arasta Bazaar

I wanted to walk across to visit the Blue Mosque next, it happened to be prayer time. So I visited the Arasta Bazaar nearby. This consists of two rows of shops and is far less intimidating than the Grand Bazaar.

Next: Rest of Day 1 and Rest of Trip
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Old Nov 27th, 2006, 03:50 PM
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Some Links

Alexander Sarcophagus
http://www.britannica.com/eb/art-1827

Ephebe from Tralles
http://www.kzu.ch/fach/as/gallerie/r...bul/ist_14.htm

Kariye Museum
http://www.princeton.edu/~asce/const_95/kariye.html

Doge Dandolo
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Enrico_Dandolo

NYT Archive on Istanbul Articles
http://tinyurl.com/y3rl5f
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Old Nov 27th, 2006, 04:25 PM
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So glad that you were able to enjoy the great weather.

Your flight sounded like a nightmare --I'm impressed how you didn't let it ruin your first day of vacation.
The cab scam is a hassle but I tried not to take it personally -- this was tough since shouting matches can get one worked up...

Sounds like a great way to spend Thanksgiving weekend. How long in advance did you need to book your award tix? thanks for your report!
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Old Nov 27th, 2006, 04:49 PM
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I was really unhappy about the spill especially since I pack very lightly and don't have many outfits -- I happened to have that single sweater and no jacket or coat, so if it wasn't wearable, it'd have been a disaster.

I was surprised by how easy it was to book the FF ticket. I did this probably about a month ago. Out of curiosity I checked the day I was supposed to leave, and I could still have booked the outbound at the SkySaver level. But the return was fuller and I'd have had to use SkyChoice had I not booked early. I guess no one wanted to fly to Turkey on Thanksgiving Day. My gain!

Thanks for reading.
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Old Nov 27th, 2006, 04:53 PM
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Day 1 (continued)

Beyoglu

I returned to the hotel and rested briefly. Since my dinner reservation was for 10:30, I still had about four hours to kill. I decided to walk to Beyoglu, where I'd be staying the next day. I crossed the Galata Bridge, across the body of water that separates Beyoglu from Sultanahmet called the Golden Horn, and noticed that there were quite a lot of people fishing. I found the main thoroughfare (Istiklal Caddesi) and was amazed by how crowded it was. I bought some glasses form Pasabahce (less than $10) and checked out the jeans at Mavi. Then I returned to Sultanahmet.

Cagaloglu Hamami (pronounced gel-log-lu)

Time Out Istanbul claims that Cagaloglu Hamami closes at 10 pm, so I figured that I'd get a Turkish bath before dinner. The choice was between this and Cemberlitas, and I figured I'd have an easier time finding Cagaloglu. Cemberlitas's history is 200 years longer and it was supposedly designed by Sinan, but Cagaloglu has been around long enough at about 300 years. Further the balance was tipped in its favor since it's been written up a couple of times in NYT. Finally it's one of the 1000 places one should see before one dies -- the hamami makes sure that you know this.

I arrived around 9 pm and was the only one there. I opted for the complete ("sultan") service at 57 YTL (about $40). I was given a key for a small private room, where I changed and wrapped a towel around myself. I switched to wooden clogs. Then I went into the hot room and waited for the masseur, who turned out to a middle-aged guy with a pot belly. This wasn't really a massage but was more like quasi torture -- he grunted when my body was contorted into rather unnatural positions. Amazingly I didn't get a sprain and I even began to get the hang of it.

Then I was soaped up and scrubbed down with a very rough sponge. As my skin turned red, he proudly pointed out all the dirt he was getting off me. In between I was splashed with warm water unceremoniously (it seemed like I was then subject to water torture -- exactly like how they do it in movies). Finally I was wrapped in three towels, with one around my head (Sultan!, as the masseur exclaimed). But before being let go, he told me in his rudimentary English that this was hard work. He flexed my fingers to simulate the motion of grabbing something to indicate that wanted a tip. I read in Time Out that I was supposed to tip about 25%, and as a NYT writer points out, I wasn't going to argue with someone who could "snap my neck like a chicken's." So I tipped 15 YTL and he seemed very happy. So I dropped about $50 for an interesting, unique experience that I'm not dying torepeat.

Once I left, it was lights out -- at around 9:30pm. The whole experience took less than half an hour.

Dinner at Balikci Sabahattin

I was rather early for dinner but decided to head to the restaurant early. I could see from my maps that the restaurant is near the Four Seasons Hotel, and when I passed it, I asked for directions -- "left, right, right and down second left" (if I remember the directions right). I had to wait for a while before I was given a table. I was asked to choose a few mezes to start. I chose shrimp, eggplant, roasted peppers and a fish salad. I had a beer and opted for sea bass for the main course. It came simply served with a huge chuck of radish, onion and some basil and greens. This was a good meal.

I returned to my hotel around midnight.

Day 2

I got up relatively early, had breakfast, checked out of my hotel but left my bag there so that I could return later to get it and move to Beyoglu.

Grand Bazaar

As I expected I had a hard time finding the Grand Bazaar. Finally I happened upon one entrance by accident and went inside. The Grand Bazaar is basically a covered marketplace with lots of shops segregated by merchandise type. I looked at a few listed by guidebooks and then decided to look for a shop mentioned in Style City where the secretary of NATO supposedly shopped. I bought a leather jacket there but bargained for it very poorly. I also made sure that I went to Sisko Osman, where Hilary Clinton supposedly bought carpets. I went inside, and I didn't see any pictures of Hilary, but I saw some of Harvey Keitel and his wife.

Spice Bazaar

Not surprisingly I had an equally hard time finding the Spice Bazaar nearby. I bought some Turkish coffee from Kurukahveci Mehmet Efendi, recommended by a couple of guidebooks.

Yerebatan Cistern

I was doing so well with time that I decided to visit Yerebatan Cistern. This was one attraction I'd have skipped if I didn't have enough time and I was glad that I didn't. Located underground, like Ayasofya/Haghia Sophia, it was also built during Justinian's times and was supposedly featured in "From Russia With Love." I found this a rather mysterious and wonderfully atmospheric place. It's famous for the two medusa heads (one inverted, one sideways) that support two pillars. I didn't think that Beethoven's "Leonore" overture, which happened to be the background music when I was there, suited the mood very well.

Carpets at DOSIM

It was now around noon and prayer time again at the Blue Mosque. I went to a DOSIM shop nearby (operated by the Turkish Ministry of Culture). In old baths now converted to a carpet shop, beautiful carpets were laid out and hung and available for purchase. I especially enjoyed my experience because I could look without being harassed.

Blue Mosque

When the Blue Mosque opened to visitors, I went inside. This mosque gets its name from the blue tiles that cover the interior of the mosque. I was expecting to see a lot of blue, but the effect was more subtle. The architect is Aga, a Sinan disciple.

Shopping

Since I was now done with my sightseeing in Sultanahmet, I took a cab for another hotel in Beyoglu and checked in. Since I was still doing very well with time (it was around 2 pm), I took another cab for Tesvikiye/Nisantasi, an upscale neighborhood north of Taksim, the focal point of Beyoglu. I looked for a couple of shops, including Beymen (the Turkish Barneys and where a Prada shirt was still more than $300 by my quick calculation). I also found another branch of Pasabahce and went inside and bought a glass vase.

Then I returned to Beyoglu and did some shopping there. I went to Haci Bekir, which has been around for more than 200 years, and bought a local specialty called Turkish Delight.

I also tried to find Umit Unal, the shop of a Turkish designer near Tunel, at the southern end of Istiklal Caddesi and where the underground tram is located. But with the poorly labeled streets, I managed to come tantalizingly close without finding it at all.

Dinner at Refik

I noticed Refik on my quest to find Umit Unal. I tried to make a reservation before I left and was told that there were no tables available. There were plenty of tables available at 7:30. I sat down and chose some mezes and had kofte (meatballs) for my main course.

Nightlife

After a nap, I went out again around 9. Istiklal Caddesi was still hopping, and I wandered around for a bit. The night ended with a close call with a pickpocket who could have taken my money but didn't. I'm still wondering why.

Day 3/Departure

After being conned out of a few dollars by my hotel and by another cabdriver, I arrived at the airport quite early. I had plenty of time for security checks. One had to go through checkpoints before heading to airline checkin counters. Then bags were X-rayed again at the gate and hand searched. Passengers were given pat downs. And people were still prevented from carrying on travel size toiletries.

The crew on my return flight was basically the same as the crew on my flight to Istanbul. Thankfully the clumsy one who spilled juice on me wasn't working in cattle class. The crew seemed surprised that I had such a short visit.

Link for Turkish Delight
http://www.hacibekir.com.tr/eng/urun_lokum.html
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Old Nov 28th, 2006, 12:41 PM
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Topping in case someone wants to read it.
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Old Nov 28th, 2006, 12:52 PM
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Thanks! I'm going to Istanbul next October on a cruise and will be there for 1.5 days. I was there in 1993 and saw a lot of the places you visited. Looking forward to my return!

Monica
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Old Nov 28th, 2006, 01:06 PM
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Great trip report. I too was in Turkey on Turkey Day!!
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Old Nov 29th, 2006, 08:43 AM
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thanks, wonderful trip report!
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Old Nov 29th, 2006, 08:56 AM
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Wow, you really spent some packed days in Istanbul! Trip report was fun to read.
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Old Nov 29th, 2006, 09:02 AM
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I hope you did NOT kneel in Sophia Hagia (sp?)!
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Old Nov 29th, 2006, 09:03 AM
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Thanks!

No, I didn't kneel. Why would I have? I'm neither Muslim nor Christian -- and this is a museum anyway.
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Old Nov 29th, 2006, 09:10 AM
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I do admire you 111... you do just get up an go go go... its a wonderful thing. I wish I could.
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Old Nov 29th, 2006, 09:13 AM
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<No, I didn't kneel. Why would I have? I'm neither Muslim nor Christian -- and this is a museum anyway>

that's why it was such a faux pas when J-Paul II started to kneel there once and the current Pope on his visit it is hoped won't try to.

Anyway a rather rivetting well written report. Thanks.
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Old Nov 29th, 2006, 12:18 PM
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You can do it too, Suzie!

Didn't know that story about JP. But it's interesting to hear that the current Pope is now supporting Turkey's candidacy for EU, but obviously there's a lot of opposition from the EU itself.
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