Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Istanbul, Turkey.

A pleasant surprise, to be absolutely honest, and unexpectedly so. I came here with the promise to myself: to try and see the positive sides of the city and the differences in culture, rather than be annoyed by pushy shopkeepers and fall into the monotony by comparing travels. Istanbul was the European Culture Capital in 2010. Two years later, it was the fifth most popular tourist destination. I was adamant to find out why, and I did.

This is one of the few kitty pictures I took.
I had started a collection of street dogs in Athens. But after three days the count of Turkish street dogs already exceeded the Greek counterpart. 

Byzantium,  it was first called. Constantine,  emperor of the Roman empire, wanted his City built on seven hills, just like Rome, naming it Constantinople. It carried that name till the last century. Only when Atatürk came along did the name change to Istanbul (1930). It was capital to many empires: Roman, Byzantium, Ottoman and Latin. And though it looks like one in many aspects, it is not the country's capital anymore (Ankara is. We were heavily advised against visiting it). Fun fact: During the Ottoman Empire, Istanbul had 1400 public toilets around the city, whilst the rest of Europe had none (not even in the palaces/castles of the French, for instance). 

Istanbul's population counts almost 14 million, not counting the tourists, which is more than the entire population of Belgium. 99% of the population is (officially - not perse practicing ) Muslim. Personally, I find that percentage surprisingly high, and would never have guessed it had you asked me. I did, however, find out where the Turkish way of wrapping a veil comes from. (D' oh). Turkish women have a very specific way of putting it on, and I'm still trying to figure out how it is done (so that it doesn't come undone within 5 minutes).

The Turkish people are friendly. On average, they're friendlier than many cultures I've run into, and they tend to make jokes within the first 3 minutes of them meeting you. Restaurant and shopkeepers aside (who tend to be annoying anywhere- though the Turkish have pushed it to a new level, practically dragging you to a seat in restaurant streets, pushing the menus up your nose), I haven't had any negative situations with the Turkish. They have a funny accent, though. Though their own language consists of practically all vowels (except the phonetic 'oo', possibly) including all the "special" French and Dutch sounding ones ( 'eu'. ' ui' and ''), they have a difficulty pronouncing English. (Or Arabic, for that matter. Their language isn't as throaty/deep). 
Within the first half hour of our being in the country, three different people already helped us out (specifically on Metro whereabouts and information about their tickets) 

Istanbul has a nice transportation system worked out. They have a card, that works very much like the Dutch "OV chip card" (though without the checking out part). The card can be used for all open/public transportation, including but not limited to trains, metros, trams and boats.
You buy a card (10 TL),  and it already has some money on it (4 TL). Every time you check in anywhere (which is the only way you can get on the platform - and there are supervisors at every station) you pay a small amount ( 2 TL), no matter how many stops you take. So basically, it's not about the distance so much as the amount of lines you use. Oh, and by the way: their subway is the third oldest in the world (1875), after the ones in London (1863) and New York (1868). 

Istanbul is greener and spacier than I thought it would be. I got there in the right period: All the tulips were blossoming, and Hyacinths were all around. (Both belong to my top ten flowers, the latter is where my name's derived from). I ended up doing far more walking than I expected - and got new shoes to accommodate said walking. We even walked all the way to the Taksim Square on the Asian side of the city  (Ironically Taksim means Division/Dividing), which is what all the Turkish Twitter-block commotion is about.
They have plenty of naturally coloured flowers, yet find a need to do this

The streets are highlighted with mosques and churches (which look almost the same, but for the added minarets, and the added moon instead of a cross on top-- because most mosques were churches up until the Ottoman empire). The hotel is quite near the Blue Mosque (which is definitely the prettiest on the outside, in my own humble opinion -- it is also the only mosque in the city with six minarets.) The Aya/ Hagia Sofia is just on the other end of that street ( which was my personal winner as far as the inside is concerned-- also, it was the largest church in the world for almost a thousand years, until the Seville Cathedral was completed in 1520. The Aya Sofia was turned to a Mosque. But it is out of function now, and they turned it into a museum). Just outside the "old town" there is a Christian neighbourhood (and a Jewish one, as well), with many churches that still function as such. The Chora has the prettiest frescoes and mosaics. One thing though: Jesus looks very sad in all of them (in the Aya Sofia too).

The Blue Mosque. 

And the Aya Sofia 

The Hippodrome, looking on the Blue Mosque.
 (Including an Egyptian Obelisk)

The Topkapi Palace also has a very interesting museum. As a former palace of Sultans, it's a place complete with hamams and gardens and fountains, and at it's peak housed about 4000 people. Part of the collection  the museum claimed to own seems very questionable to cynical old me (though some might very well be honest and genuine): mainly belongings of different prophets: They claimed to have THE stick of Moses (very polished and smaller than I'd imagine), a turban of Joseph, scrolls of John (the Baptist?), a pot of Abraham, and to top it all off: beard hairs, swords (which were gold decorated and had European hilts-- hence the questionability) and a (huge!) footprint of Muhammed, who according to descriptions was but an average sized man -albeit with a strong/big presence- (PBUT). They also had swords of the different khalifas (Omar, Othman and Ali), and a few keys to the Ka'abeh in Mecca.

They also had a large (ha. Pun intended) collection of Sultans' clothes. Now, there can be only one of two deductions: Either the Sultans were all incredibly overweight, or these clothes were sown to fit their abnormally large egos... I'm rooting for the former deduction, as I could easily curl up and sleep on any of the thrones they had on exhibit (even if it were filled up with cushions).

I could fit in this three or four times. 

We also visited the Archeological Museum of Istanbul. Regrettably, they have very little that was actually found in Istanbul (or Turkey in general). There were a lot of items that were Egyptian, however, some dating back to 2 and 3 thousand years BC, and a lot of Lebanese diggings as well, mainly from Sidon. There were even some Egyptian ruins stolen by Lebanon first, and then somehow found their way to Istanbul's museum.
They did have the tomb of Alexander the Great (which was later found not to contain said Alexander, though they never changed the name of the tomb.) I think I liked that item in the huge collection most of all.

Alexander's Tomb.

The city walls are steep.
Yes. I climbed them. And almost keeled over. 

The Basilica Cistern is a definite Must-see in Istanbul. It's hidden in plain sight, across from the Aya Sofia, and is called Yerebatan Sarayi in Turkish, or the Sunken Palace (which describes it very well). It is the largest of several cisterns that lie 150 m beneath Istanbul, and used to be a Basilica (Roman Public Court Building) built in the 3rd century and contained gardens, and was later rebuilt as a cistern to provide a water filtration system for the Topkapi palace. There are two huge Medusa heads in one of the corners of the with-water-filled man-made cave, one laid sideways ( to negate the power of Gorgon's gaze) and the other is put upside down on purpose (to show the actual height of the face).
There are HUGE fish that swim in the water, which put their heads up around crowds, eagerly awaiting food to be thrown in. Talking of water reminds me: We strolled around the entire beach of the peninsula. The sea is INFESTED with jellyfish. Which makes a fascinating sight, yet a nightmare if you were to accidentally fall into the water.

The Sunken Palace. 

Medusa's head, sideways. 


We roamed about the Grand Bazaar (which is the oldest and largest historical covered bazaar in the world, with 3000 shops covering 61 streets -- it reminded me very much of Khan el Khalili in Cairo) and the Egyptian or Spice bazaar, which covers an entire area around it (Which is very much like some streets in Mansheya in Alexandria).

 Spices and Turkish Delight. 

They really sell these. Just like that. No license no nothing.
Not in the Bazaars, mind you. But in the train-tunnels. 
That and peppersprays and tasers and the like... 

We had Turkish coffee ( and even tried reading our futures -- mine had something that looked like a wolf [or Grim?] , the cup I was trying to read had a definite dragon and a huge and smiling Cheshire cat .) We had Turkish tea ( which tastes like any tea, really. Also, it's only a recent national drink, because coffee became expensive and tea leaves could be grown way more easily in the Black Sea region). And we had apple tea (which is herbal, and prepared horribly sweetly. If I had proper internet I'd've uploaded the video in which I'm attempting -and failing- to drink it without shuddering, though the flavour is quite nice).

To be honest, I don't think I'd attempt visiting Istanbul mid-summer. It is crowded and warm enough for my taste is March-April (You can only shuffle your way through the Bazaar, and though the temperature ranged between 10 and 15 degrees Celsius, I definitely got sunburn the first few days). That said, I DEFINITELY recommend this city as a destination for (short) city trips, and I think I'd like to go there again. I'll at least attempt another visit to Turkey soon, to discover the rest of its brilliance, nature and hidden culture.

The Gypsy

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