Day 29, 30, 31, 32 & 33: Istanbul, Turkey
Istanbul was the final city for our group. It would be the last city for Paul who returned to New York to start school, Steph went on to Italy and Sam and I flew to Amsterdam where we too eventually parted ways. While planning this trip Paul and I both agreed Istanbul would be the perfect closer to our trip. In terms of Europe it’s about as far east as one can go (the city is actually divided into the European and Asian side by way of the Bosphorus river). The city and culture was a complete 180 to everything prior, save of course Sarajevo and from what I had previously read/heard the city is supposed to be one of the most beautiful and unique places out there. This is not far from the truth.
Turkey is a country that is 99% Muslim, which right off the back made it a completely different experience for me. We flew in after a rocky flight from Sarajevo and caught a shuttle bus to our hostel. The Bauhaus hostel was located in an area near the Blue Mosque and Aya Sofia that was littered with backpackers hostels, many of which were run by Aussies. In fact, of the tourists we met while in Istanbul the majority were either from the UK or Australia. To date, this was hands down the nicest hostel I’ve ever stayed in and the price was definitely righteous. Our room was a bit hot but by now stuffy rooms cease to annoy me. The hostel had a really cool rooftop bar/lounge area that had a cool view of the city and was a great place to unwind over a beer or hookah after a long day. Above all though the staff was absolutely great. The hostel was run by two Turkish brothers who were happy to answer any annoying tourist questions one might have, they offered very cheap cold water bottles (Istanbul was the one city that I dared not drink the water mainly since it became apparent early on that not even the locals drink the stuff, save when used in Turkish coffee/apple tea).
After dropping our bags at the hostel on the first day we went and got ourselves a Turkish coffee at a cafe outside the Blue Mosque. Turkish coffee is similar to European espresso style coffee, however, in Turkey they do not strain the grinds out so what your left with is a sludgy black liquid that is actually really good. Turks use a lot of sugar, which didn´t interest me that much, however, the coffee itself was very tasty. After this we headed straight to the famous and gigantic Blue Mosque (see below), our first sight of the trip.
The Blue Mosque, or Sultan Ahmed’s Mosque as it’s formally referred to, is unique for its use of ornate blue tiles lining the interior and its 6 towering minarets, the most of any Mosque in the world, with the exception of one other in Turkey and the Ka’aba in Mecca, which has seven. The story behind the minarets is when the Istanbul Blue Mosque was built Sultan Ahmed was criticized for his grandiose choice of building six minarets since the only other mosque at the time with six was in Mecca. His response was to complete construction and pay for a seventh minaret to be built at the Ka’aba.
The Blue mosque is one of hundreds of equally fascinating mosques in Istanbul, but is definitely the main tourists hot spot, which was a bit of a let down since I couldn’t help but feel like we were intruding on the people who were actually there to pray. At the same time this, along with several other stand out mosques in the city, were some of the most beautiful buildings I’ve ever seen. On a number of a occasions we sat in a mosque for up to 30-40 minutes just soaking in the beauty and grandeur. On the second to last day we couldn’t resist revisiting the Blue Mosque for one last peek.
Another major sight, which I was apparently the only one to appreciate, was the Hagia Sophia. Once a major Cathedral built in the 6th century (it was the world’s biggest until the 16th century when the catedral in Seville was constructed) the building is now a museum but is really noteworthy for its architecture and incredible dome.
The Grand Bazaar is another famous landmark in Istanbul. The massive indoor/outdoor market is a maze of more than 58 streets and 4,000 shops, that used to be a place to trade and buy goods such as leather, jewelery, fabric etc but now is nothing more than a depot for cheap knock off items and touristy chotchkies. In all fairness there are some cool shops with Turkish rugs and silk fabric, however, in the grand scheme of things we were all a bit disappointed. I did buy some goods from one small shop we stumbled upon on a tiny backstreet. The owner was extremely courteous and patient with us and when our transaction was finished he invited us into the back room to enjoy some orange tea and talk. It was a very cool experience. He was more than happy to tell us about his country and some of the other cool places that we should visit some day. Turks love tea favoring a sweet apple cider like tea and orange tea, which is what we were served. Again it was sweet enough but still came with two sugar cubes on the side. Turks really do like sugar.
We were fair more partial to the Egyptian Spice Market, which was smaller than the grand bazaar but far more interesting. The streets of this covered market were loaded with barrels and racks of spices, herbs, teas, Turkish delight candies, fresh fish, heaps of saffron, nuts, cheeses, olives (soooo many delicious looking olives), and much more. We spent a great deal of time just strolling around the maze of smells and sights and on many occasions were able to taste items. At the end of the visit we each had bought some tea (I opted for a bag of orange and something called “love tea,” which the shop owner said “would make girl go crazy.”
The spice market was located off the harbor, which was also a cool epicurious sight to see. There were countless fishermen with lines off the pier, little stands selling fish sandwiches (not as good as they looked) and standing merchants selling fresh mussels served in the shell, stuffed with rice and drizzled with lemon. Two for 1 Turkish lira. They were pretty wicked although I’m still not quite sure how the rice was stuffed inside the mussel since the guy had to pry open each shell before consumption. Very cool.
The following night we returned to the harbor to catch a boat down the Bosphorus, which was very pretty and showed just how big and vast Istanbul actually is (most sights and areas of interest lie on the European side whereas the majority of Turks live on the Asian side).
While there is so much more to write about like playing backgammon at a nargila bar, getting lost on the Asian side of Istanbul, taking part in an old, traditional Turkish Bath (which was an interesting experience I must say), and many others, I will leave you with images and descriptions of probably the prettiest sight in the city.
The Basilica Cistern, (seen in the photo above) is the largest cistern in Istanbul (one of hundreds that supposedly still lie beneath the cities surface)and is one of the most beautiful and enchanting things to set eyes on. Used as a way to save and preserve water for a city these former Constantinople era cisterns have large pillars, shallow pools and in the case of this particular one some odd statues. Towards the back of the elaborate underground cave like pool are two stone heads of Medusa, which still puzzle historians as to how and why they ended up in the cistern. The darkly lit area was also used in the Bond flick “From Russia with Love,” although I really can’t remember the scene. Still, a wicked sight and definitely one of the highlights.
So like I said there is so much more I could write about and quite frankly when this trip is over and I write some reflections I’m sure I’ll add some more. Istanbul was like I said the city where we said goodbye to Paul and later Steph. Sam and I still had Amsterdam ahead of us (which I will go into next time) but since Paul and I had started from the beginning back in Dublin it meant an end to the a big chunk of the trip.
Until next time, keep on keeping on