I arrived early and shockingly successfully navigated the tram and maze of streets in Sultanahmet to find my hostel, so I had time to kill before check-in.
Since I haven't met a palace I didn't like, I decided stop #1 should be the Topkapi Palace. I'd get to the Blue Mosque later.
The money pit of a palace (the entry fee was expensive and then you had to pay more to get in the Harem and for the audio guide, and then for the Harem audio guide!) was actually pretty spectacular. Construction on the Palace started in 1453 by Mehmet the Conqueror and subsequent sultans lived here into the 19th century.
The Palace is organized into 4 courtyards, each further restricting access until the final interior courtyard where only the sultan's family was permitted (and now me and all the Asian tourists).
My favorite parts were the Treasury (like Moscow, I enjoy seeing all the bling) and the Harem. This may not be news to anyone else, but I was interested to learn that the ladies of the Harem had to be foreigners since Islam forbade enslaving Muslims. The sultan was allowed four wives and as many concubines as he could support.
Throughout all the buildings the tile work was stunning- if I were a decorator I would not have mixed so many patterns, but it totally worked!!
That evening I had the pleasure of meeting Gokturk (my new sailing friend for those of you that don't recall Turkey Pt. 1) for a lovely seafood meal overlooking the Bosphorus in a local neighborhood. He drove me around and showed me all the hot spots where locals hang, plus a mall that felt just like home.
I had big plans for the next day in Beyoglu (formerly known as the European quarter)--- get my hair done and by tickets to see U2 (their first concert in Turkey, and maybe their last?). Since I couldn't spend all day on nonsense I first visited the newish Istanbul Modern which I loved. I seriously think it is my favorite contemporary art museum of the trip.
Would you believe that Turkey's Ticketmaster equivalent still has you wait in line for hours for tickets? Sad, but true! Since the World Basketball Championships were going on at the same time the line was over 3 hours wait. I opted to get my hair and eyebrows done (all for the bargain price of $65!!!!!!!!!!) and join when the wait was only half that long- ugh!
After that exhausting day I wasn't up for a big night out so I just grabbed two kebabs from the meticulous street vendor (I didn't realize I was being so piggy ordering 2 until after I saw them made) and watched some fireworks from the roof deck while talking to Laura. The rest of Istanbul was breaking their Ramadan fast on the lawn outside the Blue Mosque.
Two days down and still no Blue Mosque- today was the day since I had to walk by it 18 times a day- damn, it is closed for some special visit from some special person. Oh well, there are still days ahead of me!
Along with everyone else due to the rain, I opted for the Haghia Sophia, the one thing in Istanbul I remember learning about in grammar school (but don't really remember why- think maybe religion class?). Originally built by Emperor Justinian as a church in 537, it was converted to a mosque in 1453 after the Ottoman conquest. Now that it is a museum it is an odd mix of Christianity and Islam, with mosaics of Jesus and 19th century medallions inscribed with Arabic letters. The most impressive part though is the sheer size of the dome built with special bricks that make it appear as if it hovers unsupported.
The most amusing part? They have a wall of foreign dignitaries that have visited the museum. Apparently there have been new, better visitors (like Obama and the Pope) so they put stickers over people that had been on the plaque. I really want to know who was downgraded! Can you imagine the meeting where they discussed who was expendable? ;-)
I had planned to see a few other sites, but the friendliness of the Turkish men was getting really old. Sure, it was charming for the first couple of days in the small towns, but in Istanbul it was close to downright harassment. I had enough!!!!
I only surfaced again from the hostel to see the Whirling Dervishes. It is pretty mesmerizing to watch the men spin so gracefully for 45 minutes and envisioning me tripping over my own feet if I attempted even one twirl.
The next day I felt better about venturing out in the company of two men from the hostel heading to the famous Spice Market, or Egyptian Market (no one bothers the men, so unfair). The market has been around since 1660 selling spices, nuts, olive oil soaps, figs and our favorites- Turkish delight and dried fruits of every variety imaginable (yum, strawberries). We had a good time sampling the merchandise.
After a little ceramic shopping I then had to scamper back to meet a group headed out to the U2 concert. Why do we have to leave SO early? Cause the Olympic Stadium takes 2 hours to get to through Istanbul's horrendous, gridlocked traffic (Turkey has never had the Olympics so unclear why they have a stadium that they clearly didn't finish after their failed bid.)
But wait, we were only in the bus for a short distance, the bulk of our journey was on the old train where men stood by the open doors for a little air--- insanity!
Anyway, we finally arrived at the concert to discover that U2 isn't so popular here- the stadium was maybe 1/3 full so the 360 degree thing didn't really pan out as they expected. Most of the people there appeared to be tourists- I hung out with Australians, South Africans and Dutch. I guess I should have known when the hostel workers didn't know who U2 is.
There must have been a few locals there though since Bono made some political statement and was booed- can't imagine he is used to that!!!
The concert was really good, if lacking atmosphere, but the 3 HOUR trek home was less so. Unbelievable!!!!!!
Part of the U2 group included Cindy and Jeff, my companions for the last full day in Istanbul- we packed in a lot!
We started off at the Grand Bazaar and believe it or not, I couldn't find anything worth buying in over 4,000 shops. I did want to get into a game of Rummy tile with one shopkeeper, but no time.
All that lack of buying got us hungry so we ate at some tiny hole in the wall spot. Language was a barrier that became frustrating, plus my indecisiveness, so they just made me a pide (Turkish pizza) segmented with each of the options. It was delish!!!!!
Belly full it is obviously time for a traditional Turkish scrub at the Cemberlitas Hamami, dating from 1584. The scrub was far inferior to the Korean versions I have had, but when in Turkey do as the Turks USED to do ;-)
That finally leaves time for the Blue Mosque, at last!!!! In this case it really was saving the best for almost last. It is stunning inside! In 1606 the goal was to make it grander and more beautiful than the Haghia Sophia. I would say Sultan Ahmet I succeeded. There are tens of thousands of blue tiles that give the building its unofficial name.
That evening we walked across the Galata Bridge (a little tardy for the planned sunset) to the hip part of town full of cool restaurants, bars and boutiques- glad I found it eventually.
What better way to top it off than some pudding at Saray Muhallebicisi, a pudding shop in operation since 1935 owned by Istanbul's mayor. 35 varieties- which to choose??? We opted against the burnt chicken breast pudding, but the rice pudding was scrumptious.
Since the metro closes early we needed a taxi to bring us home- what a crazy adventure. 1) They never really seem to know where they are going (I guess cause the city is HUGE- you need places for all 20 million people) and 2) like Italy they like to chat even though you don't understand. It all ended with me on the driver's phone talking to someone about a great place to visit for a good photo--- too bad I was leaving tomorrow (not that I understood anyway). It was sweet though- the Turkish people were always looking to be helpful, even if that did border on harassment.
Before catching my afternoon flight to Doha I had time for one more stop- the Basilica Cistern, another goodie built by Justinian in 532. It is the best looking reservoir I've seen.
Goodbye Europe! I hope Asia is as kind.