The Flight to Turkey and the First Day in Istanbul
Posted by Mardee on May 5, 2007
My trip started out well – I got to the airport in plenty of time and was even able to grab some lunch beforehand. But it was downhill from then on. First, the flight to New York was over an hour late, which meant that I (and 10 others) had 15 minutes to get from one end of JFK airport to the other in order to catch our flight. Picture (if you will) an overweight middle-aged woman running like hell through the airport with all her bags and finally flinging herself onto the ticket agent with a dying croak – it was not a pretty sight. Nor was it justified since after I boarded, the airplane sat on the runway for 45 minutes.
But I made it and we were in the air bound for Istanbul, so life was good although my sleep was not. I didn’t get a single wink, try as I might (which is par for the course). We reached Turkey right on time, and I was met by a driver from the Hanedan Hotel. He and I and an Aussie family (Tennen, Katrina and their 1 year old, Ari – see photo below), who are also staying there, headed for the Sultanachmet area right after I made a quick stop at an ATM to get some Turkish lira.
The hotel is great – right in the historic district and the staff is incredibly friendly. My room is quite large, especially considering it’s a single, and has a double bed, wardrobe and desk and a spiffy bathroom. Not bad for $40. The bed was looking especially inviting, but I have a theory about jetlag. NEVER give in to it or it will attack with a vengeance. Therefore I do all the jetlag tricks – set my watch ahead, stay active and in sunlight as much as possible and don’t take a nap.
With that in mind, I set out for Sultanachmet Square. On the way, I was waylaid by a nice gentleman who asked me where I was from. Upon hearing I was American, he informed me that I must see the Blue Mosque as it would be closing in 30 minutes for Friday prayers. And when I come out, I MUST stop by his carpet shop… I did head into the Blue Mosque, though, and was immediately struck by how beautiful and serene the building was. The name comes from the blue tiles (over 20,000) that line the inside (its real name is Sultan Achmet Cami). The tiles and the incredible stained-glass windows along with its immense size just stopped me cold.
After I left, my new friend joined me, assuring me that there was a great photo op, coincidentally right next to his shop! Declining his offer, I headed for the Hippodrome. The Hippodrome has been around for thousands of years and was the cultural focus of the Byzantine Empire. It is now a long park and all that remains of its glory years are several obelisks and columns, one dating back to the 4th century. At the north end lies a Tourist Information Center (TIC), so I picked up a map of the city and then grabbed a meat sandwich and a piece of baklava from a little shop. The sandwich was good but the baklava even better – it put every piece of baklava I’ve ever eaten in the States to shame.
My next stop was the Basicila Cistern, which was used during the Byzantine era to store water for the Great Palace, but was then forgotten for hundreds of years until it was rediscovered in the 16th century. The Cistern lies underground, which creates a somewhat ghostly atmosphere that is enhanced by the dim lighting. As I walked on the bridges over the water below, I could see pale carp swimming around in the darkness accompanied by a few large goldfish. Over 300 columns protrude from the water, including two that are supported by immense upside-down Medusa heads. It was a welcome reprieve from the sun as the temperature must have dropped a good 15 degrees went I walked in.
After leaving the Cistern, I fended off a few more carpet touts (the stock phrase was “Where are you from?” Do you think they take a class in how to strike up a conversation?) and made my way to the Aya Sofia. Without a doubt, this incredible building is one of the most beautiful places I have been in. The first thing that struck me was the size of the massive dome at the top and the grandeur and size inside. The mosaics inside are quite beautiful but especially so in the galleries upstairs. The color and vibrancy of the mosaics still comes through today, especially the shine and richness of the gold. The building was completed in 537 AD and has managed to stay relatively intact, despite periodic looting by the Crusaders.
By the time I left, I was desperately in need of sustinence so I headed for the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts, which has a courtyard cafe. Ten minutes later, I was happily sipping a glass of Turkish cay (tea) in a lovely outdoor garden and wondering how much it would cost to ship one of those huge clay watering jugs to Cincinnati for my own garden. The museum itself was nice and peaceful. It was filled with mosaic pottery and huge carpets hundreds of years old. The palace it is house in was the home of Ibraham Pasa, Grand Vizier to Suleyman the Magnificent. They were the best of friends until Suleyman had Ibraham strangled in 1536. I think they should have tried counseling first…
When I left, my feet just kept on walking with no specific destination. The streets gradually got steeper and narrower and I began to see a more residential neighborhood appear. Children were playing in the streets and every corner contained a small group of men drinking tea and playing backgammon. The area was obviously more conservative than the rest of Istanbul as every woman I saw was wearing a head-scarf, and most were wearing long skirts and coats.
Occasionally I saw a couple or a family together, but for the most part, the sexes were fairly well segregated. A check of the map showed this area as Kadirga, which is part of historic “Old Istanbul.” It is close to the sea and I noticed a lot of fish markets and seafood restaurants. I was tempted to eat but it was only 5 pm – early for Europeans. Many of the buildings were crumbling with age – evidently, Unesco hasn’t devoted as much time here as it has to the Sultanachmet district.
Eventually, I came out onto a street that contained a flurry of shops and restaurants – including a Starbucks. As I was walking past, one of two women sitting at a table in front called out to me. I didn’t recognize her at first, but found out she was a fellow passenger and recognized me. She and her companion invited me to join them for coffee. Both are mythologists and are here for an educational tour. One is from Venice, CA and the other from Salt Lake City – in fact, she lives in the same neigborhood as my youngest brother, Chris. After chatting for a bit, we headed for dinner to a Lonely Planet recommendation, Karadeniz, where I had a mouth-watering lamb shish kebob. It was the best meat I’ve had since leaving Spain last year. The accompanying vegetables, rice and yogurt dip were just as tasty and fresh and even the Turkish wine was pretty good. Not as good as Spanish or Italian but nice and dry, if a tad light in body.
And thus ended my first night in Istanbul – after leaving the restaurant, I groggily made my way back to the hotel and crashed at 8 pm (wine and jet lag are NOT a good combo!).