9 day trip

Tips for Turkey travel!

Note: These tips are as per 2019 September but there’s no reason many of them will not be relevant for whenever you’d plan your travel to Turkey. We hope you learn from our goof ups and make fewer of yours! 😉

Food :

  •  Food, in general, is significantly less spicy than Indian food – salt content is low and if lucky lemon is the only added seasoning on the table. That being said- please eat the local food – it was very healthy and irrespective of how picky you are, you’re missing out on an experience if you choose not to enjoy different flavours and cuisines.If you’re vegetarian learn the word for vegetarian in Turkish(it sounds similar to the English word). Vegan food is a little harder but vegetarian options are available.
  • For some inexplicable reason, water was never served at restaurants we visited. The only options were bottled water which we hated purchasing but it seemed like the only option. Even at the Airbnbs, there was no equivalent to a water purifier so we literally had to buy drinking water in bottles for our entire time there.

Internet connectivity:

There are a few options you have which you can pick based on your connectivity needs

  • If it’s very important to have your phone calls on your personal number active – you may want to enable international roaming on your number before you leave your home country to be sure.
  • If you’re ok with just internet being available on your phone + you’ve multiple devices for which you need connectivity, you can buy a pocket hotspot. We have not done a thorough price/quality comparison but we found this very convenient- especially their chat support to pick up and drop the device at the airport.
  • If you’d need to make local phone calls in addition to having internet connectivity, and you don’t have too many devices to connect you can purchase a local SIM at the airport. As of today, Turkcell is an operator said to have the most coverage in Turkey.
  • Understandably price may also be a consideration for your choice, so you may want to compare options based on your expected usage ,price and duration of stay to help take the final decision. Also just carry one good power bank at least for any travel in general.

Communication

  • Spend time learning a few basic words to help you in Turkey.  We simply installed a random free “learn Turkish” app and spent our long flight incoming flight learning the words and testing each other on them.
  • Considering how kind the local people are, you’ll be glad you at least learnt the word for Thank you-teşekkür ederim. Other words that are important are those for the restroom, sorry, help, how much, no, yes, hospital, words based on your food preferences etc. Install a translation app like google translate just to be sure.
  •  If you’ve food allergies or health conditions, please don’t depend on your memory/pronunciation/availability of internet connectivity/your phone battery.  Just print it out clearly in complete sentences and show it at every relevant place.
  • We had the best moments during our trip in short conversations with people from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh who made a living in Turkey and who were so glad to see someone from a familiar part of the world. You will feel the same too. If you’ve a longer chat with the locals or them,  a general rule (in life) is to avoid conversations on politics and religion- especially in a foreign land. But otherwise, be kind, indulge them and yourselves for an opportunity to open your eyes and hearts to lives other than your own.

Clothing:

  • Always carry a scarf – works great for the sun and for entrance to mosques and tombs where you’d need to cover your head.
  • In general dress on the more conservative side so you can have a flexible itinerary and visit any of the stunning mosques and tombs. Conservative = cover elbows and knees, shoulders at the very least.

Getting around:

  • When commuting between cities take the bus instead of the flights.  The airports are also frequently very far from the actual “touristy” places which means in addition to the price of the flight you’ll be wasting both time and money for the cabs/buses from the airports to your destination. We learnt this the hard way actually choosing to lose our money on our flight booking since the bus from the airport to the tourist place would cost us more than the cost of the flight itself!

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    Free snacks and drinks in our bus!
  • The overnight buses between locations are very convenient- they serve snacks and drinks including water and have pitstops almost every 2 hours even in the overnight bus and stop at large supermarkets with clean paid restrooms. So restroom-worry is not a problem. However, bus booking is not available online at all. So you just need to walk up to the first tour agent you see in each stop- all town centers have them- and they can book it for you.
  • There is a LOT of walking everywhere we went in Turkey- whether it’s the immense Topkapi palace, the Ilhara valley or the ruins of Ephesus. Just wear the best walking shoes you can have and your feet will thank you.

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    So much to explore!
  • If you still decide to take a local flight, do note that connecting buses may not be available at odd timings (for ex: 3am in the morning). Just reach out to your Airbnb/hotel reception and ask them for options. They’d typically connect you to a paid cab/shuttle service that will get you to the airport on time.
  • Metrokart – is used for bus and tram in Istanbul ONLY. Always make sure you have around at least 40 lira in the card. You will need it immediately as you land to take the bus from the airport to your stay. You can purchase it at vending machines just as you step out of the airport building towards the bus stand.
  • Museumcard is a prepaid card for entry tickets to most tourist places but not all. The Museumcard we purchased cost 375 lira.  However, if you know your itinerary well I’d recommend going through the 2-3 options for Museumcards to pick the one that meets your itinerary. In our case, we had spent a little more on the card than we had had time to cover with our itinerary but were glad it allowed us the convenience of not having to carry cash/change at every place+ allowed mental budgeting of the entry ticket expenses in advance. You can purchase it at most places that accept the card ie., tourist places. We picked ours at Hagia Sophia.

Scams

Like any popular tourist place, the ones in Turkey too have scams. While we avoided most we were still victims of two:

  • An older gentleman looking a little down on his luck walked up to us while we were seated at a street-side restaurant selling almonds in packets of around a kilogram. Since almonds were in almost every market and we had decided to buy some anyway, we decided to buy it from him. Since we had a lot of our day left, we only tasted them when we returned to our stay that evening. They had completely gone bad though there were no signs on the exterior. Lesson: Do not buy other than from the legitimate stores- if not, find where locals are headed.
  • We purchased a bus ticket from Denizli (near Ephesus) to Pamukkale. The agent mentioned that we’d have to change buses at a point and charged us for the change too. However, on getting off the first bus, the second bus claimed we had to pay him explicitly again the amount we had already paid for the connecting bus. This was clearly not a one-off instance since there was another family that had been scammed in the same way who also were then forced to pay again and take the bus since the other option would have been to figure out your way. Not sure how to avoid this, but well maybe double check your payment receipt and keep some extra cash in hand.
  • Another scam was when we visited a restaurant and (thankfully) ordered just one dish. The owner had a whole 3 different menus with 3 different prices and of course billed you for the highest price among the menus despite your insistence that you remember seeing a different one. This happened once- but was quite a turn off.
  • Mercifully, we weren’t too impacted but there are more possible scams and we’d recommend you search online for “Turkey tourist scams” before your trip just to be a little more alert and avoid ruining your experience here.

Stay 

  • If you have mobility issues or are not physically strong, do run a check with your Airbnb in case you’d need to carry your luggage up and down the stairs. A lot of places we stayed on the trip had narrow stairs- we were quite prepared for it but one of our co-travellers hurt their back just before the trip which made it quite a challenge for them.

Miscellaneous

  • Cats and cats- There were innumerable cats everywhere we went in Turkey. They’re sweet and used to being pampered by people. However, they don’t often approach you themselves. If you’re a cat lover it’s heaven. Leave the dogs alone though, the few we saw very extremely fluffy but didn’t seem used to being petted and therefore could snap at you in fear.IMG_4098
9 day trip

Istanbul- Of miniature paintings and monumental palaces

Wandering around the Grand Bazaar area,  we came across the 16th century Beyazit Camiisi (mosque). Like many structures in Istanbul, this too was built after the destruction of the earlier Fatih mosque due to an earthquake.IMG_4426 On entering the mosque we had flashbacks of the Hagia Sophia and as it turned out, this was indeed patterned like a smaller scale version of it. That’s not to say it’s any less impressive.

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I’ll never get over the beauty of the stained glass and lamps in the structures in Istanbul

A little distance away we then reached the mausoleum of Sultan Mahmut II, it also includes 2 other Sultans and their close family members. Of interest wrt the Sultan is that he had gotten built a warship which was the largest in the world for quite a while. IMG_4456Also notable was his role in the abolishment of a corrupt military corps that both extorted money from the state and dictated government policy. Beside the structure is a relatively small graveyard with other prominent members of the court and families.IMG_4457

As the day drew to a close, we were drawn back to the waters of the Bosphorus- just because it seemed like such a microcosm of Istanbul and we daresay Turkey. People of all shapes, sizes and attires, tourists, street-side food vendors, children having a ball of a time, all in the backdrop of the calm waters and squawking seagulls.IMG_4476

Our personal favourite of the street side food was the Dolma not in the least due to the cheery sellers who even fed Anand a free Dolma since we shared a few words with them and complimented their pictures on our camera.

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We decided to have a meal by one of the sea-side restaurants overlooking the Bosphorus. We incidentally had an Afghani waiter who, on knowing we were from India, cheered up and admitted he was a major Salman Khan fan! We tucked into our meal of grilled fish, babaganoush and bread, particularly unhappy that the next day would be our last day in Istanbul, for now.

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We’d chosen our only “fancy” stay for our last night in Turkey just to end the trip on a high.

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Mesihpaşa Camii

We slept deeply and woke up fully refreshed to tackle our breakfast in a relaxed manner at the hotel’s buffet.

Well refreshed, we checked out and leaving our luggage at the reception, headed to the Dolmabahce Palace. It was the 19th-century residence of the Sultan to suit more his more contemporary style, taste and needs after their stay at the much older Topkapi palace. It is also more recently known for being the residence of the founder of the Republic of Turkey- Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and housed him to the last days of his life.IMG_4495 Once we got there, we were first welcomed by a very long queue of visitors. It didn’t faze us but we realised that the “palace” spanned an area of 11 acres and we just wouldn’t be able to enjoy it at leisure and catch our flight that afternoon. We, therefore, decided to just go around the exteriors of the palace and admire it from afar.

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We instead decided to wander around the Spice bazaar and stumbled into a miniature calligraphy /art exhibition. The signboard was instantly evocative of my attempt at reading the book “My name is Red” centred around miniaturists and therefore piqued my curiosity.IMG_4557

However, there was much more to it. The same building was a heritage structure with so much colour and art that we wished to just get lost in the space. IMG_4553We wandered from room to room gasping at its beauty and pointing at every wonderous corner that was crafted so meticulously.

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After all our wandering and wondering, however, it was finally time for us to leave.

If we got an opportunity to visit Turkey again, in addition to the blue waters of Fethiye, we’d definitely want to spend a few more days just in Istanbul- we’d warmed up to the city, a city that, for us, glistens with its generous, kind and very good-looking people, enjoys its food, embraces colours, rebuilds its structures and societies despite earth-shattering tragedies, and celebrates its traditional arts- we’d just be a bit more wary of the pickle juice the next time!

Hoşça kal! (Stay well)

 

9 day trip

Istanbul- Of sunken palaces and splendid bazaars

We woke up the next morning to the sounds of seagulls by our window. Stumbling out of bed we got ready and went to have breakfast on the terrace of the Airbnb that yielded a beautiful view of the waters of the Bosphorus. A brilliant breakfast later we were all set to tackle the day.

We then decided to visit the one place we were curious about- the Basilica Cistern. Cisterns are water storage spaces and this one was used to both store and filter water. The name of the cistern is believed to have originated because before the cistern, there was a Basilica in the same spot from the 3rd or 4th century. 336 marble pillars procured from other buildings hold up the cistern roofs. The cistern fell into disuse till it was discovered in the 16th century when a traveller realised residents used buckets to still get water through holes in their floors and even managed to fish from it! 2 pillars with Medusa heads in upside down and right side up are popular sights within the cistern and are said to be placed that way to negate the mythical effects of gazing upon her face and being turned to stone. She is one of the most memorable of the few characters I remember from school level reading– her hair made of snakes possibly made up for an evocative image.

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Like many historical structures around the world, this one too was built with slaves, over 7000 of them. One of the towers has engravings of Hen’s eyes(no idea why) and tears – believed to be a tribute to the lives lost during the construction of the cistern. Water in the cistern is said to have been brought from the Belgrad forest which is a whole 19kms away from the cistern. Walking through the cistern feels very special- the lighting and the endless pillars gives you a sense of having entered a magical underworld.IMG_4375

Soon after we walked into the bustle of the Grand Bazaar to pick a few souvenirs for folks at home- we aren’t big buyers but still picked up some handmade soaps and sweets. The lamps were just magical but also a bit over our budget. The tiles and bowls make for brilliant souvenirs too. IMG_4388I find Arabic calligraphy stunning, and it was just our luck that we managed to meet a gentleman who was offering it- we got our names written which to me was a more precious find than most others. Even if you don’t intend to buy anything, the Grand Bazaar is quite a wonderful, colourful and interesting space to wander around. Its endless turns and enjoy beautiful works – whether food, carpets, lamps or fabric give you something to admire at every step.

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We, however, ended up more interested in the more “local” market at Eminonu. It reminded us of Avenue road in Bangalore where you can find everything you can think of- from cutlery, fabric, food, furniture, hardware.

 

We got lost at one point and tried to ask for directions from 2 storekeepers in our terrible Turkish – just as we almost gave up- the guy knitted his eyebrows and asked “India?”, while we nodded he burst out laughing and continued in Hindi asking us why we were struggling with Turkish instead. As it turned out, he was from Bangladesh.  To perfect strangers, with all of us far away from our homes, his instant offer of tea and a seat at his store made us our hearts fill with gratitude – for good people everywhere we go.

Up next : Istanbul- Of miniature paintings and monumental palaces

9 day trip

Istanbul: Of swirling dervishes and the winding Bosphorus

Early the next morning we had a small bus pick us up to the airport and then to Istanbul. It genuinely felt like a return to a place so familiar. It’s amazing how quickly our definition of home can change.

Once we settled into the Airbnb, the only thing we had on the “agenda” that day was the ceremony of the swirling dervishes. There was a mismatch in the timings on the online booking vs the timings on flyers in our hotel for the same place so we first decided to drop in-in person to put our mind at ease. Once that was done, having covered the “main” places in the first part of the trip, we decided to just wander around the city. Passing by the cats, the offers for pictures in traditional attire, restaurants, markets strolled around the streets to reach Eminonu.

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The cats of Istanbul are a sight for sore eyes..

A boat ride on the Bosphorus is considered a must-do in Istanbul, but at first-glance seemed way over budget. Every single option online or via flyers in the hotels had options promising belly dancing, dinner and a long almost overnight ride. If that’s what you’re looking for you’ll find that easily. But we weren’t interested in spending as much nor did the experiences particularly interest us. To our surprise, right at Eminonu there was a gentleman simply calling out to passersby about the boat ride for a price of just 20TL! Mildly suspicious, we still decided to have a go at it. It was just enough for what we were looking for. IMG_4200There was modest seating on a passenger boat and it takes you for a ride of over an hour passing by all the landmarks on either sides of the Bosphorus. There are beautiful homes of the rich and famous by the riverside in addition to historic monuments.

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Just look at the gorgeous skyline!

It seemed to be a popular activity to throw food at the seagulls who enthusiastically swooped in to grab at it just before it fell to the water. It also gave us a bit of breathing space on the trip to zone out and do nothing but watch the city, the seagulls and the ripples in the water.

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Once we got off the boat we realized we were starving, and quickly decided that our supper would be any street food that looked appetizing. The fish sandwiches made on a swaying boat seemed like quite the tourist favourite but I was afraid it’d make me too full to enjoy much else.

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Balik ekmek(fish sandwiches) being prepared on a rocking boat.

However, we couldn’t but try the Midye Dolmasi (Mussels stuffed with rice). Served with a  generous slice of lemon it was a fun peppery snack.

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Midye Dolmasi (Mussels stuffed with rice)

The spice made us crave something to drink and there were young boys walking in between the tables selling drinks one of which looked like a fresh watermelon juice. We bought a glass of it looking forward to a refreshing sip only to realise we had bought pickle juice!! Though it had the opposite effect of quenching our thirst it made for a memorable moment as we then tried to decide which of the pickle we liked the best- cabbage, gherkins etc.

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Beware of the pickle juice!

Wandering further we entered the Spice Bazaar, only to be faced with endless arrays of amazing pickles, sweets, spices, dry fruits, and treats. It’s quite a challenge to pass some of them by, but we decided on some sweets that would survive our journey in various flavours. At one store, the Turkish boy teased the young Pakistani one telling us that he was our enemy! The poor guy was embarrassed but kept quiet. I couldn’t but disagree and assure him that he was in fact family- just a little distance away from us in India! Many smiles were smiled as he filled bags with dry fruits for us and bid us a shy goodbye.

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How can anyone pick just one of these!

The pickle juice quickly made us crave some sweets, and we first tackled the Kunefe made of vermicelli and pistachios. This was more fun for the performance that accompanied its making, with a lot of quick movements and taps on the special vessel used to prepare the dish.

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A piping hot serving of Kunefe

Amongst the vast array of sweets available, we also tried the Tulumba -a firm and sweet fried dough, which was a fun little treat.

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Tulumbas, anyone?

We then made our way to watch the performance/ceremony of the Swirling dervishes. I’ve liked what little I’ve read of Rumi and have been intrigued by Sufism for a while so after being there in his homeland during his birthday we couldn’t but help wanting to view the ceremony of the swirling dervishes which have become synonymous with the image of Sufism in popular culture. There are several shows available to book online and you’ll possibly also find flyers with your hotels too. We picked this one in case you wanted a reference. While we had no complaints we can’t really comment on whether it’s the best/most authentic/accurately priced because we don’t have a comparative barometer.

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With all the glimpses of it in Indian music videos, it’s easy to forget that at its core it is a religious ceremony- so our advice would be to not go expecting to be entertained. This mismatch in expectations led to a few members of the audience falling asleep and a few walking out of the hall.

Before the performance, we had time to regard a display of Sufi artefacts from attire to musical instruments to writings of Rumi.  The sounds of the ceremony itself- both the voices of the priests and the music very easily lulls you to a comfortable, numb state of mind and even sleep. It’s quite entrancing to see the dervishes twirling almost endlessly and seemingly without any strain but there is much more to the ceremony before and after. For us, we were glad we tried it because it was definitely a memorable and educative experience.

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We aren’t allowed to take pictures during the ceremony but this was the impressive stage.

After the performance we took the tram (our now favourite means of commute) back to Eminonu just to spend more time by the Bosphorus, people watching. Not very hungry by now, fresh cobs of corn and warm chestnuts made up the rest of our supper before we headed back to the Airbnb looking forward to the last 2 days we had in Istanbul.IMG_4338

Up next : Istanbul- Of sunken palaces and splendid bazaars

9 day trip · Uncategorized

Topkapi Palace: Of 1300 person kitchens and an angelic singer

The Topkapi palace served both residential and administrative purposes for the Ottoman sultans. Throughout our trip to Turkey, we found silly glee at identifying Turkish words that occasionally were the same in Hindi too. So the Topkapi palace literally meaning Cannon(top in Hindi) gate was a fun titbit. Though still very grand, the structures within have undergone multiple renovations due to earthquakes and fire incidents.

The area is broken up into 4 courtyards and the Harem. Unless you’re really checking things off of a list it’s a bit hard to visit every single place within it all. We took the route of wandering in and out of what we pleased.

Within the 2nd courtyard, we dropped into the imperial kitchens and bakery. It had displays of utensils used in the era in addition to silverware and porcelain. The kitchen staff had an elaborate hierarchy in order Head of the pantry->Superintendent of the Imperial kitchens assisted by the clerk of the kitchens->  Chief cook-> Master cooks, journeymen and apprentices.

The simple-sounding “kitchen” consisted of

  • The imperial pantry
  • 2 bakeries
    • One for fine bread for the Sultan and his family
    • One for ordinary bread
  • A butcher’s shop
  • A poultry shop
  • 2 dairies
    • One specializing in making yoghurt
    • One to produce butter, cheese and other milk products
  • A candle-making section
  • A vegetable store
  • A water distribution office
  • A flour mill for fine white flour was the one part which was housed separately in Bursa a town near Istanbul.IMG_3028

At its peak, it employed 1300 people in the 17th century and understandably was the largest kitchen in the Ottoman empire. We found particularly interesting with meticulously arranged exposed brick used to make both the walls and the domed ceilings.IMG_3031.jpgIMG_3033

On the opposite end of the 2nd courtyard are sections displaying armoury and various clocks of the era in addition to staying quarters for the halberdiers(who provided services for the palace quarters).IMG_3123.jpg

We walked into the 3rd courtyard and the Audience Hall– the place where the King met ambassadors of other kingdoms, his ministers and other officials.IMG_3066.jpg

Next was the Library of Ahmed the III. This space changed by definition of what I thought would be my dream library. Floor level seating, stained glass windows, gorgeous mosaics.IMG_3049.jpg

The last area we passed by was the Chamber of sacred relics in the 3rd courtyard. As named it housed stunning versions of the Quran with the most amazing calligraphy and we heard a lovely voice in the background. Wondering if it was a recorded bit of music, we were taken aback to realize it was a gentleman who was singing it live and genuinely appeared angelic in his immaculate white outfit. Since it’d be rude to just stand and stare, we walked out and plonked ourselves on the benches just outside to enjoy his singing infusing its fragrance into the gentle evening air. The large open garden area just ahead which supposedly had peacocks and gazelles during the Ottoman times now had quite a few seagulls being chased enthusiastically by toddlers seemingly just for our amusement.IMG_3052.jpg

We made our way out through the Imperial gate– a massive gate with gilded calligraphy of verses from the Quran and seals of various emperors surprised that it was only our very first day in Turkey and that so much seemed to have been experienced.IMG_3077.jpg

Note: The term Topkapi palace is misleading. It’s an immense complex which takes a few hours to cover on foot and will have you taking a few rest stops. We recommend you visit this just after your breakfast or lunch so you’re not hungry mid-way. It wouldn’t be a terrible idea to even carry a packed lunch and some snacks. Your ticket is for single entry so unless you want to pay twice you’d rather come prepared to spend the time for a while.

Munching on some corn from a vendor and a chocolate simit ( a circular bread often sprinkled with sesame seeds found with stalls all over Istanbul) we made our way back to the Airbnb. We truly felt lucky to also be back to a lovely view of the Ottoman mosque of Sokullu Mehmed Pasha till it was too dark to see it anymore.

A bit rested by now and not too hungry after the simit and corn we still made our way to dinner at a nearby restaurant and shared the vegetarian version of the testi kebab. A dish cooked within sealed clay pot brought in on a plate of flames. The pot is broken open with a theatrical flourish and the dish then served.  For Indians, the vegetarian version tasted more like a milder version of sambhar with loads of vegetables. However the testi kebab is supposedly more famous in Cappadocia, and that’s where we were headed the very next day.

Up next : Cappadocia: Of rose coloured valleys and fairy chimneys

9 day trip

Blue Mosque and Tile museums: Of beautiful homes for the dead and the living

Munching on some fresh warm chestnuts, we walked to the Blue Mosque or the Sultan Ahmed Mosque just opposite the Hagia Sophia. IMG_2896.jpgThis mosque, in contrast, was more of a PR move by Sultan Ahmed after a crushing defeat in a war against Persia to lead his people to continue to believe in the Ottoman power. Verses from the Quran and names of the caliphs in calligraphy adorn the walls of the mosque. However, personally, the gorgeous stained glass windows and the hand-painted ceramic Iznik tiles are what I could spend hours just to admire and enjoy.IMG_2911

Fun trivia :

  • Something new learnt – Ostrich eggs repel spiders and were therefore then placed in the chandeliers of the Blue Mosque. I’m surprised this is not more common knowledge considering the annoyance of cleaning out cobwebs! I wonder if, after a while, the eggs didn’t get rotten and stink themselves though.
  • Apparently, the 6 minarets were made at the mosque because an architect misheard the Emperor’s request for gold(altin) minarets as six(alti) minarets since the words in Turkish for both are similar.
  • Problems of long-running projects. The sultan had fixed a price for each tile and as time passed and the work was more expensive the quality of tiles diminished.IMG_2918

Note: The Mosque is still used for prayers 5 times a day, so plan your visit accordingly. We entered by 1130AM and by 12PM we saw the entrance doors were closed for prayers at 1PM. You need to take off your footwear before entering the mosque since the carpeted floor is still used for prayers. However, they provided covers to put your shoes in to carry along with you so you can wear the same on your way out. While Istanbul itself has a mix of people covered head-to-toe contrasting with others in bold, skimpy clothes, we’d urge you as a tourist to err on the side of modesty. While being comfortable, do cover up. Long dresses/skirts, regular jeans, long trousers/tights work just fine for women across locations. Carry a scarf along (which works for the sunny weather too). Long trousers are expected of men when visiting mosques, tombs.

We stopped for a while at the Tomb of Sultan Ahmed from the 17th century. Built by the architect of the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, popularly known as the Blue mosque it had a sombre version of its grandeur too. It now houses 32 tombs including that of the favourite dowager of the Sultan and various family members.IMG_2922.jpg

After a round of fruit juices, we set out to find the Topkapi palace and lunch whichever of them would come first. The maps were terrible at leading us on a while goose chase till the shore – so we missed the Topkapi palace despite passing by it! However, we needed food by now and stopped at a place for lunch.

The vegetarian option was literally French fries wrapped with cheese, more cheese covering some slices of fresh tomatoes, some fried bell peppers and cream on the side and all of it topped with parsley. Even with all 4 of us(we had 2 friends who had joined us for a few days on this trip) contributing, it was tough to actually finish the plate due to the inordinate amount of cheese we weren’t used to having. The non-vegetarian option was chicken with rice, bread and a side of a salad. A side of ayran(buttermilk) and we couldn’t ask for more.IMG20190929165127.jpg

We headed off to the Topkapi palace next while the rest decided to take it slow and head back to the Airbnb.

There are multiple paths from the main road and the one we took led us to the group of museums first.

Istanbul Archaeology Museum– This was referred to as the Imperial museum when first set up in the 19th century. The highlight was the display of numerous sarcophagi which was a novelty for us to see. The sarcophagi were typically set above the ground level so that friends and family could visit the deceased after they were gone, meanwhile, the limestone inside was meant to speed up the decomposition of the body. They are home shaped structures in which individuals were buried in with the belief that it would be used by them to live in the afterlife.IMG_2962.jpg Several of them were richly decorated in marble exteriors with everything from cherubs to mourning women to a scene of a battle of Alexander the great on their surface. IMG_2969.jpgAdditionally, the museum consisted of busts and statues from ancient temples of Athena and Zeus. But the most special 2 displays have got to be tables with the oldest known peace treaty (between the empires of Egypt and Hittite) and the oldest known love poem. Just goes to show that aspirations haven’t changed over the ages – for immortality, peace and love.IMG_2976.jpg

Tiled Pavillion museum–  This was a favourite of mine and is also referred to locally as the Glass Palace. The Iznik and Seljuk tiles and ceramic utensils have a rich variety of calligraphy, plant and animal patterns.IMG_2995.jpg

The Life Water Fountain has hand-drawn designs and poetry written in an old Islamic calligraphy style is believed to be a masterpiece of tile making from the 15-16th century in relation to tile making. IMG_3005.jpgIt is believed that the sultan sat on the portico of this beautiful structure to watch his sons play cirit(a version of horseback polo still played in turkey to this day). Everything inside the structure itself is stunning and if anyone wants to gift us a house please use this building for design inspiration.IMG_3000.jpg

Up next : Topkapi Palace: Of 1300 person kitchens and an angelic singer

 

9 day trip

Turkey- Hagia Sophia – The magical wisdom of the ages

A rickety flight landed us, a sleepy twosome, at Istanbul one evening. The only plus of the dismal flight was that we spent the time without a single magazine or inflight entertainment by learning basic Turkish. So Merhaba to everyone.  We had to board a bus from the airport to get to where we had booked our stay and we had an early peek into the kindness of the Turkish people when the bus driver drove into not one but 2 fuel pumps just to get us our change with not a word of complaint. An hour later we reached Sultanahmet.

We alighted from the bus only to feel we were dropped into the embrace of the history and architecture of Istanbul- right in front of the Hagia Sophia(pronounced Aya Sofiya) looking very inviting in the evening light.  It was also our first view of the friendly cats that are found everywhere in Istanbul. Grinning to ourselves while staring at it all – it was only the strain of carrying our large rucksacks and our sleepy eyes that dragged us across the cobblestone paths to our Airbnb for the night.

Note: the dogs are gorgeous too but didn’t seem to be used to being petted by people, so were a little more aloof. Leave them alone unless one comes to you obviously looking to be petted.

To our delight, we were adjacent to one of the most beautiful mosques designed by the same architect as The Blue Mosque- The 16th century Ottoman mosque- of Sokullu Mehmed Pasha. WhatsApp Image 2019-09-29 at 21.06.23.jpeg

Day 2 :

We were woken up by the azaan since we had left a soundproof window open, so after freshening up decided it was the perfect time to go to the terrace. Even when walking to our Airbnb the steep slope of the area was apparent. The architect of Sokullu Mehmed Pasha mosque has sensibly used the slope to create multi-storey courtyards. The first very prudently to house shops, the rent of which would cover the mosque’s maintenance and the second as living quarters for the residents of the madrasah. All of this was visible to us from our perch on the terrace of our stay but we hesitated to visit the mosque itself since it wasn’t particularly a touristy spot and there was a constant stream of people coming in for prayers so we didn’t want to cause them disturbance. Images online of the interiors also look beautiful though.

We were lucky to reside at walking distance from Hagia Sophia and the Blue mosque so happily set out on foot. We decided it was only apt we started the very first day with a Turkish breakfast. We thoroughly enjoyed it, especially, the honeycomb and honey cream which gave it a perfectly quaint end.

We then joined the short queue to Hagia Sofia and bought a general ticket in. One constant amongst the mosques we visited in Turkey is the very, almost industrial exteriors with cement grey walls only slightly softened by the dome. This is hugely deceptive considering the gorgeous art, mosaics, colours and architecture in the inside of them.

The Hagia Sofia has always been my mental image of Istanbul and it was all I ever wanted and more. It’s both moody and magical. The immense chandeliers, the mosaics, the humongous works of calligraphy, the warm yellows, reds, and blues, the light streaming through the tall windows, the juxtaposition of the image of Mary with Islamic verses – it’s like another world where all is quiet and lovely. Even the continuous stream of tourists constantly clicking photos hoping to capture the image for posterity doesn’t deter from the place itself. Or maybe I’m just biased.IMG_2742.jpg

Since it’s construction in 537AD it was first an Eastern Orthodox Cathedral, then a Roman Catholic Cathedral and stayed the largest cathedral for a 1000 years after it was built. Currently, the Turkish Govt refers to it as a museum and there are no longer prayers held within its premises. It’s said to have taken more than 10,000 people and shy of 6 years to build. The name Sophia itself refers to the Wisdom of God. All religious pictures and icons were removed in 726 during a period where they were opposed by religious and imperial leaders. Individuals attempting to restore the structure have a challenge today- when unravelling the older images related to Christianity that were covered by plaster,  it would be at the expense of historical Islamic art. It’s a delicate balance that to us, has somehow let both of them shine through.IMG_2781.jpg

If that was not enough, Hagia Sofia continues to mystify historians with its literal hidden depths. Below the floors are tunnelled passages presumably to let a 5th century Emperor avoid the paparazzi or traffic of the time. While covering the expanse of Constantinople(current Istanbul) it contained graves, crypto rooms, and even a section large enough to sail a small ship in!IMG_2848.jpg

 While I don’t encourage ignorance, I’m glad I read further about the history of Hagia Sophia after my visit or my experience may have been marred by some of it. The structure has been damaged and repaired by numerous earthquakes and vandalism by the Crusaders and the Ottoman forces at different points in time. This too, like typical to churches then, was considered a refuge for people from persecution during times of war. However, the Ottoman forces tragically enslaved, violated or slaughtered women, children, the elderly and sick who were within it for 3 full days after capturing the city. It’s ironical that a place that was witness to such horrors was then made the first imperial mosque in Istanbul. Numerous restorations have added minarets, madrasah, soup kitchen, the sultan’s lodge, mihrabs etc to the building itself.IMG_2771.jpg

In addition to the numerous mosaics, there are 3 giant doors of note too.

  • Marble door– My favourite, it has images representing heaven and hell on either side of the door and led to a space used for official meetings.
  • The Nice door– the oldest of the lot and
  • The Emperor’s door– the largest one there solely used by the Emperor and his posse. Above the door is a mosaic artefact of the Emperor taking blessings of Jesus Christ with Mother Mary and the Angel Gabriel on either side. It’s believed to have been made from the wood off of Noah’s Ark! Now that’s a claim I haven’t heard off before.

Before leaving you can’t miss the queue of tourists waiting in line to touch a pillar. Supposed to feel moist to the touch, it’s called the Wishing pillar while touching it is believed to cure all sorts of illnesses. We, however, can’t confirm that since we didn’t join the line, so I guess we will have to deal with the illnesses when they come!

Note: We had read online about the pre-paid card for most of the tourist place entrances but didn’t realise there were multiple choices among them based on how long they’re valid and how many places they cover. So it led to us, as a group, making complex calculations on which of the cards would be “worth it”. Unfortunately, this is hard to decide unless you’re really sure of your plan within Turkey. We still found the card useful if only to avoid dealing with cash and it helped sort of pre-budget entrance fees into our expenses.

Up next: Blue Mosque and Tile museums: Of beautiful homes for the dead and the living