25-30 April: Fake Break.
“Istanbul was Constantinople
Now it’s Istanbul, not Constantinople
Been a long time gone, Constantinople
Now it’s Turkish delight on a moonlit night”
-The Four Lads, 1953
The last weekend of April consisted of many Italian holidays clustered around our usual three-day weekend, so we made a fake break, a five-day trip to Istanbul!
The journey to the eastern most part of Europe was not an easy one and involved JC, Madi, and I getting up very early to catch the train to Bologna. From there we made it to the airport, flew to Vienna, and then to Istanbul. We arrived around 2pm to a busy metropolis unlike any place I had ever been before. Since Turkey is a religiously Muslim based country, most women wore coverings over their head and a call to prayer is projected from the Minaret (tower) of every mosque six times a day. As we drove from the airport to our hostel, I was amazed by how strange, yet beautiful this place was. I did not know where to look first.
We spent Wednesday afternoon settling into our room and getting a lay of the land. That day we did not venture too far from the main tourist area and found a restaurant where we could have our first lamb kebab.
Our hostel provided us with a typical Turkish breakfast that included tea, sausage, a hard-boiled egg, a type of cheese that looked like feta, cucumber, tomato, and lots of bread. We sat on the terrace and enjoyed the view while we ate.
Touristing began with visiting the Blue Mosque, one of the most famous in Istanbul. The mosque gets its name from the grey stone of the exterior and blue tiles on the interior. We had to remove our shoes and wear a scarf over our heads to enter. The interior was covered with Arabic scripture, floral, and geometric patterns rather than religious figures (Islam does not permit the use of figures or symbols within their religious spaces). Most mosques share many similar elements, including an outdoor courtyard, open prayer hall, minaret (tower for the call to prayer), and mihrab (a notch in the wall that indicates the direction of prayer towards Mecca). The ceiling under the dome was extremely high, but I felt confined by the low hanging lights.
Next, we crossed the large plaza to Hagia Sophia. This massive structure was originally a Christian church while the city was the capital of the eastern Roman Empire and under rule of Emperor Constantine (hence the name Constantinople). In 1453, when Sultan Mehmed II conquered the city and made it the capital of the Ottoman Empire (starting the slow change to the name Istanbul—though western countries still referred to it as Constantinople until the 1930s), Hagia Sophia was also changed into a mosque to reflect the religious change of the empire. Towers were built and a mihrab was built into the altar. If you look carefully, you will notice that it is not in the center of the altar. As a Christian church, the structure was built to face Jerusalem, while the Islamic additions were built to face Mecca. Much of the original early Christian mosaics still exist on the walls. The golden glow from the lights and yellow walls made a beautiful space. In the 1950s, for restoration, preservation, and historical value, the worship space was converted into a museum and became open to the public.
We then visited the Basilica Cistern which is a large underground chamber that stored and provided water for much of Istanbul’s historic district for hundreds of years. This place is a tourist trap, but also beautiful. Dramatic lighting is reflected off the water and 336 columns, all decorated with different designs.
The rest of the day was spent exploring the maze of shops in the grand bazaar where we bought exotic scarves, clothing, and bags and tried to avoid the catcalls of the many merchants.
This morning, we decided to be brave and step our of our comfort zone. We decided to have a Turkish bath. It was one of the most amazing things I have done yet! The baths are located below street level and are divided; men and women. We had to strip down to a cloth wrap and provided panties. We ventured into the warm, steam filled, stone bath which included a large stone table (where an attendant would scrub, wash, and massage you) and many alcoves where you could douse yourself with hot water. We were really awkward at first, Madi was brave and was the first to “take the plunge.” Once the steam had softened my skin, the attendant began scrubbing away, removing every layer of skin from my body (she showed it to me and it was DISGUSTING!), she carefully massaged my body and washed my hair. I then spent the next hour swimming and snoozing in the pool in one of the alcoves. Such a great morning. No photos allowed, but the bath’s website has some under “gallery.” Click here.
We headed down to the harbor and had fish sandwiches that were made on boats. I was amazed how the cooks could stand working on these boats that were being tossed around every which way. Then we took a boat tour up the Bosphorus Strait which is the dividing line between east and west Istanbul and Europe and Asia. I saw Asia!
Today we visited Topkapi Palace, residence of the Ottoman Sultans. This huge complex included many courtyards, beautifully decorated rooms, relics, and one of the best views. I was fascinated by the calligraphy on the walls and the ornate details of the architecture. The colors were so vibrant!
We took an afternoon break at a newly discovered tea house. A wooden tearoom had been constructed in an Islamic cemetery and we enjoyed our fill of Turkish black and apple tea. The small glasses were a little larger than a shot glass and filled with delicious, piping hot tea. After, we visited the Spice Bazaar where I got some loose tea and mixed cooking spices.
We took a long, long walk up the coast, out of the tourist area, to the Jewish sector of Istanbul. We passed lots of people picnicking along the harbor and found a great restaurant for lunch. Findik Kabugunda offered Kofte, or Turkish meatballs. We enjoyed three different types and then tried the rice pudding for dessert. Yum!
The restaurant owner was very nice and gave us directions to the next stop. We ventured through the neighborhood to Chora Church. Tucked between apartment buildings, it was hard to find. But the beautiful mosaics and fresco made it well worth the adventure of finding it. Our walk back to the hostel took us out of the tourist area and through the neighborhoods where the locals live. The below video shows part of our walk. Listen for the call to prayer and look for the small differences from our western life style.
Our flight home left very early and we had an eight-hour layover in Munich. We had checked our bags through to Italy so we could leave the airport and explore. I gave Madi a quick tour of downtown Munich, we had pretzels and coffee at the Viktualienarket for breakfast, sausage and beer in the English Garden for lunch, and took a nap in the park all before heading back to the airport. It was so strange to be in three completely different cultures in the same day. Early morning in Turkey, afternoon in Germany, and we were home in time for dinner in Italy.
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Visiting Istanbul was one of the most unique places I have ever been, though my scope of travel is strictly America and Western Europe. It was such an eye opener to visit a place where my religion was a minority and to see how the many other people live.
Istanbul. I’ll be back.