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Published: June 20th 2017
Geo: 41.0245, 28.9881
This is the final blog for my month
long vacation in Europe, and it covers my five day stay in Istanbul.
In early 2013 I rooted for Istanbul to
be selected by the International Olympic Committee to be the host
city of the 2020 Summer Olympic Games beating out Madrid and Tokyo. I
was ready to pack my bags and purchase my tickets if Istanbul got the
nod. Unfortunately there were demonstrations in that city the week
that the IOC visited, and probably for that reason the games were
awarded to Tokyo. So much for that dream.
When planning my return flight from
London to Seattle I noticed that under United Airlines’ mileage
program it was cheaper to fly back from Istanbul that it was to fly
from London/Heathrow. The difference in price was just about the
price of a ticket on Turkish Airlines from Heathrow to Ataturk
Airport, Istanbul, so I carved out a week, including travel days, at
the end of my vacation to visit that city that spans Europe and Asia
and which has over two millennium of history.
Turkey has recently become a major
tourist destination, and Turkish Airlines serves as an ambassador of
good will to visitors by providing a level of service that you don’t
see on airlines these days. When we boarded
A narrow dark cobble stone street in front of the hotel (reminds me of Paris) with a mosque (not the Blue Mosque) about two blocks away. We can hear the call to prayer several times a day.
the plane we were greeted
by the flight crew, the cabin crew, and a woman dressed in a snazzy
chef’s outfit. I am not sure whether there was significant added
value in the level of service proved by her presence but she sure
added class to the flight. I got a really nice meal, preceded with
Turkish delight, on the five hour flight from London to Istanbul. By
way of contrast, the five flight from Toronto to Seattle, the last
leg of my flight back home, we were served nothing but could buy food
on the plane.
My hotel was located in the Sultanahmet
neighborhood which is the ancient Ottoman district. The water
pressure in the local hotels was so bad that they requested that used
toilet paper be deposited in a trash can rather than being flushed
away. Also, according to Rick Steves’ guide book it was risky to
drinking the tap water so every day I would purchase a 1.5 liter of
bottled Nestle water for about $1 with which to rehydrate and to
brush my teeth.
The free breakfast was much better than
the fried, greasy food that was served at Pollock Hall, Edinburgh. We
had fresh tomatoes and cucumbers, cooked egg plant, an assortment of
olives, scrambed eggs and/or hard boiled eggs, egg rolls, bread,
melon, corn flakes and Trix, orange and grape juice,
and fudge. This held me over until supper time with maybe a mid-day
snack of roasted chestnuts or a Turkish pretzel.
The hotel is located a five minute walk
from four of Istanbul’s most popular tourist sites: Topkapi Palace,
Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, and Basilica Cistern (used in the filming
of “From Russia With Love”😉. A mosque was located maybe one block
away (see photo) and we could hear the daily call for prayer at
around 4:30 pm, 7:30 pm, and I think around 9:00 pm. These calls were
broadcast using a public address system, and could be blocked out by
the hotel’s windows. The 5:00 am call to prayer was made with the PA
system volume turned way down so one would have to strain to hear
what is a melodic call.
First up was the Topkapi Palace – the
home of sultans, their wives, and their support staff. This is where
I learned that Istanbul attracts armies of tourists many of whom are
part of a group. I even ran into the Rick Steves’ tour group and
spent a half hour exchanging experiences with four of them. The
palace is enormous. The Steves’ guide book describes a tour of the
palace that takes two hours and a separate
tour of the harem that
takes one hour. My time at this site was seven hours – the place
was to fascinating. In some areas photography was prohibited: the
treasury where the famous Topkapi dagger is on display, the armory,
and the hall of holy relics where all women had to wear scarves.
However, the rest of the palace was open to photography. I
particularly liked the areas that looked over the Bosphorous – the
body of water separating European and Asian Istanbul.
After spending the day at the Topkapi
Palace I walked about a quarter mile to the Blue Mosque. It has
separate entrances for worshipers and for visitors. Because the 7:30
prayer time was about to start they did not allow any visitors to
enter, and that was it for the rest of the evening.
The next day, Tuesday, I visited the
Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque where are most next door to each
other. The Hagia Sophia was built around 530 AD and served as the
seat of the Eastern Orthodox church until the Ottomans took control
of the country in the mid-1400s and converted the place to a mosque.
A really beautiful building.
However, the place that I admired the
most is the Blue Mosque. On this day I was in the courtyard in the
and could enter the place as a visitor. A sign at the
visitor’s entrance spelled out the rules which included: women had to
wear scarves, both men and women had to cover bare legs, shoes off,
and no kissing,. Men in shorts were given something like a sarong or
shirt to wear, and some women could get by with a scarf while others
had to put on a head to toe outfit. The shoes came off and were put
in plastic bags similar to the ones in the produce section of
Safeway. Once inside one could wander all over the place except for
the prayer area which is directly below the mosque’s dome and which
is sectioned off with a chest high railing. Only worshipers were to
into this area but there were several clueless louts who entered with
their cameras so they could get a good photograph of the dome. It was
jerks with their cameras standing next to people on their knees
bowing in prayer.
I really like this mosque. It was
really calming. It was a wonderful place to watch the world go by.
And unlike the woman in London’s Whitechapel area who objected to me
photographing her market display with her in it, there were plenty of
Muslim women in traditional dress who were
This was taken in a room where photographs are not allowed. Got a few shots in before the guards told me to stop.
taking photographs of each
other and were taking selfies.
At the exit we put our shoes back on.
There was a man in an official kiosk asking for donations to support
the mosque. I did not see a single person give him any money which is
a shame given that the mosque is such a wonderful place to visit. I
reached into my pocket and pulled a 1 Turkish lira coin, with about
50 cents, and gave it to him. I was surprised when he gave me a
receipt for this donation which was preprinted with “1 TL” and
had a serial number. Evidently a one lira donation is not uncommon
but I didn’t see anyone else donate money.
That evening using the advice of the
hotel manager I took the tram to the “New Town” part of Istanbul
and patronized Ali Baba – a hookah club – that had all the
glitter of a Las Vegas casino. It cost $20 to smoke a hookah though
this cost can be shared by a group . It was amazing to see the great
clouds of smoke being blown at other tables so I did my best to match
this. This is probably the first time in my life that I drew tobacco
smoke into my lungs – exhale to
empty the lungs, suck in as much
smoke as possible, and then blow it out. The accompanying video gives
you an idea of how this works.
According to Rick Steves’ book “Because
the fruit infused tobacco contains zero to very little nicotine, it’s
not addictive and provides no buzz”. However, I staggered out of
the club after smoking the hookah for an hour (equivalent to 20 to
100 cigarettes depending on the source of information). Fortunately
there was a mosque across the street whose walls I used to support
myself as worshipers entered for the 9:00 pm prayer. It took a while
to clear the head, then I returned to the hotel.
The next day I decided to walk from the
Old Town to the New Town districts of the city. This route brings one
over the Galata Bridge which spans the Bosphorous. This 1994
structure is famously partly because of its lower deck which is
filled with restaurants with tempting menus depicting all the sea
food dishes they offer. There is where I had a real culture shock.
Needing to use a toilet I entered the room labeled “W(ater)
C(loset)”. I paid the attendant 1 TL and entered the room. I was
shocked to find that each stall had an “Oriental” squat toilet –
essentially a hole in the
floor – and had no toilet paper
dispenser. I went back to the attendant who gave me two pieces of
paper each about the size of a Kleenex tissue but a bit thicker. I
managed to survive this experience.
The highlight of the walk around was
going up the Galata Tower, the highest point in Istanbul with its
great 360 degree view of the city.
On the way back to the hotel I stopped
at a Turkish delight store and purchased 11 pieces for $5. While some
of these were the jelly confections that are available in the USA
others were made of other foodstuffs and were delicious.
On Thursday I took a cruise on a
commuter ferry, which had a capacity of maybe 500 people, up the
Bosphorous to the edge of the Black Sea. This cruise took one and
one-half hours heading north past many beautiful buildings that were
built during the Ottoman period. Just before the Black Sea the ship
berthed in a small fishing village on the Asian side of Turkey where
we could wander around and have lunch. I have condensed the 1-1/2
hour cruise into a 45 second time lapse video which should be posted
with this blog.
On the return leg of the trip just as
the ship pulled into its pier in Istanbul
At one time a church – the center of Eastern Orthodox christianity, then a mosque for the Ottoman empire, and now a museum and one of Istanbul’s most popular sites.
I decided to use the rest
room since it was unclear where the next WC would be located. I had
patronized an ice cream stand in the fishing village so they let me
use their western toilet where I pulled of several yards of toilet
paper and stuffed them in my sack. When I came out of the ship’s rest
room, which had squat toilets, I was shocked to see that all of the
passengers had disembarked, the gangway/gangplank was pulled back
onto the pier, the lines had been cast off, and that the ship was
moving away from the pier. The deckhand who saw me was equally
surprised. I walked to the edge of the ship and figured that I could
jump to the pier with a running start even though I had a 10 pound
pack with photographic gear that unbalanced things. Anyway, I ran and
jumped, landed on the pier and walked away while watching the ship
head out into the Bosphorous. Note: Prior to leaving for Europe I
purchased a 30 day $1M medical evacuation policy in case things like
this did not end up well.
The famous Spice Market was located
nearby so I visited that site. Unfortunately it was not a good
experience. Big crowds, lots of bumping, and a limited range
for sale (spices, jewelry, and Turkish delight). Based on that
experience I decided not to visit the famous Grand Bazaar, a
supersize version of the Spice Market, on Friday but instead visited
the military museum. This trip brought me to the last stop of the
tram line which was next to the funicular which transported
passengers to Taksim Square which represents the modern Turkey and
which has been the site of major demonstrations. It is the site of a
monument to the 1920s revolution lead to the modernization of Turkey.
The museum showed the military history
of Turkey which goes back nearly 2,000 years. Atilla the Hun is
featured in one of its displays. In modern times it shows the Turkish
view of the World War I Gallipli campaign and the revolution of the
1920s which ended the Ottoman reign and brought forth a modern
society which ended a religion based government, gave women the right
to vote and to be government officials, and expanded the education
system among other things. I am not sure of there is a dark side to
Mustafa Kemal Ataturk but he sure did modernize and democratize his
The next day, Saturday, it was up at
4:30 am to start a 27 hour journey back to Seattle.
What a month!
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