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Turkey: Bodrum, Dalyan, Ephesus, Gulf of Gokova, Istanbul
Istanbul, Turkey: Tale of two continents
by Prakash Bang, Editor in Chief
You would do well with a hotel in or around Sultanahmet. That way, you are where the action is. Within walking distances are the Blue Mosque; the Hippodrome; Hagia Sophia; Topikapi Palace; the Basilica Cistern; the Grand Bazaar and the Spice Bazaar. However, with Istanbul's excellent public transportation network or taxis for that matter, you are OK in any other location. Say Europe or Asia.
Istanbul connects Asia with Europe. Separating the two continents is the Bosphorus Strait and one can cross over by the famous Bosphorus Bridge. Standing on one continent, you can picture the other. In their hearts, the locals are more connected to Europe than Asia. Turkey is in the waiting to join the European Union. And like most European locals, you won't find many speaking English.
I was hosted at Hotel Pera Tulip, an excellent business hotel in Taksim area. Istanbul, on both sides of the Golden Horn (Istanbul's natural harbour) and of the Bosphorus, is settled on hill slopes. In fact, Istanbul is nicknamed "The City on Seven Hills". Alleys and narrow streets are a common sight. It's an art, how cars negotiate the narrow turns. Thank God, most of the streets are one way. New development in areas away from town, do have wide roads, sky-scrapers, big shopping malls and all that one could expect in a modern metropolis. I was happy, away from it all, soaking in the old world charm. Years ago the city was known as Byzantium (667 BC), then Constantinople (330 AD) and finally Istanbul (1930 AD). There were many other names in between, but we won't get into that.
My business meetings were scheduled in the afternoons and late evenings. That gave me two days to explore Istanbul. Had I more days, I would have opted for a 'key' that would give me unlimited access on trams, buses and the underground. I was good with tokens for the two days. Single trip costs TL 1.40 (at the time of writing 1 Euro bought 2.2 Turkish Lira). Tokens can be bought at kiosks at every station. I must admire the engineering feat of building the underground. Given the terrain and the archeological treasures beneath, it would have been quite a task. Just so you know, Istanbul's underground is the second oldest in the world - first being London. The Funikulur tram, supported by cables, runs up to Taksim and down to Kabatas. The distance is 600 meters and the tram climbs 60 meters every 10 seconds.
After a hearty breakfast (Turks love their dried fruits, nuts, cheese and olives), I decided to walk all the way down from Taksim to Sultanahmet. That would give me the chance to walk over the Galata Bridge across the Golden Horn. Not to forget great photo opportunities of colourful buildings, numerous mosques, locals and Turkish cats. There are plenty of them on the streets. When I reached about midway near the docks, I thought of taking the 2-hour Bosphorus cruise. The weather was good and I didn't want to take a chance with the Gods the next morning. The trip cost me TL 20. Some folks on the board paid only 15. Bargaining pays in Istanbul too. Especially on boats, the Spice and the Grand Bazaar. We started off on the European side of the Bosphorus all the way up to the 2nd bridge (that's past the famous Bosphorus bridge) and came back from the Asian side. Both shores had homes of the rich, mosques, palaces punctuated by citizens who doubled up as fishermen. Looks like fishing is Istanbul's favourite pastime… you see them everywhere.
After a quick doner & orange juice lunch (Turkey's favourite fast food) I commenced my walk up to the Blue Mosque passing through narrow lanes packed with vendors and the Spice Bazaar - an enclosure of around 200 shops mainly selling spices, dried fruit, nuts, Turkish desserts (Turkish Delight & Bakhlawa) and souvenirs. Be prepared to face the persuasiveness of vendors. They won't feel bad if you don't buy, but then, more often than not, you will hear the words "you are breaking my heart." Their English ends at that. Another 20 minutes uphill walk I was at Sultanahmet tram station home to Istanbul's must do sites.
Basilica Cistern, size of a cathedral, is an underground chamber capable of holding 80,000 cubic metres of water covering an area of 9,800 square metres. The large space is broken up by a forest of 336 marble columns each 30 feet high. Not to be missed are the bases of two of the columns carved with the head of a Medusa. One of the heads is upside down, while the other is tilted to one side. The placing is a mystery but the learned believe that they were placed that way deliberately. The cistern's water was provided from the Belgrade Woods, about 19 kms. away via aqueducts. The cistern was a source of water to the Great Palace of Constantinople and later to Topkapi Palace. The entrance fee is TL 10.
Hippodrome was built by the Roman Emperor Septimius Severus in 203 AD. The stadium served as a meeting place for politicians and to hold games mainly chariot racing, wrestling, boxing and athletics. Today the hippodrome is a public park which holds Obelisk of Theodosius erected in 1450 BC. When built it was 27 meters tall. Today, it's just 17 meters. What happened to the 10 meters is a mystery. Adjoining to the Obelisk is Constantine Column with a height of 32 meters, the Serpentine Column (intertwined pieces of iron) and the German fountain.
Sultan Ahmet Mosque, got its name Blue Mosque simply because of the colour. Blue is a very dominant colour that went into making this great imperial mosque in 1609. Almost square with a base of 53 meters, the dome is 24 meters in diameter with a height of 43 meters. The majestic structure has very elegant interiors. Illuminated by 260 windows, the light fills up the space highlighting beautiful Iznik ceramic motifs of lilies, tulips, roses, trees and animals. There's no entrance fee to visit this spectacular piece of art.
Once a church, then a mosque now a museum is the story of Hagia Sophia which means Sacred Wisdom. Three churches were built during different reigns beginning from 337 AD up to 558 AD. Hagia Sophia has been restored several times during the Byzantine and Ottoman period. On the Turkish Conquest of Istanbul, Sultan Mehmet, the conqueror held the first Friday prayers in the premises and ordered it be converted into a mosque. It's now a museum. The entry fee is TL20. Unfortunately, I could not go in for want of time.
Since I had a business meeting to catch, I took the tram back to Karakoy at the base of Taksim and a taxi to my hotel. Like I said, tram cost was TL 1.40 and taxi meter was TL 4.20. Of course, I did not get the change back. A big thank you from the taxi driver did the trick. The next morning I would do the Grand Bazaar and Topikapi Palace - the jewel of my trip.
For Grand Bazaar alight at Cemberlitas just a stop away from Sultanahmet. Built in the 15th century with an enclosed area of over 54,000 sq. meters, it's the largest and the oldest covered market in the world. The complex has 21 gates and 66 streets with over 4000 shops selling everything that the Spice Bazaar did plus souvenirs, trinkets, jewelry, carpets, hukkas and much, much more. Adjacent to the tram stop stood the Burnt Column. It was under cover for restoration.
The Topkapi Palace was the official and primary residence in the city of the Ottoman Sultans from 1465 to 1853. The palace was a setting for state occasions and royal entertainments. Sultan Mehmud II, the conqueror of Byzantine Constantinople, ordered the construction of the palace in 1459. It was further expanded and renovated after the 1509 earthquake and 1665 fire. After the end of Ottoman Empire in 1921, the Government converted the palace into a museum. The palace complex has hundreds of rooms and chambers, but only the most important are accessible to the public. The entrance charge is TL 20. TL 15 is an optional extra to visit the Harem. In all, consider TL 35 as very well spent, I would say.
The palace is full of examples of Ottoman architecture and also contains large collections of porcelain, robes, weapons, shields, armor, Ottoman miniatures, Islamic calligraphic manuscripts and murals. While every accessible area in the palace premises has its charms, the 3 highlights are the premises displaying Ottoman treasure and jewelry; the premises with collection of belongings of the Prophets; and the Harem. Photography was prohibited in the first two premises. Harem had no such restrictions.
The Harem was home to the Sultan's mother, the concubines and the wives of the Sultan; the rest of his family; his children and servants. The Harem consists of many buildings, each with its own function, connected through hallways and courtyards. The Harem was guarded by eunuchs. There was no trespassing beyond the gates of the Harem, except for the sultan, the queen mother, the Sultan's consorts and favourites, the princes and the concubines as well as the eunuchs guarding the Harem.
Courtyard of the Eunuchs, Bath of the Concubines, Apartment of Queen Mother, Apartment of Sultan, Imperial Hall, Twin Towers of Crown Prince, Courtyard of the Favourities, Imperial Terrace, Moonlight Canopy… such was the life and grandeur of the Sultans that they even had a separate enclosure for circumcision!
Dazzled and amazed I headed back to Taksim Square. Tram down to Kabatas. Funikuler tram from Kabatas up to Taksim. Period tram from Taksim to Tunel. On foot from Tunel to my hotel. The trip in the old tram was great. We chugged along Isteklal street filled to the brim with people. Both sides of the road had shops, boutiques, restaurants, doner kiosks and hotels.
We were to meet for business over dinner at Haci Abdullah. I had some time on hand for a visit to the hamam. Hamams are community baths. While the sultans, pashas and viziers have long gone, the tradition of getting yourself cleaned continues. I too tried my hand at it, or should I say I put my body into it. Off the few certified hamams in Istanbul I stepped into Tarihi Galatasaray Hamami, about a km. away from my hotel. This hamam has been around since 1481 - that's 528 years! I opted for the best package which costs Euro 50 and lasts about 75 minutes.
After undressing, I was given wooden sabots (tukmunya) and a loin cloth to wear. My masseur (keseci) ushered me into the hamam. It was a domed shaped structure with a heated hexagonal marble platform (gobektasi) at the centre of the base. I was asked to lie down. In about 15 to 20 minutes I sweated profusely, indicating that I was ready to be rubbed with a bath globe. Just so you know the marble platform is large enough to sleep about 6 customers. There were 2 other customers. The masseurs, surprisingly, were pot bellied men, reminding me of mini-sumos. Don't fall for the brochures or the posters - what they show are masseurs with 6 packs. Of course, there are separate hamams for men and women.
After a vigorous rub, I was asked to sit near a marble basin (kurna) with running hot water. I was then scrubbed with a Turkish glove that supposedly removed the dead skin. Post that, I welcomed a light rub with foam. The keseci then bathed me with plenty of hot water. When I was done, I was exhausted to the hilt. A little rest and chilled shower completed the ritual. A bottle of chilled water was welcome, which was served gratis.
Rejuvenated (though the price was not worth it), I was ready for a Turkish dinner. Haci Abdullah is a fine dining restaurant on Isteklal Street. Established in 1888 the restaurant is featured locally and internationally. Famous for its Ottoman - Turkish culinary, the joint is frequented by who's who of Turkey, State guests and of course tourists. There are 500 items on the menu, off which 150 are selected for the day. Salads, main course, desserts… I enjoyed them all without much clue of what was in or around the morsel. They had a menu in English but I didn't bother. I was in control of a well informed Turk.
By the way, I did some business too.
Istanbul Image Gallery Photo viewer
I was to sail the Gulf of Gokova. That gave me an opportunity to be in Istanbul. During this visit I made it a point to visit Hagia Sophia. Pictures appear below.
Update - Istanbul Image Gallery Photo viewer
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