Istanbul was Constantinople now it's Istanbul not Constantinople, been a long time gone, Constantinople, now it's Turkish delight on a moonlit night...
Let's start by exploring some Turkish stereotypes; mosques (bazillions of them), tea, coffee, harems, Turkish delight, sultans and hot weather. Turkey has nearly all of these.
I did check the weather report three times before I came but that smart part of my brain kept saying ''get over it, it's Turkey it will be warm enough.'' So I get here and it's not really warm enough and the weather report says ''flurries'' and shows pictures of spiny little snowflakes. All this really means is that Claire will have to listen to me whinge more. Claire is a great person to travel with because she has a hilarious habit of falling up and down things like stairs and ramps and generally finding her feet don't communicate so well with her body as a whole. Just when you think the day is getting boring there will be an unexpected bit of raised footpath. I love this because it makes me feel less clumsy. I brought Claire with me to Turkey* because she can read maps (and I can't**.) This is very useful in a city that DOESN'T BELIEVE IN STREET SIGNS. (Please sign the attached petition 'Liberal Street Signs for all of Istanbul.')
I spend a lot of time in this city walking down the wrong street in the wrong direction but this is alright because it eventually involves a collision with a 6th Century mosque of some description. There are billions, trillions, zillions of them.
Turkish people are proud to be Muslim. So proud you could listen to a non-stop broadcast of 'Koran the Audio Book' on the flight here. The 5.30am call to prayer can be a bit of a jolt to begin with but I'm now accomplished at weaving it into early morning lucid dreaming. What's annoying is listening to French chicks complain about it every morning at breakfast.
The first mosque we visit is the Haiya Sofya, a beautiful 6th Century mosque in the center of Istanbul. As you enter there is a row of huge doors; one for the sultan, one for priests, then soldiers, commoners, and sinners. Our tour guide insists we go through the sinners' door. The Haiya Sofya was built as a christian church so the whole thing faces Jerusalem. When it was converted to a mosque the Muslims glued on some minarets and made a new altar that sits wonkily in the middle facing 9 degrees North East of Jerusalem; towards Mecca. I'm sure some part of this is bad feng shui.
The sultan had his own private praying space and a ramp leading up to it so that his horse and cart could pull him up there. It's divided from the rest of the mosque by intricate wooden panels in case anyone wants to stab, poison or dismember him while he's praying***. Restorations of the Haiya Sofya are still taking place and the artists have uncovered the face of a cherub with six wings. The ''cherub'' is super ugly and looks more like a demon. It's so ugly the restorers should just cover it up again. Plus, six wings is really messed up and when I asked the tour guide why it had so many he said he thought all cherubs had six wings. So maybe Turkish cherubs should be avoided.
There's also a complex wishing stone arrangement which involves putting your thumb in a wall and twisting around in a full circle while wishing. If your thumb comes out of the wall wet your wish will come true. I found the whole process so challenging I forgot to make a wish. The walls of the Haiya Sofya are made of huge slabs of symmetrical marble from the Sea of Marmara (sea of marble). Claire (who I should clarify has eyesight issues) snapped away at these only to discover later that the ones she had photographed where just paintings.
So, back to the billions and zillions of mosques. There are five in the Grand Bazaar alone, (yes, five in a market); the city skyline looks like a pincushion with all the minarets. The Grand Bazaar has been around since the 15th Century, it's the second largest covered market in the world with more than 4000 shops. It has between 250,000 - 500,000 visitors daily. But, basically, it's a repeated system of about eight shops; rug shops, Turkish delight shops, scarfe shops, teapot and tea shops, jewellery shops, lighting shops, nut shops and cafes. Yes, yes; everyone bothers you non-stop but it's not so bad. I was sure one shop owner was about to burst into song when showing us his teapots; ''we have glass ones, and brass ones ...'' (silver, blue, high class ones?)
One mosque free attraction in Istanbul is the Galata tower. It's 67 meters tall with an observatory that's great for viewing lots of mosques. In the 17th Century some guy wearing a pair of giant wings jumped off it, ''flew'' accross the Bosphorus, and amazingly didn't die. The palaces in Istanbul are pretty intense too; Topkapi is an impressive rag-doll-mix of mismatched tiling and pushy little Turkish women. (Turkish people don't have the Euro-Centric Queuing System. The exchange rate from Euro-Centric to Turkish Queuing is fairly bad at the moment at about one hour for two elbows and three bruised ribs.) The harem is a highlight of the palace. As the living quarters of the sultan, his mother, his wives, concubines and the young places it's an interesting place to imagine the politics of domestic life. It's one family dinner I'd love to see; ''mum, no not you, mum can I have-.'' The treasury is chocked with glittering jewelery, gifts and spoils of war. I've never seen so many emeralds and rubies. There is one enormous 86 carat diamond which was actually found in a rubbish dump in the 1500s. The peddler who found it sold it at a market for what he thought was a fair price; three spoons. I would have asked for at least five. The man who bought it sold it on for a slightly better price, by which time the sultan got wind of a biggish rock floating around the bazaar, summoned it to his throne room and had it turned into a very sparkly pendant.
The Turkish delight (lukum) in Turkey is delightful; sweet little squishy cubes of pistachio and honey, coconut and peanut, lemon and chocolate, strawberry - it's like Baskin and Robbins ice-cream (rose and almond is old-fez). Every coffee shop sells their own home-made lukum and mountains of syrupy baclava. Baclava, in Greek, means ''little sin****.''
There's one Turkish stereotype that I forgot to add to the list; tourist scams. There are heaps of scammers in Istanbul. One traveler in our hostel got scooped up by some nice looking Cyprian guys outside the Blue Mosque. They took him to a bar, paid for the taxi and invited a few girls who looked like prostitutes. Three or four rounds of drinks later they asked for the bill, (which was 1,500TL). Alarm bells started going off at this point, but the Cyprians insisted that our friend help them pay. They escorted him to an ATM, but he used an old empty card and pretended to have no money. They were still pushy, so he offered to go with them to the police station to explain. Finally they backed off, but the same thing happened to a Japanese backpacker the week before and he ended up paying them 1,000TL.
My favourite experiences in Istanbul are with the crazy bunch of people at Metropolis Hostel. Canadians that call us mozzies (''mawzies'') not Aussies because we're annoying and we're everywhere. People that think because we live in Australia and it's an island ''far away from diseases'' we can eat raw chicken. I love the sound of an unshaven Turkish man bellowing ''Bosphorus'' unexpectedly into my ear because it's clearly the best way to convince me to take his boat cruise. I even like the Americans who have issues with the ''cheeseburgers in Istanbul'' because ''cheeseburgers are supposed to be that one reliable McDonalds meal that's the same everywhere but it's not true; they don't make it the same here.'' (Why do people travel if they want things to be exactly like they are at home?) Mostly, I love the patience of the Turkish people as they listen to me struggle with ''Teshuk''
''Teshekur ederim'' because for some reason it's a string of vowels and consonants I just can't get my head around.
For now, we're rocketing along in a bus making sounds like an F1, (can you soup up a bus?). on an unfinished road to Cannakale. Our vehicle is kitted out with TVs; super exciting except they're only showing Turkish soaps, a live feed from the front of the bus and Turkish music videos. (These fade between oiled legs, electronic guitar riffs and men standing on highways moving their hands between their hearts and the sky.)
Xoxo travel gossip girl
- This is a lie; I'm freeloading on her peaceful trek through Europe.
- * I did get really lost finding the hostel. After finally convincing myself that the map and I were facing the same direction, fighting the same battle and on the same team I found out that it was a double agent trained in ten languages I hadn't even heard of and good at international subterfuge.
- ** These are the three main causes of death for Turkish sultans.
- ***This is a lie, but it should be true.