Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Insert They Might Be Giants Lyrics Here

Ablution Fountains, Blue Mosque
A typical conversation around our flat goes like this:

Me: Let's go somewhere.

Beautiful Competition: OK, where?

Me: I dunno, what's good on Last Minute?

BC: Here's a trip to Istanbul for dirt cheap.

Me: Hey, that's cool. Istanbul, formerly Constantinople, capital of the Byzantine and later Ottoman empires? In Turkey? Why not.

And then we book tickets and go.

We didn't exactly time this trip perfectly since it was the weekend after a bank holiday weekend with miserable weather, but it worked out fine. We got up early on Friday and trundled out to Heathrow, boarded a plane and in about four hours were in Turkey.

This is significant for a lot of reasons for me. It was my first visit to a Muslim country. It's the furthest east I've ever been. And it was within spitting distance of another continent: Asia. Which brings the total of continents I haven't laid eyes on before to two, Australia and the cold one.

We planned the o'dark thirty flight so we could get in and have some time to get a feel for the city, since we realistically only had two and a half days to see anything. We made it to the Hippodrome, the chariot racing course built back when the city was the Greek colony of Byzantium, poked around a bit, and had a laid-back evening with delicious and amazing food.

Although I'm not sure we're conscious of it, we tend to fall into a nice rhythm when we travel: sleep in a bit, do most of our heavy touristing before lunch, eat a smallish meal, meander for a while, head back to the hotel, nap for a couple of hours, then have an enjoyable and relaxed evening. We weren't trying to cram as much sightseeing into our trip as possible this time around; it was intended to be relaxing and it was. If I sound defensive it's because we saw very little outside the main, top tourist attractions but that's OK.

Saturday was up early and hit the Grand Bazaar. The Grand Bazaar is basically the world's first indoor shopping mall: a large structure (really a series of structures) that house shops of various types, divided roughly by what they sell: carpets, jewelry, leather, clothes, and so forth. We found some artwork we liked, haggled and bargained for it, and ended up getting ripped off I'm sure but had a great time while we were at it.

Traversing this press of humanity and hitting the book bazaar and spice bazaars took most of our day. It's a very different environment, where there are no prices and it's even considered rude to accept the first price a shopkeeper tells you. Many of them spoke English but not all, so you have to resort to pointing, grunting, putting numbers into a calculator and so forth.

The next day we hit the tourist attractions (rather than the tourist traps), which are luckily clustered within about a mile of each other. The Blue Mosque was the first, an incredible huge mosque that takes its name from the blue tilework inside. It was built to attempt to rival the nearby Aya Sofia (or Hagia Sofia) and came pretty close. The Aya Sofia was completed in 567 and for nearly 1000 years was the largest and grandest Christian church in the world. It is huge on a scale difficult to imagine, especially considering it was built as Europe was slipping into the Dark Ages and is a marvel of architecture that hasn't been rivaled since.

Topkapi Palace was our next stop; at this point we were hungry and getting a bit tired and kind of missed some parts of it. The best summary I can think of is 'the Alhambra if it hadn't been allowed to go to pot,' although there was much more modern work at Topkapi since it was the seat of the Ottoman sultans until early in the last century.

Istanbul wasn't a narrative trip, even though I tried to create one above. It seemed to me very much about feeling: the warm sun, the Mediterranean air, the sound of the calls to prayer echoing from minarets across the city, the taste of Turkish tea and coffee, the smell of Turkish tobacco in nagrileh, shopkeepers trying to entice you in with outlandish questions or statements, and all of the things that make traveling so wonderful that you only start to notice when you're on the plane ride back.

Also, Istanbul was a very cat-friendly city. There were cats everywhere, obviously cared for. I'm not sure if this is because the cat is respected in Islam, or if it's a beneficial relationship to have them on pest patrol. Can someone enlighten me?

Edit: check out the pics on Flickr, including one of the Beautiful Competition in a headscarf.

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