When we left off, our intrepid travelers were shuffling off to bed late, late, late their first night overseas. Morning came exceptionally quickly, and we slept in a bit to give our tired bodies some energy… but we didn’t snooze too long because jet lag and sleep deprivation be damned! We were in Istanbul and it was time to see the sights.
We began our day at the aforementioned rooftop terrace recommended to us the evening before, which had obscenely beautiful views of the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, and the sea.
We were a bit late for traditional breakfast, so instead we ordered a spread of dips and snacks.. which, really suits me just fine. Prior to leaving on the trip, B and I consulted our favorite wise travel oracle, Anthony Bourdain, for suggestions on what to keep our eyes out to eat and drink while we were there. It was at this restaurant that we got to try the first thing on our list, a flaky pastry with cheese and pastrami called (if I am remembering correctly) borek. It exceeded expectations. There was also, of course, plenty of coffee, tea, hummus, and yogurt based foods.
After we were all jacked up on caffeine and hummus, we set out to do tourist things. First stop was the Hagia Sophia, the first church ever (no really, go look it up!). There was a long line to get in, but we met a friendly tour guide who (for a small fee) would let us skip the line and show us around. I’m often leery of these deals, but he seemed on the up and up and Salah-al-deen turned out to be funny and informative and very much worth the cost.
The Hagia Sophia was originally built in 360, but that first church and a second one both were burned to the ground during various riots of the time. Nothing is left of the very original structure, but they have found some of the facade of the second church that stood from 415-532, like these lambs that apparently represented the Apostles:
The current building that still stands today was finished in 537, though parts of it have been replaced from time to time due to collapses from earthquakes and attacks from angry hordes and such. It was a church until sometime in the 1400’s when the Ottomans showed up, snatched it, and turned it in to a mosque. As muslims don’t believe in showing images of faces in their idols, they removed most of them and covered up several of the mosaics.. though kindly did not destroy them so once the building was desanctified and turned in to a museum in the 1930’s they were uncovered and restored.
The large door pictured above was the main entrance in to the sanctuary. In the floors on the sides of the doors you could clearly see where the marble had been worn down from hundreds and hundreds of years of guardsmen standing there and protecting the sanctuary.
The inside of the sanctuary was partially under construction (which I guess is a common occurrence since keeping a 1500-some year old building in good condition is no easy task), but still very beautiful with elements of both Christianity and Islam evident.
The door in the above picture dates to 2 B.C., which is just.. wow. I remember going to Europe and being impressed with buildings that were built in the 1500’s, and then standing on the Great Wall and being impressed it was from the 1300’s, but this just blows that away. Cradle of civilization shit right there.
After touring Hagia Sophia we decided it was time for some more coffee and a snack, and I got to have my 2nd Anthony Bourdain recommended food, lahmacun, which is basically turkish pizza w/ ground spiced lamb on it. Probably the best thing I ate in Turkey. Someday when I win the lottery and become independently wealthy, I will open a lahmancun food cart in Madison.
There were more cats as well.
After our snack we visited the Basilica Cistern, which is… well, a really old cistern that used to supply water to all the government buildings and palaces. It’s now mostly drained, save for a few feet of water that is home to some incredibly gigantic and fairly horrifying carp-like fish.
The columns were all repurposed from various other places so they weren’t all uniform… though, let’s be real here, a column is a column. There was a few exceptions, like this cool column that has carvings on it that are supposed to be a hen’s eye crying:
Wikipedia tells me this was supposedly done as a tribute to the hundreds of slaves that died while building the Basilica, but that’s really depressing so.. let’s just enjoy the pretty carvings.
There are also two random medusa heads in the far back corner, one placed sideways and one upside down (so that you don’t turn to stone when you see them, natch). Apparently no one knows how or why they showed up here or where they came from in the first place, which makes it strangely creepy.
After touring the cistern, we tried to visit the Blue Mosque, but it was prayer time so it was closed to the public. We got to wander through the outer courtyard, but we would have to wait until the next morning to go inside.
We then decided that we pretty much HAD to go over to the Asian side of the city, because seriously, how often do you get to take a 20 minute transcontinental trip? If only all travel involved hopping on a boat for a few minutes and ending up on a different continent.
In my limited research on the city prior to the trip it sounded like the Asian side was more residential and also kind of hipster, so I was very interested in checking that out.. some of my favorite things to do in other countries are people watch, wander, and go to grocery stores… and we did all three.
Paralytic shellfish poisoning, anyone?
We were walking around looking for somewhere to eat when a nice Turkish man who lived in the US for many years overheard us speaking English and took us to a cafeteria style place I had actually stopped and took a picture of previously because the food was so pretty. With his guidance we got a smorgasbord of delicious things that I could absolutely in no way tell you what they were.
After dinner we took a different ferry back to Europe to explore yet another side of the city around the Galata Tower that was also incredibly hip and filled with bars and lots of amazing graffiti and gigantic hills
Of course, my personal favorite:
We were eventually lured in to a bar with the promise of free shots ..which never materialized, but it was fortuitous that we stopped anyway because they had live music and it was excellent. It was just two guys, one on a guitar and one with an electric violin that he could do crazy things with. They played what I assume was kind of new school Turkish folk music.. it’s kind of hard to tell when you can’t understand any of the words, but regardless it was quite beautiful.
On our late night cab ride home our cabbie asked us if Obama is a muslim, and then that’s about all for our whirlwind only full day in Istanbul.