Istanbul: Beyoglu and Princes Islands

We got back into our same room at the same hotel (Hotel Sultan Valide) for the final few days.

Our last few days consisted of buying souvenirs: evil eyes and lanterns, spices and textiles. We walked the city, stopping often for chai or coffee and photos. One night, we met the Israelis from Goreme at the James Joyce Irish Pub (there was no Guinness in the pub by the way!) Wandering the alleys with them, we discovered a neat little bar with candles and live music and a fireplace.

The ferry station on Büyükada
The ferry station on Büyükada
Turkish graveyard
Turkish graveyard

The ferry to Princes Islands was a nice ride. The Princes Islands are nine islands off the coast of Istanbul in the Sea of Marmara and used to be where people were exiled. Seagulls escorted us…flying alongside, close enough to catch any bread thrown over before it hit the water. The islands had beautiful architecture…and I wished I had not taken the carriage ride around Büyükada–but rather walked to see the sights. Mostly great old houses/yalis with the architecture that defines Turkey. Lots of cats out there. The seagulls floating in the air next to the moving ferry and the green track we left in the blue Bosphorus entertained me on the journey back. The seagulls kept looking in the windows at us. You could see their eyes very clearly. I imagined the flying monkeys in the land of Oz.

One morning having a tangerine, pastry, nescafe and a boiled egg for breakfast, Bilal–the waiter at our hotel–told me that a boiled egg is all a nervous Sultan would eat. :)

I saw a tree growing out of a grave in Corlulu Ali Pasa graveyard. Loads of carpets and evil eyes in a courtyard serving tea.

We also found the Kybele Hotel and Shop where there were hundreds of beautiful lanterns and textiles and tassels from Uzbekistan. What an amazing place. We spent hours there talking to the owner and got to go upstairs to where a party had happened the night before. THOUSANDS of tassels, fairy lights and just the beauty of seeing a thousand aged things all in one place.

Kybele Hotel - Shop Lights
Kybele Hotel – Shop Lights
Kybele Hotel - Shop Tassels
Kybele Hotel – Shop Tassels
Lights
Lights

On the final night, we ate again at Rumeli and wandered slowly past Aya Sofya to Mesale. The Whirling Dervish was there tonight. We were entranced by his spinning and the stringed music. The muezzins called, the seagulls floated between the Blue Mosque minarets, the backgammon pieces clicked, the tea glasses hit the saucers, the little spoons stirred. We smelled nargile pipes of apple and pistachios and baking flat bread….and on the walk home, again past Aya Sofya–I stood still to listen to her breathe… :)

Bryan, Carol and Aya Sofya
Bryan, Carol and Aya Sofya
On the steps of Yeni Camii
On the steps of Yeni Camii
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Goreme and Cappadocia

Goreme and Cappadocia

After a day of air travel from Antalya to Istanbul and then back into the center of Turkey (no flights from Antalya to Goreme), we were still wobbled leg from the week on the Mediterranean. Of course, we were tan and happy too. So, no complaints!

We arrived into town after dark. And checked into our splurge at the Kelebek Special Cave Hotel in Goreme…Room #1 Selmalik cave room with a corner fireplace, huge modern bathroom (after a week with a “sandbox” and marina showers–we loved this bathroom!), lovely textiles (fresh-smelling sheets, towels, rugs, blankets) and a GIANT key (no kidding, the key to our room was about 7-8 inches long and heavy). This hotel was delightful. It was a combination of hotel, hostel, restaurant, lounge, tour guide operator and we loved every minute of our time there. Gorgeous grounds, well kept and brilliantly friendly folks working there.

Once again, moments after checking in…Bryan goes looking for info on the Cubs.  “ARE WE MISSING A CUBS WORLD SERIES?!?!” He comes back about to burst to read the newspaper he’s found. A small article near the back is accompanied by a picture of a man reaching for a ball…the man has on headphones…well you know. This is the guy who got ran out of Wrigley, and out of Chicago for interfering with a catch a Cubs player attempted to make. The Cubs had lost the game, the series, and were now out of the running for the World Series. It was a bittersweet night for Bryan to know that they’d gotten so far, and then to learn it didn’t happen…all within the span of about 10 seconds.

Goreme
Goreme
Cappadocia
Cappadocia

The next morning we awoke to a beautiful and strange landscape. Browns, tans, whites, blacks, beige–every imaginable shade of light brown and grey stone.  And those fairy chimneys, amid cave homes and the Turkish rural life. Roosters crowed as the muezzins called. It was fall harvest in the country.

Cappadocia door
Cappadocia door
Rural Turkey doorway
Rural Turkey doorway

We ventured out–fresh washed laundry swaying in the breeze from roof tops, camels (did you know camels can live to be 60-70 years old??? They have “Cover Girl” lashes and engaging eyes by the way), donkeys carrying piles of sticks larger than they are, carpets for sale, dogs walking with purpose down the streets and just an overall busy buzz to the little rustic town.

We walked the mile or so to the Goreme Open Air Museum.

This is a landscape caused by volcanic eruptions and erosion…and filled with churches carved deep into the chimneys in caves. Many are filled with elaborately painted frescos. Christianity flourished here, as did the trade route. Christians often carved out and hid in the caves, hills, and underground cities. We spent the day walking around visiting the small caves and admiring the carvings and paintings. Some of the paintings had had the eyes of the portrayed biblical characters gouged out. I remembered reading that over the years, some eyes had been removed, supposedly by the Muslims who find iconic images offensive. The Dark Church was indeed so dark that the frescos were so much more colorful having never been faded by the sun. The colors were spectacular, ochres, reds, blues, egg yellows.

Frescos carved inside a cave
Frescos carved inside a cave
Cappadocia
Cappadocia

It felt so good to be walking and active again too. We worked up an appetite and stopped at a little cafe for chicken kabobs and rice in front of one of those beautiful old stone fireplaces. Chai to warm up, and always, from somewhere the clicking of the backgammon or the tesbih in practiced hands. I later bought some lace from a lady named Fatima and her husband Hamdi Akbas. They offered me grapes and tea and we talked for a long while about the U.S., Turkey, the landscape, the needlepoint, the weather, Chicago, Nashville, Istanbul…lovely people. Many of the townspeople we spoke with said again and again with a smiling nod to the sky, “Winter comes.”

Walking back up the hill, I saw a little lady calling “hello hello hello” from her baby-powder blue door. She motioned for me to come in…”chai?” and waved her arm at a basket of scarves. I went in, Bryan went on to the room. She made lots of small talk of which I understood none. And came back from the corner with a tray of scarves. She removed the one I was wearing around my neck and begin winding one of hers around my head in the traditional fashion. She stepped back, smiled and said “Turkish”–producing a small, cracked piece of a mirror from her skirts and beaming at me as I looked at my Turkish self. Soon her friend Fatma joined us, bringing grapes with big seeds. They were wanting 10,000,000 for a scarf. About $7. But I’d bought three on the boat and didn’t need another–or particularly like the ones I saw here. I politely took leave, only to be led away by Fatma to her house across the way. Her blue door was open, yet the opening was covered by a lace curtain. She motioned for me to watch her remove her shoes. I did the same. She again tried to sell scarves or a shot of the “panorama” from her veranda. It was spectacular there. But I was much more intrigued by the family life going on. TV blaring, blankets over the divans, a teenage girl smiled at me as we passed through the kitchen–she was cooking dinner. The steam and the smell of food while the TV prattles on the background reminded me of dinner at my grandmother’s or really, or dinner prep time just about anywhere really.  It was cozy.

Later that evening, we’d take a nighttime stroll. Dogs barking, people talking behind doors/windows, a teapot steaming sitting in a window sill, TVs, an old stooped man walking up the hill, more men sitting in a yellow-lighted cafe–smoking, drinking chai, and once again, the sound of the tiny dice being thrown into a corners of the backgammon boards and the slapping down of pieces, and the tea glasses clinking back to saucers with spoons jangling. The sounds of Turkey :)

We ate, sock-footed, at Goreme restaurant. On the floor with pillows and a giant brass table tray between us. Filling meal of lots of goodies and a bottle of wine for about 33,500,000 TL (~$25). You borrowed sandals (size 7 only) to visit the loo. We were met at the door when leaving with the lemon-rose water hand splash.

Bryan and Carol at Goreme Restaurant
Bryan and Carol at Goreme Restaurant

The next day, we took a tour around the area and to the Underground City with some folks from our hotel. Sarap was our guide. That day, we went deep down, five stories into the earth, saw wishing trees (with white cloth tied all over), field fires as farmers and wives in scarves, baggy pants and long shirts harvested potatoes along the roads. I saw a man pitch forking hay way over his head into a wagon–the sun behind him putting him in silhouette and the dust from the hay rising up around him.  It turned into one of those “photos” I never took, but etched in my mind.

We walked 387 steps down into Ilhara Valley. There was a smell of fall in the air. Sarap told us many stories…when a girl is born, they plant a poplar. When she marries, they cut it down to sell for wood to pay for the wedding. We saw lots of poplars and a van loaded with them too. Drink the water in Goreme and you can’t leave. If you get to Nevishere Castle, legend says you stay for six years.  She was good fun and a great guide. And we had a great group of folks to spend the day with–two Taiwanese, four Japanese, two Israelis and us. We made arrangements for mopeding with the Taiwan couple (Cheng Chin Hua and Lee Aching) the next day…after our sunrise hot air balloon ride.

The knock at our door the next morning was around 5:30 a.m. We rode to the site in the pitch black early morning. And there on it’s side was the balloon getting trussed up. A table was set up for coffee/chai and a bundt cake. We used the flashlight to prep our coffee. Again–thousands of stars above and a crescent moon, and the increasingly vivid outline of the strange rock formations against the dark blue dawning sky.  Nine Germans arrived. The blow torch sound got loud as the air in the balloon heated and within 5-10 minutes the balloon stood up. We climbed in the basket, were unhooked and floated up…up over the weird landscape of Goreme in the fresh dawn light. We saw other balloons in preparation for take off, or up in the air with us.

Minarets and hot air balloons
Minaret and hot air balloon
Balloon over Cappadocia
Balloon over Cappadocia
From the balloon
From the balloon
Bryan and Carol in the hot air balloon over Cappadocia
Bryan and Carol in the hot air balloon over Cappadocia

Dogs barked at us from below. For almost two hours, the pilot took us down into the nooks and valleys of the area and then up again just in time before snagging the basket on a cliff. We saw minarets in the distance over sleeping towns. We landed in a field, soft bounce, no drag. Then the champagne toast and marigolds…and a flight certificate :) The pilot himself drove us back. He’s been doing this for 20 years and loves it. Who wouldn’t?!?

Turkey: Balloon Below
Turkey: Balloon Below
After the landing
After the landing
Balloon champagne and marigolds
Balloon champagne and marigolds

We later rented mopeds with Lee and Cheng Chin and headed back out into the countryside that we’d seen from the air this morning. Leaves falling from poplars, cyprus waving in the breeze, hills. It was a splendid drive around small villages. We saw people harvesting squash for the seeds only, ornamental old homes, willow trees weeping, chickens in the streets. “Merhaba,” we say. People smile and return the greeting. Cows, kids in school uniforms. A man by a wagon of sticks and wood asked me “Nerede? Japan?” I barely caught it…but quickly answered “Taiwan and Chicago”. He nodded and smiled at all four of us. We spent a long time on those bikes putzing around the area taking pictures.

On a moped thru Cappadocia
On a moped thru Cappadocia
The moped posse
The moped posse
Cheng Chin Hua and Carol
Cheng Chin Hua and Carol
Rock Formations - Cappadocia
Rock Formations – Cappadocia
The Camel - Cappadocia
The Camel – Cappadocia
Harvesting Squash seeds under willows
Harvesting Squash seeds under willows

Back at the hotel, we took long candle-lit baths to get all the grit off. Then we enjoyed wine and tales of travel with the Taiwanese and Israelis. Tomorrow, we would leave for Istanbul and a few days later the return to Chicago.

#12 Door - Cappadocia
#12 Door – Cappadocia
Tooling around Cappadocia
Tooling around Cappadocia
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A week on the Mediterranean: Blue Cruise from Antalya to Kas (and back)

The Blue Cruise from Antalya to Kas (and back): a week on the Mediterranean

We flew from Istanbul through to Antalya…over some amazing, sharp rock-topped mountains and down to the blue green Mediterranean. The sun was out and it was warm. We prayed for good weather, and I prayed for calm seas, a sturdy boat and no sea-sickness. This was to be the famed Blue Cruise–the small yachts that stay close to the shoreline and journey to the nooks and crannies of the coastline to see ruins, small towns and as we found out, sometimes just to park for a dip in the sea with beautiful, remote beaches around you. This would turn out to be one of the most relaxing weeks I’ve had in my life…and I got a great tan :)

Sunrise on the Mediterranean
Sunrise on the Mediterranean

The day we got there was our anniversary. We put our stuff on the boat, named “Be Happy”…our cabin #4 was the last one on the right as you walked from the front of the boat…so, the boat itself was ok, but no great shakes. The “facilities” were less than nice. Bryan took to calling it the “sandbox”. The water ran cold out of the shower faucet, which hung over the toilet. It smelled bad in there. We kept the door shut and the portholes open. Our room was basically a bunk, almost big enough for two, with a small space for luggage. It would do–it was only about $650 USD for both of us for the entire week–meals included. What on earth did we have to complain about: the sun was out, we were on the Mediterranean, and we were celebrating our 6 years married / 18 years together anniversary! We ate a huge afternoon meal at the Ship Inn–steak with mushroom gravy and fries–while watching boats and oil tankers come and go out on the Mediterranean.

The crew at this point consisted of one young “cook” who made some amazing rice and fish dishes. We waited for more passengers to arrive and watched a Turkey vs. England soccer match with him on a small TV that first night. Four French folks arrived at 4:30 a.m.–Denise and Serge (in their 50s), Pierre and Annette (in their 70s). Despite arriving so early in the morning, they made it up for Turkish breakfast–Hard-boiled eggs, tomatoes, small cucumbers, feta cheese, bread, olives, jam, coffee, tea. And that gorgeous sunlight. YUM. It had been hard to sleep in the smelly little room–but I’d get plenty of naps on the deck each day. In the marina, I got up super early and used the showers/bathrooms at the marina and admired the full moon shining over the mountains and the sun coming red over Antalya. There was an old boat dry-docked there with great lines…”The Ark”, that I admired and photographed and sketched. Bryan and I walked the marina–just about the only people awake it appeared. “I just want my coffee and hard-boiled egg” :)

The Antalya Ark
The Antalya Ark

We still needed to wait for four more passengers…but that day we pulled out of the harbor and motored to a quiet cove. The rock-top mountains in the distance looked like they had pink snow on top. We lounged in the sun on the open deck–warm from the sun and cooled by a gentle breeze. I sketched the island as I lay there on my stomach. Lunch was called with a bell…green bean salad with tomatoes, onions, and oil, plus couscous, bread and yogurt. The crew seem to fish constantly, from a tiny boat and from small lines simply thrown over the side of the “yacht”.

We pieced conversations together…Serge (alias MacGyver) liked to fish and fix things. Denise was crazy about “Ah-lan-Jack-sone”. The boat’s crew began calling Pierre “Papa”, and Annette was the epitome of French grace at any age. They played dominoes–with a goal to match ends to get to 7s.

Bryan with Annette, Papa Pierre, Denise and Serge on the Be Happy
Bryan with Annette, Papa Pierre, Denise and Serge on the Be Happy

The other four people–again French, but younger, and much more boisterous–arrived around 2:30 a.m. Claude and Frederique, Nadine and Jerome. We left for Kas around 10 a.m…motoring west in the sun.

And so the days passed. Polite breakfasts passing the eggs, Nescafe, the big green thermos of hot water, olives. Right after, we’d move up to the deck with a book and sunscreen lotion. Motoring to a new location–the blue green Mediterranean under us, the blue sky over us and the coastline dotted with ruins of abandoned Greek stone homes or ancient buildings. The dinner bell rang for every meal–and then there was rice, salads, potatoes, tomatoes, water, breads, Nescafe and chai.

Sunset on the Mediterranean
Sunset on the Mediterranean

One night there was champagne and wine and raki galore. Another night, dancing to Elvis under the stars. “more stars than grains of sand” as Bryan said. Bryan and I saw a shooting star together that night. We motored at night that night–a first–toasting our collective good fortune with champagne under those awesome stars. Bryan and I slept outside on the deck that night–cold and dewey, but warm beneath our blanket. And all those stars illuminating the shoreline just barely so we could see the mountains.

The days were filled with sunshine and breezes, naps and reading and watching the coastline go by. There’s a word in Turkish called “Keyif” (sounds like cave)–I interpreted it as “mind in idle”. It was even hard to think or daydream. It was too in the moment for anything to fill your head except the sun, air, sea and sky. We passed Greek islands, other yachts and fishing boats. One day, a young girl in a small boat pulled alongside and boarded with a basket of scarves of every color–some beaded. Another day, we saw the petrol boat zoom past. And we got several visits from the ice cream boat :) My only longing was for hot coffee at dawn and showers.

Sunrise, waiting for the Nescafe
Sunrise, waiting for the Nescafe

In Kas, we took very welcomed showers for 3,500,000 TL each at the marina and then wandered the old town. We heard the muezzin calls again. We walked and looked…great old buildings and displays of carpets and evil eyes embedded in the sidewalks in front of shops. We ate pizza at a little cafe, listened to more Turkish than French and watched the sunset on the land. Bryan had a Turkish shave while I watched a man comb a black cat named Guiseppe. We shopped. When we made our way back to the Be Happy, we discovered the crew grilling out on the dock. :) Later that night, we came back into Kas for cappuccinos. Dogs wandered everywhere. The next morning we showered again and took some photos of the town waking up. Tried to figure out how the mountain that curls around the town’s harbor is said to resemble a sleeping man.

Kas: carpets
Kas: carpets
Kas: Windows
Kas: Windows
Kas
Kas
Kas: evil eyes
Kas: evil eyes

During the days motoring back east, we slept, sunned and waited for the “gling gling” of the dinner bell. I watercolored and sketched, read and napped. Bryan took several dips in the Mediterranean. The crew (co-captain Erinc, Cook Mustafa, Captain Adnan) fished with Serge. One day we took the mini-Be Happy over to the beach for a few hours of sea glass hunting and skimming stones.

Beach time, Be Happy in the background
Beach time, Be Happy in the background

When we got back to Antalya, we’d shower at the marina, hug all the French and Turkish folks good bye…and then head for the airport…on to Cappadocia, but via Istanbul.

Waves on the Mediterranean
Waves on the Mediterranean
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Around Istanbul: Eyup, Chora, Beyoglu, Pera Palas

Around Istanbul:  Eyup, Chora, Beyoglu, and Pera Palace

The weather was turning colder and raining now. We took a taxi to Chora and Eyup (pronounced “A-oop”)

We wanted to visit the Church of St. Saviour in Chora with all its frescos and mosaics. Quite unbelievable. As I looked up, I would have sworn a Jesus on the ceiling was really looking at me. I waited for him to blink. There was a gold fleck in his eye to look like a twinkle. Also a fresco of Jesus pulling Adam and Eve from their graves and the scroll of heaven. Felt like we should have been listening to angel music…or an orchestra at the very least. :)

The staring Jesus at Chora
The staring Jesus at Chora
Fresco at Chora
Fresco at Chora
Church at Chora
Church at Chora

The church is up a street where I saw a dilapidated raw wood house, with delicate, perfectly white curtains and a red tile roof.

Interesting people watching in Eyup square…ladies in scarves, men in skull caps and blazers, children chasing hundreds of pigeons, fountains, cats. On the streets, there was corn, roasted chestnuts and patisseries for sale for 500,000 TL. This is a very holy site in Islam. The standard bearer of Muhammad is buried here.

Eyup Cemetery
Eyup Cemetery

We walked up to Pierre Loti’s cafe through the old Eyup cemetery…with some of the most remarkable headstones I’ve ever seen. Cyprus trees…and up, up, up the hill on a winding cobblestone walk. Workmen swept the leaves from the path and burned them in small piles along the way. Got behind an old man with a blue crocheted skull cap and his lady in a black chador, vented to billow at the torso.

Finally at the top–great views of the Golden Horn and all the minarets of Istanbul. Had a great meal sitting outside in the sun–while a roomful of ladies looked to be having a tupperware party inside. On the way back down, I bought a 99 bead tesbih of wood with green yarn and a tiny pony-tail of 10 small beads for 10,000,000 TL ($7).

Again, we people watched in the square….bread hanging in the windows of the bakery–an old man squatting out front; a fish market with a chunky man in a blue sweater, dark pants and an apron and skull cap negotiating on fresh, stinking fish with veiled women. Baby kittens, tesbih, Korans, socks and jeans for sale. Fruit. A tumbling down yellow house–by where we saw an old guy being loaded from his wheelchair to a blue tractor-like vehicle. Cars backing up on cobblestone. Bryan said people walk like they drive….

And then, we got into the taxi to return to Sultanahmet…GOOD LORD, what a ride! People don’t matter–just keep driving. Too close? Just pull in anyway. Bryan could have patted the driver in the next car on the face.

And on another day, we wandered around Beyoglu. So, you cross the Golden Horn at Galata Bridge and then can take the short ride “Tunel” up the steep hill. It is the world’s shortest subway. Start to finish in 45 seconds. Bryan said “I’ve had longer rides at Opryland”. It was 650,000 TL–and considering how steep it was…worth every penny!

So, Beyoglu…Bryan fell for it. The Grande Rue do Pera–European-like, Art Nouveau buildings, flower passages. One book said “New ideas walked into 19th century Ottoman life down the streets of Pera. The Europeans who lived here brought new fashions, machines, arts, manners and rules for the diplomatic game. While the Old City across the Golden Horn was content to sit tight and continue living in the Middle Ages with is oriental bazaars, great mosques and palaces, the people of Pera wanted electric light, underground trains, tramways, modern municipal government and telephones. And where Pera led, the Sultans soon followed.” I liked looking at the shops, taking coffee or tea in the cafes and just people watching. In the evenings, people strolled and music played from the shops. At one restaurant, we were offered lemon-rose scented water for our hands on the way out.

Bryan at Pera Palas
Bryan at Pera Palas
Pera Palace Hotel Bar
Pera Palace Hotel Bar

One day, we found our way to the Orient Express bar, Pera Palas…where they put the passengers at the end of the fabulous Orient Express journey from Paris to Constantinople. Squeaky floors, old chandeliers, 20 foot ceilings, deep window sills, transoms, a huge mirror behind the bar. Gorgeous place. We sat in the lobby bar and had a drink.

Another day, we found a tiny shop with paintings, book page illustrations, and other paper collectibles hanging everywhere, clipped to a wire crossing the windows and laying scattered in the sunlight around the place. I stopped in because I’d seen a painting done on top of arabic writing…a letter, or a page from a book–covered with a watercolor of a boat. Another of an old phonograph, another of a woman’s back and another of a Turkish pavilion and trees. I bought all 4, I loved the look so much. The seller of course, ordered chai (from whom?! it just happens somehow!) and a small man delivered two steaming hot, dainty glasses of tea complete with saucers, sugar cubes and tiny spoons during our conversation in the small sun-drenched shop.

Beyoglu's Art Nouveau
Beyoglu’s Art Nouveau
At Eyup
At Eyup

On our final night in Istanbul, we ate at a place called Mozaik. Tiny rooms–like rooms of a home, each set with three or four small tables for two to four people. Dark wood ceiling, orange paint below a chair rail, wood floors, Turkish carpets and soft lights. Beautiful food.

The very next day, we were headed for the Mediterranean.

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Istanbul: Tokapi Palace, the Grand Bazaar, and the Bosphorus

Turning 40 in Istanbul:  Tokapi Palace, The Grand Bazaar and up the Bosphorus

Topkapi Palace–the Seraglio…soul of the Ottoman Empire at its zenith. Built in the mid-1400s and abandoned in 1856 for Dolmabahce Palace. And what a history of drama, intrigue and the politics of power.

I’d read about the fratricide of the sultan’s brothers to prevent them trying to take his throne and to prevent wars of succession–sometimes drowning them in the Bosphorus. And I’d read about the alternative solution to killing all his brothers, by “caging” them in the harem with the eunuchs and concubines until they were needed to assume power. This caused more crazy stuff–boredom? ennui? crazy genes? One prince liked to practice archery, but only on live targets. Concubines that got pregnant were drowned in the Bosphorous. And one strange guy that lived to see his own reign was completely paranoid…killing his grand vizier when he heard his mother complain about not enough wood in the harem and having all 280 concubines drowned in the Bosphorus when he heard of all the plotting and intrigue.

It’s no wonder that getting in the harem rooms costs more. First you wait in line and pay to get into the Palace grounds, then there’s another line and ticket price for the Harem’s 45 minute tour. It is a huge place and beautiful too. My stomach must have gotten a bad vibe from the place (I kept thinking about all those dead bodies at the bottom of the Bosphorus there…) In any case, we walked around slowly and took our time to see the whole thing. It was fascinating.

First, in the warren-like rooms of the harem, there is a dizzying amount of tile work, scrolling, calligraphy. Domes, chandeliers, divans in some corners, but for the most part, the tiny rooms were bare of furnishings, amazingly elegant in their white marble, light-filled space. Fountains and pools, nooks in the wall for candles and lanterns, fireplaces shaped like cones, and huge mirrors so the eunuchs could watch over the harem. Tours stayed really quiet, as if listening for the walls to whisper their stories and secrets. I couldn’t believe some of the chandeliers, the colorful paintings–or was it tile? or real gold in calligraphy? So much to see:  stained glass windows, ornate ironwork, lush private gardens, and my favorite–the small sinks with faucets in the window sills–which, when running–offered a chance for private conversation.

Topkapi Chandelier
Topkapi Palace Chandelier
Spigots with running water in the windows for private conversations at Topkapi
Spigots with running water in the windows for private conversations at Topkapi Palace

We also passed through the The Sacred Safekeeping Rooms in complete awe. An imam chanted the Koran from a radio box with a glass of water beside him (and a liter jug of water at his feet). The radio booth sat in front of a glassed in room of Muhammad’s relics–a piece of his cloak, hair from his beard, and his sword. Things from the prophet himself…this was a much revered and protected space. A little old woman, veiled in black stood in front of the glass window and cried. I was honored that we all could get close–Muslim or not–but I quickly ceded my place to others.

Falling leaves, a hot day, and a nasty stomach drove us back to the room, after a tiny lunch at a cafe on the Palace grounds. Bryan was hunting for the Cubs score.  They were in the playoffs and last we’d heard they were 2-to-2 out of five games. Newspapers were a couple of days old and he scoured the place looking for the most current information. At some point, we found out that the Cubs had beaten Atlanta–3 out of 5 games! Bryan was beside himself with glee…yet worried that he’d miss the first Cubs World Series championship since 1908.

On my last night of being 39, we sat in front of the Blue Mosque and watched the sun set and listened to the call to prayer at twilight.

The first thing I remember on my 40th birthday was the muezzin’s call at 6 a.m. It was still dark and I lay there on my stomach trying to imprint the memory of turning 40 in Istanbul. We took our time over breakfast and coffee–as always, marveling at old Aya Sofya. I imagined I could hear her breathing–slow and deep–not worried about her falling mosaics, or the minarets added 500 years ago, or the buttresses holding her steady.

October 7th was to be Grand Bazaar day…a place filled with rugs, carpets, kilims, bedspreads/table clothes, pillows, scarves, lanterns, backgammon, pepper mills, glasses, tea sets, evil eyes, tesbih, backgammon…and on and on it goes.

We watched tea deliveries on trays to vendors…how did they order? It was smoky with cigarette smoke and nargilye pipes. Sweaty smelling in places. Tiny sounds of backgammon pieces, tea glasses and discussion on prices. 500,000 Turkish Lira for a WC with toilet paper. 10,000,000 TL is about $7 USD in 2003.

Cat on kilims in the Grand Bazaar, Istanbul
Cat on kilims in the Grand Bazaar, Istanbul

I peeled off by myself for a little while.  “Interested in carpet? Kilim? No? How about Magic carpet?” “Are you looking for me lady” :) I felt young and adventurous on my 40th.  Ben Kirk (is “I am 40” in Turkish!)

We’d eat dinner at a cave-like restaurant, Rumeli–red candles in glasses, carnations in silver bowls, Yuvek wine, steak, water, cappaccino and Tiramisu for two = 72,000,000 TL ($50). I asked Xena–a beautiful, gypsy-like, little girl sitting at the next table–to take our photo. She was shy and blushing–but did it. Fireplace with wood stacked in the corner burned and warmed the tiny place. Cats wandered in and around.

Turning 40 in Istabul: Dinner at Rumeli
Turning 40 in Istanbul: Dinner at Rumeli
Asia side of Bosphorus, near the Black Sea
On the Asia side of the Bosphorus, near the Black Sea

On the day after, we cruised up the Bosphorus, having lunch near the Black Sea on the Asian side of the straits Anadolu Kavagi. We sat in the sun and talked about “wouldn’t it be cool to have one of those Yalis on the shoreline…water lapping the house, just outside your living room window? Great breezes…and the occasional oil tanker cruising by on it’s way to the Black Sea?”  Sure would!

Yalis along the Bosphorus
Yalis along the Bosphorus

Back in Istanbul proper, we took the tram to our stop and had dinner at our regular place–Mesale. Once again, watching the seagulls catch air over the Blue Mosque, sipping tea and having a game of backgammon. Later this night, Bryan got a straight razor shave for 7,000,000 TL. Quite an experience–the warm up, the head and neck massage, the shave, the lemony splash!  I stood just outside the tiny room with the greenish light and video taped it.

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Istanbul: Blue Mosque, Cistern and Muezzin calls

Istanbul:  The Blue Mosque, The Basilica Cistern, and Muezzin calls

With a beautiful park between them, Aya Sofya and the Blue Mosque face each other. Sultanahmet Camii is the only mosque outside Mecca with 6 minarets. It’s known as the Blue Mosque because of the 20,000+ blue Iznik tiles decorating it. Respectful visitors are welcome.

Minarets of the Blue Mosque
Minarets of the Blue Mosque

As we approached, we noticed many folks using the dozens of surrounding taps to wash before entering the mosque. Non muslims enter through the back door–shoes removed, ladies’ heads covered with scarves–into a giant room covered in carpet. There was a moth ball smell and a dusty rec-room feel to the visiting area, which also appeared to be where the women worship behind wooden screens. No tiles on their walls and with yellow windows instead of the stained glass. We settled in sitting Indian-style in the visitors section and observed the prayer room in front of us.

Blue Mosque
Blue Mosque
The Blue Mosque
The Blue Mosque

Huge circles of oil/candle holders were held low by massive metal cords. The mihrab has bits of Mecca’s Kaaba black stone–I’d read that, but from our vantage point I couldn’t make it out. There were grandfather clocks, imans in black robes praying, and small kids running around their fathers without a care in the world as kids will do. There are gorgeous stained glass windows and tiles of blue. The dome is painted with blue and gold arabic and patterns of tile. We sat and watched men come in–solo, or in groups of two or with their boys–and do the prayer ritual, bowing forehead to the floor, hands open in submission. Outside again, we stared up at the six decorative white minarets. Birds still catching the breeze between them.

Late that afternoon, we cooled off in the Basilica Cistern–water tunnels under the city. Dark, moist, rainy in parts, giant fish in the water, and a neat little place down there to get a cappucino! There are two Medusa-head stones–big, 5 feet tall. One is upside down and one is sideways to hold two of the columns. No one knows why. Bryan’s theory is, “Probably because they just best fit that way!”

Chimney tops in Istanbul
Chimney tops in Istanbul

So, did I mention that the prayer calls begin moments before daybreak? Loud and clear on speakers. It’s quite shocking to be awakened by that. It always seemed like the little mosque near us won each morning–being the first to declare the coming sunrise. But within the next 10-15 minutes, we’d hear a dozen or more mosques begin the chant in the rounds of “Allah Akbar…” and the dogs would howl.

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Arrival in Istanbul and Aya Sofya

Turkey 2003

In October 2003, we went to Turkey.  For years, I’d wanted to go.  Bryan only said “Midnight Express” and declined.  Finally, we decided to do it.  We’d spend some time in Istanbul, then fly to the southern coast for a week on a “blue cruise” gulet in the Mediterranean, and then a few days in the middle at Cappadocia.   Turkey is where the East meets West. Constantinople. Istanbul. Byzantine churches and muezzin calls from minarets. Legends of the Orient Express, the Sultans, the Bosphorus and thousands of ancient sites. Colorful kilims, tile mosaics, and intricate woodwork designed to make one contemplate and get lost in thought. Evil eyes, pistachios, lanterns and tea in tulip shaped glasses. We’d go from October 3 to 26…just over 3 weeks there.

Our route in Turkey
Our route in Turkey

Arrival in Istanbul and Aya Sofya

We took a Turkish Airlines direct flight from Chicago on the night of 10/3/03. I was awake to see the lights on in the Lake District of Scotland/England and caught another travel bug flying over Romania and the Black Sea. We arrived on time after 10 hours in the air.

Someone from our small hotel (Hotel Valide Sultan) was on hand to greet us and get us back to the hotel…although we almost missed him because his sign read “KAROL, BIYRAN, SULTAN VALIDE”

I love that haze of arrival. You’re tired and overwhelmed with the new weather / colors / language / smells / sights…it’s a brilliant awake dream. The car made it’s way into the old city–increasingly twisting into smaller roads and more condensed spaces. We checked in to sunny room #309…our hotel next door to the graceful Aya Sofya and her buttressed terra cotta colored walls and minarets, and with a view of the Sea of Marmara and Bosphorus. I opened the windows to the breeze and sun and we tucked into a 3 hour nap.

We wandered out in the evening, finding an open air restaurant (Mesale) in the shadow of the Blue Mosque. Lanterns and lights hung everywhere. Tables were covered with kilim cloths. Chairs and benches cushioned with thousands of kilimed pillows and throws. Wonderful smells of grilled meats, baking fla,t bread and the narghile pipes’ delicate smells of burning apple & cherry. We heard the gurgling of the water in the pipes. The tatting of tesbih prayer beads working through practiced hands. The tinkling of the tulip shaped tea glasses as sugar cubes went in, miniature spoons stirred, and the glasses returned to their tiny red and white saucers. Clacking of backgammon pieces from the multiple games going on around us. Cries of the gulls riding the air around the Blue Mosque’s 6 minarets. There was a gentle breeze. It was the perfect evening. We ordered teas, bread and chicken kabobs with rice and soaked it all in. As dusk came, there was crackle in the air as the mosques began the round of the call to prayer…”Allah Akbar…” Slowly, candles were lit and tiny lights were turned on as Istanbul took on the night. Ice cream vendors came out. Hungry cats circled our legs. We were awake but dreaming.

The next morning, the call to prayer from the loud speakers on the mosque next door woke us with a start just before daybreak. Our very first stop could be nothing other than Aya Sofya. I have been longing to see this magnificent place since first reading about it. At breakfast, I sat in the dining room facing the awesome building. Church of the Holy Wisdom built by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian about 1,500 years ago…dedicated on December 26, 537 as Hagia Sophia. It was a quantum leap in architecture at the time–and would not be rivaled for another 1,000 years.

Aya Sofya's outside walls
Aya Sofya’s outside walls
Aya Sofya
Aya Sofya

Hagia Sophia, now Aya Sofya, is an ornament on earth. Inspiration…and prize. In 1453, Sultan Mehmet II conquered Constantinople. “The citizens had retreated to Hagia Sophia in unmeasurable multitudes, hoping for a miracle deliverance. The Turks entered Hagia Sophia before the first hour of daylight had passed. Upon the chaotic interruption of his mass, the Patriach disappeared into the walls of Sophia. Legend says that he will return on judgment day, or when Istanbul is returned to the Greeks. Mehmet kneeled in prayer towards Mecca and the church became Aya Sofya the Mosque.” “When it first opened, Hagia Sophia was almost entirely covered in mosaic tile, which illuminated by thousands of candles, created a darkly golden second sky. The tinkling sound of pieces dropping to the ground was familiar to visitors until the 19th century restoration.” Today it is a museum. We lined up for entry before she opened.

Aya Sofya
Aya Sofya
Beautiful light
Beautiful light

Once she opened, the line moved slowly through the first set of doors. I caught sight of the colors, the arabic rondels inside and ran over to enter through the Emperor’s door. I had such an urge to just be inside there. The threshold there was a grey marble slab–chipped and yet smooth, melted or warped into almost a bowl where people had entered over the years. As much as I hurried to get inside, I could barely move when I got in. I stopped within five feet of the door and tried to take it all in.

Aya Sofya's rondels
Aya Sofya’s rondels

A huge open room, with light streaming in windows high in the dome. Yellows and golds, candles, smokey sunbeams. There are stained glass windows over the nave. And a mihrab near the nave in the direction of Mecca. One Sultan had a loge built for him to worship privately between a delicately carved gate of gold. Massive signs in Arabic hang among the mosaics of Jesus and the Virgin Mary. There are hanging lanterns, each holding 48 glass cloche vases. The mosaics are made of tiny pieces of tile (1/4 inch square) in a gold that sparkles in the dim light. There’s a dusty smell…I think it’s the smell of history, or antiquity, of thousands of untold stories witnessed. Words or photos cannot do it justice. We wandered around for over two hours in there. And then sat for another hour absorbing it. I loved the feel of the cold stone floor under my hands as I leaned back to look up. What a remarkable old place.

Looking up in Aya Sofya
Looking up in Aya Sofya
Mosaic of tiny golden tiles
Mosaic of tiny golden tiles
Turkey Flag
Turkey Flag
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