If I had a dollar for every 12-hour bus-ride, I probably wouldn’t be over budget at the moment! I exaggerate. But here we were again, this time from Istanbul to Thessaloniki, and this time our drivers liked to smoke on the bus. It wasn’t so bad though and we actually arrived to Thessaloniki two hours earlier than we thought we would. By dusk, we were debating between the hotel with the mental institution-like room or the hotel with the nicer room with breakfast for 10 euros more. After we agreed on the nicer room, and then went out for dinner and noticed the crazy amount of graffiti on EVERYTHING. Fortunately, a few pieces of street art stood out on our walk home.
We walked through Galata on our way to meet Josh and Leanne yesterday. It’s at the very end of Istiklal Street on the opposite end of Taksim Square. We’ve been through Taksim and Istiklal several times, but hadn’t made our way all the way down Galata until yesterday. It was calmer than Istiklal (the Myeongdong or Michigan Avenue of Turkey) and much more artistic and eclectic. I knew I had to return for a more comprehensive hang out than a quick walk through to meet our friends.
We started our afternoon off with a burger from a little Turkish joint that had pictures promising a better burger than we had seen in a long time. It wasn’t bad! I stopped often to take pictures of the street, of Andrew walking in the middle of it, posters collaged on walls, a random Charlie Chaplin work of art hanging outside what appeared to be a deserted building. Music stores dotted the sides of the street. Andrew declared he just might want a ukulele after a recent Ted Talk he watched. I coerced him into trying one out from a man’s shop overflowing with the most random assortment of… stuff.
The old medieval tower, is what the neighborhood is named after: Galata Tower. It’s not so big (only nine stories) and we hear it provides an excellent view from above over Istanbul. I preferred people watching below and ducking in and out of the boutiques that surrounded the tower.
here were some pretty good murals on different buildings around Galata as well, that made me smile.
I looked for the perfect carpetbag, and decided to get a close to perfect carpet purse for the time being instead. I wandered down an alley and into the most glorious vintage store ever.
I debated over purchasing a sixties dress while we walked up around Galata some more. We ran into the couple, who stayed at our guesthouse in Selcuk not once, but three times as we walked around the neighborhood. The woman seemed utterly perplexed after asking what we had been doing. I told her we were just walking around, enjoying the street art. It was like she had never heard of street art, much less wandering around to do just that, wander around.
We walked back across the bridge to a carpet shop I had read about online hoping the store, Arsah Carpets carried perfect carpetbags. It didn’t, well, not what I was looking for. But the owner was elated to hear that we had stayed at the guesthouse he had pamphlets sitting on his front counter for. Huseyin was everything the article described him to be, which was a lot of fun! And, as it turned out, he was friends with the guesthouse owner and invited us downstairs to show us some of his carpets. It was fun looking at all of the different carpets, old grain bags, and old saddlebags. It was also fun that Huseyin seemed to genuinely love carpets and his job of finding carpets around Turkey and selling them to new owners. He wasn’t pushy. He wasn’t aggressive. He just let me see what he had and showed us all kinds of carpets (some super old and super expensive) just to show us.
I loved this back room Huseyin had going on- it looked like it was just a mirror on the wall, but it was actually a little doorway into another room. He said he designed it to look that way. Good job, sir. I told him I would be back. Maybe for a carpet. Maybe for a saddlebag to transform into a tote bag. Maybe for both. But I should probably start setting money aside for where we are going to live when this trip is over, instead of more things to put inside the place we’re going to live. I’ll be back though, that’s for sure!
Late to meet up with Josh, Leanne, and Margarita for another evening of nargela, we left to cut across the backstreets of Sultenamet to the old madrassa for our last night in Istanbul.
“We’re back in the ‘bul.” as Andrew liked to say.
We woke up late, as one should after nearly fourteen hours of travel. We lounged in Juliet and Daniel’s apartment until meeting up with Josh, Leanne, and Margarita for dinner. Meeting up with friends at a subway or tram stop in a foreign city will never, ever get old. It’s one of my favorite things. I’ve met friends in the middle of Prague, at a random subway stop in Tokyo, and a rooftop bar in Chiang Mai – to name a few. It’s one of the perks of being a traveler. Your friends travel and sometimes they happen to be traveling through the same country you are in or they go out of their way to visit or meet up with you on your journey.
We met at the Eminou tram stop and headed for a fun dinner under Galata Bridge. “Lady… Listen. Listen… Lady.” the waiter kept trying to interrupt our nonstop catch up to get our order. Leanne and I rolled our eyes. Josh and Andrew ordered beers. Margarita sat enthralled (I’m going to go ahead and pick that adjective, as it’s much more fun than ‘bored’ as she probably was) at us catching up on our past few months of adventures in different countries on our respective trips around the world.
Because of Josh’s newfound love of nargila (hookah to you) we all jumped on the tram after dinner and headed to a rather infamous little alley in an old madrassa in Sultanamet for a spot of tea and a few draws off the ole’ pipe. Not that kind of pipe. It’s much less incriminating than it sounds. At this particular institution, and you get the feeling that it is an institution, old men sat playing backgammon or simply taking a break in between work and their walk home. It’s calm despite the hustle of the men who work there serving tea or heating up and delivering coals to their patrons’ pipes. I had a bit of a “Oh, so this is Turkey…” feeling.
We’ve seen wonderful things here in Turkey (my favorite possibly being Goreme) but it has all felt overly touristy and I was starting to wonder what all of the fuss (over Turkey) has been about. But tonight, I started to get it. It’s not that I haven’t enjoyed our time in Turkey, it’s just that I expected rainbows and unicorns every day all the time from the way our friends gushed over their visits here.
A friend recently asked what I thought about Turkey and I wasn’t as positive as I should have been. The factors of our stay didn’t work in our favor. Turkey IS amazing. I can see how it would have felt more amazing for us if we (mostly Andrew) weren’t stuck wearing the same clothes for a week, maybe if were staying in the heart of Istanbul, and we weren’t on a strict budget (trying to make up for an expensive three months in Africa). Andrew pointed out that it was probably unfair of us to put such high expectations on Turkey. It’s one of those countries I already know I’d like to revisit- with less expectation and perhaps more money.
We left our friends earlier than we would have liked to catch the tram/funicular/subway/taxi combination “home.” I was disappointed to have to leave, yet so grateful for Josh, Leanne, and Margarita for showing us a different side of Istanbul that we might not have seen otherwise.
We debated whether or not going to Izmir was worth it… and then we heard from our friends Josh and Leanne (remember them? Our friends from our Tanzanian safari a few months ago) that they had just arrived in Istanbul and would be there for a few days.
Meeting up with new friends is just as good as meeting up with old friends. We decided to skip Izmir and headed back to Istanbul to not only stay/visit with our friends, Juliet and Daniel, but to hang out with Josh, Leanne, and their friend Margarita. We are lucky, lucky ducks.
Unfortunately, heading back to Istanbul meant another 12-hour bus across the country.
It should have been 9 hours, but as we’ve found to be the case in Turkey- the drivers enjoy their breaks, and they enjoy them often. We stopped a lot. Often for 30-40 minutes. We reminded each other we’ve survived worse and focused on the positives: We each had our own seat all to ourselves. Our seats reclined! Multiple stops meant multiple opportunities to go to the bathroom. The bathroom was not on the side of the road in front of fellow passengers. There were even doors and tissue within the stalls! And snacks to be purchased along the way did not consist of burnt birds on a stick.
I know you’re jealous of how low my expectations have become.
Our bus dropped us off across town from where Juliet and Daniel live. We didn’t get in until nearly midnight. Walking into their apartment felt like walking into my apartment in Seoul after a week or two out of the country. It felt like home, or as close as home has felt since this trip began.
We had planned on joining the hop on hop off bus tour (City Windows Sightseeing) around Istanbul, but after waiting for ten minutes to purchase a ticket (while other customers complained, asked for refunds, etc.) and then getting a shoddy exchange rate, we figured it wasn’t worth it.
Instead, Andrew and I wound up hanging out in a cafe off Taksim Square trying to process claims with World Nomads for our missing luggage and attempt to start filing claims related to our accident in Tanzania. This has not been an easy (nor enjoyable) process. But the entire situation could have been much worse had we not been staying with our friends, Juliet and Daniel. They let us take over their computer when our portable modem was lost in our luggage. They let us use their phone number to give to the luggage and airline companies who liked to call them in the middle of teaching. They cooked us dinner, let us make dinner, and kept us company even though we were wearing the same dirty clothes for multiple days in a row. Thanks, Juliet and Daniel, again. You are champions. Throughout past trips, I’ve shied away from travel insurance. This is probably not the smartest thing to do, but I did so because in my experience, pharmacies, and from what I’ve heard- hospital visits (I’m sure everyone has a different story) in Asia have all been very cheap and easier to pay out of pocket than to worry about receipts and dealing with insurance after something goes wrong.
I refused to get travel insurance at the start of this trip. Andrew complained. He threatened to call my mom. (I wondered which side she would have picked) He even suggested paying for it. I refused, rolled my eyes, and changed the subject. This tactic worked rather well until we touched down in Morocco. Once we were in Africa, distracting him from the idea of me not having insurance didn’t work as well. To make him happy, I bought an entire six month plan through World Nomads. Coverage began the day before we flew down to Uganda. He was happy. I was happy (that he was happy).
Fast forward to arriving in Istanbul without our luggage for several days. We lost at least three full days to waiting around for our luggage when Havas Ground Company (affiliated with Etihad Air) told us our bags would be delivered. I wondered if our insurance covered anything. They said they would! I just needed to provide luggage tags and receipts. No big deal. I didn’t have the receipts for the clothes I bought- but I had a credit card statement, and according to their website, that worked. Done.
I wondered if they would cover my iphone and lens that were both damaged in Africa. I filed a claim. They needed proof we were on the bus that crashed in Tanzania. They asked for our tickets. It was a bus in the middle of Africa. There were no tickets on these buses. You haggled over the price, you got on the bus, you hoped you made it to your destination safely. Unfortunately, we didn’t exactly make it to our destination safely, and we didn’t have good enough internet at the time to deal with the start of an insurance claim.
If they accept my pictures (of the bus off the road) and my passport stamps (from the border crossing we were on our way to) and if the guesthouse responds to my emailed request for a statement that we indeed stayed there, then I just have to figure out a way to get proof that I originally purchased my iphone in Korea two years ago. Because, that should be easy enough, you know, while I’m in the middle of Turkey.
Here is what I’ve learned (the hard way) about travel insurance:
1. Before you go on your trip, scan any and all receipts or proof of purchase for items of value you will be traveling with.
2. If you do not get a ticket, and your bus crashes, even if you’re ok at the time: ask your guesthouse to call the bus company for a statement or proof. Get a document from your guesthouse with dates and your name on it that you stayed there. Notify your insurer to simply say “we’ve been in an accident, we’re ok right now, but… is there anything we should do” Because if I HAD done that, then I would have been at least able to get a receipt for where we stayed and it would have been easier to get proof from the bus company that there was an accident.
3. Even if you DO keep everything (receipts, transportation tickets, museum passes included) like I do. (And I really do. Who knows what kind of fun art project I’ll get up to with it all when I get home) Take a picture of any and all receipts before you stuff them in an envelope to send home. Because you never know what you’ll need in the future. Initially, we thought we were ok, and then Andrew’s leg kept swelling up and my iphone wouldn’t turn on…
I still cannot say that I’m an advocate for travel insurance. So far, even having the appropriate documents (according to their website) World Nomads is giving me the run around over a claim for a grand total of $51.00 after not having my bags for three days in Istanbul. I purchased the insurance not to get reimbursed for a few days of discomfort in dirty clothes, but for the possibility of my bus running off of the road in Africa. I needed and maybe will continue to need insurance traveling through places that don’t accept credit cards and don’t provide receipts when you pay in cash. What is the point when you get insurance and they won’t cover your claim because your pictures of your bus off the road in the middle of Tanzania and your passport stamp at the little land border crossing a few days later aren’t enough proof?
If I could go back, I probably still would have purchased the travel insurance. For Andrew. I would purchase it for me, for him. But I would have called World Nomads immediately. I would have asked for receipts (even though in some places, they don’t know what a receipt is and you have no way to communicate that to them) when they weren’t given. I would have taken more pictures. I would have figured out how to email World Nomads with all of the necessary documents before we left Tanzania.
I would have. Wouldn’t you? I mean, would you think to do all of this after your bus goes flying off the side of the road at 130 kilometers per hour in the middle of nowhere on the east coast of Africa?
“Are you going to stick it to them?” Andrew asked, laughing at me, as I stood outside of the museum after our visit ready to film one whole minute of the outside of the building.
“Yes.” I pouted, annoyed that the museum wouldn’t let me take any pictures (or video) inside. I snuck a few Instagram shots (which of course I got yelled at for every time) but that was IT. I even had to check my backpack. So, instead of being able to show you visually some of the really rad installations, including one of my most favorite contemporary artists, Olafur Eliasson (you can see more of his work here), I give you a boring one minute of Istanbul Modern.
(Boo, Istanbul Modern, Boo.)
I always wonder if it’s the museum or the artists being showcased who insist no photography is allowed. If I ever end up in a contemporary art museum, I think I’d pay people to take pictures of my work, I’d be so excited! I also get super frustrated when prints of the art I want aren’t available in the museum shops. I’m not going to print it out from my iphone or anything, I just want to remember (and share) what I saw! It’s one of my biggest pet peeves of the art world.
Moving on: in case you’re interested in seeing what Istanbul Modern has to say about two of the exhibitions that we saw, you can read about Past and Future here, and about Fantastic Machinery here. (There were two other exhibitions in the museum, but there doesn’t appear to be any information on them on Istanbul Modern’s site.) Fantastic Machinery was probably my favorite exhibition. It was really well curated AND there were some Robert Frank images in the collection!
Yep, you read that right. Day 247 of our trip around the world revolved around going to see Iron Man 2 in the theater. Andrew is a huge cinephile. We used to go see a movie in the theater at least once every two weeks, sometimes once a week if we had time in South Korea. He loves it. I love the popcorn. (It’s a win win!) He’s been itching to see a movie in the theater for awhile. (The last time we saw a movie in the theater was in India.) We were supposed to in South Africa, but it never worked out. Juliet had the afternoon off, so off we went to spend a day at the movies in Turkey. Today’s video is of the walk back from the bus stop along the Bosphorus, past the fish market and along the street leading up to Juliet and Daniel’s house. And below, is an image of the crazy amount of jellyfish in the Bosphorus.
The driving force getting me through the Archeology Museum was that afterwards I was going straight to a turkish bath: The Çemberlitas Hamam. Ok, ok, the archeology museum wasn’t all that bad. The sculptures that we saw were pretty incredible, especially the detailed reliefs on the tombs that were unearthed oh so long ago. There were also some really great explanations about the history of not only the Hagia Sophia, but Constantine’s reign and more. Many rooms were closed due to what looked like reorganization, but it was still interesting to walk through and there was more tile work to envy, which of course made me almost as happy as getting scrubbed by a scantily clad Turkish woman in the bathhouse.
Now, about this hamam: Çemberlitas is rather famous on the tourist hamam circuit. I figured, as I was going by myself (Juliet had to work) it probably was a good idea to go ahead and go to one that welcomed tourists and held their hand a bit as they attempted to navigate a Turkish bath house for the first time. Sidenote: this wasn’t my first Turkish bathhouse, but it WAS my first time doing it solo. Also, I knew it was going to be on the pricey side, but it was a bit of a reward after Africa and I figured my legs (and feet especially) could use a good massage and soak in the hot bath after walking around so much!
I should also disclose that I am a huge (HUGE) fan of the jimjilbang (Korean bath house) and I would go as often as I could when I lived in Seoul. I’d go alone or with friends, and I would readily strip down to my birthday suit, order an iced green tea, and tell the nearest ajjumma (Korean speak for old woman) working in the bath house that I wanted to be scrubbed down. In Korea, what I call “the ajjumma scrub” is when you climb on a table and an ajjumma scrubs you down with what feels like a brillo pad for what feels like an hour (maybe it’s only 30-40 minutes in reality) peeling off dead skin in all (and I mean ALL) of your nooks and crannies. These ajjummas don’t mess around. Arms are lifted over your head. Legs are spread. Feet are tickled. Behind the ears are rubbed raw.
After your scrub, warm water is poured over you, rinsing the piles of dead skin (yea, that part is gross) away and then you’re soaped down, massaged and shampooed if you want, rinsed off, and patted on the bum when you’re done. Your entire body is as smooth as a baby’s behind, maybe a bit red at first, but you just feel clean and fresh and rejuvenated.
It’s one of my most favorite things in the whole wide world. (Andrew assures me it’s not one of his most favorite things. That “it’s different” for men, but I’m not buying it. I firmly believe I would love it just as much if I were a dude.)
I wasn’t expecting the same in Turkey, but I was expecting something that put up a good fight. An experience that would make me feel like I had to choose between Girl Scout Thin Mint cookies and a Mint Magnum ice cream bar. (That. would be tough, am I right?)
But as soon as I stepped foot in the bath house, I knew things were going to be different. There were private changing rooms. I was given a pair of underpants to change into AND a towel to wrap around me. I wondered how I was going to be scrubbed down with a towel around me. How are my nooks and crannies going to be attended to if I have a pair of underpants on? Are the Turks more modest than the Koreans? And then I stepped foot in the inner steamy bath house. My guide, clad in only a bra and underwear pealed my towel off of me before I stepped out of my sandals and pointed to the marble slab miming for me to go to sleep. My spirits lifted and I looked forward to steaming myself in my almost birthday suit and my first Turkish scrub.
The marble octagon shaped slab was lined with women laying on their towels. I straightened out my towel and stretched out, melting into the warm marble. When I rolled over, the woman next to me on the slab was being covered in suds. Not just a few bubbles. She was covered in so much soapiness, her body disappeared into a blob and the Turkish attendant’s arms were lost as she massaged the body underneath. It looked fantastic.
Before I knew it, it was my turn.
The Turkish woman poured lukewarm over me without warning and went to work scrubbing. It wasn’t nearly as rough as the brillo-like ajjumma scrub. It wasn’t nearly as thorough or as long either. It was nice, but it felt rushed and made me wonder how many more layers of dead skin she could have peeled off if she had kept going for a little while. I just spent three months in Africa! I kinda expected (and wanted) to be rubbed raw (like I would be if I were in Korea). I was flipped over. Rinsed off. Then it was my turn to disappear under a mountain of soapiness. Ajjummas, take note. Being enveloped in so much soapy goodness will make any bath house better. I was massaged, albeit a bit quickly, and then told to stand.
A new woman to the marble slab looked up at me in wonder. I raised my eyebrow at her with smile, knowing full well I looked like a soap monster. She smiled and then I was whisked into a smaller chamber and sat down next to a fountain of water where my hair was shampooed and then I was rinsed so repetitively I had to time catching and holding my breath before another bucket of water was dumped over me. It was more comical than annoying. Suddenly it was all over and the baths were pointed out to me in another side chamber.
All in all, it was delightful, but it felt rushed. Maybe because it’s on the tourist beat, or maybe it was just a busy day. I wanted to climb back onto the marble to relax for a bit longer, but there wasn’t any room. Instead, I alternated dips in the warm and cool pools until I was pruney. I tried not to think about how much I spent on the experience, concentrating on the fact that it was a learning one and I could be more confident going into smaller hamams on my own in the future without feeling out of place. But I can’t say that I didn’t cringe when I saw the prices at a smaller hamam outside of Istanbul. It was only half the price. At least I know I’ll be able to afford to sneak off to a hamam more than once more before we leave Turkey!
We tried to go into the Basilica Cistern yesterday, but the line was outrageous. It wasn’t as bad this morning, but it wasn’t great either. Andrew opted out, not wanting to deal with the tourists inside. It was still crowded, but the Basilica Cistern was a lot bigger than I expected it to be and I spent more time inside than I thought I would. Picking up Andrew on our way out we made our way to Topkapi Palace. Again, we were face to face with big crowds and long lines, but we tried to make the best of the beautiful palace and kept… looking up in awe at the domed ceilings and intricate tile work throughout the palace.
Full disclosure: I first heard about (saw) The Basilica Cistern on a season of The Bachelorette. I know, I know, the SHAME! The blonde bachelorette (I forget her name) was on a one-on-one in the Cistern. It looked unbelievably beautiful (and romantic). It probably helped that they were the only two people there… Because although it was still pretty breathtaking during my visit, it wasn’t quite the same. Instead of the Andrew and me floating on a raft sipping champagne in the middle of the cistern, surrounded by water and the soft glow of candles lighting up the columns… Andrew was waiting outside avoiding the crowd I was caught in below (saying excuse me in Korean to the Korean tourist groups I was trying to weave my way through).
Historically (what it’s known for aside from The Bachelorette) the cistern was built by Emperor Constantine and later rebuilt and enlarged by Justinian. It was used as a water filtration system for Topkapi Palace.
I balanced my camera on the railing, praying I wouldn’t drop it and/or slip and fall into the water below. I tried to get a few solid shots, but it was dark and I don’t have the greatest lens for low light.
I picked up a bored Andrew back outside of the Cistern and we made our way to the Palace. Topkapi Palace is an UNESCO World Heritage Site being “the best example of a palace during the Ottoman Empire.” One of the larger palaces in Istanbul, it was where the Ottoman Sultans from 1465 to 1856. Not only did the Sultans live here, it’s possibly more famous for the Harem and the jewels that are now on display.
There are several courtyards, different rooms dedicated to specific events (Andrew’s favorite was the circumcision room for some inexplicably strange reason- I mean, I would think he would want to avoid it… But whatever.) or the usual: like a receiving room and a library to name a few. It also overlooked the Bosphorus in several different places with beautiful views of Istanbul. Instead of fighting my way to get a perfect picture of Istanbul, I tried to embrace the tourists in front of the view and made them my subject a few times.
As in Morocco, I was fascinated (and deeply in love) with the tile work throughout the palace. I know, it’s just tile, but don’t you think it’s beautiful? Why aren’t designs like these embraced more often in American architecture? I made Andrew promise me one day our house will feature tile work inspired by walls like these.
Now, acting as a museum, many of the rooms of the palace have been transformed into showrooms of different collections of weapons, robes (Those Sultans were BIG, yo!), and the treasury. Nearly all of these rooms had long lines. The treasury being the longest. We avoided it, knowing the hour (possibly two) long wait wasn’t worth it for us. We did see a ridiculously large (86 carats) diamond in one room however and I managed to wiggle my way in to see the story behind the fourth largest diamond in the world. From what I remember, it was found by a peddler in a garbage dump. The jeweler thought it was glass, but gave the peddler three spoons as payment anyway. According to the description in the museum, the jeweler called the police thereafter when he realized it was actually a diamond and it was taken or sold to the government or something like that… It was beautiful and heavily guarded- which is actually what caught our attention and made us stop to get a closer look, well, as close as we could manage anyway. (Sorry, no photos were allowed)
We made our way out towards the Harem just outside of the main entrance to the palace. It too, immediately had tile work that made my eyes grow wide and smile. Andrew patiently tried to take the perfect picture (for me) of me in front of it.
We wandered through the opulence and again, I was reminded of other palaces that we’ve been fortunate enough to visit on this trip. The Harem here reminded me of the harem within the walls of Agra Fort that we visited in India (on Day 85 if you’re interested in revisiting). It’s fascinating to see similarities in buildings, history, etc. from country to country – and sometimes continent to continent on this trip!
Most of my pictures are looking up, because that was the most beautiful part of the harem. And, well, people were in the way when I tried to take pictures looking straight ahead. But hopefully these images give you a glimpse of what it was like walking through. Can you imagine what life would have been like living in these rooms?
Walking out a different way, we passed by the back of Hagia Sophia and I couldn’t resist taking a shot from a different angle.
We started at The Hippodrome, then arrived at the Blue Mosque (also known as Sultan Ahmed Mosque) promptly when it was closed for prayer time. Which in turn, prompted Andrew and I to have a brief exchange over whether or not I could get in without a scarf on over my head. It went something like this:
me: Women are holding scarves. It’s a mosque! I need a scarf! (I meant to bring one, and of course, forgot before we left)
Andrew: None of them are wearing their scarves though. You’re ok. Just go in.
me: Ohhh so just because all of the other naive tourists are doing it, so should I? NO! I’m not going to be disrespectful!
Andrew: So… you want to buy a scarf?
me: Well, if I want to go inside… I guess I need to go buy a scarf…
Andrew was resigned to the fact that he couldn’t go inside in his shorts. They weren’t exactly selling men’s shorts around the hippodrome like they were selling women’s scarves… So I got a scarf, and we went back. It was still closed.
me: Well, now what are we going to do?!
Andrew: The Ayasofya.
Sultanahmet is the Old City of Istanbul. Fun fact: it’s the area that was specifically known as Constantinople. Most of the ancient sites (churches, mosques, the palace) are here. There is a LOT to do. We had started at the hippodrome just outside of the Blue Mosque and after going back and forth (the scarf debacle) we just had to weave our way around large groups of tourists to get to the Ayasofya (Turkish for the Hagia Sophia) across a couple of lawns and squares.
The Ayasofya (not to be confused with something like “The Eye of London” which is exactly what I did. I knew of the title Hagia Sophia, but not the Turkish Ayasofya, and was rather confused when Juliet and Andrew were talking about it prior to our visit) anyway. The Ayasofya is a rather complicated building. It began as an Eastern Orthodox cathedral (and seat of the Patriarchate of Constantinople) from 360 to 1204. from 1204 to 1261 it was a Roman Catholic cathedral. Then it went back to being Eastern Orthodox until 1453. Then it became a mosque until 1931. Then secularized and renovated, it opened as a museum in 1935.
Got all that? Good. There will be a quiz later. It’s ginormous. And with it’s history, it comes with a long (long) line. We got some snacks (an ear of corn and a kebab) and stood outside in the sun for about forty minutes waiting to get inside.
Naive to what I was stepping foot in, I spent some time photographing the entryway, the ceiling producing a beautiful, yet fading fresco could not be ignored. And then, once inside the next room, I was overwhelmed. Not immediately by the building – the church? the mosque? calling it a museum doesn’t feel right. I was overwhelmed by the chandeliers and the crazy amount of people inside.
Don’t get me wrong, the Hagia Sophia, the Ayasofya (whatever you want to call it) is amazing. It’s big. It’s breathtaking. It’s astounding to feel like you’re in a church and a mosque at the same time. Something that I can say that I’ve never felt before- it’s always one or the other. But the people! They were everywhere. They were standing in front of your picture. Bumping into you from behind while you were trying to take a picture. Asking you to move so THEY could take a picture. It was overwhelming to both of us. And more so to Andrew, who hasn’t witnessed the throngs of tourists in Europe until now.
“Just… look up.” I demanded. The dome is what the Hagia Sophia is most known for. It’s easy to see why. Apparently it’s the “epitome of Byzantine architecture” and even though I’ve forgotten a lot of details from my Art in Rome course in college, it is breathtaking. Especially when you stand directly underneath it reveling how small you are in the church, let alone the universe. That is, of course, until someone asks you to move…
I couldn’t decide which one was my favorite. So I just put all of them in. Half of the church/mosque/museum was being renovated. I tried to photograph around it as much as possible, but here’s what it looked like, to give you a better idea.
We headed upstairs, which wasn’t exactly via stairs as it was a ramp, made of stone, all the way up to the second level. I wondered if it was constructed that way so horses could haul stone up to the second level instead of people carrying it on their backs. I can’t remember where, but this was done in another ancient site we were in. A fort or palace in India, perhaps?
I was really drawn to the details of the ceilings and arches and of course, the chandeliers.
Many of the Christian mosaics were pastered over when it was a mosque.
Eventually we made our way out of Ayasofya and back towards the Blue Mosque. This time it was open. Andrew hung around outside of the mosque while I wrapped my new scarf around my head and stood in line to get inside. Strollers and this little bike sat outside of the entrance while their owners were inside.
The Blue Mosque, is historically known as The Sultan Ahmed Mosque. It’s nickname stems from the blue tiles on the walls and ceiling inside. I tried my hardest to concentrate on looking up and not letting the throngs of tourists take away the beauty of the interior.
The lights circling around the mosque reminded me of The Mosque of Muhammad Ali in Cairo. Only this one being a bit smaller, much more crowded, and smellier. There, I said it. Seriously. It was not good. No finger pointing towards the Muslims either, because you know they wash their feet before praying. It was suffocating, so much so that I didn’t dawdle or ask a nearby guide why women can’t be treated equally like I usually do…
I have to admit I rolled my eyes a bit watching the Muslim men walk through the tourists to where they could pray, I mean, take pictures. Their chests puffed out, while everyone else held their cameras above their heads to get a picture they were satisfied with made me wonder where all of the women were. In Istiqlal Mosque in Jakarta, the women were allowed on the main floor, but off to the side. I couldn’t see any women here anywhere on the main floor. And then, as I was leaving, I saw the women praying on the outskirts of the mosque’s interior. Some areas partitioned off. I sighed, wondering if I will ever understand the role of women within Islam, and if the same role within Christianity is any better.
After a lazy morning, and discovering Andrew’s bag still was lost, Andrew and I made our way downtown to the Spice Market and Grand Bazaar.
The Spice Market was more interesting outside, and not so much for the shops, but for the people and being able to watch those sitting outside, sipping on tea or washing their feet outside of the mosque across the street. Something I know very little about and would like to know more: it seems as though only the Muslim men wash themselves before entering the mosque. Why don’t the women wash their feet? Is it because exposing their feet in public is prohibited? Is there a separate area for Muslim women to wash that is more private? So many questions!
Inside, The Spice Market felt like a tourist trap, and we shied away from buying anything, knowing it was unbelievably marked up. Also, there didn’t seem to be any locals picking up spices, just tourists picking up touristy gifts. It was still fun to walk through though, and fun to photograph!
We walked around town to get to The Grand Bazaar. Andrew kept trying to find some new bandanas in all of the scarf shops, but had no luck. After an hour or so walking around on the cobblestone streets, I realized it probably wasn’t a good idea to walk around town in my thin pair of ballet flats. My feet hurt! We arrived to the bazaar and I couldn’t help but wonder if we were missing something. It, too, felt overly touristy. I was expecting stalls upon stalls with narrow lanes in between. A market you got lost in. A market you were overwhelmed by. A market where you were constantly wide eyed looking at interesting wares you were tempted to haggle over and buy. But… this bazaar felt more like a warehouse than a Turkish bazaar. We MUST have missed something. There HAS to be more to it and we simply didn’t see all of it. There were more stalls of knockoff bags than Turkish rugs and lamps. I was so excited to photograph the lamps, but I only saw one or two storefronts offering them, and I had to get creative photographing them! I was also expecting to be completely torn wanting to buy some fun Turkish souvenirs, but nothing really screamed out to me that it was worth dragging around the country, or paying to ship home. (I’m sure to Andrew’s delight)
It does help that I already have blankets and even a rug (from India), a tea set and tiles (from Morocco), and earrings (from Africa). When you’ve already purchased and shipped so many souvenirs home, it gets easier saying “No” to similar (even when they are equally unique and beautiful) items home. Although I might cave soon and buy some new bags for this trip. These Osprey backpacks have got to go!
Needing an opportunity to sit down and slip my ballet flats off, I suggested we go into a rug shop and pretend we were going to buy one. Instead, we found a rather atmospheric outdoor café that seemed to be only frequented by locals. After tea, and an ice-cream to go, we made our way back to Juliet and Daniel’s place.
Again, we called Havas in the morning to ask about our bags. We were told the driver came to our door the night before, but no one was home. We clarified that four people were home after nine o’clock, plus two dogs, both of which bark (a lot) at strangers. They told us our bags were on their way. We asked how many bags. We were told two. We were told to wait until 1 or maybe 2 for them to be delivered.
Only one arrived.
Unfortunately, it was mine. Andrew was going on day five in the same clothes. When Andrew called back (again) about his bag, he was told his missing bag was not on file. He was holding his copy of the missing bag report. He was told to email it to them. Going a bit stir-crazy, we decided to get out and make the most of our third day in Istanbul. We headed to Taksim Square and walked down the infamous Istiklal Street.
Juliet is vegan. Daniel is on his way to being vegan. I gushed over how sweet Daniel was to give up cheese for Juliet.
“Would you give up cheese for me?” I asked Andrew.
“No! You wouldn’t give it up for me. You like cheese MORE than me!” Andrew yelled back from the kitchen to me and Daniel sitting in the living room. Daniel laughed, looking at me for a reaction. I laughed, shaking my head that he was right.
On Istiklal, we passed a chain take-away shop. It had cheese and tomato sandwiches the size of my face. We got one to share and walked down Istiklal nibbling on our first taste of cheese since touching down in Europe. I wandered in some shops to lust after pretty dresses that would never in a million years stay wrinkle free in my backpack and Andrew grabbed a coffee that was big enough for his liking.
“So this is the Myeongdong (in Seoul) of Istanbul…” Andrew declared as we walked down the super busy main street full of stores and sidewalks full of vendors. I agreed and then when we rolled up to a church in the middle of it, it all felt vaguely familiar even though it was half a world away from what we’re used to in South Korea.
We people watched outside of the church, and then we made our way back towards Taksim. We wandered through the flower vendors briefly before heading down into the metro, making our way “home” to Juliet and Daniel’s place. That night, Juliet and Daniel had invited some friends over for dinner. Daniel is an expert at making falafel (from scratch!) and Juliet is an expert at pouring wine. It was a lovely evening albeit a bit of a blurry one.
Thanks, Havas Ground Handling Company for being the absolute worst company in the world. Ok, maybe that’s harsh, but we spent the entire day hanging out at Juliet and Daniel’s apartment waiting for our bags.
They did not arrive.
Instead of posting a video of how annoyed we were at Havas, I put a video and pictures up of the back streets between Taksim and Istiklal. We were here another day and I had so much fun walking around (especially after it was practically forbidden in South Africa) that I took more than enough video and pictures for one day! Enjoy!
About the bags:
When we called in the morning, we were told they would arrive at two o’clock. When we called at five o’clock, we were told they would arrive at six o’clock. Then they called us around nine o’clock to tell us our bags were on their way.
They did not arrive.
Thank God we had friends we were able to stay with, because the silver lining to this day was that it did not cost us as much as it could have if we weren’t staying with friends and didn’t have access to their kitchen.
Tear gas, again? It’s May Day in Istanbul! Protests abound! A closed metro system. Questioning in the streets. Juliet didn’t feel comfortable going in town. I didn’t feel comfortable putting anyone in danger. Myself, not a problem. But Andrew tends to worry… so we took the dogs for a walk down by the Bosphorus and then went to the mall to get a few new clothes instead. Along the way, we noticed a few posters like this one plastered up all over town.
I should be more specific about the shopping: I got new clothes. Andrew, not being able to find anything to fit his tall and skinny frame waited patiently while I lusted after unicorn shirts and sequined mini-skirts in H&M settling for more travel-friendly cotton clothes instead.
We called about our bags. We were told they would be delivered the next day. We weren’t told when, exactly, but we were hopeful Andrew would get to change his clothes by the end of the day.
Daniel brought an empty tear gas canister home after a failed attempt getting to work. He told me I could take it home as a souvenir, but we both figured airport security might not be as keen.
Four different airports and three flights over the span of twenty-four hours sounds like a chore, but after some of our epic bus rides through Africa, it really didn’t feel so bad. Our flights were rather uneventful. I wish I could say the same for the airports, but they were all a bit of a hassle.
Joburg changed gates for multiple flights and people (including us) were running around confused and trying to prepare themselves for the possibility of missing their flight. Luckily we made it and were fortunate enough to accompany half of China on our flight to Abu Dhabi. The poor flight attendants were extraordinarily patient. Andrew and I were extraordinarily immature, wide-eyed at the women in front of us eating their pudding desert with a knife. There are spoons in China. There were also spoons on our trays. We didn’t get it.
Abu-Dhabi, while beautiful, had a ridiculous amount of people crammed in one terminal, unwilling to go to their gate as additional long lines for security checks would have prevented them from sneaking back out for a snack or a bathroom. The security checks were frustrating. I thought one woman was going to lose it, but she managed to keep it together after we were shuffled from one line to another only to realize we were split up into two lines to then merge back into one line. Andrew had to go in and out of the scanner because something kept beeping on him.
It was here, where we think he lost his baggage ticket repeatedly trying to empty his empty pockets for security.
Once we arrived in Istanbul, we waited at baggage claim before realizing our bags did not arrive with us. A seemingly competent third party ground services company helped us file a report. We were told to call later with details of where our bags were.
We were nearly two hours late meeting Juliet in Taksim Square. I was counting on her not still being there waiting for us, but low and behold, she was. (What a wonderful friend, right?) We made our way to her house for a restful night of dinner and drinks in after a day of jumping continents.