Istanbul

I was excited to get to the place I had booked for my stay in Istanbul.  I had decided to book hotels mostly on this trip rather than staying in hostels.  I guess I wanted a little bit of luxury and just needed some time to myself.  I found a deal on a very nice place just 5 minutes’ walk from the Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmed Mosque) that was $30 a night!  It was a guesthouse sort of setup- shared bathroom in the hallway, each room had a minifridge, hotplate, and kettle.  I thought this would be good so I could cook a little something for breakfast in the mornings (typical Turkish breakfast is really bread heavy, and I was getting slightly tired of eating cucumbers, tomatoes, and olives 1st thing in the morning).

I found my hotel with no problem and went to check in at the restaurant downstairs, where they handled the keys and such.  To my consternation I found that expedia had cancelled my reservation without telling me.  I actually had looked for my reservation online just 2 weeks before and it was nowhere to be found.  I spent an hour on the phone with the agent who confirmed my reservation, and said she had called the hotel.  The proprietor of the hotel said, no, no one called us.  Who did you book with?  When I said expedia, he said they had a ton of problems with that site, better to use another one, he mentioned some other popular travel sites.  Anyway, he offered to help me find a place, and said it was actually better I didn’t get there the day before as planned, it would have been impossible to find something on New Year’s Eve.

I ended up at a slightly more expensive hotel around the corner that was in worse condition.  I later found that the shower head holder was broken but at the time I just wanted to get out and do stuff, so didn’t pay much attention.  I really didn’t spend much time there anyway.  My overall not supergreat experiences in hotels during my trip to Turkey made me decide to only do hostels on my next trip, which I had a TON more fun and success with (and, saved more money!).

I was happy to find that people were definitely out and about on New Year’s day, so headed over to hit some museums and such.  Lots of carts carrying simit (Turkish bagel things- often served with nutella!), corn on the cob, kestane (chestnuts) and salep (hot drink made of milk and orchid root, topped with cinnamon and nutmeg) were everywhere!  I got some kestane to snack on, and headed over to the Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque.

Outside the complex I saw a cart selling what is called MÜZE.  It’s a card that costs 72 lira for 72 hours of access to some of the main museums.  The nice thing about this is that you don’t have to wait in what can potentially be very long lines!  I figured I was going to visit these places, so bought one.  You also get some discounts with the card, though I didn’t make much use of it (saved about .20 lira on a drink at the Topkapı Palace gift shop).

The mosque was closed to visitors at the time because of a religious service, so I went to Hagia Sofia instead.  It’s now a museum to avoid the tension between Christians and Muslims who both lay claim to it.  It was formed as a Byzantine church originally, but was converted to a mosque some centuries later.  It still is quite beautiful, but one thing I started to find bothersome was the Persian script on the walls that is characteristic of Muslim art and buildings.  Maybe it’s because I couldn’t read it, I don’t know.  I just felt like there were slogans everywhere.  It made me reflect upon whether or not you’d see the same thing in Latin alphabet characters in Christian churches and monuments.  I honestly couldn’t recall at the time.

Anyway, the Turks definitely put a smile on my face with their laissez-faire attitude toward cats!  Can you imagine the below picture being taken at say, Independence Hall in the US?

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You can see more pictures at this pretty cool site: http://www.sacred-destinations.com/turkey/istanbul-hagia-sophia

I went back to the Blue Mosque but found I had again missed the visiting time.  I headed over to the museums.

Topkapı Palace was closed (they had these scary looking army guys at the gate who didn’t move until you get very close!  Freaky) so I went to the Archaeological Museum.  This place is huge and one of the best I’ve ever gone to!  Because Turkey is the site of many ancient human cultures there is a wealth of artifacts collected there, ranging from stone age pottery to ornate jewerly of the Sultan’s family.  Plan on a couple hours here for sure!

While walking back towards my hotel I saw a sign advertising for a performance of the Whirling Dervishes.  They had added an extra performance because of the holiday, so I signed on up.  I had some free time to walk around found myself at the entrance to the Underground Basilica Cisterns.  This was really neat!  They had really cool lighting to highlight the columns there.

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Picture by someone who knew what they were doing (ie, not me)

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Look at those suckers!

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They apparently have concerts there sometimes, which would be an amazing experience I’d imagine.

I stayed out and walked around for a while.  Most stores started closing at sunset in Sultanahmet.  One store that stayed open was Koska, which was very dangerous territory.  They had all sorts of sweets including halva and lokum (Turkish delights, which I didn’t realize could have nuts in them), big no-nos like baklava of all kinds, dried fruit and nuts, and even cello packs of tahini and grape molasses like I enjoyed in Kapadokya.  I thought about getting some but put it off for the time being.

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After finding the Hodjapasha Cultural Center we all packed in for the show.  I have to say that the dancing was a bit monotonous, there was a story line it was supposed to illustrate that I didn’t quite follow in the movements.  BUT! the music was absolutely superb and for me the real treat of the show.  I was excited to see a female percussionist, who was pretty badd.  It was definitely touristy with lighting and a setting in a former hamam and lots of tourists (the German guys in front of me, who were also rather tall and blocking part of my view, could. not. stay. still. and kept whispering to his buddy) but I think it was worth it.  I wasn’t able to make it to any of the other performances while I was in Istanbul, unfortunately.  There’s a good synopsis and video here: http://wizardistanbul.com/top_lists/top-3-places-to-watch-whirling-dervishes-in-istanbul/

If you can get to Galata Mevlevihanesi this is apparently the place to go.  It just opened again after many years of renovation.  I wasn’t there on a Saturday so I don’t know, unfortunately.

More info: http://www.rumimevlevi.com/en/reservation-request-form

Many restaurants had closed down by the time I got back to the area around 10pm.  I went to a place called Turkmenistan Restaurant right off of the square.  I ordered a plate that had pretty much everything, which provided me with breakfast for another two days!  They had a sign about live music, but apparently that was the night before.  I was the only person in the restaurant besides the owner’s family.  It looks like it could be an okay place when it’s more hopping…they had a permanent stage for the musicians and decent-looking sound equipment.

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One last stroll around the plaza and I was ready for bed.

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