From Izmir To Istanbul (Not Constantinople)
Trip Start Oct 21, 2009
52Trip End Jan 12, 2010
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It was raining HARD today in Izmir, and I didn't sleep very well last night. Both of these circumstances meant that I was hard pressed to get up and out of bed before the 10am breakfast cut-off time – but because it was FOOD (haha), I managed to wake myself up and get myself up to the dining room with Murray just before breakfast ended. (Yes – Murray was already awake, showered, and dressed!)
After breakfast, I did . . . nothing! Well, ok, not nothing – but nothing too taxing. As the rain pounded the streets outside, I spent most of today curled up in our hotel room, journaling, reading, and watching some badly dubbed TV
After a relaxing afternoon, Murray and I went upstairs to the hotel’s restaurant for a decent dinner (tzatziki, salad, and bread to start – then kofte with rice and potatoes for me, and doner kebab with pita for Murray). We returned to the room and half-watched more dubbed TV, before turning off the lights around 11:45pm. It was a great, restful day – and one that I needed!
After one last great breakfast at the Konak Saray Hotel in Izmir, we pottered around a bit before checking out of the hotel around 11:45am. We walked to the train station, and jumped on the 12:25pm train to the airport (PS – as the train chugged along, all of the doors were open – not only the doors to our individual train cabin, but also the doors to the outside, where we could see the trees and buildings whizzing by
I love our hotel in Istanbul – a boutique place called the Aruna Hotel. It is very charming and quaint! Our room has rich, antique wood furnishings, brocaded linens and draperies, and gorgeous seating area chairs. Plus, it also has a bathtub (woo-hoo!) with hand-painted Turkish tiling, as well as an electric tea kettle (woo-hoo!) with a wonderful assortment of teas (including strawberry-pomegranate, orange pekoe, and Linden herb! Anyone who knows me knows that I love my tea, and to be able to brew it anytime I want, which often is difficult when traveling, is a real treat! I guess sometimes it’s those little things that matter, isn’t it?!).
Also, I love the area in which our hotel is located – the Sultanahmet district is the heart of historic Old Istanbul (what 19th century travelers used to call "Stamboul"). Sultanahmet (named for Sultan Ahmet I, builder of the Blue Mosque) is where you’ll find a ton of Istanbul’s “biggies” – Topkapi Palace, Aya Sofya (Hagia Sophia), the Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmet Camii), the Byzantine Hippodrome, Yerebatan Saray (Sunken Palace Cistern), a number of museums, and several lesser sites – not to mention a number of great restaurants and cafes
[By the way, once we were settled in our hotel room, we were alerted to a CNN International Breaking News story about a 6-story apartment building in Istanbul that just had collapsed. Fortunately, there were not many people in the building at the time, but apparently, up-to-code housing is an issue in Istanbul…]
For our first evening in Istanbul, we walked to a nearby street, the busy Akbiyik Caddesi, which was still bustling at nighttime and had loads of restaurants serving “authentic Ottoman and traditional Turkish cuisine.” It was a fun street to walk around, albeit touristy. After shrugging off several restaurant “recruiters,” we finally made our way to Metropolis Café for dinner, and it was lovely – with pita bread, we had eggplant croquettes and sigaros (or cigarillos – those small phyllo dough tubes wrapped around feta cheese, and fried) – both served with a wonderful side salad with tomatoes and cucumbers. (PS – the cucumbers in both Greece and Turkey have been phenomenal; we encountered the same in Egypt and Jordan. I don’t know what it is about these Mediterranean cucumbers, but they are smaller, crisper, and much more flavorful than US cucumbers
For our main dishes, I had zucchini stuffed with beef and herbs, served in a yogurt sauce – and Murray had chicken stuffed with spinach, in a béchamel sauce. Both were awesome! Later, upon presentation of the bill, we also were served free cups of Turkish apple tea, which I love! When we got back to the hotel, I took a lovely, long bath – and then Murray and I were in bed by midnight. I am looking forward to tomorrow and our first full day of sightseeing in Istanbul!
It is so exciting to be back in Istanbul! It is a uniquely cosmopolitan city literally joining Europe to Asia. Like Rome, the city is built on seven hills; served as the capital of the Roman Empire; and went on to be the capital of two more empires, the Byzantine Empire and (starting in the 14th century and for the next six centuries) the Ottoman Empire. As a result, the city has grown into a junction of East-West culture, architecture, and traditions. For 2010, Istanbul has been named the European Capital of Culture; the city has spent two billion Euros restoring many of its historic quarters and monuments for the occasion.
I was last in Istanbul at the exact same time of year ten years ago, visiting my wonderful friend from college, Fulya, for New Year’s 1998-99. During that trip, the weather was pretty cold – but not this visit! We enjoyed high-60s weather today, with lots of sunshine and a nice breeze. Just gorgeous!
This morning, before heading out to tour more of Sultanahmet, we enjoyed another terrific breakfast buffet at Aruna Hotel (sorry, Christoph – but it was an excellent buffet!) – meats, cheeses, several kinds of olives and vegetables, different Turkish dips and sauces, and wonderful cereals and fresh breads. (Murray also enjoyed the use of their cappuccino/latte machine!) We also dropped off three bags of laundry to a place around the corner, to be picked up later this evening; we searched and searched for a self-service Laundromat in Istanbul, but apparently, they don’t exist. (Fortunately for us, the price for laundry service here in Istanbul is far more reasonable than it was via our fancy tour hotel in Cairo!)
Finally ready to begin exploring the Sultanahmet, we walked through the small but interesting Arasta Bazaar, just below the Blue Mosque. Afterward, we toured the inner courtyard of the mosque itself, later returning to tour the inside, as it was closed for the call to prayer by the time we got there.
The Sultan Ahmed Mosque (Turkish: Sultanahmet Camii) is a historical mosque in Istanbul – popularly known as the Blue Mosque for the blue tiles adorning the walls of its interior
Approaching the mosque, I remembered it from my trip here ten years ago. As we walked up the stairs to the inner courtyard, semi-domes came into view, one after the other after the other, and each with architectural significance. Eventually, we saw the main dome, crowning the whole – and then our attention immediately was drawn to the sides of this massive dome, where forests of smaller domes and several minarets are located (and actually were designed “to lift our eyes heavenward”).
Inside, the layout of the Blue Mosque is a classic Ottoman design. When we returned to tour the inside, we saw that the interiors of the domes and semi-domes are painted in graceful arabesques, and wonderful stained glass windows illuminate the entire effect. Also, as I said earlier, the amazing “blue” of the mosque comes from the gorgeous Iznik tiles that line the mosque’s walls. Murray was just as impressed with his first visit to the Blue Mosque as I was with my second!
From the Blue Mosque, we walked the short distance to the Aya Sofya – but not before crossing the central square with the Egyptian obelisk dating back to 149 AD, which used to be a Roman Hippodrome. This Hippodrome served as the center of Byzantium’s life for 1,000 years – and of Ottoman life for another 400. It was the scene of countless political and military dramas during Istanbul’s long history.
Finally, we reached our last stop of the day, the Aya Sofya. Also known as the Hagia Sophia (Turkish: Ayasofya, from the Greek: Ἁγία Σοφία, meaning “Holy Wisdom”), the building has an incredible history – it started as an Orthodox basilica, later became a mosque, and now is a museum!
The current Hagia Sophia building originally was constructed as a church between 532 and 537 AD on the orders of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian, and was the third church to occupy the site (the previous two had both been destroyed by riots). It is worth noting that the building was designed by a physicist and a mathematician! The Hagia Sophia is particularly famous for its massive dome, considered the epitome of Byzantine architecture – and considered to have “changed the history of architecture.” It was the largest cathedral in the world for nearly a thousand years (until the completion of the Seville Cathedral in Spain in 1520)
In 1453, Constantinople was conquered by the Ottoman Turks and the sultan ordered the building to be converted into the Aya Sofya Mosque. Therefore, its bells, altar, iconostasis, and sacrificial vessels were removed, and many of the mosaics were plastered over. The Islamic features of the Aya Sofya, such as the mihrab, the minbar, and the four minarets outside, were added over the course of its history under the Ottomans. Subsequently, for almost 500 years, the Aya Sofya served as the principal mosque of Istanbul, and many of the other Ottoman mosques in the city were modeled after it. The Aya Sofya remained as a mosque until 1935, when it was converted into a museum by the Republic of Turkey.
Murray and I also were very impressed with the Aya Sofya. From the outside, its striking red and yellow domes draw you in. And once inside, most interior surfaces are sheathed with polychrome marble coverings, green and white with purple – as well as gold mosaics, encrusted upon the brick
After touring the ground floor of Aya Sofya, we stood in line to make our wishes at the Wish Column (the Dilek Tasi, also called the Sweating Column or the Terleyen Sutun) – something I had done on my visit here ten years ago! [My last wish came true – here’s to the next one coming true, too.]
From the Wish Column, we climbed (huff puff) up the cave-like stone ramps to reach the upper gallery, which is laid out in a horseshoe shape that encloses the nave until the apse
After our very rewarding visit to the Aya Sofya, we made our way back to the same bustling street we had dinner on last night. We made reservations at a restaurant for New Year’s Eve (tomorrow night – we are spending the evening with friends Rob and Ron, who arrive in Istanbul tomorrow afternoon). We also grabbed a very late lunch at a small kebab café, enjoying wonderful pita kebabs with salad and dips.
From lunch, we returned to the hotel, where I took a nap and Murray spent time on the computer (according to him, the only time he gets to use our netbook is when I’m napping! Sad, but probably true…). Since I had a bit of a stomach ache when I woke up, we spent the evening in, Murray going out for dinner and bringing me back some cup-in-soups, which I made in our room with the tea kettle.
Today was a terrific first full day in Istanbul! My excitement at being back in this city has only just begun.