Istanbul - Our last stop in Europe

Trip Start Feb 26, 2006
Trip End Nov 28, 2006

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Monday, May 22, 2006

Amy and I weren't sure what to expect of Istanbul, but we found it to be very modern and quite clean, like any major city in Europe...and there are no donkeys (or their crap) anywhere in the city! Even though Istanbul is very modern (it seems all the young people have camera phones), it still has a lot of culture and history to it dating back thousands of years. After coming from the ultra conservative Morocco, we were surprised that Turkey is a very liberal country even though it's also Muslim. We didn't see many women wearing headscarves, and alcohol is sold everywhere. We were told that only about 15-20% of the population are practicing Muslims.

We stayed in the old part of town where all the major historical monuments are, including the Blue Mosque, Aya Sofya, Basilica Cistern, and the Topkapi Palace:

Blue Mosque - This very grand-looking mosque was built in the early 1600s and is still used today as a mosque. There are many domes that make up the mosque, and supporting the domes are 6-feet wide columns made of SOLID marble!

Aya Sofya (church of holy wisdom) - it was built in 537AD as a Roman church and was the grandest church in the empire until it was converted to a mosque in 1453. At that time, the mosaics depicting Christian images were covered up. In the 1930s it became a museum and the mosaics were uncovered - some of the mosaics are still quite intact, so it was really cool to see. We were awestruck by Aya Sofya and spent a lot of time there. It's very big, but not as majestic and striking as the Blue Mosque (the only reason being that it's so OLD!). Just being inside you could feel all the history it held.

Basilica Cistern - This underground cistern was built in the 6th century and held water for summer use and times of siege. Water was channeled from the woods 19km away into the cistern via aqueducts. The cistern has 336 marble columns, some of which are spot lit, and the rest are in darkness. The cistern has a spooky atmosphere, and they play eerie music and use mood lighting to enhance the experience. It's been featured in several movies, including one of the James Bond and Jacky Chan movies.

Topkapi Palace - Built in the 1400s and home to sultans until the 19th century. We visited the harem (where the sultan's family lived and men, except for the sultan and eunichs, were not allowed to enter) as well as the treasury, which holds various jewels and artifacts, including the hand and skull of John the Baptist and the holy relics (e.g. teeth, hair, clothing, swords) of the Muslim prophet Mohammed.

After a few exhausting days of visiting the historic sites, we needed to relax! We took a day trip to the Princes' Islands. On the largest of those islands, no cars are allowed so we hopped on the local transport of choice, a horse carriage, for a tour of the island. On another day, we took a scenic boat cruise of the Bosphorus River which divides the European and Asian sides of Turkey.

We love food, so naturally, one of our goals on this trip is to try the local specialties in each country. Some of the things we've tried include:

Kofte - the local style of meatballs.
Turkish Delight (my personal favourite) - sweet multi-flavoured gelatin cubes coated in powdered sugar or coconut flakes, and filled with nuts or sweets - how could we resist?
Pistachio baklava (Amy's favourite) - honey soaked flaky pastry stuffed with pistachios.
Ayran - a favourite among locals, this is a plain yogurt drink that's mixed with salt and water. Doesn't sound appetizing, but it just takes some getting used to. It grew on us, and we found it goes well with spicy foods.
Corn on the cob - ok, so not exactly a Turkish specialty, but we couldn't help ourselves to the multitude of street vendors selling bbq'd or boiled ears of corn.

With all there is to see and do, and the fantastic food, one week in Istanbul was hardly enough. It's definitely a city that nobody should miss! Moving on, we'll be crossing from Europe to the Asian continent where we'll get to see the rest of Turkey.
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