Friday, June 20, 2014

The Istanbul Sights

Waiting patiently

9am sharp, we were scheduled to be picked up for a day of official sight-seeing. We waited outside the apartment:

Sulamon, our guide, is a charming Turk from Antolya. He was a reservoir of vast amounts of information about Istanbul through the ages....and in this city that's a lot of ages. Our agenda - Topkapi Palace, Hagia Sophia (former church turned mosque turned museum), Blue Mosque, Grand Bazar, and Basilica cistern. Sulamon was quick to point out that it was virtually impossible to see all this in a single day, but I told him that we planed to explore in depth on our own, and this day was just an introduction and orientation. Off to Topkapi Palace.

Home to 400 years worth of Sultans, the palace is a huge collection of buildings housing all aspects of Sultan-like life, including exhibits portraying the Sultan's clothes, thrones, jewels, entertainment, harem etc. The largest jewel of the Ottoman empire is on exhibit weighing in at 82 carats. Known as the spoon-maker's diamond,  legend has it that it was found in a heap of garbage and purchased for four spoons.

Here is one of the Sultan's robes. From the look of it, the Sultan must have been about 5 feet tall. One of the other robes is HUGE, so I guess they came in all shapes and sizes.

After Topkapi, we moved on to the Blue Mosque, built by Sultan Ahmed the 1st. He built it to appease the gods after losing the Persian War. As a matter of fact, it was the first mosque in the Ottoman empire to be built with money from the empire treasury, rather than war spoils. It's a working mosque, so shoes must be removed to enter, shorts are not permitted and women have to have their hair and shoulders covered. They hand out drapes to cover whatever part of you needs to be covered. Here is a photo taken inside the mosque. It's pretty impressive:

Keeping our breakneck pace we crossed the square to the Hagia-Sofia. Sulemon took pity on Sam and found a wheelchair for him.

Hagia-Sofia is an impressive orthodox church converted to a mosque before becoming a museum. It's filled with covered-up (plastered-over) murals and statues as well as deconstructed crosses. Interesting.

Our itinerary included a visit to one of the many underground cisterns in Istanbul, constructed during the Bizantium to hold water brought in by the Roman Aqueducts. The largest, most famous one (pictured here) is known as the Basilica Cistern:

These things are all over the city and are now used as museums and function rooms (people get married in them). On Sulemon's advise, we went to a smaller one without the crowds. They served us tea as we sat and admired the size and scope of this smaller cistern.

Sulamon  dropped us off at our apartment and we went out in search of street food. We found it on the span of the Galata Bridge. The street food in Istanbul is plentiful, fresh and delicious. We chose a guy serving kafta sandwiches from his cart. YUM!!

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Nate comes to Istanbul on Thursday June 19th.

We slept until noon on Thursday, returned to our fav self- service restaurant, and started to explore the neighborhood. Nephew Nate was due to arrive Thursday afternoon, so we had to get ready for him. Our neighborhood is called Beyoglu, adjacent to Taksim square. As I mentioned, we sit on top of one of Istanbul's 7 hills, and the neighborhood is filled with long steep staircases which facilitate a good deal of pedestrian traffic. Many of the staircases are brightly colored. Going up and down these staircases is a challenge. I frequently have to stop to catch my breath, yet Sam is managing on crutches. A delightful day of exploration....our neighborhood is vibrant and exciting, filled with cafes, tiny shops and quaint apartment buildings. All perched on these steep hills.

Round about 4pm it started to pour, which made Sam's travel on these hills somewhat treacherous. We headed back to the apartment to wait for Nate.

At the appointed time of 6pm, I headed out to find him. Nate had instructions to meet us in Taksim Square. When we made those arrangements, I had no idea how vast Taksim is:

So it's pouring rain, and I'm looking for Nate somewhere in Taxim Square. I just checked out every bus I could find, and on the 4th one, there he was! I handed him the extra umbrella I had and we zoomed back to the apartment. 

An hour later the rain stopped, and we headed out to dinner. After wandering for about an hour, we settled an an interesting looking seafood restaurant in a quaint back street. On walking in,  a Turkish man by the name of Yigit walked up to Sam and asked if he went to Tulane (Sam was wearing his Tulane Rowing T-shirt). Turns out this guy teaches history at Tulane, and comes home to Turkey during the summer. Here they are together. Here is his faculty bio at Tulane.

Yigit coached us through the ordering process and we had a fabulous meal, capped off by the fruit plate Yigit, his wife, and his sister-in-law sent over to us. A very nice evening indeed!

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Hello from the City on Seven Hills...on Wed June 18th.

Yup,  you read that right. Like Rome, Istanbul was built on seven hills....and that's not a coincidence. It was founded during the Byzantium (600 B.C.), otherwise known as the Eastern End of the Roman Empire - so it was modeled after Rome. Then it was Christian, until the Ottoman crowd came to town in 1453 (Constantinople), and decided that Islam was the way to go. It remained Ottoman until the 1923 (post WWI), when the current government was created by Mustapha Ataturk. So, that's 1000 years of Christianity and over 500 years of Islam. Get the picture? A lot of old churches converted to mosques. And in a mosque you're not allowed to decorate with anyone's face, or a cross. They had a lot of statues and artwork to cover up. But all that makes for a very interesting city with lots of amazing history and antiquities. It's pretty cool.

We arrived on Wednesday afternoon (1pm local time) after flying from the 'Burgh to Newark to Munich to Istanbul. Sam decided to audition for the U.S. soccer team just before we left, so I woke up on departure day to discover him with a swollen ecchymotic (bleeding internally) foot. Off to MedExpress in Aspinwall. X-ray showed a minimally displaced avulsion fracture of his big toe. The doc at the urgent care center warned that hobbling around Turkey was not wise, and suggested we cancel. Ha! No such luck. A quick call to our bud Tanya Hagen at UPMC Sports Med took care of that.


Sam took a picture of the x-ray at the urgent care center, and emailed it to me...whereupon I emailed it to Tanya (thank you T-Mobile). Her reply: "If that were my toe, I'd tape the hell out of it and go to Turkey!" Good enough for us. I think we decided to go and not go 5 times before Tim coaxed us out the door into his running car...with not a moment to spare. After depositing a very excited Zoe at her gate, we proceeded to ours.

Zoe flew from Pittsburgh to LaGuardia, where she was met by one very kind Paul Dorfman, a cousin of mine who lives in Brooklyn. Paul escorted her to JFK airport, where she promptly met 20 of her close friends from camp GUCI. They departed for Tel Aviv at midnight on Tuesday. You can follow Zoe's adventure in Israel on this blog.

So that brings us back to Istanbul, and our cab driver at the airport. When I showed him the address of our AirBnB apartment he had no clue where it was. Fortunately, I knew that it was in an area of Istanbul known as Taksim Square. By the time we got to Taksim we were in phone contact with our host, who was able to fill him in on the details. Taksim is at the top of one of the seven hills of Istanbul, and (yup you guessed it) our apartment is on the steepest street in the entire city. Maybe not steepest, but surely the 2nd steepest. So Sam has been trudging up and down this INCREDIBLE hill on crutches. Which is especially fun in the RAIN.

Can you tell how steep the street is? This is the view from our window.

Here is the view from the top of our street. 

After a bit of up and down, Sam managed to get used to it. The apartment itself is quite lovely. A two bedroom with a well equipped bathroom, including a clothes washer.  This is our shower, complete with piped in music.

After we moved in, we hiked up to the top of the hill and visited a self-service restaurant. This place has become our favorite go-to-breakfast/lunch spot. A spectacular place with lots of delicious Turkish food out on display. You point...they serve. We went way overboard that first day, stuffing ourselves to the tune of $15 per person. This is what the food looks like:

Eggplant, stuffed peppers, potato pancakes, beet salad, and lots more to choose from. The place is mostly filled with working Turks. With good reason. Feeling quite full, we walked for a bit, returned to the apartment, and collapsed into bed.