What a great day we had on Tuesday. We had arranged with Can Ulusoy, who was with us in Bodrum and Ephesus last year, to show us some of the sights in Istanbul that tourists don’t always see. While we were on the Odyssey, we met Dan and Debbie Barrett who were also staying in Istanbul. We were happy to share the day with them as well.
Our little group left the hotel shortly after eight. Patricia and I returned just after six and every moment in between was busy. Among other things, we learned how to use local transportation. We were on the tram, on buses, a couple of ferries, and a local boat for a short trip. Here is a travel tip for those of you who will come to Istanbul: don’t ride the tram at 5:15 on a weekday afternoon. Even Can could not believe the crowding. I have read about how commuters in Japanese trains are packed in, but we were packed in like sardines in a tin. That part of the travel was not fun. We also at least doubled our Turkish vocabularies during the day.
Our first stop was the Süleymaniye Mosque. It was built between 1550 and 1558 by Süleyman the Magnificent (and his architect Sinan). He wanted this Mosque to be bigger/better than Solomon’s temple (which was replaced by the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem which I was fortunate enough to see) and the Aya Sofya, built by the emperor Justinian. I can’t really compare, but the mosque was truly impressive. At one time the complex had more than 1,000 domes because in addition to the mosque there was a hospital, housing for the poor, kitchens, and much else. The mosque is on the third hill of Istanbul and is the highest in the city—even though the Hagia Sophia’s dome is further from the floor and larger in diameter. It was good to have Can with us because in addition to giving us basic information about the mosque, he was happy to tell us the backgrounds of the major players and to answer the many questions we had. Since we had no timetable we were able to spend a good bit of time there.
We next went to Maiden’s Tower which is on a small island in the Golden Horn. There have been structures here since at least the 5th century B.C. Now it is owned by a restaurant. Getting there involved a ride on the tram, a ferry ride to the European side, and a short (200 yards) ride on a small boat. We climbed the winding stairs to get to the outside balcony and had great views in all directions. We could see many of the familiar sights from a unique perspective. I took a while walking around the balcony and it turned out poorly because it bounced with each step I took. One legend about the name is that a Sultan received a prophecy that his beloved daughter would die on her 18th birthday so he built the tower to protect her. On her 18th birthday he took her a basket of fruit to celebrate. An asp had hidden in the basket and when she reached in she was bitten and died.
Back to the Asian side… We took the tram across the Galata bridge and got off near the spice market. Can had told us that we were going to eat lunch like the locals did and he meant it. Just west of the bridge there is an area famous for its “fish bread.” We would probably say “fish sandwich.” Almost no tourists were to be seen. It was really crowded and noisy with people queuing up to order their fish bread from the boats anchored there. There were vendors walking around with soft drinks and fruit juices. Others were selling pickled vegetables. The eating arrangements were simple: tiny wooden tables about 2 feet high and small stools no higher. I think that eating fish bread will be something that is better remembered or heard about than experienced.
After lunch we walked across the Galata Bridge and began the long uphill trek to the Galata Tower. That tower, which is about 200 feet high, was built in 1348 by the Genoese and served as a watchtower for many years. For a long time it was the highest point in the city. Can, Dan, and I went to the top, but we took the modern elevator. If the view from Maiden’s Tower was impressive, the view from here was spectacular! [How often do I use exclamation points?] It was a clear day with no overcast or haze and we could see for miles. I have posted some pictures that may give you some idea of what things looked like from this vantage point.
More uphill walking took us through one of the many shopping districts. We bought some Turkish candy for snacks. Many of the shopping districts have a “theme” to them, a carryover from a long time ago. We have seen areas that specialize in textiles, in ceramics, in buttons and zippers, in books, and several other things. On this part of our walk we saw many stores that specialize in things related to music. There were at least 2 stores that stocked only cymbals and others that had only violins/fiddles (I don’t know the difference) and others that had sound systems and still others with only sheet music. We were headed for Taksim square and with only a few detours for window shopping and a short stop at Sent Antuan (St Anthony of Padua) Catholic church we made it. The church is Italian and has Italian priests. In the forecourt is a statue of Pope John XXIII with a dove. St Anthony is the patron of animals. [I have been to the St Anthony Church in Padua, so it was a interesting to find one here.]
Taksim Square is something like Times Square, Tahrir Square (in Cairo) and Syntagma Square rolled up together. The center of the square contains a monument to the revolution that created modern Turkey just after World War I. Today large social gatherings and protests take place here. On the way to the square we saw many old retired men peacefully protesting cuts in their pensions. The crowds on the way to Taksim along the Tünel train tracks were moderately heavy but we did not feel all that crushed. We wandered for a while and then Dan and Debbie headed off to their hotel, which was in walking distance from Taksim. Can accompanied us on the modern funicular (there is an older one that has been in service since 1875) so we could get the tram back to Sultanhamet Square. The less said about that last leg, the better.
We were out for a long time, saw many sights, and enjoyed our time with Can and Dan and Debbie. Our first two days back in Istanbul have been everything we could have hoped for.