Friday, December 20
We arrived in Istanbul Thursday evening. Our flight was on time--more or less--and we met up with Linda and Larry for the ride from the airport to the hotel. The Sirkeci Konak is in a very good location and is close to many of the places we will visit. We took a short walk last night and found a restaurant close by.
Today, after a leisurely breakfast, we walked in the Sultanhamet area of the old city. We passed by many of the sites that Patricia and I remember well. I was pleased that I felt comfortable walking in the sense that I always thought I knew where I was and that I could get where I intended to go. We will do more in-depth visits to some places in succeeding days when Wendy is here. I had hoped against hope that all the stores would be closed, but Patricia and Linda found plenty of open stores.
There are many fewer tourists--or at least smaller crowds--than other times when we have visited. The downside to that is that all of the people selling guide books and trips and guide services have fewer people to prey upon so we had to say "hayir" (no) a lot. I tried to learn some other Turkish for this trip and I have been using the little bit I did learn with some success. People seem to be quite willing to correct my pronunciation. One person told me that I said "Yeni Cami" just like a Turkish person, which pleased me.
The weather is moderately cool during the day but will be around 32 degrees (0 C) at night. We are situated just outside Gulhane park and our room overlooks the park and many trees with stork nests--and storks.
I am trying to do this post using only my iPad so I am not 100% sure how it will look when I finish. There are a few pictures in the gallery at the bottom of the page. Rather than doing one post per day, I will just add to this post when I have time, so remember to scroll down to see if there is anything new.
Saturday, December 21st
We went on a nice tour along with the manager of our hotel, Okay. (pronounced "O-kie") He took us to an old hamam near the Constantine column, and then down Mahmutpaşa street. This street is much visited by local people who are shopping for clothes, textiles, jewelry, and so on. It was really busy. Okay introduced us to the idea of a "han." He calls them "inns" but we would call them a combination of RV park, flea market, and small businesses. None of that, of course, comes close to what a han really is. They were places where traders (sometimes in caravans) could rest. They would set up small businesses and each one had its own set of behavior rules and security forces. The first one we stopped at is called the Çuhacı Han. İt is associated with jewelry and metal processing. We visited a small shop where the only thing the owner did was melt pieces of gold and silver. Someone would bring him a piece of metal and once he weighed it, he melted it into either a small ingot or lump and then he would perhaps do a bit of shaping or turn the gold or silver into a wire. His oven was heated with coke and could easily reach the temperatures needed to melt gold and silver.
We then visited another shop where all they do is set tiny diamonds and other small stones into jewelry pieces. Both shops were very interesting and the 5 of us learned a great deal. We were treated very well and the owners were happy to answer questions. The owner of the stone-setting shop learned that I was working on Turkish and started to quiz me. I failed badly, but it was done in the best of humor. [People have treated my efforts very nicely and have been happy to help me improve. This morning, at about 10:00, I said gunayden (good morning!) to a shopkeeper and he just roared with laughter. I asked was my pronunciation so bad? No, he said, morning is gone. When I replied Iyi gunlar (sort of like have a nice day) I got a thumbs up.]
We next went to the Kurkcu Han which used to be for furriers, but is now associated with textiles and yarn. There were lots of kinds of yarn there. This small area is reputed to have the best yarn, towels, curtains, and underware. "Best" doesn't mean best, it means best combination of low prices and middling quality.
We finished the tour at Rüstem Paşa mosque. This relatively small mosque is wonderfully decorated with a variety of authentic Iznik tiles and to my mind is perhaps the most beautiful of the mosques we have visited.
We ate an indifferent lunch at a small, local, restaurant. Okay recommended it and it met his goal of getting us to see where/how local people ate. The consensus was that it was not too good, but lunch was still enjoyable.
We walked back to the hotel just in time for tea in the lobby. It was a very good day.
Sunday, December 22nd
On Sunday we managed to visit several important sites on our lists.
We started out with a couple of local shops. [Well, they were on Patricia's and Linda's lists, anyway.] Leaving with only light burdens, we walked to the Aya Sofya (Hagia Sophia) and spent quite a bit of time exploring it. At the moment, there is a great deal of restoration going on and at first I was disappointed because I thought all of the scaffolding inside would make it difficult to appreciate this museum. I was wrong. The scaffolding is now an important part of the pictures I took.
After lunch we visited the cisterns (created by the Romans to provide a steady water supply). The cisterns are underground and one might think they would be dank and unpleasant, but we really like to visit them. I think I finally got some pictures the begin to do some justice to this cavernous space. Linda, Larry, and Wendy seemed to like them as well.
After a little bit more shopping, we visited the Blue Mosque. Even though we have seen it quite a few times, we always go back. From its sheer size, both outside and inside, to the way the light inside creates interesting spaces to the blue Iznik tiles that give it its name, to the crowds of people, both visitors and worshipers, it never gets old to us. It was moderately cloudy this afternoon and taking pictures inside was a challenge. Fortunately, my camera gives me lots of tools to work with and I am generally pleased with the results. I think that Wendy and Larry took lots of pictures too, but I haven't seen them yet.
After a final round of shopping, we returned in time for tea.
Our hotel is in a good location: we were able to find a good restaurant only 150 yards or so away. It's a good thing, too. Despite the official temperature being 49 to 50 today, with the wind, to felt like the middle 30s after the sun went down.
Monday, December 23
The weather is still cool. Early this morning we had some fog. It made the trees in Gulhane park look ghostly. I posted one of the pictures of the trees in the fog.
Larry, Wendy, and I visited Topkapi Palace in the morning. Linda and Patricia went off to visit some shops and to do some other exploring. By the time we got to the palace, the weather had pretty much cleared up and it was quite sunny but still a little bit cold. [the online weather has consistently said anywhere from 45 to 50, but we think that it is closer to 40 during the day. Could it be that the "official" temperature is deliberately taken in a warmer place?]
The crowds at the palace weren't as large as the last time Patricia and I visited, but it was still busy. It was easy to move around on the grounds, but some of the exhibit rooms were crowded. I didn't remember it, but no pictures of any kind are allowed in the exhibit rooms. That's too bad because some of the clothes, jewels, furniture, and other treasures are interesting and spectacular. The sacred treasures exhibit has a number of artifacts (for lack of a better term) which are important to Islam and that room clearly draws a lot of attention.
The grounds of the palace are extensive and well-maintained. Wendy and I walked down to a place where we could see a panoramic view of the city. I remember the first time Patricia and I were here and did the same thing. I wanted to re-visit a building we saw on our first trip but could not find it. We found one that was similar, but, unless they relocated the one I was searching for, it was in the wrong place. I guess that means I will have to come back.
We met at the hotel and walked (15 minutes or so) down to the ferry terminal and took a two-hour tour of the Bosphorus. There were some announcements about what we were seeing, but they were unintelligible--or in Turkish. It didn't make any difference. What we were seeing did not need an explanation for the most part. The weather cooperated wonderfully. It was bright and sunny but still not warm. The ferry was not too crowded and we were able to move around to get the best views. Seagulls trailed the ferry most of the way out and back.
Patricia took another cooking class put on by the hotel when we got back. Linda and Larry went out to dinner with the mother of a colleague.
We are running out of time on the trip and there is still so much more to see and do. I think all of us really like the city.
Tuesday, December 24 (Christmas Eve)
It is Christmas Eve, but you would not know it here. There are no frantic shoppers, no invasive Christmas music, and, while there are some Christmas decorations in some places, no overwhelming displays. In fact, once one gets off the main streets and into the real shopping areas, there are few signs of Christmas at all.
It was pretty cool this morning. The reported temperature was 36 degrees but it felt a little bit cooler. The sky, for most of the day, was bright blue. [You'll see it in the pictures.]
We walked to the Spice Market where Linda, Larry, Patricia, and Wendy spent an hour looking and buying. While they did that, I explored how to get to the Süllemaniye Cami (mosque) complex. The Spice Market area was much less busy than when we were there on Saturday. It was much easier to walk around. The vendors used all their ploys to separate the shoppers from their money, but I think they weren't too successful with our group.
We trekked upward and southwestward (is that a word) for about 20 minutes to get to the Süleymaniye Mosque which was built by the architect Sinan for Süleyman the Magnificent starting in 1550 (little known fact: Sinan lived to be 98). It is built on one of the tallest hills in Istanbul. I find this mosque to be one of the most beautiful we have seen. It isn't really fair to compare sites like the mosques, but this one has a special feel to it that is in some ways like the Ruştan Paşa mosque. Take a look at the pictures and see for yourself.
We are getting pretty good at navigating now and with only a little bit of electronic help we got back to the hotel and dropped off the shopping bags before heading out to lunch. The hotel recommended a place called Red River, which is named after the John Wayne movie and whose walls are covered with movie posters and stills from various American westerns. The food, however, was definitely Turkish. We had a very good lunch.
After lunch Linda and Patrica headed off for [still more] shopping while Larry, Wendy, and I went to the Archaeological Museum. Our hotel is so well located that it was a short walk to the museum and our museum passes allowed us to simply walk around the ticket queue. The museum is undergoing a lot of repair work [they say it is being "restorated"] and I wasn't sure what we would see. It turned out very well--at least for me. We spent a coupe of hours there looking at sarcophagi, finds from the many levels at Troy, early Bronze Age artifacts, artifacts from the history of Istanbul (including part of the chain that once protected the Golden Horn), and a few of the statues I had seen on a previous visit. There was also a special exhibit of copies of mosaics from the basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy. The mosaics are Byzantine in style and I presume that is why they are on display at the Istanbul museum.
We are going to have our Christmas Eve dinner here in the hotel.
Wednesday, December 25th (Christmas)
Our Christmas Eve dinner in the hotel was very good. It was so good that we changed our plans for our Christmas meal so that we could eat here again.
On Christmas the weather was the best it had been up to this point. The sky was bright blue and the temperature was within shouting distance of 50 degrees.
Our hotel had arranged another tour for us. [Remember that December 25 is pretty much just another day here.] Our guide, Okay Alkan, works at the hotel and led us on our previous tour. This time the title of the tour was "A taste of life style on the Golden Horn" and it lived up to its name. We started out near the Fatih Mosque (the Mehmed II (the Conqueror). As it happens, that is close to the place where Okay was raised. He pointed out to us that on one side of the street (Fevzi Paşa Caddesi) most people are liberals and on the other, most are conservatives. We walked to the Fatih (which is a district) mosque but did not look inside. Instead, we looked at the Tomb of Mehmed II, which was quite impressive. We had a good discussion about Islam with Okay there.
From the tomb we walked to the nearby Wednesday Market which is called that because (surprise) it is held on Wednesday. This market was a combination of a farmer's market and a dollar store. It is the neighborhood market for fresh fruit, some fish, vegetables, and lots of low-cost clothing, household products, and so on. Okay is well-known there and we had a good time going from stall to stall talking to the vendors. They were happy to tell us about their fish, olives, meat, medicinal teas and everything else. From time to time Okay would mention that I was learning Turkish and I would be tested--in good humor--and educated. I've said it before, but I will always remember how nice people were to me as I practiced with them.
We had a nice exchange at the "political corner" where the men wanted to know what we thought about Turkey, the current corruption probe, and prime minister Erdoğan. Then we got to ask them questions. Most of this was done in Turkish with me tossing in my 2-cents worth of Turkish from time to time.
We walked from the market to the Sultan Selim mosque. From there one can see the Golden Horn, the Asian side of the city, and several of the other hills in Istanbul. We were able to see the Suleymaniye mosque, the Blue Mosque, and the Hagia Sophia easily. Where we stood in the mosque's garden let us look at the old Greek section of Istanbul. A lot of the Greeks left/were driven out in the 1950s.
As we left the mosque we stopped at a bakery that specializes in the production of simit. Simit, which is a round bread with a hole in the middle and which is covered with sesame seeds, is sold all over from small carts. The price (for the standard version) is fixed at one TL--about 50 cents. The bakery was interesting. The human-powered production system creates about 4000 simit pieces a day. We all came away with a piece of simit which we munched on the way.
As we walked downhill through Fener (Phanar) section, we saw lots of abandoned houses. The ownership of some of the houses is in dispute decades after the original owners left. In this district is a beautiful Greek Orthodox school with an architecture that seems to be on the scale of a large mosque.
We ended up at the church of Saint George. This Orthodox Church is pretty small, but the decorations/fittings inside were very impressive. One wall (I'd call it the altar wall) was about 60 feet long and 15 to 18 feet high and was covered in intricate gold-leaf decorations. We got a short overview of the history of the Christian church in Istanbul.
After we returned to the hotel, both Larry and Patricia got massages in the hotel's hamam.
Linda, Larry, and Wendy came to our room for snacks and the Christmas present exchange. Patricia had made the room look festive and we had Christmas music and a fake crackling fire on the iPad. We had been able to speak with Kate and Tevya so we were pretty happy with our Christmas.
We had an excellent dinner at the Neyzade restaurant in the hotel.
Thursday, December 26th.
Linda, Larry, and Wendy left shortly after breakfast for their flight to Washington, D.C.
Patricia and I did some last-day shopping and looking. We first went to the Spice Market to pick up some spices and treats to bring home. It may be a bad sign that several of the shopkeepers remembered Patricia.
On the way back to the hotel to drop off our acquisitions, I took a quick look at the Yeni Camii (the New Mosque) which is located right next to the Spice Market. I'm not an expert, and I am certainly not jaded, but I have noticed that many of the mosques of the period look very similar.
We spent a very nice hour at the Classic Iznik store, which Linda recommended to us. We saw some very nice ceramic pieces and learned a great deal.
Patricia then spent some time just sitting near the fountain between the Blue Mosque and the Aya Sofya while I prepared and posted another batch of pictures and started to write up the last couple of days.
Later in the afternoon the hotel put on a small wine tasting program for us. For well over an hour we learned about Turkish wines and cheeses. We asked lots of questions and came away with a lot of information.
I cannot say enough about how well treated we were at the Sirkeci Konak hotel. From the quality of the room to all of the nice people everything was first rate.
After a quiet dinner, we finished packing so we will be ready--if not happy--to head home tomorrow.