Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Istanbul

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This was one of our first sights, after stepping off the metro tram that we took from Ataturk airport into Istanbul.  It was a great introduction to an incredible city.  We were staying on the Western or European side of the city where the Blue Mosque, the Hagia Sofia, and Topkapi Palace are. There was so much to see on that side that we never crossed the Bosphorus to the Eastern or Asian half of the city, or the Golden Horn to the middle/northern portion.  Although we happened to be there just as the Taksim Gezi Park protests were happening across the Golden Horn from us, the first (and only) indication we had of it were concerned questions from family and friends back home, asking if we were ok.  We had to Google for why we might not be.  The only danger we really faced was from the wonderful food.

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One of our favorite museums was the Tiled Pavilion, in the Istanbul Archaeology Museum complex.  There was nothing on display except the building itself, which was decorated with a wide variety of tile.

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Our hotel was the only disappointment in Istanbul. We stayed in some pretty sketchy places, but this was in the bottom three for the world.  It was our second bad experience with a hotel that was very well reviewed online (both had sewer gas leaking from the bathroom, which seems to be our breaking point).  After a standoff with the management (it helped to park ourselves and our luggage in the tiny, busy breakfast area—which doubled as the lobby—and catalog the problems out loud in front of the other guests). The owner took a look at our room, and then shrewdly asked for cash for the one night we stayed, which meant he could cancel our booking.com reservation, preventing us from leaving a bad review (we left one on Tripadvisor for fellow travelers, and he sent us a scathing email—not a great management move, from our perspective).  We’d already found a nicer, better hotel before breakfast, and so we took off with our luggage and headed directly over there to drop off our bags there so we could get on with actually seeing Istanbul.

The photo above is our view from the hotel's spacious breakfast balcony. Our new hotel was quite luxurious—for our standards—and was less expensive than the Eau D’sewer hotel. The internet worked in our room, which was almost as big an issue as the sewer gas at the previous hotel since we were spending four days in Istanbul.  We needed some downtime from the rapid pace of the previous five weeks, as well as some planning for the next week, which was a blank slate.  

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We visited the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, often called the Blue Mosque.  It was much larger than the mosque we’d visited at the Citadel in Cairo, though the architecture was similar.  It is an active mosque, but photography was permitted.  It was vast inside, and covered in decorated tiles.

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We walked across Sultan Ahmet Park, to the Hagia Sophia, which is also immense and beautiful, but in a very different way.

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A short walk up Sultan Ahmet Park took us to the Basilica Cistern, which was just one part of a large network of water storage for the old city, and is now a wonderful place to retreat from the afternoon heat, as it is cool and dim.  The columns and the vaulted ceiling have all been lit, and a few feet of water have been left in the bottom of the cistern, which reflects the lit elements in a neat Escher fashion.

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The builders recycled two older carved medusa heads for column bases.  One just happened to be the right height when on its side.

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After cooling off in the cistern, we headed over to the Grand Bazaar to get lost in its warrens. There is something very liberating about just absorbing a place, rather than fretting over what you should buy to preserve your experience.

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It was very common to see an emptied tea service set outside a shop; the tea vendor will return to pick up the empties later.

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The Bazaar was immense; we cheerfully got lost in it, wandering down narrow corridors, and through wider areas filled with goods.

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Entire sections were filled with spices and teas.

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We weren't shopping for anything, but it was fun to wander aimlessly, watching people haggling, and seeing the variety of things for sale.  Eventually we emerged outside again, and found ourselves near the post office, where a cat was snoozing on the cool steps, still in the shade.  From there, we wandered through some of the open street markets.    The area we were in was dominated by clothing shops.

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We also visited the Topkapi palace, which was beautiful and ostentatious.  It was the palace and residence of the Ottoman sultans, and housed as many as 4000 people.  Most of the pictures below are from the harem apartment complex, which we visited first thing in the morning, before the crowds arrived.

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On our way out we stopped to watch a preservationist restoring color to some tiles. Watching her delicate, detailed work on a single tile was stunning when you thought about how many tiles there were throughout the palace complex, and how well they had been preserved.