Hagia Sophia ceiling
As I wrote in the previous post, we went to Istanbul two days after the airport bombings. We arrived at about 1am and had to go through customs in Istanbul. Parts of the airport were boarded up due to damage from the bombing. It was very sad and a little surreal but not a difficult border crossing. We had e-visas at the ready procured by DH in his new, proactive travel agent identity; since we are traveling so fast now we have become more organized in some ways! We stayed that short night in a hotel DH had booked near the airport.
Ferry on the Bosporus
When we woke up we were in Turkey! Istanbul! Wow!! We had an amazing Turkish breakfast with olives, bread, cheese, tea with sugar cubes, olive oil, and fruit. We couldn’t really afford this hotel and it was not close to the city sites so off we went to the downtown. A man at the hotel helped us figure out where to stay and how to get there, the first of many extremely helpful locals as we tried to negotiate a new city with very little English spoken and higher prices than other places we had been.
Kids & luggage on the ferry, sunset from our balcony, mosque next door
We stayed on the Asian side of the Bosporous, near the ferry station ‘Harem’. We had planned to stay near the sites in the Sultanahmet neighborhood on the European side but were advised against it since it is a tourist area and therefore considered more vulnerable to terrorist attacks. I’m not sure if that is why it seemed so deserted when we did go there; it was Ramadan and many people travel to family outside the cities so it may be slow this time of year anyway. We stayed in a hotel with a pool and due to the hotel and Istanbul in general being higher cost for us than usual, we spent a couple of days relaxing at the hotel and its surrounding streets rather than sight-seeing. Our hotel had a sauna with a marble shower area so we took advantage of that one day. The neighborhood reminded me of San Francisco with hilly streets, many row houses, and great views of the water. The weather was gorgeous- breezy, sunny, beautiful clouds. We ate fresh crusty bread, olives, cheese, stuffed grape leaves, perfectly ripened peaches. We had chicken kabobs one night, mostly because we were hungry and unable to discuss vegetarian options through the language barrier after several attempts. I tried the strong bitter Turkish coffee- I am not a coffee drinker so this is notable. I couldn’t really handle it but the tiramisu was great! Turkish delight was a big hit with some of us, though personally I am more of a baklava fan. We took the ferry from the Asian side to the European side several times, beautiful views and only about 30 minutes to cross onto the other continent!
I went on my own to the Archaeological Museum and the Blue Mosque one day while DH had computer work to do and the kids were recovering from our two days of hard traveling to get to Istanbul. The Museum was three buildings worth of artifacts from about 10,000 years of civilization in this area. One building was ceramics (pottery, tile work), one Asian (mummies, stone statues, hieroglyphics, documents on paper and stone), and the largest was European (Roman marble statues, prehistoric items, and a large sarcophagus section). I spent several happy hours there pondering the long history of people in this place and what they left behind. The Blue Mosque is one of many active mosques in the area, a highly visible one due to its large size and its location next to the Hagia Sophia. Despite the fact that I was wearing a floor-length skirt, I was handed a cover-up skirt upon entering, I believe it was because my skirt has a slit on the side. I had my own scarf, so I didn’t need one of their loaners. Shoes off and suitably covered, I entered the massive space and ogled the many domes above. Men were praying beyond a gated area. A lush carpet covered the floor. It was kind of noisy with all of the people praying, families hanging out, kids being kids. It reminded me of the mixing of holy and ordinary at the temples in Myanmar and Thailand, I think I even saw Muslims picnicking in the courtyard.
Above: Museum tiles, sculpture garden, sarcophagi. Below: outside and inside the blue mosque
I took the kids to see the Cisterns one day. This is a restored ancient underground water storage system from about 1800 years ago with many columns that had been repurposed from other buildings. It is atmospheric in an eerie way with dim lighting, dripping water, and large medusa heads on two columns as you walk over a lake of sorts (with fish!) on a raised platform. If you are a Harry Potter fan like we are, it is very similar to the underground scene with the basilisk in the first book. We also went to Gülhane Park, a large landscaped park near these sites. There were many patterned flower beds, statues, a view of the sea at one end, and many people enjoying the green grass and the breezes rustling the tree branches. The entrance us through an arched opening in a brick wall and also leads to the Archaeology museum and some cafes and other museums.
Our last day we went to the Hagia Sophia, built as a church in 537AD and serving as church, mosque, and museum with special importance in the Eastern Orthodox religion during the past 1500 years. Here in 2016, there was a line to get in, and the area in general seemed much more crowded than the previous days. We walked around the large building with its domes and balconies and mosaics. We loved going up the tunnel-like ramp to the upper floor where balconies overlook the main floor. Also we saw a cat near the altar who got a lot of love from many visitors.