31 May 2012

Impressions of Istanbul 3: from shopping to sights

On our first day we lunched at one of the many restaurants on the lower level of the Galata bridge, then crossed over to the other side where we found a street full of shops selling boat stuff. Here we made our first observation of two features peculiar to shops in Istanbul: extreme specialisation and clustering. Shops here sold just rope, or just paint, or just nuts and bolts. No equivalent of a chandlery selling everything, yet every shop in the street sold something related to boats. Later we found ourselves in other equally specialised areas: a street in which all the shops sold some kind of fasteners: several shops selling nothing but buttons, several more selling eyelets, one selling zips. A jewellery street with more than one shop selling nothing but gold bangles, not a ring, not a necklace. As our hotel room contained the world's smallest cupboard with but a single wire coathanger, we were on the hunt for some plastic hangers. We enquired in a couple of shops that sold plastic items, but without success. I told Peter that sooner or later we would find the shop that just sold coathangers, and we did, although it was a street stall rather than a shop. The ultimate in specialisation and clustering is the Spice Bazaar, which contains hundreds of shops that sell one of three things: spices, tea, or Turkish sweets and dried fruits. The smell is just wonderful. The other major shopping experience in Istanbul is the Grand Bazaar, with about 4000 shops selling Turkish ceramics, pashminas and scarves, leather goods, jewellery, and the ubiquitous Turkish carpets. Stunning to walk through and look at, but nothing we wanted to burden ourselves with for the remaining eleven weeks of our holiday. Our big purchase that day, apart from the coathangers, was a Turkish made cotton nightie for about $9. Last of the big spenders, me.

We may not have done the tourist thing by buying something at the Grand Bazaar, but we did go there and to pretty much all the Sights with a capital S: Haghia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, the Topkapi Palace, etc. Most memorable and favourites include:
"Little Haghia Sophia", aka the church of SS Sergius and Bacchus. This little gem is contemporary with its big sister, but in better condition. Its beautiful proportions are slightly marred by the off-centre mihrab and correspondingly slanted prayer lines put in when it was converted into a mosque, which give it a slightly cockeyed look.
The library at Topkapi Palace, a small stand alone building with comfortable couch-lined recesses on three sides, entrance on the fourth side, with cupboards to hold the books in between. Like everything else from the Ottoman period the interior is clad in beautiful blue tiles. Despite the absence of books, it had that lovely restful feeling that good libraries have.
The Blue Mosque which wins the prize for biggest and best blue tile display. After it and the Harem at Topkapi even Peter who really likes blue as a colour for interior decoration felt that he had had enough, was perhaps "beyond blue".
Roman civil engineering of waterworks, notably the aqueduct of Valens, quite a bit of which still stands, including a section spanning the multi-lane Ataturk Boulevard, and the aqueduct's destination, the Basilica Cistern, a vast underwater cavern with supporting columns throughout, one of many city reservoirs. Down there it is cool, slightly drippy, with floodlights at the foot of each column bathing the whole place in an eerie glow. The water is quite shallow, but there are fish swimming about in it. We also saw men in waders wielding huge brooms to move the fine silt collecting on the floor of the basin.
The city walls, built by the Byzantine emperor Theodosius. These stretch from the Bosphorus to the Golden Horn. Big chunks have been reconstructed, but quite a bit is still original. We found a place where you could climb up on to the wall, and from thence to one of the watchtowers via three flights of stairs. All three flights were scary, but the middle flight was straight up, about as steep as Nahani's companionway, but with no rail of any kind and with some of the stone steps broken away. But we made it with due care, and the view from the top of the tower was spectacular. Coming down the middle flight of steps was even hairier than going up, definitely requiring one to go down backwards, clinging to the steps with your hands, feeling for the broken steps with your feet before transferring weight, rather like rock climbing. We were very relieved when we were both safely down.
We spent a whole day at the Archeological Museum, which has an enormous and fascinating collection of antiquities from various archeological excavations in Turkey. In addition to the amazing content, it also has the attraction of not being on the standard tourist bus and cruise liner itinerary, so no queuing to get in and it was comparatively empty. It was also cheap, a mere 10TL compared to 25TL for the palace and Haghia Sophia. We didn't even mind having to pay the entrance fee twice as there is no functioning museum cafe so we had to go out for lunch and come in again. The story of the key player in the establishment of the collection is as interesting as the heritage he has left. He was a pub serv who found himself in charge of the old museum when it was a "messy pile". He seems to have then single-handedly organised the existing collection properly, got new buildings built, organised excavations to add to the collection, and had a law passed forbidding the removal of historic items found in Turkey, stopping the wholesale pillaging of historic sites that had preceded this.
Our last treat was a visit to the Pera Palace Hotel. Built especially for the travellers on the Orient Express, it still contains the sedan chair used to carry passengers from the station, and one of the first lifts installed in a hotel. After enjoying tea, coffee and a delicious muffin served in fine bone china with real silver in the patisserie, we used a trip to the loos to look into the lounge, dining room, bar and the appropriately named Agatha's restaurant, and soak up more of the 1920s atmosphere.
All in all we loved Istanbul, even if our feet and knees suffered from all the walking and stair climbing (four flights every day in our hotel).

27 May 2012

Impressions of Istanbul 2: from cars to carpets and cats

We think locals must be discouraged from bringing vehicles into the old part of the city, as most of those we saw were minibuses or delivery vans. There are some "otoparks" with private cars in them, but you could walk in the side streets for much of the time without danger of being run down. Locals tell you the traffic is mad, but we thought that it was less stressful than (say) Rome or Paris. And they seem to have banned motorbikes and scooters from the city, removing another major hazard for the unwary pedestrian crossing the road looking the wrong way. The only difficulty is getting across major roads, especially if they are multilane. Traffic lights are few and far between, and pedestrian crossings seem to serve no purpose, except perhaps to give your grieving relatives the right to sue after you've been run down on one. Drivers certainly don't stop, even if you are half way across. A driver who did stop for us was honked at by the cars behind. They haven't banned horns here yet so everyone toots every other vehicle that might possibly obstruct them, and they honk continuously in traffic jams to give themselves something to do.
The natives are very friendly and helpful, sometimes almost too much so. You get into a conversation with someone who asks where you are from and then tells you he has a cousin/brother/uncle in Australia, but then you discover that he wants to sell you something, usually a Turkish carpet. There are carpet shops everywhere, and many of the carpets are so beautiful you want to stop and look, especially at the silk ones. But if you do, you then have to deal with very persistent salesmen who want you to come in to the shop and look at more. We found a defence against their persistence - we tell them we live on a boat. Even then they are likely to tell us that they have some very small rugs, but by then it is a bit of a game and we can usually get away without having to be rude. We did get taken in by a very friendly and helpful shoeshine man when we were just off the plane, lugging our bags from the tram stop in search of our hotel, a bit jetlgged and not yet really across the value of the Turkish lira relative to our dollar. We realised later we had the world's most expensively cleaned shoes, having paid about $50. No wonder he insisted on kissing our hands as we went on our way, we probably kept his entire Kurdish village for a month.
As tourists we always walk much more than we would at home, but in Istanbul you are just doing as the Istanbullus do. Not only do they obviously walk a lot (tram, bus and metro stops are a long way apart), but they carry heavy loads, usually in plastic garbage bags, or they push them on handcarts. Streets are very clean: cleaners pull trolleys with huge rubbish bags into which they put the litter they collect. Perhaps as a result of all this walking we've seen very few overweight locals: men in particular are largely slim and good-looking. Having watched a whole service in a mosque, it is not surprising that the men are fit-looking: I couldn't possibly get down on my knees and up again without putting a hand to the ground as they do, and they do it a couple of dozen times each time they go to pray. Another aid to keeping fit is the presence of sets of ruggedised, non-electronic exercise machines in public parks, alongside the kids play area with the usual swings and slides. One image that I wasn't quick enough to capture on camera, but which stays in the mind nevertheless, is of a Muslim woman in headscarf and overcoat working away on the walking machine.
The other natives you see in the streets everywhere are cats. Cats prowl around the outdoor restaurants, sleep on ancient monuments, in pot plants, on carpets outside the carpet shops. Our Ephesus guide told us that the Turks rarely own cats, but like them. So the cats live on the streets, but are fed and and to some extent looked after by people in the area. It seems neither sex is neutered, so mother cats and kittens were a common sight. As we were heading out to look for places to eat on our second evening, we saw a dog being chased by a very aggressive cat, a mother protecting her five kittens, for whom home was a rug in the window of a carpet shop. We immediately decided to eat at the Aloran restaurant next door where we could watch the kittens feed and play and mother make the occasional foray back into the street to see off another dog or cat. She was unusual in that she was owned by the carpet shop man, who told us he had brought her with him from his home town in Van, in the Kurdish far west of Turkey.
Aloran proved to be a good restaurant and very reasonably priced, so we ate there each evening. Menus don't vary much from restaurant to restaurant, but we really enjoyed all the dishes we tried. Turkey would be a vegetarian's paradise because so many of the tastiest dishes are an interesting presentation of vegetables: spinach, peppers, potatoes, seaweed, eggplant, tomatoes, beans, chickpeas, and salads. The last are especially delicious because they put liberal amounts of fresh herbs in, parsley, dill and lots of mint. At the end of our week we were best friends with all the waiters and they gave me a Turkish "eye" charm as a thankyou because I put a favourable report up on TripAdvisor.

Impressions of Istanbul 1: from boats to burkas and buses

For us, the first and lasting impression of Istanbul is of a city on the water, a busy port with hundreds of ships lying at anchor in the Sea of Marmara on the south side an dozens of ferries flying back and forth across the Golden Horn on the north side. There are lots of small and large fishing boats in the surrounding waters but no yachts - unsurprising when you learn that the Bosphorus has a constant 6kt current running out of the Black Sea. There are also people fishing everywhere, off the Galata bridge, off the rocks around Seraglio Point and any other accessible piece of shore line.
Non-boaties would be more likely to think of the skyline of mosque domes and minarets as the most characteristic image of the city. Our hotel was perfectly positioned between the Blue Mosque and Haghia Sophia. From our room and balcony we looked out on the latter, from the breakfast room and roof garden we had a wonderful view of both, especially at night with all the lights of Istanbul behind.
Istanbul is definitely an Islamic city - our sleep was disturbed at about 4:30 each morning by the competing calls of the muezzin from the three mosques within earshot. More than half the women you see are wearing modest Muslim dress. Many of those wearing western dress are obvious tourists, so it is difficult to judge how many Turkish women are wearing western dress. Women wearing Muslim dress vary from a very few fully covered in black enveloping garment and long black headscarf. Even fewer wear a veil so that only their eyes show - more of those in black just have their headscarf pinned together to cover their mouths. The most common dress by far is a head scarf and overcoat, even on a warm day. Coats vary from shapeless and drab to smart and belted, in black or navy. Young women's coats often have some individuality, interesting fastenings, or some muted decoration on cuff or collar, or some other colour rather than black or blue, deep indigo seems to be popular. They are always at least knee length, usually calf or ankle, worn over pants or a long skirt, so no flesh shows anywhere. If the 1960s maxi comes back in, the coats will be high fashion. Headscarves are carefully worn so that no hair shows, but are pretty, patterned and coloured, even on the older women. I have some trouble reconciling these modest outfits with bridal outfitter shops full of "meringue" dresses, not just in white but every colour from pink to purple. There seem to be far too many of them just to be catering for the non-Muslim female population of marriageable age. Then I saw a young girl waiting on a tram stop wearing a kind of hybrid outfit: a long white overcoat that had about 10 layers of frills from the waist down - a Muslim meringue?
Speaking of tramstops, the public transport system in Istanbul is excellent. There is a metro and light rail using a common ticketing system of plastic tokens that allow you through a turnstile onto the station or tram stop. A token costs about a dollar, and pays for one trip. Other passengers offer assistance if you look as though you are lost or confused. There are also public ferries going back and forth across the Golden Horn and the Bosphorus. They travel very fast and there are so many of them buzzing back and forth that you expect to see a collision at any moment. We went on the tourist ferry that goes all the way up the Bosphorus almost to the Black Sea, drops you off on the Asian side for lunch, then you reboard for the return trip. It was a nice break on our second day after we'd walked for hours on the first day. We used the light rail all the time, the metro on our first day to come in from the airport, and made two bus trips on our last day. Bus and ferry tickets are bought before boarding. Bus tickets are proximity cards which are charged up with whatever you request, and are probably rechargeable, but we didn't make enough trips to find out. It's all very simple and makes you wonder why we needed our myki mess.