We got an early start and headed straight for Sultanahmet, the 'Old Istanbul' section of the city, a UNESCO World Heritage site famous for the 1,400 year old Aya Sofya (Haghia Sophia) and the dominant and exquisite Blue Mosque.
After the fall of Byzantium, Hagia Sophia was converted into an Ottoman mosque but today it's a monument that serves both Muslims and Christians. We're told that the massive dome was/is the inspiration for the design of many Islamic mosques around the world.
Before entering the Blue Mosque we passed the Hippodrome, an old stadium that has little remaining aside from a string of monuments. We were drawn to the large Egyptian Obelisk that dominates the popular strip. Normally any ancient Egyptian Obelisk would be a treat to witness, but this one was special. This one was taken (or stolen, you decide) from the temple of Karnak in Luxor, Egypt.
We had just been to Karnak less than a month ago. We saw the exact spot that the obelisk was taken, leaving a noticeable gap in the temple's design. It was fascinating to actually stand in front of such a controversial relic after learning about the 'other side of the story' only weeks earlier.
We approached the Blue Mosque with butterflies in our stomach. Visiting the iconic mosque was one of our reasons for adding Istanbul to the list. It did not disappoint.
The mosque is still in use for Muslims which added to the surreal experience. We entered the gigantic mosque and were instantaneously speechless. There is something so amazing and spiritual about the Blue Mosque, something indescribable. It was quiet, even though the small tourist section had over 150 enthusiastic visitors snapping photos. It seemed everyone was in a similar state of admiration and wonder. Older women pilgrims were in the back of the oversized room praying while Muslim men were on hands and knees praying in the spacious centre of the mosque. It was a very cool moment that kept our 'Istanbul smile' glowing.
Once we exited the Blue Mosque and entered the park that separates the two goliaths we were greeted with a booming call to prayer. Our timing couldn't have been more perfect. Now we've heard the Muslim call to prayer countless times before during our travels through the Middle East, but this one was without a doubt our most memorable.
Imagine being surrounded by 100 huge microphones turned on full blast with you standing in the middle. We couldn't even hear our own voices! Aya Sofya sang, the Blue Mosque echoed in response, neighbouring mosques chimed in the background to let the big guys know that they were still present. We sat on a park bench in front of a picturesque water fountain and soaked it all up… it was awesome.
There is so much to see in Sultanahmet that we ended up going back several times during our stay in Istanbul, and it still wasn't enough!
Enter the Bazaar Quarter. The world renowned Grand Bazaar was the biggest we've ever encountered… much bigger than the impressive shopping bazaars in Bangkok. I don't know if there is a bigger bazaar in the world? The archaic shopping centre is home to over 4,000 shops and the labyrinth spreads over several kilometers.
Getting lost in the claustrophobic maze is definitely part of the experience!
We purchased with discipline because the prices weren't as cheap as you'd expect - but I guess that's all relative to one's budget. After our shopping expedition we had new perfume and cologne, Nike shoes, handmade scarves, small decorative bowls and a souvenir shisha pipe to add to our backpacks.
Of course, before we finished our Middle East segment we had to treat ourselves to a shisha while in Turkey. We wanted more of an experience rather than a water pipe fix, so we asked a local where to go. He referred us to a traditional café that was popular with the locals and only a few blocks away.
We took the man's advice and got exactly what we were looking for. The old stone building had beautiful carpets on the walls and colorful Turkish lamps hanging in every corner. It was full of business men having their evening smoke, everyone was drinking hot tea from tiny glasses, and the 'kitchen' was a line of fireplaces burning coal for the many decorative water pipes. It was perfect!
We sat smoking and drinking bitter tea while a man frequently replaced our coals to ensure optimal heat. The tobacco was quite flavourful but packed a punch, it was much stronger than the shisha in Jordan or Egypt. It seemed to burn forever. In fact, we actually had to leave it before it was finished. We left the café a little light-headed and decided that was to be our last shisha. We agreed to leave our new addiction where it belonged - in the Middle East.
We spent a sunny and chilly afternoon on a boat cruise of the Bosphorus Straight. The tour took us up and down the legendary river under the iconic Bosphorus suspension bridge and back to Old Istanbul. It was a fantastic way to see the city's many celebrated palaces, fortresses and mosques.
It was a very cool experience to be in the waters that separate Europe and Asia. As the boat puttered up the river we looked over one shoulder and saw Europe. Then we turned our head over the opposite shoulder and looked at Asia… how amazing is that?
Another afternoon had us exploring Seraglio Point and the City Palace Gardens. We walked along the seawall around the peninsula from Sultanahment past Seraglio Point to the Galata Bridge at Eminonu. It was a great way to burn an afternoon and breathe in the fresh seaside air.
A favorite pastime for Turkish men (at least in Istanbul) is to hang out with friends and fish the Bosphorus while drinking Efes beer - although we never saw anyone catch anything larger than 8 inches. Ironically we ate freshly grilled fish sandwiches at the pier and the fish was no bigger than 8 inches?
On our final night in Istanbul we were treated to an evening out by Onur's uncle, who happened to be in town on business. We went back to the Taksim/Istiklal Cad part of town once again where all the action is. We enthusiastically drank two bottles of Raki, the popular anise-flavoured spirit that tastes like the popular Greek alcohol called Ouzo (but we won't comment on which country is the originator!). We were serenaded with traditional Turkish songs while we sat outdoors and sampled several mezze and seafood dishes.
It was a fitting way to end a fantastic, fun-filled week in an extraordinary city!
After almost a week in Istanbul we knew that it was time to move on but we had some tough decisions to make. Turkey is so big with so much to see and do.
Should we stay in Turkey longer and explore the interior? Should we go south and hit the pristine coastline, then backtrack through Istanbul on our way into Europe? What was going to give us the best 'bang for our buck'?
Our original plan was to explore the Aegean and Mediterranean coasts of Turkey, but in November it's just too cold and windy, making our decision pretty easy. Fortunately we had already visited the Greek Islands a few months prior when the weather was much better. We chose to leave Turkey early and venture into Bulgaria instead. Logistically and economically it made the most sense.
So with that, we boarded a long overnight bus at the overwhelmingly large Otogar (International Bus Terminal). Our next destination was to be the small Bulgarian seaside city of Varna.
November 13th, 2009