I ended Part One of my Istanbul post with a bit of history of the HAGIA SOPHIA. The inside is just as beautiful as the outside – as a matter of fact, it’s literally jaw-dropping!
After removing your shoes (how hundreds of people find where they left their shoes at the entrance when they are ready to leave is amazing!) you enter one of two huge areas. The immense space and size, height and light, art and sculptures take your breath away. You can’t help but stop dead in your tracks and marvel.
The area surrounding these historic landmarks, the Sultanahmet (Old City) is a bustling, ever-growing, crowded neighborhood filled with colorful homes, snack stands, restaurants, modern trams, and tempting window displays.
It was finally time for lunch. I think we were more than halfway through our 16,000 steps for the day and I was dragging! Bilge had filled my head with so many stories of the history of the Topkapi Palace and the Hagia Sophia, but her next one about the history of the Turkish meatballs really hit the spot!
We dined at ‘the original restaurant’ to make these traditional, rectangular, yummy meatballs made from a combination of lamb and pork. Served with a large roll that was crisp on the outside but doughy on the inside, you broke one in half, pulled out the doughy part and stuffed one or two or three meatballs inside, and slathered them with sauce. OMG! The ‘side’ was a white bean salad topped with carrot and lettuce and fresh-squeed lemon juice. The price of this lunch, with a Coca-Cola, was 68 Lira or $5.01. Worth every single penny!
After this delicious lunch, we are now off to the most disappointing stop of the day – The Blue Mosque – whose official name is the Sultan Ahmed Mosque.
And why was this stop, where we stood outdoors, in line with hundreds of others so disappointing? Because they are doing a major renovation of the mosque – both inside and out. The picture above is what it used to look like. Right now the entire place, except for the minarets, is wrapped in plastic wrap. The inside is as well. They have finished renovating just one of the domes but the rest of the mosque is filled with scaffolding and wrapped up tight.
There were several large posters of what the inside looked like before the renovation. Maybe when I return, it will once again look like this. I especially like the photo taken from the dome looking down at worshipers as they assume the sujud position in prayer. (Sujud means to prostrate. While in the prostration position ‘Glory be to God, the Most High’ is repeated three times. Palms, knees, toes, forehead, and nose must be the only body parts touching the ground.
I was gifted an English-language copy of The Quran during our visit to the Blue Mosque. It was totally unexpected and I plan to read and learn more about the Islamic religion.
After our short stay at the Blue Mosque, we walked nearby to the area known as the Hippodrome of Constantinople. This was a public arena mainly for chariot races. It was also home to gladiatorial games, official ceremonies, celebrations, protests, torture of convicts, and had a seating capacity of 40,000. The Hippodrome functioned in Roman (203-330 CE), Byzantine (330-1453 CE), and Ottoman (1453-1922) periods. Today it is a public square known as Sultanahmet Square. It remains the same dimensions as the original Hippodrome. (1,476 ft) long and 427 ft wide.)
Some of the original statuary still remains – the Serpent Column, the Obelisk of Theodosius, The Walled Obelisk, and the statue of Porphyrius the Charioteer. It was a time to sit on a bench in the sun and listen to Bilge as she tells me tales of Sultans long past, heroic and dastardly deeds, and I envision Ben-Hur type chariot races pounding around this massive space.
Next, we are off to look/shop for real Turkish carpets. Everyone asked me when I got home if I had purchased one and the answer was no! They were REALLY expensive. I have nothing against expensive as the workmanship is amazing. Each is hand-dyed wool or cotton and woven by a local woman. I loved two smaller ones which the salesman showed me would fit into my ‘free carry-on suitcase’ that came with purchase. I still declined. What was most interesting was depending on the way the carpets were laid and you looked at them, they completely changed their color and ‘glow.’ I hope you can see that from the photos I took.
What was hysterical were the huge plastic statues outside the store! The Turks love American basketball and how better than to show their love than having Lebron James and Stephen Curry outside a really upscale store!
After 16,000 steps today, it was time to call it a day. But the next morning, there was Bilge bright and early and ready to take me to the Asian side of Istanbul.
The best and most scenic way to cross the Brosporhous is via ferry. These large ferries run about every 30 minutes and are really big water taxis.
Bilge planned for us to visit 4 towns that border the Asian coastline starting with Kanlica, then Anadoluhisari, Cengelkou, and ending at Uskudar where we will take the ferry back to the European side.
In Kanlica I had the most delicious, locally-made yogurt I have ever tasted. It’s a morning ritual that the Turks stop for a cup of coffee and a cup of yogurt topped by….powdered sugar! Soooooo good.
We met the local imām who gave us a personal tour of his mosque that was over 500 years old. We walked along tiny streets and marveled at some of the wooden houses that were built for the fishermen who have been the main occupants of these villages for thousands of years.
In the next two villages, we saw more wooden houses, the oldest cemetery in Istanbul, a fort, a truly funky recycling vehicle, street murals, and a funky red house I would have loved to see inside.
At our final stop and the largest town, Uskudar, we nibbled on salted pretzels and fresh mussels with lemon juice, window shopped, went into another large mosque, and stopped in the local market so Bilge could pick up her dinner for that evening. I just wanted to buy every kind of olive in one stall which sold nothing but olives before catching the ferry back to the European side.
By now we were only up to 9,000 steps so one last stop was added to our day – the amazing, colorful, fragrant Spice Bazaar.
Built in the 1660s, the Spice Bazaar has a total of 85 shops selling spices, Turkish delight, and other sweets, jewelry, souvenirs, and dried fruits and nuts. Bilge has a favorite shop where she purchases all her spices and wanted me to meet the owner as he would certainly give me a discount!
He did – and I walked away with two huge, heavy bags loaded with a variety of over a dozen spices, vacuum-sealed so I could take them through customs. I also did some shopping at a cashmere scarf shop, picked up 2 pottery bowls to remind me of Istanbul, and considered, for a minute, bringing all my girlfriends their favorite color of belly-dancing costume!
Bilge has a whole lot more stamina than I do! Only 11,000 steps on the second day! I had a wonderful two days with a fantastic tour guide and lovely person and would recommend her to anyone who would enjoy having a private guide while visiting Istanbul. You learn so much and will make a new friend along the way!
Looking at how long this post is, I am once again going to let us all take a break and I will conclude my final days in Istanbul with Part Three in a few days from now.