25.06.2012 33 °C
I want to dislike Istanbul. It has all the things that would normally make me hate a place. The traffic is bedlam, the streets are chaotic, and there is so much happening at once, that it takes twice as long as normal to get anywhere. I'm constantly shouted at to dine somewhere or buy something. Men spit on the streets, and skinny, bedraggled cats have replaced the stray dogs of Eastern Europe. Yet, I find myself really liking Istanbul. Its a cliche, but it makes me feel alive. Like I'm part of something big, a special guest at the world's grandest outdoor market. Granted, there are a few people here who could learn to accept "no", but generally, I find the men touting business to be good humoured, good natured, and genuinely interested in their next potential customer.
My day started with a short walk from my hotel to the iconic Blue Mosque. As I approached the door, a man approached me. "Where are you from?" he asked. When I told him New Zealand, he said "oh, Kia ora bro!". After some time of convincing him I didn't need a carpet, I managed to escape and enter the Blue Mosque (complete with shawl over shoulders and shoes in a bag). It was certainly impressive, but I confess to liking the outside more than then inside.
Next, I intended to see the other magnificent mosque nearby, Aya Sofia, but somehow found myself on the doorstep of Topkapi Palace, so checked that out first. As it turns out Aya Sofia was closed today, giving me plenty of time to wander around the palace. I armed myself with an audio guide and off I went. The palace itself, isn't anything amazing, but the treasures and relics on display are fabulous. Although each room was very crowded and I had to move along fairly quickly, I won't forget the scores of emeralds, rubies, and diamonds in a hurry. There were swords and thrones and various other things all decorated with the sparking gems and gold. However, my favourite display was definitely the relics where I got to see the stick Moses used to part the sea, bits of skulls and bones belonging to the prophets, and beard hairs from Mohammed himself. Fascinating!
By now I was swept up in the excitement of it all, so bought the extra ticket to enter the harem. Only a small section is open to the public, including the "queen mothers" living area, the eunuchs courtyard, the concubines courtyard, the golden mile (an area so named because the Sultan used to scatter golden coins as he walked through it), and the sultan's living area.
Inside Topkapi Harem
It was definitely interesting, and later I found an exhibition of the harem which explained a lot about the life of the girls, women, family members, eunuchs, and sultans that lived there. And obviously, when you have 112 kids, you need a big bed.
From the balconies of the palace courtyards, I also got my first chance to see where Europe meets Asia. One view, two continents.
After a full morning of sightseeing, I found a traditional Turkish restaurant where I could lie back on big cushions and enjoy some lunch. Then I decided to brave the Grand Bazaar. It was actually far less crowded and crazy than I expected. Of course, people kept firing questions at me, trying to get me into a conversation, and thus induce me to part with my money. One man got off to a bad start when he bellowed out that he had good discounts for Australians. Lucky them.
At one stage, I entered a stall where the Turkish owner had popped out for some more tea. When he came back, I was behind his counter. "Can I help you with anything?" I asked him. "Where are you from?" to which replied quick as a wink, "China". So I said "Ni hao", which induced him to kiss my hand and tell me how lovely I was, so I had to run away. Quickly.
Further on, a young guy said "this is my friend (insert Turkish name). What's your name?". I just kept walking, determined not to get dragged into a conversation. "Is it Helena?" he called out. I shook my head and kept walking, feeling quite smug that he'd never guess. "Juanita?" he yelled out. They're bloody good, I'll give them that much. I soon got used to people calling out "hello Kiwi". But I managed to get out after a few hours without buying anything. A lot of it is jewelry and I wouldn't know about the quality or the price of it. Plus, I have a couple of days to go back yet.
Tonight I went for a swim in the hotel pool, and then lay out on a rooftop terrace deck chair, admiring Istanbul's amazing skyline and listening to the sound of prayers ringing out from the mosques.