The DougBlog
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Sunday, February 10, 2013

My Life in Ruins, Part 6: Istanbul (not Constantinople)

My latency in blog posting has gotten so bad that I’m actually posting this final installment of last year’s “big trip” (Greece & Turkey) after already returning from this year’s big trip (Japan)! Sigh…

So when we last caught up, I left the blue waters of the Greek Islands behind and headed to my final destination: Istanbul.

It was a little ironic, since Greece and Turkey are historically bitter enemies, ever since the time when Turkey was Troy. Even though they are officially allies today, most people on both sides rarely have nice things to say about their neighbors across the Aegean. The Mediterranean coast of Turkey is full of some amazing ancient Roman and Greek ruins (it is said that there are more Roman ruins in Turkey than in Rome) and I would have liked to have visited some of them, but alas I only had a few days so I focused on the ancient capitol of Istanbul (formerly called Constantinople, as the old song goes…)

It must be said up front that it was generally cold and rainy while I was there and I was sick to boot so I might not have had the best attitude—and ended up spending a decent amount of time in my room at the beautiful Four Seasons Hotel (which was once a prison…so now I HAVE been inside a Turkish prison, technically).

The hotel is very centrally located, so the first day I ventured out to the immediate area, which includes the Hagia Sofia. This place is a little confusing…it was built as a church back when Istanbul was Constantinople and the capitol of the Holy Roman Empire. Then it was turned into a mosque. Now it is just a museum. So it is an eclectic mix, but the overall effect of this ancient building is awe-inspiring.

Built in 562 AD, this was the largest cathedral in the world for more than 1,000 years. It is considered one of the greatest surviving examples of Byzantine architecture. Its massive self-standing dome is said to have changed the history of architecture.

One thing in Istanbul that I was not prepared for were the carpet salesmen. In any tourist-trodden area, carpet salesmen try to get you to come to their store and buy a carpet (for which Turkey is famous). But they are slick as can be—of course they don’t present themselves as salesmen but instead ask you the time or welcome you to their country or offer tourism advice…and before you know it they are trying to get you into their carpet store. They are VERY aggressive and it was VERY disconcerting. So after only visiting the Hagia Sophia and being bombarded by these salesmen, I headed right back to the warmth of my luxury hotel and called it a day. Sad but true. But at least the hotel’s roof offered a nice view back over the Hagia Sofia:

Day two, I went to the Topkapi Palace. It was raining and the palace is a mostly indoor attraction—plus I figured that no carpet salesmen were allowed inside so I would be free of that aggravation! It’s a palatial complex filled with riches and beautiful ornamentation. For about 400 years (1465-1856) it was home to the Sultans of the Ottoman Empire. But including his family, servants, and other members of the court, as many as 4,000 could live here at once! After the Ottoman Empire gave way to the Republic of Turkey in 1921 it became a museum and now—in addition to original furnishings and treasures of the Sultanate— it contains displays of art and holy relics that belonged to Muhammad himself.

You may have heard of the famous crime-thriller movie “Topkapi”—it centers on a plot to steal this emerald-encrusted dagger that belonged to Sultan Mahmud I:

After this, I once again called it a day. The next day would be my last in Istanbul, and I began to feel badly that I wasn’t seeing as much of it as I could. I was also obsessed with crossing the Straits of Bosphorus to visit the Asian side of Istanbul and take my first-ever steps on Asian soil. So living like a rock star I hired a car and driver for the next day so I could most efficiently see the things I still wanted to see and cross the bridges of the Bosphorus. My driver was very nice and came in a bulletproof Mercedes—the kind of armored luxury car you see world leaders coming out of! So this trip was a little trippy…

View of the Bosphorus Bridge from the European side. It’s also called the First Bosphorus Bridge because it was the first modern bridge to connect Europe and Asia:

The ancient Rumelihisarı (Rumelian Castle), a fortress on the European side built around 1450. A steep climb to the tops of the ramparts affords great views over the Bosphorus:

View further down toward the Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge (also called the “Second Bosphorus Bridge” because, well, it was built after the “First Bosphorus Bridge”).

After this we drove across it. The was the first time I had traveled by car from one continent to another, and I half-jokingly wondered if there would be a “Welcome to Asia” sign…but there really was!

My first-ever step on the Asian continent:

On the Asian side, I visited the tiny but jewel-like Küçüksu Palace. It was built in the 19th Century as a country home for the Ottoman Sultans (you might also recognize it from the Bond movie, “The World Is Not Enough”):

There were a lot of men fishing:

This handsome building right on the water is the Kuleli Military High School:

Our next stop was Camlica Hill. From the top of this giant hill you get a pretty amazing view over the city:

Back over to Europe by crossing the First Bosphorus Bridge. I found it bizarrely entertaining to zigzag between continents like this and reminded me of the time I obsessed with walking to France from Switzerland…but I digress…

This guarded gate is an entrance to the sumptuous Dolmabahçe Palace.

Taksim Square is the main central square of Istanbul. At its center is a statue of Atatürk, considered the founder and first President of the modern secular Turkish Republic. Few countries are as obsessed with a historical figure at the Turks when it comes to Atatürk. You’ll see monuments and memorials everywhere—not to mention his face on the money in your pocket and his name on every other building. He died in the aforementioned Dolmabahçe Palace at 9:05 AM on Nov 10, 1938, and to this day all clocks in that palace remain stopped at that time. In fact, despite Turkey being a democracy with general freedom of speech, the one thing you’re not allowed to do is insult the memory of Atatürk (you’re allowed to criticize him, but not insult him…I guess it’s a fine line...)

More fishing on the Golden Horn—and finally, some sun!

Last but not least I hit the Blue Mosque. If it appears somewhat similar to the Hagia Sophia, that’s because it was built specifically to rival that massive church next door. Officially called the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, it was built around 1616 and is nicknamed for the 20,000 hand-pained blue tiles that adorn the fabulous interior.

For my last night in Istanbul, I headed over to the famed Grand Bazaar. This cavernous, covered, labyrinth-like marketplace is HUGE. Of course all the shop owners are trying to get you into their shops and haggle a good deal—but I found if more entertaining in this appropriate venue than on the streets! It was full of amazing sights and smells that often overwhelmed the senses.

The next day I began my trek back to the US. Overall it was a great trip. I finally fulfilled my dream of visiting the ancient sites of Greece like Olympia and Sparta that I had studied in my youth. I was overwhelmed by the beauty of Santorini. And while Istanbul was not my favorite destination of all time, I’m glad I went and experienced such different sights and sounds and smells that anywhere else I’ve ever been. It was also fun to add the continent of Asia to my list of places visited, if only for a few hours. But perhaps that little taste wasn’t enough, because a year later my “annual big trip” would take me to the land of the rising sun, JAPAN…

Next up I’ll start to tell the tale of my absolutely fascinating experiences in Japan. BUT BEFORE WE GO…A FEW PARTING SHOTS!

I was very confused by this international icon for a club sandwich. First of all, what is the point of an international icon if is has English words on it? And why does a club sandwich require its own icon?

As I got home and sorted through my photos, I noticed this woman in the background of one shot I took at the Topkapi Palace. She appears to be listening to an audio guide and to be SO EXCITED:

At first I worried about all these ships amassing at the entrance to the Straits of Bosphorus. I knew that this time around it couldn’t be the Greeks launching 1,000 ships to come rescue Helen of Troy because the Greeks are too dead-ass broke to launch 1,000 ships these days. I later learned that ships are only allowed to go through the strait in the middle of the night, so they were just waiting.

If you’re REALLY bored, you can watch this video of driving over the bridge from Europe to Asia and experience the trill and excitement for yourself:

Next stop, JAPAN!


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