East meets West in Istanbul - 2007

27th October - to Istanbul

Up early and over to Heathrow, just a 10 minute journey as I stayed at the Holiday Inn next to the airport, which was a bloody good idea. The hotel plus 8 days parking for not much more than the parking alone and it meant that I could drive up last night, relax, have a meal and a reasonable amount of sleep not having to get up till 4am. Had I not got the hotel I'd have been up at 2am, had to hunt for the parking place once I arrived at Heathrow, not a great start to a holiday. Anyway an easy morning except for the usual hassles at Heathrow. Why are British Airports, well not really British Airports just Heathrow and Gatwick, so crap? I arrive 2 hours before my flight at 5am. I drop my bags and I'm ready to go through security. It's 5:20am and security is not open, the queue to get into security is backing up. Security finally opens at 5:30am with the queue running around the check-in hall, even then only 2 lanes are open. Thankfully I was near the front of the queue and through in about 5 minutes. But that's not the worse bit. There are 2 lanes you can pick which lane you're in. I get to the front and I'm told I have to take my shoes off and put them through the x-ray. I see that people in the other lane aren't taking off their shoes. Why I ask. It's because they have to scan 50% of passengers shoes. Do they think terrorists are stupid. If I had a bomb in my shoes don't they think that I may have chosen the other lane Anyway a nice easy flight on a 3/4 empty plane and I'm in Istanbul before lunch. After a 'fun' taxi journey in a cab with a windscreen with cracks running its full length, flying along at twice the speed limit weaving in and out of traffic I get to my hotel, although not before we have to stop for the driver to get directions ;-)

Out and about to get my bearings. The hotel's about 5 minutes south of the Blue Mosque, right in amongst the old part of Istanbul. The Mosque is huge, but not at all blue. A massive domed building in the middle surrounded by open space and gardens, surrounding the domed part are 6 towers (minarets). Not sure what function the minarets serve but it must be more than just something to hang the loud speakers on, although they seem to make a great job of doing that. 6 times a day the 'Call to Prayer' wails out over the city. A peel of bells may wake you up on a Sunday morning but at least they're usually tuneful. If lived here I'd make sure my flat was sound-proofed. I was going to go into the Mosque but they were having prayers so I did some more wandering for 45 minutes then headed back. Off with the shoes and I head inside accompanied by the smell of socks and sweaty feet of the people around me. Inside is very impressive, a 77ft main dome with four 15ft diameter columns holding it up. The reason it's called Blue Mosque are the walls which are tiled in Blue Isnik tiles. 20,143 tiles of 70 different styles, the story says that the order put such pressure on the tile makers that the Sultan banned anyone else from placing orders until his was finished. It's impressive but to be honest I'm not really into tiles which is a pity because most of the top sites in Istanbul are Ottoman and they seemed to love them. There's hundreds of stained glass windows and a massive lighting rig hanging low from the ceiling of the dome. Apart from the pulpit area at the front for the Iman and little areas and rooms around the outside the interior of the Mosque is one big open space plenty of room for thousands of worshippers. Must be an awesome sight when full.

28th October - Istanbul (Topaki Palace)

.The Topaki Palace was built in the 15th Century for the Sultan his handful of wives, hundreds of concubines and thousands of retainers. As well as being the Palace it was also the seat of Government. It's really one big walled Royal City, which is now a museum to all things Ottoman. There are Kitchens which could cater for 5,000 people, with pots the size of cauldrons, crystal, silver and a huge collection of ceramics. There are bedrooms, state rooms, bathing rooms and loads of stairs and balconies. The two highlights though are the Treasury and the Harem. The Treasury is full of gold, silver and jewels, artefacts plundered from foreign lands or given by foreign dignitaries. Swords, shields, goblets and a pair of 48kg solid gold candlesticks. All these riches in a country which for the most part is very poor.

The most elaborate and best preserved area of the Palace is the Harem. This was the home to the Sultan's women. The only men allowed in barring the Sultan's and his sons were Black Eunuchs, up to 200 castrated slaves from Sudan and Ethiopia. Throughout the walls are covered in tiles some just decorative, some with verses from the Koran. Lots of gilding and carving, and thing that stood out for me taps everywhere. It must've been quite a thing back then to have running water throughout the building.

29th October - The Bosphorus

Today on the back of a better forecast for today than tomorrow from the BBC I took the ferry up and back down the Bosphorus Sea (it's not a river despite many guide books saying it is. I didn't realise that I knew so little about the area. The Mediterranean (well The Aegean actually) joins to the Sea of Marmara joins to the Black Sea. The channel between the Sea of Marmara and the Black Sea is the Bosphorus, Istanbul sits on either side of the Bosphorus at the Sea of Marmara end. The Sea of Marmara, never heard of it before. The channel at the other end of the Sea of Marmara is where you find Gallipoli, I didn't exactly know where that was either. Anyway following a tip from the guidebooks I jumped on the Bosphorus ferry which does 2 hours up, has a 2 1/2 hour stop then 1 1/2 hours back down. £5 as apposed to £20 for a 2 hour round trip on a tourist boat. It's a good trip. Istanbul on either side rising on the hills up from the Bosphorus. Some very expensive waterside houses, some fishing ports, Besiktas football stadium, 2 massive suspension bridges and lots of Mosques. The idea was to get to Anadolu Kavagi where we're dropped off for a couple of hours and climb to the fort on the hill for a great view over the Black Sea, but by the time we get there the weather's closed right in so I holed up in a fish restaurant (well cafe really) had some half decent fish, read my book and waited for the boat back. Sod's Law by the time we get back it's brightening up again.

30th October - Istanbul

I've seen the Mosques, the Churches and the Palace but today I saw something the impressed me far more, The Basilica Cistern which lies below the old part of the city. During Byzantine times water was brought here from the north via a waterways which are engineering feats in themselves, there's an amazing aqueduct here in Istanbul. Basically it's a big underground water container made out of brick and held up by massive columns. Two of the columns have bases carved with Medusa Heads. In fact the columns are all quite different as they were recycled from older buildings, who said being green was a new idea?

Time to talk about Turkish food as found in Istanbul. The bread is very good, nice a chewy just how I like it. The kebabs are good, both the sliced off the spit version and the cooked on the skewer sort although they don't seem to serve theirs with hot chilli sauce. But as with most food in most countries the food locally isn't as good as the version of the food that we get in the UK. I've never had a bad Turkish meal in London, whether it the Haz, the Taz or the cafe on Bethnal Green Road, but here some of it is good but much of it lacks flavour. Maybe it's just my palate that's uneducated and needs extreme blasts of flavour ;-)