Turkey: Istanbul

When we left on our trip, we encouraged friends and family to visit us anywhere they wanted. Joshua’s Aunt Sue jumped at the chance. Not only did she meet us in Panama, but she decided she would love to visit Turkey and convinced us to do the same. While we were in Africa, she finalized plans for herself and her husband, Dennis, to travel for two weeks in Turkey. She spent hours developing an itinerary from the travel forums and sent us all the details. All we had to do was show up. I have to say, that is our typical M.O., but when we do arrive, it’s never with so many plans! But there was a risk traveling with family for two weeks, could everyone make it through in one piece and leave still talking to each other?!

We stayed in a great area of Istanbul called Cihangir near Istiklal Street which is a high traffic shopping area. We walked the entire length of Istiklal several times during our stay. The first time was the most memorable because Joshua’s Aunt wasn’t feeling well. Two seconds later she projectile vomited blood red pomegranate juice on the most crowded street in the city…TWICE. Our first question was, “Are you pregnant?” And only second did we ask her, “OMG, are you ok?!” She recovered nicely from her Exorcist moment and powered through the rest of the day without incident.

The neighborhood was full of great restaurants, shopping and cute little places to sneak in a game of backgammon. You’d find old men (mostly) throwing the dice at breakfast, lunch and dinner. They always looked very serious, so we never challenged them to a game, and considering I just learned the rules, it was probably for the best (I don’t lose well). Traditional backgammon accompaniments include hookah and tea which, of course, we sampled.

Staying in the Beyoglu area meant that we had to walk across the Galata Bridge to most of the historic sights every single day, but when this was the view…who could complain?!

Istanbul is the only city in the world located on two continents, and in one day, you can visit both. We took the ferry down the Bosphorus to the Asian side. When I was told we were going to the Asian side, I was thinking more Chinatown and less Asian continent, but it ended up being the same Turkey, just on the other side of the river.

We found the Turkish people to be so friendly. We got not only directions, but hand drawn maps when we were lost. We got not only accommodations, but itineraries and tour guides from hotels. In fact, we got smiles and waves from just about everyone.

One of our first tourist visits was a trip to the Grand Bazaar, one of the oldest covered markets in the world. I expected to lose my mind, buying up everything in sight. Instead I was totally overwhelmed by the amount of styles and colors offered. There were lamps, dishes, fake handbags, jewelry, shoes, antiques and lots and lots of carpets. I couldn’t haggle. I couldn’t even walk into a shop without being bombarded by offers. The third time I was approached to purchase a carpet, I let the salesman know he needed to sell me the house to put it in first! The other trick I learned was to walk around with my pockets hanging out so everyone could tell I had no money.

On the other hand, Joshua’s aunt is a pro shopper. She knows what she wants, what she likes and how much she is willing to pay. We spent a whole evening bargaining with Abraham in his ceramic shop. He kept his shop open specifically for us. We made it worth his while (as seen by the bags and the fact we purchased an extra suitcase to send everything home in!) Secret…in one of those bags may be our first wedding gift…if only I could remember what it looked like!

Even better than the Grand Bazaar for me was the Spice Market. We sampled dried fruit and nuts, baclava and turkish delights (locum), filling up before we could get past the first few stalls. We saw spices like Iranian saffron that cost $5,600.00 per pound! After we made it through, we sat for a Turkish coffee to gather ourselves. There were so many people, tastes and smells–it was a sensory overload.

Turkey is full of delicacies. Pomegranates everywhere. Desserts covered in pistachios. Those items were like gold in my household growing up…rare treats. Once when my mom went out of town, my dad bought a pomegranate for me and my brother to share. We ended up having to repaint the kitchen walls before my mother came home to cover up our mess. In Turkey, you couldn’t get down the street without someone trying to sell you fresh-squeezed pomegranate juice for cheap…with no work involved! We drank plenty, but we cut Aunt Sue off after her performance on Istiklal.

The skyline of Istanbul has several noticeable mosques, but the most famous is the Blue Mosque in Sultanahmet. We had to wait for the dhuhr (midday) prayers to finish before we could enter. We were constantly reminded of the time of day by the call to prayer which blasted from the loudspeakers of every mosque in the city. At the beginning of our time in Turkey, the pre-dawn prayer would wake me up every morning and a few days later, I was sleeping straight through, but I always heard the midday telling us it was lunchtime.

To enter the Blue Mosque, Aunt Sue and I had to cover our heads, shoulders and knees and all of us had to remove our shoes. It got its name from the heavily tiled walls and ceiling which are dramatic, so many patterns and styles. Most noticeable to me was how high the ceilings were and how low the chandeliers were hung, just above our heads.

We visited the Hagia Sophia next door where Aunt Sue made some friends outside while we were waiting to enter.

We made a mistake at the Hagia Sophia. We didn’t get the audio tour. So this is what we gathered: it’s one of the first dome churches, over time it changed religions a few times and many mosque designs were inspired by it. The current building is from the 6th century, many centuries older than most churches standing in Europe today. Now it’s a museum full of beautiful artwork, tiles and mosaics. Some of which have recently been discovered since they were painted/plastered over when idol worship was banned.

We had heard it was even more magnificent when admired at night…it was.

Our next stop, the Topkapi Palace was a draw for many reasons. It has the best view of the city, perched on a hill overlooking the Bosphorus. It celebrated the power of the Ottoman Empire, and thus held all of the jeweled gifts and plunder from all over Asia and northern Africa. The hand-painted tile work is incredible. The real reason we went, however, was that Joshua had to check out the harem which housed hundreds of concubines. But we know all this because we did spring for an audio tour (to share!).

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There was one recommendation we took that left us all wondering what we just witnessed…the “whirling” Dervishes. I had thought it was more concert/dance, but when we arrived we found out that it is an actual religious ceremony of Sufism (an off-shoot of Islam). I started to feel as if I was intruding on something I shouldn’t see. But, I definitely dug the band and their rustic instruments.

All the walking gave us sore muscles, achy feet and sweaty bodies, so we visited a traditional Turkish bath to treat ourselves to a little luxury one morning. With little understanding of the process, Sue and I were asked to change into small bikinis made out of matching terry-cloth and follow the attendant into the steam room. Joshua, only wrapped in a towel, was the only one who could handle the heat. Both of us ladies had to leave the humid 40-60 degrees Celsius (104-140F) room more than once. He just laid on the heated marble slab from the 1500’s in a pool of his own sweat.

After an hour, us women were taken to the Sultan’s corner where famous Ottoman kings were once bathed. Young men in towels splashed us with water (and themselves), scrubbed all our dead skin off and then covered us in incredible soap suds before we received a massage. They did some rubbing of our feet, legs and backs, smacked us a few times (they threatened to hit Joshua harder) and then shampooed our hair. Honestly, I’ve never felt so clean!

We wrapped up our sightseeing with the Basilica Cistern where Istanbul kept its water reserves starting in the 6th Century. It was an eerie cavernous hole in the ground with amazing photo opportunities.

We said goodbye to Istanbul on an early morning flight, but not without our driver stopping to pick up one last fresh simit to go!

P.S. We now have a great Istanbul Guide gathered from a few good friends and locals…leave a comment if you ever need one!

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