Notes from Istanbul

My best Japanese friend, Nobuko, is traveling around the world and sending regular updates.  Her updates might help fellow travelers navigate and learn from her experience. This time, she reports from her month spent in Turkey.

Turkey really grew on me… I went there with no solid knowledge about what to expect. I was only going to visit Istanbul and Cappadocia. But it did not take long at all for me to really start liking the place and people.

I left Mumbai and landed in Istanbul on 01 Nov 2012. Since I started my transit from Goa, I had been up for a long time when I landed. The first impression of Istanbul as I took a tram into the city was very European. I made my way to the house of my gracious hostess, Burcin, and on the way could not help to be amazed how many mosques there were – you see minarets sticking into the sky everywhere!

As a typical tourist new in town, I tackled the major sites including the Hagia Sofia, the Blue Mosque, and the Topkapi Palace (all within a five-minute walk from each other) on my first day. Despite being in “low season”, the Hagia Sofia had a long queue but I managed to find an English tour group and skipped the long line – yes that’s right, you can skip the line if you are with an official guide. The inside was just amazing. I wish I had a better camera.

The Topkapi Palace covers a large area. The harem quarters takes up a considerable amount of space as the Sultan had to provide room and board for women whom he needed in order to feel like a man.

The Blue Mosque is beautiful inside. But there were so many tourists, too! It is still used as a place of worship. And I wonder how worshipers feel about tons of tourists outnumbering them and taking pictures while they pray. I liked sitting inside the mosques. High ceilings give a grand feeling to the space, but the quietness and the fully carpeted floor provide comfort – respite from the commotions outside on the streets.

The New Mosque (which is only 400 years old) was also very nice. It had more worshipers than tourists when I went there. For some reason, Turkish women liked snapping photos with me there.

On my second day, I got off the tram at Karakoy and walked over the Galata bridge towards the New Mosque. I found the unassuming Rusten Pasha Mosque (a.k.a. Rüstem Pasha Mosque) in the middle of a busy bazaar street, and then I followed the uphill streets to Suleymaniye Mosque which offers a great view.

I do not like crowds, in general. I can manage to enjoy being in them only when I am traveling, walking in a protest, or going to concerts. But the crowd at the spice market near the new mosque was too much! I got there by chance and before I knew it, I was sucked into the flow of people headed into the market. Turning around or joining the flow leaving the market took such an effort that I gave up and let the crowd push me along until I reached the end of it. So I did not really see anything there.

My hostess Burcin took me out to the Taksim area at night on a few occasions. Istanbul is also known as the City of Seven Hills – and because of the hills and non-grid layout of the streets, you get to enjoy getting lost and taking many great photos with cats in them, which makes you feel like you are the best artsy photographer in the world. Taksim also had lots of rooftop bars and comes to life at night more than during the day and I got to enjoy them thanks to Burcin! She also took me to Ortakoy for a sunset boat ride and apple flavored Nergile (a.k.a. hooka / Shisha). It reminded me of Fells Point in Baltimore a bit. I had a baked potato filled with all kinds of goodness. It was huge, like a size of 2+ tennis ball.

On the 3rd day, I took the tram to Yusufpasa stop and walked up to the Fatih Mosque. But I could not find the entrance. I just walked around and ended up at a grand bazaar which sold everything from used books to belts to food to whatever one may be looking for.

Istanbul at sunrise

Istanbul  is a modern and clean city with killer views – I find it the most beautiful city in the world out of all the places I have been to.

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