Saturday, February 21, 2009

Day 5 - Farewell to Istanbul

Final morning at the Archaeological Museum with its famous collection of sarcophagi and excellent section on the history of Istanbul. They have a section of the Byzantine chain used to block off the Golden Horn and deal with the many churches one by one. Outside they have three gigantic porphyry sarcophagi that would have pride of lace in any other museum, but here are simply dumped in the garden. Then tram and funicular to Taksim Sqaure and off to airport. Public transport in this town is cheap and super-efficient - trams, buses, funicular and boats all connect and form one huge efficient web of connections. We tried them all. Final act was a glass of freshly squeezed pomegranate juice and a sesame bread ring - Istanbul's excellent fast food.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Day 4 – Istanbul – Walking walls of Byzantium

Tram to Tokpaki on the walls, then walked north on the outside of the walls to the Mirimah Mosque, then the Chora Museum, a red, byzantine, brick, Romanesque church with astounding mosaics. Then down to another similar but smaller Fetiye Church and down to the Bulgarian iron church, cast in Vienna and brought down to Istanbul in the 19th century.

The 1600 year old walls are 6.5 Km and well worth the visit. They have been damaged by earthquakes and, of course, Mehmet’s cannons in 1453, but are still largely continuous. They kept our Attila’s Huns and withstood several other sieges, but in the end they were no match for the enormous Ottoman cannon. The walls and towers stretch from the Marmara sea to the Golden Horn. On our last visit we did the southern section, this time we headed north.

The Chora Church is a 13th century church, converted to a mosque, then back to a museum. Its mosaics are among the best in the world, on a par with those in Ravenna. The church is relatively small, and the spaces intimate and well lit, making the experience very special. One oddity was the English film crew with a rather clichéd presenter in a white fedora and scarf, every bit the BBC ‘traveller and historian’ look.

We took a taxi to the Pierre Loti Cafe for lunch then took the funicular down to the Eyup Mosque. This is a place of pilgrimage for muslims, and the mosque had lots of people praying at Mohammed’s Standard Bearers tomb. There’s a footprint in marble, presumably of Eyup Ensari, who died during the 674 siege. This is a very balanced square mosque with eight semi-domes supporting the main dome and a huge plain tree in the courtyard.

We’ve had a scam pulled on us twice on this trip. A shoeshine guy drops his brush behind him, then, when you stop to pick it up and hand it back to him, he offers to do your shoes for free – but then expects payment. First time round, we simply refused to pay, the second time this happened, we all laughed out loud. You’ve got to admire their ingenuity, but the taxi drivers in Istanbul are just rogues, always trying to overcharge and bump up their false meter prices. On the whole, however, this is a city with friendly and gentle people. You get little or no unwanted attention, and if you’re lost, someone is sure to come up and help you with directions.

We keep bumping into two other guests from the excellent Niles Hotel – it’s that sort of place – small and friendly. One is an English chef, the other an American real estate agent. They’re friends, but only meet to travel together, both great fun. This is our second time in this hotel, and a very fine pace it is. The receptionist, Seda, is, without exaggeration, the greatest hotel receptionist in the world. She is receptionist, concierge, tourist guide, joker and friend all in one. It’s a fine little hotel. The terrace on the roof is spectacular – all for less than 50 euros a night.

Final evening meal in the Kumpaki Fish Restaurant, where we had Sea Bass, Sea Bream and Bluefish, along with the usual mezes and fruit.

Day 3 – Istanbul –Up the Bosphorus

Ferry from Emmanou zig-zagged from village to village up the 20 miles of the Bosphorus, dodging cross channel ferries, huge tankers and other boats. At the top we climbed up to the Genoan castle which has fabulous views of the Black Sea, then down for a superb lunch of Sea Bass, anchovies, sardines, beer and baklava. You sneak beneath two huge suspension bridges which connect Europe with Asia, pass palaces and the fortresses set up by the muslims in preparation for their attack in Istanbul. We even saw a dolphin. What a fine way to spend a day.

Back in Istanbul we visited the Yeni Mosqe, walked through the Spice Bazaar, then a rest before walking down to Hamdi’s for dinner. En route the restaurant staff implore you to eat in their establishments. We had them down on their knees and even ‘I will kill myself if you don’t eat here’. At Hamdi’s, we were given a window table overlooking the Galata Bridge and had an excellent white wine (Arozza, I think), lentil soup with mint, salad, kebabs, Turkish coffe and yet more baklava.


Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Day 2 - Mosques, museums and cisterns.

My third time in Istanbul but first in this early church, converted to a mosque. It is very quiet and very beautiful with much of the original Byzantine building visible, such as the marble frieze with greek writing. It's well lit and the mihrab in the priginal apse is offset to face Mecca, something you see in quite a fe mosques here, showing that it was originally a Byzantine church.

Up the hill to the Blue Mosque, with its huge dome, but leaden elephant pillars. The sun was out as we walked into the Hagia Sophia. Now this is a building. Nearly 1,500 years old and it still has the power to astound as you enter. 

Then the Basilica Cister. with its 300 plus columns, still a couple of feetof water, and queer Medusa heads at the foot of two columns. We had been in the other cistern with its 1001 columns, but this was just as im in a small pressive.

Lunch in a small retaurant YURT, with Turkish ravioli, meatballs, chicken, bacalava, cakes and coffee, then to clothes district - zips/buckles. badges and the Prince's and Fatih Mosque. A baclava stop then back to hotel.

Dinner in a small local restaurant, bean soup, lentil soup, roast chicken.

Day 1 – Istanbul – The Big Fish

Arrived on Asian side, hopped on Havas bus to Taksim Square, then walked down to a restaurant for some bean soup, lamb and aubergines, before trecking down to Galata bridge, where we took a tram to the University and our Hotel (Niles). Seda, our uber-friendly receptionist, was fun and we’ve settled into our bijou room for a rest before venturing out again.

Down to the Hippodrome to see the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia at night, along with the obelisk (Tutmose), Dephic python and Constantinian column. Walked down to a top-class fish restaurant, where we had a meal in Neyzen, Kumpaki. Mezes of octopus, anchovies, olives, calamari, garlic sauce followed by a 1Kg sea bream, baked in salt and set alight at our table. A bottle of Raki then a banana, apple and pear fruit concoction with honey and nuts, finished off by a mint liqueur. Stuffed as a mattress.