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.