Saturday, October 21, 2006

Eastern Europe, part 5 (Istanbul)

We arrived at the airport in Istanbul a little after noon, met up with a friend, and took a shuttle to our hotel. We were staying in Sultanahmet, which is the most touristy area of Istanbul (it's actually a huge city, with tons of small neighborhoods, and over 12 million people!). The rest of that day was pretty chill; we walked through the area next to the Aya Sofia and the Blue Mosque, and made our way down to Eminönü, next to the Galata Bridge. We checked out the Spice Bazaar (very colorful and very crowded) and then went to Hamdi for an early dinner. It turned out to be a good thing we were early; the restaurant is apparently quite popular, but because it was Ramadan, hardly anyone was eating until sunset. They told us we could stay for about an hour, which we did. We all ordered kebabs of different types (I ordered lamb, or "shish") and shared a Turkish pizza. Afterwards, we hung out by the water for a bit before heading back to the hotel.

The next two days were quite busy; we spent several hours at the Topkapi Palace (more impressive than I had expected, and slightly reminiscent of the Alhambra), and then visited the Aya Sofia, the Blue Mosque, the Grand Bazaar, the Suleymaniye Mosque, and took ferries to Üsküdar and Kadiköy. I particularly liked the Aya Sofia; apparently, after it was converted from a mosque into a museum, they started examining the walls, and eventually, excavated several 14th century Christian mosaics. Now, these are on display right next to all of the Islamic symbols that decorate the interior.

We also had some interesting food experiences. The first night, after dinner, we went to a cafe where they had water pipes and served apple (and other flavors) of Turkish tea, and we saw whirling dervishes on stage. The second night, we grabbed dinner in Kadiköy; we were in a hurry not to miss the last ferry back, so we walked into the first decent restaurant we saw. We were definitely the only tourists there (people kept giving us curious looks) but the food was cheap and yummy, and the service was good, although the staff spoke no English at all. Luckily the food was on display, and all we had to do was point, and they would dish out plates for us. Afterwards, we went next door, bought a huge box of baklava and other sweets, and then rushed back to the docks in time to catch a ferry back.

On the last day, we didn't have as much of an agenda, so we wandered around Karaköy near the Galata Tower, and then went to check out Istiklal Caddesi, which is a large, modern shopping boulevard in Beyoglu. The locals in this area wore almost entirely modern dress; it was hard to find a woman wearing a headscarf, and many women were wearing sleeveless shirts and tank tops. In fact, we passed by a group of twenty-somethings all dressed in Goth gear. This was in stark contrast to the area by the mosques, where women in full burkas were sometimes seen. At the end of the street is Taksim, where there is a small park and a monument commemorating Atatürk, the father of modern Turkey.

From there, we walked all the way to the Dolmabahçe Palace, built in the 1800s in the European style of the time. It cost an arm and a leg to enter the various museums, so we just walked around the exteriors and had some Turkish coffee at a cafe outside, on the water. We had a grand plan to walk over the Bosphorus Bridge from Europe to Asia, so we kept walking all the way to Ortaköy, where the bridge begins. Unfortunately, we were told the bridge was now closed to foot traffic, so we just hung out there for awhile. We had some yummy snacks that reminded me of scallion pancakes (but more doughy), had kebabs again for dinner, and checked out an arts-and-crafts market by the water. I liked Ortaköy perhaps the best of all the neighborhoods that we visited in Istanbul. Unlike Sultanahmet, Eminönü, and Karaköy, there were almost no tourists, so consequently there were no hawkers trying to sell us boat cruises and trinkets. On the other hand, it was a fairly modern area, so we weren't quite as out of place as we had been in Üsküdar and Kadiköy, where people tended to stare curiously at us.

We flew out of Atatürk International the next morning, after a set of very thorough security checks; a full baggage screen before even entering the airport, then a manual search through carry-on baggage and a very strict pat-down at the gate. Amazingly, it was all very efficient and took almost no time at all, which was a stark contrast to the TSA treatment we got at JFK when we caught our connecting flight.

Anyway, after almost 20 hours of travel, we finally arrived home in the Bay Area, having had no major travel mishaps during the two weeks, and with over 1200 photos to look through. I'll post a few of my favorites in a few days.


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