Two Continents; One Great City

by Johnny

Have you recovered yet from that atom bomb of knowledge Anna dropped on your dome in the last post?  Good.  We arrived to Istanbul on an overnight bus from Göreme, and with only four nights left before the Europe leg of our travels came to an end, we decided to spoil ourselves a little bit.  We upgraded our room at our B&B to one with a terrace view of the Blue Mosque and the Sea of Marmara, we saw nearly every site we wanted, we bought a couple souvenirs, and we ate baklava after every meal (breakfast, lunch and dinner).

We based ourselves in the area of Istanbul known as Sultanahmet, which is within easy walking distance of the city’s “big three” tourist sights:  Aya Sofya, Topkapi Palace and the Blue Mosque.  I could write pages on the amazing history of these buildings, but I’ll just tell you a couple things we liked about each of them.  In the Aya Sofya, we loved the enormous domed ceiling and beautiful mosaics.  We liked nearly everything about Topkapi Palace (except the crowds), but we were especially amazed by the Harem, where the sultan and the rest of the imperial family lived.  It was a maze of decadently decorated rooms and tiled courtyards.  Topkapi Palace also had some of the best views in Istanbul looking out towards the Bosphorus strait, which separates the European and Asian continents.  The Blue Mosque is beautiful in its simplicity…and you get to take your shoes off when you go inside.

View of the Blue Mosque from our terrace
Sunset on our terrace Enjoying a couple Efes on our terrace
Our B&B, Ahmet Efendi Evi, at night
Aya Sofya
Inside Aya Sofya
Domed ceiling of Aya Sofya Baby Jesus being presented with Aya Sofia and Istanbul
Inside the Harem at Topkapi Palace Fireplace in the Harem
Mother of Pearl furniture in the Harem Thumbs down on the circumcision room
Courtyard of Topkapi Palace View of the Bosphorus from Topkapi Palace
The Blue Mosque
Inside the Blue Mosque
Gotta go barefoot in the Blue Mosque Washing off those feet outside the Blue Mosque
A little post-Blue Mosque çay

One of the highlights of our time in Istanbul was a night out with some local lads.  Our friend (and future Thailand travel companion) Hillary introduced us via email to her good friend Fer, who is back in his home city of Istanbul after living in Los Angeles for seven years (four of them at USC).  We met Fer for lunch and made plans to meet at “The Studio” later that night.  Uh-oh.  Was this Istanbul’s hottest nightclub?  Anna and I were a little worried because we left our clubbing outfits at home…in 2002.  We showered up, motivated ourselves and headed back out to meet Fer.  He met us at a street corner, walked us down a dark alley and…wow…awesome!  “The Studio” was an actual music recording studio.  It turns out that Fer is a ripping drummer and plays in the band for a singer that just won a best new artist award in Turkey.  For the next few hours, Anna and I and a few others watched Fer and his buddies have an all out jam session.  We even got to see the world premier of their new music video that’s scheduled to air on MTV in Turkey soon.  Afterwards we all headed out to a group of bars that were overflowing with young Turks and good music.  Anna and I were pretty proud of ourselves that we made it until 3:30am before having to call it quits.  It was a great night…all of Fer’s friends, like all Turkish people, were super friendly and welcoming, and it was a side of Istanbul we would not have seen otherwise.  We made plans to meet up for a traditional Turkish Sunday brunch the next day, but unfortunately I left my Zack Morris-sized travel phone in our room and we couldn’t connect.  Next time.  Thanks for everything, Fer!

Can Bonomo on the ukelele Johnny and Fer

I had to mentally prepare myself for a visit to the Grand Bazaar.  I was picturing being shouted at and grabbed by millions of merchants trying to sell me fake carpets and knock-off watches.  I thought, “Let’s get in, take some pictures and get out.”  Turns out, the Grand Bazaar was actually pretty awesome.  It’s a labyrinth of unique walkways with over 2,000 tiny boutiques and workshops selling everything you can think of, but it wasn’t as chaotic as I thought.  In addition to the shops, there are tea houses, cafes and even a mosque, all covered in a beautiful building.  Anna loved it and could have gone back every day.  However, one thing’s for sure, I am terrible at the art of bargaining.  Anna bought some bracelets and got the guy down from TL40 to TL25.  Nice!  I saw a cool shirt I liked that was priced at TL25, so I asked the guy if he could do it for TL20.  I ended up giving him TL50 and my pants, and Anna and I now have to name our first son Mehmet.  We also visited the Spice Bazaar, a marketplace that sells all sorts of spices, dried fruits, nuts, Turkish Delight and other goodies.  Sensory overload.

Lanterns in the Grand Bazaar Jewelry in the Grand Bazaar
Trinkets in the Grand Bazaar Carpets in the Grand Bazaar
Spice Bazaar Spice Bazaar
Spice Bazaar Outside the Spice Bazaar

With visits to the main tourist sights and markets checked off our list, we explored as many of Istanbul’s different neighborhoods as we could, by both land and sea.  One day we took the public ferry to Kadiköy, which is on the Asian side of Istanbul.  It had a happening food market, and we sampled some awesome mezes at Ciya Sofrasi, one of Istanbul’s best rated restaurants.  We also explored the Beyoglu neighborhood a couple different times, and each time it was absolutely packed.  The main street, Istiklal Caddesi, was a sea of people every time we saw it.  Come to think of it, nearly every area of the city we went was packed with locals…Istanbul is crazy!  Anyways, Beyoglu was the seedy part of town back in the ‘90s but is now home to hip new boutique stores, galleries and restaurants.  Another day we took a cruise of the Bosphorus and got to see all the different sights and neighborhoods that dot the coast.  The Istanbul skyline from the water, especially when Aya Sofia, Topkapi Palace and the Blue Mosque are all visible at the same time, is pretty amazing.  Istanbul is such a big, historic, vibrant place with tons to see and do, and we could have easily spent a few more days there.

The Basilica Cistern stored water for the palace Upside down Medusa head at Basilica Cistern
View of Topkapi Palace from the ferry
Kiz Kulesi island and tower from our cruise Scenes from the Bosphorus cruise
Cruising the Bosphorus Istanbul’s skyline from the Bosphorus
Bustling street in Kadiköy Traditional Turkish coffee in Kadiköy
Sea of people on Istiklal Caddesi
View of the Galata Tower at night We had wine near the Galata Tower at sunset
Walking across the Galata Bridge at night

Oh yea, and we (meaning me) ate a ton.  I couldn’t get enough of the food in Turkey.  Anna already mentioned our recent addiction to çay, and I loved me some Turkish coffee as well (Warning: When tasting Turkish coffee for the first time, you may want to wear a diaper). The spices, the veggies (eggplant!), the mezes, the bread…we loved it all.  Check out some pics, including an epic fried dough ball sequence, below.

“Spoon salad” with walnuts, tomatoes and pomegranate All kebab all the time
Fish sandwiches grilled up right on the boat Fish sandwiches are an Istanbul institution
Fried dough ball in honey… …made by happy dudes…
…look and taste delicious… …and make Johnny a happy dude, too
Döner kebab Best. Baklava. Ever.

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