Wandering The Great Indoors

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I’ll take one of those…

Our last day in Istanbul is cool and rainy. Billy and I have a leisurely breakfast at home and take our time getting ready. Noting that our snack inventory is low (!), we visit the shop around the corner. The entire place is packed with large, wooden barrels filled with delicious nuts and dried fruits. The shopkeeper remembers us from yesterday and is happy to see us – it’s fun! We’ve only been in Istanbul a few days and we already have friends.

After replenishing our supply of almonds and dried apricots, we stroll (downhill) past music shops, art galleries, and nice storefronts. İstiklâl Caddesi in Beyoğlu is definitely the “hip” part of town. We take the tram over the Golden Horn to Sultanahmet yet again and make our way to the Grand Bazaar. After all, rainy days are good reasons to shop!

How Bazaar, How Bazaar….
The Grand Bazaar is one of Istanbul’s most popular attractions. It is one of the oldest and largest covered markets in the world boasting over 4,000 shops and 65 streets. Billy and I are drawn into a shop near the entrance that sells spices, loose teas, and traditional pastries. While Billy negotiates a price for tea, I notice the man behind the pastry case. He surreptitiously scans the store and, when he is sure no one is looking, pops a small piece of baklava into his mouth. He sneaks two more pieces before we leave.

Billy and I treat ourselves to all kinds of things including a beautiful lamp and a gorgeous Turkish rug. Perhaps worried about my haters, Billy insists I get a traditional evil eye trinket. Don’t worry, I jest. I’m not one of those deluded people who believe they have haters. But just in case I do, I have a nifty little talisman to offer me protection now.

As you can imagine, the vendors in the Bazaar are… proactive. And creative. In order to showcase the durability of a glass tea set, one seller proceeded to stand on a tea cup while performing Mr. Miyagi-style single leg lifts. We’ll probably never need to do that during tea time, but it’s always nice to have options.

Speaking of options…
Each time Billy wanders even just a few steps away from me, I find myself in the awkward position of getting marriage proposals from random men. My polite refusals only seem to encourage hard sells from my would-be suitors. I refuse one man and gesture to Billy (hellooo, I’m taken). The man smirks and gestures to himself in a way that I can only assume translates to: “But you could get with this!” I laugh and shake my head. He shrugs and walks away. Billy comes back, oblivious to it all.

Or at least, he was oblivious to it all until one gentleman asks him “how much?” in reference to me. The man seems to be joking (we can only hope), and Billy kindly informs him that I am not for sale but he is for free. The man isn’t interested in this counteroffer. My poor William, he can’t even give it away.

I want to note, dear Reader, that several ladies shared their preconceived notions with me about Turkish men being gruff, bearded chauvinists. Aside from the silliness in the Bazaar, I did not find this to be true at all. Most of the men we met were incredibly polite, cultured, and well put together.

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I Lose My Man
Billy and I leave the Grand Bazaar heavy with loot. It’s still raining as we hurry through the turnstile to catch the tram back home. I barely make it onto the tram when I realize the guy I was struggling to keep up with, the guy I thought was my betrothed, is actually a total stranger. I glance back to the turnstiles as the doors close. Through the window I see Billy’s smile fade to bewilderment: where did she go? He looks all around him but I am nowhere to be found. The tram pulls away. It is the saddest little thing.

Luckily, he is savvy enough to find me at the next stop and we continue home to drop off our newly acquired goods.  We choose a charming restaurant just off of İstiklâl Caddesi for dinner. There are a few other couples present and the atmosphere is relaxed and inviting. A cat is napping in a chair nearby. There are cats everywhere in Istanbul – in the streets, the parks, the cafes – and most look like well-cared-for housecats. It’s been fun having them around and, though I can’t say exactly what, these little spirits add something special to our time in Istanbul.

Our flight leaves in the morning so, while there is much more to see in Istanbul, dear Reader, we will have to see it on our next visit.

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We Do ALL The Things (Part II)

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Views of Sultanahmet from the Galata Tower

After our visit to the Blue Mosque, Billy and I enjoy a quick lunch in Sultanahmet Square and head over to the Basilica Cistern. No doubt, dear Reader, you may think a cistern is a strange attraction. Why on earth would anyone travel to Istanbul to see a glorified water tank? Just humor me – it’ll be fun!

Underneath It All (It’s Leaky, But I Like It!)
The Basilica Cisterna is an enormous underground cistern built in 532 to provide water to the residents of Istanbul in the event of a shortage (read: siege). We leave the sunny day above ground and descend into the darkness. As my eyes begin to adjust, the outlines of over 300 columns come into focus – each one is dimly illuminated from below by an eerie red light. On raised wooden walkways, Billy and I navigate the cavernous expanse. It is quiet, despite the other visitors, and there is something comforting about how “dim” I feel down here. I peer over the railing and spot large carp swimming in the water. They are quiet too.

One of the big “mysteries” of the cistern is the presence of two large, stone Medusa heads. Each head serves as the base for a column and there is much debate over how they found their way into a far corner of this Sunken Palace. Having noted that the columns seem to differ in detail and style, I doubt there is much mystery here. Are you thinking what I’m thinking, dear Reader? If so, yesterday’s Word of the Day most certainly comes to mind: spolia. It would seem this cistern was outfitted by the (likely unwilling) contributions of conquered territories.

William takes his time finding a good spot for us to make a wish. We throw a coin in the water and hope for the best.

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I Just Can’t
Back in the sunshine, we wander the streets behind the Hagia Sophia where we find a row of beautiful, historic hotels. Young female tourists pose in the doorways while looking off into the distance, trying to appear at once sexy but also thoughtful for what is sure to be their next Instagram pic. Whatever. After a quick stroll through Gülhane Park, we take the tram back across the Golden Horn to our hip neighborhood of Beyoğlu – but we’re not done sightseeing just yet! Though my Fitbit says we have walked over seven miles today, we climb yet another steep hill to Galata Tower. This cylindrical tower was once the tallest structure in Istanbul and, supposedly, offers the best panoramic views of the city. We pay an outrageous fee to take the elevator to the top (about 10 floors) and even though I manage to snag some nice photos on the crammed balcony, I am suffocated by other tourists and feelings of: “I just can’t.” Get me outta here.

It’s getting dark and we are officially out of steam – we book it back to our apartment. Billy isn’t feeling well and any grand ideas about going out for dinner on the town suddenly seem exhausting. Instead, we order take-out kebabs from a nondescript restaurant around the corner – it ends up being the tastiest food we have the entire trip! For dessert we enjoy some of the baklava we bought earlier in the day. I can’t decide whether I like the walnut or pistachio baklava best and, as a result, end up eating too much of both. Happily situated on the couch with some cups of apple tea, Billy commandeers my book while I do a little journaling.

We Do ALL The Things (Part I)

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Holla! The only peeps without a selfie stick in all of Istanbul!

After a healthy breakfast of oatmeal and apple tea (another Turkish staple), Billy and I are off for our first big day of sightseeing. On our way to the tram we make a detour to try some traditional Turkish coffee. Yeesh! It’s entirely too strong for me but Billy seems to enjoy it. I ask where the restroom is and am directed to go two floors down. I enter the spiral staircase and notice that not only does the building go five floors up, but it also seems to go almost five floors down into the hill. Somehow this makes Istanbul even more exciting for me – think of all of the activity happening under these seven hills!

After just a few short minutes on the tram, we arrive in the historic neighborhood of Sultanahmet. Sultanahmet houses several important sites and my attention is instantly drawn to the miniarets of the Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque. There is some kind of traditional music performance happening outside of the Hagia Sofia and we follow our ears that way…

A Rebranded Basilica
The Hagia Sophia (or Aya Sofya) is a physical manifestation of the many cultural transformations Istanbul has seen over the years.  Originally built as a basilica during Roman rule, it stood – or was intended to stand – as a testament to Christianity’s dominance over other religions. Much later, when the Ottomans took over, the building was converted into a mosque. Today it serves as a museum and, as we make our way through the dark and drafty alcoves, it is still possible to see places where the Christian Cross has been painted over. Much of the material that was used to reconstruct the building is called “spolia.” Spolia refers to fragments of other buildings or monuments, often taken from conquered territories, which are then re-purposed to build a new facility. Basically, we’re looking at a hodge-podge of loot. Neat, huh?

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I Get the Warm and Fuzzies
We stroll through a pleasant park en route to the Blue Mosque, dodging eager tourists with selfie sticks as we go. Unlike the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque is still an operating house of worship which means non-worshippers are only allowed entry during specific times. I wrap my hair in my scarf and remove my shoes before entering.

The carpet is soft on my feet but my eyes are immediately drawn upward to the kaleidoscope of colors adorning the dome. Light streams in from the stained glass windows while Billy and I listen quietly to the prayer service. The ceiling practically reaches heaven itself, but the chandeliers hang low enough to create a cozy vibe.

Perhaps one of the biggest differences between Christian and Islamic houses of worship is the artwork. While Christians often put likenesses of apostles, saints, or Jesus himself in their churches, the Islamic faith prohibits the creation of any images that portray living beings. The result of this proscription is an array of beautiful geometric patterns. To be honest, I’m a bit partial to this form of decoration. I could never recognize another person in those haloed saints, and the image of poor Jesus on the Cross really bums me out. These intricate and colorful patterns though, they feel like a celebration. They feel like something created from a place of joy. Besides, I like the idea of a deity being mysterious and “unseeable”… but not unknowable. That’s what faith is, isn’t it?

Even though we still have the rest of the day to explore, I’m going to pause here, dear Reader, and let you soak up all of those historical tidbits.

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Istanbul (Not Constantinople)

Turkey map

Where are we anyway?

Hello, dear Reader! Today you and I – and my fiancé, William – are heading to Istanbul for a little jaunt. Turkey is getting some bad press these days, but Istanbul has an incredible history and is consistently rated among the top travel destinations in the world. Why? I’ll give you the CliffsNotes version (even though I totally judge people who use CliffsNotes):

One of the most widely known facts about Istanbul is that it is the world’s only transcontinental city. Straddling Europe and Asia, the city is surrounded by the Sea of Marmara and split by the mighty Bosphorous. Situated on seven hills, the landscape reminds me of San Francisco a bit.

Another interesting little nugget about this sprawling metropolis is the fact that Istanbul has served as the capital of three great empires: the Roman Empire, Byzantine Empire and the Ottoman Empire. It was given several names during these various reigns and the controversy over what to call the city was finally settled when Atatürk officially renamed the city Istanbul in the 1920s (previously it was called Constantinople). To ensure people used the new name, the Turkish post office refused to deliver any mail addressed to Constantinople. Alright, that’s enough history for now – let’s get moving!

Random (and Tasty) Asides
We settle into our seats on the plane and while my mind is racing with all of the exciting things to see in Istanbul, Billy is eagerly awaiting the in-flight meal. Having flown Turkish Airlines before, he assures me I am in for a real treat. I’m skeptical but the flight attendant soon hands me a menu and a small individually wrapped bite of pistachio Turkish delight. Normally, I don’t especially like Turkey’s signature gelatinous treat, but I figure anything with pistachio has to be good – and it is! Mint lemonade, a tasty bean salad, and almond cake…lunch is seriously good. I don’t mean to write a review of airplane food but you know, it’s the little things.

Taxi Talks
We are staying on the European side of the city in a neighborhood called Beyoğlu – a “happening” part of town. Our taxi driver, Şenol (pronounced Shen-all), is talkative as we make our way there. Not soon after we leave the airport, Şenol is waving and talking through the driver’s seat window to another taxi driver. He pulls over to the side of the road and the other taxi parks behind us. Oh great. This is it. This is the kidnapping or mugging everyone warned us would be inevitable if we visited Turkey. But Şenol comes back smiling and explains that was his friend. Onward we drive.

Şenol tells us about his many travels to the United States. He talks about New York, his family’s military history, and his penchant for Whitney Houston and Michael “Bubble” (Bublé). Throughout our drive he continues to beep and wave to other taxi drivers. I guess he’s not a killer after all; he’s just a taxi driver with a lot of friends who gets down to American pop on occasion.

It’s around 8PM by the time we settle into our cozy Airbnb apartment rental. (For those of you who don’t know about Airbnb, you really need to check it out). We walk over to the main thoroughfare, İstiklâl Caddesi, in search of dinner. Despite the fact that it is pedestrianized, this street certainly feels heavily trafficked. People are flooding out of cafes, restaurants, and nightclubs – I’m a bit overwhelmed by it all. Billy and I grab a quick dinner and scurry home. Suddenly I’m thankful we are staying a few blocks away from all of the excitement and bustle. We’ll conquer Istanbul tomorrow but for tonight, we enjoy tea and quiet reading time on our tiny couch.

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