August 15, 2009

Turkey Anyone?

Whenever I heard the word Turkey, I thought of smoked meaty goodness on freshly baked bread with cranberry sauce. Now I think of castles, seafood restaurants, pretzels and my dad (whose name is Mostafa – a very popular name in Turkey as I later discovered).

If you love history and culture but don’t fancy being too adventurous, then add Istanbul to your list of holiday destinations. It’s one of those unique places which offers modernised living in the setting of an ancient city. Very much like a giant, open-air museum. My first visit to Istanbul was when I was 8 with my parents. There was a lot of greenery, very few tourists and people hardly spoke any English. Now, 20 years later, Istanbul has very much become a ‘European’ city, making it more accessible to mainstream sightseeing. This time round I was in Istanbul for work, but luckily had a few days in between to do some sightseeing and shopping. Here is a brief description of the places I had time to visit, with links to my online photo album.

1. Archeoloji Müzeleri (Archaeological Museums)
I spent a good 4 hours in this place, intent on seeing every single thing in each of the three museums. By the end of it, I was practically running down the halls with my camera on automatic capture. Seriously, I saw so much stuff from so many different time periods and cultures that the names and dates have all become hazy. After you’ve seen one statue of Alexander the Great, the rest seem so… well… not so great! Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge history buff, but I seriously started seeing double after my visit to these museums. In any case you definitely get your money’s worth. Here are a few snaps, the rest are uploaded to my Picasa Album here

2. The Blue Mosque – beautiful place of prayer, certainly a must see for people of all faiths. The crimson carpets which lined the entire inside of the mosque almost glowed under the light of the low hanging chandelier.
Picasa Album
More info here

3. Topkapi Palace – everything a Sultan’s Palace should be and more. Lush gardens, water views and a ton of chill out rooms with floor cushions and Turkish windows. The water fountains actually still work, and the Islamic treasures and artifacts are amazingly intact and well looked after. My heart skipped a beat when I saw Spoonmaker’s Diamond – a stunning 80+ carats (but who’s counting), which was found in 1669 by a street urchin in the garbage. He sold it for three spoons to a Spoonmaker, who then sold it to a jeweller. When it was later discovered to be a diamond, a dispute broke out and word reached the Sultan, who confiscated the diamond. Pictures weren’t allowed, so here’s one I found online of this thing:

Apart from the diamond, there were a ton of other treasures and jewels – this guy had furniture made from diamonds, rubies, emeralds and other precious stones. His wardrobe wasn’t bad either – I managed to take a picture of one of his coats before being told to put the camera away.

But the most amazing sight was that of the Islamic exhibit. Previous to my visit I didn’t actually know this exhibit existed – I saw Moses’ Rod for goodness sakes. Hi rod! Add to that David’s sword, Joseph’s turban, part of the Prophet Mohamed’s (pbuh) beard, his footprint and the swords that he and his Companions used in battle. If I could leave Istanbul with just one photograph, it would be of these. Darn me for following the rules…
Picasa Album
More info here

4. Basilica Cistern –huge underground store of water, with a tunnel that leads all the way to the Palace. They discovered it decades ago when people were found fishing through a hole in the floor of their home. The story sounded interesting enough, but once inside I discovered that it was dark, damp and really not much for me to see.

The coolest part (no pun intended) by far were the Medusa Heads. If you want a 15 minute tour of history, this is the perfect spot. Not really worth a second visit (unless you have a thing for underground stores of water….)

5. Bosphorus Cruise – a great ride along the Bosphorus, past classic villas, old towns and ancient castles. See the Asian side on the way there, and the European side on the way back. Fairly cheap for a return ticket (around 20 TL) and you can get off at one stop. We disembarked at Emininou where we enjoyed a seafood lunch (which was actually disappointing) and did some window shopping for sweets (which we didn’t actually get time to go back for!) My advice – take your time and enjoy what the town has to offer. If you are in a rush to get back to the main city, then you can buy a slightly cheaper ticket which doesn’t include a stopover.

The hotel I was staying at the first few days was within walking distance of all these attractions, but not close enough to be too pricy. So if you want a clean place to crash, and don’t mind foregoing the luxuries of a 5 star hotel, Sude Konak is your best bet. They charge something like 50 Euro a night with breakfast. For the remainder of the week I stayed at the Marmara Pera Hotel, which boasted an amazing view from the rooftop. I’d stay there again just for this feature – everything else was as it should be for $250 Euro a night.

So if you’re planning a trip to Istanbul, you don’t really need to do research – just get there and plan as you go. Any country with hygiene standards high enough to create 'revolving plastic toilet seats' is worth a visit. Happy travelling!

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