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May 31 2008

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European Wander ’08

Part 6

No map as no miles!

22 June – 28 June a few miles by bike lots more by foot and taxi

What can you say about Istanbul? It’s hot, noisy, extremely busy; full of people, taxis and maniac drivers. We loved it! Well, for a few days anyway. Not exactly being townies it is difficult for us to be too enthralled by the bright lights. However, we had a great few days here where we were able to do some sightseeing after Kevin’s bed rest – he was good, he stayed on the bed until 14:00!

Trike

We found a trike on the street (not exactly Chopper Club quality though!)

We also sat in with the guys from the hotel to watch the Turkey/Germany match. Any team playing Germany is de facto ‘our’ team, so we were gutted when the Turkish team were defeated – I’d have said they were robbed but it’s all about finishing and… The locals all took it well, only saying that Turkey were the best team. So now that’s Croatia and Turkey out, so I guess it will be Spain next.

Driving here is an art form in its own right. We spent quite a few hours all told in taxis and it’s amazing that there are so few of them with any collision evidence. They dash around, hooting, changing direction, driving up the tramways and always as fast as the other traffic permits. The drivers all have millimetre perfect spatial awareness that often led to me having to close my eyes as I was convinced we were about to crash.

Fishermen

People seem to love to fish here – it was only 9 o’clock in the morning, but there were loads of fishermen out.

The city seems to be zoned into specialist areas; the spice market (which had lots of stalls selling spices by the kilo), the lighting area (about 10 large shops all in a row selling lights), the hardware area (Kevin’s dad would have been in heaven!) and the ladies lingerie area to name but a few.

Most days we got up quite late and wandered down to the Sultanahmet area which is the old part of the city and was just on our doorstep. It was quite hot but nevertheless we saw a lot of women dressed in their scarves and long coats, or the burqa – they must have been melting underneath. Perhaps that’s why there’s such a large ladies lingerie sector. I did briefly wonder if they have fans secreted under their clothing!

People

I was hot and I didn’t have a mac on!

We managed to escape the clutches of the carpet sellers but Kevin got enticed into a leather shop. He’d already told the guy we weren’t there to buy, ‘No problem, come in to look’…but it was soon apparent that they expected us to buy something and started to get aggressive, so we walked out. Just before we got to the door the salesman said to Kevin “I have a carpet shop nearby”. Kevin just looked at him. The only way to avoid this is to make sure you don’t make any eye contact with people; even a polite “No thank you” is seen as an invitation to start high pressure selling. It’s a shame as it means you don’t get to do any real window shopping and, had we been allowed to browse, I’m sure we’d have come out of that shop with at least one jacket or coat as it was very nice stuff.

People2

Some of the Istanbul workers

People3

We found a nice open air restaurant just round the corner from the hotel which was where we ate most nights. I think they were quite pleased that we kept going back. The food was good and they were a friendly lot so it was no hardship (and it saved having to break in another set of touts!).

We extended our stay by an extra day to go to the BMW dealership with David (who is ‘Our Man in Istanbul’). David met us at the hotel then guided us to the dealership which was through Istanbul and on the other side of the Bosphorus.

David and Kevin

David and Kevin getting ready to run the gauntlet

Some parts/inhabitants of Istanbul are very poor indeed – we saw many people who looked like tramps carrying round some huge bundles – but the BMW place is in a very plush area; David told us there is a house for sale that is the 2nd most expensive house in the world. They fixed the ‘broken’ seat catch – which was just a loose screw or bolt – and we also had the rear brake pads replaced. We’ve never been in a bike shop quite like this one (it was a BMW and Land Rover car dealership as well). Normally bikes in bike shops are just standing in rows on a concrete floor. This place looked like plush offices with bikes strategically dotted round the office looking decorative; very nice.

David left us just outside the dealership with the words ‘Where the road splits I’m going right and you’ll be going left. Will you be OK? Of course you will, you got all the way here without me!’. It was great to meet with David as we’d been ‘corresponding’ for a few weeks in our preparation period and he was responsible for persuading me that Turkey would be OK to visit. I’m really pleased that he did as I think Turkey has been one of my highlights. He also sorted out Doctors for us to visit when he found out that Kevin was having back problems.

Istanbul

Typical Istanbul road: bike, car, horse and cart and luxury yacht

Istanbul

Some of the less fortunate Istanbul inhabitants

Istanbul

The Blue Mosque is a beautiful building. During the day it is filled with tourists and after 6 it is left for the worshipers. It has 6 minarets which is only matched by the mosque in Mecca (which now has 7 I believe, to make it better…). It has a beautiful thick red Turkish carpet and mosaics and painted decorations inside. Every inch of the interior is beautifully decorated. Everyone has to remove their shoes and put them in a plastic bag (it all smells very ‘changing roomish’ at the entrance!) and, if you’re a woman, you should wear a head scarf (although I saw quite a few women who didn’t respect this). Inside it feels huge as it’s just one big empty space – it’s difficult to estimate whether it is bigger than some of our English cathedrals, but it’s got to be up there with the biggest ones. It has a ‘library’ like noise, whilst we were there, there was no music playing and the only voices were hushed. I saw a compound within the mosque where the women go. I wonder that it doesn’t bother them all this segregation in today’s age (or perhaps they enjoy getting away from the men).

Blue

The Blue Mosque

Inside

It’s so big there are four huge columns holding up the ceiling.

Every morning at about 4.40 a muezzin starts to sing to bring the worshipers to the mosque. (luckily I’m quite a heavy sleeper and have only heard it a couple of times, Kevin seems to always catch it though and he enjoys listening to it). One evening we were outside when he started. It was amazing. We thought it was a recording but it clearly wasn’t – first of all one guy from one mosque would sing, then stop, then another one would ‘reply’, then stop, whereupon the first guy started again. Obviously we don’t know what they were saying, but I mused that one was going ‘Come one everyone, come to my mosque it’s time to pray’ and the other one was going ‘you don’t want to go to him, come to ours it’s bigger’ and then the other one would say ‘don’t listen to him he’s just an upstart’ ….and so on… I’m sure that’s not what they’re singing but it kept me amused for a while.

The mosque has lots of visitors and people coming to pray. We thought the two lads in the picture below looked cute in their ‘Sultan’ outfits. It was only later on we discovered they were going for their circumcision – their first step to becoming a man.

Sultans

They looked so happy!

The other big mosque building we visited was the Hagia Sophia. When this was built it was the largest enclosed area in the world. It started life as a Christian church but was taken over by Islam at some point in its history. It was given to the people as a museum after the war and, it has to be said, it is in a bit of a dilapidated state compared to the the Blue Mosque – perhaps because it is not a religious building anymore. It is being renovated though.

Hagia

Not in such good condition

Scafolding

The interior is undergoing some renovations and has the largest piece of scaffolding I’ve ever seen.

Scafolding

Again, the lens just wasn’t big enough – the scaffolding goes right to the top of the dome. This picture was taken on a balcony from which the sultaness was able to watch the religious service.

The building was also renovated a few hundred years ago and many of the original mosaics were plastered over which is a shame as the originals look much better than the replacement paintings.

Mosaics

A corner where the original mosaics can still be seen

Our last stop was the Topkapi Palace, a palace that is supposed to be the least ostentatious palace you’ll visit – well, if it’s not ostentatious, I don’t know what is! There were numerous gold and gem-encrusted items and an 87 carat diamond to mention a few; photography wasn’t allowed inside those areas.

Palace Garden

Inside the palace compound. Istanbul is not a very green city but it’s clear that the rich people enjoyed their gardens.

Before we went there we spent 1.5 hours trying to send stuff back to the UK. What a nightmare! The post office couldn’t take either the MRI packet or the package of books we had (guide books and maps we’d finished with for this trip). I had to go to the Packet office but it was closed for lunch. When it reopened they sorted out the books but told me I had to go back to the Post office part to post the ‘large letter’. The ‘large letter’ section told me it was a parcel and I had to go to the packet office….ho hum. Eventually we bought a plastic tube for the scans and sent them via the packet office. Still, I expect it keeps people in jobs!

Bosphorus

Looking east

The post office is on the Bosphorus as near as makes no difference so we decided to walk round the road to get to the Palace. Remember, this is middle of the day, it’s very hot and we walked and walked and walked. On our way out this morning we clocked part of it and reckon the total was around 4 or 5 miles. No wonder my feet were killing me! I was a very red tourist when we finally found our way into the palace. It’s amazing what an ice cream and bottle of cold water can do for a person.

We had one of those Audio tours which kept playing music composed by the sultan, or the sultan’s best wife…thank goodness for the ‘stop’ button! We started at the harem and were able to take photographs there (the buildings, not the women!).

Harem

Entering the harem – the area where the black Eunuchs kept guard

Harem

The entrance where the women stayed – there was an amazing amount of beautiful tile work on the walls.

Mirror

One of a pair of huge mirrors that the guards used to keep an eye on the entrance

Harem

The concubines’ living quarters

It was an interesting to think of all those girls locked away from other people. They did live in luxury and gained an education and many of them were eventually married off to nobles, so that’s OK!

Anyway, enough of the Istanbul travelogue….

Having spent 6 nights at the hotel we were ready to move on. Kevin’s back was improving (although it’s still nothing like 100%). We’d had enough of the bustle of Istanbul, enticing though it is.

Our next country is Greece and we’re travelling through there via a route given to Kevin by another one of his GS forum contacts.

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