June 10, 2023
Another country we get to tick off the list that we weren't planning on... Djibouti. Our flight to Istanbul ended up having a medical emergency about 2 hours in and we had to divert to Djibouti. Technically we never got off the plane, so didn't set foot in the country. But it still counts, right? In any case, we arrived to Istanbul about 3 hours late, and were tired from the extra long travel day. We got some great Persian food (with the crispy rice) at a place called Damo in our neighborhood, picked up groceries at the local supermarket, and then relaxed and watched the boat traffic through the Bosphorus from the window of our AirBnB (the great view, though, means that we have to climb a hill anytime we want to go anywhere).
June 11, 2023
Our day today started with an attempt to get a unlimited 10 day transit card, which we knew should have been available from the machines in the metro. We had seen it also available through a tourist website, and they will deliver it to your hotel, but since we're at an AirBnB that wouldn't work (we WhatsApped them and they told us this). We had a kind gentleman try to explain to us how the reloadable card works, but we were trying to get the unlimited pass, and his English wasn't good enough (and neither was our Turkish) to explain. In the end, after about 45 minutes of traipsing around Taksim square above and below ground, we figured we'd just suck it up and get the pay per ride card. It actually will probably end up being cheaper anyway; with the current exchange rate, a one-way ride is less than 50 cents. We did finally end up finding the one machine at Taksim metro station that would dispense an unlimited card, but we had already bought our pay per use card, and so figured we'd try that out to see how it goes, and maybe get a 7 day card unlimited card if we felt like we needed it. For reference, you can find the machine near the F1 Funicular at Taksim metro station and it's LIGHT blue and yellow one, not dark blue and yellow.
With pay per ride card in hand, we headed via funicular and tram to Sultanahmet to see the Blue mosque and the Hagia Sophia. We figured we'd try and cram the sites we needed to wear long pants for all in one day. The mosques are almost mirror images of each other, but they span a difference of about 1000 years in construction. Hagia Sophia was originally built as a Byzantine church in the 6th century and the Blue mosque in the 17th century. It was interesting to compare these to the Mezquita in Cordoba. Some of the architectural details like the alternating stripes in the arches were present in the Blue mosque and the Mezquita, but the shape and design of the buildings were very different. It was interesting to see how the Ottomans adopted some of the building styles of the Byzantines in building their own buildings.
The Hagia Sophia was turned into a museum in the 1930's, but Erdogan redecreed it a Mosque in 2018. You can still see some of the original Christian decoration in the building. The image of Mary and the child Jesus in the dome above the mihrab was just barely covered with a draped cloth. You could see both peeking out. We wonder if they were more permanently covered at one point, then uncovered when it was turned into a museum to show the history of the two cultures that used the building, and then hastily recovered when it was returned to being used as a mosque. We'll have to do a little more research to find out.
Next we headed to the Basilica Cisterns, which is an underground art installation in the old Roman cistern, just like the one in Copenhagen (but that one was not Roman). We were a split decision on this one; Eli liked the cisterns here a bit more for the aesthetics of the Roman architecture, but Stephen thought the art was better in Copenhagen. The line was long, but while we were waiting, we went online and purchased our tickets (for the official website, not from a tourist reseller). That let us skip the long line in the hot sun.
While we've loved Istanbul so far, we are quite annoyed by all the "guides" and touts approaching us. Their technique is definitely soft sell here; they start up a conversation guessing where we're from (from our accents, which was mentioned by a number of people who approached us). Then comes the pitch, whether its to be our guide for one of the sites or to get us to go to their shop or whatever. We haven't quite figured out the best approach to shutting the conversation down quickly; we'll let you know if we figure it out.
We next headed to the Suleymaniye mosque which we saw on a hilltop as we came over the bridge on the tram. The best feature of this mosque was the view back over the city (the interior was nice but nothing special).
June 12, 2023
Since we were feeling a bit grubby and a bit sore from our hike through the cloud forest to see the gorillas, we decided to book ourselves into a hamam as our activity for the day. We were looking at a number of different options, but we decided on the less ritzy one where we could get more services. We had the sauna, the exfoliation, the oil soap bubbles, and then a 50 minute massage for $90 each. We went to Galatasary Hamam. It has a long history, being built in 1481. We debated, though, when the last renovation might have been done (the website makes it look more atmospheric than it actually is). In total we spent about 2 hours there (the pictures are from Google, we didn't take our phones out while in the hamam).
We headed to the shopping district to see if we could find some more Lactaid for Stephen (success after about 10 different pharmacies) and to get a big bowl for our lentil salad tonight (failed).
This was one of the guys who scrubbed and pummeled us.
June 13, 2023
Today we walked first to Dolmabahce Palace, which was the "replacement" palace for Topkapi, built in the early 19th century (we'll check out Topkapi tomorrow). You aren't supposed to take pictures inside, and we got scolded once, but after the main hall, it would seem that nobody cared, so we were able to get a few shots. It rivals any of the palaces that we've seen in Europe. As you approach it, though, it doesn't seem like much because you're looking at it from the side. However, it stretches out along the Bosphorus quite a ways. The harem, or living quarters for the Sultan's family (he has multiple wives and concubines), were also very extensive. Interestingly, Sultans are mama's boys, as the Sultan's mother (not his first wife) is the most privileged person in the palace other than the Sultan; she is responsible for the running of the royal household. The baths in the palace were the most elaborate that we've seen, and certainly (given how important baths are in Ottoman culture) better than any other palace we've been to.
From Dolmabahce, we headed to the Spice Bazaar to see if we could find some inspiration for dinner. We picked up some "Ottoman Meat Spice" and thought we'd use the broiler to cook some beef. We stopped at a butcher on our way home, but they didn't speak any English, so we just picked out something we thought would work. In the end, it was kind of a tough cut, so it was just okay... but the spice rub was the star of the show.
June 14, 2023
Today we headed to the first palace, Topkapi. In design, it felt more like the forbidden city in Beijing with lots of small buildings, gardens, and "pagodas" built within a set of walls, but it was just as opulent (but in a different way) from Dolmabahce, which was more like Versailles. Definitely get the combined ticket to view the harem; it was worth it to see the baths and apartments of the sultans and their wives (and mothers).
This palace is more like the Tower of London in that it is also a museum and includes quite a bit of display of the Sultanates jewels, clothing, household objects, etc. The collection for us was just as extravagant as the crown jewels in the UK (and they were a lot more lax about picture taking here than in England). We definitely also liked the collection of sultans' robes and other clothing. We both thought that the textiles looked very modern with the geometric patterns, but could also see how fashion of Europe and the Ottomans were influenced by each other over time.
In all, we spent about 4 hours at Topkapi (although we were interrupted a few times by some rain). We stopped at a market on our way back to get fixings for chickpea stew and we'll use some of the spices we got from the Spice Bazaar.
June 15, 2023
Today we had another AirBnB food experience. We went to the house of Nur, a woman recently retired, who showed us how to cook 10 different Turkish mezes. She lives on the Asian side, so we took a ferry boat and captured some great shots from the water. As we were on the ferry, Nur texted to say she had been out shopping but had misplaced her keys, so we would have to delay a bit. She makes her menu after shopping and figuring out what is freshest that day. It wasn't a problem, and we ended up walking around the Kadikoy Produce Market for a bit before she was ready for us.
We ended up spending about 5 hours in total with Nur. While learning to make the recipes, we talked about travel (she had worked for a food import/export company and traveled around), Gobekletepe (she confirmed it was worth seeing... we're going next week... and that led to a conversation about the continuity of humanity through time), the current political situation in Turkey, her family, and all the important stuff to make the food.
Stephen had sardines (and didn't think they were terrible), we made an interesting seaweed dish, and we both had liver that we actually liked. There were lots of vegetarian mezes as well.
We would highly recommend doing the experience with her. Since AirBnB takes a large cut of the fee for their experiences, if you're in Istanbul and interested, use the contact form at the bottom of the page, and we'll get you in touch with Nur directly.
June 16, 2023
Since it was a beautiful sunny day, we decided to hop on the public ferry down the Bosphorus straight. The ferry to Rumeli Kavagi will get you almost all the way through the straight (you can see the Black Sea in front of you); it leaves from Eminonu vs. the ferry port near our flat. The public ferry is about 80 cents each way, and takes about 2 hours. With having to get to Eminonu and then back to our place, we ended up spending about $2 each for a beautiful 2 hour cruise. There were a number of local couples on the boat who you could tell were there doing the ferry as a "date afternoon" rather than as actual transport.
The ferry hugs the European side, which has the more interesting things to see. Of course, because the buildings front the water, they are the more ritzy parts of town, but Eli commented about how surprised he was that he found it more beautiful and interesting than he was expecting. Some parts looked like quaint seaside New England towns with very Victorian style architecture. One of the first things we saw was the Dolmabahce Palace. From the water, you really get a sense of how big it is. We included a video below. We also crossed under the Bosphorus Bridge (which got renamed by Erdogan something related to the defeat of the coup attempt against him), and another bridge of the same design.
We ended up getting off just short of Rumeli Kavagi and catching a bus to the metro to get back to town (which took about 45 minutes).
Crossing under the Bosphorus Bridge
A 15th Century Embattlement
Houses along the waterfront
June 17, 2023
Since Eli was a bit "mosqued out," we decided to check out the new (technically the formal opening isn't until next week) Istanbul Museum of Modern Art which is a short walk from our flat. We spent about an hour here... some interesting things we saw, but it felt like very much any other modern/contemporary museum. It was hard to get a sense of place from it, even though it was featuring primarily works of Turkish artists. They did have a nice rooftop terrace, though.
Tonight, upon Nur's recommendation from the day before, we took a ferry to Moda, which is just south of Kadikoy. The waterfront there is an evening hang-out place; there are buskers busking and lots of people sitting around on the grass and on the rocks chatting and enjoying the evening. We stopped at a backyard bar, picked up some beers, and hung out for a while ourselves peoplewatching (and cat-watching... Istanbul's stray cats are a thing).
A little different from the elephants we saw in Kenya and South Africa.
This was a piece using the Corinthian Canal in the image. We were there when we visited Greece.
June 18, 2023
Today we started out by heading to Galata Tower, one of the icons of the city and of which we had gotten some pictures from afar earlier in the week. As we were walking down the hill toward the tram, we noticed a large police presence, and were speculating with each other what might be going on. We first thought that there might be some parade or something, and then we asked one of the officers and they said something about a small demonstration but didn't say about what. The officers, though, seemed to just be milling around and joking about and not too focused on much of anything. Eli did a search on his phone, and the best he could come up with based on what came up on the phone was something having to do about the recent charges brought against the mayor of Istanbul. We hesitated a bit, but then decided to just continue with our plan.
Galata Tower was built during the Genoese period in Istanbul after the weakening of Byzantium but prior to the Ottoman takeover. The current tower dates from 1348. There isn't much to see, but it does have a nice view from the top (you take an elevator up and then walk down). The vantage point did give us a view of some of the more modern areas of the city with skyscrapers that we hadn't seen yet because they were blocked by the coastal hills. The other interesting thing to note was the chain in the tower that was used to defend the Golden Horn harbor from invading ships... ingenious.
From here, Eli decided to head back to the flat (he was also museumed out), and Stephen went on to the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art. The collection wasn't huge not particularly spectacular, but the organization did give a sense of the diversity of periods and political/cultural waves that came across the Anatolian peninsula before the Ottomans overtook much of Southwestern Europe, North Africa and Southwest Asia. It wasn't just the Byzantines and then the Ottomans as we sort of learned in history class. On both Stephen's and Eli's way back to the flat, we noticed the police again, doing about the same amount of nothing that they had been doing before.
For dinner we decided we didn't want to cook so Stephen offered to go up to Taksim square to pick up Doner (Turkish style shaved meat sandwiches) for dinner; we had noticed a bunch of stalls up there earlier in the week. As he approached Taksim, he could see barriers in front of him, but there were the Doner stalls on the other side, clearly open. He asked one of the officers about how to get around and the officer sent him one way. After walking about a kilometer, Stephen figured out it wasn't the right way and doubled back. Again he asked another officer and this time the guy said to go the opposite way. He tried that and saw an opening, but was stopped by another officer, even as people were coming out of this opening. He was told that this is just one way... you can go out but not in. At this point Stephen was super frustrated and asked what was going on that we couldn't get a simple Doner. The officer (in not great English) said something about LGBT and the German embassy (two things that don't typically go together), but Stephen started to get the feeling that something problematic was going on here (it is Pride Month, after all).
Upon arriving back at the flat, resigned to eating leftovers, we looked up to see if we could get more information about what might be going on. Apparently, some trans activists were planning on trying to march to Taksim square (official Pride celebrations or protests have been banned since 2014), and the huge police presence with all the barricades and riot gear was there to try and stop them if they did. Strangely, we had been video chatting with Stephen's dad for Father's Day earlier and he asked what the gay scene was like here in Istanbul. We had kind of said that it's present, but not really visible.... a few bars and that kind of thing. Today the reality of what it's like to live as a queer person in Turkey became evident for us... or was it the reality of what it's like to live as a queer person in Florida... in some ways, it maybe really isn't that different.
June 19, 2023
Eli, being "mosqued out," stayed at the flat today to work on some job stuff, and Stephen headed to the Asian side to see a few mosques recommended in Lonely Planet, all about 10 minutes from each other. The first was Sakirin mosque, a contemporary mosque next to a cemetery. The second, that ended up being temporarily closed, was Cinili mosque; apparently, the blue tiled walls of this mosque are supposed to be outstanding. The third was Atik Valide mosque, which was as nicely decorated as the blue mosque, but much smaller (and empty).
For dinner, we headed to Alaf. Alaf was recommended by Nur, our host for the meze experience, but it also turns out that it is a Michelin Bib Gourmand restaurant. Frequent readers of our blog will know that the Bib Gourmand label is our prefered mark when we're looking for restaurants. Bib Gourmands are "Michelin star adjacent" but are consistently high quality, favorites of locals, and generally less expensive than Michelin starred fare. Alaf was on the higher end of what we've spent at other Bib Gourmands, but we did the tasting menu. The restaurant is mostly small plates, and we were overfull after our 10 tastings, but you can order 4-5 dishes per person and still have a nice meal. Our tasting menu plus 2 cocktails each (alcohol does not seem to be as cheap in Turkey as in other countries in Europe) came to about $300. The food was a contemporary interpretation on traditional Turkish Anatolian. We especially liked the camel kabap and the bleu cheese beignet kind of thing.
A restauranteur puting the raw meat on the spit for today's Doner.
June 20, 2023
Today we headed to see a presentation of a Whirling Ceremony from a local Sufi chapter. Since it's a religious ceremony, we weren't able to take photos during, but they have a lobby with information about the practice, and we did get to snap a photo of some examples of the instruments they use. The flute represents the breath of God bringing life to the earth. The ceremony has different parts called cycles and stages. You can definitely feel the trance-like state that the whirling induces and it's quite beautiful to watch, although with any meditative practice, it gets repetitive after a while (that's kind of the point). For dinner, we went to a local Doner place near the performance (since we missed out on the day of the police barricade). It was definitely worth it.