Day 3 or First Day in Istanbul

The Blue Mosque

It’s amazing what sleep will do for you! The room is tiny the beds very narrow, firm (another word for hard), and low to the ground. But the water is hot, and not brown as I had read in some of the reviews, and we both slept really well until about 2am. I guess that was around 4 or so in the afternoon back home so maybe to be expected. There is even a window that opens and we listened to hard rain and thunder, expecting the day to come to be challenging. Imagine our surprise when we woke again to brilliant cool sunshine!

Breakfast in the hotel is a buffet, an interesting one, if not exactly superb, but there were good breads, goat cheeses, many kinds of yogurt and muesli, apricots and olives, and the coffee was strong but not thick and bitter as traditional Turkish coffee is rumored. As we dressed for a cool and possibly rainy day in Istanbul, I felt my spirits rising with the sun.

The bus is big and comfortable with huge windows and open space, so even though I am the seasick/carsick prone one, it didn’t bother me in the least. We began our morning with a trip back through the “new” part of Istanbul, Taksim Square, the location of our hotel, to the “old” part of the city, across the Golden Horn, a brackish water inlet estuary, and to the ancient portion of the city called “sultanamnet” which contains some of the city’s most significant monuments. We first stopped at the Hippodrome, where a gigantic stadium once stood at the heart of the city. Istanbul means nothing in Turkish, and the story is that it was once called only “the city” However the turks couldn’t speak the greek words meaning the city, “is stan” and it morphed into Istanbul, really meaning nothing at all. It was really the only city in the beginning. Most cities in the Byzantine era were smallish and in this city in the 3rd century the population was already a million. So people from the entire known world considered this place “the city”. The Hippodrome was the center of this culture, and we saw the Egyptian Obelisk brought in from the Luxor tomb in Egypt and the Serpentine Column brought in from Delphi in Greece, dating from 479 BC. It’s amazing to see that this obelisk has stood for more than two millennia, even with Turkey being right in the midst of 3 tectonic plates that generate huge earthquakes.

We walked from the Hippodrome to our first piece of magnificence, the Blue Mosque. The history of this building in incredible as well, and the name is simply taken from all the blue tiles from Iznik that decorate the interior. Suleyman, our guide, gave us some fascinating background on Islam, and mosques as houses of prayer only. A Muslim doesn’t belong to a particular congregation, he simply goes to a mosque to pray with like minded people at the proper times. The mosque was commissioned by a Sultan during the time when the Ottoman empire was declining, and there was controversy then about the 6 minarets which were said to be a sacrilegious attempt to mimic Mecca. It was huge, and gorgeous, and incredible, no matter. A bit overwhelming.

We then walked across the square to the Hagia Sophia, a much older building, once a Christian church when it was built in the 6th century. At the time, there was nothing in the world of its stature, and it was a place where people came from all over the world to worship. Later it was converted by the Ottoman sultans to a mosque, and much of the Byzantine art mosaics that depicted people, saints, Mother Mary and such, were covered up because images of people are not allowed in Islam. In the 19th century it was restored and some of the mosaics are now visible. It is a place of great wonder, and I overheard one gentleman whispering to his wife, “This has been on my list since college!” I also remember reading much about this particular place in art history classes as an example of Byzantine art, and one of the beginning places of art and culture in the world. Another amazing experience.

For me, though, sensory person that I am, the highlight of the day came as we were leaving Hagia Sophia at prayer time, and the Muzzein call to prayer echoed throughout the squares across the city. It was a moment in time, of really feeling the essence of a place, and knowing that you are in a spot that isn’t on the list of everyday. I am in Istanbul. Istanbul.

We had lunch at a great little place called the Pudding Shop, which as a cafeteria style eatery filled with amazing looking food. I had cheese stuffed zuchinni, a stuffed pepper of some kind with delightful sauces. There was a photo of Bill Clinton on the door, and the owner standing there was very proud that Clinton had been there not just once, but twice. We walked along the streets after lunch, smelling the great smoky smell of roasted chestnuts coming from the street carts, and watching all the people. The place is filled with people and full of life and energy, even though it’s Sunday and some things aren’t open.

The last stop for the day was the Topkapi Palace, palace of the Sultans, on one of the 7 hills of Istanbul, Seraglio Point, where the Golden Horn, the Sea of Marmara, and the Bosphorus straits come together. In Byzantine times, monasteries and public buildings were on this site, and later it became the residence of Sultans for more than 400 years. It is now a rambling museum, filled with glittering collections of the royal treasury including an 84 carat diamond, a collection of sultan’s robes and other treasures. The views of the Bosphorus from the terrace were wonderful, and we looked across from Europe to Asia just across the water. The Straights of Bosphorus are the narrow channel between two continents. Once we leave Istanbul, our travels will be in Asia until we return at the end of the trip to this amazing city that sits in two continents.

Mo and I decided to skip the organized “Istanbul by Night” dinner and dancing and do our own thing instead. After resting for just a bit in our room, we dressed again in something a bit warmer and headed for Taksim Square, and the “pedestrian mall”, the hub of activity in this part of the city. The square is huge, and marked by a MacDonalds and Burger King, but once you are walking down the street, everything changes. We decided to follow our guide’s advice and had dinner at a nice restaurant called “Haci –Baba”, where we had lamb shish and meatballs from the grill and kabob menu. It was refined and delicious, but after we left there we walked down the streets with the throngs of people and saw food that was beyond anything I ever imagined. Especially fun is the way that they have all the cooks making the food in the windows of the restaurants, smiling and laughing with you, and smells wafting out the open fronts of the shops. I read somewhere today that there are only three unique kinds of cuisine in the world, French, Chinese, and Turkish! I am going to have to explore that whole concept a bit further, but for today I just thoroughly enjoyed the wonderful food and incredible atmosphere of this very energetic, cosmopolitan, ancient and fascinating city.

I told Mo today, a couple of times, I do really love this place, it’s incredible. I felt a moment of wonder as we crossed back over the Golden Horn with the mosques and minarets silhouetted against the skies and thought how incredibly lucky we are to have a chance for this kind of experience. It’s like pinching myself, reminding myself, I am in Istanbul. Istanbul!

Flying to Istanbul

5pm west coast time, but at the moment I am somewhere over the Atlantic ocean with Iceland to the north. Who knows what time it is, doesn’t it all become irrevelant when you are flying at 629 miles per hour, at 37000 feet and the outside temperature is -58 degrees?? Funny.

Travel. Great word. Brings to mind all sorts of things like adventurous journeys to amazing places I have never been. Brings to mind journeys in the MoHo, stories I hear about Mo’s travels to so many places in the world, travel. What I always want to do. Road trips. Far places. Exotic countries. One thing, however, is that you do have to get there. Which usually means flying. Travel equals flying. For many very long hours in very small spaces with a whole lot of people.

I used to love to fly. Flying was once a great thrill to me, but after a lot of years of traveling for my government job it has become a bit less dramatic to get in a big metal cylinder and zoom up to 37 thousand feet or so. I have always loved the window seats, I guess it’s the map maker in me, I love to watch the landscapes, the patterns, see how the soil patterns show up on the ground beneath me, identify the peaks and ranges and rivers. It’s a bit sad that I am beginning to think that yeah, maybe an aisle seat isn’t so bad after all. How many times can you fly over the US, trying to see through the pervasive high level pollution and still be thrilled by what is below. Well, maybe a few more times, but I still won’t let myself be completely disappointed by the aisle seats.

We left Jamestown yesterday afternoon for the 3 hour drive to san Francisco, this time staying at the Travelodge in SSF for their great park and fly special. The room wasn’t bad at all, a place to sleep and bathe and get ready for the next day. Dinner at the Hungry Hunter, good food, good wine, and to sleep by 8 for the 3am alarm call. Shuttle at 4. Plenty of time. OK where are we going? Carefully reading our itinerary, we see “international” terminal 3. Mo thinks maybe it should be domestic since we are going to Chicago first, but we rethink perhaps our luggage needs to depart in some sort of international way. Shuttle drops us off, through those doors, he says, and in we go to the emptiest airport I have ever experienced. One tired maintenance worker pushing a cart around, an asian man sleeping on the chairs, and row after row of empty counters. United Airlines international check-in, not a soul. Counters say they open at 7am. Our plane leaves a 6. Hmmm. Must be some kind of mistake, we think, both of us seriously uncomfortable but not sure what else to do. Finally someone says, the counters are supposed to open at 5, and then I spied a pilot and cornered him. In very, very patient, very condescending tones, he asks me, “so what city do you think you are in right now? What city are you going to? You need to go to the domestic counters.” “But our papers say international” I say, trying to stay calm. He says, you are getting a bit late for your baggage, go down those stairs, down to the next terminal, and find the domestic counter.

Off we go, feeling a bit panicky, and a bit frustrated, and after a bit of time, we manage to find the domestic counter, with lines, and helpful people who don’t understand why we are late. We try to check our luggage, and then trying to make sure that it is checked through to Istanbul, the airline person, says, no, it’s just going to franfurt. What?? Panic getting a bit stronger now. She says, “follow me here, we will get this done for you.” Counter person, with a hmph, says you are running a bit late here for the baggage cutoff. Do you have one or two pieces. Just one. Wait Mo has one, is that me with one or me with two? Moana? Oops, I left my ticket back on that last counter. OK we are running now, trying to find the gate and get through the security lines. Sure enough, someone very slow in front of us, someone very large with a lot of stuff and a leg in a brace, he says go in front of me, so Mo goes ahead. Oops, can’t carry your passport folder through the machine, quick drop it in the bin. Whew. Through the xrays. Uhoh. Where is Mo’s passport??? It’s fallen out of the bin and is now caught in the rollers. Hmmm. Where? The rollers???!!! The security person lifts off the rollers, retrieves the passport, Mo tries to get her shoes on, Sue tries to get on shoes while picking up the laptop, and omigosh, where IS that gate anyway. Now we are running, almost running through the airport, looking like all those people I see running through airports and think hmmm, how could they not have planned more carefully. We find the gate. Coffee? Breakfast? Not today. The plane is loaded. We are flushed and rushed and yes, we are on the plane. Whew! What a way to start a trip.

After that very wild start, we had a lovely flight, smooth and on time. Amazing. It was a great time of day to be leaving SF with enough light to see everything but enough darkness for the lights to be twinkling. The bridges were lovely, the pink morning light illuminated everything like magic. In spite of the fact that my hair and clothes were drenched from the run, it was beautiful.

The rest of the day has been fairly simple. Plenty of time in Chicago for a salad and a beer, back on the 777 again, just a couple of seats ahead of our previous flight, this time in the middle aisle, but thank goodness on the aisle. I am knitting, Mo is doing crosswords. The movie was “Mamma Mia” which is fun for both of us since we have a great memory of seeing the live broadway show on a spontaneous travel afternoon in Minneapolis a couple of years ago. Half way through this flight now, to Frankfurt. Hopefully our luggage will keep up with us. Amazingly, there isn’t one single crying baby on this plane! How lucky is that!

Saturday morning we landed in Frankfurt, Germany. There wasn’t any clue about where to go or what to do and when I spoke English to some of the airport personnel they acted truly irritated with me. I was getting a bit intimidated by all of it, and Mo and I walked around a bit before we managed to find someone who could tell us where to go. After flying for so many hours we were beginning to get tired and not a little bit grumpy with all the unknowns. I was surprised at how hard it was for me to feel at all comfortable with the language barrier in Germany. I was also surprised at how little I like the sound of the German language.

We finally found a Haagen Daz store, I had a tiny bit of ice cream, 5 bucks for maybe 4 ounces, but it was nice to have a place to sit and watch people. We discovered that we just had to wait till our departure time was a bit closer before they posted it up on the big board. We had 3 hours to wait in Franfkurt, so of course, there wasn’t anything up on the boards yet. They listed the gate letter but not the gate number and that had the two of us a bit disconcerted for a while for sure. By the time we got on the big airbus headed for Istanbul we were feeling the tiredness of all these hours flying. No matter where you go, you somehow have to get there, and that’s the hard part. It makes the first day seem really hard, so even things that might seem ok are made much worse by the tiredness and exhaustion of the travels. Just forget how things feel on that first day, I guess, just let it go.

Saturday evening at 730 pm Istanbul time
We are here in the hotel Lion waiting for our included dinner after meeting with the group. We managed to get in to the country today in spite of the wild weather that was plaguing most of Germany. As we circled Istanbul, the wild waves whipped up by the winds were dramatic and scary. The passengers cheered the pilot when we landed, it was a scary windy very sideways landing. A visa is required to enter Turkey, and before we left Grand Circle sent lots of documentation regarding how to buy this visa through a private company in advance. With some research however, we learned that you can by the visa when you enter the country. Just be sure to have a crisp new $20 bill. Immediately after getting off the plane you go through the visa gate, hand over your $20 and your passport and you are on your way. Five minutes at the most! Buying our visas and going through customs was completely uneventful once we got of the plane we just followed the signs.

We are here, we are certainly tired, we are ok, safely landed. The hotel smells smoky, it’s a European thing I guess. The room seems very small, and we open our window to look out at our lovely view of another cement building and some heating equipment. As I said, ignore however I feel on the first day of a long flight and just get some sleep. The wonders will begin to appear after that first day is a tiny laughable memory.