Wednesday 27th April 2011, Istanbul, Turkey
Last night I was so tired I fell asleep writing up our account of the day. It takes a total of five hours travelling just to get into the city and back which only leaves us a few hours during the day for sight-seeing. So by 7am we were up and preparing to return to the fray. It was easier today. The weather never got warmer than 12 degrees which is far better for walking and today we knew the ropes. This time we continued on the crowded tram beyond the old city right to the banks of the Bosporus, the natural waterway linking the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara and from there, via the Dardanelles, to the Aegean. This was exciting. We stood on its banks and looked across the busy waterway to the rest of the city on the other side. This is where East meets West. Across the water is a different continent – our first ever view of mainland Asia. (Sri Lanka is not mainland.) Ferries and tour boats plied between Europe and Asia while in the distance a suspension bridge linked the two continents. We had the same sense of awe we'd experienced the time we cycled around the Rock of Gibraltar to come face to face with Africa across the Straits and know that it was the meeting point of the new and the old World. Modestine has certainly pushed at the boundaries of Europe.
Turning back inland we climbed the steep and broken streets up to Taksim, a huge square with a park and antique trams that trundle up and down. There was a gathering of mainly men at what appeared to be a political rally with banners and speeches while people were holding bunches of roses. Nearby were several vehicles loaded with riot police who were busy donning flack- jackets and waving their batons. What it was about we never discovered.
From here Istanbul's main pedestrianised shopping street, Istiklal Caddesi, runs gradually down to the Golden Horn, a deep inlet of salt water running into the heart of the city. Along this street, crowded black with tourists and residents, are the imposing palaces and consulates of various nations. There is a French Palace as well as its consulate, likewise for Holland and the Swedish consulate looked almost as large as the official palace of Drottningsholm! The Russian consulate had pictures of Yuri Gagarin displayed outside.
The British consulate was slightly off to one side in a massive building that had been designed by Charles Barry, the architect of the Houses of Parliament. This was not gothic revival though but severely classical in style. Hoping for a coffee and a browse through the Times, as we'd enjoyed when we dropped in to the British Embassy in Bratislava, we trotted round for a look. We were met by high iron gates topped with barbed wire and a notice warning Turkish people to not even think about trying to come to Britain. They'd need to jump through hoops backwards if they attempted to do so through official channels or end up being excluded for ten years if they tried to cut through the red tape and arrive hidden inside a roll of Turkish carpet. "We have ways of finding you and you are not welcome" was the general gist. Feeling a bit ashamed, and realising we'd not be able to read up in the newspapers all the hype about the forthcoming royal nuptials, we slunk away and tried not to look too British.
All along this shopping thoroughfare are shops selling exciting things like nougat, halva, Turkish delight, crystallised fruits, nuts, stuffed figs and sweet sticky cakes stuffed with pistachios and other goodies. There are also souvenir shops selling reproduction tiles, hookahs, fezzes with tassels, silk cushions and of course carpets.
By this time however, our interest was more with the many restaurants selling Turkish cuisine. Not being in the heart of the old city there was far less hassling and visitors were left in peace to peer in at the wide shop fronts at the artistically arranged trays of delicious looking food. Our problem was which to choose, they were all so appetising. In the end we simply pointed to a selection of different dishes and then shared them out between us. It hadn't looked that much but we were struggling to finish it all! The cost worked out at around £5 each. It was a really enjoyable experience and we cannot wait to get back there for lunch again tomorrow! The downside was that our interest in any shop related to the production of foodstuffs was minimal for the rest of the day.
Istanbul, like Rome, is built on seven hills. It feels as if Ian has dragged me up and down most of them over the past two days! All over the city road works are in progress. They think nothing of digging up an entire street, regardless of the businesses that operate there. They don't actually bother to close the street off, but leave pedestrians and motorcyclists to struggle their way through. We found ourselves climbing over protruding drain covers, jumping over deep gullies with pipes running through then, scrambling up and down muddy banks to look in shop windows or to avoid motorbikes treating the road as an assault course and watching, mesmerised as consignments of mineral water and vegetables arrived at the smart restaurants on hand carts heaved over potholes by exhausted delivery lads. Meanwhile workmen shovelled while digger drivers rolled their vehicles back and forth in the mud.
I think we could be excused for thinking every second building in Istanbul is a mosque. There are an enormous number of them. They are not all architectural masterpieces though there are many that are very attractive, sometimes accompanied by Islamic cemeteries with their tall columns as headstones inscribed in the beautiful Arabic script. There are also many tiny ones tucked away in residential corners looking rather neglected. Most of the mosques have at least one minaret, some have up to four. At 5pm a cacophony of sound broke out across the city as the imams called the faithful to prayer. Loud speakers are attached to the top of the minarets and the chanting is broadcast across the city. It is claimed that 98% of Turkey is Muslim and certainly almost all the women we have seen are wearing very prettily arranged headscarves, but we observed almost nobody turn from their everyday lives to respond to the imams' call.
Incidentally, I have been very surprised at how few women there are visible on the streets compared with men. There are young women about, busy travelling to and from work, wearing sober clothes and headscarves. There are young mothers pushing prams sometimes dressed in black robes, their head covering pulled across just below the nose. There are some young Turkish girls wearing completely western clothes with their heads uncovered. There are also middle-aged women in long dark coats and headscarves worn with far less glamour than the younger women. But all together they cannot account for more than 10 - 15% of all the people on the streets. There are men everywhere. Many times I looked around to realise I was the only woman present. It's not in the least uncomfortable however and men and women mix easily, sharing seats in buses and squashed together in the metro.
With so many mosques it was a strange feeling to enter the large gothic Christian church of Saint Anthony. Unremarkable in any western town, with its gothic windows, vaulted roof, altar and plethora of saintly statues it impressed by contrast to the domed cupolas, flowered tiles and geometric shaped glass of the mosques. Outside was a statue of Pope John XXIII stating that he was a friend of the Turkish people.
On our way down we passed the Galata Tower. This was built by the Genoese in 1349. They had received special privileges from the Byzantines for assistance when the city was sacked by the crusaders and established a tradition for the area north of the Golden Horn – safely away from the Sultan's palace – to become an enclave for many European nations. That explains the many consulates that we found and the many styles of European architecture from neo-gothic to art nouveau that line the main streets in what was then known as Pera but is now the district of Beyoğlu. It has made today such a contrast with the much more oriental feel of the Sultanahmed district we visited yesterday.
Eventually we found ourselves down at Galata Bridge across the Golden Horn. The higher level carries the road and pavement while the lower level is crowded with shops and little restaurants from where one can look across to the Asian side of the city. The sea beneath was swarming with large jelly fish while right across the bridge fishermen were trying to catch something for supper. Some had a few sardine-sized fishes swimming in buckets but the best catches were being made by enterprising young men with large trays of food they were selling to the hungry fishermen and by an itinerant tea seller with a couple of large thermos jugs, a box of sugar cubes and some plastic cups. At 1tl a cup he had no shortage of customers.
Soon we found ourselves back in the old heart of the city where we'd been yesterday. It was just as frantic today. Following the tram track, we slowly made our way back to the metro station. Along the way we discovered the once splendid Sirkeci Station, terminus of the Orient Express until 1977, when it ceased running. Such romantic connotations! How exciting that we've driven here in our own vehicle! There was a nice little free museum on the platform full of artefacts from the train – everything from menus and crockery to clocks, lamps and engine pieces. There were also photos and ledgers documenting the architecture of the station and the history of the Orient Express.
After the long metro journey to the bus terminal we were delighted to see the conductor from our bus of yesterday morning. He recognised us and waved, beckoning us to his bus and calling out "Selimpaşa." How nice in a city of well over 15 million people (compared to London's 9 million) to see a friendly face and be recognised!
It was well over an hour later that we finally reached Selimpaşa after a white-knuckle ride where the driver kept his thumb almost permanently pressed on the horn. It was rush hour and our route out of the city was snarled solid. That did not stop everyone from continuing to squeeze forward or jostle for any inch of road that momentarily became free. Everyone hooted everybody else and I was just so glad not to be driving. We'd got seats at the terminus but latecomers were less fortunate and were squashed down the centre isle like sardines in a tin.
By the time we left the bus it was teeming with rain. First we got soaked climbing up over the exposed bridge to cross the highway. Then in the town the streets were running water, filling the many potholes. With no drains, no proper pavements and lots of accumulated mud, dust and rubble, passing vehicles were spewing up unbelievable waves of mucky water.
Too weary to cook and not being particularly hungry this evening we stopped at one of the scruffy restaurants to investigate taking something simple back to heat up for supper. All the staff came out to look at us and be helpful. We have far better Turkish than they have English – and that's about ten words by now. No way could we work out how to communicate that we wanted to take their food away. In the end we gave up, pointed at some stuffed aubergines and sat down. So they served us there, with the addition of bread and water. When we'd finished they wouldn't bring the bill. Something was going on but we couldn't understand what. Eventually a man arrived from a different shop carrying a tray with two little glasses of hot Turkish tea on pretty saucers. Food belongs to one business and drink to another. The food shop wanted to treat us to tea as a friendly gesture so sent out to have it made and delivered for us!
Back at the campsite Ismail signed to ask if we'd had a good day. Ian was delighted when he understood his explanation that we'd walked across the city from Taksim Square to Aksaray, the metro terminus. One of the words we've picked up is "yaya" which means "on foot".
Friday 29th April 2011, Istanbul, Turkey
Believe it or not we are still here! Yesterday we "mopped-up" some of the rest of Istanbul, nipping over to Asia for lunch and back in the afternoon to explore the Topkapi Palace. So weary were we last night that we could not face writing up about the day or editing the seventy photos Ian took. So we ate a not very good value supper of green beans with tomatoes and rice down in Selimpaşa and returned to a deserted campsite in the dark where we opened the wine and settled to watch a Catherine Cookson dvd. This morning we realised it is the day of the Royal Nuptials and all of Britain is having a holiday. So why not us? We slept until 9.30, wallowed in hot showers and we are spending the day monopolising the campsite washing machine and doing all the things we should have done last night.
Although we have spent so much time travelling each day we don't feel it was time wasted. We've seen so much more of the everyday lives of those who live here than most foreign visitors who see nothing more than the beautiful tourist heart of the city. And indeed, more than our fellow campers who have been arriving here with large camper vans and assorted pets. One monstrously huge German vehicle arrived with three dogs, spent two days without seeming to come outside their van and then disappeared. Do they then drive home and tell people they've been to Istanbul? During the three days we've been using public transport into Istanbul we've very rarely encountered any West European or American visitors yet French, German and Dutch, as well as American accents can be heard everywhere in the historic quarter. Less frequently too we've also heard English.
The cities, and what countryside we've seen so far in Turkey, are not pretty. The landscape does not heal quickly after it has been ripped open to lay roads, build blocks of high-rise flats, bridges and shopping centres. The buildings are completed but the debris is simply left creating dust, dirt and rubble. Everywhere around here looks scruffy and dirty but to be honest, it's not really rubbish but rubble that is the eyesore. Generally there is not too much litter and street cleaners are active all the time around the city. We've also seen them out along the roadside verges clearing litter. In Selimpaşa they actually sort rubbish for recycling – at least there are slots for different types of rubbish but they all go into the same container so they are slow learners! The other very positive thing to be said is that graffiti is not such a big problem here. This is one of the world's largest cities yet we've seen almost no defacing of signs and buildings.
Taking Istanbul and its commuter agglomeration the population is somewhere between 15 and 25 million! There is not room to accommodate that number of people in the centre, so from 50 kilometres out, where we are staying, the roads are chaotic carrying millions of vehicles daily into and out of the centre. Public transport is crammed beyond belief. Commuter trains into London are nothing to what we have seen and experienced here jolting along the arterial roads. With so many vehicles throwing out CO2 gases, on an overcast day like yesterday, pollution levels at peak times must be phenomenal. Yesterday on the bus coming home a fog began to form as we left the city centre. It became thicker until the tops of all the buildings disappeared and even illuminated shop signs became ghostly glows through the fog. Still the traffic screamed, twisted and turned, fighting and hooting for every inch of space on the road, their headlights glaring through the gloom of late afternoon. Even back here the sky was black with a dirty mist by 7pm.
Okay, so back to yesterday.
For me one of the most exciting dreams about coming to Istanbul was to cross the Bosporus and set foot in Asia having travelled all the way from Exeter in our own vehicle. Unfortunately we've not been able to take Modestine all the way. There are a couple of car ferries crossing but we saw no camper vans and every vehicle unloading was Turkish so I don't feel too much of a failure not daring pierce to the very centre of the city.
Instead, we took the foot ferry across. There were tourist boats taking passengers along the waterfront, up towards the Black Sea and back but not landing on the far shore. For a fraction of the price we crossed the Bosporus to land at Usküdar. Where else in the world is it possible to cross the water from one continent to another for the equivalent of 70 pence? The journey gave us wonderful views of both banks of the Golden Horn, the slender suspension bridge across the Bosporus and, just off the Asian shore the Kiz Kulesi or Maiden's Tower, also known as Leander's Tower, perched on a tiny island. The legend goes that a maiden, whose death by a snake bite had been foretold, retired to the safety of this island only to have the snake delivered in a basket of fruit.
Our arrival into Asia was just like a Michael Palin documentary. This may still be part of Istanbul but to me it felt rather different. The noise was astonishing. A pile driver on a boat was beating the hell out of the seabed while above that, from the minarets sticking up like pencils all over the city, came the broadcast call to prayer at midday. To this add the sound of all the car horns and the metal wheels on cobbles of the delivery boys, their handcarts loaded with soft drinks and water containers.
Immediately facing us as we left the ferry was Mihrimah Camii, one of Sinan's early mosques. It is far smaller and less ornate from inside than the ones we saw in Sultanahmed but quite charming and obviously very much the active, beating heart of the local community. Unusually, it has three semi-domes, because of the terrain, and the exterior has exceptional decorative carving. The minaret is particularly ornate. It was the time for prayer and today many people seemed to be entering the mosque, some washing their feet and mouths beforehand at the ornate fountain. When we looked inside a little later we found the imam, dressed in white, sitting on the carpet facing the worshippers and chanting. He later addressed them with a homily. Dozens of barefooted men were kneeling before the mihrab (niche indicating Mecca and the direction of prayer), regularly bending forward to touch the ground with their foreheads. To one side was a screened area with a grill behind which the women worshipped. My place was in there so I left Ian and joined the ladies, either wearing headscarves (like me) or completely covered in a long black robe. They too were kneeling and touching the ground. We both knelt but not understanding anything we felt intrusive and left, the words of the Imam accompanying us on the tannoy system from the top of the minaret as we replaced our shoes, crossed the courtyard and rejoined the noisy street.
There are several other notable mosques in the area as well as small Islamic cemeteries. One, Yeni Valide Camii dates from 1710 and contains the remains of the mother of Sultan Ahmed III. The tomb adjoins the mosque and is covered by a decorative metal cage designed to allow the rain to pass through to water the shrubs but deter animals.
Seeing a lively market across the road we took our lives in our hands and managed to dodge across between the buses, taxes and lorries. This was so much more real than the massive Grand Bazaar back in the Sultanahmed district across the water which is geared mainly for tourists and is a mega money spinner. This was for the people who live here with stallholders selling fish, meat, offal, fruit and vegetables, nuts and sweetmeats, spices and herbs. A tea seller carrying an enclosed metal tray with a tall curved handle was delivering tiny glasses of hot, sweet tea on brightly decorated saucers to the stallholders. At the fish stall customers selected their own - sometimes live – fish and threw them across the counter to the stall holder who caught them, one by one, in a bowl to weigh and prepare.
Backstreets still contain a number of old wooden houses. Entire streets seem to specialise in particular goods. Thus every shop seems to sell different things connected with motor vehicles, while round the corner, shops sell plumbing equipment. Across the way are the food shops and further on the restaurants and cafes.
Back on the busy main street we were lured into a cake/savouries shop where we were served with some sort of white cheese pancakes with pickled salad and rather tasteless spinach pies (not a patch on the Greek ones.) Ian then succumbed to the sticky cakes and selected a chocolate sponge and mousse sensation filled with nuts, covered with chocolate icing and dusted with green, crushed pistachios. Regrettably he couldn't manage it entirely on his own and I was obliged to help him out. I confirm that it really was as nice as it looked.
We've wondered how the covered Islamic ladies cope in cafes when their head covering is pinned together beneath their noses to conceal their mouths. We've never seen them at tables in public. However, in this little restaurant I encountered one in the ladies room. She had to semi de-robe before using the cramped facilities. Beneath her wrappings she was wearing black trousers and a long black top, but she has arms and elbows just like me. I lingered over scrubbing my hands in the communal area, watching in the mirror as long as possible, but she was determined not to remove her head covering until she had the entire area to herself. She firmly shut the door behind me as I left. It does seem to me to be such a very strange way of life.
Ian was eager to return to the Sultanahmed district. The Topkapi Palace had been closed on Tuesday and it is one of the sights of the city not to be missed. So we returned back to Europe, away from the oriental side of the city, back to its touristy western side.
The opulence and beauty of the Topkapi Palace, with its tiled walls, painted domes, carved marble fountains and Ottoman baroque pavilions exceeds in size and grandeur even the hitherto pinnacle of architectural beauty for me, the Alhambra of Granada. It was constructed on the point of land to the south of the Golden Horn as the main palace of the sultans by Mehmet the Conqueror shortly after he captured Byzantium in 1453, and was added to over the centuries. Its several hundred rooms are arranged round four main courtyards, the outermost of which was always open to the public.
The Otkapi gate leads through to the second courtyard, lined to the south with the twelve kitchens, two of which were used for making sweets and halva. To the north of the courtyard is the Divan or Council chamber which takes its name from the long couch which runs around its walls. The Sultan would eavesdrop on the deliberations of the Council through the "eye of the Sultan " a grille between the rooms. The many rooms of the harem, the quarters for the women and the "Cage" where heirs apparent were incarcerated, their minds numbed by the indulgent lifestyle, are also here but closed before we could visit them.
The third courtyard includes the Treasury which attracted the most visitors and demonstrates the showy opulence of the court. There were baskets of enormous gemstones, which were also incorporated into jewel-encrusted gold objects such as goblets, swords and daggers, best known perhaps the Topkapi Dagger which featured in the film Topkapi with Peter Ustinov with is three enormous emeralds, one of which conceals a watch. It was made as a present for the Shah of Persia but was never delivered after news of the Shah's death. Almost fading into insignificance beside this mega-bling was the Order of the Garter presented to the Sultan by Queen Victoria.
On the other side of the same courtyard were the relic rooms and Sultan Selim the Grim managed to get a rich haul of them when he conquered Egypt in 1517. They ranged in time from the prophet Abraham's cooking pot, to the staff of Moses, the sword of King David and part of the skull of John the Baptist. This last was especially intriguing as we have previously seen the complete skull of John the Baptist in Amiens Cathedral! There were also various containers of hairs from the Prophet Muhammad's beard, one of his teeth (which we can add to our collection of dental relics which also includes the tooth of the Buddha in Kandy and assorted Christian saints scattered across Europe.) More authentic (probably) are the swords of the first Caliphs and locks from the holy Kabah in Mecca.
In the middle of the courtyard are the throne room and, much more to our taste, the library of Ahmed III, beautifully tiled, the books behind grills and with massive divans to lounge on. Reading must have been a hedonistic experience to rival the pleasures to be enjoyed in the harem.
The fourth courtyard is scattered with pavilions, some of them grouped round a pool with gardens and terraces offering spectacular views across the Bosporus to the Asian shore and along the Golden Horn. Among the pavilions are the Baghdad Pavilion erected by Murat IV after the conquest of Baghdad in 1638. The custodian on duty was so obviously in love with its beauty, which he wanted us to share, almost pleading for us to take a photo of the mother of pearl cabinets and painted dome ceiling. We also saw the Pavilion of Mustafa Paşa, glittering in gilt decoration, the Mecidiye Pavilion, the last to be built, in a very baroque style and the magnificently tiled Circumcision Pavilion, where the operation was performed on the young princes. The marble pool, now so beautifully tranquil, was the scene of debauched revels by various sultans, including Ibrahim the Mad. Emerging dangerously insane after 22 years incarceration in the cage, he ordered in a fit of madness the execution by drowning in the Bosphorus of 280 of the concubines of his harem. Only one survived, picked up by a passing French ship. How very different from the home life of our own dear Queen!
Time defeated us and the prospect of the long trip home made us hasten towards the crowded tram. Given the pressure on time available we feel we have at least gleaned something of the atmosphere and culture of the amazing city.
Today, having washed and dried a couple of machine loads of washing and spent the morning sorting out a substantial backlog of blogs, we drove down into Selimpaşa for a long session at the internet cafe, which we shared with a large section of the youth of the town, busy fighting vicious war games on almost all of the computers. First though we went to the post office for stamps to England, France and Germany. Almost everything we ever need here seems to cost exactly one Turkish lire (tl), be it a loaf of bread, a bottle of milk, a cycle of the washing machine, a session on the internet or, in this case, a stamp for England. I'm sure they make the prices up to be convenient. It's so much easier to stick one finger up at us than try to explain its actual price.
Selimpaşa is the world capital of hardware shops. There are at least eight of them clustered around the centre. I've always loved such shops, full of useful widgets, bolts and screws, bags of cement, washing bowls, mops and brooms and countless bits of rubber tubing of various lengths and diameters. Outside one Ian discovered a different manhole cover. The puzzled shop keeper came out to investigate why he was photographing something so mundane. Ascertaining we were English he spoke to us in German on the off chance of us understanding. After a few minutes friendly chat where I explained Ian was harmless and Ian told him all about the joys of collecting photos of manhole covers from all around the world the shopkeeper invited us to join him for a tea or coffee. We really are not sure how to react to such gestures. Normally we'd say "Jawohl" with alacrity but after our experience with the Turkish couple in Alexandropouli who offered us the use of their house we are cautious. In any case, we were pressed for time at the internet shop. We said how delighted we were to have been invited but that we were on our way to access the internet and time was a little short. He was very friendly about it and directed us to the nearest place, so I think we didn't cause offence. According to our travel book it's usual to refuse the first invitation but accept the second so I guess we did the right thing. We'll be gone tomorrow so have lost our chance now.
Accessing my email I finally found a reply from my car insurance people who tell me I am not insured to take Modestine into Asia, only to the European part of Turkey. What wallies not to tell me that when they issued me with an international green card for Turkey! There is absolutely nothing anywhere in any documentation to say so. I could have been driving all the way to the border with Iraq, Iran, Azerbaijan, Georgia or Syria in blissful ignorance. As it is, we cannot take Modestine to the places we'd planned to visit and will need to think up a different strategy.
Our next adventure was at the local supermarket. It was a little disappointing in some ways but comforting in others. Yes, we can buy Nutella, Knorr soups, petit beurre biscuits and Earl Grey teabags. No, we cannot buy pork chops and wine costs a lot more than the tradition 1tl. Other things are much the same. UHT milk is exactly the same and quite a few brand names were very familiar. We purchased essentials so are well stocked for emergencies as we move on from here to more rural surroundings tomorrow where we have no idea what to expect from any of the shops we may find.
I am indebted to Ian for writing up much of the section on the Topkapi Palace when my brain suffered a bout of overloading. We are both indebted, as always, to our Lonely Planet guidebook, our laptop Encyclopaedia Britannica and the various free handouts we manage to scrounge as we wander about.