OK, so I didn’t post yesterday.
We flew out of Jerusalem after being delayed for a bit. Pegasus Airlines took us to Istanbul and the line at Passport Control had hundreds of people. Since it was the Sabbath, there were fewer windows staffed. Eventually we got through and purchased shuttle bus tickets to our hotel.
Our airport was on the Asian side of the city. Istanbul, a city of twenty million people, straddle two continents–Asia and Europe. Our hotel was in the old section of Istanbul on the European side. Reaching our hotel necessitated a frustratingly slow commute through the city that was reminiscent of my years in Southern California.
I was immediately impressed with Istanbul. All we ever see or hear on the news is ISIS and Islamic fundamentalism and President Erdogan reaching further into ultra-conservative politics.
The truth is that Istanbul is a dynamic, cosmopolitan city. Freeways are everywhere, clogged with cars. One thing that caught my eye was the landscaping along the expressways. Manicured lawns, flower gardens and shrubbery line the roadway. In Oregon, usually grass is grown and the landscaped areas aren’t maintained terribly well–not like these in Istanbul, anyway.
We crossed the Bosporus and entered the old, historic section. En route, I was enraptured over the atmosphere. Neighborhoods were alive with people walking about, visiting restaurants, shops and cafes. Eateries were virtually everywhere. The candy shops drove me nuts.
Our driver dropped us off at the Family Istanbul Hotel where our host, Erhan, brought us up to speed on what we can expect. He warned us about street vendors and certain restauranteurs. He gave us advice on how to handle the “handlers” on the street who attempt to befriend a person and charm one into an overpriced restaurant.
After we chatted with him and sipped some complimentary tea, we went to our room, unpacked and rested for a short bit before venturing outside for dinner. We were both tired, so we opted for a restaurant right across the street. Our waitress, Esan, was of Kurdish descent and the co-owner of the restaurant with her brother, Vefa.
Esan was one of those people who attracts people to a restaurant. As far as we were concerned, the food could have resembled swamp bilge and we would have loved it. She was fun, flirtatious, wise-cracking. She chatted with us and joked with us. She knew how to approach two traveling men.
We ate outside, sitting next to a Canadian expatriate couple from Amsterdam. Barry had a chicken shishkebab and I opted for a Kurdish casserole-type dish featuring beef, mushrooms, onions and peppers, covered in cheese in a delicious sauce made with Kurdish spices. We each had a couple of beers. The appetizer was pita bread and stuffed vine leaves–a bit different from the stuffed grape leaves I usually eat in the Arab restaurants in Portland.
Dessert was a sesame paste with three different flavors of ice cream. Esan also gave us, gratis, a plate of fruit and some apple tea. After ordering and enjoying a shisha, we retired to our room.
Today, we got up, ready to hit the town. We ate a Turkish continental breakfast at our hotel and walked to the Sultanahmet Mosque and the Blue Mosque. Before entering the Sultanahmet, we were given shawls to wrap around our waists to cover our legs. Women were required to cover their hair and all people had to cover bare shoulders. Shoes were doffed and placed into plastic bags for us to carry. The mosque is considered holy ground which is why we had to change.
Inside, the mosque was beautiful and old and unique. However, we did not spend too much time there. The chandeliers and stained glass were lovely, but there wasn’t a whole lot to see. We exited the mosque to continue our walk.
In the distance, across a beautifully landscaped plaza, we saw the Blue Mosque. The Blue Mosque is a former Christian church built in the First Century A.D. that was converted to a mosque. The irony in this is that, inside, the mosque still features Christian iconography such as mosaics of Jesus Christ, John the Baptist and Mary, the mother of Jesus. Crosses also adorn the mosque.
Inside, painstaking reconstruction is also ongoing to repair centuries of wear on the frescoes and mosaics. And, lest anyone misunderstand, in the main sanctuary of the mosque are enormous medallions with Arabic script indicating that this is, no longer, a Christian church.
After leaving the Blue Mosque, we walked towards the Grand Bazaar. It was closed on this particular day, but will re-open the next at which time we will hit it with a vengeance. We traipsed through the neighborhood to get a feel for the area and get our bearings.
Making a circle, we found ourselves back at the Blue Mosque. From there, we walked eastward to Topkapi which is a famous museum surrounded by a huge, magnificent park. We decided against entering the museum, choosing instead to enjoy a beautiful Sunday walk in a park filled with geranium gardens.
Walking to the very end, we found ourselves at a cliffside tea room overlooking the Bosporus. We sat down and ordered a pot of tea. Sipping it we looked out onto the water and watched freighters, ferries, yachts and windsurfers. To the east lay the Black Sea, Russia and Crimea. To the west, the Mediterranean and my home for the next four months.
After looking over the time we still have, Barry and I opted to add a day to Istanbul. The city is THAT fantastic. Still on our itinerary–a cruise on the Bosporus, the Grand Bazaar, a visit to the Asian side of Istanbul, the Whirling Dervishes and, for me, a few hours in a Turkish bath.