Monday, June 27, 2011

Istanbul the city of wonders.

A short flight took us from Athens to the wonderful city of Istanbul. I say wonderful because Istanbul, a city of over 13 millions, has everything to make you dream from its rich past of Sultans, flying carpets, spices, religious monuments and the last but not the least; the Turks themselves who are warm, welcoming and very pleasant people. In this post I don’t have much to say but lots to show. So here’s a string of pictures with short comments and explanation to show you the colors of this city we will never forget. On this first picture you have a view of the European side of Istanbul and the river in the middle is what is called the Golden Horn which is not the Bosphorus that separates the city between Europe and Asia and leads to the Black Sea.

The Blue Mosque is probably the number one feature monument in Istanbul. This huge monument finished in 1617 is an active mosque and consequently the entrance is free of charge but also requires a proper attire to come inside.

Food is obviously a treat in Istanbul. First the baklavas. Usually you’ll find three to four varieties of baklavas to satisfy your palate but here they have entire shops dedicated to that treat and other sweets. We are talking about tens of different baklavas, and fruit squares! Ice cream is also something of trademark in the city of Sultans. You don’t just go ask for a cone, pay and leave just like that. The vendor in his traditional Turkish costume will play with his 3 feet (1m) long spoon, ring the bells, play with you to make you laugh and then you have your cone. A bit expensive but very good gelato. Another treat was these huge pretzels. As a matter of fact we had a hard time stopping Claudette from trying everything unhealthy sold on the street ;-)

Just next to the Blue Mosque was the famous Ahia Sophia (Ayasofya) built in A.D 537 and was first a Christian church then later modified as a mosque and is now a museum. Yet the duality of the two religious trends still remains as you can see on the first picture. In foreground is the stairs leading to the minbar where the Imam talks to the followers during the prayers while in the background painted on the roof dome are Holy Marie and Jesus! It is a crude contrast from what we saw in Egypt for instance.

One cannot go to Istanbul and miss the Grand Bazaar the pinnacle of shopping and mercantile trades. It is not a building, nor a street, nor a shopping mall but an entire section of the town covering many square kilometers. A huge section is a covered building but the shopping area now extends way beyond the walls of the original Bazaar. One thing that we may not be used to is the fact that for Turks it is the tradition to offer to customers a complementary glass of tea while discussing the deal. At first it is disorienting but we get used to it after awhile.

While in the Bazaar I couldn’t resist buying one of these beautifully handcrafted wooden backgammon boards you can find here in Turkey. The funny thing is that Danielle and I didn’t completely remembered the rules of that game when we sat in a cafĂ© for a Nescafe (that’s what they called the kind of coffee we drink in western countries) and started a game. Playing backgammon in coffee and tea shops is quite common in this part of the world so nobody cared or so we thought. After less than ten seconds of playing and trying to remember the rules we were already surrounded by Turks interested in the game and quickly giving us advices on how to play. Of course the fresh varnish look of our new board also attracted the attention. Then this gentleman taught us the local game they play here, which is a bit more complex than the basic one, and I had the chance to play a couple of games with him and receive genuine advices about the game. The thing about backgammon is that the rules maybe extremely simple but the strategy and the skills to develop are huge. So no need to say that I miserably lost but it was nevertheless very enjoyable.

One night we went to a Turkish traditional dance show. The ten dancers gave us a good performance and we had an enjoyable evening.

The Basilica Cistern is an underground water reservoir built to store massive amounts of water to supply the city in times of drought or siege.

Although 98% of Turks are Muslims Sunday is the official day off and here is a picture of a street just adjacent to the Grand Bazaar on Sunday morning. We would have had a hard time walking in this street on any other days.

Topkapi Palace is where the Sultans used to live. We could see many of the different sections of the palace but the two most impressive were the harem, where at its most crowded housed up to 800 of the Sultan’s wives, and the treasure rooms where we saw a 64 carats diamond among many other pieces of jewelries displayed as a testament of the enormous wealth of the Sultans.

Finally we couldn’t finish this post without underlying the friendliness of the Turks who literally bend backward in restaurants and other services places to please the visitors and making their visit of the magic city an unforgettable experience. Talking like that I should really think writing travel guides!