Thursday, March 8, 2012

Turkish Delight

View from our window
Not a great title, but I was out of ideas. The truth is, Istanbul is a sensory overload.

A couple of weeks ago, we took a little jaunt to Istanbul over a long weekend. We barely scratched the surface of all there is to see, do, and understand about the city and its layer upon layer of history, but the little taste we got was delightful. We're glad that it's only an hour's flight from Sofia.

We were lucky to have enjoyed a stay in the Empress Zoe Hotel, thanks to a gracious gift from some of Phil's family; what an awesome little place. It's tucked right in the heart of Sultanahmet, which is great, especially if you only have a short time and want to be very central to many of the main sights. We spent our first evening out on the town with a friend of a friend who took us to hear some great music and to see some of the night life along Istiklal street.

On our first day, we did what any first time visitor would do: we visited Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque. The Hagia Sofia is incredible; no longer serving as a church or a mosque, it is a museum dedicated to its own history as both of those. A pretty great metaphor for the city itself. We also saw this sulky seraphim on the ceiling and found him hilarious.

 Item #2 on the must-hit list, of course, were the bazaars. I found Grand Bazaar to be uninteresting; it's chaotic in an overcrowded-mall kind of way, and the goods seemed like they were made in China, but the Spice Market was good fun.  We stocked up on lots of great things we haven't found as easily here in Sofia: hot curry, whole spices like cardamom and coriander, garam masala, and some great dried fruit.

Aside from that, we took some super-walks through various neighborhoods, some of which we
Inside Hagia Sophia
planned to visit and others of which we stumbled upon. The walk from Sultanahmet through the neighborhood of Topkapi Palace, across Galata bridge and over to Galata Tower, arriving in Beyoglu, was a lesson in itself. Coming from a city full of right angles, I found myself forever turned around in Istanbul, but there is a lot of fun in taking the wrong street there.

I think I speak for both of us when I say that, at least for people who haven't woken up next door to a mosque all our lives, the call to prayer is very haunting, and while walking around the city, you can hear it spreading from mosque to mosque, as if in a round. The city's secular life is very vibrant, and so hundreds of people carry on without paying any attention to the call, but there were a couple of places where a waiter told us, "Sorry for the slow service!! I'm here alone--everyone went to pray!!"

 One of the most amazing things about the city was how everyone we encountered seemed to have the gift of gab. Even when it was abundantly clear that we were not, under any circumstances, buying a carpet, not in that store, not in any store we passed, regardless of how authentic the woman in the window doing the weaving looked, people continued to draw out the conversation, finding other ways to engage us such that, many minutes after we had stated our firm resolve and cast our inscrutable New Yorker glance, we found ourselves still there chatting with the person--with whom, at this point, we were on a first-name basis. In the square off of Hagia Sophia (the Hippodrome), we spent at least 15 minutes with Erol, who plied his magic on us with such memorable lines as, "Where are you from? Must be Texas; your eyes look like Texas eyes..." He told us about a favorite teacher from when he was young and how he had searched for her on the internet to say hello, but to no avail. He seemed genuinely sad about this. We didn't buy a carpet, but we did seriously consider swinging by his shop.
Overlooking the plaza around the Spice Market

We didn't make it to the Asian side this time, nor did we get to any of the other towns along the coast. Anyone who has some good Istanbul tips for our next visit, send us a suggestion; the list keeps growing.

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