March 6, 2015
After two long flights totalling about 18 hours, we arrived in İstanbul at 9 am on a cloudy morning. The immigration officers were joking with each other and eating breakfast, and barely looked at us while stamping our passports. Our flight was about half an hour early, so we had to wait a bit for our shuttle driver to appear. When he did, we were his only passengers so we trailed behind him as he walked very quickly to the car park.
The traffic into the city was quite light, so it didn’t take very long to arrive at the Marmara Guesthouse, our home for the next few days. Luckily our room was ready, so we were able to leave our bags in the room rather than the lobby. Both of us were quite tired but we decided to go out and explore, rather than having a nap. The B&B is in the Sultanahmet area, just down the hill from the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia. It’s in a tiny side street but the next street up is nothing but hotels and restaurants, so it’s in a fairly busy area.
So we walked up to the main tourist area to have a look. We decided we would not go into any of the mosques or museums today, but just wander around getting our bearings. Up at Sultanahmet Park we bought two simits (bagel-like pastries with sesame seeds) for lunch and sat on a bench to eat them. While we were there, two women came along with food for the dogs in the park. Apparently the dogs are feral, but they all had plastic tags in their ears so it looks like somebody takes care of them.
Our first stop near Hagia Sophia was an elaborate building housing the Ahmet III Fountain. This is an early 18th century structure which has a fountain on each façade. The walls are elaborately gilded with tiles and calligraphy. Its original purpose was to provide drinking water to travellers; there are many of these fountains around Turkey but most of them are not nearly as lavish as this one. From here we wandered down the main cobbled road which in its previous life was the Hippodrome, where chariot races took place in the 4th century. Along the middle of the Hippodrome there are three obelisks, the oldest of which dates back to about 1500 BC. On several occasions we were approached by men in suits who started out by explaining the area but inevitably ended by inviting us to their carpet shops. We got quite good at saying “no” and walking away.
The Blue Mosque was closed now, because it was Friday and there were services going on. So we walked on and found the Basilica Cistern. We paid the ₺20 admission fee and went down into the cistern. A giant underground water tank, it dates back to the 6th century, when Emperor Justinian ruled. When it was in use it held up to 80 million liters of fresh water. The ceiling is made of domed brick sections held up by 336 marble columns. Some of the columns are carved and others plain. It was rather picturesque, with lights illuminating each of the columns. After the Eastern Roman Empire collapsed, incredibly the people living there forgot that they had a giant underground tank of water the size of two football fields, and it wasn’t rediscovered for over 1,000 years!
It was still early afternoon, so we went for a walk along the shore of the Bosporus. The coastline was made up of big black boulders, with a pathway for people to walk along. From time to time we passed groups of men hanging out on the rocks, and there were feral cats all over the place. The Bosporus was full of boat traffic, from big ships going upriver to commuter ferries zipping back and forth, a black submarine flying the Turkish flag, and a put-putting fishing boat which was travelling at our walking pace.
At the end of the walkway we came to Gülhane Park, which is outside of the Topkapı Palace. The trees were still bare but there were pansies flowering and a few birds chirping in the trees. The park is supposed to have a good view down the Bosporus and it does, sort of. The restaurant on the point has the best view. But it was pleasant walking through the park beside the forbidding walls of Topkapı. The path led us out of Gülhane and back over the hill to Hagia Sofia.
Next to Hagia Sofia was a group of five buildings which were the tombs of various sultans and their families. Each of them had a fenced-off central area which contained green felt-covered A-frames of varying sizes; presumably the largest was for the sultan. The inside walls of each building were covered in tiles with a variety of patterns. The predominant colour was blue, and in one of the tombs the walls were decorated with coral-red İznik tiles. We finished up at 4 pm, and they were closing the doors of the compound where the tombs were located, so the guard had to let us out.
By now we were both hungry, so we decided to have an early dinner. As we walked by each of the many restaurants, someone from the restaurant would try to entice us in. Finally we gave in, accepting the offer of free pita bread with hummus and free tea after the meal. (Probably everybody gets those “freebies”, but whatever…) The meals were quite good—Rosemary had chicken on sticks and Paul had İskender kebap, which has tomato sauce and yogurt on it. After dinner we felt as if our clocks were reset, and we managed to stay up until after 9 pm before going to bed.