March 7, 2015
We had quite a good sleep, but we didn’t get up very early. About 8:30 am we headed up the three flights of stairs to the terrace, where breakfast was served. The buffet was quite extensive, with everything you might want: Turkish breakfast of olives, cheese, and cucumbers; European breakfast of cheese, bread, and numerous types of jam; and even corn flakes if you wanted them. We had our fill and then went downstairs to get organized for the day.
Our plan was to buy the Museum Card, which gave us admittance to several museums for ₺85 each for the next three days. Having the card also meant that we didn’t have to line up to buy any more tickets, which is a definite bonus. First up was the Topkapı Palace. Luckily we had no lineup at the ticket office, so having bought the cards we walked to the palace entry and went straight in, after putting our bags and the camera through their security machine and walking through their metal detector.
Once in the palace we used Rick Steves’s book to help us navigate through it. Having been the centre of the Ottoman Empire for hundreds of years, it is very large and has a lot of history. So following a guidebook was very helpful. The book suggested starting with the Harem area, so we did that. By using the book’s description plus the museum’s signs we were able to glimpse what the life would have been like back in the days of the Sultans. Most of the rooms were beautifully decorated with tiles, mosaics, painted walls, and doors made with inlays of tortoise-shell and mother-of-pearl.
That took us quite a while, because an Ottoman sultan’s harem was more complicated than you might think. After that there were a couple of rooms full of jewel-studded artifacts, and a couple of rooms full of religious relics. Then there was a special display of calligraphy by one of the 19th-century masters of the art. Islamic calligraphy is based on a very small number of fixed texts, from what we could see, so the art is not in what the text says but in how you illustrate the text. And at the far end was the pavilion of Sultan Ahmed III, who preferred cultivating his tulips to conquering more provinces.
The weather outside was cold and very windy, and unfortunately it wasn’t much warmer inside the buildings. On the way back to the entrance we stopped in at the kitchen displays, but they didn’t have much to say about cooking for the Sultan’s court. Most of what they had on display was elaborate table settings which had been gifts from fellow monarchs. We had entered the palace about 9:30 am, and now it was nearly 1 pm. We were glad that it wasn’t high season, so the crowds were tolerable.
We decided to make a quick trip through the nearby Hagia Irene (“Holy Peace”) before having lunch. It was an important church back in the Byzantine days, but since then it has been used for many secular purposes and it’s just an empty shell. It was quite a let-down after visiting all the beautiful buildings of Topkapı. We were glad that the admission of ₺20 each was covered by our museum cards, as we didn’t think it was worth anywhere near that.
Once again we bought simits for lunch, and sat on a bench in Sultanahmet Park to eat them. Today the wind was colder so we didn’t linger.
Next up was Hagia Sophia, the huge church which had been built by the last of the Eastern Roman emperors. The lineup for tickets was quite long, but with our magic museum cards we skipped right past the lineup and went straight to the security check. Once inside we followed Rick Steves’s advice, which had us go in through the exit. It seemed strange to do that but we did it just the same. By reading his comments we learned the history behind the building and some of the mosaics.
It looked pretty good for a building 1500 years old, and quite a few of the original wall frescos had been recovered from under the plaster the Ottomans had covered them with. Unfortunately there was a huge scaffold covering one whole side of the nave, and you could see there was a lot of work to be done in conserving the paintwork. But despite that, we could still get an idea of how huge the church was. After touring the main floor we headed up the ramp to the upper level. The ramp is an original feature of the church and was made to accommodate the Emperor and other worthies who either rode up it on horseback or were carried up it. From the upper level you could look down to the main floor, so it must have been where the VIPs sat. On this level there were mosaics dating back to the 11th and 12th centuries, and Rick Steves gave us the stories behind some of them.
By now it was almost 4 pm. That was a pretty good day of museum-going, so we headed back to the B&B for a rest. We found that their free coffee machine also dispensed hot chocolate, which was just what we needed after a cold and windy day out. We sat up there in the terrace for a while, developing our plans for tomorrow. About 5:30 pm we decided to go out for dinner. Today it was the Rumist restaurant, just up on the corner of the next street. Last night they had given us a card offering a 10% discount, so we figured we would take them up on that.
Their outside patio had overhead heaters, and was also partly enclosed, so we sat outside. Paul had Saç Tava, which turned out to be a big plate of grilled meat and vegetables, and Rosemary had a European pizza which also came on a big plate. Both means were very tasty and the apple tea at the end of the meal was very good too.
It was still early, so we walked back up to the Sultanahmet Park. The fountain was lit up and so was the Blue Mosque, which made a pretty combination. It was still quite windy and cold but the sky was clearing, so maybe tomorrow we might have blue skies. Back to the B&B we went to write up our journals and have another cup of chocolate before heading off to bed.
Next: More Museums