Monday, June 11, 2012

Istanbul Day 2: Mosques, Spice Markets and the Aya Sofya

I've had about five hours sleep and I don't do very well on five hours sleep so I'm not sure how coherent this post will be. I apologise in advance.

So. After a nice Turkish breakfast we set out on a walking tour of old Istanbul. Our first visit was to the Blue Mosque, which was just as crowded as the day before, and quite noisy. We recovered in a cafe in the square near the sixteenth-century university, where I tried Turkish coffee for the first time. It is thick, though possibly not quite thick enough to stand your spoon up in (I'd heard you could do this) and comes in a small cup. The coffee is ground up very fine and stirred in so you drink quite a lot of grounds, but it's not as unpleasant as when you drink normal coffee grounds - in fact it's quite nice. At the end you're left with about a centimetre of coffee grounds in the bottom, which you can use to tell fortunes.

The next stop was the Sulaimayne Mosque, which I enjoyed a lot more than the Blue Mosque - far fewer people and richer, more vibrant decorations. The architect considered this mosque his master work and spent a lot of time getting the acoustics right, so when you speak the sound softly echoes around the building. Even with people talking it's very peaceful and you just have to sit and gaze and take it all in. The windows high up around the dome throw light on the gold, red and blue paintwork and white walls, and electric lights glow gold on high ledges and low chandeliers. The garden of the mosque looks out over the city and harbour, and I was amazed at how high we'd climbed.

Back out on the streets we wound through lots of little alleyways and streets with steps. We saw one building covered completely in colourful randomly-applied mosaic tiles, which gave an interesting inside-out bathroom feel, and many ancient-looking walls with ivy holding higgledy-piggledy stones together. Our third mosque of the day was quite small (compared to the previous ones) and reached through a winding medieval staircase. It's called the Rustem Pasa Mosque and is, I think, more deserving of the name Blue Mosque than the Blue Mosque is. The blue tiles in this one are a deep royal blue and come right down to the ground, whereas the ones in the other mosques began above eye-level, I guess to lead your thoughts towards the heavens.

A few more turns through the cobblestones streets and we were at sea level again. Our guide suggested fish-in-bread for lunch, so we picked a brightly painted and gilded boat at the dock and got our fish-in-bread for five lira (a little less than three pounds). The boat was wildly rocking on the wakes of ships going past, to the point it almost looked like it might tip over, and service had to stop until the water calmed again. You'd have to have very good balance to work in that fast-food place. The fish was pretty good, though I seemed to have received the entire group's share of bones and spent a lot of time picking them out from between my teeth.

We had an afternoon full of free time, so we split up. My roommate Kiwi Glamgirl and I took a wander through the spice market and spent a lot of time in one shop where the man poured spices into our hands to sample and let us smell all the beautiful teas. We came out with quite a bit of tea, some spices, Turkish delight and a pepper grinder apiece, and could have bought a lot more (the man told us we were shopping like students when we kept saying 'no! That's enough! Enough!').

We dropped our purchases at the hotel and followed the tram line up to the Aya Sofya, which is the former church-mosque-now-museum straight across from the Blue Mosque. It was built in the fifth century, if my memory's giving me the right info, and is absolutely huge. It's still in the top five biggest religious buildings in the world. The interior was originally covered in mosaics but then plastered over when it became a mosque, but they've uncovered some of them so you can see. The entire building seems to be made of marble and the domed ceiling soars above you - it's so high they had to build it three times before it would stay up. There are lots of Roman arched everywhere, and it was incredible to think that the reason you only see round Roman arches is that they hadn't yet invented pointed arches when they built the Aya Sofya.

We climbed up stone ramps, round and round and round, to get to the gallery where most of the mosaics were and to look down on the vast floor below. As in the other mosques, low-hanging wrought iron frames held sparkling lights and the walls were decorated with flowers and Arabic calligraphy. I tried to get some pictures of the vibrant stained glass windows, but they never seem to show up properly on my camera.

We spent the rest of the afternoon wandering around the surrounding parks and shops (we were given some apple tea by one of the shopkeepers) and sitting on the grass outside Topkapi Palace. We met up with the rest of the group for dinner at a fill-a-plate style cafe, where I had a very rich moussaka, and then walked across the bridge and took pictures of the sunset and peach-lit mosques.

Our guide was very enthusiastic about taking the second-oldest metro on the world up to Taksim. The metro, unlike the oldest metro in London, actually looks like it was built in the nineteenth century, with brick walls and only one carriage. It reminded me very much of the Wellington cable car, because it runs on the same principle: two cars on cables that start at either end of the track and cross in the middle.

This side of the river is more where everyday Istanbulites spend their time, away from the tourists. The are seventeen million people in Istanbul, and while the streets weren't that crowded (I.e. you could walk in a straight line without banging into anyone for most of the time) there were still so many more people than you might expect at nine o'clock on a Sunday night. Most of the people at the cafes and restaurants and bars were men, so I guess the women mostly stay at home.

We climbed many flights of a spiral staircase to get to a roof terrace open to the night sky and had a good time chatting and getting to know our group better. I ordered a mojito in a bottle, expecting it to be mixed with rum or vodka, but it turned out to be a mojito-flavoured beer. I do not like beer. I managed to get through about half of it, concentrating on the mojito taste and not the beer.

By the time we got back to the hostel it was nearing midnight and we had to catch a bus at six-thirty a.m., hence my five hours sleep. I'm now writing this on the bus to Gallipoli (probably should be using this time to sleep... Meh...) and looking out the window at the very New Zealand-esque landscape. Sunnier and drier, though.

(Are we nearly there yet?)

No comments:

Post a Comment

what do you think?