Merhaba (Welcome) to Istanbul!
Today I was out and about in Istanbul. I wanted to see some things but not go too crazy, so I planned my strategy carefully. I would take a taxi from my hotel to the Sultanahmet (Old City) area. I would then see the Hagia Sophia (the number one thing to see in Istanbul), cross the street to see the Basilica Cisterns, take the trolley for a 5 minute ride to get to the Egyptian Spice Market and then cross the street to catch the public ferry which crosses the Bosphorous waterway to get from Europe to Asia. Not totally ambitious, but enough to see and do some important things and finish at just about the time the terrible Istanbul rush hour begins.
Istanbul is a great value now. Why? Because people are spooked about several explosions in public areas since January. But as the great Warren Buffett says, “When people are scared, be greedy”. Not to downplay the severity of these events, but most were in the capital city of Ankara (several hours away on the Asian side of Turkey) or near the border with Syria. One was near Taksim square in the New City (where I was not going) and one was in the Old City (where I would be going). Then again, no one abandoned New York City after 9/11 or Boston after the marathon bombings, so if you don’t go, they win. And since many were spooked, the 5* Hilton hotel where I am staying goes for about $100 dollars per night (in a beautiful room which would be well over $500 per night in Manhattan). And there was virtually no line to enter the Hagia Sophia, an attraction which generally has a line a quarter mile long. With this in mind, I set out.
The Hagia Sophia (Church of the Divine Wisdom in English) is one of the world’s great attractions. Originally built as a Christian Church, it was converted to a mosque by the Ottomans when they conquered Constantinople (Istanbul) and is now a museum. The tile work done by the Ottomans is beautiful as are the paintings of Mary and the Archangels done by the Christians. The size of the Hagia Sophia is overpowering. There are two columns brought from the Roman temple to Artemis at Ephesus. And the marble provides a welcome relief from the hot Istanbul sun.
Across the street from the Hagia Sophia are the Basilica Cisterns.These were built and used by the Romans about 1500 years ago to store water. They are underground, dark and mysterious. These also provide a welcome relief from the heat. There are upside down Medusa heads on the base of the columns which the Romans believed would protect the cisterns and the city. They are upside down and the eyes are closed so they would not harm any of the good people looking at them. The cisterns were basically abandoned by the Ottomans who preferred running water to stagnant water stored under the ground and they were only restored and reopened a few years ago. Well worth the visit!
I try to avoid bazaars, so I opted to not visit the Grand Bazaar, which is a labyrinthine maze of shops selling cheap Chinese goods and full of cigarette smoke from the ubiquitous Turkish smokers. I did however, visit the Egyptian Spice Market, which is a much smaller bazaar selling dried fruit and nuts, spices and the famous Turkish delights sweets (I could not resist!) You will be offered so many samples that you will be full, but buy some anyway as the craving comes back real soon!
I then took the public ferry to Kadikoy on the Asian side of Istanbul.It was one of the things I had always wanted to do. The boat ride is about 20 minutes and has amazing views of the Bosphorus (the waterway between Europe and Asia), the sea of Marmarmis, the Asian side of Istanbul and the Old City on the European side. Upon alighting, I walked to the famous Ciya Kebab house where I had mouthwatering lamb Shish Kebab and some of the delicious Turkish bread which comes to you looking like an inflated, small pillow until you pierce it and all of the smoke comes out.
Having eaten, I quickly walked back to the ferry back to the European side and from there it was a short taxi ride back to my hotel before the horrendous Istanbul rush hour began (during which you will literally not move).
So if you ask me if I can cross the Bosphorous, I say of course-erous and do!