Rising early, I wanted to see the Hippodrome in its full glory. It’s a massive square with a huge ancient race track circling it, so I wanted to stand there without another soul and imagine what it may have been like a thousand years ago when gladiators whipped their chariots around the cobblestones and their win or a loss could mean the end of a Byzantine emperor’s rule. In the ottoman years it became the centre for revolution beginnings. Stepping out into the street I was met by grey skies and drizzling rain. And it was cold. I dashed back into the room for jacket and brolly – it’s amazing how warm the Istanbul buildings are, inside anything more than a cardie was too hot to wear. Back outside I traipsed the quiet streets, there was only a couple of people about, a chap opening his corner store and another sweeping the road. Istanbul is exceedingly clean, for a city of its size I was surprised to see so little rubbish in the areas we had so far ventured into. I arrived at the Hippodrome and found it quiet. And indeed incredible in size and aura. The obelisks seem to soar into the sky and the rain didn’t dampen their splendour, if anything it highlighted their features giving the hieroglyphics depth and sharpness. The mosque was gently bustling with locals going in reverently to prayers and coming out in quite chatter.
At the top of the Hippodrome I came across a gazebo with decorative dome in gold mosaic and featuring Islamic calligraphy motifs. At first I thought it was tomb but discovered it was a fountain, gifted to the city of Istanbul in 1901 by Kaiser Wilhelm. Istanbul has a plufluoa of fountains, large and small, many beautifully decorative and most of them although looking antiquated are still working. The drizzle was now starting to move into rain and so I made haste past the park where to my surprise the tour busses were starting to arrive. It was only just coming up to 8am. Across from the fountain towards the Aya Sofya I noticed something blue and white being inflated, like a giant balloon but I gave it little more than a curious glance and headed back down to the narrow cobble streets of our hotel. M and I had a leisurely breakfast and debated what to do. We had thought the crowds at the sights might be a bit thinner with the rain but with the early tour buses fresh in my mind we decided to give the Sultanahmet area as miss for the day. Another thought was to go to the Princes Islands out in the Marmara Sea but according to the LP Guide, it suggests giving Sundays a miss as the Islands are a hot destination for the locals on that day. The next choice was a museum that M would be happy to visit – the Rahmi M Koc Muzesi, located up on the Golden Horn.The rain was making the cobble stones slippery and as we walked to the cable car I slid and skated across the street and nearly under a van carrying bicycles on its roof. Bright blue writing spread across its side announcing “Tour of Turkey”. It was followed by a number of other vans all sporting bicycles I’m a huge cycling fan with my favourite tours being the French, Italian, and the Downunder, but I didn’t realise the Turkey had a Tour too. We watched the vans disappear around the corner and down the street that ran beside the Arasta Bazaar and I became very excited. I knew that there would probably be masses of crowds in the Sultanahmet square and I hurried M along, hoping the vans would be held up by these crowds. M pointed out to me the vans were the press and support contingent and I point back that where the press were, so were the riders. In the park we saw the vans were now in front of the Aya Sofya and I realised then what the blue and white object I’d seen earlier being inflated was – it was the start (or possibly the finish) line and as the bikes were still sitting on top of the vehicles I made the assumption it was the start. It was. It also turned out that this was the final day Turkey’s Tour, now in its 5th years, and we were about see the start of the last leg of the race with the two front runners being Mark Cavendish and Adam Yates. Adam rides for a team I follow, ORICA GreenEDEGE. “This day couldn’t get any better!”
There was only one person waiting at the start line, another ORICA GreenEDGE supporter and this chap was a diehard fan, wearing all the garb and standing there with his bike. I took up prime possie, sent M off for a coffee and sharpened my elbows. I wasn’t going to let anyone in on my position. We waited nearly two hours, the boundary fences filled with cycling fans (you could tell the fans – they came in lycra and riding their bikes, and yes, many of them were Mamil’s!) and curious onlookers. The riders filtered into the sign on area, putting marks next to their names and chatting with the commentator over the microphone. I held my ground as the crowd started to gather and people began surging forward, squeezing themselves in-front of others. M and I were stunned when we watch one woman use her brolly as a place getter, squeezing in then opening it, spreading the spectators! The rain stoped and the sun came out. Steam rose up from the cobblestones and finally the riders lined up. I got very excited to see Cavendish and Banks take their place at the front of the pack. M put the video on play and I had the SLR in position for the starters countdown, then, low and behold a contingent of cameras, press and reporters all took up their possie. RIGHT IN FRONT OF US!
I couldn’t see a thing. The starter waved his hand, the riders took off and all I could do was jump up and down in vain to try and see over the throng of big film cameras and sound booms. Within minutes of the race starting and the riders disappearing around the back of the Aya Sofia, the crowd had dispersed and all that remained were the lines of people waiting to get into the Aya Sofya.
We caught the cable car down to the ferries and as we wandered over to the Haskoy ferry we were greeted by the sight of timber boats decorated in flamboyant gold carvings bobbing away on the Golden Horn and smelling absolutely delicious! They were BBQ-ing small fish fillets and slapping them into fresh crusty bread for the punters who were perched on small plastic stools eagerly enjoying the meal. We decided to join them and took up the gamble of biting into a bread roll with salad and fish and hoping for no bones.
M did quite well, finding only one or two, unfortunately my fish sandwich became a fish smashwich as I mangled it to pieces trying to pull out all the tiny splintering bones. Despite this, it was divine! The Golden Horn was teaming with watercraft and our ferry joined them, zipping us under two bridges and past disused boat building yards.
It was obvious Turkey once had a thriving shipbuilding business, but now many of the yards laid abandon. Beside them sat some big mansions of yesteryear. On the other side we were treated to views of magnificent mosques and homes dotting the hillside and a massive Romanesque Aqueduct that went on my must visit later list.
It was bride day at the Rahmi M Koc Muzesi with the count at five bridal couples at the museum before we had even brought our tickets. The museum appeared to be a popular place for the wedding photos to be taken at. Dressed in traditional white the bride, and her dashing groom draped themselves over and posed with various items of transport from train carriages and planes to the ferry and all the beautiful restored vehicles thought out the museum. By the end of our visit we would count eight couples all up.
The Rahmi M Koc Muzesi is housed in a former boat building yard, the buildings beautifully restored and displaying anything to do with transport from the obvious - cars, busses, trains, planes and boats to prams, children’s roll-a-long toys, wheelchairs and bikes of all sorts, and including as fascinating range of sleds, rickshaws and the most beautiful horse drawn carriages. It is a fine display of Turkey’s industrial past and feats.
M was in heaven as he wandered through the hall of vintage and veteran cars which included the classic yanktanks of the 50’s . How they ever parked them is totally beyond me. Our visit to the museum concluded with a tour of the Turkish Submarine which had been decommissioned in the 80’s. It was fascinating, unfortunately for M and I, we couldn’t understand what our tour guide was saying as it was all in Turkish….but we did however get the gist of it – life aboard was very squashy. The sun was now belting down and many families had taken up picnicking spots in the park we had to walk though to get to the ferry. It smelt delicious, as portable BBQ’s cooked shiskabarbs and the men furiously flapped away over the heat, causing great plumes of smoke to rise.
Children ran around and rode pedal cars and horses along the paths and one enterprising chap had set up a rope full of blown up balloons and offered small guns for firing pot-shots at them. This had me a little perturbed as there didn’t appear to be much to the safety barriers.
It was late afternoon when we arrived back at the Sultanahmet area and I was keen to see the Tulips that Istanbul and Turkey are so famous for. April is the month of the Tulip Festival so I was hoping the gardens were still in flower in May, we wandered down to the Gulhane Park next to the Topkapi Palace, passing gorgeous pastel coloured and cream ottoman mansions and the cutest little ‘hole in the wall’ cafes hugging the old palace walls and tiptoeing off the steep cobblestone streets.
Upon reaching the park I was disappointed to see Tulips were finished with only the occasional bud bed still flowering, but the there were still banks and banks of flowering beds under the tall trees that cover the park. Although it was nearing sunset, the park was filled with people enjoying its beauty and tranquillity, the play areas were filled with children, the park benches were packed with old men chatting and laughing, sweethearts walked arm and arm along the paths or canoodled on the grass up near the wall. Cameras were clicking, blankets were spread with picnickers and up on the point glasses were being raised to drink away the sunset and watch the bustling happenings on the meeting point of the Golden Horn and the Bosporus.
I watched the sun set over the Horn, then M and I wandered back into the bustling Sultanahmet Square wondering where we’d eat dinner. Out of the corner of my eye I saw it. The perfect ending to this wonderful day - The Lale Restaurant – aka The Pudding Shop. There it stood. An institution for travellers, especially those who did the ‘overland hippy trail’ - the start or end, depending on which way you were going.
Back in 2000 I had raised a glass to happy travels in the other “Hippy Trail” destination meeting point, “The Kathmandu Guest House”.
Tonight I would raise a toast to my own tour of Turkey in the iconic “Pudding Shop”.
Oh and Adam Yates.... Winner of the Tour of Turkey!