There’s a song about wearing flowers in your hair…. It’s about hippies and San Francisco. Yet a world away and five decades later, a halo of daisies and roses is the must wear item on all the young things wandering around cosmopolitan Istanbul. Turkish women in long skirts and headscarves with beads and coins dangling from them hold up rings upon rings of silk flower halos and they are being snapped up by the cashed up gap-yearers, the inbetween-jobees and the vacationing 20somethings. I find myself humming the song incessantly as M and I dash from must see to must see as every site has a woman peddling the colourful halos.
Actually it’s a bit hard to dash from one place to another in Istanbul, we finding a lot of our time is standing in long ques or trying awfully hard to get out of the way of the maddening crowds. I have never in my life seen so many people concentrated in one space. It’s mind boggling and for the first time ever in all my travels I’ve suddenly developed Culture Shock. When I was researching our trip to Turkey, numerous ‘experts’ on TA (my favourite travel website) advised to do Istanbul last; enabling one to ease oneself into Turkey. I’ve decide to ignore all the advice and dive head on into Istanbul and give her six days straight. She’s given me a smack of reality back.
The first call to prayer of the day wakes me. The Sultan Ahmet Mosque is just up from us and I can see through the window the dawn is just breaking. M is still asleep, so I pull on jeans and cardie and pop up to the roof terrace to watch the sunrise over the Mosque. Its stunning. Its also freezing. Five minutes of dancing around to keep warm whilst the days first rays hit the golden spires is enough and I’m back in the room and under the covers as fast as I can.
Around nine am and after an amazing Turkish breakfast…. M and I are to find that Turkish breakfasts are the absolute BEST!... we head out for the day with the plan to go to the Aya Sofya, Blue Mosque, a couple of museums and have a good look around. WRONG!
As we wandered along our lovely quiet little streets and up through Tavukhane Street (which M and I dub “find a conscious” street due to it’s activist slogans) we turn into the Hippodrome and nearly fall over.
It’s only nine am and yet the area is teaming with tourists. So much so it’s almost impossible to see this massive square in all its glory. The hippodrome was originally where chariot races were held some 1200years ago and carried a capacity of 100,000 spectators. I swear its carrying close to that many tourist now (well maybe not 100,000 thou, but there's a lot).
Near the southern end sits three pillars – the Walled Obelisk (set up by Constantine VII in about the 4th century), the spiral column which came from the temple of Apollo at Delphi and was brought to Turkey by Constantine the Great around AD330 and The Obelisk of Theodosius, the oldest monument in Istanbul and carved in Egypt. This Obelisk is stunning with its perfectly caved hieroglyphics and base of of bas-reliefs showing the life of Emperor Theodosius. M and I shuffle for photo position and find it near impossible to get a clear shot of these mavelous monuments. We wander further along the Hippodrome and approach the Blue Mosque but stop, as it was the afternoon before, the lines are as long and there are more tourists approaching from the northern end of the Hippodrome where the tour busses have off loaded their passengers. We give the mosque a miss and head towards the Aya Sofya then take a massive sharp left turn when we see the huge lines awaiting to get into this great dome.
|Just one of the many gorgeous cafes dotting the Sultanahmet|
We haven’t a clue where we are so we wander up and down delightful back lanes, oohing and arhing at the gorgeous buildings and sweet decorative features like gourd lanterns that hang lavishly along one lane, and iridescent blue ‘evil eye’ charms hanging off everything from trees and houses to pot plants. Down one street we discover all it houses is book shops and I’m in heaven looking into the windows at the piles and piles of books and maps.
We turn the corner and find we are back close to Sultanahmet square and come across the Basilica Cistern and again the line up disappears around two corners. I’m determine to see at least one site today, and so we line up for over an hour to get in. I wonder aloud to M if we could have gotten in quicker if we learnt how to que-jump without conscious as we watch numerous tourists ‘slip’ into the lines further up then under the rope barriers getting themselves a bit further up. This we’ll notice is a common thing. Another thing we notice is that no-one ‘tut-tuts’ them and they ‘get away’ with their rudeness. There are also the other type of ‘que-jumpers’ those who agree to pay double the ticket price to go on a ‘tour’ and go to the head of the que. We are offered this a number of times but decline, thinking it impolite to the others who’ve waited in line for so long.
Eventually we arrive at the entrance, pay our 10lira ticket price and head down into the underground cavern. The Cistern is enormous. Dark with a pale red glow, it seems to go forever; the enormous pillars (336 columns in total) extend into the eerie darkness. I find the cavern even more chilling when I think that beside being a water storage tank at one time, it was also used for dead bodies. We walk on a raised platform (along with hundreds and hundreds of others) below us sits water and we can make out fish…. rather large fish…. swimming around. Not all the Pillars are the same, some have bulbous bases, others, finely carved Corinthian leaves at their tops. It’s hard to get a good look as it’s so crowded and we are funnelled towards the ‘treasures’ of the cistern, the two Medusa heads.
One Medusa is upside down, the other on her side. Again it’s hard to get a good look at them as everyone is trying to do the same. We are only allowed to stay and click for a couple of seconds then we must move on so others can get their shot too. The roof of the Cistern is also a work of art in itself. Arched with cut bricks it is beautifully designed. We try to spend as much time as possible in the Cistern to take in its uniqueness, but the noise of the crowd reverberates unceasingly.
Back out in the sunshine we take another look at the Aya Sofya’s lines and decide to walk over the Galata Bridge, which is a hive of activity with not only transport and pedestrians, but fisherman casting lines off the bridge into the Golden Horn. We are amazed that the lines don’t get tangled and caught as below, the Golden Horn is teaming with watercraft – copious ferries, small fishing craft, luxury boats and so forth. Under the bridge is another level filled with restaurants and cafes and also teaming with people, it’s a wonder no-one receives a hook to the head or a sinker to the temple. Past the bridge we navigate crossing the main road. Navigating this entails risking life and limbs as trucks, cars, buses and cable car zip, trundle and barge for their right of way. Little did we realise that just near the cable car platform is an underpass, complete with shopping centre! Once across we puff our way up a steep incline with the most gorgeous buildings decked out with ornate facia and balconies. Unfortunately they are heavily scribbled across with graffiti and not the street art kind.
We finally find ourselves at the famous Istiklal Caddesi and I nearly pass out at the extent of the crowds. Quite honestly, I really didn’t think there could be any more larger amount of people in one place than what we had already seen in SultanAhmet, but this was astronomical! The Lonely Planet guide book says that Istiklal C. is “awash with people”. They are wrong. This was a flood. No. This was a tsunami! Once known as the “Grand Rue de Pera”, the Istiklal C is a beautiful wide cobble stone street that is extremely long and filled with gorgeous shops and cafes. Along its lead are a number of embassies and opulent homes with large ornate gates complete with guards. And down side in alleyways we find the most colourful street art. We were shuffled, pummelled, shoved and bumped along until it just became too much to bear. We then jumped on a tram…well actually we didn’t so much as jump as to squeeze and slithered into the over cramped carriage, becoming very up-close-and-personal with our travelling companions armpits and chests and off we trundled to Taksim Square. Due to our confinement we didn’t get to see much of the rest of Istiklal C and upon reaching Taksim we disgorged from the tram with a pop, being pushed out by everyone who was also being shoved out. Taskim Square was huge. A paved area surrounded by posh hotels and cafes with flower sellers set up in front, there was a monument to the founding of the republic and a garden that was being quite trampled by delighted toddlers. We saw a park and headed over, looking for some breathing space and somewhere to sit. M went off to find the bathroom and came back declaring he’d seen the Metro and there was no way we would be attempting it as it looked like chaos. As it was now late afternoon we decided to head back, but not before we went through the trauma of running out of ticket money on the transit card with one of us on and the other having to go find a ticket. As the tram was filling up fast, I became worried that it would leave before M could recharge and so I jumped off only to have him jump on, click and then realising I was off stop the driver from moving so I could get on. I had to pay a second time before being let back on. By this stage I was over it all and just wanted to get back to our room. The day had been an eye-opener in how big this world really was and how insignificant I was. Not that I thought any different but these crowds had shown me the true reality. As the tram slowly made it’s way down Istiklal C. we watched as a bus of riot police turned up on the boulevard and then the water cannon – it’s enormous. Further along we saw some press cameras. We have no idea what was going on or if anything happen later.