The World is an amazing place .... go and be in it

Sunday, 4 May 2014

Istanbul (Be sure to wear some flowers in your hair....)

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
I spy the tourist information office and go in whilst M goes in search of a bus/train pass. The info centre has only one map on offer and nothing else so I wait for M under the trees. A chap approaches me and asks the normal questions, 'where you from, what is your name, do you like Istanbul', we chat, turns out he has a cousin in Australia. When M returns and says he can’t find where to buy the card from, the chap becomes very helpful and takes us across the road to a news stand, buys the card for us, explains how to use it, top it up and how to get a refund, then asks us to come and see his cousin’s shop. We don’t want to, but we also don’t want to be rude after all his help, so we follow him down a labyrinth of lanes, down an corridor and into a carpet shop where within seconds of stepping through the door we’re offered apple tea and a cushion to sit on. We know what’s coming next but we don’t want to offend so we sip the tea and listen to the carpet speal. He unravels about ten carpets and kilims and tells us how they are made. The carpets are beautiful and secretly I think it would be nice to buy one, but I haven’t a clue what I’m looking at or what sort of price. We also don’t need a carpet. We try to extricate ourselves as politely as possible from the shop but he becomes a little aggressive and won’t let us out the now closed door and instead insists we look at the jewellery. He tells us we are his first customers of the day and if we buy it’ll be good luck. I feel dreadful, he’s been ever so helpful but we politely and firmly say no, thank him for the tea and help, and push past out the door. 
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.
At the top of the street we turned left and found ourselves at Gatela Tower, a Genoese tower built back in 1348 and can be seen from all directions in Istanbul. We could see this wonderful piece of architecture in Sultanahmet and in later travels around Istanbul it became our compass point. We didn’t attempt to go up the tower as the line of people circled round the tower and into the square. Instead we went in hunt for a set of stairs that were notable for their curved art-nouveau lines – the Camondo Stairs. What we soon discover is that we have to go down again, to almost where we had started the climb. We find the stairs in what is known as Banker Street ( Bankalar Caddesi), a street oozing with opulence in its bank buildings. Huge edifices of ornate design, they tower over us.
We finally find the stairs and are in two minds as to wether they were worth the hunt or not. They are different – artistic, but in a sense non-descript. Which I know, is an absolute contradiction. I’m more taken with the graffiti that’s on the right side of the stairs – the security camera plant street art. We do the touristy thing and walk up and down the stairs, pose and click away, then climb back up again towards Gatela Tower.
Trouble is we get lost and end up in some other area quite a distance from where we’re heading. As we searched our rough maps for our position a number of Turkish locals came to our aid and pointed us in the right direction. One things for sure, the Turkish are a wonderful welcoming people and we are to find, they are always stopping and trying to help.
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.
At the other end of Istiklal C we saw a sign for the Funicular and found that it went to the very bottom of the hill, within a minute. Cocooned in a beautiful old tunnel the Funicular is celebrating it’s 139years of operation. Later that evening as I sat on the rooftop terrace staring at the beautiful Sultanahmet Mosque shining brightly with the silverly silhouetted albatrosses circling its dome, I thought of how vibrant and eclectic this city was and because of all the amazing gems she holds, she is a magnet, enticing humanity to her centre and I though I'm just one in the thirty million who visits her shores each year, I just know as I travel this amazing country I'm  "gonna meet some gentle people there'.

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