Thursday, June 04, 2009

Turkish Honeymoon: İstanbul – Part Une

I put together a photo book of pictures of Keenan and I over the past eight years to use a guest book at our cocktail celebration. When I juxtapose all the photos together, it never occurred to me how much of the world Keenan and I have seen together. So exciting! And even more exciting to know that this is just the beginning of more adventures together during our stint in London.

For our honeymoon, we had a hard time deciding where to go. We like a mix of history, architecture, culture, excellent food, and some nice beaches for relaxation when we travel. We narrowed it down to Cinque Terre in Italy, Spilt and Dubrovnik in Croatia, Greek Isles, or Turkey. Cinque Terra was out the question as we were meeting my older sister and my brother-in-law in Rome for a long weekend in mid-June, and I wanted to save Croatia and Greece for when my girlfriends come visit, so that leaves us with Turkey – which was perfect for us.

We dreaded our Wednesday morning flight out of Gatwick Airport at 6:55am, but our jet-lagged worked to our advantage, and not to mention that the sun now rises at 4:30am which makes getting up a lot easier. 3 hours and 15 minutes later, we arrived at Sabiha Gocken Airport on the Asian and was greeted by an email from our Fulham-based couple friend officially welcoming us back to London! So nice of them to think of us!

İstanbul is a beautiful city rich in history and culture. The history lover - that is my husband - gave me a quick lecture of İstanbul and its glorious past, so he writes:

“İstanbul, now one of my favorite cities, is a living patchwork, layered with its many historic and cultural legacies and literally straddling two continents, the crossroads of Europe and Asia, east and west, a reconciliation of dated orientalism and pan-Europeanism. First claimed by ancient Greek city states, settled by the Roman Empire, later established as the capital Constantinople of Byzantinium, then established as the cultural heart of the Ottoman Empire, and finally developed as the epitome of Ataturk's secular reforms (as embodied by the Hagia Sofya itself), this is an organic city which is constantly evolving and now looks towards a future where it is accepted within a unified Europe.”

Based on a recommendation from a friend from graduate school who spent two years in Turkey on a Fulbright Fellowship, we stayed at the Anemon Galata Hotel next to the Genoese Galata Tower built in 1348. The hotel was conveniently located within walking distance to Galata Bridge and the little neighborhoods in Beyoğlu. Having flown back to London from San Francisco the day before, and now in İstanbul, which was two hours ahead of London, the jetlag caught up to us. After a quick nap, we set out to explore the Beyoğlu, the district north of the Golden Horn, via Istiklal Caddesi from Tunel Square to Taksim Square.

This bustling street is lined with beautiful European architecture, restaurants/cafes, shopping, consulate offices, churches/mosques with a little red tram running through the middle of the large pedestrian street, like the cable cars in San Francisco. Istiklal Caddesi is flanked by picturesque cobblestone alleyways – we stumbled upon the Balık Pazar (Fish Market) and found ourselves at Nevizade Street, a busy narrow street overflowing with bars, restaurants, and more bars. We had dinner of Greek/Turkish mezes and some grilled kebabs at Imroz, then headed to bar to catch the Manchester United vs. Barcelona Champion League Final Game. Our English team lost. Enough said -- we were disappointed. We drowned our sorrows with a large pint of Efes beer and called it the night.

The next day, bright and early, after breakfast on the rooftop terrace of our hotel overlooking the Golden Horn to Yeni, Suleymaniye and Fatih Camii (mosque) in the distance, we made our way to Sultanahmet in Old İstanbul via the Galata Bridge where we found a line of men fishing over the bridge near Eminönü. The weather couldn’t be any better – a perfect 75 degrees with a light breeze. Most of the sights in Sultanahmet can be covered by foot, and then you can stroll over to the Grand Bazaar.

First stop was the striking Blue Mosque, İstanbul’s most important place of worship. It derives it name – the Blue Mosque – from its interior of over 20,000 bluish Iznik tiles. This mosque was commissioned by Sultan Ahmed I in 1609 to rival the nearby Aya Sophia, which should be our first stop if we wanted to follow a chronological history of empires in İstanbul, but we decided to see this impressive mosque before noon time prayer. Mehmet Aga, the architect, incorporated Byzantine elements of the Aya Sophia with traditional Islamic architecture. The layout was designed in a classical Ottoman fashion. The Blue Mosque is by far the most spectacular mosque I've seen so far, although the Mohammed Ali Mosque in Cairo comes close.

Next stop, the magnificent Aya Sophia – once a Byzantine church during the Emperor Justinian reign, turned mosque during the Ottoman period, turned museum after the founding of the Republic of Turkey in 1935. Built in AD 537, it was the largest church in the world for thousands of years and famed for its massive dome, which is considered as the epitome of Byzantine architecture. After the Ottoman conquest in 1453, the church was converted to a mosque. The interior of the Aya Sophia was equally impressive filled with fine mosaics depicting the Virgin Mary, Jesus, Saints, and Emperor/Empresses. It was interesting to see the juxtaposition of Koranic verses against Byzantine mosaics.

Next was the Topkapı Sarayı, the official residence of the Ottoman Sultans for 400 years. It was later declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985.

We headed across town to Kapalı çarşı (Grand Bazaar). Having been in Marrakesh back in March, we weren’t really interested in shopping on this particular trip. I was pleasantly surprised that the shopkeepers were not pushy at all, unlike the souks in Marrakech or Cairo. We quickly made our way through the bazaar to İstanbul University, then onwards to the Süleymaniye Camii, İstanbul’s largest mosque built under the reign of Süleyman I, the Magnificent, but it was closed to the public for restoration.

Back to Eminönü, we had fish sandwiches under the Galata Bridge before we hiked up the hill to our hotel. We concluded our fantastic day of sightseeing in Old İstanbul with a refreshing Efes beer.

Our final day in İstanbul was spent on a boat cruise on the Bosporus, the narrow body of water separating Europe and Asia, and connecting the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara. We boarded the M/S İstanbul for a 10:35am departure from Eminönü. It was a pleasant day to be at sea, as we sailed pass four Ottoman Palaces, three castles, and plenty of pretty villas on the Bosporus. The most peculiar sight on the cruise was the Ortaköy Camii designed in an eclectic blend of baroque style and Islamic elements by the same architect of the grandiose Dolmabahçe Palace which is also on the Bosporus.

The final stop was Andolu Kavaği on the Asian side; we made our way up to the ruins of the castle above the village for a good view of the Black Sea. And no, the sea was not black, as we heard one Englishmen expressed his disappointment with the color. However, it is does get its name from its deep waters. After lunch of fresh sea bass and bream and ice cream, we boarded the boat back to İstanbul.

Lucky for us, it was a Friday night in İstanbul and the party was just getting started. İstanbulites loves to party. We’re not much of a club person, but do enjoy drinks and long dinner with good company. We hung out around Asmalı Mescit, a bohemian-meets-hipster area, for happy hour drinks and dinner of Turkish pide and dorüm, Keenan’s favorite.

İstanbul is an amazing city – we enjoyed our time in this exciting city. There’s something for everyone – museums, history, architecture/art, religion, food, culture, nightlife, and shopping.

Next stop: Turquoise Coast on the Mediterranean.

Cheers, Lily

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