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Sunday, June 26, 2011

Last Days in Istanbul

June 23, 2011

Today we had very little agenda for once which was nice. We did wake up super early to visit the Basilica Cistern which was completely unnecessary since everyone sticks to a walkway so it's not like they will be in the way of your picture. Yes, I'll admit that I was excited to see it ever since Ally from the Bachelorette had a date there. I'm a loser - whatever.

It was haunting both because of the low lighting and the classical music they had playing. At the back of the Cistern are two columns with carvings of the head of Medusa at the base. We learned that the reason her head is upside down is so that she will not turn you to stone when you look at her. The Cistern was built in 527 and can hold up to 100,000 tons of water. In the Byzantine Period the Cistern met the water needs of the Sultan's palace and a good portion of the city but now it is just for display. I orginally thought that this would be my favorite attraction but the Harem still leads the pack.

After the Cistern, we began walking towards the spice market in an attempt to actually make it there today. Of course we made it about two feet before my mom dragged me into another ceramic shop. This one turned out to be pretty cool because instead of being a dealer's shop, the actual artist was selling - the store name is Firca. He told us all about his family's work including a table of cups, saucers and bowls with actual gold painted on them. One cup and saucer would be about $200 U.S. dollars. They were beautiful. My mom ended up buying a bowl with elephants and we left.

A couple stores down I found some bejeweled slippers that were light blue leather. I bought them for half the price that the slipper guy from yesterday was asking for his. Booyah. I'm sure I will wear them twice before they get a hole but I felt like a Turkish Dorothy in my sparkle shoes. Maybe ıf I click my heels together my bags wıill show up!

Finally we made it to the spice bazaar which is inside a long L-shaped building right next to the Yeni Mosque. It was extremely busy. The spice market is slightly less touristy than the Grand Bazaar but they sell many of the same addition to spices obviously. At one of the spice shops we purchased dried apricots, pomegranate tea, saffron (which is hugely expensive in the U.S.), lemon-flavored pistachios, dried ginger, Turkish coffee and a bottle of Turkish Viagra (as a joke present for my aunt I promise). From there we ended up buying more scarfs of course and tried a street meat sandwich.

We decided to take the route past the Grand Bazaar to return back to the hotel because I'd seen a bag I really liked there and I wanted to get it. We accidentally found ourselves in the local market area that was packed full of Turkish people shopping. Suddenly the prices were a lot cheaper! But the fashion was terrible.

By the time we got to the Grand Bazaar we'd walked a mile up hill and stopped for a coffee. I had an iced coffee which they served in a tall glass with a metal straw. It was so icy and chocolatey! As we sat at the table we observed two Turkish women looking at necklaces at the stall nearby. One of them asked me to try on the different necklaces because they were shopping for a gift and their friend had similar coloring to me. I modeled the necklaces while we chatted. Next thing I know I find a necklace and a bracelet I really like! For those of you who don't know I always buy a bracelet in each country I travel to as a memento of the trip. And I got my necklace for cheaper than the Turkish women which made me proud. We found out later that the women bought the sugar holder from our cafe table! Apparently everything in Turkey is for sale - just name your price!

The next 30 minutes were spent trolling the Bazaar, which is enormous, ın search of the bag. It's yellow with hand-stitched designs on it. It is the only yellow bag I've seen in Istanbul which made it that much more special. We finally found the store and I snagged one.

On the way back to the hotel (we were exhausted) we ran into the owner of the restaurant, Aloran, who I'd promised we'd stop by so we ended up having drinks and Lavash bread. Lavash bread is the most popular bread in many Middle Eastern countries but it is traditionally made flat or wrapped around kebab. This Lavash was cooked so that it resembled a gigantic bread bubble with sesame seeds on top. Just imagine the air bubbles that you sometimes see in pizza crust and times the size by 1,000. I ate it with hummus and some local Efes beer which I'm a huge fan of.

We came back to the hotel, showered, admired our new stuff and then went to dinner because we didn't know what else to do. We went to the Star Cafe because they have hookah which I felt I had to do while in Turkey. My mom doesn't smoke though so it was a bit of an undertaking but the mint strawberry flavor was tasty. We then decided to order the Testi Topkapi after watching how they make it. Basically they put the meat, potato, onion and pepper in an earthenware jug and put it over a small fire at your table. Once it heats to a certain temperature they slice open the jug and pour out the steaming sauce. Then they turn the jug upside down and the bottom of the jug pops off and shatters on the ground. They bring it back to the table and pour the rest of the dish into the bowl to complete it.

We spent the next few hours chatting and then came back to the hotel to get to bed early since we are taking the Bosphorus cruise first thing in the morning.

June 24, 2011

Today we woke up early for our half-day trip with IBO Tours down the Bosphorus river. There were only a handful of people on our boat which was really nice. We didn't feel packed in. The first stop on the cruise was a small town whose name isn't important because it was a super lame town. Half of it wasn't even open. I recommend just getting a spot on the water and having some coffee during your "free time."

The next stop was far cooler - Beylerbeyi Sarayi or "Palace." This was the summer home of the Sultan of Turkey during the Ottoman Empire period. It's a little ridiculous since their regular home was just down the river. You'd think you'd pick somewhere were a change of scenery for a summer getaway. Our guide's name was Apo and he was very dynamic and extremely knowledgable. He told us that the Sultan who had the palace built (there are two other palaces) used over 16 tons of gold and silver on the decorations alone. It was this over indulgence that partially led to the revolution in the first place because eventually the army wasn't being paid because the Sultan spent so much money on parties and palaces. So they overthrew him.

Back before these palaces were built, the Sultan lived in Topkapi Palace among the people. He knew what they were saying and how they felt which made him a better ruler. But in the 18th century, sultans wanted to "modernize" and be more like western Europe causing them to build more ostentatious palaces away from the "commoners." This led to a large disconnect between ruler and the people and later led to revolution.

The palace was absolutely incredible and very opulent. Apo also explained that the purpose of this palace was to entertain so there are only waiting rooms, a reception and a few guest rooms. He pointed out that the giant cabinets in the halls held beds. The Turkish people sleep on the ground because it is better for your body and also eat on the ground with one knee pressed into their stomach to discourage overeating. It was honestly fascinating. Some of the rooms were paneled in wood because they were the rooms where the Sultan held secret gatherings. The wood prevented the echo of voices from wafting to the wrong ears.

Apo also told us that unlike medieval Europe where the eldest son ascended the throne in Ottoman Turkey the Sultan would select the best candidate from all of his sons. It didn't matter which wife, or how old, he would simply pick who he felt was most competent for the job. The crazy thing is that once that boy was chosen he either had to kill ALL of his brothers or banish them from the country. This was meant to maintain loyalty to the chosen Sultan by removing the competition. He also had to kill them by strangulation or poison because royal blood cannot be spilled.

He explained that Beylerbeyi Palace was last used by the Ataturk who led the war for Turkish independence. If the Turkish police overhear you saying anything negative about him you risk getting thrown in jail. Apo explained that the three most important things in Turkey are the system, the Ataturk, and the Republic. However, he did mention that the Ataturk had many secrets and people are starting to question his private life. He didn't have any real examples to give though.

You could definitely see the Ataturk's influence on Turkey. All the clocks in the palace are set to 9:05 because that is the time when the Ataturk died. The flag of Turkey was also changed to the current flag due to the Ataturk's 1920 revolution. The crescent and the start date back to the early tribes that practiced shamanism and prayed to the Sky God. The red backgrounf of the flag represents the blood spilled to free Turkey. Pretty crazy.

The next stop on the tour was Rumeli Fortress at the northern end of the Bosphorus were it narrows to its thinnest point before filtering into the Black Sea. Not much to tell here other than that it was built in 1452 in only four months (which is absolutely ridiculous) by a Sultan who was trying to conquer Istanbul. It was a very strategic position as it prevented boats from entering the Bosphorus. This fortress reminded me a lot of the Great Wall in China. Giant smoothed steps leading higher and higher to gorgeous views of the water. Beware the wind and the lack of railing though! Many people get vertigo on the way back down because the staircases are very narrow, built into the side of the rock walls, and provide zero in the way of a guard rail to keep you from falling. That didn't stop two idiot girls from doing jumping pictures at the top. I left before I had to watch one of them plunge to their death.

The fortress was the last stop on tour for us and there was a minibus waiting to take us back to the hotel. We decided to have the minibus drop us off at Dolmabahce Palace which was the true home of the Sultan when he wasn't kicking it at Beylerbeyi. Dolmabahce takes two and a half hours to go through, you have to go with a guided tour and it costs 20 Lira total to see the Semilik (administrative section) and the Harem (the Sultan's family quarters). If you get there after 3pm though you have to pick one or the other so we went with the Semilik. It was pretty much a bigger version of Beylerbeyi except there was way more amazing paintings of Arabian horses, war, and ships lost at sea. Also the finale of the tour was the Ceremonial Hall which in my opinion easily rivals the Sistine Chapel. It was the most awe-inspiring architecture and decoration I've ever seen complete with a 4.5 ton chandelier of silver crystal that has over 10,000 pieces and takes 3 months to clean completely.

We were extremely tired so we walked to the tram and took it back to Esans. The tram is super easy to use; you just put in 1.75 Lira and hit the button to receive your red coin. Drop the coin in the slot and enter the tramway area. Then just check what color line you need and jump on!

After showering, we decided to be picky about the restaurant for our last night in Istanbul. We ended up on a fun little street with lots of activity. The first restaurant we almost ended up at seemed shady and I'm pretty sure they tried to give us the special American menu so we bailed and walked farther down the street.

We finally went with Rumeli Cafe and sat up on the rooftop. We made friends with one of the waiters, Lufti, who told us all about being Muslim. He said that weddings are always on Friday, Saturday and Sunday and usually take place at the house of one of the family. Friday and Saturday are for partying and Sunday is the ceremony. He also explained that the reason we don't see people praying in the street every time there is a call to prayer is because the only time you really need to go to the mosque is on Fridays for the noon prayer. The other prayer times can be done wherever is most convenient. For dinner I had Ali Nazık Kebabı which is grilled mince meat with eggplant and yogurt. It was sooo good even though it didn't look super appetizing.

He ended up hanging out with us long after we paid the bill and finished our wine. We asked him where he was headed next and he said shisha around the corner. I gave my mom my best set of pleading eyes and she agreed to go. The shisha place was just up the street. We had apple shisha and played three games of backgammon before my mom insisted we go because she'd fallen asleep three times at the table. I sadly didn't win a single game. He was so fast that I couldn't even keep up with his moves. Dead tired we headed back to the hotel to pack and prepare for our flight tomorrow to Cappadocia.

June 25, 2011

We jumped in the taxi at 11:15am to make our 2:15pm flight on Turkish Airlines. The airplane was extremely comfortable and we arrived without a problem. However, our hotel, the Local Cave House, had completely forgotten to send our pickup car. The Kayseri airport is an hour driving from Gerome, the town we were staying in so we were in effect - screwed. I crumpled to the ground in exhaustion at yet another trial in the trip and told my mom she had to deal with it this time; i just didn't have it in me. She worked with this super polite tour guide who said he didn't have any room in his van but he worked it out so that we could catch a ride with a different van. Luckily, it actually took us to our hotel.

The hotel was absolutely adorable at first glance. The 7-9 rooms (I forget how many) are cut into the rock face of the mountain with a shining, clean pool at the base. There is even a little shisha lounge off to the side. We were greeted with Turkish tea and lots of tour options. The main guy was nice but seemed a little shady and his sidekick was totally creepy. Mom and I have literally started to call him, Creepy Guy. I keep expecting to open the window drapes and see his face staring in.

We ended up booking a hot air balloon ride for the next morning for 160 Euro each. We were told this was an amazing price and a very reputable company. We asked for a 4am wakeup call and then went out to find some food. We had dinner at a restaurant called Manzana that was amazing. It had a great view of "downtown" Gerome and a precious little black cat that we kept feeding steak and salmon to. She was really hungry; it's kinda of sad. My mom's steak with wine sauce was sooo good though which was very surprising!

It was getting pretty late so we headed back to the hotel so get a few hours of sleep before our hot air balloon ride tomorrow. So far my general opinion is the town is super cute but pretty sleepy. I'm already glad we are only spending a few days here.

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