Turkey Travel Diary -- Istanbul: Cats, Ice Cream and Viking Grafitti


     I had seen many photos of the Spice Bazaar and mosques of Istanbul --- but my first view of it was --- skyscrapers! Highways! Istanbul is a mind-bogglingy huge and modern metropolis. On the first evening it seemed unending: it took us long hours to get from the airport to the hotel (granted, we used the local transport instead of taking a taxi but that way we got a glimpse of the happening Istiklal decorated with what to me look like Christmas lights; and had a short fun ride on the tiny Tünel underground train --- who knew that one of the oldest Metros of the world was in Istanbul? Also, at night the the bridges across the Bosphorus Strait looked like a merry-go-round with their ridiculously colourful, blinking lights. Moral -- there is nothing like public transport when you really want to see the city).
   On the first days we didn't make it out of Sultanahmet --- that's the oldest arabian-night-esque bit of the city with the blue Mosque and the Aya Sofia. And charming little streets full of trinket shops, restaurants, polyglot touts and cats, you can wander around there all day and all night (the latter was almost what we had to do, since we couldn't find a cheap hotel that had a free room). About the cats -- never have I seen so many cats in my life! Even if a street seems cat-less, it's enough to stand and call out "psss psss" and a feline will instantly appear. Some are sweet and friendly, some are bad-ass gangstas. There are also plenty of seagulls which I found very pretty.

Another cat in istanbul
Can you spot the cat?

  Lonely Planet in hand, we set off to explore. In one morning I saw the Prophet's beard, the staff of Moses, the sword of king David and the world's fifth biggest diamond, all at the gorgeous Topkapi Palace. (The last two are real for sure, no idea about the rest. Anyway: Mind. Blown.) The afternoon was spent on a "short" cruise of the Bosporus (which was pretty long), from which I admired the multifaceted face of Istanbul while trying not to freeze in the stiff breeze. Victorian-style houses huddled together on a strip of the coast, a moment later it's ugly concrete buildings, then palaces-turned-hotels, then lush parks with villas, then the skyline of the business district, and everything is dotted with mosques...

   The Aya Sophia was the part of Istanbul that I was psyched out most about. It totally lived up to my expectations --- even after 4 hours in there I didn't want to leave (I sat at the altar and stared around dreamily, oblivious to the fact that my husband had already left and was waiting for me at the exit. For an hour.). It's beautiful, it's huge and it's more than one and half millenia old! I loved the place on the floor where emperors were baptised and also some Viking graffiti on the bannisters. The faceless Seraphins fascinated me and creeped me out at the same time. And yes, there were cats in there too.

Hagia Sofia
Aya Sofia, Byzantine Cathedral turned mosque turned museum. You can see two Seraphim on the top of the photo.

Cool highlights on the hair of St John the Baptist, Hagia Sofia
St John the Baptist has rad mosaic highlights in his hair.

  One of the late evening in Istanbul was also the first time I visited a mosque. I liked the way the people pray to the abstract instead of having an physical idol of some kind. On an unrelated note I approved of people taking their shoes in plastic bags (in India the worst thing about visiting a temple was the high probability of your shoes getting pinched). After that I think we went to a restaurant but it was too late to get any food so we drank pomegranate juice instead (sour!!) while the kids played below the tablecloth with a cat.

Istanbul, back streets of Sultanahmet at night
Back streets of Sultanahmet at night. The kids were playing ball and asked for photos

  Funnily, our hotel lay in the crossfire of the prayer-calls of three mosques, which seemed to compete over who was the loudest.
   On the way to the hotel we always passed the obelisk in the Hippodrome. By the crisp and clean-cut look of it we were telling each other that the surface must be new --- till I read in the Lonely Planet that the granite is in fact original and when it was brought there in the 4th century BC it was already two thousand years old. Mind blow again.
  I fondly remember the atmospheric the Basilica Cistern --- beautifully eerie and made with mismatched columns, with carp swimming in the dark waters. Hard to photograph because of the darkness, so pics totally don't do it justice.

    Oh, I almost forgot: we had ice cream in Istanbul. The ice cream sellers do a crazy show of serving the ice cream, with a series of tricks. This is more or less what happens:

  The ice cream itself is quite good, a kinda nutty taste and chewy texture. The kids were totally confused with all the tricks and refused to actually take their ice cream in the end!

   I had another day in Istanbul at the end of our trip, and this I spent in Beyoglu, the most happening part of Istanbul. There I had my future read in a little saloon. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Stay tuned for fairy chimney and underground cities!

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