West meets East

Hanging out in front of the Blue Mosque, Istanbul

Hanging out in front of the Blue Mosque, Istanbul

Our trip to Istanbul began with a crazy thought: since we’re in Europe, why don’t we go to someplace we’d never think of visiting because it would be just too far away. Only two places came to mind: Africa and Istanbul.  This spring, we chose Istanbul.  We utilized the services of our local German travel agent at the train station.  Not only does she speak excellent English, she also lived in Istanbul for a year and recommended we stay in the new city where the nightlife was.  And, Tim and I thrive on nightlife!

On Thursday afternoon, we boarded our flight from Munich to Istanbul at 2:30pm. It was a quick 2 hour flight to the city. Upon arrival, we paid 20 euro each for a Visa and we were on our way.  The hotel we booked sent a limo driver and car to pick us up.  This is the best way to go when arriving at a large and busy city.  I’m not certain we would have found our way to the hotel if we had relied on public transportation.  Traffic appeared to zip along and after crossing under the Valens Aquaduct (4th C AD and the major water supplier to the Roman city) we were at our hotel in 30 minutes.  We dumped our bags in the room and made our way outside to explore the town.  We found ourselves walking on Independence Avenue, the busiest commercial shopping street in Istanbul. It’s a pedestrian walkway filled with thousands of people darting in and out of shops and restaurants.  Tons of street food is available including roasted chestnuts, corn on the cob and ice cream.

On Friday morning, we headed across Galata Bridge which spans the Bosphorus in front of the New Mosque and made our way to the three top attractions: Topkapi Palace, Hagia Sophia and Basilica Cistern. (we left Blue Mosque for another day).  It is quite remarkable to see the number of mosques that dot the cityscape.  For some reason, I thought there would be one or two major ones but in fact, there are numerous mosques each for a different neighborhood. The city is busy and everyone appears to be in movement. And, it is quite cosmopolitan. People from all different nations and religions make the city their home. There were fishermen on the bridge already at 8:30am and by the time we made it to the palace, 15 minutes before it opened, the ticket line had already snaked through the ropes.  But, it was a beautiful morning and the promise of seeing life as a sultan up close was tantalizing.

Entry tickets to the palace cost 20 lira, and if you want to see the Harem a separate 15 lira ticket is required.  The palace was built soon after the Ottomans conquered Constantinople in 1453.  We strolled through the palace grounds, oohed at the jewels and weapons on display and then made our visit to the Harem.  I was struck by the simplicity of the palace; walls are lined with iznik tiles and windows feature lots of colored glass which allows for tons of light to flood the space.  Although women in the Harem lived well in comparison to their friends left in the city, I don’t think it was an easy life being kept captive in the Harem.  From the Harem rooms, glimpses of the city across the bridge could be seen and I imagine girls would take a peak and imagine what it would be like to visit Galata Tower, built by the Genovese in the 1300s.