It’s not the first time this happened, and it won’t be the last. We hit a wall. It’s only a small wall, but a wall nonetheless. Our goal was to get up at 7:45 am and be at the Blue Mosque, for which there was an exceptionally long line on day one. We skipped it, but today is our last day and it’s a must-see in Istanbul.
Amanda fumbles for the alarm clock and shuts it off clumsily. Her first drowsy words are “If I move quickly, I can make it back here for a nap this afternoon.” It’s not a promising sign when one of us wakes up dreaming about a nap. The girls are completely passed out, they weren’t even awakened by the alarm. Her second words are “Meh, I’ll never fall back asleep anyway.” which are followed by snores. She’s back asleep.
There are none. I didn’t even crack the cover of a Lonely Planet. This trip was built and sewn together entirely by Amanda. It’s fascinating and fun to see someone else do it.
It’s fun because, well, that’s kind of obvious. I didn’t have to do that WORK. And it’s really a lot of work to pull these off. Coordinating for four, on a tights schedule, is a challenge. Yes, it’s totally rewarding and fun at times, but at times it’s also work. Hours went by as Amanda poured over guidebooks and websites and cryptic emails back from people thousands of miles away.
I’ve done almost all the travel for our 200+ days so it’s fascinating and occasionally difficult to have another planner. For one thing, a lot of travel is actually guesswork. You make the plan, but you make micro decisions as the situation requires: Which direction to head in? Which way is fastest? Does the map reflect reality? Did that man know what he was talking about? Is the kid going to make it through the day?
It doesn’t usually help to have two people guessing. More or less, one person needs to drive, and everyone else is in the back-seat. Sure we help. For instance, Emma is an excellent spotter. Lily is good for keeping us all together. Amanda and I are both very capable in the driver’s seat, but I have to be careful to defer to her and not make it more difficult. This is her trip and she’s done an amazing job puling together and leading us on adventure.
We say ‘Thank you for scheduling this Amanda” so much she actually tells us to stop thanking her. I think the best thanks we can give her right now is to let her sleep in. She’s fucking earned it. Plus it gives me time to finish yesterday’s blog and pictures.
Around noon we get out, just as it starts to drizzle. Lily warns us about the rain that she can see from her fancy terrace overlooking the Bosporus. We try to grab a cab, but in the wet weather they are all taken, and we head to the tram which isn’t far away. It costs 4 Lira, which is about $1.50 and sometimes the cab has been cheaper for four, but they just aren’t around.
The tram slowly goes across the golden horn estuary and up the hill of the Sultanahmet district, the old city. I’ve asked to make one change to the plan, which is to see the Basilica cistern. The line isn’t too long and it’s right next to the tram stop. But it’s a risk to add things. We’ll have to go quickly through our itinerary as everything closes at 5:30.
The cistern is often listed on tourist agendas in part because it’s right next to the major sites: Topkapi Palace, Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia and a bunch of smaller museums. I know it won’t be as good as those, but I do like underground stuff caves, passageways etc… The cistern is the largest of hundreds that are buried beneath Istanbul.
It certainly has lost some of the authenticity. To the left as we descend the stairs in a line with other tourists is a ‘dress-up’ photo booth where you can look like old Hollywood images of sultans and concubines. To the right is the neon lit “Cistern Cafe” selling the usuall fresh orange and pomegranate juice, salads and grilled meat. This is not the watery, dark, cistern that thousands of slaves knew.
But it’s still creepy and beautiful in its own way. The cistern was built on the grounds of an old church. It was a holding tank for water that came from 12 miles away by aqueduct. Here the water would release sediment and be available during the dry season for the churches including the Hagia Sophia.
It’s got water (and fish) at the bottom, but would have been mostly full when used. The columns were all re-purposed from other churches including a few from the Hagia Sophia. The effect is creepy and beautiful. From Russia with Love had a scene filmed here. The cistern was supposedly underneath the Russian Consulate.
In the far corner of the cistern is the highlight: two carved Medusa heads are placed at the bottom of large columns. They would have been submerged continuously. One is upside down and one is on it’s side. No one knows why except Medusa would have been there to ward off spirits. We talk about Persueus and how he killed Medusa, and how Pegasus spring from her head. Lily starts to sing the Parry Gripp Song Neon Pegasus, and Emma discusses her relatively deep knowledge of Olympian myths, mostly from the Percy Jackson books.
Down the hill toward Topkapi palace we shuffle in the rain. Amanda has the good idea to grab some juice and a simit (Sesame bagel) before we go inside, which turns out to be smart. The lines to get in are still pretty long even on a Monday in the rain. We had been hoping to avoid the lines by waiting till a week day, but Istanbul is always packed. This is a common vacation week around Easter.
Topkapi is the most visited site in Istanbul, in part because there are artifacts of the Prophet Mohammad on display, including his cloak and sword. It’s an historic site in its own right, and remains probably the best example of Ottoman period palaces. It was used from the mid-fifteenth century to the mid-nineteenth.
The palace is not from a single grand design, but is instead a series of low structures that are roughly interconnected by courtyards and gates. We saw a bunch of beautiful ceilings in Arabic and Turkish styles, a variety of well displayed armor and weapons and an incredible room full of elaborate and lavishly decorated mechanical clocks, which was our favorite.
The palace jewels and the items of the prophet (including parts of his beard) were on display at the end of long lines we waited in the rain. The girls did really well, but there was a point where they couldn’t absorb much more. Lily raced through the rooms of Muhammad’s personal belongings and writings saying “it’s just some stuff.” She’s twelve and I forget that she hasn’t even had a whole lot of history yet.
Outside the palace we decide to get a big lunch – it’s 4:00 and we want to be at the Blue Mosque by 5:30 as it closes. But we misjudge our time and walk too far downhill for a place that turns out to be too expensive. (Lonely Planet restaurant recommendations are almost always bad, I think. Once a place gets recommended, I think they raise prices a lot.)
Back up the hill we trudge. Still Raining. We opt for a tourist trap cafe right outside the Blue Mosque because we used up our time walking around. It’s a rookie mistake, but meh, they happen. This place has really good warm chocolate cake that brightens the faces of Lily and Emma.
The Blue Mosque is worth the wait, and very closely rivals the Hagia Sophia for our favorite attraction in Istanbul. It’s grand and enormous without being overbearing. Unlike everything else, this is still a real place. The ritual of taking off shoes and staying to the back, away from worshipers, adds authenticity missing from everything else we’ve seen here.
It was built in the early 1600s roughly around the time of Topkapi palace’s heaviest construction. It has one main dome and many smaller ones. It takes elements from Arabic styling, the Hagia Sophia next door, and is considered the last great Mosque of the classical period of Ottoman architecture.
It’s actually called the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, but has blue tones in the ceiling and from 20,000 Izmit tiles mostly of tulips that decorate the walls. The interior columns are the largest I’ve ever seen. The exterior has six minarets.
The last battle (we think) is to climb the stairs from the main road up to the cafe we chose for dinner. It’s quite a hike but the rain had ended. Dinner is at a cafe called “Journey: that could have been in Brooklyn. They served us great food, all Turkish inspired, and we laughed and relaxed after the long day.
Phew, we made it, even with our late start, rain, adding the cistern and a lunch mistake. As long as we aren’t harmed or get sick, travel is always good, right? On our way out of the cafe, the rain starts to pour HARD, and we lose the GPS signal. It’s only a 10-15 minute walk but Istanbul streets are hard to navigate, and though I know roughly where we are, it’s hard to know exactly the shortest route in the dark and rain. Lily is enjoying it but Amanda, Emma and I would have preferred a cab.
Wet clothes get stuffed into luggage. Tired bodies get stuffed into bed. We leave in a few hours (4am) for the next stop on our trip: Selcuk and Ephesus!