I suppose nothing prepared me for Sultanahmet, the historical centre of Asian Istanbul. Istanbul is a unique kind of city, straddling two continents and providing what I think is a perfect blend of Eastern Europe and the Middle East. In-between is the River Bosphorus, and The Golden Horn, one of the world’s great natural harbours, which has served this great city for over two thousand years. Now, I mentioned a smell I noticed on my first night, and yes, it’s definitely the smell of Istanbul. I’m still not exactly sure what it was; a combination of spice, smoke, heat and even the odd sewer. Who knows?? I actually liked it, because the bottom line is, Istanbul did not smell like Manchester or London.
As for the heat, well, I got a bit arrogant on my first full day and went out without a hat or sun cream, what a colossal fool! I’m fair skinned Irish stock, so blazing Eastern sun isn’t going to be the kind of thing my genes are hoping for, but I don’t burn too badly. But, let’s not lie; I do burn if exposed to 35 degrees mid-day sun. That hat and that cream were readily used from then on.
I experienced a Turkish breakfast of fresh bread, hard boiled eggs, tomato, cucumber, and tea. It was protein rich and actually very nice. I left the olives, as I can’t abide the damn things. For years now, I’ve been expecting some taste epiphany with olives, but it’s never happened. “Oh, you’ll suddenly love them as your tastes develop!”, olive fans proclaim. Will they now? Well, my friend, it hasn’t happened yet. How do I know? Because I thought the feckin’ thing was a grape that’s why. I won’t be making that mistake again, let me tell you.
Breakfast was a bit of a lonely affair though, I have to admit, mainly as I hadn’t really acclimatized and got to know any of the hostel residents. Fortunately, I was about to get acquainted with some fascinating people, but for my first day I was single-minded and set on finding Sultanahment Square. I kept myself to myself and made a quick exit once my food was finished. I had, after all, quite an itinerary planned.
My first and perhaps most obvious aim was to see Hagia Sophia, one of Istanbul’s oldest and most famous attractions. A marvel of Byzantine architecture and still one of the most astounding buildings in the world, Hagia Sophia has dominated the skyline of The Golden Horn for a millennia and a half. In Greek Hagia Sophia is “The Church of Holy Wisdom”, and was built over two earlier churches. Until the Sultan Ahmed Mosque (also known as The Blue Mosque) it was the principal mosque in Istanbul, and had actually served as a Christian church for various denominations for over 900 years before becoming a mosque, which might surprise a few people. The wonderful examples of Byzantine art date from the 9th Century, and I’m thankful so much still remains. Still, some original 6th Century mosaic adoration still remains, notably high up in the ceilings. It became a mosque in 1453, after the Ottoman invasion, and remained so until 1931. The minarets, tombs and fountains date from this period, and probably gave it the appearance we normally now associate with a mosque; infact Hagia Sophia is a template of sorts for many mosques that followed it, even the Blue Mosque replicated it. Since 1935 it’s been a secular museum. Aside from anything else, it was the size and age of the building that astounded me; the fact it still looks so well preserved is no mean feat given the tumultuous history that often surrounded it. Over 1,400 years!
Hagia Sophia, and attractions like it, are perfect for the solo traveller, because they completely dominate and enhance your time. There isn’t a dull moment, and there is so much to behold, from the astounding dome above you to the mosaics in the upper gallery. All completely jaw dropping. You can find out more about this remarkable place here:
And, a short clip from me! Apologies though, as at the time I was possibly suffering from sunstroke and heat exhaustion and sound terrible!
The heat was something else though, and after a pleasant time on Sultanahmet Square watching the crowds I made my way back to the European side and the hostel. I did see The Grand Bazaar, and it’s a shock to the senses to be sure, but be warned, if you don’t like shopping a 1,000 year old market isn’t going to change your mind! The place is a huge maze and put me in mind of the Cairo streets in Raiders of the Lost Ark, when Indiana Jones loses his girlfriend in a basket. It took me half an hour to get out of the place, all the while avoiding bartering with rug sellers or even boys trying to sell me water. Great to have seen it in its colourful glory, but hell no! Get me out of there! So, that kind of busy, vibrant place is also great for the less shy solo explorer- IF you like shopping! Alternatively if you do feel a bit shy, it’ll be a huge push out of your comfort zone, if that’s what you want!
Day Two ended with some nice food from a cheap restaurant (some spinach wrap concoction) and an ice cold beer, which tasted like the best beer ever when drunk in that blazing heat.
More about my journey next time!