Six Days in Istanbul: DAY FOUR. “Either I conquer Istanbul or Istanbul conquers me,” Fatih Sultan Mehmet

30 Aug

I suppose technically the fourth day in Istanbul began on a rooftop club, which I cannot recall the name of for the life of me. At one point the bar was on fire, as I may have mentioned before, but this was all bartender theatre; yep, they were that good. Amusingly, that behemoth of Turkish pop cheese, Tarkan, was much in evidence that evening with his tune “Simarik” (a 1997 Turkish No.1), which I heard at least three times! My friend Jeff must have sent me the link to that song’s youtube clip at least as many times as that. I scoffed, suggesting my chances of hearing this crap on holiday were virtually nil. Ha! Eating my words now eh!  I actually quite came to like it, in a grudging way. Tarkan is essentially a Turkish Robbie Williams by all accounts, so I’m not going to praise his music that much (which says a lot for my view of Williams), but when you’re on holiday it’s amazing what music you end up dancing to! Interestingly, sat outside the Hostelworld cafe talking to a twenty-something Turkish girl a day later, and she was far more interested in Portishead playing a local festival in August (Midtown Festival) than Tarkan (who I mentioned and got a wry smile in response!)

Several of the party had dispersed by the time the remainder came to leave at about 2am, and I made a (slightly drunken) rant at the DJ’s decision to play The Doors’ “Break on Through”, just as I was going, after three hours of cheese (Tarkan included!)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s0HuEvYNJNk

Rachel, from London, looked just politely interested in this classic rock racket, but perhaps she’s somewhat younger than me (ages is for tombstones baby!) Sam (from Colorado) was fast asleep when I entered my dormitory, and the Australians had long gone. That’s the thing with hostels: it can be a jarringly quick turnover in residence. You have to get your goodbyes in quick!

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Their last night out: Rachel and Stephen in the hostel lounge, pondering the long trek back to London in the morning.

I was exceptionally disciplined in getting down for breakfast, despite hangovers being my worst acquisition when having to mix in public. I don’t know how some people do it! I’m glad I did though, and to be honest I was not particularly rough at all, and even managed something resembling conversation with the German blokes opposite. The lounge area at Hostelworld is really comfy with cushioned seating around the walls (with extra cushions) and wooden tables and chairs facing. The wooden floorboards are broken by what I can only describe as a pit in the middle of the room (a defunct feature of the presumably very old building). It has reinforced Perspex over it, but newcomers never fail to halt as they walk towards it, myself included. The steps go up to the upper level of the lounge and the kitchens. It’s a good set-up and very sociable.

Sam was still slumbering in his pit (I should mention that I heard him enter the room at about four in the morning, sometime after I’d got back in). With the mentality that time was not for sleeping on this trip, I headed out into the street. I first spotted Bree reading in the cafe, who looked up at me with a heartening Colgate smile. I was impressed she was even up and functioning, but the clever woman had only had one glass of wine. “Wise woman!”, I winked, before realising that flirting in this hungover state was probably not wise. I left her to her book!

It’s at this point that I realised I was going to have to be less lackadaisical (now, there’s a word). Yes, less lackadaisical when getting into attractions. I’d given up on entering the Basilica Cistern because of the horrendous queues, but as it was on my top ten list of things to do, I resolved to make sure it happened. Having got the winding back street route down to a tee, I made my way to the junction near Galata bridge. Be very careful when crossing busy roads in Istanbul (and this probably goes for most busy parts of Turkey). The drivers are particularly fast and ruthless with other drivers, although they’re surprisingly patient with pedestrians. Despite this, just keep your wits about you. Having said all that, they still don’t put me in mind of the scare factor I associate with drivers in Rome! They make a Vin Diesel film look slow. Also, with regards to Galata Bridge, be sure to walk on the pedestrian side, otherwise you’ll end up going through the entrance to the tram! I did this on Day Two, completely by accident, thinking there was a toll for the bridge. This was obviously bollocks, and what I’d actually paid for was some kind of tram/metro fare. You pay your money in a small booth and get a plastic token to put in the slot at the barrier. It all seems a bit convoluted, and because I was brand new to it all I didn’t have clue what I was doing. So a word to the (hopefully) wise from the (not so) wise! Once I’d walked onto the platform., which looked like the walkway across the bridge, I looked down to see the main bridge section, saw the tram coming and just said, “f***!” Figuring I wasn’t going to get my 4 Lira back, and not willing to risk arrest for jumping back over the turnstile, I boarded the next tram and decided to just go with the experience. Trams are a quick way of getting round Istanbul, but as with all busy cities they can get very crowded, so be warned.

After getting a bit lost (I got off the tram too early), I eventually arrived at Sultanahmet Square and headed to the Cistern entrance (which, if you’re facing Hagia Sophia, is to your left, on the other side of the street circling the square, and well sign posted). For potential future reference, Eminonu is the area and tram stop nearest the Golden Horn/Bosphorus river side and marina, and is classed as being in the Bazaar quarter (although the Bazaar seems a bit of trek from there). For anything further into Sultanahmet or Seraglio Point areas, stay on the tram!

Anyhow, back to the Cistern! I’d been in love with this place since seeing it in the James Bond film From Russia with Love (which for reasons too irrelevant to go into here, takes place mainly in Istanbul and not Russia). Ian Fleming’s novel was even my choice of reading for the plane! Hagia Sophia and other landmarks also feature in that film, but it was the Cistern that left the biggest impression. The Basilica Cistern is a vast underground water cistern, and another remarkable example of Byzantine engineering. There may have been another vault here before, but this last and biggest version dates from 532, and was designed to serve the Royal Palace. What made me chuckle, is that after the Ottomans invaded they didn’t know of its existence. This went on for about a hundred years, with the revelation of its existence coming through locals being able to collect water in buckets through holes in the ceiling and even collecting the odd fish! Fortunately we all know about it now, and it’s a very atmospheric and unusual place to visit; I really recommend it! Soft ambient music is now played in the cistern, and the water level is much lower than it would have been. I presume it was drained in the ‘80s before it was re-opened as a tourist attraction. Walkways have also been installed, which negates the need for a boat (as Sean Connery had to use in 1963!) After all these years it was so good to finally see it for myself, and a sure message that any childhood wish is possible. You can think that these places are inaccessible to you and can be experienced only through glamorous films, but that isn’t always the case if the will is there!

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One of the upturned Medusa heads in the Basilica Cistern. No one quite knows where they came from but having Medusa in your building was meant to ward off bad luck.

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I then went for a Turkish bath! I figured that there was no point in coming to Istanbul if I wasn’t going to have one. That was pretty much the advice of my friend who had been. I think I went to a different one than Suzie did, which was actually fine as I got to see a real diamond of a building. She had said there was one near the blue Mosque, but apart from the historical baths (which are now something completely different) I couldn’t find anything. Fortunately a quick read through the guide book (DK’s Turkey volume, which I heartily recommend), I pinpointed Cagaloglu Baths. These opulent 18th Century baths have attracted all kinds of famous folk for centuries. The interior is something special as well; all grey marble and domed ceilings. Turn left when facing Hagia Sophia, pass the Cistern entrance and keep going towards the Grand Bazaar. Cagaloglu Baths will be on your right hand side, about twenty minutes walk from Hagia Sophia, but be warned as it’s quite easy to walk past. Most baths are designed the same way, by all accounts, and these baths were no different. The corridor from the street leads into the The Camekan (entrance Hall), where you choose your service. This is a huge domed space at Cagaloglu. Bathers change clothes in the wooden cubicles surrounding the open space. You can also relax with a cup of tea, after bathing. I didn’t, more through a lack of communication skills rather than through not wanting any! An intermediate room (Sogukluk) leads into the hararet, or Hot Room. And man, it is hot. Well, proper humid hot at any rate, and enough to get you sweating straight away. Naked, except for a skimpy towel, I waited for my masseuer. There was only one other customer in there when I was, sat right at the other side of this vast hall. In the centre was the circular raised plinth where the massage takes place. The full pummelling and massage, which I had, is not cheap. Istanbul is largely a very reasonable city with regards to expenditure, although you can obviously spend as much as you like and experience it on a more extravagant budget. But the baths are one place where you can’t skimp; you either want it or you don’t. I did, and readily paid forty Euros (you have the option to pay in Turkish Lira or Euros at Cagaloglu). The cheapest option is self-service, but I really don’t recommend that for a first timer; you’ll lose a lot of the experience. Equally, unless you’re feeling flush and have more time, I don’t recommend the deluxe option either! The massage, for those not familiar, is quite intense. Not as relaxing as I’d hoped, but that’s a frame of mind I expect, particularly with my knees being up against hard marble! It did feel great though, and he didn’t skimp on the effort, let me tell you. The mild surprise was when he caught my sunburn (which then felt like a Chinese burn) and later when he cracked my legs back! The pummelling makes you feel like a wet piece of dough, but you feel great afterwards. And to make sure you’re really clean he takes you over to the taps and basin and then essentially gives you a shower. However, your feeble power shower has nothing on this guy. After realising he wasn’t actually trying to drown me (even if I’d known Turkish, the force and volume of water he was throwing at me wouldn’t have left any room for conversation), I decided to just go with the showering experience. He then soaped up my hair and gave my head such a rigorous wash I feared I’d be leaving the baths with no hair. Also, another point to bear in mind is that these fellas will probably expect a tip off you, so be warned! All in all, an essential and exhilarating experience, which I absolutely recommend, and you could do a lot worse than visit Cagaloglu Baths for what I think is a definitive experience.

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Equally refreshed and knackered I emerged into the blazing sunshine of the street, and navigated my way to my next port of call: Topkapi Palace, some twenty minutes walk from Sultanahmet Sqaure and located in the area known as Seraglio Point, a hilly and wooded promontory that marks the meeting point of The Golden Horn, Sea of Marmara and the Bosphorus. I decided to leave The Blue Mosque until the next day, reasoning that another place of worship might feel too much of a repeat. The early afternoon call to prayer echoed from the mosque loudspeakers, and as I wandered over to the palace I felt so blessed to be there. A radical change can be so good for the soul!

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Sultanahmet Square, looking towards the Blue Mosque. I came back here a few times, and each time it was an experience.

After buying a tray full of melon, I trudged up the cobbled leafy path to the palace. Now, I have to say, Topkapi Palace disappointed me. Not because it was actually unworthy of a visit; on the contrary, it’s quite amazing. The problem was with me at that time, as the fierce sun was sapping me of some patience and energy, was that I found the layout of Topkapi quite confusing, and I didn’t find the staff particularly helpful either (a couple looked at me with genuine distain!) For example, it took me ages to find the Harem section after asking for directions off two guides (and failing to make any sense of the guide book map). On the off chance that this wasn’t just me in a particularly sun soaked and scatty mood, just be prepared when you go in, just so you see everything. I still haven’t seen the main Treasury with the jewels and on this evidence I am absolutely the last man alive to tell you where it is!

One very useful piece of advice I can give you though, is to get a Museum pass. They are pricey (85 Turkish Lira at the time of writing) but allow you access to a large variety of Istanbul museum attractions, including Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace grounds, the Harem, the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art…even the carpet and mosaic museums!) You have 72 wonderful hours to use it as you will! However, how much value for money you get from it is up to you, but it’s far better, and cheaper, than paying individually for each attraction if you intend to see as much as possible, as I did. Luckily a lot of these attractions are also in walking distance of each other, but if you want to see them all you will have to put the footwork in, so be sure you’re up for it.

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The Golden Horn and Beyoglu on the opposite shore, from the grounds of Topkapi Palace. (Galata Tower clearly visible).

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Ceiling of the Sultan’s quarters at Topkapi Palace. Beautiful and lavish!

Anyway, all that aside, Topkapi Palace is a sumptuous treat for the eyes. It was built between 1459 and 1465 by Sultan Mehmet II as his principal residence (still young compared to Hagia Sophia!) It’s not actually a single building, but a series of pavilions, and is essentially s tone version of the sort of tented encampments the Ottomans would have been used to. It was used up to the 19th Century, when it was largely abandoned for Dolmabache Palace (which I visited on Day Three). Even before you go in, the park gardens around it are gorgeous, and like I say, it’s a real treat for your eyes. Topkapi Palace is definitely one to see if you’re in Istanbul! It also gives you an insight into how the hierarchy lived, and the fascinating concept of the Harem. It may seem sexist and even abusive to some, but these women lived in upmost luxury and wealth, with different views and societal context to us, almost fighting to become the Sultan’s favourite and bear his children at a time when the Sultan weilded significant power and was not merely a figurehead. A different world, that is for sure. Additionally, the architecture and decor alone is phenomenal and breathtaking. On that subject, I’m not sure my words would be enough.
Sadly by the time I got back to the square near Galata Tower, on the other side of the river, I was mildly sun stroked and desperate for a sit down. A refreshing ice cold orange juice in a large cafe, under a canopy, brought me round, as well as including some lovely conversation with a Turkish waiter who wanted to practice his English on me. English is very important to them as it enables them to pursue career avenues that might be otherwise closed. He was a nice guy, and I wished him well (for the record, his English was exceptionally good, and I told him as much). Incidentally, if you order an orange juice in Istanbul you generally get the real thing: several freshly squeezed oranges, done right in front of you. No concentrated crap here my friend!

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You think you need a cold orange juice? Spend a day in Istanbul in August and then you’ll need one!

For me, the day was winding down after teatime, and I was feeling it after such a packed day and the night out before. Sam had to swap rooms due to some admin mix-up, and I was actually relieved to have the whole room to myself for a few hours of siesta. That evening two German girls arrived (one was called Natasha, but I’m not sure…we never really got to bond, as our social diaries were well out of synch. I was off to bed relatively early and they were fresh in town and ready to go out and party at midnight!)

As a solo traveller, don’t feel you have to say ‘yes’ to everything; it’s your show. If I’d gone out on the razz again it would have seriously affected my next day, and I had a LOT planned. If Day Four had seemed hectic, Day Five was going to give it a run for its money….

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