Kirsty and I arrived last night at Ataturk airport feeling exhausted and grimy and just a little overheated. A British mercenary on his way to Baghdad had subjected us to an interrogation of politics and foreign affairs over our wilted inflight prawn salad. With every answer he seemed emboldened to ask a new set, upping the shock factor (or so he thought, it's difficult to be shocked when you haven't slept for 12 hours). There was a specific shuttle service we were supposed to use for our hotel, so we found the office and sampled our first taste of Turkish salesmanship. "Do you want to book a tour? We have some great deals."
"No thanks," we replied. "Just our hotel, that would be great."
"But do you have any plans while you're here? Do you know what you're doing?"
"Oh yes," said Kirsty.
"Maybe you want to rent a car?"
"Uh, no."
"How will you get out of Istanbul? Or are you planning to stay in the city the whole time?"
"No we have plans, it's all sorted out." And at that point Kirsty and I just collapsed on our bags, waiting for our driver. I wouldn't realize it until departing Ataturk airport for London, but Turks know best. Always.
We waited for thirty minutes; I suppose the travel agent had somewhat forgotten about us since we wouldn't be buying any tours or rental cars. At last a phone call was made and sounds exchanged (I defy any foreigner to distinguish words in Turkish). Within moments we were speeding along the roadways of Istanbul at what felt to be great speeds. Drivers in Istanbul seem to regard lane divisions and other road signs as mere recommendations. Turn signals and brakes are clearly for the weak. Yet, somehow, I didn't really care. Once we were more in the city proper I was too busy craning my neck for better views out the windows. Rising behind the neon lights for Diesel and McDonald's were minarets and expansive domes. They soared above the city like miracles, like triumphs.
The driver turned off the 3 lane roadway and we began rattling down cobblestone streets squeezed between buildings teetering and leaning over us. The van swung around corners (I swear, I thought we were going in circles), before finally halting at Hotel Amagrandi Spectra. The driver looked at us, first smugly and then with a little confusion. "Amagrandi Spectra," he said, just in case were weren't sure why we had stopped.
We were staying at Amagrandi Spina.
Once that had been made clear he nodded and gave his best impression of knowing where he was going. The effect was ruined, though, by him calling on his cell phone for obvious directions. Whoever his lifeline was, they got us to the correct hotel and we fell into bed.
The main selling point of Hotel Amagrandi Spina is it's location. We are within walking distance of the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia and other ancient tourist destinations. For breakfast there is a rooftop terrace with reportedly stunning views of both places of worship. Of course, what we forgot was that being within seeing-distance of a mosque means being within hearing distance of it. Muslims pray five times a day, starting at dawn (6:00 AM in this case), called to prayer by the melodic warbling of an ezan. I swear to God, I thought a Turk or a goat was being painfully and brutally murdered outside our window. Then I understood: Allah's people were being called upon to show their devotion. How beautiful, I thought, how magical and tried to drift back to sleep. Half an hour later, he was still warbling and it was no longer melodic or beautiful. He was mostly off key.
At 8:00AM Kirsty and I forced ourselves awake, got dressed and climbed the marble staircase to breakfast. As soon as we stepped into the open air there was the blue mosque, its domes rippling downwards, hemmed in by only six minarets. Behind us was the Hagia Sophia, hovering with its dome above every other immense structure and rolling down to the grass like a flood of arches.
Breakfast consisted of feta, cucumbers, tomatoes, dried figs and apricots and bread with jam. To drink there was extremely weak coffee and tang. I couldn't really taste any of it, though. This will sound very melodramatic but I was feasting on the sight of the Hagia Sopia, I could barely sense anything else.
The Hagia Sophia was our first destination. Making my fingertips tingle as we approached. I first learned of the church in High school, accompanied by the song "Istanbul Not Constantinople" (believe me, that song was stuck in my head for a good five days). Later, in art history courses and Russian art history courses I understood just how special a building it is. The first to ever support such a massive dome on pendentives, letting the force and shapes flow uninterrupted down to the ground, as opposed to squinches which effectively dam up a dome and square off the circle. Reportedly, when people first saw the dome, and the windows punched through the circumference, they thought it miraculously rested on a halo of light. It is also cited as the driving force behind Russia's adoption of Christianity as a national religion by Prince Vladimir. His envoys stepped inside the church and said they thought they had died and reached paradise.
Sadly, in this modern day and age of cynicism, doubt and heathenism (all of which I freely partake), there was scaffolding filling the dome. But I was undeterred, I had been waiting a long time to step where Sultan Mehmed, Empress Irene and Emperor Justinian had all stood. Only imagine how it must have seemed as a functioning cathedral with the gold tesserae of the mosaics glinting through clouds of incense and illuminated by the sunlight streaming in. Truly, the mosaics we saw, Mary, John the Baptist and Jesus, various rulers of Constantinople, Justinian and Constantine, glowed, they shone. I can understand how icon writers got the idea that there was a perpetual living soul within these images.
And yet, we are godless North Americans who sold our souls, long ago, to the God Caffeine in his many incarnations. Beautiful as the church was, we left in search of some decent coffee. We found some and also the conversation of an American demi-expat who was reading a European newspaper at the table next to us. He overheard our plans for the day and gave us some recommendations. Go to the Galata bridge, he said, on the Bosphorus and make sure you go to the lower level. That's where all the cafes and restaurants are. You can get a delicious fish sandwich and mingle with some Turks.
We stored the advice for good keeping and made our way to the Byzantine cisterns. The only way I can describe these cisterns is to say they're like a giant hall, underground and flooded with water. Ghostly carp and smaller fish weave in and out of columns pillaged from other ancient building sites, the prime loot being two Medusa heads providing the base for two columns.
It is also, apparently, the international destination of Turkey. We were jostled and shoved about by Le Tour from France, Il Tour Grupo from Italy (one lady from this contigent literally pushed me out of the way to get a photo of a Medusa head), Ein Turin Grupin from Germany, Tyritchiski Grypski from Russia and Hai Tour Group-san from Japan (I'm very sorry for my cultural insensitivity, but it was necessary to keep my irritation in check). The cisterns would be lovely and peaceful, if only no one was there.
We left the cisterns, having fought for our Medusa pictures with the rest of the EU, and made our way to the Bosphorus. The banks of the river was lined with men casting fishing lines and pulling out tiny, silver fish. Behind them were fish sandwich stands, stuffing fillets into chunks of baguette and squeezing fresh pomegranate juice. On the other side of the river on of Istanbul's hills rose, crusted with apartment building's and a tall slender tower. We followed the Americans advice and foolishly passed the fish stands by and stepped onto the lower level of the Galata bridge.
Turkish restaurants are not shy, they are not doing you a favour by permitting you to eat with them. You are doing them a favour and they are not above stationing someone outside the door to beg and plead with you to eat their food and drink their tea. Thus, as you walk by the request and advertisement of "yes please, very good food, you try" constantly sounds in your ears and you have to think of a good excuse as to why you're passing them by. Saying no only gets the response, "why not?" At a certain point you just have to give up and let yourself be sucked in.
The restaurant that secured our Turkish Lira seemed set up for tourists, with bean bag chairs and a menu offering hamburgers. We ordered an appetizer sampler with hummus and stuffed vine leaves etc; Then I ordered a Shepherd's Salad. To make a Shepherd's salad, simply take five cucumbers, two tomatoes, a leaf of lettuce and a handful of parsley, Chop it all up, dump into a bowl and sprinkle lemon juice on top. Serve.
I nearly O.D.'ed on cucumber, which would have been disastrous in Turkey.
Should a Turk ever find himself in a land that is bereft of aubergine, cucumbers and/or pistachios, he will most likely starve.
We succumbed to a long nap after lunch, waking up at 5:00PM and went to the Blue Mosque.
I draped my scarf about my head, slipped off my Pumas and sank my feet into the carpet. Perhaps because the Blue Mosque has always been a mosque and still is a mosque it felt all the more intriguing to me, a little more foreign than the Hagia Sophia. I looked around and realized I had no idea of the significance, if any, behind any of the features surrounding me. It was beautiful, though; so quiet and so tranquil with all the sounds being muffled by the carpet. We sat at the base of column and gazed at the blue tiles climbing the walls around us.
Then we were kicked out. Prayer 4 out of 5 was about to commence and men were busy washing their feet and ankles and hands and wrists as we tripped down the steps.
Our appetite for dinner was kick started by a fresh squeezed pomegranate juice outside our trolley stand. It tasted like the elixir of life. For dinner, Kirsty and I shared a lamb with aubergine dish, a chicken with aubergine dish , apple tea and baklava. I then O.D.'ed on a quince, banana, pomegranate, strawberry, kiwi, cream and honey dish. our waiter set it before me on the table and I could only stare in wonder, at first. It glittered like a mound of jewels. But truly, it was a mound'o'fruit drenched in honey.
Fruit and vegetable tally for that day: 11 servings.


Popular Posts