07 May 2012

Istanbul II: Crossing Continents

I didn't have time to blog while I was in Istanbul, so I'm now putting together a short series of posts that highlight some of the things we did. My initial, in-a-nutshell post is here and I will also be writing about some of our excursions outside the city and some of our eating and drinking experiences.

Sunset over the Bosphorus and SoGoHo

Although Istanbul didn't quite represent the same navigational challenge as Marrakesh, the city's unusual geography did take some getting used to, what with its multiple bodies of water (the Bosphorus, the Golden Horn, the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara) and multiple continents. Like Stockholm, the city centre is spread across several chunks of outlying land, and like San Francisco, a variety of different transport options are available for travelling from place to place (ferry, tram, metro, bus and funicular). You need to buy a token for each separate mode of transport but as each token is only about 2 lira (about 60p), it's hard to complain too much. Like both cities, Istanbul is very hilly, hence the two separate funicular routes, which run from the Karaköy and Kabataş tram stations in Beyoğlu (on the European shore of the Bosphorus), up the steep hills to the Galata Tower and Taksim Square, respectively. It took us a while to find the funiculars because uniquely, they are underground!

View of the Blue Mosque from our rooftop terrace

We stayed in the Sultanahmet area, also known as South of the Golden Horn (SoGoHo, to me). The hotel promised views of the Blue Mosque and indeed, we were probably only a few hundred metres away and had views of the Disneyland-like turrets of the mosque even from our first-floor bedroom window, as well as from the rooftop terrace.

Blue Mosque by night

We chose to stay in the area because we thought it would be good to close to most of the sights but we actually spent most of our time outside SoGoHo. That said, it is a beautiful--if touristy--part of town and it was always a pleasure walking back home past Topkapı Palace and the Blue Mosque. We also spent much of yesterday, our last day, in and around SoGoHo. We walked through the gardens of Topkapı but we decided not to go inside, in the end because a) it was such a sunny day and we wanted to be outside and b) there was a long queue. We enjoyed looking at the beautiful building from the outside, though. We did go into the Blue Mosque, although were surprised to see how many women weren't wearing the scarves they had been given by the mosque staff to cover their hair. The building is stunning--a gorgeous design and with lovely, intricate mosaics and other decorations on the inside. It remains a haven of calm, despite the throngs of tourists.

Preparing for prayer

We also visited the Bazaar Quarter in SoGoHo a couple of times, although had we realised that the Grand Bazaar (Kapalıçarşı) didn't open on Sundays, we might have spent more time there on our first visit. After Morocco, the Grand Bazaar felt less authentic--more reminiscent, in places, of smart London arcades, such as the Burlington Arcade. The Egyptian (Spice) Bazaar (Mısır Çarşısı), meanwhile, turned out to be pretty small--too small for me to find a scarf I liked, although Özer, at number 82, had a really pretty selection.Quirkier, perhaps, was the area around the Grand Bazaar, which was crammed full with shops selling everything from mannekins (very popular, it seems) to hand-held, stapler-sized sewing machines and cheap clothing. Basically, this area is a lot like my family's ancestral home, Walsall. In the end, the only things I brought home were a few boxes of Turkish delight and a postcard with all the letters of the Turkish alphabet, including my favourite palatals, ş and ç.

Egyptian Bazaar: all your Turkish delight are belong to me

One of the other areas where we spent a lot of time was Beyoğlu, which was billed in my guidebook as some kind of ultra-modern, ultra-trendy metropolis and I was picturing Hong Kong. Actually, though, Beyoğlu was an intriguing mixture of old--the little fish market by the shore at Karaköy, the Galata Tower, which was originally built in the 6th century, and the souk-like warren of shops on the hilly streets, all meticulously organized by category (tool shops, fishing shops, musical instrument shops, and so on)--and new (the global chains, such as TopShop and Starbucks, which line Istiklal Caddesi, where shoppers are only interrupted from time to time by the old-fashioned tram that trundles from Taksim to Galata). At night, I thought the area was a bit loud and tacky, although there were some really nice restaurants tucked away in a few of the side streets (it's worth booking for dinner in the most popular places, especially on a Friday or Saturday night).

Galata Tower by night

Finally, we had to visit Asia while we were in Istanbul. Actually, we landed in Asia, at the Sabiha Gökçen airport, but we also paid a visit to Kadiköy on the Asian shore of the Bosphorus. There wasn't a great deal to do there--we had a little wander around the shops and the market and inadvertently picked the best restaurant for lunch on a road of very similar eateries (see my food and drink post, to follow). The boat ride over from Eminönü was quite fun though, even though the Istanbul fog (another similarity with San Francisco!) descended fairly early on the day we visited and refused to dissipate.

The geography of Istanbul

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