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Friday, February 11, 2011

Istanbul, Turkey

(Still catching up on the blogging after my family's three-week visit to the Middle East)

Nicole, my parents, and I enjoyed a comfortable start to our trip to the city formerly known as Constantinople due to a half empty flight from Beirut. On the morning of January 28, we spread out, read the free newspapers (thanks Mideast Airlines for being infintely better than any carriers in the U.S.A.!), and flew over the Mediterranean. By the time we changed money and made our way to baggage claim, my parents' suitcase was already sitting outside the 'lost and found' office whereas the suitcase Nicole and I were sharing was out of sight. Momentary panic. But I quickly found our bag on the conveyor belt, sitting on the same spot it sat when the belt came to a stop. Crisis averted. Our guide shuttled us to the Grand Emin, which we learned was closed for construction. Again, a crisis averted, as the Emin sent us to Ayma II, a hotel owned by the same company.

We quickly changed into warmer clothes--Istanbul is a chilly city in January--and hit the neighborhood. We stayed just outside of the old city (Sultanahmet) in a bustling business district on the European side of town. Didya know that Istanbul is the only city in the world that spans two continents? The Bosphorous splits the city down the middle and one side is considered Asia, the other Europe. We did some people watching and found a cheap cafe where we ate pide (breads topped with various meats and cheeses) and shared a piece of subourek, a sour version of the Greek dish pastitsio. All for the equivalent of about $10 U.S. Our hotel provided a beautiful fruit tray so we enjoyed fruit, played a few games of 500 in the room, and went to bed early to rest up for sightseeing.

Next morning, we sailed to Buyuk Ada ("big island"), in the middle of the Mermera, the sea to Istanbul's south, but only after the hotel's odd but tasty breakfast: noodle soup, yogurt, bitter tea, olives, dried fruit, and boiled eggs, all on the top floor of the Ayma, surrounded by picture windows, seagulls hovering outside. The ferry to Buyuk Ada carries a mixture of commuters (no cars allowed on the island but a good number of Istanbulis work there) and tourists (almost exclusively Arabs, who seem to love Turkey, even during the cold winters there). We watched jellyfish in the Mermera and listened to the bastonie salesman, a short mustachioed man who could play Hercule Poirot, deliver his loud and humorous pitch for his versatile cane/walking stick. My dad bought one. On Buyuk Ada, we walked, took a carriage ride, and ate fresh fish from the sea. The island is beautiful; you can watch horses and other animals running free. Returning to the hotel, we saw images of massive demonstrations on tv (no English stations at all!) and quickly learned that a movement had begun in Cairo to oust Mubarak. Seeing things unfold from a cheap hotel in Turkey, no access to English-language news...I think these things seemed even more surreal to my parents. Nicole and I were getting used to feeling as if we're uncomfortably close to history.

Speaking of history, the next day we visited the old city, my parents proving that They. Can. Walk. We strolled through the Hippodrome and the ancient obelisks from the Roman era, the wind kicking off both the Mermera and the Bosphorous, rain threatening to fall. Nicole bought a couple cheap umbrellas that quickly imploded after only a few minutes due to the high wind. We sought refuge in the Blue Mosque, from the era of Sultan Ahmet (who gave his name to the neighborhood) in the 1600s, a massive, beautiful structure that provided the inspiration for Prime Minister Hariri's mosque in downtown Beirut. Our guide Sedat also took us to Topkapi Palace, the complex from which the Ottoman sultans ruled from the 1400s to the 1800s. You walk through huge gates into huge courtyards. Really amazing place. Equally amazing, the Ottoman treasures preserved there, including the diamond that proved central to a 60s heist movie called "Topkapi" that my dad loved. Also on display in the old palace, the extra-large clothing of the wives of the sultans (who desired big women who symbolized wealth) and special objects of the Prophet, Islamic treasures including keys to the Kaaba and swords allegedly owned by Mohammed. Walked through the crowded Grand Baazar. And the day's highlight, the Aya Sophia or "Haggia Sophia," the result of Emperor Justinian ordering that his minions build the largest church in the world. The result was the structure that served as a Byzantine church from the 500s until the Ottoman empire, when it became a Mosque for five-hundred additional years. My mom and Nicole were tired by this point, but my dad and I walked up the long ramps to the perch where the empresses used to watch the coronations in the sanctuary below. The place is under perpetual rehabilitations so you can see both Christian and Islamic art on the walls. Yet another place whose beauty overwhelms.

Then came January 30, when the highlight of the day was the Dolma Bacche, the newer Ottoman palace, this one along the Boshporous. The palace itself is smaller than Topkapi, but the artifacts inside really make the place what it is. The tea services, "reign of terror" furniture, paintings, china, and other priceless antiques. My parents loved this place more than anything else we saw in Turkey. You really get a sense of how the sultans lived, that is, decadently. Fun fact: the sultans rendered their closest servatns deaf so that they couldn't spy on the sultans. We took another ferry ride today, this time on the Bosphorous where you can enjoy views of the two continents that Istanbul is part of. All the Arab tourists (i.e., everybody but us) took loads of photos of an estate along the straight where a famous Arabic soap opera, "Silver," or "Noor el Mahennet," is filmed. We went to Istanbul's other souk, the Egyptian or Spice Baazar and I bought saffron, as well as some dried fruits. And then we said our goodbyes to our guide Sedat.

On the 31st, we had most of the day, since our flight wasn't until the evening, so Nicole and I talked my parents into hitting the city solo. Reluctant at first, they ended up being kind of impressed with my navigation skills. Did I mention that Istanbul has an amazing public transportation system? We took the tram all over on this day and it couldn't have been easier or cheaper. Why, oh why, can't Detroit have something like this? Nicole wanted to hit a few shopping districts, so we first returned to Sultanahmet and then venured over to Taksim Square. In the latter, we found Mr. Kumpir, which we had learned about on a travel program a few months prior. Mr. Kumpir is fast-food of sorts, serving these amazing twice-baked potatoes stuffed with all kinds of tasty fillings. Really nice, especially after all the meat (Turkish cuisine can be summed up as such: kebaps, kefte, and more kebaps) during the previous couple of days.

A late-evening flight took us back to Beirut, where my sister was waiting at the apartment, having spent a few interesting days with her friends in the south of Lebanon.

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