Beyond Sultanahmet

Ken & Karen at Aya Sofya

A visitor could spend a week in Istanbul and never leave Sultanahmet (and I’m sure many do). Fearing yet another sales pitch about buying a rug or taking a Bosphorus tour, we ventured beyond the tourist area.

Come for the architecture, stay for the deals: welcome to Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar. Daniel Craig’s James Bond careened through these corridors on his motorcycle, and all I got were a couple of cheap (after haggling) t-shirts.

Suleymaniye Mosque stands beside the Grand Bazaar. Circling it on the map, the clerk at our hotel told us, “Forget about the Blue Mosque. This is the most beautiful mosque in Istanbul.”

Suleymaniye Mosque

The open courtyard is a refreshing break from the crowded streets, and the interior ornamentation is understated compared to its showy big brother. I must admit I was more awed by the Blue Mosque- probably due to its prominent place on the Istanbul skyline.

Karen got caught in the gravitational pull of the Spice Market, where she loaded up on dried fruit snacks for later and spices to take home. We never did figure out what the widely-advertised Turkish Viagra is.

As the sun went down, we retired to… where else? A rooftop terrace.

Minarets over the Bosphorus

As we prepared to leave Istanbul for other Turkish adventures, we pondered some of the other sights we’ve seen in this crowded, graceful, noisy, enchanting metropolis.

And one more shout out to Karen’s cousin, Jamie, for getting us off on the right foot all those weeks- oh wait, we only got here a few days ago. Oh well.

Jamie, Karen, and Ken


Under Istanbul

I’m following James Bond around Istanbul again.

In true Her Majesty’s Secret Service fashion, I’ve given Karen the slip and descended into the shadows… beyond the prying eyes of the masses… into hidden subterranean caverns. Caverns that have a cafe and gift shop.

Cistern Cafe, of course

The Basilica Cistern wasn’t a tourist attraction back when Sean Connery appeared in From Russia with Love, spying on the Russian embassy through the periscope (!) that they didn’t notice poking out of the floor (!!).

Opened to the public in 1987, it’s plenty well-known now. No, it wasn’t Istanbul’s sewer; water was transported from miles away to be stored here. The 336 columns vary in style, randomly topped with Iconic, Corinthian, and Doric capitals. The architects probably didn’t expect hundreds of camera-toting tourists to be inspecting their handiwork.

No one quite knows why there are pilfered Medusa heads at the bases of two columns. And I’m glad- I prefer that a bit of mystery remains down here, beneath the streets of Istanbul.

Medusa head



You say Sophia, I say Sofya…

May 14, 2014

All right, this feels like cheating. I’m used to slogging miles from site to site while on vacation. Finally arriving at the museum/palace/ruin is like coming upon an oasis in the desert. Helps us burn off that tasty local food we treat ourselves to as well.

Here in Istanbul, however:

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So what is that grand structure, visible from Galata Tower…

Aya Sofya from Galata Tower

… and our hotel balcony?

Aya Sofya from hotel

Fourteen centuries in the making, this is Hagia Sophia (its name when it was a church) or Aya Sofya (its name when it was a mosque) or That Big Museum With All The People Standing In Line Outside (what it is now).

In 1963’s From Russia with Love, Sean Connery’s James Bond ventured inside for a clandestine meeting with a Soviet agent.  Apparently, he came on a less crowded day.

We made our way inside and found an interior large enough to swallow hundreds of tourists and still leave us with some elbow room. The Virgin Mary and fragments of archangels share dome space with Ottoman medallions proclaiming the names of Allah and Mohammed.

Next door lies Sultan Ahmet Mosque, commonly known as the Blue Mosque, which is open to tourists outside of prayer times.

Wherever you wander in Sultanahmet (this whole area is named after him- not just the mosque), these two grand structures are always part of the backdrop.

Aya Sofya at night
Aya Sofya at night

Just ask James Bond.

From Istanbul with Love
From Istanbul with Love: the skyline in 1963

Top(kapi) of the World

May 12, 2014

Istanbul is huge. Sprawling. One of the biggest cities in the world. Looking at a map back in Milwaukee, it was hard to envision the scale of the place.

Which is why I was surprised to discover that our fairly basic hotel had a sweeping view of the Bosphorus and was practically next to Topkapi Palace.

Topkapi modelFor centuries, Topkapi was the opulent home to Ottoman sultans. Now it’s home to the Republic of Turkey’s treasures, from sparkling jewels to colorful garments to the Topkapi Dagger, made famous by the oddball 1964 movie Topkapi (watch it if you dare).


Walking the palace complex takes you through archways and courtyards into impressive rooms, many of them beautifully tiled.

It’s almost hard to believe (i.e. I’m not sure I believe) all the religious artifacts presented here: Moses’ staff, Abraham’s pot, Joseph’s turban, and even…

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Topkapi enclaveFor all its opulence, Topkapi is a grind. We shuffled from room to room, standing in long lines to gaze at tiny artifacts in dimly-lit boxes. There was some live entertainment: in this peaceful sitting room, a woman started yelling and swearing at a guard. In response, he started yelling and swearing back (a sure way to get fired back home). As the altercation drifted outside, they veered from Turkish to English, so we understood her when she screamed, “I’m not your girlfriend or your wife, you can’t talk to me that way!”

Despite the interpersonal pyrotechnics, palace fatigue soon set in. While Karen was all Topkapied out, I pressed on, paying the extra fee and venturing into the harem on my own (who takes his wife into a harem, anyway?).

Imagining what life was like within these walls was a bit easier for me, since I’m currently reading The Janissary Tree, a historical novel set in 19th Century Istanbul. In the course of investigating a series of murders and a jewel theft, Investigator Yashim visits Topkapi and the harem, bringing the era to life as a piece of jewelry in a case simply cannot.

Speaking of which: no photos of the Topkapi dagger allowed… but you can buy a replica gift shops all over town. The real thing is, admittedly, spectacular.

Faux Topkapi dagger

The antidote to palace fatigue is a delicious meal with friends, which is what we got by meeting Jamie and his girlfriend Figen for dinner. She gave us a ride to Jamie’s place on our first night and was impressed when I casually said teşekkürler (thanks). Didn’t take long for her to realize that was pretty much my only Turkish word, but since then she’s helped me learn a few more.

Blue Mosque dinner

From the restaurant’s rooftop terrace (of course), we watched the sun set on the Blue Mosque. Oh yeah, gotta go see that too. Another day.

Jamie snaps the Blue Mosque


Reunited in Istanbul

Sadly, it required an aunt to die. My Aunt Meg was a traveler herself, having worked as a travel agent for many years. She passed away this January, and while attending her funeral I reconnected with cousins I hadn’t seen in twenty years. Talking with Lisa and Jodi, who both live in England, led me to their brother Jamie: “Oh, Jamie lives in Istanbul. I’m sure he’d be happy to host you two.”

That’s how we ended up having this over-the-top Turkish breakfast on our first morning in Istanbul.

Huge breakfast with Karen & Jamie

Jamie was an excellent host, putting us up at his apartment for a few nights and giving us an introduction to the city.

Jamie's view
The view from Jamie’s apartment in the northern area of the city

He took us to places off the tourist path, like Rumeli Fortress, with stunning views of the Bosphorus.

Like many places we’ve traveled, Istanbul has stray dogs wandering the streets. Here, I was happy to discover that dogs are spayed/neutered, vaccinated, and tagged.

Who knew we’d learn so much about Polish history in Turkey? That was just one of the many exhibits at the Sabanci Museum.

Turkey is a Muslim country, so no alcohol, right? Nah, Istanbul is the least conservative area of the country. Jamie was true to his Wisconsin roots, managing to find the best bars and happy hour deals in Istanbul. Our first stop was the swanky Tarabya Hotel.

Rum & Koka-Kola
Rum & Koka-Kola

We spotted Milwaukee’s own Miller beer on the menu. I don’t drink it at home, and I certainly won’t drink it here for 22 lire (US$ 11)!

Miller on the menu

Moving on to a bar decorated with Christmas lights and photos of American actors, Jamie introduced me to Istanbul’s local firewater, raki.


It’s an anise-flavored liqueur, similar to ouzo from Greece. Just add water and ice cubes. If you like licorice, raki is pleasant to sip- way better than Efes beer (typical crappy light beer).

Rumeli Fortress- Karen & Jamie

Jamie was a very easygoing, gracious host, getting two jet-lagged tourists pointed in the right direction to enjoy Istanbul.