Friday, October 25, 2013

Istanbul, Turkey

Istanbul is a city we've been meaning to visit for years. It straddles two continents and is one of the most multicultural cities on the planet, but it also has an incredibly rich history.  Neither of us had been there before, so we weren't entirely sure what to expect. I thought it might seem exotic and intimidating, but instead it was somehow both unique and familiar. The old part of the city looks like a typical town in southern Europe -- and then you turn a corner and see the slender minarets of the nearest mosque piercing the sky. Church bells ring on the hour, and then you hear the Muslim call to prayer -- often a real person singing, rather then the taped version we've heard in so many other places. It's one of the only places I've been where you see women who look like Swedish underwear models sitting on a train next to women in niqabs, and no one blinks an eye at the contrast.

There was a tram stop right in front of our hotel, and we found it very easy to use the trams to get around the city. The tram cost 1.50 euros each way, and vending machines near each stop sold little plastic tokens that you then inserted into the turnstiles to enter the tram stop. Carter has had so much experience with different kinds of public transportation this year, and it's really amazing to see him quickly adjust to each new system.

Istanbul is full of amazing tins to see and do. It quickly became clear to us that this was a place we'd have to visit again. We didn't even make a dent in all the amazing sights in the city, and there are also many incredible places to visit elsewhere in Turkey.

We visited the famous Grand Bazaar, which stretched on and on and on, with stalls selling everything from leather coats to incredible glass lamps.

On another day we visited the Spice Bazaar, which specializes in spices, of course, but also in Turkish delight and other yummy things.

Turkish delight, if you aren't familiar with it, is similar to what we in the US would call gummy candy. It's sweet and chewy and can be infused with just about any kind of flavor you can imagine. (You can find many recipes online, for example, this one.)

It was often offered after meals in restaurants as a treat.

Speaking of treats, I have loved baklava for as long as I can remember. I even make it myself on occasion (though it's really a pain to do). Turkey is one of the traditional homes of baklava, and so we had a sweet break on most of our afternoons while in Istanbul.

Below is a selection of different flavors of Turkish delight.

Being a coffee lover, I had to try Turkish coffee. It reminded me of a really strong French-pressed coffee - but with a beautiful presentation!

You can see tea served Turkish style below, in a special glass cup. Everywhere we went we saw people standing in shop fronts and drinking tea out of these little glasses. In the markets, people would walk around with trays and deliver tea to busy shopkeepers. Even when we visited parks to let Carter run around and play, there would be people walking around with a tray of coffee and tea supplies and a thermos of hot water, ready to sell you a dixie cup of tea or coffee.

We had fantastic meals while we were in Istanbul. This one was very memorable - our main dish was cooked inside a clay jar that the waiter had to break open.

I think that what Carter will remember are the stray cats that always seemed to find their way to our tables when our food was served. He generally fed them half of his food.

One day when we were wandering around the city, we passed a park and saw a group of cats lying down under a tree.

Carter started meowing at them, and as a group they jumped up, ran over to him and looked up at him, as if awaiting further instructions. He meowed some more, and they all ran off together. We (along with quite a few people standing around) were rather surprised! We starting telling him after that that he must speak cat very well. ;-)

We managed to visit a few of the famous sights in Istanbul. We had to visit the Blue Mosque twice, since the first time we went during prayer hours and couldn't go inside.

We went off and had lunch and then returned during visiting hours. The interior is really beautiful! This was the first time I've ever been in a mosque in my life. I didn't have a scarf to cover my head, but they had ones you could borrow at the door. (After that I bought a scarf to carry with me, just in case.) We also had to take off our shoes before we entered the mosque.

You can see the many lights hanging from the ceiling in these photos. That makes them look markedly different from a cathedral. Also, notice there are no images of people or other recognizable figures on the walls -- these are forbidden in Islam.

Another incredible building we visited was the Hagia Sofia. It was originally a Greek orthodox basilica and then a Catholic cathedral, and was converted to a mosque in the 15th century. It was secularized and converted into a museum in the 1930s. 

It is one of the few places in the world where you can see Christian and Muslim symbolism side-by-side.

Here is a better view of the low-hanging lights I wrote about above.

There were incredible Byzantine mosaics. 

We went to visit Taksim Square, which required a ride on an underground funicular.

We expected to see something dramatic, but it was just... a square.

There was a park nearby with a nice playground, and Carter spent some time running around there.

We wandered along the waterfront later that day and admired the view.

On another day we visited the palace, which had beautiful grounds.

While here we visited a museum that housed many significant religious artifacts. There were no photos allowed, but among the artifacts on display were Moses' staff and a footprint (in solid stone) of Mohammed. I remain skeptical, of course... ;-)

We spent some time in the beautiful park just below the palace, and Carter enjoyed some time to run around. Generally speaking the Turkish people LOVE children. We've literally been all around the world, and I think I can say this with some degree of confidence! People on the street would smile and pat Carter on the head as we passed, including young men (which is unusual in my experience), and strangers on the train would play games with him while we rode along. Waitresses in restaurants would pinch his cheeks and hug him, and everyone wanted to ask him his name and how old he was. It was really amazing! 

The park was also full of stray cats. Here one is diving into the trash can for food.

This airplane-themed playground was in the park as well. We struck up a conversation with an American family who had a son a little younger than Carter, and found out they were also from Austin! It's amazing how many Austinites we've met while on this trip.

We continued our tradition of eating a late lunch and enjoying light snacks in the hotel's rooftop lounge for dinner.

Istanbul was really an amazing place to visit, and we are already looking forward to visiting again sometime. Next up: Barcelona!

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