19 April 2012

Istanbul - Constantinople

My attempt at last minute shopping in Manchester was thwarted.  I saw a very cool, extra large 1960s Lava lamp in a good little retro shop we often visit when in town, and if it had been the first day of the trip rather than the last I would have bought it.  But I thought that carrying a litre or more of combustible gel in my hand luggage might not go down well with Airport Security.  It might add a bit of interest to my Blog, to have been wrestled to the ground and arrested as a terrorism suspect, but you’ll just have to imagine how amusing you would have found that.  And I wouldn’t dream of putting the lamp in my luggage, having seen on many occasions how rough luggage handlers are, because then I’d end up with a litre or more of combustible (but cool) Lava lamp gel throughout my suitcase. 

I did predict that I would nonetheless end up in the total frisk/full body x-ray naughty corner in pretty well every airport we went through on account of the electric lamp I decided to bring back in my hand luggage.  I thought that the cord and plug showing up on the x-ray machines would cause me grief throughout several countries.  But the first stage, through Manchester Airport, passed more-or-less without incident.  They did hesitate for a long time over the jewellery in my handbag – no doubt admiring my taste in all things bling – but ignored the lamp in cat trolley entirely.  Go figure.  Only boarding in Istanbul and Singapore to get through now.

We got to the hotel in record time because yet again our taxi driver was a Formula 1 wannabe.  What is it with us and taxi drivers around the world, where we seem to telepathically communicate to them in any language Get us to our hotel, STAT?  And so they drive like Bats out of Hell.  The only exceptions to this otherwise universal rule are in England, where all taxi drivers just toodle along, and Kuching (Borneo), where every single driver on the road is certifiably mad and they all drive accordingly and the road lanes are there for decorative purposes only because everyone entirely ignores them.

Anyway, we arrived alive but already feeling the first vestiges of jetlag.  Douglas’ birthday dawned in Istanbul, and while we didn’t exactly leap out of bed at first light we did make a reasonable showing of it, and set off for some sightseeing.  We visited the Basilica Cistern first, which is literally a huge underground water holding cistern built in 532AD and, unexpectedly, it is beautiful.  It was the city’s main water supply for centuries, and is filled with lovely and huge columns, many salvaged (we don't say plundered, dahling) from ancient Greek monuments. 

The base of two columns in the Cistern are giant Medusa heads, and apparently archaeologists have long argued over the reasons why one of the heads was placed in situ upside-down, and the other on the side of her head.  But having studied archaeology at uni (and being a total Time Team fan) I know how prone archaeologists are to leap to exotic conclusions, and how every single thing must have been the result of a ritual or something spiritual or otherwise deep and meaningful, and nothing ever has a bog standard explanation.  Bad news, dudes!  My considered explanation for the Medusa heads not being right-way-up is that they literally weigh several tonnes each, and they were being used as the bases of columns and so were going to be under 8m of water, and so they were left where they were plonked.  Sorry, but I saw an entirely rational reason for their placement – that the labourers building the place said She’ll be right – and there was nothing mystical about it at all. 

Then we toured Hagia Sophia, and hired a professional guide to show us the hidden corners that we would not have found by ourselves, and he was worth it.  What a fascinating building, 1500 years old, and it showed the influences of all sorts of religions and all sorts of cultures over that period.  We stepped out of Hagia Sophia into a huge wind storm, with things flying everywhere and dust blinding everyone.  You know you’re in a really solid building when you have no idea that Istanbul is blowing down around your ears while you’re in there.  We later saw on the TV News that roofs all over Istanbul had blown off, street signs were down, a big boat had caught fire, trees had toppled everywhere, cars had crashed all over the place, and windows from high buildings had blown out.  But we didn’t know how dangerous it was to be outside at that point, and braved the high winds to make our way the short distance to the Topkapi Palace. 

Doug was literally handing over the money for our tickets when suddenly the ticket lady heard someone saying something behind her and got all alarmed and asked us to wait while she listened to the rest.  And the rest was that someone had just been killed in the Palace grounds, by a massive 300 year old tree falling on them in the wind storm.  So the Palace was immediately closed for the rest of the day.  We later learned that a number of people had been killed by falling tiles and flying debris around the city and we were lucky to have been in a relatively protected area while it was all happening.

We reconsidered our plans and decided to find somewhere (inside) for lunch, and spent a few leisurely hours enjoying a nice meal.  By then the storm had passed and it was off to the Egyptian Markets (also known as the Spice Markets) for a look around.  We found these markets to be very similar to the Grand Bazaar only with spice stalls as well, so we weren’t too interested after a short while, though we did buy some delicious Turkish Delight to snack on later. 

The Spice Markets open pretty well onto some docks, and we decided to take a cruise down the Golden Horn and the Bosphorus Strait and a little way into the Sea of Marmara.  12 Turkish Lira ($A6) for a 1.5 hour cruise was a total bargain, and proved yet again that it’s often better to just explore a bit yourself rather than go with the tour companies.  It seemed a little incongruous to be sitting on the river that divides Europe and Asia, looking at the ancient buildings of Constantinople, but listening to Lady Gaga.  Fortunately, the Call the Prayer commenced at a giant mosque right at the docks (Istanbul appears to have at least a dozen very giant, ancient mosques) so all music was immediately turned off and wasn’t turned back on.  We saw that not only is Istanbul an amazingly hilly city (with really, really steep hills) and the old part is full of beautiful ancient buildings, but there is also a lot of forest very close to the city, which in the Springtime is a riot of green but also thickly dotted with pink blossom trees.  Lovely. 

Then we tackled the Istanbul tram service, not knowing exactly whether we were catching the right tram because we have precisely zero Turkish language skills between us, but we figured it out and made it back to the main drag near the Blue Mosque (near our hotel).  We selected some yummy looking desserts to take back to our room from one of the many yummy looking dessert shops in this area - yes, in addition to the Turkish Delight bought earlier.  Doug justified it as his birthday treat, and who was I to disagree? 

Throughout the day I was getting a total moggie fix, and decided that of the hundreds and hundreds of cats that roam the streets of Istanbul I would I’d like to feed at least one.  We had met an American couple who said they bought some dry cat food so they could make offerings to the many moggies they met, and I wondered why I hadn’t thought of that. 

Anyway, on the stroll back to the hotel we met a number of nice cats but one in particular who immediately adopted us and walked with us down the road, giving a running pussycat commentary all the way.  This is the one I need to feed, I told Doug, and he duly went off into a nearby corner store and bought a small can of tuna for her.  She and I stopped at a small nearby park and chatted away while Doug went to get the goodies, but oh no, this moggie didn’t like tuna and turned her nose up at it entirely.  Another cat was attracted by the smell and gobbled it all up, but my little friend was still meowing plaintively at me and walking with us as we resumed our way to the hotel. 

Right next to the hotel was another corner store which the Little Miss accompanied me to, so I went in and spoke with the shop keeper.  My little friend sat right at the door, didn’t come in but positioned herself to keep an eye on me, while I told the shop keeper I wanted to feed her and she didn’t like fish.  He produced some salami and assured me this would be a big hit.  Even though I had my doubts (because it had pistachio through it) I bought several slices and he chopped them up for her, and yes indeed this was a huge hit.  I took her around the corner to somewhere safe to eat, and felt very mean sneaking off while she was enjoying her dinner, but she showed every sign of wanting to come back in my luggage and I couldn’t adopt her.  And anyway, from the way she led me to the right shop and then waited patiently at the door while I bought her delicious looking pistachio salami I suspect I was not the first tourist she had scammed for a meal, and she no doubt lived in one of the apartments down the street.  So anyway, that was my Do a Good Deed for a Moggie in Istanbul, and I think we both enjoyed it.  And so did the cat who got the tuna without having to hoodwink me at all.

Then back to our room, to enjoy our desserts and see what Turkish television had to offer.  It appears they have a rule that lit cigarettes cannot be shown on TV here, so whenever a movie shows someone having a cigarette a big grey blob appears over the offending fag.  So if the person who is smoking is holding the cigarette near their face, or talking with the ciggie in their mouth (as tough guys always do) then their entire face is also grey blobbed out.  How would that suck if this was your big break in the movies, and they grey blobbed out your face because your scene called for you to smoke a cigarette?  And seeing how every second person in Turkey seems to smoke (not quite as bad as France, but right up there), then the grey blob campaign does not appear to be working so far.

So this has been Istanbul/Constantinople for us, and we really enjoyed it.  There is still plenty for us to do, and I can see us coming back for a stopover on a future buying trip.  Just not on Turkish Airlines.  Tried them twice now, and two strikes and you’re out I’m afraid.

Next stop, Singapore.

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