After taking the ferry from the Harem bus station to Eminonu, we had a bit of an expedition, finding our friend Ozan’s apartment. He was another volunteer with us at Nar Farm, and he generously offered to put us up in his apartment located just a minute’s walk from Taksim Square. After a couple wrong turns and knocking on a few wrong doors, we found the place. Mike and Kati, two other Nar alumni were already there, so it was definitely a full house! Our first evening, we followed Mike to a book festival, watched an amazing sunset, visited a weird art gallery, and generally had a good time.
The next morning, we struck out on our own for an exploration of what Istanbul has to offer. Most of our time there was happy accidents of discovery…like walking into St Anthony of Padua, the largest Catholic Church in the city…or discovering that the Galata Tower was on the road that we walked every day to get from our roost in Taksim to the more touristy areas. At the bottom of the road is the storied Galata Bridge, with the endless view of fishermen waiting for their daily catch.
At the end of the bridge, there is the New Mosque, built back in the heyday of mosque-making in the city. Inside, we enjoyed the cool air and beautiful tiles before heading back into the hot streets. Just outside, there was a plant and pet bazaar full of flower smells and birds chirping…and big jugs of leeches! We made our way back up the hill, stopping for cig kofte at a little shop near the Galata Tower. I went into the Mevlevi Museum, an old Sufi lodge displaying many of their artifacts and I got to peek into the semahane..the hall where the masters would do their spinning ceremony. Back at home, we ate MORE cig kofte that Ozan ordered for us all to share.
Thursday morning, we said goodbye to Mike and Kati, then headed in the opposite direction to explore along the shore of the Bosphorous. We walked from Kabatas to Ortakoy, passing old presidential palaces, bustling universities, public squares full of art, expensive hotels, and finally reached the artsy shopping area near the foot of the Bosphorous Bridge, which stretches from the European side to the Asian side…sadly, with no place for pedestrians. We sat to listen to a jazz band, which got me ready for my evening foray into the Istanbul lindy hop scene…after a tasty vegan dinner near Taksim!
Friday we got up lazily and decided to make our way to the Grand Bazaar, along our now-familiar route…making stops at the book festival and getting to know more of the side streets. Crossing Galata Bridge, we plunged into the markets, starting with the edge of the Spice Bazaar and following the flow of people into the heart of it all, the Grand Bazaar, with its ancient covered shops and impressive gates leading into a labyrinth of courtyards and passageways.
Having escaped a little rainstorm in the bazaar, we headed back home, pausing in a modern art gallery to avoid further cloudbursts. All to no avail, as it started pouring on our last stretch home, through the fish market, since we had volunteered to cook dinner that night. That night and the whole next day, it was soggy, wet weather and very windy, so we stayed close to Ozan’s house, only venturing into the area around Taksim for errands and finding dark chocolate.
By Sunday afternoon, the clouds started to clear, and we could venture out into the city. On Monday, the day broke bright and clear, so we walked clear from Taksim to Sultanhamet, the area with the highest concentration of tourist attractions. Borrowing a head scarf from the office, we were able to enter into the transcendent Blue Mosque. The name comes from the predominant color in the exquisite tilework that decorates the interior. A few minutes later, we walked across the old Hippodrome and tried to find a place to get out of the now glaring sun that we hadn’t seen for so many days.
Of course, the answer was right in front of us, in the form of the Basilica Cistern. The underground housing of water for emperors and the people of the city in the ancient days, it has also made appearances in movies, like the James Bond “From Russia with Love.” We enjoyed the cool air and mysterious atmosphere, especially in the back corner where you can find the upside down and sideways Medusa heads, glowering in the darkness. Making our way back, we decided today was the day that Sangbyeong could live his dream and rented a fishing pole for him to join the ranks of Galata Bridge fishermen. I spent the next couple hours weaving through the backstreets. Sadly, he only caught one fish.
On our last full day in Istanbul, we took a boat out to the Princes’ Islands…specifically to Heybeliada, which is the second largest. It is less visited, and therefore a little quieter and more relaxed. We enjoyed the brisk air of the hour and a half ferry ride, then set about exploring the island. We found our way through the town and headed up to the hills, passed occasionally by horse drawn carriages. The whole island does not allow motorized vehicles, so it is a pedestrian’s paradise. We found the old Greek Orthodox school that is now defunct, got attacked by a crazy dog, and had a chance to sit in the shade before we caught the boat back.
On our final morning, we had our typical breakfast with Ozan, Vicky, and Melissa, before heading off to the site we had saved till last…the Hagia Sophia. Stepping into that ancient and sacred air, it was pretty easy to forget the other tourists for a while as we all stared dumbfounded at the ceiling. Upstairs, in the galleries, we found the priceless mural masterpieces and tried to reattach our bottom jaws. We spent a couple hours inside, soaking in the history and collective memory of a building that has seen much.
With that, we headed home to pack and ran off to catch the airport bus. Night was falling and a golden moon was hovering over the horizon as we left the city. We seem to be finding so many places that capture our imaginations and hearts, and we keep making these promises that we have to come back someday. But for now, we’re on our way…headed off once again for new lands, new friends, and new experiences.