Istanbul has a wonderfully organised public transport system where with just one card, the Metro Card, you can take the tram, ferries, buses and metro. You can top it up at most shops and the machines at the stations and ports. Also one can be be shared throughout a group perfectly legally.
Using Seán’s card we got the tram from Finiklal to Sultanahmet square.
Sutanahmet, or the Blue Mosque as it’s commonly called outside of Turkey, unlike the Aya Sofya is still a functioning Mosque and therefore free to enter.
There’s a strict dress code (for men and women) and if you’re wearing shorts or a skirt they’ll hand you a wrap around skirt as you enter. Some people with too much arm or chest on show had blue blanket draped over their shoulders. The women in front of me was given a blanket mostly I think because her jacket was really tacky.
It doesn’t take very long. But somehow this conveyor belt of covers takes away from the spirituality behind it. Half-heartedly sheparding tourists through between prayer services.
Built between 1609-1616 by Sultan Ahmet I the beautiful Mosque was controversial at the time because of its six minarets (spire-like towers) as it was considered an irreverent attempt at rivaling Mecca the only other Mosque to have six minarets.
Once inside, its nickname becomes clear with its elegant blue iznik tile-work.
The sheer intricacy and delicacy of the designs on such a vast scale is very impressive.
But the way that Aya Sofya was breath-taking in way that Sultanahmet was merely beautiful. The exterior of the building is however extraordinarily graceful.
Designed by the same architect that designed the Taj Mahal the same attention to symmetry is obvious.
Then back on the tram to Capa where Seán met us for lunch just up the road from the tram station (and across from the university hospital where he taught English) to a kind of family diner Alti Kapi. It doesn’t look like much from the outside but the food is some of the best traditional Turkish food I’d had.
This is Chi-Kofta (though without the raw meat in it that was traditional) and it is one of the most delicious food-stuffs on the planet. I think I even prefer it to falafel.
Though the waiters move very quickly, whipping everything on and off the tables. Sometimes Western Europeans or Americans think that it’s rude, like they’re hurrying you out but they really don’t mind how long you sit there it’s just the way good service is viewed. Though I’ll admit I caught myself trying to eat in time with the waiters a few times.
Don’t worry if you don’t finish either, the portions are huge. My mam thinks they just like defeating you with food. But it’s a fair fight.
After lunch at Alti Kapi in Capa we got the tram five stops back towards Sultanahmet to the somewhat overrated Grand Bazaar.
If you’re already in the area feel free to visit but overpriced rugs and tacky soveigners have consumed much of it. The antiques section in the very centre is worth exploring and there’s a shop in the textiles section (like all of Istanbul shops are grouped by what they sell) that sells beautiful handmade, beaded, floral jewellery but other than that it was a little underwhelming.
The building itself is nice to but basically it’s a hundreds of years old shopping centre with people yelling at you. The book section is supposed to be good if you read Turkish.
Be warned the Turkish can be vicious salesmen (I could say salespeople but most of the salespeople are men in Istanbul unless your in a women’s clothes store). Either their leaping out of no where to loudly proclaim the virtues of their products or they’ll be slowly helpful and get your life story out of you until you feel guilt ridden enough to buy something – they’re just so damn likeable. Shopping in the tourist areas of Istanbul is not for the faint of heart.
Getting to the more genuine shopping areas might mean a bit less English but you’re also less likely to get followed around the shop.
Get off the tram at Eminoue will bring you to the ferry port. Getting the ferry to Kadikoy was my first crossing of the Bosporus and my first trip to Asia.
Sean used to live in the area so he took us through a twisting maze of lovely streets up the hill on the right from the ferry port that lead to a food market and small unusual shops.
We came up through old cafes where people of all ages sat outside playing chess and backgammon. Antique shops stacked old furniture and restored gramophones on the pavements. If I hadn’t had to fly home I could have spent a fortune here.
One junk shop had an incredible array of clocks.
Down the hill from there were some restaurants and a large selection of second hand bookshops, most of which had English language sections so I picked up some Twain and Shakespeare for a couple of euros. Then Sean hiked us over to the fashionable residential area of Moda, which literally means fashion in Turkish. There isn’t much to visit but a row of cafes by the water that only sell turkish coffee, chay (tea) and fizzy drinks.
The views are good though.
We got the ferry back (a word to the wise DON’T USE THE TOILETS) and walked from the ferry port at Karikoy (not to be confused with Kadikoy where we had been on the Asian side) then walked to where Sean lived in Ortakoy (lots of koys its Turkish for town and in like half of the place names).
All along the road were pictures of Ataturk through his life on the wall.
The Rest Cafe fulfilled its name with sparkling views up the Bosporus and back into the remains of a book market closing for the evening.
The area’s full of trendy bars to get a drink and feel safe even into the night. Istanbul, even with its big social divides is a remarkably safe-feeling city.
Taxis are very cheap in Istanbul and well worth getting but insist that they display the meter from the start or you will get ripped off. Unless you get stuck in a lot of traffic you shouldn’t pay more than 25 TL.