The tail end of our 3 months in Turkey took us to Istanbul for a week. It was a little bit weird setting foot in a large city again, after having hunkered down in a small town for over 2 months and then having backpacked through rural Turkey for 2 weeks. By the time we had arrived in Istanbul, we were already feeling the effects of being on the road again, and fortunately, the hotel that we booked ourselves into was quite comfortable with nice beds. You don’t realize how important a comfortable bed and pillow is until you hit the road and don’t know how comfortable your next bed will be. It sure makes me appreciate our king-sized pillow-top bed that we had in Edmonton.
Formerly known as Constantinople, Istanbul is the only city in the world to span 2 continents. And let me tell you, it is massive. Wow. I think it is the largest city that we have ever been in. Wikipedia lists it as the second largest city proper in the world at some 13 million people, but we had heard varying population counts of 13-22 million. Any way you count it, it’s huge. When we arrived by bus from Cappadocia, the buildings seemed to start about an hour before we got to the bus station.
The area where we stayed in Istanbul is called Sultanahmet. It’s on the European side of the Bosphorus Strait, which connects the Aegean Sea to the Black Sea, and is also the continental divide. From our hotel we could look over the Bosphorus Strait and see the Asian side, as well as the European side on the other side of the Golden Horn. There are ferries, fishing boats, cruise ships, cargo ships, and tankers all going about their business. Coming from a city in the middle of the prairies, it was a neat experience for me to be in a city that uses more than just ground transportation.
The interesting thing that I found about it though, was that even though Turkey is Muslim, if you took away the mosques and the 5-times-a-day call to prayer, you’d have a hard time identifying Istanbul as a Muslim city. It was very westernized. Of course there were women who wore the head scarves as you’d expect to see, but they were actually the minority, since most of the women wore clothing you’d expect to see in the West.
Even though there were people everywhere, Istanbul had a really cool vibe to it. It didn’t feel threatening, actually quite the opposite as the people were quite friendly. The hotel staff where we stayed were very friendly and hospitable. In all reality, you have not experienced hospitality until you’ve experienced Turkish hospitality. They are quite possibly the nicest people we’ve come across in our travels. And sure, some of them were only nice because they wanted our money, but there were so many of them who were friendly and caring simply because that’s how they are.
If there was a major commonality between the people of Istanbul, and those of the western world, especially Edmonton, it is that both populations love to shop. While Edmonton has the largest mall in the world, West Edmonton Mall, Istanbul has the Grand Bazaar, the largest covered bazaar in the world with over 4000 shops. It is quite stimulating to the eyes to walk through it, as there are so many things to see. After a while though, it all became a blur to me and I wanted to escape. The touts are everywhere, and even though they are far less aggressive than Moroccan touts, you can only take so many offers to facilitate the parting of you and your money before you just want to stop the badgering. One guy cracked me up though, because instead of the usual “Sir, are you interested in some blah blah”, this guy said, “Sir, how may I be of assistance in helping you spend your money today?” I figured, well, at least this guy is honest and straight-forward, gotta give him that.
The history of Istanbul is jaw-dropping, as it has been a very important city for the past two and a half millennia. It served as the second capital of the Roman Empire, amongst various other roles. Ruins are interwoven amongst the newer buildings. One of the ruins that we happened to come across in Sultanahmet was the massive Basilica Cistern located under an entire neighbourhood. Built over 1600 years ago, it was able to hold some 80,000 cubic meters of water. It was an eerie experience stepping down out of the sunlight into this dark underground cavern full of pillars, with a foot of water on the bottom and Koi swimming throughout. We spent some time walking on the platforms throughout the cistern that were built when Turkey was doing all of the preparations for UNESCO certification in 1985.
Back above ground, we decided to check out two of the most famous mosques in Istanbul, the Blue Mosque which still serves as a place for prayer, and the ancient Ayasofya Mosque, which has been secularized and is now a museum. Both are incredibly large and beautiful structures.
Istanbul is also graced with having a pretty amazing Archaeological Museum. They certainly don’t have any shortage of ancient stuff to fill it with. Upon hearing that there was a museum of this nature in Sultanahmet, Susan felt it her duty to bring her family to explore. It seems she is unable to pass a museum these days without wanting to go in. I myself am rather museum’d out. They’re cool for the first 5 or 6, but after that, carved stone ruins just lose their OMG! factor. Not to Susan though, so we dutifully accompanied her around until the boys and smaller girl could handle no more and had to bail early to fill their tummies. Jenn and Susan continued to explore. The beauty of Istanbul is that even though the city is enormous, most of the main touristic attractions are located on the peninsula of Sultanahmet, since that is the oldest part of the city. If your hotel is located in this district, as many are, then you are likely never more than a 20 minute walk away from the hotel.
When it came time to leave Istanbul on April 1st, we were all excited to be moving on to a new adventure, but with some heaviness in our hearts, as we had fallen in love with Turkey. It had been our home for 3 months, supplying us with experiences that none of us will forget any time soon. If you’ve never been there, do yourself a favour and take the time to explore that magical land. I doubt you’ll regret it.