Part 2 – Istanbul, Turkey

We stayed in two places whilst in Istanbul. The first was the AirBnB mentioned in the previous article, the second was a very lovely little boutique hotel called the Rose Garden Suites. The Rose Garden Suites is located only five minutes walk from the Blue Mosque and the Old Town of Istanbul – it is very ideally positioned. The rooms were very nice and the buffet breakfast very good – the cost was very reasonable too, considering we had to have two rooms, one for the kids. We paid AUD$46 per night for four nights.

We actually stayed twice at the Rose Garden Suites, the second time was when we left Turkey for Bulgaria. On the second occasion we were upgraded to the Honeymoon suite. To be honest the rooms we had before I thought were more convenient, as the Honeymoon Suite bed was more like a jail than a pleasure vessel. You climbed gallows like steps to enter the bed and then were surrounded on all sides by a cot like fence. I was not sure if this fence was to keep people in or out!!! It certainly made finding the exit in the dark for a late night pee interesting!!!!

The Honeymoon Suite

A standard room

As I said it was a comfortable five-minute walk to where all the tourist action spots are. Right next to the Blue Mosque is the Hippodrome of Constantinople or, as it is known now, Sultanahmet Meydani (Sultanahmet Square). This was the Chariot and horse race track back in the day, though it is paved over now, of course. The hippodrome dates back to 203AD. In its day the Hippodrome was filled with many statues of gods, emperors, heroes and was quite the impressive place.

Today the centre of the hippodrome has several impressive monuments on display down its middle. These monuments are: the Serpents Column – was part of the Tripod of Plataea from the Temple of Apollo at Delphi and was made by the Greeks after they defeated the Persians in the 5th Century BC. Sadly, all that remains today is the base and that is what is on display.

The Serpents column

The Obelisk of Thutmose 3: was erected at the Temple of Karnak in Luxor, Egypt in 1490BC and brought to the Hippodrome in the 2nd century. Only the top third of the obelisk survives today and is over 3500 years old.

Egyptian Obelisk

The Walled Obelisk: is 32 metres high and was constructed on roughly cut stones in the 10th century. The obelisk was decorated with gilded bronze plaques that were stolen by the Fourth Crusaders in 1204.

Walled Obelisk

The German Fountain: is a monument dedicated to the visit of Prussian King and German Emperor Wilhelm the second in 1898.

German Fountain

Military on the Hippodrome

The hippodrome is a mesmerising walk through history and is flanked by museums if you want to know more.

Right next to the Hippodrome is the Blue Mosque. The Blue Mosque was built in 1609 by Ahmed the first and his tomb is located on the mosque’s grounds. The mosque gets its name from the hand-painted blue tiles which adorn its interior walls. At night the mosque is bathed in blue from many lights.

The Blue Mosque was built on the site of the Byzantine emperors’ palace, thus asserting Islamic rule.

It is free to enter the mosque but it is closed to the public during prayer time. Women can enter the mosque, provided they cover their heads and their clothing is suitable. At the entrance there is a stall that provides women appropriate head wear and clothing free of charge. Shoes must be removed on entering the mosque and carried with you as you exit a different doorway.

Entrance to the mosque

The inside of the mosque is vast and is pretty impressive.

We entered just after prayer time and were one of the first inside the mosque – it was filling up quickly behind us though. Tip; this may be the best time to see inside the mosque without huge crowds.

A word of warning; there are many men wandering outside the mosque who will try to engage the tourists in conversation. They often say things like ‘the mosque is closed’ and then ask where you are from. From here they will try to coax you to fill in your time whilst you wait for the mosque to open by going to their shop, their café, their restaurant ….. something!!! These are always men and most of the time they are dressed in black – they target ladies more than men and they are VERY persistent!!! Beware the Men in Black!!!

From the Blue Mosque you walk past a fountain – that makes for great photos with the mosques in the background – it gets crowded getting this photo though, and then head towards the Hagia Sophia Museum/church.

The Blue Mosque on one side of the fountain.

The Men in Black are everywhere outside the Hagia Sophia offering to be your guide, they tell you that no signs are in English inside the Hagia and, without a guide, you will not know what is happening.  Lies!! The signs are all in English and it is easy to wander around on your own or use audio guides.

Hagia Sophia on the other side of the fountain.

Funnily enough we tried to enter the Hagia Sophia on two occasions – the first was a public holiday and the 500 metre long queues turned us off. On the second occasion it wasn’t a public holiday and midweek and we simply walked straight in.

The long and winding queue on the public holiday.

Hagia Sophia translates to ‘Holy Wisdom’ and was a Greek Orthodox Basilica. It was constructed in 537AD. For a short period between 1204 and 1261 the Crusaders converted it to a Roman Catholic Church before reverting to Greek Orthodox when they left. In 1453 the Ottoman Empire converted it to a mosque. In 1935 it was secularized and became a museum.

View from the second floor.

There is a small fee to enter the museum and it simply oozes history. Many of the Christian mosaics were plastered over or destroyed when it was converted to a mosque. The cross removed from the top and minarets installed.  These mosaics are now under restoration and it is fascinating seeing them now side by side with Islamic religious artefacts.

Virgin Mary mosaic and Islam

It is massive inside

What amazes me is that with all this history floating around them, many tourists see a cat sitting in the Hagia Sophia and spend five minutes taking photos of the ordinary cat!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

As you look at the Hagia Sophia, to the right is the entrance to the Topkapi Palace, and to the left is the Basilica Cistern. The entrance to Topkapi Palace is confusing because it looks more like a military installation than a tourist entrance. On the day we went to the palace, in the square in front of the Topkapi Palace entrance a Turkish movie was being filmed. We looked for Tom Cruise to make sure it wasn’t the set of the latest Mission Impossible; no Tom! Di and I thought we would be turned back but we simply wandered through the set taking some happy snaps. The Topkapi Palace is okay with some lovely garden grounds and you pay a small fee to enter.

Movie set outside the Palace

The entrance to Topkapi Palace with Police vehicles on either side and army guarding the door

We then went to the Basilica Cistern – a Man in Black approached us and said ‘he would take us straight in with no queuing’. The cost was 50 TRY (AUD$17) for his services and 40 TRY (AUD$14) each for us to enter. We didn’t use his services and the queue to enter was small and the cost to enter was 20TRY each.

Unfortunately large parts of the Basilica Cistern is under renovation and, compounded with this fact was it is pretty dark down there, it takes a while to get used to it all and to find your way around. The cistern was built in the 6th century and is the largest cistern built under Istanbul. The cistern provided water to the Great Palace of Constantinople and, when that was destroyed and the Blue Mosque built, it provided water to the Topkapi Palace.

The cistern is 9800 square metres and capable of holding 80,000 cubic metres of water. There are 336 marble columns holding the ceiling up. If you have bladder issues then the sound of dripping water echoes throughout the cistern, perhaps with said bladder issue best not to enter!!!

From the entrance to the cistern you walk down a narrow old staircase which opens into a ………………….. photography shop, where you can dress like a Sultan or a Harem Girl or whatever your fancy may be and get your photo taken!

One of the main columns to see in the cistern is the column with the medusa heads on it. The problem is the sign and board giving the information on the Medusa head is about 100 metres from the actual head. We, like everyone else, stood looking into the dark trying to see this darn head that was not there – ‘is that it’, someone would say and point into the darkness’!! There is never a Man in Black around when you need them! We found the Medusa Head right down a dead-end walkway!! No one knows where the Medusa Heads came from or when, or why they are there.

Medusa Head

Medusa head

As I said there was immense restoration going on whilst we were there and large portions of the cistern were closed off – off season travel curse strikes again.

From the Cistern go to the right and follow the road away from Hagia Sophia and you will come to one of the many entrances to the Grand Bazaar.

One of the entrances to the Grand Bazaar

The Grand Bazaar and the surrounding shopping streets, of course, is a huge area.

It is an absolute maze of narrow streets winding this way and that. The Bazaar is also on a hill so there are many long downward stretches that you have to eventually come back up.

The streets were packed, it is an absolute hive of activity and generally the vendors leave you alone to wander around – you may get the ‘please come in’, but no one was ever over the top pushy and persistent.

There is everything imaginable to buy, there are lots and lots of fake hiking and athletic gear, ie, North Face, etc. Jesse and Charlotte each bought genuine, fake, Armani and Gucci sweat shirts for about AUD$5 each. Charlotte just loved all the beads and the like – it is simply a fun and energetic place to wander.

so how much will this shopping trip cost me!! oooh that much!!

There is a lot of security in the bazaar and you are forever going through metal detectors – but such is the political life in Turkey.

Once you get to the bottom of the hill you enter the spice markets. Your nasal sense will now be on full alert as the many and varied smells launch waves of attacks!!! The vendors are more vocal here but again not overly pushy.

It is not only the nasal sense that gets bombarded as the colours of all the stalls is brilliant and so contrasting – the variety of food and spices is mind-blowing! It’s a fun place to go.

Once you exit the Spice Market you are back at Galata Bridge and the ferry terminal (we covered in part 1). We now had to walk uphill all the way back to our hotel – of course through the bazaar just in case there was more for us to buy (for us, read daughter).

We had a fabulous time in Istanbul, we never felt unsafe, but there is always a large military and police presence throughout the city. I was surprised to see, what I assumed were police, walking in plainclothes with an orange work mans’ bib on, carrying automatic rifles and Glocks and stopping individuals at random and getting them to show their ID. The ID’s were swiped through a small box and data read (not game enough to take photo).

The historical locations throughout the old town, over the bridge and through to Taksim Square are very good and have just so much history to it all. Would I recommend Istanbul as a tourist destination? That is an individual thing, do your research and if you are unsure, do not come – we had no problems though. The hotel we stayed at was certainly value for money – though the AirBnB (see Part 1) a little expensive for it’s out of the way location. The cost of dining is cheap, alcohol is cheap, visiting historical sites are cheap – it is value for money. There is also so much to see.

Beware the rip off guys and if I left Di and Charlotte alone for too long a male often crept over and tried to talk to them – it has a slight creepy feel the girls tell me, BUT that was ONLY in the tourist areas. Be prepared to bargain, especially taxis.

We were now off to Cappadocia in central Turkey for the most unbelievable and unique experience – this is a must do in Turkey.

Let the adventure in Turkey with the kids continue………………….

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