Saturday, August 15, 2009

Istanbul in 8 hours

I love my Istanbul hotel. It just used my three favorite words in the English Language: Free Wireless Internet.

And I would have loved this place anyway, even if they hadn't given me a free shuttle to the airport tomorrow (to make up for a mistake which, honestly, I'm not really sure I understood) AND had a room for me when I got here the early side of 8:00 this morning.

My tour guide (whom I chose based on internet recommendations) met me at the ship as scheduled, took me & my massive bags to the hotel, waited while I checked in, and then took me on a whirlwind tour of Istanbul's old city. Conveniently, the four major Old City sights are within walking distance.

Kagan (who looks sorta like a Turkish Brendan Fraser) first took me to the Blue Mosque, which is really quite gorgeous, and gave me a quick lesson in Islam -- or, at least, Islam the way it is practiced in Turkey. I also figured out the mystery of all the conflicting information I'd read on the web as to whether women have to cover their heads when visiting the Blue Mosque -- when you enter the mosque, there's a sign that says ladies have to have their knees covered (or something like that -- that's not the cause of the confusion) and wear "a scarf." Now, some folks have read "scarf" to mean "head scarf," but, apparently, the Blue Mosque means it in a "cover your shoulders" sense. So the short-sleeved shirt I was wearing over my tank top was just fine. And, anyway, they pass out big blue pieces of fabric which you can wrap around whatever offensive part of you is visible when you enter the mosque (said shorts-wearing Kagan, "I have to cover my sexy legs"), so if you're not sure about whether what you're wearing is appropriate, the blue-fabric passer-outer will hand you a piece and mime at you what you need to do with it. Inside, the place is impressive as all hell -- as per usual, there will be photos.

Then we booked on over to Topkapi Palace. Now, Jordan (a taxi driver in Greece) was not permitted into the historic sites with me; Kagan (a tour guide in Turkey) is encouraged to do so -- indeed, he got to buy my ticket at a separate window (no line) and got a free one for himself. He took me around some of the gardens, into the Harem (separate admission fee, but amazing), and then into the Treasury, where I saw a few of the meaningless little trinkets (like the 86-karat diamond) the last sultan left hanging around when asked to depart by the new Turkish Republic in 1923. (I may be slightly off on either of those numbers).

Then it was off to Hagia Sophia -- the church constructed by Justinian in his plans to move the seat of the Catholic Church from the Vatican to Constantinople. Thereafter, when the Muslims took over the city, their first plan had been to destroy the church, but once they saw how beautiful it was, they decided it must be a house of Allah and turned it into a mosque. At present, it operates as neither church nor mosque, and is just a museum, with massive amounts of tourists going in and out. (This was the first place Kagan took me that was very crowded -- and everything afterward was, too. I think I got so much seen today because we started early enough to miss the crowds on the first few attractions.)

After Hagia Sophia was the Cistern, constructed at the same time as Hagia Sophia -- which was substantially more impressive than I'd imagined as the damn thing was even larger that the church itself. They'd dug out, say, an entire city block, thrown in all sorts of columns recycled from old Greek and Roman sites to hold up the new ceiling, and then put on a ceiling (at ground level). The whole thing collected massive amounts of rainwater.

Then, after a break for lunch, I braved the Grand Bazaar. 4000 indoor shops; haggling mandatory. Kagan gave me an "orientation tour" and then left me to own devices for an hour. I'm fairly sure I paid too much for a couple of gifts for people back home (although I did pay less than what I would have paid for them in Greece), but the whole thing was pretty fun and not at all as bad as my tour guide in Ephesus had made out.

See, my tour guide in Ephesus apparently wanted us to do most of our shopping in his City (Kusadasi) rather than Istanbul, so told us ... well, actually he told us downright lies about Istanbul in general and the Grand Bazaar in particular. Everything from "Don't trust anyone in Istanbul" and "beware of the gypsies; they'll surround you and pick your pocket" to "the Russian Mafia launders money through the Grand Bazaar" and "rent for a small shop in the Grand Bazaar for one year is one million U.S. dollars." (As for the latter, Kagan said it was more like $50,000 for the best shops; half that for the more distant locations.) Although you definitely wanted to keep a close hand on your belongings (and pay in cash to avoid possible cloning of your credit card), it wasn't much worse than any other big city -- just required some common sense -- and I actually enjoyed making my purchases there.

Thereafter, we went to the cheaper Spice Market, which is frequented more by locals (prices are in Turkish Lira only; they won't do business in Euro like at the Grand Bazaar). Picked up a few more things. Between the Grand Bazaar and the Spice Market I told Kagan that I had no trouble getting gifts for my female friends, but I still needed to pick things up for two men -- one of whom was gay. From here on out, Kagan kept pointing to things in the market saying, "how about this? It's gay" ... which invariably led to my response, "Not THAT gay."

(Sidebar -- Kagan asked me about gay marriage in California, which is a bit of a confusing subject if you're not familar with California law. He said that, in Turkey, the are apparently right now having a case being litigated where a sports referee had been fired after coming out -- so the issue of gay rights is still a bit undecided here.)

So, I hit SIX sights in Istanbul in eight hours, came back to my lovely hotel, picked up my password for free wireless internet access, and am getting caught up on the 'net before an early dinner, a trip to the hotel's Turkish bath, and a massage before I hit the sack for my 4:30 a.m. airport shuttle. I'm wiped, but it's a good sort of wiped.

1 comment:

Peg said...

Kagen sounds like a real find.