A Travellerspoint blog

Echoes of the Ottomans: Istanbul arrival

View Turkiye and China 2023 on zzlangerhans's travel map.

For the first time I find myself beginning a travel blog before the trip has even begun. Perhaps it will help to have a jumping off point already set before we return. It took me nine months to finish writing up our last summer trip and if this blog takes even longer I might not complete it before the next summer begins. I also want to document my evolving approach to travel so that I'll have a clear understanding of what changes are working and what tweaks still need to be made.

The first trip Mei Ling and I took together was to Paris, long before we were married. Of course we had a great time because it was the beginning of our life adventure that has continued through marriage, three children, and countless journeys across five continents. With respect to travel, though, Paris was our worst experience. I was completely unprepared to find that the storied Quartier Latin was overrun with garish fast food joints, the Eiffel Tower was a brutal and uncomfortable tourist trap, the Louvre was a sardine tin of confused cattle who only cared about getting a selfie with the Mona Lisa, and the entire city center was packed with mobs of American students on college trips in matching logo sweatshirts. If that makes me a travel snob, so be it. I may be a tourist as well but I still want to experience a city as more than a cluster of tourist attractions. Our weak attempts to get away from the center and find a "real" Paris were disappointing as well. The outlying neighborhoods we visited were for the most part gritty and lacked atmosphere. Years later I visited the Epcot theme park at Walt Disney World and I was surprised to discover that the France pavilion was quite beautiful, in some ways more appealing than Paris itself. Of course it wasn't authentic but Paris hadn't seemed authentic either. The city had allowed itself to become submerged in commercialism to the point that it appeared to a casual observer to have lost its soul. But had it really? Or is there a still a real Paris underneath that a dedicated and seasoned traveler can experience if he knows how and where to look?

Over time I came to think of our visit to Paris as an example of Epcot Syndrome, a phenomenon that occurs when a major city embraces tourism so vigorously that it becomes an artificial version of itself and exists more for the enjoyment of visitors than its own denizens. We've experienced a degree of Epcot Syndrome in Rome, Prague, and Amsterdam but never to the extent that we did in Paris. In the future I look forward to returning armed with extensive research and an agenda that will have no common ground with anyone's Top Ten List of Things to Do In Paris. If there is a real Paris I'm confident I will be able to find it.

This summer we will be returning to China for the first time since 2019. We had been going every other year since we got married but China was essentially off limits during the COVID epidemic. The country's sudden re-opening and lifting of virtually all restrictions coincided with the birth of Mei Ling's brother's first child. Part of our trip will be dedicated to a family reunion, thankfully in her brother's city of Hangzhou and not once again at her hometown in the northeast. Also on the China agenda are Hong Kong, Fujian province, and Szechuan province. We have done well in the past combining our China visits with a short stay in another Asian country. In 2015 it was South Korea, in 2017 Taiwan, and in 2019 Japan. Our immediate choice for this trip was Vietnam, a country that Mei Ling has visited only briefly and has been at the top of my travel wish list for a long time. Unfortunately in Vietnam the hot season is also the rainy season and it lasts from May until October. I researched this issue as much as I could and ultimately came to a conclusion there was a good possibility of a summer trip being completely ruined by weather. It just wasn't worth the risk, which unfortunately means we'll probably have to wait until all the kids have flown the nest before doing Vietnam.

This left the question of where to spend the other two weeks of our summer trip. Mei Ling thought of Türkiye and the idea instantly clicked because I'd already done some research for a possible spring break trip that never ended up happening. I looked through my old notes, did a quick check on the expected weather in June, and the decision was essentially made. When I searched for flights I realized that there are direct flights from Miami to Istanbul and from Istanbul to Hong Kong. We would be able to take every flight with Turkish Airlines, including our return from Shanghai with one stop in Istanbul. The fares were expensive, as they are everywhere these days, but it was a bullet we could and would bite.

As soon as I began reviewing Istanbul I realized that we were highly likely to encounter a raging case of Epcot Syndrome there. The city is enormous in terms of both area and population yet all the most popular tourist sights are concentrated in the small neighborhood of Sultanahmet, at the tip of the peninsula formed by the Bosphorus Strait and the Golden Horn estuary. Many visitors never venture beyond Sultanahmet as though it was the entire city of Istanbul, much in the same way as tourists who never stray outside the center of Paris or Rome. It was therefore critical for us to find the best neighborhoods to explore in the rest of Istanbul and the ideal way of transporting ourselves. Would that mean ignoring Sultanahmet entirely? It didn't seem advisable to visit Istanbul for the first time without even seeing the Hagia Sophia or Topkapı Palace. What I decided to do instead was take extensive notes on the major tourist attractions so that I would arrive prepared to understand the history and significance of the different features of the edifices we were looking at. It's one thing to stroll into the Hagia Sophia, walk around aimlessly and snap some photos, and then move on to the next box to be checked and something completely different to know when I am standing in the Omphalion, the center of the marble floor where the Byzantine emperors were crowned. At least I think it will be different. In terms of discovering the residential, atmospheric neighborhoods of Istanbul we will rely first on our old technique of visiting the food markets which has served us well in so many cities. Since I suspect that will not be enough I've taken the additional step of buying five or six novels and memoirs by Turkish writers that center on Istanbul. One of those is by Orhan Pamuk, the 2006 winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature who I'm ashamed to say I never heard of before this year. His memoir of childhood "Istanbul: Memories and the City" is a treasure trove of intimate data about the ancient and densely populated neighborhoods north of the Golden Horn. A short story from another writer led me to discover the Princes' Islands in the Sea of Marmara, a destination I found no mention of in travel blogs or guidebooks but seems like an excellent place to spend a day. Thanks to this kind of research I've realized we cannot complete the original driving loop I had planned all the way through Pamukkale and still do justice to Istanbul in only twelve days. Instead we'll focus on Istanbul and make a less ambitious circle to include Izmir, Ayvalik, and Çanakkale.

By the time our departure day rolled around I had given up on adding to my extensive portfolio of research on Türkiye. There’s such a thing as being overprepared and I didn’t want to feel like I was returning to a place I had already visited. Since I always dread long plane flights and the logistics of arrival in a foreign country it seemed like the last days in Miami passed quickly. There was plenty of time to pack and review my carefully curated travel checklist several times. In the end all I forgot was to change the blade of my safety razor. Our flight was at nine thirty in the evening and although I hate sitting at the departure gate we eventually called our ride at six because we couldn’t stand pacing around our house any longer. We zipped through check in and security thanks to TSA Precheck and had to kill two hours at the gate.

The Turkish Airlines plane wasn’t bad although the seats were a little uncomfortable and there was a surprising number of wailing toddlers scattered around us. Of course we’d done enough traveling with our own wailing toddlers to be largely immune to the ambient expressions of infantile misery. It was an eleven hour flight so we let the kids watch movies for a couple of hours before putting them down. I’m always amazed how despite the proliferation of movie options on flights there is hardly anything I can find bearable to watch. It took me twenty minutes to check the options and I eventually selected Nope because Jordan Peele’s other two movies were among the very few I enjoyed in the last decade. Nope was disappointing because it felt disjointed and confusing compared to Us and Get Out and it lacked the acerbic social commentary I’d appreciated in the other two movies. I was still able to watch it through the end even though I’d already popped a Benadryl. This was the first time I’d dared to take a sleeping aid on a flight, having worried previously I might be insufficiently alert to deal with an unexpected problem with one of the kids. Now that Spenser was almost eight this seemed less likely. I hoped between the Benadryl and the inflated neck pillow Mei Ling had provided I might duplicate the previous year’s miracle in which I had slept for seven hours on the way to Zürich. I did manage four hours which was eventually interrupted by one of my worst nightmares in memory. I was an invalid in a care home rendered incapacitated by an enormous overload of fluid in my body. My limbs were so weighted with edema I couldn’t lift them but the large group of people attending to me seemed oblivious to the actual problem and were performing useless physical therapy in a very smothering way while talking loudly to each other. I attempted to speak and draw their attention to my real problem but they were so animated in their conversations with each other that they ignored me completely. I became more and more frustrated and smothered in my nightmare until I eventually snapped awake. Finding myself in my bed at home would have solved the problem but instead I was strapped into an uncomfortable window seat in a tin can flying through the air thousands of feet above the ground. My heart was racing and my chest felt like it would burst and I realized that I was on the verge of a claustrophobic anxiety attack right in the middle of the plane. This had happened to me only once before when I was taking my scuba certification in Ibiza and it was quite unpleasant. Even though I objectively knew exactly what was happening and that it was completely irrational I had no control over the adrenaline release whatsoever. I felt an overwhelming urge to clamber over my sleeping kids and run up and down the aisle of the plane. At this point I realized the neck pillow was squeezing my neck somewhat uncomfortably and I ripped it away, which began to make me feel better immediately. My racing pulse began to slow although if I thought about the nightmare or my discomfort or the possibility of losing self control I immediately began to feel worse again. I made my mind as blank as possible, focused on slowing my breathing, and eventually the anxiety completely dissipated. Once I was back to normal I couldn’t even grasp what had happened to me. I’ve taken at least a hundred transoceanic flights without any problem at all. I think it will be a while before I try the Benadryl again.

The kids only slept five or six hours and went back to their screens seemingly none the worse for wear. My window seat wasn’t very useful as we were over the wing and the view of Europe was largely obscured by clouds. At one point my flight tracker app indicated we were over the Austrian Alps and surely enough I got a glimpse of some snow capped rocky peaks through a break in the clouds. I started a couple more movies and some television serials but couldn’t finish anything. I don’t know if I’ve changed or the entertainment industry has changed but it is very rare for me to find a comedy that makes me laugh or a drama I find engaging. Almost everything that Hollywood produces seems to be contrived, predictable, and repetitive. What I find most stimulating now is the ever changing, infinitely variable tableau of travel.

We arrived at the Istanbul International Airport in the mid afternoon thanks to the seven hour time difference. I had obtained E-visas ahead of time for twenty dollars apiece and I didn't even need to show the printed copies at immigration as we were already entered into the electronic system. I had accepted our hotel manager's offer for private car transport from the airport for forty Euros and we were able to find the pick up point fairly easily from the directions and photos he had provided. Unfortunately the guys running the shuttle service didn't find us on their list and I had to use one of their phones to call the hotel manager. Eventually it got straightened out and we found ourselves in a very comfortable van on the highway to the city.

The airport was almost an hour away from downtown Istanbul in a rather empty area on the European side close to the Black Sea. The long drive gave me some time to relish the fact that our six week summer trip had now begun in earnest and we would soon be in the very heart of Istanbul. Our route skirted the city center completely and it wasn't until we were close to our destination that I began to recognize landmarks such as the Galata Tower and the New Mosque. I had debated where we should base ourselves in Istanbul and was tempted to choose a location far from Sultanahmet and its tourist hordes. I quickly discovered that Airbnb was not a better deal than hotels in Istanbul, unlike in the rest of Europe. The prices were as high as hotels and the reviews were very shaky. I was surprised to find a hotel in a prime spot in Sultanahmet that was both inexpensive and highly reviewed, and it was too good of a deal to pass up. After a couple of wrong turns on narrow one way streets our van finally deposited us at the Atam Suites, just a minute's walk from the Blue Mosque. We stayed just long enough to confirm that we were being provided the accommodations I had booked and drop off the bags.

As I mentioned, many tourists stay in Sultanahmet and never leave the neighborhood since it contains most of Istanbul's major draws for foreign tourists: the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace, the Basilica Cistern, the Grand Bazaar and Spice Bazaar, the Archaeological Museums, and several of the city's other major mosques. I'm sure some travelers leave Istanbul believing that Sultanahmet is the entire city center, although it is actually just a tiny fraction of the core. There's certainly enough there to occupy a first-time visitor for several days, but I already knew that if we limited ourselves to Sultanahmet we would be depriving ourselves of some of Istanbul's greatest experiences. The neighborhood is named for Sultan Ahmed I who ordered the construction of the Blue Mosque in the early seventeenth century. Sultanahmet is at the tip of the Fatih district and is not an official division of the city, so there is no strict consensus on its western border. On the other three sides Sultanahmet is bounded by water. Our hotel was at near the southeastern edge of Sultanahmet, close to where the Bosphorus empties into the Sea of Marmara.

We were immediately enthralled by Istanbul. Atam Suites was in an area filled with small hotels and charming restaurants. I has expected Istanbul to be atmospheric but dilapidated and I wasn't expecting the rows of immaculate three story townhouses lining the cobblestone streets. The wooden shutters and wrought iron balconies reminded me of the historic centers of Lausanne and Bern, and the streets were just as spotless. There was greenery everywhere, from the elegant trees on the sidewalks to the planters that were arranged along the curbs.

It only took us a couple of minutes to reach the Hippodrome. Little remains of this ancient racing stadium except for a short line of monuments in the center. The Obelisk of Theodosius is so well-preserved that it looks like a modern reconstruction, although it is actually over three thousand years old. The monument was originally erected by an Egyptian pharaoh before it was transported first to Alexandria and then to Constantinople by the Romans.

The Hippodrome is now a spacious promenade lined with park benches and vendors selling roasted chestnuts and boiled corn. Like the area around our hotel it was impeccably fresh and clean. On the eastern side we could see the minarets of the Blue Mosque, the rest of which was largely obscured by a line of trees. We had a better view once we reached Sultan Ahmet Park at the end of the Hippodrome. On the opposite side of the park was the Hagia Sophia which was a little more difficult to appreciate because of the trees in front of it. At first I was confused and thought the Blue Mosque must be the Hagia Sophia because it was so much more impressive from the exterior.

Having eaten nothing but airplane food since the previous day we were more concerned with getting a decent dinner than commencing our sightseeing. We had three full days ahead for that. We turned towards the busy commercial area inland from the mosques and found ourselves among countless restaurants with very similar menus and eager hawkers attempting to convince us to patronize their roof terraces. Nowhere stuck out as being particularly appetizing and I knew that Istanbul's famous restaurant scams were likely to be on full display in this kind of neighborhood. I decided to fall back on our old standby, TripAdvisor's "restaurants near me" search function, which led us to a pleasant restaurant with outdoor tables called Saltanat. The food was good and plentiful, the Efes beer was cold, and no one tried to upsell us or scam us in any way. By the time we had finished dinner darkness had fallen but we still walked around the area for a while to absorb the energetic atmosphere and get the kids ice cream. I had a sense that for many tourists and locals this was just the beginning of an evening out but all I could think about was getting a long night of sleep. Despite being on the cusp of summer the evening air was cool and crisp and we were thankful for having brought our hoodies with us.

On the way back to the hotel we passed the Hagia Sophia again and saw that people were walking inside without any wait at all. This was too good to pass up because the mosque has the reputation of being difficult to visit due to long lines. I had also been under the impression that the building was closed to visitors after five PM but this was probably faulty information that predated its conversion from a secular museum back to a mosque in 2020. The mosque remains open until ten PM. Tired as we were, seeing the Hagia Sophia at night would relieve us of the obligation to line up as much as an hour before the nine AM opening time on one of our three remaining days.

The Hagia Sophia was originally constructed by the Roman emperor Justinian in the sixth century as a Christian church, replacing another that had been destroyed in a city-wide rebellion a few years before. The words Hagia Sophia are Greek for "holy wisdom", and the church remained the spiritual center of the Eastern Orthodox Church for almost a millennium. Aside from its historical significance, the Hagia Sophia is famous for architectural notes such as its pendentive dome, which allowed placement of a circular dome onto a square base via the use of curved triangular segments called pendentives. This was the largest pendentive dome that had ever been constructed and remained the largest until the completion of Saint Peter's Basilica at the Vatican in 1626. The church was also renowned for its Byzantine mosaics and its floor of Proconnesian marble. Byzantine emperors were traditionally crowned in the Omphalion, a square section of the marble floor filled with colorful circles.

Subsequent to the conquest of the Byzantine Empire by the Ottomans in the fifteenth century, Mehmed the Conqueror converted the Hagia Sophia into a mosque by plastering over the mosaics and adding minarets. The building remained a mosque for almost five hundred years until Kemal Atatürk converted it into a museum in 1935 as art of his effort to secularize the country. The plaster was carefully removed from the mosaics and carpeting was removed to expose the marble floor. So it remained until 2018 when Turkish president Erdoğan ordered that the Hagia Sophia be converted back to a mosque to strengthen the support from his religious Muslim base. Despite protests from various corners both domestic and international the process was completed in 2020. The recent conversion was not as drastic as the first, as the mosaics are only covered by drapes during prayer hours and the carpeting on the floor leaves the Omphalion uncovered. However, a traveler must be careful to time his visit not to coincide with hours of prayer during which the building is open only to worshippers.

The interior of the Hagia Sophia was a rather overwhelming display of gilt and marble brilliantly lit by dozens of hanging chandeliers. The visitors inside seemed like a cross-section of people from every corner of the world with a surprising number of children running and playing on the carpeted green floor. I made a point of studying the uncovered Omphalion and the structure of the dome above us but I passed on seeking out the access to the second level for a closer look at the mosaics. We were all exhausted and I don't think I would have gotten much out of perusing every detail of the interior. It was still an awesome feeling to finally be inside one of the most famous historical sites that I had never previously visited just a few hours after arriving in Istanbul.

We walked back to the hotel on the opposite side of the Blue Mosque whose cupola and minarets were illuminated in vivid color. A large number of birds which appeared to be seagulls were circling the mosque and were likewise illuminated, giving them a ghostly appearance. We passed through the Arasta Bazaar, where most of the stores had already closed, and had one final view of the southern side of the Blue Mosque. There was no question that to the architecturally uninitiated this was a more beautiful building than the Hagia Sophia. We would have to see the interior another day.

Back at the Atam Suites, Mei Ling bundled the kids into the shower while I set up our nest of chargers and adapters and unpacked the essentials. Our "suite" was actually a single room which had been compartmentalized to make one queen bed semi-private from the twin and the sofa bed in the living room. We didn't mind the cramped conditions as we always scrimp on accommodations and splurge on food. We don't want to stay in a place that's so luxurious that we're reluctant to leave the hotel. Thus far Istanbul was surpassing our lofty expectations and I was hoping we would be able to make the most of our remaining time in the city. My immediate fear was that the kids would wake up after just a couple of hours and then fall back to sleep at the crack of dawn the way they usually do when we arrive in Europe. That would put quite a crimp in the plans I had for the following day. There was nothing I could do to control that so I made sure everyone was down as quickly as possible, and in fact we were all asleep as soon as our heads hit the pillows.

Posted by zzlangerhans 19:49 Archived in Turkey Tagged road_trip istanbul family hagia_sophia family_travel travel_blog tony_friedman family_travel_blog

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