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Echoes of the Ottomans: Sultanahmet, Istanbul

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We woke up from a three hour nap with at least an hour to kill before dinner. We walked in the opposite direction from the Hippodrome from the hotel where the vibe was more residential but still bright and colorful. The roads were so narrow here that sometimes the sidewalks disappeared entirely and we had to press ourselves against the buildings when a car drove past.

After walking for a couple of blocks we found ourselves at a gap in the old city walls. On the other side was the busy four lane road that circled the Fatih peninsula and beyond that was the Sea of Marmara. We crossed the road to the seaside promenade and followed it as it curved into the outlet of the Bosphorus. Seeing the legendary strait for the first time reminded me how many treasures Istanbul still held for us despite all we had seen of the city on our morning walk. The Golden Horn had been beautiful but the Bosphorus was much wider and rougher. The neighborhoods on the Asian side were just an indistinct blur of buildings interspersed with the spikes of minarets. The shoreline was a jumble of large, flat, black rocks that didn't deter a variety of picnickers who perched atop them. Despite the rough seas we saw a number of swimmers, one of whom appeared to be swimming in place against the current in much the same way a runner uses a treadmill.

It was quite a long walk around the tip of the peninsula but the pageant of life along the Bosphorus was constantly entertaining. The path we were on was swarmed with pedestrians, bicyclists, and small scooters while locals sat on the rocks and gazed at the ships and the skyline of Üsküdar across the strait. On the inland side was the stone wall under the Topkapı palace. We hadn't planned on walking all the way to the Golden Horn but there was no path back into Sultanahmet through that wall. Eventually we rounded the corner to reach Seraglio Point, locally known as Sarayburnu, where the Golden Horn meets the Bosphorus. From here we could see down the Bosphorus as far as Beşiktaş and we paused for a few minutes to appreciate this breathtaking and historic location while the kids played on a small sculptural installation that was based on a map of the area.

From here we had to chart a course through Sultanahmet back to the restaurant area near our hotel. Just south of Seraglio Point was the entrance to Gülhane Park, formerly the outer garden of Topkapı Palace. We strolled on a wide pathway through the long axis of the park that was lined with majestic walnut and oak trees. The park contains several museums and other attractions that we didn't have time to see on this first visit to Istanbul.

We emerged from the park just north of the Hagia Sophia in another pleasant area full of boutiques and cafes. We kept an eye out for restaurants but the places we encountered didn't seem like ideal locations to celebrate Cleo's birthday.

I researched our options online and selected a restaurant close to our hotel. When we arrived at the location the restaurant was clearly not the same as the one I had chosen, possibly because of a recent change in ownership. The hawker on the sidewalk attempted to convince me it was still the same establishment but the menu showed it was interchangeable with all the other tourist restaurants in the area. We decided to walk back to Şerbethane, a beautiful little spot we had passed on our walk that was also well-reviewed. Şerbethane was decorated like an Ottoman sitting room with comfortable, patterned couches arranged around wooden tables. We ordered some interesting items that we saw at other tables like a clay pot lamb dish that was bathed in flames at the table before the pot was broken and the contents served. I later learned this was a Cappadocian specialty called testi kebabi. We were also impressed by the extremely puffy lavash bread that was the size of an American football.

I was hoping we could top Cleo's birthday dinner from the previous year when two Swiss waiters had done an admirable job of singing Happy Birthday in German but the food in the restaurant was terrible. The excellent food at Şerbethane had gotten us on a good track and hearing Happy Birthday or something similar in Turkish would have been amazing. When I got a chance to speak to the manager he seemed excited to be part of the surprise and made signals for me to take out my phone when they were ready to get started. The only problem was that the song turned out to be a cheesy, canned English version of Happy Birthday that was played over the speakers instead of the Turkish song I was hoping for. The rest of the presentation was great though and the huge grin on Cleo's face told me that I should consider the evening to be a complete success.

That night we all slept well and awoke at a fairly normal hour. It seemed we had managed to evade the ill effects of jetlag almost completely on this trip. Monday's itinerary began with the Topkapı Palace, another of Istanbul's most famous sites. It was right next to the Hagia Sophia, a short walk from our hotel, and we made sure to arrive there half an hour before the nine o'clock opening time to avoid long lines at the ticket booth. With more than three million annual visitors, the palace is one of the five most popular sites in the world trailing such notables as the Forbidden City and the Louvre. Tickets cannot be purchased online without joining an outside tour and the queues to buy tickets are one of the most dreaded features of a trip to Istanbul. On this cool Monday morning there were just a few other people scattered around the Imperial Gate, marked by the tughra of the sultans atop a tall marble arch set into the palace wall. Ian recognized the tughra immediately as he had read one of the books about Istanbul I had bought before the trip, a historical murder mystery called "The Sultan's Seal". Two guards were there toting automatic rifles, presumably to deter anyone from rushing the gates before opening time. We occupied ourselves during the wait by admiring the Hagia Sophia from an angle we hadn't previously encountered.

A couple of dozen more visitors arrived right before nine and a line quickly formed. Just before they began letting people in, a middle aged woman on her own tried to merge unobtrusively with a group at the very front. One man a little further back in line wasn't about to take that quietly and began remonstrating with her harshly. However the woman was quite dedicated to her queue-jumping plan and completely ignored him, facing forward with her eyes glued to the gate. Once the man realized the security guards weren't going to step in and the woman wasn't going to back down he stopped complaining. When the gates opened the woman practically ran through to be the first at the ticket office. Unfortunately for her she didn't know where she was going and made a wrong turn in the first courtyard, heading for the Archaeological Museum. Once she realized her mistake she broke into a jog on the other side of the courtyard, trying to beat the rest of us who had proceeded directly towards the office. It was quite amusing because if she had just taken her place at the end of the line she wouldn't have been delayed more than five minutes. She must have had some kind of a neurosis about being first. She came jogging toward the ropes in front of the office just as I approached and I have to admit I leaped the last few steps to get in ahead of her, smiling broadly at her the whole time. At the booths she decided to get behind me, probably figuring I was a lone traveler that would get through quickly. I'm sure she wasn't thrilled when the ticket agent demanded to see all three kids individually to make sure they were eligible for the free entrance for children under twelve. I had to beckon them all over from outside the ropes which was quite a process. I didn't mind the inconvenience at all since it meant the obnoxious queue-jumper had to stew in line behind me. We were now permitted through another imposing tughra-stamped stone gate into the second courtyard.

Topkapı Palace was constructed by Sultan Mehmed II, the conqueror of Constantinople, in 1459 as his personal residence. The ensuing sultans of the Ottoman Empire made it their headquarters until 1856, when Sultan Abdulmejid I moved to the newly-built Dolmabahçe Palace on the bank of the Bosphorus in Beşiktaş. After the Turkish revolution ended the Ottoman Empire in 1923 Topkapı was converted into a museum. The palace was designed with a series of courtyards surrounded by a network of buildings, which now house the museum exhibits. As we were among the first people through the gates on a relatively slow day for visitors we had the beautiful, open spaces largely to ourselves. We passed through a few of the exhibits but museums are not in general very interesting places for us. Ian was the only one who preferred to dawdle among the various displays of weaponry and artifacts and ironically it was the adults who had to rush him through so we could keep on our tight schedule for the day. Personally I preferred the beautiful open spaces of the courtyards and the marble patios to the dry interiors, although the tilework and stained glass of some of the major rooms was breathtaking.

One of the funny things about Topkapı is that the English language internet can't be bothered with the correct spelling or pronunciation of the name. When spelled correctly Topkapı ends with an "ı" not an "i" which are two letters with completely different pronunciation. The letter "i" always sounds like "ee" in Turkish as it usually does at the end of a word in English. On the other hand "ı" is a letter unique to Turkish that always has a sound somewhere between "ih" and "uh". Some have compared it to the sound of the "i" in the English word pencil. I'm still not sure of the exact way to pronounce it because there seems to be some variation among native speakers, in the same way that some native English speakers say "pencihl" with a very short "i" and some say "pensuhl". English speakers tend to read and write the "ı" as an "i" despite the fact that it is quite simple to use the correct letter with a smartphone or a computer keyboard. When you add in the feature that English speakers will stress the second syllable of Topkapı while Turkish speakers stress the first, you wind up with a completely different (and incorrect) English pronunciation of TopKAPPee instead of TOPkapeh. The locals appear to bear this indignity goodnaturedly, in much the same way the Icelanders never correct foreigners who pronounce "Þ" as "p" or "ð" as "d", but it horrifies me to think of asking a taxi driver to take me to NissenTASSee rather than NeeSHANtasheh when I'm going to Nişantaşı. One of the first things I do before going to a country with an unfamiliar language and an alphabet that is at least similar to Roman is learn how to pronounce the letters. Unfortunately I seem to be in the minority in that respect, at least among English speakers.

At one point we emerged onto a balcony overlooking the Bosphorus, directly above the promenade we had walked on the previous evening. It was easy to imagine the Ottoman sultans standing on this very spot, feeling the enormous pride and responsibility of having absolute authority over this vital and strategic city. The last area to explore was the harem, a word that has deviated from its true meaning of "sacred" or "forbidden" to mean something like "orgy spot" mostly through Hollywood exaggerations. Nevertheless it is one of the most popular parts of the palace and commands its own separate entrance ticket. This area had some beautiful rooms such as the Imperial Hall but lacked the beautiful open courtyards of the main palace. By now we had a fairly good sense of the place and we were ready to move on to explore the rest of Sultanahmet.

We thought we might stop at the Basilica Cistern on the way to the Grand Bazaar but when we arrived around noon there was a long line out front that barely moved over ten minutes. Lesson learned, this was another place to arrive at a few minutes before it opened. Fortunately we still had two mornings left in Istanbul. We proceeded via Nuruosmaniye Caddesi, a wide and partially pedestrianized thoroughfare that was lined with cafes and high end boutiques. The road ended at the Nuruosmaniye Mosque, which is best known for its introduction of Baroque elements into Turkish Islamic architecture. Immediately past here was the entrance to the Grand Bazaar.

It's difficult to know how much of the current composition of the Grand Bazaar dates back to its original construction in the fifteenth century, due to the large numbers of fires and reconstructions that have occurred in the interim. What's quite certain however is that the traders who occupied its stalls in those ancient times would hardly recognize the products on sale in the present day. There seemed to be two broad categories of stores within the bazaar: those selling low-end souvenirs such as T-shirts and trinkets to casual tourists and those selling more expensive items such as carpets, antiques, and jewelry. None of these things were of great interest to us as we prefer to find our souvenirs in more organic ways and we don't care much for expensive objects, outside of original art work. The idea of bargaining over such items didn't appeal to me much either, especially since I have no knowledge on which to base an independent valuation of carpets and antiques. We spent some time losing ourselves in the dizzying, crowded grid of illuminated shops but soon realized we weren't going to find much of real interest to our family.

Between the Grand Bazaar and the Spice Bazaar there was a warren of congested narrow streets lined with every conceivable kind of store, with colorful clothes and housewares piled outside on racks, milk crates, and any other type of support that was available. The pedestrians in the street were no less colorful, tromping purposefully in either direction while having animated discussions on their phones and with each other. There were some foreigners here like ourselves, in transit from one attraction to another, but the vast majority were locals conducting the normal commercial activities of daily life. This was the real pazari of Eminönü, a place for local people to attend to their daily needs rather than one set up to transfer wealth from tourists to enterprising merchants. This was far more interesting to us than the Grand Bazaar had been. Cleo was quite entertained by the unconventional appearance of the local mannequins.

The official name of the Spice Bazaar is Mısır Çarşısı, which translates to Egyptian Market. The market was built with the proceeds of taxation of Egypt, which at the time was one of the administrative divisions of the Ottoman Empire. This market was a little less frenetic than the Grand Bazaar and as the name would suggest was mostly devoted to shops with colorful and aromatic displays of spices. There were also a large number of purveyors of lokum of an almost infinite variety and we eventually settled on a couple of pomegranate-flavored logs.

We emerged from the other end of the Spice Bazaar in Eminönü Square, where we had marveled at the rich tapestry of Istanbul's denizens and visitors the previous day. Our next mission was to return to Karaköy to eat at the restaurant attached to the fish market. We crossed the Galata Bridge on foot once again and found the market pretty much as it had been on Sunday, although the restaurant was now practically empty. We chose a selection of fish with the larger ones grilled and the smaller ones fried to be eaten whole. Everything came deliciously fresh with lemon wedges and spicy raw greens. My favorite was the bonito, which is considered a trash fish in my home state of Florida but tastes amazing when cooked correctly.

Our last order of business in Karaköy was to treat the kids to dondurma, the famous Turkish ice cream that is given a stretchy consistency by the addition of root starch. The unusual tensile strength of the ice cream allows the vendors to play tricks with it that wouldn't work with regular ice cream and they have parlayed this into a tradition of teasing their customers. We were to encounter this phenomenon over and over again but for our kids this was the first time and they found it hilarious. It was the perfect way to reward them for an industrious morning exploration of Sultanahmet.

Posted by zzlangerhans 16:42 Archived in Turkey Tagged road_trip istanbul family bosphorus family_travel travel_blog bosporus grand_bazaar gulhane tony_friedman family_travel_blog seraglio_point spice_bazaar nuruosmaniye

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