182 nights : 6,965 miles travelled : Countries visited: 14
“If one had but a single glance to give the world, one should gaze on Istanbul” Alphonse de Lamartine
It is not a good idea to drive a motorhome into Istanbul with a hangover, even a mild one. The night before, we had celebrated getting across the Turkish border with Kipper after a few anxious days worrying about entry requirements. Matt from Sakar Hills, our last Bulgarian campsite, gently pointed out that we were being too British. He reassured us that rules may be there but are not necessarily designed to be followed. He was right; we were not asked about the dog or the absent paperwork!
Taking Brian into any city centre is a challenge but surviving two hours of writhing queues, with lane hopping drivers squeezing in all around us was a feat of concentration and nerve. On the upside, we had time to note how Istanbul is mushrooming and to spot some of the key sites as we finally reached the centre. The relief of arriving was mixed with euphoria….we had driven all the way to Istanbul!
We parked on a fisherman’s wharf, next to the Sea of Marmara and behind the Blue Mosque, at the hub of endless activity. By day, sightseers watched ships leave and approach the Golden Horn or the Bosphorus. Fishermen prepared their boats. Tourist bus drivers chatted and waited. Vendors brought glasses of tea or sold sesame rolls to anyone wanting refreshment. The piercing call to prayer floated over the top of it all. Dogs played or slept. By night, lovers watched the lights on the water. Ships sounded their horns as they waited. Vendors sold seafood and party goers extended the fun by dancing on the tarmac with their car stereos pumping out the beats. The faithful were called to prayer an hour before sunrise. Dogs barked or slept.
We did not sleep, much. But that was part of the magic of our stay. The cloud barely lifted and it rained often. But Istanbul is always sparkling in our memories. New friends David and Carol took turns with us to visit the old city or to keep an eye on our vans. But very soon this strange place felt safe and familiar.
Our walk into the city took us past some of the 19th century wooden houses which are now protected. Some have been restored and converted into boutique hotels while the Tourism Police occupy a lovely yellow example, although a suicide bomber caused damage earlier in the year.
Ancient and beautiful crowd in together around the site of the Hippodrome making our work as tourists both easy and supremely satisfying. Only the central line of the Roman chariot racetrack remains, marked by monuments from across the ages.
The courtyard of the Blue Mosque is on the former site of the Hippodrome’s royal lodge, a grandstand for the emperor and family to watch the chariot racing. The Sultan Ahmet Mosque, or Blue Mosque as it is popularly known was completed in 1616. It is simply beautiful and the space seems designed to draw your gaze upwards.
A short walk away is the most incredible indoor space we’ve seen. The Aghia Sophia was originally a church, then a mosque and now a museum to an amazing 1,400 years of inspiring people to consider a world beyond ours.
A much more earthly need for water led to the creation of the cavernous Basilica Cistern in 532. More than 300 columns hold up the ceiling and the low lighting and sound of drips on water as you stroll around inspire many whispers of wow. We had never seen anything like it.
We tried to see Topkapi Palace on a wet Saturday so the queues to see it’s many treasures were discouragingly long. The only room we got a good peek at was the Circumcision Pavilion (no queues there!) which was both peaceful and beautiful. Like all areas of royal life even this procedure was associated with sumptuous ceremony!
David negotiated a bargain price and unusually, a ride for Kipper , on a boat trip around the Golden Horn and the Bosphorus. We could see how Istanbul is a meeting point in many ways; water meets land, old meets new and of course Europe meets Asia.
These meeting points mean that trade has always been at the heart of the city. The Grand Bazaar and the Spice Bazaar were buzzing….albeit with tourists as well as locals. A treat for us was being able to visit many sites together while Kipper snuggled up with Carol and we both tried our first Turkish coffee and the first of a lot of baklava on our outings!
The sun finally appeared on our last full day and we took Kipper to Gullame Park which was once the rose garden of Topkapi Palace. We sat and had lunch in the park cafe and looked down at the activity on the water from a different angle.
The full moon that night set the seal on a magical week.
M & G xx
Treat of the week: I couldn’t leave Istanbul without a visit to a haman. I picked the closest one to us and it turned out to be one of the most historic and opulent Turkish baths in the city. Indeed it was magical sitting under the 18th century dome pierced with star shaped windows as I sweated and waited to be scrubbed. The Cagaloglu Baths can boast of previous visitors including Kate Moss and Michelle Pfiefer and I imagined the attendant thinking this was just another body to deal with. Stripped down we are all alike on that marble slab….yeah right…. alike as a tapered candle is to a lava lamp! But I did glow afterwards!
Meanwhile the boys enjoyed some quiet time watching the ships go by.