Monday, 21 May 2012

Icy Istanbul

Our first Turkish coffee
It was an ordeal to get to Istanbul, but once we were there it was fairly easy to navigate the metro and tram to our hostel, the Tulip Guesthouse.  It was a case of music rooms as we’d only reserved one night, we could stay the three nights that we wanted, but since they were busy we’d have to change rooms each night!  So each day, we’d lug our bags down or up the staircase, seeing each and every room in the hostel… (The best, by the way, was on the middle floor – the worse, the small room behind reception).  We figured it was worth the hassle as it was easier than the alternative of hunting down another good hostel in the snow and their breakfasts were fantastic. 

Entrance to the Topkapi Palace
Since we arrived in the afternoon, we only had time to explore the Grand Bazaar, which after Moroccan bazaars, we didn’t actually find to be that grand but it was still fun to explore.  (We never thought we’d become Bazaar snobs!).  Over the next few days we explored a significant amount of Istanbul, which was essentially crowd free thanks to the freezing temperatures and snow.  The locals had told us on our first morning that we were some of the luckiest people in the world to come to Istanbul in winter when there was snow, and it didn’t take us long to realise why.

The Blue Mosque covered in fresh snow

After walking up from our street and rounding the corner we saw the Blue Mosque covered in a layer of fresh snow, it was absolutely stunning.  We took our time and appreciated the Aya Sophia in the snow with thin crowds, defrosted with some delicious tea, then enjoyed the fantastic museums (fantastic not only for their amazing collections but also because they were heated).  The Topkapi Palace was also impressive and even more majestic in the snow with smatterings of gold and silver glinting through the white, although it did require a fairly extended timeout in the palace café where there was a brazier burning – the perfect cure for frozen toes.  Unfortunately it quickly became popular amongst the other tourists, forcing us to move on and find something warmer! 

Thankfully, in the afternoon the sun decided to show itself, so we joined the fisherman and walked over (and under) the Galata Bridge en route to Taksim Park.  The thing to do here is eat the freshly caught fish in a grilled fish sandwich, which we of course did and really enjoyed, although the raw onion and river fish aftertaste did linger a bit too long…

Inside the Blue Mosque
We entered a few mosques, all stunningly beautiful, but all requiring our feet to get rather cold and after three we decided we couldn’t brave taking our shoes off again and we decided to let entering the Blue Mosque wait till the next morning.  As we left the last mosque we noticed a man selling some sort of steaming hot drink from a very cool brass urn built into his cart, we had no idea what it was but decided since it was hot it was worth a try.  This was our first of many ‘salep’ drinks, the perfect hot drink to combat freezing temperatures.  We’re not exactly sure what it is, and each one we tried was slightly different, but it can best be described as a thick, white spiced milky drink with cinnamon sprinkled on top.  (Later research showed that it is made from pulverized roots of certain orchids that grow in Turkey that are washed and boiled in water or ayran, which is a yoghurt and water mixture.  The roots are then dried in the sun on flat woven Turkish carpets and ground up.  In winter, the dried ground roots are boiled with water served hot with cinnamon or crushed nuts on top – delicious!).

Golden stucco inside the Chora Church
On our last day in Istanbul the snow was already melting and we decided to walk to the Chora Church which is a short hike out of town.  The church has amazing stucco’s inside, some of them gold, that the Muslim’s plastered over when they turned the church into a mosque.  Now that the church / mosque has been declared a museum the stucco’s have been uncovered again, mainly intact.  Our walking took us out of the touristy zone of Istanbul and it was nice to see the rest of the city with people going about their daily lives.  We rewarded all our walking with a stop at a small sweet shop and tried a selection of extremely good pastries, finishing off the culinary day with tasty cheap dinner of kebabs (what else?).  

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