In truth I was expecting another mosque, which at 3 back to back many have been a bit tiresome, having visited the Blue Mosque and Hagia already. But how wrong I was.
Tucked away at the end of a long mall, you enter what I can only call an ancient city. It's is located right at the edge of the promontory that is the old quarter and as such an amazing site, The Golden Horn river one side, The Bosphorous with Asia just across the way, and The Sea of Marmara somewhere off to the south.
If I were to build a palace - this is where I would have built it too.
And it is by far my favourite place throughout my tour (although I did get a bit lathered about something else on the last night but that comes later).
Size wise I dunno and wont bore you with stats. But I guess Windsor palace and a bit more, maybe close to the golden temple, but who cares. It once housed and fed 10,000 people in perpetuity, comfortably, so it's a big old gaff.
It is laid out beautifully with a central courtyard with spokes leading off, to the left the arms and treasury, the right a huge kitchen complex, and kinda north-west the Harem. Just to the right of that, straight ahead, is another splendid archway which takes you into the palace proper. And its wonderful. We go in a circular anti-clockwise direction taking in the art gallery showing portraits of all the Sultans, some prayer and relaxation rooms, state rooms and so on all the way round, the various seas flowing by us on our left. These Sultan guys knew how to have it large and it is all layed out so splendidly. On the outer courtyard is a single little arch jutting out over the clifftop and from which the Sultan in situ could survey all his kingdoms. And this is where the Sultan used to come and have a sneaky kit Kat at night during Ramadan.
There's a swimming pool and various rooms where the top guys could observe sports being played. A mosque of course and other bits and bobs.
Perhaps the most interesting is the Harem which is a palace in itself. There were bits under renovation, but this was truly interesting to me, just curiosity you understand.
But I will come onto Harems and what they all about later. It ain't what you think. Well it kind of is, but kind of isn't.
But yeah this place took top billing for me and eclipsed anything I saw before or after during my visit to Istanbul. Jo, my travelling partner for these few days I think preferred the other great palace of Istanbul, The Dolmabahce, but for me this was my highlight. I loved every minute and is really where I made my deeper connection with the Ottoman Empire and what it was all about, the Sultanate, the Caliphate, all of it together clicked in place for me here.
And those views.............
Having taken it all in, devoid of any more wows and legs now weary we decide to hit one last thing en route back to home base and this is the Grand Bazaar. I expected something like I imagine Marrakech to be, you know all Raiders of the Lost Ark alleyways, rows and rows of tents selling their wares, narrow secret passages, maybe a camel or two lurking.
But it was none of that.
I tell you exactly what the Grand Bazaar is like.
It's like Leadenhall market in London on speed, 1000 times the size and 1000 times the colours. It's all under roof and is shop after shop after shop of gold, spices, sweets, handbags, carpets, perfumes, diamonds, more gold, more confections, more handbags.......your average lady, with not a hint of sexism (sic) could spend a week here with ease and still be smiling. It's is whatever the word for bigger than huge is.....err humongous that's it (what a nasty word).
So there we go. A walk back to HQ, and a far less exuberant meal than our suspended mid bridge fish burning feast of last night. And early to bed, shattered. Been a great day where we have taken in pretty much all the old quarter, Blue Mosque, Hagia Sofia, Topkapi Palace and Grand Bazaar.
When we get back I talk again with a Georgian girl who had been planning her day this morning on our rooftop whilst I was having a fag at half ten-ish before setting out.
We meet her now outside our place and I ask "hey how far did you get - did you see the Topkapi - its awesome?", and she said no, that she had made only the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofia. Lightweight. Jo and I were not on a mission but we did get a lot in but without feeling rushed. But I put that down to the fact that I almost literally run through the shopping mall giving her not a chance to being drawn into its mystical lures and charms (and charmers).
Great day, a final Turkish coffee (which I have grown to love, the real hardcore sludge at the bottom stuff), and am pleased to pass out as soon as head hits pillow.
DAY 5 - mar 2 - ISTANBUL; crossing two continents.
Sunday we decided to let someone else sort our agenda and conceded that we may not be worse off than getting a one day guided trip. Well it got back at 4pm but just ticked off so many boxes in one day that we booked. The coach came to the hotel again to pick us up (our guy is well connected because we lived in a virtually un coach-drivable steep inclined cobbled street). But obviously everyone gets a little slice of tourist money when things are 'arranged' for you, but for this we didn't mind paying.
Ended up being a personal tour too. Some cancellations meant we were In a smaller mini-bus like affair, with just us two, a young Malaysian couple and our guide, Tülay. Which was great as we had no hanging about, could get through the day at speed, didn't have to sit through translations and best of all Tülay was just a beautiful person whom we had almost all to ourselves.
So loathe as I am not to arrange my own agenda, we were off and first stop Suleyman Mosque. It's the biggest one in Budapest (well at present, we saw one later being built as the biggest) and holds phenomenal amounts of people, I think 10k inside and 40k or 80k outside or something - so a bit like going to watch QPR.
It's impressive, the huge carpet throughout gorgeous and is perhaps the best condition of the three mosques we have seen. Actually no perhaps about it. It was.
Fifteen minutes later ( there is only so much time you can stare round looking at ceilings, huge as they are) and we are off. Loving this already. It was just a vast space but indeed stunning.
Whilst I love the beautiful calligraphy and signage in mosques, Catholics may win hands down here especially when it comes to things to keep you interested, faith aside of course. Muslims do not allow idolatry (showing worshipped figures), so no beautiful paintings, statues etc like Rome or even Spain's great catholic churches for example. But they do have their own beauty, sense of peace, sense of reverence.
We push on.
Next a trip up the Golden Horn which separates Asia from Europe in these parts. It's a great trip, with all the wonderful buildings of Istanbul built along both sides of the river, lovely bridges, palaces etc - you get the picture. Weather forecast was 10 degrees. It's 18 and wish I had brought my shorts. But its lovely and we chat with Tülay a lot.
Back to coach and a ride over the Bosphorous bridge to Asia and up a big hill for a panoramic lunch. Two thirds of the Istanbul population live this side and it has a slightly different feel. But after lunch we ascend a bit higher to a place called, oh I forget, but it's called Lovers Park or something and if you get married in Istanbul, it tends to be here you get the wedding photos done. And there was of course a wedding going on.
Secondly in every major room are chandeliers the size of which beggar belief. In the final and largest room, the main dignitary welcoming room, the chandelier is largest and was a gift of our own Queen Victoria. But despite all this grandeur all I kept thinking of the scene from Fools and Horses and the chandelier's. It was that all round.
As beautiful a palace as you will see anywhere in Europe, and as such not really a learn for me, much as i enjoyed it.
Which brings me onto the only question I asked our guide, and the only one that really interested me here. So lets talk about....
So Harem actually means 'secret' so could equally be a family meeting room (the Queens mother's of the day had a massive say at this Palace) as it would do to the quarters for those young female courtiers who were selected and trained to be chosen by The Sultan at his whim.
So I asked the elephant in the room question. Did these Sultans, these rulers of Empires, have these young girls hanging about, getting all trained up, virgins all, because he needed many 'interactions' to ensure he was borne sons to carry line of the Sultanate?..........or simply because he was top banana in the whole empire and, well..............he just could!
Transpires answer A was correct (apparently) and that these young girls were taken at a tender age from all over the kingdom and placed into a kind of forced but not wholly unpleasant slavery and trained almost in Geisha fashion to be a Sultans mate, when readied and lucky enough to be chosen. It was a harsh life, despite the grandeur they lived in, and if not chosen they would largely end up just washing the dishes for the other girls. But if chosen, and moreso chosen as a wife, then they were invested with a pretty incredible lifestyle as were their families, and soon forgot the earlier disciplines and enforcements made upon their teenage years. So a double edged sword really. Become chosen as a Queen and thats exactly what you became.
All in all a splendid place, where the last of the Sultans swung, and certainly the grandest most bling place in Istanbul. And perhaps today the most glamorous Embassy in the world. One of our guides previous visits here coincided with when Erdogan hosting Merckel on world affairs. It still has power this place.
You see it..... but you feel it too.
Exhausted we find a local bar for food and restorative liquids, and finally end the day with a Jo "must", Turkeys famous Mado's Ice cream. I'll say no more than its creamy, almost chewy, comes in many layers, and is exceedingly delicious.
Day 6 - Mar 3 - Istanbul; 'blanche bits and bloke baths'
On my last but one day here, I see Jo off to the airport around lunch and then have another 24 hours or so to take in the final bits on my lonesome. I have an afternoon and evening then I leave early doors to catch the flight tomorrow on to Budapest. So there are a few bits to I wish to cover off unaccompanied. Back from the airport I go back to the bar from last night for a quick drink and snack, close to the hotel on the main drag in the old quarter.
Although when travelling you are never alone.
Sat outside in glorious sunshine, the older couple on the next table hear my conversation with the waiter befriended last night, and we too strike up a conversation. I speak mainly with the husband, Duncan, originally form Canada but now living in Switzerland. His father had worked for the UN, and he as a child and young adult was relocated to many parts of the world, including Istanbul where he once lived, amongst many other places. He is a science lecturer (I think more of an actual physicist than teacher) and we have a fascinating hour long chat, you know the normal Monday lunchtime banter, creationism versus evolution, science as opposed theology etc, and I find that he is the most interesting of men. He is here on a trip paid for by a former student and I imagine is a man who has influenced many lives among the way. We swap life stories and by his own admission he has lived the most charmed of exitences and is wonderful, thoughtful and exceedingly bright company. His wife Beri is equally charming and I enjoy our short time together immensely .
I leave refreshed and head for the Istanbul Islamic Museum. Its small and beautiful and built upon the old Roman Hippodrome, which is now revealed many feet (and millenia) down through a glass floor plate, where the Byzantines used to come and watch chariot racing and rare and wonderful animals and men pitted together, as was the Roman lust for spectacle. But ancient ruins aside this is a new building, full of artefacts and I ingest all the knowledge I need to sate me before moving on.