"Dam, Danube, Dardanelles ISTANBUL - Part II

Day 4 - Apr 1 - Istanbul; topkapi palace and Grand bazaar

So welcome back. If you got as far scrolling through Part I as to reach Medusa, then you are up to date. If you had already dipped into this, part II, then a scroll down the page to Dolamadahce is where we left off.

And thank you.

This section will cover the last two and a half days in Istanbul, with my brief stop in Budapest and concluding cavort amongst the canals in part III, including another travel partner familiar to many of you.

So - to the incredibly awesome Topkapi Palace and then Grand Bazaar a shopping girls dream, a fellas nightmare. Another Mosque briefly, an incredible boat cruise down the Golden Horn, along the European side before crossing the straight and coming back down the Asian side, or Anatolia, and where the much larger population of Istanbuli's live (circa 6m old quarter, 9m Asian side), a look at the worlds biggest Mosque now being built and due for opening late this year and then the Palace of Dolmabache, where the last half dozen Sultans lived their lives before Istanbul became a republic and the Sultanate that had ruled since 1299 finally was exiled in 1923.

Again I will try make this picture heavy as it is not a tour book, just a collection of amazing experiences trying to give a flavour of the place.

But it is sooo steeped in history and war and religion and power struggles that it is impossible not to touch on these as some points throughout. So without further ado I give you my favourite part of the whole of Istanbul......

..................The topkapi palace

Tip Top Kapi

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.

Purveying his Kingdoms....

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.............

The heartbeat of an Empire

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.

Shopping on an Epic scale

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.

Tülay, our ever so lovely and incredibly knowledgeable 'personal' guide

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.

Süleymaniye Mosque; Plenty of Shake'n'Vac

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.

Views of Istanbul; Boat trip down The Golden Horn; Asia side;The new Mosque in construction; Lovers Hill

Pretty, and in the distance we see the huge new Mosque Erdogan has commissioned, opening later this year, to be be the biggest in Turkey.

Bit of history.

When the Ottoman Empire was finally dissolved after the first world wat, Atataurk, a forward thinking man, slowly moved Istanbul into present times, declaring it a republic, for the people, rather than a Sultanate as it had been since 1299.

So he sort of democratised the place, to a degree, taking the onus slightly away from religion and slightly more in line with modernity, whilst not distilling the essence of the country in any way. He became a hero of the people and pictures of him are common everywhere. Seems to me that there is a 50/50 split right now, with Erdogan and his huge religious monuments and statements perhaps regressing the city back to old ways still proving popular, whilst the other half of the inhabitants want the Ataturk example to be furthered.

Like all politics winners and losers on both sides.

But I know little of politics so will leave that there. I ask many Istanbuli's about their preferences, and of those I speak to Ataturk is the hero and Erdogan not so, but this is by no means unanimous so no different to the political split of opinions in our country, only more heavily influenced by religion here.

day 5 - (cont'd) - dolmadahce palace and spice market

Dolmadahce Palace

Built just 180 odd years ago, The Ottoman empire had at that time lost vast swathes of its territory and influence and this was seen by many as a last attempt by the Sultanate to say, hey we are still in the game here fella's - come look at this, the biggest palace ever built in Turkey out-shining even the Topkapi, and commissioned with only the finest of adornments possible anywhere in the world.

You can see straight off the European, and to my eye mainly French influence of the building. It is much more akin to Versailles, somewhere the commissioning Sultan had been to, than anything seen in this empire before.

Look up in the main entrance hall and the ceiling is adorned with secenes and paintings that we we see in western palaces, and which were in fact painted by Cezanne, the renowned French artists who earned not only an expert painters days-pay, but a pension for the rest of his life too, like getting someone to paint that difficult hallway at home and then paying him an equal amount monthly until he dies.

But its a great place, with a Titanic style double sided sweeping staircase that leads up to all sorts of other interesting areas I wont bore you with now. More with pictures, although no pics were allowed inside so sorry for that.

What you do notice are two things, firstly in that each side of the palace is perfectly symmetrical in every respect from the central walk through.

See 12 chairs in a bay chamber to your left, and the mirror setup is on the right, ancient clock on the left of a doorway, same on right. Everything comes in perfect twos (there are a very few minor exceptions) but yeah its kinda fun the way everything is so beautiful and in duplicate.

So as a bloke it didn't matter whether you hung to the left or to the right, it would be equally splendid.

Vast and opulent

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.

Uncle Albert, you ready with that spanner?

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....

Harems

Captions on a postcard please........ ;-)

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.

Decadent; Diplomatic; Dolmadahce

The Spice market

And lastly for today, the spice market at the Grand Bazaar. Try as we might we could not find it on our earlier visit, but Tulay takes us there too finish off the day. Stunning sounds, sights and smells. Beautiful.

People of the world...

Every boy, every girl....

Spice up your life! (I know, I know - thats poor)

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.

Yum

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 .

Interesting company....and me.

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.

The mix of old and new

Next I go back to the Topkapi Palace to revisit my favourite place, and also to take better photos. After 3 days I have worked out again how to get my real camera to operate, so I take some photos worthy of the place, which are posted throughout these travelogues now in replacement. So that was it for the daytime, and back to the hotel for an overdue rest before one final thing to complete my trip here.

Back at The Topkapi, I struggle with my real camera's viewfinder - heres a waterfall ...... ;-)

So as night falls I venture out for my final dose of Istanbulism......

....A Turkish bath

Has to be done huh, so I book for 9pm, and choose one of the most historic in the city, and only five minutes walk from my hotel.

He who dares Rodders......

I admit I enter with a degree of trepidation - my images of these places are of hulky hairy backed blokes, naked or barely clothed, of manhandling and manly male bonding.......none of which. errr, particularly appeal to me at this moment. The start is promising as the receptionist is a pretty Turkish girl all smiles and "'enjoy's" so I am sure my presuppositions are wrong, that they will have updated the tradition and I will get some nubile female attendant to give me a Thai style massage or something akin.

But the truth is I had been not far wrong with my initial thoughts. Through reception, I enter the central square of the building around which runs a high balcony and changing rooms. I am greeted with grunts from half or dozen or so burly blokes sat around, and pointed fingers and huffs direct me up to a room where I am thrust a red checked tea towel, indicated to that I should strip, and assumedly cover my modesty with this strip of cloth, and return downstairs. My concern heightens.

As I descend the wooden stairs, a huge Turk dressed in similar scant form greets me, grunts a little and kind of pushes me through a large, heavy, ornate door to the centre of the building, the steam bath. Its quite beautiful, steeped in age with many stories buried in the stones, and I spend a few minutes looking around, totally alone in this vast cavern. In the middle is a huge marble slab, knee high, and about the size of a football pitch centre circle. It is octagonal rather than round, and at 8 points off the main slab are chambers in the walls surrounding the centrepiece, small alters to steam, each with a centre stool and three basins within, the whole shebang carved from pure ornate marble.

On the main slab are copper circles, like upturned dog bowls and I wonder what the coup is here. I guess I lay on the slab, so that it what I do. Its wonderful and permeates my whole body, the steam and heat in the vast domed room already relaxing me, the warm marble underneath seeping into my tired muscles. Another client enters and one whom has been here before it seems, as he pushes his copper upside-down dog bowl across toward the centre of the slab, then climbs on and lays his head on the bowl (so thats what its for), with his feet pointing out toward the edge, like the big hand on a clock. I get it.

I do likewise and lay there for five or ten or twenty minutes (time is of no consequence here) staring at the windows in the dome high above, the shards of moonlight feintly peircing through the steam in hazy broken shafts.

After some time has elapsed I hear a grunt and the Turk has returned. He points at his barrelled chest and says "Number 8" in a thick Turkish accent. I guess thats his name. I am now about to be assaulted by no.8 (a fate a few of my football opponents have suffered over the years I think ironically, this having been my shirt number). I am manhandled to sit up then marched into a side chamber and dumped down next to one of the three basins.

In the changing room along with my tea towel I was handed a small box. He takes this from the slab where I had left it and removes a single glove, mitt like, and puts it on his huge menacing hand, meanwhile filling one of the three basins with water from the ancient taps. I make no eye contact and am now quite frankly scared. I can think of little more vulnerable situations that I have been in, than in a small chamber, dressed in what now seems like a handkerchief, with a six foot four strange hairy bloke about to, well I am not sure what, but I try to relax and I shut my eyes.

Number 8 then proceeds to wash and scrub me down, bar towel area, starting with a full head massage, heavy shoulder and back massage, and then calves and legs and even feet. Its rough but expertly done, and the leg stuff I really appreciate having walked almost constantly for the best part of 5 days now.

He huffs, my eyes still closed and just as a venture to open them a huge bowl of water is thrown direct into my face, hot and stinging and shocking, and not at all expected. I lose my breath and another follows, then many more, on my back and legs and so on. I am in slight shock, but once the water assaults have finally stopped, I inwardly admit that it was good. I certainly feel skin deep clean as I am led back out of the chamber and back to the slab where I am indicated to lay again, as my tormentor exits the big oak doors.

I drift off in silence, with only the occasional shock awe gasp of another punter being water cannoned on the far side of the huge space, before I am pulled up again, King Kong having returned silently. He sits me up, pulls the copper bowel down from the centre and indicates I should lay lengthways face down along the edge of the slab, with my face resting on the bowl.

I am not sure what is going on now but feel heavy hands again and then foam everywhere, head to toe and on the slab all around me. I am turned over and the same applied. I must look like a kid in a Johnson baby shampoo advert. Another barrage of water, this time expected, dissipates my foam casing and shaking hands the giant Turk departs with a simple knod.

I rest for another 20 minutes or so then go to the showers, turning the knob and purposely braving a freezing cold shower as shocking as it is cleansing, and perfect for this time.

Finally I head back up to my room, change and exit into the warm evening, utterly and totally refreshed and alive, at peace with the world as I fade into the night.

Istanbul has been everything I had hoped for and much, much more. Six days still not enough to give this magnificent city it's full due. But I have managed much, and feel I at least got under the skin of the place. Of the cities in the world I have visited to date, this has unquestionably entranced me most.

So there ends this part of this journey. Off to Hungary in the morning and a final sortie in Amsterdam with an old mate before home. I hope this gave you a taste of the place.

End of Part II

I will finish my trip in part III, (along with a bit back here on Taksim Square), a final spark if you like. Been fun.

Rich

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Rich Blanche Blanchett
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