After being unable to enter the mosques yesterday because I was wearing shorts, today I put on a pair of long jeans and we headed to the Sultan Ahmet Mosque, informally known as the Blue Mosque. We haven’t really been tracking what day of the week it is, so we totally forgot about it being Saturday today – weekends equals larger number of tourists.
It was quite surprising just how visible that change in tourist numbers was. We queued for thirty minutes to get inside mosque, in a queue that snaked all the way around the internal courtyard. The queue moved quite quickly, but the problem was that the mosque was closed to tourists during prayer time, which was rapidly approaching.
We had to remove shoes (and carry them with us) and Risa had to wear headscarf to cover her hair (women could borrow from the entrance). Cheekily, some men were wearing something like a sarong to cover their knees. It looked ridiculous, but I guess it satisfied their requirements of covered knees. I would have done the same if it was a choice of returning to my hotel or not visiting.
Inside was beautiful (almost indescribably so), but strangely not as large as it looked from the outside. Not only was the internal structure with all the domes and arches amazing in its own right, but with every surface covered in amazing hand painted tiles (which give it the blue hue) it was one of the most beautiful buildings that I have ever been inside of. However, with the crush of tourists (like us) with cameras (and iPads) in hand, it was hard to see it as an active mosque, even with the call to prayer blasting out of the minarets, and the slow but steady stream of subjects making their way to the front to prepare for prayer.
There was also the overwhelming smell of feet (and not in a good way, if that is even possible).
Just across the park from where we were was the equally spectacular Aya Sofiya, which has been turned into a museum instead of being an active mosque. Sadly the queue was more than 100m long (and it disappeared into the gates, so it was probably even longer).
Instead we caught a tram as far north as we could and walked to Taksim Square. The path was steep along narrow alleys, but I think there is probably an easier way to get there. Taksim Square was the sight of great political significance, being the site of many protests and demonstrations, but is not worth a visit on its own right. There are however other interesting things in the area worth seeing instead.
Always researching about food, Risa read about a good kebab shop (Güler Ocakbasi) 15 minutes walk from the square. It shouldn’t have been a surprise, but it was very clean and looked very popular and fancy, even though it was empty when we arrived (though we were a bit late for lunch).
As we were the only customers (and we were carrying a giant camera) they were keen to let us come up to the open kitchen and take photos as they were preparing the food. It looked (and smelt amazing) so I couldn’t wait for it to finish cooking.
Risa ordered a mixed kebab (chicken and meat), which was super tasty and tender meat. It was simple, but it had a great flavour. The pide I ordered (which was to be the first of many) was also very, very good. Even though it looks just like a stretched pizza, the taste is quite different. It’s a much more savoury and subtle mix of flavours and spices, and much drier.
After walking back to where we started at Taksim, we followed the crowds down a pedestrianized shopping mall. All the big shops were here.
As was a small train that seemed to run up and down the mall. There were people (ok, hood rats) jumping onto the train as it trundled down the mall, so I’m guessing it was free. Even if it wasn’t free, I can certainly see the appeal, as the mall seemed to stretch for kilometres.
The garbage collection system was quite unique, too. Shops were dumping cardboard boxes out in the middle of the mall, and men on garbage trucks were circulating up and down collecting the garbage. I’m not sure how it didn’t get in the way of the small tram.
It was amazing how crowded it was. It really felt like a modern and alive area. There was an untold number of kebab restaurants (including the biggest spinning piece of meat I’ve ever seen), and loads of trending looking places down the side alleys. As amazing as the kebabs looked, I was still uncomfortably full from my late lunch, so it wasn’t that hard to resist.
Following the mall downhill towards the harbour at Karaköy, the modern and commercial shops slowly turned to older and slightly more hipster and tourist oriented ones. The wide malls turned to narrow (and slippery) cobble stone lanes.
From the other side of the harbour, we could see what looked like an impressive tower jutting out above the neighbourhood, so we sought it out. I thought it would be quite easy to find, considering how much it looked to tower over the buildings in the area, but it wasn’t until we were at the foot of the tower that we saw it.
But, the small park with street cats took Risa’s interest first. Street cats are a pretty common sight here, and for the most part they seem to be looked after, as was the case with these cats who had a little cat house built, and bowls with water and biscuits. Risa sat for a while jealous of the other people getting unwanted attention from the cats, so she eventually grabbed a cute little black kitten, and hugged and squeezed and gave it so much attention it didn’t want to leave us by the end. The park and the stairway also seemed to be a popular place for youth to hang out and drink. If there was a bottle shop close by, I would have been tempted to have a tipple myself.
In the end, we decided not to go up the tower, mostly because it was expensive, and the queue was too long.
The two Americans we met in Kyrgyzstan were in town for this evening only, so we met up with them for dinner, which required us walking back to where we started the day at Sultanahmet. Sure, we could have caught a tram, but we had time and it’s still amusing to walk around and see the town – I just won’t pick up any brushes than shoe cleaners drop.
We walked across the bridge last night, but today the amount of people out there fishing was just astounding. People were almost standing shoulder to shoulder with their fishing rods. The fish they were catching were only 10-15cm long (I would guess something like a pilchard, but I don’t know fish). I was amazed that they were able to catch anything given all the perceived competition. It was even more amazing when I saw how many sets of hooks each line had (many, there were many sets of hooks).
Of course, as there was a potential target audience for fishing equipment and bait, there were plenty of hawkers catering to their needs. It was like walking through a giant outdoor mall, there were vendors selling all sorts of stuff, from socks and underwear to perfume and fake glasses and watches and lots of street food including roasted corn/chestnuts. There also seemed to be a police drill take place, with uniformed officers chasing after an African man selling watches. At least it seemed like a drill, as they didn’t seem to do much once they caught up to him and he certainly didn’t seem to try to get away (or care that he was caught).
It took a while, but we made it back to the Sultanahmet tram stop, where we eventually found our American friends and went to a nearby restaurant, chosen based on the Trip Advisor rating. The location and atmosphere were pretty good, with nice outdoor lounges to relax and smoke water pipes (we didn’t). The food was alright, but far from special. But, we were more interested in catching up with them. Even though we’d only met briefly at Song-kul, it was fun to see them again. We were especially jealous of the time they spent in Bishkek – sounded amazing.
The night was winding down, so we moved to a terrace bar at a friend’s hotel near the Egyptian Obelisk. It was an awesome view of Sultan Ahmet mosque and Aya Sofiya, but it was a real shame that the terrace was enclosed.
At 10:30PM the final call to prayer of the day was blasted, which sent all the birds in the area into a crazy state of panic.