21-27 September 2015. There are two entrances to our hotel in Goreme, in the Cappadocia region of Turkey, both with long, winding, narrow flights of stone stairs. We choose the “front” one expecting the airport shuttle to arrive from that direction. We are packed and waiting on the outside landing. While waiting for the shuttle I am aware that every time I’m in this situation I have a quiet anxiety that the shuttle will be late, or worse won’t show at all. Every time so far it’s been fine. Earlier in the day I’d given thanks for smooth travel since we left Vancouver. We’ve almost always had smooth travel, and may it continue, but I still get mildly anxious. Soon enough we hear the call from below and start hauling our cases down.
Reaching the shuttle we see there are a few people already on board. Our cases are loaded into the back and off we go. To the next hotel. More travellers climb aboard. Then another hotel and four more people. I’m flabbergasted by the amount of luggage people have. We travel with carry-on size cases and think we’re carrying too much. Some of the cases being stuffed in are as big as houses. I shouldn’t be so superior about it. When Don and I started travelling we had huge cases too. Now that we live on the road all the extras have fallen by the wayside, often literally.
I’m starting to feel a little concerned for the people in the back seats. A sudden stop and all of that piled-high luggage could come flying forward. Surely we are done by now and will head along the main road to the airport. But no. There is another stop. After travelling a while down the highway we turn into a small town for another stop! But where is the space for more people? And now I’m getting concerned that we’ll not make it to the airport in time for our flight back to Istanbul.
By the time we are finished picking up passengers every seat is full, the luggage area in the back is full to the roof, the aisle is full with more luggage, people are holding luggage on their laps, and at the request of the driver someone has offered, in exchange for a free ride, to sit on a makeshift seat between the driver and front passenger seat. I’ve sat in that seat before on a different shuttle ride. It’s terrifying. Your head is about twelve inches from the windshield. And seat belts? What are they? It’s the chicken bus without the chickens, but definitely with the fast reckless driver. I try not to look.
The nearest airport to Goreme is at Kayseri, which according to Google maps is a one-hour drive. It takes us two and a half hours, but we arrive in time for our flights. I guess those shuttle guys know their business.
We had allowed one jet-lag-recovery day in Istanbul before leaving on a four-week trip around Turkey – travelling to the ancient Roman ruins of Ephesus, one Aegean and two Mediterranean coastal towns, the terraces of Pamukkale, Konya (the birthplace of Sufism), and the extraordinary other-worldly landscape of the Cappadocia region. Now we have returned to Istanbul for eight more days of exploration. We met a couple in Pamukkele who were cycling across Turkey. They wondered what on earth we are going to do in Istanbul for eight days. We barely scratch the surface.
This time we stay at the downhome Piya Hotel and Hostel, in Sultanahmet, and have a private en suite room with all we need including a fridge and tea and coffee making facilities. We settle in and for dinner eat the chicken sandwiches we’ve been given on the flight.
The Bosphorus Straight, a north-south oriented body of water, divides Istanbul in half. The west side of it is in Europe, the east in Asia. I find it an odd and confusing distinction. Almost all of Turkey is east of the Bosphorus and yet one thinks of it as a European country. All Russia is east of the Bosphorus and yet is definitely regarded as a European country even though it stretches east all the way past China and almost to Alaska. According to Countries-ofthe-World Russia is in both Europe and Asia. So is Turkey and Kazakhstan. The dividing line is tenuous to say the least.
The Bosphorus, twenty miles long and two miles wide, is part of the Turkish Straights and connects the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara to the Dardanelles Straight to the Aegean and the Mediterranean. This small chain of water is the one place on the map that a clear divide can be made between Europe and Asia. And throughout history, not surprisingly, it has been of great strategic importance for both merchant and military shipping, especially for Russia and Ukraine. It is Ukraine’s only access to the sea, and Russia’s only western access. It is like both the Suez and Panama Canals, only natural rather than man-made.
About seven and a half thousand years ago the Black Sea was a fresh water lake. There is a theory that with the melting of the immense ice sheets at the end of the last Ice Age the lake was flooded from the Bosphorus. The water rose an estimated seventy-two metres, or two hundred and forty feet. It was a spectacular flood that increased the water in the Black Sea Lake by fifty percent. The constantly rising water, no doubt both frightening and incomprehensible, drove the people out of the area. They spread to all parts of the Western world taking with them the story of the Great Flood. It is a contested theory, but could explain the myth of the Great Flood found in many religions.
Istanbul, a city of seventeen million, straddles the south end of the Bosphorus, spreading inland from both coasts. We make our way from our hotel down to the water. The closer we get the more we are accosted by touts wanting to sell us a Bosphorus cruise. I seem to remember the offers start at over two hundred Turkish Lira. By the time we get right down to the docks at Eminönü we have found a two-hour ferry cruise for twelve. It’s definitely a no-frills ride and suits us perfectly.
This is a busy waterway. Ferries, tourist cruise boats, fishing vessels, and even rowboats fill the water. Seagulls follow us screeching overhead. The air is full of the smell of fish and salt and exhaust, and the boat is full of fellow tourists.
The breeze is warm, the sky is blue, and we slowly chug along taking in the waterside views of this huge city.
We float by the tiny but elegant Dolmabahçe Mosque, unusual in its style since it was designed as part of the Dolmabahçe Palace and resembles a decorated palace hall more than a traditional mosque.
At the narrowest part of the Bosphorus Anadolu Hisari, or Anadolu Fortress, sits on the Asian shore. Rumeli Hisari, directly opposite on European side, was ordered built by the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II in 1452 in order to control traffic along the Bosphorus.
Sultan Mehmed was one smart military man. He set his generals up as rivals, creating a competition to see which of them could finish their tower and crenelated walls in the shortest time. The contest was ferocious, and astonishingly the fortress was completed in only four months! By controlling commercial and military traffic he could prevent aid from the Black Sea reaching Constantinople some eight miles to the south. With the completion of the fortress he laid siege to Constantinople and by 1453 Mehmed had conquered the city.
Right next to the fortress is the Sultan Mehmed Bridge, built in 1988. It is one of the longest steel suspension bridges in the world and is the second of two such bridges that cross the Bosphorus. A third is due to be completed this year.
If you’ve seen the James Bond movie The World is Not Enough, and if you remember from that movie the mansion of a woman in Baku then you will have seen the (comparatively) tiny Küçüksu Palace. It was completed in 1857 and was used by Ottoman Sultans for country stays and hunting parties. They would arrive by royal barge.
Approaching the Galata Bridge with Suleymaniye Mosque dominating the skyline.
The heart of Istanbul is the Golden Horn and the Galata Bridge that spans it from Eminönü in Old Istanbul on the south side to Karaköy on the north. The Golden Horn is a major urban waterway and an inlet of the Bosphorus. With a little imagination it can be seen as roughly the shape of a horn. The golden part possibly refers to the colour of the water at sunset. Or to the riches that have arrived in this port over the millennia. The Turks call it simply Haliç, meaning estuary.
Galata Bridge has two levels, the upper one carrying vehicular traffic, trams and pedestrians, the lower one being a hive of restaurants and cafes serving food and drinks at all hours. We amble across Galata Bridge on a couple of different occasions, watching the fishermen
and the crowds of people, both tourists and locals.
We meet and chat with a lovely local family,
and on the Karaköy side we watch as fearless boys and men dive and jump over and over into the roiling water. They are having such a good time, so free and confident and joyous.
Wandering further away from the water we discover a fish market. The bright red gills of the fish are arrayed like spiked pennants.
We discover fading Ottoman era buildings, elegant Neoclassical and Art Nouveau apartment-blocks, that were once the homes of the élite, now homes to immigrants from the countryside, or converted to workshops
and we discover what I call ‘Fishing Street’ where fishermen can buy all the supplies they could possibly want.
Further along it becomes ‘Painting Street’ with powders of all colours ready for mixing.
Walking back across the bridge towards the Sultanahmet side we catch the sunset, its light reflecting off the windows of the domed mosques and turning the waters of the Golden Horn golden. It is magical.
We take a tram part way home, stopping to eat chicken wings and salad at a busy sidewalk restaurant on a main road. Suddenly I’m reminded of our time out in the suburbs of Paris. We both love Istanbul.
A couple of days later we get up really really early. We are determined to get to the Blue Mosque before the crowds. We arrive at a little after eight and in time to be second in line.
Sultanahmet Camii is four hundred years old. It was built between 1609 and 1616 during the rule of Sultan Ahmet I. The architect was Sedefkâr Mehmed Agha. It is known as the Blue Mosque because of the blue tiles covering the walls of the interior. There are over twenty thousand hand-made blue Iznik tiles. There are two hundred and sixty windows, and an enormous interior space. The courtyard is the biggest of all the Ottoman mosques. The eight smaller domes flow down from the main dome, and there are six slender minarets. It was the first of only two mosques in Turkey to have six minarets. The Sultan was criticized as being arrogant and disrespectful for having six minarets, as it was the same as the number of minarets at the mosque of the Ka’aba in Mecca. So he simply ordered that a seventh minaret be built at the mosque in Mecca.
We enter a huge, silent, and serene space. It is overwhelming in its beauty, comparable to any of the grand temples and cathedrals of the world. There are only perhaps a dozen people inside when we first enter, and in such an enormous space it feels almost as if we have the place to ourselves. I stand awed, slowly taking in the spacious whole, and the gorgeous details. Light streams in through the many stained glass windows. It is glorious.
This photo of Don in front of one of the four main support columns gives an idea of their size.
By the time we leave about forty minutes later the public area is crowded and noisy. Gone is that quiet contemplative energy and the space to see this exquisite place uninterrupted.
Next post: either more of the wonders of Istanbul, or I might jump around a bit and take you to the glory of ancient Rome at Ephesus, and some lazy days out on the Aegean and the Mediterranean swimming and snorkelling and eating fabulous barbeque. Or maybe something about settling into our latest home in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.
All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2015.