Istanbul Saga: part two, in which the protagonists visit landmarks.

Istanbul Saga: part two, in which the protagonists visit landmarks.

Hagia Hallway

When we left off, Andy and I were in quite the state of peril: no serious sleep and way too frigid temps on the layover of our dreams.  We were headed into the heart of the city and the stomach of a van ride that would be etched on our minds forever.

But first, some travel advice: one thing you ought to know about Istanbul is that, besides its Yukon climate in the month of October, it doesn’t have free transfers on the metro system.  I think it’s the only “civilized” country in the world miserly enough to wrench a few extra Lira from your pocket with this system.  It probably wouldn’t have been half as big a deal if someone had just told us beforehand.  Instead we huddled under our tiny travel umbrella and shuffled off to the other side.  Nope—no transfer gate here, either.  We must have missed it on the other side.  Turn and shuffle-shiver back the way we came.  Huh?  Where’s the—

“You pay.” an unshaved man in a security jacket grunted.  “There.”  He jerked his head at the gate.  “You give money.  You ride tram.”

“We already paid..  Back at the airport.  Where can we transfer?”

“You pay here.” He jerked his head at the machine.

We locked eyes across the turnstile—he in his mustache and security jacket and safely out of the rain, I shivering in my ill-planned jacket, hoping at least to elicit some sympathy with my uncontrollable shivers.  Nothing.  I pulled a few Lira from my pocket and fumbled them into the ticket machine.  This cost me frostbite in three fingers.

After an hour—maybe more—of huddling on a damp tram full of damp men in bushy mustaches and brooding women in silken scarves, we arrived at our stop: Sultanahmed station.  Finally—the heart of the magnificent penninsula jutting into the storied Bosporus!  The home of the age-old monuments and relics we were here to feed to our camera!  The spot I’d been so greedy to lay my own eyes on!  Sultanahmed, with the sleek minarets of the Blue Mosque stretching their tips far above the trees, with its rows of sizzling kebabs just starting to warm for the lunch crowd, with its droves of candy shops steeped in honeyed Baklava and gooey Turkish Delight, with its tour buses and tripods, its glimpse of the Hagia Sophia, and its wave after wave of drizzling, spirit-snuffing rains.  We turned our back on the treasures of Istanbul and went in search of a café.  Steaming tea and hot soup were far more use to us at that moment.

Soup and Chai

Simit and Chai

That may have been one of the best decisions I’ve ever made—a steaming lentil soup in the belly, a crispy simit squishing sharp cheese out the sides, a little caffeine from the steaming chai, a little chance to warm and chat and—miracle of miracles—let the rain pass by.  By the time we tipped the red-headed waitress, the faintest glimmer of golden sun was caressing the centuries-old streets of Istanbul.

We actually pulled the camera from its case and began seeing the world through the Cyclops lens.

Tourists crowded the parks and squares and wandered lamely about, but we were on a mission: The Hagia.  And not all the pomegranate juicers in the world, not all the almond-roasters and pastry bakers in Europe’s last little toehold, not all the cruise ticket vendors and dervish hawkers and corn-roasters could distract us.  Finally, the Hagia!

Hagia Exterior

The camera was out and cradled against the drizzle, trying to coax colors from a steel-gray day.  No mater—we were elated.  The palms drooped and the populous dragged, but still we clicked our way through the squares and plazas of Sultanahmed Peninsula.

Another travel tip: Choose wisely from among the trident of lines spiraling out of the Hagia’s gate.

“Is this the line to buy tickets?” Andy asked a boisterous group in one.

Esperamos que si!” the ladies laughed.  “Es que vimos que esta cola era la mas corta.”

We tried the next one.  No response—probably thought we, too, were hawking tickets to some sort of whirling dervish extravaganza night, with all the kebabs and baklava you can cram into your stomach.  We just wanted tickets.

We tried the third line.

“How should I know?” the man responded.  “It’s got to go somewhere, right?”

True.  He’d probably had plenty of time for philosophy while wasting away in that line.

So how do you know which line to choose?  Umm…  Take the one with “Hagia Sofia Entrance” at its head.  The others are frauds—speedpasses and multi-day junk that we needed not.

A half hour of cloudy waiting later, and I was finally here, the nearly immortal Saint Sophia of Istanbul.

Hagia and Me

The domes of Istanbul bubble up out of every landmark, and get punctuated by missile-silo minarets all around.  It’s all variation on a theme begun by the ancient cathedral before us: the Hagia—the Hagia whose lofty vault inspired generations, whose pomegranate roof opens the vast chambers within to exist without supporting columns, whose cavernous interiors of man-dressed stone beg for a shout just to witness the echo bound within the glowing mosaics beaming sacred light from stained-glass portals.  The Hagia!

Hagia from Up

The overhead spins in paintings and frescoes—even Mary and Child has survived the intervening years it was commandeered as a mosque.  Truth be told, the Islamic facelift seemed about as natural as a turban on a priest.  The place, to anyone who’s stepped foot into the crowning palaces of European temples, is obviously a cathedral, no matter how many verses of the Koran get painted on disks around the walls and how many minarets they plant around the yard.

The Sofia is beauty built in stone, a monument to mankind’s capacity to construct not just something that lasts, but something that awes each successive generation, something so inspired even the Byzantines’ sworn enemies refused to tear it down when they came to power, but built instead a copy right next door.

Hagia Curves

Well, actually it’s more like across the street.  Those Ottoman sultans were shameless.

They took the same dome-on-dome design, the same cavernous interior, the same fresco-tile-thingies on the wall, and just made it more sensuously curvy and with a definite dedication to Islam.  And they put it right across the street.

Blue Mosque Exterior

It’s the ultimate act of architectural plagiarism.  If I hadn’t seen the Hagia, I’d have thought the Blue Mosque a wonder to floor wonders.  But since I’ve seen the source material, I’d have to say those Ottoman sultans ripped it off:  They’d get a zero and a discipline referral.

If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em, I guess—‘causethey built another half dozen based on the same model.  All that’s not to say that Old Blue ain’t breathtaking: it’s definitely a fine piece of impressiveness.  For one thing, I love the carpet—that’s definitely a nice touch over the cave-cold stone of the Sophia.  What’s not a nice touch, though, is forcing a few hundred rainy-day tourists to shuck their soaked sneakers in the hallway outside.  Mine were bad enough to clear a nice grenade-sized blast radius, and I was just a proverbial drop in the bucket on a very rainy day.  The reward of surviving the trenchfoot hallway?—the lush carpet underfoot, and that of the city famed for carpet’s most amazing carpet-dudes.

Blue Mosque - wires

We stood and wiggled our toes and stared at the cavernous domes painted in endless geometry and decked out in tiles and windowed in stained glass.  It was definitely cool; we started to elbow civilians out of the way to get some camera angles.

The downsides of the BM, though?  Well, there’s the lights—they copied the endless-wire design of the Hagia, but for some reason, the suspending wires are much more noticeable in the mosque.  You just can’t gaze at that storied dome without about two thousand dangling strings getting in the way.  The other stinger is the corral effect—the pinning of the tourists in a tiny fraction of the building.  I was able to sneak across the divide and claim some pics of my own, but only cause I’m a guy.  Oh, if only Rosa Parks could come to Istanbul…

Covered up Andy

Oh, and some people there were actually praying.

Blue Mosque - prayer

Back out in the rain, I checked my watch—only two: still three hours until I’d board that infamous van, still five hours until I’d taste the best fish sandwich of my life.  I’d better get a move on.

Ok, so, in case you’re skipping paragraphs ‘cause there’s too many words and too few pictures, in case you’re saying that everyone in the world knows about Istanbul’s great Miss Sophia, the Blue Mosque is common knowledge, that I’m prattling on and am in danger of losing a reader, well, let me say that Istanbul has some great cats.

I mean it.  Some cities have stray dogs galore.  Others have hordes of pigeons.  Jakarta has its mounds and mounds of rats.  But Istanbul’s specialty is cats: large, well-fed, fluffy and friendly cats.  It was hard to turn around and not see some affectionate tourist trying to feed and pet another kitty.  It was a nice touch.  Nice on the cats’ part too: they trust you, they don’t run, they let you pet them while they watch you with half-closed eyes.

Jakarta has its cats too, by the way, but they’re just not as glamourous—they’re skinny and scared and most are missing three-quarters of their tails.  You can ask me why, but I can’t say.  I don’t know.  It’d be crazy if it all just happened as a coincidence—thousands of cats getting their tails caught in doors and under wheels at precisely the same spot.  No, it has to be by design, but I just don’t know what would possess such friendly Indonesians to chop the cats’ tails off.

But alas, I’m losing track of my original subject: Istanbul’s pet-able critters and how we came to be quasi-kidnapped on the shady party/overpacked minivan.  And how I came to eat the most amazing fish sandwich of my life.

Well, after the rain had let up a little and cold settled deep into my bones, after I drank in the Hagia and the Blue Mosque, I ate a kebab.

That’s right: I ate an original Turkish kebab, the eternally famed and endlessly exported kebab.  It was every bit as tasty as I’d been led to believe—the pepper lamb soft under my tongue and sharp with the yogurt spread and tomato burst.  God bless the Turks for their heavenly kebabs!  Plus I got to see some pretty big swords being used to chop that lamb from the giant turbine of meat that endlessly spins in the window.  I don’t know what part of the lamb that thing comes from, but it undoubtedly soaked in flavor.  Ah, the wonders of Istanbul!

And the fish sandwich was still to come.

To Be Continued…

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