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The Blue Mosque, the Basilica Cistern & more

Istanbul


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After breakfast we set off to another must-visit destination, a famous site I was really keen to visit; the Blue Mosque.

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There are two entrances to the main building; one for Muslims who come to pray (it's a working mosque) and one for tourists. It's free entry to all. Our queue was quite long, but moved at quite a decent pace, so we didn't have to wait for that long. Our wait was enlivened by a tour group behind us being given a talk in Spanish by their leader - he spoke very quickly and his Spanish sounded quite different to Ecuadorian Spanish, but I made out something about Ramadan, no drinking and no smoking.

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All women who didn't have something to use as a headscarf were given one to put on; men wearing shorts were also given one, to wrap around themselves like skirts. Dave didn't have to because he was wearing trousers. Before we stepped over the main threshold everybody had to take off their shoes and put them in a clear plastic bag.

The interior was just as large, airy, beautiful and elegant as I'd always imagined. It was full of blue-patterned Iznik tiles which gives the mosque its name to Westerners (out of interest, to locals it's known only as Sultanahmet Mosque). We admired the place for ages before eventually leaving.

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I gave back my headscarf, we put our shoes back on and we went into the courtyard adjoining the main building. This was also beautiful and we took a few more photos.

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From the Blue Mosque we headed over to the Basilica Cistern nearby. We were extremely hot by now, but the Basilica Cistern cooled us down. This huge column-supported underground cistern, used to hold 80,000 cubic metres of water for the imperial palace and other local residents, was built by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian (527-565). It has been renovated on more than one occasion since then, and is no longer used as a cistern, but still holds a foot or two of water, enough to support lots of fish.

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The only light in there came from lights shining onto the bases and tops of the columns, so the atmosphere was ever so slightly eerie, even with the high volume of visitors walking around on the wooden pathways raised above the water. I enjoyed watching the fish. In some parts of the water, people had thrown coins. Right at the back of the cistern there were two sculpted heads of Medusa; each one was at the base of a column. One was set sideways, the other upside down! Apparently nobody is entirely sure why they were placed there.

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After we left the cistern we went into a shop where we bought postcards, a book about Istanbul and a fridge magnet, and Dave picked up a free book of cartoons by a Turkish cartoonist.

After this we went back to our hostel to shower, have cold drinks and rest for a while. We went via Sultanahmet Park.

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When we stirred again, it was to the Great Palace Mosaic Museum down the road. This was relatively small, but excellent, with a great long floor mosaic taking the centre stage. The palace has now gone apart from this mosaic and several smaller ones arranged on the walls around it. The mosaics were magnificent, with pictures of animals, trees and human figure.

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When we left the museum we came out into the Arasta Bazaar. This bazaar is different to others in that it's hassle-free and lots of the goods have fixed prices. I saw some very intricately painted beautiful unframed pictures on special paper, including one of two world maps, but it was extremely expensive so I didn't get it. We wandered up and down the rest of the bazaar, which was small, but didn't buy anything.

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After another short rest at the hostel we went out for dinner at one of the two cafe-restaurants attached to the Arasta Bazaar. We shared bread and hummous and each had a different type of kebab; to go with them I had a lemonade with honey and Dave had some mint tea and a glass of lemonade & banana juice. For dessert I tried Turkish rice pudding, which was cold and had been made with ground rice instead of grains - it was delicious! Dave had baklava, which he also found delicious. We each had a Turkish coffee afterwards; it came with two mini chunks of Turkish Delight.

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As dinner drew on, we noticed the waiters setting out cling filmed plates of food on the other tables. These tables started filling up with locals; we asked our waiter what the event was and he said that it was for the breaking of the day's fast for Ramadan. The food I saw on their tables was flatbreads and bowls of salad.

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Posted by 3Traveller 06:56 Archived in Turkey Tagged art mosque market turkey museum istanbul spanish bazaar dave roman_remains unesco_world_heritage_site turkish_cuisine Comments (0)

Topkapi Palace

Istanbul


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Topkapi Palace was an absolutely wonderful experience; definately one of the top of my life to date. It just kept on giving - round every corner there was something else interesting, or another beautiful view.

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Topkapi Palace was the most important residence of the Ottoman sultans for 400 years, and was famous for its opulence, luxury and magnificence. Legends built up about the famous Harem and the eunuchs who guarded it. The very mention of Topkapi Palace brings to mind images of jewel-encrusted sultans lounging about on shady terraces and gardens, sipping at iced sherbert from crystal goblets and languorously picking at silver or fine porcelain platters of fruit or confectionery...

Anyway, having entered through the main gate into the fine gardens of the first courtyard (which are free to get into), we continued through the next gate into the second courtyard. We didn't have to pay at this point because we'd bought Istanbul Museum Cards on our first day, which allows free entry into lots of famous attractions within a 5 day period.

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From the second courtyard we entered the famous Harem. Only part of it was open to visitors, but due to the vastness of it, even that took quite a while to see. There were different apartments for the sultan, the Queen Mother, princes and other members of the sultan's family, a courtyard for the eunuchs, a short corridor with a long counter where eunuchs left dishes of food delivered by kitchen staff (for the concubines and other people to take), and one or two other places. The decoration of each room was beautiful, with stunning, colourful patterned tiles all over the walls. One room had paintings of piles of different fruits.

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My favourite part of the Harem, however, wasn't a room at all but the Courtyard of the Favourites, where only the sultan's favourite concubines were allowed to go. The terrace had a really good view of the Golden Horn, the river which separates the two European sections of Istanbul, in the distance. I sat on a bench and pictured how I thought the courtyard might have looked 400 years ago; I thought of an extract from a book of historic travel accounts from over the ages that I have, which was written by a European visitor to one of the earlier Ottoman sultans. He was the only visitor allowed to get a glimpse of the Harem; usually, he said, anyone caught within the Harem or even glancing into it from outside, who was not the Sultan himself, the Queen Mother, one or two other select members of the sultan's family, a concubine or a eunuch, was instantly put to death. He mentions peering through an iron-barred window for a few seconds and glimpsing concubines playing at ball in a courtyard.

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Once we emerged from the Harem, we wandered round the other two courtyards and then looked round the second one again properly, as the first time we'd been there we'd gone into the Harem almost straight away instead of exploring.

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We saw so many interesting places and things, it would take me forever to describe them all in appropriate detail! The following are some of the highlights;

- a lovely rose garden with a fountain in the middle; the rose season has clearly just turned, but there were still lots of relatively fresh-looking red and pink blooms left.

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- a terrace with an even more beautiful view of the Golden Horn and Galata Bridge than the courtyard in the Harem had. It also overlooked the Fig Garden and the Elephant Garden behind (no explanations for the name of the Elephant Garden were given; maybe one of the sultans kept a managerie in that garden at one point?) Overlooking this view was a small golden-roofed covered seat where one of the sultans liked to break each day's fast during Ramadan.

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- a terrace on the other side, with a magnificent view of the Strait of Bosphorus, the other European section and the Asian section. On the way there we looked through a couple of small but magnificent kiosks; the Terrace Kiosk, where the Sultan watched sporting contests in the garden, the Revan Kiosk, which was used to store the Sultan's turbans, and the Baghdad Pavilion, used as the library of the Pricy Chamber from the 18th century onwards.

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- a bottle rose sherbert we shared... It lived up to every expectation! It was sweet and tasted a lot of roses; apparently mashed rose petals was one of the main ingredients. The courtyard we sat in was the perfect place to drink it.

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- the palace kitchens, especially the confectionary kitchen where huge copper cauldrons, iron ladles and marble slabs were displayed. There was lots of fascinating information about the confectionary, syrups, sherberts and also medicines, soap and scented candles that were made here.

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- the Arms & Armour display. This was one of the best I've ever seen; extremely well preserved and beautifully engraved and patterned helmets, daggers, swords, axes, maces and bows. It also had arrows, chainmail and colourful wicker training shields.

- the Treasury; this contained a massive glittering diamond, a 22-carat gold jug and ewer, a basket of huge emeralds, rings encrusted with rubies and sapphires, more very finely engraved swords, a British Order of the Garter presented to one of the sultans by Queen Victoria, Chinese Ming pottery and lots more.

- Some of the holiest relics of Islam, including parts of the Prophet Mohammed's beard, his sword and of of his footprints set in stone. In the same exhibition we saw a metre square model of one of the holiest Islamic buildings in Mecca, made entirely from mother-of-pearl.

On our way out of the palace we stopped to flop for a bit on the grass. Outside the gates we bought two salted, grilled corn-on-the-cobs from a street seller and ate them on the way back to the hostel. It was now past 17.30 and we'd spent four and a half hours at Topkapi!

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For dinner we ate on the rooftop terrace of a fish restaurant round the corner from the hostel. Dave had bass, I had bream (both of which came with rice and salad) and we shared an iceberg salad and a spinach casserole. Dave also had some olives wrapped in anchovies. They gave us free baklava and Turkish coffee afterwards! Dave went into raptures about the baklava, and for good reason!

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Posted by 3Traveller 10:24 Archived in Turkey Tagged palace turkey museum istanbul roses bosphorus dave unesco_world_heritage_site turkish_cuisine Comments (0)

Aya Sofya (Hagia Sophia)

Istanbul


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Happy birthday, Dave! An exotic birthday two years in a row now - last year in the Ecuadorian Andes, this year in the historic heart of Istanbul...

The Hagia Sophia, or the Aya Sofya as it's known here, was the first place we went to after breakfast. At 9.30, the place was already really busy, but despite the multitude of selfie sticks (the first time I'd really seen them being used), it didn't take anything away from the magnificence of the place! Neither did the scaffolding on one wall of the interior.

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We both found the mixture of Christianity and Islam within the Hagia Sophia an interesting combination. It was set up like a mosque, but also had remnants of decorations it had when it was still a church, before its conversion into a mosque. There was a fresco of the Virgin Mary & Child above where I guessed the main altar used to be, and on the first floor (where there were viewing galleries) there were very intricate and colourful mosaic frescoes of Jesus and the saints.

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We also really liked other objects of interest sprinkled around; these included a huge marble jar which was used for storing water and sherbet, graffiti left by the Viking soldiers in the Imperial Guard in Constantinople and a huge stone bowl with a stone snake wrapped round it.

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Once we'd left the main building, we came out into the courtyard, where there was a small stone building which is now the manager's office but used to be a religious elementary school, and another small historic building which is now an office.

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We then walked round the corner to the Hagia Sophia's Tombs of the Sultans. At least five Sultans are buried here, along with their families. We had to remove our shoes before entry to each tomb.

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The decoration inside each one was very ornate, with colourful patterned tiles on the walls and interior of the dome. The coffins were all covered in green felt.

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After leaving the Hagia Sophia I took a couple of photos, we bought a drink each and sat on a wall to one side.

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A man came up and started chatting - his ulterior motive became obvious very quickly, however, when he claimed that Topkapi Palace (which we were in clear sight of) had a wait of an hour and a half to get into and what we really should do instead was let him guide us round the corner to the Basilica Cistern and then his carpet shop... Luckily we realised he was talking through his hat about Topkapi Palace, and in any case had no desire to be guided by him or to see his shop, so we refused his advances.

To be continued...

Posted by 3Traveller 11:02 Archived in Turkey Tagged art turkey museum istanbul dave hagia_sophia unesco_world_heritage_site Comments (0)

Arrival in Istanbul; the fulfilment of a dream...

Veliko Tarnovo and Istanbul


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The bus was only 5 minutes late from Veliko Tarnovo's Yug station.

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The driver didn't check our passports and tickets (so there was no need for us to have arrived half an hour early) but the 'road hostess' did, after walking up and down the aisle offering people splashes of lemon water. We just held out our hands and she poured it on.

The bus only had three or four people on it apart from us. Just before we started moving the old man in the seat behind us leaned over and started talking to us in Bulgarian. He asked where we were from, so I told him (also in Bulgarian). At that, he said something else but I simply couldn't understand what he said. Dave broke in at this point and said that the man had said 'Margaret Thatcher'!

The journey to the border took almost exactly four hours. We went by a highly scenic route with forested mountains on every side; the beauty was heightened even further by the sunset, which created silhouettes of the mountains and turned part of the sky pink. Although there were almost no clouds in the sky, for a while only two stars were visible; one of them was so incredibly bright we thought that it might actually be a planet. When the moon appeared, it seemed particularly large and yellow.

The border crossing took an hour and a half, much longer than it took between Bulgaria and Macedonia. It was physically much larger, with some duty-free shops in between the two countries' passport control that we stopped at for ten minutes, and there was much more traffic. There was also a baggage x-ray room to go through. This time I did get a passport stamp, although the writing and dates on it aren't clear!

On the resumption of our journey the road hostess made another round with the lemon water and then the TV, which had been showing a foreign talent show ever since Veliko Tarnovo, was turned off. It was now past 2 am and we could finally get some sleep.

I woke up to a very pink sky, pale and delicate very early morning light and... the city of Istanbul spread before me, with minarets silhouetted against the sky! I was bleary with fatigue, but still a great thrill of excitement ran through me. We were clearly on a hill, for I got a real sense of how large the city is.

It was 05.40 when I woke up. About twenty minutes later we got to the big otogar (bus station). This is about ten km from our hostel, so we had to get on the metro for a bit and then a tram for five stops. We passed mosque after mosque. On our walk from the Sultanahmet tram stop to our hostel we went through some gardens with the Hagia Sophia on our left and the Blue Mosque on our right. I almost couldn't believe we were there! The sun shone and although it was so early, it was already quite warm.

Although it was only about 07.30 when we got to the hostel and check-in wasn't until 12, they very kindly said that if we waited for half an hour, they could get our room ready for us by then.

We set the alarm for 12, but when it woke us up we fell back asleep as soon as I'd turned it off. Then I woke up again later due to the calls to prayer wailing from the mosques, but fell asleep as soon as they finished. We finally woke up for good at 15.20 - we clearly needed the sleep!

When we stepped outside, two women were sitting on a doorstep nearby, shelling peas. Someone was playing a flute inside. We passed them on our way back to the gardens we'd gone through earlier.

Our destination was the Museum of Turkish & Islamic Art, close to the Blue Mosque. We took some pictures of the mosque and of Hagia Sophia, the gardens and of the Hippodrome (where the Romans used to race horses, but is only really a long public square now, with one or two archaeological sections left) on the way.

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The museum was excellent - really well presented, and with exquisite examples of calligraphy, Medieval Turkish carpets, carvings, colourful glazed pottery and suchlike. It also gave a lot of information about and had artifacts from the Ottomans, Seljuks, Timiruds and other ruling dynasties of Turkey and Asia Minor. I remembered studying some of these in one of my first year History modules at Swansea.

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We stopped at the hostel for a short while to rest our feet and have a refreshing cold drink; then we headed round the corner to the seafront. Finally I was standing on the European side of Istanbul, gazing out at the Asian side across the Strait of Bosphorus! This was something I'd wanted to do for many years...

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We walked around for a while before going back to the hostel and then out for dinner. We shared bread and hummous; then Dave had a salad and the soup of the day, while I had sautéed chicken which turned out to come in chunks with a tasty tomato and onion sauce.

Posted by 3Traveller 09:32 Archived in Turkey Tagged mountains mosque turkey museum istanbul buses bosphorus dave bulgarian bulgaria hagia_sophia veliko_tarnovo roman_remains unesco_world_heritage_site turkish_cuisine Comments (2)

Gold sun mask and traditional ice cream

Baños and Quito


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Edit from October 2019: The name of the restaurant where we had the traditional ice cream is (I'm pretty sure) Heladería San Agustín. Still going strong it seems, though I don't of course know if they still make their ice cream the traditional way...

Thursday 12/6/14

I knew the journey to Quito today would only take between two and three hours, so there was no need to get to the bus terminal particularly early. We had time for a nice relaxed breakfast (we also made up two jam rolls each for ourselves to have for lunch on the bus), a soft drink and a game or two of pool at the bar before walking leisurely in the sunshine to the terminal.

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Once we arrived at the terminal I had no problems getting tickets for the next bus to Quito. We left on time and arrived at the shiny new Quitumbe bus terminal in Quito on time as well.

We rested and used the internet for a bit on our arrival at the hostel. In the evening we went out for some dinner round the corner at a place recommended by our guidebook, but apart from the cheese humita we shared for a starter, which was delicious, the food wasn't anything special. My glass of guanábana juice was very nice though. After dinner we wandered down the street a bit until we got to Plaza Foch, which is the centre of the Mariscal Sucre district, a.k.a. 'Gringoland'. Today was the first day of the World Cup so the place was packed. Lots of security police around with guns, so there wasn't any trouble that we could see. We only walked around the square a little bit before going back to the hostel to bed.

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Friday 13/6/14

This morning we had breakfast early and took a very crowded Trolebus to Ejido.

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We walked through Ejido Park, in the sunshine, to get to our destination - the National Museum. We passed by sculptures and statues as well as a tree growing at such a right angle part of it had to be propped up.

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Sadly, while we were there an ambulance went past and stopped nearby - there were people crowded round someone who must have had an accident.

There were lots of fascinating exhibits in the museum, which was split into an archaeology room, a Gold Room and upstairs some religious art mostly painted by painters from the Quito School in the Spanish colonial period. My favourite items were the beautiful gold sun mask that is deservedly the flagship exhibit in the Gold Room; a ceremonial copper knife; a silver funeral mask; a mummy of a young girl found in a cave in Canar Province; obsidian arrowheads; bird-shaped ocarinas; a clay mask of a coca-chewer; and replicas of skulls showing the skull-flattening deformity that was practised by one of the pre-Columbian tribes in Ecuador. The Gold Room also contained a lot of information about how the various metal masks and so on were made - interesting to read about how they did this so many centuries ago. Dave especially liked this part. Unfortunately we weren't allowed to take any photos in this part of the museum.

After finishing looking round the archaeology, gold and religious art rooms we went up another level to a room containing a photo exhibition set up by the Turkish Tourism Board. Not quite what you might expect to find in Ecuador, but the photos were fabulous! Obviously they had picked the best possible photos of Turkey, in order to make people want to go there, but still. Turkey was already on the priority list of countries I'd like to visit in the future, and this exhibition did nothing to dampen my enthusiasm!

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After that we got the Trolebus into the Old Town and the first thing we did there was go to a particular restaurant/cafe for lunch. I was keen to try this place because it was founded in the present building in 1858 and still makes its own ice cream in traditional copper bowls. We shared a humita to start, then Dave had seco de chivo, I had shrimp ceviche and for pudding we both had a scoops of lovely coffee and chocolate flavour ice cream. The ice cream came in bright silver-looking cups that looked almost like vases.

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We then went on to Plaza Grande...

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...and Plaza San Francisco for a look round, because I was really keen to show them to Dave.

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Our next destination was the Basilica, which lies up a hill. We looked around inside first...

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...and then I went up to the top of the tower and took some photos of the wonderful views over Quito.

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On our way back down the hill I stopped at a bakery and bought five chocolate buns for us to have on the journey to Otavalo the next morning. We took the trolebus back to the hostel from Plaza Santo Domingo.

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For dinner we walked round the corner to an Italian restaurant for some pizza.

Posted by 3Traveller 16:18 Archived in Ecuador Tagged art basilica turkey museum hostel buses dave quito banos ceviche ecuador unesco_world_heritage_site ecuadorian_cuisine plaza_grande plaza_san_francisco plaza_santo_domingo pre_columbian_artifacts Comments (0)

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