Monday, September 26, 2011

Istanbul calls

Watching for the Mafia at the Focacceria
We spent Saturday getting from the islands to Palermo, where we stayed again at the friendly Ambasciatori Hotel near the train station. This time they put us in one of their apartments around the corner--lots of room, and quiet with the windows closed, so it was fine with us. We spent the evening dining at the nearby Antica Foccaceria San Francesco, whose claim to fame is that the owner refused to go along with the demands of the mafia for protection/payment. He apparently gets lots of public support for his stand, and the tables were all taken by the time we left.

We woke up the next morning to loud booms--like bombs going off very close to our apartment. It was actually kind of scarey, but there were no sirens after the booms stopped so we figured it was safe to go out. Turned out that they were part of a festival celebration put on by the church in our neighborhood.

We only had a couple of hours before we needed to take the bus to the airport, so rather than attending the religious festival we headed to the Palazzo Normani at the edge of town, where we had seen only a glimpse of the famous mosaics in the Capella Palantina on a previous trip to Palermo, the main portion of the chapel having been covered in scaffolding for restoration. The restoration has now been completed, so we were eager to see the results. Not to be, however: we arrived at the ticket window, the ticket seller told us something (whatever, smile, OK), we bought the expensive tickets (17 euros for the two of us), and we climbed the steps to the entrance. Ropes--no entry. We were directed up the stairs to the palace apartments, so we figured we needed to go there to get to the chapel. Waited in line with a bunch of other people for about 30 minutes, the line behind us growing all the time, but no movement. The man in front of us, who I thought was French, shook his head in disgust. I chimed in, "Italia!" (i.e., that's the way it is in Italy, no?). Oops, he was Italian. "Non," he said, "Sicilia!" He proceeded to tell me (in Italian) that he was from Bologna, up north, and things run smoothly there. Sicily, in contrast, was "Africa...Morocco..."--definitely NOT Italia! Interesting perspective.

Sure looks Italian to me
We never did get to see the chapel--or the apartments, for that matter--because we were apparently in Morocco, where things don't go as planned.
Our Lufthansa flight from Palermo took us to Milan, where we changed planes to Turkish Airlines (their ad spokesman is Kobe Bryant!) and arrived in Istanbul about 10 p.m. on Sunday. Grabbed a cab into the city (35 Turkish lira, about $20) after being hustled by shuttle bus operators, and arrived at our cute little hotel in the Sultanhamet, the heart of the hotel/restaurant/blockbuster sights area. The Sebnem Hotel is nice, with a view from the rooftop terrace overlooking the Bosphorus and the Asian section of Istanbul. We have garden room (about $140 a night) with a double-wide lounge chair on the patio and--get this--a mommy cat and her just-born kittens in the corner of the garden. (The hotel staff didn't know about the kittens until we told them this afternoon.)

Inside the Blue Mosque
The hotel is really convenient to some of the biggest tourist sights in Istanbul, a few of which we visited today, all on foot. Topkapi Palace, including the fascinating harem (no women left!), took about 4 hours to get through, followed by a delicious meze platter of Turkish appetizers for lunch, and an afternoon visit to the Blue Mosque just before it closed for afternoon prayers.

The Cistern

The tile work in all these places is astounding. We also walked down into the evocative underground Cistern with its double Medusa-head columns and then had our first (of many, I'm sure) fresh-squeezed pomegranate juice. So much to see and taste!

I thought we might have some trouble communicating with people since we know absolutely no Turkish (though we're starting to learn a few words already), but it turns out that English is widely spoken here. In fact, all the signs at the tourist sights we've visited are in both Turkish and English. There are a zillion other foreigners here, from all parts of the world, so it's lucky for us that Turkey chose English as the second language it would present information in. And everyone in tourist-facing businesses (restaurants, rug sellers, taxi drivers) seems to speak English in some format or another, making Istanbul a very easy place to navigate. (No thanks, we don't want to buy a rug from you today. Maybe tomorrow.) It will be interesting to see how much this extends to the other parts of Turkey we'll be in over the course of this month.
Hagya Sofia

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