Tuesday, November 1, 2011

A final day in Istanbul

It’s a new month and we’re in a new country. Well, we’re not exactly in it – we’re on it. We’ve landed in Bangkok, Thailand, where most of the passengers disembarked, and are waiting for our plane to refuel, restock, and load up new passengers before taking off for Ho Chi Minh City (aka Saigon). Usually when you’re on a continuing flight with a stopover, you’re allowed to get off the plane and wait in the transit lounge. Here, however, we are confined to the plane, watching the suppliers do the restocking.  For an hour and a half. Fortunately they are also doing a little cleaning, including removing the barf bags that the young woman in the seat next to me used for final quarter of the flight. Definitely not the best seat on the plane.

So, since I am confined to quarters, I’ll take advantage of the time to write a bit about our last day in Istanbul. Our flight didn’t leave until 11:40 p.m., so we had a full day there before we left. The weather had turned cool—much different from a month ago—and the air was quite damp, making it feel colder than the 60 degree temperature predicted for the day. But the sun broke through in the afternoon so we had a pretty nice day after all, as long as we wore all our layers (my many pashmina purchases looked like a smart move!).

Blue Mosque minarets and sycamores

With the cool weather, the dry leaves dropping from big sycamores, and the dark-clad, bundled-up residents and tourists, Istanbul was very reminiscent of New York in the fall. And the way we spent our final day in the city was similar to how we like to spend time in New York: walking the neighborhoods, hitting a famous site or two, and just enjoying the life of the city. 

Several warm layers plus a layer of cat
An ancient carpet at the museum

The previous afternoon we had visited the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art—a better name would be the Museum of Korans and Carpets. It was fascinating—centuries-old illuminated Korans and even older carpets from various periods in Turkey’s history. And it was warm.

Our final day started with a boat trip up the Bosphorus, toward the Black Sea. We knew we weren’t going to get to the harbor early enough for the 6-hour round trip on the public ferry, which would have been fun but would have taken a large part of the day. Instead, as we were walking through town toward the harbor we were approached by a guy offering 2-hour boat tours for $15 per person. The picture he showed of the boat looked fine. John wanted to walk on to the harbor and look at different options, but I thought we should take the offer. John acquiesced, against his better judgment, and we and a Turkish family were led down to the harbor.  There we boarded a minibus that was filled with tourists from several countries—a mini-UN—and we were driven across the Galata Bridge to another harbor on the other side of the Bosphorus. We all unloaded at the dock and waited for the boat…could it be that tugboat-looking thing that was already full of people? 

Not the pick of the litter

Yes, it could. Of all the boats that plied the river, ours was the worst looking. But despite the crowded quarters (it was too cold to enjoy the open upper deck), the trip was actually good. Both sides of the river are lined with pretty houses--some modern, some more traditional wooden structures—and dotted with palaces and other impressive buildings. The boat slowly motored up one side of the river (an advantage of its poor condition—it couldn’t go very fast!) to Rumeli Fort, a real fortress-looking fort, and then it turned around and motored down the other side. We watched as spacious, well-kept boats with far fewer people on them powered by us. We made it safely back to the harbor, but I have to admit that John was right (in this case)—we should have looked at the actual boats before signing on to a cruise. Lesson learned!

At least it wasn't this one
St. Nicholas hanging at a party store

We still had the whole afternoon and evening ahead of  us, so after the boat adventure we wandered the commercial streets up the hill from the harbor, teeming with shoppers and pushcarts, past the stalls of  cheese sellers, the party decoration stores, the toy and game stores, the button stores, the belt store, and shops selling sundry other goods. 
We were looking for someplace where we could grab a light lunch and eventually came upon the perfect place, a small café, nothing fancy, right next to an entrance to the Grand Bazaar, where we enjoyed delicious lentil soup, a shared rice and mushroom casserole, and fresh orange juice. I also had my first Turkish coffee of the trip, in an espresso-sized cup. Not my favorite! The café did a thriving lunch delivery business to local shops, so we saw many trays of food leaving through the front door and empty trays returning.

After lunch we searched out the nearby, magificent Suleimanye Mosque (sp?), appropriately built for S___ the Magnificent. The Blue Mosque is probably Istanbul’s most famous, but the S___ Mosque is just as gorgeous, in its vastness and simplicity. We arrived at the mosque right as it closed for afternoon prayers, so we waited on a sunny bench for them to end so we could enter. At the faucets built into the outside wall, men cleansed themselves before entering the mosque for prayer.

 Once the prayers were over we took off our shoes and entered the huge building ourselves. It was beautiful!

Having had our religious moment, we were off to the Grand Bazaar, which some might consider a religious experience of a different sort. We didn’t want to buy anything (though I did end up with--guess what—another pashmina), but we enjoyed strolling through the lanes of the bazaar, looking at the colorful merchandise.  When we got tired of that we sat down at tiny Café Mola (yes! another Café Mola!) for cappuccinos, the perfect antidote for tired feet, and watched the shoppers interacting with merchants.

Still some pashminas left even after I was finished
Enough selling, let's play some backgammon
By now it was late in the afternoon, but not quite late enough for dinner, so we headed back to our Sultanahmet neighborhood for a glass of wine. We ended up at the Sultan Hostel, which has a friendly bar in front, where we watched a little FC Barcelona soccer action on the TV. I don’t think I would actually want to stay in a hostel anymore, but I did enjoy the vibe in the bar as the young hostel crowd came back to the bar to wind down after their day pounding the streets.

Dinner on our last night was…Indian! We wanted to stay fairly close to our neighborhood because we had an 8:00 pickup for our trip to the airport, so we looked up some recommended restaurants online and in Lonely Planet and found Dubb, a very good Indian restaurant with a great view of the Hagya Sofia from its top floor. Nice place, and we were glad for the change of pace after 5 weeks of Turkish food, as much as we enjoyed it. So long, Turkey!

Blue Mosque and a Turkish crescent moon

Next up: Vietnam. Hint: we’re going to love it.


  1. A full day in Istanbul then, but Oh Anita, NEVER accept an offer from a man in the street!! I'm amazed the boat didn't sink! Enjoy Vietnam.

  2. Nice wrap-up day for Istanbul. The mosque is Süleymaniye; and the sultan is Süleyman. I had hoped to visit the mosque when I was in Istanbul last year, but couldn't fit it in; thanks for sharing your photos of the interior.