With only one full day together to hit all of the major sites, Amanda and I started out early, planning our attack over coffee at my hotel. We wanted to be efficient, but also not so efficient that we rushed through everything and appreciated nothing. There’s little more frustrating than being pressured to move on from a view, a work of art, or a peaceful moment by a fellow travel companion, a guide, or a pushy tourist (I’m looking at you, Ms. Elbows at the Qin warrior exhibit.)
We kicked the day off at Topkaki Palace, arriving ten minutes before the doors opened to purchase a Museum Pass.* Things could have gotten off to a rough start when Amanda’s machine produced a receipt sans ticket, but thankfully a helpful employee resolved the situation by breaking into the back and handing her the pass. We proceeded to the entrance and breezed right in.
If you love Islamic architecture (who doesn’t??), you will love Topkaki Palace. The mosaics, the arches, the gorgeous Arabic calligraphy, the 86 carat diamonds. (Okay, so there’s only one 86 carat diamond, in the treasury, and it’s awesome.) Crazy Kimye bling aside, though, the palace evokes a certain serenity, demands a quiet appreciation of its beauty, unlike other opulent royal European residences, say, Versailles.
We meandered about the grounds slowly, commenting here and there on door designs we liked and things we couldn’t believe. (I’m sorry, but there’s no way that stick was Moses’ staff in the relic room. It’s clearly very old and an important symbol, but just no.) We paused to enjoy the views across the river, and tried to imagine it centuries ago, similar but different. In the massive kitchens and confectionary, I pictured the trays of sweets and the smells of spiced meats. I allowed myself to be transported back in time, to experience the Palace as it once was.
Except for the Harem. We did not allow ourselves to experience the Harem. Not of out some feminist protest, although we are both feminists. No, sadly we skipped the Harem because we’d been told not to spend the extra six bucks on it. If only we’d have gone over to the queue, we would have realized that it was included with the Museum Pass. Sigh. Live and learn to once again do better research.
After Topkaki, we made a quick stop into the Hagia Irene (free on the Museum Pass, takes five minutes tops), then visited the Hagia Sofia, every Istanbul tourist’s top priority. For good reason. Even with extensive scaffolding on one side for restorations, the church turned mosque confounds the senses. Like the mosque at Cordoba, one can simply not get over the blending of the two religions. It’s fire and ice, but it works. After all, they are both elements from the same body.
We spent some time on the ground floor, looking up through the hanging light fixtures at the Christian mosaics and black and gold calligraphic disks. On the upper gallery we pondered the sacred building’s various incarnations. I tried to recall the things I’d learned in my Islamic Art History course several years ago, but then, that hardly mattered as much as the experience of it in the flesh. One doesn’t have to know the whole history to understand the meaning of it.
From the Hagia Sofia, we debated whether to break for lunch before or after the Archeology Museum, and decided on the latter. To tide me over, I opted for one of the bagels sold by the ubiquitous street vendors. Word of advice: avoid them if you care about carbs and freshness. I took a few bites in the name of blood sugar, tossed it, then trekked on through the damp streets, careful not to unintentionally perform the electric slide.
Aside from the sarcophagus of Alexander the Great not being on display, we enjoyed the museum. There were plenty of other gorgeous carved stones to house dead folk, and even some of the remains of said folk. One wing held sections of the Gates of Ishtar, another statues and coins and pottery of Ancient Istanbul, and an exhibit was dedicated entirely to a single archivist named Mandel. Such displays always impress me. Even though we only spent ten minutes observing his work in cataloguing, I felt a tremendous respect for the level of commitment and amount of time it obviously required. Some day I’ll find that in my own work, I promised myself.
After the bummer dinner the previous night, I made sure to find us a kebap restaurant worth eating at. TripAdvisor did not steer us wrong. We got a table at Buhara Kebab House, and what it lacked in air conditioning it made up for in tender lamb and eggplant skewers.
Our stomachs placated, we traversed our way back to Sultanhamet. Along the way, I spotted a guy I knew.
“Hi!” the guy waved.
“Hi!” I smiled back, in those seconds between registering a familiar face and placing it. It was the Turkish gentleman who had wanted to “change my life.” My cheeks went red and I sped up, afraid I’d given him some sort of invitation. I felt a bit embarrassed, but also pleasure in the synchronicity of bumping into someone in a foreign country. Even a would-be Lothario.
We made it to the Blue Mosque, and shuddered at the sight of the line. As an active place of worship, they only let a select number of visitors in at any given time. But the queue turned out to be a blessing – that’s where we met Göktuğ.
A tour guide, Göktuğ started speaking to Amanda in Turkish. When she broke the bad news she only spoke English, he apologized, having mistaken her for a native. (“That happens to me everywhere I travel,” she told me later.) We asked him a question about the wait, he informed us it would take no more than 15 minutes, we asked him a few more questions, and then he started giving us a free tour.
“My clients aren’t that interested in me,” he explained. “They are very successful architects from San Francisco. Very sophisticated.” He gave us a knowing smile. We were more than happy to be interested in him, and quickly formed a rapport.
Inside the mosque, Göktuğ gave us a brief history, from the attempt to build a more beautiful building than the Hagia Sofia to the sourcing of the materials to the actual construction itself. We listened attentively, and for a moment I wished we’d hired a guide for the day. Not that this information wasn’t a Wikipedia click away, but there was something about the actual transfer of knowledge from one person to another. At the end, we thanked Göktuğ, and wished him well with his sophisticated clients.
Our final stop for the day was the Basilica Cistern. I’d say we saved the best for last, but I’d be lying, because everything was pretty much amazing. But the cistern was… otherworldly.
“This is going to sound weird, but I feel like I’m on a film set,” I whispered to Amanda. Not that it felt like Universal Studios or the Fox Lot. Actually, the exact opposite. I felt so swept back in time that the only way I could make sense of it was through the lens of cinema. (Perhaps that’s a sad reflection on my imagination, or maybe it just means I’m an actor.)
As we slowly zigzagged through the maze of 7th century columns, breathing in the musky underground air, I had to keep myself from bursting into laugher. The sensations elicited by the ancient atmosphere were making me giddy. Sort of like being in love.**
We finished our sightseeing around 5, giving us plenty of time to rest up before our “fancy” dinner. I returned to my hotel and researched restaurants, landing on Lokanta Maya. We made a reservation for 9:30, and I met Amanda at hers at 8:45 to walk the waterfront before.
While the views from the boardwalk below the Galata bridge were delightful, the aggressive servers were not. We were glad we hadn’t chosen one of the numerous Baliks: even the best fish in the world could not justify that sort of haranguing.
The service at Lokanta Maya, on the other hand, was exactly the opposite. Our server could have cared less if we ate there or at McDonald’s. But the food and the atmosphere proved more than enough to counter the lack of attentiveness. We loved every bite of our spicy shrimp, beet salad, salmon with pink peppercorns, and leg of lamb.
And the conversation? Forget it. Sometimes it’s difficult to see just how connected we all are, how shared the human experience truly is. But then you meet an Amanda, and you both speak freely from your hearts, and you can tell the other person is listening – truly listening – and you realize that this is what it’s all about. This moment, this perfect vulnerable moment, discussing identity and writing and body image and dad bods and-
“Did you just say dad bods?” the good looking guy at the table next to us interrupted. “Because I have one.” He smiled and turned to his beautiful wife, who wore her pregnancy so well I didn’t even notice until the end of the evening when we hugged good night.
I confirmed that I had indeed said dad bods, in the context of gender and body politics, and thus began an enthusiastic conversation with our San Franciscoan neighbors. So enthusiastic, in fact, that we exchanged numbers before they hopped in their uber, and tentatively scheduled a lunch the next day (just me, Amanda would be off day-tripping in Ephesus.) Again, so much for traveling alone.
Amanda and I ended the night on a high note. A sugary one. Although stuffed from our delicious dinner, we couldn’t resist trying next door Karaköy Güllüoğlu, the spot that had been recommended on the river cruise. Kids in a Turkish candy store, we ordered a little bit of everything. They were small, so we thought we could handle it.
Wrong. One bite of the baklava and I felt a rush not unlike cocaine. It was THAT sweet. And-
“It almost tastes like… cheese?” I said, clearly dazed from the crack sugar.
“Whoaaa,” Amanda’s face contorted. “That is straight butter. Like, a pound of it.”
We started laughing uncontrollably. Out of happiness, out of delirium, out of developing Type 3 Diabetes. We took a few more bites, then threw in the napkin.
“How are people eating plates filled with these?!” Amanda glanced around. Sure enough, the tables of locals were gobbling down three, four, even six baklavas a piece.
“I have NO idea!” I said, still cackling. “I guess it’s a Turkish delight!”
* If you are questioning whether or not to get a pass while visiting Istanbul – DO IT. Even if you only hit a few of the sites on it, you’ll still break even and get the benefit of skipping the lines.
**I’ve actually been feeling this a lot lately. A lot a lot. Thank you, Daniel Diaz 🙂