A fish out of water

I’ve never been more aware of the fact that I am partial to a glass of wine or two than when I was in Istanbul. Unlike Budapest or Dublin or other places I’ve lived, it’s not a given that every restaurant will serve alcohol. And having to ask before I sat down, while not quite making me feel awkward, certainly drove home the fact that for me, dining and wining are almost intricately interlinked.

That’s not to say that I have wine with every meal or drink every time I’m out – I don’t. But I am quite partial to a glass of vino.

IMG_4409 (800x600) IMG_4410 (800x600)Walking underneath  Galata Bridge was high on my list of things to do while I was in the city – it was a short list as I’d done very little to prepare myself other than to email a friend who had lived there and ask for advice on what not to miss. The view at night from the bridge is stunning. With construction on this edition ending in 1994 (the first version of this bridge having opened in 1845), it’s close to 500 metres in length, spans the Golden Horn, and has featured in tales of the city since the nineteenth century. Underneath, rows of fish restaurants and cafés compete for business as if their lives depend on it (and perhaps they do). Touts lure tourists in with all sorts of banter, not too dissimilar to what you’d get on the markets in London’s East End, except with an accent and the inevitable first question: Where are you from? There’s not much to choose from menu-wise and the prices are pretty standard so you’re left (as I was) to count how many locals are eating where and going for that one.

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IMG_4411 (600x800)Up above, lines of fishermen fish for mackerel (or at least I think that’s what was coming out of the water, but I wouldn’t swear to it). Be it fact or fancy, it definitely gives the illusion that everything served in the restaurants below hasn’t been too long out of the water.

Reviewers on Trip Advisor seem to have missed the point of it all. They warn to stay away, using loaded terms like tourist trap, cons, rip-offs, etc. Of course it’s a tourist trap – and yes, you can eat for less elsewhere in the city, but if you’re eating elsewhere, you’re not eating under Galata Bridge. The mind boggles. As for the bantering … that’s all part and parcel of the experience. Just indulge them and enjoy. I challenge you to find better entertainment for the same price anywhere else in the city.

IMG_4430 (800x600)IMG_4514 (800x584)From the bridge there are great views of the Yeni Cami (New Mosque) which was finished in the 1600s. This gives some indication of Istanbul timescales. Way back in 1591, the residents (mainly Jewish) were relocated to make way for the mosque. (Resettling is not a recent thing, then.) I was reminded of an Irish priest friend of mine who lives in Brussels. He was moaning one day about the notion that because he’s a priest, everyone feels he’s fascinated by churches and so visits to new cities end up as an ABC tour – another bloody church. I’d been in the Blue Mosque already and was suitably impressed so when I went inside the Yeni Cami, I was expecting something different. But to the naked untrained eye, it’s pretty much the same, albeit it on a slightly smaller scale. IMG_4499 (800x600)IMG_4509 (800x600)IMG_4494 (600x800)The tiled ceilings are impressive as are the carpets. The vast expanse of pew-less space takes a little getting used to for a Catholic girl used to seeing the congregation in straight rows alternately sitting, kneeling. and standing.

Rightly or wrongly, the urge to see any more mosques left me. Churches vary according to religion and style – some are more ornate than others, some are simple to the point of paucity. But each has its own character. Am open to correction; if there are mosques that differ, please tell me.

Islam is a religion I’d like to know more about. Its rituals are fascinating. I was particularly taken with the ablutions, where hands up to the wrists are washed three times; the mouth is rinsed three times; the nostrils are cleansed three times; the whole face is washed three times with both hands, from forehead to chin and ear to ear; both arms up to the elbows are washed three times; the whole head is wiped once with a wet hand; the inner ears are wiped with forefingers, the outer sides with thumbs; and finally both feet are washed three times up to the ankles, beginning with the right foot. And this is only a partial ablution. As I said, fascinating.








Ostrich eggs and spiders

I thought the Golden Horn was a piece of land, not a body of water. I never knew that Istanbul straddled two continents. And I’d never heard that spiders were afraid of ostrich eggs. I learned so much in Turkey this past week. But I still don’t know if the calls to prayer in Istanbul, specifically those from the Blue Mosque and its neighbouring mosques, are live or recorded. They’re remarkably in sync; it seems as if each  is answering the other.

If you could only stop at one place in Istanbul and had no plans to return, the best bang for your buck would be Sultanahmet, home to the Hippodrome and the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia.

The Blue Mosque is so called because of the 20 000 or so hand-painted blue tiles decorating its interior. They’re stunning. It differs from other mosques in that it has six minarets instead of the usual four, something that came about apparently because of a misunderstanding between the Sultan and the architect. It is said that when Sultan Ahmet I was only 19 years old, he commissioned the construction of the mosque. Sultan Ahmet I requested for gold (altin) minarets. However, the architect misunderstood the request, and he instead built six (alti) minarets. Sure it could happen to anyone, right? But a little like how Carton House in Kildare had to shore up one of its windows so that it wouldn’t have more than Buckingham Palace (I swear I remember that fact from a school tour…), the Blue Mosque created a bit of a hullabaloo: The six minarets stirred concern among the people, as Mecca’s Harem Mosque also had the same number of minarets. To resolve the issue, the sultan sent his architect to Mecca to construct an additional minaret to the other mosque.

There are about 200 windows and the chandeliers have ostrich eggs perched on them to discourage spiders from spinning cobwebs – a new one on me. It was completed in 1616 (not for the first time I marvelled at what we could do before we were modernised …) and  holds about 10 000 people. On Fridays, the crowds are so big that they spill out in to the courtyard.  At least some religions are still pulling in the numbers.

My friend tried to pass herself off as a muslim and enter through the prayers (as in those who pray not those that are said) door; the visitors door was closed and she had every intention of praying and wasn’t carrying a camera, we figured it was fair enough. I’d already been and at this stage was getting just a tad peeved at the crowds. Anyway, she was spotted and turned away. This makes me wonder – what if she converted… what would she have to do or say to get in then? And is there a ‘look’? Do I look Christian? The mind boggles.

If you’re interested in knowing more about this magnificent place, Tom Brosnahan has written a lovely piece on the Magic of the Blue Mosque.

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Across the way is the Hagia Sophia, or Shrine of the Holy God. It started off life as a cathedral in what was then known as Constantinople. When it was turned in to a mosque, the altar, bells, icons, and other trappings were removed. Today, it’s a museum. It is massive. So big, in fact, that until the Cathedral was built in Seville in 1520, it had reigned as the biggest church in the world for nearly a 1000 years. It finally closed its doors as a mosque in 1935 and reopened some years later as a museum.

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Elsewhere in the same vicinity, you can see the Ayasofya Turkish baths, where one lucky gentleman gets the place to himself:-) Built at the request of the Sultan’s wife in the 1500s, architect Mimar Sinan had this to say: I hope that until the end of days, good hearted friends who take a look at what I have made, when they will perceive the seriousness and the spirit of my effort, can have a fair view and can invoke my name to pray for me. I wonder how many of today’s budding architects design with the same thought in mind?

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Around the corner, at Tavukhane SokagI No:36, the Turkestan Asevi restaurant has a delightfully different frontage that brought to mind a movie set at Universal Studios. Had I checked Trip Advisor (which I never do until after the fact) we’d have skipped it. Am glad we didn’t. The place is charming, the service was grand, and apart from the fact that it’s a totally dry establishment (no booze!)  it was worth a visit.

I never made it inside the Hagia Sophia: next time I’ll visit, along with the old jail which is now the Four Seasons and the myriad other places I’ve discovered since I left. Perhaps I really should start reading up on places before I go, but then I think that might take away some of the joy of discovering what I come across by wandering aimlessly. Anyway, there’s plenty of time to go back and visit again. Istanbul isn’t going anywhere.

But then I think of the wise woman’s warning: the biggest mistake you’ll make is to think you have time. And I think again.