Historic Istanbul

As promised here is our final Istanbul summary including information of the most important sites we visited. Main sources are Rick Steves’ Istanbul travel guide and Wikitravel. For those who know Istanbul and those who are not really interested in a rather informative article, just skip this one, a personal update is in the pipeline as well.

Blue Mosque

Its official name is Sultan Ahmed Mosque, named for its patron, but the blue tiles interior gave it the nickname Blue Mosque. The mosque was built in the early 17th century as an answer to Hagia Sofia and is one of the finest in the world. Its six minarets rival the mosque in Mecca and beautiful tiles with floral motifs fill the interior. Stunning! It is wonderful to just sit on the floor and enjoy the beauty of this building, watch worshippers praying and just forget that you are just one of another thousand tourists being in this mosque right now.

 

Hagia Sophia

Originally built by the Greeks as a church it was later turned into a mosque. The Turkish name is Aya Sofia. It has been built between A.D. 532 and 537 and for 900 years it served as the seat of the Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople, the ‘eastern Vatican’. When the Ottomans took Constantinople in 1453, Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror, impressed with the Great Church’s beauty, converted it into an imperial mosque. In the 1930s Hagia Sophia was again converted – this time into a museum. It retains unique elements of both the Byzantine and Ottoman empires and their respective religions, Orthodox Christianity and Islam.

Hagia Sofia is not only famous for its beauty but also for its huge dome: Paris’ Notre Dame fits in it and the Statue of Liberty could perform jumping jacks! Actually you cannot describe its grandeur, you have to see and feel it. It is one of the most impressing buildings we have ever seen, especially knowing when this was built. Even the architect had his doubts about the stability of the dome and only ten years after it has been finalized it partially collapsed and more arches had to be added.

Topkapi Palace

This palace was the primary residence of the Ottoman Sultans for about 400 years. As well as a royal residence, the palace was a setting for state occasions and royal entertainments. It is now a major tourist attraction and contains important holy relics of the Muslim world, including Muhammed’s cloak and sword. The Topkapi Palace became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985. It is really nice, but even though we went there really early, there were far too many tourists. And on top the kitchen area was closed for renovation works. A big disappointment for us! We visited the Harem including the main private areas of the Sultan, his wives, his favorites and his mother. And just in case you didn’t know, even though the Sultan was allowed to have four wives, they very seldom made use of it. Some women played very important roles in politics in Ottoman history and it was even said that the empire was ruled from harem. A harem is a place forbidden for men and protected by Eunuchs – and not a place where wild orgies took place – and where the women of the palace lived together with their children. Boys got educated in the Harem as well until the age of 16.

Basilica Cistern

Or the place where parts of Bond’s movie “From Russia with Love” was filmed (and by the way the latest Bond movie was also filmed in Istanbul). It was built in the 6th century and is as big as two soccer fields. The ceiling is supported by a forest of 336 marble columns, each 9 meters high. The majority of the columns in the cistern appear to have been recycled from the ruins of older buildings, likely brought to Constantinople from various parts of the empire, together with those that were used in the construction of Hagia Sophia. The cistern has the capacity to store 100,000 tons of water, despite being virtually empty today with only a few feet of water lining the bottom.

The bases of two columns reuse blocks carved with the visage of Medusa. The origin of the two heads is unknown, though it is thought that the heads were brought to the cistern after being removed from a building of the late Roman period. There is no written evidence that suggests they were used as column pedestals previously. Tradition has it that the blocks are oriented sideways and inverted in order to negate the power of the Gorgons‘ (a terrifying female creature) gaze, however it is widely thought that one was placed sideways only to be the proper size to support the column.

Grand Bazaar

And this is a place where you can get almost everything and mainly carpets, fabrics, typical Turkish souvenirs, water pipes, jeans, leather products, gold, books….. And even when we told the salespeople that we cannot buy anything since we are cycling they still somehow managed to drag us into their shops and come up with ideas how to get their nice products to our homes!

 

 

Close by the Bazaar is the Spice Market where you can buy Turkish Delight in a million variations, spices (oh really?) in wonderful colors that make great pictures and little eateries sell their kebabs, köftes and other delicious food. Luckily the Turkish desserts are far too sweet for me so I can easily resist :-).

 

And that’s it for Turkey. Unfortunately we didn’t cycle as much as we would have liked in this country but enjoyed every bit of what we’ve seen. We’ve been very lucky with the weather, having been able to still wear our summer clothes and having had rain only in Istanbul and only in the evenings. All in all, another great cycling country with great people added to our list!

 

 

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Buzzing Istanbul

It has been an exciting experience being in Istanbul, after having avoided cities for the last two months and also, because we didn’t have to leave after two days again (even though we still moved twice, but that’s a different story). Very relaxing despite all the new impressions and tons of things to see and do in this historic place, formerly called Constantinople.

Istanbul has more than 15 million inhabitants and sprawls over an enormous area on both banks of the Bosphorus Strait. We managed to see the most important sites in Istanbul’s old town such as the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sofia, Small Hagia Sofia, Old Bazaar, Spice Market and Topkapi Palace, crossed the Galata bridge to explore the New District but unfortunately did not make it to the Asian part.

We’ve had wonderful experiences with the locals in Istanbul, they are very hospitable and don’t hesitate to help out, be it the hotel manager or all the others we met. Our hotel manager we called in the end ‘Johan’s PA’ (personal assistant), because he gave us so much valuable advice on so many occasions and always tried to find the best solution for our problem of which we had a few. We enjoyed strolling around in our quarter and discovering all the specialist streets and shops. You won’t believe it, but there are streets only selling chains or buttons or tape or plastic bags or boxes or wedding cards (there are no other greeting cards, only for weddings!), and then there are various shops next to each other selling exactly the same things (seriously!). That’s fantastic to explore and we still wonder how you can make a living from such a specialized business.

And then you see all the salesmen with little two or four-wheel carts selling food: fish, bread, sweets, roasted chestnuts, freshly squeezed orange or pomegranate juices, peeled and spiraled apples – we’ve never seen this before, they have a little machine peeling and slicing the apples at the same time and the result is an apple in spirals – it was so much fun looking at it that we couldn’t resist buying a deliciously tasting apple.

The second morning in Istanbul we woke up and Johan told me that it has rained in his face last night. First I thought he is joking, but he was dead serious. We’ve had thunder storms that night and somehow there was a leakage. Johan told me he first dreamed about water dripping into his face, but then he woke up and realized there IS water dripping into his face. What was most hilarious about this was that he started cleaning up the mess and even moved the bed without me noticing a thing!

For coffee lovers, and especially for those who love Turkish coffee, here’s a little secret about it: if a man proposes, he has  to arrange a meeting between his and the woman’s/girl’s families at the girl’s house to come to an agreement. This is also the case for arranged marriages. The tradition asks that after the introductory talks the daughter has to prepare Turkish coffee. If she doesn’t want to marry, she will prepare the coffee for the boy’s family with salt and in most of the cases, the families will not agree! A nice way to say ‘No’!

As we had to pack our bikes for the flight, we also had to find good packaging material. Our first idea was to go to a bike shop and use real bike boxes, but we couldn’t find any of the shops and Johan decided to just ask in other shops if they had any boxes for us. The first huge and good quality box we got at a UPS store, a used box from one of their customers. A few hundred meters further Johan went into another shop and returns two minutes later with six men – I am not exaggerating. They all inspected our bikes and had funny ideas (such as packing both bikes together in just one box) and in the end decided to escort us to another shop selling packaging materials. We got a few more boxes, but still not enough and continued our search the next day. This time we found a carpet shop that just got a delivery of tapestry which were packed in huge boxes. Johan convinced the shop owner to give us three more boxes – at a length of 2 meters! We then headed off carrying these boxes through busy Istanbul and the most popular sites, drawing a lot of attention on us once again. And here goes another thank you to our wonderful hotel manager: he stored everything behind the door (it is a really tiny hotel and our room is so small, that nothing else would fit in there) and while I was typing this, the lobby was decorated with huge cardboard boxes, bubble wrap and other packaging material, Johan started packing on the terrace in the back of the hotel.

And I also shouldn’t forget to mention Johan’s great negotiation skills. Turkey is a country where you hardly anywhere pay the price they ask for (except maybe in supermarkets and museums). You always have to bargain: in bars to get the beer a few lira cheaper, in restaurants (we once got a 30% discount plus water, tea and dessert for free), in hotels and of course in shops! This is not really my cup of tea, but Johan really loves it!

Johan finally went to the hairdresser for the first time after almost four months to get rid of his hippie look and got a ‘super haircut’ (language of his hairdresser), he finally doesn’t need his headband anymore :-). He also got his ear hair burned away, a face, arm and neck massage, all from the master hairdresser who’s been in the family business for more than 50 years. Great experience!

We also met the British cyclists again. If you’re interested in what they are up to, here is their blog: http://north2northcycletour.wordpress.com. It’s been nice to exchange experiences, tips and other secrets and to get to understand how others are traveling and what challenges they are facing.

There is so much more we experienced and I could continue writing for the next hours or so, but also don’t want to bore you too much with our affairs. We would also like to thank Can and Caroline for their super support with getting a FedEx package cleared and delivered on time! You both saved our India trip and we for sure owe you something!

For those who are more interested in cultural and historic information on the sites we’ve visited in Istanbul, watch out for our next post.

Arrived!

28 October, 2012 – We still had about 80km to cycle into Istanbul since we lost a half day the day before due to the mud. We were sitting on our bikes by 7am (thanks to the time change) and continued our up and downhill ride including another challenge: cross and headwinds, or should I better write storms? The wind was so heavy at times, that I couldn’t hold my bike anymore and had to step off it. And we rode downhill in our lowest gear and pedaled to keep going! Thankfully we didn’t only head against the wind, a few times the wind helped us climbing hills.

Getting into Istanbul by bike was easier than expected. I read a lot from other cyclists and was a bit afraid of too much traffic and only busy roads. But we found a great way to get into town, which was busy as well and certainly not the nicest to cycle, since at the beginning (still 20km before Istanbul) we shared the 6-lane highway into Istanbul with loads of cars and small trucks, but there was a wide hard shoulder, which made it a safe ride for us. There was just one tricky situation, when the road split and we had to turn left because we didn’t want to end up on the motorway. The cars were too fast to just cross the road and we already thought we had to go back all the way. But then a taxi driver stopped just behind us and made all following cars stop so we could quickly cross the road. By the time we headed off this poor taxi driver was involved in a fight with another driver and we cycled away in a nice chorus of honks.

Cycling into Istanbul was a very cool experience. As Istanbul is our final European destination, it had to be special anyway, but we will never forget this great feeling riding through the busy outskirts of Istanbul, the roads jammed with buses, cars, trams and people and we on our bikes in the midst of it. To get into the center took us another two hours, given the size of this city and us not knowing where to go exactly. We once again used our compasses to be able to head into the right direction.

In total it took us 7.5 weeks to get to Istanbul. We cycled through eleven countries and a total of more than 3,200km. We are still a bit frustrated that we haven’t been able to cycle all the way to Istanbul and instead took a train and a bus through most of Bulgaria, but that’s how it is. Istanbul is an exciting place to be and there is so much to see, that we are now happy to have a few more days to explore before the next chapter of our adventure begins.

For those who are interested in more details on our route, we’ve added a country stats page to the blog. Just click the home button and you will see it next to the ‘About’ section. And a reminder for those who would like to see more pictures, they are available on Facebook.

WiFi-free zone

As you may have noticed we are a little behind with our updates given that we couldn’t get internet access in Turkey outside Istanbul. We were really spoiled since we could connect almost everywhere in Hungary, Romania or Bulgaria, but even though Turkey feels much more modern, WiFi is still a foreign word, at least on the countryside.

Our first night in Turkey wasn’t really great, we slept in a horrible hotel in Kirklareli, really disgusting, and we were once again glad that we could use our own sleeping bags.

This looks much neater than it was!

The weather was still great, sunny and warm with temperatures of up to 27 degrees Celsius – we cycled in short trousers and T-shirts again – and decided to wild camp the following nights before Istanbul.

The roads continued to be perfect traffic-wise, the festivities went on until 29 October and there were again no trucks on the road. The asphalt changed again and became very rough with no hard shoulder anymore, which made it slightly more difficult to cycle.

The landscape is unspectacular, with oak and beech tree forests as well as some farm- and grassland. It continues to be very hilly though. We climb two kilometers and descend two kilometers, we climb 500m and descend 500m, whatever we gain in altitude, we loose again. The second morning in Turkey I decided to count the climbs, but after ten I gave up, couldn’t remember it anymore.

The villages and towns we are passing are quite ugly – except the mosques – with concrete buildings, a lot of blinking advertising, countless kebab eateries, mini supermarkets and other shops along the main streets.

Johan’s face says: “Wat is nu alweer?”, which means “What’s now again, why do we have to stop again?”

Five times per day we hear the muezzin praying, wherever we are, even in the forests we can still hear them. This feels quite exotic and makes us realize we are leaving the Western world. In almost every village we got invited for a cup of tea, everybody was waving at us, children admired our bikes, one was even putting on Johan’s helmet while we were eating our Köfte, the most heard sentence these two days was “Hello, what is your name?”, if asked back for their names, they didn’t know what to answer. Hilarious! Most of the older people want to know where we are coming from, at a bakery I get the bread for free, the owner used to live in Germany. Something I need to get used to is that Turkish men usually only address Johan, they shake hands with him, talk to him and mostly ignore me. If he is cycling ahead of me, men would always say something in Turkish to me, wave and laugh, as soon as he cycles behind me, nothing happens. The constant honking is something we couldn’t get used to – every other car honks, it’s mainly friendly honking and meant to greet and encourage us, but if you are in your thoughts, thinking about food for example or the next blog headline, you are petrified.

To safe a bit money – Istanbul will be expensive for us – we decided to pitch our tent in the forest. The first night we found a spot which wasn’t really ideal since we were visible from a nearby path and while we prepared everything, one car and two tractors passed. However, time was ticking, at 6.30pm it is pitch dark, so we decided to stay instead of looking further for a better spot. By 8pm we were laying in our tent, listening to all the unknown noises around us. Knowing that Johan didn’t feel comfortable made me worry all night and I slept very badly. I even dreamed that a group of people attacked us. Very early in the morning, it must have been around 6am, we woke up again from barking dogs and shooting. At first we thought these are either shepherd dogs or some stray dogs having fun in the forest. But then it turned out that these were hunting dogs, hence the shooting, and we were sitting in the middle of it. While it was slightly getting light and one of the dogs checked our tent, we stayed silently in our tent to wait for the hunters to be gone. By 7.30am we still heard noises and Johan the brave, got out of his sleeping back to check if it was safe to pack and leave. We still heard the dogs barking somewhere. I got the green light and we started our morning ritual: tent packing, breakfast and washing. Suddenly a hunter came our way with his gun hanging around his shoulder. Even better than a dog, I thought! But all he did was looking for game and his dogs, while smiling at us and wishing us a good morning in Turkish. While we continued packing, some of the dogs passed several times, but they didn’t even bother looking at us, they were busy looking for their prey.

When we finally finished packing we pushed our bikes back through the forest onto the small path which turned out to be an extremely muddy clay path on the last 25m to the main road. After a few meters in the mud, my bike got stuck, it would just stand by itself and became to heavy for me to get it out again. I was ankle-deep in the mud as well and it took Johan half an hour to get our bikes out of the mud, an hour for the both of us to get the clay off the tires, the chain, the rest of the bike and our shoes and another hour to clean the bikes at a gas station that was just around the corner! By the time we could finally start pedaling it was lunch time again :-).

The second night in the forest went much smoother, we found a perfect hidden spot in the forest and slept through until dawn to finish the last part of our journey into Istanbul.