You should book your vacation for the same time as mine because the weather gods look out for me. They came through for our second full day in Istanbul for our boat ride up the Bosphorus Strait.
Trip Advisor sages were infallible as usual advising that the public ferry was the way to go: inexpensive with perfect timing and complete comfort. So after another idyllic rooftop breakfast at the Hotel Ada, we set sail.
You can’t say it enough—Istanbul is huuuuuge. The skyline includes modern high rise buildings amidst hills that plunge to the water, royal grand palaces and mansions lining the shore, quaint villages at the foot of the mountains, with mosque spires peppered throughout, and miles-long bridges connecting the continents. There is no better way to see it all at once than from a boat on the Bosphorus.
The ferry traversed the strait, casually zigzagging between ports in Europe and Asia: 11:00, we’re in Europe, 11:30 we’re in Asia, at noon we’re back in Europe, etc. See the route at http://en.sehirhatlari.istanbul/en/seferler/long-bosphorus-tour-362.html.
We struck up a conversation with a man and his adult son from the US. The son worked for an NGO further south in Turkey and we talked a bit about what life was like for him in the country. He loved it and the people, but wasn’t the first person to intimate that the president was curtailing freedoms and exerting excess authority against any dissension. Little did we know how that would soon balloon.
The father, an aficionada of Byzantine architecture, pointed out the oversized mosque being constructed high up on the Asian side, Camlica, to be the largest in Turkey and permanently inking the country on the world’s most massive mosques map. Despite being called a secular nation, the Turkish government funded this sacred structure. (With 99% of the country Muslim, it’s interesting the county considers itself secular.) Among Turkish citizens, the building was controversial but for a different reason: some felt it was intended as a demonstration of the president’s power and ego, consuming funds that could have been used for better purposes, while still others weren’t happy the president’s friend was profiting as its builder. From an artistic viewpoint, it was referred to by some as a monstrosity. I didn’t realize that it had been inaugurated earlier that week with 10,000 people attending. After it opens (2017), it will accommodate over 37,000. I am too ignorant to have my own opinion about it.
Near the end of the ride up the strait was a third bridge, just completed, and slated to open to traffic in a few days. A second major unveiling in Istanbul the very week we were there! All three bridges spanning the strait looked essentially the same, which makes good economic sense, and they were attractive too: we saw them at eye level, from beneath, and later from a hill looking down.
The last ferry stop was on the Asian side just before the third bridge and the mouth of the Black Sea, at a fishing village called Kivagi. Here everyone got out and had about 3 hours to invade the town and grab a bite to eat or souvenir shop until the last ferry ride back. We chose to hike 1,300 feet to the remains of Yoros Castle. It was interesting wandering through the streets en route, enjoying the homes and cats and yards full of toys and laundry drying on the lines and local vegetation along the way. While the weather was spectacular for riding on the water, it was less appreciated for the ascent.
The castle was fenced in at that time so we couldn’t go inside apparently due to archaeological excavations of ruins that date back at least 1000 years, and possibly centuries BC. From the top, the view was spectacular, with Istanbul 10 to 15 miles in the distance, those dramatic hills surrounding the strait below, and a fine view of the wide sea to the north.
We needed lunch and though there were many places with barkers awaiting us down the hill at the port, there were a few restaurants on top of the mountain with gotta-eat-here vistas on the menu.
We passed a glassmaker with his wares set up on the mountain path, so I bought a pair of deep blue, nazar amulet earrings and of course a refrigerator magnet. The symbol is said to ward off the evil eye but I just loved it for the design and colors, which in my view ARE the way to ward off evil.
Back on the ferry, we sat with a couple from Austria, and their high school senior. They were friendly and with their command of English, we had good conversation about Europe, the US, and Istanbul, including our assertions that there was no way Trump could ever win the presidency. The family took one of Michael’s sculpture brochures and ended up emailing him later in the year to purchase some of his art, and leaving us feeling a more personal connection with the Vienna region. When I have been to a place or met someone from another part of the world and I later hear that town or country mentioned on the news, I pay more attention because I have a tangible anchor for relating. It’s not just words and a map, but the home of someone I now know a bit of or the land that I loved when I was there. In that vein, perhaps mandatory travel would be an effective way to sow world peace–I would welcome that imposition on my freedom!
Sailing back into Istanbul was just as easy on the eyes as the trip out. Seeing the old city on the hill and the truly staggering number of mosques from that viewpoint really stamped an impression. After departing the boat, we wended our way up the hill towards our hotel, checking out local shops and restaurants along the way. Very refreshing how few chains there were with so much individual expressiveness in the venues.
We decided to visit the Basilica Cistern since there were no lines just before its closing for the day. This turned out to be my favorite spot in Istanbul because it was ancient, gorgeous, cavernous, peaceful, mysterious, and unique. The cistern is a 1,500 year-old underground water storage facility supported by spectacular, artistic columns and used into the 20th century.
As we meandered through, watching the fish in the water and viewing the carvings on the columns, the glow was surreal. Like the stockyards in San Antonio, I thought it would be a great location for a chase scene in an action movie. Later I found out that it was in a few, including James Bond’s From Russia With Love, though watching the clip on YouTube now, it’s hardly the adventure shot I envisioned.
After we left the site, a middle-aged gentleman approached us and asked the obvious, if we were American. He struck up a conversation, telling us about his four daughters, one of whom was a physician in Washington DC. Of course he sold rugs and invited us to his shop nearby to have tea, not buy. I needed my nazar to ward off Michael’s evil eye when I said yes. It was a large, nice shop in the heart of the tourist district so I assumed it was overpriced. We had tea, which Michael refused to touch, while the man’s staff brought out rug after rug for me to choose from. One of the men referred to the man as his father. Hmmm, we said, the man told us he had no sons. Ahhhh, but we are all like family here, he replied: a quick recovery or the truth? I chose a thin, yellow and gold modern print rug. The quote was $900 and I continually said no when presented with a lower price. I revealed I’d wanted to spend only $200 or so. We ended up taking the rug for $400. Michael shook his head the whole time and watched like a hawk to be sure our rug wasn’t switched out and was nervous about using our credit card. They packed it in a travel rug bag, which I insisted Michael put in the backpack because I feared it would be a flashing neon “Sucker!” magnet, drawing any and all hucksters to us in an instant. The very minute we left the shop, the rug wholesaler acquaintance from Florida we’d met a couple days earlier was there: how did he do that? When we told him we’d bought a rug and the price, he said he thought we did OK. Not a minute after talking to him, our original rug selling tour guide, Mehir, approached us. He scolded us for buying a rug without visiting him first and told us we were very bad people for not keeping our word. Michael believes it was no coincidence that we kept running into these two other rug guys, especially at that very moment.
While I liked the carpet and had wanted to shop for one, the whole rug scene from day one until that moment made me feel like I needed a shower. Michael told the kids it was a $400 lesson in salesmanship. We kept wondering if I’d been ripped off or not. Every year, we choose an anniversary present that is something we hope to keep and my intention had been for a rug from Turkey for our 2016 gift. The rug fits perfectly with our dining room décor and is a style I’d pick and I would have likely spent that amount. Weeks later, I decided I didn’t know if I was ripped off but it was a fine memento and I cast off the doubt. Why let those unanswerable and unchangeable concerns ruin a good thing?
Enough for one day? Never! We cleaned up and went to our neighborhood puffy bread restaurant with the rooftop view. Stunning at night! The food turned out to be amazing too. Kamala ordered her usual pasta with butter. When the server brought it to her, he exuberantly described the fish and sauces gracing the pasta. Her face was horror stricken and we wondered how the translation had gone so badly. Then he burst out laughing and produced the plain noodles wading in a pool of mere butter. ‘Twas the highlight of our meals during the vacation!
At that point, I was feeling quite ill, having first noticed a sore throat and cough on the boat. My head starting swimming and I thought I might pass out. I nearly did fall asleep right there and was never more grateful then when I got back to the room and my head finally hit the pillow. Only the sickness eventually plunged my mind from questioning my rug purchase into dreamland.