Hotel breakfasts in Istanbul are a fry cry from the dry toast, boiled egg and stale Danish pastries affairs that I have often had in the US. The morning buffet had bread, croissants, cookies, salads, marmalades of orange, lemons and cherries, fresh strawberries, cranberries, figs, olives, dates, prunes, sweetened yogurt with muesli, egg and sausage rolls, omelets, cold cuts, cheese, cakes and a glorious view of the Bosporus. I had breakfast there for 5 days and not once was I short of something new to try. We were staying at Rast Hotel, a small not-too-fancy-boutique hotel, like hundreds of them in Sultanahmet. Seriously, if you were to stand in Sultanahmet and throw a stone in any direction, you will either hit a hotel or a tourist!
Our walk to Topkapi Palace was short and pleasant. Being a sunny day, the staff of the little cafes that lined the streets was busy putting the finishing touches to the outdoor arrangements. Tiny tables for two decorated with fresh flowers, covered with Anatolian tablecloths, silk cushions on the chairs, and odd man or two sipping Turkish Chai in those lovely curved glasses, completed the movie-like “oriental” image. And no matters how clichéd it looked, I could not wait to be a part of the picture!
The Topkapi Palace museum is a “must see” for very valid reason. One cannot imagine the wealth and power that the Ottoman’s commanded without a walk through their residence’s gilded chambers. As we entered the grounds, we noticed two fresh faced armed personnel totting machine guns manning the gates. A little worrying for a museum, don’t you think?
In the front courtyard, there appeared to be a miniature Aya Sofiya. Named after St. Irene, this church is apparently this was the only one in the whole of Istanbul that was allowed to remain a church and not converted into mosque.
The Harem quarters are considered to be the ‘highlight’ of the palace and I think it’s not only because of architectural reasons but also for the inevitable mystique around them. The first thing that strikes you as you enter the Antechamber of the Harem Palace is the tile work. From floor to ceiling, the walls are covered in Iznik tiles, ceramic tiles with intricate hand painted work. Each segment of the wall has a different pattern. As we walked further into the palace complex, each room was grander and I could sense that we were moving towards the power center. The grand finale was of course the Sultan’s chambers that had the most expansive tile work, tinted windows, comfortable living arrangements, artistic décor and views of the sea.
The Ottomans were very wealthy and its not just once that I found myself sighing at the opulence and wishing I owned something so lavish. Kapil was quick to point out that being female, I would have had access to this luxury only if I was in the running for the Sultan’s affections and the favour of Valide Sultan, competing with hundreds of women. Even if the Sultan noticed me, I would have to be really lucky to give birth to a crown prince to get myself an independent sea –view room. Clearly, ambition, luck and reward of a room-with-a-view have gone hand in hand for a long time. The idea of being part of a harem is detestable to me but I wonder what young girls of those time felt. Separated from their families, lives dependent on the mood swings of royalty. Stories are rife of harem girls being drowned in the Bosporus on moonless nights.
The other place in the Topkapi Palace that left quite an impression on me was the view of the Bosporus and Asia from Seraglio Point near Konyali café. Always crowded with tourists trying to get a perfect shot, it’s also an ideal place to sit down and drink chai as you watch the ships go by. Lunch at the adjoining Konyali restaurant is highly recommended, though it can be quite heavy on your pocket.
While we had been oohing and aahing appropriately at the wonders of Topkapi, we were yet to be dazzled into speechlessness. That’s when we stumbled into the Treasury Room. Thrones made of solid gold, turbans lined with diamonds, water jugs embedded with rubies, gilded-covers for Koran and the famous emerald studded Topkapi dagger! I suddenly felt very, very poor and unsatisfied with my life. The grand display also explained the armed guards spotted across the museum property.
After the intricate and lavish work of TopKapi Palace, I must say we were a little disappointed with the Blue Mosque. While it is probably the most picturesque part of the Istanbul skyline, the interiors do not match the beauty of Aya Sofiya with which it was made to compete with. This Ottoman structure is lined with blue Iznik tiles, hence the name Blue Mosque. Impressive and beautiful, there is however a sense of antiquity which is missing from the design.
As we waited for the mosque to re-open after the afternoon prayers, we strolled around the Hippodrome where the Romans had held chariot race over a thousand years ago. Nothing except three pillars remain and it requires much more than an active imagination to visualize a medieval racecourse.
Next to the Hippodrome is the famous Basilica Cistern. This was one of the places that I was looking forward to most. An underground watery chamber supported with hundreds of ancient pillars, mysterious Medusa heads – just like the Secret Chamber in Hogwarts! Obviously, I was excited. The chamber is exactly how it should be – grand, dark, pillars reaching into nothingness, damp and eerie…well almost. What takes away from the actual experience is the presence of a café, bright lights in places and really noisy tourists who are not entirely sure what they are doing in an underground water tank! Yes I know, I am a tourist too but large hordes of people can be annoying.
Downhill from the At Meydani is the slightly posh Arsata Bazaar. Lined with carpet sellers, tea cafes, restaurants and ceramic shops this market is great for browsing. It is supposed to be more expensive than Grand Bazaar but with such inflated prices across the city it’s hard to judge. I was tempted to enter some of the fancy carpet shops, but the hawkish gaze and the overtly friendly smiles of the storekeepers kept me away. With the evening came the extreme chill and Kapil and I found ourselves grabbing a delicious doner sandwich from a deli and heading to our cozy hotel room for an early night in.
Other hopefully helpful notes:
- Aya Sofiya, Topkapi Palace, Blue Mosque, At Meydani, Cistern are all around plaza in Sultanahmet. On a short trip you can probably visit all of them in one day.
- Tickets for Harem and the Topkapi palace are separate and so are the audio guides. A good thorough visit can take 4-5 hrs. If you have only a few hours, do not miss the Treasury Room and the Harem
- Topkapi an interesting and comical jewel heist movie with the talented Greek actress Melina Mercouri – it’s a fun especially watch once you have been to the palace
- Blue Mosque, is a functioning mosque, and visitors are allowed only at specific times