Getting around in Istanbul is seriously easy. One can take the train, the funicular, hop into the buses, the dolmus which are shared taxis, or the ferries. While knowing Turkish would help in navigating through the city, it’s not required. Just pointing and remembering the names of the destination works.
On our third day we had to get across town to the Chora Museum, one the last standing churches of the Byzantium Empire famous its largest collection of gold mosaic work. As we boarded a packed bus at Galata Bridge, I was a little nervous because crowds and new places do that to me. A small LCD screen placed in the front spelled out upcoming stops and I sighed in relief – well we were not definitely getting lost with that. Yes, you can see I have quite the pioneer spirit J !
A ride through the city was just what we needed to get away from the tourist district and into its heart. It was nice to watch people drive to work, drink chai and eat donurs in small eateries on the roadside, or walk leisurely on the cobbled streets without the accompanying maniacally clicking of pictures. One place that made an impression was Fevzi Paşa Caddesi which apparently is in the bridal shopping district because we were soon passing by rows and rows of shops with extensive displays of bridal dresses. It was one of the most exquisite collections of lace, chiffon and satin I had ever seen.
Once we got off at our stop, a good ten minute walk through an ancient neighbourhood led us to the Chora Museum. The air was filled with the smell of burning charcoal and barbecued meat. The cobbled streets that winded up and down the hill reminded of San Francisco.
The Chora Museum is at the edge of the hill and if you stand on tip-toes near the boundary walls you get a fantastic view of the city. Unless one is an art student, it shouldn’t take more than an hour to walk through the place. Longer than that, your neck is mostly going to hurt by all the staring at the ceiling. Most of the beauty lies in the interiors, where larger than life mosaics have been preserved on the walls and domes of the erstwhile monastery. I am no artist myself but I found it easy to appreciate the beauty and complexity of design made from these fragments of painted stones and gold. The exteriors structure is similar to Aya Sofiya, only much smaller in scale. The gardens are over grown and unkempt and cats weave in and out of the grass.
Back at Galata Bridge, the chaos of the Spice Bazaar beckoned us. As we walked towards the Spice Bazaar, a van careened right in front of us and dumped sacks of pistachios on to open cane baskets. Before I knew what was happening, a dozen people materialized from nowhere and engaged in a haggling match with the vendor. Pushing our way through the crowd, we made it under the arched complex of the Bazaar. A heady mix of spices was in the air and my eyes took time to adjust to the colors on display. This is the place buy every day to exotic spices, un-imaginable variety of tea, Turkish delights and baklavas. It’s like a giant candy store. Coming from India, I found the spice variety and prices to be just okay but I think loading up on dry fruits made a lot of sense. Figs, pistachios, almonds, raisins – just buy as much as you can. The other thing that you must stock up on is Turkish Delights which is nothing like the packed stuff that you find in the US. The variety, the taste and the richness of flavor of each piece is heavenly. We ended up buying almost 5 pounds and I still think it was not enough.
Green tea is also a steal, especially since you can get unusual varieties and mix and match your own combinations. I bought myself a combination of green and tea and citrus with some lavender thrown in. It’s got the loveliest scent and tastes nice too. The only way to drink Turkish tea is of course in those adorable curvy Turkish tea cups. Available in literally every tourist shop, getting the perfect design and perfect price can be bit of a pain.
From the Spice Bazaar, we climbed up hill to Sulemaniya Mosque. After having been to so many mosques in the last few days, I was a little underwhelmed by the grandeur of this one. The steep uphill walk did nothing to endear the experience and was a bad reminder to how unfit I was. The one thing that I did like was the view of the sea.
Our next stop was at Grand bazaar. I had a general idea of direction and a sketchy map. Obviously, we were soon lost in the winding streets of the bazaar which was fun for a while. It’s always nice to walk the markets where the locals come to shop. We passed streets that only sold scarves, another that just sold cotton bedsheets and bath towels. Then there were the street vendors selling dirt cheap clothes. Had I any space in my luggage, I would have definitely bought a dozen scarves, but alas it was just window shopping for me.
Soon our legs gave way and we managed to ask our way out of the maze. Grand Bazaar is much larger and you can spend several days here just browsing through the merchandise. To be honest, I found it too touristy and sometimes tacky. Considering the fact that ever since I landed in Istanbul, I had seen all women carrying Louis Vutton or Burberry purse, it should not have been a surprise to see knock-offs being sold off by dozens in Grand Bazaar. We bought ourselves at tea-set but realized that we had atleast overpaid by 30%. Bargaining is the norm and lowball as much as you can. These guys are experts and there is no way winning the deal.
Eating Baklava was high on my list of things to do, especially since I had been passing sweet stores with dazzling display. One store that really caught my attention was Hafiz Mustafa – not only it was always crowded, but it’s display window had the most interesting variety of Baklava as well as rows and rows of multi-colored rice puddings. They looked so pretty and yummy. We rounded her day off with a meal of perfect tasting Baklavas at Mustafa’s. For dessert we ate the prettiest looking Pistachio Rice pudding with most delicious pastel green color of pistachio.
I swear there are days when I still think of that pudding.