Day 15: Istanbul

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Although Turkey is a predominantly Muslim country, many shops are closed on Sundays. We had planned to visit the Grand Bazaar on Sunday, since I had incorrectly thought that most of the bazaar would be closed on Friday instead. And that’s how we found ourselves standing in front of a closed gate on a Sunday morning in front of the bazaar.

This minor snag in our plans didn’t throw us off by too much though, since I simply switched the next day’s activities with the current one. The bazaar was on the way to the Istanbul Archaeology Museum anyway, and a few tram stops later we were at our destination.

The museum actually houses three museums within the entire complex: the Archaeological Museum, the Museum of the Ancient Orient, and the Museum of Islamic Art.

Istanbul Archaeology Museum

Istanbul Archaeology Museum

Originally part of the Topkapi Palace outer gardens in Gulhane Park, this incredibly rich museum has seen its fair share of battle, as evidenced by uh, these lovely statues with their heads lopped off:

Istanbul Archaeology Museum

Indoors, the museum houses over one million pieces. With so much to see, we were in need of some caffiene afterwards. We walked a few blocks to Mado, a two-story cafe housing a beautiful view of Sultanahmet and the strongest, thickest Turkish coffee ever.

Tea and coffee at Mado

Now this is what I call strong coffee.

After we finished our drinks, we returned to our neighborhood in Aksaray to do some shopping for dinner. By now it was feeling like our own community away from home – the baker, the butcher, the pharmacist, and the produce sellers all recognized us and we would exchange merhabas and salaams whenever we stopped by.

Day 14: Istanbul

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Having acquainted ourselves with the heart of the city’s historical sites in Sultanahmet, my family and I now set out to spend a day in Istanbul’s Galata district, home to Galata Tower and the ever trendy and happening Taksim Square. So happening, in fact, that as soon as we stepped off the tram, we walked right through a group of teenagers hanging out at a soccer-themed stage promoting the Eurocup, blasting Turkish hip hop, and then walked right past a gay rights march. Taksim Square is considered the heart of modern Istanbul.

Tünel

That’s the Tunel, which is the world’s second oldest subway line (the oldest is the London Underground). You can see the beginnings of the gay rights march to the left.

Taksim Square leads into to Istiklal Caddesi, or Independence Avenue, a long street famed for it’s range of shopping. I found everything from Puma and Adidas and Topshop boutiques to rug merchants and tanbur craftsmen along this street:

İstiklal Avenue

We had originally planned to see the Sufi Mevlevi Monastary, also in this neighborhood, but once we got there it turned out it was closed for renovations. I was dissapointed; this was one of the places I was most looking forward to during our trip. Nevertheless, we turned around and veered to a side street to find Galata Tower, built by the Geneoese in the 12th century:

Galata Tower

We rested for a while beneath the tower, people watching and munching on Turkish fruits as we regained our energy. (For the Persian-speakers reading, did you know Istanbul is full of golabi jangali? I was so excited, that’s one of my favorite fruits and it’s so hard to find in the U.S.!)

Near Galata Tower and by the foot of Galata Bridge lies the Galata fish market. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many fresh fish in one place in my life. I was on the lookout for mussels to cook at our apartment, but everywhere I went, I was only able to find people hawking steamed mussels with lemon. Raw ones were nowhere to be found, so we picked out a red snapper to take home instead.

We took our time walking across the bridge to get to the nearest tram at Eminonu station. The view afforded a stunning landscape of the Golden Horn, and fishermen were lined up along the entire bridge, ensuring a steady supply of fresh fish to the market.

Galata Fish Market

Fishermen at Galata Bridge

By the time we got home we were exhausted, but we didn’t mind. We had the freshest, most succulent fish to look forward to that evening! Paired with rice and a glass of ayran, it made the perfect meal to end the day.

Day 13: Istanbul

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Having spent our first day in Istanbul trying to resecure accomodations and our second day recovering from the fiasco of the first, my family and I fully geared into tourism mode on the third day. I had a busy day planned, and we started by taking the tram to Sultanahmet district, where most of the city’s historical sites (and tourists) are located.

Our first stop was Sultan Ahmed Mosque (or Sultanahmet Camii). It’s also known as the Blue Mosque for the blue tiles adorning its interior. I was struck by how huge it was inside, and how peacefully quiet, despite the crowds. On one side, an imam recited the Quran in front of a few faithful men and women in prayer, and tourists came and went.

Inner courtyard of Sultan Ahmed Mosque

Sultan Ahmad Mosque

After we emerged from the mosque and put our shoes back on, we crossed the street and walked a block to the Aya (or Hagia) Sofia. Once a patriarchal basilica, then a mosque, and now a museum, it is considered the epitome of Byzantine architecture.

Ayasofya

The Marble Door

The famous Byzantine and Ottoman battles for control of Istanbul are reflected in the museum’s design, which boasts not only minarets and Islamic tilework, but mosaics of Jesus and the Virgin Mary. Istanbul is truly a city where East meets West.

Ayasofya/Hagia Sophia

Interior of the Ayasofya/Hagia Sophia

Aya Sofia is huge, but we still had more to see for the day. We walked a few blocks towards Topkapi Palace, which was the official residence of the Ottoman Sultans during their 400-year reign. Overlooking the Sea of Marmara and the Golden Horn, the palace interiors do not allow photography. The entrance from Gulhane Park, however, does.

Gate of Salutation/Middle Gate

The palace has hundreds of rooms and chambers, but only a few are accessible to the public. These include lavish rooms full of robes, weapons, armor, Ottoman miniatures, Islamic calligraphy and murals and Ottoman jewelry.

Porch outside the Imperial Council

Our last stop for the day before we headed back to Aksaray was a very late lunch at Can Restaurant. We were hungry, but the pitfall of eating at a restaurant in the middle of Istanbul’s most crowded tourist sites is that a busy eatery does not necessarily mean good food. Sure, the place was impeccably clean and the service was friendly, but my doner kabab was so dry and tough that I’m pretty sure an Istanbullu would have shaken their head at my plate.

Döner kebab

Not all was lost, because my uncle cooked us all a fantastic dinner at our apartment later that evening. And with the bounty of fresh flatbreads, meats, and produce available in our neighorhood bakers, butchers and grocers, we got to sample the best of Turkish food.

Days 11 and 12: Istanbul

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After a stopover in Frankfurt, we arrived at Ataturk Airport in Istanbul at two in the morning. Sleepy and jet-lagged, my family and I gathered our luggage and waited for the person sent to pick us up from the apartment rental agency I’d arranged a flat with.

We waited an hour and then we began trying to contact them, to no avail. They finally picked us up, four hours late, saying they had mixed up our arrival time. We arrived shortly at our “flat,” a dilapidated building at the end of a run-down alleyway, adjacent to a police station. After an hour of trying to gather our wits, we left the apartment rental agency scammers, notified the police, and they urged us to leave the neighborhood, helpfully hailing us a taxi.

Without a place to stay, we turned to the one district we knew of: Aksaray. My uncle and his wife would be arriving from Iran the next day, and we had arranged to meet near an Iranian travel agency in this neighborhood. The trouble is, there are endless Iranian travel agencies in Aksaray. Nevertheless, we found the right one, and several hours later, via yet another agency, we secured an apartment. Keyvan and Maryam, the husband and wife team who helped us, not only rented our apartment to us, but showed us around the neigborhood too. Aksaray is a mixed residential area, and it reminded me of some of the older neighborhoods in Tehran.

We wearily stopped at a nearby restaurant, Pacaci Hasan, to fill our stomachs before we settled in for the day. I can’t remember the name of what I had, but it was a very spicy eggplant dish, sort of like khoresh-e bademjaan:

Patlıcan musakka

We were also served green salad, barbari flatbread, buttered rice, and ayran, Turkey’s version of doogh. It was a shame we were too tired to really eat or enjoy the dishes, but the food’s quality still showed. After lunch, we returned to our apartment and rested for the remainder of the day.

The next morning, my family and I awoke to the sound of my uncle and his wife at the door. Keyvan and Maryam had surprised us by bringing our relatives to us rather than us meeting them at the agency! There was much catching up to do – I hadn’t seen my uncle in seven years and I hadn’t seen his wife in ten. We exchanged gifts, and much to my delight, they brought me a small jar of Iranian caviar, one of my most coveted foods:

Iranian caviar

I would spend the next week savoring a bit of it each morning with Turkish flatbread and butter.

Feeling refreshed, we relaxed over tea and fruit at our apartment, before getting ready to explore. We headed out through Aksaray and began walking down Laleli, the main street in our greater neighborhood, full of shopping centers, hawkers, street vendors and the general feeling of the new starkly contrasted with the old, which permeates so much of Istanbul. We walked all the way to Istanbul University’s gates, right on time to hear the call to prayer at a nearby mosque.

Istanbul University

On our walk back, we stopped at Koska, a sweets shop, to buy a variety of freshly-baked Turkish delights. I came to love this shop over the next couple of weeks, not just for the name (I know you Persian-speakers are smirking right now), but for how amazingly delicious their pasha Turkish delights are.

Buying lokum (Turkish delights)

Despite our rough start, we were back on track and falling in love with Istanbul. I couldn’t wait to see more.

Days 9 and 10: Paris

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Our last couple of days in Paris were more laid back and slow-paced than the others. We still had some sights to see, in particular the Cathedrale Notre Dame de Paris, on Ile de la Cite.

When we came out of the island’s metro station, the first thing we saw was the Marche aux Fleurs, or flower market, which was perfect because it was on my to-see list already:

Île de la Cité

I’m not the green thumb in the family – that honor goes to my parents and sister, who had a ball exploring the little shops selling all kinds of flowers, seeds and garden wares. I bought some lavender-scented soaps and satchels for a cousin and we soon walked the short couple of blocks to the Notre Dame:

Notre Dame de Paris

The cathedral is huge. I’m not particularly into gothic architecture, but it was impossible not to be impressed by the imposing walls, statues and stained glass:

Notre Dame de Paris

Notre Dame de Paris

I spent a good amount of time walking around and exploring inside the church. As one of Paris’ most popular landmarks, the Notre Dame attracted tourists aplenty, but the sheer size of the cathedral meant that it never felt crowded or stuffy.

Afterwards, we started walking towards Pont Neuf, the oldest bridge across the River Seine and reputably the one with the best views. Unfortunately, it was overcast while we walked across the bridge, so it lacked the je ne sais quoi of say, the view you’d get during a balmy evening sunset. But still, it was nice:

Île de la Cité

I had planned for us to pay a visit to Berthillon, the infamous Parisian ice creamery, at the nearby Ile Saint-Louis, but they were closed that day. Instead, we stopped at Jess’ Cafe near the bridge and I had a croque monsieur that didn’t live up to my expectations, but was filling nonetheless:

Croque monsieur and frites

We took our time walking towards the metro station after lunch. Ile de la Cite is full of flower shops, cafes and pet stores; in other words, the place is oozing with charm. By the time we got back to our apartment it was time to pack up and say goodby to Paris. The next morning we took a taxi to Charles de Gaulle Airport to catch our flight to our next destination: Istanbul.