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Topkapı Palace

The seat of the Ottoman Empire for 400 years, Topkapı Palace is today one of Istanbul’s most popular sights. The massive complex consists of four courtyards and hundreds of rooms, and the treasures on display are among the world’s most valuable. A visit to Topkapı Palace is almost compulsory during a trip to Istanbul… just expect to be exhausted afterward.

Everything about the Topkapı is excessive, and visiting is an exercise in patience and endurance. You’re going to be waiting in a lot of long lines, and there’s just no way around it. Although the courtyards and outdoor areas are spacious, the rooms and pavilions which hold the various treasures aren’t. You spend much of your time in ı waiting to enter them, then shuffling briskly through in single-file queues.

Luckily, the rewards for patience are spectacular. Once you’re through the Gate of Salutations, which separates the publicly-accessible first courtyard from the second, there’s an overwhelming amount to see, and much of it is unforgettable. The sword and mantle of Muhammed. The Spoonmaker’s Diamond, one of the world’s largest. The Topkapi Dagger (which features in a popular 1964 heist movie). The marvelous pavilions where the royal family would rest, such as the Baghdad Kösk, the Terrace Kösk and the Grand Kösk. The arm of John the Baptist. The libraries. The throne room. The Gate of Felicity. The circumcision room. The garden views across the Golden Horn and to Asia. The keys to the Kaaba. The Harem.

Let’s just put it this way… Topkapı Palace has the Staff of Moses. And I knew this, but was so dazzled by the other treasures, I forgot to search it out. Topkapı: awesome enough to reduce the Staff of Moses to an afterthought.

One of the best things about Topkapı is that chances for rest are plentiful. The palace is so large that you can always find a place to sit down and relax in the sun… and after a few hours of filing through rooms, you’ll need to sit. These were the moments I most enjoyed Topkapı. Relaxing on a bench under a tree, reading from a history book about the murderous, amorous or deceitful practices of the sultan and his court. And then looking up! These buildings provided the scene for so much amazing history. Just being inside this palace is an incredible experience.

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June 27, 2013 at 5:26 pm Comments (7)

The Sapphire Skyscraper in Levent

Rocketing 780 feet into the air, the Sapphire building in the modern neighborhood of Levent is Turkey’s tallest building. A cafe on the top floor and an open air viewing platform on the roof offer one of Istanbul’s most breathtaking views.

Sapphire

Other than from an airplane window, I’d figured that it was impossible to see the entire length of the Bosphorus Strait — from the Black Sea in the north to the Sea of Marmara in the south. But from the top of the Sapphire, you can see the whole twenty miles. Going up to the roof costs about $10, but it’s money well-spent.

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June 25, 2013 at 8:00 pm Comment (1)

Kız Kulesi – The Maiden’s Tower

A stone’s throw off the coast of Üsküdar, the Maiden’s Tower is one of Istanbul’s most instantly recognizable landmarks. It’s been a place of intrigue, legend and strategic importance since the city’s earliest days.

Maiden

Historical accounts mention the Kiz Kulesi as a toll station used by the Greeks as far back as the 5th century BC. The Byzantines used it to chain off the Bosphorus, and thus extract a levy on ships entering and leaving the Black Sea. And the Ottomans used it as a watchtower.

All of which is very interesting, but not nearly as compelling as the legends which surround the tower. In the most famous, a sultan had received a prophecy that his daughter would be killed by a snake bite on her 18th birthday. So he tried to trick fate by placing her off shore, in the Maiden’s Tower. As dusk approached and the terrible prophecy remained unfulfilled, the sultan ferried across to celebrate, with a basket of fruit.

But alas! A venomous asp had smuggled itself into the basket. The princess was bit, and died in her tearful father’s arms.

Another legend tells the story of a girl named Hero who lived in the tower, and the young man Leandros who loved her. Every night, Leandros would swim to the tower, guided by a lamp lit in the tower by his fair maiden. One stormy night, though, Hero’s lamp was extinguished and Leandros, unable to find his way, drowned in the choppy water. When she saw his lifeless corpse wash up onto the rocks, Hero threw herself from her window and landed THUD next to her departed lover.

Today, the Maiden’s Tower serves little purpose other than touristic. For 15 Turkish Lira, you can ferry across for a visit. The bottom floor converts into a restaurant at night and, at the top, there’s a nice (and very expensive) cafe, as well as a platform which offers a unique view of the Bosphorus.

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June 15, 2013 at 5:27 pm Comments (4)

Dolmabahçe Palace on Labor Day

The irony wasn’t completely lost on us. Visiting Dolmabahçe Palace, a symbol of preposterous wealth and privilege, while just outside workers were marching in Istanbul’s infamous Labor Day protests. “What’s that smell?” I whispered to Jürgen, while admiring a carpet with more square footage than any apartment I’ve ever lived in. “Tear gas”, he said, his eyes starting to well up. “Amazing carpet, though.”

Dolmabahçe Palace

Labor Day is a big deal in Istanbul, with a history marred by violence. The march in 1977, for example, became known as the Taksim Square Massacre, when 40 people killed by overzealous policing and a panicked stampede. This year, the government refused to let protesters even reach Taksim Square. They were taking no chances — traffic in Beyoğlu was prohibited, public transportation was shut down, and even the Galata Bridge was closed.

And at the exact same moment Turkish protesters were being denied their right to congregate, Jürgen and I were ogling the outrageous luxury of Dolmabahçe Palace: perhaps Istanbul’s most perfect symbol of class inequality.

Despite being completely contrary to Labor Day’s socialist spirit, it was the perfect time to visit the palace. Dolmabahçe is normally one of the most popular tourist sights in Istanbul… but not when people can’t reach it! And with public transportation down, only those lucky enough to live within walking distance (like us) could make it.

Built in 1856 by Sultan Abdülmecid I, for whom the long-serving Topkapı Palace was no longer modern enough, the new palace on the Bosphorus was a testament to growing European influence on the Ottoman court. Neoclassic, baroque and massive to the point of stupidity, the palace is over 11 acres in size, with 285 rooms, 68 toilets, and 6 hamams. Oh, and a harem. Because no home is complete without an enclosure for your female sex slaves.

Despite its grandeur, visiting the palace is unfortunately a bit of a let-down. You’re forced to join a tour, with a guide whose main purpose is corralling you through as swiftly as possible, and you’re not allowed to linger in any of the rooms. A real shame, since there’s so much to linger over. The decorations, the artwork, the gold, the chandeliers, the carpets, the stairs… let alone the views of the Bosphorus from the magnificent windows.

The wealth of an empire was poured into this royal home for the benefit of a very few people, and the palace provided a stark reminder of how unfair life can be. So it was easy to find sympathy for the Labor Day protests going on right outside. Dolmabahçe, although beautiful, is sickening! The palace interesting to visit, but I’m mostly just glad that the days of sultans, lords and kings, and their massive homes, are behind us.

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June 11, 2013 at 2:05 pm Comments (0)

The Ottoman Fortress of Rumeli Hisarı

It was the mid 15th-century, and although the Ottoman army had long since surrounded the city, Constantinople was proving stubbornly resistant. In order to more effectively isolate the Byzantine capital, the invaders hastily constructed the Rumeli Hisarı. This fortress along the Bosphorus is still in marvelous condition, and makes for a fun outing.

Fortress Rumeli Hisarı

By running a heavy chain between Rumeli Hisarı and its Asian counterpart, the Analodu Hisarı, the Ottomans were able to prevent any of Constantinople’s northern allies from sending assistance to the beleaguered city. The fortress was completed in 1452, and a weakened Constantinople fell just one year later. A section of the original chain which helped break Byantium can be seen in the Military Museum.

We had already walked past the Analodu Hisarı on our way to Kanlıca, and hadn’t been terribly impressed by its meager remains. But the Rumeli Hisarı is another matter altogether. This fortress is massive, and a lot of fun explore. From the ramparts which soar high above the Bosphorus, you can enjoy some incredible views, especially of the nearby Fatih Bridge.

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May 30, 2013 at 2:08 pm Comments (2)

Sirkeci Station and the Orient Express

Favored by the kings, statesmen and spies of Europe’s tumultuous 20th century, the Orient Express is almost definitely the most famous line in the history of trains. It linked the capitals of Western Europe to the Ottoman Empire, with a terminal stop in Istanbul’s magnificent Sirkeci Station.

Sirkeci Station Istanbul

Today, Sirkeci Station retains only a fraction of its former glory. Built by a Prussian in the “European Orientalist” style, the building is beautiful, but has an atmosphere of decrepitude. It’s old and dusty; a forgotten relic. The room where the upper crust of European society once waited on their departures, is now the hang-out of a rough-looking group of unemployed men. The former office of the Orient Express has been converted into a drab museum dedicated to the line’s glory days. And the main entry hall of the station is today used as a stage for touristy whirling-dervish performances.

Things weren’t always so dreary. When it debuted in 1883, the Orient Express was an instant hit. The Ottoman Empire had long been fashionable across Europe, and now there was a luxurious means of visiting it. With a route cutting through so many different countries, the train was a natural breeding ground for intrigue. Famous spies such as Robert Baden Powell and Mata Hari were among the passengers on board. And in 1929, there was a murder aboard the train while it was stopped by a snow storm; an event which inspired Agatha Christie’s most famous book.

The museum is rather drab, and the experience of visiting Sirkeci is akin to walking around a graveyard. But we still enjoyed being there. We’d just watched the movie based of Christie’s novel (the 1974 version starring Albert Finney as Hercule Poirot), and it was fun to be in a place of such historical importance. This is where Western visitors were first introduced to the Ottomans; in its heyday, it must have been quite a sight.

It’s a shame that the Golden Age of rail travel is over. Were it still an option, I might prefer the slower trip by train, rather than plane. Squishing into the middle seat of a low-cost flight to Paris has none of the glamour of strolling onto the Orient Express. And choking down airline food while being elbow-jabbed by the fat Polish guy next to me is decidedly less romantic than a taking a seat in the restaurant car across from the erudite and charming Polish count whom the CIA has tasked me with seducing. Sigh. I guess was born a couple of generations too late!

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May 28, 2013 at 1:06 pm Comments (2)

The Galata Bridge

No visit to Istanbul is complete without walking along, ferrying under, taking the tram across, or enjoying a drink on the Galata Bridge. The bridge spans the Golden Horn to connect the city’s two European sides, and is one of Istanbul’s most iconic landmarks.

Galata Bridge

Walking across the Galata Bridge, it’s very likely you’ll find yourself hooked. And I don’t mean “addicted”, but very literally hooked. In the face, with a hook. The bridge’s most enduring image is its shoulder-to-shoulder fisherman casting off into the water below. The almost unbroken line of bobbing rods is a romantic sight, but not all the fishermen pay careful attention to where they’re swinging.

The Galata Bridge is on its fifth iteration, with the current version dating from 1994. The first design for a bridge at this location was drawn by none other than Leonardo da Vinci in 1502. Sadly, his plans never came to fruition, and Istanbul had to wait until 1845 before Galata was connected to the old town.

The bridge is quite low to sea level, meaning that only small ships can pass under. And those, just barely. Its height also makes it an unlikely spot for suicides: in fact, it’s not uncommon to see local kids jumping off for fun.

One of the nicest ways to end a day in Istanbul is to grab a drink at one of the many restaurants found underneath the bridge. Even if you’re not thirsty, just walking past these places is a memorable event. Competition is fierce, and the doormen will try every conceivable trick to make you choose their establishment over the others. It can be comical; after we said “no” to three in rapid succession, another guy approached us rubbing his hands, and said “Now is my turn! You can not resist me!” Having been brought to laughter, and (more importantly) offered half-off beer, we succumbed to his charms.

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May 27, 2013 at 2:35 pm Comments (2)

The Land Walls – Day Two

At just six kilometers in length, the Walls of Theodosius can be traversed in a few hours, but there are so many sights along the way that we needed two days. Exploring the southern half of the fortifications had been a lot of fun, and our day spent on the northern half would prove to be just as rewarding.

Istanbul-Landwalls

Eager to get started on a big day of walking, we arrived at the Topkapı tram station, and were soon… seated in a lovely tea garden? The Fatih Belediyesi Çay Bahçesi was simply too inviting to pass up. Pressed up against the walls, this tea garden is run by the government and has prices which can’t be beat. Just one lira per cup.

Pumped on caffeine, we could now begin our walk in earnest. On our first day along the walls, we had wandered through some gorgeous cemeteries, and our second day started at a cemetery of a different sort: the new constructions of Sulukule.

For over a thousand years, Sulukule had been home to Istanbul’s Roma community. But in 2005, the neighborhood was targeted for an urban redevelopment project, and thousands of Roma were compelled to sell their property to the state. Those who refused were forcibly evicted. Suspicions immediately arose that the government was attempting to push out “undesirables”, but protests fell upon deaf ears. Modern townhouses sprang up where the dilapidated housing had been, and the old families of Sulukule, unable to afford property prices 10 times the amount they had received from the government, were effectively barred from returning.

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Past Sulukule, we came upon the Mihrimah Camii, which enjoys a prime location upon the highest of Istanbul’s seven hills. Mihrimah was the daughter of Süleyman the Magnificent, and the mosque built in her honor is one of Mimar Sinan’s finest works. The square-shaped interior is bathed in light, thanks to a large number of windows, and the Mihrimah is one of the most beautiful, and beautifully situated, mosques in the city.

Near the mosque, we found the Theodosian Walls’ highest tower, which requires a fair amount of bravery to tackle. The staircase to the top is really more of a crumbling stone ladder, with narrow little steps that can barely accommodate a foot. As we steeled our nerves and began the ascent, a group of Turkish kids gathered at the base of the stairs, and encouraged us on with jeering and laughter. “So cute!” I said to Jürgen. “So cute, I could just kill them!”

The view from the top of the tower was worth the ridicule. We could see from the Sea of Marmara, all away up the Bosphorus and into the Golden Horn, the entirety of the old town laid out spectacularly before us.

After entering the neighborhood of Blachernae, we abandoned the walls and descended to the Golden Horn through twisting alleys and scenes of local life which were almost suspiciously quaint. “Yeah, sure, there just happens to be an elderly man drinking tea in the sun while a group of mischievous rascals play with a pea shooter”, I kept thinking. “Where’s the film team?”

We can’t recommend a walk along the Theodosian Walls enough. The fortifications themselves, the neighborhoods they cut through, and the abundance of nearby sights provided some of the most memorable moments we had in Istanbul.

Location of the Mihrimah Camii

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May 3, 2013 at 2:44 pm Comment (1)

A Walk Along the Land Walls – Day One

Stretching for six kilometers from the Sea of Marmara to the Golden Horn, the Land Walls of Theodosius II protected Constantinople from invaders for over a thousand years… until the arrival of the Ottomans and their giant cannons in 1453. The walls have survived largely intact to the present day, and walking along them is an exciting way to see a different side of Istanbul.

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We started at the Marble Tower, marking the southern end of the walls at the Sea of Marmara. The tower provides a good idea of what to expect from the rest of the fortifications: impressive despite the ruinous state, and able to be climbed… although the piles of trash and human poop should discourage comprehensive exploration. The walls, with their towers and protected nooks and crannies, make attractive shelters for vagrants; they’re fine during the day, but we kept away from dark corners and would suggest avoiding the walls entirely after dusk.

From the Marble Tower, we crossed the busy Kennedy Highway to begin our journey north. Throughout the day, we’d have to cross a number of roads, and would switch from walking either inside or outside of the walls, depending upon where the most accessible sidewalk happened to be. Occasionally, the easiest path was on top of the walls themselves.

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The Walls of Theodosius II were originally constructed in 417, but destroyed 40 years later by a massive earthquake. Bad timing, since Attila the Hun was marching towards Constantinople at that very moment. In a panic, the city recruited everyone to assist in the rebuilding effort, and new fortifications were ready within two months. These new walls consisted of three separate layers and 96 towers and were unbreachable by 5th century military technology. Attila didn’t even try.

We had an incredible time walking along the walls, especially in the sections where we could clamber up to the top and gain a view over the city. There was plenty to see along the way. The old neighborhood of Yedikule, parks, mosques, ancient gates like the Belgrade Kapı, and museums.

West of the wall’s Silivri Gate, we found a path leading through a cemetery to the Zoodochos Pege, an old Orthodox Church that harbors a sacred spring. After exploring the courtyard, we followed marble stairs into the basement where the spring is found, complete with fish swimming around in the holy water. According to legend, a monk was frying fish in a pan, when he was told that the Turks had breached the nearby walls. Disbelieving, the monk scoffed that this was “as likely as the fish in my pan returning to life”. Which they promptly did, jumping from his pan into the spring where they remain to this day. To the Turks, the Zoodochos Pege is known as the Church of the Fish (Balıklı Kilise).

At six kilometers in length, it’s easy to walk along the entire length of the walls in a single day, but by the time we’d reached the halfway point at the Topkapı tram stop, we were exhausted, and decided to save the second half for another time.

Locations on our Istanbul Map: Marble Tower | Belgrade Gate | Zoodochos Pege

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May 1, 2013 at 4:34 pm Comments (4)

Up the Coast to Kanlıca

After visiting the neo-baroque Küçüksu Pavilion, we walked north along the Asian shore of the Bosphorus to the pleasant town of Kanlıca, where we treated ourselves to yogurt by the seaside, and then lunch at an amazing hilltop restaurant overlooking the strait.

Anadolu Hisarı

It took almost no time to walk from the Küçüksu Pavilion to the Anadolu Hisarı: a fortress built by the invading Ottoman forces in 1397. By connecting a chain from this fortress to the Rumeli Hisarı across the Bosphorus, the Ottomans were able to blockade Constantinople from the north. Today, Anadolu Hisarı is almost entirely in ruins; it looks cool, but there’s nothing to visit, unless you count the comfortable waterfront cafes which have sprung up in the fortress’s shadow.

We continued walking north, passing underneath the Fatih Bridge which, at nearly a mile in length, is one of the world’s longest suspension bridges. We would have loved to walk across it, but the bridge is unfortunately closed to pedestrians in order to discourage suicides. But no preventative measure can thwart the determined self-killer! The day after our visit, there was another attempt. Luckily, the guy survived the fall and was fished out by policemen waiting in a boat.

Our walk along the Bosphorus wasn’t the most pleasant stroll we’ve ever embarked on. The traffic was heavy, and the sidewalks difficult to negotiate. Even worse, the views of the Bosphorus were consistently obstructed by fences protecting new townhouses and upscale restaurants. So we were relieved to arrive in Kanlıca: a cute neighborhood centered around a small port. Kanlıca is famous around Istanbul for its yogurt, which we sampled at the restaurant Asırlık; mine came topped with ice cream, and Jürgen’s with honey. It was the best yogurt we had in Istanbul, and provided exactly the energy boost we’d need for the final stage of our journey: a hike up to the Hıdıv Kasrı.

Set atop a hill just behind Kanlıca, the Hıdıv Kasrı (or Khedive Palace) was built in 1907 for Abbas II: the final Ottoman governor of Egypt and the Sudan. Today, the palace is owned by the state and used solely as a restaurant. Its location is magnificent, in the middle of a garden decorated by tulips of every conceivable color. We assumed that a restaurant set in a former palace might be out of our usual price range, but needn’t have worried. This was an affordable place to eat, perhaps because it’s run by the state. The food wasn’t memorable but worth the price, and the views over the Bosphorus were unbeatable.

Locations on our Map: Analodu Hisarı | Kanlıca | Hıdıv Kasrı

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April 28, 2013 at 8:32 am Comments (3)

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