Two days off in Istanbul, and I even managed a lie-in until about 08.30 each day! It was great to finally reach the city, after a long ride from Tarifa in Spain, and even longer from Nordkapp in Norway. It seems like a long time ago that I started this tour, at the beginning of May, however I still have about a month and a half to go, to pedal back to the UK, catch a ferry, and then back to Norwich via a few friends and family.
Back to Istanbul, somewhere I’d been thinking about visiting for a long time, however I was feeling pretty tired after some long days in the saddle, so I didn’t do much on day 1; blog updates, snooze, lunch, snooze, walkabout, snooze, more food…snooze.
I did manage to get out for a wander in the afternoon, taking in a few sights and walking over the river and back. When in a new city I like to just have a good ramble about, without any specific objective in mind, to get a feel for the place, taking in random sights, sounds and smells.
Istanbul really is where East meets West, with so many colours, cultures and contrasts; people in conservative Muslim dress to fashions you’d see on the streets of Paris or Milan. There are all the usual high street chain shops you’d expect, however the smaller shops, street vendors and bazaars are far more interesting, to me anyway.
It’s almost magical exploring the city for the first time, and finding out what’s down a narrow alley, around a jumbled corner, or through a crowded street market. There is of course loads of great food to be had, and lots to tempt you as you wander about; I opted for an Iskender Kebap in the evening, as recommended by my friend Hena. It was very nice, however I’m not sure it beats the kebab I had from Mr Kebab in St. Pauli, Hamburg; close thing however the latter was exceptional, also from a Turkish restaurant.
I spent the rest of the evening chilling out at the hostel, chatting with the hosts or other visitors; always good to meet new people.
Having not done a lot the previous day I was ready for some sightseeing, bracing myself to deal with crowds and queues. I’ve got a whole load of photos which will recount my day better than words.
I walked over the bridge to the Old Town, after energizing myself with another great hostel breakfast, then visited the Topkapi Palace and Harem, the Basilica Cistern, the Sultan Ahmet Mosque (Blue Mosque), and Grand Bazaar. I also just had a good explore, so all in all it wasn’t that surprising that I was exhausted by the end of the day; sightseeing far harder than pedalling, and walking uses legs differently to pedalling.
The Topkapi Palace is lavish and architecturally grand. It was a bit odd walking around the harem and reading about eunuchs and what life was like for the concubines; a different world!
After the relative quiet of the harem it was a lot more crowded in the main palace, and I didn’t have the patience to queue for all the exhibits, however needless to say it’s an amazing place, and a staggering testament to the Sultan’s wealth, power and influence.
Buildings like the kitchens were also really interesting, and the treasury, however you can’t take photos in them. There are whole rooms dedicated to making the royal confectionary; must have been some very good baklava. The treasury puts the crown jewels to shame, with artefacts and gifts from all around the world.
Whilst the palace is amazing, my favourite visit was the to the Basalica Cistern; the largest covered cistern in the city, which is known about anyway – I wonder what else lurks beneath Istanbul’s streets, yet to be discovered (hopefully not Cthulhu). The Cistern was built by Justinian I in 537, and is a must see if you visit Istanbul; it’s also nice and cool down there. It’s unclear why there are two medusa heads, and why they’re upside-down or sideways, but they’re very cool; could be positioned that way of luck, like they did on axe handles.
After the cistern I walked the short distance to the Sultan Ahmed/Ahmet Mosque, and had a sit down for half an hour waiting for prayers to finish – nice to listen to. It’s another building that’s very worth a look around, and great to visit a big mosque, rather than another cathedral; been to loads of them. You can also experience how important faith is in so many people’s live here, compared with for instance in the UK, where it takes a backseat for the most past. You have to take off your shoes to go inside, and no shorts allowed; I was pretty sure there’s a no lobster rule too so he got stashed in the bag with the shoes.
The last place on my list to visit in Istanbul, although you could spend days exploring further, was the Grand Bazaar; basically a huge shopping mall, but not in the modern sense. I think you could probably buy most things there, from antiques, to spices, leather goods, scarves, jewelery, food, tea and coffee, clothes, ornaments etc etc etc.
Needless to say my legs were shattered after all that walking, so I stopped at the Irish Bar on the way back to the hostel for a pint and some food. My last evening in Istanbul was spent planning and chatting, with a quick excursion for an aubergine kebab and some baklava; the kebab was good but again didn’t beat Hamburg. The Baklava was excellent and topped up my energy reserves for leaving in the morning.
Tomorrow I hit the road again, travelling North West on the final stage of my tour, back to the UK. There’s still around 2,000 miles to go, however I’m likely to be pretty focused on pedalling for a while, rather than sightseeing. I’m a bit nervous about border closures, with all the migrant/refugee movements going on, however I’ll just have to keep abreast of developments and re-plan if necessary; I’m sure it’ll work out fine, and they’ll be time for some exploring once I reach the Danube.