Friday, September 01, 2006

September 1, 2006

Middle East Travelogue 1

Dear Friends and Family,

Here we are in Istanbul having a wonderful time,
although we are still suffering from jet lag so
perhaps this message will be short and confusing. Our
flight over on Monday was uneventful, and we were
somewhat surprised at how easy things went at the
airport. We had stayed overnight near SFO at a hotel
because we had to be at the airport by 5AM. It amazed
us that there were so many people there in line
already. Our flight to New York was 5 hours long, we
had about an hour at JFK, and then we had a 9 hour
flight here. We arrived at about 10 on AUG. 29 and
our tour company had a guy there to meet us and a van
to take us to our hotel. It was so pleasant and easy.

There was sunshine and nice temperatures, which we
couldn't enjoy because we hadn't been able to sleep on
the plane so we spent the afternoon napping. Late
that afternoion we walked around the neighborhood a
bit, then went to the Hotel Arcadia terrace on the
roof which has a splendid view overlooking the three
major sights in this area and also the Bosphorus. The
sights are the Topkapi Palace, the Hagia Sophia, and
the Blue Mosque. To celebrate arriving and also my
birthday, we had a drink of the local beer called Efes
Pilsen and took a few pictures just before sunset.
Then we walked to a local restaurant for a typical
turkish dinner, which was delicious.

Our hotel is near the major tourist sights but
still in an older neighborhood where mostly locals
live. Can't get over how many cats are around
everywhere! It comforts Elaine because then there
probably aren't many mice here. So far we have only
seen one dog. There are also lots of little local
eateries, small snack shops, small grocery shops, and
many internet places. These are very reasonable -
about 1 Turkish Lira per hour which is equal to 70
cents. Our hotel room is pretty good,
with lots of room, a so-so air conditioner, and a TV
with lots of channels but only 2 in English - CNN and

Wednesday was another sunny and beautiful day so
we decided to take a cruise on the Bosphorus. The
ferry goes to a small town not far from the Black Sea.
We climbed up the hill above the town so we could
enjoy the great views over the Bosphorus and could see
the Black Sea in the other direction. The Bosphorus
is the waterway which connects the Black Sea to the
Sea of Marmara and Istanbul is spread out along both
sides of it, so there is an Asian side and a European
side. This is why they say that Istanbul is where
East meets west. The ferry ride was pleasant and we
enjoyed being on the water as it was a rather warm
day. Istanbul has about 14 million people, so it is
nice that they are so spread out over this area.

Yesterday we awoke to overcast skies and wind, so
we congratulated ourselves on doing the boating
excursion the day before. Beakfast at our hotel is
always bread with an assortment of jams, soft cheese,
goat cheese, sliced tomatoes, peeled and sliced
cucumbers, melon, juice, tea and coffee. After
eating, we walked over to the former sultan's palace
which is now a museum called Topkapi. We wanted to
get there early because our books say that it is
difficult to get a tour of the harem if you go later.
We got the first tour at 10AM and although it looked
opulent for the time, it also seemed like it would be
very cold and uncomfortable because there was so much
tile everywhere. With the sultan's family,
concubines, servants, etc. there were about 1200
people living there! Both of us thought the Treasury,
where they displayed the jeweled swords, pendants,
cups, etc. was much more interesting.

It was raining as we left the palace, but the Hagia
Sophia was nearby so we went there next. This is an
immense former church and former mosque which is now a
museum. Justinian built it in 537 and it was
the largest church in the world, had amazing
architecture because of its huge dome, and had
absolutely stunning golden mosaics with Christian
themes. When the Moslems took over in 1453 they
turned it into a mosque and plastered over the
mosaics. Now they have been uncovering and restoring
them since it has been a museum since 1935. There are
huge scaffolds set up in the main dome area which
somewhat ruin the effect of the huge area under the
main dome. It is a bit sobering to walk up the ramp
to the upper gallery and realize that people have been
walking on those same stones for over 1500 years!
There are even depressions in the marble where the
sultans guards used to stand just inside the Imperial

Next we went to the Blue Mosque just down the
street. This is still a working mosque so we had to
remove our shoes and cover our heads to enter. It has
some wonderful blue tilework and an interesting carpet
on the floor with little spaces marked out for each
worshiper to kneel on. Just the fact that we could
enter was unusual after being in Morocco last May
because there is only one Mosque in the whole country
that allows non-Muslims to enter there, but here it
seems that there are less restrictive policies. This
mosque is almost as large as the Hagia Sophia and has
4 or 5 minarets outside. Most of the other smaller
mosques here have only one minaret.

For dinner last night we went to a local place
which was like a small cafeteria where they had some
pretty nice choices of Turkish dishes and the cost was
10 lira for both of us (7 USD). One of the guys there
spoke English and explained all the choices to us. So
far we have encountered friendliness from everyone,
even when we speak to them and they realize that we
are Americans. Often they are just chatting us up in
order to try to sell us a carpet or some jewelry,
although we have had some nice conversations with guys
who did not have a hidden agenda. One thing that kind
of puts us off is that it is always men everywhere,
usually sitting in outdoor cafes drinking tea,
smoking, and playing cards, or eating in the
restaurants. Rarely do you see a man and woman
together. At some of the tourist sights, there are
Muslim women and they are in groups of women, not with

Today we went to the Basilica Cistern, which is
one of the largest of the many cisterns that are here
under the city. Apparently this one was built by the
Romans because there are over 300 columns supporting
the very high roof and 2 of them have medusa heads
carved in marble blocks at their bases that are
thought to have come from other Roman buildings. The
cistern is full of water and even has fish swimming in
it, some of them are very large carp. This supplied
water to the populace in ancient times.

After that we walked through the large covered
market and visited the Egyptian Spice Market. Both of
these areas have quite a large variety of shops and
are very organized and clean. This market reminded us
a lot of some of the markets in Morocco.

This city seems very clean as the street sweeper
comes by our hotel everyday at 6:30AM! In nearly
every block there are stands or carts selling
wonderfully colorful fruits and veggies. There are
also many, many bakeries and pastry shops selling lots
of varieties of breads and other doughy treats. There
are small stores everywhere and we use these to buy
drinking water because here you can't drink the tap

So far we are enjoying our time here very much and
haven't felt uncomfortable or threatened in the least.
So don't worry about us at all! We will be exploring
on our own for another few days and then Sunday we
will meet our tour group. Until the next report, we
are sending big hugs and hoping that all is going well
for you there.

Love, Mary & Elaine

1 comment:

CaliforniaGrammy said...

Thanks so much for the update on your travels. We love reading about your whereabouts and adventures.