The penultimate day of our trip began with me tiptoeing up the stairs, in the wee hours of the morning, four floors up to the dining room located on the terrace. Most of the hotels/hostels, around the area had similar setups - cramped rooms, mold-smelling sheets, terrace dining rooms, a superb view of the seaport and free, unlimited tea. Dawn was just breaking and I had a mission at hand. Arming myself with a strong cup of tea, a map that I had smartly pocketed from the reception area and a guide that was already lying there, I proceeded to plan out the day.
- TEA: Ready
- WiFi: Working
- WIFE: Sleeping
- GOOGLE MAPS: Open
- ETA: 1 hour
- OBJECTIVE: Infiltrate, shoot and kill all selfie stick owners in Istanbul and escape with minimum impact to the populace.
- ACTUAL OBJECTIVE: Plot the most optimal route across Istanbul for maximum coverage of locations
- ETA: 1 hour
- RISKS: Wife coming in and blasting me for (not) waking her up
- MITIGATION: Jump from the hotel roof, then later jump into the sea and swim back to India
- CONSULTANT MODE: Turned on. (not what you think, you dirty-minded... wash your brain with Henko)
ALL SYSTEMS GO!
All systems went and crashed.
So, as you know Turkey is split into two main parts - the European side and the Asian side split by the Bosphorus. Additionally, the European side is further split into two more parts, by the Golden Horn. Harnessing all my years of MBA guile, I planned to start from the easternmost part and gradually wind up on the west. We were put on the westernmost side of Istanbul. Staying at Sultanahmet had its benefits, most of the key sightseeing places were right next door and we would be able to do them at any point during the next day. If you were unable to follow any of that, picture this - an idly cut into the shape of a samosa with sambhar running through it on one side and coconut chutney running on the other. If you were unable to picture this also, then please go wash a few vessels at Saravana Bhavan.
Or use google maps.
And so I began.
After an hour of back-breaking work and 2 more cups of tea, there were squiggles all over the map and the guide. I was proud of myself. It made NASA look like a bunch of kindergarten students building a sandcastle out of dosa batter. And then I promptly went back to sleep.
After a standard Turkish breakfast of the staple food we had been having so far, we started out. Boarding a tram to Topkapi (the other Topkapi station towards the east of the city) we reached the place without any incident. The sun was out and it was slightly hot. Stepping into the museum, we had no idea what was there - it was just highly recommended somewhere in the guide. We had the first of the many jaw-drops. The panorama 1453 is a 360 degree view of the entire fall of Constantinople, painted on a massive dome. It was just plain breathtaking. After spending half an hour or so, we left the place, dragging our jaws.
We took a short walk along the Byzantine City Walls ruins that we had just seen in the Panoramic museum, clicking photos as and when and wherever possible.
The walk was to lead us to Chora Church (Kariye museum) which we again reached without further ado. The mosaics here are some of the best you will ever see in your life (and I have been to Rome, as well). They have been restored well and here is where we made the second best investment - the Museum pass.
TIP 1: Get the Museum pass as well. We worked out the math. Even if you were just visiting Topkapi palace, the Hagia Sofia and one other museum, the entire cost is recovered. Everything else is a bonus.
Time for a break. We bought a couple of bottles of water and some talcum powder to battle the heat. We had a long walk ahead of us. Navigating through the wall, we came to a huge bridge spanning the Golden horn. We did not cross it of course, are you mad? It was a highway, for God's sake.
We went further northeast, bound for one of the most beautiful camii's in Istanbul - the Eyüp Sultan Camii. It was huge and situated right next to a hill/on top of a smaller hillock, it offered a grand view of the city's spires. A fountain spewed water listlessly outside. The place was jam packed with tourists, worshippers and shopkeepers. Prayers were just starting; we bolted inside, drank our view of the immense walls and roof and then bolted outside.
There was a sombre graveyard, right next door that could be seen through a crisscrossed wrought iron wall. We walked past it, to our next point.
From here, we took the cable car. When I say we took the cable car, we mean we stood in the goddamned queue for a couple of hours. Remember, the Istanbul Kart that we had? It worked here. The view, as the cable car took off, was astounding. The whole of Istanbul, the skyline dotted with mosques, domes, pillars, buildings, bridges and both the inlets shining in the sun like a coiled, sky blue snake. One side of the hill was a cemetery. The cafe at the top of the hill had nothing else, just a bunch of Nair tea stalls with chairs and posh looking names. After a minor photo-shoot and a small walk into the cemetery, we returned back.
We walked all the way back from the base of the hill to the Eyüp ferry and took one to Eminönü. This was the closest thing we came to doing a cruise and it was miles better. Also cheaper.
Disembarking at Eminönü, we were hungry. We walked along the bottom of the Galata Bridge that was littered with several restaurants. I had a beer at one of them - they are overpriced and offered nothing other than a view of the Golden Horn which you can have anyway, by standing on the bridge.
The real deal was on the other side.
We climbed over on top of the bridge from the bottom and walked along the road. There were many anglers, positioned all along the entire length. I was wondering where this catch was going, when I saw it. Below, on the Karaköy side were the legendary fish sandwich sellers. We immediately ordered one. The chap deftly deboned the fish as it was getting grilled. Once it was fully cooked, he took a loaf of bread, stuffed some vegetables, tossed some spices inside, placed the fish and then handed it to us. We were already drooling enough to irrigate the Sahara. And God, I have no words.
TIP 2: Fish sandwich! Fish sandwich! Fish sandwich!
I really have no words. Not telling anything else. Go book your tickets to Turkey for this one reason alone.
Now, we had entered the more modern part of Istanbul and the first tram stop across the Galata Bridge is Karaköy. As we strolled past the crowd, we ran into a Turkish wedding. One of the best men, as we passed the rather colorful procession, was reversing his car and bumped into another guy's car and a small brawl broke out. I was very fondly reminded of Perungudi traffic signal. We then walked through a narrow set of avenues, climbing up the Galata hill. Soon, we came upon a set of paved roads that was crowded with small shops that peddled souvenirs, with hipsters hanging about and a lot of tourists; something very similar to tea stalls outside Ethiraj College. I was pretty sure I saw one guy smoking up.
Suddenly, we saw a huge queue snaking upwards on the road. We wondered what it was and followed. It went on for like a kilometre or so and wound up around a tower - the Galata Tower that were bound for.
We gave up. Even if we had started at the rear of the queue, by the time we reached the base of the tower, my grandson would have kicked me in my groin.
Forward we strode.
As the road came to an end, we reached a huge centre that had a quaint tram standing in the middle of it. We enquired and found that it was the first tram in Istanbul. Just as we were taking pictures, it took off with a toot and a bell clanging loudly. We walked to our next point of attraction, the Galata Mevlevi Museum. The place was politely closed. Nah, we were not disappointed. We took this in our stride. We have had worse disappointments in our life.
You better not ask what they are. I will hunt you, kill you and feed you to the three-legged yak I once had the misfortune to come across in Himachal Pradesh while driving a broken TVS 50.
Anyways, we had a show to catch.
As we traced our way back, we once again reached the point where we had seen the tram and here, according to the map, there was a smaller route that went back to Karaköy.
We were intrigued.
I found the small, unassuming building which apparently housed the station, the map said. As we walked towards, the tram bell pealed again behind and the passengers who disembarked from there, came running towards us. I turned and just raised my hand to say to that I am on a holiday and at the most, can sign a few autographs, when they ran past me into the bowels of the building. I was stung and turned once more to see my wife doubled up in glee. Then we walked to the building and came to the first and probably the only underground station in Istanbul.
It was not an underground train; it was a funicular from Tünel to Beyoğlu which was right next to Karaköy. IstanbulKart to the rescue once again! The ride was thrilling, it felt like an amusement park ride. For kids. No it was not thrilling. But interesting, nevertheless. The tracks went downward and then up, in a concave manner. We reached without incident.
You can read more about it here.
Now we were on the clock. The show was at 7:30 PM
We had returned to the hotel, refreshed and were now back at the Sirkeci railway terminal. The station was like any other railway station in any other town in any other country. A doleful clerk directed us to the hall. There was a faint, silent murmur that hung in the air within the hall. As we took our seats, we were offered a choice of teas - apple and normal. We took one of each and sat sipping, as other aficionados poured in. There was a huge wall hanging that had a single saying from Rumi. I contributed to the murmur by trying to explain the significance of the ceremony.
The musicians came in and the show started. It was more of a prayer than a show.
The prayer show was good. It was not spectacular, but enthralling all the same. The musicians sang off-key on purpose, the dancing was strained and one of them was actually grinning/smiling throughout the ceremony. It made a mockery of us visitors, but I cannot blame them entirely for vitiating. There were a couple of idiots who were talking loudly and several more who were clicking with flashlight cameras. May the free tea they drank, give them perpetual indigestion.
TIP 3: Book the show in advance. We did it the previous day. There is a very helpful site - click here. Select the closest location and confirm it.
We came out after the show, slightly enlightened and made our way to the bazaar right outside the railway station where got our hands on a plate of Künefe with ice cream. The mouth and the esophagus were treated to a grandstand view of paradise, as we bit into the crunchy, chewy pudding with the ice cream melting all over it.
We soon walked towards the spice market. It was closing and after having a prolonged, analytical discussion that mostly involved my wife throwing a tantrum, we decided to go through it the next day. This decision came back to bite me in the rear, but later on that.
We scratched our heads on what to do and to exercise the crap out of the massive calorie intake we just had half an hour ago, we agreed to walk to another Camii nearby, the Süleymaniye Camii.
Eminönü was still bustling with people at this late hour, but the road to the mosque was deserted. We clambered uphill; the wide road had huge flags of the Galatasaray Football Team flags hanging about everywhere.
Following the map, we turned into a narrow walkway steps that went further up. All along the way, we could hear loud cheering, and the smell of beer was generally prevalent. There were wild graffiti on the walls and the place looked quite ghetto.
I straightaway fitted in with my swag and my attire that would have made 50 Cent look like 50 Paise but my wife looked out of place. I told her so and was instantly downgraded to taking the bus to office, for a week.
After a rather long climb, we finally reached the place and it was dazzling. It was the view that reeled us; Istanbul in all its night glory. We could see the damned Galata Tower, as well-lit as Rishi Kapoor’s costumes and looked damned gorgeous. The inlet was dark but the lights flickered all over the city, fighting with the stars for a place among the heavens.
We were done for the day.
7 Museums, 1 Wall, 4 Mosques, 9 Tram Rides, 1 Ferry Ride, 1 Funicular Ride, 2 Meals, 1 Show, 2 People, 1000 Views, 2 Costume Changes, 1 Cameraman, 1 City – sounds like a Telugu romantic film song shooting schedule. The actual route is as below, mostly.
One more day left.
And it was the best of them all.