Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Turkey, Days 9 and 10: Istanbul Part 2

Streets Around Taksim Square

Taksim Square is the high point of a major tourist district. We got here around 13:00 and like the area around the Starbucks down by the Modern Art museum this is a thoroughly modern street. No narrow twisting streets here.

We had a somewhat better sense of at least the old city after the tour of the day before.  Today we struck out on our own to explore a bit farther afield. That would mean venturing across the waters of the Bosporus to see what another part of the city was like. We used the efficient tram to depart from the Sultanahmet stop which is less than 10 minutes from the hotel; barely 10 more minutes to the stop near the Istanbul Modern. The walk there was brief along a modern very busy street. One thing that quickly caught our eyes was the huge cruise ship that was docked just beyond the buildings. It is always a bit surprising how close buildings are built to the waterfront. All manner of structures from the smallest homes to largest commercial spaces snuggle up against the waterline. I've heard that tides here are pretty limited but what about storms that could bring a storm surge up the waterways. The cruise ship seemed awfully close to the seawall and if that is true then the waters must be fairly deep fairly quickly. I am sure that their are other museums around town besides the Modern. We enjoyed the stroll through the Islamic Art museum and of course the Hagia Sophia is certainly a museum. But the Modern is one of the few museums we have visited so far and I am not entirely sure that Istanbul is known for museums in general. However, the Modern is really quite something.  We left the museum full of interesting modern and older artwork which was worth the visit and began heading to the funicular that would take us to Taksim Square. Along the way we made a welcome discovery of a Starbucks. A nice mid-morning coffee was enjoyed as we did a bit of people watching mixed in with some local canine watching. It is still remarkable how many dogs are just out and about. Many, if not most, have tags so it is clear that some people are looking out for the dogs but the dogs are just that out and about on their own (the ear tags denote an animal under veterinarian's care). They're well socialized and behaved and I must admit I'd not mind seeing similar attitudes if the dogs were similarly inclined personality-wise back home. And I haven't even mentioned the numerous small cats that are out and about too. The funicular was a disappointment. I think we were all hoping for something like we had ridden in Lisbon a couple years ago. That one was a downhill ride and outside. This one was underground and so rather dull. We left the train ride at the top of a big hill and began walking back down towards the waterfront. This was done by following streets that had fairly little traffic and plenty of bustling shops. It is clear that this is a bit of a market district (Taksim Square is a tourist area). Our goal at this point was to visit the Galata Tower which lies on a flat spot somewhat down the hillside. Galata Tower panoGalata Tower pano 2

I believe this panoramic photo spans a view from the southwest to the northwest. The view of the water is mostly facing south.

The tower is 66.9 meters high and is reported by the materials present to be the oldest tower in existence. It has served as a watchtower, a fire-tower, a garrison for soldiers, and also I think as a prison. Today it is a museum to all those things and you ride an elevator to near the top where a restaurant is placed and reached by a spiral staircase surrounded by stone walls (all seemingly circular shaped). The views from the balcony around the rim were quite good though a bit muted as the day was still overcast. Galata bridge and tower

Gazing back towards Galata Tower. The photo makes the sky full of clouds look a bit more scary than it really was but we really did have mostly nothing but clouds during much of the day with a few bright spots like when we crossed Galata Bridge.

We continued on down the hill stopping for a bite to eat at one of the many narrow almost hole-in-the-wall style fast food joints that dots the streets here. A beef and veggies (lettuce, tomato, pickle, potato) filled wrap is I think a pretty common quick luncheon here. It hits the spot. We were going to cross the water using the pedestrian side of the Galata bridge. From that walk we had some fine views of the city skyline that was visible to us on both sides of the water. Those water gleamed a rich green and they must be teaming with fish because dozens of people were standing by fishing rods that were braced against the bridge wall with lines dangling down into the waters below. We saw a few ferry/tour boats motor below and under the bridge and we would come later to realize just how close those boats came to the underside of the bridge later on. We walked past the Spice Bazaar and then started to wind our way through the twisting streets that would eventually take us back to a spot somewhere between the Basilica Cistern and Hagia Sophia and the old cemetery and the Grand Bazaar to our right. After all was said and done we walked at least 11km today as we explored a bit more of the city and we used up much of the day doing it. It was a very good day.

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Galata bridge & tower

Mom and Dad at the dock that swarms with ferry and tour boats. Numerous fisherman are also here and the fish market is definitely quite active. We never did try a fresh fish wrap from one of the boats but I suspect it would have been good.

We began our day with a visit to the Grand Bazaar. It is hard to really describe this place. It is in some ways akin to a large mall with some 4,000 shops. But it is also close kin to an old world inner city shopping district. The bazaar is composed of what I expect were once narrow streets lined with hundreds of hole-in-the-wall sized shops. Nowadays the whole place is covered by roofs with ceilings that are sometimes quite interesting to look at. What makes this even more interesting is that each section seems to host scores of shops that sell the same types of stuff like jewelry, leather goods, or carpets. We found ourselves wondering again how so many shops selling so much of the same basic things can all get by. I can see how the whole place could get incredibly packed and unpleasantly hot at times. There is precious little air moving through the narrow marble laid walkways that seem so common here. It is an interesting place to be sure but I wouldn't think of ever using it as a regular place to go shopping for most things. I find myself wondering if it really is meant solely as a monument to capitalism and trapping tourists. It is worth a visit for the experience I suppose and it is reasonably easy to ignore the store clerks standing outside all calling to you that they have the best whatever to sell you and you really should come in and buy, buy, buy (I think it is worse for restaurants. They all sell seemingly similar foods and the people outside all claim to be the best and that obviously can't be true). Yeni CamiiBosphorus tour 1Bosphorus tour 2Rumelian Castle

We had hints of sunshine as we sat on the boat waiting to depart but it did not last. I think the mosque is the Yeni Camii (The New Mosque). We never did go inside this mosque but if the inside is anywhere as impressive as the exterior it must be quite special.

I'm not sure what area of the eastern shore this is but I think it is just shy of a park and about a kilometer northeast of the second bridge we went under. The buoy shown here is probably nowhere near alone. The waterway here is teaming with boat traffic from very small to staggeringly large craft so navigation aids like this most be quite important. The Rumelihisar─▒, Rumelian Castle, was perhaps the most impressive thing we saw as we motored along.

When we left the bazaar the skies were still overcast but we had already decided we would head back to the area of the Galata Bridge and the dozens of tour boats that ply the waters of the Bosporus (yes, it is also spelled Bosphorus). We were going to take a ride on one of these boats for a tour up and down (north up and back south). The sun tried to peak out and for a brief time it seemed as though we would sail under somewhat sunnier skies than the overcast that had predominated. We motored out on time with what seemed a fairly full load of people. The boat scraped (well not quite) under the Galata Bridge and was soon moving through the green waters towards the Black Sea (which we would not reach, probably came within 15km of the sea). Their was a person giving a presentation about what we were passing in Turkish and English but it was so garbled that none of us could understand any of it even when we stood near a speaker. Perhaps that is the difference between the unguided and guided tours. Maybe the latter give you a real person who you can actually understand even if they might be on a large boat. Instead we did our best to figure out what we were passing as we went by. Along the way we made a quick, barely pausing for people to get on or off, at Uskudar. We passed by what seemed to be somewhat hilly terrain with hills shrouded by plenty of trees. It was interesting to see yet more various buildings nestling up against the seawall (if it exists at all). We passed under a couple more bridges along the way. All told I think we travelled about 13km We also passed by a substantial castle that looked quite impressive from the water (identified later as Rumelihisar─▒, Rumelian Castle, which was built in 1451 by Sultan Mehed II). It is a shame that during the whole 90 minute ride the overcast sky seemed to darken though a hint of sickly yellow could be seen below the dark clouds where the sun was trying to pierce a somewhat thinner layer of farther away clouds. But the worst we got was plenty of wind. It was an interesting ride but I just wish we could have understood more of what was said. mehter band

The military band we saw is really worth checking out. The movie you first see isn't that important as far as I'm concerned.

The next stop for us was a visit to the military museum. But we were not going there to check out military history. We were going there to catch a military band concert playing turkish-style music. I think they refer to this as "mehter" (mecht-ter) which features a substantial drum core with a few types of wind instruments and cymbals. After watching a movie that zipped through somewhat overly patriotic platitudes and statements that I don't have a reason to doubt about the nature of military band music. The mehter is remarkable in its ability to push armies along. The soldiers marched in after a great door opened to expose the theatre to the outside with a fountain gushing in the background. 50 or 60 men dressed in red and blue with tall hats came marching in. They were lead by at least a couple senior members who directed them. When the band started to play the various drums from deep kettle drums to higher pitched almost snare sounding drums augmented by cymbals that were clapped together by several players sallied forth. They were accompanied by wind instruments that I cannot name but had a whining but not unpleasant sound to them. I am sure that the rolling thunderous music would carry easily across valleys and when you finally toss in the chorus of male voices raised in song I am confident it would be impressive when heard as an army marched into battle. Listening to the band play has definitely been a highpoint of our visit to Istanbul so far and I highly recommend it.
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