My first stop this morning is Ayasofya. Even though this is no longer a mosque, I cover my head and remove my shoes within a few feet of the entrance because it feels wrong not to do so.
- This church-converted-to-mosque is among the oldest religious sites in the world, dating to 537 AD. It is also among the most important examples of Byzantine architecture still standing.
- When the Ayasofya was converted to a mosque in 1453, great care was taken to preserve the integrity of the structure as well as the sacredness of the space.
The light was wrong and my camera fails to do this building justice. I resort to drinking as much in with my eyes as I can. I hope I can find a replica of these marvelous oil lamps to take home.
Next, I board a train and head across the Galata Bridge to the Kabatas ferry terminal and the Princes Islands. After a brief wait, I’m among the first to embark. I find the perfect seat on the starboard bow with an unobstructed view. I am transfixed by the jade colored sea filled with jellyfish, and watch three dolphins break the surface of the Marmara. This ferry ride lets you see the immensity of this place, where 20 million people live in a city whose skyline is unbroken along both sides of the coast is.
- Travel Tip: Istanbul can be an intense city and the crush of people here can be relentless especially at peak tourist season. When you need a break, go to a hamami or take a ferry somewhere.
There are about five stops on this run, the final is Buyukada, where we debark at a town filled with Victorian-era houses, some with Indonesian-style peaks and other features that impress me as more Asian than Turkish. The architecture and flora here are dramatically different from the mainland, and it feels very tropical. I can see why this is such a popular mini-vacation spot for the city-dwellers.
I allow myself to be talked into a tour of the island by horse drawn surrey (another first for me), which seems to be one of the sustaining businesses here. Fifty lire gets you the short tour, ten more gets you the full island tour. I opt for the short tour, which follows a twisting, winding road to the top of the hill, through residences and parks before stopping to water the horses for our trot back to the city center.
I return home after a very pleasant day of sites and well timed transit schedules. After dinner I settle my tab and ask Baha to print my boarding pass. But there’s a problem, so Baha calls Lufthansa to sort it out. And then, the most remarkable thing occurs…
“Your flight does not leave until the 19th…”
An extra day! Baha suggests that we celebrate, and we join his brother for drinks at Cagaloglu Hamami, one the oldest and finest in the city. We sit with a small group of local hotelliers, where Baha instructs me on Turkish business etiquette. He asks me to relate the story about my lost taxi driver, which elicits much laughter from the group.
Afterwards, Baha walks me across the street to the Kybele, the hotel which adjoins his. “Like museum,” he says. It’s an Ottoman house like the Han, but larger and filled floor to ceiling with glass lanterns, yurta bands and other antiques. We take a slow glass enclosed lift to the roof that the Kybele shares with the Han. The view is spectacular, made only slightly less perfect by the absence of stars…
- This is an excerpt from my original travel journal. The full text, which includes historical notes and traveler tips, is now available at AugustPhoenixHats.com.