Istanbul, Turkey - a real surprise

 

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Istanbul is a modern, interesting, fun city with over 12 million people.  The streets and trams were unbelievably crowded at all times of the day.  Istanbul is second only to Shanghai as being the most populated city in the world.  We were pleasantly surprised at how "European" Istanbul is, along with being cosmopolitan, fashionable, and fairly wealthy. 


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A fun fact about Istanbul - it is the only city that is in two continents, Europe and Asia.  The Bosphorus (also know as the Istanbul straight) runs directly through the city.  

 

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The official language in Istanbul is Turkish, but many people speak English.  They are not part of the EU (European Union) but are trying very hard to become a member.  Their currency is the Turkish Lira.


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Istanbul’s old city has a fascinating history, dating back to 800 BC.  It is a city that began as a Christian society; but today, it is over ninety percent Muslim.   Even though it is mostly Muslim, Turkey prides itself on being tolerant to all religions without discrimination to different cultures.


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In 306 AD, the Emperor Constantine the Great made the city the capital of the entire Roman Empire and named it Constantinople. 

 

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In 1453, Constantinople was attacked and conquered by the Ottoman Turks led by Sultan Mehmet II, who renamed it Istanbul.  It was during this rule that the old world Christian city was gradually transformed into a Muslim society and the cathedrals were converted to mosques.


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Today, over 3000 mosques fill the skyline in Istanbul.  Most mosques have between one and six minarets, which were originally used as a high point to make the call to prayer (adhan). 


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The call to prayer occurs five times each day: dawn, noon, mid-afternoon, sunset, and night.  Minarets remain a decorative feature of most mosques as the call now occurs via a loudspeaker.  When you first hear the call to prayer you really stop to listen, as it is quite an experience.   After a while, like a church bell, it does not even register.  We enjoy hearing the call.


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We stayed in the older part of the city on the European side, in a beautiful apartment.  It was an interesting neighborhood with local restaurants, shops, and lots of dogs and cats.


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The dogs and cats live on the streets and everyone takes care of them.  The two above were always outside our apartment.  One day they were running down the street, each with the end of a shoe in their mouth.


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This is Domino – he lives in a little boutique.  As seen in this photo, he really talked to you when you said his name!


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Famous Mosques

 

Our first day we headed out to visit the Hagia Sophia or Ayasofya as it is known in Turkish, one of the most famous mosques in the world.  It was built in 360.  What is so amazing is it was built in just five years.  

 

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The main dome has a diameter of over 101 feet and a height of 160 feet and the interior is covered with expensive colored marbles and ornamental stone inlays.



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I was originally built as an Orthodox basilica and for many years it was used for Roman Catholic services.  In 1453 it was converted to a Mosque.  During the conversion, they covered up everything related to the Catholic religion.  The plaster is now chipping off and you can see the religious images again (see below).  


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Historians say they will not intentionally uncover the paintings, but if the images show through, they will restore them.  It is interesting to see the Virgin Mary (in the dome below) next to the Muslim script.   


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D captured this beautiful view looking out of the window of the Hagia Sophia.  That is the Blue Mosque in the distance, our next stop.

 

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The Blue Mosque – officially known as the Sultan Ahmed Mosque is the largest mosque in Istanbul. 


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Sultan Ahmet I commissioned it when he was only 19 years old. Construction began in 1609 and only took seven years to build.  Sadly, he died just a year after the completion of his masterpiece, at the age of 27.  He is buried outside the mosque with his wife and three sons.

 

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It is known as the Blue Mosque because of the blue tiles adorning the walls of its interior.

 

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It is still used as an active mosque.


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The first time we tried to tour, it was Friday at noon; not the time to visit a mosque, as Friday is their holiest day.  But we were actually glad we arrived at this time, as we were able to see the men prepare for the service.


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They must wash their feet and hands before entering the mosque for prayer.


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Note this sign for the women.  Maybe Istanbul is not quite as modern as I thought.

 

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One day we were sitting in a restaurant at lunch and watched a mosque across the street during noon prayer.  The Mosque was so small, many of the men spilled out onto the sidewalk.  We captured these photos.


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Because we are not allowed in the Mosque during prayer, we thought it was very special to see them in such an intimate moment.  And how cute is this little one eating his chips, attending prayer, but not yet understanding it.

 

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The Basilica Cistern was built by the Romans and is the biggest of Istanbul’s surviving Byzantine sites.  It was built around 532 AD to provide water for the city. This cistern is an underground chamber of 336 marble columns, supported by columns and arches. 


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We really enjoyed this eerie site, as it was so different from anything we have seen.  It has been described as a flooded palace, which I thought was a good description.


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The Grand Bazaar and the Spice Market


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The Grand Bazaar, created in 1461, is one of the largest covered markets in the world with 60 streets and 5,000 shops.


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At the spice market I bought honey and pomegranate juice for salads - both local products.

 

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After visiting the markets in Bangkok and Morocco, we were not that impressed with the two markets.  However, we did enjoy all the streets that surrounded the Bazaar.  


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We learned that the "little prince" outfit this wee one is wearing is used for the celebration of his circumcision.  It usually occurs between the ages of 2 and 14.


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As you can see many of the women cover their heads with scarves, but very few wear the full niqab (face covering).


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Food!


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Get ready - you know how we love photos of our food!  There are many street vendors around the city – mainly selling various forms of the pretzel. 


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D eating a Simit – a crisp, ring-shaped bread with sesame seeds.

 


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Other street items were fresh fruit drinks, nuts, and Misir (grilled corn).

 

 

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This one was great - a cart of cucumbers.   He quickly peeled the cucumber (notice the plastic gloves) and handed it to us in a napkin.  Yummy and a healthy snack!

 

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A dense chocolate cake.  Not very sweet but tasty.


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This was a vegetable we had never seen, called iskin.  We bought a cluster to taste.  It is often eaten raw or can be used for a sorbet.


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It is very similar to rhubarb and has a very sour taste.  We both love rhubarb, but did not really care for the iskin.  But how  handsome is the young man selling it  :  )


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 An older woman selling seeds for the pigeons.

 

 

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We were pleasantly surprised at the freshness, healthiness, and quality of the food.   They use mint in almost every dish.  They do not cook with heavy sauces.  Humm - how did we each gain four pounds then??  Below was at a kebab restaurant.  Yes - only two of us were eating. Maybe this is the answer to how we gained weight!


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We were very amused at the tiny tables and the tiny chairs EVERYWHERE throughout the city.  We had not seen this in any other country.


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Especially funny when there were grown-men crouched in the tiny seats.

 

 

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The breakfasts were probably our favorite meal.  We really enjoyed the menemen made of a scrambled egg-like mixture, onion, tomato and green peppers (paprika), and spices such as ground black pepper, ground red pepper, salt, oregano, and mint.  


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You can also order it with meat products such as sucuk (a spicy sausage).  It is cooked and served in single-serving metal pans.


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And the traditional breakfast plate where the main star was cheese.  Along with cucumbers, tomatoes, olives, a red spicy sauce, cherry jam and honey.


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This was our favorite breakfast restaurant, which we ate at three times.  They were super sweet to us, especially when we came back the 2nd and 3rd time.  On the last day, we told him we were going home and he gave us a bag of rolls for the airport.  If you look closely - you can see the owner giving the peace sign through the window.


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Another breakfast item was Pogaca – a flaky savory breakfast rolls – plain, with cheese, or with meat. 

 


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Turkish black tea is served at breakfast, NOT coffee. The Turkish word for breakfast, kahvaltı, means "before coffee".  One morning we ordered coffee and it was almost the same price as our entire meal.  We learned to order tea.  


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One afternoon we tried the famous Turkish coffee, prepared by boiling finely powdered roast coffee beans in a pot (cezve) and serving it directly into a cup without straining it.  A heavy slush-like mixture settles to the bottom.  You do not drink the bottom.  It is common to do a “reading” from the sediment left in the cups.  

 


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What do you think our cups say?


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I thought the Europeans loved yogurt – but the Turkish do even more!  We have never seen such large tubs sold in the small markets.  They also consume a salty yogurt drink called Aryan with most meals.

 

 

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Two items of the food found most everywhere are Kofta – basically a meatball with spices and doner kebabs usually made of lamb or beef.  This is a huge doner spit.

 

 

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I ate the one below, a chicken doner...

 

 

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and D had this one......which, we did not know until we looked it up, was actually called kokorec and is lamb's intestine wrapped around sweetbreads (thymus gland and or pancreas) on a skewer then grilled horizontally.  I did take a bite and did not like it.  Thank god I did not order it!  Yuck!

 

 

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We ate at a little restaurant were the "mama" was making homemade bread.  A little touristy but still good.  I had mint and cheese in mine - loved that combination.


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D had spinach and meat.


 

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We drank more tea in five days then we have in a year.  One day we had four cups.  Tea drinking is a ritual that you see everywhere in the streets, especially among the men.  Here we are drinking tea at what became our favorite neighborhood cafe.  The tea is always served in little glasses on a saucer.

 

 

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They also had hookahs (smoking pipes) at our cafe.  These boys, smoking the traditional Hookah, were very friendly and shared a sour fruit (see below) with us.


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Right around the corner from our hotel was a very expensive street with many fashion designers ateliers located there.  Because of this, we saw several fashion shoots in the streets.

 

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How skinny is she?  Okay sexy too!

 

 

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After a few too many glasses of wine - we reenacted the fashion shot at the exact location.  Okay - now that you are done laughing.......


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Here are two more REAL models.


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 And me again  :  )  same location as the model - same leg pose and all!

 

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And my fashion shots of D - well - I thought they looked artsy!

 

 

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And this shot I thought was very funny.  A young coupled asked D to take their photo - check out that pose Photographer-D has going along with his Euro boots.


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While D worked (yep, he really does work on occasion), I visited the Modern Art Museum, which was very enjoyable.  I also did the Hop-on Hop-off tour, where a bus takes you around the city for a two-hour tour.  It was good, not great.  And of course, I did a little shopping.


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On our last day we wandered into Balat, a non-tourist neighborhood, full of color.  The teenagers asked us to take their photo, striking poses for the shots.  He was so animated when he approached us, but then became very serious for the photo.  cute!


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Drawers


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This one was so cute, she was posing for me and the other women jumped in the photo - maybe her mom?  The young girl was not happy.


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Then she asked me to please take one of just her.

 

 

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This was sweet, the mother held him up in the window so D could take his photo.  We found all of the people of Istanbul to be genuinely friendly and eager to welcome you to their city.


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Our last night we went to a restaurant with a roof top terrace to watch the sun set, eat dessert, and drink tea.

 

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A strikingly beautiful city.  We loved Istanbul and hope to go back soon!