2011
03.02

SYNOPSIS:

You can’t be in Istanbul without seeing a few obligatory sites.  I started my round today, to be continued over the next few days:  Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, Cistern, Hippodrome, Bazaar.

Throughout the day I was approached by about four carpet merchants who started pretty much the Egyptian way:  How are you, where are you from, what’s your name.  And pretty soon they identify the real purpose of their inquiries:  Do you want to buy a carpet?  But when I declined it did not take much to shake them.  I am so relieved that the battles are over.

I had another shock to get over:  Everywhere I look, there are tourists.  I am in the heart of it.  Individuals, families, tour groups – you can’t take a picture without having at least a few of them blocking your way.  And this is out of season.  When Egypt evacuated over a million visitors over a month ago, Greece and Turkey were two of the choice destinations.  They have been doing well.

The Hagia Sophia, the Hippodrome, and the Cistern which I visited today, all have their roots in the 4th to 6th century, one of the golden ages for Constantinople as it was known before the Muslim conquerors renamed it in the 15th century.  It was the Roman Empire which had relocated here to survive, to a city then known as Byzantium.   And they did survive, even though their Western counterpart, the original Roman Empire crumbled by 476 AD.  Byzantium lasted until 1453; another thousand years of “Rome”.  But this Rome was a Christian Rome.  Roman art and architecture mixed with new Christian elements and one of the greatest pieces of architecture still attests to its might:  The Hagia Sophia.  With its brilliant architecture – for the first time mastering the problem of how to put a round dome on a square base – it became the prototype for mosque architecture in later centuries as can be seen in the nearby Blue Mosque.  The ceilings in both buildings are most intriguing.

The Hippodrome was a disappointment.  It used to be the heart of the early Roman city with spoils from all over, including a famous triumphal column, and an Egyptian obelisk.  But it was a dug up construction site full of cement bags, concrete slabs, and a construction fence which prevented access.  Oh, well.  The visit of the ancient cistern made up for it.  These days the water levels are kept low, and a visitors’ platform allows people to walk through this enormous pillared vault.  Lighting is wonderfully eerie and the brick ceiling is brilliantly reflected in the water level below.  Huge carp swim in the water and the halls echo from the visitors’ noise.  I have to get used to it.  I am still in shock over all those tourists but I knew my privileges had to end.  Now I am just one of them.  But at least, I am quiet.

Despite my five layers of clothing I was cold.  I have to wear six tomorrow…

I know what this wonderful hotel lacks.  In fact, it is what most hotels lack – a hangout like we had at Pension Roma.  There was a living room with couches where many of us would congregate during all hours of the day:  Some would watch TV, others would smoke, read, type on their computers.  But in between we would all get to know each other and exchange stories.  There is nothing like this here, except the breakfast room which is open for just that during specific short hours.  The breakfast is fit for a king with all kinds of wonderful extras like eggs, yogurt, and fruits.

I love the food, but I miss the community of my fellow travelers.

Good night.

2011
03.02

SYNOPSIS:

Culture shock.  People shock.  Climate shock.  Sticker shock.  Getting acclimated.

For a moment I panicked when there was just one person standing at the airport terminal holding up a sign to pick up somebody.  I had made my hotel reservation nearly two months ago, had arranged for a pickup, but I had not confirmed any of it…  This is one of the safety precautions I try to follow:  When I travel to or from the airport with all my stuff, all my money and alone, if at all possible, I take a taxi that can be traced.

But the lonely guy with his sign must have been for some VIP.  After I had passed customs, an entire army of people with signs was waiting at the lobby, and there was my name!  I felt double welcome to Turkey.  First, with a German passport I was from one of the few countries exempt from a visa and second, I felt greatly reassured about the reliability of my hotel.  My driver, Bora, came in a big, modern, luxury van with leather seats.  He was friendly and talkative.  He congratulated me on not smoking and shared a close call he had experienced three years ago, after smoking 5 packs of cigarettes for 26 years.  He had a heart attack which resulted in a bypass operation.  He was minutes from death.  That he was saved he attributes to his god of whom he spoke in glowing terms.

Turkey is cold, gray, and windy.  It’s winter here.  I sort of knew that, but experiencing it after all the sun in Egypt, needed a bit of adjustment.  The roads were paved, traffic lights were working at every intersection, traffic rules were observed, and there was no honking.  None!  On my way to the Cairo airport I had once again tried to count the driver’s honks and I got lost.  There were more than one per second, usually about five in a frantic row.  Now there were none, by nobody!

I looked out on a friendly, tree lined, if crowded, cosmopolitan city with interesting suburban architecture.  Wow!  This was much more westernized than I had expected.  When I asked what I owed, Bora told me that I would pay the hotel.  I wanted to tip him.  He saw me fishing for coins – I only had a couple mixed in with my Egyptian money, and he said:  “You don’t have to tip me, don’t worry.”  What?  Not only was there no solicitation for baksheesh, there was an outright refusal to take money.  The same happened a moment later when Rohad, the young receptionist carried my 25 kg heavy suitcase three floors up.  He wanted no money!  I am just here to help, he said.  I am shocked.

My room is ultra modern.  Keys are put in a special key hole and the minute you leave the room all appliances you might have forgotten to turn off are automatically shut off.  The toilet has two settings to flush which allows you to control the precise amount of water going down to save as much as possible.  Hallways are dark until you step out of your room which triggers the lights just for you.  The second you are out of the hall, the lights shut off.  There is a beautiful roof terrace and when I went up there.  I am looking down to the Bosphorus, a lighthouse and ships cruising back and forth on one side.  And right behind my hotel within about 200 meters there is the Topkapi Palace and the Hagia Sophia.  The Blue Mosque is at best 400 meters away from here.  I turned my head from one to the other in disbelief.  Goodness, this is wonderful!  I am in the heart of old Istanbul, minutes away from most anything I would want to see in the few days I have, and all within walking distance.

I strolled around for a while and there was the rude awakening:  Despite my three layers, I was shivering.  I guess, I have to put on 5-6 layers tomorrow.  And the neighborhood which is lined with restaurants, bars, and shops sports menus which are not a penny short of American prices:  A soup goes for $6 – where I have been having the most delicious soups for 60 cents for a month in Egypt.  These prices are fine if you are on vacation, but I can’t be sustained them on a four month trip.  Some readjustment is in order.  I found a grocery store and dinner is a tomato, a cucumber, cheese, bread and some olives.  And, a beer!  J  Even that was not cheap but it beats the restaurant prices.  My window looks down on a 500 year old little neighborhood mosque and as I am sitting on my bed enjoying wifi internet, I am watching the big ships sliding by.  I think I will like it here.

Good night.