October 4 at 9:01am · Istanbul, Turkey
Yesterday was pretty amazing for a first day in a foreign place. We started out with breakfast in our little abode, The World Heritage Hotel in the Old City Sultanahmet, before heading out to get lost in the streets. It was quite moving to ascend to the top floor kitchen of our building and see for the first time the slender, silhouetted minarets of Istanbul punctuating the skyline while the sun was gently woken by the ghosts of this ancient place. I mentioned how beautiful it is to simply stroll here and how proudly kept this part of Turkey is - even the wild/stray animals are healthy and good looking and enjoying the many pools of sunlight in the communal gardens. We found our way down to a big square (rectangle) which was the hippodrome of Constantinople during the Byzantine Empire and no they didn't race hippos here; well actually, hippos is Greek for horse and dromos meaning path or way so it was the way for horse and chariot racing in it’s day and I can almost hear those wheels cracking along the uneven paving and perhaps if I looked closely enough I would see evidence in the form of a rut or two. Today however the hippodrome serves as the gateway to the Blue Mosque and the meeting place for the merchants of Istanbul and wide-eyed tourists. It is here that we met our friendly rug seller Fettah (like the cheese). Fettah is a kurdish man whose family has sold rugs in the shop around the corner for many generations (or so the story goes). Now you get approached by all sort or people when you look like a cashed up tourist and often they aren't the type of people you would walk off with but Fettah turned out to be a pretty stand-up chap who gave us some nifty tips about the city we found ourselves in. I'm really happy we got to do the buy-a-rug-in-Turkey experience - albeit a small one. The art of selling a rug is a well honed show and in the wrong hands (like the tourist factory we visited later) the experience can be lacklustre. I guess it is important to highlight that you should expect to buy a rug and probably spend more than you planned (unless you are a really seasoned barterer with knowledge of product value). In many parts of the world merchants will offer you advice and show you around the city in exchange for you looking at their shop. Don’t be naive, if you really cannot afford to indulge them, be honest and polite and most importantly firm as they are about to invest a lot of time and hospitality in you. We found ourselves at Ottomania and there was a lady working on the loom in the window (all over Istanbul you see people, usually women, working in windows). These rugs can take at least two years to hand make and you are sat in among thousands of rolled-up rugs to wait as you are served apple tea and pleasantries. There is a sales routine, a game of sorts where they find out the colour you like and roll out heaps of rugs and encourage you to play out a process of elimination but Uncle Rug Seller was more than happy to indulge us by explaining the stories behind the rugs themselves. I don't know if you've ever looked at a Turkish rug before but there are many symbols in them and with a little knowledge you can read the intention of or the fears and wishes of the rug maker. I loved the Kurdish rugs in particular, these were embroidered in colourful silk. While my companion is enthralled by these handmade stories, Fettah also helped us learn some language and I was struck by what a beautiful language Turkish is to speak. There is something about how the words roll around on your tongue that makes it feel so nice to speak and so the people we encountered for the rest of the day were punished with our new skill but when they worked out what I was saying, they were amused/happy/grateful for the effort and there is something very powerful in being able to fend of street hawkers in their own language. The Blue Mosque; If you happened to rock up in tight pants you are issued with a Hazmat Suit at the door otherwise a simple head-scarf is required. You are also expected to take your shoes off and carry they around with you so once inside unfortunately, at the time of visiting, the mosque had the distinct smell of hundreds of sweaty tourist socks. The Blue Mosque is certainly beautiful, but paled in memory comparison to the Hagia Sofia (pronounced Aya Sofia) - this place is definitely a must see if you come here. Turkey is a town for all the sense and I am finding I am constantly surprised by how my feet feel. Inside the HS, you are walking on old old marble which has been worn away by centuries (built in 537) of feet so it is smooth and uneven you can't resist sliding along it like a kid in socks on a newly mopped floor. This place is massive and makes you wonder at how on earth mere humans achieved such grand scale. No picture ever captured can show you how it feels to stand in that great hall. It is truly moving and overwhelmingly awesome. In the afternoon we managed to do part of the Topkapi Palace - well we did the Harem and then wandered about the massive grounds all reliced-out like little travel zombies. We will go back there no doubt to peek at the rest of it. Nowhere that you lay your eyes in this town is mediocre and oh the gilded calligraphy! We also managed to squeeze in a couple of museums. The archaeological museum was something - just lots of antiquities dumped on the ground and you can get up close and personal with sarcophagi (all curse like). As we walked out of the museum, we noticed it was thronged with cats - serious Egyptian mummy business going on here! Some tourist was sitting on a park bench having a break and was rather annoyed to find a kitten under his chair having fun with his bag strap. I know a number of my crazy cat lady friend who would quite happily live here. Now it's 2am on Sunday morning with another two days of free time and a surprise weapon against street hasslers (I carry my rug bag around empty now and so they just call out "You want to buy another rug that you don't need?" and leave us be) I can't wait to get out into it again.