Thursday, September 12, 2013

Topkapi Palace

One of the movies I remember vividly from the 60s is Topkapi, which is a robbery caper starring Peter Ustinoff where a bunch of thieves have decided to steal a jeweled dagger from the Topkapi Museum.  There is a lot of running around on mosque roofs and since the floor of the museum is electrified, they lower the guy who is going to be doing the actual stealing down from a window.   He attaches suction cups to the glass cabinet covering the manequin wearing the dagger, they lift it up, he lifts the dagger and replaces it with a replica, they lower the cabinet down again, he is hauled to safety, but they don't notice that a bird has flown in the window and when the bird lands on the floor, the alarm is set off and they are captured.  It was the first movie that I saw that made me gasp when they almost dropped the guy they are lowering down.

Today was the day we were going to see the Topkapi museum and I couldn't wait to see the dagger.  Actually, on our schedule it said that we would have the city tour today, with the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia and Topkapi tomorrow, but somehow that got switched.  But no matter.  One day is as good as another. 

Our first order of business was to find the "continental breakfast."  Continental breakfasts have certain changed from when they were sweet rolls and coffee.  This is Monet, the restaurant where they set up the breakfast.

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If you can't find something here to eat, there is something wrong with you.  Off to the left, out of the picture is the meat, fruit, and "healthy" breakfast area and out on the patio there is a guy making eggs anyway you want them (while a cat paces around at his feet hoping for a treat).
We all piled n the bus and headed for Topkapi Museum.  

Topkapi palace was both the residence of the Ottoman sultans, but also theadministrative and educational center of the state.  It was constructed between 1460 and 1478 by Sultan Mehmed II, the conquerer of Constantinople and expanded upon and altered many timnes throughout its long history.  It was the home of the Ottoman sultans and their court until the middle of the 19th century.   The basic design of the palace is centered on various courtyards and gardens around which are arranged offices devoted to state business, the buildings and pavillions serving as the residence of the sovereign and the buildings set aside for court employees who lived in the palace.  Impossible to see it all in one day. 

There are three main gates -- the Imperial Gate, the Gate of Salutation, and the Gate of Felicity.  The Harem is located is located in the garden beyond the Gate of Felicity, but costs extra to tour and the line is very long, so we didn't try to get to that.  This is the Imperial Gate, in front of which Ibi gave us some of the history of the Palace.

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We then entered the second garden, 

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where he explained more things about the next three gardens and we set up a meeting place for when we had finished our tour.  I was interested in all the strange things I was seeing around me.  The building on the top left is the Church of Saint Irene, one of the first churches in Constantinople.  I don't know who the other guys are, but thought they looked photographically interesting!

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Ibi did go on a bit and we seemed to stand a long time as he described everything that happened in the palace, all the rulers who had been there, what we would see as we walked around the various rooms.  Eventually we finally entered the final garden, where we would be left to our own devices.

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I'm not sure what it says about us that the two rooms we visited (other than the Treasury) were the Circumcision Room...

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...and the Children's library.

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Yes, we did get into the treasury and saw lots of beautiful gems (some of which I swear Elizabeth Taylor wore to some Oscar ceremonies!).   You can't take pictures in there, unfortunately, but I did buy a set of magnets of some of the more famous items.  

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(That thing 3rd from the left on top is
a cigarette case!)

The dagger is there, but just in its own window.  I was disappointed to discover that there was not a mannequin standing in the middle of the room wearing the thing, but I did check the ceiling so I can try to find the movie Topkapi and watch it again to see if it matches the reality.

We didn't go to the relics room, where they have what is purported to be Moses' staff and the right arm of John the Baptist.  I love it that religious people like to cut up the bodies of their saints and send them around the world for veneration.  It's even more amazing that something like a stick that an old man walking across the desert centuries ago carried was somehow deemed important enough to pass down from generation to generation so that it could eventually find its home in a museum in Istanbul...or that someone recognized that John the Baptist was going to be such an important religious figure that they cut up his body parts and saved them.  I swear P.T. Barnum was alive a long, long time ago!!!

I actually did fairly well wandering around the grounds in the heat, though I did sweat like a stuck pig.

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In the afternoon, we were on a special excursion on the Bosphorus Sea.  But first we stopped at the Spice Market, a place (along with the Grand Bazaar) I had been eager to visit once I knew that we were going to go to Istanbul.   We first met at a cart where they sell Simit, kind of the Turkey equivalent of the pretzel.  I remember seeing it featured in a segment on The Amazing Race once.  Vendors who don't have stalls like this pile the simit on pallats and carry them on their heads.  I saw that once, but was on the bus and didn't get a picture.  Ibi treated each of us to our own simit.

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This stand is in the middle of a huge open area from which you enter the Spice Market.

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It is an overwhelming assault on all the senses.  The smells, the sights, the sounds, the crush of people.  Vendor after vendor selling all sorts of spices, their aromas all surrounding you, their calling out to you to have you buy their stuff.  Food, spices, candies, books, religious items, jewelry, DVDs, clothes, toys, and things you never heard of or thought you might never see on display in a store.  Outside they were selling kitchen gadgets, like strainers, pots and pans, silverware, etc.  I'm sure no matter what you want, someone is selling it at the Spice Market!

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As we walked through the crush of people, the crowd began to get to me.  The thing is HUGE, L-shaped and I don't know, maybe a block in each direction? A kid kicked my cane out from under me, a woman pushing someone in a wheel chair kept banging the back of my legs until I finally just pushed through the crowd of people on my left so she could go ahead of me.  We bought a couple of things but I just wanted to get out of there (I found out later that Char was feeling the same way only she and Mike (from whom we had become separated in the crush) did the smart thing, found a cafe and sat there having coffee and baklava).  We found our way outside and bought an ice cream cone, then Walt found a nice spot under a big tree where I could sit in the shade, rather than stand in the hot sun waiting for the rest of the group to arrive, while he went back to tour the market.

That turned out to be a very bad idea!  It was a lovely tree and it was surrounded by benches and overhead the birds flittered in and out, sang...and shit.  In short order I had been "birded" three times and had nothing with which to wipe the bird shit off.  I was sitting next to a mother with two children.  She was feeding her baby bits of Turkish candy out of a bag and offered me a piece.  It was delicious. I finally decided that standing in hot sun was far better than sitting under a bird tree! I eventually hooked up with Linda, who had also found herself feeling claustrophobic.  Both of us stood by a vendor selling candies from a huge wheel off of which he could cut slabs, but neither of us had any money to buy some, so we just stood there until the group began to reassemble by the simit cart.

From there it was just a "hop, skip and a jump" over across the street to the boat where we would tour the Bosphorus.  But it was cobbled streets, my feet were killing me, there were lots of people, and we were surrounded by gypsies.  A little kid with the saddest face ever (good acting, kid!) begged for money, but there was nothing for me to do unless he would take a credit card.   I didn't have any money in any currency, local or otherwise.  In the meantime, Walt had forged on ahead of me because he was trying to rid himself of the guy who kept sticking his hand in his (Walt's) pocket.  How do people deal with that on a day to day basis?

We finally arrived at the boat, a full sized boat for just the 20 of us.  It was a most welcome sight.

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As unpleasant as the Spice Market had been (though I would not have given up the experience in spite of that because I really wanted to know what it was like), the boat could not have been more wonderful.  It was just what the doctor ordered.

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(Mike is eating a grilled ear of corn, which they sell everywhere
along with the simit.

The sea was beautiful, there was a cool breeze, someone was making freshly squeezed orange juice for us, and we traveled almost the length of the Bosphorus sea from Istanbul to the Black Sea, looking at the mosques and fancy houses on shore and not really listening to what Ibi was saying most of the time!

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Earlier in the day, I had asked Ibi about the call to prayer that we heard several times a day.  He told me (and later the group) that there are more than 3,000 mosques in Istanbul, kind of like churches, each of which have parishes.  Each mosque has two employees, who are paid by the government, the Imam and the Muezzin, who is the one who calls to prayer.  Each mosque has at least one minarette (tower) and it is from there that traditionally the call to prayers is done.   Ibi says that in older times, the Muezzin would actually climb the minarette and call the prayers in a loud voice to the local congregation.  Now with electricity and microphones, he doesn't even climb the minarette but just does it live from a microphone sitting, I presume, in the comfort of some chair.  I noticed after his explanation that every mosque we passed had a minarette with loudspeakers.

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Prayers are called five times a day, and the call is always the same, something about God being great and everyone should assemble to give him glory.  We never saw anybody anywhere who seemed to pay any attention, though!

The trip on the boat was somewhat restorative, something we all needed, and got us back to the hotel with a whole 30 minutes to spare before we left for our dinner that night.  It was to a "meat restaurant," Ibi said, where they only served meat.  Not exactly, but mostly.  

After the now-traditional 30-45 minute drive through Istanbul's always bumper to bumper traffic, we arrived at another neighborhood courtyard.  My heart sank as I saw the steps I would have to walk down to get to the place.

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As an incentive to then walk the three flights of steps UP to get to the rooftop restaurant, Ibi showed us the baklava, waiting for us for dessert.  He says that Devali makes the best baklava in Istanbul.

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Walt says he thinks that everybody in our group was glad that I was the first person behind Ibi going up the stairs. They were so narrow there was no way that anybody could pass me and I was so slow, hauling myself up each painful step that it took me forever to get there, so nobody felt rushed to keep up with Ibi.  He didn't tell us it was three flights.  He said something like "Up the stairs now" and it wasn't until I reached the first landing that he said "only two flights to go."  I thought he was kidding.  He wasn't.

However, once we got there, the place was lovely.  We sat at a long table under the sky (there was a motorized roof thing that they closed once when some smoke was coming into the eating area, but then opened again, so we sat under the stars).  It was a long table, with Ibi at one end and our group of 5 (Char was wiped out and opted out of the dinner) at the other end.

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That's the only thing I regret about the dinner.  We had no way of knowing what we were eating, or obsserving Ibi so we knew how we were supposed to mix and match the sauces and dishes.  We got a salad to start with, then some delicious lavash bread, some sauces and lemon slices and then about 4 different small servings of either beef or lamb.

This was my favorite dish of the night.

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I can't remember the name now (I saw it on a sign the next day near the Grand Bazaar), but it was lamb inside some sort of torpedo shaped crust, fried, and served with hummus so creamy it might have been thick whipped cream.  If I could find the recipe for that, I'd make hummus every night!
Whether we ate our food "properly" or not, everything we had was delicious.  Linda and I kind of sat there, though, because Mike and Bob had a lively conversation going between themselves all night and because she was seated between the two of them and I was across the table from Mike, we couldn't talk to each other, or interact with all the fun that was going on at the other end of the table.

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At the end of the meal, the promised baklava was, indeed, delicious, though I didn't like the rolled kind as much as the regular kind and gave my piece to Walt.

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When we returned to the hotel, I was actually glad that I couldn't connect to the internet because I think I was asleep within minutes and slept all night long. Istanbul today was fun...but it was also work!  It was such a full day in Istanbul, I can only just barely remember ever being in Ukraine.

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