Turkey is a predominantly Muslim country, so it comes as no surprise that its capital city, Istanbul, has an overwhelming number of mosques whose domes dot the skyline. The hour-long drive from Istanbul´s Sabiha Gokcen airport provided us with stunning views of what seemed an infinite array of these holy structures. Liebling and I had arrived in Istanbul very early in the morning, after taking a three-hour night flight from Berlin. Our arrival was greeted by heavy rain, which admittedly dampened our spirits as we had hoped to see and do a lot in our three days there. We had previously arranged a transfer from the airport to our hotel, so upon exiting the arrivals gate at the airport, we were met by our driver, who, while nice, drove dangerously fast on the slick, rainy highway.
Upon arrival at our hotel, the lovely Hotel Sultania, Liebling and I charted out the day’s agenda. Luckily, by this point, the torrential downpour had let up and revealed grey (but dry) skies. We decided to take advantage of the rain reprieve and set out on a walking tour of the historic center of the ancient city.
Did I mention that Istanbul is a ridiculously sprawling city that is the only one in the world to span two continents (Europe and Asia)? If not, well, there you go. The historic center of the city is found on the European side, known as the Sultanahmet quarter. Sultanahmet is home to the two most famous attractions in Istanbul, the Hagia Sofia , and the Blue Mosque. The area is bustling. We grabbed a quick breakfast in a local cafe, where I had my first experience with Turkish tea (didn’t like it- too bitter and too strong).
From there, we walked over to the Hagia Sophia
, where we were wowed by its impressive interior. Apparently, this structure, now a secular museum after various past incarnations as an Orthodox Cathedral, and later, a Mosque, is reknowned for its huge central dome, supported by four hidden pillars. The lighting gave an enchanting, ethereal effect, hypnotizing Liebling and I, and rendering us almost numb to the large crowd of tourists who were also gathered in the building.
After snapping a few pictures, we continued on to the next monument on our hit list. The Blue Mosque is perhaps the most famous attraction in Istanbul, and dubbed as such because of the blue mosaic tile that covers its inside walls. The structure is still a functioning mosque, open to the prayerful and atheist tourist alike, so, ever observant and respectul, Liebling and I removed our shoes to enter, as did all others seeking entry into the mosque. To be honest, though, after the opulence and grandeur of the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque was the poor country cousin. I wasn’t awed by it, despite the exterior being pretty impressive. It was the interior that didn’t strike me as anything particularly special, though Liebling was mightily impressed. But different strokes… Not to mention that I had to beat a hasty retreat as the overwhelming smell of stinky feet (you have to take off your shoes to enter, remember?) was making me feel nauseous. Yikes!
After getting lost in the nearly deserted streets of the old quarter of town, we finally found ourselves at the Topkapi Palace, which is known for being the primary residence of the Ottoman Sultans for upwards of 400 years. The grounds of the palace were massive, but by this time, I was both cold and a little wet (damn the inclement weather) so I didn’t enjoy visiting the grounds as much as I could, and took very few pictures as I was feeling too cold to bother taking out my camera. One of the highlights of visiting this palace happens to be the harem that is attached to one of the main buildings, but when we got there, we were dismayed to see that that section of the complex was closed!! Bummer! We still ascended one of outdoor stairwells that lead us to the top of one of the buildings and provided a very nice view on the city, however.