Raining Cats and Dogs…
Istanbul, Turkey Oct 2020
The rain had eased a little the next morning so with aching legs, we rode the “Tünel” – a historic subway funicular built in 1875, making it the world’s second oldest underground urban rail line after the London underground. The line consists of only two stations, the historic carriages carrying you from Karaköy (sea level), climbing around 60 metres, reaching the upper station, Beyoğlu after travelling just over 500 metres. It doesn’t sound very far, but if you’d climbed as many stairs and hills as we had during this trip, it was a godsend!
Hedging our bets against the weather we decided that today’s dose of “art and culture” should be under cover. The compact but comprehensive Museum of Modern Art ticked that box, with an eclectic display of works by mainly Turkish artists. We spent an enjoyable couple of hours wandering the backstreets of Beyoğlu, exploring the antique and artisan shops, and couldn’t resist buying a box of delicious freshly baked baklavas.
I was amazed at the number of stray cats and dogs lounging around outside of every shop. They are all well fed and cared for, and small shelters have even been built for the cats in several places. If only we showed the same compassion for our homeless population! The dogs have ear tags to prove that they have been neutered and inoculated by an animal welfare organisation, and are regularly checked according to their tag colour and number.
As the heavens opened once again, we slid down the hill back to the comfort of our warm, dry hotel room to scoff our baklavas and watch the rain.
Making the most of the sun the following morning, we set off for the recently gentrified, traditional Orthodox Greek/Jewish districts of Fener and Balat. The precipitous streets are full of colourful old wooden houses and delightful boutiques and café’s where you could sit and watch the world go by (at an almost perpendicular angle!).
Catching the bus back to Sultanahmet, we soaked up the sights and smells of the Spice Market and found ourselves back in the Grand Bazaar. As fascinating as it is, it becomes rather overwhelming after a while, and we retreated to a café for some refreshment and made plans for the afternoon.
While the rain seemed to be staying away, I fancied exploring the Topkapi Palace, but Dan wanted to continue shopping, so we arranged to meet up later for a “Sunset boat trip” down the Bosporus.
This amazing Ottoman museum and its grounds surpassed my expectations. It had been the home to generations of Sultans and their royal households for almost 700 years and contains an enormous selection of well-preserved artefacts. The detail in the mosaics and gold leaf which glazed the walls and ceilings was breath-taking. The sultan, his wives, his courtiers, generals, the palace school each had their own kitchens – plus there were separate buildings dedicated to preparing drinks, pastries and sweetmeats, medicines, plus cooks quarters and warehousing. Each section contained large collections of utensils and elaborate porcelain which provided a wonderful insight into the culinary culture of the palace.
By the time I’d finished exploring the impressive kitchens, the weather had turned less than impressive and I had to dodge the downpours as I visited the many pavilions within the grounds. Some of these were used as libraries or to entertain visitors, but some were for sole use of the sultan’s many wives – these were the ones which looked most inviting with lush brocade cushions and ornate coffee tables – oh, you can imagine the gossip that went on!
There was even a pavillion reserved for state circumcisions of the sultan’s sons. My visit here was cut short (‘scuse the pun) as I wanted to get to the Harem before it closed.
There was an additional entry charge, but I’d heard that it was worth it. Only a few of the 300 rooms were open to the public, but the maze of courtyards, alleyways and magnificent bathrooms impressed nonetheless. The concubines were strictly guarded by the black Eunuchs and overseen by the valide sultan (mother of the reigning sultan) who sounded like the mother-in-law from hell! Rivalry amongst the girls was high, and poisoning, stabbing and being thrown over the palace walls into the sea was not uncommon. It sounded like this may have been the inspiration for the ever popular Turkish soap operas. On the plus side (if they survived!), the girls were all given a good education and learnt how to read, write, sing, play an instrument and pleasure the sultan (ooh-er!).
Sadly darkness had prematurely arrived due to the stormy weather so I had to explore many of the rooms using the torch on my phone and by the time I found my way out, the rain was torrential.
Meeting up with Dan, we concluded that our sunset boat trip plan was sunk, and after warming up with a cuppa we made our way back over the bridge to Karaköy hoping the weather would improve. Sadly the rain gods weren’t on our side and as we trudged up yet another ridiculously steep hill towards Dan’s selected restaurant (I was beginning to wonder if he deliberately chose these for the distance they were from any form of public transport). Thoroughly soaked through, I began to understand how salmon feel as they make their way back upstream to their spawning ground. It didn’t deter me from tucking into a hearty plate of fish and chips however, once we finally reached our destination.
Not quite the final night in Istanbul I had imagined, but we had enjoyed our stay in this fascinating multicultural city and I left with a feeling that there was much more here to explore another time.
Turkey seems to have fallen out of favour recently as a major tourist destination, but I discovered that it has so much more to offer than cheap beach resorts. I vowed to return again one day and uncover more of its delights.