The last stop on our grand trip was a bit of a bonus. I noticed pretty much every flight back to Kazan stopped over in Istanbul, for at least 6 + hours, so I figured, why not double that layover and really take in this legendary city? When we got pretty much no sleep in the Bucharest airport, this plan was looking tenuous, but we made the most of it, pounded the Turkish coffee, and hit up what may be my favorite city of the whole trip.
I knew we were in for something good even before we landed, watching the black, red, and orange sunrise over city and sea from thousands of feet up, buildings and water alike glittering in gradually retreating night. It was full day when we got through customs and hopped on the train into the city, with one destination in mind- the central, seeped in history and architectural grandeur Sultanahmet Square.
Sultanahmet is the historical center of the city, around which the biggest sights are clustered. We grabbed some simit (sesame bagel with soft goat cheese) and took a little break on a grassy berm to eat and a few of the dozens of friendly cats (nearby vendors called many of them by name) that roam it. We found that the concrete expanse we were seated near was the old Roman Hippodrome, which is now populated with monuments spanning this city’s storied history- a 3500 year old Egyptian Obelisk to a twisted column of brass melted down after a Greek victory over the Persian Empire from the Temple of Delphi to a German pavilion and fountain gifted to the Ottoman Empire.
Right next to the old Hippodrome area is the Blue Mosque, one of the largest and most beautiful in the world. We cued up, took off our shoes, and filed into huge-domed, stupendously ornate, and distinctly foot-smelling expanse. It’s gorgeous, and would have been an interesting comparison with the legendary Hagia Sophia, which it sits across from, but alas, it’s closed on Mondays. Another reason to go back.
Behind the Hagia Sophia, on a promontory overlooking the Bosporus, is Topkapi Palace, the incredibly affluent palace of the Ottoman kings. It’s utterly magnificent, composing four courtyards surrounded by royal chambers and apartments where you can see reception rooms for visiting dignitaries, pools, prayer rooms, courtyard gardens and fountains, and an array of riches of staggering brilliance, including an 86 carat diamond, apparently found in a garbage dump and traded for some silver spoons to the palace. Topkapi is a jewel of Muslim architecture, encrusted with and housing even more, well, jewels.
After leaving the palace, and basically at our 30th hour without sleep, we were pretty beat. We walked past a Roman pillar that was originally the center of all radiating roads outward, then hunted down some good Turkish food. We opted for doner, because when in Istanbul, obviously, as well as adana kebab, a very savory minced meat patty. It was easy to see how this has become the most ubiquitous fast food in the world, or at least Europe, anyway.
Eat your heart out, McDonald’s.
After grabbing a sticky, thick Turkish ice cream cone, complete with a keepaway show from the dexterous vendor, we headed for our last stop, Chora Church. To get there we had to wind our way through a slightly sketchy, but vibrant hilltop neighborhood, full of apartments with head scarf-wearing women yelling down into the street and men smoking and having an evening chat on the street corners. We also passed through a street market full of fresh fish and produce before arriving at Chora just before the last admittance of the day. This small Byzantine Church is over a millennium old, but its colorfully painted walls and frescoes, preserved because they were plastered over for centuries, are as vibrant as ever.
Once we finished, it was time to head back to the train, and the airport. Instead of walking down the same street we came up, we walked up towards a wall I noticed on the map, and found a large stretch of the once-invincible, notorious Roman wall that surrounded old Constantinople. I clambered up some extremely steep steps to a worn tower and was treated with an expansive twilit view of the city all the way to the sparkling blue Bosporus. It was the perfect punctuation to a trip of a lifetime… but more of an ellipsis than a period. I’ll be back.