Thursday, October 14, 2010

Out of the Studio and On Vacation

So, about a year ago I'm looking at an email from Smithsonian Journeys for a trip to Jordan and I click the link to check out the itinerary and notice that the trip is going to Petra, a place that Bruce and I have always wanted to see.  I look at the dates and realize that the tour arrives in Petra on my birthday.  So I explain all of this to Bruce and he says to me, "well, I guess we better go."  And thus began our plans for our first vacation together.  Fast forward a year, and here we are, in Istanbul, Turkey, taking part in a pre-excursion package offered by the tour.  Three days and four nights in Istanbul.

We departed from the US on Oct 12, and arrived in Istanbul on Oct 13.  The international plane trip was not as bad as I thought it would be, even in coach.  We flew Turkish Airlines.  Once the flight took off they handed out these little bags of useful things:  earplugs, an eyemask, socks, toothbrush, toothpaste and lip balm.  Then they fed us dinner and turned out the lights.  A few hours before we landed they brought the lights back up (slowly) and fed us breakfast.  It was overcast when we arrived, and the trip to the hotel was a dark blur of heavy traffic.

We are staying at the Central Palace Hotel off of the Tacsim Square.  We dined somewhat late at the Haci Baba restaurant, within walking distance of the hotel.  The street the hotel is on is narrow and cobbled, and was active until about 2:30am.  It rained overnight and we opened the window.  It was a lovely sound.  It was still raining in the morning when we went down for breakfast.  The Turkish breakfast is nothing like the US breakfast, although in concession to foreigners they did have some cereal out.  They had boiled eggs, but no sausage or bacon.  Olives, cheese, breads, jams, honey fresh from a comb (the comb was still sitting out on the buffet table), cold cuts, juices, coffee, tea, and sweet breads.  They seem to like their sweets.

It was still raining when we boarded the bus for our trip over to the Hippodrome, where we would begin our day.  Fortunately Bruce and I had our rain coats and our Tilley Hats.  We never had to crack open the umbrella, although there were numerous street vendors selling them.  After a quick look at the three columns that are pretty much all that remain of the Hippodrome, we entered the Blue Mosque.

This is the courtyard.  I didn't really get any good pictures inside.  It was very dark and crowded.  And the view of the domes was marred by scores of wires coming down from the ceiling that are used to suspend lights above the floor.  But, yes, there was beautiful tilework, and beautiful painting, and beautiful stained glass.  After wandering through we exited out the side.
And continued on to the Hagia Sophia.  This had been a church and was converted to a Mosque, and then converted to a museum by Ataturk in 1934.
Once again it was too dark to get any really good photos inside.  The thing that struck us the most was the use of marble in building the structure.  There were so many different colors and patterns of marble, and the builders would take a block and cut slabs and then match up the pattern as if they were matching wood grain.  To get to the upper level we had to walk up a stone ramp that spiraled up and up, and similarly to get back down again.

After wandering the Hagia Sophia for a while we walked to the Ottoman Hotel Imperial for lunch and then walked to the Topkapi Palace.  That is the wall of the palace.  Topkapi means Cannon Ball gate and the palace is called this because the gates down by the sea had cannons and cannon balls in front of them.  Those gates are long gone, but the name remains.
We spent a fair bit of time in the Harem.  This part of the Topkapi was not actually on the tour but the group wanted to go so we went.  I am glad that we did because the museum part is not well lit and visiting the Harem allowed us to really appreciate the artistry and architecture of the palace.
This is the Courtyard of the Courtesans.

After spending a considerable amount of time in the Harem, we did go see the exhibits, which were dimly lit and did not have very much information about what we were seeing.  One thing that you can say about the Sultans was that they liked their bling.  There were pieces that were literally covered with jewels.  We thought it interesting to note that the jewels were not faceted (except for a few, like the 86 caret diamond in the treasury) but look rather as if they had been tumbled as one would do for polishing stones.  Of course we had to see the famous Topkapi dagger with the large emeralds in the hilt, mostly because of the movie about it being stolen.  The interior of the Topkapi in that movie did not really look like what we saw.  In the movie the lighting was far better.

Here is another portion of the palace and is representative of the decoration and architecture.
One of the things that struck us even more than the beautiful tilework were the stained glass windows.  These were jewel-like and repeated the complex patterns that are so common in this architecture.
Looking over the wall to the left I was delighted to see bits and pieces of the palace laid out on the grass.
One other thing we observed at Topkapi - cats.  Lots and lots of cats, and they were very friendly.  After finishing up at the Topkapi around 5pm we boarded our bus for the trip back to the hotel.  Once there I ran a hot bath and we soaked in the Jacuzzi for a while to relax our tired bones.

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