Day 1 – the cultural tour of Istanbul

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After a hot and restless start to the night and a rather chilly finish to it as the air conditioning was finally able to overcome the heat from the outside we woke at 8 and went for breakfast on the 6th floor Olive restaurant that has a view over the city and Bosphorus. As is normal in our holiday hotels the buffet breakfasts result in a mιnage of unusual combinations if flavours. This time ranging from waffles, to omelettes, cakes, chocolate gateau and even a few olives thrown in for good measure. We meet our guide, Yasmin in the lobby.

20130727-232751.jpgYasmin is a friendly, diminutive young lady with long dark typically Turkish hair and dangling earrings coupled with a piercing at the top of her left ear. She waits patiently for everyone to be ready, suntan lotion applied and drinks in hand before we set out together to walk around the major sites of Istanbul. Yasmin explains as we make our way towards our first stop at the hippodrome that you can think of Istanbul's history in 3 main chronological ages. Up to the 1500s when it was largely an in effect the Eastern Roman Empire, from the 1500s to 1923 when it was the heart if the Ottoman Empire and finally modern Turkey where despite its downgrading from the country's capital (which moved to Ankara after the civil war and independence in 1923) it continued and continues to this day to be the preeminent city of Turkey with more than 13m citizens.

At the hippodrome we see the remains of what was a large arena for chariot racing, a U-shaped structure which is long gone but seated 100,000 people (when filling the middle too) in its hey-day. We see what remains if the columns that used to run down the central of the racetrack - just 3 left all three different - one moved here from Egypt, one from Greece and one build in Turkey itself. We also hear how Istanbul became the capital if the Eastern Roman Empire and was known as Constantinople in remembrance of Emperor Constantine.

Then we move onto the Blue Mosque, the most important mosque in Istanbul. It has 6 minarets which is very unusual. The story says that at the time the mosque was built, the only mosque in the world was the one at Mecca and apparently the Mecca mosque was less than happy with the situation until the emperor donated money for a seventh to be built in Mecca (there are now 8). The mosque is a fabulous structure, completely evocative of Istanbul. It has several domes/semi domes and the decoration on the ceiling inside is exquisite.
It's a working mosque so we have to take off our shoes and Kate drapes a pashmina over her head and shoulders (unfortunately should would not allow a photo of her like this!). Callum on the other hand has now started to regale us with explanations of where Assassins Creed is set (apparently you can climb the top of one of the minarets to get your bearings on the city).

Then we visit Hagia Sophia ('Divine Wisdom' or as Callum calls it Divine Wiseness) which when it was built it was the biggest dome in the world and even now is in the top 4. Originally it was built as an orthodox Christian church (the current building is the third to be built as the other 2 were burned down). However, when the Ottomans took over it was converted to a mosque which actually protected it from being ransacked as the invaders would never steal or vandalise a mosque. Now it's a museum and has an interesting mixture Christian and Islamic architecture. On the way down from the balcony level, which is reached via a bumpy stone ramp way (the church was originally built in only 5 years and is made from recycled stonework) Callum and Tom plan how they would manage to make it down in a shopping trolley (not exactly intellectual stuff!).

20130727-233126.jpgOur final cultural stop today is the Basilica Cistern which is apparently one of the settings for Dan Brown's Inferno. This is basically an underwater reservoir which was built to help keep Istanbul's fresh water supply flowing. It is dark deep down in the depths under the city. There are many columns with low lighting giving it an eerie feeling and the shallow water now contains large fish.

All the columns are different with various patterns and reliefs as again it was created from recycled materials. It even has two heads of Medusa as bases for two of the columns. Lunch is full of new experiences! On Yasmin's recommendation we select a restaurant used mainly by the locals. The food choice is limited but it is famous for its Kofte (meatballs). So we sit eating our Kofte, some kebabs and salad accompanied by a very strange drink called Ayran. It's basically Natural Yoghurt, water and salt. It is very unusual! Finally we are tempted to try the semolina halva. This is semolina, honey and pine nuts and is surprisingly good. Callum and Tom turn their noses up at first but after a little taste are soon tucking in! Over lunch we also quizzed Yasmin on the political situation in Turkey, her view on the Turkish position Syria and the situation in Egypt. Great grounding for Kate's degree in History and Politics!

Our final trip of the day is to two markets - the grand bazaar and the spice market. As we wonder around the grand bazaar, filled with every assortment of shop and market stall you can imagine it was easy to see how you could get lost. The main thoroughfare is like a small road with boutique shops on either side (Callum adds that you can swing along the central bars of this road in Assassins Creed and the main character pickpockets the passers by - fortunately none are around today!). The swish silver merchants and gaudy gold traders give way to lavish leather bags as we turn into more narrow passageways.

Along the route we encounter swords and pistols (which hold the boys attention for some time until they are absolutely certain that they are not going to be allowed to by one), second hand and antique sellers and of course lots of rugs and other clothes outlets. Callum is particularly fascinated (or rather repulsed) by the shop selling flashy white boys clothing that look fit for a prince when Yasmin explains that these are the clothes boys where to 'celebrate' their circumcisions! More likely what they where while others celebrate while they are probably in too much pain! While there was much that could be bought in the end, and certainly to our slight embarrassment the only purchase as Tom's Batman t-shirt!

20130727-233146.jpgAt this point Toms feet were beginning to ache and Callum revealed that his trainers had two massive holes at the front where his toes see basically hanging out. So we made a couple of quick detours. First stop was a pretty little cafe for a Turkish coffee - nice and strong! While we are sitting here, Yasmin tells us about a big argument she had in this very coffee shop with a man who supported the government position on Taksim Square. They had debated reasonably for a lite while until the man, who had suggested that the protestors had defiled the mosques in some way when Yasmin said they had video proof that it was injured people who had been taken there in an emergency but the man insisted that there was no way his president would ever lie. It got heated and turned into a shouting match - tempers were running high.

And secondly to a trainer stall to buy a pair of Nikes for Callum for 40 Turkish Lira ( about £15 - yep they were obviously real!). We did better with our purchases in the spice markets. Whereas the grand bazaar is mainly aimed at tourists, the spice market is used by locals so is somehow more real. As we entered, we were immediately offered Turkish delights and pistachios soaked in honey. We tried but didn't feel pressurised to buy and spent a happy half hour looking, trying and then buying - Turkish coffee, Apple Tea, spices for Kofte and four different types of Turkish delight which I will be very surprised if they make it through tomorrow! Yasmin bought and shared some dried apricot and walnuts which were lovely too. Finally back at the hotel (by the way it is still only 3.30 or 4 at this point - we packed so much in today!).

After a wonderful cool swim, a game if water volleyball and a brief nap 20130727-233219.jpgwe headed out for dinner, first walking through the many narrow streets with offers of dinner in all sides and then along the River (The Golden Horn) and back through Guihane Park (where we unnervingly passed an army barracks with soldiers holding machine guns stood guard) back to the restaurant we had selected - the Hatay Restaurant (we took the long route to avoid the many restauranteurs who we'd said 'yes, we'll probably be back for dinner'!) where we ate a wonderful fare of Ottoman Lamb Chops, Chicken in a Turkish tomato sauce, a spicy kebab and....a margarita pizza? (we're not judging you Kate!).

So I am finishing this blog today, slightly full, sitting back at the Yasmak Sultan Hotel. Its been a great day today. Not just all the sights we've seen but we've also learn a lot about Turkish life and politics from our guide, Yasmin who has been super - she's been careful to give just enough of the history but also be aware of the boys attention span! Tomorrow should be a good day and we are looking forward to our trip on the Bosphorus!