Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Road Trip: Istanbul with Anne-Flore

I love hearing 'day in the life' stories from friends and so the 'blog road trip' came to mind; here is our first one! Anne-flore is French, lives in Devon, and in between LSD trips (that's a type of running - long slow distance) finds time to work on a Ph.D. in things of a mappy nature.

Hello! Most of you probably don't know me, so I'll just say that I'm friend of Orlaith's from Exeter. I was in Istanbul at the weekend with a couple of friends, and Orlaith's asked me to guest blog and share a couple of pictures from the city that was once Byzantium and Constantinople.

Istanbul is a pretty big city full of contrasts. To go for the cliché (that is none the less pretty true), it is where the East meets the West, although I found that it satisfied my idea of the East more than it resembled my experience of the West. This was largely due to the days being rhythmically guided by the crying of the imams who call out five times a day from the city's many mosques. The fact that this was the last few days of the fast of Ramadan exacerbated the awareness of being a visitor to a very foreign culture.

History greeted us at nearly every street corner in Sultanahamet, the most easterly of the western shore of the Bosporus. The Haghia Sophia is by far the most impressive of these constructions, because it has visible traces of having swapped religions over the centuries before settling on being a mosque. Conversely, the nearby Blue Mosque (which is still in use) is a monument to Islam through the ages. The epitomous blues tiles create an eerie atmosphere that remind worshippers and visitors that this is a spiritual place.

The Topkapi Palace a few blocks away was the hub of Ottoman power for more than 3 centuries, and is an edifice that I will shamelessly compare to Versailles. Overlooking the Bosphorous on the Golden Horn, the location is stunning and foregrounds the strategic location of the city. There was an impressive harem (no longer in use, I hasten to add) that once housed up to 400 concubines. There were a lot of blue tiles here, all exquisitely painted and mysteriously entrancing. This where we also got to see a pair of sandals that once belonged to the prophet Mohammed as well as a box that contained a lock of his hair. This was kinda weird.

Not far, still, was the Grand Bazaar where one can purchase all the counterfeit Prada, Dolce & Gabbana and Louis Vuitton one could possibly want. (For the records, I did not partake.) I found this place unexpectedly pleasant, and the shopkeepers not too overbearing. Of course, there were a lot of "Lady, come look", but a quick shake of the head was enough to move on in peace. There were a lot of comparatively authentic trinkets here, such as lamps, ceramics and backgammon boards, so, while the shoppers were mainly tourists, there was a somewhat real feel to the whole thing. Basically, not your everyday shopping mall!

The night scene is pretty scarce. In the Tünel and Taksim quarters (where Starbucks and Levi's can be found), a couple of bars and kebab restaurants constituted most of what there is to do once it's dark and the fast can be broken. The local liquor is raki which is a very strong aniseed drink that seems to resemble Greek ouzo. A couple of those and it's time to go home in a dolmus (shared taxi) that whizzes through the illuminated city faster than I care to know...

All this was fuelled by many exciting foods, my favourites being the sweet and rich baklavas. I highly recommend! But it's also the place for various meats, such as sheep's small intestine, which I must say I stayed as far as possible from...

Oh, and just quickly, because this is me, I'll have to mention that there are some great maps to be seen in Istanbul. Very pretty indeed, with the Ottoman script and sophisticated gilt cartouches.

What was also really cool was the earthquake on Friday night. Yeah, it was very mild and lasted only about 15 seconds. The building shook, the windows shook, the sofa shook, the piranhas in their aquarium shook (yes, my friend has an aquarium with piranhas -- and I slept with my head no more than a couple of yards from them. Scary!).

Orlaith, back to you!

Bazaars and raki and earthquakes oh my! A fabulous glimpse into another world - thank you so much :)

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