04 February 2019
Today’s weather clearly demonstrated that February is February, and yesterday was just a gift to mark our arrival. Today was pretty windy, with almost no sun, and, according to the forecast, this is not going to be the worst day of our stay.
We had a Bosphorus cruise planned for today, and at 8am we were picked up by a minibus. Apparently in order to prepare us for a boat ride, the minibus hurled us from side to side, rushing down narrow streets, past countless (for some reason!) shops selling lighting fixtures.
There were six of us in the group – a couple from Southeast Asia, two Indians, and us – the Azerbaijanis. The first item on our agenda was Misir Carsisi – or Spice Bazaar, aka Egyptian Bazaar, with beautiful gilded passages, tons and tons of spices, nuts, Turkish delights, gold and silver! We entered this kingdom of Middle-Eastern goods with a firm intention to just look around. But resourceful sellers immediately involved us in a “round dance” of offers, treats, promises of discounts, and we changed our determination to not but anything – anyway, we didn’t end up making any completely impulsive purchases: we bought sweets, spices, a cezve and silver jewelry. What contributed most to our purchases was, first of all, our understanding of Turkish (which allowed the sellers to elaborate extensively on the quality of their goods) and secondly, the fact that we accidentally came across our fellow countrywoman at one of the shops – she seemed to be either the administrator or the owner.
Having left all our purchases in the minibus, with the kind consent of our guide, we transferred to the cruise boat, where there were a couple of other tourist groups apart from ours, but overall the boat was far from being full – apparently, it’s a low season now.
Yesterday the concierge at our hotel was trying to convince us to sign up for another cruise in the afternoon, scaring us with the usual morning fog, which would prevent us from seeing much. Fortunately, that turned out not to be the case. I mean, some fog was present indeed, but firstly, it didn’t really bother us, and besides, it didn’t dissipate in the afternoon either.
The cruise starts at the Kabatas ferry port, and first goes along the European part of the city, past such attractions as the Dolmabahce Palace, the Rumeli Fortress and the Ciragan Palace, converted into a Kempinski hotel – the most expensive one in Istanbul. We made nice photos, but cannot really say that our delight went through the roof. By the way, we were accompanied by seagulls during the whole of our journey, however, compared to those at Galata Tower yesterday, these ones seemed smaller.
What looked more interesting was the Asian part, which we sailed along when the ship turned around from the Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge. And here, even more than the actual sights of interest, including the Anadolu fortress, the Beylerbeyi Palace, the Kucuksu pavilion, we enjoyed the coastline, strewn with variegated mansions. Their unique location with direct Bosphorus views makes them the most expensive real estate in Turkey, with prices reaching up to hundreds of millions of dollars.
This morning we still had no exact plans for the afternoon: we had a thought to dedicate the day entirely to water travel and visit the Princes’ Islands. It was the weather that finally discouraged us. The Princes’ Islands are mostly good for walking around – there isn’t even any transport there, besides horse carts. Therefore, we changed our minds in favour of the Dolmabahce Palace, and we took an Uber there, which didn’t go perfectly well. He dropped us off near some beautiful (but locked!) palace gates and rushed off into the sunset. The street looked deserted, in particular, we didn’t see any crowds of tourists storming the palace.
To our luck, literally the only passer-by, whom we naturally addressed, knew exactly where the palace entrance was (it turned out that we had just been dropped off in the wrong place) and kindly showed us the way. By the way, she herself turned out not to be local, but an Afghan living in the USA and working here just temporarily.
The location of the palace is simply amazing – the sultans did know a thing or two about choosing the perfect place. The carved fences and the garden gates overlook the Bosphorus. One can imagine the pleasure of walking in this garden!
Dolmabahce is not the old residence of the sultans (which we aren’t going to see till tomorrow), but a 19th-century building, reflecting all of the contemporary European trends, which is especially noticeable in the furniture. Unfortunately, photography is prohibited inside the palace, and although not all visitors were quite law-abiding, we decided to comply.
There are two types of tickets: including and excluding a visit to the harem. Of course, the first type is preferable: in fact, the harem is much more interesting and luxurious than the rest of the palace, and better reflects the actual life of the sultan’s family. Along standard apartments of sultan’s wives, consisting of a bedroom, a living room and a bathroom (with a squat toilet, as everywhere in the palace!), there are also the luxurious and extensive apartments of Valide Sultan, the reigning sultan’s mother. The latter include a prayer room, a large reception room, a private room, and a spacious bedroom. Even the sultan’s own apartments in the harem are superior in luxury and decoration to his apartments in the official part of the palace.
The latter, of course, has beautifully furnished rooms, but the one that can be considered truly exclusive is the main hall with an incredibly painted domed ceiling. There are also two display rooms: the first one contains tableware and kitchenware, and the second one has medals, weapons, household and leisure items.
It’s interesting to note that after the fall of the monarchy, Atatürk chose Dolmabahce as his residence, and this is where he died – in one of the rooms (a very simple and modest one) of the former harem. This room is also open to visitors, and the bed in it is covered with a blanket representing the Turkish flag.
We stayed in Dolmabahce almost until its closing time. From here we were supposed to go for dinner, to a fish restaurant, booked in advance, in the Cihangir area. And this suddenly turned into a whole adventure. We hadn’t ordered a taxi in advance, and tried to hail one in the street, but the cars were going in the opposite direction and the taxi driver refused to pick us. Google showed that the restaurant was relatively close, literally a 22-minute walk.
What Google didn’t show, however, is that we would have to climb countless stairs a good deal of the way. Possibly, I would even say most certainly, there should exist a longer way without stairs – I mean, cars do get there somehow! – but we, naively and recklessly, not realising how much we would have to climb, went up the stairs. It was a breathtaking experiment! The stairs were quite steep and chipped, some parts of the way had no handrails, occasionally a stair was interrupted by a sewer manhole. Afraid to look back and feel dizzy, we climbed up and up, like cats, who can climb only up trees, out of fear. Speaking of cats, their appearance was the pinnacle of the whole climb. Five of them simultaneously ditched their food bowls (apparently, kindly provided by residents of the houses located along the stairs) and rushed at our feet. They were meowing loudly and rubbing against us, a couple of cats even smacked each other, fighting for the right to get in our way, and then followed us for a long time. I struggle to imagine what that was. In that situation, they totally seemed like messengers from hell, but perhaps the poor animals were just trying to welcome us and cheer us up. They only left us at the very last part of the staircase. Alas, there are no photos of the cats – it was not the right moment to take pictures, you know.
After we successfully overcame this “hurdle”, we still had to meander a bit more more around the streets going up and down, but this felt more tolerable. We entered the restaurant totally exhausted. But then we were rewarded with a magnificent view of the city from the 8th floor, delicious fish, and excellent service.