Day 03 – Istanbul – Hagia Sophia, Basilica Cistern, Dinner in Taksim Square

Welcome to Day 3 of Istanbul.

Today the agenda was simple to see the Hagia Sophia, The Basilica Cistern, and meet up with the Freedheim’s for dinner (they are a couple of friends from Cleveland who are also vising Istanbul and we thought it would be fun to meet them).

The Hagia Sophia is very close to the hotel and a quick walk through the intensely hazy and very humid Hippodrome revealed a massive and I mean massive line of people.  As we got closer to the end of the line a guy selling guidebooks told me if I bought a guidebook from him for 30TL he would help me skip the line – I declined.  However at the end of the line we bumped into a Belgian couple who were negotiating with a tour guide who had an American couple and said for 100TL he could get us in without the line – split three way that would be 35TL per couple so we jumped on board and he escorted us around the long line, past the ticket counter, through security and just started giving us a tour.  The worst tour in the world!

He had a notebook in his hand with photocopies of pictures (and I mean high contrast B&W photocopies) and he explained very quickly about the original Hagia Sophia.  This is fine but we were standing outside – waiting to go in – and he is explaining about the foundations and history and we really want to go inside. So we go inside – and he directs us over to one side saying that we are going upstairs first.  We all want to see the great dome and stand in this expansive space that for almost 1,000 years was the largest church in the world – but he wants to go upstairs first.  So we do and he gives us more history – but every time there is a space with a crowd he moves us to a place without one and talks about things there instead – so we got to see the more – esoteric parts of the space.  He was very nice – don’t get me wrong – and if I had paid him I might have ditched him – but I owed him money so I stayed on the tour.

Eventually we made it downstairs to see the big dome but it was at this point he pulled out his notebook again and tried to sell us all on a group tour to Asia for tomorrow.  Suffice it to say – we all smiled – paid him – and went on our way.

We went back through and even though it was 95% humidity and really warm – it still is spectacular and hard to imagine how they built this in the 6th century!

After the Hagia Sophia we stopped for some lunch – sometimes you never know what to eat and we got the big mixed grill sampler for two – I never realized it was for two before always thinking that it was really just a giant lunch and not ordering it.  The food was great and after a quick apple tea we headed to the Basilica Cistern.

The line at the Basilica Cistern was long and unavoidable but it moved quickly.  Basically it is a giant underground reservoir that has these gorgeous columns and some spectacular decorations including an upside down and a sideways Medusa head.  The scene in From Russia with Love where he is taken under Istanbul via boat was filmed there which is really funny when you see that while it is large it really is an enclosed space.

Amanda noticed that there were some pretty big fish in the water and I can imagine even back when it was filled with water that fish were in it as well.

Its a strange atmosphere – dark, damp, cool.  But also party like – even though things are slippery people act crazy and run around it trying to get pictures in the dark – its a constant barrage of flashing.  You can’t bring a tripod unless you pay a professional photography fee but I do have some long exposures using the railing for stability.  These are like 6 to 10 second exposures – again it is REALLY dark down there.

They do Ottoman photography where they dress you up like a Sultan – sort of the same thing we do with Western photos.  It was surprising busy there.  They also sell freshly squeezed pomegranate juice – and for 10TL you get like a tiny paper cup full!

As you leave you end up in a gift shop (of course) but we had dinner plans across town with the Freedheim’s so we went back to the hotel to get ready.

For those concerned I was indeed able to find deodorant and now I am use Axe body spray for men – it was a fortune!

The Freedheim’s are staying near Taxsim Square which is across town – not hard to get to by the trams but the trams were packed – crazy sardine packed – even the Funicular (the elevator tram) was packed – it was even packed on the way home at 11pm.

We arrive at the Grand Hyatt and wow – I like where I am staying but – wow – it was nice – security quizzed us on the way in – and we ended up staying there for dinner.  The restaurant was a little strange. It looked like a buffet with various stations but in reality it was just an inside out kitchen showing the various selections of meats, cheeses, Mezzes (appetizers), and desserts.

Dinner was bizarre, the food was good but the service was selective.  When they wanted us to purchase – they were very attentive – trying to push large platters of appetizers and meats and such – once the food came – they were gone.  At dessert time however we found out that you could order the dessert buffet for 18TL (per person) and sample everything – which was crazy.

Hey – research is research

Tomorrow we go to Topkapi Palace

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Enjoy the pictures!