Day 04 – Istanbul – Hippodrome, Hagia Sophia Mausoleum, Hagia Irene, Topkapi Palace, and a terrible Hamam

Day 4

It really is amazing how many things are in walking distance of the hotel.

While it is located in the Hippodrome we hadn’t really stopped to film the monuments of it yet.  Today we filmed me introducing the walled obelisk – which looks like a giant Jenga game and the Egyptian obelisk which is giant piece of pink granite.  There is more in the Hippodrome but that was all we did today.

We then walked towards Topkapi Palace to spend the day there – it is huge about 6,000,000 square feet – and as it is an entire city within a city that is all we had planned for the day.  On the way we passed the Mausoleum of the Hagia Sophia which is small and pretty (and free) and the Hagia Irene which is only used as a performance space and normally closed – I stuck my head in before they kicked me out – no photo or video from the inside though.

The lines at Topkapi were immense, as was the heat.  It is 25TL to enter and the tour guides were offering line jumping for 100TL per person.  We waited in the line.  It is a large space and some places inside are more popular than others.  Once through the main gate and into the outer courtyard most people go right for the inner courtyard, we however headed to the second ticket booth to pay another 15TL to visit the Harem or the private living space of the Sultans.  Its actually has the best architectural details in the Palace and most people skip it!

I brought my Pivothead video goggles with me to Istanbul just for this part of the trip – I know from experience that you cannot shoot video in both the treasury and the reliquary.  The treasury has an 86 carrot diamond and the reliquary boasts many items of Mohammed (like his flag, tooth, beard, etc) but it also had the sword of King David, the staff of Moses, the saucepan of Abraham, and the turban of Joseph.  I secretly tried using my camera on previous occasions and both times the staff of Moses didn’t come out at all – well this time I was going to get a picture of it!

So I got in line – well in the mob – put on my video glasses – hit the switch and pushed through.  I had been practicing to move my head slowly and pan nicely.  I felt good about what I shot and used my still camera to get a shot of the saucepan of Abraham – I rested the camera on a stantion and shot wide. Not to jump ahead but back at the hotel I reviewed the footage and a lot of it came out – but the display that houses the staff of Moses is black.  I mean BLACK – you can see a sign – you can see some background – but no staff!  What does that mean? I have no idea!

Anyways back at the treasury I tried the same things – and a lot of the footage did come out and it was quite fun.  Some good stuff for the film.

So we are wandering around the courtyard and I am pointing out the sights to Amanda and I say – and there are the Freedheims – and indeed there they were! They had just finished their tour.  It reminded me of last year when I spotted my Aunt and Cousin outside of the Hagia Sophia (I knew that they were in Turkey but had no idea where they were that day and just spotted them – it freaked my Aunt out).

We had lunch at the 112 year old restaurant at the Palace – it was very expensive but one of the best meals we have had in Istanbul and had views of the Bosphorus and Asia.  I highly recommend it over the cafe.

I enjoyed the gallery of the Sultan’s portraits because it has a lot of air conditioning and the pavilions because they are small and ornate.

After a busy day of filming and touring we headed back to the hotel.

Amanda suggested that I get to a Hamam to get a massage for my back and I stopped at an inexpensive Hamam near the hotel.

I have done the Hamam before its a simple process:

They give you a room where you lock up your stuff and change into a towel.

They sit you in the wet sauna where they pour hot and cold water on you and then exfoliate your body.

Then they lay you on a slab and massage you with soap bubbles – after which they rinse you with more hot and cold water.

I then sometimes pay extra for an ‘oil’ massage which is just a regular massage.

Now I have been to high end places and low end places and I’m not too fussy – the guy at the door told me for 80TL (down from 90TL) I would get the full package for an hour and a half.  I paid him – did the whole thing – got back to the room and looked at my watch – it had been 45 minutes!

So I asked to speak to the guy who sold me the package and all of the sudden – no one spoke English.  Eventually after some back talking about the true length of the massage and such – I made it very clear – I was sold a 90 minute package – I paid for a 90 minute package – I got a 45 minute one – when you don’t get what you pay for they call it… and they handed me 20TL back and rushed me out the door.


After we went for dinner and met a lovely couple from Ireland who were vacationing in Bulgaria. For the third night in a row I had Sea Bass and every time I get it they make it differently.

That’s it for Day 4 – tomorrow off to some museums!

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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!

Day 02 – Istanbul – The Blue Mosque, The Grand Bazaar, The Book Bazaar, and the Sultan Beyezit Mosque

While it is technically day 02 of the trip it certainly feels more like day 1 because the day you fly in is always a throw away day.  In fact as this is the first real day of filming I decided to only film things that I could do again in case we didn’t do it right.

Our first stop of the day was to get me a shave and a haircut.  I went back to the barber I had gone to last year and he was very happy to let us film him giving me a straight razor shave.  He remembered me and asked where the big guy (Tim) was.  Best haircut I ever got – and the shave was so close.

Amanda was having a fun time recording the carpet and other vendors trying to hustle me on the street – with the lapel mic getting such good audio she is going to follow me more and just ‘see what happens’ – some of it was really fun.

We went to the Blue Mosque which is awesome as ever but it really bothers me that many of the women who they make cover their heads, quickly remove the covering when they walk into the Mosque – not respectful.  I tried not to take too many photographs as I have 10,000+ from the last 2 trips of Istanbul alone!

On the way to the train we passed the ‘Milion’ – a ruin of a triumphal arch – I tried to read the sign for the camera – I am much better ad libbing.

We hopped on a train to go the Grand Bazaar and got off at the Column of Constantine.  Great pigeons there – a man from Saudi Arabia explained that the ones with 2 black stripes were really special pigeons only found in Saudi Arabia (even though I was looking at them here in Istanbul) and that they were normally only in holy places (even though they were here by the column).

The Grand Bazaar is huge and fun – I had so much fun looking around – and Amanda got some great footage of me shopping and haggling – reviewing the footage was hysterical.   In the old part of the Grand Bazaar I found a sun watch that I had seen last year – he wanted $1200 US for it! oof!  It will probably still be there next year!

Outside of the Grand Bazaar is spillover of clothes and other shops – the prices were ok but not as good as they were last year – still some amazing knockoffs of designer stuff could be found.  We headed to the Book Bazaar where the books are mostly in Turkish but they have illuminated manuscript pages and really nice prints.

Next to the Book Bazaar is the Sultan Beyezit Mosque which was very quiet (and very empty) – they can’t all be the Blue Mosque – but it was nice to see it (and a welcome shade from the hot sun).  Part of the Beyezit Mosque holds the Calligraphy Museum but apparently it has been under renovation for many years and was closed.

Our goal for the day was: The Hippodrome, A Shave, The Blue Mosque, The Grand Bazaar, and The Book Bazaar.

We didn’t shoot The Hippodrome but it is right outside the hotel so we can do that anytime – and we decided to head back before dinner.  On the side of the road there was a guy selling hand sewing machines that looked like staplers – I passed – but then I went back and got one.  It’s a toy.

For lunch we had a light meal of Kofte (meatballs) and we figured we would get a nice dinner.  We headed down towards the nicer restaurants and I stopped and said hi to a friend who owned a carpet shop that I had met last year.  He was very glad to see me and asked us to spend some time with him but I promised to come back later in the week instead – he invited us to visit his factory 30 miles outside of town if we want to film some carpets being made – we might take him up on it if it fits into the schedule.

There was a nice fish restaurant that listed prices of like 20TL for dinner and we said we would only eat in it if the feral cat that had been following us decided if was good – he walked in so we walked in – the guy thought this was funny (but then later kicked – and I meant literally kicked the cats out of his restaurant for begging).

They brought out a platter of raw fish and starter quoting these crazy prices like 120TL 90TL etc and we just wanted a little dinner – he wasn’t happy that we didn’t bite for the big fish and the service went downhill from there.  Thefgood was very good – I had the bass and she had the salmon – but we never saw the waiter again – well we saw him but he wouldn’t stop at our table.  He put us near the music and the band was traditional and fun but at most points one of them was on a cell phone (so the film is awful).   We ordered dessert of sweet figs and some samolina which was yummy and he brought the check which was 100TL (about $55 – and not too bad for a fancy fish dinner).  I put down 100TL and he came over took it and said very loudly “Service is NOT included”.  Now that’s fine but most places tell you that when you sit down – put it on the menu or even put it on the bill! All I had was a slip of paper in a black folder that said 100TL on it.  So he left the black folder on the table and as I drank my tea I closed it – and he came over and opened it and said again “Service is NOT included”.  So I said “I know” and opened up the folder and laid it face down – to show I wasn’t ready yet.  So I took out some money and put it in the folder and he came and snatched it up and walked off in a huff.

On the way back to the hotel we passed a nice looking restaurant that had all their prices listed – I think I will go there next time instead.

Back at the hotel we reviewed the footage – definitely getting our feet wet here – both of us were better after about the first hour.  I look forward to what tomorrow has to bring!

Oh and some pictures…

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Day 01 & Background – Turkey & The Magic of Istanbul – 2012

Welcome to the 2012 trip to Turkey.  Once again I am going for one month – this time the first two weeks are Istanbul and the second two weeks are in the rural mountain regions doing documentary photography work for the Isparta Archeological Survey.

I have had emails from a lot of people asking the same two questions:

1) What happened to the Turkey blog last year – it kind of stopped when you hit Istanbul.

2) What happened with the fundraising for the film – The Magic of Istanbul.

So here is the deal.

First, while I have extensive notes and photographs from my trip to Istanbul last year I got behind – very behind and every time I went to blog I ended up working it into planning documents for the 2012 trip.  For future (ie – this year’s) blog entries the goals is to tell a quicker and lighter story – since much of the places will be the same – follow this year’s blog and if I remember something fun or funny from last year I will be sure to mention it.  I will create a closure entry for 2011 sometime soon though.

Second, I tried to raise funds for to create a travelogue documentary film about Istanbul – fairly low budget – and I used Kickstarter for it – while I did have some support from friends and family – it didn’t do what I was trying to do – get strangers interested and involved – if I wanted my friends money I wouldn’t use a third party service.  When the Kickstarter expired – no money changed hands – and I realized I would need to go another route looking for larger private donors (this didn’t happen either).  A few friends did send some money to contribute to the trip and I thank them very much and they will be acknowledged in the final film.

However there will in fact be a film called the Magic of Istanbul and it will be pretty low budget (and very out of pocket).  Amanda Almon C.M.I. & chair of Biomedical Art and Associate Professor at the Cleveland Institute of Art has graciously agreed to collaborate with me on the project both behind the camera and in the crafting a finished work.  Big round of applause for Amanda.  The goal here is to create something geared for festivals and not YouTube. That being said I will still post updates along the way!

Packing for the Trip

My mantra has been – don’t over pack!  But it is so hard to do.  The goal for this year was to not pay baggage fees on the way in.  That means get all the technology in Amanda and my large carry on bags, our personal items in our backpacks, and our clothes in our luggage.  This we ended up doing – though we brought an extra suitcase which we might fill with stuff and pay the baggage fee for on the way home.  I was told that in my documentary work I would be doing no museum work this year – so no lights or vr turntables were needed which also helped in reducing the weight.

In terms of equipment – I have my regular camera rig – a Pentax K5 with two lenses and a battery grip and Amanda borrowed my Pentax K20D.  For the filming she will use the Sony 1080i HD camcorder with a wide-angle lens on it.  For the most part she will use the 5.1 integrated microphone but I also have a wireless lapel microphone which I will wear whenever I am speaking on camera.

Sounds pretty minimal right? Well there are indeed lots of cables and accessories and spare batteries and cleaning supplies to keep all of that going but in the field it isn’t that much to carry.

I brought two other gadgets along to help with the filming.

1) Pivothead Video Goggles that allow for wearable 1080P video shooting and 10MP still camera.  This is like a spy camera which I will use in places it is inconvenient to have my hands full or in which they don’t allow me to shoot.  There is one museum that has the Staff of Moses and they don’t allow for photography.  Each time I try to sneak a picture it doesn’t come out – if it doesn’t come out this year – it might really BE the Staff of Moses.

2) A GoProHD camera in a waterproof case with a walking stick that turns into a tripod.  This is so that if I can find a hammam that will let me film I will be able to do so without ruining the camera.  Seeing the inside of a Turkish bath is really neat – also the procedure is pretty tortuous and I am sure you would all want to see it if I can get it filmed (and edited).

Day 00 – Travel

I am a pretty good packer but at the last minute I noticed I was missing three items which I had to pick up on the way to the airport.  First I needed a Moleskin notebook which I got at the University Bookstore.  I take notes in them for every trip and I like my little stack of them.  Then we stopped at Dodd and I got extra sensor cleaners for my DSLR – since I change lenses I sometimes have to clean the sensor.  And lastly I stopped at BestBuy to get anti-fog inserts for the GoPro camera.  I should have also stopped for deodorant as I just unpacked and realized I left it on my dresser – oh well – they do sell it here (I hope).

Travel itself can be a good adventure or a nightmare.  First, the boarding crew in Cleveland were very rude (not just to me but to everyone) and then there was a long layover and delay in Newark.  The problem was that it turns out Amanda and I were not going to sit next to each other and no one wanted to help resolve this.  Once on the plane I was able to get kid to trade his center seat for my window seat (lucky him) and it all turned out ok. The plane was older and the amenities not great but I ended up sleeping most of the time anyways so what did I care.

Day 01 – Istanbul – The Hippodrome

The first day has been pretty uneventful – which is good.  Got my visa, cleared immigration, and customs with no problems.  My first stop was to get a SIM card in my unlocked iPhone 4 – I recently upgraded to a 4S so my old 4 is out of contract and AT&T unlocked it for me by request.  For $59 I was able to buy a SIM card (and 10 local minutes of talk time) and 8GB of data – which should be plenty.  This will allow me to post updates and such from Facebook and allow me to surf the web and check my mail in the field which is nice.  She told me that it will only work for 14 days and that I need to pay a $60 tax to the government in the next 14 days if I want it to stay on.  Interesting.

Instead of getting my money exchanged or a taxi I took a shuttle service into the city.  The drive was treacherous – his foot kept hitting the break and I though I was going to be sick.  He got close to the hotel and then admitted he needed the address as he was lost – I actually knew where I was and directed him the last 2 blocks.

At the hotel he remembered me and switched me from a smaller room to a larger room which was very nice.  We spent the afternoon unpacking and going over the equipment and just resting from the long flight.

The hotel is awesome again – it is under a little renovation in the front but the rooms are great and the views are spectacular – it is right in the Hippodrome.

We didn’t bring the video equipment as we headed off for a quick walk around the hotel and to grab dinner.  Last year there was an arts and craft festival in the Hippodrome for Ramadan and part of it was setup again – paper marbling is cool!  We stopped and exchanged our money – it is 1.75TL to the dollar so we keep viewing everything as if it was half off even though it isn’t quite true.

Dinner was decent – not great – but the views of the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia were awesome.  We ordered a hummus appetizer and it was very interesting – I would guess it had no tahini in it. It was very thick and had a little oil on top – it was very much like peanut butter – unexpected but very good.  After we went to a sweet shop for dessert where we had rice pudding and a variety of Turkish delight.  The guy at the shop really liked Amanda and posed for several pictures with her.  I am not posting the picture – but Amanda might on her Facebook.  I probably shouldn’t have had the Turkish coffee – man am I wired.  Amanda tried to show me how you read the coffee grounds like tea leaves – pretty fun.

After dinner and dessert we took a quick walk around the park to breathe in the atmosphere and such and back to the hotel for me to catch up on my blog and post some photos – yeah – I have a few photos.

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Alas, my Kickstarter fundraiser did not reach its goal in time and the project went unfunded.

I wanted to thank everyone who pledged money and/or told their friends about it and I expect this will be the last time I use Kickstarter for -this- type of project.

As much as I appreciate everyone’s support, I didn’t get any pledges from people I didn’t know and that was never my intention.  I was hoping to get the word spread outside of my network and for people to see value in my project (and not just in me).  If I just wanted money from my friends and family I would have skipped Kickstarter.

Having worked on editing and releasing episodes of my 2003 Ireland trip – the first 5 of which are now online – I feel more comfortable with what I am really trying to accomplish.   Creating a series of freely distributed travelogue videos in episode form.

So where do I go from here?

I am still going to Turkey this summer and hope to make this project a reality (with a cameraman & writer).  If anyone knows of an organization or donor who might be interested in funding this project I have put together an online proposal here: http://fromcastletocastle.com/the-magic-of-istanbul-funding-proposal/

Check out the first 5 episodes of From Castle To Castle: Ireland

Also if anyone has any friends at Travel or Discovery be sure to put in a good word for me!