"To you, perceptive reader, I bequeath my history...."
Elizabeth Kostova's novel "The Historian" was racing through my mind as we touched down on the tarmac in Istanbul. For those of you who haven't read it, you're missing out. A good portion of it follows the journey of two young historians on the trail of Dracula (Vlad Tepes) through Eastern Europe in the 1950's; specifically in Turkey, Hungary and Romania. Kostova's descriptions of Istanbul - the streets, the cafes, the mosques... well, it had me more than a little excited to explore the city on my own.
Not that I needed a lot of extra prodding. I was already pretty excited about the visit - Istanbul conjures up a sense of the exotic like few other cities can. It has a resume which speaks for itself: Crowned with a host of names from Byzantium to Augusta Antonina then Constantinople and finally "Istanbul" in modern times, it was home to Emperor Constantine who changed the course of Christianity forever, was the site of long and bloody battles during the crusades, the only city to bridge Europe and Asia, and interestingly enough, it was even the eastern end of the famed Orient Express.
Ok, enough history. After a quick visit to Starbucks and spending a few minutes negotiating a shuttle bus ride into the city with an English-speaking South African-turned-Turk, I found myself on a 15-passenger van with an English couple from Wales and a couple guys from Germany. 30 minutes later I was standing open-mouthed in the middle of a beautiful green garden between the Aya Sofia and the Blue Mosque.
I'd read about both structures, specifically the Aya Sofia, but was unprepared for the scale and splendor of each. The scale to which both have been built is dizzying. As with many sights on the trip, pictures simply won't do them justice, but they are both as impressive as any religious structure I've ever seen.
After I snapped off a few pictures, I went about looking for my hostel (and when I say "my" hostel, I mean "a" hostel, as I had nothing booked at this point). Thanks to my trusty guide book, I found my way to what turned out to be Istanbul's backpacker's alley in the southern part of the Sultanahmet district. About ten hostels and around 15 restaurants lined a narrow cobblestone street. A number of people were sitting in quaint little café's and restaurants, sipping on beer or enjoying a plate of pasta.
I navigated my way through the crowd of fellow backpackers and other tourists, headed for an address listed in the guide book. I was stopped by the familiar and welcoming sound of English. A young guy with an Australian accent asked if I needed a place to stay, and ended up talking me into staying at the Southern Cross Hostel. I'm not sure how I got suckered into staying there, as it actually sucked. Over-filled dorm rooms, terrible bathrooms and the building was essentially built vertically vs. horizontally. However, I didn't really care. After my adventure with Israeli security and a fairly sleepless night in the airport, I was ready for a nap.
A couple hours later I was chatting with a couple of Australians in the dorm room. Turned out they were actually some of the coolest people I'd met on the trip. They'd been here for a few days, and I wanted to do some exploring, so I agreed to meet them later in the bar.
I walked back up to the park bordering the Aya Sofia. I ran across a little crowd on one corner of the park where a group of proud parents and assorted others were watching a group of children dancing on stage. I don't know a lot about the Whirling Dervishes, but it would seem these were Dervishes in training. Pretty fun to watch.
I wandered on, and inevitably found myself back in front of Justinian's impressive church. It's hard to do much more than just stand and stare in awe. It's absolutely massive. Each line is purposeful - graceful and powerful at once. Considering they put the finishing touches on it in 537, it looks absolutely great. As I looked up at the dome, I couldn't help but wonder what it looked like with a cross on top.
After taking about 150 pictures, I walked across the beautiful green park toward the Blue Mosque. An enormous fountain sits proudly in the middle of the green expanse, surrounded by people taking pictures, eating ice cream or walking their dogs.
I know some people may not agree, but the Blue Mosque could be even more impressive than the Aya Sofia. It shares a similar size, but the style and grace seems to be a step beyond (which would make sense - it wasn't finished until 1616, and they had the already 1,000+ year old Aya Sofia sitting across the street as a guide). Its six pencil minarets spear the sky in symmetrical splendor. The main structure is solid and graceful at the same time - seemingly bubbling with gorgeous round domes.
After another 200 pictures, I headed north to explore more of the city. As I headed into a series of narrow walkways filled with people and ancient structures, I found myself looking for Rossi's archive and the little café where Helen and Paul met Turgut Bora. I wondered which little café might have inspired Kostova.
The sun began to drop on the clear day, causing the minarets of the many mosques to throw long shadows across the old streets. I headed back toward my hostel, with more than a few looks over my shoulder for the creepy librarian.
An hour later I found myself back in backpacker's alley, sharing a beer and a water pipe in the Orient Bar with my new friends from Australia - one a very cool guy named "Som" (I hope I got that right), and the other a cute little brunette (who unfortunately had a boyfriend in Scandinavia somewhere) named Amanda (I hope I got that right too). There were also two cool Americans from Seattle who showed up. (Joey, thanks for the email - I hope you guys are doing well!)
The next two days were spent in a similar fashion. I walked the streets for the majority of the day, and then ended up back at the bar with the Australians and any other travelers that happened to drift in. Not a bad way to spend a few days.
I found my way to the Bosphorus Strait, where you can drive across a huge suspension bridge to Asia; helped myself to some kebab at a local joint down by the water; watched some old men fishing (yanking thier lines up when ferries sped by); walked through the amazing Grand Bazaar (Kapali Çarsi); and even managed to see Ocean's 13 and Pirates of the Caribbean III in an underground movie theater.
As far as cities go, I really liked Istanbul. It had all the comforts of Western culture, but was exotic enough to make you feel like you were really away from home. To my surprise, I saw very few people in "traditional" Muslim dress. After coming from Egypt, Jordan and Israel, and Turkey being 99.3% Muslim, I'd expected it to be filled with men sporting long white robes and women being completely covered. Instead, I found most people were dressed in contemporary fashions - blue jeans and t-shirts.
Somewhere in the middle of all my walking I made my way to the train station, and booked a one-way ticket to Bucharest, Romania. I'd been emailing back and forth with my cousin, Heather, and we "sort of" figured out a plan to meet.
On Tuesday night, I had one final Efes at the Orient Bar, I said goodbye to my fellow travelers and headed to the train station. After confirming it was the right train with three different people, I located my cabin on the overnight train. I found I was sharing it with a rotund Romanian guy who spoke a little English. At first I was a bit nervous, but he actually turned out to be pretty cool, as he wasn't much more interested in talking than I was. At 9:30 pm, facing a 17 hour train ride to Bucharest with a stranger in your cabin, being sociable isn't all that high on the list. Once the cabin attendant came around and lowered the beds from the walls, we both silently agreed to leave each other alone and try to sleep through the trip.
Outside of hitting the Turkish border at 2:20 in the morning where they actually stopped the train and made us get out for passport control, and the fact there was no sign of the vampire librarian or Vlad himself, the ride was relatively smooth - if not excruciatingly long. Just a tip - if you ever have to take a train from Istanbul to Bucharest, take the express.