Sunday, 11 April 2010


Another conference, another great city to visit. That has got to be one of the best aspects of my job! This year the EvoStar conference took place in Istanbul, and I obviously booked a few extra days before and after the conference, so in total I stayed there for 9 days, and to say I was pleasantly surprised is an understatement.

After arriving to Istanbul in the evening, and enjoying a wonderful red sunset across the hundreds of minarets that punctuate its skyline, I checked in to my hotel (with 3 extra days before the conference and 1 afterwards, I didn't bother to look for a cheaper hostel). One thing I noticed straight away - a sign in the hotel table, pointing to Mecca. Like the merzuzah in my hotel room in Jerusalem, it was a nice non-intrusive sign of the local religious belief.

The first main visiting day was spent in the Sultanahmet area, one of the main turist areas, and for good reason. I started by going to the famous "Blue Mosque", so called because of its beautiful blue tiles.

Being an ignorant tourist, I wasn't sure of the current prayer times, and just as I was about to enter the mosque, the call for prayer was heard - I had to wait for about 1/2 hour in an ever growing queue (I wasn't the only one!) before tourists could access the inside of the mosque. The inside really is beautiful; I just sat on the floor for another 1/2 hour, resting from the beating sun and enjoying the tranquil atmosphere.

Just across from the Blue Mosque is the even more famous Aya Sofya. This is a centuries old church originally built by the Byzantine emperor Justinian, which was converted to Islam when Istanbul finally fell to the conquering Sultans.

It may not be as imposing from the outside as the blue mosque, but once inside, it's simply breathtaking. Its massive ceilings, the amazing dome, the wonderful Arab calligraphy ornaments, the impressive stained-glass windows, huge bronze doors... I could write many more adjectives and still not describe it properly - you really have to go there and see it for yourself. Not even photos do it justice.

If you looked carefully at the previous image, you might have spotted an image of the Virgin Mary. That's right - after centuries of being plastered over, restoration of the original tile ornaments dating back to Justinian times began, and is still ongoing to this day. The massive image of Christ in the top galleries was also impressive. To even dare imagine all the history that took place within those walls is mesmerising.

It was getting fairly late at this stage, but I wasn't going to let go of my visiting - still some time left to go check out the Basilica Cistern. This is a massive underground gallery originally built to store water for the Great Palace of Byzantium, and was only rediscovered in the 16th century, because people were catching fish through holes in their floors! At 140m long and 70m wide, it covers an area of 9800m2, and is supported by 336 marble columns, each 9m high. Pretty impressive numbers? So is this place.

My stomach finally got the best of me, and I went to a cheap restaurant to have the first of many kebaps. This was followed by a Turkish coffee, which as time went by I became really accustomed to. I also kept checking my Lonely Planet for possible last plans for the day, and already planning the next day's trips. Although excellent as ever in guiding me around the place, I was very disappointed by its lack of cheap food and drink options (recommending cafes where tea costs 5 turkish lira as "affordable" places, whereas you can have it for as cheap as 50 cents!), and am seriously considering ending my 10 year-long reliance and go for another publisher.

The day was fast ending, so I decided to go for a boat ride, crossing the Bosphorus and landing on the Asian side of the city. Cheap tip: buy your token (1.5 lira), and stay on the boat once it reaches the other side; so you basically get a 60min boat tour for 50 euro cents. The weather was still gorgeous, and I thoroughly enjoyed the crossing.

Back in the European side, I walked along the fish sellers (ended up not trying a fish sandwich, damn...), and crossed the famous Galata bridge, where literally hundreds of fishermen spend the day angling. It's a funny bridge - traffic and fishermen on the top shelf, restaurants and nargile cafes on the bottom. I enjoyed the last rays of sunlight and slowly walked back towards my hotel; I ended up having dinner at a street vendor, selling delicious spicy minced beef sandwiches.

Monday I woke up late (again!). I decided to spend the day in the Bazaar district, and after a nice cup of cheap Turkish tea (which they adore and have all day long, in lovely tulip-shaped glasses), I took the metro and the funicular and the tram to get there (transportation in Istanbul is interesting, to say the least; you can get anywhere by public transportation, but have to constantly change (sometimes even in the middle of the same metro line), and although everything works with tokens, I counted at least 3 different kinds of tokens!).

First stop, the New Mosque. "New" is a bit of an exaggeration, as it is a few centuries old, but considering the age of all the monuments around it... I just sat down in the inner courtyard, watching the flow of people coming in, doing their washing ritual, and then entering to do their prayers. It was a cool, sunny day, and it was really relaxing.

I wasn't the only one enjoying the cool and calm of the inner courtyard; Istanbul, like no doubt many other Middle-East cities (I only know Jerusalem, though), is full of stray cats, and I had company in just chilling out and relaxing.

Then it was on to the bazaars. First off, the Spice Bazaar. Its outside area was crazy: people selling absolutely everything, from cabbage to hens, from dog food to cheap Chinese plastic toys. The covered part was slightly more organised, with stalls selling mostly spices, and, of course, delicious lokum (Turkish Delight).

The Grand Bazaar was next. Slightly less interesting for me, as the main selling items were textile and jewels, which don't really tickle my fancy. Still, the lamps were lovely, and after having lunch there (at the "affordable" Lonely Planet recommended cafe...), I wondered the halls for a while.

I then wandered through the streets around the bazaar; I found Turkish people really friendly and welcoming, and not once did I feel I was in any kind of danger. In the end, I decided to go to a Hamam (Turkish bath) - complete with a soap scrub by a very vigorously massaging attendant! I finished the evening in a cheap pasta restaurant, where I met a cool world traveller, who like me was writing a travel journal (spotted by the Lonely Planet guide - I guess it was useful after all!).

So Tuesday we decided to go visit the Istanbul Archaeology Museums together. We couldn't really find the entrance at the beginning, which made us get somewhat lost inside the Palace gardens - the perfect opportunity to appreciate the thousands of beautiful tulips all around.

The museums are full of interesting items, but it somewhat feels like a mixed bag of items found a bit everywhere, from mummies to a bronze statue of Justinius, and even a really impressive and massive marble grave from the time of Alexander the Great.

(who's the man? you're the man!)

There's hall after hall after hall of pots, bronze tools, statues, ceramic stamps (I love those), etc. Quite interesting, but a bit tiring in the end. The last museum was actually the most impressive, which was a pity, as after hours of archaeology, we were a bit fed up. Still, the tile expositions were really beautiful, and the massive panels that once adorned the Byzantine entry to the city were really amazing.

After finding a cheap place for food, we wandered on foot around the smaller back streets, where we found tea for 50 Turkish cents (take that, LP!). After that we went up to the northern part of the city, where after taking the Tünnel funicular, we ended up strolling along the busy Istiklal Caddesi, before the rain forced us into yet another cafe, where we had a milkshake and finally went our ways. Hoşçakal! Let's keep in touch. (-:

Wednesday was the first day of the conference, it was great to meet loads of friends from all over the world again. I spent the whole day there, so no visiting. In the evening there was an organised Bosphorus cruise though, which offered great views of the illuminated city and its two massive bridges crossing the Bosphorus.

Thursday was again spent at the conference. In the evening there was another social event programmed, the usual conference banquet, which took place on top of the Galata Tower.

The food was great, and so were the views, but there was a great entertainment programme as well. Dervish dancers, knife throwing, and an incredible belly dancer that stunned everyone in the restaurant. The local organisers really did a lot for us, thank you so much!

The view from the top of the tower was really nice, and I couldn't resist having a go at a long exposure shot.

Then I went out with the Irish lads, "just for the one", as usual. Of all places, we ended up in an Irish Pub!... I can't begin to explain you just how annoyed I was, after crossing the whole of Europe, ending up in an Irish Pub... Although, to be honest, it turned out to be a great choice. The owner (a Turk) was really pleased to have us around, and kept the bar open until 5:30am. There was a lot of beer and raki consumed in that bar... We ended up at 6am in a nargile bar, in the middle of Istanbul, smoking a sisha, the sun already dawning. What an experience - how often do you get to do that!

Sleeping two hours before going for the last session of the conference is also quite an experience, although one I hope not to repeat many times! (-: That afternoon I still had time to go visit the Museum of Islamic Art; far from being impressive, it had nonetheless quite a collection of carpets, Koran boxes, and a magnificent bronze gate from an ancient mosque. I also got to wander around the old Byzantine Hippodrome area, with the beautiful Obelisk of Theodosius in the middle.

That evening we had dinner in the Asian side, and a short night out, to try and recover some sleep!

The last day was spent visiting Istanbul's top visitor attraction, the Topkapi Palace. Amazing and immense as it is (and it really was), I was far more impressed by Aya Sofya. Still, it's quite a palace; the succession of courtyards immaculately kept is amazing, and the items stored there are of amazing value, and well worth the endless queueing and "keep moving!" shouts. The treasury had some of the biggest gems I have ever seen, items of outstanding beauty; and perhaps even more impressive were the remains of St. John the Baptist hand and forearm, kept in a golden covering, and remains of the beard of the prophet Mohammed. The Harem, which requires an extra ticket, is also well worth the visit, having far less tourists around, and immaculately kept tiled rooms.

That's it. That night we had dinner on a lovely restaurant, had a couple of drinks, and said our farewells. I was really pleased with this trip, far more than I expected at the start - it was hard to choose just a sample of photos to place here! Just a pity that I only got to see Istanbul, and only during 1 week. I'll have to come back one day!

(busy Istiklal Caddesi at the end of the day)