In the last few years, I've tried to take advantage of long layovers to do a stopover in another city--an afternoon and evening in Bangkok on the way to Bali--or a two-nighter in Seoul on the way back to JFK. This time, we arranged our trip to Israel with bookended stops to Istanbul, and it's amazing what a nice time you can have in a city in under 12 hours, even with jet lag. Yesterday, we managed to figure out how to use the token machine and took the tram to Istanbul's
Sultanamet neighborhood, where the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque are located. I was introduced to the Hagia Sophia in college in Fine arts 101, or, as we called it, "Darkness at noon." (So called because the lights went off, the art slides came on, and the tired, partied out students went to sleep.) Except I didn't sleep. Fresh from my semester in London, I had fallen in love with art (partially thanks to all the prepping I got from my parents, who dragged my sister and me to art museums in NYC nearly every weekend) and I was lucky enough to have as a professor a man named Oleg Grabar, who was an expert in Islamic art. I'd never thought much about Islamic art, ("Boooor-ing!" thought my teenaged brain) but it is spectacular and surprisingly modern and graphic. For one thing, you are not allowed to represent the human figure or animals--it is purely decorative, with swirls and repetitive patterns and layers of color that soothe and arrest the eye. Oleg Grabar must have spent two full classes on the Hagia Sophia alone, and i was mesmerized--I think he may have called it the perfect piece of architecture. In any case, I needed to see it again (this is my second visit to Istanbul), as well as the Blue Mosque. Sadly, the first was closed, so I will be saving it for our end-of-trip stopover in Istanbul. Instead, we headed for the Blue Mosque, donned sarongs, doffed our shoes, and joined the other barefoot tourists beneath the airy domes. It was beautiful, spiritual, even, especially when gazing at the believers kneeling, heads to ground, beyond the wooden barrier. Until I began to notice a cheese-like smell. All those feet. Hot weather. Not a transporting combination.
Next, a taksi (taxi) to Beyoglu, the happening modern part of the city, very European, with wide streets and fashionable-ish shops. We joined the streaming crowd for the Turkish version of the passagiatta (the pre-dinner Italian stroll), though at this point, hubby and I were doing more trudging than strolling. The trendy roof top restaurant where I was hoping to share a romantic drink turned us away (my s.o. was wearing shorts, and even though I forced him to drape a sweater over his shoulders, Euro style--I thought it would help him gain entry--we were rejected.) That put my guy in a very bad mood for a while, and we did more trudging up increasingly steep (though picturesque side streets) in search of another restaurant, in a neighborhood said to be the birthplace of the author Orhan Pamuk, (Nobel Prize winner for the Museum of Innocence, a novel of obsession about a first love). No dice. At this point, we were desperate to find pretty much any restaurant that wasn't McDonalds, and after yet more slogging, my feet throbbing, my brain fuzzy, we happened upon a very narrow street that rose up sharply. At first, we thought there was only one restaurant there, at the corner, but soon we realized we were at the entrance to a kind of Turkish "restaurant row," with outdoor tables, tea lights, live music and waiters eager to lure us to a table. "You from Brook-leen? I from Brookl-leen!" Not the fine dining I was hoping for, but at a certain point, necessity wins out and serendipity takes over: We sat close together on a cushioned banquet, had a bit of mezze, some cocktails, some yogurt dressed beef for me and whole sea bass for my honey, with bits of it fed to the feral cat winding around our ankles and mewing plaintively. Then back to our ottoman hideaway for a few hours of sleep before our 2:50 AM wakeup call. And now here I sit, at Attaturk airport, awaiting the flight to Tel Aviv. The next phase is beginning.
Below, views inside the Blue Mosque, and a glimpse of the Hagia Sophia.