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Tom’s European Vacation (Part 7): Istanbul

October 12, 2010 Leave a comment

Hours and hours of sitting on a train. Then more hours sitting on a train. If you imagine that with a dose of sleep followed by yet more hours sitting on a train then you may start to have the beginnings of the nightmare which is travelling non-stop from Bucharest to Istanbul by rail, once you have run out of money.

It was when I realised that I needed to ration my water supply, for the near on 48 hour journey, that I understood I should have prepared in advance. Foolish of me – but I was recovering from an Irish bar hang over of mystique proportions, so please forgive me.

Sliding into Istanbul near on 6am at the end of this journey from hell could never have been a greater relief – the sun was shining and the view from the right of the train was of the sea, with the window open to the breeze. The railway ‘tracks’ the coastline and the train goes into slow-mo to give you a chance to take it all in. Finally the train halts in the station leaving you, once more, as is so wonderful with train travel, smack bang in the centre of where you are visiting.

Istanbul station is positioned at the topright (just left of the Gulhane Parki - the railway having circumnavigated the peninsula.

Using my ‘Europe on a Shoestring (Lonely Planet Shoestring Guides)’ book I quickly found a raft of options for hostels to stay in within easy walking distance of the station.

Why was I here? Mainly to get an eyeful of the Blue & Sofia Mosques which I’d read about earlier in the trip. This was the farthest I was travelling East for now so this seemed like the

outer limits of my journey. Having said that, in many ways it seemed the most civilised stop off I had yet made – perhaps as the city was so tourist friendly, everyone knew where the hostels and hotels were, were willing to help and sign language worked well when English was not understood. I have to say it was one of the most relaxed atmospheres I had experienced up to this point in my European vacation.

The Mosques were amazing – The Blue Mosque’s interior was superb with the addition of carpets (over the Christian churches I’d been inside before) making for a completely different auditory experience. The Hagia Sofia (Holy Wisdom) Mosque, originally a Christian church until the 15th century (and now a museum), is enormous in scale – putting one in mind of Persian myth. The fact that the church has been around since the 4th century is impressive enough, for a place of worship to withstand the test of time, that is – but to know that the current structure with it’s vast dome has been here since the 6th century staggers. I wandered the galleries for a while and lost all track of the fact that I was no longer on the ground floor – so capacious were they.

A quick tour of the cisterns gave rise to the understanding of the sheer scale of the civilisation here – these people were prepared to build underground ‘water vaults’ beneath their city that could contain up to 80,000 cubic meters of water (80 million litres of water). Not only that but these cisterns were, in places, quite decorative – each sporting columns with Corinthian style carvings. In one picture (above) their is an off-cut of sculpted stone used as a base for one of these columns – presumably a carving that didn’t quite come up to scratch.

Lastly the markets – who can go to Istanbul without trying out the ‘Grand Bazaar’, it’s very name seems to suggest a wondrous place with carpets, magical or not, awaiting you to haggle over them. The range of herbs and spices for sale are extraordinary, not only that but if you look slightly further afield one can find birds and animals awaiting your perusal – although you won’t be able to hear anything when you do see them. The noise from the birds alone is deafening.

So that’s it – Istanbul, plenty of cheap hostels to stay in – lovely restaurants, views over the sea whilst sipping tea just outside the Fort of Rumeli grounds, bazaars, cisterns (or should I say ‘grand water caverns’ so we don’t get confused) and mosques.

Beautiful!  …and sunny too! 

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