Topkapi Palace, the Bosphorus

So I woke up today and set the clock forward one hour (again [AGAIN]). Sigh.

Today the big plan was the palace of Topkapi! I couldn't have asked for a better day to spend sightseeing: gloriously sunny, but cool, and the crowds were blissfully small. When I walked in, at about ten or ten thirty, I only had to wait in line for my ticket for about ten minutes. When I walked out, at one o'clock, the queue to get in had tripled in size! Good timing!

It's hard to overstate just how immense Topkapi is. Although the core of the palace was built I believe in the 15th century, a great deal of the most iconic buildings are additions and expansions from the 16th and 17th centuries. They kept adding new pavilions and annexes, to the point where it became a small city housing up to 4,000 people and covering a huge expanse of land on a hill.

Topkapi is a palace built in the Eastern fashion: whereas Western palaces like Versailles are enormous buildings with gardens all around, I've noticed Asian complexes tend to have the garden in the centre, surrounded by lots of independent halls. Topkapi is like that, except on steroids.

You start by walking into the First Court, which is where you get your tickets. It's a beautiful, green park that you have to cross to get to the Second Court, also with plenty of greenery but in a more structured form. One thing that amazed me is that you could smell the flowers from every corner of the courtyard. When was the last time you found flowers that had any smell? This is where the entrance to the Harem is.



The Harem is easily the most impressive wing of the whole palace (hence why it requires its own ticket and its corresponding admission price...). It was its own city within a city: although nominally it was the women's quarter, it also housed their sons and the servants of them all. The visit here took me through a seemingly endless succession of small but lavishly decorated rooms, almost all of them used for daily life: bedrooms, personal chambers, libraries, dressing rooms... Every possible surface here is covered in valuable Iznik tiles of every possible design and colour, the fountains are made of white marble, the precious woods of the cupboards are inlaid with mother-of-pearl... The rooms are mostly devoid of furniture, but it's easy to imagine how luxurious it had to be to match the surroundings.



The Harem alone is worth the visit, but there's so much else to see! There's a series of four treasury rooms which now display the most valuable jewels in the palace: lots of ruby-encrusted chalices, the Spoonmaker's Diamond which is so huge and shiny it blinded me just to look at it, golden medallions the size of a fist... I swear to you one of the items was a crystal box, a little smaller than a shoebox, seriously just filled to the brim with emeralds. Like, we have soooo many emeralds we're running out of solid gold Fabergé eggs to set them on, let's just put them in a box until we figure out what to do with them...



I also liked the weapons and armour exhibition. Apart from displaying a few items of every different type of weapon (Ottoman, Arabic or European) used by the Turkish army through history, it included extremely well explained summaries of what each item was used for. It's a pity there were no photos allowed within that room, because those descriptions may have come in useful at work!

There's a Third Court and even a Fourth Court, too, with beautiful fountains and a terrace with a spectacular view of the Bosphorus. There's a room dedicated to displaying holy Muslim relics, and a frankly uninteresting gallery with portraits of all the sultans -if you think all those medieval kings on the upper floor of the National Portrait Gallery in London look alike, you have no idea! I thought I had to spot the 10 differences!



All in all, it was a sublime experience. The weather was fantastic, on a Monday morning in March the crowds were at a minimum, everything was beautiful and historic... I'm so happy I reserved the entire morning for this, because that's really how long it takes to see everything. Well, I'm not even sure how much of the palace I saw; it's so gigantic that there's always a section being renovated, so visits tend to vary.

After the visit to Topkapi, it was just the right time to make the Bosphorus cruise, and I was tired enough that the prospect of sitting on a deck for two hours was really appealing to me, so I began walking from Sultanahmet to Eminönü, where the docks are. On the way I stopped to have lunch at Pasabaze, an Ottoman restaurant recommended by Lonely Planet and now also by me. I had a delicious fillet of white fish with thyme and lemon, after an entree of Turkish cheese and Turkish ravioli. The waiters were really nice and unobtrusive, and I had the place for myself... except for two middle-aged Italian ladies who kept asking their waitress to explain what everything on the menu was -in English -although the menu itself was in English. Thing is, their own English was awful, and they'd get offended when they didn't understand the answers! What an affront!

"What is this?"
"Lentils."
"LANTEL? What is LANTEL?"
The waitress hesitated, because where do you start, so the lady continued:
"Is it meat? Is it vegetable?"
"No, it's..." To her credit, the waitress' English was really rather good, but either she didn't know the word legume or else she didn't think that would fly with the Italians. "Like... chickpeas?"
"CHICKEN??!!"

I want to see the Tripadvisor review those two post. I hope they write it in English.



Anyway, after an abundant lunch topped with tea and lokum (on the house -I think it was the contrast), I made my way to Eminönü, the departure point of like a million different cruises and ferries. It's a good thing I look everything up beforehand, or else I'd have totally got on the wrong boat and ended up in Sevastopol. As things were, I knew which one was the "official" ferry and cruise company.

The Lonely Planet guide makes a huge deal out of taking the long Bosphorus tour, not the short one, and how the long one takes all day and leaves you stranded all the way up somewhere in Turkey and then it's such an experience to make your way back chaining different buses and seeing every village, but that doesn't sound very fun to me. The "short" route takes two hours and goes all the way out to the second bridge, so that's plenty for me!



Once again, perfect weather, perfect day to sail out into the sea. It was great to see the skyline of Istanbul: when you're in Sultanahment the trees don't let you see the forest, so to speak, so you need to take some distance to see the beautiful outline of the different hills, and the domes and minarets sticking out of each one. The boat passes in front of the Galata tower and the district of Üskudar, with the ancient lighthouse, and then sets along the Bosphorus. The spectacle here are the yalis, or the seaside residences of Istanbul's rich and powerful. There are huge mansions, small mansions, traditional houses, modern houses... All set against the background of green hills.

I got an audio tour for the cruise, thinking that if I was to sit for two hours it'd be nice to learn something, and the man behind the counter asked:

"Which language?"

The eternal dilemma. What if I say Spanish, and it turns out they translated it from the English version and it sounds awful? What if the author of the Turkish original also spoke French and made a really good adaptation? I think too much about this; at one point today I read the time as "dix-huit fifty-nine". A moot point, anyway, as the audio commentary bored me to tears: simply a recitation of minutiae like the years of construction of each building, with very little of their non-numerical history. If you take the tour, and you should, give the audioguide a pass.



It was nice on the deck; there weren't even enough people to fill it, so nobody had to sit inside. I spent the whole cruise in the sun, though, and these two hours may be the most sunlight I've received since July last year. My nose is now so red that I'm just about ready to lead a pack of reindeer to the North Pole.

It was 16:30 when we got back to Eminönü. I entertained the idea of taking a peek at the Spice Bazaar, which seems to be right around the corner, but I thought it better to leave that (and the Grand Bazaar) for tomorrow. I think I've got time for everything! So I came back to the hotel by tram, which is just as frequent, fast and convenient as I'd heard. Just two things: 1) I spent way too much time trying to figure out the instructions for the ticket machine, only to arrive at the realisation that the machine just wants you to put money in and it spits a tram token. The instructions made it sound way more complicated. 2) Apparently 16:30 is Turkish rush hour, because the tram was packed, like, "Métro line 4 on a Saturday afternoon" packed. But I made it to Sultanahmet without incident :)

Comments

  1. I was also struck by the fragrance of flowers at Alcazar in Seville. Violets! Jasmine! Wisteria! (First time to smell a fragrant wisteria!) Clearly there are cultures that put a supreme value on ambient fragrance...

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    1. I was made to think about this the other day by a vendor in Versailles' farmer's market. He mentioned that he's had his stand in front of the florist for 30 years, and that when he was young the smell of flowers would wash over him every day. Now you can't smell anything even inside the flower stand...

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