Day 24 - Hagia Sophia, Basilica Cistern and Street Carts
The lines to get into the classic tourist sites around Sultanahmet Square are intimidatingly long. Thankfully, it goes by fairly fast. There's also a lot of people trying to sell you things while you stand in line. That helps pass the time. For example, in the line for the Hagia Sophia, I could have bought a selfie stick, a jaunty Turkish hat with mirrors, a variety of guidebooks in many languages, and a set of Istanbul postcards. For the truly impatient, there's also guys scalping tickets.
Inside, the Hagia Sophia is pretty darn impressive. It's big. It's grand. It's massive. It isn't colourful but it is majestic. Even though the space is scaled by some pretty intricate scaffolding for restoration work, it's still pretty splendid. You can get a decent crick in your neck in this place. Some kids are literally lying on their backs on the floor.
I stand in line for the wishing column because I have a variety of ailments that I'm hoping it'll fix. Sinus infection. Flat foot. Floaters in my eyes. Hunchback. The hole isn't that deep. You can barely get one knuckle in. Result? Let's wait and see.
Upstairs, I clock the mosaics. Printed photos and books do not do them justice. In real life, the mosaics glitter gold in the sun. Standing in front of them, you feel that they need to be revered. They are incredibly regal. I gawk at the Deisis Composition for ages. Then I gawk some more at the Komnenos Mosaic. Probably my mouth fell open a little too. A huge Japanese tour group descends while I'm staring at the mosaic. I'm caught in the crossfire between mosaic and a sea of cellphone cameras thrust inches from my face. I think I squeak a little. The large tour groups frighten me. They're ruthless. I'm very short and everyone is looking up and past me. In other words, they don't see me. I'm buffeted like a cork bobbing in a stormy sea. To stop being pushed around, I have make strange strangled sounds while walking. I'm like a car beeping to be let through.
We exit the main Hagia Sophia compound and go around the corner to get into the Tombs. Several sultans are buried in there with their families, including the sons murdered to ensure the peaceful succession of the eldest son to Sultan. There's a process to it. It involves strangling with a silk cord. Honest. The tombs are deliciously creepy. The sultans and their families are buried above ground. Green cloth covers the strangely shaped coffins. You can count the number of murdered little boys because they have tiny little sultan hats on them. The younger the children, the smaller the coffin. Robin gets the creeps and hurries me out.
Snacks from the street carts is the on the cards. We buy steamed corn (1.50 lira), simits with Nutella (2 lira), and pomegranate juice (5 lira) then plunge into the eerily lit depths of the Basilica Cistern.
My stomach turns when I see the fat fish making lazy rounds in the water. There are two large Medusa heads operating as the bases of two columns. They are deliciously weird. One head is tipped on its side; the other is upside down. The experience is marred somewhat by overly pushy middle-aged people in large tour groups. They scramble rudely in front of me with their cameras. They aren't even using their eyes. They are literally seeing it through their camera and moving on.
We walk further and further away from the main tourist strips for lunch. There are slick Western-style restaurants with guys really going for the hard sell to get you in. One man says "Don't pay 27 lira for your kebab. Here, it's good, home-cooked food. Only 19 lira." We do a lot better and find a sidestreet with lots of locals and I only pay 10 lira for my urfa kebab at Ozbolu Kebap. Rob eats chicken wings.
Later that night, we seek out the Sultan Pub's rooftop for drinks. The very top level has a beautiful view of both mosques, the hippodrome, and the square. There are some very giggly, snap happy people up there. The only way up is a tiny, steep, and winding metal staircase. One older man has to descend bum-first. "It's either that or nothing," he explains to no one in particular. We drink beer, gin and tonics, and shell pistachios.
On the way back to our hotel, Rob commits to the Turkish ice cream, dondurma. He's chickened out almost every day until now. "I don't want them to make fun of me!" is one excuse. The other is "There's too many people watching me be made fun of." He has to do it though because, on the plane to Istanbul, he named "being made fun of while eating ice cream" as one of his must-dos.
It's almost ten o'clock. There's no one to watch him except me. This might explain why we get a beginner-level ice cream guy; namely, a sweet, chubby teenager who has to be bullied into the performance by his older brother sitting behind him, boredly looking at his phone. This guy is boss level. Ours is only starting in his career as a dondurma salesman.
He tries to tempt me into ice cream but I'm drinking sahlep and eating roasted chestnuts. I love flowers. This thick, sweet and glutinous winter drink is literally made from orchids, seasoned with vanilla and sprinkled with cinnamon. Rob and I are very irresponsibly drinking and eating endangered wild orchids and having a whale of a time. Whoops.