Day 22 - Topkapi Palace in Sultanahmet
Finally, we get to Topkapi Palace two hours after our original goal. We're high on working out the Istanbul tram system. Admittedly, it is child's play compared to the spaghetti tangle of Tokyo's metros. We're distracted again by food though. This time only for a few minutes and it's by a simit cart selling simits with Nutella. We're chewing and walking down the road, away from the Topkapi Palace. The sidewalks are narrow, fitting maybe two people side by side. The trams take up all of the road.
We have a grand plan to beat the lines and crowds at Topkapi Palace. The alarm goes off at 7.30 am. We're aiming to be at the ticket office at the opening time of 9 am. We fail at this plan miserably. First, we're waylaid by the promise of good coffee and eggs at Faros Kebab. Second, we're looking for a funicular but we're looking above ground. We circle round the edges of Taksim Square looking for a nonexistent funicular down the hill to Kabatas where we need to transfer to the T1 tram line for the Sultanahmet stop. Turns out, this one-stop-only funicular from Taksim to Kabatas rumbles right under our feet, sharing space with the metro system. I laugh at the plastic tokens the machines give out and search without success for a place that sells an Istanbulkart which gives you 75% off the normal tram fares. Istanbul makes this elusive card as hard as possible to get which is smart. I give up quickly.
The lines, as we predicted, into Topkapi Palace are prohibitive. Looking at them makes me want to give up instantly and find a restaurant instead. We persist though because we've spent two and a half days so far up at Istaklal Caddesi and Taksim, shopping, eating, and hanging out like urban city rats instead of soaking in the history and culture of old Istanbul. Once you finish standing in the line for your tickets, you get the privilege of standing in another line to actually get past the main Palace gates. A tour guide tells us and a Turkish man in a brown leather jacket off for daring to wriggle out of the line and move past her tour group. "She's crazy!" the Turkish man huffs at us after we all have a brief but heated exchange. "Please, go on," says the Turkish man, waving us in front of him while scowling at the tour guide.
Topkapi Palace isn't anything at all like the palaces in Europe. It is a sprawling, low-slung complex arranged around courtyards, pavilions, pools, formal gardens, and outbuildings. It's more like the summer villas built by wealthy ancient Romans, always facing into inner courtyards. The harem is its own little, claustrophobic microcosm within the palace. Simply put, the entire place is a bit of bejewelled, colourfully tiled maze.
I peer into glass cases of dinner ware, serving ware, pots, pans, urns, and cutlery. Every surface is decorated, either with inlaid mother of pearl, sparkles of some sort, porcelain flowers, glaze or delicate swirls of patterns. Many, many times Rob backs away from a case and mutters, "These guys knew how to live." There's an entire case dedicated to "sherbet". It looks like a juice dispenser. One is particularly grand with silver, gold and blooming pink and blue baby hyrdangea porcelain flowers in 3D, writhing around the entire urn. It stands, maybe, half a metre tall. "How much sherbet did these guys drink?" I ask, irritated and jealous of these historic sherbet drinkers. I find out that one entire kitchen was dedicated to making sherbet, another one just to halva, yet another one just for asure, plus another kitchen for candies and jam and finally one for main courses. Christ. I want to take a photo of the desperately beautiful porcelain but the guards are eagle-eyed and single-minded. Every couple of minutes, I hear them shout, "No PHOTOS please."
A few hours later, at the self-service cafeteria, I get to drink a glass of sherbet. I understand then why people might want to have mega urns for it. It's pretty delicious; fruity and smokey with a spicy, rosey tang. I also eat a doner kebab and a fruit and cream sponge cake. We eat lunch looking at a million dollar sea view. Later, I read Lonely Planet's description of the cafe as "a cafeteria selling food at restaurant prices." Whoops.
After lunch, the urge to sightsee takes a strong and sudden nose dive. The crowds are even bigger now. There are cameras pointing everywhere. Rob mentions that trying to avoid them is like trying to avoid numerous laser sights on sniper guns. I laugh and space out in front of another gorgeously patterned iznik tile. Because there are plenty of them to space out in front of. I'd personally like some actual furniture around the place. They're mostly empty rooms. It's hard to engage with the space without having more context about how it was used or a glimpse into the personalities who lived in it. Spaces are all about context.
Huge lines are forming to go into various wings and buildings. We suspect there's no need for a line but people just see one and decide there must be something good inside. We Groucho Marx these lines and plunge into a dark room that people just wander in and out of without waiting. We hit jackpot! The room with the Spoonmakers Diamond, the fifth most valuable diamond in the world, is waiting to be gawked at. No lining up necessary. It's called the spoonmakers diamond because some guy found it in the rubbish bin and exchanged it for three wooden spoons. The name isn't rubbing it in at all, guys. Not. At. All.
Once out of the Topkapi Palace complex, I sprawl on the grass outside and have a quick five minute nap on the lawn. It's interrupted by two guys in uniform walking their Arabian horses past me. That's new way to interrupt a nap, I'm sure. We take the tram and the funicular back up to Taksim and hightail it back to our hotel for a long pre-dinner nap. At 7 pm, I leave Rob in the room to escape furtively to the five-story H&M just down the road. I circle through all five storeys three times just to make sure I really have everything I want. Whoops. Dinner is late, around 9 pm. We eat potato dumplings, green beans stewing in olive oil, and turkish pizzas at Anatolian restaurant, Otantik. The water cannon truck and riot police roll past once again. This time, we just keep eating.