Istanbul & Athens Trip Part 1: Epic Quest in Istanbul

Domes & Minarets

You know you're in Istanbul when you see the domes and minarets... You know it's the off-season when you see the gray, gray skies...

The MBA program I’m in requires of its students that “your feet touch foreign soil” before you graduate, except under extenuating circumstances.  It’s perhaps a little odd for an evening program, whose students mostly have full-time jobs, when the same school does not have the same requirement of its full-time MBA students (whose only regular daytime commitment is generally to their education), but there you go.  Except for the added expense (and the necessary time-off from work) I don’t mind the requirement.  I enjoy the opportunity to travel. 

Students are able to fill this requirement in one of two ways: they can do an international class during one of the regularly-scheduled study-abroad courses, or they can participate in the annual “International Colloquium”.  Each graduating class selects its own Colloquium destination (within certain guidelines) and this year we chose a combined two-city itinerary in Turkey and Greece.  And so, a few weeks ago now, my bags packed I hopped on a plane that took me half-a-world away to my first stop in the city of Istanbul, a city with ancient roots rich in history.

Day 1 in Istanbul was a bit of a whirlwind for me.  Many of my classmates arrived early, the day before, to see the sites but that would’ve required an extra day off work (and a week was already pushing it) and I’d have to have paid my own hotel (lodging for the duration of the official colloquium trip was paid by the school).  So by the time I arrive my classmates are already off on a boat tour of the Bosphorous, the natural Strait connecting the Sea of Marmara (and the Aegean and Mediterranean) to the Black Sea.  Meaning I’m effectively alone in a city of 13 million – the third largest city in the world.

Istanbul from my hotel

The view of Istanbul from my hotel room on the 9th floor... which is actually the 10th floor because everywhere outside of the US the 1st floor is the floor above the ground floor...

And what do I do?  I promptly leave my guide-book on the reception desk of the taxi company by which I am waylaid at the airport.  (By waylaid, I mean I paid a fare equivalent to highway robbery in a very real sense of the word; at this point I am not yet familiarized with a certain aspect of Turkish culture regarding the price at which things are charged.  Also, sadly, losing semi-important things, temporarily, would become a running theme during this trip.)  Upon settling into my hotel room near the thrumming heart of Istanbul on Taksim Square, and feeling suddenly lost without my guidebook (and not the least fearful because it’s a library book, and by the powers-that-be I must return it), I decide to embark upon an Epic Quest: a journey to the far side of an ancient and magical city to retrieve a book of power.

I knew from reading the guidebook on the plane that public transit connected the airport all the way to Taksim Square, which was right around the corner.  But I was in unfamiliar territory – a map would’ve been helpful to find my way around, like the one in my guidebook.  If only I’d had my guidebook… oh wait.  Undaunted, I asked at the concierge desk for a map.  The only free map available: a tiny one depicting the immediate area printed on the back of a business card.  No matter; it was sufficient for my immediate needs. 

Taksim Square

Taksim Square, the first stop on my epic journey through Istanbul, with the Republican Monument in the center of the square and the Aya Triyada (Church of the Holy Trinity) in the background

After twenty minutes or more of trying to find my way around in Taksim Square (and having first started out in the wrong direction) I discovered the entrance to the metro (a Funicular connects Taksim to the main tram-line to the Old City, which connects to the subway to the Airport; navigating which stops to transfer was part of the adventure). (You can follow some photo-highlights of the journey in my Flickr set, with photos of Taksim Square and some of the other sites I saw on my way back to the airport.  There’s not enough space here to show everything, and even the Flickr set is a reduced set of the pictures.  Most of my shots through the window of the tram are either ugly blurry or marred by reflections and glare on the window.)

The route wound its way across the Golden Horn – a narrow bay that cuts away from the Bosphorous – and into the heart of the Old City, past several impressive Imperial Mosques (including the New Mosque and Grand Suleyman) and right past the legendary Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque.  If I had not forgotten my guidebook, I’d have stopped there to see the Hagia Sophia, as it was not on our scheduled tour stops for the trip.  In retrospect, I still should have – there would be plenty of time to make it to the airport, but not plenty of time to see the Hagia Sophia.  But it had not yet dawned on me that this was the case.  Instead, I traveled on heedless in my quest.

Roughly an hour from when I set out I was back at the desk of the taxi service, there to lay claim to my lost book, and shortly the book was in my hands again.  Then it was back on the metro and back to the city (along the way I finally entertained the notion of stopping at the Hagia Sophia, but I soon realized it would be closed by the time I got back; it was the off-season in Turkey and all the major sights closed early).  It was a crazy way to learn about what it’s really like in Istanbul, but at the end, I felt more confident about going out into the city.

My entire stay in the city was under a cloud of cold and perpetual gray.  The weather was distinctly unpleasant, and the gray backdrop made for poor pictures.  It was cold and rarely got far above freezing.  It was not the ideal time to be in Istanbul (which I was expecting for some reason to be sunny and warm, even in early March).  And yet, despite being the “off-season” for tourism (apparently on account of the weather) it still didn’t feel like it wasn’t crowded.  Probably that’s because of the aforementioned 13 million people that live in the city full-time.  If – nay, when – I go back (next time with Dear Wife), it probably won’t be in February or March, but maybe something like early April.

That night had dinner down the far end of Istiklal Caddessi, the main pedestrian drag that branches off of Taksim Square, by the Galata Tower.  The next day we’d have our first company visit, followed by a guided tour of the Blue Mosque and Topkapi Palace.  That evening I branched off from the main group to explore the Grand Bazaar.  Again, it retrospect, I should have joined the majority of my classmates at the Çemberlitaş Hamam – an old, traditional Turkish Bath – but instead I rejoined them only in time for dinner.  The following day after more company visits I headed down with a small subgroup to visit the Roman-era Cistern.

The tours were spectacular – more for the sights we were seeing than the tour itself, but the guide certainly didn’t hurt, and it’s nice to have someone with a little more local experience to provide color-commentary.  But the visuals were just drop-dead amazing.  Inside the Topkapi Palace it was filled to the gills with amazing treasures amassed by the Ottoman Emperors, but we weren’t allowed to photograph most of those.  Still, the pictures I did get are pretty good (and the folks with better cameras than mine got even better shots).  And so I leave you know with a small selection of photos from this amazing portion of my trip:

The famous "Blue Mosque", also called Sultanahmet after the Ottoman ruler who commissioned it, as seen from the courtyard.

The famous "Blue Mosque", also called Sultanahmet after the Ottoman ruler who commissioned it, as seen from the courtyard.


Interior of Blue Mosque Dome

The Interior of the dome in the Blue Mosque


Me in the Blue Mosque

Your Humble Correspondant inside the Blue Mosque


Gate to the Topkapi Palace

Gate to the Topkapi Palace


Entry Gate to the Grand Bazaar

Entry Gate to the Grand Bazaar


Inside the Grand Bazaar

Shoppers inside the Grand Bazaar, in one of several themed areas

Colorful hanging lights in the Grand Bazaar

Colorful hanging lights, apparently a common product in Istanbul (this was one of many times I saw similar hanging lights in similar shops across the city), in the Grand Bazaar


Hagia Sophia by night

The Hagia Sophia illuminated by night


More pictures, as mentioned, in the Flickr set, including a small number by my classmates, as poor planning on my part left me with a dying camera battery.  Next time, I’ll discuss my impressions of Turkish culture and language based on my short sojourn in the ancient capital of the world.

The other posts in this series:

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

21 thoughts on “Istanbul & Athens Trip Part 1: Epic Quest in Istanbul

  1. That sounds like a very epic quest to begin your journey. Lucky the book was still there when you got back to the airport! Gorgeous photos too. There’s are so many patterns and details it’s hard to know where to look.

    • It was indeed. I was quite lucky – but in fact I noticed the book was missing shortly after getting in the cab. I asked the cabby to turn-around, but he didn’t really speak English. He knew enough to dial the desk on his cell and have me talk to them – but they still weren’t terribly helpful. I gave up trying to convince them I needed to have the cabby turn around – they didn’t seem to understand why I thought it was important – and just told them to hold the book for me, which they did. If I’d gotten the cabby to turn back – or especially if I hadn’t left the book behind in the first place – I might’ve been able to see the Hagia Sophia… And thanks for the compliments on the pictures. It was so gray on the exterior shots, but a lot of them came out great anyway. I thought some of the interiors of those buildings were just awe-inspiring. I can’t wait to see them all again.

    • If you can make the opportunity, I definitely encourage it. I might not have gone – or at least not any time soon – if not for school, though I knew there were some awesome ancient buildings there that I wanted someday to see. Anyway, definitely worth it!

  2. The epic quest sounds like a great way to get yourself accustomed with a foreign city. Sorry to hear that one theme was frequently misplacing items. When I first moved to Nashville, I left my wallet everywhere. Not a convenient thing. I like how your picture of Hagia Sophia picked up blue in the evening clouds.

    • It’s a little intimidating, but getting lost in a foreign place is indeed an interesting and immersive way to really learn about that place. I did my best during my quest not to look too much like a foreign tourist, but like someone who fit in with the city. (Which was probably made more challenging by having the obvious appearance of a foreigner, I being a tad too pale to look mediterranean.) I’m surprised how many of my exterior shots caught so much blue in the clouds, despite how gray it looked in real life. I’m pleased by that trick of the camera.

  3. Wow, Istanbul…I can see why you want to return. 😀 Though some people may not think that a search for a lots guidebook is an epic quest, I suppose things are what you make them.

    Thanks for the pics!

    • If you’re comparing my quest to trekking across the land to drop a gold ring in a volcano or retrieve the lost doohicky of Fantasticalia in order to defeat the Supreme Dark Lord… well, no it doesn’t seem particularly epic, does it? But for my money and compared to my daily life, it was pretty epic. 🙂

  4. Pingback: Istanbul & Athens Trip Part 2: Turkish Delight on a Moonlit Night « The Undiscovered Author

  5. You had a spectacular time indeed from the looks of it. I’m happy for you. And I’m very pleased to have (finally) seen another photo of my most favorite blogger. Both you and the places you’ve visited are quite charming. Thanks a lot for sharing, Stephen.

  6. Pingback: Istanbul & Athens Trip Part 3: Attack of the Acropolis « The Undiscovered Author

  7. Pingback: Istanbul & Athens Trip Part 4: It’s All Greek to Me « The Undiscovered Author

  8. Pingback: Writing Progress: Week Ending February 25, 2012 « The Undiscovered Author

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