(Note 22/3/13: I will add more photos tomorrow!!)
I’m inside the Hagia Sophia mosque at a bright and early 8:30am, alert and in good spirits from the fresh Turkish breakfast spread at our hotel: slices of ripe, juicy tomatoes; peynir cheese, like cream cheese and feta combined; deliciously spiced aubergine fritters served at room temperature; and the ubiquitous Turkish bagel, simit, which like a hula-hoop is thinner and has a much wider hole than a normal bagel, and is crusted more generously with roasted sesame seeds.
Suddenly two skinny arms coil around me and squeeze, HARD. “Hmm…. don’t freak out,” I think. “Be cool.” I turn around and of course, it’s Hattie, my best friend from highschool who’d decided to join us last-minute with her new hubby Duncan. The serendipitous joy of meeting up the old-fashioned way, sans phones, is something we’ll experience for the next few days (as well as the temporary agonies of going no-tech).
The Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya in Turkish) means “Holy Wisdom” and was first built in the year 360. Yes. Three-six-zero. After serving as the oldest Christian church on the planet, in 1453 the Muslim Ottoman invaders galloped in. The emperor had an imam chant a few words and boom, it was magically transformed into a Islamic mosque. As you can see, the early Christian art and stained glass survives alongside beautiful and grand Arabic script. Breathtaking.
We move on to the Blue Mosque, which is just behind the Hagia Sophia. Shoes must be taken off and put in plastic bags before entering the completely carpeted cathedral of splendid, hand-painted tiles. An organised flurry of hand-painted flowers, vines, scrolls and geometries dominated every inch of wall and dome, yet another breathtaking experience.
Exiting the mosque we wanted a Turkish coffee to steady our dizzied heads, while waiting for Hattie and Duncan to come out… and worrying that they already had, but abandoned us. Sipping the thick, condensed milk-like drink with cinnamon (not coffee, as it turned out, but the vendors didn’t have signs or prices), the pair emerged… accusing us of abandoning them! But with the relief of finding each other we soldiered on for lunch; it was almost 1pm and we were starvin’.
I’d do just about anything to check off a list of places Anthony Bourdain has been to (each destination I travel to requires a “No Reservations” YouTube briefing), so we trek out west by tram and by foot to a quiet back street with door-to-door, local kebab restaurants. Neither Hattie, a vegetarian, nor I realised how meat-heavy Turkish cuisine is… we just assumed that the food was pretty much the same as Lebanese (many types of salads, falafel, hoummous, etc.).
At Siirt Şeref Büryan Kebab I just had to try the perde pilaf, a fragrantly spiced rice pilaf studded with tiny currants, almond or pine nuts and fine shreds of chicken meat, all baked within a fez-shaped pastry shell that is crisp yet tender (almost like a 蔥油餅). I was so hungry and it was so good I didn’t have time to take a picture. While we and others waited, cats circled around diners. These furry critters run stray all over the city, quietly lurking among people. At one point we look down at our bags on the floor, and saw that one kitten had very smugly nested itself plop on top of Will’s carrier bag. “He just wants to be cosy,” Hattie crooned; though a cat-hater even she couldn’t resist the cuddliness. Just before we left we wrapped Whiskers up in the restaurant’s outdoor fleece blankets, and slinked away from the unbearably content-looking cat.
Exhaustion soon set in; in the end we couldn’t muster the energy to stay out late at night (I’d wanted a full-on Istanbul club night experience), though we did all meet up on a trendy uphill street, quite like Lan Kwai Fong, for one of the outdoor restaurants packed with young locals enjoying raki (Turkish aniseed liqour, like Sambuca and absinthe) and sharing small plates; we had some calamari, fresh anchovies wrapped around green olives, baba ghanoush eggplant puree and fried baby mushrooms with a bottle of Angora Turkish wine. Yes, Turkey does wine; and this one, although a modest off-the-shelf label, was fresh and only slightly dry with barely any acidicity.
Many hours and a shisha later (here called Nargileh), I wanted to trek up the longest road ever to Taksim Square. We couldn’t for the life of us find the well-reputed Indigo electro-dance music club, supposedly just off that main street; but we did reach the end, Taksim Square, where I HAD to try the burger of disrepute: the islak burger (“wet burger”) at Kizikayalar. It looked so wrong that it looked so good…. but that goes for anything that comes an arm’s length from Anthony Bourdain’s face. I gotta say though that it was thoroughly unpleasant, despite the anticipation of snaking through a long queue of adoring fans. Fine, I may have be wrong — but that’s only because I wasn’t the least bit drunk. Friend, I advise you not to sink your teeth into this sad excuse of a thin McDonald’s patty, soggy with weak ketchup sauce (on the outside of the bun too!)… well, do try it so at least ya know. I know now.
Tomorrow: Ferry ride to the Asian side, Istanbul Modern and seagulls… lots of seagulls…