“Traveling – it leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller.” – Ibn Battuta
We had been holed up in our apartment in Istanbul for two days and it was time to face our fears and culture shock and go do some sightseeing. We had a tour planned in a few days that would hit nearly all of the sights we wanted to see in Istanbul, but one. Topkapi Palace.
Here is a little known truth about me. I am a castle hussy. I love them – all of them – shamelessly and unabashedly. People talk about getting “castle fatigue” when they travel. All castles start to look the same and it’s just not exciting or intriguing anymore. I have no idea what they are talking about. If anything was going to get my fanny up and out of our darling little apartment, it was sure as hell going to be a palace!
We figured out the tram line by using the art of observation – we watched the locals insert money into a machine and get a red token which they then inserted into a turnstile to reach the platform. The tram line was well marked and we knew right away what stop we needed. As we left the platform and started walking, we knew we should be getting close to the palace and stopped at the corner to take a look around. In other words, we showed a moment of weakness. A big fat no no around the heavily touristed area of Sultanahmet.
We were approached by a gentleman who asked us where we were going. The palace, we told him. He told us it was right down the block, but this was a bad time of the day to go because the cruise ship passengers were descending in droves. He then asked to borrow our map and pointed out museums outside Sultanahmet that were worth visiting. Mason offered him a tip and offended him. (We are not savvy travelers, people. We are just bumbling along here)
He told us he didn’t need money, did we need to borrow some?
No offense meant.
None taken, he says.
But he does have a shop right down the block, would we like to come have a look?
Oh crap! I KNOW this trick. I have read enough travel blogs to see this one coming a mile away. But I’m 100 percent sure I did not pass this bit of information onto Mason and so off we go. For a fleeting moment, I think about stepping in and telling the guy no, but I know we are in no danger and part of me is curious about playing a part in something that is pretty much legendary in travel circles.
Once inside the carpet store, he turns us over to his (even more aggressive) uncle. Mason needs a cigarette he says. And a light. We all need apple tea, he says. Four cups appear. The tea is sweet and delicious. There is no need to buy, he says. We are friends. If we buy, we are good friends. He has a man start unrolling rugs. The most stunning rugs I have ever seen in my life.
Five rugs unrolled. 10. 20. A pile of gorgeously plush heaven.
No, we can’t buy a rug.
We are traveling and can’t carry it with us.
He will ship it home for us.
We can’t afford it.
He takes credit cards.
We are not traveling with credit cards. We cannot afford a rug.
Abruptly our tea is taken away and we are ushered out to make room for the next travelers to be lured in.
I’m still glad we did it. It felt like an important Turkish custom to partake in. The kids were dumbfounded. Mason and I laughed and shrugged.
Onto the palace.
Topkopi was built beginning in 1459 and was the main residence for the Ottoman sultans for roughly 400 years until they moved into their European palaces on the banks of the Bosphorus. It is sectioned off into four courtyards.
As we approached the first courtyard, I was feeling pretty skeptical and underwhelmed. It looked like the entrance to a ride at Disney World.
We paid our entrance fee and moved into the second courtyard – a large space of green surrounded by low one story buildings with a gate at the other end. Still relatively unimpressed. Although I did find it amusing that the space used to be filled with peacocks and gazelle. I was a hard sell today – very unlike me when the word palace is involved.
The third courtyard brought some promise – it held the audience chamber, treasury, aviary and harem. The concept of a harem has been widely westernized to be something along the lines of “den of sin where dozens of sexy women lay around in stages of half dress waiting for sultans to come do naughty things to them.” A traditional harem is, however, simply the place where the Sultan lived with his family. It included his wives, but also his children and, sometimes, his mother and was where their day to day activities took place. Sorry to disappoint ya’ll.
It was the fourth and last courtyard, though, that made the entire trip worth it to me. It is full of pavilions and gardens and terraces and balconies and was the most private place in the palace for the Sultan and his family. There are pavilions full of nothing but windows and low slung couches. You know, for doing nothing but lounging. I love everything about this.
There were also gorgeous overlooks everywhere you turned. One of the military strategies of building Topkapi was to place it on promontory with the Golden Horn on one side and the Sea of Marmara on the other and with a fantastic view of the Bosphorus. Military strategy in 1459 = Staci’s sheer delight in 2015.
Overall, we had a wonderful first venture out and by the time we got back into our cozy little bubble of apartment protection, we were enthusiastically looking forward to our bigger tour in a couple of days.
What I am Reading
So a huge part of this trip for me was researching books written about the places we are traveling to or by authors from those places (with some random fun read thrown in) so that I can experience literature grounded in the places we will be. Cause I completely dig that kinda thing.
I thought I would share what I am reading with my fellow book nerds just in case you are interested. Istanbul by Ohran Pamuk is what I am currently reading. It is compared to James Joyce’s Dublin and has thoroughly helped me gain a greater understanding of the city of Istanbul and why it was so hard to warm up to. I find that I know the city a little better and understand how to connect with it a little more having read it. Worthwhile read.