Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Istanbul: Blockbuster day in the Old Town

Aya Sofyia

I posted a quick blog after I'd been in Istanbul for a couple of days. I was enjoying myself in the New Town, but Istanbal was feeling like any other southern European city with modern shopping streets and young teenagers in western dress. I was struggling to work out what was uniquely 'Turkish' about Istnabul.

On my third day in the city I headed to the Old Town for the first time and it was a blockbuster. Nothing like a bit of history to help you get the feel of the place.

The roof of the nave in Chora Church

My first stop was the Chora Church in the Western District. It was originally built as a church and later converted into a mosque. In recent years the church has been sensitively restored to it's Christian roots and is now open as a museum.

The small church was busy with tourist groups when I visited. Tour groups all staring skywards and gazing at the frescoes and mosaics could make the small church difficult to navigate.

During the restoration where the decoration couldn't be saved, the bricks were been exposed and beautifully pointed. I think I preferred the expert brick work more than anything else.

High on the city walls

After the church I headed to the nearby city walls. Climbing up onto the walls was an exhilarating and stomach churning experience at the same time. As high as a four storey building the walls were totally exposed with no safety rails to speak of. The views of the city were definitely worth it. Just don't look down.

Inside the Aya Sofya

My final stop before lunch was the Aya Sofya in the heart of Instanbul's historic quarter. The Aya Sofya is like the Chora Church on steroids. A church was first built on the site in the third century and it was the largest cathedral in the world for over a thousand years before being supplanted around 1500 AD. The huge basilica is breath taking.

Seemingly like most Christian buildings in Istanbul it was converted to a mosque before being secularised in the 1930s.

Chandelier in the Aya Sofya

The building still feels like a mosque with large Islamic symbols dominating inside the central dome. The nave is a little more Christian with exposed fescoes. You are able to look round the upper gallery too which is accessed via a long and winding ramp rather than staircase.

I was pleased that I had visited the Chora Church before the Aya Sofya as I think it would have been a little underwhelming to see second.

The Blue Mosque

Across the Sultan Ahmet Park from the Aya Sofya is the Blue Mosque. I have found visiting Mosques in other countries a slightly intimidating in the past; hawkers and hasslers ruining what should be a tranquil and reflective experience.

I'm pleased to report that the Blue Mosque was nothing like my preconceptions and was welcoming to guests outside of prayer times.

Roof of the Blue Mosque

The roof of the mosque was impressively painted. However, the enormous hordes of people meant it was almost impossible to stop and stare without being constantly jostled.

A beautiful building ruined slightly by the crowds.

Inside the Roman cisterns

My final stop of the day before my cookery course were the Roman cisterns which once supplied Istanbul with it's water supply.

My gosh the Romans were good at engineering and the cisterns are in great condition two thousand years later. The vaulted cisterns are the size of several football pitches. They provide cool respite from the heat of the day and are delightful to drift around.

View Istanbul July 2012 in a larger map Key: Yellow sights. Green visited on the Istanbul Eats food tour. Red eaten at and reviewed (outside of the food tour). Blue places stayed.

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