(the Blue Mosque)
In the past seven days, I have been in three countries and two continents; conquering three sevenths of the land masses on earth. Pretty astounding considering the fact that I only visited Istanbul, twelve hours southeast of Blagoevgrad by bus. Leaving at 6 PM on Thursday, we arrived at our hotel in Istanbul’s Old City (what used to be called Constantinople) around 6 AM on Friday; exhausted but ready to see the city. After taking a quick cat nap, we again boarded our bus for a tour of the city on a rainy day.
Our first stop was the Sultanahmet Mosque (also known as the Blue Mosque) in the Sultanahmet Square. Built by Sultan Ahmet I between 1606 and 1616, this mosque rivals the Hagia Sofia in grandeur. Entering the mosque through the Hippodrome (center of Roman and Byzantine Constantinople), we were met by the majesty of the many domes atop the mosque. Topped with six minarets, the only mosque with an equivalent number is in Mecca. The interior was very large, and we wandered around for a little while.
After the Blue Mosque, we hopped back on the bus to continue our rainy tour. Although we were all still tired from our overnight bus ride, we attempted to remain awake as we crawled through Istanbul’s congested streets. Through our rain splattered windows, we saw a beautiful city with a mix of old and new covered with mosques (99.8% of Turkey’s population is Muslim). Our journey led us across the Bosphorus River; linking Europe with Asia. Istanbul is the only metropolis in the world that spans two continents; allowing me to set foot on three continents throughout my life. Stopping for a much needed coffee break on the Asian side (Turkish coffee is small, but packs a large punch), we continued back to our hotel.
Following lunch and another nap, we set out on foot to explore the city. We found a Turkish restaurant where we ate dinner and enjoyed one another’s company. Dinner was followed by dessert at a baklava shop where the shop keeper was excited to speak broken English with us. Because we were feeling full from eating so much, we walked through the streets lined with clothing stores and street vendors. Finding a little courtyard tucked away inside an old bazaar, we sat down next to a bubbling fountain and smoked hookah with the locals.
As darkness grew on the city, its inhabitants began to come alive. We took the tram from the Old City to Taksim Square; where all the nightlife happens. Masses of people strolled along the pedestrian streets where duner shops, coffee shops, clubs, and bars lined the streets. Hopping clubs blasted music from their rooftop parties and bartenders tried to pull you into their establishment. We found ourselves in a little hole-in-the-wall bar with a live Turkish band and a friendly bartender; spending the night with friends away from other tourists.
After a night with very little sleep, we awoke on Saturday ready to experience more of Istanbul. A few cups of free coffee from the hotel later, we set out to the Grand Bazaar to practice our bartering skills. Perusing through shops located throughout the labyrinth of streets, we haggled with shopkeepers for the lowest prices. Us ladies purchases scarves while all the guys bought hookahs. Wandering into the backstreets of one of the oldest malls in the world, we found random shops often overlooked by tourists. I could have spent an entire day lost in the maze of streets, but we had to move on.
Taking the tram from the Grand Bazaar, we returned to Sultanahmet Square; this time touring Hagia Sofia. Built in the sixth century, it was originally a basilica constructed for Eastern Roman Emperor Justinian I. In 1204, the church was looted by Crusaders but was turned into a mosque when the city came under Ottoman rule in the fifteenth century. The mosque was grand, but not worth the 20 TL (Turkish lira) I paid to enter.
Leaving Hagia Sofia, we walked to the Egyptian Bazaar (also known as the Spice Bazaar) where our noses were filled the fresh scents of many spices, cheeses, and fish. We smelled and tasted various spices and herbs as the outgoing merchants attempted to lure us into their shops. Keeping our wits about us, we bartered with various vendors and exchanged a few laugh or two; purchasing unique spices and herbs.
Our last night was spent hanging out in Istanbul; relishing the experience and wishing we had at least one more day in Turkey. After saying goodbye to Istanbul, we stopped in Edirne (on the Turkish side of the Turkey-Bulgaria border) for lunch and to see the Selimiye Mosque. The mosque was built by Sultan Selim II between 1569 and 1575 and is considered one of the highest achievements of Islamic culture and the Ottoman Empire. After an hour in Edirne, we continued on toward Bulgaria, Blago, and home; arriving at 11 PM tired, but happy to be back!