Turkey – Istanbul

The plan for the second day was to see Dolmabahce Palace. This palace is closed on Monday so we had to make sure we saw it on Sunday. The guidebooks I consulted were pretty meh on Dolmabahce but my experience in Italy had been that sometimes the best experiences are ones not endorsed by guidebooks. So despite the lukewarm reviews, we headed for Dolmabahce.

The official residence for the Ottoman dynasty for centuries had been the Topkapi Palace (which we visited on the following day). But as the Ottomans slipped and Europe started to eclipse them, the Ottoman sultan tried to emulate it with a very European palace in the shape of Dolmabahce. Dolmabahce became the official residence of the Sultan in the 19th century until the fall of the dynasty.

I forget what stop it was but it was very easy to get to palace through the tram system. Don’t think it was more than 4-5 stops and 20-30 minutes away from our hotel at Sirkeci. Entry to Dolmabahce is not included in the city pass. So we had to pay for it. Additionally, you can only go through the palace on a guided tour. I forget the exact numbers but I want to say that it was 15 TL for the main palace and another 5 TL for the harem. I’m a bit of a mansion whore. Everywhere I go, I have to see the biggest, most beautiful houses of the area. So naturally palaces of any kind are a must visit for me. The guys agreed and we paid for the full tour.

The entrance to the palace

The entrance to the palace

After a brief wait in the line, we joined the English language tour. The tour guide was actually really good despite the warnings in the guidebooks about unenthusiastic guides with poor linguistic skills. The opulence of the palace is astonishing especially considering the ailing condition of the empire at the time. Ataturk also took up residence in Dolmabahce once the Ottomans had been ousted. The rooms he used are lovingly preserved and pointed out to visitors. The last room was the reception hall which is still used to host official state functions and dignitaries. The chandelier in that hall was HUGE. According to the guide, it takes months to take it down, take apart, clean and put back together – a process that is done every now and then. We weren’t allowed to take pictures inside the palace so don’t have any to share here. After about 30-40 minutes we were done. Special props to our guide who was very engaging and kept the crowd entertained.

Courtyard of the palace

Courtyard of the palace

The main part of the palace reminded me of Hearst Castle which is located off of Highway 1 in California between LA and San Francisco. Hearst, an American media tycoon, built a ridiculous, completely impractical palace for himself in the middle of nowhere on a hill in the early 1900’s. The location of Dolmabahce isn’t remote or absurd but the opulence, the decorations etc seemed very similar. I have a thing for mansions and beautiful houses, so I was pretty satisfied with the first part of the tour.

After the main palace, we headed over to the harem section. If our guide was the main section was enthusiastic and well spoken, here the guide couldn’t have been less enthusiastic. She started off by apologizing for how boring the tour was going to be. What a sales pitch to start with! We couldn’t help but laugh.

Can’t really say much about the harem except it wasn’t as lavishly decorated as the main part of the palace. The guide kept making comments which I think were unintentionally hilarious. For example, she said something about how later Ottoman rulers would learn French before any other language because they thought they’d become French if they spoke the language. Not sure if she meant it is as a zinger but that’s how it came out. She didn’t seem to be a big fan of the Ottomans at least the later ones.

It was mid afternoon and we were done with Dolmabahce. In retrospect, unless you’re a big architecture enthusiast or a bit of a mansion whore like me, skip Dolmabahce. It isn’t worth it. I don’t regret having gone but it certainly wasn’t one of the top parts of the trip.

Now, we were back to scratching the eternal itch aka finding food. After a good experience with Pasazade the night before, we again decided to play it safe and go to Zübeyir which Lonely Planet described as the best BBQ kebab place in the city. It had great reviews from The Guardian as well (something I would learn to distrust quickly). The restaurant was located in/around Taksim which was a double win because we wanted to see Taksim. So, after spending some time trying to figure out how to get there, we were on our way. Turns out it was a pretty easy commute. First we hopped back on to the tram to Kabatas (I think) and from there grabbed the funicular up to Taksim. We got to Taksim and saw no signs of the protests that had made headlines just a month or so ago.

The place was packed. We started walking down Istiklal Caddesi which is the main artery that cuts through the shopping district and it was quite an experience. There was a sea of people moving up and down the bazaar. Both sides of the street were packed with all kinds of shops – food, electronics, clothing – all pretty upscale. So, clearly this was the place where locals went to shop, eat, hang out, etc. This place wasn’t dead at all like Sirkeci seemed to be.

We found Zübeyir quickly. It looked like a pretty good place and seemed to attract a relatively well to do crowd. The waiter ushered us in and sat us right next to the open kitchen counter. I asked if he could move us to the quiet and virtually empty upper section. The waiter said that it would be inconvenient for him to move us upstairs because he was one of only two waiters working at that time.  That was interesting – never had a waiter place his own convenience before customer satisfaction. I wonder if he thought we were broke students because of the backpacks we were carrying for cameras and such. Things became even more interesting when some more, even younger people came in and were quickly ushered upstairs to the nicer, quieter section. Anyway, the food was good or at least as good as it got in Turkey I suppose. The bill again came to 120-130 TL which seemed to be the average for us on the trip. Never thought I’d say this but I was beginning to get pretty sick of kebabs, etc.

After food, we kept walking down Istiklal. I travel because I have an interest in history and love visiting historic sites. So, things like people watching etc don’t do much for me. But even I enjoyed the wonderful, lively atmosphere. We had been walking for at least 40 minutes now and the bazaar seemed nowhere close to ending. We stopped and saw two fantastic live music performances by street musicians. Before long, I saw a tiny hole of a shop selling fresh pomegranate juice which I had to have. For a grand total of 1 TL, the guy served the most amazing freshly squeezed pomegranate juice. Pomegranate juice became a bit of an obsession. I bought some every time I came across someone selling it and it was fantastic everywhere except in front of Aya Sofia. If you go to Turkey and don’t try the juice, you will have wasted the trip.

We continued further and got to the Galata Tower. It was evening and starting to get dark which only added to the festive, party atmosphere. Mansoor and Greg decided they wanted to go up the tower and have a look at the city from up there. I bailed after seeing what I thought was an excessive entrance fee. So, the guys went up the tower while I waited for them.

Pretty soon a group of young folks gathered at the base of Galata and started a musical performance. Seemed like they were part of some club. One guy played the drum while the rest sang. Before you know it, they started doing some kind of martial arts while singing. A couple of the kids would jump in the middle and do some mock but very rhythmic fighting. Then they would tag out and another pair would jump in. This continued for a solid half hour. A crowd gathered around and really got into it. The music helped. I still have no idea what they were doing but it was a ton of fun. In retrospect, I should’ve recorded it.

As the performance ended, Mansoor and Greg descended from the tower and we continued down the bazaar. It took us another solid 30 minutes before we finally reached the end of it. We hopped on the funicular and the tram to get back to the hotel.

In retrospect, Taksim liked a better place to stay in than Sirkeci or Sultanahmet especially since getting from Taksim to the tourist district is quick and convenient through the public transit system.

It had been another fun day. I didn’t take many pictures which perhaps added to the enjoyment. Walking down Istiklal and watching the flood of people move in both directions with no end in sight was a great experience and one I won’t forget for a while.

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