Back in February, I took a week off this site and went on down to Istanbul with Alberto. Well, I had to tell Bil where I was going, and he mentioned the Four Lads song, famously covered by They Might Be Giants, about Constantinople being renamed.
I responded something like, "Is that all you know about Istanbul?" Bil, per usual, said "Yeah!" And I was like, "Me too!" Of course, I should mention that I was, in fact, halfway to being an expert on the city - I had scanned the entire Wikipedia page before going.
But now, after having spent a whole four days there, I must condescend to consider myself an expert on Istanbul. Sexy stories, stupid observations, and lots of photos of Istanbul, not Constantinople, after the jump.
We took Swiss Air on down, which is one of the few airlines that still gives out food on non-trans-Atlantic flights. Sure, it was a knock-off Hot Pocket, a Coke, and a piece of chocolate, but it still counts for something.
The first thing I saw after getting out of the airport was a huge billboard with a woman in a bikini hanging from the side of the airport parking garage, advertising I don't know what, so I guess culture, or at least marketing techniques, can be exported.
Anyway, our hotel had a view of the Bosporus, and after affirming to the desk clerk that we wanted a room with one double bed instead of two single beds, we headed out to see the town.
Istanbul is big, and there's no real way to feel like an accomplished tourist in a few short days. Public transport is pretty good, with a fast and convenient trolley, several subway lines, and boats connecting the Europe and Asia parts, all for about a dollar a ride.
We first went out to see the Hagia Sophia, which has brilliant frescoes and mosaics all over. It was a Christian church, built in the sixth century, that was converted to a mosque in the 15th century when the Ottoman Empire took over the city. You can actually see both religions' mark on the building - the Christian mosaics were plastered over, but much of the plaster has disintigrated. Also, hundreds of relief crosses were scratched out, but the scratch-marks only amplified the void left in the walls.
Nearby is the Blue Mosque, which we visited a few days later. I had trouble visiting churches in Europe the first time I came over here - to American me, churches are for worshiping. But then I found out that most of the Catholic cathedrals in France are barely ever used for prayer and lots have gift shops, so treating them like tourist destinations doesn't seem inappropriate.
The Blue Mosque, though.... It definitely does attract people from around the world, but when we visited there was an imam speaking and people praying. Alberto insisted and asked the security guard in front if it was OK to visit. He said it was, so long as we weren't in there while an official service was going on, and we took off our shoes and left them in the shelves where everyone else had left theirs.
It's definitely extraordinary on the inside, but the fact that there were at least 500 people using the mosque for its intended purpose, and me in my jeans, T-shirt, and backpack, made me leave in about two minutes. Alberto stayed inside admiring the architecture a while longer and I waited outside. I'm just too American for my own good sometimes.
We also went to the Chora Church, on the other side of town. It's a church built in the early 400's that's now a museum, and, because it was turned into a mosque and the mosaics were plastered over, the artwork was preserved.
There were some great mosaics since they represent Bible stories in comic strip style. The stories represented are even better than the ones in your Bible because this was back when they were still deciding and disputing what to put in the Bible, so there was some crazy stuff on the walls.
For instance, there's a scene where Joseph gets mad at Mary when he finds out that she's preggers, because, you know, he knows he didn't do it. There's a whole life story to Mary before she was even thinking of marriage, and a scene where she chooses her husband by asking all her suitors to push boats with a stick (Joseph pushed it the farthest.) There's even one story that struck me as a bit queer: Joseph takes off on vacation with another man right after marrying Mary (right).
Seeing the stuff they cut out of the Bible really made me wonder why anyone would want to interpret that book literally.
The last site we saw that's worth mentioning was the Great Palace Mosaic Museum. It's pretty cool and is filled with mosaics from the 5th century, generally depicting fables and sights from around town. I took lots of pictures, and a few are below.
This last one made us laugh. Is it just me, or does it look like a dude fucking a dog?
Two vignettes on gay life in Istanbul
As he always does, Alberto copied down the addresses of every gay bar he could find online in Istanbul and we tracked them down when we were there. They were all in the modern city center, around the Taksim area. Most were closed, but the one that was open was mostly empty, more expensive than every other bar we saw in that town, and the waiter was rude. It's kind of a running theme in our travels.
Alberto also wanted to go to a Turkish bath while we were there, and of course I was amenable to the idea. While walking in the street we were approached by someone telling us to go into his rug store (in the touristy areas, pretty much every store and restaurant has a dude outside yelling at people to go in), and Alberto asked him if he knew of any authentic baths, you know, not modern and not filled with tourists. He gave us the address of the one he liked to go to, built in the 15th century.
Good stuff. We get there the next day, pay to go in, lock up our belongings, and get in there wearing a towel. I'm sitting in one of the saunas with a few other guys in there, and just across from me a guy starts jacking off. I'm, well, shy about these issues, and I'm thinking OMG is that guy really jacking off across from me? Maybe he just has an itchy rash under- Oh no, that's a boner. He's jacking off.
I got up and left, he followed, getting progressively more assertive, until at one point he grabbed my hand and put it on him. Me being me, I said, "No, thanks!" and left. I felt that that may have been illegal, and I also felt like it was a bad idea to risk going to prison while I was there. (Happy ending: He ended up getting off later on in front of me and I applauded appropriately.)
In all, three men approached me for playing around while I was there, and two approached Alberto. No one was punished, although the owner of the place walked in on one guy putting on a show for Alberto and yelled at him. Alberto said that he kept on repeating "No problem!" because he didn't want the guy to get in trouble, and the owner backed off and left the man to his own devices.
The best part was leaving and getting dried off by a stocky guy. There's something oddly comforting about a muscular, older gentleman you don't know drying your hair.
And one of the men who hit on Alberto was waiting for us outside and said the words "sex" and "hotel" a few times. We politely declined and went out for cake instead.
Food and drink
OK, I'm looking through the pictures I took there, and I'm seeing a lot of myself and am surprised by how much weight I lost since then. I'm wondering how much I gained just by being in that city, though.
We stopped to eat cake like every couple of hours. They're so pretty and filled with pistachios and almonds and honey.... I hereby proclaim Turkey a "good cake" country.
We also went to a restaurant that serves fish right from the sea. It's literally a dude behind the counter selling fish from the boat right behind him that's tied to the pier. On that boat, that's rocking with the waves, they're filleting and frying fish, stuffing them in bread with raw onions, and then handing them off to the dude on the pier. It's about as fresh as fish can get, I'd imagine. (Yes, the vegetarianism took a vacation there.)
Another hole-in-the-wall restaurant we went to, far away from the touristy parts of town, was pretty nice. It was about the same size as a closet, and there were two choices: the meal du jour or not eating. And it was pretty good, even as there were six people seated in a restaurant that appeared to have been built to seat four comfortably.
All in all, we had a great time there, and I wouldn't mind going again. There's still lots that I want to see.