My entire stay so far had been confined to the same landmass, so today it was time for a change! I hopped on the tram and crossed the Golden Horn, via the Galata Bridge, up to the district of Beyoglu, the modern, cool quarter of Istanbul.
But first I went to the palace of Dolmabahçe, which is further up north, just on the seaside. Although both Topkapi and Dolmabahçe were the residences of sultans (the former in ancient times, the latter from the mid-19th century onwards), the two couldn’t possibly be more different. Where Topkapi is a shining example of Ottoman splendor at its finest, Dolmabahçe is all Western excess and Baroque garishness. If Elvis Presley had lived in the 1850s, this is the palace he would have designed: gold leaf everywhere, trompe-l’oeil paintings on every ceiling, and lots, lots of Baccarat crystal. The huge staircase in the main hall is outfitted with crystal banisters, not to mention the enormous chandeliers made entirely out of crystal, both hanging and standing. It was like walking into a giant kaleidoscope.
The big drawback with Dolmabahçe is that the visit is guided only; you’re not allowed to walk around the palace on your own, you have to wait outside until enough people queue up, and then follow a tour guide as he hurriedly shepherds all the tourists along the designated route. This took almost all the enjoyment out of the experience for me, as we passed several interesting bedrooms and offices that I would have liked to observe more slowly, only to be stuck later on in a perfectly unremarkable study while the guide gave one of his exactly three short, heavily accented, nigh-inaudible talks about the palace. Also annoying: no pictures allowed inside, “to protect the works of art”, as if taking photographs without flash were to steal the soul of the palace.
The quick visit ended in the admittedly spectacular ceremonial hall, an enormous, tall, 2,000 sq m domed structure where the sultans would carry out their formal ceremonies and receptions. From the dome hangs a gargantuan chandelier that is itself bigger than my entire apartment. Discretion and sobriety were not huge values when it came to interior design!
There’s a separate ticket to visit the harem, which is absolutely not worth the price of admission: the harem at Dolmabahçe is just a succession of boring, ugly Victorian sitting rooms the likes of which are a dime a dozen anywhere in Europe. This is also, annoyingly, a guided tour, but in this case I wish I’d been on my own to walk faster, not slower.
A pretty underwhelming visit, all in all; if you choose to go, leave it for the end of your trip, for when you’ve run out of better things to see.
It was past noon at this point, so I walked back to the tram station at Kabatas to take the Fünikülar, and odd underground funicular that connects the sea-level station with the elevated Taksim Square (now famous for the protests that took place there not very long ago). I couldn’t bear the idea of searching and comparing restaurants for lunch, so I tiredly walked into the first fast food joint I found. Strangely, this was the very first time so far I ran into a language barrier, as the boy behind the counter froze when I ordered in English, deer in the headlights, and he had to call his manager (who looked all of 14, but what do I know) for help. At one point the two of them did a pantomime at the same time with their hands while saying “Big?” (hands apart) “Small?” (hands together), while I was like, “Yeah, I’m… familiar with the concept.”
After lunch, I began walking down Istiklal Caddesi (Istiklal street), a long, wide, pedestrian avenue full of shops, cafés, and people! Whereas Sultanahmet has been largely surrendered to us foreign invaders, Istiklal is frequented by locals and tourists alike. Despite this being modern Istanbul, the street still retains its old tram, which goes up and down between Tünel and Taksim at a snail’s pace, stopping every few metres to honk at people who are blocking the way.
I enjoyed this long walk a lot. Of course, as with any shopping district anywhere in the world these days, 90% of all stores are the same high street brands you have at home, but even those were a nice break from the souvenir peddlers on the other side of the strait. Sultanahmet oozes history and mystery, but it’s also so taken over by tourist traps that it can get oppressive too, so it was a nice change of scenery to be able to walk into shops and browse unmolested.
I walked in and out of several shops, nary a care in the world, as I had all afternoon ahead of me. I checked out Robinson Crusoe, an odd bookstore that stocks books in English and Turkish alike, all mixed together, which made it really confusing to browse books. Every once in a while I’d pick one of the ones with an English title, only to find the book itself was in Turkish. I also liked Denizler Kitabevi, a small, dark store selling old books, maps and prints. I got a beautiful print of Arabic calligraphy here for myself.
Having walked the entire length of Istiklal Caddesi, I was a stone’s throw away from the Tower of Galata, my next destination. It is one of the oldest towers in the world, its main structure dating back to 1348, when Beyoglu was called Pera and belonged to the Genoese. I read inside the tower that it’s been repaired and restored countless times, the latest to return it to its presumed original look. Inexplicably, in the 16th century a madman/scientist jumped off the Galata Tower to test drive a glider, and even more inexplicably he actually succeeded in gliding all the way to the Asian shore, way across the Bosphorus (the man was banished by the sultan for his efforts…).
The view from the top of the tower was breathtaking; as it was a clear day, I could see the whole city, all the mosques sitting on top of each hill, the sea, the bridges, even the terraces of Topkapi Palace from where I saw this very tower just two days ago.
From Galata, I took a beautiful street with lots of musical instrument shops. It was just a short but steep walk downhill to the bridge, where the tram stops. It was time to call it a day and make it back to the old city! I need to figure out what to do for tomorrow, my last day here!