Having arrived after midnight, and not having procured a guidebook or map or anything in advance, Anna and I hadn’t really seen much of the city, and didn’t know much ll about its layout, where our hotel was, and all of that good stuff. Which is why, when I awoke around 8:30am and found Anna completely sound asleep, I waited for a bit and then decided to head out on my own, leaving her a note suggesting a noon rendezvous in the hotel lobby. Our hotel, by the way, was the Bar In Hotel, or perhaps Barin Hotel. It did, in fact, have a bar in the lobby. But nevermind that, I was itching to explore a new city, and so I headed out.
You can learn a lot more about a city by walking it, preferably at random, than you can from any number of guidebooks and maps and tours and whatnot. Just exploring and meandering around a new place lets you following roads that are interesting, see distant landmarks and make your way to ‘em, and generally get a feel for the layout, the people, and the mood of the city. Walking around Istanbul, I was immediately struck by the fusion of European cosmopolitan and middle east Islamic cultures. Just visually, there are mosques everywhere. I don’t think there are more here than in, say, Amman. But there are a whole lot of huge mosques. The scale of the minarets, visible over every corner of the city, is really something to see.
And see it I did. I wandered eastward from our hotel, happening upon a huge square with Istanbul University and the entrance to something called the Grand Bazaar. The scale, I cannot stress enough, is huge. Once I entered the Grand Bazaar it was clear that these Turks do not mess around with their shopping. The first street/aisle I walked down had felt like it was a mile long, and comprised almost entirely of jewelry shops. And unlike the souks and bazaars of Cairo and even much of Tangier, these were proper storefronts, with great lighting, glass cases, and so on. It was a bit overwhelming.
Making it through and to the other side of the grand bazaar, I wandered a bit more, mostly on shopping streets but also through a bunch of plazas. Eventually it was 11am and time to head back to meet Anna, so I turned back west and… found that I had no idea how to get back to the hotel. I backtracked a bunch, finding landmarks and hotels that I had seen, gradually narrowing the search area down until… nothing. The hotel, as far as I could tell, had simply ceased to exist. It was at this point that I started asking people if they knew the hotel and discovered, to my dismay, that the same general area has, in addition to the Bar In Hotel, the Balin Hotel and the Baron Hotel. I found both, multiple times, thanks to kind passersby.
Tiring of the fruitless search, and without a map or a phone (I’d left both my cell and satellite phones in the hotel room, of course), I went back to the plaza with the entrance to the Grand Bazaar and found the entrance where I had actually walked into the plaza. It turns out that just a subtly different angle puts one in an entirely different place. Who would have thought? So I eventually found the hotel, and Anna, only 20 minutes late (and after only an hour or so of increasingly frustrated being-lost).
Anyways, once we finally met up, we headed back to the Grand Bazaar, and this time I had a better idea of the layout of the city. And Anna, being resourceful and stuff, had procured both a guidebook (Fodor’s Istanbul, 2001) and two maps. So we were a little more directed than I had been.
The rest of the day was spent wandering through the shopping district, the bazaar, and briefly stopping by the Hagia Sophia (aka Ayasofia), the one thing of historical import in Istanbul that I did not want to miss (I did, after all, play Civilization, and I know my wonders of the world). The lines were huge, though, so we planned to return the next morning, and just wandered our way through the day, stopping with purpose only to make hotel reservations for the next few days (in a hotel on the other side of the Golden Horn from our current location, just to mix things up) and for some pretty disappointing local wine at the Internetly popular, but also somewhat disappointing, Orient Express Wagon Bar.