A Day to Remember in Istanbul - Golden Horn

It is minutes before we're about to board our plane and it appears as though everything has been going as planned.  Then T shows me a BBC article reporting on protests that have broken out in Istanbul.  I recognize the name of Taksim Square to be the location of the apartment we have arranged to stay at through Airbnb.  While we exchange concerned glances with each other, we also acknowledge that there is little we can do at this point.  With a nagging sense of uneasiness, we board the plane.

Six hours later, we arrive in Istanbul.  Thanks to our e-visas, we make it out of customs in good time.  As there was no sign of our driver yet, we take the time to withdraw some cash and purchase a Turkish SIM card.  We locate our driver who eventually drops us off at a seemingly random corner near Taksim Square.  Before hurriedly driving off, he assures us that someone will come to meet us soon.  Minutes go by but we have yet to see anyone who appears to be looking for us.  Meanwhile small groups of young adults pass.  Some hold swimming goggles in hand, others have face masks around their necks. 

Just as I begin to grow uneasy, a woman comes from around the corner and approaches us.  Without introducing herself, she asks if we are waiting to be shown to the apartment.  Gratefully, I say we are and she  begins to lead the way.  When we arrive at the apartment, she helps us to get settled but is clearly a bit frazzled.  We ask her about the protests and whether we should be concerned about our safety.  She doesn't make us any definitive assurances.  As long as we exercise caution, we should be fine.  She then leaves us to start our day.  

We decide that our first order of business is to get some lunch before heading to Chora Church.  As we walk out of the apartment and towards the main street, we are hit with a light wave of tear gas, enough to make us cough and burn our noses.  We immediately backtrack and take some back alleys until we are able to catch a cab.  We decide to head for Chora Church directly... and that is how our trip to Istanbul began.

Despite the rather alarming start, once we arrived at Chora Church everything was calm thereafter.  While it is isolated from most of the other tourist sites and considerably smaller in size, Chora Church repeatedly came up as a top site to see.  Because it of its location, it was also mentioned in our guidebook that it gets far fewer crowds.  As I knew we would realistically only have the afternoon and evening on our first day, I figured Chora Church would be the perfect place to start.  It turned out to be a sound strategy as we didn't have to wait in line to purchase our museum pass, which in turn saved us from standing in insanely long ticket lines at more popular sites later on.   

Despite it's small size, I have to agree with our guidebook in saying that it is probably the best place to see the most beautiful mosaics in Istanbul (below).  As a matter of fact, I found that it's size actually works to its advantage as it makes for a far more intimate experience.  In addition to it's impossibly intricate mosaics, the church also boasts an impressive display of frescoes in the parecclesion (side chapel).  Among my favorites was one depicting Christ raising Adam and Eve out of their sarcophagi while the gates of Hell lay below (above).  

While it wasn't originally on the itinerary, we were glad not to miss the old city walls of Constantinople.  After a short walk around the corner from Chora Church, we came upon a section of the wall which we immediately sought to climb.  It was both interesting and at times unnerving to see what little had been done to alter their natural state.  There were no ticket offices, no obvious entrances, nor any protective guide rails or handle bars.  It seemed as though the walls had been for the most part left alone to slowly descend into their ruinous state while the rest of the city continued to grow and evolve.  

After we climbed a short stone staircase, we were faced with the steepest and shallowest set of stairs we had ever seen.  Honestly, it was hard to tell if they were meant for climbing but as there was no other way to go, we mustered up our courage and gingerly began the ascent.  At the top, we were rewarded with expansive views of Istanbul's old city basking in the sun under a near cloudless sky.  It was an incredible position to be in and as we busily took a multitude of photos, we could only imagine how the view from our perch had changed since the wall had first been brought into existence.  

After a nerve racking climb down from the wall, we headed north, weaving our way through some seemingly residential parts of the city until we eventually arrived at the waters of the Golden Horn by which an inviting park surrounded the Avansaray pier.  Our plan was to catch a ferry from Avansaray and take it across the waters to Haskoy.  According to the ferry schedule I had looked up beforehand, ferries came by once every hour.  Unfortunately we has just missed the last ferry by about 10 minutes and therefore had nearly 50 minutes to kill.  After sitting for awhile in the park, we sought out something to quench our thirst.  Our search brought us to the rooftop terrace of Heybe Cafe, an impossibly cute coffee shop located just across the street from the park.  Unfortunately, we had barely enough time to finish our excellent apricot ice teas before having to go catch our ferry.  

As planned, we disembarked the ferry at Haskoy after a remarkably brief ride and after an equally short walk, we found ourselves at the expansive campus of the Rahmi M. Koc Museum.  To justify going out of our way to see Chora Church, I searched for other tourist attractions near the area and was first introduced to this museum via Tripadvisor.  Having earned soaring reviews and being described as "a museum dedicated to the history of transportation, industry and communication" it seemed like a promising bet for geeks like us and I was pleased to find that it did not disappoint.  

The museum is comprised of three parts: the Langerhand Building, the historical Haskoy Dockyard, and an open air exhibition area which together houses the biggest collection of every imaginable vehicle I have ever laid eyes on.  From the obvious like automobiles and motorcycles, to the massive like a retired barge or a submarine, and even to the obscure like wheelchairs and perambulators, this museum literally has it ALL.  Add to that a planetarium, a conference hall, and a merry-go-round and the museum is a veritable fun park for an audience of all ages.

While I wouldn't go as far as to call myself a "gearhead" I've always had an interest in cars and at one point in my life fancied that I'd become a car designer when I grow up.  For one reason or another, my life path has veered me away from that destination but I still look forward to a good car show every year.  Walking among the rows and rows of vintage cars at the museum reminded me of my once fervent love affair with cars.  It also reintroduced me to hood ornaments.  I'm not sure what drew me to them this time.  I had always known of their existence and may have even superficially admired their beauty once before.  But it was as if I was really seeing them for the first time that day.  As evidenced by their near disappearance from cars today, they served no practical purpose and were nothing more than pure decoration.  And yet it was clear that a great deal of effort and attention to detail were invested in them.  Reflecting on it now, I think I appreciate them to be symbolic of a time when the ability to manufacture goods was regarded and valued as a skill, maybe even an art.  A time when it wasn't only about optimizing efficiency but about taking pride (and the time) in making something of quality and beauty.

Despite our most valiant efforts, we physically could not bare to see the entire museum.  Overcome with dehydration and exhaustion, we tore ourselves away from the museum and managed to stumble into a nearby cafe for a quick dinner.  After filling our bellies and resting our feet, we headed back to the Haskoy pier to catch the ferry to Karakoy.  The ride to Karakoy was certainly longer than our last ferry and afforded some beautiful views of the Golden Horn against a slowly setting sun.

From Karakoy Pier, we immersed ourselves into the maze of hillside streets and alleyways that is Beyoglu.  In time we reached the Galata Tower and stopped into a nearby cafe, the Galata Konak Cafe for some dessert.  As the last rays of the sun faded and darkened into night above us, we enjoyed a plate of very chocolatey profiteroles, a slice of carrot cake, and Turkish tea.  The cafe, though trendier and more expensive than we had hoped for, was nonetheless impressive in many ways.  The most obvious feature was of course its rooftop terrace which offered nearly 360 degree views of Istanbul, including a dramatic close up of Galata Tower.  Blankets were provided for diners looking to keep out the night chill, our orders were taken on an ipod touch, and the service was prompt and attentive.

After our sweet treats, we wearily started the trek home.  Due to the protests in the Taksim area, we found that the subway lines to there had been suspended.  We had little choice but to take a cab, approaching our neighborhood from a more "backdoor" route.  When we arrived at our apartment, we found the neighborhood to be calm but the news reports seemed to suggest otherwise.  As it looked like the protests were only escalating, we decided that it would be best to relocate to the Sultanahmet area for the rest of our trip.  We called the owner of the apartment as well as Airbnb to explain our situation and found them to be very understanding.  Airbnb even offered to pay for a night at a hotel.  Unfortunately, we were unable to take them up on their offer as it was already past midnight at that point.  With it being so late, we decided that it would be best to spend the night at the apartment but to then check into a new hotel early the next morning.  As such, a very last minute search for an affordable hotel then ensued into the night.  After several frustrating internet searches followed by a handful of desperate phone calls, we settled on the Sebnem Hotel.

With the hotel reservations made, T, who had been fighting off illness for the past several days, wasted no further time in turning in for the night.  As it usually does, it took me a little longer to wind down.  But having started at 3am, our day had been long and we had traveled far.  With thoughts of beautiful mosaics, waterside parks, tear gas and protests swimming in my head, it wasn't long before I slipped into a deep sleep. 


  1. gorgeous pics younch, and glad to hear you guys stayed safe!!





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