Istanbul: Dolmahbace Palace and Taksim, Beyoglu

I realise that my last couple of posts probably sounded a touch negative in spots … I have a kind of love-hate relationship with Istanbul, I’ve decided. There are so many great things about the place; the people can be really kind and generous and they can rip you off left, right and centre ( usually not the same people, though). The guys at Ocean’s 7 hotel in Sultanahmet where I’m staying could not be more helpful – they’ve been great and have gone above and beyond the call of duty for me and others. One woman I met here, Chrissie, an American living in Romania with her services husband, drove all the way to Istanbul in an enormous SUV with her three small children in tow – Ahmet and Sharam did everything they could to help her navigate around the place. And I discovered a really great coffee shop cum art gallery just around the corner from the hotel; it’s called Java Studio and is run by  a Canadian named Jennifer. They do a great cappuccino and chocolate cake, and it’s a warm refuge from the Istanbul winter weather.

Today I took the tram over to the more modern side of Istanbul to the Dolmahbace Palace on the banks of the Bosphorus. This enormous place was the home of the last 6 Ottoman sultans, as well as of Ataturk, the father of the Turkish Republic, who died here in 1938, I believe. It is mandatory to take a guided tour of the palace – they do not let tourists just wander around freely – so I joined an English-speaking tour group and was led first through the administrative section of the palace where the sultans conducted their day to day business in an atmosphere of splendour and opulence and then, by a different guide, through the harem section, the family rooms, so to speak. When I asked the guide how many women lived in the harem, he explained that there were anywhere from 40 to 1,043, depending on the sultan. Each of them had four “official” wives, and many unofficial ones who came from the servant ranks. Apparently, if these women produced sons for the sultans they were promoted to another, higher rank in the harem organisation. The real power in the harem, and in the Ottoman Empire itself, was the woman behind the man, the Queen Mother, the ruling sultan’s mother. Both guides told us that it was really the Queen Mother who ran the show … One of the last sultans was apparently an enormous man, 6’6″ tall and 160 kg (about 340 lbs) and a wrestler – his bed, which we saw, is also enormous. Interesting that, even though everything else in the palace is splendid, the bathroom toilets, even of the sultan, are still just keyhole shaped holes in the ground, albeit of marble.

Both sections of the palace are sumptuously decorated. I was especially taken with the amazing chandeliers made of bohemian and English crystal and all the gold. The furniture was also quite nice, as were the objects d’art such as the bearskin rugs from Russia and gigantic carved elephant tusks. Of these sorts of objects, there are never one but always two; this has to do with the sultans’ desire for symmetry. The palace was built and decorated in the 19th century in European style and has much western painting on the walls. “Dolmahbace” means something like “full garden” and the grounds surrounding the palace are very nice. In the back, next to the crystal pavillion, is a small zoo housing many fowl, including roosters and some odd black and white spotted birds which I found quite interesting.

See pictures here.

Sofie and I had dinner in a famous restaurant located near the Hagia Sofia in an old Ottoman wooden house and dessert afterwards in one of the many pastry emporia on the same main drag in Sultanahmet. Saturday we travelled by tram over to the main pedestrian walking street to Taksim in Beyoglu, across the Bosphorus. The architecture of the buildings here is great, 19th century neo-baroque. Some reminded me of Paris, while others looked Viennese or Prague-like. Lots of great restaurants, coffee bars and dessert places abound and the street was packed with shoppers and strollers. Walking back across the Galata bridge I saw all the local men out fishing, lining both sides of the bridge. The square around the New Mosque and Spice Bazaar was also crowded; obviously Saturday is the day for people to get out and about. Also, a pleasant change, it wasn’t raining!

See pictures here.

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