I wore my winter coat today in Budapest. In my Turkish absence, the weather went bad; it rained and froze in the space of five days.
Before Turkey, I went last Sunday to Pécs, in the south in Hungary. I was supposed to go with CEU’s hiking group, who left from Keleti (train station across the city from me [that’s exaggeration, it’s not very far really]) at something like 7am. I tried valiantly to get up and make it, but I naturally woke up at about 9. I doubted as to whether I should go anyway, then resolved to, and made it to Keleti about 9:45, which is when a train left. The inefficiency of the regional rails in the country stretched the 100 mile journey into three hours, during which I slept. When I woke up, I was alone in a small city in the middle of the Great Hungarian Plain, with neither map nor data nor cash.
This was distressing, but I decided to be brave and use the 5 sentences I know in Hungarian to find my way to the city center, where I hoped to meet with the hiking club. I wormed my way through a conversation about ATM locations, then found a bus map. I hopped on one, which seemed to go to a large area in the middle, and it turned out to be right. I found my group in the Zsolnay Museum, dedicated to a famous turn-of-the-century manufactory of porcelain, and spent the rest of the day with them. Pécs was a pretty place, but couldn’t actually hold my attention for long. I would’ve preferred exploring alone, but that’s not the hiking club’s fault.
The short workweek quickly evaporated into a Wednesday morning flight out of Liszt Ferenc. I landed in Istanbul at about 5, then struggled with getting a visa for what must’ve been an hour. The machine wouldn’t work, I didn’t have cash, a Gabonese woman came and talked to me in French asking for help, I didn’t know why I needed a visa – it was tough. Still, I persevered and found Jorge in the terminal’s exit. His flight had only landed recently, but Denes had actually been in Europe for the first time all semester since the morning (he studies in Jordan). We hopped on a shuttle down to Taksim Square to find him. At night, the view was dark, but on the way back I’d be treated to Istanbul’s dominating characteristic: its size. More on this later, but when we got to Taksim, we wandered for another hour or so before finally finding Denes. We saw Gezi Park, site of the recent (maybe a year or two ago) demonstrations and saw how it turned into Istiklal street down the hill. We finally found him and grabbed dinner, then walked down the Istiklal to our apartment. The street was choked with people, even on a Wednesday night. Times Square is about as dense as it, but is also only a fraction of its length. We got off the artery at the Galatasaray, and turned down a few side streets and under a bridge to arrive at our AirBNB. To be honest, it was in a rough neighborhood, but we got over it and went out later to a nice bar, where we chatted with some French girls and listened to a jazz band.
Thursday was full of promise, but began too late – we only left the apartment at 1:30. From there, we left our half of the European peninsula and arrived in old Constantinople. We lunched on the bank of the Golden Horn, then walked up to the area of the Great Palace. I’ve spent two or three weeks in my Byzantine class learning all about the palace and life there, so I was pumped. But we got a bit lost, and only on accident made our way to the Topkapi by way of Gülhane, the old palace gardens.
Peace in Topkapi
After we took our picture in sultan garb, we lounged our way through the Sultan’s halls and buildings. We stumbled upon a small mosque perched at the edge of a cliff looking southwest, to the widening Sea of Marmara and its attendant islands. The carpet was lush and red, traced with gold. A security guard dozed in the corner and let us alone, and so we occupied another corner and lay down in the peaceful temple.
By the time we got out of the palace, it was dusk. We walked down where the Byzantines held their palace complex, which is a route taking one from Topkapi to the Hagia Sophia, and ending at around Sultanahmet mosque. We bought a surprise for Il Palazzo along the way, then walked further down the hill to the seaside. On the rocks, we chatted until night and left only when the spray from the waves hit Denes. We finally retired to Galatasaray before heading back out into another Istiklal night.
Friday we made it around the sights in old Constantinople. The Hagia Sophia was awe inspiring, especially the surviving frescos from the Byzantine period. I could trace out enough of the Greek inscription on the mosaic of Constantine IX Monomachos to confirm what the modern English sign below the mosaic said, but felt übercool in doing so. I had half a mind to lift a piece off the cracking marble floor, for a souvenir, but then thought better of it.
Inside the Hagia Sophia, a Byzantine fresco
The Blue Mosque was similarly impressive. A sign near the exit intrigued us: Do you want to understand Islam? We did, and followed its arrow to an office on the east wall, where we found an imam. He sat us down and gave us dates and water, then answered our questions about Islam (my own: what’s the hierarchy of Islamic officials? his answer was a little muddled, but from what I got, it’s v decentralized these days). It was a unique experience, and I’m glad we did it, actually.
That night, out and about on Istiklal, the Galatasaray district suffered a power outage. We were in some bar called Rasputin at that point, and the entire street’s lights just shut down. The people, however, didn’t stop, and it became a really exciting time, with people talking and ordering and dancing to candlelight (there was a somehow still music going). I tried to play with a stray dog, who barked me away, then we went home in a pouring rain.
Outside the Dolmabahce palace
Saturday we visited an old palace on the banks of the Bosporus, then decided to take a ferry out to the islands we’d seen from the Topkapi, the Prince’s Islands. The trip went sour, however, when we realized that what should’ve been an hour cruise had turned into a 2.5 hour one. We also had no clue what the boat would do once we passed the last small island – I don’t think it was ever supposed to go back, really. We remained adrift and lost for about an hour before we figured to hop off and grab another boat back. In our confusion, we yelled place names at a longshoreman for a few minutes before he confirmed we could return to the mainland by this boat, and so we hopped on. We got back off, happy, on the Asian side of the city, marking mine and Jorge’s first visit to Asia. We then found a restaurant with a TV and watched El Clasico, then took a shuttle back to the Galatasaray district. It was on this ride home that the size of the city really revealed itself. From leaving the European peninsula and ferrying three hours, we had never once seen a break in the city on the coast. It stretched and stretched. When the cab drove up to the top of a hill to take the main bridge across the river, we could see the whole thing spread before us, and it seemed unending. It must have been dozens and dozens of miles long in every direction. It was stunning to see.
Denes left later that night, and Jorge and I stayed in. We watched some stand-up comedy and chilled to great bossa nova music, then went to bed, waking up early for a breakfast we’d been recommended. We left for the airport and I took a sleepy flight home, then lounged the whole rest of the day.