Le Tour

This is not often a very ‘here are some pictures of my family’ blog, but today I am happy to make the exception. Recently, on a family trip to my parents’ home, we took the opportunity to surprise Daniel with a Tour de France-themed party for his seventh birthday – a sort of family-only pre-birthday bash.

And it turned out beautifully, mainly thanks to my sister who made everyone wear cycling kit, who served the drinks in bidons, who helped me make the Tour jerseys bunting, and who gave Daniel almost a dozen little cycling themed gifts to unwrap.

Add to that an awesome (no, really awesome, you should have seen the stitching detail that was added to the icing) yellow jersey cake that my mum procured, and you have the makings of a very surprised, loved, and happy little boy – making us smile at a seven year old who knows how to incorporate the words “gruppetto” and “mountain top finish” into normal conversation!

Image credits: Elanie Fourie and Callie Fourie

When in Istanbul ..... the bazaars

No trip to Istanbul would be complete without a visit to the colourful labyrinth of shops and alleys of the world famous Grand Bazaar and the Egyptian (Spice) Bazaar. What you heard is true - this is the world of the pushy salesman. And it does not start when you enter the bazaar. Oh, no. As you walk in the streets around the big tourist sights, you are often approached by overenthusiastic carpet touts who, with a reply on his “excuse me,” immediately tells you that he has been to or wants to visit South Africa or my favourite, South Africans bring him luck (one even invited us to come and have a look at his collection of Deon Meyer books :-), at which point he then offers to take you to his brother’s or cousin’s or friend’s store just around the corner.

Sidestepping all of them, we managed to enter the Bazaar on our own, determined to haggle with the best of them. The main street of the Bazaar is home to jewellery shops, and here the shop owners do not call out to the people passing their shops. I was a bit surprised at how modern and organised it all looked. But it did not take long for us to get lost in the alleyways, all of a sudden being bombarded with shopkeepers wanting our money. It’s at this point that the size of the bazaar dawned on us. Dating back to 1461 the Grand Bazaar has over 60 different streets housing more than 4000 shops under a chaotic red tile roof (remember that scene in Skyfall when James Bond chased the baddie on the motorbike?) At its height, during the 17th-18th centuries, the bazaar was bigger, better and more important than any market in Europe. Shop after shop after shop sells carpets, leather goods, “real” fake bags from all the big fashion houses (I mentioned the word “Birken” to my husband in an Afrikaans conversation and the nearest salesman immediately told me had stock :-)!), really great antiques, silk scarves and Turkish delights. My favourite item was the beautiful Turkish bath towels – I was willing to buy a second suitcase to fill it with the beautiful towels, but alas, sanity prevailed!

We left the Grand Bazaar and the nearby Spice Bazaar (much smaller with a focus on foodie stuff) without buying anything, but we had a great time. The extremely endearing Ali who wanted to sell me a leather jacket and who tried to convince me he does not like profit (he started with a price of 1200 Turkish Lira and even before I entered negotiations he brought his price down to 300 Turkish Lira!), will forever be one of my favourite travel memories of Istanbul.

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When in Istanbul ..... Topkapi Palace

I’d never heard of the Topkapi Palace before. It was only when I starting researching Istanbul that I learned about this residence of the Ottoman Sultans. The first stage of this expansive palace was built in the 1450’s and it was only in 1909 that it was officially abandoned by the sultan’s women and their servants. During that period, the empire was run from here and it was home to the Imperial Treasury. Today you can still visit the incredible collection of precious objects and jewels, including an 86-carat diamond. A collection of imperial robes is housed in one section of the palace, and arms and armour in another. I was intrigued by the Sacred Safekeeping Rooms, home to some of the most sacred relics in the Muslim world. It housed objects like a cloak of Muhammad, his swords, one tooth, a hair of his beard and an autographed letter.

The highlight of the palace, however, is the Harem - the private rooms of the sultan, the imperial princes, his wives, concubines, servants and black eunuchs. The amazing building with its labyrinthine corridors held so much history and intrigue. Islamic law allowed the sultan to have four legitimate wives and as many concubines that he had the means to support. All the slaves were foreigners as Islam forbade enslaving Muslims. When they entered the Harem, they were educated in Islam and Turkish culture and then the competition started. They all wanted the favour of the sultan’s mother, the most powerful women in the Harem. She controlled access to her son and the girls dreamt of giving the Sultan a son and maybe even marriage.

The decorated rooms, many in iznik tiles, some even in Delft, are beautiful and I loved the feminine touch evident in this part of the palace.

Just a word of advice if you want to visit: Go as early as possible in the morning and allow at least half a day to visit. It becomes very crowded, but it is absolutely worth it. One of the highlights of the trip for me!

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When in Instanbul ..... sail the Bosphorus

Istanbul is vast, and it would take you a couple of weeks to take it all in properly. Part of the ‘problem’ is the fact that it straddles two continents, with the Bosphorus channel in between. At its narrowest point it’s probably only a kilometre across, which becomes relevant when you consider that this is southern Russia’s ONLY sea link to the outside world. The volume of commercial traffic that goes through this tiny sliver of sea is quite astonishing; the strategic importance of this channel is beyond description. It also makes the volume of boat traffic that criss-crosses these waters slightly…nerve wrecking, with tiny sail boats literally dodging and playing chicken with the biggest of oil tankers.

With only a couple of days in the city and so many interesting sights to see in central Istanbul, a boat trip on the Bosphorus was therefore the perfect way to view a bit more of the city. We boarded the boat in Sultanahmet with beautiful views of all the old monuments, including the Topkapi Palace, the Aya Sofya and the imposing Suleymaniye Mosque. We went under the Galata Bridge along the Golden Horn and watched as the locals caught fish from the bridge. The huge passenger liners docked next to the Istanbul Modern art museum dwarfed our little boat by comparison. We sailed alongside all the super glamorous nightclubs in Besiktas and the beautiful waterside wooden summer residences built by the Ottoman aristocracy. In the end, the famous sights, such as the Dolmabahce Palace, the Bosphorus Bridge and the various fortresses were imposing, but it was seeing the locals sitting at trendy waterside restaurants or families eating ice cream on the waterfront that made us want to go back to Istanbul one day to explore some of these smaller fishing villages. One day we might….

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When in Istanbul ..... mosques

The beautiful skyline of Istanbul is punctuated by the endless minarets of the more than 3000 mosques in the city. The muezzin of every mosque used to climb the minaret so that their voices could be heard over a wider area. These days, loudspeakers spare them the climb. Walking around Sultanahmet, it seemed to me that the call to prayer ricocheted from one mosque to another as it echoed across the city.

The most famous mosque in Istanbul is the Sultan Ahmet Mosque, sitting across a landscaped park opposite the Aya Sofya. It was completed in the 1600’s (again, building it took only 8 years!) and is recognised by its six minarets. The story goes that traditionally a sultan’s mosque had four minarets, but Sultan Ahmet ordered six 210-foot high minarets. That led to accusations of sacrilege, since only Islam’s holiest mosque in Mecca had six. To avoid any scandal the Sultan agreed to pay for the addition of a seventh minaret in Mecca.

We entered the mosque on a Friday just as the worshippers left, and entered the very crowded courtyard. The perfectly symmetrical curved domes of the building was a beautiful sight and I wished for a wide-angle lens :-)! Inside the interior is covered with predominantly blue tile work from the town Iznik, giving the mosque its nickname, the Blue Mosque.

Even though this is the most visited and well known mosque in the city, it turned out not to be the most special one we went to, probably because it sits smack in the middle of the Hippodrome / Aya Sofya / Topkapi complex, where it almost seems like the exception to spot a local amongst the tourists. It was the largest of Istanbul’s mosques that turned out to be my favourite. The imposing Süleymaniye Mosque, commissioned by Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent was competed in 1557. The mosque sits high on a hill with a commanding view of the Golden Horn and beyond. This one, closer to the university and with its working annexes (a madrassa and a hospital amongst others) gave much more of a feel for the way its designers intended it to be in atmosphere. We sat down on the red carpet for a bit, glad to escape the hordes of crowds in the Blue Mosque and spend time learning about the symbolism and the history of what, to us, is an unknown architectural form.

The last mosque we could make time for was a tiny, under visited and somewhat hidden mosque, also covered in Iznik tiles, called the Rustem Pasa Mosque. It seems wedged into a busy shopping district close the Spice Bazaar, and had a much more intimate feel.

Visiting these mosques, each of which shared the same elements – oriented towards Mecca, with its minarets for the call to prayer, the minbar and the mihrab – it struck us that each of them also speaks of history, power, politics. The tiles used were symbols of wealth, the size of the dome was an overt effort by the Sultan to comply with the religious requirements while getting as close as his treasury allowed to the dimensions of the Aya Sofya and the number of minarets could cause serious international scandal. A bit like the cathedrals in Europe, actually, just framed for a different context. It reminded us of how history repeats itself and how human nature is shared across barriers of religion and culture.

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