This is my Istanbul

The things that shape how I experience the city

This is my Istanbul: Houseguests September 5, 2010

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Live in a city like Istanbul, and your guestroom will get a lot of use. After very sporadic houseguestage in Ankara, I figured my guestroom in Istanbul would play host to the occasional researcher or travelling friend. Au contraire. My guestroom count is at four this summer and more than I can remember since moving in.
My guests have run the gamut from seasoned Istanbul hands to folks who’ve never been this far east before and from old friends to brand-new acquaintances. I think the visit length record is held by a university friend at somewhere approaching four weeks, although the cats I’ve been catsitting spent a solid six months or so chez moi.
I’ve been quite lucky in that I currently have a dedicated guestroom, although perhaps less lucky in that by working somewhere approaching 50 hours a week for the past year I often don’t have the most time to shepherd my tourist-trail-hopping guests around town.
I’ve worked out a fairly good system, though: I set my houseguests loose upon Sultanahmet and the other sightseeing things that visitors to the city inevitably want to see and I inevitably have already toured five times (Blue Mosque, I’m looking at you; Basilica Cistern gets a pass though because it’s just so cool), and after I get back near the city center from Distant Regions of the City, we meet up for dinner, drinks, nighttime strolling and other things that are right up my alley.
Quite accidentally, I’ve developed an informal list of places that my houseguests usually end up at when we meet up in the evenings. Some will remain Trade Secrets (Want to know my best houseguest haunts? Crash at my place for a few days), but others have definitely been mentioned on this blog before or should be in the future, including Bodrum Manti, Falafel House, Akdeniz Hatay, Dubb (protip – top floor at Dubb has stunning views of the Hagia Sofia, and it’s one of the better Indian food options in the city. Might want to make a reservation so you don’t get relegated to a lower, still-charming-but-sceneryless floor), Çiya (I think every single expat in this city has been to and is expected to highly approve of Çiya. It’s quite good, but not exactly hidden.), a fish place, and usually the Sublime Portal’s Thursday expat meetup. I am apparently a bit of a creature of habit.
Not to sound my own horn, but my houseguests and I often end up having ridiculously awesome experiences. C. came to visit in May this year; on our way back to my flat one evening we stumbled across a soap opera being filmed quite literally directly across the street from my flat. We stopped to ask the owner of the restaurant that was serving as the set which dizi it was (Ömre Bedel, apparently; it’s about a “bitter love”. Aren’t they all.) and half a minute later were ensconced smack dab in the middle of the production, looking over the shoulders of the director and sipping tea. Later, in between filming a scene of a dinner party and a scene where a man storms in to the dinner, we got pumpkin/cream dessert and chatted with the production crew. This is why my restaurateur neighbors are awesome.
When E. came to town in March of this year, we set off to Gebze, in a trip that served as the basis of my Gebze post. E. was back in town last week, and this time around we went to Istanbul Fashion Week, where we loaded up on some good swag and soaked up all the high fashion Istanbul had on offer (also the free iced coffees. It was hot out.). My houseguest S. and I ended up noshing on grilled ostrich on a balcony overlooking the Mediterranean. And when K. came to town, we ended up in Antakya, site of the first church in the world, for Easter services. The moral of this story is clearly that if you are my houseguest in Istanbul, unexpected but amazing things will happen. Because my Istanbul is unexpected and amazing and full of visitors.

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This is my Istanbul: Yerebatan Sarnici March 21, 2010

The cisterns are pretty dark. As is this photo.

Once you live in a city for awhile, the things that typically draw the tourists become a  little less of a personal draw. Yes, the Blue Mosque is a must-see, but it’s not a five-time or 10-time must-see. It’s not even the best of the big Mimar Sinan mosques (I’m sure that will be a later post).

My personal exception to the diminishing utility of major Sultanahmet sites is the Yerebatan Sarnici, or Basilica Cisterns. I drag all my visitors through, even though it is not covered by my hard-won MuzeKart.

The cisterns were built somewhere around 500AD, or somewhere around 200 years after the Hagia Sophia. During the Byzantine period, they supplied water for the palace that was brought down from the Belgrade Forest via a pretty impressive network of aqueducts.

After the conquest, the Ottomans used the cisterns as well, although apparently for a while they were completely forgotten: According to lore, people in the neighborhood found out that they had neato magic basements, with small holes that one could drop a fishing line down and actually catch fish from. Eventually a visitor to the area climbed down one of those small holes and realized that actually the houses were on top of a giant subterranean water storage chamber.

The cisterns today are just gorgeous – they were restored in the 1960s and the 1980s, and have been lit with dim, colored lights with ethereal classical music piped in. There are still shoals of fish busying themselves in the water. The columns used to build the cisterns were repurposed from other projects around 6th century Constantinople, so as a result there’s quite a variety. My favorite is one with little spirals all over it; it’s a greeny-blue color.

One of the big draws of the Basilica Cisterns is the Medusa heads. At the foot of two pillars in a back corner of the cistern are large marble Medusa heads. One is sideways, while the other is upside down. It’s pretty incredible that they’ve survived so long, and in such decent condition. No one really knows how they ended up shoring up columns in a cistern, but as this is Turkey there are dozens of theories to choose from.

I enjoy the mood of the Basilica Cisterns. In the summer, it’s a cool, welcome respite from the utter havoc that is Sultanahmet. It tends to be quieter than the other big tourist sites nearby (Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque), with fewer touts to boot. It’s a great place to chill mid-sightseeing, or to just stop by just because. The Yerebatan Sarnici is my Istanbul.

Yerebatan Sarnici

Yerebatan Caddesi 13

Sultanahmet

Admission TL 10 / TL 3 for Turkish students or those who speak enough Turkish to convince the ticket sellers that they’re Turkish students

Official website (English, Turkish, etc)