Once outside and in the fresh air we strolled over to Hagia Sophia – they call it Aya Sofya these days – to find another enormous queue, a €30 entrance fee for the three of us, a backdrop of white tour buses… At least I was happy to get off this shot, which I kind of like and have taken to calling the Three Wise Men. Notice the cellphone the guy in the middle is carrying.
We headed for a café in the area the two of us must have stayed. I’m sorry to tell you that I couldn’t find our little hotel. Maybe with another day in the city and time all to myself I might have stumbled upon it, but since there are so few of the lovely old darkwood houses left – those old apartments which used to hang out over the streets to lend the area so much of its unique atmosphere – I might not have even recognised it.
One huge improvement, though, is the underground cisterns. Do you remember visiting them? They’re just across the street from Hagia Sophia. I recall how we paid a few cents to go through this nondescript portal, down a stairway and out onto a wooden platform, stood there for a few minutes, then went back up. Back then that’s all you could do. I have this fuzzy photo of a few columns rising out of murky water and a sad-looking stick pointing up at an angle out of the sludge. That was it – no explanations beyond what we could glean from the guidebook, nothing, though I do recall hearing a story of how they used to give floating tours, until the day back in the sixties a few acid-soaked hippies on a stopover on the Kabul trail fell off the boat and drowned.
They restored them about 20 years ago, cleaning up the columns and building walkways so you can now stroll their entire length and breadth, giving you an idea of just how HUGE it is and the work they put in to ensure a ready supply of water for the city. It also amazes me how they built such ornate capitals – the flowery Corinthian capitals adorn most every column – for something most people would never see, because it’s all underground. That and the upside-down heads of Medusa tucked far away in the northwest corner – huge sculptured heads which most likely sat in water for centuries, forgotten.
We made it back to Hagia Sophia a few days later, timing it so there was no queue. Despite floor-to-ceiling scaffolding under the central dome the place still strikes you as deserving its reputation as one of the world’s great buildings, its mezzanine and frescoes a pleasure to gaze upon despite the crowds. Again, I don’t recall going up to the galleries when we visited Hagia Sophia. How could I forget walking up that spiral walkway or looking out across the vast interior to the huge, circular wooden boards hanging from each of the four corners?
Five places we managed to see that the two of us never got a chance to were the Little Hagia Sophia, The Mosaic Museum, Topkapi Palace, the Chora Church and Prince’s Islands – the latter a wonderful ferry ride on the third day. Two hours’ hopping from one island to the next until we left the boat at the largest and furthest away. We then hired a horse-drawn carriage for a reasonable fee to be drawn through a sunny, Mediterranean landscape of old villas, still older trees, and – this is the great thing about the islands after the pace of Istanbul itself – no cars! The man dropped us off at the foot of a pathway and we walked up to have lunch – almost completely by ourselves – at a restaurant near an old Greek Monastery at the very top, the sprawl of the city clearly visible across the water to the east.