You Can Still Visit the Original Istanbul Train Station Where the Orient Express Began

This past weekend my husband and I went to go see the new Murder on the Orient Express movie.  It was about what I expected, based on reviews I’d read– the acting was fun, the costumes and scenery were fantastic, the story itself was enjoyable if a bit underwhelming.  It’s more a homage to the glamour of the 1930s than it is a riveting detective movie, even with Kenneth Branagh’s stellar performance as Hercule Poirot.

One thing I did like about it is that it’s perhaps the first movie I’ve seen that takes place in Istanbul (partially, for a brief bit at the beginning of the film) that didn’t make me want to tear my hair out.  Most Western movies use Istanbul through a heavy lens of orientalism— making Istanbul seem exotic just for the sake of being exotic, of attributing various aspects of Arab culture to the city that don’t even exist here (reminder: Turks and Arabs have distinct languages, religious denominations, and cultures), that sort of thing.  There was none of that in this movie, thankfully.

Something I didn’t know until last year is that you can still go to the train station in Istanbul that was one of the endpoints of the Orient Express, and I only found out because we happened to stumble across it while out in the city one day.  It’s a beautiful old building, and we wandered over to get a better look at it before realizing what it is.  It’s situated in the city’s historic peninsula, and is surrounded by bazaars and mosques and monuments that are hundreds and thousands of years old, so it’s kind of easy to miss even though it does have that old-school glamour that the time period is known for.

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The front of Sirkeci Station

Sirkeci Station was built in 1888 by the Ottoman Empire, who decided that Istanbul needed to be connected to Europe after the Crimean War.  The station ran both local and international trains.  The train lines changed frequently over the years, and eventually a restaurant was added that became a popular spot for artists, writers, and journalists in the 1950s and 1960s.  The Orient Express line to Istanbul was shut down in 1977 (later, the other stations were shut down as well in other countries, ending the famous route), and all international lines were shut down from Sirkeci until just this past year.  Now, a few routes are running to cities in the Balkans.

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Inside one of the waiting rooms of the station, looking out to the train platform

When we were at the station last spring, they were doing restoration on the facade of the building, and certain parts of the station were locked/unavailable for tourists.  Still, the architecture is beautiful, and it’s worth wandering into when you’re in the area– and if you’re a tourist in Istanbul, you’ll definitely be in the area, since it’s close to the Grand Bazaar, Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace, and the Blue Mosque.  The restaurant still exists and you can sit down for lunch, or even just for tea and a snack.  The station was decently busy but not overly crowded when we were there, both with tourists and with locals, and at one point a group bike tour pedaled through.

And if you like this kind of architecture and the glamour from that time period, another place to visit is the Pera Palace Hotel and Museum— it’s where Agatha Christie used to hang out and write when she was in Istanbul.  It’s a beautiful building and one of my favorite art museums in Istanbul.  It’s not particularly close to Sirkeci Station– it’s across the Golden Horn, located just off the famous Istiklal Street.  Istiklal sadly has seen better days and is definitely not what it once was– nowadays, it’s mostly construction and empty storefronts– but the Pera Palace is still there and still stunning, and I definitely recommend it if you have a free afternoon.

Istanbul is such a diverse city, and sometimes you can find the most interesting bits of history when you look past the mosques and bazaar.

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Rome: An Ode to Off-Season Travel

I’ve been to Rome twice: once as a 19-year-old study abroad student in 2005, and the other at age 30 in 2015.  The two trips, ten years apart, could not have been more different.

(Yes, this happened two years ago; a friend recently posted pictures of the Trevi fountain and it made me all nostalgic, so I’m finally writing about it.)

My first time, it was a weekend trip.  I was in Italy for the summer, living and studying in the small hilltop town of Orvieto, in Umbria.  (Google it!  It’s beautiful.)  I went to Rome for the weekend with some other girls from my American university who were also doing the summer study abroad program.

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Fountain at the Vatican

My memories of the 2005 trip to Rome are hazy at this point, but I mostly remember it being hot, crowded, and overwhelming.  I’m sure there were things I liked about it, but the most vivid recollections I have are standing in the heat in front of St. Peter’s and trying to find drinkable water, getting lost at night trying to use public transportation, and climbing up the hill to the Vatican Museums only to see a note on the door that it was closed.  And did I mention that it was HOT?

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The Trevi Fountain

And I’m sure a large part of it was me, and my lack of experience; I was young, it was my first trip out of North America, and I wasn’t used to navigating big cities.  My only experience with life at that point was my tiny hometown and my quiet, small college campus.  Rome was a whole different beast.

Yet I hear others report similar experiences there when they go during the summer, at the height of tourist season– that it’s crowded, hot, chaotic, and with really long lines.  When everyone inundates the city for the summer, it turns into a rat race of trying to cram everything you want to see into a few days while fighting millions of other tourists to do it, all with scorching temperatures.

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Piazza Navona

My trip in 2015 was almost the exact opposite experience.  I’m a seasoned traveler by now, and have lived in big cities, and toured many more.  I’m not stressed out by them anymore.

But perhaps the biggest difference is that we went in fall, during the off-season.  And it was absolutely lovely.

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Have I mentioned the food yet? Drool.

My husband and I went for a long weekend (four or five days, I can’t remember) and the city seemed almost empty by comparison to my last trip.  Everything was calm, quiet.  This time my main memories are of wandering side streets and stumbling upon the most amazing architecture, visiting the Trevi Fountain at night, of drinking cheap carafes of wine with lunch, of walking right up to both the Vatican Museums and the Colosseum and buying tickets without any lines, and going right in.  The memories are of beautiful weather and candlelit dinners in restaurants near our hotel.

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Cheap (but good!) wine is 100% my favorite thing about Italy

It was such a nice, relaxing trip, and when I think about Rome now, I only think about how romantic it was, and how I’d love to go back again and again (…. but not in summer).  If you’d asked me before this trip if Rome would ever hold any special place in my heart, I’d probably have said no– before, it seemed mainly like one of those “go once and see everything, and that’s enough” cities.  But now, it feels like I’ve seen an entirely different side of it.

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In St. Peter’s Square– look how empty it is!

I guess the moral of the story is that most places deserve a second chance, because you never know how your experience will change– and that beating the summer crowds (or waiting for them to disappear) is worth more than just a cheaper plan ticket.

 

Hidden Gem Istanbul: Süleymaniye Mosque

I have a love/hate relationship with Sultanahmet, otherwise known as the historic peninsula in Istanbul, where most of the oldest sites and tourist attractions are.  On one hand, it’s a beautiful and deeply historic neighborhood, and everywhere you turn there are buildings and monuments that are hundreds and thousands of years old.  It is where the Grand Bazaar, Topkapı Palace, Hagia Sophia, and the Blue Mosque are located.  It’s clean, well-kept, and beautifully  landscaped.  It is worth seeing at least once in your lifetime.

On the other hand, the areas around the ferry stations and Spice Bazaar are so crowded, both with tourists and sketchy people trying to scam the tourists, that walking through it all to get to the other sites is irritating at best and deeply unpleasant at worst.  The scammers don’t disappear in the other areas and you have to be careful of who you talk to, which gives it a seedier feeling than other parts of the city.  And the one time I went to Sultanahmet without my husband– I took my (female) cousins when they were visiting– men yelled after us and harassed us all day long, which was infuriating and embarrassing since I was trying to show my cousins how great Turkey can be. (Never judge a city or a culture based on the most touristy area; it seems to be where jerks tend to congregate.)

Still, I end up going to Sultanahmet about once a year because the sites are too amazing to stay away from for long, and this past weekend my husband and I took the ferry over.  We went to the Basilica Cistern, which is normally amazing but is currently undergoing a renovation that will last until 2019, so it didn’t quite have its full glory.  Still, the Medusa heads are always interesting to see.

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Fun fact: The Basilica Cistern dates back to the 6th century and was commissioned by the Emperor Justinian, but no one knows where the two Medusa heads came from or why one is upside down and one is on its side

Afterwards we wandered over to Hagia Sophia and took in the sights there, including petting the cat that lives in the 1,500 year old church-turned-mosque-turned museum.

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Hagia Sophia: No filter needed

And then we decided to check out one of the lesser-known mosques, Süleymaniye Cami (cami means mosque in Turkish), and it turned out to be the highlight of the day.

It’s easy to find Süleymaniye Mosque: you directly see if from the ferry area or the Galata Bridge, depending on how you go to Sultanahmet.  It sits on top of a hill overlooking the Golden Horn and cuts an impressive image even from far away.  I remember staring at it during my first trip to Istanbul in 2013 and thinking, “Huh, that looks important.”

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Picture of Süleymaniye Mosque taken from the Galata Bridge in 2013, on my first trip to Istanbul

And it is important.  It was built by the most famous architect of the Ottoman Empire, Mimar Sinan, in the 16th century, and it is the burial place of the Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent (hence the name) and his equally-famous wife Sultan Hürrem.  (Their story has been made even more famous by the TV show Muhteşem Yuzyıl, or the Magnificent Century, which oddly enough is available on Netflix in America but not in Turkey.)  They each have their own buildings with their tombs inside.

Süleymaniye Mosque’s beauty starts before you even go inside the building.  Since it is on top of a hill, it offers an amazing view of Istanbul, including the Golden Horn, Galata Tower, Bosphorus, and the first bridge of the city that connects Europe to Asia.  It feels like you’re on top of the world.  And the grounds are meticulously kept, with lush green lawns and a beautiful cemetery.

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The cemetery spanned one side of the mosque and surrounded the enclosed tombs of the Sultan and his family

On the day that we were there, it was not crowded at all, and there were very few tourists.  There were a lot of Turkish families that were lounging on picnic blankets on the lawn, in the shade of the many trees, and their children were running around.  There were no scammers and the people working at the mosque were friendly and laid-back.  It had a completely different vibe than the tourist-inundated Blue Mosque, where workers have to be strict to control the throngs of people.

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The mosque courtyard
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Before going inside; I might have been living in Turkey for almost three years, but I’m not too proud to take a selfie while sightseeing

Inside, the mosque has been restored as recently as 2007, and it doesn’t look five hundred years old.  It has a red-orange carpet and the typical tiles and calligraphy of Ottoman-style mosques, but its main dome is interesting and sets it apart from others: it was destroyed by a fire in the 19th century and when it was rebuilt, they painted it in the Italian style that was popular at the time in Europe but is rarely seen in Turkey.  They also have young, very friendly, and English-speaking volunteers who are happy to answer any questions you have.

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A bit blurry, but you can see the painted dome ceiling done in 19th century Italian style, very different from most Ottoman mosques

(As a bit of an aside that might be helpful for people who are visiting Turkey for the first time, here are some tips for visiting mosques: women should cover heads and shoulders; short sleeves are okay; shorts and short skirts are not; some mosques will not let in anyone who has the bottom part of their legs exposed, including men in knee-length shorts, but it really differs from mosque to mosque with how strict they are with that.  You have to take off your shoes before going in and every mosque is VERY strict with this.  There will always be a place for you to leave your shoes close to the door; some mosques will let you carry them in as long as they are in a place bag, or if you are just carrying them in your hand, make sure the soles are pointing up.  If you are wearing shorts/a tank top/don’t have a scarf to cover your head, they will have clothes and scarves there that you can borrow–I have seen many men wearing borrowed skirts over their shorts in mosques–but I recommend just taking a more modest outfit with you to wear on the day(s) that you will be visiting those places, and sticking a scarf in your bag to throw over your head.  Also, there are usually separate entrances for people going into the mosque to pray and those who are just visiting, so follow the signs, which will most likely be in English.)

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Shoes off in mosques, always, without exceptions

I’m really glad that we decided to branch out a bit and visit someplace new.  I definitely recommend going to the better-known Blue Mosque because it’s absolutely stunning and worth seeing, but the Süleymaniye Mosque is worth a visit too, and is especially great if you’ve grown tired of the crazy atmosphere and crowds at the tourist sites.  This was also a really good reminder that even though I’ve been living in Istanbul for almost three years now, there are still so many places here I haven’t seen.  Sometimes it’s fun to go sightseeing in your own city.

And overall, the thing that struck me most about the Süleymaniye Mosque was just how quiet and calm it was, up on the hill all by itself.  In a city of 15+ million people, that is worth its weight in gold and jewels; even a sultan could tell you that.

The Twenty-Something in the Mirror

On Saturday morning, my husband and I went out to run errands– nothing exciting, just walking to the grocery store and a couple of other places in our neighborhood, normal weekend stuff for a married couple in their thirties.  I had zero interest in making myself look nice for something so mundane, so I skipped taking a shower, skipped putting on makeup, threw my hair up and tied a thin scarf like a headband around my head, put on rolled-up jeans and a zip-up hoodie and a pair of Birkenstocks, and we headed out.

There is a full-length mirror in the front foyer of our apartment building, and I often pause there for one last look before leaving, making sure nothing is out of place.  I did the same on Saturday and stopped, surprised by what I saw: I looked like me.

What I mean was, I looked like a younger version of myself.  Not because my skin magically smoothed out overnight or the gray hairs growing out of my temples disappeared, but because that outfit was identical to the outfits I wore for years in college and throughout the first half of my twenties.  I looked comfortable.  I looked natural.  And with that realization came a strong burst of nostalgia for my younger self.

I don’t dress like that much anymore; I make more of an effort to look nice when I go out now.  I wear pretty scarves and lipstick.  I have to dress professionally at work, even though I abhor it.  There’s nothing stopping me from tying my hair up in colorful headbands and wearing hoodies during my free time, I just don’t think of it as much.

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Biking the National Seashore on Cape Cod, 2011

I miss her sometimes, the twenty-something I saw in the mirror.  I think my twenties were well-spent and I wouldn’t change any of my decisions, but you can only live them once; there’s no going back.  And there are a million things I love about my life now.  I love being married and having a partner to spend my life with; it’s so easy, so much less exhausting than dating was.  I’m excited for our future.  I still travel and have adventures and learn new things; that’s something that I hope will always be part of my life and that I don’t think will disappear with age.

But there are some undeniable truths about getting older.  Decisions have more weight to them; if you mess up, there’s less chance for correction.  I worry a lot more.  I spend a lot of time thinking about how long it’s going to take me to pay off my student loans, about whether or not I’m making the right choices for my future, whether or not my career will ever advance or if I’ll just be doing the same thing thirty years from now, like a dog running in its sleep, legs churning but getting nowhere.  I still travel and have adventures, but I’m more cautious about it; I’m less likely to walk around cities by myself at night, less likely to be as confident when traveling by myself.  As someone who spends a lot of time in airports and on airplanes, I worry about terrorism and the possibility of my plane crashing, something that never crossed my mind when I was younger; I used to think turbulence was exciting.  I was also undeniably more outdoorsy in those days– hiking made me happy so I did it often, but it’s difficult to get far enough out of Istanbul to reach any real nature.

Probably the biggest difference is that, in my early and mid twenties, I really felt like anything was possible.  I still have goals, but it seems more of a marathon slog rather than a glory sprint to the finish line.  (Seems? Is.)

I know this is a case of rose-tinted glasses.  When I really think back to those times, I might not have worried about student loans or about whether or not my career was advancing, but I worried about other things, things that seem kind of silly now but definitely did not seem silly then.  I wasn’t happier then than I am now.  It’s just that hopeful feeling of youth that lasts for such a short period and then leaves before you even realize it’s there– that’s what I saw in the mirror, even if it was just for a second.

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Badlands National Park in South Dakota, 2009