Narrow and colorful streets of Galata.
Euro Trip – Istanbul
21 – 25 September: Istanbul (Kati writing)
Sunday was a bit of a long, boring, irritating blur. The plan was to fly MyAir.com from Milan to Istanbul. Originally, we were going to spend a night in Milan, but from what we had read and heard from other folk, Milan is not the nicest of cities and only really enjoyable if you have lots of money. So we decided to go straight through from Nice – catch an early train to Milan, then a shuttle to the Orio al Seria airport (which is outside of Milan).
We were supposed to have arrived in Istanbul at about 9pm in the evening, which would have given us some time to wander around and get dinner, but Myair.com changed the flight at the last minute – we only left Milan at 9h30pm and got to Istanbul close to 1 in the morning. So a lot of time was spent twiddling our thumbs in the airport.
We woke up on Monday and had our first Turkish breakfast on the terrace of the guesthouse we were staying in. Fruit, olives, bread, cheese, cucumber, tomato and some chocolate cake. Different, but very tasty and filling.
We then did some exploring of the area we were staying in – the famous Sultanahmet area of Istanbul. Very touristy but wow – what a place! One of the oldest parts of the city, so there’s culture and history bursting out of every corner. We saw a lot over the next few days!
First was the Hippodrome – the remains of a Roman stadium. It is now a square with two obelisks (one that came from Egypt) and a serpentine statue. The road that runs around the square follows the original chariot racing track of the hippodrome. At night, the square is busy and lively and packed with food stalls. Since it was still Ramadaan, the evening meal is the most important, so we think this added a lot of extra life and energy to the place. Every evening, we walked past the hippodrome to get back to our hotel and it was packed with people picnicking, socialising, smoking water pipes and enjoying themselves.
Next was the Basilica Cistern –this was an underground cistern for storing water that was built around the 6th century. It still holds water today and is eerily beautiful with its columns, arched ceilings and dim lights.
On our way to the next stop, the Topkapi Palace, we passed a traditional marching band dressed in Turkish costumes, playing a few tunes and drawing a crowd. The palace is a vast complex of rooms, chambers and halls, all built under the orders of Mehmet II. Most interesting was the harem, the spacious and luxurious living quarters of the Sultans’ many concubines. The palace also has a vast treasury, holding some incredible pieces. These include Muslim relics and relics from various prophets (I couldn’t help but notice the similarity to the Catholic fascination with the relics of saints). The palace’s collection also includes an 86 carat diamond! This was apparently “discovered” by a local peasant about 400 years ago who found it on a rubbish dump and sold it for a few spoons would you believe.
All in all, the palace was fascinating. Not quite the beauty of the Alcazar in Seville, nor the intricacy and delicacy of the Alhambra in Granada, but still a grand, glorious building.
We spotted a lot of cats in the palace courtyards, lounging about and lapping up the attention of the tourists. This is something we noticed frequently in Istanbul – healthy, well-fed cats and dogs lounging about all over the place. People either ignore them or are kind to them, so they have a good life out on the streets!
A place we visited more than once during our stay was the Grand Bazaar – a massive covered market that sold clothes, shoes, souvenirs leather goods, teas, sweets and lots of jewellery. Quite overwhelming at first and easy to get lost in, but once you’ve wandered around for a bit, you notice that much of the goods are the same and the prices aren’t as cheap as you hoped. But I did find a cheap scarf and a pair of sunglasses (third pair on this trip. I’m clumsy – can’t help it).
Also on our Sultanahmet tourist list was the Haghia Sophia, probably one of the most famous buildings in Istanbul. It was originally a Byzantine church then converted into a mosque when the Ottomans conquered Istanbul. This is what makes the place so fascinating – the different layers of influences and religions in this 1,400 year old building. Really worth the visit! Across the road is the Blue Mosque, which was built to rival the Haghia Sophia in size and stature. It’s still a working mosque, but it caters well for non-Muslim tourists who want to view the interior. They provide plastic bags for you to carry your shoes in and shawls for the ladies to cover their shoulders. Visitors pass through a cordoned-off area, which is the same area that the women use for praying. I thought this wasn’t so great for them – how are you supposed to carry out your prayers when there are throngs of tourists hovering about you taking photos and jabbering away? Nevertheless, the Mosque is lovely inside, and covered in valuable blue Iznik tiles, from which it gets its name.
North of the Sultanahmet area is the Beyoglu area, which is also on the European side. This area is separated by the Golden Horn, which links up with the Bosphorus and Sea of Marmara.
The Beyoglu area is easily accessed by the tram line, and is the city’s more modern and decidedly European section, but still contains a number of interesting historical sites. We visited the Gelata Tower, which provides fantastic 360 degree views of the city. Also in this area is the nostalgic tram up the hill to Taksim square. The nostalgic tram is a surviving tram from early tram days in Istanbul, and crawls up the hill of a very fashionable and mod area that’s packed with designer shops, bars and restaurants.
We also visited the Asian side of Istanbul by catching a ferry. We did this on the advice of a crazy German we had met. He lives in Istanbul and reckons that the best shopping is on the Asian Side, because that’s where all the locals go. It is indeed a much more Turkish area – very few people speak English, and not many tourists were spotted. There was a fresh food market with really yummy looking fruits, veggies and sweets, and we stopped at one of the many cafes for some lunch – fresh calamari and fish soup.
Oh yes – the food. We ate well in this city! The most common fare is meatballs (kofte) or kebabs. We ate a lot of that – and although Allan grew a bit weary of it after a while, I couldn’t get enough. We even visited a famous restaurant that supposedly serves the best meatballs in town. It was great – the menu was basic, the waiters were nutty (and couldn’t speak much English), but the food and place were great. Locals queue up for ages before sundown to grab their delicious kofte and eat them for breaking of the fast.
On our last day in the city, we did a boat cruise up the Bosphorus (along with hundreds of other tourists). The cruise is 1.5 hours each way, plus a 2.5 hour stop at Anadolu Kouragi – a small fishing village on the north-easterly side of the Bosphorus near the mouth of the Black Sea. The cruise is nice, and very picturesque, and Anadolu Kouragi has a ruined castle on a hill with stunning views of the surrounding sea and river.
All in all we thoroughly enjoyed Istanbul and strongly recommend it as a place to see before you swivel off of this mortal coil! It’s busy and chaotic at times, but it’s clean, well-organised and fascinating. It’s truly an East-West city where anyone can fit in and feel comfortable. The kind of place you can happily stroll around in for hours on end. The city is huge though, so you’d need lots and lots of time to get to know the city well.
So we sadly bid goodbye to the great city on our last day, and headed to the bus station to catch an overnight bus to Selcuk. The bus station was probably the worst part of our trip here though – total chaos! Turkey doesn’t have a great train system, so everyone uses buses instead. In a city of 15 million or so people, that’s a lot of buses… We almost missed our bus because we had absolutely no idea where it was parked in the vast parking lot of hundreds of buses (literally)! But luckily, the bus itself made up for the stress of trying to find it by being very luxurious – comfortable seats, and an attendant who looked after your bags, kept you refreshed with cold water, coffee, tea and even some cake. So we had a fairly pleasant trip to Selcuk, which was part two of our incredible trip in Turkey.