Travels to Turkey

My incredible travels to Turkey in 2007

Archive for the ‘Istanbul’ Category

Back “home” again – Day 14 in Istanbul

Posted by Mardee on May 20, 2007

Street in Sultanachmet neighborhoodThe bus arrived in Istanbul around 6 am, shortly after serving everyone a quick breakfast of bread, honey and your choice of tea or coffee. Varan makes two stops in Istanbul so there were two options to choose from with regards to your destination. I had no idea where either of the places were, but luckily, a man sitting in front of me told me that the second destination was on the European side of Istanbul and therefore, closer to Sultanachmet Square (and my hotel).

There were taxis waiting at the bus stop and one was happy to take me to my hotel (although I had to direct him after we got to Sultanachmet, which made me feel pretty cool – like I was a native!). Since it was only 6:30 am, I had to wait to check in, but left my luggage there and was soon wandering through the early morning city. There’s nothing like watching a huge city like Istanbul wake up in the morning (if indeed it ever sleeps). The air was fresh and cool and there were no monstrous tour buses barreling down the street. I stopped for coffee and a pastry at a little cafe and sat and enjoyed the morning. Later, after a brief outing at my favorite internet cafe, the Otantik, which is the only one I’ve found that has an English keyboard, I headed back to the hotel to check in and take a shower.

Aya Sofya at nightThe plan was to just wander and shop the last 2 days. The first place I headed was the Beyoglu district near Taksim Square. This is the heart of the city and the crowds are enormous, but some of the best shopping is around here. I took the tram to the Kabatas stop, then got out and switched to the funicular, which takes you up to Taksim Square (which sits at the top of a very high hill). The funicular was extremely interesting – a huge piece of machinery sits at the top and uses cables to pull the cars up to the top. After I reached the square, I headed down Istiklal Caddesi (Caddesi means “street”), which is the main drag in this area, and wandered into the shops and restaurants that line the street. The main street is a huge bustling affair but it’s easy to head off into the narrow little alleys and side streets that connect to it.

I was getting hungry so I stopped at a small place that was cutting off chunks of juicy lamb for doner kebabs. Two women were in front of me, and I simply pointed to what they were eating and say, “For me, too!” The cook laughed and made me an incredible sandwich with lamb, fresh tomatoes and peppers and a sprinkling of salt and spices tucked inside a dense mound of fresh Turkish pita bread – but like no pita bread I’ve ever had in the states! I was in heaven – and floating even higher when I stopped to get some ice cream for dessert. The blackberry and blueberry combination was the perfect ending. I even got to watch a large truck try to maneuver through a tiny alley and send some scaffolding flying. There were about 8 men on the street all directing this driver and telling him exactly what to do to get out of the mess he was in. It took about 20 minutes and pedestrian traffic was blocked during the whole time.

I finally made it to the bottom of the hill (by the way, I just found out today that Istanbul has 7 hills – just like Cincinnati and Rome) and grabbed a tram. Rather than heading back, I took the tram going in the opposite direction and got off at the Grand Bazaar. I didn’t want to buy anything today, but just get an idea of where things were. However, one step in the bazaar and I realized that it would take months, if not years, to learn where everything is. The streets are fairly well marked but the visual sensation is just plain overwhelming. Gold and silver and rugs and jewelry and ceramics and dishes and food – the saying is that if you can’t find it here, it doesn’t exist. I believe it!

Detail of mosaic in Aya SofyaLeaving the bazaar, I wound my way back to the area behind the Blue Mosque that houses the Arasta Bazaar. This is a smaller area but the salespeople are a little more low-key and the quality of goods a bit higher. One shop held beautiful Iznik tiles and ceramics. Around the 16th century, Iznik was the foremost place for mosaic tiles and ceramics in Turkey, including the most beautiful mosques and Topkapi Palace. The tiles here were reproductions but were still beautiful. I also found a shop that had some beautiful textiles, hundreds of years old. The clerk was extremely enthusiastic and let his dinner grow cold while he unveiled dozens of beautiful wall hangings and garments. He knew there was no hope of me buying them – some costs thousands of dollars – but did it for the sheer love of these pieces. I haven’t had this much fun with textiles since I was working as a costumer!

By this time, my feet were killing me – after the walking I did in Izmir and today, I couldn’t face going too far to eat so I picked a restaurant close to the hotel. I generally tried to avoid this area as the food is geared more towards tourists. While eating my dinner, I met a couple from Canada who were visiting Turkey on their way to Cyprus. The man’s brother had recently retired there from England. We spent about half an hour chatting over wine and dessert then I headed back to my oh-so-comfy bed…

Tomorrow – my last full day in Turkey.

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The Flight to Turkey and the First Day in Istanbul

Posted by Mardee on May 5, 2007

My trip started out well – I got to the airport in plenty of time and was even able to grab some lunch beforehand. But it was downhill from then on. First, the flight to New York was over an hour late, which meant that I (and 10 others) had 15 minutes to get from one end of JFK airport to the other in order to catch our flight. Picture (if you will) an overweight middle-aged woman running like hell through the airport with all her bags and finally flinging herself onto the ticket agent with a dying croak – it was not a pretty sight. Nor was it justified since after I boarded, the airplane sat on the runway for 45 minutes.

But I made it and we were in the air bound for Istanbul, so life was good although my sleep was not. I didn’t get a single wink, try as I might (which is par for the course). We reached Turkey right on time, and I was met by a driver from the Hanedan Hotel. He and I and an Aussie family (Tennen, Katrina and their 1 year old, Ari – see photo below), who are also staying there, headed for the Sultanachmet area right after I made a quick stop at an ATM to get some Turkish lira.

The hotel is great – right in the historic district and the staff is incredibly friendly. My room is quite large, especially considering it’s a single, and has a double bed, wardrobe and desk and a spiffy bathroom. Not bad for $40. The bed was looking especially inviting, but I have a theory about jetlag. NEVER give in to it or it will attack with a vengeance. Therefore I do all the jetlag tricks – set my watch ahead, stay active and in sunlight as much as possible and don’t take a nap.

With that in mind, I set out for Sultanachmet Square. On the way, I was waylaid by a nice gentleman who asked me where I was from. Upon hearing I was American, he informed me that I must see the Blue Mosque as it would be closing in 30 minutes for Friday prayers. And when I come out, I MUST stop by his carpet shop… I did head into the Blue Mosque, though, and was immediately struck by how beautiful and serene the building was. The name comes from the blue tiles (over 20,000) that line the inside (its real name is Sultan Achmet Cami). The tiles and the incredible stained-glass windows along with its immense size just stopped me cold.

The Blue Mosque interior

After I left, my new friend joined me, assuring me that there was a great photo op, coincidentally right next to his shop! Declining his offer, I headed for the Hippodrome. The Hippodrome has been around for thousands of years and was the cultural focus of the Byzantine Empire. It is now a long park and all that remains of its glory years are several obelisks and columns, one dating back to the 4th century. At the north end lies a Tourist Information Center (TIC), so I picked up a map of the city and then grabbed a meat sandwich and a piece of baklava from a little shop. The sandwich was good but the baklava even better – it put every piece of baklava I’ve ever eaten in the States to shame.

My next stop was the Basicila Cistern, which was used during the Byzantine era to store water for the Great Palace, but was then forgotten for hundreds of years until it was rediscovered in the 16th century. The Cistern lies underground, which creates a somewhat ghostly atmosphere that is enhanced by the dim lighting. As I walked on the bridges over the water below, I could see pale carp swimming around in the darkness accompanied by a few large goldfish. Over 300 columns protrude from the water, including two that are supported by immense upside-down Medusa heads. It was a welcome reprieve from the sun as the temperature must have dropped a good 15 degrees went I walked in.

Basilica Cistern

After leaving the Cistern, I fended off a few more carpet touts (the stock phrase was “Where are you from?” Do you think they take a class in how to strike up a conversation?) and made my way to the Aya Sofia. Without a doubt, this incredible building is one of the most beautiful places I have been in. The first thing that struck me was the size of the massive dome at the top and the grandeur and size inside. The mosaics inside are quite beautiful but especially so in the galleries upstairs. The color and vibrancy of the mosaics still comes through today, especially the shine and richness of the gold. The building was completed in 537 AD and has managed to stay relatively intact, despite periodic looting by the Crusaders.

By the time I left, I was desperately in need of sustinence so I headed for the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts, which has a courtyard cafe. Ten minutes later, I was happily sipping a glass of Turkish cay (tea) in a lovely outdoor garden and wondering how much it would cost to ship one of those huge clay watering jugs to Cincinnati for my own garden. The museum itself was nice and peaceful. It was filled with mosaic pottery and huge carpets hundreds of years old. The palace it is house in was the home of Ibraham Pasa, Grand Vizier to Suleyman the Magnificent. They were the best of friends until Suleyman had Ibraham strangled in 1536. I think they should have tried counseling first…

When I left, my feet just kept on walking with no specific destination. The streets gradually got steeper and narrower and I began to see a more residential neighborhood appear. Children were playing in the streets and every corner contained a small group of men drinking tea and playing backgammon. The area was obviously more conservative than the rest of Istanbul as every woman I saw was wearing a head-scarf, and most were wearing long skirts and coats.

Occasionally I saw a couple or a family together, but for the most part, the sexes were fairly well segregated. A check of the map showed this area as Kadirga, which is part of historic “Old Istanbul.” It is close to the sea and I noticed a lot of fish markets and seafood restaurants. I was tempted to eat but it was only 5 pm – early for Europeans. Many of the buildings were crumbling with age – evidently, Unesco hasn’t devoted as much time here as it has to the Sultanachmet district.

Eventually, I came out onto a street that contained a flurry of shops and restaurants – including a Starbucks. As I was walking past, one of two women sitting at a table in front called out to me. I didn’t recognize her at first, but found out she was a fellow passenger and recognized me. She and her companion invited me to join them for coffee. Both are mythologists and are here for an educational tour. One is from Venice, CA and the other from Salt Lake City – in fact, she lives in the same neigborhood as my youngest brother, Chris. After chatting for a bit, we headed for dinner to a Lonely Planet recommendation, Karadeniz, where I had a mouth-watering lamb shish kebob. It was the best meat I’ve had since leaving Spain last year. The accompanying vegetables, rice and yogurt dip were just as tasty and fresh and even the Turkish wine was pretty good. Not as good as Spanish or Italian but nice and dry, if a tad light in body.

And thus ended my first night in Istanbul – after leaving the restaurant, I groggily made my way back to the hotel and crashed at 8 pm (wine and jet lag are NOT a good combo!).

Posted in Aya Sofia, Basicila Cistern, Blue Mosque, Hanaden Hotel, Hippodrome, Istanbul, jet lag, Karadeniz, Museums, Sultanachmet | 1 Comment »

Hanedan Hotel

Posted by Mardee on March 26, 2007


It’s truly amazing how quickly my hotel nominees responded to my emails asking about availability. Trying to make a decision took the better part of a day–luckily, my day is their night so I didn’t feel too guilty about keeping them hanging. In the end, I went with Hanedan Hotel. Their email was the friendliest and their rates the cheapest – 35 euros a night which includes breakfast, plus they’ll pick me up at the airport for an additional 12 euros, and they give a 10% cash discount. The rooms look pretty nifty and the photo of the terrace where breakfast is served looks incredible!

I’m still waiting to hear when frigging Lonely Planet comes out with their 2007 Turkey guide. According to Amazon, it’s supposed to be in April but there’s no mention of it on the LP website. It will annoy me to no end if it comes out after my trip. The Rough Guide to Turkey is decent but no match for LP. For one thing, it doesn’t give hotel prices. Granted, it does list the websites of the various hotels, but when you’re sitting on a bus bouncing over a dusty countryside frantically searching for a place to stay in the town up ahead, a URL doesn’t do much good. Argghhh…

The first 5-6 days are tentatively set (and of course, all is subject to change) …now onward ho!

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Ta dah!

Posted by Mardee on January 3, 2007

My flight is confirmed – the die is cast. I leave on Thursday, May 3rd and return Saturday, May 19th. One stop at JFK, then mega-hours in the air until I get to Istanbul! I headed for the library yesterday and snagged as many travel books on Turkey as I could find, but I’m sure I’ll be buying some. I know I want at least one to take with me – maybe Lonely Planet, which is usually pretty comprehensive.

I’ll be posting intermittently from now on until I get closer to the trip. WAHOO!!!!!

Posted in Istanbul, Lonely Planet, Travel Books | Leave a Comment »