Byzantium, Constantinople, Istanbul, call this city what you will, it’s a great place to visit, full of history, stunning vistas and magnificent buildings. We came for a week and stayed for two, and we still have a long list of things to do and see here. This is a city that makes me wish I had paid more attention to the history lessons in school. No worries though, it’s better to learn about a place when you can see the results of historical events right before your eyes.
We flew into Istanbul from Rome, arriving late in the evening. This was our first flight on Turkish Airlines, and the flight was comfortable and the service friendly. We had seen on our ticket confirmation that a meal would be provided even though it was only a two and a half hour flight, but we didn’t expect to have the best airline meal we’ve ever eaten. I was so delighted that I told the stewardess. She asked me to complete a comment card and I was more than happy to do so. It’s one thing to complain, it’s important to praise service when praise is due.
We knew that we could purchase a visa at the airport, but were we ever impressed with the procedure. We didn’t have to fill out any forms, we just went to the counter, no line up that evening either, paid the fee and the passport was stamped quickly. We asked about a receipt and were told the stamp was the receipt. That’s the easiest entry to a country we’ve ever had.
Next stop was an ATM to get some local currency. We had another surprise in store for us. When we entered the PIN number, we were asked if we wanted our cash in Turkish Dinars, US Dollars or Euros. That is the first time we have ever seen a choice of three currencies at an ATM. We had seen Vietnamese Dong and US dollars available once before, but that’s only two currencies not three. It was becoming obvious that Turkey was much more progressive a country than we had first imagined. Turkey was batting three for three.
We booked a hotel ahead of time, an unusual thing for us to do, but we didn’t want to be wandering the dark streets looking for a bed. It makes sense to lose a little flexibility now and then. We also asked for the hotel to arrange the airport transfer for us. This is another thing we seldom do, as we like to use public transport as much as possible.
When we landed, we looked for someone holding a sign with our names on it, but looked in vain. We were about to give up when Anil spotted someone with a sign held with the lettering towards his face. Luckily the paper was thin enough that he could see the lettering, backwards to us of course, but he was able to discern his name. When the man realized his mistake he playfully knocked his head with his hand and smiled a big welcoming smile.
We had been watching the weather forecasts for Istanbul for some time and knew we were leaving sunny Rome for the cold and wet. We knew we were pushing our luck coming to Turkey so late in the fall, but I was surprised to learn that November is the wettest month of the year in the region, our mantra ‘Follow The Sun’ seemed to be coming to an abrupt halt. We weren’t too concerned though because we had been travelling at an unusually fast pace, trying to make our way through the most expensive countries we have ever visited, moving on to more affordable Turkey. Were we in for a big surprise!
We were forced to stay in a surprisingly expensive hotel for our first two nights, as the one we had booked online could not accommodate us for the full week we requested. It was a lovely, spacious room though and we indulged ourselves by spreading our few belongings far and wide. Breakfast that first morning was on the roof terrace and we were thrilled to see the Blue Mosque in one direction, the Aya Sofya in the other and the wide expanse of the Sea of Marmara to the south. It was an unbeatable location, and a delicious meal.
The skies were overcast, but the streets were dry, so we set off to explore the neighbourhood, and luckily for us, the Lonely Planet walking tour started very close to our hotel. As we ventured out into the streets, I noticed that there seemed to be a lot of Turkish flags flying, but there was no way of knowing if that was typical for Istanbul or not. When we walked past the lovely Four Seasons Hotel, a man from the carpet shop opposite informed us that Former US President Jimmy Carter and his wife Roselyn Carter were staying at the hotel and had just left his shop. He invited us in to view his carpets, but we begged off.
We spent the afternoon acquainting ourselves with the main street of this, the oldest part of Istanbul, south of the Golden Horn, an estuary that divides the European part of the city. We knew we had at least a week to explore so we were not in any hurry to cross the Galata Bridge to the more modern parts of Istanbul or to take a ferry across the Bosphorus Strait to Asian Istanbul. We noticed many hawkers selling Turkish flags and later learned that it was Republic Day, celebrating the formation of the Turkish state in 1923.
We ate dinner at a restaurant opposite our hotel, it was a delicious meal washed down by rather so-so Turkish wine. I hoped that the wine would not give me a migraine; I had been so fortunate to be able to enjoy the wines of Spain, France and Italy with no ill effects, but Turkey isn’t known for its wines. It was a risk I was prepared to take though. After dinner we walked along the main street of Sultanahmet, fending off the waiters at all the restaurants that were encouraging us to come and eat. The main tourist season is over now, and there were fewer and fewer customers for the dozens and dozens of tables along the street.
Three blocks down, we spotted a lively gentleman wearing a tall white chef’s hat, talking with customers leaving his little café on the corner. He was hugging each person as they left; calling them ‘My Brother’ or ‘My Sister’ and we were intrigued by their enthusiastic responses to his hugs. We also noticed that he advertised a set meal, including and glass of wine or beer, that seemed very reasonable in this pricey tourist enclave. We made a mental note to return, as this seemed the kind of place we might enjoy.
The next morning I awoke with the first migraine in weeks. And wouldn’t you know it, it was the day we had to pack our bags and move to a neighbouring hotel. As soon as we were in our new room, with its four-poster Ottoman-style bed, I climbed in and remained there for the balance of the day. Anil didn’t mind terribly as there was a light drizzle that morning and he wanted to follow and important cricket match between India and Australia. We had a good WiFi connection in our room, and I didn’t disturb him because I slept quietly most of the afternoon.
As is usually the case when I get a migraine, I was feeling better in the evening so we were able to get out for dinner. It was very windy and cool so we just returned to the corner restaurant again, ordered a meal of light appetizers and skipped the wine. I hoped that I would not have another bad reaction to the meal. By eating nearby, we didn’t have to face the gauntlet of touts for the various restaurants. They were all very friendly, never intimidating, but they remember if you tell them you will come another day, and don’t fulfill your ‘promise’.
We awoke to very, very heavy rain on our third morning in Turkey, but we didn’t let it get us down. Our new hotel had a lovely enclosed roof terrace, with views in three directions and comfortable seats where we could spend the day. They even set out a tray of assorted teas and instant coffee so that guests could help themselves to a hot drink at any time. I was glad for the respite; I was very far behind on my journal and needed the time to catch up before we started touring Istanbul and I would have dozens more photos to upload and adventures to relate.
We followed the weather forecast closely and learned that most of the coming week would be wet and cold. It was then that we began to think about staying a second week in the city and venturing into the interior later than we had first planned. The following week was predicted to be sunny and warm and we were glad that we had not made any plans that locked us into leaving Istanbul just when the weather improved. Later that night, we borrowed an umbrella from the hotel staff and hurried through the rain to eat at the small restaurant with the set menu.
We were welcomed with open arms by the Turkish proprietor, and some of the diners even encouraged us to take a seat and enjoy his delicious food. There were heavy clear plastic sheets hung to protect us from the rain, and we settled in to enjoy a simple, but tasty meal. I was convinced that it wasn’t the wine that had troubled me, but a spice called sumac. I had forgotten that the spice had troubled me once before when I had eaten it in Edmonton. I hadn’t had it since but tasted it in the lamb kebobs we’d eaten our first night in Turkey.
We had a slight reprieve in the weather the next day. It was cloudy and cool but we chose an indoor venue to visit so there was little to deter us from getting out and about. We decided to visit the Istanbul Archeological Museums, housed in a series of buildings inside the first courtyard of the Topkapi Palace. It took us the entire day to pour over the incredible artifacts housed there. I took a number of photos to remind myself of the things I liked best, but made the decision not to post them here. It’s hard enough to limit the number of photos that I post, although you may not think that I show any restraint at all.
In an effort to figure out what had caused my migraine, we ate a simple meal of lentil soup and went to bed early. I wasn’t convinced that it was the wine that was bothering me. The next morning, I was ill again, another day wasted. Anil was happy to have his cricket to watch, and I was glad that the weather was still miserable. At least I wasn’t confined to our room with the sun shining, the sky blue and all those beautiful places waiting to be visited.
My ‘well’ days luckily coincided with better weather, at least not too wet and cool. When I’m migraine free, I have plenty of energy, so we decided to take a long walk through the city, along the banks of the Golden Horn and then into the western districts with a visit to the Chora Church as our ultimate destination. It was a very rewarding day. We managed to work our way onto a long, winding street that was chock full of local life and we enjoyed every step of the way. I didn’t take any photographs because we were being watched by curious residents and I didn’t want to offend anyone by taking their photo without permission. People did not stare, but it was clear they were not used to seeing tourists this far from the usual visitor haunts.
We visited some small mosques along the way, watched mothers collecting the youngsters from school, the older boys jostling each other as they escaped from the restrictions of a morning in class, street vendors selling their wares; in short, everyone going about their daily business. There is nothing that Anil and I enjoy more than immersing ourselves in the residential streets of cities we visit. We love to take public transport or walk as it gives us a sense of what the local people face when they move around from place to place.
When we arrived at the Chora Church and learned of a relatively steep admission price, we decided that we really didn’t want to see more frescoes and mosaic tiled walls, so we sat in the square and had a refreshing glass of chay, talked about the wonderful things we had encountered on our long walk and planned our route back to our hotel. I had read that it’s possible to walk along or beside the old walls that were built to protect the city. We decided to give it a try, especially because we’d read of the great views of the Golden Horn from the top.
We did find the walls, and climbed to the top of one section, but at other places, the stairs were so steep that it was too dangerous to attempt to climb them. We might have made it up in one piece, but we were sure we’d never be able to get back down safely. Now, my rock-climbing sister and her family would think it a walk in the park, but it was too much for us. Instead, we followed the wall south until it intersected with the metro line and we rode halfway back to Sultanahmet and walked the remaining distance. It was almost 5:00pm as we passed through the streets and it gave us a chance to see all the office workers heading for home. Another little slice of Istanbul life.
Our seventh day in Turkey dawned wet and cold once again, but undeterred, we headed for the Grand Bazaar. The bazaar was begun by the first Ottoman sultan after his conquest of the city in 1453, and today it is a labyrinth of streets covered by painted vaults so that business can be conducted in all weather. It could be considered the world’s first shopping mall. There are over 4,000 shops and several kilometers of lanes within this world-unto-itself. It was an interesting place to spend a day, but if we were true shoppers, it might have taken longer to explore, bargain, eat, bargain and walk out laden with ‘stuff’. Instead, we managed to buy Anil and new pair of shoes and have the shopkeeper dispose of the worn out ones so that we didn’t have any additional ‘stuff’ in our suitcases.
Sunday morning was truly ‘Sun Day’. After a week of clouds and rain, we practically had to wear sunglasses at breakfast. The forecast for the remainder of the week was very promising so we took advantage of the good weather and set out to explore the more modern side of Istanbul. We boarded the tram and rode it over the Galata Bridge across the Golden Horn and along the water’s edge to where the line terminates near the funicular rail line. The metro, tram and funiculars are all separate and fares must be paid each time a passenger changes from one to the other. There are stored value cards to make it easier for regular commuters, but we chose to purchase tickets for the few times we rode.
We were surprised to find that the funicular that carries passengers from the edge of the Bosphorus to the high ground above the strait is entirely underground. It was a little strange to be travelling underground at a sharp angle, but the funicular is designed to make the journey safe and comfortable. It’s just like a modern metro, but it moves uphill instead of just along a level track. The only disappointing thing about it was that we couldn’t see the buildings or the view along the way. When we arrived at the top, at Taksim Square, the tall buildings lining the Square blocked the views in all directions.
We checked out the Republic Monument and then started walking along the pedestrian street, Istiklal Caddesi. We had read in the Lonely Planet, that if you don’t visit this part of Istanbul, if you never venture outside of Sultanahmet, where the Blue Mosque and Aya Sofya are located, you will not have seen the face of modern Istanbul. At first we were disappointed we had made the effort to come to this street. In fact, we later met a Canadian couple from Montreal who had abandoned the street after a few short blocks.
We persevered, and were rewarded with a wonderful walk once we made it half way along the street, beyond all the international name brand shops and past the end of the old trolley line. We ventured off the street and into the side lanes to a remarkably colourful street market. Before long, Istiklal Caddesi became rather narrow, and I was delighted to see shops selling musical instruments of all kinds on both sides of the street. When I spotted a drum shop, I entered to take some photos of the cymbal displays, because the night before, when we had been chatting with our son-in-law Geoff, he had told us the best cymbals are hand made in Istanbul. Who knew?
At this point, the street began to drop precipitously; we had reached the end of the high plateau and now the land was dropping down to the coast where the Golden Horn branches off from the Bosphorus. We saw the Galata Tower looming above us and made our way to the lovely square at its base. Most tourists pay an entrance fee to climb to the top of the tower to admire the excellent views to Old Istanbul, but we took the advice of our guidebook, and took an elevator to the terrace of the Anemom Galata Hotel, next door to the tower, and spent the admission fee on a glass of wine and enjoyed the same views sitting, instead of standing.
The sun was getting low and I wanted to get to the Galata Bridge for sunset, so we set off once again. The streets below the tower were a warren of small shops, none of which were very interesting, just shops selling everyday things that need to be sold in any city of this size. However, at a particularly steep point, we came upon one of the most delightful staircases I’ve ever had the chance to encounter. It was hard to capture in a photograph, especially at this busy time of day when so many people were using it, but it consisted of three sets of steps descending one below the other, but they swirled out from the middle and came together again and again in the middle. I had built up the Spanish Steps in Rome to be something they are not, and here was a small staircase that I will remember forever, lost in the maze of streets in Istanbul.
The Galata Bridge at sunset does not disappoint. The fishermen are out in droves, the minarets of the massive mosques are sillhoutted against the setting sun and people are hurrying back and forth across the bridge at the end of their busy day. However, the best surprise is the fact that there is a lower level of the bridge, just above the waters of the Golden Horn, where dozens of restaurants invite those with spare time, to rest, smoke from a water pipe, grab a quick meal, or dine in relative comfort from white linen covered tables.
After crossing the bridge, we started up the steep streets on the opposite bank. The light was fading, but I was stopped in my tracks by the sight of a small mosque. We had walked past it before during the day, but that evening, the light coming through the latticed windows was beautiful beyond words. I couldn’t really capture it with my camera, but it slowed me down long enough to notice some unusual objects sitting against the stone-wall opposite the mosque. At first, the carpet-covered forms, with straps coming from the top edge and attached to each side looked to me like infant booster seats. Couldn’t be.
Anil and I started talking about them as we took a few steps along the street, and came upon several more. I had thought the first one we saw had been discarded, but when we saw the others, I knew there was something unusual about them. I ruled out the possibility that they were camel saddles, and wondered if they were used for cushioning the ride on a donkey. When I asked a man standing nearby, if they were for donkeys, he nodded his head, but I wasn’t sure he had understood me. I started to take some photos so that I could send them to my donkey-loving son-in-law, and this seemed to amuse the men standing nearby.
Just them, a group of elderly men emerged from the mosque, crossed the road, picked up the bundles and slung them on their backs, with the carpet against their back. It was then I realized that these men were porters for the nearby Grand Bazaar, and that these age-old devices were designed to help them carry the heavy loads up the steep streets, lanes, and stairs of the port district to the hundreds of warehouses and shops above.
The men had dropped them outside the mosque as they answered the evening call to prayer, knowing that they would still be there when they returned. I was shaken to think that I had mistakenly thought they were used by donkeys. Instead, these old men had probably spent their entire lives carrying loads that would humble the men of the modern world today. Our route took us up the stairs, following the men and their huge loads, and I am embarrassed to say, it was impossible to keep up with them.
The weather had definitely changed for the better and we took advantage of the sunshine and warm breezes to visit the incredible Topkapi Palace. Visitors enter through a massive gate and find themselves in the First Court, a large open space with lovely lanes that steer them towards an even more impressive gate and on into the Second Court. We had visited the First Court earlier in order to tour the Archeological Museum. The Topkapi Palace is unlike European palaces, in that it is really a series of buildings, bounded by enclosing walls, which together make up the imposing palace. In times past, only the most important citizens of the Ottoman Empire were allowed into the Third Court.
The Topkapi Palace is on the itinerary of all group tours, and there are times when the crowds can be overwhelming. We were fortunate that there were a manageable number of visitors the day we arrived, but on advice from my friend Cathy Moreau, we headed straight to the Treasury, deep within the Third Court. She suggested we see the stunning treasures of the Palace first and work our way back to avoid the lineups. Great advice. We were not allowed to take photographs of the unbelievable items on display, but I can tell you, that once we were done viewing the diamond, emerald, ruby and pearl encrusted treasures, we joined the line again and passed through the three rooms once more because they were too stunning to take in at one go.
We toured the Harem and visited the private apartments of the Sultan, the Sultan’s mother (the most powerful woman of the Court), the Crown Princes and the concubines. They were lavishly decorated on the walls and ceilings, but without furnishings, it was difficult to really appreciate how beautiful they must have been when the Ottomans ruled Istanbul. We couldn’t seem to get rid of the visions of the incredible Topkapi Dagger, the treasure featured in the movie Topkapi from 1964. In the end, we spent over five hours in the Palace, but I would have to say, it was the Treasury we enjoyed the most. Perhaps we are a little jaded by our visits to the Mogul Palaces we have toured in Rajasthan, India. Palaces are palaces, but the jewels we had seen in the Treasury, are the real treasures of Topkapi.
Most people who come to Istanbul, are here for only a day or two, and in that limited time, they have to cram in visits to the iconic sights of the city. For us, we had the luxury to enjoy each of them on separate days. Here it was, our tenth day in Turkey and we were finally on our way to see the Aya Sofya. I was so delighted to see Istanbul’s most famous monument from the outside that I fully expected to be disappointed buy the interior. I had read about the fact that continuing restoration means that the massive dome is partially filled with scaffolding, but I was unprepared for the beauty of the Byzantine cathedral, turned mosque by the Ottomans.
I am at a loss for words to describe this splendid building. I will let you make your own assessment from the photos I have posted, but I have to say, in this case, a picture is not worth a thousand words. The Aya Sofya must be seen to be appreciated. If you’re a traveller, make sure Istanbul is high on your list of places to see before you die. We were unwilling to visit another venue that day, we chose to let the beauty of the Aya Sofya sink in; the rest of the day was spent enjoying the fine weather, eating a fine meal, and sleeping a fine sleep.
We saved a visit to the Blue Mosque for our final day in Istanbul, but when we arrived it was closed to all but worshippers, it was prayer time. I had a plan in the back of my mind, and this was just the situation for me to ‘spring’ it on Anil. I read that it was possible to take a public ferry all the way from the city, up the Bosphorus Strait to the Black Sea. The journey takes approximately one and a half hours each way, as the ferry stops at small ports along the way. However, in the winter, there is only one ferry each way, and we had missed the 10:30am sailing.
It is possible to take a tourist excursion on the Bosphorus, but the tourist boats only travel as far as the second bridge, and then return to Istanbul in 90 minutes. This would be fine, but I wanted a view of the Black Sea. Our guidebook outlined how it is possible for visitors to take the public ferry to the end of the Strait and then return by bus. I proposed to Anil that we travel up by bus, and return on the ferry that leaves the Black Sea port at 3:00pm. To my surprise, he agreed. He knew we couldn’t count on good weather to make the journey when we return to Istanbul after visiting Cappadocia.
I have created a separate entry to describe our adventure to the Black Sea, so I’ll end this entry here. We’re off to see the ‘fairy chimneys’ of Cappadocia and will visit some more of Istanbul’s sights when we return around the middle of November.