Istanbul

Istanbul is a city that I have wanted to visit for a long time but somehow never got around to. I almost made it when en route to Antalya for a family holiday in 2000 but the Turkish Airlines would not allow a stopover.

As I was planning my trip from Bishkek to Tashkent I had to choose a route to the start point in Bishkek and a route back from Tashkent. There were only two viable options, one flying with Aeroflot via Moscow, the other one flying Turkish Airways via Istanbul. So rather than just transit through one of these I decided that it was the perfect opportunity to see Istanbul and persuaded Lynn to join me for a week. I once again ran in to the problem that Turkish Airways are inflexible with ticketing and that it would cost more to buy a ticket with a stopover than to separate tickets. In the end it was simpler, and cheaper, to buy a Birmingham [BHX] to Istanbul [IST] via Zurich [ZRH] with Swiss and then two one way tickets with Turkish Airways, one to Bishkek [FRU] and a second returning from Tashkent [TAS].

2007-08-27

We left home on Sunday 26th and flew via Zurich (ZCH) to Ataturk International Airport with Swiss arriving at 01:15 EEST (UTC +3 hours). We paid out 10GBP each for a Visa and then took a taxi to our Hotel, The President Hotel in the old part of the city just a couple of hundred metres South from the Grand Bazaar.

We slept well and were up early eager to get out and see the sights. Breakfast in the hotel is served in a restaurant on the top floor and provides views over the Sea of Marmara. Lynn, has developed a rough plan of what she wants to see and do, and explains it to me over a leisurely breakfast that has some tasty Turkish elements as well as the more familiar items. The weather forecast for the rest of the week is pretty much the same every day, i.e. sunny and low to mid 30s Celsius with a risk of thunder storms.

The Grand Bazaar (Kapalıçarşı) is only a short walk from the hotel and that is our initial destination. The Grand Bazaar is also called the Covered Bazaar and as this name suggests it is under cover. It is vast, more than 4000 shops, and endless streets. Some of the streets are quite wide and airy but many are narrow and can become claustrophobic when full of people. We had been warned that people become disoriented and easily get lost inside the Grand Bazaar but I managed to maintain my bearings and when we wanted to get out into the open air and take a break we do so without difficulty. We emerged into the outside near the Nuruosmaniye Mosque on the Eastern side of the Bazaar. We carried on until we came to a street with a more familiar style of shops. We took notice of a bank that had an ATM should we wish to get some more local currency and then stopped for a late lunch snack and a drink.

For me it was a beer, I had what was to become the familiar Efes brand. I always like to try the local beer, why travel if you are going to stick to the familiar! The Efes I invariably drank was a German Pilsener style of beer and I presume it has it's origin in the historical ties with Germany.

We continue to wander a while around the local area but resist the temptation to head further West, that area is planned for Tuesday! In the late afternoon we go back to the hotel and enjoy some time resting in the evening sunshine on the rooftop terrace and swimming pool. The views across the old town are pretty impressive, particularly all the Mosques. The Sultanahmet Camii (Blue Mosque), with its distinctive minarets, is less than 1km to the West, the Nuruosmaniye Mosque a few hundred meters to the North East and the Bayezid Mosque a few hundred meters to the North West. On the rooftop terrace the "call to prayer" (Adhan) can clearly be heard and it is apparent that there are many more Mosques nearby.

A friend told of a nice fish restaurant that we should try but it turned out to be on the other side of the Golden Horn in the newer part of the city. Lynn found out, somehow, that the greatest concentration of fish restaurants in Istanbul was only 500m south of our Hotel in Kumkapi, an ancient harbour area. There were indeed a lot of fish restaurants in the area and no obvious way to decide which to choose as they all looked similar. It was a warm evening and we eventually settled on a restaurant and had a nice enough meal in a pleasant environment. I feel that I am "damning with faint praise", which is probably unfair, but I must admit I prefer a different style of eating when I am travelling. The restaurant could have been almost anywhere on the Mediterranean coast of Europe, not distinctly Turkish.

From Istanbul

2007-08-28

It is Tuesday and The Plan is for a busy day visiting the sights we most want to see, but first breakfast. The morning temperature is around 30C but overcast as we set off walking East along Yeniceriler cad. that becomes Divan Yolu cad., a major street with trams running along the middle. After 10 minutes walk the right hand side opens up into a public space that affords a good view of the Sultanahmet Camii (Blue Mosque).

We walk down through this open space towards Sultanahmet Camii and along the way we see lots of temporary stalls being erected and wonder what they are for, perhaps it is market day? We discover that they are being put up in preparation for Ramadan when large numbers of visitors will visit.

From Istanbul

We decided that Sultanahmet Camii would not be the first site to visit, instead we headed across the park area towards Hagia Sophia, our destination. This is a very old building, built between 532-537CE and has an amazingly rich and varied history. When Hagia Sophia was built it was as a Church and was the largest Cathedral in the World for almost a thousand years. Move forward in time 1000 years to the fall of Constantinople and it is converted to a Mosque and four minarets at the corners of building were added. Move forward another 500 years and in 1935 it became a museum. The threatening sky, presaging a storm, may have explained the lack of a queue to enter and the few people in the museum during our visit. Whatever the reason, it was pretty quiet during our visit which suited me!

I do not generally do "ruins", I do not mind a little history but only so far as it gives context to how life is lived to day. I travel to see how people live their lives today.

Hagia Sophia wears well for it age, literature will tell you how the windows below the dome floods the interior with light. Perhaps it was the brooding storm but on the day we visited it was pretty gloomy inside. This may have reduced the impact of some of the mosaics and murals but the impact made by sheer scale of the place was unaffected. I am not going to attempt to give a comprehensive description of our visit, I didn't take enough notes or photographs and there is not shortage of material elsewhere on the web describing every mosaic, mural and marble pillar. What I left with was more a sense of awe brought about by the volume of the space and an appreciation of how they used basic materials and dome shapes to craft such a spectacular building. It was also interesting that although its role as a Church was superceded by that of a Mosque, it retains features of both. There are Christian mosaics [photo] as well as a mihrab [photo] from its time as a Mosque.

As we left the building we were offered a drink of water, a tradition retained from its days as a Mosque. In the grounds was another structure from that time, an Ablution Fountain.

From Istanbul

As we were leaving the storm broke so we sought shelter in a nearby cafe. Next stop according to The Plan, the Sultanahmet Camii, or as it is more familiarly known in the West, the Blue Mosque.

As we walked towards the Blue Mosque we were stopped by an elderly gentleman who offered to show us the Mosque. I was rather suspicious of his motives and it turned out that afterwards he would like to show us some carpets as his nearby shop. I told him we did not want to buy a carpet but he said not to worry, if we did not like one then that would not be a problem. I was still suspicious but figured we'd go with the flow and take the offer of a guide. It turned out that he was a retired school teacher as well as a Muslim and turned out to be an excellent guide. Since visiting the Mosque was part of The Plan for today Lynn had taken care to dress appropriately.

The inside is spectacular, the vast space is incredibly well illuminated. I guess the 1000 years between the building of Hagia Sophia and Sultanahmet Camii led to some innovation! The walls are covered with more than 20,000, hand made, blue Iznik tiles that give Sultanahmet Camii its alternative name: the Blue Mosque. This is a working Mosque and our guide explained how it operates and who i.e. men; women; children, can go where. This was my first visit to a Mosque and there was a very relaxed atmosphere.

After we had visited we decided to take up our guide's offer to look at carpets in his nearby shop. Lynn was apprehensive that one we got in the shop we might be subjected to a hard sell and I too had some misgivings but we are interested in carpets and decided that we had little to lose. The shop, Urartu really was nearby. It was a large space and had a large range of both carpets and kilims. Our apprehension turned out to be unfounded, while they obviously would have liked to sell us something they gave us an interesting introduction to the different kinds of carpets including both their history and method of production. I was most interested in those that originated from the Mount Ararat area in Eastern Turkey. We were told that carpets from this area are unique in that they are Islamic but include the depiction of animals. This seemingly has something to do with Noah (or in Islamic tradition, Nuh). Whatever the explanation the carpets were very nice. We left without buying anything, but I suspect that one day we will buy a rug from the Mount Ararat area.

The Plan firms up as time passes. A tentative plan item is to spend time at a cookery school and learn to cook some local dishes. This simply involves finding the venue and making a booking. The venue is supposed to be just a short walk South of Sultanahmet Camii but proves tricky to find. We eventually find the place and book two us both on the course for Thursday at a cost of 40EUR each.

It has been a long, fascinating, day and we stop for an evening meal at a small restaurant on Cad. Divanyolu on our way back to our Hotel. A few years ago we were travelling through Northern Portugal and developed a habit of moving to a different restaurant for a dessert, so we continued this tradition and moved on to a small restaurant, SAR that was quite close to our Hotel. This was a welcoming little place and where Lynn had dessert and I had a beer.

2007-08-29

photo of Dolmabahce Palace
Besiktas Ferry stopFrom Istanbul

The Plan says that today we are to take a boat trip up the Bosphorus. There are various options for a cruise but we opted to take the morning ferry operated by IDO that departs from BOGAZ ISKELESI (Terminal 3) in Eminonu near the Galata Bridge and travels to Anadolu Kavagi on the Asian side just short of the Black Sea.

The first leg takes you past the huge Dolmabahce Palace before you arrive at the first stop at Besiktas, here a few people left and a few more joined. The ferry continues its route North passing under the Bosphorus Bridge, a 1510m suspension bridge, towards the next ferry stop, Kanlica, which is on the Asian side of the Bosphorus. Kanlica has attractive waterfront buildings, many is pastel colours, and while it is renowned for the local yoghurt, we were not tempted and continued on our journey northwards. We passed under the second bridge across the Bosphorus, the Fatih Sultan Bridge which is similar in length to the first bridge before making several more stops calling at Yenikoy, Sariyer, Rumeli Kavagi before finally arriving at the last port of call, Anadolu Kavagi. We arrived at about noon and the journey had taken 90 minutes.

The Plan was a bit sketchy about what we would do when we reached our destination. We had considered getting off at one of the earlier stops but had decided we should go all the way. We were aware that there is a ruined castle, Yoros Castle (or Genoese Castle), nearby that we could visit but the prospect of spending half out time at Anadolu Kavagi walking to and from a ruin didn't sound very appealing. We decided to just explore the environs and have a quiet lunch. Exploring did not take long, there really is not much here except the castle ruin, and unfortunately we were not impressed with the restaurants either. There was little variety and all were expensive compared to similar establishments where we were staying in Istanbul, I guess they have a captive market.

90 minutes after arrival we boarded a ferry to take us on a return journey. As you leave the ferry terminal you can see the Bosphorus opening out into the Black Sea. The return visits the same places in reverse order and when we arrived at Sariyer we reflected on the other option in The Plan that would have meant taking a 15km bus ride to Kilyos, a beach resort on the Black Sea.

We walked back from the Eminonu ferry terminal through the Spice Bazaar (Mısır Çarşısı). If you have an interest in food this is a fascinating place but unfortunately we had arrived a bit late in the day so only had a quick look around and resolved to return on another day at an earlier time.

photo of me at Safran
a table at Safran

We made our way slowly back to our hotel and spent a little time relaxing on the rooftop terrace and cooling off in the poll. After listening to the "call to prayer" it was time to get out for the evening. With all the Mosques around we were intrigued to see people at prayer on a broad section of footpath outside the small Karamustafapasa Mosque. Our evening meal was at a small restaurant called Safran that served Gözleme and Mantı. We both ate gözleme with Lynn trying the vegetarian option with spinach and feta while I tried a meat one. There was a lady sitting in the front of the restaurant making them to order and they were very good. This was a really nice little restaurant with good food and pleasant ambiance. We continued our tradition of moving elsewhere for dessert and returned to the nearby SAR where the proprietor recognised us and knew why we were there, pretty impressive really! Lynn tried yet another dessert and I had my usual, a beer.

2007-08-30

It is Thursday and The Plan is for Cooking Alaturka! A foodie day, so we start with a good breakfast in the hotel then it is off to the Sarnic Hotel that is the venue for our cookery lesson.

There were only five of us enrolled, four ladies and yours truly. The course was organised and run by Eveline Zoutendijk who started her life in the Netherlands and assisted by a local Turkish chef, Feyzi. We were to learn how to prepare and cook a three course Turkish meal and then adjourn to the restaurant where we would eat what we had prepared. For the first course we prepared Yayla Çorbası ("Meadow soup" or "Hot yogurt soup with dried mint") to be followed by Zeytinyağ taze fasulye ("Green beans in olive oil"), Kabak mucveri ("Courgette (Zucchini) patties with herbs and cheese") and Karnıyarık ("Aubergine (Eggplant) stuffed with minced meat") and finishing off with Incir tathsık ("Walnut stuffed figs in syrup"). We spent a couple of hours preparing all the ingredients and cooking with guidance and assistance from both Eveline and Feyzi. There was almost by definition nothing terribly complicated or I would not have managed it though I was shown some techniques I was not aware of, particularly preparation of the aubergine.

When we had finished cooking we moved to the dining room and were served the fruits of our labour along with drinks. The food was rather good! This was a most enjoyable experience and I would recommend it to anyone visiting that would like to learn a little about Turkish cuisine. Eveline told us that she would soon be moving on but I believe that she has only moved a short distance and is again offering cookery classes. Lynn now cooks Karnıyarık at home and seems to manage without my assistance.

The Plan informs me that we will be spending the afternoon visiting the Basilica Cistern (Yerebatan Sarnıcı) which is just across the road from Hagia Sophia. It would be easy to overlook this place as it is underground and the entrance is rather unassuming. However, it is worth a visit so persevere if you have difficulty finding it. Emperor Justinian was a busy chap, he not only commissioned Hagia Sophia but managed to improve the water supply to Constantinople by building aquaducts to bring water to the Basilica Cistern for storage. The huge brick vaulted chamber, covering almost a hectare and capable of storing 100.000 tons of water, is supported by hundreds of marble columns two of which have Medusa heads. Raised walkways have been added to allow exploration. It is not clear why the light levels are so low, perhaps to add a sense of mystery, but it is nonetheless a fascinating place to visit.

2007-08-31

A few spicesFrom Istanbul

Friday is our last day and there is lots left that we would like to do but for which there is insufficient time, The Plan has the answers. First breakfast, then back to the Spice Bazaar. We take the shortest route, though probably not the quickest, through the Grand Bazaar where I am tempted to buy a Backgammon set. It is a game I used to play and which you see people playing in the streets of Istanbul. While looking at a nice set in the Grand Bazaar I was offered it for 200EUR, I thought about it a while and the price kept coming down, eventually I was offered it at 75EUR. This was a pretty good reduction and a price that I now felt reasonable but figured that transporting it home would be too complicated, Lynn would be taking back a few things she planned to buy and I had another three weeks roughing it around Central Asia. The lesson in haggling a price down would prove useful later in the day when Lynn wanted to buy some pashminas for herself, our daughters and friends.

A tight squeezeFrom Istanbul

The Spice Bazaar does not just sell spices, there are all kinds of goods for sale but we did want to look at, and buy, some spices. The variety is amazing and the quantities that people buy are a good indication of how much spice is used in the local cuisine. Our first, and most expensive purchase, was saffron. We bought "a lot" of reasonably priced saffron for our own use but also bought some Persian saffron as gifts for two of our friends who would appreciate it, one is a chef, the other is an Iranian exile. Later we bought a variety of familiar spices that we use regularly as well as locating some Kırmızı biber that was an ingredient in the meal we had learned to cook on Thursday. These everyday spices were unbelievably cheap compared to the prices we have to pay at home!

A few leechesFrom Istanbul

Like most markets this was a bustling place with huge number of people. Outside the covered market it was even more of a pandemonium as we also had to contend with delivery vehicles trying to squeeze their way down narrow streets filled with people and the wares of merchants. This seems to be the place to go to buy whatever you need, clothing, household goods, electrical appliances, animals, and live leeches? I have no idea what the live leeches are used for.

The Plan is starting to fail as we try to fit too much in to our last day. It is already mid afternoon before we set of for Topkapi Palace. When we arrive there is bad news, it is only open until 5:00pm! We are able to the grounds through the Imperial Gate in the knowledge that we will not have time to visit any of the particular areas of interest. We decide to have a quiet explore of the First Courtyard and go as far as the Gate of Salutation before leaving again. Oh well, c'est la vie, perhaps we can use this as an excuse to visit Istanbul again one day.

It is still early evening as we start heading back to the hotel but decide to look out for somewhere nice to eat on our last night in Istanbul. We fancy fish and decide to try the Sultanahmet Fish House. It is a good choice and we have a very pleasant meal. We decide to take a final look at the Blue Mosque as the sun sets and it was worth it.

We retire early as Lynn has a flight with Swiss at 04:10EEST (UTC +3 hours) that will take her home via Zurich.

2007-09-01

It is Saturday, Lynn was off in the early hours for her flight and I have a some time before I have to leave to get my flight. I have breakfast alone, and it doesn't feel right. I have spent thousands of nights travelling on business and should be used to breakfast on my own. I spend the morning wandering and negotiate a good deal on a souvenir before picking up my things at the hotel and setting off for the airport. My taxi driver was a nutcase! When not stuck in traffic we travelled at more than double the speed limit. I was relieved to get to the airport and settled down to wait for my Turkish Airways flight to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.

Afterword

Istanbul

All the photos I took along the way are posted on Picasa.

The Good

Istanbul is a fascinating place. We concentrated on seeing the old part East of the Grand Bazaar and still did not manage to see even that part of the city. The ambiance of the city was delightful and the people were friendly. An though the "salesmen" did their best to hold your attention it was never unpleasant. The food was varied and enjoyable, I really enjoyed our cookery day. The blend of eastern and western culture was so embedded that you did not notice the changes. I have only visited Istanbul this once and for less than a week but I think that of all the cities in the World that I have been to, this is my favourite.

The Bad

Cannot think of anything bad to say, except possibly the lunatic I had for a taxi driver. The only other bad thing is that I had nowhere near long enough to really see the city.

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