Sunday, May 4, 2014

Turkey Part I: So, take me back to Constantinople

Tuesday 1 April
On the way to Istanbul, we had a layover in Doha, Qatar. From the air, Doha was mesmerizing. As far as I could see was flat land with nearly whitish sand and from it rose this modern city. 

It’s amazing that a city can thrive in such a harsh climate. The airport accepted all currencies, which was cool since we seem to be accumulating a bunch of money we haven’t used :-/

We arrived in Istanbul’s much cooler climate. I can definitely feel the European influence of this city. In the dark, Istanbul is a bustling old city…reminded me a bit of the village in New York. Upon arrival at our hotel, we were served Turkish tea (the first of MANY)-which is strong and comes with 2 cubes of sugar.

Since it was late when we arrived…we went to bed prepared to hit the city tomorrow.

Wednesday 2 April
We were up early this morning to see Istanbul. We are staying on the European side of the city in Sultanahment-which is part of the Old Quarter of Istanbul (this seems a trend on our trip :P-to stay in the Old Quarter). Istanbul is hilly---in fact, it’s built on seven hills and is often referred to as the City of Seven Hills.  The roads are bumpy, uneven, and a maze to navigate. We wandered through interesting alleyways and out onto main thoroughfares. It’s easy to walk in circles!!

We found ourselves in a plaza near the Blue Mosque-famous for its beauty.

Speaking of mosques…Istanbul is a Muslim country and so many of the people follow the Pillars of Islam. One of the Pillars of Islam is the ritual of praying five times a day. These prayer times are determined by the position of the sun in the sky and are announced from the minarets of the mosques. In these modern times, the call is BLASTED from the mosque by a loudspeaker…and in a city like Istanbul, which has HUNDREDS of mosques, it can be quite loud and echoing. The call lasts from about 3-5 minutes and sounded like a song. It was, in a way, beautiful and at 5am…it was also a bit annoying and disturbing :P As the days went on in Istanbul, the call became more soothing to me and will always be a happy reminder of our time there.

I took a poor video can kind of hear the call to prayer in the background. 

Anyway, we walked along the square and were amazed at the amount of random dogs that were just lying around.

We strolled up along one of the main streets and had a delicious breakfast of cheese omelets, french fries, salads, and lattes at a little sidewalk café. It just feels SO European.

Truly, I almost keep bursting into tears. Tears of happiness. I’m overly grateful to be here!! Have you ever been kind of unhappy and not realized the degree to which you were unhappy…until you were happy again? Istanbul was like that. It was like finding happiness and remembering how great it can be :P SE Asia wasn’t TERRIBLE…but it was sort of tough…and we were sick…and it was crowded and hot and stuffy and dirty and smelled bad. We didn’t encounter people that were overly friendly or kind. I’m sure we could go another time and have a completely different experience…many people LOVE SE Asia and its people, but we felt very isolated there. Isolated, alone, and sick.

So, that first breakfast in Istanbul was awesome. It was like going home. Istanbul is clean, crisp, and bright. It even SMELLS good here. Flowers abound and their scents fill the air. Turkey has taken us in as weary travelers and revived us!!

We headed down another hill after breakfast and found ourselves going uphill into a fortress sort of structure. Turns out, that it was the Archaeological Museum and Topkapi Palace. We didn’t go in, but joined the masses wandering the lawn amongst the dozens of sleeping dogs and smell of lavender.

and cats :D

We circled around and down through a park full of beautiful flowers. We strolled along the busy road on the waterfront and up into the old city again, where we had some water and people watched.

Quite accidentally, we stumbled upon the Grand Bazaar. The streets all around the bazaar are filled with people and shops selling all sorts of things. It’s a very busy market that leads into the old and beautiful building of the bazaar. There are so many patterns and colors. The bazaar is bursting with life. We wandered down the pathways and came out near the tram.

On a side street, we ordered Turkish tea (yum and so cheap!!-a little over a dollar US) and played with a happy little kitten. From there, we continued through the University admiring all the happy cats and dogs everywhere.

All the animals seem so content. On nearly every block, there are bowls of food and water set out for cats and dogs. We ran into more than a few cat houses or dog houses built on the sidewalk or in a park. It’s quite remarkable. Later, we asked someone about this and were told that all these animals are homeless, but well looked after by the community. The government even rounds up the animals-gives them their shots, tags them to find again, and releases them. How amazing is that? The Turkish people are some of the most kind and genuine people I’ve encountered and I think that this treatment of their animals shows that more than anything else I could express.

We walked all around with the goal to find the Spice Market. Istanbul can be a bit of a maze of winding, twisting streets. We wandered up and down through the streets. Everyone is so friendly-always greeting us with cheerful hellos. Preston was called out more than a few times just for being American. I guess it’s easy to tell he is? :D Apparently, the Turkish LOVE America. Yay!!

Again, we sort of accidentally on purpose found the Spice Market---just as we were giving up and heading home, we came upon it. The market was amazing-huge bins of spices in dozens of colors. There was delicious food. We sampled some Turkish delight and bought a bag. We snacked on it as we conquered the hill back to our hotel.

After some time, we knew we were near our hotel…but unsure exactly down which street to turn. One of the guys from a restaurant we passed came running over to help us (without us even asking). The restaurants here all have people that stand out front and nearly harass you to join them for a meal :P This guy was quite nice and told us to come back for dinner.

We gave our legs a bit of a rest after all the hills and headed back to the “Why Not Café”, because why not? They’d been so helpful before :D

Our friendly direction giver was still there. Turns out that he is part of the family that runs the restaurant. He and his cousin stand on the sidewalk charming (not harassing) people into their place. They were also the only waiters.

Pres and I ordered a plate of meze (appetizers, or entrées if you are in New Zealand ;) ) and some kebabs. Oh my gosh. The food was SO good.

The restaurant started to get really busy (from all the charming going on out front), so we offered to change tables in order to accommodate a large group that was coming in. The guys said we were their lucky charms to bring in such business and offered us free apple tea. The apple tea is like hot, sweet cider and it is divine.
We were finished our meal, but they didn’t seem to want us to leave, so we sipped our tea and changed tables AGAIN to make room for more people. We moved outside and they gave us raki-a strong liqueur that tasted a bit like black licorice.
It was such a wonderful evening. We sat outside chatting with them-again, the Turkish are such friendly, lively, and enchanting people-until the cold air sent us back to the hotel.

We arrived in the lobby and had more tea with our new friend Huseyin, who runs the front desk. Huseyin’s Uncle was there to take over for a bit and he offered us his metro card so that we would spend less money on the public transportation. 

Nicest people ever.

Thursday 3 April
I spent all morning trying to figure out how to get us south to the port town of Kusadasi. It was very confusing. We needed to get there to a) see the ruins nearby and b) make our way by ferry to Greece.

Our options were to fly or take a bus. The bus was much less expensive, but MUCH longer (about a one hour flight or a thirteen hour bus ride). I couldn’t even figure out where we needed to go for the bus. It was hopeless.

Eventually I gave up trying to figure it out and sought out Huseyin for help. Huseyin directed us to his travel agent friend. She sent someone down to the hotel to get us and we went to her office up the street. She served us tea as she laid out the perfect plan for the next few days.

I had a price in mind of what I wanted to spend, but by the time she converted from liras to euros to dollars—my head was spinning. I was so tempted by the trip she had planned-it was exactly what we needed/wanted to do. Even more than that, I was SO incredibly grateful not to have to plan anything.

I realize that there are FAR worse things, but travel planning is REALLY stressful and VERY time consuming. Before we left on this trip, I laid out a basic plan of where we would go, etc. I rented the car in NZ and booked most of the hotels. I rented the car in Australia and booked the tour in Vietnam…but that’s it. All the rest of this trip has been planned in the days and weeks before the next step. It takes hours of research and planning. Sometimes I can’t find good prices and have to spend hours on other alternatives. Of course I wouldn’t trade this experience for anything, but it’s been A LOT of work.

Anyway, because of all that and because I’m just TERRIBLE with salespeople, I agreed to her trip, which happened to be WAY out of our price range :-/

As soon as we stepped outside, I was so angry with myself. But, it was done…we had paid and it was done. I spent most of the afternoon so upset with myself!! I know we could’ve done the same trip for much less…with some slight discomfort (for example, the bus vs. flying). I learned a good lesson…to give myself time to think about things and to know that I’m bad at saying no to sales people!!

We got a tasty chicken wrap and took the tram (with an adorable cat resting on the tram bench) to the North side of the European part of Istanbul-Beyoglu.
Disembarking from the tram, we walked along the water and up more steep hills. We got tea in the park and walked towards the more modern shopping district. We walked across the city square-with women feeding pigeons. It reminded me of Mary Poppins :D We continued down the popular road-'Istikal Caddesi’.


This part of the city is very modern in comparison to where we are staying. There are many stores and restaurants lining the crowded promenades. We detoured down some alleyways and headed downhill past the Galata Tower and across the water of the Golden Horn back to Sultanahmet.

We rested again in the room for a bit and had dinner at a tasty vegetarian buffet place that Huseyin recommended.

Friday 4 April
Got up today and had breakfast on the main strip again-surrounded by cats :D

We walked down to the square and went to Hagia Sophia. Hagia Sophia is a famous Istanbul landmark and was once the most envied and grand church in the Christian world before the Ottomans converted it to a mosque. It’s been a museum since the 1930s and has stood for nearly fifteen centuries. Pretty impressive.

The inside was basically an empty shell and almost entirely made of marble. It was freezing!! It was a beautiful and large place, but I wasn’t as awestruck by it as the guidebook said I would be.

We got some more tea and were approached by someone selling cruises on the Bosphorus strait. The Bosphorus is the strait that separates Europe and Asia. Istanbul straddles this strait. After bargaining a bit on price, we decided to do it.
We followed the cruise guide down the hill to the river, which was FULL of jellyfish. I’ve never seen so many jellyfish!!


First, we cruised up The Golden Horn-the inlet separating Sultanahmet from Beyoglu and then headed out back up the Bosphorus. We got to see the Asian side of Istanbul from the boat, but never actually set foot there. Most of the major sites of Istanbul lay on the European side, while the Asian side is a bit more residential.

We crossed under two huge suspension bridges. The sun had warmed us on our way up the river, but as we turned back into the wind…it was freezing!! We huddled together and enjoyed the view heading back towards the sea.

After the boat, we strolled along water and up the backside of Sultanahmet-more steep hills to our hotel.

We returned to the main strip again for dinner. I had a chicken kebab that was, in a word, succulent.  Mmmmm. A cat wandered into the restaurant and people (us included) fed it bits of meat from their plates. I’m again amazed at this kindness and that no one minds!!

We walked down past “Why Not Café” on our way back to the hotel and were invited in for more free tea and raki. There were dogs hanging around the café and one laid its head in Preston’s lap as we sat sipping tea and chatting with our new friends(I can't believe I never took their pic. fail.)

We joined in encouraging people passing by to try the restaurant. It was such a fun evening and we so enjoyed hanging out with these guys.

Tomorrow we are up at 5am for our trip to the airport to fly south!!

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