06 October 2011

Istanbul - City of Colours & Chimes

Istanbul – City of Colours & Chimes

We had never considered Istanbul as a destination as we had always flown with Olympic Airlines to Greece. But horror of horrors, they went belly-up so we needed to source an alternate. It was recommended that we try Turkish Airlines via Istanbul. I cannot just land in an airport in a country not yet visited and proceed on to the next so we did some research and decided to spend some time in this ancient city. It turned out to be the correct decision, as we just loved the sights, smells, sounds of this amazing, modern yet ancient, city.

Our flight to Istanbul started in Cape Town but stopped in Johannesburg to take on more passengers. The flight was very full and we had 2 Turks sandwiched between James and myself. My neighbour usurped my ear-phones but that was not really a problem as I was not in the mood for movies. However, the one next to James spluttered and coughed the whole flight and this made James rather grumpy and worried that he would have a horrid cold by the time we landed. Luckily, the germs decided to settle on somebody else so he stayed healthy.

Fortuitously, we had eaten at the Spur in Cape Town as the food service on board was very slow and inefficient with the lady on my aisle going backwards to the galley all the time. Perhaps she should have been told how to pack her trolley. Late at night, this is not conducive to making one feel relaxed! The breakfast service was much faster but then they took forever to remove the debris so we were stuck in our seats. The landing was very good, so compliments to the pilot!

Passport Control in Istanbul was a nightmare. It took about 3 seconds to buy our Visas at USD 15.00 each but then came the horrendous queues to get through Immigration. The queues were just self-forming once they got to a certain point with nobody directing to the counters so some took forever – after a long flight this is not a good welcome to any country and one hopes that the powers that be, get a more streamlined system going.  

Thankfully, our taxi was waiting for us and took us on a very bumpy ride to the Turkoman Hotel. Between the suspension and the road, all my organs felt as if they had been pummeled! The Turkoman Hotel allowed us this very early check-in (kudos’s to them) and sent us upstairs for some refreshments and food. It’s a lovely hotel, friendly staff, and a breakfast/coffee bar upstairs with Internet access and stunning views of the Blue Mosque. The room was fine for a 3* and the soap was just heavenly. Spicy! A shower door instead of a shower curtain would be a plus. Surely, everybody hates those plastic curtains sticking to you when trying to shower? 

Although rather tired, we set off to visit the Grand Bazaar – it’s mind-boggling, huge, bustling and noisy and perhaps should not be visited until one is rested enough to be able to smile and say “No” politely to all the offers of goods.  So we vowed to go back again before we left Istanbul.

Next we strolled down to the Ferry Port – this is very busy as locals use the ferries to get wherever they need to go. The sea looked rather rough so we stayed on dry land rather than risk an unpleasant ferry trip to wherever.

The first hotel we had booked into did not offer a free shuttle from the airport and their e-mail response was not very enthusiastic or prompt, so we changed hotels at the eleventh hour to the Turkoman Hotel. This turned out to be a wise decision as they are in a quiet area yet within walking distance of all the attractions in the old town. We chanced upon the other hotel in our wanderings – it is in a very busy part with loads of restaurants in the street but also tons of traffic and noise.

The one thing you need to get used to rather quickly are the numerous calls to prayer! At 12.00, 17.00, 21.00 and again at 04.00. However, with the mosques all over the city calling out in harmony we found this a unique sound and something we actually looked forward to! Barring the 04.00 one! But we managed to fall asleep very quickly again so it was not a problem.  This Muslim city appears to be very tolerant of everybody and does not appear fanatical in any way.
Dress is casual, alcohol is freely available, and tourists are welcomed.

Don’t take Traveller’s Cheques – they are becoming more and more difficult to cash everywhere. We sat in a bank waiting, not realizing that you had to press a button to get your ticket number before you would be called. So we wasted time before realizing this. When we eventually did get to the counter, the teller told us that we would get a better rate at a “kiosk”!!  These little kiosks are all over the city – just make a note of the exchange rates as they do differ. It’s easy to change USD, Euro or GBP.

The Dolmabahne Palace is on the European side of the Bosphorus and is a magnificent example of the opulence of the Ottoman Empire. A truly interesting stop – there were fairly long queues to get in and the guard stood like a statue. I thought he was a statue until I saw his eyes. A group of kids surrounded him and many people took photos of him – he stood motionless – only his eyes moved and they were roaming all the time. Well trained to spot those who perhaps were not quite what they seemed. We had to put on pink plastic covers over our shoes to enter the palace – what a performance! And they kept coming off as the covers are all the same size but the shoes are not.
We all looked so silly!  

This palace tour took about an hour and was very informative. One does not see all 285 rooms, which would take forever! The palace faces the shore and has manned gates onto the Bospohorous.  The crystal chandeliers are huge and beautiful, many of them imported from Britain. No photos were allowed inside unfortunately. The chairs all looked so uncomfortable one has to wonder how the people endured sitting on them.  The last residents apparently left in 1922. I did not pick up any “I have been here before” vibes so it seems I was not part of the Sultan’s extensive harem! The palace is so opulent one has to be slightly envious of the life-style at the time. 

Taksim Square is the more modern part of Istanbul – it has many hotels, shops and a huge bustle of buses, cars and people. If you want “Modern” and “Shopping” then you need to stay in this area. It’s very, very busy with continual hooting so factor this into your visit! We preferred the old part of Istanbul – far more interesting – one can get modern anywhere! But different people have different needs and desires and there is nothing wrong with that. You certainly can shop till you drop in both new and old Istanbul.  

The Fish market in Istanbul is not very big but there are a number of stalls and restaurants so it’s a good place to stop for lunch. There is a walkway all the way back to Sultanahmet so we took the chance of some exercise.  We stopped to browse the Arasta bazaar on the way back to the hotel – this complex was built at the same time as the Blue Mosque and the rents went towards the upkeep of the mosque. It’s a lovely area and the shop-keepers don’t hassle you! A huge bonus when shopping for souvenirs.

It was so cold that we headed straight for the coffee bar in the hotel for tea and to warm ourselves up a little. We had to venture out in the cold again to find some supper. We walked towards the university – a long, long road full of locals scurrying home to get out of the biting wind! There are loads of shopping malls along this route and the inevitable honking of the very impatient drivers. Istanbul must rival New York when it comes to hooting – this cacophony of sound accompanies you wherever you are in Istanbul. On the way back from this long walk, we were invited to the Pierre Loti Rooftop Bar where the views were fantastic and it was lovely and warm inside. It was a pleasant interlude until the bill arrived! We had been charged for items not ordered so whether they were taking a chance that we would not notice or whether it was a genuine mistake, we did not find out. They did credit the bill and we paid for what we actually consumed! In any country in the world, one needs to be savvy – don’t just pay blindly – check your bill first and keep your credit card in sight.

The night-time pavement vendors were all setting up their goods on the stroll back – hats, gorgeous dolls, baby clothes etc. Some very poor looking vendors – we felt sorry for them but had no need of their goods.  The Pudding Shop looked inviting so in we went for some dessert. Very delicious cheese-cake but at TL 7.00 quite expensive. The tea is served black as it is in Vienna and I suppose in many other European cities. Tasty enough and a different blend to the South African Ceylon.

The Galata Tower beckoned us the next day – a long walk but good exercise and the very best way to explore any city. Istanbul is easy to explore on foot so do yourself a favour and put on your walking shoes. The fishermen on Galata Bridge are famous – they catch sardines and other small fish for themselves and their families. The traffic is non-stop with many pedestrians as well. Beneath the bridge there are numerous restaurants so you can replenish if the walk has made you hungry! We saw so many men in suits and ties – one has to wonder what they are doing wandering around during the middle of the day? They all seemed to be having very earnest conversations though and chatter even more than most women! Quite amusing to watch. 

The Galata Tower is very high and it was rather windy on the viewing platform. Scary stuff if you have a fear of heights. The views stretched all over Istanbul and on a totally clear day must be awesome. It was freezing cold though so we did not linger too long although you can take a coffee/lunch break in the restaurant. Apparently, the tower was used as a dungeon in the 15th century, a fire tower around 16th century and restored in the 1960’s to what it is today – a tourist attraction and magnificent view point of Istanbul.

This area of Istanbul has many ordinary shops, all spilling their wares out onto the pavement. Hardware, toilet seats, power tolls, plumbing equipment etc. The buildings are much run down yet we passed a very smart school in this district. Hopefully, the parents have their emphasis on education rather than smart buildings if money is an issue.  We were amazed to see so many school groups all over Istanbul so it seems that the children are taken to many of their heritage sights. They are all well-behaved and with lovely friendly smiles!

The Blue Mosque (Sultanahmet Mosque), built in the 17th century, is synonymous with Istanbul. It was supposed to rival the Hagia Sophia but this was hard to judge when we visited as the Hagia Sophia was undergoing restorations. The original construction took 7 years and commenced in 1609. The mosque has 6 minarets – most have only 1, 2 or 4. The “Blue” name comes from the tiles on the ceiling inside the building. The interior is fully carpeted for prayers and the women have their own (very small) section. Does this mean that the women have less need of prayer than the men?

Visitors can only enter through one entrance and you have to take of your shoes and be suitably clad. It is certainly worth a visit.

The Hagia Sofia was in a state of restoration at our visit. Its history is fascinating as it remained the largest cathedral in the world for nearly 1000 years. It was converted to a mosque in 1453, closed in 1931 and re-opened as a museum in 1935 by the Turkish Republic. It remained the principal mosque of Istanbul for hundreds of years. Hagia Sophia is now a UNESCO World Heritage site.

One attraction not to be missed is the Basilica Cistern. This cistern, built in 532 is the largest Byzantine cistern in Istanbul. The water used to come via 20 km of aqueducts from the Black Sea. It’s a spooky place with the many magnificent columns, silent water below, ghostly fish swimming languidly along and the little drips coming from above! There are walkways so you don’t have to get wet! The water was stored for use by the palace at the time – however, the cistern was later closed and forgotten. Despite being re-discovered again around 1545, it was still neglected and only restored in the 1950’s. It was opened to the public in 1987 and is a great place to escape the heat of the city - it’s a huge photographical challenge which I didn’t quite master!  Stand quietly, if there are not too many tourists, and try to imagine this amazing place built so very many years ago. Whilst our technology today is moving at such a rapid pace that it is difficult to keep up with all the gadgets, the technology of yesteryear was very different yet still totally mind-blowing. Creepy, fascinating, extraordinary, silent yet noisy, a grand old relic of another era.

We booked a Bospohorus and Golden Horn Cruise with a stop in Asia – amazing that you are in Europe one minute and then in Asia not much later! Istanbul just has to be enjoyed from the sea – there are beautiful summer houses lining the water and the Istanbul skyline is very picturesque. The wind from the Black Sea can be pretty icy so take a jacket to ward off the chill factor.

The village in Asia is know for it’s yoghurt and we did a little wander – it was not at all touristy and the locals were going about the daily business, seemingly without a care in the world. It’s always good to see the “normal” part of a city where the tourists are not the main thing people around.

However, with all the attractions in Istanbul, the tourist buses are parked bumper to bumper all day long. With such a fascinating and ancient history and a peace-loving people, it is no wonder that Istanbul is a major tourist attraction.  The waters of the Bosphorus can get very choppy so take a motion sickness pill if you are that way inclined.

The tour ended with a drive through some very dicey looking part of Istanbul for a stop at a leather factory where we had to sit down and watch some models showing off their leather goods. Lovely stuff but most of the people on the bus were not even aware that this stop would be made and many got quite irritated as they were obviously not in the market for leather goods! One couple tried to flag down a taxi on the fast-moving highway and others looked like they were going to start walking so the bus driver and guide opened the bus quickly to allow us back on! The Tour Guide was very upset by something (no commission?) and did not utter another word to any of his passengers! This spoilt a really good experience and the company should change their tactics or at least give one the option to get off at an earlier stop.  

The Grand Bazaar shop keepers are also very pushy when all one really wants to do is gawk at all the various objects on sale. The colours of goods are bright and garish, carpets abound, tons of jewelry, glassware, clothing, leather, souvenirs, gold and much more. This must be one of the biggest “ancient” city “malls” in the world – it has over 3000 shops, over 60 streets (believe it when you get lost!) with thousands of visitors daily. It is so huge that it’s quite mind-blowing – give yourself time to absorb the atmosphere – there are various cafes so you can catch your breath and get your bearings again!  It’s a fascinating explosion and overload of colour, noise, sounds, goods and people. 

Our legs had by now got very used to walking in Istanbul as we walked to all sights, except for the cruise! Although the distances may seem great, they are not really and it is just the very best way to explore any city but in the old part of Istanbul it’s a must! You can catch a tram if you get really tired – tickets must be bought at the machine before boarding – make sure you have the correct change.  

The Spice Bazaar (also known as the (Egyptian Bazaar) is smaller than the Grand Bazaar and we so enjoyed this that we visited twice.  The colours and smells here are different to the Grand Bazaar – the spices just assail the senses – one does not know where to turn next! The shop-keepers are very polite and friendly and not pushy like those in the Grand Bazaar so it’s a more peaceful bazaar to visit. Again, give yourself time to explore, especially if you are buying, as there is such a huge array of goods.

Sadly, all great travels have to end otherwise they would not be travels.

The only sour note during our visit to Istanbul was our shuttle driver who took us back to the airport. We paid the hotel who ordered this for us and the driver kept asking for a “tip”, sticking his face right up close and repeating “Tip, Tip” We only had a little Turkish Lira left which we gave him but he was not impressed and sped off without a wave or a good-bye. 
A rather irritating ending to a wonderful stay in Istanbul – all that surly driver wanted was money, and he did not care that he was doing his country’s image harm or discouraging us from returning. Petty and small-minded people should stay away from the tourism industry – they are not assets to their country.

For a number of days afterwards I kept waiting to hear the calls to prayer.
This hypnotic, yet musical sound that is so very unique in Istanbul will live on in our memories of an intriguing city with such a wealth of history that it cannot all be absorbed in a short 4 day visit.  Our legs were well exercised, our senses of sight, sound and smell were awakened, our taste buds were satisfied – what more can one ask for?

Some more Apple Tea anybody?

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