Thursday, April 26, 2007

Istanbul, Turkey

Hmmm where to begin?? This is exactly why I need to start writing in my travel journal as things are happening. Its a good thing I have the memory of an elephant!

Ok so the trip to Istanbul came about a bit sporatically because we hadn't specifically planned on going until a great deal literally dropped into our inbox. A friend, of a friend, of a friend, aka the Prague Trainees mass email list told us abotu it. The price was amazing for flight, hotel, transfers and best of all, there was a couple Turkish guys going who would show us around. Done deal! I'd never gone on a big tour group trip before so I was a little aprehensive about it, but it turned out really well and we met some great people.

Our Tour group

Since we only had 2 and a half days to explore Istanbul, I wanted to make sure that we packed as much in as possible and boy did we ever. We arrived late on saturday afternoon and the biggest joke of the day was how I, the sole Canadian (Alex uses his British passport) had to pay more than double than everyone else for a tourist visa once we arrived. 45 Euros to be exact and everyone else was paying like 10-15. I gotta look into Canadian-Turkish relations becuase that is just ridiculous for 3 days! The Turkish guys had some fun at the hotel too and said that the price was higher there for Canadians as well. Real funny...

After settling 60 people into a hotel, we went for a walk around the coast line of the Bosphorus and the historical part of Istanbul. So many people, so many camera ops, equals 3 hours of walking to get to our dinner destination. The two main sights we passed by was the Hagia Sofia-this is the oldest building I have ever stepped foot in and has such a long and rich history. It was originally built in the 6th century as an Orthodox church, then during Latin occupation, turned into a Catholic church, and finally ordered by the Turks to be converted to a mosque in the 15th century. It stands on one end, while the Blue Mosque, or Sultan Ahmed Mosque, stands on the other end of the square.

The place for dinner was definately original and worth the 3 hour walk. It was in a dining room in the garden of a mosque, fit for royalty but without the pricetag. After dinner most people headed off to bed but we were looking for more adventure which we got in Taksim, the club and bar district. It was so crowded there that I was hanging onto Alex for fear of losing everyone. After we found a bar, I soon realized that no I cannot drink a BIG beer in Turkey. It was HUGE 0.7l to be exact. The real excitement came with finding a minibus to take us back to our hotel. Picture this, traffic bumper to bumber at 1 am, no lights or pedestrian signs and 7 of us running back and forth between eight lanes. I think my heart skipped a few beats every time we gunned it across but somehow our street smarts prevailed and we made it back in one piece.

The funny think about being with a tour group is that it actually forces you to get up in the morning at the agreed upon time. Sure Alex and I always have good intentions to get up at 8 and see the city but when the alarm actually goes off, we think, meh whats a couple hours. So breakfast, shower and we were out by 10 am on Sunday, or what will forever be remember as the busiest or most packed day of my life. Lets see, we started out by going into the Blue Mosque, shoes off and everything. I'm still perplexed by the grand size of both the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sofia.

After this we headed to the Topkapi Palace, the administrative center of the Ottoman Empire, where all the Sultans reigned. Again, it was fairly large and we saw a good chunk of it in the 2 hours we were there. Everyone told us not to miss the Harem which is the living quarters of all the women in the empire as well as eunuchs (castrated men) and slaves that served the women. While it was interesting, it wasn't worth the extra 10tl to enter and there was too many people around to really get a good look at everything. My favorite part of the palace was the gardens and the great views it gives of the Bosphorus. Oh and the jewel collection that is apparently the most expensive in the world; not surprising judging by the 84 carat diamond we saw encrusted among a couple dozen other diamonds. A girl could only dream :)

All of this was enough to build up a good appetite for some Turkish food. We went to a place that seriously had a line up to get it. I felt like I was going to some exclusive club. It was very local and the meal we had was pretty much the same as cevape in Bosnia. Actually its funny because the menu consists of only this one dish and soup or salad if you wish. But it was good enough to keep the whole restaurant full and more waiting outside to get in.

The Hagia Sofia was next on the docket. I was more facinated with the history of the building then I was by anything else. It's interesting to see dispays of two of the worlds biggest religions under one roof. On one side you have Christian mosaics and on the other Islamic mihrab and Arabic writing.

Our final stop on this busy sight seeing day was the Bascilica Cistern, the largest underground water holding chamber that was built by the Greeks in the 6th century. Lots of marble columns . Strangely enough there was also 2 Medusa heads positioned upside down or on its side in the corner of the place.

And just when you thought the day was ending, we've only come to 4 pm. To sum up the rest of the day, our tour guide took us to a traditional tea and sheesha room to relax. Melon was the flavor of choice for us and we also had this apple tea that tastes like jolly ranchers! That night our whole tour group headed to Taksim and we danced the night away at a restaurant.

Sunday morning, another painfully early morning after heading to bed at 3 am., we all headed tothe Grand Bazaar. This is the big shopping center I guess you could call it, where you get to practice your negotiating skills against some tough Turks. Everyone had such rave things to say about it before I went there but I honestly found it to be a stressful place. Everyone trying to sell you something.... try listening to "yes please" "excuse me" and "where you from" about a couple dozen times and tell me how you feel. My first attempt at negotiating a price for a ceramic bowl I wanted didn't go so well and I walked away empty handed. But then just down the street I found the same bowl with this "oh so original" marking on the bottom of it for the price I wanted to pay. The Turkish guys told us that anythign over half the price was too much and we were being ripped off. Even a third of the price is too much if you ask me. There wasn't anythign that original there... lots of little touristy nick nacks which I hate, fake designer stuff galore, and general "Tourkish" memorabilia (coffee pots, carpets, gold jewelry, tea cups...). Alex and I opted to sit down for a coffee while everyone else ran around the place. We wanted to conserve our energy for the Spice Market!

Just a short walk down and around some winding and crowded streets is where the Spice market lies. Here is where you will find some amazing food related items. Spices of course, dry fruit, Turkish delight for days, and many other sweets. The merchants at this place were generally more friendly and most importantly let you try everything and anything you saw! We even had Turkish Viagra; a dry fig with a walnut in the center. Yumm. Our goal was to buy lots of spices so we can make real curry, Turkish Delight of course and a strange assortment of dry fruit.

Packed with all our goodies, a bunch of us headed for a boat trip organized for us along the Bosphorus. We had the whole boat to ourselves with nice comfy pillows and couches inside. During the 4 hours we stopped along several points and even stepped off on the Asian side of Istanbul. Didn't spend a lot of time there so didn't get to see much but I now have bragging rights that I've stepped onto Asia! Beautiful scenery but it was so windy on the water if you went up to the top deck and I thanked my lucky stars that I purchased a pashmina before getting on. That lucky guy made a killing off of our group that day.

And that about covers my Istanbul adventure. We had to leave early on Tuesday morning and I thought I would come back to Prague and sleep all day. But the weather was so nice in Prague that we opted for laying around in the sun instead. Not a bad trade. I am happy to say that I was really pleased with our tour and that I'd definately go back to Turkey.

More pics are up on My Picture site!


At 7:41 AM, Blogger kent said...

This sounds like my life. Glad you got to experience a taste of it.

You definitely did some serious power travelling. But what's with the lack of love at the border?

At 12:15 PM, Blogger Miss Canthus said...

Thanks for the tip on the cost of the visa for Canadians. I had planned to stop in Istanbul in October, but I may scrap it. I was there 30 years ago and the changes may be too painful. It was/is a fascinating place!!

I remember walking in Taksim Square and having guys bodycheck me along the sidewalk. We asked an American guy who was with us to stand back and see if we were imagining things. But we were correct, the Turkish males would go out of their way to make body contact with females.

Are they still doing that?

The jewels in the Topkapi Palace were amazing!! I am not into precious stones but I was really impressed by the daggers with rubies and emeralds in the handles. Am I correct in remembering emeralds? I clearly remember the rubies.

At 3:17 AM, Blogger aibek said...

It's pity that you only saw few places of Istanbul that were set up for tourists only. Real Istanbul is different, it is not that lovely as it may seem, yet it is worth exploring it by time.
Hagi Sophia n Blue mosque are is my favourite as well, I go there on my every Istanbul visit. That place has its own mystic atmosphere, but to feel it, you need isolate yourself, find a corner and just sit observing the surroundings, and absorbing the atmoshpere.
I also like Turkey because I don't need visa there :) And my first step to "european" soils happened theer as well :). But you don't feel even a piece of Europe there. It is a city of contrasts, it is nice to visit it, but I'd not want to live there.

At 6:25 AM, Blogger Blanka said...

The visa thing isn't all that bad for the quality of the city. So I would hope that thats not a detourant.

As for the men in Istanbul, when I first got there I did feel a bit creeped out by the staring but then after a while I just turned a blind eye to it. Didn't have any grabbing occur in Taksim.

And yes there was lots of emeralds!

At 6:29 AM, Blogger Blanka said...

Aibek...I don't think that they were thinking too much about the tourists when the built the Hagia Sophia but I get your point. I agree, great to visit, but definately couldn't live there.

At 12:18 PM, Blogger Vanipants said...

Hey Blanka!! It's so weird to read about your travels in Istanbul... i'm heading there in August for IC!! Looks so beautiful though! It's my first time traveling outside of N. America and Asia so i'm a bit freaked!


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