Published: October 28th 2009October 28th 2009
On October 17th, as we pulled out of the driveway in Pennsylvania, the snow was falling lightly; yes snow in early October - must be global warming. Its not that I don’t like snow, but our golf season usually goes on to early December. After we got above 1600 feet in the Pocono Mountains, it was really coming down, even though the temperature was in the high-30’s. As we traveled on through New Jersey and into New York the snow changed to rain and finally stopped. We finally rolled into Terminal 7 at JFK airport and checked in with Iberia Airlines. After checking in, we noticed that our seats had been changed on the second flight (Madrid to Istanbul) from row 17 to row 4 - business class looked like it was in the offing. The flight from JFK to Madrid took off on time and overall it was a very comfortable flight - the food was good and the seats were comfortable - Airbus 340-600. They also had free wine; this is something not heard of recently on any American airline in economy class. The plane landed on time in Madrid at 06:30 AM on Sunday morning and we got
to see the sunrise over the airport at 08:30 AM - that is a late sunrise almost everywhere except in the artic. Now we had a four-hour wait in Madrid airport for the second flight.
Notwithstanding the four-hour wait, Barry was looking forward to being in business class (row 4). Josephine was her usual pessimistic self, and as usual it turned out she was right; they only had two rows of business class on this flight - I mean really a flight with only two rows of business class! No matter, the seats in business class looked just like the ones tourist class. Four hours later, after a not so wonderful lunch, we landed in Istanbul (or Estanbul as they say in Spain). The next step was to get a VISA - $60 for a Canadian passport, $20 for an American passport. The cost wasn’t the biggest issue; it was the one-hour line to get one. One hour in line and 10 seconds at the VISA wicket and we headed for passport control. They have a great money making operation here; if only they would open up all four counters instead of just two of them.
After clearing customs we
got some money from our local friendly HSBC cash machine at Ataturk Airport and headed for the METRO. On the way to the METRO we got stalked by several people all offering us advice on taxis and shuttles - like they don’t think we were capable of taking the METRO and TRAM to get downtown. The cost of the METRO/TRAM was 6 TL ($4) and it would have been north of $40 with a shuttle or a taxi. The nice thing about the TRAM is that it went right past our hotel - a 50-meter walk from the Gulhane stop on the tram. It took about 35 minutes to get to downtown Istanbul on public transport.
We were pleasantly greeted at the front desk by the hotel staff of the ROMANCE HOTEL; they all spoke very good English, as do many people in Istanbul. We got checked in, took a shower, and came down for dinner after a grueling 17-hour trip. We asked the guy at the front desk for a dinner recommendation and he of course suggested we eat at their outdoor restaurant. Being tired we agreed and it turned out to be a very nice meal in a
very nice setting. We sat outside and our waiter, Volcan, was very pleasant and accommodating. We tried a Turkish appetizer platter (Mezz Plate), which was excellent. During our dinner we had a visit from one of Cody’s relatives; a little black cat that looked just like Cody when he was younger. He loved the salmon that we gave him; he also loved the cheese. He gave Barry a head butt; in cat speak this is a complement. Turns out that the cat is the waiter’s buddy and he gets fed every day from leftovers. After dinner we went for a short walk and then crashed; we did not wake up until 08:30 AM the next morning.
Breakfast at the Romance Hotel was included in our room and it was excellent. We got there at five minutes to nine and everybody else rolled in about 5 minutes later; the place was packed. It is a marvelous full buffet with eggs, cheese, olives, tomatoes, cucumbers, juices, toast, and good coffee. The fresh yogurt with raspberries is not like the stuff we get in containers in the US!
After breakfast we headed out to explore Istanbul. Our first stop was the Grand Bazaar,
which was a short walk from our hotel, up a steep hill. Well, we had never see anything like this. It was beautiful but overwhelming. If you think the Marshall’s Creek Flea Market is large, you would not believe this place, and it is all indoors. There are so many shops and colorful signs and people and the vendors who are all hawking their items like crazy. We walked through a good part of it but did not buy anything; we decided to wait until we could compare prices with the shops outside the bazaar. Max, this is a place where you would think you had died and gone to heaven because it would take you days to get through all of the stores; Charlie, I’m not sure you would like it as they do take credit cards.
We went outside and made our way back down the hill to the Egyptian Spice Bazaar, which is smaller than the Grand Bazaar, and the vendors were a little more polite. Jo bought some tea and saffron, and then we headed outdoors to find ourselves close to the bridge to Asia. Barry had always wanted to walk across the bridge that links
Europe with Asia, so off we went for a short ¼ mile walk across the Bosphorus Strait into Asia.
When we got into Asia we wandered over to where the cruise ships were parked and then we decided to walk up to the Galata Tower. The hike up the hill to the tower was something else; seemed like we were practicing for a trip to Mt. Everest. Anyway, the tower turned out to be a spectacular piece of history. The wall at the base is 16 ft. thick and at the top only a few inches thick. The view from the tower was spectacular.
We headed back down the hill to the waterfront where we passed through the fish market. We also noticed that there were many fish restaurants under the bridge to Asia. We then took the tram and went to the train station where the Orient Express comes once a year from Paris to Istanbul in the month of September. Needless to say, the train was not there for us to see. We had lunch downtown and actually saw a picture of a Turkish Angora cat; it could have been one of Allie’s relatives - all white with
one blue eye. We did not actually see any Turkish angora cats on the street although there were many cats on the streets of Istanbul.
After a short walk we went back to the hotel and crashed for a couple of hours as they have dinner later in Istanbul. There are so many restaurants to choose in Istanbul it is almost unbelievable. So we picked out one close to our hotel and had a very enjoyable meal.
After a good night’s sleep and another great breakfast at the Romance Hotel we headed up the hill to see the Blue Mosque. This building is just an amazing piece of construction and to think that it was built without the use of modern construction machinery makes it even more amazing. The people in Istanbul do not seem to be as infatuated with religion as they were in Morocco last year, but this could be because Ataturk separated religion from state back in the early 1900’s. We also noted that there were very few Turkish women in the tradition dress; it is almost like they have been modernized by the influence of western world television. We actually saw a number of women driving
cars; yes Arabic women driving cars - As time went on in our visit we saw more women selling things and working in restaurants. When the wailing on the loud speakers started we did not see many people running into the mosque to pray. In fact, if you want around the back of the mosque to the outdoor bazaar, there were more locals there than in the mosque. As we passed through the bazaar there was a cute kitty lying sound asleep on a rug at one of the carpet stalls, and he did not seem to be moved by anything.
The Hagia Sophia church was just a block or so from the mosque so we went over to have a look. It too is an amazing building. From here we took a walk in the park beside the palace and wandered down to the waterfront for lunch; so many restaurants to choose from and everybody wants your business. After lunch we went over to the Egyptian Spice Bazaar again and Jo did a little more shopping. We had tried the apple tea the previous night, so she bought some to take home. Later that night we had dinner at
another restaurant; this one was called Istanbul. It turns out that the owner used to have a restaurant near Times Square on 9th Avenue in New York - the Turkish Kitchen. He sold it in 2005 and moved back to Istanbul. The food here was the best we had tasted to date. The service was excellent and the place, a little hole in the wall, was packed to the gills. We noticed that we really had a lot of interaction with people since they all speak excellent English and they wanted to converse with us. That added to the enjoyment of the trip.
After another great breakfast at the Romance Hotel, we took the Tram over to the last stop in Asia. From here we took the funicular up to ISTIKLAL CADDESI (avenue), a modern shopping area on the Asian side of Istanbul. There was an old tram that ran down the middle of this avenue but we decided to walk all the way down to the tower and back. We had lunch in Asia at a little fast food place - great Turkish food. We then took the train back over to the European side of the city and
made another stop at the Spice Bazaar. We walked around the bazaar, as there were many shops to see; you name it, they sold it in one of these small stores. I guess Wal-Mart has yet to make it to Istanbul. We did however see a sign for an IKEA store. We went back to the hotel to check our email and have tea - love the apple tea and the free wireless email.
That night we had dinner at Orient Express restaurant in the train station. This was recommended in Frommer’s book, but even though it was a white tablecloth service, the food was nothing special. There were some great pictures on the wall of Agatha Christie and the movie Murder on the Orient Express. I guess the place would be over run when the train comes to town once a year.
On our last day in Istanbul we decided to take the TRAM and do a little exploring out side the city. This turned out to be a bust so we doubled back for lunch at nice restaurant in the Sultanahmet neighborhood. I had an excellent vegetarian dish; not my usual choice but it did look good on
the table next to us, so I tried it.
After lunch we took a tour of the TOPKAPI Palace. The palace is an amazing place; you could spend all day touring it as it is so large and so crowded. After a couple of hours we wandered up the street to the Grand Bazaar again. This place is just too overwhelming and needless to say after an hour Jo had had enough of it. I think the salesmen are just too aggressive here. This being our last night in Istanbul we had dinner at another nice restaurant and went to be early as we had an early morning flight to catch.
One of the guys who worked the front desk at our hotel agreed to drive us to the airport at five in the morning and he was less expensive than a taxi. We couldn’t take public transport at it did not start running until six in the morning. We got to the airport at 05:20 and checked in for our 07:00 AM flight. After we went through passport control we noticed that there was an HSBC Premier lounge in the airport. This is the first one we have seen;
we showed our HSBC Premier credit card and were admitted to the lounge. This is much nicer than sitting at the gate waiting for the plane.
There are more photos below