We were on our way to Turkey, and we can’t wait to start our eastern European journey. I just hope my soccer injury (ankle) holds up on our all day walking tour of Istanbul
tomorrow. We boarded our flight in London, slept for 15 minutes and woke to the drinks trolley. I replaced the red wine I had surrendered earlier and equilibrium prevailed. This time I made sure I enjoyed it before we landed. There was no dinner choice – it was chicken tikka masala
or nothing. While the dish may not have rivalled Annapurna’s (in North Hobart, Tasmania), it was a great meal nonetheless. I therefore retract any comments that portray British Airways in a poor light. For this flight, the service was great, the food was great and the plane’s interior was reasonable.
We had an ‘incident’ on the way. We touched down in Istanbul, organised our bags and stood up when the seatbelt sign went off. As I looked down the aisle, I felt strange. I thought I’d feel better once I got off the plane, so I hoped the queue would move soon. When I realised it wasn’t moving, I tried to sit down.
Unfortunately there was nowhere available, as everyone had crammed themselves into the aisle like sardines. It was 11.50pm.
That was my last lucid memory. I suddenly heard a huge commotion, but I couldn’t place where it was coming from. People were shouting and screaming, so I thought an altercation had broken out amongst passengers further down the aisle. As I opened my eyes, all I could see was a wall of faces within centimetres of my eyes. Everyone seemed to be shouting basic questions in my direction, and as I answered one they simply shouted another.
I suddenly realised I’d collapsed into a row of seats. I thought it must have been the row opposite the seats we had on the flight, but Ren eventually told me I was four or five rows closer to the exit. I’d passed out as we were disembarking. I have no memory beyond trying to sit down.
An oxygen mask had been fitted to my face, a doctor who happened to be a passenger behind me was listening to my heart (apparently she always carries a stethoscope) and the captain had ordered the back door of the plane to be opened
so the passengers in the back section of the plane could disembark. I was disorientated and pouring with perspiration. The doctor was wiping sweat from my face as a paramedic crew rushed down the aisle. They took my blood pressure, gave me a tablet and gestured that I put it in my mouth. I asked for some water, but they gestured not to swallow it. For some reason I decided to chomp it and swallow it anyway. They weren’t impressed. Another tablet went under my tongue and my blood pressure was taken over and over again.
A sea of paramedics, air stewards, passengers and ground crew had surrounded me. The captain passed responsibility to the Ataturk Airport Clinic staff, and they lowered me off the plane onto the tarmac via the disabled lift. I was loaded into an ambulance and rushed to the terminal. I was feeling heaps better at this stage, but I couldn’t overrule the paramedics. I didn’t want to anyway. I had no idea what had happened. Ren had stayed with me throughout the incident
. She had caught me as I fell, and her face was one of the many I saw as I woke. She
was now in the front of the ambulance.
Now for the worst part... The paramedics and ground crew decided to process me through customs before taking me to the clinic. This meant rushing me in a wheelchair through a crowded Ataturk Airport. The embarrassment! As everyone else on the flight stood in an enormous queue to confirm their visas, I was wheeled passed them all to the front of the queue. I could feel the stares of a few tired passengers who thought I’d staged the whole thing to gain priority treatment. Even if they did believe me, being in the spotlight like this was unbearable. Once we had paid the visa fees, I was wheeled to a customs counter that had been staffed just for us. Our passports were stamped and I was wheeled to the clinic. That is where the fireworks began. Apparently the doctor had ordered that I be taken directly to the clinic (customs and immigration issues were to be sorted later). The paramedics and ground crew had overridden this advice and checked me through. I suppose I could have been a terrorist, but I think they just wanted to help us get to our
hotel as fast as possible. I cannot praise them enough for their care and understanding. However, the doctor didn’t share my gratitude for their assistance, and he completely tore them apart when I eventually arrived at the clinic. It is a disempowering feeling when you find yourself sitting in a wheelchair with a crowd of specialists surrounding you and arguing in a different language.
Eventually they wheeled me through to emergency and took my blood pressure for the umpteenth time. It was normal. I was finally free to go. During this time Ren had been organising our bags with an extremely helpful ground crew member. He wheeled me to a taxi, put our packs in the boot and wished us well. The driver sped to the Constantine Boutique Hotel
, rarely dropping below 130kph. We arrived at 2am. It had been a long day. We checked in, unpacked and crashed at 2.30am. We had an early start the next day, and it was good to know we were still on holiday.
We jumped out of bed at 6.30am (after only four hours sleep), showered, packed and headed down to breakfast at 7.30am. Then checked out of our hotel and waited to
be picked up for our scheduled walking tour of Istanbul. No-one arrived to pick us up as planned. We eventually asked the guy on reception if we could call the company. He called on our behalf and said they were on their way. They didn’t arrive. Apparently they’d gone to the wrong hotel. We eventually got through to them and joined the walking tour 45 minutes after it had started. We hadn’t missed much, so we were more than happy to continue. It was a great way to see this thriving city. We visited mosques, markets, bazaars and cafes with incredible views. We drank Turkish tea and copious amounts of water. We ate Turkish Delight. We walked on bustling streets with hardly any room to move and then found ourselves in quiet cobble-stone backstreets with no-one in sight. Istanbul is a city of extremes, and it is a city we were quickly embracing.
We eventually finished the walking tour around 3.30pm. We had been on our feet for six hours. We headed back to the hotel, got our packs and changed hotels. We would have preferred to stay in the one hotel throughout our stay in Istanbul, but a
booking oversight had resulted in a number of hotel changes. Still, we didn’t mind. We loved Istanbul, so we welcomed any chance to walk the streets of this great city – even with backpacks.
We checked into our new hotel (Best Town Palace
), trapped ourselves in the lift, struggled with the door key, struggled with the curtains, unpacked, napped for 40 minutes, showered and headed out for a meal with a local family. They lived in a small apartment in a very poor neighbourhood, so this initiative provided them with an income of some descript. The family was incredibly welcoming and the food was reasonably good (lentil soup, home-made bread, rice and noodles, chicken and eggplant and Turkish tea). The insight we gained into Turkish family life was exceptional, although I think our interpreter decided not to interpret everything that was said in the conversation. Selective interpretation may be an indirect form of censorship, but it certainly avoids discomfort when two very different cultures attempt to communicate without a common language.
We said goodbye and headed to a local cafe to drink Turkish tea, share a water pipe (rose and mint tobacco) and play backgammon. As the night fell around
us, we succumbed to this great game and the incredible view across the Marmara Sea through the haze of our water pipe smoke. This had been a truly amazing evening.
We ambled back to the hotel, picked up some water and local Efes beer and settled in to catch up on our trip notes. We eventually crashed at midnight. It had been an eventful 24 hours. SHE SAID...
We are in Turkey! The British Airways staff in their home country are clearly trained very differently to the ones on the other sectors; we just could not fault their service on the ground or in the air. However, the flight to Istanbul
was eventful – not our favourite type of flight. As Andrew mentioned in his post, he had a bit of a ‘turn’ when we landed. While it was quite scary for a few minutes, the very efficient and prompt attention from two doctors on board, the cabin crew and the airport ground staff made the rest of the ordeal a lot easier than it may have been in other circumstances. When you fly in and out of airports and get processed through the normal channels,
you don’t really get an appreciation for the myriad of operations that occur behind the scenes. This was probably not the way I would choose to view the behind the scenes operations – but view them this way we did! The ambulance was on the plane in what seemed like minutes, and even though by this time Andrew was insisting that he was feeling better, I was glad that they acted so promptly. There were a few things lost in translation, but all in all we were treated very well. Most of it went past in a blur, but I will always remember the guy who operated the disabled lift – he was not someone I’d put in such a precision job. It felt more like a carnival ride than a lift.
When Andrew was finally discharged from the airport clinic, we realised we had missed our airport transfer, so we caught a taxi to the hotel at warp speed. However, given we were desperate to get to the hotel, and it was 1:30am with no traffic on the highway, I actually enjoyed the high speed taxi trip.
We’d barely been in Istanbul a day and I
had already fallen deeply in love with it. In a way it’s my dream city – all the charming architecture and cleanliness of Europe, mixed with great food and Asian cultural sensibilities. It’s distinctly old-worldly in parts, but unmistakably avant-garde in others. I had expected that it would be packed with charming old Ottoman mosques and tea houses, but I certainly hadn’t expected that there would be so many hot and happening galleries, restaurants, cafes, bars and clubs around town too.
This city has had many reincarnations through Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman empires, and has been called Byzantium, New Rome, Constantinople, Old Stamboul and now Istanbul. A city advertised as the only one that straddles Europe and Asia, both east and west. The beautiful cobblestone streets leading to large squares could be anywhere in Spain or Italy, but there is a distinct vibrancy and Asian-ness in its people like no other European city. I have never experienced a big city with such a tangible friendliness that treats its visitors like extended family.
We arrived very late (2am to be exact) at our hotel - Constantine Boutique Hotel
. I barely remember the check-in process. We must have looked tired because we
got upgraded to a bigger room. The hotel is on a pretty street that runs along the old walls of Gulhane Park and is lined with restaurants and shops. Our room was basic but nice, and the staff epitomise good customer service. It was perfect really, and the location couldn’t be more suited for visiting all parts of Istanbul (right next to the Gulhane tram stop). It would have been better if we didn’t have to change hotels three times in five days (our travel agent is sooo sacked!). We had a combination of accommodation that we had organised at the Constantine Boutique Hotel, as well as that organised by Intrepid Travel at another hotel, but I suppose we got to try two hotels in Istanbul.
We were based in-between Eminonu and Sirkeci. To one side of us were old Byzantine and Ottoman treasures. On the other, a crowded busy port area full of ferries transporting commuters across the Bosphorus strait between the European and Asian suburbs of Istanbul and across the halic
(Golden Horn River) between the old European (Sultanahmet and Eminonu areas) and modern European (Karakoy and Taksim) sides. However, the biggest feature in Eminonu is the
double storey Galata Bridge that links Eminonu with Karakoy over the Golden Horn. The road on the top carries the tram line and crazy drivers who zoom past fishermen lazing away the afternoon with a line in the water. The underpass is lined with tacky bars, restaurants and souvenir shops. It’s packed for most of the day, but is especially atmospheric at night.
Istanbul has seven mosques on its seven hills. We definitely won’t get to all of them in our five days here, but we’ll certainly give it a good shot! On our first morning we intended to have a quick breakfast, but when we saw the traditional Turkish breakfast buffet spread we knew our plans wouldn’t work out – local creamy butter, a local version of nutella, Turkish honey, about seven different Turkish pastries, boiled eggs, a roasted eggplant and red pepper spread, a chilli, tomato and parsley spread, tangy sheep’s milk white cheese, strained yogurt with dill, three types of olives, tomatoes, cucumbers, freshly baked crusty white sourdough bread, orange juice, sour cherry juice, cay
(Turkish tea which is drunk black and sweet) and instant western coffee (the only let down of the whole buffet).
We were supposed to be picked up from our hotel at 8.15am to join a two day walking group called Istanbul In Depth
. However, a miscommunication meant that we didn’t get picked up until 9.30am and missed the first stop on the walk – the Blue Mosque. We made plans to see that later and joined another couple and our guide Suleyman. The shops hadn't opened when we started out, but they slowly emerged from behind shutters and closed doors. Carpets, ceramics and jewellery started spilling out onto the streets. Istanbul is an amazingly quaint old city surrounded by ancient walls around the old Ottoman city. You get an idea of the oldness around here when the mosque they call the New Mosque is over 400 years old. There were gorgeous old-world cobblestone streets and lanes, ottoman styled buildings, speeding ultra modern trams, ornate mosques, labyrinthine bazaars, simit
(pretzel-like bread covered in sesame seeds) vendors doing a good trade and locals hurrying to work. And then like magic by 10:00am-ish – tourists everywhere!
The walk started in the historic area of Sultanahmet and our first stop was the Byzantine Hippodrome in Sultanahmet Square. The Hippodrome (built in 203AD) was
one of the largest chariot tracks in the ancient world. The rival chariot teams were ‘Blues’ or ‘Greens’ and were related to different class and political affiliations. Although the actual Hippodrome structure has gradually disappeared to nothing over the centuries, the footprint of the race track is remarkably intact. It is now a landscaped park and open-air museum between the Blue Mosque and Aya Sofya. It displays what’s left of the ancient (and seriously ancient) relics ‘imported’ by various Emperors to decorate the centre of the racetrack over its long history – the pink granite Obelisk of Theodosius (carved around 1500BC and ‘brought’ from Egypt in 390AD); the Spiral Column (dating from 478BC and ‘moved’ from the Temple of Apollo in Delphi in 330AD); the Rough-stone Obelisk (dating from the 4th century and once covered with gilded bronze plates that were removed by Crusaders at some point); and the German Fountain which was given as a gift (probably the only thing that wasn’t stolen). I heard a tongue-in-cheek description of the Hippodrome as being a thought-provoking monument to the millennia-old custom of looting and pillaging. Very funny but sadly true. But sadder still is the fact that big bully countries
still beat up smaller countries and take their stuff! Did someone say Elgin Marbles? But anyway, the Hippodrome park is also a lovely place to sit and people watch.
From Sultanahmet Square we got off the main drag to discover what the guide called ‘the hidden Istanbul’. From the old Sultanahmet quarter, we walked to the tomb of Sultan Mahmud in an old cemetery that was a sanctuary so out of place in a busy city centre. As the morning wore on, music started up in the cafes and restaurants and Turkish cushioned seating overflowed onto the road. And the cats came out to sun themselves – I love that the Turks love their cats! There seems to be at least one or two in every shop, sitting at the entrance or curled up somewhere inside. A local told me that a few hundred years ago Istanbul was overrun by rats and the introduced cats solved the problem and won a place in the hearts of the locals. It’s not uncommon to see containers of cat food and water on most city streets for the street cats; however, there seems to be a strained relationship between the rough and
tumble street cats and the pampered pet cats.
Next we walked to the Kapali Carsi (Grand Bazaar). Constructed around 1460, they say it’s the oldest and largest covered market in the world. Apparently it has over 2000 shops, workshops and cafes in 64 covered streets with gated entrances. The grand-daddy of markets. However, it was a bit of a letdown for me – it felt overly touristy and sterile. The prices are never set and haggling is expected. I find this set up tiring; we couldn’t even stop to take a closer look at anything without getting accosted. As you walk through the cavernous space there are stalls that reek sharply of fresh leather; a wave of gold and silver winking through glass counters; colourful ceramics in all shapes and sizes; followed by rolls of intricate patterned carpets and colourful fabrics. My favourite area was the book bazaar. Slightly apart from the rest of the market, it was packed with old Arabic texts, shiny new paperbacks and everything in between.
We walked past the Beyazit Mosque complex and the beautiful Istanbul University on our way to the Suleymaniye Mosque Complex. Designed by the renowned architect Mimar Sinan, it’s
one of the largest and grandest mosques in Istanbul. It still has all its original public service buildings attached – a caravanserai
(roadside inn from the days when caravans used to pull up outside), medrese
(seminary), hospital, soup kitchen and hamam
(Turkish bath); as well as garden mausoleums of Suleymaniye the Magnificent and his very influential wife Roxelane. We removed our shoes near the entrance, and carried them inside in plastic covers – this was the first time I was stepping into a working mosque. Despite its imposing and impressive appearance, the interior of the mosque is simple, gentle and welcoming. We stood on the carpet in one corner and absorbed as much as we could of the architecture as well as the ambience of prayer and meditation. The strong sunlight was filtered through high stained glass windows. There was also a delicate light cast from a network of low hung chandeliers strung over the prayer area. Even outside the main prayer times there were a few lone male worshippers scattered across the carpet. The women’s enclosure was on one side of the prayer area, where groups of women were reading or sitting together quietly chatting.
It was a
hot day and Suleyman suggested having a tea stop, to which we eagerly agreed. Cafe Halic
has gorgeous views of the Golden Horn and the glass of Turkish cay
was very welcome. We then renewed our walk through Kucuk Pazari/Kantarcilar in Eminonu which is a den of market streets and Ottoman-era buildings that are home to all manner of hardware vendors such as scissor sharpeners, weighing scale technicians, safe makers and axe grinders.
We were heading to the Rustem Pasa Mosque, another of Mimar Sinan’s works. However, unlike his other big ostentatious pieces, this one is a little hidden treasure. It’s off a small crowded market laneway, then up a concealed flight of stairs that took us above the market. It is only visited by the local shop keepers and the few tourists who can find it. I fell in love with it straight away. A tiny shiny jewel box with every surface covered in exquisite Iznik tiles (unique quartz tiles found only in Turkey). I definitely want to come back and spend more time here, but we may need to leave a trail of breadcrumbs to find it again.
Our last mission on what had been a very
full morning was to explore the famous Misir Carsisi (Spice Bazaar) in a large building behind Yeni Cami (New Mosque) near the Galata Bridge. It’s the centre of the spice trade in Istanbul, and also home to all the local sweets and desserts. It was manic, packed and jostley – everything I always imagined a bazaar would be. The cacophony of sound was incredible; there were at least two salesmen outside every stall trying to entice everyone to buy from them. The stalls selling spices had rows and rows of highly coloured containers of salca (tomato paste), sumac, chilli, saffron and turmeric powders that teased uncovered and unprepared nostrils. The other stalls were piled high with nuts, dried fruits, henna, perfume oils, several kinds of tea, nougat, pestil
(fruit pressed into sheets and dried), lokum
(Turkish Delight), honey and unique local cheeses. The Spice Bazaar is very real and very local (in stark contrast to the Grand Bazaar). Personally I very much preferred this. Even though the merchants could be quite pushy and relentless in their sales pitches, they were also very open to offering samples of their wares for tasting with no obligation to buy anything. It’s by far
my preferred shopping style!
We ended our visit with a fantastic treat – a tasting of Turkish Delight. Istanbul is supposed to have the best versions of lokum
(Turkish Delight) in Turkey. I’ve always loved the sweet sticky squares of traditional lokum
, so I was like a kid in a candy shop (well, somewhat literally I suppose) when faced with new flavours like pomegranate, orange, mint, apple, almond and chocolate. There were also mountains of the original rosewater flavoured variety. You could have these plain or with walnut or pistachio. We found that the lokum
here is far more flavourful than any others we’ve tried, and it goes down a treat with a cup of black cay
. We bought a few strips of a pomegranate with pistachios lokum
and a honey and almond dusted in pistachio powder lokum
. So delicious!
The afternoon was dedicated to one of Istanbul’s biggest monuments – Topkapi Palace. By being part of the walking group, we had pre-purchased tickets and joyfully didn’t have to line up in the hour long queues (in the sun!). Topkapi Palace was built for the Sultans of the Ottoman Empire, and is a huge complex with multiple
courtyards and buildings with hundreds of rooms that once held the Sultans’ family, harem and servants. There were large crowds of people (including school groups) and it was hard to get a good feel for the place or even get a good look at the exhibits. The palace has a museum with collections of Ottoman and Islamic paraphernalia, jewellery, costumes, sword and clock collections that span multiple periods. The floors are marble, the walls are beautifully tiled and the large wooden doors are intricately carved. Even though the opulence and workmanship was extraordinary, I just couldn’t connect with this place. Even the gorgeous views of the Bosphorus, the Golden Horn and Galata Bridge from the gardens of Konyali
(the restaurant inside the palace) didn’t work its magic on me.
That night we were dinner guests of a local family (as part of the walking tour). Our interpreter Gurhan led us and the two other Australian couples towards the suburb of Yenikapi. The side streets were very narrow and full of apartment blocks. The Kurdish family we visited had moved to Istanbul five years ago. The husband was at work in a cafe, so our host (with the help of
two of her friends) fed and entertained us for the two hours we were there. It was a little awkward but two small children acted as an ice breaker and we communicated as best we could. We ate sitting in a circle on the lounge floor. The food was very simple but very tasty. We started with red lentil soup and homemade bread. The soup was hearty and full of flavour. The main dish was rice and vermicelli like noodles served with chicken in a spicy tomato sauce on top of the most delicious grilled eggplant I have ever tasted. We finished the meal with lots of Turkish cay
. This was a lovely way for us to get an insight into a Turkish household, and for our host to earn an income that she wouldn’t normally be able to do with two young children.
We walked off the meal on a long stroll through the backstreets in the warm and balmy night air, and ended up in a meyhane
(local tavern) called Cafe Marmara
. This was a neighbourhood teahouse packed with locals playing backgammon, sipping on tea, and puffing on nargilehs (Turkish water pipes). We sat on the rear
terrace which looked out over the Sea of Marmara and ordered cay
and a nargile to share. On Gurhan’s recommendation we had mint and rosewater flavoured tobacco for the water pipe, which was delicious but way too strong for me to have more than a few puffs. Gurhan also wanted to teach us how to play backgammon – Turkey's favourite board game played on street corners, and in cafes and bars. It was a fabulous evening and we are now on the lookout for a backgammon board to take home.
On our way back to the hotel I wanted to try some dondurma
(Turkish ice cream). It’s like no other ice cream I’ve ever had, and I found out why later – it’s made out of a thickening agent called salep (a flour made from the root of the Early Purple Orchid) and mastic (a resin). I wasn’t a huge fan of the chewy texture, but the bonus was that it didn’t melt! I’ll try dondurma
one more time, and if I still don’t like it, I think I’ll stick to lokum
as my dessert of choice.
It had been a looong day and we certainly crammed a lot in. Andrew had made a full recovery and got through the day with more energy than me. By the end of the evening I was really ready to crawl into bed and sleep the sleep of the totally contented traveller!
See you on day two of the Istanbul walking tour.
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