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Published: January 3rd 2010
The Blue Mosque was literally two blocks away from our hostel. That was the very first mosque I saw in my life (many more to follow during our stay in Istanbul...).
Being from Venice, the architecture was something completely new to me.
Istanbul, December 28th 2009 - January 1st 2010
I believe it was September when we first started talking about Istanbul as a possible destination for celebrating 2010.
The idea came from an on-board magazine I read during a flight a few months before. The article said something like "Istanbul, the city between two continents". Honestly, I thought Turkey was entirely in Europe, but I guess learning is a never-ending process.
Gathering people for this adventure has been a little more difficult than before and - at the end - I was with "the usual suspects": Seba and Gillo, with whom I spent the majority of the year endings of my adult life.
I knew Istanbul, with its Muslim background, would not be the typical European city in terms of night life and entertainment and stated that very clearly when telling my long-time friends, but it appears lack of money has played a bigger role in collecting a bunch of "I'd love to, maybe next time...".
Gillo's dad and girlfriend had both visited this ancient city before and gave a pretty good opinion, clearing any doubt we may still have had.
For the first time I
Near the port
This is the area where we took the mini Bosphorous cruise. In the back, you can see the Galata tower.
What you do not see in the picture is how many people are trying to sell you carpets, boat tours, food or shine your shoes...
flew to Zurich with Swiss airlines, a pretty decent flight considering the price (less than 250 euro). From there, the connection to Istanbul is less than 3 hours.
At the airport, we had the hostel's shuttle driver waiting for us. Gillo pointed out that was the first time in his (and my) life that somebody was showing a sign with our name in the waiting area past the sliding doors.
We immediatly understood how big Istanbul is: the ride from the airport to the hostel was almost 1 hour! And the price very decent (25 euros).
The hostel had been recommended, Seba approved it and I booked it and I must say that's very hard to beat for the price. The "Antique Hostel" is in the old city, very close to the Blue Mosque. The personnel speak good English and the 3-person room we had for 4 nights has been always cleaned while away.
I must confess I had done practically no research prior to this trip, which is very uncharacteristic (despite what Gillo and Seba may think...). My friend Ned, who is Turk, told me to email him or call him, but I thought I just
The Bosphorous bridge
On the right-hand side of the bridge, it's Asia, on the left Europe. Isn't that fascinating?
The bridge somehow remembers me a lot the bay bridge in the bay area (from Oakland to San Francisco).
With our tiny tour boat we actually went underneath the bridge, then looped around and docked to the Asian side for a snack.
wanted to improvise.
The day before leaving I googled "10 must-do things in Istanbul" and I guess we covered the most interesting ones... at least from the point of view of three 30-year olds that don't see each other too often.
Item number one was: "try fine Turkish cuisine" and we certainly didn't omit this one! Just minutes after the hostel check-in we were on our way to a nearby restaurant recommended by the hostel receptionist. At the moment we thought food was really good but we definitely changed our minds the following days, when we tried other chaper restaurants with amazing meat dishes.
Oddly, we were unaware of the vicinity of the Blue Mosque and we saw it when walking to the restaurant; Gillo said something like "look at that!" and the three of us just stared at this unknown building for a good minute.
After the restaurant, we found a "proper" pub. I say "proper" because we didn't run into many of them during our stay and most of the times we wanted to drink a beer we were going to restaurants. It didn't take long to discover that "Efen" is THE beer in
On the tour-boat
We are not exactly like all the other tourists... we were playing dice and drinking beer, where public drinking is forbidden...
Turkey, the equivalent of "Quilmes" in South America.
This entire trip has been ruled by "Lier dice", a simple dice game that my friends teached Gillo when he came visit a few years ago. Apparently, Gillo really liked it...; Seba learned the rules fairly quickly and became competitive enough to make it interesting. But boy, how many games we played! I am used to see people play lier dice at the bar, but I never thought I would play that much in Istanbul! To make it more interesting, we bet 3 Turkish Lira per game (about 1.5 euros). I thought the amount was just enough to make it interesting, but Seba may not agree on this point...
That first night ended at the pub after a good amount of beer and dice games in perfect style.
We never woke up early in the morning, justified by the fact that breakfast was available until 11.00 am. Breakfast was always the same: bread, tomato slices, cheese, ham (of arguable quality) and olives. Every drink was pretty disgusting, but I liked the food.
We started walking north, because we wanted to visit the "Galeta" tower. This was accomplished only
Inside the gran bazar
Never seen so much stuff for sale. The Gran Bazar is a huge "shopping mall" with jillion of small shops that sell essentially the same stuff. They must like it that way...
There are also a few restaurants and coffee shops inside and we stopped for an expensive hot chocolate, Turkish tea and coffee. As of December 2009 it seems the price of espresso is 2.50 euros, pretty pricey compared to all the rest.
two days later but we eventually managed to do it.
On the way, we discovered how many people are trying to sell you stuff on the streets. That was for everything: restaurants, shops, cruises, carpets. Initially we tried to be polite and reply to every one, but it doesn't take long to really start hating that (even though they are very polite in doing it). I don't know what those people were thinking, but I really don't think I look like a guy who would shop for ancient carpets!
But after all we were tourists and we agreed on purchasing a "Bosphorus cruise" for 20 TL each. The price seemed very honest and that was also in the to-do things in the city, so we all wanted to try it.
The duration of the tour was 2'5 hours, but we later discovered there are longer tours. I and Gillo were pretty excited to go to Asia for the first time, but Seba seemed pretty apathetic about it claiming (correctly) that the border is just an imaginary line... (I would add, like the 1st of the year).
The small boat, which could host maybe 50 people, was shaking
Some sweets from a bakery. We didn't get any, but it was very tempting. In a different place, Seba and Gillo got some pastries, but they were not too excited about them.
quite a lot at the dock and it made me smile to think I grew up in Venice and I was getting sick of being on the boat. Clearly, we played dice awaiting for the departure.
We had a brief break on the Asian side and went for lunch. It may just be my impression, but the Asian side seems a little poorer than the European counterpart. Food tasted particularly good that afternoon; I and Seba got lamb kebab, while Gillo picked a random item in the menu which looked palatable as well.
On the way back, we grabbed a few beers to be consumed on the boat. We were unsure whether they allow public drinking in Istanbul and we later found the answer is negative, so... thanks to our little common sense that suggested us not opening the cans on the way to the dock.
It didn't take long to return to the starting point and the temperature dropping, along with chilly wind, made us hope the ride would end soon.
From there, we walked randomly searching for a place where we could have a few beers and, instead, we ended up to the Gran Bazar,
Welcome to Asia!
We discussed a lot whether such sign would exist or not. I mean, Asia is not a club, nor a city: it's a continent!! I find this pretty unique...
This was photographed from the bottom of the Bosphorous bridge. From there, we looped on the right (we were coasting a highway at this point), then we were forced to take a bus because the bridge is closed to pedestrians, due to the high number of suicides. I guess people like to suicide from tall bridges: the Golden Gate, in San Francisco, is sadly known for the very same reason, but I doubt they are ever going to close it.
another of the must-do things in Istanbul. This insanely huge market is definitely worth a visit, but we didn't buy anything. We only had an expensive coffee (5 TL seems the standard price), a hot chocolate and a Turkish tea.
Once we left the market, we resumed wandering around the city center searching for a hang-out place and we found something that said "night club", looked inside and elected that would be a good place for the next couple of hours.
The place was empty and two waiters were chatting. We definitely drunk more than any other day in Istanbul and purchased 160 TL worth of beer. That sums up to something like 18 beers!
That small "night-club" turned out to be popular and when we left it was fairly full. There were some women who may have... looked for business that night and that was odd to see in a city like Istanbul.
Dinner was followed by another club, next to the previous one, which was the biggest rip-off of the entire stay. 100 TL for 3 beers! When we left I was really intoxicated and I have blurry memories of that half hour we spent
Well, if you don't know Gillo you may think this is a stupid picture. Everywhere we went in the past so many years, Gillo delighted us eating a candy apple and he didn't let us down.
there (maybe more...) but I clearly remember they thought we didn't pay and one of the waiters came outside to ask us if we did. Approaching us, he saw us discussing and asked Gillo "My friend, is everything allright?". Gillo replied sharply "I'm not your friend!" and that really cracked me.
Anyway, somehow we managed to stumble to the hostel and went to bed, just to wake up with a big hangover.
Breakfast saved me and Seba, but Gillo - who was clearly in debt of sleep - had troubles getting off the bed.
The morning of the 30th we had our second attempt to Galata tower. We backtracked what we did the day before and arrived to the same place where we got the cruise. In order to get to the tower, there was a bridge to cross, but Gillo said "hey, there's this boat that costs only 1.50 TL which definitely goes to the other side". We bought one token each and... got into an enormous ship to... an unknown destination!!
Clearly, the ship wasn't going to the other side. How could we even hope that a 500-person ship would just cross a small
This is the street where we celebrated the new year, but this picture was taken the day before. The amount of people is incredible, but I start to doubt it is because of the holidays, Istanbul must always be like that.
strait! Long story short, we ended up again in Asia. From there, we started walking and we got lunch.
At this time, we were pretty close to the Bosphorus bridge and we decided to try to walk there. I say pretty close compared to the size of the metropolis, since we had to walk for hours before getting there. And I mean hours!
The last mile or so before the bridge was literally along the highway and we didn't enjoy it particularly. When walking underneath the bridge, Gillo spotted a sign saying "Welcome to Asia". There was THAT sign! We were conjecturing whether they placed it or not on the bridge and now we know the answer.
Unfortunately, we discovered pedestrians are not allowed to walk on the bridge. A man that later helped us told us it is because of the high number of suicides that happened in the past and once again we kind of thought that.
So we were forced to take a bus to go back to the "old" continent (in the US the "old" continent is Europe, but I would call it old compared to Asia).
We had no clue where
At the hostel
I and Seba noticed the sign at the restroom's door. Pretty unusual...
to get off the bus, but the tall mosques gave a clue about our location. An English-speaking man suggested us to take a bus to get to the tower, but we didn't follow his advice because... we were unable to cross the road! That may seem ridiculous, but you have to see those roads with your own eyes to understand it.
After a few miles we accidentally found the "real" city center, where all the Christmas decorations were. It was already dark and we decided it was too late to get to the tower... another failed attempt. But it was fun walking that long road with so many people. That was the place the hostel receptionist suggested us the day before and - I would emphasize by accident - we got there.
After dinner, we were pretty exausted and we decided to take a cab to return to the hostel. I remember the conversation: "if it is not too expensive", "how much do we want to spend at the most" and so on. We really never imagined going back to the old city would cost us only 20 TL!! I recall Gillo opening the door of the cab
View from the hostel
The hostel has a terrace and that's the view looking at the strait. It was morning here, so the colors are what they are... but you get the point. Unfortunately I was freezing my ass out there and didn't take more time to find a better angle.
and saying "We have been stupid walking this much" and... he was right!
There's a bar in the hostel, in the same place where they serve breakfast. Although very tired, it was "early" to go to bed considering we were on vacation and we headed upstairs for some booze and dice games. The bartender, a Turkish guy in the early 20's, joined us for a few games and he happened to be a good player right away, being a poker player.
December 31st, the last full day we would have in Turkey. There were still a few items we wanted to do: visit a mosque, have a Turkish bath and... see the Galeta tower.
Finding a Turkish bath was a piece of cake, since the hostel had an advertisement about it and the receptionist reserved it for uson the spot for 11.00 am (it was almost 10.45 am when he made it). After paying 40 TL each, we started walking to the nearby attraction which was within 10-minute walking range.
That was the first Turkish bath I had experienced in my life, so I cannot compare it to anything else. Once you get in, they give
They call them Vitamin Shops and there is a plethora of them around the city. They sell fresh squeezed juices. It seems pomegranade is a best seller (I never had a pomegranate juice in my life). Other best seller: apple, grapefruit, carrot.
In the cheaper places, the pomegranade juice is a little to acidic... so if you go for it, go to a "good looking" place, or get carrot juice (cannot go wrong with that).
you a towel which looks like a table skirt. With that only, they take you to a room where you are asked to lay on the hot floor. The marble tiles were truly hot and it took us many laughs to finally stay put for a few minutes.
The wait seemed never-ending and I estimate it to be maybe 30 minutes. Then they took us one by one and gave the "usual treat", which consists in a lot of scrubbing (I am sure I didn't have any molecule of dirt on my sking when I got out), shampoo and massage. The massage was particularly strong and sometimes the feeling wasn't too good, but I know that's the way it is supposed to be.
We really laughed a lot during the whole time, especially for the noises that we were making squeezing the still water between the tiles.
Once we got out of the bath, we visited a mosque. We elected not to go to the Blue Mosque and visisted the nearby one instead (I don't recall the name).
20 TL for that... is a real rip-off (second of the entire vacation). We were not asked to remove
Seba's new hat
After visiting the Mosque, Seba found the deal of his life: 1 euro for the hat he's wearing in the picture. He was so happy he bought two of them...
the shoes inside, leading me to think it is a dismissed mosque turned into a museum.
The architecture was kind of interesting, but nothing exciting. I and Seba did a long line to touch a "wish stone". After my wish Gillo said "your wish hasn't happened, I am still alive!" which also made me laugh.
After the mosque parenthesis, we got a cab and... we finally got to the Galeta tower! The line was fairly long and I remember discussing with Seba whether it would be possible - as an extreme sport - to climb to its top just with a rope (and I guess so).
On the brochure they gave us in the tower, I read the tower was built in year 540. I mean: 540!! Living in California, where every building is late '800 at the earliest, I always think about how old Venice is, but Istanbul is even more impressive. We were all aware of the history of the city and I am sure there are tons of historical buildings, but we are not those kind of tourists... at least not yet.
Views from the top, although only 60 meters high, were spectacular
Gillo got this mixed plate. Seems pretty good huh?
and I have a few good shots.
Evening was approaching and we had to find a good place for dinner. I and Gillo had fish as last meal of 2009, while Seba got a mixed grill. Very neat place, in the same neighborhood we discovered the day before.
We had several discussions about why they had Christmas decorations, since Christmas is not celebrated there. I guess, but I may be wrong, that it is because of the small percentage of Catholics that live in the metropolis which - if it is the case - must be well tolerated.
Walking around the city at 9.00 pm of December, 31st we found an open mechanic. An open mechanic!! Few meters later, an open barber shop. Nothing ever stops in Istanbul.
We ran into a pub, one of the few good ones, and decided to spend a few hours there waiting for midnight. Dice, vodka and beer helped us having fun awaiting for the year change. I didn't speak much when at the pub: I was thinking about everything that happened in 2009, about the fact that I never see my friends because I live far away, about the fact
Seba order a cheese Turkish pizza. Given all the pizza I ate in Italy... I could not do it. Apparently, it wasn't bad (and Seba is pretty picky).
we are now 30 years old. But I know these familiar faces will accompany me for other great trips in the coming years, there's no doubt about it.
Few minutes before midnight we started walking this giant road. At midnight, nothing happened. Not a countdown, not an opened bottle, no fireworks. Just a handshake with my oldest friends and a wish for a great 2010. Everything was open after midnight, including a barber shop with three customers. We found a pub and had a couple of more drinks then, exhausted, went back to the old city by taxi.
The following morning accepting that everything was over has not been an easy task. Gillo was flying back to Cork, while Seba back to Venice with me. Gillo discovered he was leaving from a different airport (no comment) and didn't share the ride with us. While shaking his hand I knew it will be months, maybe years, before I can see him again.
I wrote this account while flying to New York on January 3rd, 2010. Happy 2010 to everybody who has read it till the end.
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