Istanbul - the only major city in the world to be situated on two different continents, Europe and Asia, and in the eyes of many Europeans the gateway to the East. And what a city it is! Prior to arrival, I was not quite sure what to expect, but after positive surprise after positive surprise, I would now recommend it to everyone!
Phil and I arrived here on Tuesday from London Heathrow, via Frankfurt. We were picked up from the airport by someone working for the hotel and after a smooth 30 minute ride to Hotel Hanedan, the Istanbul experience could truly begin. As proof that the world is indeed a very small place, it turned out that a friend of mine from school in Luxembourg, Paul, happened to be in Istanbul this week to attend a conference. He met us at our hotel and we went for dinner at a small sea-side restaurant in Karaköy. Good food was swiftly followed by a conversation and tea with a Turk working for the restaurant who claimed to have been born in the Netherlands. This was our first introduction to local people spicing up their family history in order to somehow relate
to your country of origin. He later accidentally mentioned that he was born somewhere in Turkey. We now know that saying that you're a Luxembourger flabbergasts the Turks and silences the claims that they were born in Holland / have a Dutch girlfriend / have an uncle in Holland, and stops sentences like "Even Apeldoorn Bellen".
After a good night sleep, we decided to explore the neighbourhood of our hotel on Wednesday, Sultanahmet, which houses some of Istanbul's most famous landmarks. The compulsory visits to the Blue Mosque and Aya Sofya, were followed by a visit to the Archaeological Museums. The Aya Sofya, a former church and mosque which was turned into a museum by Turkey's founding father Atatürk, presumably to stop disagreements over which religion the building should represent, looks as imposing on the inside as it does on the outside. Unfortunately for us though, major renovation works are on-going inside, and looking at scaffolding is not my favourite past-time. The Blue Mosque was next, with its beautiful dome, and which must be quite a sight when filled with hundreds of people praying (5 times a day). After lunch, we strolled down to the waterfront, before making our
way to the Archaeological Museums. The Museums, stunning though their content is, proved a bit too detailed and vast to keep my mind focussed for long.
In the evening, we met up with Kadir, who used to work with me in the European Investment Bank in Luxembourg for a while. He took us to a fabulous restaurant in the Nisantasi part of town, where we experienced many new tastes, from raw meatballs to raki, the most popular alcoholic drink. Several drinks in the restaurant were followed by several more in nearby bars, and the hours flew by.
On Thursday morning we visited the Topkapi Palace, the former home of sultans. The vast complex provides many interesting insights into the former grandeur of the imperial life. The tour of the Harem unfortunately had to be done in a large group of Western tourists and with a guide, which quickly made me lose interest. After visiting the palace and having some lunch, we made our way to some of the narrow streets in the Bazaar area where the locals go to buy anything from household appliances to circumcision robes.
All this walking around town, prepared us well for our
next Turkish experience: we met up again with Paul and went to Cemberlitas Hamami, a Turkish Bath dating back to 1584. At the baths, we relaxed for a while in the "hot room" before being washed and massaged by one of the attendants. An interesting experience - I don't think I've ever been as clean! After a bit more lounging about, we made our way to a restaurant in Galatasaray, followed by several more drinks, and a near-death experience in a taxi on the way back to the hotel. I've never seen anyone driving as mad as that taxi-driver!
This morning, we took a ferry to the northern outskirts of the city on the Bosphorus, which links the Sea of Marmara to the Black Sea. The trip provided beautiful views of the city. In the morning, we had seen dolphins swimming into the Bosphorus from the Sea of Marmara, on the rooftop terrace of our hotel. The creatures were friendly enough to show themselves again while we were on the ferry. This afternoon, we visited the Grand Bazaar, which apparently houses more than 4500 shops, as well as the impressive Basilica Cistern.
As I'm writing this, our time
in Istanbul is almost up. Tomorrow morning, we'll be flying to Dubai. Paul summarised this city as portraying "the worst of all worlds" We'll see.... next update from there!
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