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May 6th 2016
Published: May 21st 2016
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Monday, 2 May – Istanbul

When one travels to an area marked “do not travel”, as is the case with Istanbul by the Australian and US Government, one expects it to look and feel more dangerous. Yet it does not. The people are just like us, going about their daily lives, just as we do in a ‘safe’ country. Men wear business suits, uni students listen to their headphones and most women get around in heels. The majority of the population dresses Western. There is no looking over one’s shoulder or scrutinising each individual as a potential terrorist. Even standing in the immigration line upon arrival Dwayne, myself and the kiwi behind us seemed the only ones concerned about an unattended suitcase standing on its own. My first impression of Istanbul is that it is unremarkable from a risk perspective. This is a good thing.

We were bold enough in our sleep deprived state to navigate the metro to our apartment rather than take a taxi or private transfer. We are too cheap for that. It is well set up like Paris with trains every 5 minutes and an easy to use Opal style travel card. It only cost 8TL for the ride, and with a 2:1 exchange rate, it made our $4 trip an absolute steal compared to the Sydney Airport line. Our penthouse apartment is roomy with a bedroom (inclusive of a king sized circular bed), kitchen, glass lounge room and wrap around terrace. We look forward to enjoying our first sunset over the city.

Istanbul is a gritty, grungy, chaotic, polluted, run down city. Bangkok meats Rome, if you will. It’s not pretty like Paris or Amsterdam, but it is interesting like Berlin. I especially like their pedestrian habits where there are few set crossings and the practice is to car dodge as you cross lanes of traffic at a point of your choosing. There’s a lower amount of English here than I was expecting. An 18yr old waiter working in a popular café or a 20-something salesperson in a phone store doesn't speak English. I find it strange that one would work in a tourist area and not speak the common language.

I feel ripped off at fresh food street vendors as they display prices per kilo but you never get to see them weigh it and they just bag everything up, look you up and down and then say a price. No receipt of course. I’ve also read that Turkish people are very friendly and that when you so much as look at a map, someone will stop to help. This has not been our experience.

Another thing that people have raved about is the food. Of course it’s only been one day of walking around and tasting what the Turkish offerings are, but I am not inspired. The quaint bakeries and sweet shops on every corner offer a visual feast of sweets and desserts soaked in honey, layered in pastry or wrapped in nuts. Thankfully, none of these items interest me. Goodbye 5kg of holiday weight gain. The pomegranate Turkish delight was ok but I wouldn’t go out of my way to buy it again. Dwayne found African lemons – dried green stuff that we discovered in Latvia two years ago. Now we know what it actually is. Anyway, I do hope my experience with food becomes more interesting as gastronomics is a major reason for travelling.

Tuesday, 3 May – Istanbul

Awoke after 10hrs of sleep to a pollution fog and threats of rain. Decided to spend the grey morning indoors.

People think with a 2:1 exchange rate that Turkey is a cheap destination. That is not necessarily true. Some things – transport, accommodation, bottled water, bakery items - are very cheap compared to Australia. Other things – restaurants and activities – can be nearly as pricey as Australia. Entry to a museum is $30. It is also difficult to self-cater here. There are no supermarkets in the inner districts, only mini marts with limited selection. They don’t seem to stock a lot of prepared food. They sell pasta but no pasta sauce. Dried beans and lentils but no cans of soup or baked beans. There’s a tiny freezer section of veggies and potato chips/wedges, but nothing like what is offered in the rest of Europe. Trying to do simple meals of soup and buns, baked beans on toast or even homemade pizza is almost impossible. Cereal is limited to 4-5 bags and they’ll cost 10TL ($5) for 250g.

We started our morning walking across the Galata Bridge and into the Egyptian Spice Market. Brilliantly coloured rows of stalls with spices heaped up in mounds, 25 different varieties of Turkish delight and pastries. Everyone trying to get you into their store, which was annoying. Admittedly, the prices are certainly quite cheap compared to outside the market. It started to rain whilst we were in there so we continued on to the Grand Bazaar. Its interior certainly is grand but it’s not as confusing nor confronting as I was expecting. Unlike the spice bazaar, everyone left us alone to look in peace.

We came out the other side and continued on to the Hippodrome, a remnant from Roman times. A wide promenade scattered with trees and benches, as well as the odd column or obelisk. We walked hand-in-hand under the umbrella as the rain subsided. On one side is the Blue Mosque, although that was not on the agenda today. People were approaching us asking where we were from and then asking us to come to their carpet shop. Zero interest in carpets.

We found a restaurant on Tripadvisor that was not far so we went there to see the menu. Antiochland is #23 of 11,824 restaurants in Istanbul and it’s fair to say I had high hopes. I had lentil soup and a vegetable casserole with rice, which was tasty. Dwayne had stuffed eggplant with goat’s cheese and a local dish of stir fried beef, dried apricots and figs in a pomegranate sauce. We ended with appalling hot chocolates and paid 12TL each for that mistake. All up, the 7/10 lunch cost us $60. Luckily, we found the Zumbo version of a bakery down near the water and bought a 9.50TL chocolate éclair to make up for the disastrous hot chocky. It was the size of a hot dog bun and I d’eclaire it to be the best éclair I’ve had outside of France!

The weather has not been ideal and I was worried we would go the whole 4 days without seeing any sun and therefore would not experience Istanbul in its best light. Luckily for us though, the rain disappeared during lunch and the afternoon turned warm and sunny. So we jumped on a Bosphorus ferry for the rest of the afternoon and went half way to the Black Sea. The water is a mesmerising blue/green colour. There are also millions of jelly fish. We were surprised at how densely populated it was all the way up both sides of coasts. Waterfront properties go for up to $30-$100 million euros because “where else can you open your curtains and see a continent on the other side?”

I like Istanbul but I don’t love it. It’s definitely an interesting mix of east and west and I’m glad I’ve now seen it but not busting to come back. Maybe it will grow on me. Dwayne is more generous in his assessment - “I think I like it more than I should.”

Wednesday, 4 May – Istanbul

There was a thunderstorm overnight so we awoke to a wonderfully clear, crisp day. The smog was gone and the city shone in the morning glow. We walked across the Galata Bridge to get some photos of the stunning water in sunlight and were rewarded with a sighting of dolphins near the bridge.

Just after 9 we arrived at Topkapi Palace which was the seat of government of the Ottoman Empire for 400 years. At its height the complex held 5000 people living and working there. Unlike European palaces that have a free-standing building and surrounding gardens, this palace is walled so all the gardens are scattered amongst the buildings inside the wall. It was a lovely place to wander around and with only 100 or so people wandering the grounds, it was a pleasant environment. The majority of the architecture dated back to the 17th and 18th centuries and many rooms were finished with intricate blue tiles. The guide books rave about the Harem but I found that overrated and much preferred the kitchen area. And then 11am hit and the hordes of school groups arrived to ruin the place. Don’t worry about tourist groups – it’s the locals that crowd this place out! Though that might have something to do with the very low number of tourists in Istanbul at the moment. Thankfully we’d seen 80%!o(MISSING)f the palace so only had to suffer them for another hour or so before we left. I didn’t mind the palace, but it didn’t “wow” me like Versailles (France) or even smaller palaces like Wurzburg’s Bishop Residence (Germany). I guess that’s because I prefer Renaissance and Baroque architecture rather than Ottoman architecture.

One thing about Turkey – the attraction prices are nothing short of highway robbery. Topkapi, for example, charges 40TL for entry, another 25TL for the Harem (which is so not worth it) and to top it off, there’s 20TL for an audio guide. They don’t even give you a map upon entry because the map only comes with the audio guide. The kitchen had elaborate description boards but the rest of the palace is pretty light on re info boards so you either wander around in ignorance or cough up for the audio guide. We had the same thing on the ferry yesterday – entry fee and if you want to know what you’re looking at as you cruise the Bosphorus, rent the audio guide.

For lunch we ended up at another TripAdvisor place but this time the good reviews were spot on. The Turkish pizza, pide, puff bread and salad were not only super-sized portions, they were delicious and cheap to boot. I’d definitely go back.

I have to say that Turks are a hardworking people. The shops open around 8am and go until at least 9pm most days, even the small fruit stands. I’ve not seen many people begging. They usually try to sell you a 50c simit (almost like a doughnut-shaped pretzel) or busk with music, but they don’t ask for handouts. I admire that they want to work for money and not just canvass tourists for pity dollars. We overheard a guide say that the 2 million Syrian refugees are everywhere in Turkey but we won’t recognise them. They don’t like to be identified for fear of being sent home, so they do their best to hide their situation and blend in with everyone else.

In the afternoon we went to the Basilica Cistern, which was amazing. Built by the Roman Emperor Justinian I during his reign (527-565 AD), it is an underground cavern 140m long, 70m wide and 10m high – held up by 336 columns. It covers 9,800 square meters and can hold up to 100,000 tons of water. It’s like being in a dimly lit, underground ballroom. A number of the columns are lit up and with the small amount of water still in the cistern, the sight upon descent is romantic and serene. That was worth the 20TL, although we decided against the 10TL audio guide!

I love the Galata district where we are staying. It’s made up of cobblestone streets and whilst the nightlife area is only 500m away, our district hums along at a quiet pace. Lots of cafes stay open until 11pm with tourists and locals spilling out onto sidewalk tables, sipping Turkish coffee and tea and capitalising on free WiFi. Very few pubs, almost no liquor stores. Our sleep is undisturbed, with the exception of morning prayer calls at dawn, but we’ve quickly learnt to go back to sleep. They are not quite as annoying as I had anticipated.

I also love the bakery around the corner from our apartment. Its décor is Parisien in style with a glass display full of Turkish specialities like baklava out the front and further towards the back of the café is their pudding section. The owner is the friendliest person we’ve met. On our first day there he gave us two mini pieces for free. Tonight we decided to have dinner at home and have puddings there afterwards. I had a profiterole pudding which reminded me of Yogo and Dwayne had a cherry rice pudding. They were both delicious and huge. As we went to say goodbye, I asked him if he would mind me taking a photo of him in the window. He responded by giving me a mini lava pudding for free. Oh my. That was close to perfection. I just might have to get a few more of those before we leave! I have found my Achilles heel and it’s just as well that we’re leaving on Friday!

Thursday, 5 May – Istanbul

I said yesterday that the Turks are a hardworking people. They are also hard work! The Turkish Vodafone website says that tourists can buy a holiday sim for 35TL for 30 days – about $15 for 3GB. However, after going to 5 or so stores across the city, we either get “sorry, no English” or “those plans are not available at the moment. If you want a sim it’s 100TL”. The bundles are obviously available because Vodafone wouldn’t advertise them if they weren’t, but the stores don’t want to sell them to you. I’ve never been in a country that refuses to sell you an available product. It’s most frustrating, especially as free wifi is not widely available.

Our apartment has free wifi so we used FaceTime to call my family this morning. It was good to have share our travels in real time. It also let us sit out the rain, which started overnight and was finished by 9am.

We’ve been inundated by Germans today. The Gumball 3000 car rally arrived into Istanbul, having left from Dublin 3000 miles ago. Weird cars lined up on the Hippodrome (ancient Roman chariot racing arena) in front of a large outdoor concert stage getting ready for a party tonight. We’ll give it a miss.

First stop this morning was the Blue Mosque, named so for the 21,000 mostly blue, patterned, interior tiles. It was built in 1609 in 7.5 years, which is impressive when you see how large it is. We entered via the tourist entry and I was given an incredibly attractive skirt and scarf, much to Dwayne’s amusement! We removed our shoes and marvelled at the intricate artistry as we stood inside the 2646sqm prayer hall and took in the view. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not into Asian or Middle Eastern architecture but I can appreciate the artisanship behind such an imposing structure. It’s in remarkable condition for a building that is over 400 years old and used daily for up to 10,000 worshippers.

Next stop was the Hagia Sofia. There were actually 2 previous churches on the site that were built in the mid 300’s and 400’s respectively but both burnt down during uprisings. It wasn’t until emperor Justinian I arrived that he built the current structure in the mid 500’s. It took 11,000 men only 5 years to build it as a Christian church and it remained so for the next 900 years before the Ottomans took over in the 1400’s and converted it to a mosque. It is mind blowing to think that it’s 1000 years older than its next door neighbour (the Blue Mosque) and still standing. Unfortunately it’s not in great condition. The marble is darkening, many of the Byzantine Christian frescoes have been badly damaged or removed when converted to a mosque and there was a large amount of scaffolding inside which hindered photos. It’s still a stunning interior though and must have been absolutely jaw-dropping when it was built.

The feature that blew me away the most was the solid green doors from Tarsus, brought to Constantinople by an emperor in the 800’s. The doors were made in 2BC, so they were already 1000 years old when they arrived in Constantinople. Today they are 2200 years old and still looking phenomenal. Talk about quality workmanship. They certainly don’t make things the way they used to!!

By the time


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