Prague to Istanbul

Middle East
July 21st 2015
Published: July 21st 2015
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Apologies for how late this is but internet access at our Istanbul hostel is unreliable and slow! Will do my best to get another blog up after our visit to Gallipoli.

Sunday 19 July:

A bit of an early start from Zachary but he managed to entertain himself mostly until we were a bit more awake at 7:30.

Went downstairs and once again enjoyed the breakfast before a Skype session with Ma / Oma. Then I headed into town to go on the “Communism and Nuclear Bunker Tour”. This was good. We were given a pretty good history of Czechoslovakia between 1939 and 1991 and visited some landmarks important to this time. We first stopped at the former STB (Czech equivalent of KGB) headquarters. Our guide asked us if anyone could guess what it was used for now. A few people said hotel, but in fact it is now the headquarters for the police. Let nobody say Czechs don’t have a sense of (ironic) humour!

Czechoslovakia was different from Poland, Estonia, and Latvia in that they actually voted for Communism. The Communist Party won the 1946 election fair and square. Unfortunately they didn’t think to respect this and soon began dismantling democracy. Sound familiar to anyone? Anyway once they had voted them in they got stuck with them. If you aren’t familiar with the “Prague Spring” and its architect Alexander Dubcek it is worth reading up on. He is a very significant figure in the history of Europe and the eventual fall of Communism.

We also visited the city’s second largest nuclear bunker. The Communists were paranoid about a nuclear attack and built a number of these from the 1950s. The one we went down into can take 2500 people and, theoretically, is still functional. The Metro, which is a long way underground, is also designed to serve as a shelter if needed. Seems unlikely thankfully.

Meanwhile Heather and Zachary had gone to the Lego Museum a few doors up the road from the hostel. It was very small and not really a museum but it kept Zachary entertained for a while and he got to do some building. We organised to meet in Wenceslas Square at 1pm, but Heather got a bit lost. However between us we figured out how to get her there. On the way a pickpocket got into her backpack and nearly had the money she had in there (in Zachary’s bag). She noticed him just in time and I would like to report she levelled him with a straight right to the chin and followed that up with a series of body-slams and elbow drops, finishing him off with a pile-driver, but she settled for giving him a tongue-lashing instead. She regretted afterwards not taking his photo and there were a few police at Wenceslas Square so that would have been good. Anyway we had a quick bite to eat from one of the carts. This was rather average and it started to rain. We thought it was really going to bucket down as it had been hot and it looked like a massive thunderstorm was coming. We sheltered in the Metro station (some irony here) and when we emerged it seemed to have passed without significant action. I went up the boulevard to see the memorial for the two students that self-immolated in 1969 in protest of the Soviet occupation. Heather and Zachary headed back to the hostel so Heather could sort laundry and I caught them up.

Heather headed off to do laundry and I realised she had left her laptop behind so we decided to go drop it off so she could use it while waiting. I followed the directions I had given her and couldn’t find it so I called her. The directions were spot on except that I had the tram direction wrong! She had figured this out so was at the laundry. She said not to bother with the laptop so we dropped it back off at the hostel and decided to head down to the river to have a go on a pedal-boat. We got there (about a 10 minute walk) only to discover it is a legal requirement to present photo ID. Zachary really wanted to go so we went back to the hostel, got my passport, and went back to the boats. We did really enjoy this and Zachary, sitting on my knees, was able to do quite a bit of pedalling. We were out on the water for an hour and then went back. By the time Zachary had showered Heather was back so we went a bit down the road to have dinner at a Czech restaurant. Czech cuisine is an oxymoron though. The food was okay, but that was all. From what I have subsequently read, there isn’t really any more to it.

So that’s about it for Prague. If we had visited without Zachary we would have visited a lot of museums and other historical sites, but that isn’t always practical with a toddler. Also, we quite enjoy just looking around the cities without having to necessarily “do” things. The fact it was bloody roasting hot didn’t energise us either! It is undoubtedly a stunningly beautiful city and the country seems to be trying really hard to catch up to its western neighbours.

So off to Istanbul, Turkey tomorrow. When planning the trip this was the first place that went on the list so really looking forward to getting there. We actually only have 2 full days as we arrive at 6pm and then we are at Gallipoli and Troy on Thursday and Friday. However, our accommodation in Ankara is a Holiday Club one so we are under no obligation to actually go on Saturday as planned. If we want to see more of Istanbul we may well stay over next weekend too.

Monday 20 July:

Another fine and hot day looked to be on the cards but we weren’t around for long to enjoy it. We headed out at 8am and went to the taxi rank a few metres up the road. We got a taxi to the airport and arrived nice and early. There were no passengers at the Tarom counter and I had checked in online last night all the way through to Istanbul so all we had to do was drop our bags off. After establishing we wanted the checked all the way to Istanbul we were given boarding passes so not sure why I printed them out last night.

Prague airport is very large but not very busy. We headed for our gate lounge and there was a little girl, I think about 15 months old, there with her parents. She had just started to walk and thought that Zachary zooming around pretending to be a plane (wearing his planes t-shirt) was just the funniest thing ever. That passed the time until we boarded our Boeing 737 which was about ¾ full. Just a short flight of about 90 minutes to Bucharest, Romania and no complaints. We got given a ham and cheese roll (which Zachary actually ate a good chunk of) plus some chocolate biscuits, juice / fizzy, and tea / coffee. We parked on the tarmac and were bussed to the terminal. The runway looked to be in need of some serious maintenance as did the outdoor tarmac area in general. Inside is a bit better. We headed for transit but there was a bit of delay as the baggage x-ray machine was not working. Once they got it up and running we went through (I had to remove my shoes for the first time) and we went into the main departure area. This is quite nice although the foodcourt is very minimal and they have a couple of indoor smoking lounges. Unfortunately every time someone goes in or out smoke comes out. We moved from where we initially sat to somewhere else because of this. The toilets need more regular cleaning and the Wi-Fi was sporadic, but we’ve been to worse airports!

We had a nearly 4 hour transit time. This isn’t ideal but when we booked we initially were going on Ukrainian Airlines via Kiev which was quicker. We didn’t fancy this at the time though so chose this option. We found a pretty quiet spot where we could read / Zachary could watch a movie and moved down to our gate for our 75 minute flight to Istanbul, Turkey. We were due in at 5:40 so thought we would have a very early dinner (BK, no better options).

Due to delays in Istanbul we couldn’t leave on time so we were half an hour late leaving and arriving. As we approached it was very clear and we could see how large Istanbul was as well as see the geography of the Black Sea, Bosphorus Strait, and Sea of Marmara. Ataturk Airport is extremely busy but pretty well organised. We got through passport check quite quickly – they have 20 gates open so that helps – and the officer at our gate was very friendly. We then headed out to find our arranged pick-up to take us to our accommodation. We couldn’t find him so I called the accommodation and after a few minutes we got it sorted. It took us a while to actually get into the vehicle and trying to get out of the airport was interesting!

The drive went smoothly and we noted the huge park areas along the waterfront which had a large amount of playgrounds so just walking in that area could be a good option. We got to our hostel which is in Sultanahmet, or the old part of the city. We drove past the famous Blue Mosque and a minute later we had arrived. The hostel is on the 3rd floor of a pub / restaurant and our room faces away from the street so so far it is pretty quiet. It also has an air conditioning unit!

We got some Turkish lira at an excellent rate from reception and headed out for a bit of a walk. There is a small bazar nearby so we walked through that and had a look at the mosque from the outside. Great smells from all the spice and sweet shops in the bazar! The streets are crowded but seem pretty safe although the amount of unattended large dogs is a slight worry. Zachary has been attracting some attention again and we have been trying to explain to him why that is and how to respond appropriately. There was a call to prayer as we were heading back. This was very loud and may well wake us up at sunrise.

Huge hassle getting Zachary to sleep so hopefully he copes tomorrow. We are within very near walking distance to other historic places such as Topkapi Palace, Hagia Sophia, the Grand Bazar, and several other mosques. We can also walk to the Galata Bridge which connects the old and new parts of the city. From there it is also possible to take a ferry across the Bosphorus to Üsküdar. The Bosphorus divides Asia and Europe so we can travel into Asia and back. There is also a bridge which I think has a bus go over it so that is another option.

We have only been here a few hours but already there is sensory overload!

Tuesday 21 July:

We all slept pretty well and woke up about 8:30am. We headed downstairs for breakfast which is supplied, but it was very meagre. We managed to find something and then picked up something extra before heading past the Hagia Sofia (stopping at a shop where we found some gifts) to the square in Sultanahmet which has the Hagia Sofia on one side and the Blue Mosque on the other. In the middle is a fountain and open area. We found out about the “hop-on hop-off” bus that runs and decided to buy tickets for two days for about €21 each. Then we headed off on foot to have a look around the Grand Bazar. Being Turkey there are a LOT of places selling carpet (as well as jewellery) and on the way we went to one carpet place and ended up splashing out a bit and spent €750 on a hand-made rug (which we can hang if we prefer). These are incredibly labour intensive pieces to make and it is impressive. The Grand Bazar itself we didn’t spend too much time in. Lots of shops all selling much the same things. The building was impressive though and it is good to tick it off the list as such. It was surprisingly not very busy. By this stage Zachary was already starting to get over the attention he was receiving from the locals. While it is all well-intentioned (much like Dubai) we can’t blame him for wanting to be left in peace!

We dropped all our purchases off back at the hostel and had lunch at the hostel restaurant (good) before heading back to the square to hop on the bus. There are two loops that it does – the blue line is just in the old part of Istanbul, whereas the longer red line travels across into the new part and then across the Bosphorus. We chose to do the latter today and sat up the top at the back where there was some shade and a nice breeze. Temperature is around 30 today which is pleasant enough especially as there is a coolish breeze around.

The trip was really good and we saw many mosques and other important buildings. The highlight though was definitely crossing the impressive Bosphorus suspension bridge to Asia. Istanbul is unique in that it straddles two continents. Crossing over this bridge with the wind blowing in our faces was a lot of fun and I’m keen to do it again! Venus Williams once played an exhibition match against a local player on the bridge so that one player was in Europe and the other in Asia.

On the way back there was rather a lot of traffic as we neared the end-point. We had to admire the capitalist / entrepreneurial spirit of locals who were walking on the road (between the lanes of traffic) selling stuff. Water was common. One man had a plate of pastries on a tray on his head and another was selling bows and arrows!

When we got back we headed back to the hostel to have some quiet time as we planned to do a boat trip at 7pm. It is hard to walk anywhere around here without people trying to sell you stuff or get you into their restaurant. Just a few doors down from the hostel a restauranteur came running up to us with his ipad to show us that his restaurant was ranked number 9 on TripAdvisor! To be fair that’s a reasonable recommendation and we may go there tomorrow.

Around 6 we headed back to the square to try and grab some kebabs before going to the designated meeting point for the boat trip. The first café we went to we were completely ignored. Heather was standing at the counter to order and nobody served her. Not sure what the issue was but that isn’t a good way to conduct business so we went elsewhere. We managed to secure some food and then joined the crowd following the guide to the boat.

The trip was good – it went into the “Golden Horn” which is the narrow piece between the old and new cities and then headed up the Bosphorus and did a loop. We saw many landmarks – my favourite being the “Maiden’s Tower” which is in the strait. We decided to take the opportunity to dress up – I was a sultan, Heather a sultana, and Zachary whatever a sultan’s son is called and posed for photos. They took a number of photos and we chose 4 – one each individually plus a group one – to print out. At €5 a photo it is a pretty cool souvenir!

At our seats we met two ladies from Argentina who are on holiday. They loved Zachary of course and they were very nice. We have swapped details so maybe they’ll come to NZ one day and we’ll see them again (we are very unlikely to ever go to Argentina to be fair).

The sun went down and it was 9pm when we got back to land. A 10 minute walk back to the hostel and bedtime. Tomorrow we plan to visit Topkapi Palace, do the other bus line, and hopefully have a look inside the Blue Mosque. We’ll also get to a playground for Zachary as they may be in short supply during the next part of the trip.

Istanbul – beautiful, busy, hot. Mad, but in a nice way!

Additional photos below
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21st July 2015

A sultan's son is a raisin
23rd July 2015

Sultan's Son
And the smart-arse sister of a sultan is known as ...

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