A false start marked the begining of our Round the World Trip. We went to the wrong airport in Belfast; if it were not for Tony’s dad, Pete Schumacher, we might have missed our plane. After that everything went smoothly, flying out on time from London Heathrow’s flashy Terminal 5 on British Airways, in spite of their strike.
On our way from the airport to Istanbul city, we both kept pointing out “There’s the Blue Mosque”, “No, that’s the Blue Mosque”, “There’s Aya Sofia” and so onâ€¦ None of those were the Blue Mosque or Aya Sofia. Turns out there is a huge number of very big mosques in Istanbul, the skyline of the city is dominated by countless domes and minarets. We arrived in Taksim, the “modern” side of Istanbul. We were set on staying on Taksim or Beyoglu since we had heard that it is the happening area at night. We made the smart choice of not prebooking a hotel, since we found much cheaper options than the ones on internet.. After walking around and haggling, we settled for the 7th option. Just what we require: private ensuite clean secure doubleroom with hot shower and wifi, and most importantly â€“ location, location, location (off the long pedestrian street Istlikal Caddesi, in the happening Sofyali St). We even had aircon and satellite tv. Only thing we would do differently is asking for a room without street view; the Turks are really loud people!
We could not believe the fantastic ambience Pera (the neighbourhood) had for a Monday night. Hundreds of very modern hip bars, next to local traditional eateries, called Meyhanes. In my opinion Istanbul easily rivals chic cities like Barcelona.
The Bosphorus strait divides Eminomu from Karakoy. We walked the Galata Bridge every day to cross to Eminomu and it was one of the highlights for us. There are hundreds of men and a few women fishing from the bridge, day and night. It is quite a nice scene to watch.
Forget the Grand Bazaar or Spice Bazaar, Istanbul is a bazaar in itself! No recession here, I have never witnessed the commerce trade in such full splendor as here. On our daily walks we passed through countless number of streets that trade specific objets: the musical instrument street, the trophy street, the plumbing street, etc. Then you have the famous bazaars. The Grand Bazaar is not quite what I expected, it is actually very well organized and clean. There is even a security scan in all its gates. And you don’t get too much hassle from the sellers. I have to say, my favorite is still the chaotic Medina in Marrakech. The Spice Bazaar is ok, but they sell everything in there not just spices. We enjoyed more the streets between both bazaars, which are open air bazaars. Only thing we were persuaded into buying: Turkish Delights of course!
We enjoyed visiting the Blue Mosque, as very few mosques allow visitors, especially women. It is not as blue (mosaic interior) as we expected, but it is still an impressive site. As far as the Aya Sophia goes, it is impressive because of its history dating back from the 6th and 7th centuries, being rebuilt three times after being attacked. These two magnificent sites face each other, and when seen from a top floor terrace they’re quite a sight, especially being surrounded by the Bosphorus.
A major highlight for us was a Tea and Water Pipe Garden we “discovered”. It was full both of locals and tourists, but we had not read about it in our guides, we stumbled on it by accident. It looks like and actually is a cementery in the front, but you enter a passage and find yourself in traditional settings, where people are smoking nargile and having tea. Apple tea was a real discovery, delicious! The ambience is something else: men and women, old and young, traditional and modern, locals and foreigners all together delighting ourselves in traditional Turkish costumes. We ordered an apple-tobacco water pipe, which was very nice and tasty, but after a while we were feeling a bit funnyâ€¦
When in Istanbul, it’s a must to get on the waters of the Bosphorous and Sea of Marmara, and do the infamous crossing of West to East. We have very strong opinions agianst organized tours, which in this case is the most common way to get on the water. Instead we took the public ferry with the locals from Eminomu (Europe side) to Anatolia (Asia side) for less than a Euro. Well worth it.
Last but not least we enjoyed a traditional Turkish Bath in Cemberlitas baths. Originally we planned on going to the most widely mentioned in tourist guides: Cagaloglu, but decided against it. Prices were exhorbitant, higher than first class spas we’ve been before, such as Spa in Belgium, Baden Baden in Germany, and Gellert in Budapest; and they wouldn’t let us pay with credit card. The experience in Cemberlitas was outstanding, especially for Tony who got a masseur who did hard good work on his back. Men and women go into different sections. After you strip into the undies provided you are taken into the hammam where all women (in my case) lie together in a round marble structure, until your masseuse calls you and starts giving you a nice rub and foam massage for about 10 minutes. Then she grabs your hand (as we can’t communicate with words) and takes you to a small fountain where she washes your hair. Then she grabs your hand again and takes you to a 38 C degree pool, before finishing. I have to say that I am no longer a prude. Common bathing experiences between women or men do not bother me, and now think that others (like me in the past) who wear their swimsuits look funny. Very good and healthy experience, which made us feel completely loose and relaxed.
In regards to food experiences, as those of you who know us well, know we are foodies. Turkey is the home of kebaps, but its cuisine goes way further than that. So very soon we will dedicate a post exclusively to Dining and Wining in Turkey, and hopefully to every destination we go to. And for those travel aficionados like myself, I will post on tips and recommendations as well on each destination, hopefully time and technology allows. As well we will post the complete albun in our Photos page.
In conclusion, Istanbul was a great way to start our RTW. It has surpassed our expectations, in every way: people, sights, food, security, etc. In my books, Istanbul scores 10/10. We will be back!
Originally written for A Year in Motion