The Last of Istanbul

This is my last full day in Istanbul and I’m up and outside the Basilica Cistern as soon as it dawns 9am to escape both the heat and the crowds that I’ve seen lining up here over the last few days.  My Welsh cousins also put me onto this one and as I descended into the barely lit room, I could see why.

On my way back to the hotel, I decide to try a local street snack – it’s a kind of bread with something barely chocolatey threated in it, but which is not really sweet.  There are street snacks everywhere – mainly corn and chestnuts but I’m sad to say I haven’t tried any of it yet – I think the heat banishes the thought of eating anything warm once you are out and about on the streets.  Well that’s my excuse on this occasion.

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A little later in the day, Marg and I decide to head to the Blue Mosque.  Our hotel is in a great area close to all the main sites, which makes it a lot more bearable to get out in the heat.  Lining up to enter, there are lots of signs advising how you are to dress upon entry and a tent where you can borrow the necessary clothes to do so, if you didn’t bring any head or appropriate body coverings with you.  It was extremely sad to see that despite the signs and that we all live in such multicultural societies these days, that there were still many people grumbling about having to cover up or questioning why it was they were having to do so.  It seems that there are many ignorant travellers in the world and it really embarrasses me.

Inside the Blue Mosque, so called because of the ceramic blue tiles lining the inside walls, is also known as the Sultan Ahmed Mosque after it’s founder .  It was built in the early 1600’s and is one of Istanbul’s most popular attractions.  I can see why.

Afterwards, I do a spot of shopping at the Arasta Bazaar before we sit down for a drink and some fruit.

Just about everyone who comes to Istanbul wants to see the Whirling Dervishes.  They are a part of the Mevlevi brotherhood who believe that closeness with one’s gods is achieved by elaborate whirling.  I’m not sure about you but all I get from twirling round and round and round like a spinning top is sick.  Now if you are wanting to visit the Whirling Dervishes you should go to a proper experience and you can buy tickets for these, but if you are time limited, there are a few café restaurants around the place where you can see a ‘tourist’ version.  And we found just such a place at the Arasta Bazaar behind the Blue Mosque – the perfect place to spend the evening.

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There was another reason why we decided to dine here and watch the show – Testi Kebap was the last thing to do on both our mental lists having seen them in action at other people’s tables over the last few evenings.  Testi Kebap is a kind of meat (usually chicken or beef) and vegetable stew cooked inside a small urn like pot on coals next to your table.  Once ready, the host slices off the top and empties out the delicious stew onto a sizzling plate for you to share.  Very cool and very yummy.

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Whilst dining we notice a few young boys standing around dressed in little white prince outfits, carrying little swords, the outfits the likes of which we saw displayed at the Grand Bazaar.  Wondering what it was all about, I once again used Google to give me the answer. Turns out these are the costumes of young boys who are about to be circumsised.  I wonder whether they have any idea about what’s in store for them whilst they stand watching the whirling dervish in front of us.

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The sun dips quickly and its dark before long, the Blue Mosque now beautifully lit behind a colour changing waterfall.

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Another amazing day is drawing to a close and Marg departs for the next part of her trip in a few short hours.  Despite my love for travelling by myself, it’s been marvellous to share the journey with someone else with similar interests and I’ve really enjoyed the company for my last few days here in Istanbul.  Everyone from our tour group has left now, either going home or going on.  It’s my turn to leave tomorrow and this time I’ll be ready.

Sunsets in Istanbul

Istanbul in late August is hot.  The tiring kind of hot where you’re clothes seem wet through and every step is a mini battle.  So when I step out for the day, I go early today with the intention of returning to the respite of the hotel room for the middle of the day and heading out again later.  Marg and I did a little shopping nearby last night and charmed by the calm and genuine seeming salesman, we both bought some beautiful ceramic products.  We opt to head to the post office first so Marg can post her goods back to Melbourne and then we head to Hafiz Mustafa for some morning tea.

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Hafiz Mustafa was founded in 1864 by a money lender named Ismail Hakki Zade.  As well as hosting a small café, it’s main trade is the wonderful Turkish Delights, Nougats and Baklava’s you see piled high in it’s store windows.  We sit down and order Turkish Coffees and small little treats to go on the side – tiny little profiteroles with flavours like banana and cherry.  The coffee is strong and bitter, so I guess that’s why there is a little piece of the most beautiful Turkish Delight I’ve ever tasted, thoughtfully placed on the side of my cup.  It’s a must try in Istanbul.

It’s also fascinating sitting here on the street corner watching the crazy Istanbul traffic, cars clogging up the intersection and pedestrian’s making a mad dash to cross the road before they start moving again.

Marg heads back to the hotel to deal with her parcel but I decide to give the Spice Markets a visit before I head back.  It’s not something I would usually check out, but I’ve learnt from our weeks in Romania about how vibrant and telling these markets can be and some of the other girls we were travelling with have said they enjoyed visiting them.  So off I go.

The Spice Market is also known as the Egyptian Bazaar.  It supposedly got this name because it was built with the revenues from the Ottoman Governor of Egypt in 1660.  It’s the centre for spice trade in Istanbul though these days its not just spices you will find here.  There are fish, nuts and dried fruit, Turkish delight, jewellery and other goods much the same as you would find in the Grand Bazaar but at a slightly more relaxed pace.  To me, I found the Spice Market much more interesting and enjoyable to walk around than the Grand Bazaar, but maybe that’s because I’m learning to settle into the buzz and hubbub that is Istanbul.

After my mid day siesta, Marg and I decide that we will wander down to the foreshore to check out the action.  I had been told by my cousins in Wales to make sure that I try the fresh fish off the boats.

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There are traders of all sorts down here and just as many people eager to buy.  There are fresh mussels with a squeeze of lemon if you like or you can get your knives sharpened.  Or buy any one of useless pieces of hovering plastic or a hat.  But there are loads of people crammed around a large tent and I think this is what we want to see first – the fish boats.

Three rocking brightly coloured boats house a few men each frying fresh caught fish ready to put in a bun for you.  I’ll admit it’s nothing fancy, but it’s a great thing to muck in with locals and tourists alike and enjoy the evening.

Then we spy the ferries that take tourists out on to the waters of the Bosphorous for a joy ride.  We stop in front of one that is due to depart in 2 minutes time and make the snap decision to jump on board.  The cruise lasts ninety minutes and depending on which boat your end up on will take you upriver to the Golden Horn.  The route gives you a wonderful chance to view life in Istanbul from the water as you are actually close enough to survey what’s going on across the waters.  Groups of young boys jump from the shore wall into the waters to cool off, there are weddings set up in several locations and further upstream fisherman enjoying the solitude of the waters.

It’s a truly magical way to enjoy your time in Istanbul.

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But perhaps the most magical thing is watching the sun set over the Grand Mosque at the days end.

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Once you step off the boat the evening continues across the road where kits are flown and the final call to prayer of the day is answered.

Istanbul Overview

As I lay in bed listening to the early morning call to prayer, I say it out loud, the words I’ve been thinking all night.  ‘I’m not going home today’.

I’ve decided I just can’t leave this city after one day.  It wouldn’t be fair to miss out and I’m here now right?  I’ve never changed a travel itinerary like this before, making a snap minute decision like this is just not something I do.  But, as I’ve begun to see in many ways throughout this trip, I’m growing as a traveller.  I think I’m getting better at this.

So I do.  Easy as that, I rebook my flights, extend my accommodation and now don’t leave til the end of the week, though I’m still not sure that would be enough time to see this city properly.

The Ottoman Empire was one of the largest and longest lasting empires in history.  At its peak, it covered the Balkans, Hungary and the gates of Vienna until it was effectively finished off by World War I and the Balkan Wars.  Originally founded by Greek settlers over 2,000 years ago, it originally went by the name of Byzantium, then Constantinople when the Romans made it the capital of their eastern empire.  Today, it has a population of over 12 million people.

Istanbul is the only city in the world to straddle two continents – Europe and Asia.  It’s a vast metropolis home to a beguiling mix of cultures and traditions.  A magical mix of east and west.  And I don’t quite know where to start exploring it, so I jump on a tourist bus so I can get a good overview of the city first up.

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I felt like my mouth was hanging open for most of the trip, looking this way and that, not sure what to take in first.  The best way for me to explain it is to just show you…

It’s incredible that the place is so crowded but doesn’t feel over-crowded.  And the other thing that stands out is the number of Turkish flags flying everywhere – seems to be a very patriotic city!  From the massive cruise liners docked by the shoreline to the old Fez factory, from grand mosques to the Dombalace Palace on the Asian side, from streets stalls to fishermen and local tradesmen plying their trades on the street – it would take more than a few days to see it all.  But I have to say that a bus tour is a great way to start.

Leaving the bus once it reaches the same spot it departed from, I decide to try and locate the Grand Bazaar.  Luckily it is fairly well signposted and I have no problems.  The most I know about the Grand Bazaar is The Tea Party recorded their film clip for the video The Bazaar here (clip inserted for those interested – be kind, this was 2006), and in surrounding Istanbul.  It’s one of the world’s largest and oldest covered markets and attracts hundreds of thousands of tourists a day, though it seems much quieter than I was expecting today  – perhaps the heat is keeping people away.

Inside, the stall owners try to allure you with flattery, which seems to be the way in Istanbul.  Their wares are beautiful glass lanterns, tea sets, turkish delights and tea sets, each work a definite look at, but the catcalls put me off.  If only I could find my way out again, oh, hang on – daylight.

For the rest of the afternoon, I decide to try out the second of the sightseeing bus routes, this time alighting to catch the cable car to the top of Pier Loti for a different view of the city.  A lot of other people have the same idea but the queue eventually moves along and very quickly the journey to the top is over.

At the top is a few little cafes where you can stop and enjoy the view and the warm afternoon sun.  Turkish apple tea is on the menu and it’s yummy.

Driving back along the waterfront, you can see the place come alive.  Families are picnicingng on the lawns, there are balloon dart games and musicians playing on the rocks.  Looks like everyone’s come down to enjoy the cooler weather that the evening brings.  This will be a nice place to explore one night – I’m glad I decided to stay.

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OK, come on – you can do it.  Just one more bus trip.  One more city.

Please don’t get me wrong – I have enjoyed this journey so much and been to places I knew nothing about and got an absolute kick out of them.  It’s just all the long days on buses to only spend a night in each place that is getting to me now.  As you would know, I am the kind of person who likes to make the most of out of each place.  I am always rushing to fit one last thing in my itinerary.  But I can feel I am running out of steam and I am kind of glad to know I only have one more night to go before I fly home.

We arrive by taxi to the bus station in Plovdiv for our trip into our last country – Turkey.  We are heading to Istanbul to end our tour.

All I know about Istanbul is that the Canadian band The Tea Party filmed the music video to their song “The Grand Bazaar” there (cue clip…)

I was meant to have two nights here, but a travel agent stuff up means that I’m flying out tomorrow afternoon.  But as I just said, I’m not sad.

It’s a non-eventful journey and we seem to get through customs with no problem (with the exception of there being no one in the booth to process us when we arrive – he nonchalantly wanders out of a building some distance away in no hurry at all and oblivious to the fact he’s keeping two bus loads of people waiting) but there’s still a significant ride until we arrive in Istanbul.

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There is a queue of trucks miles long waiting to get into Turkey – it’s quite an incredible site.  A little digging tells me that these queues are not a one off hing.  Back in March the queue approached 11km long and was blamed on the slow speed of processing entry because many workers were on holidays.  It seems this couldn’t have been the reason, because here we are in September with massive queues once more.  Others believe its because the new centre is too small to cope with the amount of trucks.

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Hours later as we start to arrive into the outskirts of Istanbul, I feel a buzz.  An array of dazzling lights on the horizon leads us to magnificent tower after tower of shopping centre and apartment buildings.  It’s not just that thought.  The closer we get to the centre of the city, the more electric I feel.  In fact I feel like a kid at Christmas – I just don’t know where to look first.  It has the feel of an exciting city for some reason.

We alight our bus at the station and trade the safety of the large bus for the horror of driving at street level in a taxi.  The city has obviously spiked my drink because despite the dangerous weaving in an out of traffic, I feel exhilerated by the ride.  Amanada and Susan are in my taxi along with Marco.  Amanda, who doesn’t trave long distances by road very well unless she’s ‘drugged up’ is losing it too.  We are laughng like maniacs.

The taxi keeps weaving along the roads.  It’s hard to tell whether there are three or four lanes of traffic because all of it is madly weaving in and out of each others way, in an eager race to get somewhere.  But we finally make it to a point close by to our hotel, all safely.  A brief walk through the train station and we have arrived.

Our hosts greet us with free lemon cordial which is a welcome relief after all those thirsty hours on a bus with no toilet.

It then dawns on us that this is our last night together.  We head through the alleyways not far to the restaurant for our final dinner.  The laneways and restaurants are decorated with colourful lights and lanterns and it has a festive feel to the area.  Restaurant workers call flatteringly to you in an attempt to get you to come to their restarant.

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Most of us have been together for almost three weeks now and have formed nice friendships.  The new travellers to our group have added a nice dimension to the group and we have all got along incredibly well.  Everyone has been so well travelled on this trip and its exciting to add so many must see destinations to my mental calendar afte chatting with them.  It’s the closeest I’ve felt to my fellow travellers than on any other Intrepid tour I’ve done and I’ve enjoyed every minute of the time I’ve been away.  To think I knew nothing of some of the countries I chose to visit and that Romania and Bulgaria were not even on my list of countries to travel to – let’s remember I only picked these two tours because I wanted to go back to Budapest and they just followed on from each other –  it’s just been magical.  And it’s reminded me that you really, truly can’t judge a book by its cover.

As dinner winds down, and we head slowly back to the hotel, the mood is quiet.  Most of the group is hanging around for a few days but Marco is off tomorrow to reunite with his family, as of course am I.  There are goodbyes in the foyer and everyone moves on.  But the world is getting smaller and who knows when we may bump into each other somewhere again.