I managed to convince Alex that I should be allowed to write at least one blog from the second half of 2015 since he has taken over recently. Don’t worry, he will be back with the next post (it has already been written).
Back to September 2015.
As our MedSailors trip ended on a Friday, we decided to extend our holiday and travel back to London via Istanbul.
We made it to Istanbul just after midnight and were very pleased we had pre-arranged a car directly to our hotel. As much as it is fun to try and negotiate a foreign public transport system in the wee hours of the morning, we were pretty grateful to be able to get straight there with no thinking for once.
As per usual Bridget and Alex travel, the alarm went off horrifyingly early in the morning to get us ready for a big day of sightseeing. We had initially thought that a weekend would be plenty of time to spend in Istanbul, but after talking to our friends on the yacht, we were convinced that we should have been spending at least four days there. Oh well. We had a big day ahead to try and see everything on our list.
Despite our early start, we were still late to the opening of the Blue Mosque, the line already snaking far out of sight. Apparently people get up early in Istanbul. The first sign we were well outside of Europe. After checking that the line was in fact gigantic and extremely slow moving, we decided to come back earlier on Sunday morning, and tick off the rest of the items on our list on Saturday.
Next on the list was the Basilica Cistern. I think every tourist in Istanbul was in line for the Blue Mosque because there was no line whatsoever for this, even thought it was just over the road from the Mosque. The reason we were both keen to see the Basilica was because we had both read the Dan Brown book, Inferno, which featured this at the end. Fingers crossed the ending of that story is just fiction….
The Basilica is an underground chamber, known as the ‘Sunken Palace’, which the origins of date back to the 5th century. It is one of many hundreds of ancient cisterns underneath Istanbul. The Basilica was breathtaking. The tall, sculptured columns, arched brick ceiling, glassy pool of water for the floor, and of course, dramatic lighting, made for a beautiful sight indeed.
In the northwest corner was one of the main draw cards of the Basilica, the two carved Medusa heads. The history of the carvings is murky to say the least, with myths and speculation surrounding the reasons for the placement of one of the heads on its side, and the other upside down. The heads were a hub of tourist activity where we came across a very self-confident individual, happily striking a pose for at least 10 minutes in front of the very thing people were there to see, while the boyfriend darted around, getting photos from every possible angle. No shame.
We made it back above ground and into the beautiful sunshine (can you tell I am writing this from a grey, wintery London?). The aim was to meander over to the Grand Bazaar somehow. We enjoy walking through random neighbourhoods, so were not too concerned with the route we took, just headed in the general direction. Along the way we stumbled across a beaut little coffee shop and stopped in to get our first proper Turkish coffee and enjoyed the much-needed caffeine rush in a deserted courtyard.
We knew we were getting close to the Grand Bazaar once the streets became teeming with people. For those who have not heard of it before, the Grand Bazaar is one of the worlds oldest covered markets, and is a rabbit warren of narrow streets, packed with over 3,000 shops. I was a girl on a mission as soon as I got there. I really wanted to bring home some hand painted Turkish bowls, so actually had something to search for. It was a great idea to turn up with a specific item in mind that you wanted, because if you were not careful, I’m sure you could end up leaving with far more than you really bargained for (well you would have bargained for it all, but you know what I mean). The market is packed with everything colourful – beautiful lamps, crockery, fabrics, everything gold, some fake-genuine designer goods, spices, sweets, you name it. The hard part for me was picking a shop that I was going to buy my bowls from. I refused to go in anywhere there was someone harassing you to buy stuff outside the store (which severely limited my options). Alex always makes fun of me for my pickiness when it comes to market shopping, particularly when in foreign countries, as I hate bartering. Not that I am afraid to bargain them down, but I would far prefer to just browse and decide for myself what to purchase based on the price they advertise, rather than picking an arbitrary amount out of thin air to bargain to. I think it comes down to a deep-seeded hate for being ripped off. Anyway, I ended up with 3 beautifully decorated bowls and left happy.
After the Grand Bazaar, we wandered out into what was a much more local looking shopping area (i.e. sans-tourists). This was a little more what I was expecting from the Grand Bazarr (or perhaps what it used to be before tourism took off) – with a hodgepodge of random shops selling every type of ware imaginable, including, curiously, a high number of lingerie shops.
We were starting to get a bit hungry by that point since it had been many hours since breakfast, so headed back towards the city to a rooftop restaurant we had researched earlier – Boterra Restaurant. This was amazing, 270 degree views across Istanbul, delicious food (at reasonable prices) and incredibly friendly service. The guy running the place was hilarious and had some great banter, kept every table thoroughly entertained. Well worth a visit.
We spent the afternoon exploring Topkapi Palace – one of the Sultans Palaces from the height of the Ottoman empire. The palace was a sprawling collection of bejewelled buildings, perched on top of a cliff overlooking the water and nestled next to the Hagia Sophia. The palace was now a series of smaller museums, so through every door, there was something intriguing.The palace itself was fine to get in to but it seemed as though all people did once inside was stand in line to see a few famous things (mainly imperial treasury and harem I think). You had to pay extra for these and we couldn’t be bothered wasting our time standing in line so we just saw everything else you could.
After the palace, we set off back to the old town, mainly in search of a rooftop bar. My Uncle had told us that it was a pretty magical experience to watch the sunset behind the Blue Mosque, so we were keen not to miss out.
After wandering around the neighbourhood below the Blue Mosque staring up at the rooftops, we found a good option. It was a little bit dodgy getting up there because it was the roof of a hostel that was partly being renovated, so you had to walk through a construction site to get there, but once we were up there it was great. We enjoyed an Effes beer and waited for the sun to go down. The instant the sun dipped behind the Blue Mosque, the sun was alight with gold and red, and the call to prayer started. It sent chills.
After we had freshened up at the hotel, we headed out for a later dinner. On the way, we walked past an Irish pub packed to the brim of people watching one of the opening games of the Rugby World Cup – South Africa v Japan. We were shocked that with 5 minutes to go, Japan had not only scored, but were within 2 points of South Africa. We had come at just the right point because Japan scored, going on to win the biggest upset in World Cup history. Half of the bar was South Africans and they left looking absolutely stunned, and the rest was misc rugby fans, cheering for Japan like crazy.
Dinner was at a cute seafood restaurant (we cannot find this on trip advisor so cannot link to it), but the food was great , were serenaded by a hilarious group of guys who called themselves the ‘Turkish Michael Jacksons’.
After dinner, we visited the Arastar Bazaar to sit in one of the open air bars and have some apple tea. This was the most authentic experience of our whole time in Turkey as the place was filled with locals playing backgammon, sipping sweet tea, shisha, and watching a traditional Turkish dance called Sufi Whirling. The dancer was like nothing else I had seem before – he wore a long white cape, and just spun around and around in circles on stage, pretty much non-stop for the whole time we were there. I have no idea how he managed to combat the dizziness, but I would have fallen off stage after a few rotations, so kudos to him.
Obviously, after such a huge day on Saturday, getting up on time to get to the opening of the Blue Mosque was slightly torturous, but we made it up in time. I guess for us, standing in line for hours is far worse than losing a few hours sleep and gaining precious exploring time.
I had come to the Mosque prepared with my scarf and demure clothing. The number of girls that turned up in mini-shorts and a singlet was quite astounding. They did get given the most hideous green hooded coveralls to wear which made me glad I had put a little more thought into my outfit.
The Blue Mosque (a.k.a the Sultan Ahmed Mosque) had its more common name bestowed upon it due to the blue tiles adorning the walls inside. I hardly saw any blue tiles when I was inside, so I thought the name was slightly misleading. Perhaps they were famous as a subtle feature. There were no real restrictions on people talking once inside, so the chatter from the vast number of tourists was quite a blocker in being able to imagine this place actually in use. After taking a few photos and staring at the intricately detailed ceiling, we had seen enough, so were off to explore more of this fantastic city.
The next stop was the Spice Bazaar and was further than we had ventured on Saturday. The streets getting to the Bazaar were hauntingly empty, so I take back my earlier comment about people rising early in Turkey.
The Spice Bazaar was an assault of the senses – people shouting, every smell imaginable and bright colours. The shop assistants had perfected the art of turning the piles of spices into perfect little pyramids – I would have been to scared to ask them to bust down their little sculptures to buy the wares.
Our last meal of the holiday turned out to be one of the best we had all trip. We randomly decided to try this ridiculously colourful place called Kybele. Inside was crammed with antiques, intricate rugs, and hundreds of lamps hanging from the ceiling. We sat on the upstairs roof terrace which was great despite the fact there was no view. The decor made up for that – every surface was a different colour. We had the most relaxing, long lunch, reflecting on what a fantastic time we had over the last 10 days and eating yet more incredibly delicious Turkish cuisine.
We were planning on taking a taxi to the airport that afternoon but had to brave multiple forms of public transport instead since the Prime Minister was making a public speech, which, for safety reasons, meant the roads in and around the central city were all shut for the day. Research later told me that more than 100,000 people turned up to this rally, so perhaps those safety measures were justified.
I was so glad that we decided to tack the Istanbul stop onto the end of our sailing trip. As you can tell, although it was just for a weekend, we managed to cram a lot of stuff in. Even though it sounds like we had a bit of a manic time, we actually had a really relaxing, enjoyable trip.