Istanbul

Trip Start May 20, 2008
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Trip End Sep 15, 2008


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Wednesday, May 21, 2008

5/20 Thanks Sean for the ride to the airport! My British Airways flight left on time and I thankfully had a bulkhead seat. I slept much of the way and we arrived on the morning of 5/21 to Terminal 4 at London Heathrow. My flight to Istanbul left from the new Terminal 5 so I was looking forward to seeing it. Terminal 4 has no jet bridges so you walk down stairs from the plane and board a bus to the terminal. You then walk through the terminal and enter a queue for another bus to Terminal 5. That took quite a while and then the bus ride from 4 to 5 was about 20 minutes. It is obviously challenging trying to modernize an old airport. Terminal 5 looked to me like an ordinary American airport but it is different from the rest of Heathrow.

My next British Airways flight also left on time and arrived into Istanbul at 4:25 pm (I left Houston at 4:25 pm the day before). You have to have a Visa to enter Turkey so there is a line for that and a cost of $20. Then I went to see if my luggage made it. I was elated to see that my new REI bag arrived! I then took the subway into Istanbul, transferred to a tram and walked the last short bit to my hostel.

My hostel room was quite small but had a great location. I was exhausted even though I had not done anything all day so I just walked around the area and went to bed.

5/22 The first call to prayer was about 4:30 am and the loudspeakers from all of the nearby mosques start with the chant calling the faithful to prayer. It was extremely loud but at that hour it didn't bother me. I had booked a tour online to hit the highlights of Istanbul. I was picked up from the hotel and then transferred to a larger bus. We started at the Hippodrome where we saw the Obelisk of Theodosius, Constantine Column and Serpentine Column. Our guide gave us a nice history of the ruins and ancient Istanbul. Next we entered the Blue Mosque. Mosques require you to take your shoes off so we were given bags to carry our shoes. No shorts or uncovered shoulders were allowed either but I was prepared for that.

Next we walked across the plaza to the Hagia Sophia. It's truly an amazing sight to see these two huges mosques on opposite ends of a small park. Topkapi Palace is right next door so we had a brief tour there. The museums there have a huge collection so it was impossible to see too much (no photos allowed). I did see the gold baby cradle, the fifth largest diamond in the world, and a gold dagger. The views across the Bosporus from the palace were super.

After a traditional Turkish lunch (it wasn't bad but I can't tell you what it was), the tour then took us to the Grand Bazaar which is a huge area of narrow, covered streets with shop stalls selling anything and everything. There was a lot of jewelry, carpets and other things I had no interest in. The sheer size of the area was daunting and it was quite easy to get lost. There were a lot of shops that sold the exact same stuff as a lot of other shops but maybe the competition is good. You have to haggle big-time there and the shopkeepers are quick to kiss up to the tourists.

The tour then took us to Suleymaniye Mosque which is smaller but beautiful in its simplicity. The tour then dropped us off back at the Hippodrome. I visited the Basilica Cistern which is right next to the Hagia Sophia. It is an amazing underground water system that was built by the Byzantines in 532 AD! It holds 80,000 cubic meters of water which were pumped through 20 km of aquaducts.

I walked through part of old Istanbul before crossing the Golden Horn on the Galata Bridge. I climbed the hill to reach the old Galata Tower which dates from 1348 and offered great views of the city. The happening street in Istanbul is Istiklal Caddesi, a wide, pedestrianized street with the latest shops. It was packed with people and expensive stores but made for a pleasant stroll. At Taksim Square I caught the old trolley back to where I started and then took the funicular down the hill to the tram back to the beginning of all this. There are obviously a lot of different ways to get around but the one you want to avoid is a car! Traffic is horrendous and the tour busses are pretty slow too even though they often have special lanes.

Needless to say I was totally exhausted after seeing so many sights.

5/23 Today's tour started by taking us to the Spice Bazaar briefly. The shop stalls were immaculate and might be really interesting to someone who cooks. They had other shops too but we weren't there long. One thing every store sells is Turkish Delight in every shape and flavor. I'm not sure exactly what it is but I think it's mainly sugar. Next door is the small Rustem Pasa Mosque which was built in 1560 with gorgeous tiles from Izmir. Our bus then took us to our boat for the Bosporus river cruise.

It is easy to see why the Bosporus is such a strategic waterway. It links the Sea of Marmara to the Black Sea. The boat traffic moves only one way at a time in 6 hour shifts to avoid collisions since the waterway is very narrow in places and has strong currents. On our small tourist boat we had no problems. The weather has been gorgeous. It was staggering to me to see how big Istanbul is since I thought I'd seen most of it but I had not even reached the modern business center! There were plenty of high-rise buildings and posh palaces lining the banks of the Bosporus. I really enjoyed the cruise since it gave me a much better appreciation for this city of 12 million people.

The tour went back to the same restaurant for lunch as the day before but the menu was slightly different. Again, it was good but no idea what it was except for a small salad and sliced apples. After lunch we went to the Dolmabahce Palace where the last sultan lived until the 1930's when Turkey became a republic. This place was over the top as you'll see in some of the photos. It has a crystal staircase, the biggest chandelier in the world (weighs 7500 pounds!), and perfect views across the Bosporus. The staff was getting set up for a visit from Germany's Angela Merkel the next day.

Our tour bus then took us across the stunning Bosporus Bridge to the Asian side of the city. We were told that 65% of the residents of the Asian side (mainly residential) work on the European side (mainly commercial) making traffic horrible. Many take ferries and there are plans to extend the subway under the Bosporus but there are no quick solutions. We went to Camlica Hill on the Asian side for terrific views of old Istanbul. On the way there we passed a 7-11 (no Big Gulps I'm told) and one of the many Starbucks locations.

The bus then sat in traffic getting us back to our hotels. This took a couple of hours as we sat and sat and sat. I was hoping to go to one of the Turkish baths but by the time the bus finally dropped me off and I walked to the bath they were closing. I was too exhausted to trek to the next nearest one so I just walked back to the hostel.

5/24 My bus for the tour of Turkey left from the Fez Travel office which was right next door to my hostel. I met our tour guide, Greg, who is from Canada and a veteran of European travels. There was also a couple of newlyweds, Bianca from Australia and Roman from France, who met in Canada and were going on the same tour. It turns out that it was just the three of us going so we had our own driver and a personal guide in a cushy Mercedes van! It was a great surprise for what was designed to be a budget trip. Since we are travelling before tourist season we caught a break since the trip often has a full, large bus.
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thekellers
thekellers on

Which tour company did you use, do you remember? Love your stories and pics! We go in a few months Turkey through Greece.
Thanks, Lindsay

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