East meets West. Istanbul is a fascinating mixture of cultures as it straddles the two continents of Asia and Europe. We spent a week in this thriving city as our original plans included a 6 month overland trip starting in Istanbul and ending in Singapore. Even though our overland plans didn’t come to fruition, we were able to spend the first week of April 2015 in Istanbul, and better yet, some of our friends were able to join us as we explored this lively city together. We hit most of the city’s highlights: Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, Bosphorus Cruise, Spinning Dervishes, Topkapi Palace, Basilica Cistern, Galata Tower, and the Grand Bazaar. Fun times with great friends…we are looking forward to our return visit to Istanbul when we do finally kick off our overland adventure.
1 Apr: Our flight from Athens to Istanbul on Aegean air was smooth, with an on time arrival just after 3pm. Passport control was a chaotic mess. We spotted another passport control station in a different part of the airport and figured we could bypass the massive queue since no one was in line there. And for good reason…apparently the arbitrary officials at the second passport control station would only accept passports from African nations! Go figure. So back we went to the original passport control area where, thankfully, the line was moving fairly quickly. After getting stamped back into Turkey, we retrieved our sole check-in bag and decided to take advantage of duty free, maxxing out our alcohol allowance. Since we were now pros at catching public transportation from the airport to Sultanahmet, we made our way to the metro for the ride over to the tram station. From there, we hopped on a tram that took us to Çemberlitas. Becky had booked an 8 person apartment on AirBnB in the Sultanahmet area of Istanbul, and Bob and Ann had already reconnoitered the route to get there. Fortunately, it was all downhill from the tram stop which was lucky for us as our luggage felt quite heavy with all the liters of alcohol. Even though Becky had provided an arrival time to Kadir (apartment owner), there was no one to let us in upon arrival. A helpful shopkeeper down the street knew Kadir and volunteered to call him on his cell phone. About 15 minutes later, a young guy named Ramsey came strolling over to let us in. Our apartment, appropriately named “Black House Apartments” (the only black painted house on the street), was conveniently located in a residential neighborhood of Sultanahmet next to a school. To our dismay, we discovered that the apartment had a rather musky smell. It hit us the moment we walked inside. Even though it was obvious that the sheets had been recently changed, no other housekeeping was evident as the place was in desperate need of a good scrub down. As Becky opened the windows to air the place out, the neighborhood cats seized the opportunity to climb inside! No wonder cat hair was strewn about everywhere…with Robby being deathly allergic to cats, we immediately shooed them out. Other immediate problems were that Ramsey had only provided one set of keys, and we needed at least two sets with our soon to be growing group. Additionally, even though we had been promised two working bathrooms, one toilet did not flush and a previous inhabitant had left us a very disgusting present! It was not the best first impression, to be sure! Minor issues like poor lighting and an inoperable water boiler were also on our “must rectify” list with Kadir. Ramsey promised to return with an extra set of keys in an hour, and he said that the toilet would be fixed tomorrow. He soon returned with Ichiyo in tow…she had just arrived from her flight from Japan!!! It was so awesome to see her, and we were thrilled that she had no problems finding the apartment with our directions. We had a welcome drink or two and sat around getting caught up. Ichiyo was planning on taking a few months off to travel around the world, and luckily for us had made Istanbul her first destination! After a while, Bob and Ann volunteered to wait for Ramsey to return with an extra set of keys while the rest of us decided to go find some dinner. Apparently, Sultanahmet is not the place to be for affordable cuisine! The entire district obviously caters to tourists with its inflated prices and bland food. We found a nearby restaurant that looked appealing but none of us were impressed with our dinner. Ann and Bob happened upon us in their quest for Chinese food, telling us that Ramsey never showed up with the keys. Disappointing news. We wandered around Sultanahmet when the skies opened up on us and started to pour heavy rain. The kind staff at our restaurant gave us an umbrella to borrow…how sweet! Our quest to find air freshener, fruit for breakfast, drinkable water and toilet paper while stumbling around Sultanahmet in the dark was quite an adventure. With rain pouring down and soaking us, we tried our best to avoid puddles as we wandered around. Despite the late hour, we were able to find almost everything on our shopping list. Back at the apartment, the air freshener made a huge difference to combat the malodorous smell of the apartment. Poor Ichi was exhausted after her long flight, so we bid her goodnight and left her alone for a good night’s sleep.
2 Apr: Bob got up early to make coffee and discovered the water boiler was inoperable. However, we did have a hot plate that was functional so crisis averted. After our self catered breakfast, we decided to head out as a group to the spice market area. Bob and Ann told us that the adjacent New Mosque (circa 1597) was better than the Blue Mosque, and with far fewer tourists so we decided to check it out before browsing the spice market. Walking from our apartment to the Cemberlitas stop so we could catch a tram in the direction of Kabatas was hard work as it was straight uphill! We eventually made it, caught our breath and a few stops later hopped off at Eminonu. The New Mosque (free) was magnificent. There weren’t any other tourists in sight, and we were quite impressed with the stunning architecture. Plastic baggies were provided for our shoes (mandatory to remove shoes prior to entering the mosque), and we brought our own scarves (also mandatory for women). We spent a few minutes here in admiration…definitely a worthwhile stop if visiting the Spice Bazaar! We knew that we were likely to get split up at our next stop (spice market), so we agreed to meet up again in 45 minutes in front of the mosque. The spice market (also known as the “Egyptian Bazaar”) was full of stores selling spices, dried fruit, nuts, tea, Turkish delight, and souvenirs. We weren’t hassled as much as we had anticipated and our time here went by quickly. Dates from Tunisia were the best bargain…we got 1kg for 5TL. After linking back up with Bob and Ann, we decided to hop back on the tram all the way to Kabatas, where we caught the funicular to Taksim (a two station underground line). Taksim Square is the heart of the European side of Istanbul. The area is replete with restaurants and shops. We calculated on having enough time for lunch, as well as a stroll from Taksim back down towards the Karakoy tram stop, before having to go back to our apartment to meet up with Kendra and George (who were flying in later today!). Lunch was at a local cafeteria. Basically, the process is quite simple…grab a tray and utensils, point out any dishes that might tempt you to the server. The server in turn plops the food out on a plate, hands it back to you as you shuffle down past the dessert and drink bar area and pay at the cashier…very simple, fast and efficient. All five of us had piping hot food in no time at all, and we found a free table upstairs. Our meals (beef and a chicken baked dish with veggies, mashed potatoes and cheese) were tasty and affordable…much better value than the dinner meal we had in Sultanahmet last night. After lunch, we walked down the full length of Istiklal Avenue (about 1.5km). This pedestrian street was packed with people despite the light drizzle of rain. It was funny watching the tram as it chugged along Istiklal…it was like watching the red sea part with pedestrians scrambling to get out of its way. The weather improved as we made our way towards Galata Tower. The sun came out, and the streets got even busier. We hopped on a tram back to Cemberlitas as we weren’t sure what time Kendra and George would arrive. Plus we wanted to ensure that the apartment issues had been resolved. Rather disappointingly, no one had showed up to fix the broken toilet so we had to call Kadir to complain. He showed up in person with Ramsey who served as his personal translator. At first, Kadir tried to get out of repairing the toilet, stating that the details on AirBnB were wrong and we would have to make do with only one bathroom but Robby wasn’t having any of it. He insisted that one toilet shared amongst 8 guests was not going to cut it and demanded resolution. Kadir feebly tried to protest before he finally caved…he hired a plumber on the spot to fix the broken toilet. He also saw that lighting was inadequate in the basement so he had Ramsey bring us over a lamp and a new water boiler. And we got an extra set of apartment keys. Things were finally improving. The plumber had to go back and forth to get necessary parts to fix the toilet but things were looking promising. Kendra and George finally showed up (yay!) with bottles of duty free alcohol which we quickly tore into. It was awesome seeing them again. The plumber finally fixed the toilet and life was good. Becky had to do a bit of housekeeping in the second bathroom as it was quite filthy, obviously not having been in use for several months. After much effort, we finally had a fully functional apartment for 8 guests, and we were satisfied that all of our concerns had been addressed. After a few drinks, Bob, George and Robby decided to head out to a nearby kebab stand to grab dinner for the group (10 kebabs for 65 TL). As they were stumbling about noisily outside, who did they run into but none other than Francisco! The group was now complete…everyone made it to the apartment successfully and we greeted Francisco with a kebab in one hand and a drink in another. Welcome to Istanbul, bitch! After several rounds of drinks, Francisco eventually grabbed a spare bed downstairs next to Ichiyo while George and Kendra crashed in our room for the night. It was a fun reunion and we were looking forward to the next few days.
3 Apr: Since Bob and Ann were leaving us this morning, everyone woke up early for their send off. Breakfast was the first priority with leftover doner kebabs (surprisingly tasty, especially after being tossed in the microwave for a bit), fruit and coffee…breakfast of champs! After some group photos and goodbye, it was time for Bob and Ann to start their journey back home. They had contemplated catching the tram/metro back to the airport but they were dreading the uphill walk to the tram station. Instead, they walked over to the nearby Antea Palace Hotel (a best western hotel) and arranged for a taxi which was a reasonable 50TL. Robby helped them carry their luggage to the hotel, and when he got back, we all left to start our sightseeing for the day. As a group, we voted on visiting the Topaki Palace Museum first. Walking uphill towards the tram station knocked the wind out of us. From Cemberlitas, we walked towards the Sultanahmet tram stop and then onward towards the Hagia Sophia. The Topaki Palace is located to the rear of Hagia Sophia so we quickly made our way to the first courtyard. It was only 9am, and we couldn’t believe the size of the crowd that had already gathered at the ticket machines. Since we had a few days to sightsee Istanbul, Bob and Ann had advised that we should buy the 3 day, 85 TL Museum Pass. This would grant us access to the Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace, Mosaic Museum, Archaeological Museum, and Hagia Irene. The ticket line, while long, was moving quickly and before we knew it, we were in front of the credit card only machines with a total wait time of about 15 minutes. Getting our Museum Passes was a breeze, and we quickly headed towards the main entrance to the second courtyard of the Topaki Palace via the Babüsselam Gate. After swiping our museum passes and going through the scanner, we were standing in the second courtyard of the massive palace complex. Since the Harem was included in our museum pass and it is insanely popular, we decided to pay a visit here first. The Harem section of the palace essentially functioned as a labyrinth of over 400 private apartments built to accommodate the Sultan’s wives, concubines, eunuchs, servants, slaves, and female relatives. Out of the 400 apartments, only a handful are open to the visiting public and we visited magnificently tiled rooms with the following descriptions “Hall of the Ablution Fountain”, “Concubines Corridor”, “Apartments of the Queen Mother”, “Imperial Hall” (the most impressive of all the rooms we visited!). Interestingly, since Islam forbade the enslaving of Muslims, the majority of the harem women were Christians or Jews who were given as “gifts” to the Sultan, and forced to convert to Islam. Their “training” included learning to read/write, play a musical instrument, sing, dance and provide pleasure to the Sultan. The harem section of the palace was definitely a worthwhile visit as the other areas of Topaki Palace paled in comparison. We exited the Harem and ended up in the third courtyard of the Palace. From here, we strolled to the fourth courtyard where we checked out the pool and Baghdad Pavilion. Next we tried to visit the chamber of sacred relics and the treasury but there were hundreds of Turkish school kids who were cutting the insanely long line and pushing to get close to the relics. We didn’t enjoy the chaotic scrum so after a quick glance of the jewels, we quickly exited to get away from the madness. After making our way back to the second courtyard, we visited the imperial council, clocks section and palace kitchens before all agreeing that we were “museumed” out. It was around noon time and we were hungry, so lunch it was. Bob and Ann had discovered and recommended a local joint called “Degirmencioglu” in the Sultanahmet area that served up cheap and tasty meals. We were able to make our way through the back alleys to find this hidden gem. Everyone was thrilled with the huge selection combined with the great value of the hot meals. After stuffing ourselves for lunch, we slowly strolled back towards our apartment with an afternoon siesta in mind. Along the way, we made a quick detour at the Sultan Mahmut II mausoleum and cemetery. Unfortunately, the mausoleum was closed for lunch so we decided to visit again later. Next task was to do some grocery shopping at a nearby supermarket where we stockpiled necessities for the next few days: snacks, beverages, food. Kendra was on a quest to find pomegranates for a cocktail she had invented, while Robby was on the hunt for a knife. After acquiring everything on our shopping list, we returned to the apartment for an afternoon snooze. Post nap, we decided to do a bit more sightseeing and walked over to the nearby Grand Bazaar. While no one had any shopping intentions, we figured we could see what all the hype was about. Since the bazaar was quite labyrinth like, we decided to split up and rally back at Gate #2 in just under an hour, giving us plenty of time to explore. The bazaar was nothing like we remembered it being over 15 years ago…a lot tamer with less aggressive salesmen. The interior was quite photogenic and we went a bit mad taking photos. The highlight of our visit was a stop for apple tea. For dinner, we stopped by a roadside stand selling lamb sandwiches. The smell of onions and lamb sautéing lured us in and everyone was satisfied with their tasty 4TL meals. George wanted to buy some water from a neighborhood store. When he emerged, not only did he have a 10L water bottle but a massive donut shaped bread…only George! It was a chill night back at the apartment as we started drinking, got Robby super drunk, put Robby to bed only to have him pop back downstairs feeling 100% better after a quick vomit and start drinking again! George and Kendra taught us a couple of drinking games, resulting in a fun night.
4 Apr: Despite a slight hangover, we were all up early for breakfast at 7:30am. The reason why we were reluctant to sleep in? We wanted to visit Istanbul’s most popular tourist attraction, the amazing Hagia Sophia. Prior to visiting, Bob had urged us to watch PBS NOVA’s documentary of the museum entitled “Hagia Sophia: Istanbul’s Ancient Mystery”. We were fascinated to learn that the Hagia Sophia stands in the middle of a seismic fault, and has withstood centuries of earthquakes. For over 800 years, it was the largest building in the world. According to the documentary, Hagia Sophia is so large that the statue of liberty can fit beneath the central dome with room to spare! Ichi showed us a short cut route from our apartment to the Hagia Sophia that was *much* easier than hiking up the steep hill to the Cemberlitas tram stop. None of us could figure out how she discovered this, but it earned her the new moniker of “GPS”. Way to go Ichi! Our lungs and thighs thanked her profusely when we reached Hagia Sophia with minimal physical exertion. We were shocked to see well over 1000 people in line queuing up at the ticket booth to the museum. WTF? It was only 9am (opening time) and we were shocked to see the insanely long line. Apparently, Hagia Sophia draws well over 25,000 visitors on a daily basis and is always crowded. With our museum passes in hand, we felt like rock stars as we cut all those tourists patiently waiting in the queue. It felt like we were all VIP, bypassing the line while getting incredulous looks from the poor saps who still had to wait hours to enter. Everyone wholeheartedly agreed that experience alone was worth getting the museum pass! Giggling with glee, we counted our blessings and entered the Hagia Sophia. This phenomenal building has transformed itself over the years. From 537 till 1453, it functioned as an Eastern Orthodox Cathedral. When Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Empire in May of 1453, the Hagia Sophia was desecrated and pillaged by the invaders, who also raped the women and children who had sought refuge there. Then from 1453 until 1931, it became an Imperial Mosque. On 1 February 1935, the building was reopened as a museum, and even today the Hagia Sophia lures in tourists by the thousands, receiving well over 3 million visitors annually. Unfortunately, the interior of the building was undergoing renovations with ugly scaffolding blocking off a third of the museum. However, we were still quite impressed with the massive dome, detailed mosaics (second floor), and breathtaking architecture. Even though we had visited 15 years prior, neither of us could remember much about our visit. We were definitely impressed today though and took numerous photos of Istanbul’s “must see” sight. On the first floor, Robby and Kendra discovered they could trick other tourists into mimicking their behavior. A massive serpent coiled around a basin set the stage. First Robby went up and started stroking the serpent’s head several times. Then Kendra followed suit. Followed by Ichi and then Becky. We laughed hysterically as a line formed up with random tourists waiting to do the same thing!! Aaah, we can be evilly mischievous. After our visit to Hagia Sophia, we figured we could hop in real quick to see the Blue Mosque. However, there was nothing “real quick” about it. A massive queue had formed up and none of us were keen to wait in line to visit a mosque! So we decided to get the most out of our museum pass and visited the nearby Mosaic Museum. Becky and Ichi were impressed with the detailed mosaics, especially the basket laden monkey using a pole to pick dates. However, poor Kendra, George and Francisco were not impressed, waiting patiently for the visit to end. Since it was a small museum, they didn’t have to wait too long. After our sightseeing filled morning, it was time for lunch. Since everyone enjoyed yesterday’s meal, we went back to what we dubbed our favorite Istanbul lunch spot, the excellent Degirmencioglu cafeteria. There, we stuffed ourselves silly on soups, chicken, salad and dessert. Yum! After lunch, we revisited the Sultan Mahmut II mausoleum and cemetery. This time, the mausoleum was still open and we were able to visit for free. Interestingly, the caskets within the mausoleum are empty. Caskets adorned with hats were designated for men and the caskets with flowers signified they were for women. Afterwards, the group decided to split up. Kendra, George and Francisco were keen on a nap, while the rest of us wanted to climb up the Galata Tower. Thankfully we now had two sets of keys, so splitting up was no problem. We hopped on the tram with Ichiyo and hopped off at the Galata Tower stop. There was still an uphill hike to contend with and once we reached the base of Galata Tower, we discovered to our dismay that a long line of tourists was ahead of us. Istanbul is crazy popular with tourists…every single place was full of them! Reluctantly, we joined the queue as we really wanted to check out the vantage point from the top of the tower. Despite the sunny day, we started shivering while in the shadow of the tower. Once we reached the sunny spots however, it was a comfortable wait. It took about an hour to reach the ticket booth where we discovered a hefty 25 TL entrance fee. An elevator whisked us up to the top of the tower, and then we had to climb a flight of stairs to reach the café portion which had an outdoor balcony offering fantastic 360 degree views of Istanbul. Once out on the platform, we had as much time as we wanted to take photos, with everyone moving in a clockwise manner around the circumference of the tower. The views were amazing despite the hefty fee. After our visit to the tower, we decided to hike back across the Galata Bridge (which spans the Golden Horn). Entrepreneurial fishermen were grilling fish sandwiches for sale (6 TL each) and there were hundreds of fishermen lined up on both sides of the bridge. Restaurant employees on the first floor of the two storey bridge kept hassling us for our business but we took one look at their prices before quickly declining. It was an easy walk to the Sirkeci train station, a fine example of Ottoman architecture. Once serving as the eastern terminus of the famous Orient Express linking Paris to Istanbul, the interior views are something to behold. While admiring the architecture, a young Turkish lady speaking impeccable English gave us a free history lesson on the building. She also informed us that tonight was our lucky night…she had tickets to a Mevlevi Sema whirling dervish ceremony to be held at 7:30pm tonight at the train station if we were interested. We were even offered a special student rate of 40TL. After a brief discussion, the three of us decided to go ahead and buy our tickets. As we were unsure if Kendra, George and Francisco would be interested, we asked if we could make a reservation for front row seats for all of us, promising to call as soon as we could give a commitment either way. The ticket sellers hastily agreed, penciling in six front row seat reservations for our group. Sirkeci train station has a free railway museum, which showcased items of interest from the Orient Express period. After a quick visit, we decided to link back up with the rest of the group to see if they were keen on whirling dervishes. However, it was peak transit time and we weren’t able to get on the very first tram that approached. By the time the second one came around, we had locked elbows and were ready to do battle. Still jam packed with people, we did manage to squeeze onto the tram but just barely. Everyone was shoving their way on and off…prime pick-pocketing opportunities abounded! Back at the Cemberlitas stop, we gave a sigh of relief after disembarking. Good thing our group had been reduced from 6 to 3 as the 6 of us would never have been able to travel together under those super crowded conditions. We stopped by an ATM to withdraw more Turkish Lira and did a quick supermarket stop before heading back to the apartment. Francisco, Kendra and George were awake by the time we got back, and the three of them were eager to check out the whirling dervishes so we called the ticket seller to relay that information. Since there were a couple of restaurants lining the street just opposite Sirkeci terminal, we decided to leave a bit early to grab dinner en-route to the show. All of us looked like hobos lining the street as we stood munching on our donors. The excitement started after we linked up with the ticket seller to pay for the 3 front row reservations. Despite all 6 of us having reserved the best seats, the whirling dervish staff tried to sit us all in the third row…hell no! After our protestations, someone grabbed the seating chart where we pointed out our reserved seats. Still trying to play ignorant, the staff rambled from one side of the room to the other, pleading that they could not accommodate our seating arrangements. We weren’t to be put off and eventually they figured it out, splitting us into a group of 4 (Francisco, George, Kendra, Becky) on one side of the station, while Robby and Ichiyo sat opposite us. However, the staff soon got their revenge as they ignored our entire group as they flitted from one side to another around the room serving apple tea. It was comical how transparent the entire affair was…8 people sitting in a row would be served tea and when the server would spot Robby and Ichi, he would immediately skip over them and continue on down the row. Eventually the group of 4 of us got served, and we burst out in laughter as Robby and Ichi kept getting bypassed time and time again. It was only after Robby got a bit irritated that they were finally served. Meanwhile, our group of 4 was offered a second round of apple tea, much to our amusement and Robby and Ichi’s disgust. Too funny! The ceremony finally kicked off after 7:30pm and even though we had been advised it would be approximately an hour long, the first 15 minutes was a small ensemble of middle aged men playing traditional Turkish music. It looked like some random men had been pulled off the street to perform…they weren’t in costume and made no effort to wear matching clothes which was a bit disconcerting. The remaining 30 minutes of the program consisted of four men whirling and pirouetting continuously. Since this was a religious experience (not entertainment), initially it was quite interesting to watch such a unique cultural experience. However, by the end, the performance was quite monotonous and we were ready for it to end. Everyone was given a parting gift in a brown paper bag, and we eagerly tore ours open only to find propaganda books on “Sufism to Science”, a copy of the Quran, and several other Islamic pamphlets. None of us were interested in our presents, so we immediately donated ours back to the staff. We hopped on the tram back to the Sultanahmet stop where we checked out the nightly light show at the fountain in front of the Blue Mosque. It was pretty cool as the colors of the fountain kept changing in front of the well lit Blue Mosque. Afterwards, we stopped at McDonalds for milkshakes. George ordered first and got a proper strawberry milkshake, while ours were definitely diluted, tasting more like vanilla. Back at the apartment, we had a low key night with minimal drinking, as we wanted to get up early again tomorrow.
5 Apr: Everyone was up by 7:30am for breakfast. Our plan was to be at the Basilica Cistern (aka “sunken palace”) when it opened at 9am. This 6th century cistern is located near the Hagia Sophia. In the past, boats used to offer tours of the cistern! However, after renovations in 1985, walking platforms were installed and the cistern was opened to foot traffic in 1987. Despite being in line before it opened, there were plenty of other early birds in line ahead of us. Thankfully, the line moved quickly and we didn’t have to wait long to visit this underground wonder. Our museum passes weren’t valid here, so we each had to fork out an additional 20 TL. It took 7000 slaves to build the cistern, which today contains 336 marble columns. Notable highlights included the raised tears column as well as two medusa heads at the base of columns. One of the medusa heads was erected upside down while the other was positioned sideways. This was done on purpose to prevent the Gorgon’s gaze from turning an on-looker into stone. The hour we spent in the cistern flew by, and everyone emerged quite impressed with our morning excursion. From here, we decided to walk over to the Mosque of Suleyman the Magnificent. Robby was able to navigate us through the empty streets of Istanbul using a tablet and google maps. The mosque complex is positioned on a hill overlooking Istanbul, and we had fantastic views of the Bosphorus and beyond. The massive Suleyman mosque boasts a pastel interior and it can easily accommodate thousands of worshipers. Suleyman Mosque impressed us more than the Blue Mosque because of the lack of crowds. We were able to stroll around the complex, check out the cemetery’s tombstones, and wander inside the mosque without shoving up against other visitors. From here, we strolled down to the Spice Market so that Francisco, Kendra and George could check it out. Corn nuts and dates caught our eye so we bought some snacks to munch on while wandering through the chaotic market area. Afterwards, we opted for freshly grilled fish sandwiches for lunch (8 TL each) down by the waterfront. The set up was pretty cool with boats along the waterfront serving as makeshift kitchens. The fish sandwiches are prepared in front of you, and service is brisk with the money man hustling back and forth swapping money for food. Thank goodness our sandwiches were wrapped in paper, or it would have been extremely unhygienic for the money guy to be handling our food since we all know that money is about as disgusting as toilet paper! After grabbing our hot meal, we squatted down at low rise tables and munched on our tasty treats. We witnessed a “fight” between two Turkish men, with one of them bitch slapping the other before the situation escalated. Honestly, after watching mixed martial artists in the UFC, this fight was super tame and almost effeminate like…Turkish dudes have no clue how to fight! After lunch, we walked across the Galata Bridge, dodged the fishermen, and checked out the fish market by the waterfront. There were loads of seafood restaurants clamoring for our business but we opted for a calamari/fish platter on the go. Since Francisco, George and Kendra hadn’t visited the New Town section of Istanbul, we figured a walking tour was in order. From the Galata bridge, we walked past the Galata tower (there were still long lines to visit), and up Istiklal street all the way to Taksim Square. The main pedestrian street was jam packed with pedestrians, and there were some protesters gathering up for a demonstration. We were shocked to see the massive police presence, all decked out with riot gear. Did they know something we didn’t? Quickly getting away from the demonstrators, we decided to head to the military museum. All we knew was that it was “north of Taksim Square”, which was vague indeed! However, Robby was able to use the GPS feature on our tablet and orient us north. We kept walking until we eventually stumbled upon the museum. Entrance cost us 10TL each, which was well worth it for the 3pm band show itself! The massive museum was full of exhibits which military/history buffs would find fascinating. Everyone was keen to rest their legs after the long walk (“just 2 more minutes”), so we relaxed while waiting for the security guard to grant us access to the open seating auditorium for the band show. Once visitors were allowed to claim their seats, it was a mad free for all with everyone rushing to get the best seats. We managed to score decent seats for the 6 of us. The performance kicked off at 3pm sharp, opening with a short video describing the military band. The mustachioed band members, dressed in colorful costumes, marched into the auditorium and proceeded to put on a fantastic show that lasted the greater part of an hour. It was riveting and entertaining, impressing both locals and tourists alike. After the show, we wandered the grounds of the military museum and tried to exit out a different gate but the indifferent guard shooed us away. So we had to backtrack to the main exit which added a few more minutes to our already long day. We rambled back to Istiklal Street where we treated ourselves to McDonald’s milkshakes before catching a tram back to Cemberlitas. Since we were running dangerously low on alcohol, we stopped by a mini-market for more beer. Dinner for the majority of us was our favorite doner kebab stand, but Ichiyo and Kendra wanted something different so they went to the next door cafeteria. Even though their dinner was lovely, it felt like a rip off considering what we had been paying at our budget eateries in Sultanahmet. Kendra said mistake number one had been to order a meal without asking how much it was first! Lesson learned but at least her meal tasted good. Back at the apartment, we started drinking after dinner. Kendra and George schooled us on the card game “shit head”, resulting in a great night that ended sometime around midnight.
6 Apr: We got up around 7:30am and had a slow breakfast of leftover doners. Today we were going to take a Bosphorus cruise! Since the cruise didn’t leave until 10:35am from Eminonu, we had plenty of time to get ready for the day. Kendra and George needed more Lira, and we remembered there were a few money changers at the Sultanahmet stop so we decided to walk there. While they were hunting for the best exchange rates, Robby realized that we had excess Liras, so he offered to do the exchange for them…problem solved! After hopping on a tram to Eminonu, we saw a long queue at the ferry ticket office and jumped in line. Thankfully, it was moving quickly and there were plenty of seats on the 6 hour Bosphorus Cruise. There were touts selling similar overpriced tours, but why pay a middle man commission when you can just buy your own ticket directly from the ferry terminal itself? One wonders how the touts make a living since this is fairly obvious to most Istanbul visitors. The Bosphorus cruise is one of Istanbul’s better bargains, for 25 TL you get a 6 hour cruise departing Eminonu at 10:35am and arriving at Anadolu Kavagi (a fishing village with great seafood) approximately 90 minutes later. The ferry remains docked at Anadolu Kavagi for several hours which gives tourists enough time to hike up to the fortress remnants and grab a bite to eat at one of the many seafood restaurants tucked away in this quaint village. At 3pm, the ferry departs for a return trip to Eminonu. The ferry was quite full by the time we boarded, with most passengers opting for an outside bench for the best views. Since the weather was overcast and threatening to rain, we happily found benches inside so that we would be protected against the elements. The ferry left Eminonu at 10:35am sharp, and there were fantastic views as we pulled away from Istanbul. Highlights of the cruise were mostly on the European coastline of the Bosphorus strait, and they included vistas of the Dolmabahce Palace (the largest palace in Turkey), and 13th century fortress Rumeli Hisari (also known as the “Fortress of Europe”). The ferry seemed to pause briefly so that everyone could take in the massive stone fortress of Rumeli Hisari with its three imposing towers rising from the riverbank of the Bosphorus. Tea was served on board the ferry (1 TL), and it was a smooth ride to Anadolu Kavagi. The weather that threatened to turn on us all morning long finally did, and it started drizzling as we arrived to the fishing village to start the land based portion of our excursion. Poor Francisco got extremely “lucky” as soon as we disembarked. One of the dozens of seagulls flying overhead took a massive crap on his black jacket! Good thing it was raining as that helped to wash the crap off, ha. Anadolu Kavagi is the last stop on the Asian side of the Bosphorus strait, and the ruined Byzantine castle of Yoros once stood guard at the confluence of the Bosphorus and the Black Sea. Despite its current decrepit state, this site is of extreme military importance, and indeed the Turkish military had blocked off huge swaths of land surrounding the castle. After our 25 minute hike up the steep hill, we were only allowed access to the outside of Yoros Castle. After posing for our obligatory photos, we quickly headed back down towards the village to search for lunch. The waterfront seafood restaurant proprietors were making strong sales pitches for our business, but we found an inexpensive local joint that appealed instead. Lunch was a satisfying combination of tea, chickpea soup, and chicken gyros…yum. Since it was still raining out, we decided to hang out in the restaurant until it was time to hop back on the ferry for our return trip to Istanbul at 3pm. We were able to snag benches to snooze on for the 90 minute journey, which passed by surprisingly quickly. From the pier at Eminonu, we hopped on a tram back to Sultanahmet where we made another attempt to visit the Blue Mosque, one of the last remaining touristy things to do. Unfortunately, our timing couldn’t have been worse as the mosque was closed due to the 5pm evening prayer. Francisco, Kendra and George opted to head back to the apartment, while Ichi decided to hang out with us to wait for the mosque to reopen. We didn’t have to wait too long as the attendant let us in 20 minutes earlier than the posted reopening time of 5:45pm. Despite the late hour, the mosque quickly became packed with tourists and we were glad we had a few minutes of peaceful solace before the large tour groups jammed into the mosque. After our visit, we stopped by a mini market to buy alcohol. Interestingly, the shopkeeper pulled out an official government sanctioned price list for us to do a quick price comparison. Of course we ended up buying the cheapest bottle of vodka, which set us back on 49 TL. Back at the apartment, we couldn’t get in at first. Our key appeared stuck and we were afraid of breaking it if we pushed much harder. George was on the other side of the door laughing at our predicament when suddenly the door unlocked. We blamed it on the new guests who had moved into the apartment upstairs…for some reason, they had started double locking the door on the main lock and the deadbolt, which was causing it to stick. Down in the basement, over some snacks and funny YouTube videos, we discovered that George was a bona fide reality show member, having been cast in a UK show called “Playing it Straight”. Of course we simply had to YouTube the first episode which we watched accompanied by fits of laughter! A real live celebrity amidst us! Too funny. Afterwards, we were on the quest for more booze as our sole bottle of vodka wasn’t lasting too long. Back at our favorite minimarket, we quickly determined that beer was the better value. Next, it was a return trip to our friendly neighborhood doner kebab stand. The owner quickly recognized us and invited us in for a free cup of tea while we waited for our sandwiches to be prepared. The sight of 6 happy tourists lured in even more business, and when we left, there were two separate groups of tourist waiting to be served. Back at the apartment, we had our doners before starting on more drinking card games. Kendra and George introduced us to the game of “slaps”. Poor Ichi was getting tired and falling asleep at the table. However, she had this uncanny ability to sense whenever a camera was near. She’d immediately wake up every single time we tried to take her photo! For some reason, Kendra was real keen on stuffing Ichi into Robby’s backpack and sometime during the night, she got her wish! It was hilarious as Ichi is so super tiny that she did manage to squeeze inside. Zipping her up was impossible but some hilarious photos were obtained. The fun continued until 1:00 am when we finally called it quits.
07 Apr: We were up by 8am from some brekkie. Francisco was leaving us today, boohoo! Since he had been sharing the tram card with Kendra & George, they graciously told him to keep it for his return trip back to the airport. We walked with him to the Sultanahmet tram stop before reluctantly hugging him goodbye. From Sultanahmet we walked towards Cemberlitas and got a second chance to wave goodbye to Francisco as his tram zipped by. From Cemberlitas, we made our way to the Grand Bazaar as it was shopping time! Kendra and George wanted a shisha/hookah pipe, and Robby wanted to buy something for his cousin so into the labyrinth shopping complex we ventured for a second time. Ichi wasn’t interested in buying anything but she kept us company as we wandered around the market. Within no time, our shopping was complete. We exited out a different section of the bazaar and got lost in Istanbul’s back streets. Loads of mannequins were on display at every single storefront, and the streets were full of residents going about their daily business. Eventually, we stumbled upon Sirkeci quarter of the Fatih district, dotted with impressive architectural specimens such as the Art Nouveau Deutsche Orient Bank and the Istanbul Grand Post Office. A popular local cafeteria caught our eye, so we joined the queue to order lunch. The mystery meat we selected ended up being liver which neither of us cares for…Ichi ended up with the entire plate! At least our beef and mushroom and chickpea soup kept us satisfied. After lunch, we strolled up Alemdar Caddesi where several restaurants were showcasing their employees making fresh bread…great advertising! One of the workers was preparing spinach and feta gozleme. It was entertaining watching her through the window and the clientele appeared to be enjoying their meals. When we reached Sultan Ahmet Park, the tulips were in full bloom! What a beautiful sight. Back at the apartment, we took a short siesta before packing for the return trip back to work. Since we still had a few hours to kill, we started beer-thirty. After downing a couple, we went back to our favorite doner place for chicken doners (bargain priced at 5 TL each). Once again, we were offered a free cup of tea which we happily accepted. Our time in Istanbul quickly dwindled down as the clock approached midnight. We sat and chatted with Ichiyo, Kendra and George until 10:30pm. Since we were trying to take public transportation back to the airport and the tram/metro stops running once the clock strikes midnight, we were under a slight time crunch. Since Ichiyo was planning on spending a few more days in Istanbul, she would be the last one to leave the apartment and Kadir’s instructions were to just leave the keys inside the apartment when the last person checked out. It was a sad moment as we said our goodbyes to the group…we can’t wait for the next reunion! The ride to the airport was smooth and we were able to check in straight away, scoring exit seats. While waiting to board the flight at our gate, we noticed a huge commotion. An Afghan woman was screaming, wailing, slapping herself, pulling out her hair and verbally abusing all the men who tried to intervene. It made for an extremely uncomfortable wait as it was obvious that she had just been given some devastating news. Nothing and no one could placate her. Finally, the family had to resort to calling for medical assistance and she was given a sedative that eventually calmed her down. We hoped that she would be knocked out for the duration of the flight! The flight back to Kabul was a breeze and vacation was officially over. What an awesome adventure!