The flight from Santorini to Athens is a short one, so it wasn’t long after I waved goodbye to that beautiful island that I was back on another Aegean airlines flight heading towards Istanbul. Aegean airlines was becoming a favourite and this time I was flying business class, believe it or not it was cheaper than economy the day I booked. So, there I was winging my way back over the sparkling blue Aegean Sea towards my new destination.
I had met Selin in the Hedonist Hostel in Belgrade (yes, that wonderful hostel where I made so many good friends), a delightful young lady from Istanbul who invited me to come over so she could show me around her city. Once I had made the decision to go to Santorini I thought that would be a good opportunity to accept Selin’s invitation to Istanbul while I was in the area, I’m so glad I did.
I arrived safe and sound in Istanbul airport, the queue for visa purchase and passport control alone took one and a half hours to get through, so after landing at 3.00pm I didn’t get to my room till 6pm! Luckily I had booked the airport transfer from the Orient Hostel, it cost 25 euros but it was worth it seeing as I had no idea where I was going and it was getting late.
Finally I met up with Selin and she took me on my night time orientation of Istanbul. By the time we’d finished dinner my sense of humour was returning properly- it had been a challenge hanging on to it through the airport procedures and the less than impressive hostel, but hang on I did, just by the skin of my teeth.
We had a traditional dish for dinner (I wish I could remember the name of it) and then started the night sightseeing at the port.
The port is full of restaurants cafes and bars, all lit up in neon which reflects beautifully in the water. Along the pier you can buy street food and tea, but we’d already eaten so I wasn’t tempted. From the port we went to Istiklal Avenue, the 1.4 kilometre pedestrian street. At the southern end is the world’s second oldest subway train and the oldest in Istanbul. It began service in 1875.
The train, known locally as The Tünel, meant that diplomats and businessmen could travel between their harbour side offices in Karaköy (Galata) on the Golden Horn and their hilltop residences in Beyoğlu in 11/2 minutes on steam-powered, gas-lit, cable-drawn cars. So of course it is a must to travel on, even if it is for only one station.
Out of the train we headed up Istiklal Avenue towards
past boutiques, bookstores, cafes, night clubs, street musicians and seafood sellers who would withdraw into the shadows if they saw police (apparently they are not supposed to sell fresh seafood there). The crowds were incredible, of course this was August and Istanbul is a popular city.
We finally reached Taksim Square and the Monument of the Republic commemorating the formation of the Turkish Republic in 1923. The monument was created by the Italian sculptor Pietro Canonica. The people portrayed in the sculpture are the founders of the Turkish Republic.
It was difficult to believe that only 2 months earlier this area was the place of so much violence and protest. Reportedly it started with protests against the proposed urban development of Gezi Park and escalated into so much more. I am not going to go into any detail here, there is plenty of information online about this massive event in May/June 2013. A few weeks earlier during my stay in Berlin I had met a young backpacker who was working in a hostel at Taksim Square during the uprising, he said it was quite an experience.
Oh, and what day did I choose to arrive in Istanbul? Victory day! A national holiday hence the massive crowds at the airport and everywhere else!
We walked back along the Avenue, dropped into a club for a beer before parting ways for a good night’s sleep before another day of exploration.
Day 2 – Bathing and an island trip
The next day was a nicely paced quietish day. We started with Selin introducing me to a traditional Hammam (Turkish bath). It is an interesting process, sauna (which I shouldn’t really do as I get badly heat affected, so only did 5 mins), cold pool (hate cold water so avoided that), steam room (same problem as sauna so spent even less time in there), lots of washes of water where many other ladies were also pouring water on themselves while waiting for their turn to be scrubbed. The scrub is very thorough with a loofah while lying on a marble slab, and was followed by a massage and a soapy wash. I’m sure that scrub took off about 5 layers of skin! I was expecting to have lost my tan when I came out, but no, it was still there. If you are planning on going to a Hammam make sure you do good research or go with a local as I did, I believe that not all baths are great and anyway it is such a different process that there is no way of guessing what the protocol is. Washed and scrubbed we were off for coffee and cake, a ferry to the large island, lots of walking, some Turkish ice cream and a very long ferry ride back.
There are islands to visit when you want to get away from the city. The Prince Islands (Adalar) are a must. We only went to Buyukada (the big island ) which was just a delight. I love boat travel of any sort and being on a ferry on the Bosporus was by itself something to make me smile, but then adding the destination made it all the more special. I had no idea what to expect, this was all new and exciting. First thing to notice is that there is no motorised transport there, just bikes, horse drawn carriages and electric golf carts, what a delight. Closer to the port is where you find the majority of restaurants, shops, road side sellers and ice cream vendors, all as colourful and interesting as any good novel with a good plot would have you expect.
We set off on foot to explore a little of the island. I was struck by the architecture of the houses so reminiscent of a past age. The gardens full of colour, at that time mainly bougainvillea and the blessed quietness. Yes there are the sounds of peoples’ voices and the clip clop of horses hooves, but that’s it! No cars, no horns, no motorbikes! It was a delight and truly a must to visit as an escape from the noise of the city. The ice cream vendors are a delight in colourful costume. Turkish ice cream has mastic as an ingredient and so it is very stretchy. This means that the vendors can put on quite a show stretching and pulling the ice cream, almost a circus performance.
We originally planned to see the Whirling Devishes but because the ferry trip was so long and Selin needed to go home it was too late, so we hoped that they would be doing their thing again the next night.
Day 3 – Spices and Church
Yet another massive day! First off a walk through the spice bazaar, I thought I’d gone to heaven – the beautiful aroma of coffee followed by, and mingling with, every spice you could possibly think of!
Then I even went to
church – well I went into a church and stayed there for quite some time but not for a normal Sunday service! There is a Greek Orthodox church in Istanbul that has the reputation for granting wishes.
On the first day of each month, Hundreds of people from all faiths flock to the Ayın Biri Church where they buy tiny silver keys to represent their deepest wishes and then attempt to unlock various icons in the two levels of the church. Meanwhile the priest is holding a service. Then the priest goes down stairs and sprays holy water on everyone and all that is followed by lining up again to get a personal blessing. It was quite an event, the best thing is that it’s all faiths all in together doing the same thing, I loved it! Yes, of course I got my personal blessing.
After the church service and blessings we had morning tea at the Dolmabahce Palace and then a tour through the palace. They even took us through the Harem area. The grand ceremonial hall is indescribably intricate and gorgeous I can recommend going on the tour.
Dolmahce Palace was first lived in in 1856 and was home to six Sultans until 1924 when the caliphate was abolished. The founder and first President of the Republic of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk used the palace as a Summer residence and spent the last days of his life there in 1938. Now it is managed by the Directorate of National Palaces and the only way to see it is with a guided tour.
Then more walking, more eating, a beer and then it was a farewell ferry ride, hugs goodbye and I went back to my hostel crossing the water alone. We didn’t make it to the Dervishes that night either. I am so grateful to Selin for entertaining me and showing me Istanbul in a way that most tourists don’t get to see. It helps to know a local.
Day 4 – Going solo in Istanbul
My last day in Istanbul was spent on my own, attempting to do the ‘touristy’ things. The day ended up quite differently to what I expected. I woke up rather late so had breakfast/lunch at the Dervish café on my way to the attractions. I found lamb chops!! cutlets really, but real grilled lamb! Yay! And coffee of course. I discovered that Aya Sofya (Hagia Sophia) is closed on Mondays so I missed out on that, the crowds at Topkapi palace were beyond my capabilities of handling so I thought I’d try to conquer the Turkish postal system and send some stuff home – FAIL!
Not to worry, I headed off to Sirkeci railway station instead to check on a sign I had noticed about a Whirling Dervish show. While doing that I discovered the original Orient Express restaurant. Now that was fun! When I first noticed the restaurant there was a gentleman sitting there just like one of Agatha Christie’s characters in white suit and hat. I went back, closer to show time, to have afternoon tea and take photos. At another table there were 3 lovely English ladies who were even more excited than I about finding the place and a gentleman from Sydney who’s wife had to go home to work after being at a wedding in Cyprus, he continued on to Turkey before heading home. They came over to say hello and ended up joining me. It seriously felt like an unfolding Agatha plot and I fully expected Poirot to appear at any moment. Do I sound a little excited about that discovery? You bet I am.
Whirling Dervishes are truly amazing. The band played for half an hour first, then accompanied the whirling which was very meditational. It is impossible to convey the process and the feelings evoked, you just have to be there. I discovered that Alex (the Aussie I met at the restaurant) was staying in a hotel not far from me so we both had someone to talk to on the way back. And so my whirlwind visit to Istanbul drew to a close, what a weekend that was! I will have to return and spend longer, three days was only an entrée.
3 Sept 2013
Groundhog Day! it’s 1:15pm and here I was at Athens airport again! Only difference is that this time I am waiting for my flight to Kalamata, bring it on – olives, yeah!