Posts Tagged ‘istanbul’

A Glimpse of Istanbul

September 5-7, 2016: The centerpiece of this year’s trip was a two week tour of Uzbekistan, starting in Tashkent. Getting to Tashkent from London, I discovered, would require a change of planes. I usually book my own air directly with the relevant airline, but this time I thought it safer to have the tour company, MIR, do it, so I had back up in case anything went wrong. But MIR’s initial suggestion had me changing planes in Moscow and arriving in Tashkent at 2:30 am. Turned out that if I wanted to arrive in Tashkent in daylight I would need to fly Uzbekistan Airlines, not Turkish, as MIR seemed to prefer, and would need to at least overnight between planes.
Stopping off in Riga was an attractive idea, but would put me into Tashkent three days early. Baku intrigued me, but I thought I would need an expensive visa (I later discovered that a transit visa might have worked). That left Istanbul, a city I have enjoyed visiting in the past, but in a country currently suffering political and security issues. Still, I figured that if I booked the rather nice WOW airport hotel I had used when in transit to Georgia, I could always hang out there in the event of serious trouble.

The trouble, of course, duly arrived in the form of the airport bombing in June, and the abortive coup in July, but fortunately I didn’t get to Istanbul until these were well over. There were a great many more very large Turkish flags flying than I remembered from past visits, and the crowds in Sultanahmet were much diminished (although the carpet sellers were still active), but my visit was unaffected. I did keep my reservation at the airport hotel, where I found myself staying in the five star property instead of the four star next door I thought I had booked, and I did eat dinner there both nights, but that was because I needed to get up early two mornings running.
While the WOW hotels are very convenient for the airport – one stop on the metro or a short shuttle ride – getting to central Istanbul by public transport takes an hour, and I had been invited to breakfast near Taksim Square by a long time Fodor’s poster. But early rising was a small price to pay for the time I spent with the charming and cultured OC and his equally charming and cultured wife, not to mention their adorable grandson. In addition, breakfast was delicious – I still remember the chestnut honey – and the apartment had a killer view of the Bosphorus. OC’s wife and grandson were headed for the couple’s other base in Izmir, and kindly dropped me off at my morning sightseeing objective, Dolmabahce Palace.

Dolmabahce was built for the 31st Sultan in the mid 1800s, after he decided Topkapi was too old-fashioned and uncomfortable. The cost of the ornate, baroque edifice was so great that it contributed to the Ottoman Empire’s default in 1875. Later the palace became the summer home of Kemal Ataturk, and he died in the palace on November 10, 1938. Unfortunately, I hadn’t realized this when I set out to visit on November 10, 2009, and the crowds were so big I decided to try later. Later had now arrived, but while the crowds were indeed much diminished, the size of the groups shuttled through the building was still too large for enjoyable sightseeing, and the rooms were almost oppressively ornate. I had a better time eating lunch in their cafe, although the views of the Bosphorus easily outshone the food.

I spent the afternoon enjoying still more views of the Bosphorus, this time on a cruise. I had done a Bosphorus cruise back in 1998, and taken the ferry to the Princes’ Islands in 2006, but more recently I had stayed on land. The day was fine, and the banks were lined with interesting buildings. I sat back and let the sights flow past me. The boat was actually a water version of a hop-on, hop-off, bus, but it was late enough in the day I just stayed on.
Afterwards I took a tram to Sultanahmet to pay my respects to one of my favorite buildings, the Blue Mosque. I didn’t go inside this time, just admired the beautiful exterior. Stopping off for coffee afterwards was a mistake, though, as I headed back to my airport hotel during the rush hour.
Next morning I took the airport shuttle to the terminal to board my flight. Tashkent was next!

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Quick Look at Istanbul

November 10 – 12, 2009: I read that Ataturk, the founder of modern, secular,

Clock tower at Dolmabahce Palace

Turkey, died at 9:05 am November 10th, 1938. I read that he died in the Dolmabahce Palace. I read those facts on November 9th, but for some reason I didn’t draw the right conclusion, and set off the morning of November 10th to visit the palace. Lots and lots of locals, some in small groups, some in big, many of them kids with patriotic buttons, had the same idea. After I got a good look at the crowds, and at the line to buy tickets, I took a picture of the ornate clock tower, and left.

The palace is north of the Golden Horn, on the shore right below Taksim Square. Since I didn’t fancy the steep uphill hike, I took the new funicular to the square, and then started a slow amble down Istikal Caddesi to the Galata Tower. Any thoughts I had had about Beyoglu being less touristy than Sultanahmet died quickly. Locals and tourists  filled the pedestrian main drag, and competing cafes and fish restaurants crowded the narrow side streets. I picked a place with a Turkish only menu for coffee and excellent baklava.

Istikal Caddesi

I ate lunch in the shadow of the tower (I’d been up it on a previous visit), at Kiva Han, where you order by pointing at dishes laid out on a counter. Good place for people-watching, but, as so often with what was in effect a buffet, the food disappointed. Then I walked the rest of the way down to Karakoy and the Galata Bridge, noting that the nearer I got to the bottom, the less glitzy the shops.

Small piece of the Alexander sarcophagus

The Archaeology Museum is understandably overshadowed by such major sites as Aya Sofya, the Blue Mosque and Topkapi, but it contains at least one stellar sight. I was absolutely blown away by the Alexander sarcophagus. It looks like the sculptor just finished his work, and what work! Wonderfully detailed figures of men and animals completely fill all four sides. It’s hard to believe that the marble was carved in the 4th century B.C.E. In any other company the Weeping Maidens sarcophagus, nearby, would be a stand-out, but here it is just an also-ran. From a completely different period I also loved the Tiled Kiosk, where one room is decorated with gorgeous dark blue and gold tiles.

My second night I decided to eat with a view despite the cold, and chose the

In the Tiled Kisok

Ataturk Hotel, right across from the Empress Zoe. Even wearing my warmest clothes and the restaurant’s pashima, I still needed a brazier to fight the chill, but by the next night rain and wind had closed the rooftop cafe altogether. The shrimp I chose were good and big, but expensive.

Have I mentioned that I’m not a shopper? I enjoy markets, especially food markets, but I’m happy to look, not buy, and not bargain. In fact, I had now arrived at the last day of the trip before flying back to the U.S. without buying anything in the way of souvenirs or presents. I had to shop, and I had saved the shopping for Istanbul’s bazaars. But before taking the plunge I treated myself to the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts (by the Hippodrome) where I had a nice time among the carpets and the calligraphy with no one pressuring me to buy.

Actually, the shopping turned out to be fairly painless. I bought saffron in the Spice Bazaar, and calligraphy in the Grand Bazaar, without too much pressure, and largely ignored the stall holders who called out to me. In between the bazaars I ate a sandwich on a handy bench near the waterfront in Eminonu, and visited the small, exquisitely tiled Rustem Pasa mosque. I did wonder about the dead bird that fell at my feet as I finished my sandwich….

Sultanahmet from the Bosphorus

Given the miserable weather I once again dined close to home. The Empress Zoe recommended one of the many restaurants crowding Akbiyik Caddesi, Albura, and I chose chicken wrapped round rice and pine nuts – really quite good. The next morning I would leave early for the airport.

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Back to Istanbul

November 9, 2009:  When I paid my taxi driver the agreed rate at Amman airport the response was: “most Americans tip”. Rather than replying that I was also British, I pointed out that I didn’t tip when I had negotiated the rate rather than paying the metered fare. Then I put both my bags through X-ray at the entrance to the airport, only to have my big bag pulled for extra screening. Turned out that the checker was worried about my collapsible hiking stick. Fortunately his supervisor was happy with it going through in a checked bag – I don’t know what damage the first guy thought I could do with something stowed in the hold. I’ve taken the stick through enough airports by now that I’d forgotten it might cause a problem.

Amman airport continued to annoy me. First there was a gate change, and then security wouldn’t let us through to the gate even though the monitors were clearly showing that the plane was supposed to be boarding. But we left on time and the food was edible. At Istanbul airport the visa I had bought back in September was still valid and I cleared immigration quickly. Then I had to dig around to find the lira I had saved so I could rent a luggage cart for the long trek from baggage claim to the metro.

Istanbul's sleek public transport

As I wrote back in August, I first visited Istanbul all the way back in 1974 (yes, I am getting old!) and the day before I was due to fly home, the Turks and Greeks went to war over Cyprus. With the airport closed, I eventually left, in great discomfort, on the Orient Express, but I didn’t regret the opportunity to spend extra time in a fascinating city. I still love Istanbul, but it has changed and grown so, so much since then, becoming a major tourist destination and losing, at least for me, some of its aura of the exotic. But I don’t regret the introduction of the metro and the trams.

The Blue Mosque

For this three night visit I had seriously considered staying in Beyoglu, on

Aya Sofya

the northern side of the Golden Horn, but I couldn’t find a hotel or apartment in my price range that really appealed, so I wound up, as usual, in tourist central, Sultanahmet. At least I got to walk past the Blue Mosque (my absolute favorite sight in Istanbul) and Aya Sofya on the way to my hotel, the Empress Zoe (just down from the Four Seasons). While this is no place for people with mobility issues – I had to climb a narrow, metal, spiral staircase and two sets of marble steps – I loved my room: partial water view, high, wide bed tucked under one window, fridge and safe and plenty of hot water. Good breakfast, too.

Once I’d dropped my bags at the Empress Zoe I headed straight out again for the Cemberlitas Hamam and an afternoon of deep cleaning and pampering. After getting scrubbed down, and soaking happily in the hot pools, I wrapped myself in warm towels, settled in among the cushions on a bench seat and drank coffee. Luxury!

That evening I ate some quite good, if rather expensive, Indian food at Dubb. Once the sun went down it turned quite chilly, so I ate indoors instead of enjoying the view from the rooftop terrace, but I had trouble sleeping because I was too hot – thanks to the wretched duvet on my bed. Hate those things!

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The beautiful Blue Mosque, Istanbul, 2006

The beautiful Blue Mosque, Istanbul, 2006

Having settled on an itinerary, I started out on an extended surfing session looking for affordable plane tickets. I began with the usual sites – kayak.com, sidestep.com, bookingbuddy.com – which check the big travel sites like expedia.com, orbitz.com, travelocity.com, and priceline.com and hotwire.com as well as most of the airlines. Then I moved on to consolidators like onetravel.com.

The results for Raleigh-Durham (RDU) to Georgia and Jordan to RDU were depressing. Even airtreks.com, which specializes in long-haul multi-destination routings, wasn’t much help. Even after I told them about the Yerevan-Aleppo flight, they still came in with a quote I could beat myself.

Although usually I get the best price by booking the whole trip as one ticket, this time I got better prices breaking things up. And the price got even better after I did some digging around on the Turkish Airlines web site and found that I could fly into Batumi on the Black Sea coast for less than the cost of flying into the capital, Tbilisi. This would also cut out some backtracking once I got to Georgia. And rather than trying to fly from Jordan back to the US, I’d fly Amman to Istanbul and spent a couple of days there.

I finally bought just JFK-Istanbul-Batumi and Istanbul-JFK over the phone from Turkish Airlines. Since I couldn’t make the connection in Istanbul the day I arrived, the guy on the phone said that tyhe airline would put me up in airport hotel for one night. Cool!  I was going to book Amman-Istanbul with them as well, even though they would have to ticket it separately, but it would have been a 6:00 am flight.

This is me in Turkey all the way back in 1974!

This is me in Turkey all the way back in 1974!

This would make my fourth visit to Istanbul. The first was all the way back in 1974, my last vacation before I moved to the US. Unfortunately, it was also the year that Greece and Turkey went to war over Cyprus, and the day we were supposed to fly back to London the airport was shut down and the city blacked out (surely Istanbul must be the easiest city in the world to find from the air, even blacked out!) Eventually we left on the Orient Express, except it wasn’t at all luxurious! We sat up all night – fortunately I hadn’t believed the rumor that there would be a restaurant car, and we boarded with food – and drink!.

Traveling in style at ankara train station, 1999

Traveling in style at Ankara train station, 1999

My second visit, on a Rick Steves tour in 1999, I managed to fall down the stairs in a restaurant the evening we left by train for Ankara. I spent the rest of the trip on crutches! Happily, my third visit, on the way to Ukraine in 2006, was totally without incident (I don’t count persistent carpet salesmen).

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The trip I most want to make is to follow the Silk Road through Central Asia, but it didn’t seem that this was the year. I got back from a month in France in May, and I didn’t feel that I had time to organize the visas and transport needed for a trip starting in Istanbul and finishing somewhere in the Himalayas, and leaving in August or September. So, having visited the eastern end in 2001, I decided to visit the western end this year, then next year maybe I could do the middle.

So Plan A was Eastern Turkey, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Iran.  But further research suggested I needed a Plan B.

  1. Turkey. I would start the trip in September, but this year Ramadan runs roughly from 22 August – 20 September. For that month, observant Muslims let nothing pass their lips from sunup to sundown. I have borderline hypoglycemia, and therefore have to eat lunch, but I wasn’t sure that I would find restaurants and cafes open during the day in the more conservative and less-traveled east. I also wondered about the availability of transport.
  2. Azerbaijan. Since the US started charging high prices for visas, other countries have reciprocated for people traveling on US passports. I was willing to pay the $131 visa fee (55 GBP for Brits), but then I learned that Azerbaijan had added a requirement for a Letter of Invitation (popular among former Soviet republics), which would run me at least another $75. Add in the cost of Fed Ex’ing my passport to Washington and back, and even if I didn’t use a visa service I was looking at well over $200 and it just didn’t seem worth the cost. Maybe the Azerbaijanis just don’t want tourists around – the Washington embassy website now says: “Due to technical reasons the Consular Section will temporarily work 2 days a week: on Mondays and Thursdays from 10:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m.”
  3. Iran. I waited until after the June election to apply for an Iranian visa, thinking that things might well be looser then. Well, we all know what happened instead. Based on posts on Lonely Planet’s Thorntree it seems that right now I can’t get a visa for either my US or UK passport. Rather than plan the trip and then regroup at the last minute when my application was refused, I reluctantly dropped Iran, too.

Well, the Silk Road was never a single rope, more a loose skein with threads slipping off in all directions. True, one route ran to Baku in Azerbaijan, another through Tabriz and on into Turkey. But further south goods were traded through Aleppo to Antioch, and via Damascus to Tyre. I still wanted to visit the Caucasus, but instead of Iran I’d make my first visit to the Middle East.

Plan B therefore was Georgia, Armenia, Eastern Turkey, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. But I couldn’t work up great enthusiasm for the trek across Eastern Turkey, which would involve a lot of time on buses, not enough places worth a three night stop, and too much time added to the trip if I didn’t want to turn it into a bus marathon. Luckily, I learned that there’s a twice weekly flight from Yerevan to Aleppo.

Plan C:

  • Fly from RDU to New York on September 10th, staying for three nights. I’ll be visiting the city for longer than it takes to change planes for the very first time.
  • Fly New York to Istanbul to Batumi – Turkish Airlines say they will put me up in an airport hotel in Istanbul as I can’t make the connection to Batumi the day I arrive.
  • Roughly four weeks going overland through Georgia and Armenia, ending in Yerevan.
  • Flight to Aleppo on October 11th.
  • Roughly four weeks going overland through Syria, Lebanon and Jordan.
  • Flight from Amman to Istanbul for three nights.
  • Flight to New York for another three nights.
  • Fly back to RDU November 15th.

Let’s hope there won’t be a need for a Plan D. I am keeping an eye on the Georgia-Russia situation. Worst case I can fly Batumi-Yerevan instead of going overland.

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