Turkey — Day One — Istanbul

On Sunday afternoon, John drove us to the airport in plenty of time. Apart from the incredulity of the Lufthansa agent who didn’t actually believe that we didn’t have any checked luggage, and not having reserved seats (which meant we had to hold hands across the aisle during takeoff), everything was grand. We ate very mediocre lunch at the airport Milestones, and called my folks on Skype from the restaurant, which was cool. Ah, nerds!

We flew out as scheduled. Fortunately, the Nice German Lady who was sitting beside Steve gave us her seat an hour or so into the flight, so we were able to sit together after all. By the way, the food on Lufthansa was just delicious! It very much dispelled those rumours of horrible airplane food. The flight attendants tried to give us a bottle of wine to enjoy later (happy honeymoon!) but they realized we had a connecting flight so instead gave us a couple of tiny bottles to enjoy with… breakfast! We happily made mimosas out of our morning OJ and toasted the beginning of our trip. We also gave a glass to the Nice German Lady for giving up her seat.

The hop over to Turkey was just fine (and the food was good, too) but we were very, very tired. Veeeerrrry tiiiiiiired. We knew the flight to Turkey would be long and annoying, but you’re never really prepared.

Once deplaned, we got our Visas ($60 US each!) and entered the long and winding line for passport control. Fortunately it was a quick line, because it was also very warm.

As soon as we got through, we found ourselves facing a wall of people waving signs for ‘Mr. John Smith’ and ‘Global Something-or-other Convention’. It was liberating to walk on by on our way to the LRT train to take us into town. On the way into the station, the down escalator wasn’t functional: it felt much like Vancouver!

Buying a jeton was a little tough, as we kept waiting our turn and people kept moving in front of us. It took no time at all to realize we just had to barge in like everyone else and we had our jetons in hand. Rinse and repeat for getting our token into the turnstile, but we were through soon enough. Stupid Canadian manners!

Interesting fact – there are no maps or anything useful to give directions (in English anyway) on the LRT. However, this was made almost entirely irrelevant by the fact that there were almost no signs, either. We were able to figure out where to switch from LRT to tram (at the station starting with ‘z’).   Switching was easy too — out one door, onto a platform, into another door.  

Here is a map to make life easier for other people.

It was interesting to take the train in from the airport, which is 20 or so kilometres out of town: lots of new corporate buildings, with older residential buildings in various states of repair. Some looked completely bombed out, sitting right next to lovely brightly painted ones. There were mosques and minarets everywhere you looked, and there were Mercedes on the road and people camped under overpasses.

The tram ride was long and crowded, but the worst was the niggling doubt that we were on the right line. Finally! the sign said Sultanahmet, and we were assisted off the train by a nice man who told everyone to get out of our way. An English-speaking fellow at the back told Steve that he was a big man and should just push his way off!

Upon stepping out of the tram, this was our view: the Blue Mosque just on the other side of the Hippodrome.

Arriving at the Hippodrome in Sultanahmet was absolutely magical: it was just about six in the evening and we walked up a cobblestone walk and down some stone steps and over there and around the corner… and we were completely lost. Completely and utterly lost. There were beautiful old houses all around and narrow streets and fast, honking cars and no sidewalks. Did I mention there are no street signs? Street signs would have been helpful, since it’s hard to orient yourself when you don’t know where you are. Finally we asked a man playing backgammon to show us on our Lonely Planet map the way to our guesthouse but his friend came out with another map and showed us exactly where to go. It wasn’t far, but we were still weren’t where we thought we might have been.

The man asked us if we wanted to come into his shop to look around but we said we’d been travelling for seventeen hours. With a smile and an affable wave he said “Tomorrow then. If you can find us.”

We walked a short distance through the most interesting architecture. Some of the old wooden houses were just shells: when you looked through the windows, you saw the sky right through where the roof had been. Others were pristine and gleaming, freshly stained and well-loved. Everywhere we looked we saw kitties and beautiful little details like wrought iron grills and carved doors. It was amazing. And distracting, because we became – not lost, exactly – but a little disoriented.

We looked enough disoriented that another nice man offered to look at our map and told us our guesthouse was just around the corner. He offered that if it wasn’t to our liking, he could offer us a room for 20 Euros (since the room we reserved was 40, that sounded pretty good, especially as he was standing in front of a lovely hotel). We arrived at the Nayla Palace, and were told that we were a day late for our reservation, and they had rented the room. We were offered a room in the basement that smelled strongly of mould for the same price. We apologized for our error on the dates and declined the new room.

Back around the corner, we found our guy again. He asked how many nights we were staying and told us he had a nicer hotel in mind for us. He then took off at a run that didn’t look like a run, but we had to run to keep up (ok, I did). Man that guy moved fast! We ran up the road past the Arasta Bazaar, past the Blue Mosque, past the Hagia Sofia, past the Basilica Cistern (it was like having a very fast, silent tour guide) and finally to a little hotel called the ‘Hotel Anodolu’ on a steep cobbled street on the north side of Sultanahmet. He showed us a room with two single beds, and a double with a tiny little window, and then took us to the motherlode: a room with two singles and a double, and – best of all – a door to a rooftop deck with a view of the Golden Horn, the Hagia Sofia and a tiny perfect mosque just across a parking lot.

We haggled a bit and got the best room for just under 50 Euros a night, which was fine given our time constraints and the fact that we really, really liked it. The guy, Nazur, also said that he “had a brother in Cappadocia” who could give us a tour, and he wanted to see us again in the morning to talk about us booking some tours from him. Yeah, sure… Really, we’re only here for two nights, so worst case scenario was that we stay two nights and move on. Nazur did promise that if we came back in a month, he’d give us a much better deal.

We used some of the Lira (which are indicated by Y not $) we were given as a wedding present to pay our first night and said we’d be back with the next night later on.

When we were upstairs, in possession of the heaviest brass keyfob ever, we looked out over the view and knew we had made the right choice. There are only three rooms on the top floor, and we had it all to ourselves. The view of the golden light on the Golden Horn was just unbelievable and the lights on the bright white cruise ships glittered like diamonds.

After a quick shower, I felt refreshed, so we headed back to tourist central, stopping at a ‘bankomat’ for some cash, which worked no problem. We had been quite concerned, since our savings were in our Credit Union account, that we wouldn’t be able to readily access our money. Apparently our fears were unfounded, especially the fears about the safety of bank machines… this one, the Tourist Bank, was right next to the police station and had a young man in uniform holding an AK47 like it was no big deal.  We walked into the booth like it was no big deal, too, then grabbed our cash and sauntered away… like it was no big deal.

The Hippodrome was all very surreal as the area was just packed for Ramazan – people were out in force for prayer, picnics and promenading all over the grounds of the Blue Mosque. We were so dazzled by the food choices that we couldn’t decide, so we ended up with two fresh pretzels and a cup of pomegranite juice to share.

Note to self – don’t pet the rabbits. We were walking past a card table with a mum bunny and her babies. When I stopped to ooh and aww, I was handed a baby bunny to distract me while the man had the mother pick a little piece of paper from a tray of folded bits of paper. Apparently the bunny picked our fortune, and those fortunes were worth 2Y each! Fortunately they were good fortunes, and I got to hold a baby bunny. Cheap thrills!

We passed a number of police, though the crowd was very jovial – we felt incredibly safe walking around. The police carry their machine guns very casually!

There were kitties everywhere, playing and stalking, and a number of unleashed dogs, all on good behaviour.

Even at 8pm it was quite warm, and I was wishing I had brought another cotton long-sleeved top, since I felt quite bare in t-shirt and capris, compared to the other strollers. Bringing only one long-sleeved top and a polarfleece was not good packing: I’d have been better off with more lightweight long-sleeved clothes. Ah well, an excuse for shopping!

We walked by the Blue Mosque, which was full of the devout. We knew coming during Ramazan would be a little crazy, but this really had a festival feel.

I find it quite wonderful that the Blue Mosque is still actually used for its intended purpose.

We headed back to the hotel room, thoroughly dazzled, and brushed our teeth to the combined sounds of the call to prayer being amplified from every minaret in town and dogs howling at every minaret in town! It was eerie and beautiful and very, very funny. Awwoooooooo!

We took gravol to help us sleep and were in bed by 9pm. A very satisfying first day in Istanbul!

This was our view of the Hagia Sofia from our terrace: