What a change of scene and pace is Istanbul! It really is a city of contrasts. There is the exotic beauty of the majestic buildings such as the Topkapi Palace, Ayasofya and the Blue Mosque and the burnt out, abandoned or run down buildings dwarfed beside them. There is also the garbage in the streets and the homeless cats and their broods, thin and scrappy, some scarred and limping. Very distressing. One must also be brave and tough enough to run the gauntlet of the ‘hard sell’, the determined shopkeepers who speak excellent English doing all they can to ‘help us spend our money’! At least most of these businessmen are polite, charming and witty in their banter and repartee with us. Once you get into the rhythm of smiling and politely saying ‘No thank you’ without pausing, you do fine. Doing the haggling thing gets easier, too. It’s surprising – you think it would be kind of easy, but it takes a bit of getting used to, and at first is a tad daunting. Maybe that’s because we began with big fish – a carpet salesman! Quite stressful really. The seduction begins with apple tea and took about an hour to complete our little dance. We managed to leave without buying a carpet – not because we didn’t want one, we found one we both loved, but we just couldn’t afford it. Shame, we got him down to a really low price, too. Oh well.
Our hotel, the Garden House Istanbul, was in Sultanahmet which was a perfect location for a sightseeing visit. We could walk to all the major places of interest which made things all very easy and laid back for our last stop before heading home. The staff at the hotel was also excellent in their hospitality and thoughtfulness, which really makes a difference to a stay in a foreign city. The hotel had a garden courtyard complete with water feature where the serenity was only disturbed by the minor key calls to prayer.
Our first full day we escaped a big downpour by visiting Topkapi Palace where the Sultans used to live. Pretty impressive structure. The harem section and the treasury were both highlights – the emeralds in the treasury were the size of a child’s fist and the Topkapi dagger was stunning. After a lovely meal of Pakistani/Turkish cuisine we spent our afternoon in the company of our friendly carpet salesman – leaving full of apple tea, but lacking a carpet.
The next day we tackled the Grand Bazaar. Now THAT was pretty amazing and intense. Whole streets in the undercover market crammed with shops and their owners working the tourists, cajoling and entreating – the most full-on sections were the carpet and leather streets. Every single shopkeeper very eager to do business and play the game. The gold and silver jewellery were very reasonable compared to home – the price is pretty much determined by weight, rather than workmanship as labour is so cheap here. The next visit we will come armed with more money to take advantage of such bargains.
On our way to lunch we ran into the small group of Brits also staying at our hotel. We had shared our airport transfer with them and had quickly hit it off. We joined them for lunch and then the afternoon on a little ferry ride across the Bosphorus to Asia (Istanbul is the only city in the world in two continents). We all enjoyed our indulgences on the top floor of an ice-cream parlour, milkshakes, sundaes and cakes all round. After our boat ride we headed back to our hotel for what, after a couple of days, had already become a ritual of a cold beer in the secluded and peaceful garden.
Our third full day was pressure-free. We began at the huge Ayasofya, once a Church, then a Mosque, now a museum. It’s glorious golden and colourful mosaics were very similar to those in San Marco Basilica (due to the Ottoman influence in the building of both).
This was followed by us escaping the afternoon heat and descending into the surprisingly stunning ‘Basilica Cistern’ – the grandest of several underground reservoirs in that part of the city. It really did look like a magnificent underground (and wet!) cathedral. It was once only traversed by boat, now there are cement walkways throughout and even a café for a lunch break. They filmed a scene in the Bond film, From Russia with Love, there.
That afternoon we also visited one of the most stunningly beautiful places of worship we have ever seen – the Süleymaniye Mosque, situated on the highest hill in Istanbul and surrounded by restful, shaded gardens. Its soaring dome, hundreds of suspended candles and many windows make it quite remarkable. Also much less tourists than at the Blue Mosque. We crashed after our big day with some vegging out watching back to back episodes of West Wing (very excited it was in English with Turkish subtitles).
Next day was very slow to kick off as the social gathering at breakfast seems to stretch further into the morning each day. Final visits to the Arasta Bazaar, the Grand Bazaar and the Egyptian (or spice) Bazaar took up most of what was left of the day to do the last of our souvenir shopping. We also finally got a chance to visit Sultanahmet Mosque (the Blue Mosque) without the many busloads of tourists cramping our style. Another architecturally wonderful structure. Wandered down to the shore of the Sea of Marmara in the cool of the evening to check out the locals at rest and play – families picnicking and barbequing, fishermen casting and children running and kicking footballs around.
Our final full day of our wonderful four-month holiday was spent in such a relaxing way. After our regular late rise and breakfast and socialising, we set forth on the, oh, so deliciously air-conditioned tram across the Golden Horn to the Dolmabahçe Palace. This was the final residence of the last Sultan and was very European (rococo, Baroque, neo-Classical) in its architecture. Very sumptuous, magnificent and more than a tad gaudy, bit still so impressive. There was a massive chandelier in the main Ceremonial Hall made of Irish crystal weighing 4.5 tons. The wealth was really quite impossible to comprehend.
Searching for a restaurant from an outdated guidebook put a bit of pressure on us in the afternoon – especially as it was nearly 3pm and Nic hadn’t eaten lunch! We finally decided to walk back to the Galata Bridge hoping to find something other than a kebab place for our final meal in Istanbul. We got to the bridge and discovered a separate level underneath the road, open to the air and views and fisherman, entirely filled with restaurants. Now, admittedly, they were probably very touristy, but at 4pm we didn’t care. We wanted something a little flash and memorable. And that’s what we got. We chose a place with white tablecloths and incredibly eager waiters desperate to feed us. So eager in fact that, for the first time in our lives, we actually bargained in a restaurant! They brought out a trolley of dead fish and we had to pick one and it was priced by the kilo. When we saw the fat scorpion fish (which neither of us had ever eaten) we thought we’d give it a go. When he brought out the scales and weighed it and then told us the price, we both blanched and he immediately started to haggle. We were the only people in the restaurant at this point (who eats a main meal at 4:30?), so he was desperate to make a big sale (and since the fish priced by weight didn’t have those ‘per kilo’ prices on the menu, he could afford to play with figures!). When we still hesitated he came down again in price and we said, sure. When we asked for only 2 glasses of wine he brought the price of a bottle down as well so we’d have a bottle. He also threw in a 1.5L bottle of water and a fruit plate for dessert. By the time we left at 6pm, the front tables with the view were starting to fill up and business was on in a big way. I’m sure they do that with all the tourists!
Feeling rather full we decided to walk the rest of the way back to our hotel by the water around the peninsular. It certainly wasn’t the salubrious stroll we would have had around Lady Macquarie’s Chair, but it was still enjoyable. Lots of men in groups swimming off the rocks, catching fish, cooking them up on portable barbeques. Not a local woman amongst them. There were some walking along the promenade like us, but none on the rocks having a relaxing afternoon in the setting sun with their partners or their friends.
At one point Nic was ready to take on 3 men who were tormenting a dog tied to a hobo’s cart (minus the hobo), but luckily enough, her striding over and standing glaring with arms akimbo (and a big burly John behind her) was enough for them to stop and she stood guard until the owner returned. Little, little men.
But even that moment did not ruin our glorious last day before our journey home. So glad we decided to stay in Istanbul for 6 nights instead of our original 3 – the city really does grow on you and if we had left earlier we would not be anywhere near as fond of it as we are.