Archive for the ‘Istanbul’ Category

We rose bright and early at 5:30am to be down on the street to meet our driver at 6:15am… He was there right on time (a bit early even) and we piled our stuff into his van and headed for Sohiba airport (about 60km away). Because traffic can be a nightmare in Istanbul (one blogger reported taking 4 hrs to get from Sohiba to Taksim Square) we left ourselves plenty of time to get to the airport ahead of our 8:40 am departure.

Traffic was light so we got there around 7am. It’s a good thing we left early. When you get to the airport, you go through security right at the entrance (your luggage and everything goes through the scanner and you walk through the metal detector) so there’s a lineup (it moves pretty quickly). Then once you’re in, there’s a huge lineup for the Pegasus check-in. They have electronic check-in kiosks but once you’re checked in, if you have baggage you want to check you need to stand in the same lineup as everyone else. They have no Pegasus employees floating around or directing people to tell you this (I eventually found a supervisor and was able to ask him). At first the lineup was moving pretty quickly but then the chaos started. They kept pulling people out of the line (presumably for flights that were boarding) which moved the line forward but created huge backlogs at the actual check-in counters. And the people left in the line started yelling at the Pegasus staffers (one guy spent an extraordinary amount of time and energy explaining, we assume because it was all in Turkish, how to improve the system to a guy who was probably making minimum wage). The staffers yelled back. One poor woman who was hauling two large pieces of luggage and two young kids held it together admirably for about 40 minutes – until one of the Pegasus staffers chewed her out because her three year old tried to check himself in as baggage and was walking the conveyor belt… She lost it. He lost it. It wasn’t pretty. So a supervisor pulled her out of the queue to help… She was still standing in line at the supervisor’s wicket after we had checked-in. In all, it took us about an hour to drop off our three pieces of checked baggage (we’d already checked in electronically). The system would have worked a lot more smoothly if they’d had staffers floating to talk to people before they get in the lineup (ie. the people who checked in electronically but had no luggage to check who stood in line anyways) and if they had a baggage drop for those people who just need to drop luggage…

It was now just before 8am and our flight was scheduled to start boarding at 8:10am but we still needed to clear security. They had two sections – one for international flights and one for domestic and both had quite huge lineups. We entered the line for domestic security expecting to be there for a while but they opened up another security station and we made it through quite quickly – although the extensiveness of the security check was a bit questionable as Marie packed a full 500ml bottle of water through in her pack and I’m not sure the staff were even looking at the monitors… Although they did catch the guy whose belt set off the metal detector so that’s a good thing I guess. In any case, we made it through security and found our way to the boarding gate around 8:10 and waited for the buses to show up to take us to the plane. They started boarding quite late but this part of the process was pretty smooth… Being used to the more stringent security procedures in North American airports we were a little surprised that no one checked out passports (or any other ID) at any point during the entire process. Hopefully they’re more stringent with their international flights.

We took off a few minutes late (after the somewhat worrisome announcement from the cabin staff that the flight was bound for Kayseri and could people please check they were on the right plane…) and the flight was pretty routine. We’d paid in advance for a package that guaranteed seat selection and also provided a sandwich and drink on the flight (otherwise you get nothing… they must have studied the Air Canada domestic flight model). Our chicken sandwiches were “interesting” but appreciated given we had not had time to grab anything to eat at the airport as we’d planned due to the lengthy check-in process. Marie and I choked down a few bites of our sandwich (way too much mayonnaise for me and Marie just couldn’t stomach the chicken and peppers first thing in the morning… Caitlin managed to chow down on her whole sandwich by washing every bite down with a drink of cherry juice (we also got a full bottle of juice – a major bonus on domestic flights anywhere!) It was a pretty good value pack – for 8 lira you got a guaranteed seat, a sandwich and a drink… We felt bad though because we were those passengers (you know – the ones who get something to eat and drink before everyone else).

As we were part way through our sandwiches, the plane started its descent… I’m not an expert on air travel but this descent seemed awfully steep (as in about a 45° degree descent)… I sort of expected the oxygen masks to pop down. With a couple of little pockets of turbulence as we descended, we even got a couple of roller coaster style stomach lurches (Marie was not amused) but the cabin crew seemed unconcerned so it must have been normal for this flight. We landed without incident, picked up our luggage (eventually) and headed out to meet our shuttle bus (we’d booked on through our hotel) for the drive to Goreme (about an hour away). We loaded with about a dozen other passengers (including a young Asian couple who left their pack on the seat beside them despite the bus filling up pretty quickly… until another Asian traveller (not traveling with them) got on the bus and then they quickly moved their pack so she could sit… We were also joined by a young Turkish couple who quite literally talked non-stop for the entire hour… Leading me to this conclusion about people in general: in any public setting you will have people (like us) who talk in whispers and who essentially keep a private space within the public space and there’s another group of people who treat the public space as there own and carry on conversations at full volume, etc. as if there were no other people around… This couple were the latter type of people… They jabbered away and laughed and yelled as if they were the only two people on the bus. I slept on and off for a lot of the trip which is probably what saved their lives…

Eventually we arrived in Goreme and started the milk run of drop-offs at the various hotels (glad we didn’t try to find our place on our own – we’d have needed a GPS unit at least). We piled out of the van and headed into the reception area of our hotel. There was no one there so we headed up to the restaurant where Hassan – one of the young staffers at the hotel immediately greeted us, explained that our room wasn’t going to be ready for a couple of hours (it was only 11am after all so we weren’t expecting our room to be ready) and showed us some things to do and places to go while we waited.

So we changed into some lighter clothes and headed out to find something to eat. We stopped at one of the usual touristy restaurants offering a variety of Turkish and Turkish-style dishes and ate and drank our fill… Then headed for the Goreme Open Air Museum – a UNESCO World Heritage site… To say that it was hot would be an understatement of colossal proportions…. But that didn’t stop us from making the 1km or so trek to the museum (made longer by a couple of wrong turns)…. Once at the museum we joined the usual tour groups and started exploring the site. Basically it’s the remains of a small Christian community who made their homes and their churches and monasteries and nunneries in the fairy chimneys and rocks… It’s pretty cool. You have mini-cathedrals carved out of the rock and living spaces and kitchens, etc. all carved out of the rock with tunnels connecting the various spaces. There’s lots of places they won’t let you go and you can’t take pictures in any of the churches but overall it’s a great way to spend a couple of hours… At one point we stopped to play with an adorable 7 month old German Shepherd puppy (it was a good thing his owner was there or Marie and Caitlin would literally have stolen him and snuck him home in our luggage).

After exploring the “museum” we headed back to the hotel and checked-in to our room – which is really cool. We have one of the actual cave rooms so the whole space (even the bed platform) is carved from the rock. We all took advantage of the best shower we’ve ever had in a hotel (a true double rain shower) and cleaned off the grime of travelling and refresh ourselves a bit before heading out to get something to eat. We chowed down on some delicious pitas and played some cards before exploring some of the shops on the main tourist drag. Goreme is a small town entirely based on tourism so there are lots of shops and tour agencies booking balloon flights, ATV tours, horseback tours and bus tours of the various attractions in the area.

We’d been up early and were tired out from a week of exploring Istanbul so we headed back to the room around 10:30 and called it a night. Tomorrow we’ll make some plans for what to do with our two days in the area.

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We spent these days exploring more of Istanbul’s many charms. We started by trying to get into the Blue Mosque… Didn’t quite work out. We arrived about an hour before prayer (they close the mosque to visitors during prayer times) but the lineup for visitors to get into the mosque was quite long and we didn’t think we’d get much time inside before they closed it. So we left and headed over to the Museum of Archaeology – very well done museum. The displays are a bit dated (lots of 1970s wooden cabinets) but they have a good collection of Greek and Roman stuff and lots of stuff from the various epochs of Istanbul’s history. Unfortunately, they are renovating the “old building” where a large part of the collection is housed so we did miss some stuff because it wasn’t on display – but in all, we spent a couple of hours there and all enjoyed the time. One of the best parts of the museum is that much of the signage is in English so you get the full story on the pieces (other museums… like the Louvre… could take notes).

By the time we finished with the museum, it was perfect timing to head back to the Blue Mosque for the afternoon session between prayer periods. We arrived just as they were opening it back up to visitors and had to stand in line for about half an hour before we made our way in. The mosque is pretty but to our – very westernized – eyes wasn’t as interesting as the Hagia Sophia or many of the churches we’ve seen. I suspect it has a lot to do with the different decoration – with the prohibition on icons in Islamic art, everything is geometric or floral patterns instead of the scene based decor we’re used to seeing in western churches. It’s not that one is better than the other, it’s just different and our eyes are accustomed to the more representative art of Christian churches. The other problem with the mosque is the interior space is filled with longs chains holding up light fixtures – I found the chains very distracting visually. Especially because the interior decoration is quite “light” while the chains are very “heavy” visually and seemed to dominate the more subtle blues and whites of the mosque. The other criticism is that the vast majority of the mosque is off-limits to visitors who are restricted to a small section of the main floor.

Don’t get me wrong – it’s a stunning architectural wonder and is very beautiful… it just didn’t blow our minds like it does for some people.

After the Blue Mosque we headed back to the Mahmut Pasa area so Caitlin could take a look at a dress she was interested in for her winter grad. We ended up roaming around a fair bit while she tried on a few alternates and we looked for souvenirs. We ended up buying some of the usual Istanbul tourist stuff (Turkish tea pots, an “Aladdin” style oil lamp, the usual stuff). The highlight of this part of the day, by far, though was the weather. Around 4pm the skies darkened and took on an “end of days” kind of look so we started making our way back to the Grand Bazaar (which is covered). Just as we were entering, the heavens opened up as Istanbul experienced one of the most intense lightning storms they’ve had in recent memory (we read later that planes were grounded for over an hour and that a tornado warning was issued). It was very impressive… After watching people cope with the torrential rains, and having a run-in with an officious shop owner – you need to imagine a fairly large doorway (like 20 feet wide and 15 feet high) with about 1000 people standing 50 or 60 deep in front of the doorway watching the rain come down and the lightning flash and a bunch of people trying to get into the bazaar to get out of the downpour… it’s all working pretty smoothly… now add into this a rotund (I’m being polite remember) guy who starts telling us (we would be the only people he speaks to at all) that we need to move… now consider that we are standing as far to one side as it is possible to do and are not in the way of anyone or anyone’s shop… but this guy is gesturing and telling us quite loudly that we need to move… So we take a look back at the crowd of people that isn’t going anywhere and ask him if he would like us to shove our way back or if we should just knock some people down and where exactly is it that he would like us to go…  He wasn’t amused… Gave us (me) quite a lecture… It wasn’t until afterwards that we clued in that he never spoke to anyone else… just the tourists… And just in English… The best part was the quite elderly Turkish gentleman who had witnessed the whole exchange who just smiled at us and made a gesture at the guy that eloquently communicated complete dismissal… It was beautiful… In the end, we just ignored the guy and he stopped talking… Eventually we did make our way through the Grand Bazaar and worked our way back to the Spice Bazaar where we did a bit more shopping.

It was here that I learned of the existence of white bronze and silver copper… Caitlin and I wanted to pick up one of the traditional Turkish stacking tea pots. They varied in price from about 50 lira outside the bazaar to over 150 inside and came in a variety of colours and finishes… but one thing is clear… they’re all copper. Nickel-plated copper or lacquered copper or god only knows what plated copper but they’re copper – and you can usually tell by looking at the underside of the lids where the plating is incomplete and you can still see some of the copper colour. Some of the guys were really upfront about it while others tried to pass their pots off as something special… like silver copper or white bronze (things that do exist but aren’t plated copper). Realizing that they’re probably all made in China (despite protestations to the contrary and assurances of “my pots are made right there in Istanbul”) we went with something that looked nice and was cheap… If we want to make tea the Turkish way (by making a pot of very strong tea and diluting it to the desired strength) we’ll probably just use a kettle and a tea pot but the sets look nice… But it was funny watching some of the sellers tie themselves in knots trying to explain how their pot wasn’t like the exact same pot next door that was half the price…

After shopping we took advantage of a break in the weather and headed back towards our apartment for dinner. We stopped at the same place we’d eaten before and our server treated us like royalty… Free tea, free desserts, the special bread, extra servings from the kitchen, the whole nine yards. It might have had something to do with dumping a cup of hot tea in Caitlin’s lap the night before… The young Italian and German tourists beside us kept looking at what we got and comparing it to what they were getting and wondering what was up… When I asked him what the spice on the side salad was (Sumac) and mentioned that it was delicious, he ran into the kitchen and returned with a take out container full of it for us to take home. Needless to say he got a big tip… unfortunately we found out afterwards that all tips are pooled but it didn’t seem to bother him. Tips aside, it is interesting to watch the different touts and servers work – Nemet (our server) is a natural at his job – he has an amazing ability to make you feel like a regular and a friend in a single visit (and it isn’t just the free stuff). After our second meal, he gave us his card with his phone number and asked us to call him if we needed anything while we’re in Istanbul… He appears genuinely pleased you’ve come back to his restaurant (hugs and handshakes for everyone) and goes out of his way to make the meal enjoyable (and keep in mind this isn’t a gourmet restaurant – it’s basically a self serve cafeteria with a section set aside for table service). The food was good but years from now we won’t remember at all what we ate but will remember for years the experience of eating there… Contrast that with some of the other touts who were just plain sleazy and creepy and made you want to eat anywhere but at their restaurant.

For those looking for a different salad, try this: Slice a red onion quite thin. Chop up some flat leaf parsley and mix the onion and parsley together. Then squeeze some lemon (just a little bit) on them and drizzle them with some olive oil (again just a hint)… Then sprinkle sumac on it… Simple, light, refreshing and incredibly delicious… The sumac has a kind of sweet-peppery-lemony flavour that balances the onions perfectly. With spiced meat it was delicious! Another dish we’ve enjoyed is acili ezme  – basically a Turkish salsa eaten with bread or added as a condiment to doner or kebaps… There’s lots of different ways of making it and it can very from quite wet and runny to dry and pasty but it’s delicious and can have a fair bit of a kick (it’s usually made with a chili paste called harissa – which can be hard to find – but here’s a recipe that seems pretty close to what we’ve been eating

After our late dinner it was back to the hotel to call it a night.

The next day we woke up and headed to Mahmut Pasa so Caitlin could buy her dress (a night’s sleep had convinced her it was the one and Marie got to bargain on the price so everyone was happy) then decided to head for the other side of Istanbul – the Istiklal Street and Taksim Square area. Before we left the Mahmut Pasa area, though, we got caught up briefly in a “march” of some sorts – we think (based on the number of people flanking him and the media recording every move) that it was the current Prime Minister of Turkey (Recep Erdogan) and the front runner for the presidential election to be held on Sunday out pressing the flesh… Not really knowing what he looks like (except from his pictures on the all the election posters around town) it was hard to be sure but people sure seemed excited to see him and there were a ton of people flanking him so it might have been.

Eventually we made our way to the other side of Istanbul – the more modern, cosmopolitan side of Istanbul (where we’ve been staying is the old town and our neighbourhood is kind of a rough around the edges part of the old town). Getting to the square was easy on Istanbul’s modern tram system (although it’s funny to see these super modern trams running through these old neighbourhoods) – in one place people are eating in little cafes so close to the tram line they could reach up and touch the cars as they go by – and the trams run along the roads so they’re subject to traffic as well… and pedestrians dashing across the street in front of them and delivery trucks, etc.

We explored this area for a bit (lots of the usual shops – Gap, H & M, etc.) – and a lot of bars and restaurants made this area a lot more touristy but we still enjoyed wandering around for a couple of hours. We even rode the historical street car that takes you from one end of the street up to Taksim Square (the site of most of Istanbul’s political protests). Along the way we passed the riot police (not sure why they were out in force as nothing was happening. They weren’t in riot gear but they were heavily armed and had the crowd control vehicle armed with water cannons parked nearby…). We also checked out a very beautiful neo-gothic style Catholic cathedral (St. Anthony of Padua) – it was built at the start of the 20th century in the style of the gothic cathedrals… It was one of the most beautiful churches we’ve been on in our travels (and believe me when I tell you we’ve been in a lot of churches – Marie gravitates towards them like I do towards museums). We ate lunch in one of the doner places on the strip (food was good but service was lousy and prices were a fair bit higher than in our neck of the woods) and then decided to head for Dohlmabace Palace – built by the sultans in the middle of the 19th century as part of a movement to “westernize” the Ottoman Empire.

It’s very impressive – particularly the crystal chandeliers – including a 4 and 1/2 ton one in the great hall. The only downside to the palace is you can’t explore on your own so you have to take a tour (ugh) and you can’t take pictures. Our tour group was huge and poorly behaved (lots of talking, taking pictures and getting chewed out for it, etc.) but the palace was very interesting and our tour guide tried hard.

After that it was back to our side of the water to take one of the short Bosphorus boat cruises… We paid our 12 lira ($6 cdn) each and piled on a large tour boat crammed with people – there were no good seats left so we staked out a place as close to the bow as they’d let us and enjoyed the cruise up and down the Bosphorus (the body of water that separates Istanbul). We passed a couple of palaces built by more Sultans (it used to be custom to live in the palace your ancestors built… ie. Topkapi Palace… but in the 19th century they adopted the practice of building something of your own), a bunch of yalis – wood frame mansions right on the water’s edge that are some of the most desirable properties in Istanbul (easy to see why… they’re gorgeous and are literally right at the water’s edge). Aside from a near miss with another tour boat, and a wave that gave Caitlin and Marie a good dousing (hazards of being close to the bow) the whole thing was quite enjoyable and seeing Istanbul from the water gives an idea of how diverse this city is… As boaters, we had tremendous respect for the skills of the captains of the boats – there’s a wicked current in parts of the Bosphorus and these guys (we assume they’re all men) handle these large tour boats like they’re little runabouts…

After the cruise, we grabbed a light snack to tide us over while we picked up some last souvenirs then regrouped at the hotel before heading out to the festive Kumkapi area for a fancier dinner (it was our last night). Big mistake. We settled on a restaurant that seemed to be having a good time (and that promised free fruit, free tea and coffee and free dessert!). Well we placed our order (no appies and only 2 mains because Marie and Caitlin always share) it became clear we weren’t up to their table limits… We managed to get a drink and then didn’t see our waiter again for 20 minutes… No bread. No fruit. No followup… So we left. Told the tout at the front we weren’t pleased and went looking for someplace with better service. Kind of a bummer on our last night… we should have just eaten at Sars again… In the end we wound up at a little kebap place across the street from our hotel – food was okay but we saved on the prices so it was all good.

Then it was back to the room at 11:00 pm to pack and get ready for our 5:30am wakeup to get to the airport for our flight to Cappadocia.

We’ll end with the story of one of the very charming young street vendors who (like many of the young men we interacted with) took a shine to Caitlin… even offered 5 camels and a 1/2 kilo of gold for her… Marie was having none of it (something about Caitlin being a keeper) but I was willing to see what kind of shape the camels were in…

If you’re looking for an exotic but accessible place to visit, make it a must do. We loved Istanbul… but we are looking forward to a bit smaller places and a little less hecticness. Istanbul is friendly and charming and vibrant and everything you’ve ever heard… but it’s also crowded and crazy and very tiring (at least when you’re walking everywhere and everyday starts and ends with a 1km trek up or down a massive freaking hill!)


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Today we were supposed to get up bright and early to visit some of the more popular museums and sights in Istanbul… Didn’t really happen as everyone was still pretty tired from our epic Veliko Tarnovo to Istanbul adventure but with a quick breakfast of yogurt and cereal (gotta love a room with a fridge when you’re traveling) we managed to get to Topkapi Palace around 10:30…

We started by purchasing our museum card (85 Turkish lira per person) at the Hagia Irene – way across the park from the massive crowd of people waiting in line to buy tickets to Topkapi Palace. The museum card gives you entrance to a bunch of the main museums and attractions (if you go to 4 of them it pretty much pays for itself) and is supposed to give you some kind of skip-the-line privileges. After purchasing our tickets we headed right into the Hagia Irene – there was no lineup to skip. In fact, including us, there were 5 people in the building when we entered… Which is a shame because it’s a really cool experience. Not worth 20 lira ($10 cdn) per person but still pretty cool.

Hagia Irene was a basilica church similar to the Hagia Sophia (in fact it was the second largest church in Istanbul for a long time). Now it’s a barebones shell of a basilica church – there’s basically no decoration at all in the building – just bare brick and rock. It really gives you a sense of how these buildings were constructed and how the decoration plays such an integral part in the creation of the finished inner space. The only downside is that they only allow you onto the main level of the building so you can’t really explore the upper levels (and there’s a big net to catch the pigeon poop that interferes with views of the main dome). We spent about a 1/2 hr exploring the space and then headed over to Topkapi Palace… we should have spent more time in the peace and tranquility of the Hagia Irene… we needed it.

We arrived at the Topkapi Palace entrance to find a massive queue of people trying to get in… That was because there is only one way in and out of the palace compound. And on the way in you must pass your bags through an x-ray machine and pass yourself through a metal detector… All while people are trying to get out as well. To say that it was chaotic would be a massive understatement. It was pure, unadulterated hell for anyone who hates crowds (that would be me) and it took disdain for the tourist (ie. the paying customer) to a level not even contemplated by the French (whose approach could best be summarized as “figure it out for yourself… we’re French after all”). People (okay, one poor young woman to accurate) were puking. There were tears. People were throwing elbows. Mothers were trying to push their kids in strollers while hordes of people jockeyed for position and tried to get into the compound. I survived by telling myself this is what it would have felt like if an invading army had breached the gates and was trying to storm the palace…

Finally, we entered the palace compound and found a large rectangular green space with buildings on all sides and lots of trees and courtyards scattered throughout… We hung a right and entered a display of kitchen stuff and food preparation equipment etc. (no pictures of course). It was well done (lots of multimedia stuff, good signage) and reasonably interesting – it didn’t blow my mind but it was interesting.

After the kitchen experience we headed out into the courtyard where a group of men in uniforms of various periods of the Ottoman Empire were banging on drums, playing a variety of instruments and “singing” – turns out this was the Janissary Band (elite infantry units that formed part of the Sultan’s household guard) doing what they do. They were probably pretty amazing soldiers and could probably do some amazing infantry type stuff… but sing… not so much. I don’t know if these guys have any connection to the military or are just summer students hired for the tourist gig (I think one guy was sporting a fake moustache) but the singing was a bit rough… The music overall was stirring though…

After the Janissary Band we made our way through another gate to the next level of compound. Once again, this was a one gate for everyone coming and going so it was a bit of a struggle to get through… I think Caitlin only threw a couple of elbows. Once through the bottle neck we were in another rectangular space with a variety of pavilions, buildings, etc. We chose the one on our right – turned out it was a treasury. The lineup was long. The inner space was hellacious – hot, minimal air flow, hordes of people and small, intricate treasures with teeny-tiny little signs explaining what they were (the whole experience would have been made more enjoyable by using a larger font – ie. one that people could read from more than 12″ away). Despite this, there were some very beautiful treasures (lots of gold and precious gems).

After this, things kind of devolved into a swarm of cruise ship passengers and small spaces. I remember one space where a whole bunch of precious relics of the prophets of Islam and the Old Testament were displayed (one was supposedly Moses’ staff – yeah the Ten Commandments, part the Red Sea Moses – personally I thought it would be bigger). There were simply too many people in the spaces for anyone to truly get anything from the displays or artifacts. And far too many people were just plain rude – cutting in lines, blocking spaces, pushing and shoving. It was unpleasant… and spectacularly hot… which is unfortunate because there were some really beautiful buildings and a lot of Ottoman history on display. But to be really honest, I love museums (ask Marie and Caitlin) and I was getting antsy to leave.

We considered grabbing something to drink at a restaurant/cafe with a spectacular view of Istanbul but were thwarted by the $7 ($14 lira) cans of coke and other ridiculously expensive prices. So we made our way to the Harem (the personal quarters of the royal family, concubines, etc.). It was actually pretty cool (literally and figuratively) and you could take pictures (bonus!).

After the Harem we left the palace compound and headed to a local self-serve restaurant for something to eat and then continued our exploration of Istanbul’s historic sites by heading to the Basilica Cistern. This one was really cool (again figuratively and literally). Literally because you’re a couple of stories underground in a large domed space with columns spaced every 5 metres or so… Figuratively because the whole space was designed and built as an underwater cistern (tank for storing water) back in the 6th century… It’s atmospherically lit and there are ghostly carp swimming around in the waters and it was gloriously cool… Albeit a little more crowded than I would have liked… but a welcome respite after the Topkapi Palace crowds and heat.

Reluctantly we made our way back into the sunshine and made our way to the Hagia Sophia – a huge basilica church built in 537 C.E. It doesn’t look like much from the outside (lots of scaffolding and plywood around) – I wasn’t even sure it was the actual Hagia Sophia at first (Caitlin was right) and there’s a huge scaffold constructed on one side of the interior but it’s an amazing space – as Marie said when we entered “this is one of those places you only get to see on National Geographic or those documentary channels.” It’s so visibly old and so big (the main dome is over 180′ high – you could fit an 18 story building in there!). Most of the decoration is pretty minimalist (flowers, geometric designs) so it survived the conversion to a mosque in the 1400s. Unfortunately, the mosaics depicting saints and figures from the Bible were plastered over when it was converted to a mosque and many were not recoverable. In all, we spent over an hour wandering around and taking pictures then headed outside and made our way back to our area through another bazaar (high end artisan stuff way out of our price league) and the old Hippodrome (rectangular shaped space used for chariot races, etc. back in the Roman times). We eventually made our way to our apartment (stopping a couple of times – first for ice cream and then Turkish tea) where we changed clothes (lots of sweat today) and regrouped and before heading out for dinner.

We ended up eating at the same touristy place we’d eaten at on our first night in Istanbul (the one we picked because the guy said Marie was calm and kind)… It was a good choice – our server remembered us from the night before and piled on the free stuff… We got the special bread hot from the oven, free tea (and apple tea for Marie) and free desserts. In the end, I think he brought out as much free stuff as our bill came to (30 lira or about $15 cdn for our whole dinner) – needless to say he got a great tip. And the food’s not bad at all.

After that it was time to head back to the apartment and call it a night. Tomorrow we’re planning to be up a bit earlier to try and get a jump on the lines at the Blue Mosque.

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Whew… Where do we start?  Istanbul is everything we’ve heard and more. About 15 million people live in Istanbul and they all seem to be on the streets at once. Driving is a nightmare. Traffic on the warrens of side streets and alleys has to be seen to be believed. There’s cats everywhere – literally everywhere – they’re in the museums and cemeteries and restaurants and bazaars.. And there are stray dogs in many places too (although we haven’t seen as many as we expected to). There’s restaurants or cafes on every street corner and people selling corn, mussels, pretzels, döner kebaps, roasted chestnuts and other foods every 20′ or so. The people are friendly and charming – the men with something to sell especially. It’s also spectacularly dirty and rundown and there are some side streets you don’t want to venture down and more than a few seedy, sketchy characters you don’t want to meet in a dark alley – or on a brightly lit street for that matter. So far, we’re loving it!

We started our first full day in Istanbul with a bit of a late start followed by breakfast in our room (yogurt, cereal and juice) then set out for our first destination – The Grand Bazaar. This place has been a market/bazaar since the 1400s and parts of the present incarnation date back to the 1600s… There’s between 3000 and 5000 “stores” on 60 “streets” and they get between 250,000 and 400,000 visitors per day. Unlike some of the markets we’ve been to in other cities, this one is about selling good quality stuff. There’s a few tacky tourist shops but most of the shops are selling relatively high end stuff – that’s probably because leases for a spot in the Grand Bazaar can run upwards of $80,000 a year. Prices are a bit higher for a lot of stuff because of the high rents but the variety and selection can’t be beaten… And the sales pitches are definitely part of the experience. From creepy  to pushy  to just plain charming these guys (we only saw a handful of women working the shops) can sell anything and “no thanks” just means they need to try harder. We were there for a couple of hours and saw a small fraction of the shops but didn’t buy much (we wanted to check prices in other parts of the city before buying at the bazaar). Marie and Caitlin did try on a few leather jackets, we looked at lamps and tea sets and Marie got the whole history of Turkish Delight from a charming young Syrian man. Caitlin, in particular, was the darling of the touts as they singled her out for all kinds of come-ons…

On that note, Caitlin had read in some of the guidebooks and online that many of the sellers were pushy and obnoxious and that it was unpleasant… She found it all good fun as did we. Some of the sellers are a bit rude but we just said “no thanks” and kept walking – the rest we found charming and some were hysterical. They have tough jobs – there’s 50 other people selling the exact same stuff just down the “street” and dealing with people is a tough gig… Dealing with a 1/4 million a day is insane… Kudos to the ones who can find a bit of humour and keep a smile day in and day out in a place like that… We weren’t put off in the least by the behaviour of the sellers but were a bit dismayed at the rudeness of the buyers.

After a while, we started to see a lot of the same items (although we’d only seen a fraction of the bazaar) so we stepped outside. We had been told by our landlord to look for Mahmutpasa street if we wanted to find better prices. Somehow we managed to exit the grand bazaar right onto Mahmutpasa and found ourselves shopping with the entire population of Istanbul  and a good part of the rest of the world as well. It was wall to wall people at times and the sheer volume of goods for sale is staggering. From tacky tourist t-shirts to high end evening gowns and dresses, it’s all for sale on Mahmutpasa… Caitlin spent some time in the high end dress shops looking at potential dresses for her winter grad (yup… in Victoria, students go to two! grad dinner dance things – the real one in June and a “winter grad” dinner and dance in December… and they need fancy dresses for both…). She found a couple she liked and we’ll try to find our way back to the shops later in the trip to try them on one more time before she makes a final decision.

We stopped for a quick bite to eat at one of the döner kebap places – doner are gyros or donairs back home. Spiced meat cooked on a vertical rotisserie served with pita and a few veggies… They’re delicious. The server was awesome (we got a kick out of him calling Marie and I his “momma” and “poppa” – he got a kick out of us telling him that a good “son” would pay for his parents’ meal) and with drinks the price was pretty reasonable for a filling and very tasty “lunch.” After that we continued down Mahmutpasa until we reached the Spice Bazaar – a much smaller version of the Grand Bazaar dedicated mostly to teas and spices but with a good smattering of other stuff for sale as well. You know you’re getting close to the Spice Bazaar by the smell – you can smell it about 1/2 a block away – this heady, intoxicating mix of spices (not at all like the “pungent” (to be charitable) aroma of bazaars in Thailand or Cambodia… We wandered around a bit sampling teas and checking prices before buying a bit of Turkish black tea, some kebap spice and some vanilla bean… We also got the lowdown on how to make Turkish tea (which is delicious). The secret is to make the tea strong (2 tablespoons of tea to about 2-3 cups of water) then dilute it with plain water to the desired strength… the result is strong tea that isn’t bitter… The only downside to the Spice Bazaar was the outrageously obnoxious behaviour of the throngs of women coming off the cruise ships… Don’t know what nationality they were but their behaviour was actually shameful – loud, rude, pushy beyond belief and spectacularly self-entitled – they grabbed, pushed, argued and basically made louts of themselves everywhere we turned. Even Caitlin was throwing elbows by the time we were done and Marie is still somewhat in shock that someone actually grabbed her and pushed her out of the way at one point… But even that couldn’t take away from the experience…

After the Spice Bazaar we headed back up Mahmutpasa, Caitlin tried on a couple more dresses and then we headed back to the apartment for a bit of rest and a regroup and then we headed out to explore a bit more and to have dinner. We made our way to the Sultanahmet area (a couple of tram stops from our apartment) and just kind of poked around and did the gawky tourist thing for while before heading back to one of the restaurants we’d passed (and where the tout had been especially friendly and charming) for dinner. Then we headed to our landlord’s restaurant to pay him for our stay (he was willing to give us a discount if we’d pay in cash rather than use the credit card so we needed to get more $$$). Then it was back to the apartment to call it a night – the lousy sleep from the day before, the heat and the crowds had done us all in.

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Our day started well enough. It was pretty late when we turned in last night so we ended up sleeping in a little bit this morning. We still made it downstairs in plenty of time for our free breakfast, though… and what a breakfast it was. A small glass of orange juice (glorified Tang), a cup of tea and 4 slices of white bread with salami and cheese. But it was free so no one’s complaining (at least not loudly).

After breakfast we finished packing up and went back downstairs to check out and store our packs for the day then headed out to explore Tsaravets Castle (more accurately Tsaravets citadel or acropolis) – I don’t know much of the history of this place other than it was built during the middle ages and is pretty huge. It’s situated (as is the case with most such fortifications) at the top of a hill with sheer cliffs on a couple of sides and must have been quite something in its day. Now all that’s left are the foundations of the inner buildings, some reconstructed buildings (not spectacularly accurately, I suspect) and sections of the fortress walls and towers. It cost us 6 Bulgarian lev (about $4.20 cdn) to get into the site and you can pretty much explore to your heart’s content so it’s good value. Unfortunately, all the signage is in Bulgarian or German so we didn’t get as much out of it as we might have liked but it was still worth a couple of hours.

After the fortress we hopped on a little tourist train (4 lev each for the adults but the “child” rode for free – Caitlin is still seething at being relegated to child status but Marie was happy to save the $2.80). The train was really nice (basically brand new) but the “tour” was pretty lame – basically the train acts as a shuttle bus for a parking lot at the bottom of the fortress… so you drive down to the parking lot and then you turn around and go back the way you came. There’s no commentary of any kind and not much to see so in all it was sort of disappointing. But we didn’t have anything else we needed to do so it was no loss.

After the train, we roamed around a bit checking out the souvenir shops – good prices, decent selection of things we haven’t seen before – the pottery was especially good value (like $14 for pots that would cost $50-60 back home) but we’re pretty limited in our space so bringing back a whole bunch of cheap Bulgarian pottery isn’t going to happen any time soon. After a bit of souvenir shopping we took a break at one of the cafes and grabbed something to eat and drink and played a couple of hands of hearts and then headed back out to do some more exploring and shopping. Marie and Caitlin found a few bargains while I popped into a hillside restaurant/bar to check out the scenery, work on the blog and have a cold grapefruit Radler…

Soon it was time to head back to the hotel to retrieve our packs. After picking up our packs we stopped at a pizza/pasta joint and ordered some food to go, then grabbed a taxi to the train station ($3.50 cdn and saved a half hour of walking at least). At the station we queued up with our fellow Istanbul-bound passengers and waited for the bus to arrive. It showed up more or less on time and we piled on to start our 13 hour epic bus and train journey to the fabled city of Istanbul… If only it had all turned out that way.

We had only been on the road for about 25 minutes when we turned off and stopped in Middleofnowheresgradski – as in one store with 16 bottles of beer and a can of Fanta in the fridge – we waited there for almost an hour for a mini-bus to show up with 3 people on it… The highlight was definitely the running of the goats down the main drag… Yup, a whole herd of goats comes trotting down the main street and then splits off into 3 smaller groups – each going its own way. Which explained the two guys sitting on a chair drinking beer with long wooden “switches” – as soon as “their” goats turned up, they finished off their beer and headed after their goats. It was quite comical… After what seemed like an eternity (but only because we hadn’t experienced a real eternity yet) we piled back on the bus and resumed our trip. I think we might have made a couple of quick stops after that but nothing noteworthy… But then came Dimitrovgrad… Somehow we ended up there about 2 hrs earlier than the schedule we were given said we’d get there… They needn’t have bothered with a schedule.

As soon as we pulled in our driver was like “it’s off the bus time to switch buses, wait here” and then, after throwing open the luggage compartments, was gone – never to be seen again… Which was probably a good thing because someone might have killed him as the evening progressed. We waited for about an hour until the anticipated bus (the one that was supposed to take us to Kapikule, Turkey) showed up… When it finally arrived it had 5 empty spaces… Only problem? There were about 30 of us looking to get to Istanbul tonight… It quickly became apparent that we weren’t all going to fit on the bus. With visions of Hunger Games dancing in our heads we queued up for a while at the front door of the bus until it became clear that it wasn’t going to work out.

So we waited (without any explanation from the bus company staff) for another hour and half until some genius decided to call for a second bus for the overflow passengers (or maybe he called earlier – we wouldn’t no because no one did any explaining). So we waited another half hour for the second bus to show up… Then we waited another half hour for the driver to show up… Finally – more than 2.5 hours later we were pulling out of Dimitrovgrad headed for Smilograd or Smaugville or some damn place… all we knew is that it most definitely was not the place we were scheduled to go to… Everybody dozed fitfully for a couple of hours until it became increasingly clear that the driver was completely lost… He was talking to someone on his cell phone while going the wrong way down one way streets for a while until we turned off onto a rutted gravel road that apparently led to the Smirnoff of Sackville or whatever it was called customs station… Where a guy in nothing even remotely resembling a uniform collected all our passports and went back into the station to do something with them (I think he was writing down the pertinent information on a sheet of paper but who knows). After about 45 minutes we were back on the road again heading for god-only-knows-where-grad but hey, we did pass some signs saying “Istanbul” so we must be on the right track… Alas it was not to last.

We pulled into a 24 hr kind of rest stop not far from where we cleared Bulgarian customs (presumably that was why they collected our passports) around 3:45am and were told we’d need to wait for about an hour for the Turkish bus to arrive and then it would take us to Istanbul… It’s now 5:40am and I’m sitting outside on a plastic chair typing this blog entry (I’m outside with the frogs and the mosquitos because with the doors closed and the engine turned off the interior of the bus heats to 6th level of hell temperatures in about 9 minutes). We left Veliko Tarnovo around 7:30pm… We’ve been on the road (metaphorically because much of the time has been spent waiting) for 10 hours and apparently we have 5 more hours of driving in front of us whenever we leave.

Highlights of the trip thus far:

1) The kids who pulled out a ukelele and headed to the nearest shop to buy beer as soon as it became apparent we were going to be in Dimitrovgrad for a while. Kudos to them for making the best of a bad situation… but please, please, for the love of all that is holy and good learn some decent music. Beyonce songs are not made for the ukelele nor should they ever be played on such…

2) The Bulgarian grandmother who clearly has a timetable to keep to… She speaks no English but has pestered every single person on the bus at least twice to confirm we’re going to Istanbul, to ask how long it will take (presumably because she keeps pointing at her imaginary watch) and who just finished railing at the driver (who, remember was pulled out of bed – or the bar – at 2am to drive) so vociferously that he gave up trying to sleep and is now out here with those of us who are braving the bugs and the frogs… She has, at one time or another, managed to disrupt almost everyone’s sleep on the bus by chewing out the bus driver. Her days may be numbered if this trip lasts any longer.

3) The spectacularly creepy dude who took way too much interest in Caitlin and Marie – fortunately he deciphered the cave man glare I gave him (assisted no doubt by some strategic body positioning to quite deliberately put myself between him and them) before anything more drastic had to be done… Kudos to Caitlin for picking up on his creepiness instantly. Her radar was obviously working overtime at 1am in the sketchy Bulgarian bus stop.

4) Nature pees… Caitlin and Marie heading off with a flashlight to let ‘er rip in the urban park (more accurately a strip of green space with a couple of trees sandwiched between the bus depot and the strip clubs and late night stores) where we waited incessantly for the bus – any bus to arrive. They weren’t the only ones doing it… There was a pretty steady stream (no pun intended) of people heading for the bushes while we waited.

5) Marie feeling okay for most of it… Of course the half bottle of Ginger Gravol she took over the course of the trip (okay it wasn’t half a bottle… it was only 8 tablets… out of 20 in a bottle…)

It’s now 6:04am and we’ve just finished piling onto an even more dilapidated bus (I wasn’t sure that was even possible given the state of disrepair of the ones we’ve ridden so far) and are pulling out of the parking lot. If I understand things this is going to go one of two ways from this point: either this bus is going to take us all the way to Istanbul or this bus is going to take us to Kapikule and we’ll need to get on another bus that will then take us to Istanbul.

We just cleared Bulgarian passport control (everybody disembarks from the bus and walks up to a window where your passport is scanned and stamped) then you pile back on the bus and drive across the border to Turkish passport control. There’s a line of maybe 4 buses ahead of us (most with a stream of passengers catching up to the bus with their duty free purchases). At the Turkish side of the border, they come aboard the bus and collect passports (not all but most – some countries must not need visas or scanning or something) and then disappear into officialdom with our passports and printed visas (you apply for and get them electronically before you leave Canada – at a cost of $60 USD for each!). We’re just sitting in the line idling and then it’s off to Kapikule to switch buses (again) for the final trip to Istanbul. In all, it took us just under an hour to clear the border and get to the Kapikule bus depot so it’s now about 8am…

At Kapikule, order and decent customer service took over. The Turkish side of the operation quickly got us off our beater bus (this thing was clearly pulled out of retirement for tonight’s shenanigans) and onto a smaller bus (perhaps a bit too small as there wasn’t enough luggage space for all our packs) that was in pretty decent shape. They showed everyone to the bathrooms (something most of the people on the bus hadn’t seen since just before 2am when we left Dimtrovgrad) and were friendly and communicative – a stark contrast to the Bulgarian side of the operation who never spoke, never smiled and couldn’t have cared less if anyone needed to use a toilet…

We pulled out of Kapikule and headed for Istanbul (about 3 hours away) in a much better frame of mind. The only downside to this part of the trip was the heat in the bus – in about 5 minutes it was literally a sauna in the bus – a bus, remember, with 22 (Marie counted) people who have not slept well and who have not showered in quite a few hours (some in quite a few days from the smell of them)… It got pretty ripe and extremely hot really fast – which just helped everyone get a bit more sleep. After 2 hours of driving we stopped at a rest area (with a variety of food options and bathrooms no less) for a quick 10 minute pee break and then piled in and made the last part of the trip…

There are a couple of jobs I would not do for love or money – a bus driver in Istanbul would be very near the top of that list. The traffic in this city is insane – think 3 lane highways made into 6 lane highways by people just driving wherever there’s a space. Think roundabouts with no lights and people cutting from the outside of the roundabouts to the inside at high speed. We entered Istanbul around 10:30 am and didn’t arrive at our destination (Silecek Train Station) until 11:30 (most of that last hour was stop and go bumper car traffic – no wonder the driver lit up a smoke (despite the no smoking signs all over the bus).

In all, our trip from Veliko Tarnovo ended up taking 16 hours and 4 separate buses… But we made it. There were a few moments where we weren’t entirely sure they weren’t just going to dump us off the bus and leave us but in the end they got us all here in one piece (more or less).

Once in Istanbul we found a bank machine and stocked up on Turkish currency, then hit a tourist information booth for a map and some instructions about using the tram system to get to our apartment/hotel… We figured it all out, shouldered our packs and climbed aboard the first tram heading in the right direction. Four stops later we piled off (right at the historic Grand Bazaar no less) and then made a quick right and started walking down a pretty impressive hill towards the water… Near the bottom of the hill we hooked another right and within 5 minutes found Ajans Pi House. They were awesome! Grabbed us a seat. Offered us some tea or coffee while we waited for the manager (Muharrem) who quickly showed us the room and then walked us to his restaurant around the corner a bit where he gave us some information about Istanbul, talked a bit about the food we were eating (which was delicious – although a bit higher priced than some of the more touristy restaurants in the area) and then left us to our well-deserved (and much needed) afternoon power nap. He was a breath of fresh air after all the lousy and indifferent service we’ve had on this trip. We’re hoping to touch base with him a couple more times during our stay…

Our room here in Istanbul is small but comfortable. It’s suffered a bit of wear and tear but is clean and they provide daily room cleaning (something we haven’t had much of at all this trip) and they provide free bottled water and soda water (a nice touch in a place where even the locals drink bottled water) and tea for breakfast.

After a couple of hours we roused ourselves long enough to do a quick turn around the neighbourhood (we’re staying in the Kumkapi area near the sea with lots of fish markets and restaurants) and then headed back to one of the touristy places near the tram stop and had a light dinner (this area is lile the Plaka in Athens – every restaurant has people outside trying to convince you to eat their place… we choice ours because the guy called Marie “calm and kind” – she was hooked! After dinner, it was off to a market to stock up on breakfast foods (yogurt, cereal, juice and fruit) because the room includes a bar fridge (score!) and now we’re just finishing up blogs, checking emails and reading the news before turning out the lights and calling it a day… Or more accurately two days I guess.

It’s been an adventure getting here and Istanbul – a city of 15 million people – defies description but we’re super excited to be here and have a pretty full list of places we want to see and things we want to do so it’s off to bed now…

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