Date of Trip: August 2011
I travel mostly through home exchanges and this trip was no exception. I arrived in Turkey August 6th, met my home exchangers and took off for Cappadocia for 4 nights (Fairy Chimney Inn). The hotel was one of the cave hotels and was very nice. I was charged 55 euros a night. Be aware that many tourist places quote prices in euros (and less frequently in dollars) to protect against the ups and downs of the Turkish lira). I spent my days doing tours with Yama tours to all the usual places (underground city, Goreme open air museum, hiking along a river, seeing churches in caves, etc.). My only problem — and it was to cause problems throughout the trip — was that my hiking boots blistered my right foot and problems with the blisters were to recur throughout the trip. The hiking boots, I guess, should not be worn several days in a row. Yuk. I enjoyed everything I saw. If you go and stay at the Fairy Chimney Inn, enjoy the breakfasts and have dinner there at night as well on the nights when it was available. I did see the dervishes whirl one evening in an old caravanserai — definitely worth it.
I used Pegasus Air from Sabitha Gokcen Airport to get back and forth from Istanbul (Asian side). If you are going to do this, do it the day after you arrive in Istanbul — the European side airport (Ataturk) is the one you will arrive at and the two airports are very far apart. I was in Cappadocia August 7-11, 2011.
Arriving back in Istanbul on the Asian side, I thought it would be easy to get where I was staying. I had a street address and a map. It wasn’t easy. After 3 Turkish taxi driver experiences during my stay, I concluded that, unless it is a major site or hotel, the taxi drivers (most of whom work out of a centralized station) really only know places in and around their area or major hotels downtown. I never felt I was being “taken for a ride” (as can happen in NYC) but the drivers kept rolling down the window to ask for directions (while keeping the meter running over my protests; one taxi driver did take a few lira off the fare, but only one of them). Istanbul is very difficult to navigate because a lot of streets simply do not have signs (you have troubles with reading maps when you are exploring as well). The locals know where everything is, but, of course, the tourists just get confused. If you ask someone where you are, no one can tell you with certainty because they don’t know the names of the streets either. Suffice it to say, I got to the house.
This was a very difficult home exchange. My exchangers left me very little information. Since their son has a BA from a college in the United States and speaks English better than some Americans I know, there should have been written directions — at a minimum — of all the ways I could get downtown from Cevezli. After a couple of tries with the minibus to the Eminou ferry, I found the train station (a 10 minute walk from the apartment) and took that to Hydrapassa and then the ferry to Kadakoy. I also liked Kadakoy better than Eminou because the tram to Sultanamet — the one I used constantly — was a shorter walk from Kadoky than from Eminou. I do recommend the pistachio baklava at Hafiz Muhammed on the way to Sultanamet if you are going to walk up (not advisable but I did it the first time because, well, I was stupid).
Things I saw in Istanbul (not a comprehensive list):
1. Topkapi Palace. I spent about 5 hours there. It was the first thing I saw when I got to Istanbul as it is one of those sights that you dream of seeing all your life and it did not disappoint. I did buy the ticket for the harem and thoroughly enjoyed every minute of my time there. It was the only day I had overcast weather. I had absolutely no rain during my trip while my exchangers had the eastcoast earthquake and a hurricane (fortunately missed the DC area where I live). You cannot predict the weather on a holiday. Istanbul was warm and sticky, but DC is worse during the summer. Just remember that, unlike the East Coast US, it cools off at night in Istanbul. I ate at the restaurant at the Palace. Yes, it is a tourist trap and the food was lousy, but the view was worth it and my feet were tired. I did purchase the audioguide. Some of the commentary was good, some routine. When you get ready to see the treasures, there is a long queue (which I waited in). If you are pressed for time, bypass the first set of rooms (and the queue) and just go to the second set of rooms. The interesting stuff — the dagger with the 3 emeralds and the so called spponmakers’ diamond — are in the last one.
2. Ayasofia. I think I enjoyed this more than Topkapi. It is absolutely stunning. Remember to climb to upper floor via the ramp because the most stunning mosaic (the ones that are in all the books) are there. To think it was all built by hand and has lasted this long. Unbelievable. What was really nice is someone handed me a ticket to it the previous day at Topkapi. He had bought it and was not going to use it. There can be huge queues for tickets and I did not have to submit to that experience. I was told that the renovation scaffolding had recently been removed in case any of you experienced Turkey travelers wondered.
3. The Blue Mosque. You will have to brave the carpet shop hustlers (“I just want to practice my English”) going in and out, but, of couse you will want to see this. If you need them, long skirt wraps and headscarves are provided. I had no problem in all the mosques.
4. Sulimanye mosque. I saw this one with Gamze Artaman (who I engaged for a private one day tour — expensive, but worth it, as we went to a lot of out of the way places, and, of course, she knows everything). Much quieter than the Blue Mosque. Designed by Sinan. I saw his tomb but those of Suleiman and Roxanne were unavailable tdue to renovations. There is a nice restaurant attached but I never got there.
5. Rustem Paha Mosque. This small mosque is the one with all the Itzik tiles that you see in all the books. Another Gamze Artaman winner.
6. The Chora Church. Put this one up there right with the Topkapi Palace. The mosaics are stunning. I took a lot of photos (in fact I have over 1,000 photos and a major job awaits me with those). Went with Gamze
7. The Archeological Museum. Really great museum. If you have the time, it’s a must see.
8. The Istanbul Eats tour. This was fabulous although we could only do the Beygolu walk. Sultanamet was not operating because it was Ramazan the entire time of my trip (with houme exchanges, you do take what you get). Tasted all sorts of unusual food I would have missed. We did eat the milk pudding that has the chicken breast in it (no it does not taste like chicken).
9. Basilica Cistern. Interesting for about 15 minutes. I bet there is a lto more to be seen underneath Istanbul’s streets with so much history.
10. The Great Palace Mosaic Museum. This one blew me away. Almost no tourists at all. Basically, they have discovered where the Byzantine Palace was located and the mosaics have been left in situ and turned into a museum. Off the Arasta Bazaar. Very difficult to find, but worth the effort.
11. The Great Bazaar. I went with Gamze for about 20 minutes and she bargained for me for a small necklace with the tugra (sultan’s seal) on it that you see all over Turkey. I never went back because, well, if I did, I might have regretted it.
12. Arasta Bazaar and Ramazan booths on the plaza in front of the Blue Mosque. I bought a necklace from one of the stalls (my major purchases were some small jewelry itemsand nothing of any significant value). The Arasta Bazaar is much more manageable than The Grand Bazaar with its 4,000 shops. You will not get lost. I bought a t-shirt that says “Turkish Tea Shirt” with a recipe for tea on it. I had another interaction with a rug guy (this time very funny). When he approached, I said I had no intention of buying a rug. His response was “Couldn’t you buy a rug by accident?” Now that line would have gotten me in his shop if I had had the least bit interest. Since I don’t know Turkish carpets from rubbermaid bathmats, I just thought it was a scene I had better avoidand I did.
13. Jewish Museum in Kadakoy. It’s in an old synagogue. Very small, but interesting. I read a novel by Ayse Kushin called “Last Train to Istanbul” based on a true story about how Turkey got some of its Jews (and some others who really weren’t Turkish) out of France during World War II during my stay in Istanbul. It is based on a true story and the true story was in the museum. Very interesting especially if you are Jewish.
14. Taksim Square. The great square near where all the upscale hotels are located. Istikal Caddesi begins there (main shopping street). Interesting to walk the side streets but the Square is largely uninteresting and a bus depot. The tram that goes to tunel begins there. I stayed at a small hotel, Hotel Sylvia for 80TL a night for two nights at the end of my stay when I got sick of commuting from Cevezli.
15. Bosphorus Cruises. I did both the short tourist cruise (about 1 1/2 hours) and the longer one that goes up towards the Black Sea. The commentary on the tourist cruise is terrible. You can’t even hear it. The longer cruisewhich takes most of the dayis much better. I ate at the fish restaurant on the left as you exit at the last stop. Very nice relaxing day. I would put this high on my list simply because you are not marching around and sitting for the day. I did not hike up to the castle on the hill. I no longer feel compelled to hike up to anything at this point in my life.
16. Princes’ Islands. I went to Kinili and Buyukada. Between the two, I liked the smaller island a lot better. Perhaps that was because I was with friends. Perhaps it was because I was sitting in a beach chair instead of checking off a list of must dos. Bukukada has been discovered by tour groups. At lunch time the ferries disgorge tons of tour groups on excursions from Istanbul. At that point (and having done the horse cart tour without the climb to the monastery), I left. Given that I was staying in Cevezli, I took the ferry from Bostanci and not the one from one of the docks on the European side. The ferries from Bostanci run all the time. No worries about that.
17. The Ayasofia Hamam. Yeah, I did this. It was great. It is a tourist hamam and probably the most expensive hamam in Turkey — 100TL for the bath and the rub down. I liked it so much that I later went to another hamam in Edirne which cost half as much for the same thing. I am a big chicken about spas, but I loved the hamam experience and highly recommend it.
I took one excursion on the Turkish buses. I used Nilhufer. It was a great bus. The only negative in Edirne was getting confused in the old city for sometime (remember the streets without names?) before I could find the street with hotels. I stayed at the Hotel Tuna (very basic and cheap). I principally went to see the mosquewhich is regarded as the masterpiece of Turkey’s major Ottoman architect Miramar Sinan. I was glad that I went but I was totally mosqued out by the end of the trip. I also went to the Museum of Health that is located out of town. The taxi driver knew how to find it and offered to return for me, but I had no idea how long I would be there. Tour groups have discovered this msueum but only Turkish tour groups. There are simply no large hotels in the area capable of handling bus groups. They are building one. The museum is very interesting and unusual. Ottoman medicine was light years away from what was being done in Western Europe at one time. They treated mental illness with musicwith different sorts of music believed appropriate to different illnesses. Some of the details of operations were gruesome. There was a lady demonstrating the art of paper marbling. I bought a scarf from her and watching the demonstration was interesting as well. I also bought a piece of paper with the sultan’s tugra for 15TL that will cost me a lot more to frame.
All and all I enjoyed my trip even if Cevezli was not an ideal location for touring. I did get to know the shops in the town well — especially the borek/pide guy. It is a relatively conservative area with lots of “covered” women — both the headscarf/raincoat types and the full dress black garments. Because it was Ramazan, I was circumspect about eating on the street. Some of the retaurants were only open after the fast ended. There were iftar specials. The people would buy their food and then wait with it in front of them until the mosque made the announcement that it was OK to eat. Ramazan does have its challenges. One thing I detested were the Ramazan drums which some guy banged almost every night very loudly (and underneath my apartment) to remind people to get up and eat something before the fast began again. This was at 2:00am or 3:00am! I learned to close the window to the bedroom when I went to sleep (the house had cooled off by then) to avoid being awakened by the banging. On the other hand, I observed that rather than being a season of deprivation, Ramazan is a festive season of anticipation. The community anticipates the end of the fasting with the feast known in most of the Muslim world as Eid al Fitar but in Turkey as Bayram. Unfortunately, Ramazan ended as I left Turkey on August 30th and I did not get to see Bayram. When the fast ends in the evening, people eat huge festive meals. The streets become full after sundown with children asking for balloons, fireworks, etc. It was something to see and I have no regrets about visiting Turkey during Ramazan. One of the most wonderful things I observed was a community iftar. This occurs, I was told, in all the neighborhoods of Istanbul. The mosque sponsors it and gets a rich guy to pay for it all. I came home one night and there were tables all over the main street and probably a couple of thousand people ready to dig in but no one was eating. Their food boxes were in front of them and the were waitng for the signal to eat. When it came they dug in. They even invited me, but I thought it would have been inappropriate. I did take a lot of photos. The whole business was over and cleaned up in a couple of hours. It was almost a military movement as to how the streets were cleaned.
And, finally, I had NO stomach problems of any significance in Turkey. I also was fairly satisfied with the state of the toilets despite all the hoople. Yes, I did see a few of the other kind, but I avoided those. The toilets in the museums were mostly excellent. Turkey is a country that straddles both east and west as you all know. That means it is undergoing rapid development now. The US could learn from the investment in infrastructure. When the new Marmaray tunnel is built, it will be a lot easier to get from the Asian to the Europen side. It will change everything in Istanbul. Property values on the Asian side will increase and all the transportation routes will change. While I was there, moreover, some of the trains on the old train line I was taking in to Istanbul were changing. I even had air conditioned trains at times (much appreciated by all). At Hydrapassa everyone would scope out the trains for the air conditioned one and even take a later train to get one of those. There is also huge government investment in a high speed train between Istanbul and Ankara (Are you listening US Congress?). Turkey does have a lot of problems with many people scraping to get by. I don’t suppose children sell tissues in the street for fun; I did wonder if all the tissue sellers went to school in the winter; I suspect that some don’t. Trash collection could be better. For all the meticulous hosing down of the streets in front of shops, the trash is all over. I especially noticed it on the beach on the Princes’ Islands. When you are trying to just make it through the day in hopes of a better one tomorrow, environmentalism is a luxury (and we don’t always practice what we preach in the West).
And that about sums up my trip to Turkey.
Thanks for all the help in planning this adventure. I had challenges at times, but it was a very worthwhile experience. The final cost? The trip came in at about $4500 including airfare and souvenirs. Pretty good for 3 1/2 weeks. Home exchange enables you to travel farther for less — one reason I love it.