We had decided to travel to Northern Cyprus, so Istanbul was a ‘stopover’ on the way. Adrian was keen to come here, but as I’d visited in 1963 after hitch-hiking to Trieste in Italy, and then travelling by train to Athens and onward by boat to Istanbul, I wasn’t so keen. After the glorious summer, the weather had turned quite cold, but was pleasant enough for our superb bonfire party on Friday, where after the fire and fireworks, we all sat on the patio to eat. Luckily today there was no frost, and the weather stayed fine almost until we reached Gatwick, where it drizzled heavily. We were both up very early, and left just after 6.30am. The roads were already really busy, but we reached our ‘meet and greet’ carpark at Gatwick and headed for Turkish Airlines book in. We had some very pleasant staff as we went through security, having used ‘special assistance’ once again. Our 3 ½ hour flight left at 10.30. We had to move time on 3 hours for Istanbul, (having just moved back an hour for the end of British summer time.) The plane was a bit smarter than Easyjet, and we were pleased to have individual screens. We both watched separate films - mine Edie, with Sheila Hancock, and Adrian's ‘Leave no Trace’ set in Oregon, so lots of nice scenery. The weather was mostly cloudy, but we were served lunch and time passed quickly. The skies cleared as we descended to Attaturk Airport, Istanbul, and we could look down over the water. We landed at 5.15 pm local time, and saw our bags descend down the unloader. But then the trouble started! After traversing the long zig-zags to passport control, where progress was really slow, we made our way to baggage claim, where we waited for ages by the 3 carousels, before realising that our bags were delivered to a carousel in the opposite direction! Reunited with our bags, we walked out, to see a man with a notice saying ‘Adrian Bower’ clearly written. Wonderful! He wasn’t the driver though, just the ‘courier’. Adrian went to get some money from an ATM, and we thought that the taxi would be outside in 5 minutes – Adrian had pre-booked and paid for a taxi to our hotel to save any hassle. We went out to the taxi rank, midst the queue of people, but no sign of our man. Time went on, and the daylight gradually faded. Getting tired and weary now, Adrian wandered this way and that with no luck. He then tried to go back into the airport, but first had to go through security, and he didn’t have his passport with him. After about ¾ hour, he finally got in, and found our man, who came out and directed us to our taxi. After that, it was a night time journey to our hotel ‘Bucoleon by Cheers’. We were booked in by a pleasant young chap who spoke good English, and shown to our room in the second of 4 small buildings which make up the hotel. He carried our large bags up two flights of stairs to our room, which has a large balcony overlooking the water, with Asia in the distance. We were both feeling pretty weary, so were pleased to unpack our kettle and relax with a cup of tea. I was dismayed to find that I’d brought no spare contact lenses with me. We’d asked the chap for a good place to eat, and he suggested the hotel restaurant in the next building, which is also where breakfast is served. Having recovered a bit, we made our way there. There was a young couple sitting outside on the balcony, although by now it was not that warm She was smoking a ‘hubble bubble pipe’ - such a memory to me of my previous visit to Istanbul. Later a group of chaps came, also with a ‘hubble bubble’. The menu wasn't great – being mostly meat dishes of the ‘fast food’ type. However, the service was certainly not fast! We waited nearly an hour for our ‘cheese flan’, in a type of naan bread, with some puny white chips and a spicy ‘chutney’ We were glad of the beer to keep us going, and at least it wasn’t expensive.
It turns out that a new Istanbul airport was opened yesterday by the president but it is a very inconvenient 50 kms outside the city. However it will eventually be vast and is being built to challenge Europe as an international hub.
First night beer
Wednesday 31st October A walk to some of Istanbul’s top sights
I woke late after a disturbed night as the duvet was so warm! My watch had stopped – very annoying – and I thought that it was only 6.30, not 8.00! Adrian had found the switch to the balcony lights behind the wardrobe, so was able to now turn them off! It was wonderful to look out from our bed and see over the railway line and the busy road (they are 80m below us) to boats ploughing through the blue water of the Marmara Sea.
We went down to breakfast, and found it packed out – we took the last table, and felt the real oldies as everybody else looked like backpackers! We were pleased to be so close to the centre of Istanbul in a pleasant and clean hotel. We ate our self service breakfast of a variety of sliced fruit plus a boiled egg with our tea/coffee. The cafe was almost empty by the time we left. It was after 10.00 when we set off to walk towards the ‘sights’. It was immediately atmospheric walking along the streets, with photo opportunities all around. We walked through Arasta Bazaar with its quiet street of rather smart stalls. We loved the sight and the smell of the piles of spices.
The view from our hotel balcony in Istanbul
We set off to 'see the town'!
We came out by the Blue Mosque, with views toAya Sofia. Having taken in the surroundings, we went into the mosque, which was free. You had to put your shoes into a plastic bag and carry them. I was instructed to take off my cap and wear a scarf – I had my faithful and much used one, bought years ago as part of my silver wedding outfit, with me. If you hadn’t got a scarf, you were provided with one. I found the mosaics in the mosque rather dark and too high up to enjoy. A great many were covered for restoration rather spoiling the feeling.
Old wooden houses on the way to Arasta Bazaar
Outside we bought some chocolate /cinnamon bread from one of the many stalls around the city. We ate some beside the fountain, looking over to Aya Sofia. One of the many groups of Japanese ladies stood in front of us for a very long time, taking photos of themselves in front of the mosque. A tiny little Turkish girl stopped by and joined in. We next made our way to the underground cistern system – the Basilica Cistern. It was built in about 500AD to store water and was huge (it holds 80,000cu m of water). It had been restored and opened in 1985, so I definitely wouldn’t have seen it on my previous visit! It was quite fascinating to see the dozens of tall columns (many rescued from old temples – hence the name basilica) holding the ground level roof up, with houses on top. One of the columns is called the ‘teardrop column’ as it is always wet, and one had an upside down carved head of Medusa at the base. It was quite difficult walking around in the dim light – we were glad to have our hiking sticks.
The Blue mosque with Rosie suitably attired!
Now we made for massive Aya Sofia – a mosque now used as a museum. We had to queue to pay our 60 Turkish Lire (about £8) to enter. I liked the marble walls, but again the mosaics were high up, and difficult to see. There was nowhere to sit, so after my look around, I found the base of a statue to sit on. Adrian was still walking around, but unfortunately we didn’t find each other for a very long time. Once we had, we went outside and bought a delicious corn on the cob and some roasted chestnuts from one of the many vendors.
The Basilica Cistern with teardrop column and Medusa head
We now took a steep cobbled street to the Topkapi Palace – another 60 Lire. This place is vast, with 4 large courtyards, and was where various Sultans kept their Harem. There were a lot of little nooks and crannies to explore, with some attractive bright mosaics and painted tiles. At the far end, we had a good view down over the Bosphorus, although the sky had become hazy.
Adrian tucks into roasted chestnuts after visiting Aya Sofia
We’d had a great day, so now made our way back to our hotel, arriving rather weary at 4.00. We revived with a cup of tea on our balcony. Later we walked out to eat at a nearby restaurant that we had looked at earlier. The manager we had seen then was full of expressions like ‘I do the best for you’. We started with stuffed vine leaves, remembering dear Margaret Massialas who had first introduced me to them at her home in Athens in 1963 on my way to Istanbul. Adrian then had sea bass, and I had calamari, as they were out of the anchovies I’d ordered. We were given a small baklava each ‘on the house’, but the bill still came to more than we’d originally thought (but not a lot – and mostly because of the expensive beer). We walked the short way back by a different route, passing many more eating places, all trying to entice us in for custom.
Topkaoi Palace with a view of the Bosphorus
Thursday 1st November Bazaars, bridges, boats and buses (or trams!)
We ate our breakfast on the terrace above the silent railway and the almost hidden busy road. We were watched by several well-fed cats, reminding us of Corfu. We bought another bottle of water from the shop next door. We only had 2 lire change, so he said OK (Adrian gave him the other one lira when we returned in the evening.) We left at 10.15 for our second day exploring Istanbul. We'd originally thought that we’d take a taxi to the Grand Bazaar, but decided to walk the atmospheric streets, passing numerous mosques on the way. We found the bazaar to be very neat and tidy, and were pleased that we didn’t lose ourselves or each other! It is vast, and as we didn’t need to buy anything, we just enjoyed the atmosphere of the lanes we followed. We had memories of other bazaars we had been to, including frenetic Marrakesh! We avoided all the carpet sellers, and delighted in the neatly piled spices, although we were going on to the spice bazaar. The jewellery glistened beautifully behind the glass.
When we emerged into daylight, there were rows more of stalls and shops. We didn’t know exactly where we were, so sat on an empty ‘flower trough’ to look at our maps. Two men had some sort of argument, one becoming extremely upset and shouting. We moved on, and stopped to have a baklava at a little cafe, and Adrian bought a cheese/tomato roll for later. As if by magic, we found ourselves by the Spice Bazaar, which was far more atmospheric than the Grand Bazaar. There were stalls of all sorts, besides spice. I was really pleased to buy a new watch (£5) as I’ve been lost without mine. We tried some of the delicious Turkish delight, and bought some sugared ‘fruit slices'. We also bought some pretty little mosaic dishes. We were amused by a nice young lad who said to me ‘you look just like my grandma’!
Inside Istanbul's Grand Bazaar
We emerged from here at Galata Bridge, which is where we wanted to be. It was now 1.00 and we debated what to do. We were at the place where the boats left from, so asked a man where his boat was going. He said that this was a 3 hour trip, but led us along to another larger boat which had a 1½ hour trip down the Bosphorus and back. We got on board, and sat on deck in the sunshine for a pleasant ride down as far as Fatih Sultanmehmet bridge and Rumeli Hisari (castle) . Pretty good we thought for 15 lire (£2.20) each. We saw a plethora of mosques and minarets amongst all the building along the north shore, with a few enormous monstrosities. We shared the roll as we travelled along, enjoying the warmth, but it did get a bit chilly just before the boat turned around. However it felt warm and sunny on our return.
Inside the Spice Bazaar
We docked at a slightly different place. It was now 2.45. Adrian had planned to cross the bridge and see a bit of Beyoglu, but we wondered if it was now too late. We started walking across the bridge, past all the fish restaurants on the lower level, and before we knew it we were on the other side at Karakoy. There was a funicular railway from here which we thought would be fun. We had first to fight the ticket machine, finally winning. Although the place we were going to is called ‘Tunel’, we hadn’t expected it to be all in the dark. We came out at street level at the top, and located the ‘historic tram’ stop which would take us along to another funicular down. Having mastered the ticket machine again, we had a long wait, and almost gave up. A busker was playing his accordion – earlier we had had a violinist. Eventually the old tram arrived, and we got a seat as we travelled along their ‘Oxford Street’, with its eating places, smart shops and crowds of people - much of the time with a bell clanging - forcing our way along what was a pedestrian street!
Views from our Bosphorus trip
We arrived at the terminus at Taksim – but where to get the funicular down? In the end we went down to the metro, found a tourist information, and discovered that we were in the right place to board the ‘train’ down. This one was quite smart, and had lots of space and again was all underground. At the bottom at Kabatas, we had to get tickets again for the ‘normal’ tram which was to take us back across the bridge. This entailed first going up in a lift (I’d had enough stairs). We enjoyed our return journey, passing some places we recognised, alighting near the Blue Mosque at Sultanahmet.
Our vintage tram ride in Istanbul's Beyoglu district
From here we knew our way back to our hotel. It was now quite chilly, but back in our room we looked out to the evening sun shining over the water. It was 5.15 - we’d had a long, but successful day, and felt quite proud of ourselves!
The funicular down
The normal tram back
We’d decided on a nearby place to eat that we’d seen last night. The owner had seemed fun, but it didn’t work out as well as we’d hoped! We shared a pleasant starter of various salads with stuffed vine leaves. Adrian ordered sea bream and I asked for fried eggplant. However, they hadn’t got that, so I tried zucchini. No, they hadn’t got that either. I tried two more choices – calamari and shrimp – both no-go, so I ended up sharing a bit of Adrian’s! The man seemed to have lost some of his enthusiasm tonight!
Friday 2nd November From Istanbul to Northern Cyprus
We were up early to get organised for our flight to Northern Cyprus. When we went to have breakfast at 8.30, the opening time, it was already busy. We were glad that we had changed our pick-up time for the airport (after many to-ing & fro-ing of emails) to 10.00, not 9.00. Adrian took the two large bags separately down the steep spiral stairs then we waited outside on a seat for the taxi, which very soon arrived. It was nice seeing the sights as we were driven for an hour to Sabiha Gokcen airport. We hadn't realised that there was so much of Istanbul's city walls left. We crossed the 'Martyrs of July 15' bridge (previously the Bosphorus bridge) to the Asian side of Istanbul.
The motorway was fringed with innovative floral displays. Minarets emerged amongst the masses of tower blocks - the amount of building going on was absolutely enormous. Just before the airport we were stopped for a police check - the driver, not us. Adrian joked with our pleasant man that they didn't like the look of his face! We had to go through a security check to enter the airport, and then another later. Luckily we were able to keep our water and my coffee. We bought some rolls and more drinking water before making our way to the departure lounge. The man at check-in was mad on football, and asked which English team we supported, and was amazed that we didn't support any! We had 'front row' seats for our flight, not realising that we would have a blank wall in front of us and of course no seat pocket. After all the urbanisation, we flew across miles of arid mountainous emptiness. There was a sprinkling of snow on the highest parts as we flew south over Turkey - a country we would like to explore. On this short flight (1½ hours), we were given a cheese roll and tea/coffee. Service was far superior to Easyjet!
Crossing from Europe into Asia
To be continued on the Northern Cyprus web page
A few notes on Istanbul
Dozens of mosques Much building development going on Hundreds of well-fed cats Languishing dogs Men always asking to help Men together – not so many ladies
Hotel Cheers by Bucholean, Istanbul
Steep, spiral stairs with erratic hand rail, no lift Sea view from large balcony Nowhere for loo roll Only one small bin – in bathroom Very clean Not much storage Central for sites and eating places