Travels / Turkey

Turkey: Istanbul Pt 1

Our last morning in Göreme we got an airport transfer to nearby Kayseri and flew to Istanbul (as it takes nearly 12 hours on the bus). We flew with Pegasus airlines who had probably the best in-flight safety video I have ever seen!

This is the English version of the video. The one we saw was in Turkish with english subtitles. The Turkish one is available online but doesn’t have the subtitles.

When we landed in Istanbul our next problem was to figure out how to get to our hotel. We landed in Sabiha Gokcen airport on the asian side of Istanbul, not Ataturk (the main airport on the european side), so were on the complete opposite side of the city from our hotel in Sultanahmet. I was not really keen on navigating the city buses for such a long journey, knowing we would need to switch buses, and we were leaning towards getting a taxi (that I knew would be very expensive) when I wondered if there were any airport shuttle buses which might go to Sultanahmet, a very popular tourist destination. I spotted a sign that said ‘Airport Shuttle’ while we had lunch at the airport Burger King, so after lunch we went over to see where they went. Sure enough they went to Sultanahmet, and actually drop you straight to your hotel – and for only 15 euros a person! We were more than happy to pay 30 euros to be driven directly to our hotel when we knew the taxi could have cost three times that amount. We sat at a nearby cafe for about twenty minutes until the bus was ready to go. We spent most of the 1 hour+ ride chatting with another Australian expat Londoner.

Our driver ended up dropping us around the corner from our hostel as it was down a narrow dead-end street which had cars parked along it. This was ok and we only had 40 or 50m to walk to get to the hostel.

We had our a private double room on the ground floor of the hostel, sharing a bathroom with two other rooms on our floor. It was a badly thought-out bathroom, with toilet and shower in the one room so if someone was in the shower you could not go to the toilet, and the rooms on either side of us were 4 – 6 person dormitories! Fortunately we had access to the bathrooms on other floors which we only had to use once or twice during our stay, and some of those were better thought-out with toilets and showers in separate rooms.

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Our room in the hostel in Istanbul

That evening on our way to find somewhere for dinner we came across some kind of procession with men playing traditional instruments and drums and hundreds of people following behind them, most of whom were obviously hangers-on just taking photos and enjoying the music. The fact the police were standing around taking photos too suggested to us it was a perfectly safe procession, but to this day we have no idea what it was for!

On our first full day in Istanbul we paid a visit to the world-famous Grand Bazaar, and left with our backpack stuffed full of souvenirs and presents! Part of the fun of the Grand Bazaar is the bargaining. You can do this at most markets around Turkey but the Grand Bazaar is famous for it.

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Most things do not have a price on them. You need to ask and are made a verbal offer. This is nearly always higher than the seller is willing to sell the item for. It’s not considered bad manners or cheap to bargain them down – they expect it. If you’re not happy with the price they finish at, you just walk away. If they are actually willing to take your price they will call you back and accept your price. If they honestly are not happy with your price they will let you go. They’ll never accept a price that is too low for them.

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We bought a combination of turquoise pottery bowls and plates (much like the ones we had seen at the demonstration near Selçuk, but much, MUCH cheaper – instead of 70TL for one bowl it was 40TL for four different-sized bowls and a plate!), different scented hand-made soaps (I tried to bargain him down from 5TL each to 4 for 15… he didn’t like that but threw in a bar of olive oil soap for free), souvenir magnets (initially 5TL each but I got 6 for 20) and a turkish tea glass for Andre (the guy initially asked 60TL or something which was absurd and Andre refused to pay anything over 35 or 40, and got his price!)

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After the Grand Bazaar we continued on to the Spice Market, not expecting to buy anything but rather just to have a look because it is such an old and famous market. It doesn’t sell just spice though; its other main products are tea, lokum (turkish delight) and dried fruit. It is by far the best turkish delight I have ever tasted.

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Dried fruit and sweets at a store in the spice market

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More dried fruit

And turkish delight isn’t traditionally just rose flavoured! Even though I have never liked the rose flavour, I actually didn’t dislike this stuff (although I wouldn’t go so far as to say I liked it either). You can buy it made with either honey or sugar (the sugar stuff is a bit cheaper). Their other common flavours were pomegranate, orange, honey, apple and they love putting pistachios in it, so you can buy every flavour with or without pistachios. They also often sell nougat alongside the turkish delight, and turkish delight covered in a ‘creamy’ turkish delight layer.

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Turkish delight

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Spices

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One of the stores in the spice market

The following day we took a walking tour of the old city in Istanbul. We visited…

Topkapı Palce – an old palace of the Ottoman sultans…

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These last two photos are taken from inside the Sultan’s harem wing, which costs an extra 15TL to get into (on top of the charge to get into the palace). The rooms are well decorated and I think some of the more interesting parts of the palace, although we did not explore it extensively.

the Hagia Sophia – a museum which was originally a Byzantine church, then converted into an Ottoman mosque and then secularised by Kemal Ataturk in the 1920s/1930s to become a musem (which was not built well and is slowly moving and needs to be constantly evaluated to make sure it is still structurally stable)…

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Inside the Hagia Sophia – note the combination of Christian icons and muslim calligraphy

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These Christian mosaics were plastered over by the Ottomans when they converted the Hagia Sophia into a mosque. Restorers have removed the plaster to reveal the mosaics underneath.

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These columns were taken from the Temple of Artemis near Ephesus

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Exterior of the Hagia Sophia. The dome is too big for the building so the Ottomans added buttresses to stop the walls pushing outwards. This is why the building has to be regularly monitored for stability.

the Sultanahmet Mosque – commonly known to westerners as the Blue Mosque…

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Interior of Sultanahmet Mosque – known as the Blue Mosque for the blue tiles inside the mosque

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Exterior of the Blue Mosque. Legend has it that when the sultan requested six minarets for his mosque, the architect refused, saying only the mosque in Mecca has six minarets and no other mosque can be as grand as the one in Mecca. So the sultan sent his architect to Mecca to add a seventh minaret… so he could have his six!

the Basilica Cistern – a cistern built by the Byzantines as a back-up water supply for if the city was ever put under seige…

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An old medusa head taken from one of the old Roman temples and re-purposed by the Christian Byzantines for the cistern columns

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the Millennium stone – a stone pillar from which point all the roads leading to Constantinople were measured during the Byzantine empire

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and the hippodrome – a chariot race course which is now a pedestrian area marked by an ancient egyptian obelisk.

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What the hippodrome now looks like, with the egyptian obelisk on the right.

We finished the afternoon at the Grand Bazaar and Spice Market again to buy a few more presents. We decided to be lazy after a full day of walking and took a tram back to our hotel (or near enough). To use the trams in Istanbul (not a very extensive network) you need to buy a token first (from a machine right near the turnstiles) for 3TL. It doesn’t matter how long your journey is, it’s just a 3TL token needed to get through the turnstile and then you get on whichever tram you need and get off wherever you like. It also means you can switch trams as many times as necessary and as long as you don’t leave the tram platform you don’t need to buy any additional tokens. On our way home we stopped by a little store selling scarves for 20TL each. I tried to bargain the guy down but he was firm on his price so I got two instead of the three I’d been looking at. He didn’t budge when I put the third back so I figured I’d been given a good price. We took a detour through a little marketplace where I looked at some more scarves and found one with some colours I really liked. Upon asking the stall-holder how much they were, he told me 30TL. They were basically the same scarves as the previous place I’d stopped, so I offered him 20. He countered me with 25, and I said to him “these are the same as a stall up there where they are 20!” When he just offered me 25 again, I shook my head and turned away. I’d taken about two steps when I heard, “Ok, ok, 20 lira, 20!”

Dinner that night was at a place just around the corner from our hotel. The previous night we had eaten at a place where I ordered what was called a ‘steak salad’ but listed lamb as the meat… I left dubious that what I’d eaten was actually lamb. So I was still looking forward to a good lamb meal and ordered lamb cutlets while Andre had a prawn and mushroom pasta. They were both really good!

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