Istanbul Adventures

Trip Start Jun 01, 2010
Trip End Mar 11, 2011

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Saturday, September 11, 2010

As I write this we are in Helsinki, on our way to Russia. We are horribly behind on the reports, please forgive us. But the next weeks we will be on the train through Russia, so we will have a lot of time to catch up on writing and editing photos. We probably wont have Internet though, so the updates will be posted when we reach China.

Our first day in Istanbul, and we woke up just in time to catch breakfast. The buffet was filled with unusual foods. There were spiced cheeses, spinach filled pastries, dates and olives in various variations. After our breakfast we headed out into the madness that is called Istanbul, or better Constantinople. First we headed back to the travel agent that we found around the corner of the hotel (CNN travel). We decided to book our stay in Cappadocia with him. So we went over the details and agreed with the price he set. If we were to book the flight tickets alone by ourselves, we would have to pay almost double. For some reason travel agents get good discounts here in Turkey. So all together we got ourselves a pretty good deal. Strangely we had to go with one of his employees to transfer money into their account at the ATM for the tickets. We did not quite understand what was going on, so we just got some cash and took that back to the agency. That was all good as well, we got our confirmation numbers and ticket numbers and we were all set. With the administration out of the way we went out to explore Istanbul. A city of 15 million people, almost as many as in all of Holland. It was insanely busy as it was a public holiday out here, the end of Ramadan. The sidewalks were too small for the hordes around our hotel in Sultanahmet and we had to wrestle our way out. Our first stop was some lunch. We had our minds set on a fish sandwich as we read somewhere that Istanbul has the best fish sandwiches in the world. The sandwiches are made around the bridge to the new part of Istanbul. Here you will also find the many ferries that bring you around over the Bosporus or to the princes islands. And indeed the sandwiches where good. The fish is plucked out of the Bosporus, and 2 minutes later it has been grilled and its on your soft sandwich. Absolutely delicious. We enjoyed our meal in a piece of paper by the shore watching the many seagulls going after the remains of the bread. I love the smell of the ocean and the crazy chaos of this city.

Done with our grilled fish we left the peninsula of Constantinople and headed out over the Galata bridge to Istanbul. On the bridge you find lots of fishermen trying to catch some. We did not see any of them succeed. Under the bridge there are many more restaurants. On the other side of the bridge we planned to take the funicular up the hill to go to Istikal Avenue. This is the most happening street of Istanbul we were told. It took us some effort to find the tunnel, which is actually the funicular tram. The street signs on this side of the river are as bad as on the other side. But we succeeded, mainly because of the map reading skills of my loved one.

The next morning we woke up comfortably late as the beds in our Hotel are very nice. Today we are gong to visit the Haghia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. So Linda put on her long pants and brought a scarf to cover her hair. We missed breakfast so we had a kebab brunch at one of the eateries along the way. The funniest thing happened there. Across the room from us there were some Turkish students having their kebab as well. Suddenly they asked us if they could take a picture of us. We must be quite an attraction to them I would think.

Our first stop was the Haghia Sophia. We found out that it was not a mosque any more but a museum. So we had to cuff up the entry fee. We also got an audio guide as without that the site would not mean much. We found out that the Sophia is actually a Roman Duomo. And not just any one, actually its a magnificent one. The dome stands proud without any visible pillars. There are some frescoes left that show how beautifully decorated this place must have been in the Byzantine days. The Sophia was built as one of the first Christian churches in Constantinople. The ottoman empire did not treat it with the respect it should have when they converted the place into a Mosque. Form the ceiling of the dome cables you see the cables coming down on which the ugly chandeliers hang. In every corner a big round 'medallion' was placed with Islamic words painted in gold. That is all fine, but what was really shocking is that the just plastered over the many priceless gold mosaics. Now a few of them are partly uncovered from the plaster.

The whole building needs some serious conservation and restoration. But all that you see being done is that one of the Islamic medallions is being 'serviced'. In many aspects this site is similar to the mosque in Cordoba / Spain. Here a mosque was sacrificed to build a church inside, the Spohia is the other way around. But when you look at the state of preservation and respect for historic value of the religious elements in both. I must say that Spain did a far better job than the folks here in Istanbul.

After we left the Sophia we headed out to see the Basilica Cistine. Its just across the street from the Sophia, very convenient. The Cistine is nothing more than an Byzantine water reservoir. But it is interesting in many ways. First of all it was used in a James Bond movie (from Russia with Love). I don't remember the scene, but nice to know. Second the cellar was build using recycled pagan pillars. The Romans had a thing for recycling, and as they said goodbye to paganism and became Christian, they decided to recycle some temples and use the pillars in this cellar. So inside the cellar you see all kinds of different pillars holding up the ceiling. There are two pillars with images of Medusa in the north/east corner. The Medusa is placed up side down. Why this is done nobody knows, but still it is an interesting sight. We explored the cellar for a bit and had a cup of tea down in the terrace near the exit.

Now it was time to visit the big blue mosque. Next to the Sophia and across the street from the Cistine. All the sights are pretty much in the same area here. So as we entered the mosque we were directed to a back entrance. Never would you enter a church or synagogue from the back entrance if you visit it, but here in this mosque you do. Linda covered her hairs and we took of our shoes and put them in a plastic bag that was provided. When you enter the mosque you see the giant dome resting on four even more giant pillars, breaking the space up. The Ottomans tried to outdo the Sophia Dome, and yes it is a tad bigger, but its not free standing. Amazing how these ancient Roman architects could realize structures that another civilization hundreds of years later still cant match. Inside there are hundreds of cables coming down from the ceiling and dome to hold up the lighting. So many that it obstructs the view from the paintings on the ceiling. There is a slight oudeur of smelly feet as everybody has to take off their shoes, and you want on giant Persian carpets that absorb everyones smells. In the front of the mosque you see a few men doing their prayers, and in the back, even behind the visitors section, you see the woman praying. We spend about 15 minutes in the mosque before we headed out. I our research we found many people saying that the Sophia is more awe inspiring, and I must say they are right. All together, the Blue Mosque is a functional place of worship, down to earth, not as overdone as most of the churches. The Blue Mosque is big and thats about it.

We headed back to the 'sodom and gomorrah' area, just behind the sacred grounds. The tourist street filled with bars and hostels. We found a place to sit down and indulge on a cold glass of Effes, local Turkish beer. We browsed through the lonely planet book for a bit hoping to find a suggestion for a place to eat. And we did, we found a small notice of a restaurant called 'Cooking A La Turka'. It is managed by a Dutch girl and has a fixed menu serving traditional seasonal cooking. This sounded good to us so we called for a table.

Half an hour later we sat down in the restaurant that had no more than 20 seats. There was no menu, just the meal of the day. But it was great. We had a lovely meal. What was a bit strange though that near the end of the evening our host, the Dutch lady. Sat down on a couch in the restaurant. Took out her laptop and kicked back to relax and browse the web a bit. But eventually we got her attention, and managed to get our bill.

Back at the hotel we witnessed how Kim Clijsters kicked Williams out to the US open. Good stuff as we are no Willams fans at all. Tomorrow a boat ride on the Bosporus.

The next day was 9/11 a sad day in history. I read on the web that our political lunatic, Wilders, made a speech in Manhattan. I've read through his speech on the web and must say that he is one weird and dangerous dude and an embarrassment for Dutch people in general.

With that said, we pick up where we left off. Around noon we were picked up from the Hotel for a tour around the Bosporus. So we headed down where shortly after we arrived we were met by a girl from the travel agency. We were transported to a minibus that toured around town to pick up some more tourists. After half an hour or so we ended up near the Mosque and got on a bigger bus. We would be faster if we just had walked up there, but anyways.

The big bus took us to the new part of Istanbul where we boarded a tour boat. There were about 40 people on the tour, so it was not quite as private as it was advertised. The boat took us up and down the Bosporus to the 2nd bridge. At the turning point there was some rain in the air so we sought shelter downstairs. We saw a great deal of castles and other important buildings on the shore line. The Asian side of Istanbul is dotted with nice houses as this is the richer neighborhood of town. Further the tour was not much more than a nice boat ride. The currents in the Bosporus are fierce, you see the water swirling around the narrow parts. Certainly not a place to go for a swim.

After the boat ride we were loaded into the bus again to go up some nice viewpoint. It was crazily busy up there because of the public holiday. And the tour guide was chaotic and stressed. The viewpoint was on top of Pierre Loti hill, named after a French writer Pierre Loti whom lived in Istanbul for the most part of his life. From the hill we took a cable cart down the hill. We waited for about 20 minutes for a 5 minute ride.

We were glad to be dropped off back in town, these bus tours are not our thing. But still we had a good time and had a boat ride on the Bosporus on a relatively not too crowded boat. As the sky was dark gray and filled with rain we headed back to the hotel to wait it out a bit.

About an hour later we headed back into town. We did not feel like Turkish food this evening. Yesterday we spotted a Korean restaurant in the tourist street. We decided to give that a try as it was the only Asian option in the neighborhood. We were glad that we did. The place was empty as they mainly cater for tour groups. But that was fine for us. I asked some Korean people that came out as we entered how the food was. They were happy, so it must be good. And it was. The Korean chef made us a delicious Korean meal. We had the whole place to ourselves, so we watched the semi finals of the world championships basketball (USA against some other team) while we had our feast. If you would have had a Korean guide book of Istanbul, I would not be surprised if this place is rated as the best restaurant in town.

Back at the hotel we watched the other semi final of the basketball, Turkey against Lithuania. Turkey just pulled it off and won with 83 over 82. But I am afraid that we will not be able to beat the US team. It is such a big difference is game play between the two. But you never know, as they host the event, it might give them some extra inspiration. In any event, tomorrow is going to be crazy in Istanbul. We will be following it all from Cappadocia as we leave this city tomorrow morning.

We bought a token, and headed up the hill in the old tram, a short ride but it sure beats climbing up the hill in 30 degrees Celsius. We strolled a bit over the Istikal Avenue towards the Taksim square. The street is lined with the famous brand name stores, not exactly what we were looking for in Istanbul. But the side streets are filed with bars, restaurants and other forms of eateries. Most of them have some live music, and at one or two we saw people dancing in the streets to the tunes of a Gypsy guitar.

After a bit our feet were tired and our mouths dry. We sought refugee in a side street where we ordered some tea and a water pipe (shisha). We sat down for quite a while, smoking a blend of apple and cinnamon and zipping our apple tea as we watched the flow of people move across the street. We were awakened from our daydream by the sound of broken glass. The wind knocked over a shisha that stood on a display table.

It was a nice little break, but we had to move on. We reached the Taksim square were we searched for another funicular that was supposed to bring us down. Again it took us some time to find it, but eventually we did. Down at the hill we took the tram back to Sultanahmet. Back at the hotel I checked some mails and had to do a bit of work.

For dinner we went to the highest rated restaurant on tripadvisor, a place called Aloran. The reviews were raving of people that loved the food and the service. With high expectations we headed out to the blue mosque. The restaurant was just behind it in the tourist street. This is a street filled with hostels, bars and touristic eateries. We were lucky as there was just one table left for us. I ordered a Turkish wok dish and Linda a classic clay pot dish. And we shared an appetizer sampler. After our appetizers it took quite some time for the rest of the food to arrive, We did not care that much as we enjoyed our evening and had a bottle of wine. During our wait a 'belly dancer' showed up for 10 minutes to perform her tricks. It was more a sleazy tit shaking exercise than a gracious belly dance. The moment the awfully loud music stopped we were glad the 'show' was over. After the show we saw quite some unhappy faces, not only about the tasteless show, but also about the long wait for the food. Finally it arrived at our table. The clay pot was broken table side with a lot of fire and show. The food was average and the service normal I would say. I really don't get the number one ranking on Tripadvisor. If people rave about this place they must have had some very bad experiences in Istanbul. But for us this is certainly not a 'must go' place.

After dinner we walked around the touristic mosque area a bit, a very lively area so I think we will be returning here to find some food tomorrow. Back at the hotel we caught a bit of the US open and planned some things for tomorrow. Its going to be a cultural day as we plan on visiting the mosques and the Basilica Cistern.
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