Turkey Smells Foul...But We’ll Have Seconds

Trip Start Oct 13, 2010
Trip End Jun 20, 2011

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Friday, June 3, 2011

Days 232 to 236

Leaving London on Friday, it was time to let go of our cushy existence in the comforts of Kirsten & Simon's flat and get back into a bit of the "roughing it" part of our trip. Not too much, of course. Don’t be ridiculous. We’re kicking off the Middle East portion of our adventure with a visit to a place that I’ve always found very intriguing…..Turkey. Maybe Middle East Lite or Middle East for Beginners? Is it Europe or is it Asia? Is it religious or is it secular? Is it conservative or is it modern & liberal? Who knows?!? But we should have an opinion soon.

After an early wake-up call and tube to Heathrow, we both crashed pretty hard on the plane. Landing in Istanbul, we first had to get into the line to pay for our Turkish visa, which set us back $60 each. Everywhere we’ve gone, Canadian passport holders have had to pay more than any other country’s citizens to obtain a visa. What’s up with that anyway? It’s pretty annoying and I’m starting to regret not renewing my American passport. In any event, we cruise through the immigration process, pick up our bags, and make our way to our hostel using the metro and then the tram. Two observations here: (1) Istanbul has a very good public transportation system; and (2) The body odor assaulting our senses on both the metro & tram is overwhelmingly bad and the worst we’ve encountered anywhere. (Yes, including India.) This isn’t just 1 or 2 people forgetting to put on some deodorant. This is an epidemic, people of Istanbul. Or maybe even a pandemic. It needs to be dealt with….urgently. (I think it’s the doners!)

We get off the tram and are now in Old Istanbul trying to figure out where our hostel is. Trudging up and down the street with our heavy packs on our backs in the hot sun, we were at a loss for about 20 minutes. When we split up for a few minutes, Jill gets approached by a “friendly” waiter of a streetside restaurant, who tells her that “he has a feeling” what hostel she’s looking for and points her in the right direction (Joe is highly skeptical at this point, rolling his eyes, wondering just how naive I can get...). Well, the guy does deserve some props for being clever and we soon find our cross street. (...ah ha!) Apparently, we got off at the wrong tram stop. After checking into the hostel, we’re shown to our room…a spartan little box with 3 bumpy, little beds, a night table, and a wardrobe. Hey, for $36/night in the heart of Old Istanbul, we’ll take it!

After unpacking and settling in, we head out into the street to look for a place for dinner. Jill was drawn to a place nearby that was attractively named The Cozy Pub and we sat down and ordered a meze plate, some chicken kebabs, some type of lamb-filled pita triangle things, and a couple bottles of the local beer…Efes. The meze plate – a smorgasbord of bread, olives, cheese, stuffed vine leaves, hummus, and babaghanoush – was excellent, and we’re looking forward to having a lot more of these while in Turkey. The rest of the meal didn’t quite meet expectations but the Efes was cold and smooth, the service friendly, and overall, a good start to our visit to Turkey. The capper was a trip to the Golden Arches across the street for a couple of McFlurrys at, quite possibly, the most disorganized McDonald’s we’ve ever been to. The ice cream still tasted just as good though…ahhhhh, gotta love Turkish cuisine! (It’s almost shameful walking into a McDonald’s while travelling. The feeling of all other travelers shaking their heads in disgust. You can almost hear them saying “come on... you're in Istanbul, embrace the culture.” Ya well, whatever... my McFlurry was fantastic!)

Exhaustion is our excuse for sleeping in until 12:15 on Saturday morn….errrrrrrr…..afternoon. After lounging around for at least another hour, we finally seized the day and headed out into the brave, new world at 2:30PM. Whoa, whoa, whoa….not so fast. We got about 2 blocks until I saw a Starbucks and felt the need to stop off for a double-espresso beverage and a snack before I could start being civil to people (If we saved all the money spent on espresso throughout our trip... we probably could’ve made it to a dozen more countries!). We decided to check out what is called “modern” Istanbul today (i.e. not the side of the water where the Romans generally hung out) so we took advantage of more stinky yet efficient Istanbul public transport to make our way to other side of the Bosphorous Strait. (Reaching up for the handle while standing on the public transport, this is one of those times where you discretely bury your face in your own armpit to breath in the wonderful scent of “fresh rain” deodorant as opposed to the contrary... “eau de armpit” of the surrounding air) One of the really cool things about Istanbul is that it’s the only metropolis in the world that is situated on 2 continents. The side that we’re staying on is Asia. Once we cross over the water into modern Istanbul, we’re in Europe…and somehow, the prices reflect that fact.

Going with the flow of the relaxed day, we made our way to one of the most famous avenues in Istanbul….Istiklal Caddesi…a bustling and elegant pedestrian street. We walked up and down the 3km stretch, passing boutiques, music stores, embassies, churches, Ottoman-era buildings, and tons of cool cafés along the way. After choosing a popular outdoor restaurant for dinner, we continued on and planted ourselves at a local café for a glass of wine, some Turkish coffee, and a lot of people-watching. I did enjoy the Turkish coffee, although I forgot that they leave the coffee grounds at the bottom of your cup. So when I was about 2/3 through it and went for my next gulp, I ended up with a mouthful of coffee grounds and nowhere to spit it out in a classy manner. (Joe suddenly looked up at me, his lips clenched tight and a surprised expression on his face... “what’s the matter?!”), I quickly evaluated my options and took the only course that seemed to make any sense at the time. Down the hatch. Mmm, mmm, mmmmmmh. Extra caffeine! (Oh no... I laughed!)

After wandering through the nearby neighborhoods and doing some window-shopping, we decide to just walk over the bridge to get back to Old Istanbul. Lining the entire span of the bridge on this Saturday night were men dangling their fishing poles over the water below. It seemed to be a regular, social gathering as quite a few brought folding chairs for the wives and family to sit nearby, as well as drinks, food, music, and free dinner too by the looks of their lines. After crossing the bridge, we walked down to the water on the other side and into a frenzy of activity. Rocking boats by the wharf selling fresh-fried fish in a bun as quickly as they could prepare them, guys hawking knock-off sneakers, handbags, and perfume, and people just out for a Saturday evening stroll by the waterfront. After getting our fill, we held our breath, hopped in a tram to take us home, and then allowed ourselves to exhale once we reached our stop.

Sunday is a good day. One of my best friends from the “old” days of Bermuda, Lynn aka “half-pint”, will be flying in from Geneva to hang out with us in Turkey for a few days. How cool is that? We decide that our cramped, little hostel room won’t quite fit the bill for the 3 of us, so after breakfast, we pack up, check out and walk over to another little hotel that we found in the neighborhood. We get a bit of a bigger room with 3 beds in it for Papa Bear, Mama Bear, and of course, Goldilocks. After unloading our stuff, we figure that it would be a good day to check out a couple of the major sights here in the old city. Naturally, I had to pick up a caffeine beverage and a snack on the way (Turkish breakfasts are very light) but we were soon on our way on a bright, sunny day.

First on the agenda – Topkapi Palace, which was the home of the Ottoman sultans for 400 years from 1465 until the mid-19th century. We soon found out that Sunday is a very popular day to visit, as the place was jam-packed full of tourists. So the bright, sunny day described above soon felt like a hot, sticky, & sweaty day. One cool thing about the palace grounds though, which are immense, is that there are lots of open, green spaces that you could use to just chill out or have a little picnic. After checking out some of the palace meeting areas, we shelled out a few extra bucks to go see what was written to be the star attraction of the complex – the Imperial Harem. Now, I always thought that a harem was just a bunch of chicks who follow you around and satisfy your every whim and desire. But apparently, it’s a whole lot more. Who knew?!? We learned that the harem actually consisted of the private apartments of the sultan and contained more than 400 rooms, including ones for his mother, his wives, his children, the princes, servants, and of course….the concubines. We also learned the unfortunate stories of another important group of occupants of the harem…the eunuchs, who were trusted advisors and guards to the sultan and his family. These guys were basically slaves who, at the age of 8, had their sexual organs cut off. Why? Because the sultan didn’t wanna take a chance that his guards would be fooling around with any of his wives or concubines. Pretty sick, huh? The survival rate of the poor boys that were forced to undergo this barbaric procedure was about 10%. So apart from that gross story, the harem was actually pretty cool! Lots of very ornate rooms with the walls and ceilings decorated with colorful and shiny Ottoman-style tiles.

The other highlight of the palace visit was the Imperial Treasury, which now holds precious objects, jewels, and ancient Islamic arms. There were definitely some interesting artifacts in there, but the stifling heat combined with the snail-like nose-to-tail procession made us wanna get outta there pretty quick. We did raise our eyebrows though with respect to certain of the objects on display, such as Moses’ staff and the prophet Muhammad’s sword. So then, this museum has managed to attain and preserve these artifacts dating back thousands of years ago? And in remarkably good condition as well. Moses’ staff looked like it could have been carved last week from a nearby olive tree. Hmmmmmmm….call us skeptical maybe but I dunno.

After a mini-picnic in the grass, and listening to a guy who sounded like he was gonna cough his lung out, we left the palace and checked out a bunch of nearby mausoleums. These ornate structures, all with beautifully colored domes, arches, and tiled mosaics, were all built simply as a resting place for some of the previous sultans of the Ottoman Empire. For some reason though, in the center all of the mausoleums were a collection of mini-looking houses and a coffin in the middle….all covered in a green, velvety material. Sorta like you were at a freaky mini-putt course. Weird.

Our next stop, only a short jaunt away, was another gem in Istanbul’s collection of amazing sights….the Hagia Sofia. Originally built in 537AD by the Roman emperor Justinian, it served as the largest cathedral in the world for almost a thousand years. In 1453 though, Constantinople was conquered by the Ottoman Turks and presto….what used to be a cathedral was now magically converted into a mosque! Just plaster over all of the Christian mosaics, remove the bells and the altar, add a couple of minarets and there you go! It remained a mosque for almost 400 years until 1931 when it was secularized, closed, and re-opened 4 years later as a museum, which it remains today.

The cathedral itself is absolutely huge, with a massive dome, dark, creepy alleyways, and ancient mosaics on the walls. The mosaics, depicting the Virgin Mother, Jesus, saints, and emperors, were definitely a highlight of the place. Many of the mosaics were stolen in 1204 and now sit in Venice and the ones that remain are only partially visible thanks to meticulous restoration work performed over the past 80 years. We took our time strolling around the cathedral, taking in the size and scope of it and admiring how the place was bathed in natural light reflecting throughout the interior from the dome above. Definitely a sight that defies the “oh great….yet another cathedral” mentality that can overtake your brain while traveling.

With two of Istanbul’s biggest and most impressive sights under our belts for the day, we decided it was time to head home and to see if half-pint had arrived. On the walk back home, we decided to finally hit one of Istanbul’s many sweet shops and pick up a few sweet treats to share with Lynn. Everything looked delicious and we ended up buying a pretty hefty box of all baklava-style goodies. The guy behind the counter was pretty friendly and reeled us in by continually telling us that we needed to choose more or else the ones we had chosen thus far would be shifting too much in the box. A smart reply may have been “well, can you give us a smaller box then please”, but instead, we laughed at his sales tactics and continued ordering more….enough to feed a small Turkish army with a collective sweet tooth.

We get to our little hotel, wake up Goldilocks from the baby-bear bed, and exchange happy hellos as we sit around, have a little chit-chat, and nibble on honey-laden baklava treats. Lynn was exhausted from a balls-to-the-wall birthday celebration the night before and, combined with her flight to Istanbul, was running on sputtering fumes. So we figured we’d have a nice, easy night and took her down to the Cozy Pub for some drinks, dinner, and sparkling conversation. Yes, Jill & Lynn did most of the talking in case that confused you for a moment. We headed back home at a reasonable hour and before bed, we all took part in a triple laptop nerd-out session. That’s right….3 beds…3 laptops….and then lights out! (The accountants were nerding out way before me!)

Despite not having reason to be exhausted like half-pint was, we still joined her in a sleep-in party on Monday morning…all of us rustling to life at around 10:30. No problem…we can quickly shower up and head out, right? Wrong. Waiting for 2 girls to get ready to go out takes roughly twice as much time as waiting for 1 girl to get ready. Do the math. By about 12:30, with empty stomachs, we braved the funky scents of Istanbul’s tram and funicular to take us to Galata Bridge. We wanna go on a ferry tour today and, after a brief discussion about our options, we buy tickets for the 2:30 tour before choosing a waterside restaurant under the bridge for a bit of breakfast/lunch. We were a bit overwhelmed with the fish-filled lunch menu and after a head-scratching decision process, we just asked them to put together a Turkish breakfast platter for us…bread, tomatoes, cheese, olives, and all the rest. Yes, we may have been a bit hungry but that definitely hit the spot. We sat there for a while longer, sipping on coffee and watching all of the fishing lines reeling in sardines in front of us from the bridge overhead.

The day itself was gloriously bright and sunny as we boarded our boat for the start of our tour along the Bosphorous Strait. It was pretty cool cruising down this narrow water channel with Europe on one side of us and Asia on the other. We snapped some pictures as we passed a palace, a university, an art museum, monuments, bridges, and lots of other cool stuff that we wished we knew about but had no idea what we were actually looking at. There was no running commentary on this tour, but it was still cool to sit back and take in all the sights. Looking back at old Istanbul, it was pretty spectacular seeing dozens of minarets piercing the sky from all of the mosques around the city. Growing hungry for a snack, we headed inside and thought that some ice cream would go down well on such a hot day. Ordering it, however, soon turned into a fiasco as the guy behind the counter didn’t speak English and all of the ice creams we pointed to, which were depicted on the placard, seemed to be unavailable. With shoulders shrugging all around a few nervous giggles, a Turkish guy sitting nearby gets up and with excellent English, helps us negotiate the purchase of a few ice creams. We thanked him and ended up sitting with him and his girlfriend afterwards until our boat cruised back into the dock.

Back in old Istanbul, we walk over to another of the star attractions of the city….the Blue Mosque. Strikingly beautiful from the outside, it was built in the 1600s and has a huge forecourt, six towering minarets, and a bunch of domes and half-domes. It was prayer time when we arrived, so we weren’t allowed in and instead, waited patiently in the forecourt for about a half-hour. (This is where Lynn shot the image that is now my facebook profile picture... awesome shot!) When the doors opened up for guests, the girls had to cover their heads with a scarf and we all removed our shoes before entering. The interior was quite spectacular…and surprisingly new and shiny-looking for a place over 400 years old! The lower levels are decorated with over 20,000 handmade ceramic tiles, mainly with flower and fruit designs. The upper levels are dominated by blue-painted tiles, which give the mosque an overall blue-ish tint, leading to its popularized name (the actual name is the Sultan Ahmed Mosque). There are also over 200 stained glass windows and finely carved marble all around. This was the first mosque that we were actually allowed into on our trip so far and it was a pretty sweet one to start with! Even Pope Benedict visited here in 2006 – only the 2nd papal visit in history to a Muslim place of worship. Pretty cool. (I was surprised... although I probably shouldn’t have been, to see a cramped, little prayer area for the women. It was sectioned off by a lattice-like divider in the back of the mosque, and while there is nothing written in the Qur'an about the issue of space in mosques and gender separation, that’s the way it is.)

We have plans tonight to meet a friend of a friend of half-pint (did you follow that?) for dinner in modern Istanbul, so it was time to head back to our hotel to get ready. We haven’t really eaten much today, so we stopped off at a take-out doner place nearby that we’ve had our eyes on as it always seems to be super-busy. Verdict? Dishearteningly disappointing…very dry and not especially tasty. I guess we expected more since Turkish cuisine was so highly touted in our guide book. Not that you would consider doner to be “fine cuisine” but you would expect that if it was good anywhere, it’d be good in Turkey, right?

Running late again (two girls….remember?), (Ya but, but... we looked goooood!) we get to the restaurant a half-hour late at about 9PM to meet Ayhan for dinner. This place is famous for its meze plates and within short order, Ayhan calls over the waiter and we’re presented with a platter-full of options to choose from. A bit overwhelmed at this point, we take cues from Ayhan and end up ordering about 5 different plates to share, which were excellent. All of this was washed down with some raki – an anise-flavored booze that’s the national drink of Turkey and kinda tastes like sambuca. We drank it mixed with chilled water, which gives it a sorta milky color. The place itself was on a trendy and bustling pedestrian-only street that is extremely popular with locals. The raki flowed generously and I also got a lesson from Ayhan at the end of dinner on how to properly drink a Turkish coffee…as well as how to tell someone’s fortune from the discarded coffee grounds once you were done drinking it. Indeed, Ayhan regaled us with many stories over the evening, including several of his many successes.

Everyone agreed that a nightcap was probably in order, so Ayhan walked us over to a nearby Cuban bar where an 8-piece band was playing some groovy Latin tunes. We ordered some drinks, munched on the free popcorn and were enjoying the music right around the dance floor. The lead singer wanted to spice things up a bit and called out for a dance-off competition with coordinated moves….sort of like an unfortunate line dancing type of thing, except with cooler music. Ayhan and I gently nudged Lynn & Jill onto the dance floor and soon, they were joining the handful of other girls in the dance-off. Despite their half-hearted efforts, the audience-judged winner was still unclear, so the band decided that the champ would have to be decided by a freestyle dance-off tiebreaker…how exciting! The girls rattled off a few moves but ultimately, they did more laughing than dancing and neither of them took home the championship belt. Oh well…no glory on this night, but a good time. The place closed down at 1AM and I played the role of party-pooper when the others were all wondering what place we should hit next. It may have been the raki talking though, as once Ayhan left and we jumped into our cab, both Jill and half-pint were happy to be heading home. Guilt complex partially averted.

Half-pint gave us a bit of extra sleep-in time on Tuesday morning, as she was up early-ish to go check out the Hagia Sophia, which we had already seen. We actually did manage to scrape ourselves out of bed to take advantage of the free breakfast on the rooftop terrace at 9:45….mmm mmm….bread, tomatoes, cheese and olives yet again!?! Back to our room, Jill notices some red blemishes on her arm Oh no….not again. Bed bugs? If so, this would be the 3rd time on our trip already that she has been munched. With Lynn back from her touristing, we give the beds a full inspection but find nothing. Nonetheless, we’re not gonna take a chance, so on our way out for the day, we stop off at reception and ask for a change of room. After a brief uncomfortable exchange about a potential increase in price for the same exact type of room, which I wasn’t buying, they agreed to the room switch and said that they’d move our luggage into it later today. Cool.

Today is our 5th day in Istanbul and despite it being a very cool city, we wanna spend the balance of our 2 weeks in Turkey checking out some other areas, so after the obligatory stop-off at Starbucks for my caffeine fix, we start walking around in search of a travel agent. When we finally find the one that had been previously recommended to us, we sit down in the office for the next hour, hammering out a plan to tour Turkey for the next 9 days. By the end of it, we’re all very excited about the tours we’ve booked, mixed in with a healthy dose of dread. Somehow, with Jill and Lynn looking on skeptically, I agreed to 2 things that might turn out to be very uncomfortable for me – a hot-air balloon ride over the Cappadocia region of Turkey and a 4-day live-aboard boat cruise of the Mediterranean. Pretty cool, huh? Problem is, most people who know me know that I’m afraid of heights…and also can be susceptible to seasickness. Two curses that have already reared their ugly heads during the course of this trip. What the hell though, right? Let’s do it. Rock 'n’ roll. Oh boy. Of course, the other thing that I really don’t deal with well are early mornings…and this 9-day itinerary is absolutely littered with them. The first one? Tomorrow morning. Pick-up time? 4:30AM. Let’s say it all together now…..”Ouch!!”. (I was floored with Joe’s nonchalant attitude in booking not only the hot air balloon ride, but the 4-day boat trip?! Who’s the man?! Leaving the shop with butterflies of excitement in my stomach, the boat trip was something that in my mind was the perfect adventure... but for Joe sake, I would’ve never emphasized how much I wanted to do it... and what do ya know?! He’s amazing!)

With the rest of our Turkey trip planned, it was time to check out one of the few remaining items on our Istanbul to-do list…shopping at the Grand Bazaar. One of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world, this place is absolutely enormous, spanning about 60 streets with over 4,000 shops. So we figured we’d bang it out in maybe a couple of hours. Of course, that includes breaking for lunch, which we did as soon as we got there. We snaked through the many aisles looking at an array of carpets, globes, shisha pipes, backgammon sets, jewelry, handbags, clothes and tons of other stuff that would make even the most experienced shopper’s head spin. We each bought a few small items to take home with us and Jill & I considered buying some other stuff to ship home, but the shipping price we were quoted by the shop-owner was outrageous…and we later found out that it was at least 5 times what it should have been. Oh well…I guess he missed out on a potential sale by being too greedy. Jill has been searching for a new handbag for the past 4 months and just prior to leaving, was unsuccessful in trying to bargain the price down for one that she liked, so the handbag search continues…and our afternoon of bazaar shopping is over.

We stopped off at our travel agent that evening to pick up our final itineraries and tickets before walking over to a rooftop pub for some drinks and dinner. The views across to the Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque from the rooftop were superb…and the owners of the pub certainly realized that fact, as a viewing charge must’ve been built into their obscene prices, which made me kinda cranky. We decided to save a few bucks and ordered beers only, which we sipped on while half-pint and I got into a heated debate about politics, wars, money, and the USA’s role in all this…much to Jill’s silent horror. (Gulp... awkward!) Once we settled our tab and dusted ourselves off, we walked over to a local restaurant near our hotel and enjoyed some great food and friendly service…all at a very reasonable price. (This is where we encountered our first balloon-like puffed Turkish bread... sooooo good!) And all was well with the world again. That’s right…just feed me, burp me, and put me to bed, and all’s good!

The last thing on our Istanbul to-do list was to check out a Turkish bath or “hamam”, as it is called here. Looking at our watches though and conscious of the 4AM wake-up call looming over us, we decided instead to pick up some food supplies for tomorrow morning and then head back to our hotel. Oh well…there will be more opportunities for a Turkish bath at other points on our Turkey trip. When we arrive back at the hotel, we find out that the staff never moved our luggage to the new room and it’s all still sitting in the bedbug-infested room. Awesome. We end up moving everything ourselves before showering, packing and prepping for tomorrow. With our heads finally hitting the pillows to get a few hours of much-needed sleep, we were treated to the sounds of some thumping beats pumping in from a nearby club, followed by Turkish folk music. Hmmmm….sleep may be hard to come by tonight.

Tomorrow starts our 2-day whirlwind tour of the Cappadocia region of Turkey, a miraculous natural wonder of moon-like landscapes, underground cities, cave churches, and houses carved into rocks. Upon arrival tomorrow morning, we’ll be whisked off to start Day 1 of 2 full-day tours. The morning after tomorrow is when we will be floating away on our hot-air balloon ride, which we’re all looking forward to, and which I’m trying not to think too much about. Will we gracefully ease up into the inviting sky without a care in the world or will I be hyperventilating into a paper bag in front of 20 other passengers? We’ll let you know…hopefully soon!
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BK on

took me awhile but did you mean "donairs"?

Brenda on

Once again.... awesome pictures..... awesome Blog!

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