Chapter One - To the mysterious east
Trip Start Sep 28, 2011
23Trip End Oct 14, 2011
Finally off to Istanbul, mysterious metropolis of the East. Naturally we have booked Turkish Airlines rather than Iberia. We want to taste Turkey as soon as we get aboard.
Let's digress here in respect to the name of this exotic country. Does it have anything to do with the Christmas turkey? Of course not. The turkey is a bird native to North America and was first seen by Europeans in the sixteenth century when Turkey was already an ancient land. So why did these Europeans call it a turkey? Well, the native American name of ómahksipi'kssíí, was a bit of a mouthful. According to Wikipedia - When Europeans first encountered turkeys in the Americas, they incorrectly identified the birds as a type of guinea fowl. Guinea fowl were also known as turkey fowl (or turkey hen and turkey cock) because they were imported to Central Europe through Turkey
Strangely enough turkey in Turkish is "Hindi" and in Portugal, Brazil and India it’s called “Perú”.
We aren’t served turkey (or hindi) on Turkish Airlines, but we are given a lovely printed menu offering a salad of fresh green beans in olive oil, followed by a choice of grilled chicken medallions or tas kebab, a traditional beef stew in vegetable sauce. It is a pleasant surprise to find that wine and liquor is complimentary. For a while we think we have seated ourselves in business class by mistake.
It is a spectacular approach to Istanbul over the Sea of Marmara and the bustling city, but to our horror we find that it’s raining. We remember our wet and windy visit to Eastern Europe and implore to the powers that be it will not be repeated here.
We have booked a transfer to our hotel through Backpacker’s Travel. We wonder if we will be transferred in the back of a truck through the rain, but after being met at the exit with a sign bearing my correctly spelt name, we are whisked off in an extremely comfortable mini-van
“Where are your staying.” asks the driver.
“At the Side Hotel.” It's pronounced sid-aay.
Our hotel doesn’t seem to be on anyone’s list, but when we advise him that it is right next to the Four Seasons, he nods his head. He probably thinks we are millionaires. Not so. Although the Hotel is in fact right next door to this august establishment, it carries four fewer stars after its name.
Our accommodation is located in the Sultanahmet District of Istanbul, the historic core of the city. Most of the buildings had been traditional residences of important Ottoman functionaries, it being close to the Topkapi Palace where the Sultan resided. These distinctive two and three storey wood-faced buildings have mostly been converted very successfully to hotels and pensions. The luxurious Four Seasons hotel at the end of our block was actually the elaborate city jail. The narrow streets are cobbled and lined by restaurants and souvenir shops selling the ubiquitous Turkish carpets
The rooms are a fair size and the bathroom is spotless and right up to date. Nevertheless the furnishings are somewhat modest. Indeed as there is only a double bed and a small bedside table, nothing else. There’s no chair and a definite scarcity of hangers in the tiny closet. Anyway, we don’t plan on spending much time in our room so as soon as our suitcases hit the floor we are off to experience Istanbul.
First we must find the Backpacker’s Travel office to pick up the railway tickets on the Istanbul-Ankara overnight train which I have already booked and paid for in advance. Street names here are few and far between, but Bryan locates it just behind our hotel. We find our contact Yusuf awaiting us with all the necessary documentation.
Let me say that all the advance arrangements that I had made on the internet came through perfectly without any problems at all.
With railway tickets in hand, our next project is to search out the local ATM (cashpoint). There are four machines bunched together on Sultanahmet Square which is spectacularly placed between the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia, with a gracefully illuminated fountain as the centrepiece
“Wow! What a magnificent location for ATMs” I think as I withdraw 1,000 Turkish Lira (US$ 531) from the HSBC device. We are all in total awe of the scenery around us.
Being a great fan of Rick Steves, I have purchased his guide book for Istanbul. We will follow his wonderful walking tours and sample his restaurant recommendations. Tonight we try out Cankurtaran Sosyal Tesisleri, located through a stout iron gate in the city walls and overlooking the Bosphorus. It has stopped raining, but everything is still wet and chilly, so rather than enjoying one of the lovely outside tables we are ushered inside to the cavernous dining hall.
“Where is everyone?” There is only one family there and it feels awfully lonesome. We order sea food and kebabs, and although the food is excellent, we feel we haven’t really experienced what we were expecting. We find out that this is a social club (sosyal, duh!) and that it’s usually packed. Nonetheless Friday for Muslims is like Sunday for us, a time for family gatherings at home and prayers, so what with the wet weather we seem to have chosen the wrong day if we were expecting to mix with the locals
One thing we will find on our travels is that many restaurants do not serve alcoholic beverages. This is one of them so instead of beer and wine we drink çay (tea, pronounced chay) and ayran, a Turkish yoghurt drink.
“I’ve got to have a beer. We can’t round off a great evening without a beer” claims Bryan.
We walk back up the hill from the Bosphorus past Sultanahmet Square to Divan Yulu, the main drag, where we find lots of life and a great place to finish off our evening with a couple of draft Efes and wine, albeit with other tourists rather than with locals.