This morning we were able to have a little bit of a sleep in before we headed off to our next destination on the Topdeck Mega European Tour, glorious Istanbul. We will get to spend three nights in the city that spans two continents, the longest we will stay in any city on this tour. Without a doubt visiting this city was one of my highlights and I am looking forward to returning here one day to see more of the city and the rest of Turkey.
Gallipoli to Istanbul – 27 May, 2012
This morning we left the battlefields of Gallipoli and headed towards Istanbul, the trip didn’t take long in the context of the distance we have travelled so far just a few hours up the road. Arriving into the city I was blown away at how pristine the region is and we haven’t even arrived in the main city yet.
We travelled past the main airport in Istanbul and then headed on the freeway and driving along here I was surprised at how immaculate it was and well kept with stylised gardens gracing the embankments along the route, I wish the freeways back home would look as nice and maintained as this road. Everywhere you look red roses make up the gardens, not just simple gardens along the freeway but they have been strategically planted to create all sorts of shapes and objects. In full bloom I was really jealous comparing it to the freeways back in Australia looking at concrete sound proof walls and what they like to call ‘native grasses’.
On arrival into the city itself we had a local guide meet the coach to guide us through the city streets to get us to our hotel, the coach had to navigate narrow roads, once again a credit to our awesome driver Deans. The roads are blocked off by electronically operated bollards with these roads looking like they are usually reserved for just pedestrian traffic and the throng of tourist busses that enter the area.
As the coach navigated the narrow road alongside the Blue Mosque (how’s that for a grand entrance), we then went through another road not open to regular traffic as our guide opened the road that lies between the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia. Basically we took a shortcut and met up with the main road again which is serviced by a tram line, it kinda felt like a rock star welcome with traffic standing still just for us.
Our hotel was just around the corner from the Blue Mosque so we couldn’t have stayed in a better location right in the centre of the city and around all the main attractions including the Grand Bazaar. For the rest of the afternoon we had some free time, many of us opted to go for a short walk up to the Blue Mosque area of Sultanahmet Square, a good opportunity to gain our bearings when we go to explore the city.
Tonight we have an included dinner at a restaurant directly opposite the hotel, it was a really nice dinner sitting out on the street and having a good laugh about things that have happened on the trip so far. The dynamics of our small group were about to change with quite a few people connecting with our tour tomorrow night and for the rest of the tour we gain more and more people to the point where we have a full bus again. Up until now we were all enjoying having two seats each on the coach letting us stretch out.
After dinner most of the group went out to a bar just around the corner from the Blue Mosque where many people indulged in trying some flavoured tobacco known as Sheesha. Personally it wasn’t something I wanted to try so I just stuck to a drink or two, the main thing is not to feel pressured to try it just because everyone else is.
Once everyone was done the night wound down for most people with a handful of people opting to continue on into the night as tomorrow we had an early start with a guided tour taking in some of the main sites before having the rest of the day free to explore ourselves.
Istanbul – 28 May, 2012
This morning we had a guided tour around the old town of Istanbul starting from our hotel we walked up the road outside the Blue Mosque and checked out the Obelisk of Theodosius and learnt about the history of this Egyptian monument, the Roman Empire and the importance of Istanbul. Up until the end of World War I the city was known as Constantinople and back in Roman times was part of the Byzantium Empire or Eastern Roman Empire and at one point the new capital of the entire Roman Empire.
Our next stop was the Blue Mosque itself, at this point it started to pour down with rain which was a stark contrast to the previous day where we had perfect clear blue sky’s. Inside the mosque we gained some shelter and heard more about this amazing building before going on inside.
Before going inside the mosque, like all mosques you must take your shoes off. This is a massive exercise outside the entrance being one of the most popular buildings in Istanbul and having hundreds of tourists all take there shoes off at once made the situation a bit chaotic. At the entrance they provide you with a plastic bag to put your shoes in so you can carry them around.
One bit of advise and keep in mind it had just been raining, I was wearing thongs (jandals for those Kiwis) and the inside of the mosque is carpet, it felt a bit disgusting knowing millions of feet had walked on the same carpet, so you might want to wear socks.
Our next destination was Topkapi Palace, it was home to the Ottoman Sultans for roughly 400 years. The palace is in an impressive location with views overlooking the Bosphorus Strait and the scene looks vastly different to what the Sultans of the day would have seen as large cargo ships pass up and down the divide between Europe and Asia.
At this point the whether was starting to clear up and looking like the rest of the day would just be plagued by overcast sky’s. We now started to head over to the Grand Bazaar where our tour would end and we were free to explore the city for the rest of the day on our own. Before making it to the Grand Bazaar we stopped for lunch as we were greeted by crystal clear blue sky, some of us opted to ditch the tour at this point and find our own way, this way we didn’t have to rush lunch.
One of, if not the biggest attractions of Istanbul without a doubt is the Grand Bazaar. We simply went there with the attitude of just looking, no buying as we can always come back tomorrow with a plan or strategy on how to tackle the bargaining situation.
Talk about shopping overload, each section seems to be dedicated to a group of products, one has to wonder how they make any money all selling pretty much the same thing. Lamps, lamps, lamps, crockery, jewellery, rugs, carpets, some more crockery and lamps, this is your one stop destination.
It’s quiet an exhausting process of looking around and you get sick of it pretty quickly unless you are a die hard shopper then you will love it. It was a good way to assess the going rate for everything and to ponder some ideas on making purchases the next day.
After a long day of exploring the city we headed back to the hotel to get ready for dinner. Tonight is a Topdeck optional extra of having dinner up the top of Galata Tower. From the top of the tower you gain impressive views of the city, we got there just before sunset so we could see the city transform from day to night. Dinner was pretty good, we had to navigate through a few courses while having a view of the working city below us. Part of having dinner in the tower included performances encompassing traditional Turkish dancing as well as belly dancers.
During the performance a friend who I was travelling with was called up to the stage and had to participate in the dancing, I was just thankful I wasn’t the one called up. He was instructed to mimic the dance moves of the dancers and also had to lay on the floor with a wooden board while knives were thrown at him. He wasn’t too impressed with being up there, but it was hilarious for the rest of us to watch.
At the end of the night an older gentleman was up on stage singing a variety of songs, all the tables of the people dining in the restaurant were decked out in flags of the countries everyone was from and therefore he would then sing a song directed at the table known to that country. The default Australian song being Waltzing Matilda.
By the time the festivities of dinner were over it was pretty late and time to leave, many people wanted to continue on into the night, but no one spoke up at the time and so the bus took us back to the hotel. Most people turned in for the night, others ventured out and didn’t come back until the wee hours of the morning. Tonight we are just glad we have another day here, usually we would be preparing to leave and move onto the next destination.
Istanbul – 29 May, 2012
Today was our free day to explore the city on our own. The plan today was to see anything not seen so far plus have enough time to go back to the Grand Bazaar to do a little shopping. The first place we opted to check out was another palace on the other side of the river called Dolmabahca Palace.
We didn’t go inside however the palace is now a museum and costs around 40 Lira to enter, as far as entrance fees go it was a bit expensive. However walking around the outside of the palace I did notice something quite funny. The guards outside the palace (see below) have to stand to attention inside glass booths, I can only speculate why they are kept so protected.
Continuing on from the palace we walked further into the city and towards Taksim Square, this is one of the main meeting points in Istanbul and a major Tram, Train and Bus terminus for the city. From here you can walk down Istiklal Avenue, this is where the major boutique shops are located, no haggling or bargain shopping here it’s all full priced, basically the equivalent of the Queen Street Mall in Brisbane or the Bourke Street Mall in Melbourne. Also running down this street are old historic red trams and heading further down we eventually made it to where we had dinner the previous night at Galata Tower.
After grabbing a bite to eat for lunch, we headed back to the hotel as almost everyone was meeting up at the hotel to go to a Turkish Bath. Personally I’m very ticklish so I was probably the only one who opted out of going, not my kinda thing.
This was a good opportunity to see some of the city on my own so I went around the corner from the hotel to the gardens of Topkapi Palace, a massive open and landscaped park in pristine condition. Walking from one end of the park to the other takes you out to the shore line to meet the Bosphorus Strait, outside the park here their is a massive Turkish flag flying.
During this time I also booked dinner at a restaurant we found earlier in the day called Alemdar Restaurant (brochure can be downloaded at the bottom of this page), two of us are going here tonight and it includes a performance from the Sufi Whirling Dancers, you will also see statues of these dancers everywhere in the Bazaar and shops.
We were really pleased to find this place where we had dinner, just around the corner from our hotel we arrived early to have dinner before the show started and we had a massive share platter full of all sorts of meats, salads and other Turkish delights.
When the performance started we were greeted first by three men who would provide the music followed by the entrance of the Sufi Whirling Dancers. I don’t know how they manage to stand there spinning for so long, they just kept spinning and spinning for a good ten minutes, then would pause for a minute or two and do it all over again. They must have been going for a good hour or so, the precision involved was amazing with their costume twirling in a fashion that made it look like it was being aided to be able to float in the air like that.
Once the Sufi Whirling dancers were finished the next performance was a from a belly dancer, this one was far more superior to the two we saw the previous night at the tower. When she was done some of the waiters then came out to perform some dance moves, this included one of them getting up on a table and standing on top of four wine glasses, he originally broke one when attempting to get up on the table, but once he was away he was pretty amazing.
A funny moment at the end of the night was getting the bill, this was the first time using another currency other than Euro or Pounds, so when I saw the numbers on the bill it was a bit of bill shock and thought well ill have to put this on the credit card. However walking down the street thinking about it we realised well actually that was really only about $40, that’s no big deal!
We were really pleased to have found this restaurant, it was a great way to cap off three amazing nights in Istanbul and this city has been one of the major highlights of this trip so far, up there with the Swiss Alps.
Tomorrow we are starting the portion of the tour that includes a lot of one night stops in a different country everyday as we head back west into eastern Europe and discover what it was like to live behind the Iron Curtain in these former communist nations. Our first stop is the capital of Bulgaria, Sofia.
DOWNLOAD: Topdeck Istanbul City Guide