When you are continuously on the move, you expect that your plans are going to change. A few hours or days delay is very common, but an escalation in a military conflict in the county you are flying to in eight days is a little different. We had found two couch surfers that would put us up for a few days each in two different parts of the city. There was a whole lot we wanted to see in the city, and on top of that we needed to make a decision on if we were going to fly into Israel or not.
The decision was difficult because our plans were to fly to India after our Israel/Jordan/Egypt tour, but the Indian Visa is known to be difficult. Because around-the-world travelers use other travelers’ tales they read on the internet, to plan their own journey, and the experience of wanting to get India’s visa in Istanbul is actually common for travelers, there will be a post all its own. But to say the least, it was the hardest visa we have yet to get (though not getting the Brazil visa could be compared). So on top of seeing the sites, we spent various half days in the Indian Consulate.
tea and salep
outdoor exercize is very in
bought some sunflower seeds to eat down my the waterfront
But as far as exploring. We arrived by bus on an early Saturday morning. Not knowing what part of Istanbul we were in, and not having a map, we began the familiar practice of locating ourselves. Asking different shop owners and bus ticket vendors, we were given directions. We were trying to get to Kadıköy to stay with a couchsurfer named Turgay. He had a conference that day and we thought we could get to his house before he left, but once we found that in the overnight bus ride that morning, we had crossed back over to the European side of Istanbul and had a much longer commute to Turgay’s house, we needed to take a ferry back over to Asia. It was a little bit chilly in Istanbul and we had work we could get done and holed up in the corner of a coffee-house which turned out (to Veronica’s happy surprise) to be a Starbucks. We finally got ahold of Turgay later that afternoon once his conference was over and got the chance to take a shower.
Supposedly the best baklava in Istanbul, we had to try some, it was good, but hard for us to judge giving our limited experience.
Turgay was a great host. A restaurant we were told we needed to go to called Ciya was just down the street from his place. One night he took us there, but we also shared meals and great conversations over breakfasts and when he got home from work. Turgay works at a publishing house and his normal job is to update the most popular Turkish-English dictionary in Turkey. He goes through, one word at a time, checking its current relevance. Turgay told us he really enjoys it, studying English Literature in the US, I believe he got either his masters or PHD at Purdue, and he said his favorite part was that he worked at his own schedule and often got off on tangents doing research about words, learning all sorts of interesting facts. He also sometimes translated picture books, but this was less often. Turgay has three cats, all rescued, that ran all over the house and loved to jump on anyones lap and get into mischief. It was really nice to have pets back in our lives, after leaving the dogs in Yalikavak that we loved so much.
We visited the spice market and the grand bazar, which pictures and videos will explain more than my writing. Parts were crowded and overflowing, just the way a bazaar should be. We bought some saucers for the Turkish tea glasses we had and Veronica did a great job at bargaining down the price to about half of what was first asked. There is so much that we loved about Istanbul but the fact that we could take a ferry across the city each morning and night may have been a high, it was such a peaceful way of commuting. The street food in turkey is also wonderful, I had my fair share of donor kebabs which were always delicious and Veronica loved the corn on the cob that was sold in most squares and around the markets. A completely new drink was introduced to us in Istanbul, and we decided it is the best warm drink that would go perfect on a cooler fall day. It is called salep. A thick white drink made from ground tubers of orchid plants and sprinkled with cinnamon, served hot. We prefered the kind offered in cafes rather than the street vendors.
tea and salep
Visually mosques are amazing. They create such a different city scape than we are used to , and the fact that Istanbul is such a water city, being built on the hills leading out of the channel, you can see the minarets everywhere. Each one has wonder but when visiting there is a common problem of becoming mosqued-out. Similar to cathedrals in Italy, if you stop at every beautiful mosque, you will start taking their history and wonderful detail for granted. But there are many mosques that even if you have seen hundreds already, are a must when in Istanbul.
Sultanahmet a.k.a. Blue Mosque
The two most popular are the Hagia Sophia and the Sultanahmet or Blue Mosque, which are right next to each other. Sultanahmet is still used as a functioning place of worship but Hagia Sophia is now a historical building and no longer used in the way it once was. The history is amazing, especially of the Hagia Sophia, and I urge you to click this link to learn more about it, but there is way too much for me to write much here. It has been converted more than once, being the Christian church during the reign of Charlemagne, and there are still wall mosaics that show this aspect.
the Blue Mosque seen from out the window of a top level at the Hagia Sophia
Inside Hagia Sophia
The other half of the week we stayed with a women named Bahriya who lived in Besiktas on the European side. Bahriya also had a cat, though only one, named Siyami and we once again loved the animal attention.
Bahriya was also overly accommodating, taking us around the city to favorite restaurants and even to a famous Turkish bath called Çemberlitas Hamami, and we got a nice authentic rub down. It was a stranger experience for me, since men and women are taken to separate parts of the building, and I spoke no Turkish. So I had no way to explain what I wanted or did not want. They did speak little English, but I very much had to go with the flow. In all it was a great experience. We were Bahriya’s first Couchsurfing guests and were so happy that she took a chance on letting us into her home and life.
Many days we would wander around the streets, play backgammon in cafes and we visited a few parks. As we soaked up more and more of the city, we fell in love with Istanbul. A last-minute decision was to go to the Basilica Cistern which is an underground water system built by the Romans, with a quiet and very different feeling than the bustling streets right above. We were both glad that we decided to go and would recommend it to those visiting Istanbul for sure! In all, we know we did not see the whole city, but at that point we also knew that we would be back to Turkey, and had the mindset that what we missed then, we could see one of the next times.
famous medusa head used in the construction of the Basilica cisterns
In the end, we were able to get our India Visas, change our flights, with a three-day stop in Dubai, and would be landing in Delhi later that week.
Loving her desert of rice pudding
Thanksgiving at KFC (can’t find turkey in Turkey)
The day before we left, I bought a rare souvenir. Rare in the sense that I usually do not buy things when traveling, not that it was particularly hard to come by. It was a small, hand carved backgammon set. And it will remind me of the cold night we played a few games with Bahriya and her niece, drinking tea on the waterfront. This was just one of the many wonderful memories we have from the city and its amazing people.