Long weekend in Istanbul

Istanbul Travel Blog

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Hello everybody,

Cameron and I have just come back from a short trip away to the capital of Turkey, Istanbul.
We flew with British Airways from Heathrow on Friday morning, and who do you think we bumped into, who was also catching the very same flight?

Karen was setting off for Istanbul to start a fantastic trip to Turkey and Egypt. She was very surprised to see us, as we were. Fancy meeting up in London, as well as taking the very same flight! Since the plane wasn’t completely full, we were able to switch seats and sit together which was really good.
After the 4-hour flight, we lined up for our visas, got through immigration, and met up with our taxi drivers.
This will be the last time we’re in the same place at the same time. Karen told us that she was also in Barcelona the previous weekend (though we didn’t run into her that time). We seem to have been following each other around Europe for the past few weeks!

We had a fantastic time in Istanbul. Its one of my favourite places we’ve visited so far. We stayed at a small hotel called Hotel Empress Zoë, which is right in the centre of ‘Old Istanbul’, the Sultanahmet district. This is world heritage listed district and has some of the major highlights of Istanbul – the Blue Mosque, the Aya Sofya, the Basilica Cistern, the Topkapi Palace, and the Hippodrome. We arrived at 5pm on Friday afternoon and just arrived in our room as the dusk call to prayer was being broadcast across Istanbul (and the rest of the country for that matter).

Istanbul has many, many mosques. You can see their minarets (towers) dotted right across the huge city. Depending on how big the mosque is, there are varying numbers of minarets. The large Blue Mosque has 6, but there are many smaller mosques with a single solitary one. Each minaret has around 4 loudspeakers attached to it, facing in each direction around it. A special member of the mosque sings a melodic call to prayer, through the loud speakers, in Arabic 5 times every day: at dawn, noon, mid afternoon, dusk, and after dark. From our hotel, we could hear the call to prayer from the Blue Mosque which was a couple of hundred meters away, but there was a small mosque right next to our hotel, from which the call to prayer was very close and very loud. It would wake us up at 5am, but instead of being an annoyance, I found it a nice, exotic sound, and could doze while it was still going, with it as a background in my sleep.
It certainly illustrated the devoutness of the faith. When the call to prayer is heard, Muslims face in the direction of Mecca, either at a mosque, or in their homes, and pray.

We visited the Blue Mosque on Saturday afternoon.

It is open to non-muslims in between these prayer times. It was a beautiful grand building and gets its name from the many blue tiles that line the walls and roof. The floor is covered in carpets, and you have to remove you shoes to walk on it. When people pray there, they start off kneeling, and then bend right down until their face touches the floor, which is the reason of the no shoes rule. Needless to say, the interior, though stunning, did have quite a strong aroma of non-mistakable foot odour!

We also visited another beautiful building, the Aya Sofya.

This was originally a catholic church when the Roman Empire included Istanbul. After the fall of Constantinople (or the conquest of Istanbul as it is referred to in Turkey), it was made into a mosque. Today however it is not a working mosque but instead a museum of sorts. The interior is also very magnificent, though the photo doesn’t really do it justice.

We visited Istanbul during the Muslim Holy Month, the Ramadan. We were unsure of what, if any implications this would have on our visit. During this month, Muslims must fast from dawn to dusk. Nothing must pass their lips in this time. After the dusk call to prayer (around 5pm), they are able to feast. Perhaps this contributed to the nightly carnival like atmosphere that we experienced while we visited.
In this respect it was a great time to be in Istanbul. In front of the Blue Mosque is the Hippodrome. This is a street where chariot races were held in Byzantine times, and which has been the centre of life in Istanbul for centuries. Today it is a very busy and bustling street lined with food and market stalls, and attracts Turks from all walks of life for a night out. Here the smells, sights, and tastes of Istanbul were all around. There were many ‘fast food’ outlets, which instead of being a Maccas were little kebab joints and basic restaurants where you could get a delicious meal for very little money. You sat at tables on impossible small stools, and watched the bustling street life go by. This was a snacker’s paradise. There were so many food and drink stalls.
After dinner, you could buy sticky Turkish sweets of all types, popcorn, corn on the cob, roasted chestnuts, fairy floss, toffees on sticks – the list goes on. All of this for a bit of loose change in your pocket.

One slightly irritating thing about Istanbul - and I know anyone who has been there will agree - is the amount of carpet shops, and worse, amount of carpet shop salesman there are – everywhere!! They befriend you quite a lot. English is spoken quite well by a lot of Turks. A lot of Australians must visit, or else we have a certain look about us, because most of the time a friendly fellow would call out, “Where are you from? Australia?” They seemed to like Australians (“You are much nicer than Americans”), though who knows if they say the opposite to Americans!? After asking what you do for a living, if you are married, when are you going to have children, and how they know somebody who went to Australia etc etc, they tell us that they are in the carpet business and would you like to come in for a cup of tea and experience their hospitality while they show you some carpets? “You don’t have to buy anything of course!” We weren’t in the market for any Turkish carpets on our visit, and didn’t make the mistake of actually setting foot inside a shop.
It was hard enough to get away from them on the streets, let alone once you’re in their shop, drinking their tea! There were certainly many beautiful carpets in the windows of shops, but you really need to know your stuff to tell whether you are getting a good quality one, and at a fair price. The carpet business is quite a lucrative business for a lot of Turks, and they can ride high after a hefty commission from a purchase by a non-suspecting tourist. In some ways it would be easier and less risky to buy a Turkish carpet from your own country. At least you could to some extent be sure of the quality, but it is a great experience for a lot of people to select, haggle, and eventually purchase a Turkish carpet in Turkey. And there is no place with a greater selection than Istanbul.
But, we weren’t in the market for one this time. Maybe next time.

We also visited Topkapi Palace, the home of the Sultan and his gaggle of up to 500 concubines and African Eunuchs. It was huge complex and an interesting place to visit. We visited the Harem, which housed all those concubines. The sultan was certainly kept busy, I think. We also visited the Treasury, and though perhaps not a touch on the British crown jewels, they certainly did have some valuable rocks. Also, more gruesomely, they had John the Baptist’s Arm. It was cased in a solid gold amour, but had a little flap open so you could see his bones, and sinewy tendons. They also had the top of his skull. Lovely.
Also, interestingly, in another section of the Palace they had vials with hairs from Mohamed’s beard, a mould of his footprint (very big feet), as well as a fancy little box housing a tooth.
It was quite fascinating, and naturally it holds a lot of significance for Muslim visitors. Consequently you could barely get a look in; there was such a crowd

We also visited the Basilica Cistern, a huge Roman era water storage complex – very dark and spooky.

We also had a walk around Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar. This is a huge (massive!) complex of shops and stalls selling anything you can think of. Many designer rip offs, luggage, carpets, leather, jewelry, trinkets, food, ceramics, and clothes. You most certainly get very disorientated when in there, in the maze of shops. Of course, you are beckoned into every single shop you walk past too. Very slick salesmen live in Istanbul, that’s for sure.
Below is a picture taken in one of the market streets around the Grand Bazaar
On Sunday night, I started coming down with a nasty viral like illness, and felt very achy and weak, so stayed in bed on Monday.
Luckily we had visited the main attractions of Istanbul, and had to leave at 2:30pm that afternoon for the airport anyway, but there were still things we had planned to visit. I sent Cameron out to visit them – of course with instructions “If someone asks you to buy a carpet, tell them, what a shame, you’ve already bought one!” and “make sure the taxi driver uses the meter”. He went to the Chora church around 5km away. This is a stunning (mainly on the inside apparently) 14th century church which is said to have the best mosaics outside of Ravenna in Italy.

He also visited the Spice Bazaar, another huge market in the shadow of the Yeni Cami mosque, which amongst other things sells spices of every variety. Another exotic part of Istanbul.

We had a great time in Istanbul.
We’d definitely recommend anybody to visit. Next time we are in this area though, we hope to see a lot more of Turkey. It certainly seems to be a fascinating country with a lot to see. We left Istanbul on Monday afternoon, and after our flight back to Heathrow, we faced our long tube journey back to Kings Cross station. This was made longer by a huge delay on the tube while we waited for somebody who was standing on the tracks to be escorted off them. Eventually we got home, quite exhausted, excited at the prospect of the rest of the week at work.

nfds says:
Hey! So you had a nice trip! I went to Istanbul once, it was just before Christmas and I set off from Poland and traveled for 3 days through Ukraine and Romania, where I got on the Bosfor Express train. I really liked the place, although at first I was surprised that it's so modern.

All the best,

Notes From Different Spots - Travel Photography and Tips
Posted on: Aug 17, 2007
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photo by: Memo