My journey to Istanbul began with an epic bus journey, it was a very comfortable bus but unfortunately stopped every hour or so to pick up more passengers! After 5 hours of driving we reached the Greece/Turkey border, at which points we handed our passports in and they were returned to us a couple of times, which became slightly stressful as I tried to keep track of where mine was! Eventually we successfully passed through to the Turkish side of the border, where I bought my visa without a problem. Unfortunately for the English boys behind me things didn’t go so smoothly as they had no cash, and the cash machine wasn’t working! As I had already been chatting to them a little and figured they deserved a break, I loaned them the money on the proviso that they would pay me back when we got to the bus station in Istanbul. From here our bus journey continued, and eventually we reached Istanbul. We drove into the bus station, at which point started a rather confusing hour of trying to understand what the bus driver was saying, and where we should get off! There were around 8 of us all trying to get to the same area, and all thoroughly confused as to what was going on. It didn’t help that we hadn’t got much sleep on the bus through the night! Eventually, after much sign language and repeating of key words, we were pointed in the direction of the metro station, at which point I followed the instructions provided by my hostel. We caught a train to Aksaray, then squashed onto the jam-packed trams to Sultanahmet. From here we walked around 10 minutes to our respective hostels, that all turned out to be within about 2 blocks of each other! I finally found my friends Sam and Sarah, an even managed to score a free breakfast from the hostel. Win!
Once we had satisfied our appetites (for a short time at least) we headed off to some of the local museums to avoid the rain. We started off at the Yerebatan Cistern Museum, which is an underground cistern, built by a Byzantinian Emperor. It is 140m long by 70m, and is a giant underground rectangular structure held up by seemingly endless rows of ancient columns. They are lit up, which provides an amazing atmosphere and also creates a very cool reflection in the water. Many photos were taken!
After leaving the cistern we headed down the road to the Archeological Museum, which housed a vast collection of pieces of art from throughout Turkey’s history. We saw marble sculptures (because I didn’t see enough of THEM in Greece!), the traditional Turkish blue tiles, stone sculptures, small figurines, amongst others. It was quite interesting to peruse another countries collection of ancient works! Once we had finished at the museum we followed the rumbling of our tummies to a local Turkish restaurant where we all enjoyed a Turkish pide and some Turkish tea. Very tasty and very filling! From here we headed up the road to the Grand Bazaar, where we got lost in the endless sea of jewellery, clothes, shoes, scarves, rugs and pottery. We practiced our bargaining skills and made several purchases for ourselves and others, mainly jewellery with some other things thrown in for good measure! It was quite a fun and interesting experience to wander and peruse the items for sale. Eventually we were exhausted from our wanderings, so we headed to a Turkish delight shop that Sam had visited the day before. It was SO cheap and VERY tasty! I purchased a piece of a variety of flavours – ginger, mint, kiwi, orange, cherry, rose petal… We walked on munching our purchases and admired the Blue Mosque in the afternoon sunlight, along with the Hagias Sofia. We stopped to take photos of the giant tulips and to sit for a while before heading back to the hostel to chill out for a while before dinner. We headed down the road for dinner, and ended up at a bar/restaurant. Dinner was quite tasty, I had Mediterranean vegetable pasta with a tomato sauce followed by some Turkish apple tea for dessert. After dinner we headed back to our hostel via the Blue Mosque to take some photos of it lit up at night.
We started off this morning at Topkapi Palace, the palace used by the Sultan until the 19th Century. It was built during the Ottoman Empire, and covers a vast amount of land. It was opulently decorated and had beautiful well maintained grounds, full of spring flowers and lush green grass. The view wasn’t bad either!
After departing the palace we headed north to find the spice bazaar. Our senses were pleasantly delighted as they took the sights and smells of the many spices, olives, cheeses and Turkish delight on offer in the numerous stalls. After perusing (and sampling) many different foods, we purchased some Turkish delight, pistachio nougat and a variety of olives that we consumed sitting in the sunny square outside. We also tried what we called ‘Golden Balls’, which were small balls of batter filled with syrup... they were so very, very sweet and tasty!
After a while of sitting and eating we headed over the bridge to the Asian side of Istanbul and headed up the hill to the Galata Tower. After queuing outside for a while we finally made it to the top, and were rewarded with an amazing vista of Istanbul as it sprawled out around us. Being a beautiful clear day it was quite a spectacular view! And who doesn’t appreciate a good observation deck? We certainly do! We enjoyed a cup of Turkish apple tea with a view towards the river. Eventually the time came to go back down the tower, and we started our search for Istiklal Avenue, suggested by my lonely planet guidebook as a ‘must see’ for any traveler. We thought we were on the right track, and were not very impressed with our ‘must see’ suggestion, as the main street we were on was kind of boring! It had big fancy hotels and that was about it. We found a small sidestreet that had some cool shops in it so we headed down there for a look. When the street came to an end we exited onto a busy, bustling street full of people and shops… it turns out THIS was the street we were looking for in the first place! Street signs are a bit of a novelty in Istanbul, and my map is not the most accurate of geographical expertise… but we got there in the end. We walked along and had a look around, before perusing the many restaurant options in search of somewhere for dinner. We eventually chose a place that looked warm and had more than one vegetarian option (one of the menus listed their only option as ‘Vegetarian Dish’, no explanation or list of ingredients!). I had Turkish spinach ravioli, which was more like gnocchi than ravioli as it was small parcels of potato mixed with spinach, with a white sauce on top. It was rather tasty! Once we were full to the bursting point we started the trek home, this started with a tram ride down the main street in an old tram, then onto the funicular railway for the trip down the hill, and one last change to the trolley to take us back to our hostel. A short walk and we were back in the warmth and ready for a good night of sleep!
Today we headed off to the Bosphorous river to try and find a boat to take us on a cruise. As we walked along the river we were approached by many different people all selling tickets for cruises. We bargained with one and managed to get it for half price, the equivalent of $6 Australian. It was a medium sized boat, not the most fancy but it was sturdy and safe. We embarked on our two hour cruise down the Bosphorous, admiring the many palaces and mosques that line the waterfront. After our boat cruise we walked back through the spice bazaar for another helping of olives and golden balls… they were just as tasty the second time around!
We did some shopping for leather jackets for Sam and Sarah, and then found some lunch. We shared some Turkish pides and headed back to the hostel. In the afternoon we decided to try the Turkish Baths, and we were in for quite an experience! It was a rather traditional experience, and we came out after two hours of being soaked, massaged, soaped, sauna-ed and washed feeling rather refreshed and cleansed! It was certainly an interesting experience.
Today we had to move hostels as our tour started at a different place in Istanbul. We started the day with another trip to the Turkish Delight shop and walked around the area for a little, and did some more shopping for leather jackets. After that we headed to our new hotel and got settled before finding some lunch and enjoying an afternoon nap. We had a meeting that night to meet the rest of our group and the tour guide, and then headed back to Sultanahmet for dinner with our other group of friends – Georgie, Casey and Polly. The main restaurant street was absolutely packed with Australians and Kiwis, all enjoying a couple of drinks before heading to Gallipoli the following day. Just after we finished dinner, the power for the whole area cut out! We finished our evening by candlelight, and most people took their partying into the street, which apparently lasted until the early hours of the morning. We were glad we had moved out of the area!
Day Five & Six
Our tour began today with a visit to the Blue Mosque and the Aya Sofia Museum. The Blue Mosque took nine years to build, and has the name because of the blue tiles used on the roof inside. It is a huge mosque, and is full of pretty tiles and painting. It is still used as a place of worship for people in the area, and is closed during prayer times. Outside of the mosque is the Hippodrome, which is basically a large courtyard where people would tie up their horses before going in to pray. It has a couple of columns, one was a present from the Egyptians, and the other is called the ‘Twisted Column’, and it was taken from Delphi, in Greece (I went there!). Next we headed over to the Aya Sofia Museum, which was originally a church, and was converted to a mosque. These days it is no longer used for worship and is a museum dedicated to the preservation of the artworks within its walls. There are many old mosaics from the Byzantine era that are on its walls, as well as many Christian murals in amongst the newer Muslim designs. The Aya Sofia is quite impressive as it towers above you, the dome overhead seems to hover there as the supporting columns are hidden within the walls. Both were quite amazing buildings, and it was exciting to finally see the insides after walking past them all week!
After our tour of the Mosques we had some lunch (which was far from impressive after the awesome food we have had for the rest of the week… the vegetarian option was green and gooey and not at all appetizing! I sent it back and had salad and rice instead). Finally we boarded the bus and headed out of Istanbul, bound for Gallipoli Peninsula. It took us about 6 hours to get out to Gallipoli (or Gelibolu as the Turks call it). On arrival we were given a wristband, a plastic card that reminded us of our bus number, a bag of goodies and free chocolate cake! I was excited already, any place that gives me cake is a winner in my books! The bag of goodies was also exciting, it had a Gallipoli beanie, a poncho, a postcard and a book with the details of the ceremonies (one in English and one in Turkish). We were quite surprised as to how organized and well-run everything was, it was impressive. We passed through security and managed to find our friends (Georgie and co) who had saved us seats in the grand stand. We had pretty good seats, right in the middle with a good view of the screens and the stage. After getting ourselves organized and settled we found some food and had a chat for a while. I managed to get a little sleep by napping on the floor under the seats, and at some points just sitting on the chair and sleeping there. It wasn’t quality sleep at all but it made the night pass a little quicker! It got quite cold around 3am, and at 4am the MC for the evening woke everyone up so we could get ourselves organized before the official party arrived. At 5am the dawn service started, and I was struggling to keep my eyes open for the first part! After the dawn service concluded we had a little time before heading over to the Australian Memorial Service at Lone Pine, so we had some breakfast and took some photos of the floral tributes placed during the Dawn Service. We wandered through some of the cemeteries, specifically the Beach cemetery, where John Simpson Kirkpatrick is buried (the guy with the donkey), and we also went to Shell Green cemetery, which is the site where the Australians played cricket as a distraction during the retreat from Gallipoli. It was very moving to see all the graves, and to read the emotional dedications written by the families of the fallen. They had to pay per letter to have something put on the grave, and so the inscriptions are quite short. However, they are so poignant and seem to portray their sentiment in such minimal words. It was amazing to see the actual terrain of the peninsula, and to try and imagine climbing those steep hills… it would be tough enough without an enemy army firing at you! We climbed the steep path up to Lone Pine for the Australian Memorial Service, and again, it was another moving experience. After the service we had a bit of a wait before our buses came, because the Turkish and New Zealand services finished later than ours. We hung around in the sun on the grass for a bit, and some volunteers brought around some more free cake! I also took the opportunity to take some more photos and have a look at the Lone Pine cemetery, which is where the service took place. The original Lone Pine tree was destroyed during the shelling, but they replanted one there around 1920. Eventually it came time for the buses to start coming… and we waited… and waited… and waited! Ours finally came after an hour and a half of watching a continual line of buses go past. There was something like 400 buses there! It was nice to get out of the wind and into a comfy seat for the ride home. We collected the New Zealanders and began the long trip back to Istanbul. I slept pretty much all of the way! I very much enjoyed the opportunity to go out to Gallipoli, and I felt privileged to be able to go and pay tribute to those brave soldiers who fought for our country so many years ago. It was a humbling and memorable experience that I shall never forget.
Our tour finished after breakfast this morning, so we headed over to the Grand Bazaar for some souvenir shopping and general browsing. After that we went back to the Spice Bazaar (yes, again!) for some more tasty food and Golden Balls of yumminess! We had a light lunch of fresh bread rolls, olives and cheese, and perused the myriad of stalls selling their wares. Once we had exhausted our taste buds we headed back to our hostel for an afternoon nap… we were still trying to catch up on our sleep! After a street kebab we headed back to bed… it had been an exhausting couple of days.
Today was rather unexciting and uneventful, I had a nice sleep in then headed to the airport. I have really enjoyed my trip to Turkey – it is a country full of rich culture, tasty food and phenomenal architecture. I hope to return again one day and sample even more of its sights, sounds and shopping bargains!