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Athens and Istanbul to beat the winter blahs

TURKEY | Wednesday, 6 February 2008 | Views [880]

You may notice that this travel story is a bit behind. I try to really sit down and write well when I post, but of course, it only gets harder and harder for me to post great entries the longer I wait! This entry will not be anywhere near as long, detailed, or interesting as I would have hoped... but I think many of you have heard the stories already and if not, check out the picture set on Flickr for more information.

After I returned from Sweden and took my last semester exam, Kostas and I headed South. One full day of travelling and airport lounging later, we arrived in Athens sans baggage but at least Kostas' brother was waiting in the flat for us. Of course, we went out for some food with some friends (all in Athens but from Kostas' home town) and of course it was super scrumptious! Saturday morning we got our bags and started by cruising around the street market. I've never seen so many mandarin oranges in my life and naturally the market was thriving (and since we weren't in Denmark this also meant jostling, shouting, and excitement)! It was a pretty simple day of walking around and seeing some sights. We paid a few euros for a necklace with my name in Greek, mostly just to watch the guy make it! I saw the meat market, which is exactly what a modern day, real meat market should be like! Huge chunks of meat, whole animals hanging from hooks, heads and all other parts lying around on tables, and of course big big knives and exuberant butchers! We had lunch at a fantastic little place, but which has expectedly made it into all the tourist books (and usually places #1). As the sun started going down we headed up hill, walking up to Aeropagus which gave us a lovely view of downtown Athens and the Acropolis in the picture pefect late afternoon light. That night we went to a concert with Kostas' brother, his girlfriend, and another friend (also named Kostas). It wasn't my normal type of music or venue, but I recognized a number of songs from hanging out with Kostas and it was a really nice night.

I woke up the next morning and spent the next hour sitting on the balcony in short sleeves studying my Greek. The weather was stunning and so we hiked it up to the Acropolis and did the whole touristy thing. More walking around, sightseeing, and ticket buying, before we spent the evening having some drinks with friends. We got up Monday morning and went downtown to catch a train North. A lovely journey, although the train was not one of Greece's finest. We arrived in Thessaloniki, bought tickets for Istanbul and spent the afternoon wandering around downtown. It was nice to be out and about in the sun before spending the whole night in a tiny train compartment.

That being said, the night train between Thessaloniki and Istanbul is a great way to go! We boarded the train, found our bed compartment all ready and then killed a couple of hours before calling it an early night. The only issue with this train is the mid-trip border stop! First we stopped around 3am at the Greek border and control came by to collect passports. Not a big problem, except it's not a good feeling when somebody walks away with your passport. The guy gave me some trouble because I didn't have a stamp from Greece and he didn't seem to realize that since I was travelling within the EU, there was no one in Athens to stamp my passport even if I had wanted them to. Reluctantly he moved on. Then we crossed the border and the Turkish control boarded. Since I needed a visa to enter, I had to get off the train and go to a little shack to pay my money (I paid in $ instead of euro since the exchange rate worked to my advantage) and get my sticker. A pretty simple affair, minus the fact that the control guys seemed to assume that I knew what to do and where to go, but it was 4am, pitch black outside, and I'd never been in a similar situation! Fortunately there was a Canadian woman who had just finished and there was also a Spanish guy in the same position. Money paid and sticker granted, it was back on the train to find control going through my bag while Kostas sat on the bed. This is all fine and dandy, but of course there are feminine things in my bag, such as heeled boots and makeup and because I wasn't there, Kostas had to claim them as his own! The control guy looked amused but didn't probe further and then I arrived, making it much clearer. Once satisifed that we were not carrying anything prohibited or strange, the guy moved on and before long we were moving again and it was back to sleep.

We woke up in the morning to find that it was snowing in Turkey. We got dressed and spent the next couple hours watching the landscape speed by and eating pastries from Thessaloniki. Once in Istanbul we caught a taxi out to the hotel and after an hour or two of napping, headed out into the city! We were staying on the Northern side of the European part, in Beyoglu. Technically the business district, it's a bit less touristic that the main downtown and we found it to be much nicer (especially after dark). We spent most of our time in Istanbul walking around... although we did visit some tourist hot spots including: the Basilica Cistern (Cathedral-sized underground chamber with 336 marble columns), the Blue Mosque (officially the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, one of the most famous Istanbul tourist desinations), Topkapi Palace (the official residence of the Ottoman Sultans between the 15th and 19th centuries), Ayasofya (Hagia Sophia, sometimes expressed as having the most beautiful interior in Istanbul), the Grand Bazaar (one of the largest covered markets in the world with 4000+ shops), the Spice/Egyptian Bazaar (one of the oldest in the city), Galata bridge, Dolmabahce Palace (the main administrative center of the Ottoman Empire from the mid 19th century until 1922 and also a garish example of 19th century European extravagence),the Walls of Constantinople (series of stone walls around the city), and of course the Asian side. There isn't a whole lot to do for tourists on the Asian side so we enjoyed the calmer, more authentic environment by just walking up and down neighborhood streets and then down along the water, making sure to see the markets, the Maiden's Tower (Kiz Kulesi), and Haydarpasa station.

The sights were something different. Having lived in both Europe and Asia, I could definitely see some major mixing. Istanbul markets itself as a mix of both, but it is primarily European seeming and feeling. There are some amazing things to see, both touristy and otherwise. However, I was a bit let down with the overall impression. The city is much too tourist-oriented. I got absolutely no sense of people living there other than to serve the tourists (domestic and international). That was a bit depressing and definitely not my type of destination. I imagine it's a bit like how I would feel in Hawaii (which is why I have not been yet). We also had a hard time finding great food... which was a big bummer for me. And no matter what anyone tells you, (in my experience) Istanbul is just as expensive as most other European cities.

It's a worthwhile place to see, but I won't be going back on holiday unless I have a local with me.

It was full of fond memories though, as any good trip is. Kostas and I were scammed by some shoeshiners. I will forever remember the calm of being on top of a hill in the center at dusk listening to the call to prayer and drinking tea. I drank Turkish coffee. I bargained like never before. I saw amazing architecture. I experience wild weather (literally sunny one second, snow storm the next, hail for a flash, sun again, and so on).

On the way back, we got to spend the day in Riga, capital city of Latvia! That was a nice little trip to a part of Europe new to me. We spent a number of hours walking around downtown, eating sushi, and shopping for a children's book. Back in Copenhagen we lucked out an caught a train just a few minutes later that brought us home to Aalborg just after midnight.

Tags: 2008 turkey istanbul greece athens thessaloniki

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