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Kate's European Adventures.

Turkey, Part 1: Istanbul.

TURKEY | Sunday, 3 May 2009 | Views [1102]

Arriving in Istanbul at 2am, after a long stop in a boring Frankfurt airport and a full day of travelling, all I wanted was to get to my hostel and fall into bed. I knew this was going to be a flying visit of Turkey, so I wanted to make the most out of it by getting some sleep and getting up early.

There was a little Turkish man standing at Ataturk airport with sign with my name on it, waiting for me as promised. After some fervent hand shaking and a quick introduction to the American girl who was on the same transfer, the little Turkish man picked up some of our luggage and ran off towards the van (well that’s where I and my new American Friend hoped he had run off towards). We followed him, literally jogging through the car park to his van and get ourselves settled. He turns on the engine, followed by loud Turkish music, picks up his phone and then takes off. For about 10 minutes we did laps of the airport car park, with both my American Friend and I getting a little confused. Eventually he pulls into the exact same car park we originally left and turns the engine off. He turned to us and kept saying ‘underground’ with a waving kind of hand gesture, but we had no idea what he was going on about. After a while of sitting in the van, little Turkish man starts the engine again with a smile and off we went, thankfully this time making it out of the airport car park; but my American Friend and I should have known not to get out hopes up too soon. No sooner had we started down the motorway, little Turkish man pulls over the van to the side of the rode and turns off the engine again. With the two of us in the back very confused, the door gets flung open and another van has pulled up behind us. A younger Turkish man grabs our luggage and puts it in his van, gesturing for us to follow mumbling something which sounded like the sound of our hostels, so we followed (well, we really had no choice: where my luggage goes, so do I). At least the younger Turkish man actually started the car and continued into Istanbul, so my American Friend and I both made it to our hostels. By now a small mat in the corner was looking great for a bed and all I wanted to do was fall asleep but the very friendly guy who checked me in (and greeted me on the street by my name which was nice) was keen to show me all the hostel had to offer and what special deals he could get me in Istanbul, as well as ask me loads of questions about myself. Closer to 3.30am than I cared to think of, I fall into (thank God) a bottom bunk in a very stinking room of all blokes, to fall into some much needed sleep.

Woke up early with the familiar sounds of hostel living and got myself organised for a day of sightseeing in Istanbul. I had my map, my Lonely Planet city guide and a list of places to visit; I was set to go. Easier said than done. My first mistake was to turn left out of the hostel, rather than right and I ended up in a rather uneasy residential part of Istanbul. Quickly backtracked my way to the hostel and re-oriented my map. Right to go now, so I headed where all the throngs of tourists were heading (how on earth did I miss these few thousand people earlier?). The disappointing thing so far was the weather. I was determined to get lovely spring weather, but instead I spent the day shivering and trying to find coffee shops to hide in and keep warm. The Blue Mosque was the first stop on my list. This building in incredibly imposing on the skyline of Istanbul and I’m assuming that it was this mosque that I could hear the prayers coming from several times a day.  The red electronic sign on the front telling you of prayer times seemed so out of place amongst the buildings, but probably fairly necessary for the people wanting their prayer time uninterrupted by inconsiderate tourists. I joined the sea of tourists walking around the gardens and the courtyard to the visitor’s entrance, and was one of the 50% or so of female tourists that actually abided by the rules to cover your hair up as you go inside (my €5 Primark scarf came in handy). The day was dull outside so the mosque was lit with loads of chandeliers, but the inside was still as impressive as you imagine. I spent the whole time craning my neck over tourists to see the millions of blue mosaic tiles on the giant domed ceiling. Getting slightly sidetracked here for a minute – the next morning I raced Karl through here so he could see it, and with the bright sunny day outside I was amazed at how much more colourful the inside was. The colours were so much more vivid; so here’s the hot tip – definitely worth seeing on a sunny day.

Straight across from the Blue Mosque, through the gardens is the Aya Sofya. Not as imposing from the outside as the Blue Mosque, but I queued up with amongst the tourists and Turkish guides jostling for our attention to get my ticket. Inside the Aya Sofya is impressive; the fact that at various times it has been the head of Christendom and a Muslim Mosque makes the building and the changes it has undertaken fascinating. Looking around the scaffolding that’s in the centre you can see the various mosaics and painting around the walls, relics of both the catholic and Muslim faiths. The views from the second floor gallery give a great overall picture of the building.

Next on my list was the Hippodrome, again easier said than done. I checked and rechecked my map, then headed in what I thought was the right direction. I walked down the street and then back up the other side of it, I walked through the park and up a side street; still no Hippodrome. So I sat down to get out my trusty guide book and work out where it was. Turned out, all my wandering around those streets and I was actually walking around the ancient Hippodrome. Didn’t I feel like an idiot (but luckily, when talking to some other Aussie people on my way back to Dublin a few days later, they did exactly the same). So was the place where chariot races amongst the Romans occurred a bit of let down? Yeah in a way, I think I just expected something completely different to what it was, but the Egyptian obelisk and other monuments that line the park are nice to look at.

I was still a nervous about my lack of any other language beside English so I walked into MacDonald’s for a burger and a coke to recharge. Next on my list was the Basilica Cistern. This place is incredible, completely strange, but incredible. You walk down these steps and come out into this huge cavern type place, a pool of sorts, being held up by columns and filled with water. And in the water are all these cod just swimming around, having a great time. It’s lit with this really eerie red lighting, which makes the place even cooler. Was very impressed with this place. It’s crazy how it laid underground and unknown for years before it was discovered through someone’s basement. I spent a good hour or so wandering around here – one of the most interesting things I found in this city (weird I know).

Next, armed with my Turkish Lire, I headed for the Grand Bazaar. I’m sure I only walked about a quarter of the bazaar it’s so big, but the colours and noise everywhere was great. At times the calls of ‘Pretty Lady come here,’ or ‘Lady you want to buy scarf’ were a little too much, and I think if I went back not by myself I would have a different experience. But then again, I wouldn’t have this story to tell you. After starting with some small jewellery and souvenirs to try my haggling, I decided to up it to some silk scarves. I knew what I wanted, the young Turkish man kept insisting on bringing me mirrors and tying the scarves around my neck so I could see what they looked like. He then invited me into his shop for tea, which I didn’t refuse (all good haggling is done over a cup of Turkish tea). I was sitting in the shop talking about Istanbul and what I’d seen and was going to do, when he asked me out to dinner and a night on the town. I politely declined, but he was rather persistent. I kept saying that I was meeting a friend very soon and couldn’t go out to dinner with him and he seemed happy with that for the time being. He then asks me to wait while he dashed to the shop across the way to get his friend. So here I was sitting in this shop drinking tea, talking about Istanbul with these two Turkish guys.  His friend takes out his mobile phone and asks me if I would mind writing a text message to his girlfriend in English. When I asked him what he wanted me to write, he said ‘you woman, you know what woman wants to read.’ Amidst my teenage fits of giggles, I managed to write a text message to this guy’s girlfriend as he was saying things like ‘Write, I love you and that I want to hold you.’ I finished my tea, paid my negotiated Lire for the scarves and thanked the guys for a nice afternoon. I walked out of the store laughing about my experience and with the first guy’s business card in my shopping bag.

That night my Face2Face Fundraising friend, Karl arrived in Istanbul and we kitted up for a night out in Istanbul. Our new friend, Perry (the token Canadian as he became known) tagged along. We didn’t really make it too far from our hostel, but that proved to be a good thing later on in the evening.  We ended up at the Sultan hotel, two doors down from our hostel. They served food and beer so we were happy. We ordered kebabs or varying description and asked for some Turkish beer.  They bought out our meals and some Carlsberg (hmmm). We eventually got to try the Turkish beer, Efes and stuck with it all night. What was meant to be a quiet night, turned out to be a little wilder when the Fanatic group turned up to party the night away; so here I was in Istanbul, surrounded by a couple of hundred Aussie and Kiwis, and one token Canadian. We all talked as if we had known each other our whole lives and the few of us who are living in Dublin, bonded over how grey the city is and how great it is to get out every once in a while. After a few too many jager bombs, a New Zealand guy going around hugging everyone, far too many pinches on the arse by drunk Aussies and a conversation about the three Turkish ladies painted on the wall, a debate on what flavour the complimentary shashis was (the waiter told us lentil?) Perry and I decided to leave Karl to continue partying and stumbled back to the hostel.  Despite how determined Karl had been the night before to get up early and see some of Istanbul before we left for Gallipoli, we barely made breakfast on the roof top terrace, but were glad when we saw the beautiful day Turkey had put on for us and Anzac day in Turkey.

We met up with our Intrepid tour group at lunch time to head to the Gallipoli Peninsular and our Anzac Day experience. Check out my Turkey part 2 entry – Anzac Day in Turkey justified its own entry by far!

Before I flew back to Dublin and the realities of work Sunday afternoon, I had a few hours to kill. I headed to Topkapi Palace. Turkey had turned on another beautiful day for me and I spent close to 3 hours wandering around the Palace buildings and gardens. The Tulip Gardens were in full bloom and completely vibrant with all the bright colours. The Harem was worth paying the extra 10 Lire to enter. The bright mosaic tiles of the Ottoman era were everywhere, and I never tired of them. They are incredibly eye catching, adorning most of the buildings you see. They really lived in a decadent period in terms of how decorative everything was around them.

I made my way back to the hostel via the Arastaa Bazaar for something to eat. Problem was I only had 10 Lire on me, and maybe a few Euros. I scouted some places, before I found my friend Aras. He owned the place and told me he would give me a chicken kebab and tea for 10 Lire, and that he did. It was the biggest chicken kebab, with rice and salad I had ever seen. I was sitting eating away when one of the million stray cats that roam the city jumped up beside me in the sun and fell asleep. Aras kept checking that my meal was okay, and refilling my tea. When I told him that it was the best meal I’d eaten in Istanbul, he went away then came back with another whole plate of meat and rice. Not wanting to seem impolite I ate the lot, then left my 10 Lire and 4 Euros, telling Aras that I would definitely tell all my friends about this great little place in the Arastaa Bazaar.

I rolled myself back up the street to the hostel where I was just in time to jump on my transfer bus to Ataturk Airport and back to work in Dublin.

These 5 days were by far the best experience I have had. The camaraderie of not only the Aussies and New Zealanders, but the Turkish people as well is hard to explain unless you’ve experienced it yourself. It’s certainly something that I am so grateful I have had the opportunity to experience, and Istanbul put on such a lovely weekend for me. I couldn’t have asked for more.

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