Thursday, 11 July 2013

İstikamet İstanbul (Destination İstanbul)


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We arrived at İstanbul Atatürk airport on Thursday evening, and were met by Oli and Can's 
cousin Mükerrem. For those of you who have been regaled with the story of Oli's national service dramas, this is the lawyer cousin who helped us sort out the name change that (eventually) allowed him to defer it. Before heading back to her flat, she drove us to a beautiful park on the seaside known as Florya. We ate our food overlooking the Marmara sea, and then strolled along the seaside watching a glorious sunset.

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After a substantial breakfast, the boys and I caught the tram into the main tourist centre of Sultanahmet. The public transport in İstanbul is excellent, but crowded to the point that I will never complain about the London Underground again! The trams are air conditioned, but with so many people on board its effects were somewhat limited.

First stop for the day was the Basilica Cistern. This was built during the 6th Century A.D. during the rule of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian, and the structure was designed to provide fresh water to the area. The atmosphere of the place is fascinating and somewhat eerie. Softly lit columns rise out of the dark water, and large fish swim lazily between them. Towards the back of the room, two columns supported by stone heads of Medusa can be seen. Theories abound as to why one is positioned sideways and one upside down, ranging from the chosen angle reducing the power of the Gorgon's glare, to them being part of an old monument seen as reusable rubble, and they just happened to fit best that way.

Sans tripod, taking photographs was difficult due to camera shake, but here are some of our best efforts. The boys had a lot of fun experimenting with slow shutterspeeds and moving adjusting the zoom, which produced some interesting effects!

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We emerged from the cool, underground shade of the cistern and made our way towards one of Istanbul's most famous sites; Topkapı Palace. The palace occupies a prime position, overlooking the junction between the Marmara sea and the Bosphorus from the hill, and served as the main residence of the Ottoman sultans for around 400 years until 1856. We skipped the harem due to extra cost and time constraints, but there was still more than enough to see in the main palace. I was fascinated by the exquisitely detailed tiles adorning some of the walls, and couldn't stop photographing them.

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The last stop for the day was the Sultanahmet Mosque (Blue Mosque), and after making sure we were all appropriately covered and had removed our shoes, we entered to see the beautifully tiled interior. It was awe inspiring to imagine how much work had been put into the lavish decoration.

Before heading home we sat for a while in the square adjoining the mosque, drinking tea. The square is beautiful, with views of Sultanahmet to one side, and the Hagia Sophia on the other. Between these sits a fountain, lit by the sun during the day, and then in bright colours at night.

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The next day being Saturday, Mükerrem could join us, and was our tour guide and driver for the day. First stop was breakfast on the Pierre Loti hilltop overlooking the Golden Horn. It was exactly the kind of place we wouldn't have found on our own, and we sat for ages munching simits, drinking tea and gazing at the view.

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Continuing the great views theme, we headed next towards the Galata tower. After parking the car for a ridiculously cheap fee, the attendant warned us not to take the most direct looking route up, as apparently it was a red light district. Taking a less controversial route up the hill, we arrived at the base of the tower after a vigourous climb.

A quick glance at the entrance fee confirmed that the price was double for non-Turks, which we all felt was unfair. I was told not to speak English, and Mükerrem asked for four tickets. The attendant said that she had two foreigners with her, at which Oli turned to me incredulously, saying in Turkish, “They called us foreigners, how rude!” Oblivious to what he was actually saying, I just smiled and nodded knowingly, which thankfully seemed like the correct thing to do, and we all got in for the cheaper price.

I am pleased to report that the Galata tower is well worth the entrance fee (even at the cheekily higher price), and has the most incredible views over the city.

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We came out of the tower and walked down İstiklal Caddesi, İstanbul's main shopping street, towards Taksim Square. We stopped along the way to stock up on some Turkish delight (my personal favourite, pommegranite and pistachio) and delicious wafer halva. We strolled down the street in the hot sun, munching the halva and popping into a couple of churches and 'secret' shopping arcades hidden in recesses along the way.

Upon arriving in Taksim, the police presence was immediate and unmissable. Apparently a protest meeting was scheduled for 7 p.m., and a lone man was already there at half past four, holding a portrait of Kemal Atatürk aloft to applause from several bystanders. Gezi park was still taped off, with groups of police guarding the entrances (Oli told me that one of the papers had reported a while ago that it was open again, with the caveat being that nobody was allowed in...). As we made our way from Taksim down to the Bosphorus, we saw more and more police coaches lined up in the streets, as well as Toma (water cannons) and riot vehichles. The atmosphere was tense, and the sheer numbers of police felt antagonistic. We weren't surprised to hear that there had been more violence and tear gas later that evening.

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Once we reached the Bosphorus, we left the tension behind as we hopped on a boat for a short cruise. I had read and been told that the Bosphorous was magical, and after seeing it for myself I can only agree. Green hills studded with expensive villas slope down to meet the blue of the water, whilst bridges span the distance above, connecting the continents of Europe and Asia. Oli and I had a chance to do one of the things we do best; house perving. Although most of the fancy houses or flats on the edge of the water will cost more money than we will see in our lifetimes, it's always nice to dream!

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We began Sunday with another breakfast with a view, this time in Mihrabat Korusu, an up-market district overlooking the Bosphorous. I may have mentioned before that Turkey is into breakfast in a big way, something I am on-board with, and this place was no exception. We gorged ourselves on a lavish buffet of cheeses, breads, baklava, fruits, halva... pretty much everything. Whilst I had tried to be restrained, the others and I all left feeling incredibly full.

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Our main sightseeing place for the day was to be Dolmabaçhe palace, and as Mükerrem and Can had already been there a few times, Oli and I proceeded alone. On arriving, we discovered the same pricing idea as the Galata tower, with foreigners being charged double the 20TL asking price for Turkish visitors. I tactically went to go get cash whilst Oli purchased the tickets, and the problem was solved. We both felt like we were taking one back from the man for the common tourist.

Dolmabahçe was built to replace Topkapı as the main residence of the Ottomans, and is constructed in a more European style. The interior is lavish and opulent, definitely built to impress. Apparently fourteen tonnes of gold leaf were used to gild the ceilings of its many rooms. Huge chandeliers hang glittering from the ceilings, and there is also a staircase where each balustrade is constructed from crystal, catching the light from the skylight above.  After the departure of the royal family and the foundation of the republic, the palace was used by Ataturk as a summer presidential residence, and was also the place of his death in 1938.

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Can was out that evening at the Gazdanadam Festival (which can be translated as “Gas-man”, due to the heavy use of teargas during the Gezi Park protests). In his absence, Oli and I decided to go out for a meal. The restaurant we had read about was closed on Sundays, so we headed towards Sultanahmet with no clear plan, eventually stumbling on the Kybele Hotel (http://www.kybelehotel.com/). The place is full of quirky, cosy charm, the interior decorated with hundreds of glass lanterns in different colours hanging from the ceilings, and random details such as a cabinet full of antique cameras. We ate dinner on the colourful roof terrace, washed down with beer for Oli and red wine for me. Not having stayed there I can't comment on the rooms, but from what we saw, it looks like a great place to stay and is only a short stroll from the Grand Bazaar and Sultanahmet.

The next day was our last full one in Istanbul before flying back to Izmir, so we decided to head out to the Prince Islands. The passenger ferry that took us there was ridiculously cheap, roughly £1 per person each way. However, the boat is organised chaos, incredibly busy with vendors, buskers and hoardes of daytrippers. We managed to find seats, and an hour and a half later disembarked at Heybeliada.

Our first endeavour was to get some lunch. The Guardian has never steered us wrong so far, so we headed for a place Oli and I had read about (Heyamola). I enjoyed a fabulous mezze of veggie dishes, whilst Oli went for fish cooked in an apparently delicious saffron and tarragon sauce. After plentiful food and cold beer, we set off for a stroll around the island.

Our route took us through the main settlement on the island. Some of the houses were incredible, huge wooden structures with beautiful views. Others were romantically delapidated, in a way that made it impossible not to imagine buying one and lovingly restoring it. Decoration was provided by abundant and colourful flowers.

We left the town and walked up through the woods around the other side of the island. It was on the whole incredibly peaceful and tranquil, apart from one bay that hosted an incredibly noisy beach club, with dance music loudly pumping up the hillside. We left that behind and continued past a huge cemetary that climbed up through the forested mountain.

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After quite enough exertion for one day, we arrived back in the town with the aim of getting an ice cream, on the way stumbling across this little guy, who definitely had the right idea:

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We ended up finding a little out of the way place for said ice cream. Perili Köşk (roughly translates as Haunted House) is a little cafe with beautiful views overlooking the sea. The décor was perfect for the setting, and it was definitely the kind of place you could accidently stay a lot longer than intended. Sadly though we could not overindulge, as we needed to catch the ferry back home.

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As our flight back the next day wasn't until the evening, Oli and I decided to make the most of it and head back into Sultanahmet to see the Hagia Sophia and have a poke around the Grand Bazaar. Can was wiped out from the last few days, so declined to join us.

The Hagia Sophia is now a museum, but started life as a church in 537 A.D., becoming a mosque in 1453, and opened as a museum in 1935. The inside is absolutely stunning, and I can't recommend a visit here enough.

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Before heading home we went for a wander through the Grand Bazaar. We purchased a gift for Mükerrem and another scarf for me (I know, I have a problem). Oli chatted to some of the vendors, who told us it was unusually quiet and that the political situation seemed to be affecting their business. Hopefully things will pick up for them soon.

All too soon we were back at the airport, flying out as the sun set over the city. Istanbul is incredible and we will definitely be returning in the future.

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