Travelogue Turkey 1: Joburg – Istanbul

13-15 April 2012

After a mad panic of a day (and starting packing at 17h25), I arrived at Mother’s house at 18h00, exactly an hour late. Fortunately, our plan had lots of buffer time so there was little harm done and we were soon on our way to the airport to start the adventure.

We arrived at the airport with time to spare, especially seeing as international departures was tumbleweeds and there were no queues. After having our bags plastic-sealed (mandatory and free for all Egypt Air flights we were told) we breezed through check-in and passport control, leaving plenty of time to hit the Slow Lounge.

Or so we thought. Apparently this is only a benefit for FNB Private Bank customers at international departures, so we were unceremoniously turned away and ended up (after unfruitfully checking every single other lounge to see if there was some card, ticket or membership profile we fitted) setting up camp at the boarding gate.

This allowed perfect space and time to set up Mother’s Kindle (The Perfect Birthday Present, clever girl I am) and Amazon Account. We delighted in downloading her first 4 (free) books in mere seconds and were soon being urged to board.

Dinner on the plane took an interesting spin on the usual dichotomy, when the hostess started off with “Fish or beef?”, changed to “We’re out of beef; there’s only fish left” by the row before us and, after checking with another trolley after the impassioned resistance from the man in front of Mother, ended up serving us chicken. Not bad: salad for starters (Mother and I simultaneously picked the feta off and abandoned the rest – this not-apple definitely didn’t fall far from that not-apple tree), chicken fillet with tomato and peppercorn sauce, mash and soggy carrots and broccoli for main and coconut cake thing for pudding (left untouched, no danger).

The Egypt Air entertainment programme – on communal screens – had a few false starts with the scheduled movies cutting out a little after the (always stirring) Fox intro sequence and then settled on screening a movie listed as being for ‘Flights out of Egypt’. Or so I’m told, I was out by then.

(What felt like) A few moments later (but was 4 hours) it was breakfast time already. A disappointing affair with rolls and very unremarkable confitures. A situation easily remedied at the Cairo Airport transit lounge with Burger King (for the body) and free wi-fi (for the soul).

The four hour stop-over passed quickly with eating, bbm’ing, reading and people-watching (largely comatose dreadlocked hippy to the left, German mother and *very* active toddler at 2 o’clock and Sleeping Tiger Drooling Asian to the right of me). All the while I was being ignored by Mother who was spending quality time with her Kindle 😀

Cairo to Istanbul is a mere hop in the international flight stakes, made even easier by having secured the best seats in the house (the emergency exit seats are the only 2-up set of seats on a plane of 3-up both sides of the aisle, with obscene amounts of legroom). The only downside is a steward’s seat facing, made infinitely more awkward by our steward’s combination of permanent-fixture dark glasses and teary demeanour (we amused ourselves with fantasy scenarios to explain the situation).

Our driver was waiting to meet us when we exited the airport from (our feather-light) baggage claim. We were a bit disappointed to see that it was raining, but pleased to have pre-planned transfers so as not to have to brave new ground with the handicaps of luggage and language. After a combination of chaotic highways and suburban twists and turns, we arrived at the very lovely Old Princess City Hotel.

We checked in, did a quick freshen-up and were about ready to hit the town when our tour Operations Manager called and asked for a quick meet-and-greet. We agreed and were face-to-face in the reception some 15 minutes later.

The meeting was opportune as one of the priority items on our agenda was to find something spectacular to do for Mother’s birthday on Friday. We set our sights on adding a daytrip to Capadoccia onto our itinerary over all of the cheesy and over-priced alternatives for dinner cruises and cultural evenings in Istanbul and our operator committed to leaving a message at reception with options for us.

With that, it was up and out and off to the Grand Bazaar, which was the perfect outing for a rainy day and an itinerary-timing necessity since it is closed on Sundays.

The Old City Princess Hotel is conveniently located alongside the city’s tramline system and we found to our delight that our station (Yusufpasa) is 2 stops away from the legendary Grand Bazaar – the biggest and oldest bazaar in the world.

The tram system is super-simple. Figure out which direction you’re wanting to go (easily done from the routing diagrams mounted at each station) and then it’s 2 Turkish Lira (about R8.20) to get on and stay on for as long as you like. Cash is exchanged for a tramline token at one of a bank of terminals just ahead of the entrance turnstiles and are idiot-proof to any literate person with only 3 buttons to worry about: change language (good thinking, Turkey), quantity of tickets and confirm. The trams are not only cheap and easy, but also spotless. Not a sign of graffiti or litter anywhere, seats intact and clean with young people ceding for old people. Surreal.

The Grand Bazaar is located along side the tramline, so it was easy enough to hop off and run for cover under the awnings that line the walkway into the bazaar. We almost made the rookie mistake of shopping in this walkway, lured in by the shopkeepers’ friendly greetings and the gorgeous leather goods, delicacies, confectioneries and other exotic items on display. Little did we know what lay ahead…

The bazaar is a monster extending 30,000 square metres,  including 18 gates, 65 streets, 21 caravanserais, 5 mosques, 6 fountains and 4,000 shops. Once inside, it’s a maze of shops selling everything and anything, but with a distinct concentration of jewellery, leather jackets and bags, carpets, knock-off label clothing and handcrafted wooden items (mostly games and chests) interspersed regularly with tea/coffee booths.
The Turks are hard-sellers and haggling is an interesting exercise. Asking questions seems to some degree obligate a purchase and the shopkeepers get quite verbally hostile when you try to extract yourself from their store. Nothing is marked with prices and any enquiry stimulates a barrage of banter and a physical ushering into the store, which is inevitably big enough for both of you, but small enough that the seller blocks your escape and can reach almost anything from any shelf to ‘show and tell’ until you succumb. Getting out of the store unscathed (well, emotional spend rather than monetary) is best achieved by a 2-pronged approach. 1) fake left, move right and 2) a constant flow of thanks and promises to return to buy later. Don’t get eye-contact, don’t let them speak and definitely don’t stop! It may sound rude or heartless, but once you’ve had your first lecture on what a bad person you are for not buying the wallet/carpet/bag/shoes/souvenir, you’ll appreciate where I’m coming from.

Nonetheless, we had a ball in the Grand Bazaar and emerged several hours later (always the last to leave) with bags of shopping of all descriptions.

What a relief to have the tram right outside so we could get back to the hotel, relinquish the new treasures and head out for dinner.

Sadly, it was still raining (although very lightly) so we opted to keep local for dinner. We walked up the road looking for a place of interest. The roads are largely peppered with eateries (restaurants, local and western fast foods and lots and lots of bakeries and confectionery stores) and clothing stores with the odd supermarket or goods retailer and very rarely a commercial office – really my kind of place!

We window-shopped for food until we found the best of everything – a lovely little wooden chalet-looking cafe with a huge L-shaped glass counter packed with all sorts of savouries and sweets on display, a chef manning a chicken doner kebap (literally translated as “rotating roast”) in the doorway and a pizza oven and coffee station. None of these elements was unusual on our road, but this was the first place that had all of them.

We shared a chicken doner wrap and a mince and cheese pide, which is a pizza sort of thing that looks more like a flattened sub and has a very aerated, light and fluffy pastry. Both were winners. Mother had a very frothy and creamy-looking cappuccino, afraid to tempt fate with the more traditional Turkish brew, which looks fatal in the sleep stakes.

After a long first day, we headed back to our very comfortable hotel to enjoy a horizontal night’s sleep.

Sunday seemed to come all too soon – mostly because we had a City Tour booked that was collecting us at 8.30. Breakfast was a continental buffet affair with fruits, cereals, Turkish bread (scone things, rolls, sesame-seeded baguettes, all fresh and divine), cheeses and a selection of meats (all very processed-looking and nowhere near as good as Seemann’s). The hot food section was thin with hard boiled eggs, very scary bright pink viennas and split pea soup (?!) The juices were also a selection of orange, (and the more unusual) peach and cherry. Despite ourselves (and our family’s notoriously poor timing-keeping), we were ready and waiting at the prescribed hour – although, in a cruel karmic twist, our driver was not since he was having breakfast in our dining room!

We picked up the rest of what we thought was our tour group of 10 people and headed for the sights. When we got there we were split from the rest and assigned our own tour guide. A mixed blessing because while we would have the freedom to move freer and quicker, the other group got the more eloquent guide.

Istanbul (pronounced “e-stan-bul” by the locals), boasts the 3rd largest city wall in the world behind China’s great wall and another city in East Turkey. The city is very clean and well looked after, with cultivated and manicured gardens a frequent fixture on pavements, corners and centre islands. The gardens always have tulips as this is a Turkish cultural icon, often alongside carnations and always with sprays of colour giving a cheerful and well-tended feel throughout.

The Old City is on the European side of Istanbul, but the city continues over the Bospherus Strait into Asia. This strait runs for 32km and is the only route for the Black Sea in the north (with Bulgaria and Russia on its West and Northern shores respectively) to get to warmer seas, namely through the Marmara Sea (the only sea owned by a single country), the Dardanelle Strait (65km) and into the Aegian Sea and subsequently the Mediterranean.

But I digress. We are just arriving at the Hippodrome, which is a central quadrangle where all the entertainment went down in ancient times, namely chariot races and such, which makes sense since it was commissioned by the same chap who did the Circus Maximus in Rome. It must’ve been quite something in its day, 450m long and 130m wide, able to hold 100,000 spectators on 40 steps. The guide reckons that events drew the majority of the population out to view since there were (clearly) less entertainment options than today. Or maybe chariot races are just that good.

The original track is some 5m below the present surface, with the only surviving monuments being the 2 obelisks and the Serpentine column (made of brass and long-since relieved of the entwined serpent heads after which it is named) that once adorned the Spina (middle barrier of the racecourse) and now sit in holes in a landscaped garden.

Conveniently, the other major sites are all in the same complex (which makes sense since olden times didn’t have the luxury of minibuses and trams). So, next up was a few steps to the left and some jumps to the right and we were time warping to the Blue Mosque – queue-jumping up a storm with our slimline tour group of 3.

The mosque is really quite something. The typical high-roofed, multi-domed, big mural windowed, gold-gilded old school place of worship, but with the added novelty of 21,000 ceramic tiles all hand painted with bright primary colour tulips and carnations. Cleverly, they always used to build markets alongside the mosques to fund the build and provide sustainable sources of income to keep adding to it. Although glad to have seen it, am very glad not to have stood in a half hour queue to goose-neck at some tiles and stained-glass windows – and was very relieved to be able to put shoes back on after standing on bare marble in socked feet (I bet a fair number of worshippers have used their time there to pray for carpets and/or underfloor heating!)

The route from the mosque to Hagia Sophia walked past the Turkish Baths, still in full operation today. It was a delight to again skip the queue into the Hagia Sophia (a big reason to opt for organised tours with guides that pre-buy tickets) and head straight into the building. The Hagia Sophia (translated as ‘divine wisdom’) was originally built as a church and has been burnt down twice. Remains and relics from the first two buildings are on display in front of the current one, which has been acting as a museum since 1934.

Within the building, you can clearly see from the decor that it was built as a church, with Christian murals and mosaics adorning the walls, ceilings and domes. Peculiarly, the conversion of the building to a mosque was simply done by adding enormous (8m diameter) black disks with gold Islam symbols and writing on top of the existing artwork along the ceiling cornices. Sort of screws up the original vibe without definitively staking claim to the place.

Still, we enjoyed all the obligatories, walking up the 3 sets of ramp passages to see the church from the emperor’s viewing deck and sticking thumbs in the wishing hole where if you can do a full rotation of your hand without your thumb coming out of the hole then your wish is supposed to come true. If this turns out to be real then I’m in the Pound seats for sure!

While it was a better experience than the average church, it was still good to be outside because it’s colder inside than outside from all the marble in such a cavernous space.

Right next door is the Sultan’s Palace Complex. We didn’t pay to get into the palace (20 Euros each seemed a bit steep for our level of sight-seeing involvement), but did wander around the gardens, where you can see Asia from this European vantage point. The area also contains the only church in Istanbul not converted to mosque and once had a hospital, mint and bakery that serviced just the people that live in the palace complex (over 4,000!) Concluded that part of the tour with a quick sneak through the Gates of Salutation (the pay part) for a photo.
The minibus collected us from the morning of city touring and was all ready to set off to drop us at our hotel when we hatched a wicked plot: “let’s go to Asia for lunch!” (seemed only right seeing as 97% of the country actually is in Asia and we’d been frittering away all this time in Europe). With the guide still hellbent on selling us an over-priced cruise meal rather than realising that we are more than capable of self-navigated explorations, we realised that first step was to ditch him. We got them to drop us off at the ferry and bought our tokens (also 2TL, bless the Turks and their elegant simplicity!) and boarded the ferry for the cross-continental traverse.

Couldn’t have taken more than 20 or 30 minutes for the whole journey and presto, we were disembarking at Kadikoy, the main port on the Asian Istanbul coast.

Different to, but just as cool as, the Old City. The port was busy, bustling and neon branding, with roads satelliting up the hill away from the coast with lots of buzz and activity. Just as much shopping, but bazaars were replaced with rows of little roads and pedestrian avenues with (bargain) shops melding into a sort of flea market with little shops and stalls.

First order of business was lunch and we found a gem of a place with self-service canteen-style set-up which replaced the language barrier and foreign menu with point-and-service idiot-proofing! We hit paydirt first time with a portion of besemel kebaplari (chicken and mushroom “pie” with a light dough cap baked with bechamel sauce on top) and a chicken portion stuffed with savoury rice served with sauteed potatoes. Just gets better and better!

After a lot of walking and a fair amount of shopping (again), we headed back across the Bosphorus Strait to get to the Spice Bazaar.

To be honest, the Spice Bazaar is – as a smallish L-shaped market – a bit disappointing after the magnitude of the Grand Bazaar and most of the shops sell (not surprisingly) spices, tea/coffee and knick-knacks and souvenir items so it can’t compete with the variety of Kadikoy. It does have the inevitable colourful history seeing as it’s been around since 1660 etc etc, but its fate was sealed when the adjacent mosque wailing started, which was just too much to take at sunset after such a long day of pavement-pounding.

We grabbed the tram and headed back to the hotel to drop our shopping off and ended up meeting with our tour operator to confirm our Mother’s Birthday Excursion to Capadoccia. With that all sorted, we headed out for dinner and did a typical for us, trawling up and down the street for somewhere appealing… And ending up at the diner directly across the road from the hotel. Another feast of toasted doner, 1 chicken and one beef, jam-packed and delicious!

What a day! What a city! Istanbul is incredible.