There are several European cities on my Fuckit List and when we discussed going away in January this year to keep the blues at bay, Istanbul was at the top of my list. I want to visit Berlin and Prague amongst others but knew they would be exceptionally cold right now so, although Istanbul was only 4/5 degrees warmer it seemed the obvious choice.
Our (almost empty) flight landed at 3:30pm. MrS had warned me about the traffic in Istanbul but I don’t think I’d understood the scale of the issue – if you think traffic in London and Paris is bad, you ain’t seen nothing yet! We got out of the airport by about 4pm. It took us over 2 hours to get from the airport to our hotel; our idea of a nap and then going for dinner took a nosedive when our driver hit another car (our driver’s fault). Much gesticulating ensued, and as we were sat in the middle of a main junction with 6 lanes merging, there was much honking and more gesticulating from other vehicles. The driver clearly spoke little English (MrS uses this company for business so we knew they were reputable) and had to put his boss on the phone to us so he could explain what was happening (in Turkey you can’t leave the scene of an accident util a traffic cop has attended the scene).
We stayed at the amazing Shangri La Bosphorus. The Bosphorus wasn’t quite as tranquil during our stay as their website depicts it, in fact the rolling waves rivaled those of the North Norfolk Coast but fortunately a ferry did not feature in our plans for the weekend. It’s the sort of hotel where they take you straight to your room, and check you in in-situ, showing you where everything is and how it works. It was beautiful and I just wanted the receptionist (her actual title was probably Director of Guest Welcomes or something) to leave so I could run round the room squealing with excitement….
As we’d been up since 6am we decided we were too tired to go out and eat, so we ate in the hotel. We had a traditional Turkish meze, (including the most delicious humous I’ve ever tasted) followed by Shish kebabs and then, of course, Baklava. FIVE different types of baklava. We had a view of the ferries coming and going and decided once again that we were glad we weren’t using one the next day.
Needless to say we both slept soundly in this bed…
We knew we had a lot to cram in the next day, but we also decided to be kind to ourselves and sleep until we actually wanted to wake up. We rushed down to breakfast thinking we would be the last down at 10:30 but people still strolled in after us. The breakfast buffet had every food you could imagine, and possible some you couldn’t. I started with good intentions and a bowl of fruit but that went out of the window when I spotted the pancakes, maple syrup and bacon. And baklava.
We had decided to stick to the old town and visit The Blue Mosque, Hagia Sofia (Aya Sofia) and Topkapi Palace, moving on to the Spice Market in the late afternoon. Our arrival at the Blue Mosque was badly timed as it was closed for prayers, so we walked the two minutes to Hagia Sofia, and went there first instead. We bought the Museum Ticket which grants you fast track entry to several places, and even though we only visited 2 of them it worked out cheaper and saved hours (even in January) of queuing for us.
Hagia Sofia was beautiful, even half covered in scaffolding.
We then went back to the Blue Mosque. I had come prepared with a scarf to cover my head, but they offer them to you at the door anyway. You must also remove your shoes.
It was stunning but I didn’t find it as peaceful as the Hagia Sofia.
It was a good job we’d had that large breakfast, because we didn’t stop, but went straight to the Topkapi Palace. It’s not a particularly beautiful building, in my humble opinion. A lot of the inside is very dark and/or undercover for renovation, but again the mosaics are amazing and you wonder at the years of work that went into these places.
We were also only just managing stay ahead of the queues at this point so at 3pm we decided to stop for refreshments. Coffee, tea and erm, baklava …
… after which we felt ready to walk to the Spice Market. I think we took the slightly less scenic route than many (thank you google maps) but we ended up there eventually. We decided not to go to the Grand Bazaar. MrS is not a leisure shopper and my experience of buying abroad in markets is that it’s a hassle. Previous experience has also taught me that bazaars are suffocating and slightly scary. This one wasn’t though. it was very busy and you knew the minute you touched anything you would be pounced on but otherwise it was fine. if you offer them a polite “no thank you” they will leave you alone. This was no where near as bad as my previous experiences in Turkey and Tunisia.
We could see from our map that we were back at the bridge that we had crossed in the taxi that morning. We had been fascinated by the locals fishing off the side and as it was still relatively early we thought we’d hang around and get some shots from the bridge before catching a taxi from the other side…
When we got to the otherside of the bridge, expecting to catch a taxi the traffic was at a standstill. We checked google maps again and it said it was a 45 minute walk to our hotel. At this point we were both in pain from various ailments we have and started looking
round in vain for a taxi. What had been a sea of yellow just a few minutes before stubbornly became a non moving mass of every other vehicle except a taxi. So yes, you’ve guessed it. We ended up walking back to the hotel. We very much enjoyed drinking the champagne my parents had bought us for Christmas as we recuperated from walking all those miles that day (over 22,000 steps!)
Dinner Saturday night was at a fish restaurant recommended by a Turkish colleague of MrS, called Park Fora. We had the mousiest creamiest taramasalata and crispy squid to start, then I had lobster and MrS had turbot. The food was utterly amazing (although I could really have done without meeting the lobster before they cooked it. However, I would say when checking out a restaurant, be careful if they don’t show prices on the website menu… even MrS winced a little bit. There was no baklava at this meal. But there were White Russians back at the hotel bar, along with some fairly hilarious hotel bar music. Oh, they don’t measure shots here either… funnily enough we both slept like logs again that night.
Yesterday morning, determined to squeeze every last drop out of our weekend, and despite the fact that my left hip was protesting we went to Taksim Square straight after a (late) breakfast (ditto Saturday. With Baklava).
I was surprised by the lack of UK tourists over the whole weekend. We stood out like sore thumbs most of the time. Although there were a few Americans around, we ultimately were surrounded by the Turkish people and many others from their neighbouring countries. I would imagine the crowds in Spring/Summer are incredible so I think we went at the perfect time. It certainly wasn’t as bitingly cold as it has been in London today.
I absolutely loved Istanbul. The people were friendly, but took no for an answer. None of the constant pestering that I got in Marmaris when I went on holiday there. Sometimes the staff at both the hotel and the restaurant were a little overly attentive. One of the waiters at the restaurant tried to tell (not advise!) MrS what to order which received a cool reception. The waiter at the hotel on the other hand was really happy when we asked him to recommend a good Turkish red to go with our meze. The waiter in the coffee shop on the Saturday afternoon told us how much he wanted to visit London so he could improve his English, but found no trouble telling us in English that a service charge wasn’t included in the bill. The traffic is monstrous, but the taxis are cheap.