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First trip to Turkey: impressions and meanderings

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First trip to Turkey: impressions and meanderings

"Why on earth would you choose Turkey?" friends and coworkers asked me when I told then I'd booked a trip to Istanbul and Cappadocia. I'd like to say it was because I was more insightful and adventurous than other people, but the simple truth is that I stumbled on a plane fare that was too good a bargain to pass up. But, in choosing to take advantage of it rather than going to my usual favorite international destination (France), I uncovered a whole new world and perspective.

I departed on Feb. 17 on the 10 pm Turkish Airlines flight from Chicago to Istanbul. We were a polyglot bunch on that plane: bearded men wearing turbans, graceful dark eyed women in multicolored saris, American college students clad in jeans and T shirts, large Muslim and orthodox Jewish families speaking unfamiliar languages. The flight was (reasonably, for coach) comfortable until about an hour before landing, when we were suddenly diverted to Izmir, due to fog and poor visibility at Ataturk Airport. But, eventually, we did arrive at Ataturk, several hours late, and the shuttle (thank goodness it didn't forget me!) deposited me at the Basileus Hotel at 9:30 pm.

The hotel is a very pleasant family run affair in Sultanahmet, with comfortable rooms and a delightful staff. I was immediately offered cookies and tea on arrival, given a very nice single room just off the lobby, and encouraged to have a quick dinner at one of the nearby restaurants. Accordingly, I walked up one street and down another, and found a little restaurant with a symbol for a name. (Sadly, I didn't get around to asking how to pronounce the symbol.) As is typical, I learned, in Turkey, the proprietor of the restaurant greeted me at the doorway and invited me in. It was a cozy place, with an interior of stone and wood and Turkish music. Like so many tourists, I had the testi kebab, a sort of beef stew in a flaming pot, a puffy loaf of bread, hollow on the inside and sprinkled with black and white sesame seeds, a glass of white wine and a plate of fresh fruit afterward. As I had no Turkish lira on me, the proprietor charged me in euros---26 euros, which was quite reasonable for the experience, I thought.

The hotel room was comfortable and quiet, although a surprising amount of traffic went up and down the road outside the window. I woke up once, to hear the call of prayer from the three nearby mosques, and then fell asleep again and didn't wake up until 10.

The next morning, after a nice Turkish buffet breakfast---cucumbers, tomatoes (where do they get those nice, flavorful red tomatoes at this time of year?), olives, yogurt, very fresh bread, dried fruits and even almond crescent cookies!----I set off to explore the city. It had been shrouded in fog the night before, so I'd caught only tantalizing glimpses of it: a stone wall, the Marmara Sea, steep, hilly little streets and a fish market. Amazingly, it was warm and sunny today, and (being used to the cold, after a fierce Chicago winter) I left my coat at the hotel.

I'm sort of a fly-by-the-seat-of-the-pants traveler. I do lots of learning and planning ahead of time, and then go as the spirit moves me each day. So I set off for a general first-day overview of the area, first up a steep, hilly street toward the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia, then toward the Grand Bazaar to get some money changed.

Having heard about the aggressive carpet salesmen here on Tripadvisor, I walked briskly, looking forward to convey an image of being busy and preoccupied. Well, it didn't work. A friendly young guy outside a gift shop immediately walked up to me and joked, "I think you must be angry at the Turkish people!' Of course, I protested that that wasn't so, that I was just in a bit of a hurry. He asked me where I was from, and how I liked Istanbul. Somehow, he managed to get me to check out his shop "just for a minute".....which turned out to be not the gift shop he was standing in front of, but a leather goods store behind it.

I was led to a chair, given a glass of tea, and introduced to the store's cat, Pasha. I love cats, and I guess this guy recognized it immediately. Well, I ended up trying on several coats, including one that was really quite lovely and uniquely designed, but that was too light for Chicago weather and too expensive for my budget.

I told him, no, I wouldn't be making any large purchases just now, whereupon his cousin----who was older, bigger and more authoritative----stepped in and offered to give me a special price. At this point, I realized there was only one way out: I said, "No, I never buy anything on impulse. If I decide, later, that I want to buy a coat, I will come back, but I'm not going to make a big purchase today." They seemed to accept this firm stance, but the younger one urged me, "Don't shop too much at the Grand Bazaar---they always overcharge for everything."

I got out of there, headed for the Grand Bazaar-----and found that very same coat in every shop selling leather goods. Needless to say, I never did buy that coat or any other coat in Istanbul. It's a shame, really. I had sort of considered looking at leather goods while there, but after that experience I gave leather shops a wide berth. Nothing sours me on interesting merchandise more than aggressive sales pitches.

Having changed some American dollars into Turkish lira at the Grand Bazaar, I felt I needed a change of pace from shops and vendors. Somehow, I wandered down to Eminonu, and spied the ferry bound for Kadikoy. Coming from the landlocked American midwest, I love ships and harbors and the open sea, so I walked over and bought a jeton, and boarded the ferry. I skipped the more comfortable seats inside and on the upper deck, in favor of the bench on the side of the boat.

What a great bargain! Just 3 Turkish lira for 20 or so minutes of pure joy. A man bearing a long pole filled with simits was hawking his wares on the boat, and an older couple next to me had bought one and were sharing it with the gulls. I watched as we passed the Galata Tower and numerous mosques, tugboats, ferries and---always----flocks of gulls swarming around the ferry, catching bits of bread in midair-----until we arrived at the Asian shore of Kadikoy.

At the Kadikoy side, I disembarked by a large square where two women were selling bouquets of flowers, and three men were playing (to me) exotic sounding Turkish music for an interested crowd.

I wandereed up and down various little streets, enjoying the local color, and stopped for a cappuccino at a little cafe. It arrived with a dusting of nutmeg on top and a small cube of Turkish delight on the side. Price: 6 Turkish lira (which included a nice ringside seat for people watching).

This small area of Kadikoy was fully as interesting, I thought, as the more touristy part of Istanbul on the European side. It had the added advantage that I saw no aggressive salespeople on the streets or in the shops. I perused a music store, spice shops, a little grocery store, and a bath shop (where I bought some of those tiny painted bowls and two pretty towels) and the fascinating street market, chock full of colorful vegetables and fresh fish. Then back on the ferry to Eminonu. I think I could be perfectly happy just taking the ferry to and from Kadikoy every day, but I had ground to cover.

Once back on the Eminonu side, I stopped in at a restaurant under the Galata bridge for a late lunch/early dinner. I was gratified to find that Turkish restaurants, like U.S. restaurants, are open all day and will serve you lunch or dinner whenever you like. This isn't always the case with other European locales, like France, where many restaurants close at 2 pm, and don't open again until 7 pm for dinner.

I was aware, of course, that restaurants in such touristy locations aren't considered by many to be the best, but I was happy with this one: I dined on sea bass and what the French translation of the menu called "fromage blanche." It wasn't French style fromage blanc, but a wedge of salty goat cheese, served with cucumber, tomato and crunch raw okra. A glass of chilled white wine, followed by the usual glass of hot Turkish tea----nice in the post-sundown chill---brought the bill to 26 TL, not including tip. My seat allowed a view of the Bosphorus and Karakoy, reflected pink in the setting sun. Two cats wandered by, one calico and one gray striped. I wrapped up a few scraps of sea bass for them.

There are plenty of stray cats (and dogs) in this city; they seem to coexist with the people in the same way the seagulls and pigeons do. There doesn't seem to be an ordinance against feeding them, and I saw more than one bowl of cat food sitting in a doorway, apparently intended for any feline passer-by with an appetite.

Having rested up a bit while dining---this city wreaks havoc on the legs of those unused to walking on hilly terrain!----I walked across the Galata bridge, observing and photographing the long line of fishermen. I decided to walk over to the Galata Tower. Thanks to Tripadvisor, I knew there was a funicular tram up the hill, but I didn't see it, so I decided to walk up on my own.

Well, that climb is not for sissies! Many, many stairs, often without a handrail. But I took my time, passing several interesting little shops along the way. One of those shops displayed some pretty and unique tunic tops in the window. I couldn't resist checking out the merchandise---besides, it was a good excuse to stop and catch my breath----and I ended up buying one of those tunics, priced only 40 TL on the clearance rack.

Once I got to the foot of the Galata Tower, I assumed I was done with stairs. I was wrong. 86 more stairs to the top; the elevator takes you only part way up. Price was 19 TL; there was no waiting at that time. The view was lovely; I really didn't mind paying the price for it, since I assume it helps pay for the tower's upkeep.

I wasn't quite sure of the way back to the ferry or tram, and ended up walking down several steep back streets (and meeting more than a few cats along the way) before I found my way back to Sultanahmet. Once there, I had a hard time finding my hotel, among all those tiny side streets. But eventually I stumbled on it and hobbled in, completely spent (but quite exhilarated) by my first day in Istanbul.

(More to follow.....)

Southern Highlands...
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1. Re: First trip to Turkey: impressions and meanderings

toilettduckk sounds like you had a great time, love reading the report and looking forward to the rest of it.

I can totally relate to the walk up to the Galata Tower, I couldn't find the tram either and opted to walk, got lost on my way there but kept looking up to see the tower and found my way to it.

Edited: 02 March 2014, 13:17
Washington DC...
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2. Re: First trip to Turkey: impressions and meanderings

Yes, Turkey is a great first step out of your comfort zone. Luckily, it is getting more popular. I went to the Travel Expo here in DC and the most popular booth was the Turkish Tourism table. As for walking I tell people it's a lot like San Francisco as it can be very hilly and wear comfy shoes.

We tried to go to Kadikoy to be our souvenirs since the prices seemed better and there was less pressure. Looking forward to reading more.

Columbus, Ohio
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3. Re: First trip to Turkey: impressions and meanderings

This is exactly my type of travel exploration! I can't wait to get to the Asian side of Istanbul since I never made it there before.

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4. Re: First trip to Turkey: impressions and meanderings

toilettduckk, What a wonderful first day in Istanbul. I am glad you visited the wonderful Kadikoy, the Asian side Istanbul. I also love that ferry ride and opt for that instead of the Marmaray. I am looking forward to the second installment.


Raleigh, North...
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5. Re: First trip to Turkey: impressions and meanderings

I loved this trip report and it is exactly how I like to explore a city. I just hope when I get there in May I remain as adventurous as you and keep moving forward. Thank you for writing it!

Istanbul, Turkey
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6. Re: First trip to Turkey: impressions and meanderings

Hi Toilettduckk- a very enjoyable read. Thanks for taking the time to write it.

Raw okra, really? I have never seen people eat raw okra in Turkey. It is either a joke or an extra-innovative side dish idea.

Looking forward to your adventures on day 2.

Edited: 02 March 2014, 15:58
Axminster, United...
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7. Re: First trip to Turkey: impressions and meanderings

Loved reading your report and look forward to next instalment

Mount Dora, Florida
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8. Re: First trip to Turkey: impressions and meanderings

Hi Toilettduckk, It sounds as if you did a great job of experiencing Istanbul effectively on your first day. You managed to see some of my favorite places. I do acknowledge that salesmen in Istanbul are very aggressive, but it is good that you were not intimidated into purchasing anything.....unless you now regret not purchasing that leather coat:-))

Can't wait to read the next installment.

Ruhr Area, Germany
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9. Re: First trip to Turkey: impressions and meanderings

I always like to read good trip reports and your´s is a very good report. Now I´m waiting eagerly for the next parts.

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10. Re: First trip to Turkey: impressions and meanderings

Part two:

The next morning, I was up with the call to prayer. I was stiff and sore from the previous day's walking and climbing, but a dose of ibuprofen and some stretching exercises helped.

The hotel breakfast was the same as the day previously, but there were so many items I hadn't yet sampled that I figured I could go for at least a month without getting tired of the offerings. Cubes of white cheese marinated in olive oil and herbs; cereal; little sausages and potatoes in a warming tray; fruits; and omelets made to order. Even the juices were somewhat exotic in nature: apricot and sour cherry.

I had planned to spend the better part of a day at Topkapi today, but due to my sore muscles decided to limit myself to the harem. Long ago, my (now long deceased) grandfather had told me that I was descended from Turkish royalty, as his great great grandfather, a British diplomat, had married one of the Sultan's daughters. I have a feeling that the story is highly embellished, although there's no doubt that that ancestor married a Turkish woman and eventually died in Turkey. But there's no way of getting the details now. My great great grandmother, the only one in the family who knew the story, had been a stern, God fearing Protestant from southern Illinois, and, as she would have no truck with non-Christians, she refused to discuss an ancestor who would, of course, have been of the Muslim religion. Be that as it may, I was interested in seeing the private residence of the Sultan and his family at Topkapi, so I limped off toward the palace.

Once again, the weather was beautiful---unusually so for this time of year, the hotel proprietor had told me. I was pleased to see hyacinths, blue pansies, delicate pink tree blossoms and even an occasional rose, as only a northerner could, who's just left home after four months of an unusually bitter and snowy winter.

The harem contains many things of interest other than the Sultan's personal quarters. There was a display of weapons throughout the ages; a collection of intricate and beautiful palace clocks (no photos permitted), an elaborate council chamber, and relics of the prophet Mohammed and his colleagues, among other things. The grounds, too, were beautiful and well tended.

At the entrance to the grounds, there were two armed guards, which discomfited me somewhat until someone told me that there is a nearby military facility. There was a large,sleepy white dog sprawled out in the sunshine between the two guards, which looked for all the world as if they were functioning as his two private bodyguards. I wanted terribly to take a picture, but restrained myself.

As recommended by a few posters here, I sampled a cup of hot sahlep, dusted with cinnamon, on my way out. It was very nice, tasting somewhat like hot liquid custard. Crowds were beginning to gather at the harem now; vendors were selling little spinning tops in various colors, candy on a stick and pomegranate juice. One woman was so taken with the little tops that she bought the vendor's entire supply, an armful of several dozen. Perhaps she had a shop of her own back home.

And, speaking of vendors, I got targeted again by aggressive salesmen, when heading through the Hippodrome area back to my hotel. This area, flanked by Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, is lovely, but when you walk through it, you might just as well be wearing a neon sign proclaiming "Newly arrived tourist: have money to spend!" I challenge any tourist to walk the length of it without being approached by half a dozen Bosphorus Cruise salesmen. Anyway, this time three friendly guys approached me, and asked me where I was from and how I liked Istanbul. (Is anyone noticing a familiar pattern here?) Again, I fell for it, and responded pleasantly and enthusiastically. Next thing I knew, the older, bigger and more authoritative one had assigned the youngest guy to show me around. And, again, I couldn't figure out how to refuse.

This guy was very nice, and actually gave me a lot of interesting information about the area. At that point, I still didn't know what the angle was, but I figured that maybe he wanted to serve as a (paid) guide. Then he steered me rather pointedly to the carpet museum, and I started to realize what was going on.

Like the leather goods salesman the day previously, this guy managed to get me into his shop---this time, a shop by the Arasta Bazaar, loaded not with leather coats but with hundreds of (admittedly beautiful) carpets. I was seated in an elegant antique chair upholstered in red velvet, "the queen's chair," and a glass of tea was put into my hands. Again, I told them firmly that I don't buy on impulse. My husband was arriving the next day, I told them (which was true), and I wouldn't consider making a large purchase without consulting him.

The man who was obviously the boss, and who (like the leather goods salesman) claimed to be the younger guy's cousin, stepped in then. "Now, we know that, in the home, the wife is boss, and she, not the husband, decides such things," he said. I responded, "Not in my family. We make such decisions together."

He made a few more attempts. First, he offered to sell me a kilim for 750 U.S dollars if I bought it that day; otherwise it would be $1200. I refused. Then he offered to take me to dinner that night, "my treat." Again, I declined. Finally, he asked me to bring my husband by, the morning after he arrived in Istanbul, and to promise that I wouldn't buy a carpet from any other dealer. I vaguely promised to let my husband know about his invitation. No problem promising that I wouldn't buy a carpet elsewhere: I had no intention of buying ANY carpet on this trip.

From this experience, so similar to the one of the previous day, I got an idea of how to deal with these aggressive salesmen. To begin with, any charming guy who walks up to you and asks, "Hello, where are you from? How do you like Istanbul?" is probably looking to sell you something. If he doesn't tell you what it is that he's selling right off the bat, it's probably carpets (or another fairly expensive luxury item, like leather coats). I've also discovered that, if you don't want to be unpleasant, saying, "Not today" is a polite way of saying no. If they try to argue any further, you just say, "Thank you, NO," and walk on. I tried that strategy throughout the rest of my trip, and it worked pretty well.

The sad thing is that my husband HAD been thinking it would be nice to shop for a Turkish carpet while in Istanbul. Once having heard my story the next day, though, he decided against it. He didn't waver from that decision with any of the 99 or so other carpet salesmen who approached us over the following week.

I had a late afternoon lunch at the Medusa cafe, near the Basilica Cistern, on a pleasant outdoor patio. Unlike many of the restaurants I'd seen so far, it was playing American music rather than Turkish; when I sat down, they were playing Peggy Lee's "Johnny Guitar," but somehow the melancholy melody suited the atmosphere very well. A basket of very fresh flat bread and a glass of white wine were put in front of me. I like experimenting with new foods, particularly those with interesting names, so I ordered a pumpkin blossom meze and, for the main course, chicken stewed with cream and almonds. A black and white cat came over to meet me, but, seeing that I was eating only bread, padded off to another table. The sky was begining to turn gray, and suddenly I wished I'd brought my coat along. I took the pashmina I'd brought (for use if I ended up visiting any mosques), and used it as a shawl.

The chicken stew proved to be very good, with mushrooms, red and yellow sweet peppers and pearl onions, as well as almonds. Afterward, I stopped at the Blue Mosque in hopes of looking around, but they weren't having visitors at that time. The carpet guy had told me that Friday afternoons aren't a good visiting time, because devout Muslims attend a long prayer service then. I did see a yellow and white cat nosing around as if looking for something to eat, and I pulled out a piece of leftover chicken, still warm, and offered it to him. To my surprised, he turned up his nose at it. Apparently he wasn't as needy as he was pretending to be.

One place I'd hoped to visit early in the trip was Istiklal Caddesi, so I decided to go check it out. My husband was meeting me in Istanbul the following evening, and I thought how nice it would be to have dinner on the French street there. So, after reviewing my Tripadvisor notes of how to get to Taksim Square, I set off for the Sultanahmet tram stop, as a sort of dry run.

It was easy to get to Taksim Square, and even easier to find Istiklal Caddesi, since that's where everyone else on the tram was headed. I'd forgotten that this was a weekend night, and found myself in the middle of a sea of young people. As my father-in-law used to joke about Christmas shopping at the mall, all you had to do was hold out your elbows and let the crowd carry you from store to store.

So I headed down the street, noting with some disappointment that the quaint Taksim-Tunel tram wasn't running. I looked from one side to the other at the various stores and the big crowds of people visiting there that night. Unfortunately, I was so busy looking at the stores and the people and the banners on the street that I forgot to look down. And, suddenly, my foot slipped into a hole in the pavement, and I went sprawling, face down on the cobblestones. I was aware of a sharp pain in my left knee, and all I could think was, I hope it's not broken.

Seven or eight young Turkish people immediately surrounded me, pulled me up and led me to the curb. After sitting for a moment, I tried bearing weight on my leg, and decided that it was probably all right. One of the guys, who spoke fluent English, offered to walk me down to Tunel to catch the tram (or is it a metro?) and I thanked him.

I was rather glad of his company when we passed about 30 policemen in riot gear, standing at the ready while watching an orderly demonstration. It didn't look like a volatile situation, but I was beginning to feel the stress of two very active days of exploration. So my companion escorted me to the tram, I thanked him, and boarded for the ride back to Taksim Square. I never found out his name.

Back at the Sultanahmet tram stop, I was met by a little gray cat that looked as if he might have some Ocicat ancestry. Reaching into my bag, I pulled out the leftover chicken scraps that Mr. Picky at the Blue Mosque had shown so little interest in. This kitty ate them eagerly. I wished I could take him home with me---he seemed much too pretty and personable to be homeless.

I turned in early that night.