"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.....)