I had a few days off so I did a little research and found a cheap flight to Istanbul.
More on Istanbul can be found here – Istanbul
Turkish Airlines flies back and forth between Pristina, Kosovo and Istanbul, Turkey quite regularly and the cost is very reasonable. As I mentioned on another page, customs at the Pristina airport is a breeze for several reasons and anyone who has been there knows why. The flight to Istanbul was similar to what you would expect in the west and since it was an evening flight the plane had a bunch of empty seats. After takeoff I moved to the back and spread out across three seats and the stewardesses didn’t seem to mind so I remained there for the duration. The flight was quick and in no time we were landing in Istanbul.
I was in a hurry and not paying attention so when I got to customs the guy asked me for my visa and since I didn’t have one, he directed me to a booth over along the wall. I thought that was quite nice, to be decent about it so I walked over to the booth, paid my fee to another nice lady and was back at customs in no time. Clearing was remarkably easy and I grabbed my bag and was out in the main area looking for my ride as I’d arranged for a hotel to pick me up. They were a no-show and after waiting for a bit I walked outside the building. In the front of the terminal there are a variety of taxi services that will take you to the city and they aren’t afraid to do the hard sell. Not knowing what the price should be and it being late, I finally let one of them take me to my hotel. They’ll overcharge you if given the chance so be sure to bargain and walk away if you’re not given a decent price. I had them drop me at the Aquarium Hotel which is over by the Blue Mosque and within walking distance of buses and a few tourist attractions.
I checked in and was shown to my room, which was tiny by any standard and didn’t look like the photo I saw online but I was a bit tired and began to unpack figuring I’d take care of it in the morning. The front desk clerk however, came up and moved me to a nicer room so it all worked out the night I arrived. It’s a very basic hotel and the rooms are small by western standards but that seems to be the norm outside North America and Western Europe. The guys working the lobby were helpful though and I have learned that standards vary based on country so it was decent all things considered. I came down after unpacking and headed out for a quick once around the area but the place was dead and almost seemed abandoned. It was after midnight and I was walking the area in front of the Blue Mosque so I headed back to the room. I’ve learned over the years to not wander around in areas of a city that appear abandoned or void of pedestrian activity.
The next morning I again headed out in the same direction and looked over the brochures for the double decker bus tours I saw. Oh, here is a bit of information that will be very useful for any traveler coming to Istanbul. The Turks are bent on selling you something … anything and are quite relentless in pursuit of this goal. Well, once I arrived at the pick-up point for the tourist buses, I chose one of the more thorough tours. The buses depart based on a schedule and since I had a few minutes to spare, I purchased some popcorn or at least the local version of it. Popcorn in the west is not the same as popcorn in much of the world, so I have learned to just go with it. The difference in food preparation and quality varies based on your location and I actually enjoy experiencing the differences.
Back to the bus tour … I ended up splurging and riding the red route and the blue route with one of the packages including a trip on the Bosphorus. The stops included:
City Tour – Red route:
The stops are: Sultanahmet Square (between Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque) – New Mosque (Yeni Camii) – Egyptian Spice Bazaar – Tophane (Istanbul Modern Art Museum) – Port (Karaköy) – Dolmabahçe (near Dolmabahçe Mosque & Palace) – Beylerbeyi Palace – Akaretler (W Hotel) – Taksim Square – Hard Rock Café (Bankalar Street).
Golden Horn Blue Route
The stops are: Sultanahmet Square (between Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque) – New Mosque (Yeni Camii) – Egyptian Spice Bazaar – Patriarchate (St. Stephen’s Church) – Cable Car (Pierre Loti Café) – Miniatürk (Rahmi Koç Museum).
So, I hopped on the morning bus, grabbed some earphones and a window seat and was off on my first trip. I figured I’d ride once around to see the city, get a bit of information and feel for the place. The bus drivers really know the route and make a couple stops where you can get off, stretch your legs and if you’re quick get a bite to eat. For my first trip through some of the main points of interest I enjoyed it. The day I went was a bit rainy and cold so sitting on the lower level of a bus and cruising the town was quite enjoyable.
On one of my bus tours I also crossed over into Asia which I though was quite a novelty and the bus stopped at an overlook where we were all given time to browse some stores, snap a few photos and even have dinner in a restaurant overlooking the city. There were also cable cars there and part of the trip included a short ride up and down part of a hill which was thrilling. There were of course souvenir and food vendors distributed all over the place and I ended up grabbing some sweets that appeared to be Turkish. It was a nice evening and I was able to strike up a few conversations with other tourists along the way.
I meet interesting people every time I travel it seems and this trip was no different. I sat next to a guy who had just finished a PHd in mechanical engineering and was on vacation with his family. It is quite common for people living in the area to speak multiple languages and this guy was no exception, speaking Turkish, Arabic, Farsi and Russian .. Impressive. Later on in the day I bumped into a woman from New Zealan who had taken a leave of absence from her job as a nurse to travel a bit.
She said she came home from work one day and realized her existence had consisted entirely of work and not much else and felt a change was needed. An underlying issue was the fact she wasn’t getting any younger, time was not on her side and she may end up waiting too long to enjoy herself. So, she asked her employer for a leave of absence and joined a site that lets you trade free room and board for work in various parts of the world. Well, after her leave of absence, she returned to New Zealand, quit her job and continued on trading work for food and lodging as a way to travel the world. What she does is takes odd jobs around the world (there is a website for this as I mentioned). In return for doing some work, like painting, helping around a farm, odd jobs, you name it, she’s allowed to live with the person for whom she is working. She had just come from painting a widow’s house, had lived with her for several months and thoroughly enjoyed her time there. During this time she was able to see the local area and make friends with people in the village who rarely see foreigners and enjoyed having her. It was quite interesting to hear some of the places she had been, doing odd jobs and traveling. She said she had just had enough with working as it didn’t seem to be going anywhere and wanted to enjoy her life. Very early in our conversation it appeared to me as if she was well on her way to accomplishing this.
After finishing my bus tours I hopped on a ferry for a tour of the Bosphorus. We headed north for about an hour or so toward the Black sea and I was on the upper deck alone as it was quite cold and a bit rainy. It was fascinating to see all the ancient and new structures along the banks and the guide pointed out a giant chain that had been extended across the Bosphorus centuries earlier to keep out invading navies. Some of the links were visible and I swear each was as large as a truck. It’s a marvel how the people centuries ago were able to make something so large, let alone pull it across a major waterway .. Amazing. The trip lasted several hours and I was frozen by the time we returned to our bus back to the drop point but the intrepid traveler in me was unfazed.
Afterwards, I made my way back to the center of the town and walked in and around discovering the place. It’s packed with restaurants and the owners are bent on having you come in to dine. I mentioned that vendors can be quite aggressive and some restaurant owners are no different so be aware. I did end up grabbing some local food and spent the evening wandering around Istanbul, seeing the sights and experiencing the culture. I eventually made my way back to my room and relaxed a bit and planned more adventures.
I started out in the morning in the small restaurant of the Hotel Aquarium having my continental breakfast. Nothing like eating some local food to get a feel for the place. Afterwards, I asked the desk clerk which direction I should walk to see the Grand Bazaar (Kapalıçarşı,Covered Bazaar, Büyük Çarşı). He pointed me in the general direction and said, “You can’t miss it”. So, off I went winding my way through the city on its many winding streets. After a bit of a walk I came upon a sign above an arched door belonging to the Bazaar and I walked inside. I managed to enter as a few of the shops were beginning to prepare for the day. I took the opportunity to see what the place looked like before the mobs arrived and you can see it has been around for centuries. I was able to track down some information as I walked to give you an idea of it’s size. It is one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world, with 61 covered streets and over 3,000 shops which attract between 250,000 and 400,000 visitors daily.
As the morning progressed the place absolutely filled up with people and the vendors had their wares often times out in the walkways. The place is literally a maze with over a dozen entry points I believe and is so complex you need a map to find your way. As luck would have it one of the store owners “befriended me” as I passed his store and handed me a map of the place. He was very chatty and ran down a list of what his store offers along with some his family history. The bazaar was entirely fascinating and since it was still early I decided to play along to see what he was up to. He invited be into an area of the bazaar where rugs are made and sold, expensive rugs I should add. We sat in one of his shops where magnificently expensive, hand made, silk rugs hung on the walls. He went on in detail as to their origin, construction, his shop in general and kept prodding me on which carpet interested me.
He started with the expensive rugs and worked his way down to the least expensive one. Along the way, on of his employees brought us all Turkish tea and we drank it as he continued the hard sell, which it had become at this point. I finally brought it to his attention that I couldn’t possible afford any of the carpets at which point he arose and walked away as if I didn’t even exist. The guy that brought the tea watched all this transpire and I just shrugged as I finished my tea. I thanked the guy that stayed behind and made my way out into the main Bazaar again.
I must have walked the entire thing as I had my map and was watching to see where I’d been. I walked down a side alley where it appeared very few people visit and there was one lone guy in his store and I started to chat with him. I was browsing and he wasn’t pushing me to purchase anything so I decided to devote more time to the store. He made us some tea and I eyed a tea set I felt I could carry back with me. He told me people hardly ever come down this narrow passage where his store lies and if I was willing to buy the set, he would give me a deal. I negotiated with him and ended up buying a few things and felt I got a decent deal. He wrapped everything up nicely, I paid and was on my way again this time in the direction of an exit. If you like to shop, I would definitely visit the Grand Bazaar as if you can’t locate something you can’t live without here, you can’t find it anywhere in Istanbul. It is absolutely enormous and using the word Grand understates it’s true size. Oh, and visit the vendors in the side alleys as the traffic is minimal and they are more interested in giving you a better deal, at least in my opinion.
So, after hours and hours in the Grand Bazaar, I made my way back to my hotel room, deposited my souvenirs and presents and spent the remainder of the day walking around the city, getting a feel for life in Istanbul and watching the tourists and locals going about their business. Along the way I did manage to walk into the Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmet Camii) and have a look. It is quite a sight in itself, built in the early part of the sixteenth century and the architecture is incredible. You are given booties to place on your feet for walking around in the Mosque as well as a plastic bag to put your shoes in. It goes without saying, the place is old and it is also well maintained. Despite having been around for centuries it is amazingly well maintained and still in use it appears. I spent some time walking around the interior and admiring the place. It is a bit awe inspiring from virtually any angle and is no doubt filled with history.
After the Blue Mosque I walked to Sultan Ahmet park across the courtyard and spent several hours enjoying the place. The paths wind all over and are filled with lush rolling areas covered in grass, flowers and trees with plenty of places to relax and enjoy the day. Not wanting to just relax I exited the place and spent the remainder of the day walking up and down the city. As I mentioned, this place is ancient and as I learned while there, underneath the city lies several older civilizations that were built upon the existing city. Of course archaeologists would love to get in there and have as I understand to a small degree. One of the primary issues preventing it I’m told is how to preserve and structurally support the existing history on the surface. It would be quite interesting to learn what is beneath the city but that will require decades I imagine.
So after another full day, it’s back to the room for some sleep. I arose early the next morning, had my continental breakfast and the taxi picked me up just as promised. The trip back to the airport was along the Bosphorus and I got another look at Istanbul in the early hours. There are something like 29 million people here and it is alive with activity. It is quite a multi-cultural place as far as I could tell as well. The primary source of the multi-cultural characteristic is drawn from Asia and the middle east and to a lesser degree Eastern Europe and even Western Europe I imagine. It is definitely a place you can spend time in if you’re into history as it is literally full of it. It straddles two continents and I set my feet on both and saw as much as I could in a the few days I was there. It was an incredible experience and I would return if given the chance to do more exploring. Once back at the airport, clearing customs was easy and in no time I was back in Pristina where my ride back awaited me.