Yes, you guessed it, this blog is about an ancient city with beautiful architecture and wonderful people: the great city of Istanbul. A city coveted by empires; it is brimming over with historical tales of blood, treachery, treason, revolts, uprisings, the sacking of temples and changes in wealth, status, religion and allegiance.
But we weren’t really interested in all that. This was a city that had embraced several different cultures and the architecture is wonderful to behold, from the ancient city walls to the higgledy-piggledy houses in different styles and ages that sit shoulder-to-shoulder, packed as tight as eggs within cartons and just as fragile. I was told that they experience tremors every now and then and they are usually enough to shift the structures sufficiently so as to make them uninhabitable. So, as you wander around, you will find, here and there, nestled between beautifully kept colourful bijou residences, the odd, ugly building that looks as though it has recently been blitzed or been in a fire. The government is, apparently, slowly trying to buy up these properties and restore them to their former glory, but in the meantime they sit forlorn and unloved among their brightly plumed neighbours.
We stayed in the heart of the old city, down a small and uninteresting road, in a wonderful four star hotel called The Hotel Prince. The small and uninteresting road was a haven – no noisy pubs, clubs or other venues to disturb us at night. The hotel could quite easily have five stars if not for the laid back attitude, and lackadaisical attention to the finer details. We liked it – it was elegant yet comfortable. The room was spacious, with a fine view over the rooftops to the Bosphorus (just). It wasn’t one of the more popular views – over the Topkapi, Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque, but we needed a room for four people which limited our choice. The staff were friendly, the waiters exceptionally so, to the point where they were joyfully greeting my son in the mornings at breakfast and showering him with kisses – he hated it! I think it is a general love of children that make the Turks so affectionate as I constantly found myself throughout our trip hauling him away from some stranger that had decided to grab him and hug him. As we walked along, him holding my hand, someone walking by would just stop and give him a quick shoulder hug. By the end of the trip he just shrugged and put up with it, I was less nonchalant about the whole thing. It turned out his birthday fell on the penultimate day of our trip and, after a wonderful Hammam, we decided to have a little nap. As we lay on our beds (Brian and JJ in their underclothes as it was fairly warm), there was a knock on the door. I answered it and found the receptionists, hotel manager and waiters with a gorgeous chocolate cake ablaze with candles and sparklers. They wanted to see my son, so we hurriedly dressed and let them in. After singing Happy Birthday, right there in the corridor, one waiter was left to serve us. Our nap went out the window but what a wonderful surprise!
We went out for dinner that night to the Imbat restaurant above the Orient Express Hotel. It also has wonderful views over the Bosphorus and they also produced a lavish cake. It was, quite simply the best Turkish meal we’d had in Istanbul and, even with the silver service, proper napkins and bottle of wine, it was less expensive than some of the cafes we’d been to! When I booked I’d mentioned in passing it was my son’s birthday and lo and behold they put on some birthday music and all the staff arrived with a lit birthday cake. Smiles all round.
Actually, while we’re on the subject of food, the other fabulous meal we had was at Dubb, an Indian restaurant opposite the Blue Mosque. Not only was the food delicious and authentic but the decor was exquisite. I highly recommend this place. I found out they have an ‘International’ menu as well but I cannot vouch for the quality of that, although if it’s half as good as the Indian then it’s twice as good as the restaurant that sits opposite. I cannot remember the name of it (something like Pulmire), but avoid that one at all costs. Their ‘collectors’, as I like to call them – all the restaurants have waiters hovering outside urging you in to try their fare – are very good, extremely persuasive, but the food is dire. It was refreshing to come across a city and see that the majority of restaurants specialised in local specialities. We did come across a Burger King, McDonalds and Dominos but they were away from the tourist hotspots. In fact the only ‘international’ outlet we found at the very centre was Starbucks, but why would you go there when you could experience Turkish tea and coffee in Turkish surroundings? I’ll tell you why – children! My daughter saw it and her eyes begged for a Frappuccino. I’d love to say we tried the Dominos and the Burger King only because we had the kids with us, but I would be lying about Dominos!
It was obvious these familiar outlets were mainly there for the locals as the staff couldn’t speak english, unlike the waiters in the Turkish restaurants, but we managed to get by. I learnt how to say ‘vegetarian, no meat, no fish’ very quickly. The very idea of vegetarianism completely flummoxed my husband’s colleague who invited us out for a meal. I think he regretted the offer as soon as my husband revealed our non-meat diets – in fact, he thought Brian was pulling his leg. Apparently he’ a real joker.
I highly recommend the sightseeing bus – take it on your first day there and you’ll not only get a potted history of the place, with distinctive landmarks pointed out, but you’ll be able to estimate distances and get a better idea of how to work out your itinerary. In fact, I think I’ll do a sightseeing bus tour every time now.
The city has a very good tram system which we used all the time. It is regular and well-used but only briefly mentioned in all the guides so I shall explain it here and now. The system they use is pay-per-trip. You have to buy tokens – during our visit it cost 2TL per token – from machines which are situated at every station. One of these is introduced into the turnstile to get you onto the tram station platform. BTW this is the same system for buses and ferries but they have their own tokens (unless you are doing a ‘Bosphorus tour’ in which case you have to buy a special ticket). It doesn’t matter how many stops you have to go, 1 or 20, you use one token each trip. Children who are shorter than the barrier just walk under it; this is their definition of ‘children go free’. Every station has a guard so don’t be tempted to cheat.
I loved our Bhosphorus trip, it zigzagged along and was very scenic. We saw a pod of dolphins each way which was fantastic, I only wish the ferry had slowed down so we could enjoy them a little longer. We took the official trip which stops on the Asian side for three hours so you can walk up the hill to the castle which has great views of the Black Sea, apparently. I say apparently as we weren’t aware the ferry would stop for three hours, or that we’d be kicked off and left to the mercy of the restaurant collectors. I’m just glad we thought to pack sandwiches as, with their captive clientele, the prices were eye-popping. (There is a particular take-away speciality best described as a fish wrap which my husband recommends). We didn’t find out about the castle until we were due to board the ferry again, but I’m glad. I don’t think my knees could have coped with the climb. It was a long day and, frankly, the children were bored after twenty minutes of beautiful coastline. Thank goodness for MP3 players and dolphins.
On the attractions I will just say there are queues everywhere. At the Topkapi you have to queue for tickets, then queue to go in and then queue at pretty much every building inside – if it’s raining, as it was for us, it can be quite miserable, so go armed for long waits, especially if you have children. If its warm I strongly suggest men have trousers that unzip to shorts as quite frequently they will have to have long trousers to go into certain buildings. Women should have a shawl to cover their head and a long skirt (unless they’re wearing trousers) to cover their legs.
The fez: I was seriously confused as to whether this was an Egyptian or Turkish traditional piece of headgear. A waiter enlightened me: it is originally Greek! Only the Greeks no longer use it and the Turks and Egyptians do. So there you go. I didn’t buy one.
Turkish Delight: OMG, the real thing in all its glory. Mounds and mounds of it beautifully arranged everywhere. At Imbat we had a wonderful peppermint one at the end of the meal, but my favourite by far is the very delicately rose-flavoured pistachio strewn one, dusted with icing sugar. It looks like a salami, and you could be forgiven for thinking it; it is divine. I don’t generally eat Turkish delight for many reasons but I cannot keep my hands off this. Then there are the Turkish sweets – baklava and all the others – which are so pretty, but far too sweet for me. Go ahead and try some – they all want you to try. We’d be standing outside shops and the owners would come out with handfuls to tempt us. You could quite easily walk from the ports to the Blue Mosque munching on all the sweet things that are shoved at you and not eat lunch.
I’ve been trying to find an up-to-date map of the tram system to show the line we took almost everyday but have been unsuccessful. The most important stops are: Eminonu which has the Bhosphorus ferry to one side and the Spice market to the other, Gulhane which took us to our hotel (and is two stops along), the stop between these two, whose name I cannot remember, has the train terminal and Tourist Information, is also the location of Burger King et al, and, on the corner of the crossroads, a beautiful shop selling the most wonderful Turkish sweets. Also near here is one of the oldest Turkish restaurants (whose name I cannot remember) but it was established in the early 1800s and is frequented by locals. The next stop after Gulhane is Sultanahmet which is the site of the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sofia and Dubb. One thing I will say about the Blue Mosque is that while it is very lovely inside I was extremely disappointed. Not only was it crawling with tourists who, despite the signs asking people to be respectful, didn’t have theirs heads covered and were talking loudly, but the central section with the beautiful blue dome was webbed with a maze of wires holding up a lighting gantry. Two stops after Sultanahmet is the stop for the Main Bazaar (again, I cannot remember the name of the stop!).
Hammam: our hotel had a beautiful Hammam, lovely and clean, but expensive. However, the cheaper version we went to, while authentic, left much to be desired in the sanitation stakes (it smelt damp and mouldy). You certainly get what you pay for. Hammam etiquette is quite simple (and I can only comment from the ladies point of view), remove all jewellery and undress to the point where you feel comfortable – everyone is giving a special cotton cloth to cover themselves. Keep your eyes lowered. If you’ve been to the Sanctuary in London you’ll know what I’m talking about. After a spell in the hot area (the floor is very hot) where you sluice yourself over and over again with water and get your skin nice and moist, you can have either an oil massage or a peel and foam. can’t comment on the oil massage as I didn’t have one. The peel is a brisk rub with a rough hand mitt and you will have to go topless – they rub everywhere! This is followed by the foam which is a wonderful experience and you are literally covered in a wonderful soft foam. I’ve never felt so clean. They also shampoo your hair so, if you’re particular about the brand you use, take yours with you.
Haggling: it just doesn’t seem right when the price is right there on the item, but go ahead and try it, you never know, you might get lucky. But don’t be offensive or take offense. It’s not as bad as the guy from Life of Brian, but close to it. If you’re unsure just stand back and watch some others before you take someone on. Even our son had a go. The golden rule is, if you don’t want it don’t start because if they accept the price you say then it’s a done deal. They’ll start at the top, so, work from there how mcuh you want to pay, start muchlower and hopefully you’ll both work your way to the middle and the price you want to pay. The bazaars are the best place to haggle and the Turks are a superstitious people, believing their first customer is their lucky customer, so if you want to buy lots do it first thing in the morning as they’ll be bending over backwards to win your custom.
Anyway, there is a potted tour guide of a small section of Istanbul. We had great fun there, I hope you do to.