We arrived in Istanbul after a fairly uneventful BA flight out of Heathrow. (Have I mentioned I HATE this airport?) To get rid of the last of our Pounds we bought an adorable Peter Rabbit beanie baby on board – and Jessica insisted that I cut the jacket off him so she could undress him. So much for his lovely blue jacket complete with brass buttons!
Clutching Peter, we disembarked at Istanbul and immediately headed towards the fast-forming vise queue. We jumped in line and I dashed off to the nearby bank machine to get some Turkish currency to pay for the visas. The machine refused my card, and I went back to the line to figure out if we had enough cash to even enter the country. To our amazement, we discovered that Canadians have to pay $60 USD per visa - children included. Everyone else pays a MAXIMUM of $20, with most coming in around $10. What did we Canadians do to deserve that? Seems like we’re always paying hand over fist for visas. I rummaged through my much depleted money belt and discovered I had just enough American cash left to pay for three visas. Hurrah!
At this point I noticed that there was a line forming to our left. Interestingly enough we were at the leftmost window, so where these folks thought they were going was beyond me. Then they started filing in front of us whenever a window became free - someone would just dash in front of the waiting masses and take a place at a free window. The people giving visas didn’t really notice what was going on because there were a couple of plane loads of people waiting by this point. Now everyone in line was starting to get agitated and pushy. One woman from the rogue line dashed forward, but was too late to get to the window, so she came back and took her place in FRONT of our line. WELL. This was just too much! The lady in front of us told her off in a couple languages and harangued her for pushing in front of us with all our bags and a little one. The woman just stood there grinning and held her ground. So we talked over her head about how rude and ignorant she was and she just smiled and stood there. Then her friends came and joined her seeing as she had found such an advantageous spot! The lady in front of us seriously went off and we were getting pretty hot under the collar as well. One of the ladies waved us along when her turn came up and I thought Grant was going to snap. He just said: No, no - YOU go ahead. You must have an important date or something.
We finally made it through the visa line but by this time we were seriously pissed off. Paid three times as much for our visas and these bloody Turkish people were turning out to be horrible, pushy and rude. We entered the customs line with all defenses up and steadfastly held our ground when some of these women tried to push through. You could tell which ones were going to try it on - they were all victims of bad dye jobs and wearing leopard skin tights or short shorts with the thong showing through - you get the picture. There was one security guy who had cottoned on to the queue jumping and was barking orders at people including the woman who jumped in front of us AGAIN right as our turn came in line. Thanking him profusely, we stepped up to the customs window where a supremely grouchy officer processed our passports. Well, we thought. Welcome to Turkey. It is going to be a really really long month.
We followed the crowd through to the baggage collection and scanned the signs for our flight number, trying to figure out which carousel was ours. Wait a minute that carousel has Moscow above it. Suddenly we realized where all the pushy, obnoxious women had come from. Yep - there they were all pushing and shoving each other to get their luggage. WHEW. Big sigh of relief maybe Turkish people wouldn’t be so bad after all. These folks were all from Russia. Steering WAY clear of the Moscow crowd, we grabbed our bags and headed for a taxi.
The taxi driver was a jolly friendly sort of guy who didn’t speak that much English. Since we hadn’t yet mastered even Hello in Turkish – communication was a bit difficult. We were booked into a hotel in Sultanahmet that, according to the reviews, was notoriously difficult for taxi drivers to find. To deal with this fact, I had found the location of a hotel on our guidebook map AND written down not only the hotels street address but also directions to the hotel. However, I should have realized that most taxi drivers are MEN and not too likely to take direction from the foreign lady in the back seat! To be fair, I didn’t even know how to tell him I could give him directions to the hotel and he grabbed the piece of paper with the address and all my directions - which were in English and I presume he couldn’t read them – and kept it in the front seat.
Well, we got a lovely tour of Sultanahmet en route to our hotel, whilst out driver shouted out the window at passers by and other taxi drivers. He even jumped out once or twice and ran into a nearby shop or over to a taxi stand to get directions. I pushed the map into the front to show Grant where we were supposed to be going and, thankfully, the driver had a look. Eventually we made it through the maze of windy, narrow streets to our hotel. It didn’t matter to me that we took ten minutes longer than we should have to get to our hotel; I was already captivated by the beauty and charm of Istanbul.
We were staying at the Allstar Ambassador Hotel and the super friendly guy at the front desk checked us in and showed us to our room. I was already eyeing up the spa services and noticing how cheap they were compared to Scandinavia but you’ve heard all about that previously! The lobby was lovely and comfortable and decorated with beautiful Turkish carpets and kilims. Our room was a bit on the small side, but had everything it needed to make us comfortable. It was quirky, though. In the course of our stay we had to have our TV changed because it kept overheating and turning itself off, and the light in the bathroom kept going out plunging you into complete darkness at the most inopportune of moments. You then had to get up, wrap your hand in a towel or t-shirt, and jiggle the light bulb over the sink. Classic.
First things first, I had a shower and then did a bit of laundry. I don’t generally mention it here because its boring as hell, but the first thing I generally do on arrival in a new hotel is about an hour’s worth of sink laundry so the clothes have the afternoon and overnight to dry - and hopefully they can be put away before the maid catches us at it. Then we hit the streets to find a grocery store and stock up on things for Jessica to eat - also another priority on arrival to a new place, especially a new country!
With all the confusion of our arrival, I hadn’t taken much notice of the hotels surrounding area – aside from gawking at the bazaars, the Blue Mosque, and Aya Sofya as we drove by, of course. When we first stepped out onto the street, and looked around, I truly began what was to become a month long love- affair with Turkey. We emerged into the evening air onto a steep and winding cobbled street too narrow for a car. This street opened onto another, wider, cobbled street where our taxi had dropped us off hence his difficulty in finding the place as it was almost impossible to see from the road.
The place was a rabbit warren of little cobbled streets and alley ways. Most of the smaller streets didn’t have street lights and the light came instead from shop windows and the candles and colorful glass lanterns decorating the multitude of sidewalk cafes. The air was filled with funky Turkish music, the happy chatter of people dining, and the banter of the shopkeepers or restaurateurs lounging in their doorways hoping to entice you inside. Street vendors lined the main street spinning tops and flogging tourist tat and the ubiquitous blue glass evil eyes twinkled from every doorway; tiny versions of which were often handed to passers by for good luck. Wonderful food smells wafted through the air, foreign to me at that point, but certainly a forerunner of the many delicious meals to come. As expected, carpet shops were in abundance - many with a well fed, but independent cat curled up out front on a favorite carpet. Brightly colored carpets and kilims were on display everywhere, and their color and texture lent an exotic air to the streets. I simply could not get enough of it, and couldn’t wait to explore further.
But, I had a tired, hungry family who had waited too long for Mommy to finish the laundry and we had to find a grocery store before it closed. I wandered through the streets, ecstatic at every new scene that presented itself, largely ignoring my grumbling family. Insane drivers threatened us at every crossing and we were really glad to have Jessica firmly in her stroller even though it meant hauling it over a few uneven places and holes in the sidewalk. Several local people warned us to be careful because the drivers in Istanbul are very aggressive. Smiling, friendly people helped us to find a local grocery store; giving us ALL the options, and directions to each one, before offering their personal opinion of which one would serve our needs best. Of course, they also pinched Jessica’s cheek everywhere we went, much to her dismay. We found the store quickly enough, and even lucked into some strawberry milk for Jessica!
We loaded up the stroller with groceries and headed back to our hotel for dinner. The hotel has a lovely rooftop restaurant that I had read very good things about in the reviews. Stepping onto the roof, we could immediately see why! The rooftop overlooked both the Blue Mosque and Aya Sofya. We’d had glimpses of both from the street, but this was our first proper look at them. Both were lit up for the night and we had a birds eye view – all we could do was stare, mouths hanging open in wonderment.
It was already past 9pm, so the restaurant was completely deserted. This suited us just fine as it meant Jessica could wander round and play whilst we ate. She made fast friends with the waiter before we’d even completed our order. Grant was starting to relax and cheer up with the prospect of food on the way and the spectacular view from our table. I still had a dreamy smile plastered on my face as this hotel, and Turkey itself, was turning out to be everything I’d hoped for!
Just as our food arrived, the muezzins began their call to prayer. Now, we were located about a block away from the Blue Mosque, and sitting outside – at the same height as the loudspeakers attached to the minarets. Not only that, there are several other mosques nearby which have loudspeakers of their own. The total effect was as eerie as it was deafening. We’d heard this before in other countries but this was certainly the most up close and personal experience. Jessica screamed and held her hands over her ears and made the funniest of faces! Looking over the railing we could see the faithful hurrying to their prayers, and partway through the call to prayer, great clouds of birds exploded from the top of the Blue Mosque as if to say ENOUGH with the noise already. This happened at roughly the same point during prayer every night - a great flock of birds wheeling above the mosque in a darkened sky, lit from below by the floodlights that light the mosque, whilst an unearthly and beautiful wailing fills the air. A beautiful and unforgettable experience and I found myself looking forward to the five times daily call to prayer.
We ate a lovely meal in the gorgeous and completely deserted restaurant and headed back to our room. Free wireless in the room - hurrah! Jess and Grant headed to bed and I went out for the aforementioned Turkish Bath experience. Shudder. Thankfully, the call to prayer could barely be heard in the room so we didn’t wake up during the 5am version!
In the morning we had a bit of a rodeo as Mommy (aka breakfast Nazi) attempted to get everyone moving in time to actually EAT the free breakfast provided by the hotel. We made it up there with a grouchy, whiny kid and were so late that there was barely anything left on the buffet. Amazingly, the guy at the front desk later offered to have plates made up for us if we found it difficult to be up in time for the breakfast. I declined knowing I would be the only one to actually eat anything and the food would likely go to waste anyway. This was our last attempt at breakfast together. Afterwards, I would just get up and go on my own and bring some food back for Jessica. Theres nothing more horrible than having to be a bossy ogre in the morning to get everyone moving and I was getting thoroughly sick of it. So much for saving money on lunch by eating the FREE breakfast at the hotel!
Once everyone calmed down and forgave me for dragging them from their beds before noon, we geared up and headed out to see some of the sights. Istanbul is almost as intriguing by day as it is magical by night and, once again, I had a perma-grin from the moment I stepped through the door. I was also excited by the fact that the hotel offered laundry services for a really reasonable price and we were once again about to experience the incredible luxury of having all our clothes clean at once!
We walked the few blocks to Aya Sofya. Already enthralled by the lovely Sultanahmet district, I was completely taken aback by Aya Sofya. Entering the building is like stepping back in time and I was overwhelmed by the sheer magnificence of the structure and the deep sense of history as I walked through it. They had even framed some graffiti that dated back to the Viking times. It probably said something deeply profound like Börkr was here! This made me laugh because we’d just spent time in Scandinavia marveling at the ancient Viking ships and this building pre-dated those ships by FAR.
I cant adequately describe the way I felt with words. I was completely in awe and Aya Sofya swiftly joined Saint Basil’s Cathedral and Angkor Wat on the short list of structures that I could spend a lifetime staring at and never grow weary of looking. We had - somehow- managed to time our visit perfectly to coincide with the ONLY day that cruise ships don’t dock. Thus, there were comparatively few tourists save, unfortunately, the plane load of Russians that showed up in their short shorts and see-though crop tops. They made for an interesting contrast with the Muslim women who were covered head to toe in scarves and flowing robes. Jessica, of course, discovered some wonderful echoes and spent the entire visit dashing to and fro like a goofball until Grant finally took her outside and let me continue to gawk in peace.
Unaware that we’d been granted a tourist reprieve due to the absent cruise ships, we steeled ourselves for a visit to the infamous Grand Bazaar. Even the Lonely Planet suggests that you go when youre in a good mood and have lots of time to spend, and be ready for all the harassment. But, due partially to the fact that we’d just come through China where the markets DEFINE the word harassment, and the general absence of the crushing cruise crowds, we had an extremely pleasant afternoon strolling around the worlds oldest shopping mall. Yes, the vendors chat you up and try to get you to come in the shop. But, everyone is friendly and nobody grabs you and hangs on like they do in China. We never felt pressured or harassed for an instant - even when we did venture into a few shops to ask for prices.
While it certainly caters to tourists, the Grand Bazaar is still a place that you can picture everyday Turkish people shopping. People sit outside their shops sharing cup after cup of strong tea in small glasses and visiting with friends, customers, and fellow shopkeepers alike. The place was alive with activity, and simply ablaze with color and light; beautiful ceramics, sequined belly dancing costumes, amazing glass lanterns of all colors and designs, exotic copperware, gorgeous leather clothing, finely wrought silver and gold jewelry, and, of course, sumptuously woven carpets everywhere the eye could see.
Grant was immediately befriended by a very helpful man who instantly managed to annoy Jessica by pinching her cheek. Of course, this old guy had a cousin or a friend in just about every section of the market and he could help us find whatever it is we were looking for. We shook him off, gently, and took his card should we be interested in a watch in the future. That was the full extent of our harassment. We spent the next three hours or so wandering around the market, excited at the prospect of a new brand of souvenirs to buy as we were sick of all things South East Asian markets had to offer by that point! In the end we bought nothing at all (silly us - turns out prices are generally cheaper when the cruise ships aren’t in town) and headed back to the hotel for a much needed shower and some play time for Jessica.
That evening we headed out to see the Blue Mosque just before sunset. A nice guy helped us up the stairs with the stroller and then wanted to be our tour guide for free. I was pretty sure there was a carpet shop involved somehow so we politely declined and he went on his way. At the entrance we removed our shoes and then Jessica and I borrowed the long blue scarves at the entrance to cover our heads. How DOES one tie those on, exactly? I ended up tying it round my head like a bandana and under my hair. Probably should have covered my throat, but couldn’t figure out how to keep it ON and still have hands free to take pictures and deal with Jessica. Of course, Jessica then wanted hers tied just like mine, which proved harder. Stupid me left it too long and she proceeded to run around pretending it was a cape. JUST what I needed - running around wasn’t so bad in Aya Sofya which now serves as a museum, but there are still people actually praying in the Blue Mosque and I needed her - desperately - to be quiet! She was so taken with her new headgear, however, that this was proving more unlikely by the minute. We’d get her to be quiet for a minute and then she’d be off again. All the open space to run in and the cape tied to her head proved too much for her! We spent about ten minutes taking in the beautiful ceilings and the somber atmosphere before prayer started. Technically, we were welcome to stay, provided we took no pictures, but with Jessica so excited and giggly we took this as our cue to leave!
We wandered round in front of the Blue Mosque where there is somewhat of a festival atmosphere in the evenings; cotton candy and balloon vendors, impromptu market stalls set up on the sidewalks, and kids running around on the grass while their parents sit and stare in awe at the Mosque all lit up for the evening. Grant sat down on a bench to have a cigarette in a secluded portion of the park and a shoeshine guy came over and asked for a smoke. Grant gave him one and they smoked together chatting, with Jessica darting out of the way of repeated pinching attempts. Once they finished smoking, the guy cheerfully insisted on cleaning Grants shoes as payment for the cigarette. Grant said no thank you, but the guy insisted as a matter of honor. Well, Grant was wearing sandals, so the guy scrubbed his sandals for about three minutes with a toothbrush. Then, of course, he asked for a donation. Knowing full well hed been had, Grant reached into his pocket and brought out about $3 Turkish Lira in change. The guy shook his head and then asked for $20-$25 to help feed his family. I was laughing openly by this point, as was a Turkish guy sitting on a bench nearby. The shoeshine guy never stopped being polite and cheerful, so I guess this ploy must have worked on many tourists before us. Grant simply pocketed his change and we walked away, with the shoeshine guy bidding us good evening as we left. Weird. He even waved to us like old friends the next few times we passed through that portion of the park on subsequent days.
We spent an hour or so wandering through the Arasta Bazaar near the Blue Mosque. It was closing down, so we were mostly window shopping. By this point, Grant had been seduced by all the luxurious carpets on display and had admitted that he was pretty keen to buy one in Turkey - as I’d been planning since before we left Canada! We agreed to go to a few shops recommended in the Lonely Planet the following day and get a bit of knowledge before we headed off to Cappadocia which was where I had intended to purchase a carpet because the prices were supposed to be lower. We discussed our plans over dinner on the roof again. Again, we had the restaurant to ourselves as it was late and we listened to the magical call to prayer while I ate and Grant glumly pushed his cold, weird, yoghurt covered pasta round on his plate! He went out for a döner later on to make up for ordering something bizarre off the menu. The funny thing was we eventually grew to like the weird, yoghurt covered miniature ravioli when it was served as a starter elsewhere!
The second day we slept in and missed breakfast again. We went off to the Grand Bazaar for the better part of the afternoon, which was now MUCH busier given the influx of cruise passengers. Grant spent ages shopping for a leather jacket and ended up not buying one. Had a laugh at some of the salesmans tactics, though: ”It’s MY turn now - I know EXACTLY what you are looking for, my friend!” One guy couldn’t sell us a jacket so he took us off to his ex-wife’s sister’s carpet shop so we could learn a bit about carpets. We didn’t like her and she wasn’t particularly informative so we left after only seeing a few carpets. We did have our first taste of apple tea, however. Everyone assumes its a traditional Turkish drink, but it was, in fact, created for the tourists who often didn’t enjoy the strong Turkish tea and coffee.
We wandered through the bazaar for ages looking for a glass lantern because I’d set my heart on buying one. Once Grant actually started looking at them properly he agreed that they were pretty amazing and we should get one. I found the perfect one and we ended up going back to the store three times. But, the guy wouldn’t budge enough on his price and Grant decided not to buy it. I went along with this (although admittedly not happily) comforted by the thought that surely wed find another similar lantern elsewhere in Turkey, if not in Istanbul itself. (Never found one and I’m STILL mad at him for being so damn cheap!) In the end the only thing we actually bought in this shopping Mecca was a small pair of finger cymbals for Jessica.
Giving up on the Grand Bazaar as it was becoming more and more crowded with cruise passengers, we grabbed a döner for lunch and headed over to check out the Arasta Bazaar now that it was open properly. We ended up in a carpet shop called Troy Rug Store (email@example.com) recommended by the Lonely Planet as a fantastic, no pressure, place to learn about carpets. As an added bonus, there was a friendly cat curled up on one of the carpets outside that had Jessica instantly fascinated, and a sweet and helpful staff member to play with her. Mustafa, the friendly, personable owner served us tea, gave us a bit of a primer and showed us a few things. Jessica had a ball helping him roll out the carpets. He showed us one kilim that we both instantly loved. The starting price was too high, however, and we hadn’t planned on buying one in Istanbul. We were only here to learn.
When it became apparent that we were primarily interested in kilims (who knew?), Mustafa recommended that we head to another nearby store that he partnered with to look at their more extensive stock. He walked us over, inviting us to come back and play a game of backgammon with him or drink a cup of tea whenever we felt like it. We hated the guys at the other store. They seemed very annoyed that we were unable to immediately articulate what it was we wanted and, when we said we liked kilims, he was annoyed that we didn’t like carpets! We didn’t like anything they showed us and they made us feel like we were wasting their time, so we left and went back to Mustapha’s store to look at the kilim we had liked again, and to learn a bit more. He was apologetic about the other guys, and he knocked a little bit off the price but it was still way too high for us. Glumly, we headed off to a nearby pub and had a very mediocre dinner.
Our third day in Istanbul we headed to the Palace. There were hordes of tourists there because the cruise ships were in town again. Actually, I think they only avoid docking on the one day of the week that the palace is closed, so my guess is that the palace is always busy. Grant had missed breakfast again so by the time wed wandered through the harem he was hungry and getting grouchy. We headed over to the restaurant inside the palace, where I had thought we might grab a quick – if pricey - meal. It was packed and a tour group was just rolling in there for lunch so we gave up and headed off through the treasury before leaving to find lunch. Once again, Jessica was more fascinated by the cats that roamed everywhere and the variety of sticks she could pick up in the courtyard than the actual palace itself!
Afterwards, we headed off to a place recommended by the Lonely Planet to try köfte (Turkish meatballs). They were cheap and filling but I didn’t like them very much - we ended up having much nicer versions of them later on in our stay and they became a favorite dish of ours.
After our late lunch we went to the basilica cistern. It was really really cool! Jessica loved the fish swimming around in the semi-darkness, and I laughed at all the different interpretations of the medusa heads used to support the columns at the back. Know what I think? The entire place was created using materials scavenged from other buildings. We know this. It was intended to store water, not to be beautiful and eventually become a tourist attraction. The medusa heads FIT and they were available when they were needed, therefore they were used. There is no special significance to them being upside down and sideways except this is the way they fit in. Just my humble opinion, for what its worth.
We decided to check out a few more carpet shops to see what the selection was like elsewhere to try to convince ourselves that there were hundreds of carpets we like everywhere. Well. We went to one or two and they didn’t have a single thing we liked. Nothing. Not even vaguely, and the prices they were quoting were double or triple the starting price of the one we DID like. I was starting to worry that we’d never find anything that we both really loved especially in our price range, and in the large size we wanted. Apparently kilims are generally smaller sizes. I knew Cappadocia was famous for its kilims, but we’d never be back to Istanbul and we found one here that we liked, but couldn’t afford!
We headed off for a beer for Grant and some calamari in a gorgeous, vine covered little café just off the Arasta Bazaar where wed been shopping for carpets. (AND for a lamp that was as nice as the one Grant didn’t buy!!) We talked it over and decided that we didn’t want to spend our entire holiday shopping for a carpet. We’d found one we liked, and - more importantly - we liked and trusted the guy selling it. Mustafa had seen us walk in and out of his shop twice and didn’t once pressure us. We decided on the maximum price we’d pay and that Grant would be the one to do the bargaining as he’s already proved he would walk away without buying something if the price wasn’t right!
The owner of the café gave Jessica a little scarf covered with jingly coins and she ran away and cried. She is getting so spoiled with all the attention and so tired of being grabbed and pinched by strangers that she won’t even take a simple gift graciously. We had some words with her about how you have to at least say a polite no, thank you if you don’t like a present someone gives you. Of course, within five minutes it was her favorite thing in the world and she wouldn’t be parted from it. The thing was filthy and disgusting from having hung on the wall for ages and I ”accidentally” left it behind in the hotel and Grant bought her one later as a replacement.
Off we went back to Troy Rug Shop, Jessica jingling all the way, to try and buy the carpet we’d fallen for. We spent an hour or so chatting with Mustafa and drinking tea. Jessica showed us twenty or thirty small carpets. Grant turned out to be bargainer extraordinaire and we managed to stick to our budget and even have a bit left over for shipping. Stupidly, I decided that we should carry the carpet with us and ship it later on if we bought some of the lovely local ceramics or – hopefully - a lantern. Turned out that the ceramics are typically covered in lead glaze and you can’t eat from them, and we never did find a lantern. I should have just had Mustafa ship it, instead of paying a ridiculous amount to ship it from Cappadocia and have to carry it on and off several busses!
En route back to our hotel, the guy from the carpet shop next door got all annoyed with us for never having looked at carpets in his shop. Jessica would always stop and look at two turtles he had out front, but we’d never gone in. Now here we are with the very obvious black carpet bag, and we haven’t given him a shot! Feeling guilty we muttered sorry and dashed into the hotel. We spent the remainder of the evening looking at ceramics but decided not to buy them because of the lead issue, (No room for something we can’t use) and searching, in vain, for a lantern.
We were genuinely sad to leave Istanbul the following morning. The front desk had organized our bus tickets for us and called a taxi. The taxi ride was a bit hairy with all the crazy driving in Istanbul. I also realized that we’d only really experienced an extremely small slice of Istanbul. I vowed to come back and do it again properly sometime.