Mixed feelings, big, overwhelming, not to be missed, the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sofia, Turkish Delight, Aya Sofia
28.10.2012 - 01.11.2012 21 °C
We arrived in Istanbul at 11 pm by bus from Plovdiv Bulgaria. Metro Line, originates in Sofia. The bus left Plovdiv at 11 am. Nice Turkish bus with tvs and an attendant who passes out water, cakes, coffee and tea as well as hand sanitizer. The bus is clean and seems quite full.
At 2 pm we went through the Bulgaria section of the border. At 8 pm we finally cleared the Turkish side. We were told we could get off the bus for fifteen minutes to use the washroom. Then we hung around the bus for five hours and forty five minutes.
Not an auspicious entry into Turkey.
This was the first hole in the floor washroom I encountered. After using it and paying for the privilege, I noticed a bathroom marked English, well too late. I find the squat washroom difficult to use, consequently for the rest of the day I barely moistened my tongue with water. No, there isn't a grab bar. However, if all the Turks use them and prefer them there must be some merit and squatting solidly into old age without support must keep them limber and flexible with strong leg muscles and balance.
We took a cab from the Istanbul bus station to our hostel, Cordial House hostel in Sultanahmet. We experienced some pretty fancy? Crazy? driving. No matter what the official count, several people have told us there are twenty million, maybe more, people in Istanbul. They say you drive five cars, your own, the one in front, the one behind and the two beside you. If you are a pedestrian watch out, you wait for the car. Drivers are aggressive. Pedestrians do not have any right of way.
Quick to hit the horn, never mind signalling, yes we just avoided that head on collision, whew thank god we made it.
We had a twin room, actually there were five beds but we had the whole room, you could barely move for all the beds, did not have a private bath, but ok for one night. Hostels are not that cheap in Istanbul, but this one is about twenty two dollars each. So we thus spent the night of October twenty seventh. On 28 and 29 we got a private twin with ensuite, way nicer, better view, better sheets, way nicer air pillows for fifty canadian, some kind of deal I made with the clerk, forty euro for ensuite. Also this room had a tiny tv and we got CNN so lots about US election and Hurricane Sandy.
This is Istanbul's old town. We are fortunate to be a short, maybe two block walk from the square.
Istanbul, Constantinople, Byznatium, one of the world's oldest cities - has a long and storied history. I am thrilled to be here!! It is hustle and bustle, with horns honking, people calling to you to come into their restaurants, tea-boys rushing about, tourists, people of all ages and manner of dress.
Cordial House is a short walk to the Blue Mosque. So on Sunday 28 Oct after we got our room straightened out and moved our stuff over to the private twin and head out for breakfast and coffee. Waiters stand on the street and call you in, turns out this first place is really expensive so we each have turkish coffee, a thimblespoon of strong black coffee, for six tl each, that is more than three dollars, eegads I usually like milk in my coffee, but when in Rome, the dainty cup is at least one third sludge but....... you get your caffeine fix and I love strong coffee. We are walking on the square approaching the blue mosque, when we are greeted by a pleasant, English speaking "skout". This isn't the right word, he is a look out, finds tourists and brings them back to the family carpet, kilim, ceramic, leather shop. Well I am really not interested and we are going to have breakfast, but no wait, he knows the perfect place for breakfast, not too expensive, and what do you know on the way to the family shop and he situates us at a pleasant outdoor cafe, he will be back. So the breakfast plate has a hard boiled egg, olive paste, nutella, some other sweet paste, tomatoes, cucumbers, cheese, honeycomb, olives and bread, likely some other stuff, I took a picture. Very good, eaten on a patio, a cat curls up on the chair next to me.
Well our skout came back, yes we need ten more minutes, we did almost get away but he was there, in we go and the carpets are deftly flipped out, displayed, explained, now the elimination process, kind of fun, interactive, say yes in turkish or no. Now you have narrowed them down, walk around, see how the colour changes, which one do you choose?
We turned down the offer of tea so as not to tip the obligation factor scales, we did not buy a carpet even though being the first customer, it was a special religious holiday, for the luck, we were offered a scandolously low price, never to be repeated, whew we are out on the street, no carpet, heading for the Blue Mosque.
Which has six minurets and is free to the public, you have to put your shoes in a plastic bag which they provide, and wear a scarf, also available there.
There is quite a bit of turquoise in the stained glass but in the tiles are lavender blue. Very beautiful inside and out.
It is a lovely day we have tea on a patio and sit on the grass in Gulhane Park.
There are women wearing a wide variety of clothes, bare headed women in sleeveless, women with head scarves,
A real mix. It is funny to see a woman covered from head to toe and her male companion dressed in whatever casual ensemble, just as he pleases, modern day and ancient tradition, this is not my concern, this is a secular country. I wonder what they wear under the scarves to give them that shape though. A lot of women wear what looks like a conservative pastel or grey coat, they wear a scarf and almost like jeggings and nice shoes with it. I think it must be warm, it is about 23 degrees C today. There are a lot of good looking people, very nice hair and expressive eyes. Then there are the tourists, well without the backpacks I do not know if I could pick them out, the Aussie accent is a clue.
We have kabobs for supper.
Turkish Delight is everywhere. They call it Lokum. The oldest lokum shop in the world is located in Istanbul and dates back to the eighteenth century and is still owned by descendents of the man who invented what we today know as Turkish Delight. Made famous by the CS Lewis book, The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, it has become a special treat for those who grew up with this book. Like countless tourists before me I will take home a box of Turkish Delight, in all its luscious, pastel glory.
Monday. We tour Aya Sofia, 25 tl each admission, Ataturk was smart to turn it in to a museum, a real meaningful church, Christian first, then turned into a mosque, Christians and Muslims and the merely curious flock to it, 25 tl a pop, pretty good income.
Onward to the Archeology Museum, which is a bargain, ten tl, takes up three buildings, we spend at least two hours here, too many artifacts to take in, but we leave with a blurry impression.
On to Topkapi Palace which may be the richest palace or the oldest palace, I just forget now, but I was impressed with the bowls of egg sized emeralds in the treasury, the huge diamond, all the gold, jade, rubies, pieces of the prophet's beard, just mind boggling, dna.
There are some nice viewing points to take pictures at the castle. Oh admission here was 25 tl.
That was quite a bit for one day.
So we go to the Grand Bazaar for which Jeff has zero interest, it is like being at a huge market, or like all those booths at stampede, like a maize, but these booths are selling leather, furs, gold jewellery, carpets, junky souvenirs, candy, turkish delight, 4400 booths under a roof, I am scared I will lose Jeff, get lost and never find him, it is a relief to get back to the square and blue sky. The Grand Bazaar is one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world. The original shopping mall. Something like 300,000 people visit daily. It is a real hullabaloo with vendors calling out to you, tourists hustling by, tea boys running around with tea for the merchants and their friends who squat casually outside their booth.
Tea seems to be the common drink, served in little glasses. At restaurants, if they like you, they give you a free glass of tea at the end. We could never figure out why or why not tea was offered, but we learned to tip accordingly.
We now make a tactical error and move from our nice hostel, so well located, out to the apartment of a couch surfing host. We have couch surfed four times all very positive experiences.
We take a tram, transfer to a bus then transfer again. One hour, easy..
We arrive, the place is on the twelfth floor there is an elevator.
Our host serves us tea and cookies. Later his friend from the states stops by and later two other friends who don't speak English are visiiting. Eating sunflower seeds is an art form here, crunch crunch, very slick. Out comes the water pipe, they have apple tobacco, bought specially for us as they know Jeff smokes and in Turkey that is not a problem, the patios all have ashtrays.
So it is a late night, Jeff is practically comatose the last two hours, and announces at 1230 am he is going to bed, so that effectively ends the socializing as he is sleeping on the couch. I get my own room. i get next to no sleep but on 31 I wake jeff up at 930 and again right now on Nov 1 at 845, still he is tired and I am cranky, we have sights to see. The location is a drawback but the good parts included the food, served on the coffee table, taken up from the central dishes with bread, really good eggplant and tomato dish, tea made in a double pot served in special glasses on little saucers, a good lentil spread, lively conversation, some funny stories. The location was a drawback, but near shopping. Halvah, which we love, is so cheap here, we are eating way too much.
On 31 October we take a one hour city bus to near where the boats give tours of the Bosphorous, For fifteen tl each we relax on the deck and see the European side and the Asian side of this huge city located on two continents divided by the Bosphorus. Really scenic, pleasant, talked to a doctor from Saudi Arabia who trained in Edmonton for five years, a surgeon, he may train another year in Vancouver, and a Japanese family from Tokyo who live in Kuwait, he works for energy and has been to Calgary. So, do you speak English?
Regarding couchsurfing in Turkey - we had numerous offers from men, none from women or married couples. I would recommend that females travelling and surfing alone have a hard look at the profile and references before making a commitment. Maybe Turkish women are out of bounds and western women considered loose. At 63 who am I to judge? But the young men at our couch surfing abode did talk about western women hitch-hiking in Turkey and they thought it was foolish. Yes, they will get rides.
Just exercise a little caution here please. Turkish women are largely reserved in public. Therefore, behaviour considered normal to us may be misconstrued. Some of the guidebooks do warn you not to be too friendly. This was written in one couch surfing reference by a guest regarding her male host, "I should have known better than to allow him to give me a massage, but then, so should have he." Otherwise he had lots of good references, but this type of comment should be a red flag.
Now 1 Nov we are on a metro line bus heading east, it is 26 degrees C today, the bus is air conditioned, 24 canadian each for this trip. Not bad. We are going to Safronbolu, a Unesco World Heritage site due to the large number of preserved Ottoman era wooden homes, near the Black Sea. We hope to take a day trip to Amasra on the coast.
The bus leaves at 1300, the trip is 6 and a half hours. The first 1.5 hours we are making our way through Istanbul. Good-bye ancient Byzantium, Constantinople, Istanbul, the beating heart of Turkey.
Safranbolu, World Heritage Sight
We arrived after dark in Safranbolu. The days are really getting short which is the down side to travelling this time of year. It is November 1 and it was 28 degrees C today.
We were going to board a mini bus to Centrum but seemed the bus driver and a cab driver encouraged us to take a cab to our hostel, which we did.
This cost twelve tl which is so funny when you compare the price of the cab to the price of the entire bus trip there.
We arrived at the hostel, not right in front but down a little hill like ten metres, and were shown to our room by the owner, who spoke next to no English. We sign languaged that we were hungry so he showed us the restaurant next door, which was very relaxed, about a four year old boy was watching cartoons, there were plastic water bottles on the floor and people were just standing around talking and smoking.
We ordered, the lady was nice, spoke some English and while she was busy in the kitchen behind the cash register area, not that there is a cash register, she whipped up some fresh flat bread using one of those thin wood rolling pins. I drank original sprite and Jeff had mineral water while we waited, then the food came, iskender kabab and meatballs, fresh bread. It was ok but a lot of yogurt and tomato sauce is involved in the iskender kabab and Jeff isn't that fond of dairy.
We ate, the child went nuts when a certain cartoon came on, really excited, it was cute. They also bring a big basket of white bread and it is a challenge to cover it up to protect it from the flies.
Back to our room, it is tiresome taking the bus.
The bathroom floor seemed kind of wet and the bathroom smelled musty but we had wifi and tv with two or three English channels.
And so we settled in.
At two am I am awake and mad. Jeff is snoring and our room is right off the common area and somebody out there is watching tv. I get the playbook and go on the internet for awhile, cannot sleep, and the battery warns me nine percent but I am busy reading about something, maybe Safranbolu, and what do you know the computer turns itself off. So I plug it in but it doesn't seem to light up like normal. Anyway, hoping for the best, it is now quiet, I go to sleep for a few hours until five am or ten after when the call to prayer is beamed straight into our room, so loud. The loudspeaker is pointing right at our room and it is loud. So now I check out the playbook and it is at zero. There is a fly bugging me but I can't seem to nail it. I fiddled around with the charger, now I am getting worried this has been our lifeline, what shall we do. Maybe Jeff can fix it. So it was a long wait til I woke him up at 8 am and he fiddled with it trying to make it go. Finally it seemed to take a bit of charge but then it just turned itself off. Breakfast came with this hotel so finally shortly after nine am we were advised the tea was ready so we said we would like nescafe, no they didn't have any so we had our tea and by nine thirty in a little area off the sitting area, not too sanitary looking we each got a plate with cucumber, tomatoe, a boiled egg and some olives there were over fifty flies hovering around but I ate, oh and there was cheese also. The young guy went out and came back with some fresh bread which he sliced up and presented. I put a napkin over the bread to protect it from the flies. For thrity four dollars a night, this is what you get in Saffranbolu. Pasa Mustafa Kunagi - don't stay there. I was afraid to eat anything as they do not have proper facilities and it is not very clean. However, I did eat the bread and drink the tea and never got sick.
We went off it was a gorgeous day, so warm and sunny, walked around and had nescafe at an outdoor cafe and I did some shopping. First we asked if there was a post office near by. Then we went to the post office. Well we needed to go to the international post office in the centre but he gave us a nice box. Back to the hotel, picked up a tablecloth I had bought in Romania, a few other things, because now I am going to mail a parcel so I don't have to cart this stuff around. So we also pick up the playbook and charger and head back out and I buy some souvenirs, there are souvenir shops everywhere, saffron in a little box, saffron soap, a little tablecloth, some candy, and then we take the mini bus down town which costs us about 1.25 tl and walk around looking for the post office, get directions, look some more, finally find a post office and it is closed til 1330 so we stop for a drink and lunch. I am drinking this yogurt drink, quite like it and Jeff is drinking mineral water. He had a good wrap, I wasn't hungry. Back to the post office and there is a huge line up so we go to a phone store and they sell blackberry and the guy hooks us up with a new adapter for ten tl, we plug it in, seems to be taking a charge whew big relief.
Go back and stand in line at the post office and then it turns out this isn't the right post office and eventually we do find the main post office and then it costs almost 60 tl to send this stuff home but I do it as this has been such a rigamorole, and I don't want to cart it around. This is surface.
Then Jeff needs a swimming suit and we shop around, I should mention that before we left Istanbul he got a very nice long sleeve shirt although we were looking for a tea shirt. Anyway we found some nice shorts that will double as a swimming suit, a tshirt and the guy threw in a pair of socks. Turns out the tshirt is kind of small but it was only 25 tl for the whole works so we are ok.
Take the bus back to the hotel, go out for a walk and have supper really good chicken kababs in a nice atmosphere, salad big enough for two, and this all came to 35 tl.
Safranbolu is a good place to shop for souvenirs: lots of nice wood items, trinkets, scarves, tablecloths, spices, saffron and things made with saffron like soap, Turkish Delight (lokum), evil eye bracelets and fridge magnets, there are numerous souvenir shops. Apparently saffron can dye a liquid 100,000 times its own weight.
Two things you see a lot of in Turkey are pictures and statues of Ataturk and evil eyes.
Ataturk, Mustafa Kemal, was an army officer who was born in what is now Thessaloniki, Greece, but was at the time of his birth a part of the Ottoman Empire. Ataturk became his last name because he was the first President of Turkey. Private homes, hotels, hostels, restaurants, stores, shops, often have a picture of Ataturk hanging somewhere in a prominent place. Ataturk, 'father of Turkey,' still revered today although he died in 1938.
The evil eye ornament, key chain, fridge magnet or bracelet is a popular souvenir for tourists. I guess it deflects a person with an evil eye from putting a curse on you. Therefore, an evil eye key chain isn't a bad idea as it will either be in my car or in my purse so I will effectively be protected whenever I leave the house. It is like a blue good luck charm.
Back to the hotel, the playbook is plugged in, not seeming to charge much it is now at one percent. I look up some info and it says never let the battery go to zero all kinds of people have had all kinds of problems. Anyway I read up on it and spent an hour or more fooling around with it and I think by next day we maybe had thirteen percent. This is now Friday night and the noise is bouncing up from the street, there are people in the common area talking and drinking tea til two thirty in the morning, I wear earplugs and did get some sleep. Jeff had a shower the day before, the bathroom is the shower, like there is no stall and the water does not completely drain away. It was disgusting really but there were rubber shoes that we set by the bathroom door and waded in.
The Black Sea
Safranbolu is in a mountainous area east of Istanbul fairly close to the Black Sea. It has a lot of old Turkish heritage houses and that is why it is a UNESCO world heritage site. Very pleasant little city, quiet really, easy to walk around. Anyway Saturday morning there was a new guest at the breakfast table, Kim from Korea, who spoke a bit of English so we swapped travel stories. Jeff asked the young guy who made our breakfast about getting to Amasra by the Black Sea and we had apparently two options. Take the public bus for 25tl each and that would take two hours and a transfer or his friend who spoke English was a travel guide and would take us for 120 tl all in and show us around. We opted for the latter and that was a hoot. The car was so old and did not have seat belts in the back seat as this is where we both sat, the driver, guide and the young guy, Salim, from the hotel sat in the front. Neither one of them spoke much English. But they could say some things like Let's go, picture, how old are you, they were students, stuff like that. I got a kick out of Salem, nineteen or twenty years old, and so joyous like it seemed like he was having such a good time, very enthusiastic, the music was blaring, nobody wore seatbelts and they smoked and texted the whole way. The Turks have very expressive faces. "You nice people," Salim remarks. "How old are you?"
It crossed my mind once or twice that I did not want to be spattered on this road in Turkey, that I wanted to live to tell the story, fingers crossed, we would make it safe and sound back to our little hovel in Safranbolu. We careened along the mountain road, past farms and greenhouses, sheep in the fields, scenic little villages, forests, and then we saw the sweeping view, the Black Sea and the picture perfect Amasra nestled on its shore, 6500 people a real resort town in the summer. We parked the car and walked around and got to lots of wonderful picture taking opportunities, and then stopped for lunch, conveniently they knew the guy that worked there. Keep in mind this isn't our first meal in Turkey it was a pida place and when we were advised it would be twenty tl each my job dropped. This was a blatant rip off. But we paid.
Anyway we would never have been able to get there on the bus and find all the good vantage points on our own in five hours. We careened back to Safranbolu, known for its saffron, and went out for a nice supper that cost for two, in a nice environment, better and nicer food with our main beverages as well as complimentary tea, twenty tl for the works. Not twenty each.
Then our hotel which was pretty much a dump, worse place we have stayed and we stayed three nights, don't ask, it just gets tiresome moving, had advertised free shuttle service to the bus, we tried to convey this to the owner, not understanding, he charged us ten tl. Petrol costs money. so this kind of sours me off, no matter that they say they like us so much, we are nice people. Salim carries my pack to the car he actually has tears in his eyes, goodbye. Gule gule.