Istanbul Travel Journal
> How it all began...
Spring 2004: together with the sun the impulse to travel came back as well and it was Peter's spontaneous idea to try something eastern. A place where life is completely different from our own daily environments.
> The Plan
It took us just a few seconds to look up the other Peter's website and our feeling was right, they were still offering citytrips to the magical city at the border of east and west, the city at the river Bosphorus: Istanbul. After some more research on the internet to spot the most important tourist attractions the decision was easily made. Ask the boss for a few more days off, choose a hotel, get ourselves the Eyewitness Travelguide of Istanbul, and that's it: ready to go. We never made a trip further away from home untill now, we would fly to Istanbul with Onur Air. The travel schedule was okay (at least that was what we were thinking in advance) and after a 4 hour flight we would arrive in the early evening. Ah, the early evening...meaning... in the middle of the evening rush-hour.
> Journey to Istanbul
We arrive at Schipholairport on a time that still gives us the opportunity to ask for seats at the window. Sure, that's no problem at all, yes we shall have seats in row 23, at the window...OOPs...she completely forgot that row 23 is next to the emergency-door! Which means: no window, but steal. First it looks like any other seat at the window will be taken. But then I spot 2 seats a few rows in front of us. It takes us some minutes to get the attention of one of the crew-members, but he doesn't seem to be impressed at all: no, we can't change seats anymore, only after take-off, when we are high in the sky. But we try it again and he seems to hessitate, and the third time...yes, okay, but only for this time. So that's why we still have the chance to see our country getting smaller and smaller and the plane is now heading to the south east.
The rest of the flight is okay and we're landing exactly on time at Ataturk Airport. Most people don't read the signs above the long queue in front of the visa-point, but because we do read them we only have to wait in 1 queue instead of 2 to get the correct visa and only 15 minutes later we pass customs. The temperature outside is perfect and 30 Minutes later we hop onto a bus together with some other travellers. The karpets on the floor and curtains at the windows are chosen by someone with a very special taste, but at least those decorations look very cosy. The evening rush-hour is extremely hectic and there is a lot of hooting and blinking with the lights on our trip to Hotel Ferhat. We almost crash a few times and on some places we reach almost 100 km an hour, but somehow we arrive safely in the hotel.
> Istanbul day 1
From the hotel it's only a 2 minute walk to the Blue Mosque, also called Sultan Ahmet Mosque, so we drop our luggage and leave immediately to check out this beautiful illuminated mosque.In the meantime it's getting completely dark and from our bench in the middle of Sultan Ahmet square we have a great view on the blue mosque on one side and the Haghia Sophia on the other side. After a few minutes we hear the minarets for the first time. They call the inhabitants of Istanbul to come for their prayers. The sound comes from every corner of the square and we are wondering what it will be like during the first prayers early in the next morning, as our hotel is so close to the square. We are curious about what's happening inside the mosque, so we decide to get a little closer to watch. When we are near the entrance a Malaysian man kindly invites us to go inside. I am happy that I brought the scarf Peter's grandma made for me, so I can cover my hair with it. We just have to take of our shoes and leave them at the entrance to go inside. The inside of the mosque, that thanks its name to the blue tiles used for decoration, is very beautiful, especially during night, with all the illumination. In the front there are a few men praying, but in the back we can move freely and admire this beautiful building. Don't forget to leave a gift at the entrance when you leave again, this is much appreciated, just like at the other mosques in the city. Be aware of the numbers on the papermoney, as some look like each other very much (especially 500.000 and 5.000.000 are almost the same) and before you know you give away your entire budget for diner.
> Istanbul day 2
And indeed, it is 4.30 am when we wake up. The minarets come to life again. We get up early and decide to ignore the Haghia Sophia at first, because anything else could be a disappointment after a visit at the inside of this huge building. That's why we first go to the Topkapi palace. After 30 minutes in a long queue we are happy to be the next ones to pay 7 times the price that the Turkisch visitors have to pay. Anyway, we are glad that we don't have to wait in the queue any longer and we can now enter the palace. The buildings of the palace itself are not really that interesting, it's a huge block of buildings, but not very beautiful. What we do like a lot are the wonderful colored tiles on every wall and the colorful fountain of Ahmet III at the library. From the Sultan's teahouse we have a great view over the Bosphorus and Golden Horn. So that will be our next goal.
At noon we arrive at the Golden Horn. There are a lot of people around and it's quite a hectic place. Many fishermen, fishsalesmen, beggars, men, women and laughing and playing children and many hooting taxis to complete the chaos. We learn very quickly to ignore the yelling men that try to sell a boat tour on the Bosphorus to every tourist. This is the best reaction on all the other salesmen in this place as well. Of course you can also try to be friendly and polite and explain to them that this day is not a good day for you to make a tour on a boat, but there won't be a single one of them that doesn't try harder to change your "no" into a "yes". Besides: everybody else takes part in this real life ignore game, so that makes it even easier for you. Don't forget to stop this game immediately when you're back home, as people here might be offended when you act like this.
Nearby all this activity, at the other side of the Galatabridge, we have lunch. And on our way back we try to avoid the hundreds of fishermen on the bridge and cross the bridge on the lower part, walking on the footpath next to all the (fish)restaurants. We have a quick look inside the New Mosque on the other side and especially love the inner court and waterplace. At this mosque we see more women and children than we saw at the other ones.
As we leave this mosque we see one of the entrances of the Spice Bazaar right around the corner. It's probably a very bad tactic, but at the very first shop we buy these cute potteries, of course after negotiating with the owner about the lowest price. The colorful shops with all the spices are really nice to photograph and we shoot a lot of pictures here. After this visit we think it's time to relax a bit and sit down. At the outside of the Bazaar, opposite some more shops and the Golden Horn we find a place where many locals are sitting. A fine place for us as well. We find out that it's almost impossible to get bored on this place. There are people enough and we're having a great time watching customers looking for bargains, screeming salesmen and all the goods to be solt. There are colorful clothes and materials, spices, chickens, cheese, shoes and shampoo. So if you have to find a nice pair of cheap shoes or a nice souvenir for back home, I'm sure you can find it here. We have to pay the unreasonable price of 30 whole Eurocents for a giant pack of nuts, a good snack for us sitting there.
The most important mosque in Istanbul is the Suleyman Mosque. From the Bazaar area it's only a short walk to this wonderful mosque. On the cemetery of the Mosque you can also find the tombe of Sultan Suleyman, who has been burried here with his wife and daughter. We notice that every grave has two tombstones, one of them is bigger and engraved with signs. On that side lies the head of the burried person. Under the smaller stone without signs, lie the feet. We've read somewhere, that the head always indicates the direction of Mecca, but on the cemetery the graves are not all pointing in the same direction. We still don't know the real meaning of it...
We found this to be enough activity for one day and we go to one of the many restaurants recommended by our Eyewitness Travelguide. The view on the illuminated Haghia Sophia is just as beautiful as promissed in the book, but the food itself is a bit of a disappointment.
> Istanbul day 3
The next day, right after breakfast, we go to the Haghia Sophia. Only when you're next to one of the giant supporting beams at one of the sides of this enourmous former byzantine church you realize how big this building actually is. And when we first see the huge space of the interior we are surprised again. At this moment when we are visiting Istanbul there are some scaffolds in the middle of the large inside of this mosque. That's a bit of a pity, but it still is one of our favourite buildings in the world. Only when you're in the upper part of the Haghia Sophia you can see the truely diameter of the giant wooden plates painted with kaligraphic signs. When we are trying to make some nice shots from the upper part of the mosque I am very lucky with my steady hands. First we tried to use our small tripod, but immediately 2 of the guards warn us that there are no tripods allowed at all. But I manage to take some steady photos after all.
By noon we leave the Haghia Sophia and walk in the direction of the Golden Horn again. Of course this place is just as hectic as yesterday. Today we cross the Galatabridge to walk upto the steep streets on the other side and look for the Galatatower to climb. We are happy to see the elevator in the tower, which means we don't have to climb again. The view from the roof is worth every step on the steep hill. Almost 360 degrees of water and mosques all around you. The way back down the hill is much easier and we get into the rush of people to get ourselves two tickets for the ferry in the direction of the Dolmabahace Palace. We have to switch boats at the Asian side of Istanbul and after another 15 minute walk we arrive at the palace. The queue in front of the entrance is enormous. And so is the price of the entrancetickets. So it's easy for us to decide to go back to the nice little square close to the boat, buy ourselves some more nuts and relax in the shade for a few moments. Plenty of shoeshiners on this square as well. Sadly some of them aren't very honest. After offering us a free shoeshine in exchange of some nuts, the men ask us 20 euros per person. We don't agree with a price like that and we give them one euro each after a lot of "negotiating" (read: saying no for many times.). Next there are a few men very interested in trying to "help" us to buy tickets for the boat back to the other side. They even want to hold our wallet for us. So, quick back to the other side. This time we find a better place for diner.
> Istanbul day 4
We've almost visited all the sigts we really wanted to see, so it's time for a relaxing day for us. After a walk in the direction of the beach we are stunned by the giant ship that we see there laying on the beach: the San Lorenzo. It's a weird sight to see such a huge ship laying there. And it looks like it didn't get there only yesterday. When we come closer for an inspection we see many rusty spots and some inhabitants of Istanbul use it as as an Aqua-funfair. For us it means: more nice pictures.
After our walk back to the Hyppodrome next to the blue mosque we meet this friendly man that tries to explain all of the history of this place. Then he invites us for a cup of tea at his "friend"s place, but this friend seems to be not at home and we follow our way to the Basilica Cistern. This is a giant former waterstorage for the city. The light and music inside this waterstorage guarantee a very typical atmosphere. Very special are the two Medusa's heads in the back of the cellar. Many stories are told about their origin and why one of them is upside down and the other is rotated 90 degrees.
We spend the rest of the day in the Bazaar area, the place we like best in this city. And of course this is the best spot to buy some prezzies for the people at home and ourselves. You understand that I can't resist that nice pair of shoes, only costing 5 euros. After a last diner it's time to sleep and the next morning we have to fly back to Amsterdam. Too bad, here ends another mini holiday.
> More Info
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