Before I start, let me first explain what I think one should see/do when visiting a city:
- gastronomy (food, drinks, delicacies, sweets, local fast food)
- architecture (non-monuments)
- history (monuments)
- cultural events (music, theatre, festivals etc)
- beautiful scenery
- religious sites
- but most importantly PEOPLE
Fr10.08: Arrival at Malpensa. At the check-in the guy tells us the plane is overbooked, so we might have to be transfered to later flight (you get money for that, though). We wait patiently. After a while, the Alitalia guy asks us where we are from, because he has never seen such calm overbooked customers 🙂 In the end, we get on the flight we initially booked, but on separate seats. We sit together anyway, the guy whose seat I’ve taken is a colleague (small world, eh?). 2½ hours later we land at Atatürk International Airport (very nice, comparable to major European airports), pick up our bags and take a taxi to the hotel. The driver thinks he is Michael Schumacher, at a left turn with wet asphalt where the indicated speed limit was 30km/h the speedometer read 110! Later I realized that all taxi drivers drive like this in Istanbul. We arrive at the hotel, which is substandard but clean and pretty cheap for its location. Quick shower and go out immediately (2am). Most bars/cafes are closed, we find one and sit down. Beer and chess lesson to Laila. Only one more table busy, with a strange group: 3 Russian-looking girls (in the end they were from Uzbekistan if I am not mistaken), 3 Turkish guys and a Korean couple. We talk mostly with one of the Uzbek girls, who is probably crazy! The surreal discussion follows: she has two university degrees (political sciences & police academy) but works in a hotel, speaks 8 languages (her English was pretty good), then she shows us a picture of her future husband. He is Spanish, 27 (she is 35), they met 3 months ago on the internet and will get married in 3 months. She does not know if he is a student or if he works, but is in love with him, and will have the time to get to know him after the marriage. Right now her main concern is that she is 35 and in 2-3 years she will not be able to have children any more, so she has to have a baby this year!
Sa11.08: This was the day for relaxation, gastronomical testing and planning the next days: eat some kebab, walk over the Galata Bridge (in front of every shop they try to get you to sit down), have some fresh-squeezed OJ for 1YTL! Then some syrupy sweets (συροπιαστά) w/ ice cream, enter an attractive shop selling delicacies. At 5PM the muezzins sing the adhan (call to prayer) for 5 minutes (each with slightly different singing), also at other times of the day. Return to the hotel exhausted and sleep for 4 hours! (this will happen again in the following days), then wake up and go out for food and drinks. Things we realized about Istanbul: the city is rather dirty, there are absolutely no trash cans (later we find out why), the traffic is lighter than you would expect for a 15 million people city, the people are quite nice. In the beginning I was a bit reluctant to say I’m Greek, so I would answer (they always ask you) that we are both Italians. Slowly I tried saying «she is Italian, I’m Greek» in which case we saw that Turkish people prefer Greeks to Italians! Also, the population is split between women wearing the veil and others who don’t. And there are lots of Turkish flags everyhere!
Su12.08: Breakfast, then go to the Topkapi Palace. We see the apartments of the harem (very beautiful walls and ceilings with hand-made tiles), the chamber of the council (for the vezirs), the audience chamber (for foreign representatives), some carriages, guns, carpets and jewelry (including the famous Topkapi dagger from the homonym film and the huge 86 ct. Kaşıkçı diamond). At the end, exhausted from all the walking, we eat (delicious) meatball subs and boiled corn in a (very dirty) park. On the way back to the hotel we enter a shop with very nice lamps, and on the speakers they are playing Anna Vissi! We sit down at the cafe/restaurant next to our hotel (with awesome architecture that seemed very Italian to Laila), try Turkish tea (ok), Turkish apple tea (really good, tastes a lot like hot apple juice), narghile with apple-banana-kiwi flavour for 10YTL. This was the first time I tried the narghile (and I don’t smoke); you should not let the smoke enter your lungs, and it leaves a nice taste in your mouth. We also learn some basic Turkish: Teşekkür ederim = thank you (the rest I have already forgotten). What follows is the 4 hour evening sleep that will become the symbol of our trip to Istanbul. Wake up at 11PM, shower, take a cab to Taksim Square and walk along the very western İstiklal Avenue. In the end we decide for an upstairs bar because of the live music. The music is Turkish έντεχνο (something similar to ballads), the patrons are only Turkish, they sing along to all the songs. I feel like home. At the first table in front of the band a girl sitting alone, she is obviously the girlfriend of the singer. At a break I go talk to her, ask her to suggest some CDs of similar music for us to buy. We exchange email addresses, they give us two CDs for free! In return we offer her a bouquet of flowers. in the second part the singer dedicates to us Creep from Radiohead (the only English song of the night).
Mo13.08: In the morning some shopping, then off to the Blue Mosque (Sultanahmet Camii). Things I noticed there: even the Turkish women take off the compulsory veil as soon as they come in the mosque; it is very simple, much more than Christian churches, and less impressive. After lunch, a shower and some sleep we go down to Galata bridge and take one of the boats that do a 1½ hour tour of the Bosporus. The timing was also right, because we saw the sunset under the Bosphorus Bridge. Here you can see a nice (professional) video about lighting effects in Istanbul and particularly the light show that provides the Bosphorus bridge by night (very American). One other tourist couple on the Bosphorus boat had the following nice experience: the girl was wearing a skirt that ended above the knee and the guy was absentmindedly stroking her knee; then one old Turkish man with a cap and a beard started shouting at them in Turkish, obviously annoyed by their «indecent» behaviour. Even after the guy removed his hand, the man kept shouting, so their only choice was to look the other way to calm him down. Even the other Turkish passengers found this rather entertaining.
Tu14.08: Walking around in the city the whole morning, buy some custom-printed T-shirts, then off to the Hagia Sophia. From the outside very impressive. In the first hall a nice exhibition about the history of the monument. Inside it is badly preserved, as a Greek I would have liked if they did the preservation with more respect. A lot of the mosaics have been covered with plaster and are being revealed now. Also, in buildings like this I get a feeling that somewhere there is a secret door, they are so huge and mystical. Afterwards late lunch, some shopping, then take the tram to a Turkish dances show (very professional and not so touristic as the usual whirling dervishes shows).
We15.08: The first half of the day is the visit to the Grand Bazaar. The plan was to see a carpet auction (according to our LonelyPlanet guide), but we were informed this has stopped some 15 years ago (this was not the only time the guide was wrong/outdated). There were much less people than we expected, especially considering the fact that it is 15th of August (Ferragosto in Italian), although admittedly in Turkey it is not a holiday. Also, the shop owners were less persistent than expected/described. In the end we come across a bunch of men shouting into some weird-looking cellphones, we ask and find out it is like a gold prices auction (so we did get an auction after all!). The Grand Bazaar is (unofficially I think) divided into areas: the area with all the jewelry shops, the area with all the clothes shops, with all the leather shops etc.We do some shopping (a T-shirt for me, a necklace, some tea glasses, buttons and a cloth for Laila). By negotiating prices (haggling) you can usually get a 30% discount. At the end we have a break for some tea (and to relax our feet) and continue to the Basilica Cistern (Yerebatan Sarayı), which is a pretty awesome underground water reservoir supported by countless columns (ok, they are 336). Some immense fish are swimming in the water (which is not deep, maybe 30cm). At the far corner two of the columns are based on two Medusa heads, one turned sideways and the other upside down. This should apparently have a meaning, but we agreed that they probably needed some building materials and used those available. Anyway, the lighting is impressive, and Laila suggested it would be see worthy to have some sort of performance (dance?) inside. At night we go for Tango. One was in Beyoğlu. That is when I discovered that Turks give directions like the Athenians: we were looking for a street, first they told us to go in one direction, then the other, then back again, in the end (thanx to a cop) we discovered the street we wanted was the first parallel to the one we were at! Grrrrrrrr. In the end we found the little Milonga on a second floor, 3 couples dancing. We leave to go to another one, approx. 15 minutes away, directions equally confusing, but by then I knew how to solve the problem. The second one is a terrace on top of a restaurant, with a very nice view, and much more people. The Turks dance Tango differently than Europeans: greater distance between the bodies, more extravagant movements (from both dancers).
Th16.08: After breakfast, we take the tram to Kabataş, then the public transport boat to the Prince’s Islands. The fare was only 2YTL for a ride of 2 hours. On the boat they sell something similar to bretzels, Turkish tea etc. It also makes a stop in Kadıköy (Anatolian side) to pick up more passengers. After a while I strike up a conversation with an NTV crew (reporter & cameraman, only the reporter spoke English). They were going to Büyükada to interview a female writer (İpek Çalışlar) who is famous for having written a controversial biography of Atatürk’s wife. The new Turkish president (Abdullah Gül) will be the first Turkish president whose wife wears a veil, and she was going to tell them her opinion on this. They also gave us some advice about which of the four islands were the most see worthy. We also talked with an Italian couple with a strange accent (they were from Sardinia). In the end we got out in the 3rd island (Heybeliada) and rented 2 bicycles for two hours. We rode them up to the top of the hill, to the Αγία Τριάδα (Holy Trinity) Greek orthodox monastery, which used to be the Theological School of Halki. My impression was the worst possible. We arrived at 13:15. On the door was said (in Greek and Turkish) that visitors hours were 13:00 to 14:30, after appointment. Since we did not know this (our guide did not say this and I am not sure how you can know before arriving at the door, unless you arrive with a group and a tour guide), I shouted for someone to come. I rang the bell. No answer. Then I realized the gate was not locked, so we got in and locked our bikes in a corner close to the entrance. That’s when the «guard» arrived (Greek guy, fat, no uniform) and was quite angry because we entered on our own. I explained to him that we shouted, rang the bell, and it was inside the timetable anyway (I did not tell him he should have been at his post in order not to piss him off more) and after begging a little bit in Greek he let us get in. I don’t understand; in Greek monasteries you never need an appointment, and they are much more polite and hospitable. Then he told us since we don’t have an appointment, and because of our clothes (I was with shorts and thongs, Laila with a skirt) we can only see the garden. Why would you go all the way to a monastery just to see the garden. It was not particularly nice either. After some more Greek negotiation skills, I convinced him to let us enter the church. Small, undergoing some renovation works. I explained to Laila some architectural elements of a Greek church (I am also not an expert), we were about to leave when the priest arrived. He asked the guard what language we speak, he answered Greek, so he turned to me and asked me where we’ve come from. I said Thessaloniki, and kissed his hand, which is something I have never before done in my life. After this he proceeded to tell me that we should not enter a monastery dressed like this, since it is not a museum. There goes your Greek hospitality down the drain. I was so angry (did not show it) that we more or less ran through the rest of the monastery and left. No one said «Welcome» to us, asked us how we are, offer us something. After this we ride down the hill, looking for a beach to swim (hot day + bicycle + hill is a very bad combination). The first one was members only, the second one 20YTL/person. Then one of the bikes had a flat tire so we had to go back and change it. After a lot of searching we found a (tiny) free beach, not very clean, we were the only tourists, but a nice view of Istanbul. We went back, returned the bikes (we had kept them for 4 hours, but they did not ask for extra money) and went to the molo with the intention to take a boat to Büyükada. However, through extreme stupidity we missed it and took another one to Kınalıada, which is famous for its fish restaurants. We walked around, then sat down and had some fish (very nice, I had missed this food) with raki. Walking around in the village some more (very nice houses), night swimming in the sea (for no reason), tea and then back to Istanbul and the hotel exhausted.
Fr17.08: Today the plan is to go to the Anatolian side. I wanted to cross the Bosphorus bridge. The LonelyPlanet guide says we can take minibus or dolmuş from Taksim square. Our hotel reception disagrees and says we should take a bus from Kabataş. There they tell us we have to take a bus from Beşiktaş which is a 15′ walk. On the way we walk past the Dolmabahçe Palace. We arrive there, the people tell us there is no bus to the other side, we should take a boat. We buy some ice cream and consider our options. I ask a bus driver, he says there is a bus, and we should buy tickets at the kiosk where I bought the ice cream. The man at the kiosk tells us we should take bus 110. He sells us two tickets. We wait. For 20 minutes. About a million buses pass the bus stop, but not 110. I ask again and they reassure me I should wait here for 110. In the end it arrives, we get in. The ticket collector tells us the tickets we bought at the kiosk cannot be used at this specific bus, and we should pay again. We protest that we asked for tickets for 110 and they sold us these. One girl who speaks English does some translating, ends up defending us. What impressed me the most is that all the (Turkish) passengers spoke up and all agreed that we should pay. Still, we don’t pay. For me the folkloric element of the ticket issue was more interesting than the engineering part of the bridge. We strike up a discussion with the girl who defended us (she is half-Armenian, knows already that there are many Armenians in Thessaloniki) who is doing a MSc in surveying engineering and lives in the upper class region of Kadıköy called Moda. On the way we discuss about Greeks & Turks etc (more similarities than differences). She leaves and we have lunch (at her suggestion) at the Colombo (kebab), then some tea at the cafes with a sea view. On the promenade they have a special track for running (soil, better for the knees) which even in Italy you don’t have! Walk back, see the Haydarpaşa, walk some more, enter a Carrefour (for fun), later find a Fiat dealership and go ask for prices etc! Dolmuş to Üsküdar and have some tea while watching the fishermen. Walk back to the Kız Kulesi, sit down and watch the sunset (aren’t I romantic?). Walk back in the direction of the Üsküdar Iskelesi (molo), eat some Kumpir (delicious, and enough for 2 people, if not both males), see the Yeni Valide Camii, enter another mosque and watch the prayer, then the boat back to Eminönü. Note: On behalf of EU women, Laila is very very satisfied with Turkish toilets!
Sa18.08: La principessa non si vuole alzare. Colazione inglese. Then the tram to the Walls of Constantinople, walk along them for a while, then take a taxi (it was a really hot day), the taxi driver pretends not to have enough change and wants me to tip him the rest, but I don’t buy it. We walk along the Golden Horn, the whole coast is a nice park, there are no tourists, we sit and have tea from a Kurdish guy (they slowly dare say that they are Kurdish, or maybe it’s because I tell them I’m Yunan). Then go to a Hammam (this one), where they have a special discount for Greek people! They wash you, massage you, then oil massage for 68YTL (60 for Greeks). The first guy asks me to tip him at the end, I ignore him (I had run out of money anyway). Dinner (rice-filled paprika and imam baildi). Sit at an «Irish Pub» for a frozen banana daiquiri (only). The bill arrives 21 YTL (~€13). I ask the waiter if he is crazy. In the end I have no choice but to pay. In another shop we see banana smoothie for 3YTL; for the daiquiri you just add a bit of white rum… Sleep for a few hours, we had a 3:30 shuttle bus to the airport. We sleep past the alarm clock. At 3:30 a call from the reception that the bus is there. We have not packed the bags. Throw everything inside. Go down with 12 minutes delay (after one more desperate phonecall from the reception), a Dutch woman is really angry with us. The driver drives even more crazy than usually. We get stopped by the police, he bribes them 10YTL. The Dutch woman tells everyone in the bus that all the money this man earned today is gone because he had to drive fast because of our delay. The driver says «no problem, only 10YTL, no problem». Some women really should get laid more!