Note: Reposted from RealTravel.com and branded "Editor's Pick".
I love every single facet of Istanbul - from the grandiose mosques to the gregarious people. I have to thank my former colleague, Erin, for recommending this place. I never knew how amazing this visit would be.
Stepping foot in my hostel, Paris Hostel and Hotel, was an immediate relief. I saw numerous tourists in the common area and based on the vibe alone, I knew I picked the right place. Soon after I checked into my room, I received a much needed call from my Will (referring to the character from "Will and Grace"), Rene D'Valery. It was so nice to hear from someone halfway around the world. Sometimes I slightly get homesick, so this call was the perfect cure! He told me that while he was walking in San Francisco, he all of a sudden wondered if I were okay. He had this weird feeling the day I was in my car accident in India. Talk about kindred spirits.
Since I caught a 4am flight from India, I had to catch a few ZZZzzzs before I ventured out. My first day, I went to the Blue Mosque, also known as Sultanahmet Camii. Visitors cannot enter the mosque during prayer service so I sat outside taking it all in. I also strolled past the Hippodrome featuring two prominent Obelisks - one was the Misin Obeliski. I really didn't have a plan in mind so I wandered aimlessly down to Istasyon ArkasiSk toward the Marmara Sea. I ended up in an area that reminded me of Golden Gate Park. In one section, I encountered MANY couples sitting in park benches. They were making out in broad daylight. YIKES! I quickly got out of there since it was unsightly. Wearing $2 flip flops from Walgreens is not exactly ideal when you're trying to make a quick getaway.
Next I visited the Hagia Sophia, Greek for "divine wisdom". This was once a Christian church during the Byzantine period then transitioned to a mosque during the Ottoman Empire. Once inside, my jaw dropped. No words can describe the grandeur and immensity of this place. I sat down on one of the steps for several minutes feeling extremely privileged to be there. I made my way to the upstairs gallery on the top floor of the mosque. This was a tough climb since the stones were glossy and shellacked. Again, my $2 flip flops handicapped me slightly.
Afterwards, I desperately needed a snack. I walked down Divan Yolu Cad and found exactly what I was searching for, a patisserie featuring all kinds of Baklava and desserts. There were several of us in front of the window admiring the selection. After my Pavlovian response, I stopped salivating and selected 2 types of Baklava plus Turkish coffee. Yummy!
Day 2 in "1000 Places to See Before You Die", the Grand Bazaar is cited as a shopaholics paradise stretching over 50 acres with 11 different entry points. Shop owners kept trying to engage me in conversation, but I just waved and kept moving. Since my backpack was completely stuffed, I can't purchase anything that is not paper-thin. I found a restaurant inside the back corner of the Bazaar that served yogurt lamb kebab and mixed green salad. When I saw my plate, I was surprised that the lamb was buried under a pint of yogurt. I had to dig my way through the white glob to find any meat. This meal was memorable, but not in a good way. And it cost 20 YTL (about $16). After less than an hour, I left the bazaar not knowing what to do next.
Since I can hear my stomach growling, I will skip to what transpired the 2nd half of the day. I was passing by a restaurant when one of the workers stopped and asked me if I were available for a drink after he got off work. I sad "no" then SPED OFF down one of the streets. This is happening quite often in every country, multiple times. After 3 minutes, a shopkeeper stopped me and asked several questions. Once he heard I was traveling around the world, he asked if he could talk to me inside his shop. Not sure what made me agree to this, but I felt his invitation was innocuous since he looked much older, probably in his late 50s. The store owner's name is Selim. He is married with 2 kids and was a former journalist for Germany and Turkey. He gave me tour recommendations, Turkish historical tidbits (which I appreciated), and words of wisdom. He also gave me a Turkish coffee reading. Very interesting - all for entertainment purposes of course. Selim took me around some key spots I visited yesterday and gave me a quick a historical summary. Getting late so I thanked him for his narrative and went back to my hotel.
I am meeting a lot of people on my journey. In addition to Selim, I met several people at the hostel: Miyoki (from Japan), Bee (from London), and many hostel workers who I spent time with the past few days. One night I was listening to their numerous anecdotes. One tourist was left behind at one of Istanbul's sites after he fell asleep on the toilet for 8 hours. I laughed so hard at this story and all the anecdotes that followed. They have the best jobs! One of the hostel employees, Ali, taught me several Turkish phrases. He'll quiz me later. Turkish is not that easy to pick up, but I am determined to learn a few key words.
Day 3: Topkapi Palace. For 10YTL, I went into the former sultan's home (built in 1471). In one of the quarters, I took a photo of this golden headboard encased in glass. As soon as I did this, a guard appeared inches from my face yelling, "Maam. NO PHOTO! NO PHOTO!" I was so embarrassed since everyone stopped to look at me. He acted as though I committed this heinous crime. After 1 1/2 hours, I was done with my tour.
The rest of the day was spent on numerous park benches sitting completely still. Let me explain. Time stands still here. I don't worry about anything (what day it is, what time it is), nor do I care. I am living in complete bliss. In fact, being in Istanbul opened my eyes to potentially outside the US one of these days. Scary I know, but I am now open to that possibility. Sitting peacefully on park benches is common here. I see it everywhere. Nobody scurrying about. The pace is refreshing.
Ah the perils of sitting on benches. You will be approached, you will be stared at. Here is just one of my stories: I'm listening to my iPod when this young adult sits right next to me. Found this odd since I was surrounded by many empty park benches. He tapped my shoulder and wanted to show me photos he took of a mosque and a fountain. I briefly indulged him then put my earpiece back on clearly insinuating that I am busy. He didn't take the hint. He asked if he could take my photo. I said NO, but he took it anyway.
The he tried to talk to me in broken English.
Where you come from?...America..Good. Good..
What hotel you at? (I knew better than to answer this one)
Then he repeated these phrases over and over apologizing for his English. I'm trying to keep a straight face since he was clearly trying to hit on me. He showed me how old he was (counting his fingers). He's only 19, but he looked 14. I signed my age, thinking he would surely bolt, but he was undeterred. DARN! Overall, it was a hysterical exchange. Wish I could have video-taped it. He told me he had to work at this restaurant and invited me for tea. I declined of course. HE'S ONLY NINETEEN!!!
Yesterday, I went on a full day Bosphorus and Dolmabahce Palace tour. First stop was the palace, where each visitor had to wear these HOT PINK elastic booties over our shoes. Felt like shower caps chafing our ankles. The Dolmabahce is a nineteenth century palace built by respected Ottoman architects. The decor is clearly European. Most furniture was imported from France. Palace was beyond my expectations, especially the Myaede (ceremonial hall) that hosts all state ceremonies and receptions, specifically those commemorating religious holidays. In the middle of the hall is this ENORMOUS chandelier weighing 4.5 tons and sporting 664 light bulbs. Imaging the electricity bill. The tour guide told us that Michael Douglas, Sir Sean Connery, and other foreign dignitaries visited this hall recently. In the back of my mind, I am wondering if they had to wear those hot pink booties like everyone else.
Stop #2: Next we crossed the Bosphorus Bridge, one of the world's largest suspension bridges connecting Europe to Asia. On one side of the bridge is the Marmara Sea. On the other side is the Black Sea. Once we crossed, we pulled up to Camlica Hill, the highest peak in Istanbul overlooking Old Istanbul, Galata, Bosphorus, and Beyoglu. Lingered at the cafe for 30 minutes interacting with my tour mates from France and Portugal. I ordered a can of Fanta for $5 (damn these inflated tourist prices).
Stop #3: After lunch we took the tour past the Constantinople's City Walls to Pierre Lotte Cafe (named after the famous French writer). Instead of taking the van back down the hill, we boarded these cable cars, which looked like glass pods. At the bottom of the mountain, we drove a short distance to the pier for our Golden Horn and Bosphorus cruise. We were so relaxed on the boat that we mainly lounged on the top deck while the tour guide pointed out key landmarks. I have to comment on how gorgeous the water is, a beautiful aquamarine. Completely mesmerizing. Once we passed the Galata Bridge, the boat turned towards Asia Minor. There are rows of wooden houses priced in the millions. Couldn't believe it.
Today is my last day here. Decided to take it easy and update the blog. I will be meeting with Ali, one of the hostel employees at 3:30pm so he can take me to the other side of Istanbul (a place called Taksim). Surprised he offered to chaperone since he works the graveyard shift and I am cutting into his sleep time.
Addendum to my previous entry: My last afternoon/evening was spent walking for MANY miles starting at Hagia Sophia, across Galata Bridge to Galata Tower, through Taksim, past the footballer stadium and Dolmabahce Palace towards Ortakay (near the Bosphorus Bridge)...then BACK! I don't know how many kilometers we walked, but I have 2 huge bilsters as a result. One on each foot. Totally my fault since I wore sandals instead of sneakers. I didn't arrive back at the hostel until midnight. It was a terrific end to my visit.
Tomorrow morning, I will take the 5:40am shuttle to the airport and sadly bid farewell to Istanbul. I will miss this place. Hope I will fall in love with Greece too!