An Istanbul love affair.

What a day this has been, as usual the first day is most tiring. Took my car to the garage this morning for some much needed fixing and then off to the airport.  Had a very unnecessary burger king combo that filled me up way too much but still managed to eat more on the plane.  Saw “Couple’s Retreat” which was surprisingly funny and sweet natured and then it’s complicated which I wasn’t thrilled about.  But we missed the ending because our plane reached Istanbul slightly earlier.

When we reached, all went smoothly with the visa process, but was a long wait for passport control, about maybe 30 minutes if not longer. Got our one bag quickly and took the metro, then the tram and walked a bit to the hotel (the cobble stone paths were not easy on our wheeled bag); so needless to say we got to the hotel pretty beat.  It’s a charming little boutique hotel and we got the triple bedroom which was nice – basic but more than enough and the location is perfect.  Took a much needed nap, didn’t realise how tired I was until I realised how sore my muscles were (worst part of waking up from the nap) …. I was so tried that I didn’t even hear the adhan (call to prayer) which apparently was loud enough to annoy the misses.

Our home for the next few days

She is such a sport and surprisingly kept up with the program which I was pleasantly impressed about, and we had a nice talk before we changed for the night and had our introduction to this great city.  I already love it and it has a very European feel to it, as expected.  Walked around the Sultanhamet area near the tram station and passed by the Blue mosque – to be discovered at a later time – the air is so nice and the area was refreshingly hilly which I liked.  The streets are so welcoming and nice, didn’t feel odd or awkward even in the dark alleyways.  Walked around the touristy areas and saw some nice handiwork and crafts, even saw earrings which we got for about 20 dirhams each (6 bucks) in Dubai, found them for about 4 to 5 dirhams (1.5 dollars!), the feeling of being ripped off not so great, even if it is belated, still sucks.

We went to this nice cafeteria where we had a mix of veggie Dolma (stuffed veggies), rice, fried zucchini, Burak (egg roll like), and Ayraan yogurt drink.  We did have an incident when we didn’t tip the guy who was being nice to us, and when I asked for change later to give him a tip, he was so rude and angry, he didn’t realise my intention was to give him a tip – not anymore!  The food was really good though and we moved on.

Had some semit and tea (although most of the semit we took with us because we were already full), it’s this baked thing made of flour like thing, slightly sweet. The tea was strong for the wifey but just right for me I loved it, it was perfect.   Everywhere we went we were mistaken for Europeans (especially me), and when they found out we were Iraqi they were visibly surprised (a regular occurrence for me).

So far I’m excited to see the beautiful history and culture this city has, and the lady can’t wait for the shopping of course.  It’s been a good productive but already tiring one, especially at night when I tried to go to the ocean but couldn’t find a way – only to realise by looking at a map back in the hotel that we were really close.  We passed by a nearby supermarket and got water and I got me an ice cream as a treat.

I’m shocked by the amount of cats there are walking around, not so much stray cats.  They were beautiful, clean cats. I can’t get over the urban beauty of it and the hilly topography which gives it so much character.  We also ended up in a cemetery (thinking it was a tea garden) at night.  Was a nice walk, nothing really eerie about it though. But after a subdued first day, we are ready for some real and serious touring of the city. Tomorrow I’m planning to do the ferry ride on the Bosphorus and the Dolmabhaca palace – maybe even the archaeological museum and the market if there is time.  So much to do here I can’t wait and the hotel (next to the Mohamed Paca mosque) has been good so far, weird how we are a level below the lobby and we can hear everyone walking by; also strange there is no bidet or something to clean with – typical of hotels in other Middle Eastern countries!

Tomorrow is another day, feels weird to be here almost like a dream, it still hasn’t sunk in, almost felt like we went to a Turkish restaurant in Dubai, feels familiar but in a good way.  I’ve been hoping to be in this great city for ages, I’m sure once I get to see the big stuff it will sink in enormously, can’t wait! (Diva Hotel, 11:21p.m. Istanbul time, Tuesday)**

So we woke up early today and we headed out to the tram station making our way to the ferry.  We went around the Bosphorus but it was FREEZING cold, I mean like mad shivering cold. The ferry was packed; I was standing for most of the trip (my boo eventually sat, once a half a seat was made available that is).  My hands and ears turned red (smart move taking off my inside shirt and just wore the sweater) – I was sure I was getting sick and I think that I have already to some extent.  It was a long ride, but the views were really nice and plenty of photo opportunities. We docked at a village at the other end of the ride and had some amazing seafood. The anchovies were incredible, and the sea bass was really fresh.  We walked around the village to kill time which was full of tourists, at one point when I was taking a picture of “my significant other” (such a weird term) a tourist walked by and farted (it was abnormally loud) – perfect timing.

Floating on the Bosphorus

As we explored the village, we went into a Pinocchio type of artist workshop.  Personally I found it a tad disturbed and the noses resembled phallic symbols… so we move on.  We made our way back to the home base (i.e. hotel area) but had no time to go to the Dolmabahca palace as originally intended. We briefly went to a market thinking it was the famous Egyptian market, it had plants and mainly plant seeds with chickens, and ducks – livestock and farm stuff (there were these weird water worms which were strange looking and still not sure what they are for – farming-wise at least).  Eventually we realised that the Egyptian spice market was right next to it and had a quick look. Awesome variety of spices and some nice souvenirs.   Had a nice look and then went back to the hotel to chill a bit.

Couldn’t stay for too long though without itching to explore some more, so we dressed better for the cold weather and walked around a bit.  We ended up in a really nice restaurant, slightly out of the way, had a great dinner (including a plate of Alexander Doner instead of the typical shawarma – it was fantastic!! Made me an Alexander Doner fan for life, never had a better one since though); walked some more and got some Lokum (Turkish delight).  Now we are SO EXHAUSTED!!!! So at this point even I confess my writing is blah and lame; but I can’t muster enough energy to put any more effort here – just straightforward documenting at this point, barely keeping my eyes open.

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The best Iskendar Doner

Tomorrow I’m aiming for a tour of the big four sites, then the bazaar and one of the palaces, got to wake up early…. some vacation!  Relatively speaking, we took it easy today so time to work hard in this trip of ours…. it’s a tough job but someone’s gotta do it (Diva Hotel, 11:15p.m. Istanbul time, Wednesday)**

Since it’s been an extremely long day – I feel like there is a pattern here –  I’m going to make this entry very short and sweet.  Met a tour guide for the first half of the day and it was off to see the big stuff. Walked around the Hagia Sophia (planning on going inside tomorrow) passed by Topkapi (to be visited later on) went into the Blue mosque, Suleimaniyeh Mosque, the Bazaar (also to revisit the Grand Bazaar later in the day), and finally to the Egyptian spice market which we went to yesterday.  Got honey and spices like saffron and curry right there and then, and got a nice backgammon set. We tried to bargain but that wasn’t a huge success, got it lowered but was still relatively pricey.

Hagia Sofia up close
Topkapi and Suleimaniyeh Mosque

 

After we left the very nice guide (also took us to a tea café nice in the middle of this courtyard of an old building) we learned she has a sister, liked her tea, talked about Russian tourists, and Russians in general and the similarities between Turkish and Iraqi Arabic as well as the typical topics of food and religion.   Always look forward to the few human connections we make as tourists in a new country. Took a tram to the Topkapi palace which was as good as expected, and then back to the bazaar where we bought some gifts and little souvenirs.

Came back to the hotel where they downgraded our room to a double from a triple but up two floors.  So now it’s a little cosier here but a nice balcony.  Filtered my pix and relaxed a bit, then we went to a nice dinner nearby. I had the lamb kebab with pistachio inside the kebab and the “boss” had her a veggie stew.  Ended it with a nice overly sweet baklava and dark tea, then headed back after a nice nightly stroll in the fresh air.

Grand Bazaar later in the day

Tomorrow the plan is to mainly rest but still manage to go into Hagia Sophia in the early morning (after I exchange some money-got nothing left now) and then off to Dolmabaca; finally! Maybe have lunch at Taksim square and find a place to buy some of those nice glass (small tea cups) “estekans” in a set…but for now to rest after a crazy long day.  Ended the day with a nice Doner (shawarma) sandwich at the end of the tour and a nice “dondurma” (Turkish ice cream – more like Italian Gelatto) with four scoops (Mango, chestnut, pistachio and mulberry) on the way to the bazaar…what a productive day! (Diva Hotel, 11:53p.m. Istanbul time, Thursday).

As I write this final entry, I briefly look outside my hotel window and see the lights shining on the Turkish minaret across from the hotel balcony- one of the many ottoman style mosques here in this great city- what an unforgettable view.

It’s already been quite the day; from seeing the great Hagia Sophia, which was more impressive than I thought it would be, to the Archaeological Museum to Taksim and Istiklal Road and Dolmabaca Palace.  Walking at night for dinner and having a huge wet dog walk with us down the street, to my lady talking to school children and saying hello to them (with one stretching his eyes at us like a racist Asian impression for some reason) it was quiet the day.

Loved seeing Hagia Sophia of course, but also the Babylonian relics in the Archaeological Museum, especially panels of the Ishtar gate and its reliefs, was amazing.  Going to Dolmabaca and meeting a fellow Canadian guy who was apparently starting what would be a 7 month backpacking trip around Europe was also one of the highlights here (I think his name is either Andre or Andrew form Vancouver, with a brother living in Istanbul who is an English professor in a university).  He showed us the way through the underground tram between Dolmabaca and the Taksim Maydaan.  It was great having lunch there with what is possibly the best Kunafa I had (Kebap Dunyacisi is the name of the place).

The heart of Istanbul – Taksim
Awesome Dolmabacha

The walk down was cool and seeing all the stores, but didn’t end up buying anything.  Went back to the hotel after a crazy exhausting day, took a nap before heading out to an unnecessary dinner having Sultan Kebab. We were both still full from the lunch and I – for once – didn’t finish the dinner and didn’t touch the bread and had no tea…imagine, that’s how full I was.

Did some last minute souvenir shopping (got them estekans and other stuff off the beaten tourist path, much cheaper) and got ready for the next day.  Tomorrow I’m planning to walk down some of the roadways and alleyways here in Sultanahmet towards the cornice road looking onto the water and the Bosphorus for final photos opportunities; just before we pack up and checkout.  It’s been a very quick trip but we saw the essentials for sure, the weather was amazing and a nice break from the Dubai heat and humidity creeping up towards the summer. Although there were moments of uncomfortable cold on the ferry ride along the Bosphorus the other day, and tonight when it rained as we went to the souvenir shops and had dinner.

Around Sultanhamet

I loved this city, it was surreal.  A beautiful city and one that is truly a reflection of me…. we had this conversation that if I was a city I would be this one.  I like all cities I visited and can live in any one of them, but this city has a very cosmopolitan feel to it, a human scale, and feels quaint in comparison to other major and large cities of the world.  There is a natural blending of old and new, modern and ancient (not just Islamic), western and eastern.  While at the same time has an ease in the air and amazing historical and natural beauty.  No surprise that it is a highly recommended destination. (Diva Hotel, 12:30p.m. Istanbul time, Friday)***

Any other cities you guys can think of sort of feel familiar and exotic at the same time?  East meets west kind of vibe.

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