I think the fact that shows best how great this vacation was is that I took four books along with me and didn't manage to read a single one (for those who know me well, this is a telling sign. I did read one during the flight back - The house at Riverton, by Kate Morton - and which I very much recommend)
The first part of the trip started in Istanbul, the city where west meets east, and which totally blew me away. We arrived at Ataturk airport in the afternoon, and after a few problems with our transfer, finally checked in at the Side Hotel & Pension, which had been well recommended by some friends. The location is ideal, right in the center of Sultanahmet, behind the Blue Mosque and close to the Aya Sofia. We didn't have any plans for that night, so just strolled around that area for a bit and looked for a nice place to have dinner. My first glimpse of the Blue Mosque at dusk was certainly a magical moment, and it quickly became one of my favorite places. I had taken with me a few restaurant suggestions collected from here, but after a few unsuccessful tries to find the suggested Turquoise or Albura we settled on the Café Mesale Tea Garden behind the Blue Mosque. The food is not fabulous, although that night we had a mixed kebap which arrived ablaze to our table, and it tasted just fine (later, in comparison we all the great food we'd have during the rest of the trip, we realised it was merely ok). There were a lot of locals playing backgammon, smoking narghile or drinking Ayran (which A. loved), and also some live music with a short whirling dervish show, which made for a really nice atmosphere and even if the food is not outstanding it's a nice place to relax at the end of the day, with great views of the Blue Mosque and the Arasta Bazaar right around the corner for some shopping.
We had our first taste of Turkish tea (çay) that night, which is quite strong and sometimes bitter but we loved it with a bit of sugar and became addicted to it from then on. A quick stroll to check the shops on the Arasta Bazaar (loved the hats at Cocoon) and the streets behind the Tea Garden (we finally realised that the restaurants we were looking for where right behind our hotel) and we called it a day.
Food plays a very important part in this trip, so I'll write a lot about that. Turkish cuisine is delicious, always fresh, full of flavour and sometimes quite spicy, and I particularly loved anything with yoghurt (best I've had anywhere) and aubergines. And although we tend to follow a vegetarian diet at home, while in Turkey we sampled all the kebabs and kofte (turkish meatballs) that came our way.
A note on the call to prayer. It's not made every two hours like I had read somewhere, but about 5 times a day (more during Ramazan) and we pretty soon got used to it. I actually loved to hear it, the sound coming from all the different mosques at the same time, ressonating thorugh the city. During Ramazan they also play some drums in the streets to wake you up, and that I didn't find very funny (it only happened once though, so that wasn't too bad).
The next morning we woke up quite early, had our first Turkish breakfast (includes fresh tomatoes, cucumber, olives, and sometimes various sorts of feta-like cheese) in the hotel terrace with very nice views and set off to the Blue Mosque. We were early, of course, so waited for a while until it opened. You can' wear your shoes inside the mosques, so it's obligatory to take them off and they usually provide plastic bags for you to carry them. Also, they provide scarfs for you to wear (in case you don't bring your own) if you're wearing shorts or mini skirts and bare shoulders. All this done very efficiently and without hassling, I have to say.
The inside of the Blue Mosque is outstanding, it takes a while for your eyes to get used to that light difference but then you start noticing the different tones and the blues really come out.
And I loved the tiles as much as the carpet
(outside every mosque there is a place like this so people who come to pray can wash their feet before going in)
We were quite lucky that day, I realise now, because we didn't find any big crowds inside the most touristy monuments. It helps that we started early (early being nine o'clock) but usually there can be huge queues to get in. Our next stop, the Aya Sofya, was just as impressive. We read somewhere that the Statue of Liberty could fit inside it. The mosaics on the upper floor are particularly beautiful, and we took our time exploring every corner.
In the Sultanahmet area, all the major attractions are pretty much close to each other, so it's very convinient to visit them all during the same day. The Topkap1 palace closes on Tuesdays, though, so we we had to leave that for the following morning. Next up was the Basilica Cistern, just across the street from the Aya Sofya. Some friends said they really liked it, others not really. Well, always better to judge for ourselves, I think. I did like it, it was quiet and cool down there, you get to see the Medusa head statues and the whole infrastructure is quite impressive.
After that, a deserved break for çay at one of the outside cafes in the corner of Divan Yolu street, and we went looking for the Tur-ista travel agency which I used to book our bus tickets for Cappadocia. Found it easily, got our tickets and went to check the Hippodrome across the steet. Not much to see here, except the Obelisk and a few other things, but the food stalls for Ramazan were already in place and you could see it was going to be a fun place during the evenings.
We were quite hungry by then, so checking my list of restaurant suggestions we found Baran (otherwise known as the "yummy in the tummy place") in Divan Yolu street, which is a point and order place (you see a lot of these in Istanbul) so that's exactly what we did. Can't remember what we got, but looking at the photo it seems to have been something with aubergines. It was quite good, the service very fast, and the price reasonable. We didn't have dessert, but passing by Çigdem further down the street we couldn't resist trying a few different baklavas. This rich and super sweet pastry was right down my alley (the best ones sort of melt in your mouth)
To burn these extra calories, we walked Divan Yolu all the way down to the Beyiazit Mosque, where after a few inquiries, learnt that we could take a bus (nr. 36E, 37 or 38) to the Karyie Museum (Church of Holy Savior in Chora). This is one of the few attractions that is a bit far from the centre, but it's very much worth the detour. The frescoes and mosaics are unlike any I'd seen before. The church is small, but you can easily spend an hour or two looking at the walls and ceilings.
(Note: the Asitane restaurant is close to this museum and you will see the signs when you get close to the area. We had just had lunch so we missed the opportunity to try this one, but it has wonderful reviews so next time we won't miss it)
It was still early afternoon whe we took the bus back so we explored the area around Beyiazit Mosque for a bit and finally ventured into the Grand Bazaar.
It is called the mother of all tourist traps for some reason, and we got our share of friendly hassling from the vendors but if you decline politely and just say 'no' a couple of times it should be enough. Of course, they'll try to guess where you're from all the time (in my case, they never got it right), and talk to you in your native language (I was actually amazed to see vendors talking in mandarin, brazillian, spanish, japanese, french .., they might be pushy, but they sure know how to make an effort). Whatever your experience, it's a must visit. There are specific areas for certain products (jewellry, leather, carpets, antiques, etc.) and it's a good place to tone your bargaining skills. I'm a lousy bargainer, so I didn't dare buy anything special. Anyway, we made our entrance through the Book Bazaar (no temptations there for me, though) and casually browsed our way through the labyrinth of shops. I asked the price of a few tiles and ceramic items - I fell in love with the Iznik tiles I'd seen at the mosques and although the originals are not made anymore I could settle for a good imitation - but eventually found my way to the fabrics and textiles section. There's a nice variety, but mostly velvet and other non cotton fabrics. Lots of glitter, too. I did find some nice cotton prints at a small shop, and at a very reasonable price (3 YTL per metre, that's about 1.8 EUR) so I asked for a card to come back on our last day. Another hot item to buy are pashminas, you see them everywhere, of all kinds and colors. I eventually bought one (my only purchase that day, as it happens) which I used a lot during the rest of my stay.
At the Astarci Han we found a nice place to rest and drink some çay, before going out torwards the Süleymaniye Mosque.
On our way there we passed through a couple of streets where you can buy notions in bulk (buttons, zippers, trims, buckles, etc.). I particularly noticed the trims with famous designer names ;)
The Süleymaniye is another imponent mosque, and quite beautiful as well.
There was a prayer starting so we didn't stay long and went out in the direction of the Spice Bazaar. Much smaller than the Grand Bazaar, and much nicer, I think. You'll get your senses overloaded with so many smells, noise and colors, but it's another must, even if it feels too touristy. I went looking for the Arifoglu shop at nr 31 - much advertised at the TA forum as well - where you can ask Tseslim or Orhan to mix you your own scent. They were so friendly and patient and definitely know their business. I got one that day, along with a gift of some apple tea, and Tseslim made me a second scent which I promised to go back for on our last day (prices range from 10 to 40 YTL).
On each side of the Spice Bazaar you have the New Mosque (Yeni Camii) and the Rustem Pasa Mosque (my favorite) which we didn't visit that day. Instead we crossed the Golden Horn through the Galata Bridge to the other side (Beyoglu), passing by all the lined up fishermen. The boats by the ferry gate (Eminonu) sell fish sandwiches which looked quite good, but we weren't hungry yet so maybe next time. From the Galata Bridge you have a very nice view of the Sultanahmet skyline (from the Topkapi Palace to the Suleymanyie Mosque) but our goal was to reach the Galata Tower before sunset. It's a bit of a walk, but we got there just in time, and it was quite crowded up there since I guess everyone had the same idea. You do get a 360º view of the city and it's amazing.
The restaurant looked inviting too, but it was still early so we decided to go up to Istiklal Caddesi and check out this lively pedestrian street full of restaurants, cafés, shops and bookstores. It was crowded, but I suppose that's how it always is, reminded me a bit of las Ramblas, but with more locals than tourists (and this window shop caught my attention)
For dinner we went in search of the Haçi Abdullah restaurant, and after a few turns we finally found it. It is known for its ottoman cuisine, so we tried a couple of their recommended dishes. The famous Imam bayildi (or "the Imam fainted", stuffed eggplant with tomatoes, onions and garlic), Zeytinyağlı Lahana Dolma (stuffed cabbage) and Tas Kebap (beef stew with vegetables) which were quite good, but their strong point for me were the desserts: Ayva Tatlısı Kaymaklı (quince with milk cream .. ah, this was one was quite outstanding) and sutlaç (deliciously creamy rice pudding)
After so much food, and although we were quite tired by then, we decided to walk all the way back to the hotel. It was a beautiful night, and it had been a very good day. I knew then that this trip would be an unforgettable one.
More photos at Flickr (all Istanbul photos or by category below):
Galata Bridge + Tower