I had a look at my old photographs from Turkey today and I realised I never wrote anything about that trip. This is unacceptable for two reasons: one, it’s been ages since it happened and I remember only a fraction of it and two, I don’t remember it precisely because I didn’t write about it.
Since my blog is basically my diary at this point, I feel compelled to put this story in writing so that I can refresh my memory and so whoever stumbles upon it can learn from our mistakes and triumphs. Hopefully it will be of some use to future travellers in Turkey with a tight schedule and a tight budget.
Memory is a very unreliable source of information so make sure to take the finer details of this story with a pinch of salt-or rather a tablespoon, to be safe.
Looking through my archives, there are several e-mail exchanges between my friend, Giulia, and myself on the subject of Turkey. This piece of dialogue is a short example of our communication:
There is a ton of other useless information shared, such as updates on the latest episodes of Vikings, our opinions on which topics should be avoided in the Southern United States, a mining accident and a picture of Giulia’s broken watch.
However, within that pile of nonsense, like an archaeologist who has just wiped the dirt off the first few tiles of a majestic mosaic, I uncovered the holy scriptures- the prototype itineraries of the trip.
I had expected them to be in our shared Google drive folder and was surprised not to find them when I looked in there. I checked with Giulia who insisted there was no itinerary and we basically winged it for the entire trip. The funny thing is-according to the e-mails- she was one who put the first draft down on digital paper and sent it to me. This is what the proto-itinerary looks like when deciphered from Engtalian:
18/04 : Arriving in Istanbul
19 /04: Istanbul
25/04: Izmir/ Ephes/Pamukkale
I can already reveal -spoilers!- that we didn’t make it to Pamukkale. I am still a bit sore about it but looking at the time frame it would have been too tight. I am positive there was a companion document to this schedule that summarised all the touristic highlights and places of interest in each area but it is impossible to find and Giulia denies its existence. I will have to rely on my memory from now on.
Giulia was flying to Istanbul from London whereas I was flying from Athens. Somehow we either just assumed that the (massive) city only had one airport or we just didn’t bother checking which airport each of us was flying to. Not the same one, as it turned out. With my phone’s battery running out I fortunately managed to find Giulia somewhere near Taksim. I remember she was sitting on a cafe waiting for me, probably for ages. It was a happy reunion, since it had been a year since we had last seen each other. We headed to the hostel, which was called Green House Hostel and was located not far from Taksim and Istiklal Caddesi. I found it quite cosy and welcoming and don’t recall having any complaints.
Now, let’s examine exhibit B- the photos I have taken in Istanbul. The first thing that becomes apparent is that they were taken with a compact Canon which comes from a previous century. They are in their majority blurry and awful. However, upon inspection they offer valuable information. It seems we were in Istanbul for two days, the 18th and the 19th, which means we decided to change our schedule as soon as we touched ground. The locations I have photos of are:
- The Grand Bazaar
- Hagia Sofia
- The Blue Mosque
- The Basilica cistern
- Topkapi palace
- A park near Topkapi, which I assume was Gülhane Park
I remember walking down Istiklal from Taksim as well and coming across an old tram wagon. I have no memory of taking a taxi, a bus or any other means of transportation while in Istanbul, which means the distances between the sights mentioned above are all manageable. Here is what I remember of each location:
- The Grand Bazaar
I am not a Bazaar kind of person, which is to say I have no tips on bargain items or haggling techniques. You will love the bazaar if you like crowded enclosed spaces with shops. I remember feeling very lost and having trouble admiring the architecture with a sea of people in motion all around me. Nevertheless, the sheer size of it is to be admired and it is an interesting experience, especially if you haven’t been in any similar type of market anywhere else.
- Hagia Sophia
Hagia Sophia is a building with a long history; It was originally constructed as an Eastern Orthodox Cathedral and served as the cathedral of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople for centuries before the Ottoman Turks conquered the city. The church was converted into a mosque after the city changed hands so it is a cultural hybrid, a unique blend of christian and islamic architecture. This place is definitely worth a visit, mostly because so much history has been imprinted on it. I remember we didn’t have much time in Hagia Sophia but it’s safe to assume that every mosaic, every pillar, every carving on stone has a different story behind it and there is much to discover.
- The Blue Mosque
Ah, the Blue mosque (or Sultan Ahmed Mosque)- my second favourite thing in Istanbul. In my mind it is associated with light, openness and serenity. I remember we visited the Blue mosque straight after Hagia Sophia and it struck me immediately how different the atmosphere was; while Hagia Sophia was imposing, solid and somber, the Blue Mosque was airy and open, allowing the sunlight in at every chance. Having to take my shoes off at the entrance contributed to a warm feeling of ease that was entirely unexpected. The mosque is built to impress and it doesn’t fail to; The interior is beautifully decorated and complimented by the metallic light fixtures, suspended not too high over ground. Its name comes from the hand-painted blue ceramic tiles that cover the walls. It is a masterpiece of islamic architecture and to this day the most impressive mosque I have seen.
- The Basilica cistern
This is the only place that beats the Blue Mosque for me. A cistern is basically a waterproof water reservoir. In this case it is a massive ancient underground water reservoir, supported by rows of pillars disappearing into the darkness. It also has fish. It looks as amazing as you can imagine. Sadly, my photos don’t do it justice in the least (you are going to need a better camera than a compact from the early 2000s and a tripod). I would suggest googling it instead.
- Topkapi palace
Topkapi was built during the reign of sultan Mehmet II and served as the administrative center and residence of the Ottoman sultans for approximately four centuries. It is a large complex, consisting of four courtyards, containing pavilions and tulip-filled gardens. It’s a place that offers a plethora of historical information and a lovely afternoon walk all at once. The park near the palace is an unexpected jewel, full of little surprises such as water ponds, sculptures and imaginative floral arrangements at every step.
At night time I remember going out around the Taksim end of Istiklal and sitting down on a bar with outdoor seating and a very familiar feel to it-it was almost like being back in Athens.The atmosphere was relaxed and the place seemed to be popular with the locals.There was a network of smaller streets that would come alive at night, brimming with bars, cafes and restaurants.
I have to note that we were advised by the receptionist in the hostel not to go out after 10. She insisted it was dangerous, especially for two girls on their own. She went on to talk about her own experiences living in Istanbul and cases where she had encountered men whose behaviour was rude at best and predatory at worst. She was a foreign exchange student but I can’t recall which country she was from. In the end we had no issues walking around at night but we did notice the groups of friends walking down Istiklal consisted either solely of men or of both genders-there were no girly groups walking about. It might have been a complete coincidence but, with that girl’s warning still ringing in our heads, we both immediately took notice.
When we left Istanbul we took the morning ferry to Bursa, and then from there, following a short wait, we took a coach to Eskisehir. What happened next is a bit unclear- the next photographs I have are from Goreme, but I distinctly remember spending one night in Ankara and looking for a meat market in Eskisehir-or was that Konya? The plot thickens. I will carry on my investigation on another post. For now, feast your eyes on the godawful pictures that have been haunting my hard drive for years now: