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Trip Report Mini Trip Report: Istanbul & Four Greek Islands

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This is not a real trip “report” by Fodor’s high standards. It is notes, musings and recommendations without the day to day itinerary and narrative flourish. I will digress to share unusual happenings.
So many posters have described the Hagia Sophia and other fabulous sights of Istanbul that I refer the reader to these reports. Yes, I’m short on time this summer but I should get a few points for penning this within six weeks of returning from this 24 day trip.

My husband (73) and I (65) and dear friends (both 64) took this trip together. We used United ff miles to fly Business Class LA-Chicago-Istanbul and return from Athens. It was our second visit to Istanbul; DH and I spent 5 days there in ’04.

Part I: Istanbul
Hotel:
I chose The Ferman Hotel for the location. It’s in the heart of Sultanahmet (Sultan Ahmet area). There were loads of restaurants within three to fours blocks from the hotel; handy after a long day of walking around. All the major sights of the old city are no more than a 15 minute walk. The room was good size. The buffet breakfast on the rooftop very good and the city and water views wonderful.

Food:
Two favorite restaurants out of the hood were Hamdi Restaurant; excellent seafood and service in an elegant setting overlooking the water. Its at the waterside entrance to the Spice Market.
In Taksim we stumbled on a wonderful local place, Zubeyir Ocakbasi & Restaurant. It was still a bit chilly in mid May, so we ate inside, surrounded by brick walls and an open pit oven. Delicious kebobs and mezes, thoughtfully recommended by the locals sitting next to us.
A favorite from our ‘04 trip, Rumini Café, proved disappointing; the quality of food has declined, perhaps in proportion to its increased popularity.

Activities:
Besides the obligatory and wonderful sites and sights, I enjoyed a three hour sightseeing boat trip on the Bosphorus. The route motored by areas where the wealthy city dwellers had/have lovely summer homes.

Shopping:
With only 3.5 days, I had to focus my energies on the things I knew I wanted – a new carpet, leather, Iznik pottery. This is not to say, heaven forbid, I totally ignored the jewelry in the Grand Bazaar.
One stylist leather jacket came from Gian Mori (www.best-leather.com). The other one came from my old standby Koc, both in the Grand Bazaar leather section. Both are the same quality (and high styling) as fine Italian leather but at 1/3 the cost.

After a lot of looking for specific colors, I found my 6x9 Hereke carpet at Galeri Selcuk. They have a showroom in the Grand Bazaar but the mother load is in their warehouse a few blocks away. It arrived the other day.

We bought a piece of traditional blue and white Iznic quartz ceramics from the renowned artist Adnan Hoca in ’04 and love it. So we headed back to Iznik Classics to buy another piece by Adnan Hoca. Due to extended rug haggling, we didn’t get back to Iznik to make the purchase. I took photos and emailed Iznik. Tahir, our salesman, remembered me and the price he quoted. The Hoca pitcher arrived beautifully boxed and packed.

The times they are a changing:
I was surprised how much Istanbul had changed in seven years. Of course, the city has spread out and shiny new condos dot the cityscape but the change that resonated was in the people. The number of women wearing headscarves and burqas had dramatically increased. We were asked what our religion was several times. The attitude toward Americans seemed a bit less enthusiastic. So I felt the city (perhaps all of Turkey?) was becoming less secular and more conservative. All that being said, I did have positive interactions with every local I encountered and felt entirely safe.

Tip:
Never try to explain an American colloquialism to a Turk. My friend and I strolled into a tiny shop in the GB with beautiful Italian handbags in the window. Alas, we found many treasures inside. I bought a scarf and was looking at another one, when I turned to Diane and said “I need another scarf like a fish needs a bicycle”. The helpful owner said he thinks he has a scarf with fish on it for me. I try to explain. He then suggests a bracelet with a bicycle design. Some expressions do get lost in translation.

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    Part II: Rhodes, Crete, Santorini, Naxos

    Background:
    I’ve always entertained romantic visions of the Greek Islands and wanted to visit a few of them. Prior to this trip I’d spent a day on beautiful Corfu… before there were any hotels on the island! I knew that visiting an island a day from a cruise ship would be unsatisfying; I had no interest in a mad dash along each island’s main shopping street. Other than that, I did not know what to expect from each island even after all the reading I’d done on this board and elsewhere.

    RHODES
    We flew from Istanbul to Athens, connecting to Rhodes. It cost us less time than flying to Dalaman in Turkey and taking a ferry to Rhodes, given the flight times and necessary overnight. We created logistical problems for ourselves because we wanted to visit Rhodes in the Dodecanese island group and visit three islands in the Cyclades. You Greece experts cautioned me about this but our determination to visit Rhodes won out.

    We stayed four nights at the Avalon Hotel in medieval Rhodes Town. The rooms and ambience were lovely at this small inn. The breakfasts in the shaded courtyard were outstanding; you can order anything and everything on their complete breakfast menu for the B & B rate. The whpped yougart with honey, sensational.
    However, we had no hot water for 3 of the 4 days of our stay; I felt it took them way too long to fix the plumbing problem. The other negative to this hotel is that there is no manager or owner “presence”. With such a small property it feels odd to see no one “in charge” despite the two clerks/servers who were very accommodating.

    Food: The cruise ships depart by four or five, so in late May all restaurants had availability any time we showed up. Its fun to get away from the main squares, wander the back streets and pick a restaurant there. Enjoyed Taverna Fish Restaurant. The owners are charming hosts and the food very good.


    Excursion: We rented a car and did a day tour of the island. We drove down the east coast and back up the west coast. First we stopped at Traganou beach, considered one of Rhodes’ finest. Just under 10 miles from Rhodes Town, it is a sweet sheltered bay favored by locals. After some sun we drove on to Lindos. Following a lunch looking out across this idyllic bay, we made for the Acropolis. My sandals with tread were no match for the trek up. The ruins were mildly interesting. I’m not an archeologist and have seen more compelling ruins in Turkey, Italy and France. We cut across to the west coast at Kiplari and followed the road as it turned north and west. Be prepared for goats ignoring traffic rules. It was a full and satisfying day.

    Tip: Ask the local shop owners how many ships are coming in each day of your stay so you can make touring, shopping and dining decisions accordingly. The third week in May the weather was perfect, about 75-77 each day.

    CRETE:
    We were 3 days in Chania, 2 days in the mountains, and an overnight in Heraklion.
    Chania
    Hotel:
    We spent 3 days and nights at Hotel Casa Leone. The location is superb, right on the waterfront. Our room had a tiny balcony facing the water and was just off the main lobby. The hotel staff were most helpful; the breakfasts just fine. My complaints about our room were 1) no cupboards or drawers; 2) a tiny, tiny bathroom with a miniscule shower area. From photos of other hotel advertisements around town, this is not unusual.

    Food:
    Favorite restaurants in Chania were Taman and Mathew’s. Mathew’s is the English translation; its at the far end of the harbor, beyond most of the tourist waterside places. Everything, especially the fish, was outstanding. The place is filled with locals; the owner is usually around. The ambience is so friendly and welcoming.


    Reflections:
    I thought Chania was a wonderful town; had we stayed longer I would have declared myself in love with it. Three days there afforded a relaxed pace, two hour lunches, afternoon naps, sunset cocktails near the city beach. I hope to return to Chania and would spend 4-6 days and use it as a base to do the many interesting day trips to various places in western and southwestern Crete.

    Zaros, South Central Crete
    Hotel and Food:
    Our second hotel was in the mountains in south central Crete (near Zaros) at Eleonas Traditional Lodge. This is a get away from it all place. The beautifully furnished and appointed rooms overlook the local mountains. The setting is serene. Most couples and families come for the hiking, swimming, farm with animals. There are many good trails. Saridakis Manolis, one of the owners, has done a great job landscaping this village of cottages. We ate all meals in their vine covered patio in the company of Eleonas’ resident cats. The food was tasty with the freshest ingredients. We were here two day and could easily have stayed a third.

    Knossos and Heraklion
    We drove from Eleonas to Knossos. Too bad we did not have time to stop at some of the vineyards on the wine route up to the north. Our visit to Knossos was timed to begin after the tour busses left around four. We escaped most of them.

    There was an unpleasant incident just past the entrance. A guide had come up to me and asked if we might want a group tour or private guide. I liked this woman right away and could understand her English easily. When we decided on a private tour for four, another woman was assigned to us. Her English was not understandable; my friend and I both having hearing losses, wear aids and require clear speech. As diplomatically and apologetically as I could, I explained to the woman assigned to us that I could tell from speaking to her that I could not understand her and cited my hearing problems as the reason for requesting the woman I met a few minutes earlier. This guide really came unglued. She noted that in fifteen years of guiding no one had ever complained, stomped off to talk to another official.
    After tension and confusion, the original guide came over to us and said she could guide us. She told me that when engaging a private guide, tourists has the right to select whichever guide they wish. This guide provided us one of the best tours of ruins I’ve had in years. Her explanations along the reading of The King Must Die by Mary Renault made the ruins come alive.
    We drove into the capital, Heraklion, and checked in to The Lato Boutique Hotel. We chose it for its location, very close to where we’d catch the ferry the next morning. The upstairs dining room provided us a meal of convenience.
    We had purchased our fast cat ferry tickets in the States so we just had to pick them up in the morning before embarking.

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    Robbie, try to tag the whole thing Greece as well or just start a new thread and tag that one Greece..

    I think your report is excellent. Great deal of very useful information. Tells me much more of what i should be concerned about when we hopefully make it to Rhodes and Crete than many of the longer reports i've read here.

    I'm afraid you're right about the strenghthening of fundamentalist Islam in Turkey. They are in full control of about 60 of the 81 major cities, banning sales of alcohol within the municipal boundaries and hiring only men whose wives are covered up. Most of their women (like the wives of their politicians and parliamentarians,) do not work, even if they have university degrees. they also now control the security and the armed forces and the judiciary, after they took over the health and education departments.

    The fact that Turkey was always run on Ottoman Empire Bureaucratic regulations, makes it very easy to take over. The ruling party, as the absolute head of the government has the right to post any government employee to any location in the country without cause or recourse, from the simplest kindergarten school teacher to a famous brain surgeon.

    Just last week, a major high court judge was appointed to a minor court in a small town after he ruled against the government's wishes at a major freedom of speech trial in Istanbul.

    Anyway, thanks for the impressions, and observations.

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