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Seamus' Istanbul trip report May 2005

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OK, HappyCheesehead, the laundry is done so here’s a more thorough tri report!

Getting there: SAT-IAH-EWR-AMS-VIE-IST is probably the most connections I have made on a single destination trip. But, hey, was able to book a FF ticket as far as Amsterdam for the dates I wanted, found AMS-IST on Austrian Airlines (www.aua.com) for about $400 USD. Weather in Newark, just made the connection to AMS, though my bag didn’t. (Fortunately, my Fodor’s friends taught me to always pack my toilet bag and some spare knickers in my carry on bag.) Service in CO’s BusinessFirst was, as usual, just great. Austrian Airlines was, by comparison, rather utilitarian but fine for the purpose. Inflight bistro menu offered several items for purchase; the salmon and cream cheese baguette was actually tasty and worth 5 euro.

Arrival and Accommodation: Had wanted to stay at Hotel Ambassador (www.hotelambassador.com) in Sultanahmet but due to the European football (soccer) finals couldn’t get a reservation; booked through GTS hotels (www.gtahotels.com) at the 4 star Hotel Grand Star in Taksim. Seemed like a great deal – 7 nights, AC room with sea view, daily breakfast buffet and RT airport transfer for about $400 USD. Driver was waiting as promised outside customs at IST. Travel to hotel took about 40 minutes with traffic, including a brief stop so the driver could introduce me to Nury, who “also works with GTS and would be available to help me as needed.” I was a little suspicious that this was the first of many carpet selling pitches to come, but that didn’t happen (more about Nury later.) The modern and spotlessly clean hotel is in Taksim, a few blocks from the top of the pedestrian Istiklal Caddessii and Taksim Square. On arrival, was put in a room with no sea view. When asked, front desk said reservation was not for sea view. I politely begged to differ, asked them to call the Istanbul office of GTS right then to sort it out. They agreed to do so but noted they did not have a sea view room for that night. In speaking with GTS, told them I would accept this room for one night only (it really wasn’t that bad but I did not want to spend a week in it) and expected to be moved the next day. Then back to the non sea view room for a quick shower (not a lot of time needed to unpack, as my bag had not arrived with me!) and a stroll in the pleasant evening weather to the upper part of Istiklal and a light supper at one of the many places tempting the olfactory and visual senses. Then, time to crash.
Next: playing tourist

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    Playing tourist in IstanbulGetting around – public transport is easy in Istanbul. For most tourists the tram (“tramvay”) is a modern, clean and efficient option to get you where you are going. However, if you are in Taksim and want to get to Sultanahmet you need to either take a bus or get down the hill to a tram stop. From the top of Istiklal caddessi there is a trolley that runs to the bottom, terminating at Tunel square. Here you pick up the Tunel train – a sort of funicular which runs in – oddly enough – a tunnel down the hill, rather like a mini version of Hong Kong’s Peak Team. Exiting the lower Tunel station, cross the street and to the left is the tram stop at Karaköy. This is the newly opened extension that crosses the Galata bridge; the line previously ended at Eminönu. (Some guide book maps don’t include this newly opened portion of the tramvay.) From here pick up the tram that runs into Sultanahamet and beyond to the covered market (tram stop Beyazit). There’s a simple map online at  www.letsgoistanbul.com/metromap.htm but it doesn’t show the Tunel train. For sheer convenience, the “akbil” is a winner – it’s a rechargeable electronic “smart pass” that you can use on the tram, tunnel and buses. Alternatively, use the token (“jeton”) that you purchase from the kiosks at the tram stop. There is a few dollar deposit on the akbil itself, but I thought it worth it. Taxis are plentiful and can be hailed on the street. There are different rates for day (lower) and night (higher) – be sure that the meter is set to the right one. Only once did a taxi driver try to pull one over on me, but when I called him on it he just re set the meter. Taxi rates are pretty reasonable, though traffic can get nasty at times.Sights – The Sultanahmet area is where most of the historic sights are located, and within leisurely strolling distance of each other. I did not use a guide for Blue mosque, Haga Sophia or Basilica cistern – all definitely worth visiting! - and did just fine relying on my DK guidebook. The three can be done in one day as they are close to each other. Note on dress for visiting mosques: no shorts or sleeveless shirts for either gender. Remove your shoes; at mosque entrances there are plastic bags to carry your shoes in during your visit. Women may be asked to wear a head cover, temporary ones available at some mosques.    Topkapi palace, on the other hand, can easily take up most a day by itself. Do take in the harem, which requires a separate ticket. I did hire a guide at Topkapi; it was pretty cheap and offered the added advantage of avoiding the queue for tickets. There are both a self serve and a sit down restaurant at Topkapi. I savored doner kebab from the self serve sitting on the terrace overlooking the ancient city walls and the sea, visiting with other tourists from – literally - all over the world engaged in the same respite.  The Grand Bazaar or Covered Market (Kapili Çarsi) is just amazing, more for the quantity than the quality of what is on offer. Wander around, widow shop and be prepared for lots of hawking of wares. The usual pitch involves a salesman greeting you in the language he thinks you speak (and they seem to be pretty accurate in their guessing!) Main tourist wares are carpets (of course!) and ceramics. There is also a section with silver items and other jewelry. I spoke to a couple sellers about some porcelain plates but managed to get away without buying anything more than some “evil eye” charms as gifts for friends back home. Absolutely do not accept the initial price offered, expect to pay at least 30% less than that. BTW, the “better” ceramic ware, what we would call porcelain, is referred to as having a high quartz content. There are a few little bistros around the middle of the bazaar, had a nice croque monsieur at one.    The Egyptian Market or Spice Market is a sensual delight; colors and aromas abound. So do the hawkers, with the usual patter. Goods other than spices have found their way here. Do compare prices before buying, and absolutely haggle. There are some prepackaged touristy spice sets, but hold out for the loose spices in bulk. I picked up some Iranian saffron – reputedly the best in the world – for about 1/10th of the cost back home. More to come…

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    I just made meatballs with the last of the Sumac we bought last year ! We still have some iranian saffron left as well. The turkish delight lasted about two days !!!! ah memories!

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    Cheesie, are you a psychic escaped from Wonewoc, or did you hear the old electrolux throttling?
    Marko – would you share that meatball recipe? I brought back a pound of sumk, use it for pork chops on the grill and would love to learn some new uses.

    To continue the prattle…
    After the old city, the pedestrian shopping street Istiklal cadessi seems absolutely contemporary, though many of the buildings are centuries old. There are also lots of side streets (“sokak”) and markets passages (pasaji) that run off Istiklal, which extends from Tunel to Taksim square. Coming from Sultanahmet, one would exit the tram at Karaköy, cross over to the Tunel train entrance and ride it up the hill, emerging at Tunel Square (“medynai”). An option here is to walk back down the hill a little bit to visit Galata Tower. The view from the top is amazing – bring your camera and zoom lens. It rather looks like a remnant of a castle, but was actually built as a freestanding edifice. But getting back to Istiklal , it is a great place to just stroll and window shop, visiting whatever merchant or café strikes the fancy. Since my bag didn’t arrive with me, I stopped by a men’s clothing store toward the tunnel end and picked up a couple shirts – pretty nice, actually, good quality cotton and reasonably priced. There’s also a store further up Istiklal called Çarsimbarºi that’s a great place to pick up some reasonably priced socks and undies (on the right as you are facing uphill toward Taksim.) Of course, there’s an array of restaurants and bistros all along Istiklal. Many have their offerings on display in the window; I sampled a couple and they were good for a mid day break. There are also a Starbuck’s (with WiFi) and two Gloria Jean’s coffee shops, Burger King and McDonald’s if that is of any interest. I did stop at Starbucks once or twice – so call me Americanized, but I loved it. Turkish coffee is an acquired taste, and though I did enjoy a few, I still like to slug down the occasional venti drip. Also along Istiklal are Saint Anthony Church, some consulates and the Galatsaray high school (“liseci”) is a convenient landmark from which to reckon the location of things. Across from it is the old flower market (Çiçek Pasaji) that is full of restaurants, but even better eating is found by walking a little further down the psaji and taking a right on Sahne sokak then left onto Nevizade sokak. These places seem to be popular with locals; I had a great meal at a place called Lipsos. Excellent smoked eggplant and garlic puree, stuffed grape leaves (best I’ve ever had), nice salad, grilled fish, with a half bottle of nice Turkish white wine, plus an after dinner raki (the local drink, a sort of ouzo or anisette that is served with water) all for under $40 USD. At the top of Istiklal there are a number of places selling what Americans would probably call gyros, but the presentation is a bit different – and delicious. Both beef and chicken were on offer; the chef slices the meat fresh from the spit into a piece of flatbread along with pickle slices, onion and tomato, and the whole thing is pressed like a panini. They also hawked hamburgers but I was able to resist that. Pretty cheap and delicious, a good quick nosh.

    Another touristic site worth visiting is Dolmabahce palace, constructed along western architectural lines. It is right on the Bosphorus, with a landing for the sultan’s boat. You can walk there from Taksim square, it’s maybe a mile or so all downhill. I took a taxi and it was less than 5 lira. Unless you are really fit or masochistic, take a taxi back up the hill. Tickets are on sale at the entrance – one for the main palace, a separate one for the harem. Note that if you want to take photos (no flash allowed) you must buy a ticket that allows this. You get a little tag to tie on your camera. Particularly impressive are the crystal chandeliers (including one alleged to be the world’s largest) and the crystal staircase. There’s an interval between the main palace and harem tours, and a conveniently located snack shop. The grounds are also quite wonderful; keep your camera powered up to snap a shot of the peacocks. At the entrance to Dolmabahce palace is a building that houses an information desk run by the Tourist Board (they were offering free postcards the day I visited.) the two women there were very gracious and helped me gain permission to visit the Florence Nightingale museum on the Asian side – more about that next.

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    Seamus,

    thanks for a most excellent trip report. Your schedule and insights bring back great memories of a trip with almost exactly the same schedule (nothing psychic, though, I presume).

    I especially agree that staying in Taksim should not be ruled out if one would like to experience the true feeling of this fascinating city.

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    Seamus, grind some toasted sesame seeds, thyme, garlic and sumac together with a little olive oil, add the paste to some minced lamb, add lemon juice , salt and as much beaten egg as you need to hold together. roll into small balls, grill and serve with yogurt, sprinkle some sumac on the yogurt if you like the taste. close your eyes and think of the Spice bazaar !

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    And on the other side, there’s Asia...

    As a nurse, the Florence Nightingale Museum held great interest for me. It is the two rooms she occupied at the time of her famous work during the Crimean War. For the uninitiated, Florence transformed the military hospital from a veritable warren of disease and death into a place for healing, developing and setting down many of the principles that still guide the organization of care for the ill. English speakers may recognize the location as the Scutari barracks; in Turkish, the name of the location is Üsküdar, and the barracks is called the Selimiye Kiþlasi. The building was constructed starting in 1828, with addition in 1840’s and 1850’s. Today it houses the Turkish First army headquarters, somewhat akin to the US Pentagon. The museum in the northeast corner is not open to the general public; access is obtained by faxing, at least two days in advance, a visit request that includes name, nationality, passport number and requested date of visit. In the DK guidebook I used the fax number is incorrect (it had changed). The current fax is 0216 310 73 29. I had tried to fax to the incorrect number (actually, Nuri and the very kind staff at Hotel Ambassador tried on my behalf even though I was not staying there) without success. The wonderful staff at the Turkish Tourism desk at Dolmabahce palace kindly called the barracks at 0216 566 80 00 and persevered through a few transfers to reach the museum personnel and obtain the correct fax number. They even got the two day requirement waived, as I was leaving in two days. To get there, take the ferry from Eminönu to Harem (actually close to the barracks than the ferry to Üsküdar, though you can take that, too.) From the ferry landing it is about a mile or so walk to the entrance, where you go through security and are escorted to the office where you leave your passport while the museum docent takes you to the small but impressive (OK, I may have a bias here) museum. They display some original correspondence from FN, and have on display the actual lamp she used in making her rounds that gained her the “Lady with the Lamp” title. Interestingly, it looks absolutely nothing like the stylized lamp logos used by most nursing organizations! Rather than the commonly seen “Aladdin’s lamp” style, it more resembles a sort of Chinese lantern… but I digress. It’s just that Florence the über-nurse, humanist, mathematician, epidemiologist, and philosopher is a tremendous inspiration.
    Another cool place to visit on the Asian side is Haydarpaþa train station, built in 1873 with the help of Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany. While Turkish train travel in general is not as pleasant or efficient as in western Europe, and buses generally get you to your destination faster, it’s a cool building right on the waterfront. Take the ferry to Haydarpaþa or Kadiköy (note that this is NOT the same as Karaköy, which sounds similar to non-Turkish ears!)

    Of course no Istanbul visit would be complete without a visit to a Turkish bath. I tried the historic Cihangir baths in Beyoðlu, down a little sokak (side street) off Istiklal caddesi just to the left of the Galatsaray lisesi (school) mostly because it was conveniently located. It was OK but I wouldn’t rush back. The place was clean if somewhat worn. The price was about 50 YTL for bath and massage. I was actually looking forward to a moderate pummeling to work out some of the kinks form traipsing around town, but it turned out to be less than that, more like a vigorous sponge bath. Also, the attendant was pretty aggressive in soliciting a tip. Other places may offer a superior experience, and next time (I do want to go back to Istanbul!) I may try the Çemberlitaþ hamami in Sultanahmet, which a couple guide books and several tourists recommend.

    Another enjoyable jaunt was a visit to the Sunday market in Ortaköy on the European side. Just about in the shadow of the Bosphorus bridge, it is a neat little neighborhood reachable by taxi, bus or ferry. The market was pretty much like flea markets everywhere - a lot of junk - but there were a few nice shops and artists interspersed; women may also enjoy the many jewelry sellers. I picked up a couple nice little watercolors. On the waterfront there are several cafes, but I did not try any of them as I had tanked up at the hotel breakfast. This can be a stop en route if you are doing the Bosphorus ferry ride.

    Also on the European side is Mevlevi tekkesi (monastery), home of the famous whirling dervishes, a short walk from Tunel Square. The last Sunday of each month there is a performance there, tickets sold at the box office at the monastery; check about the time, it was 5PM when I visited. Tickets were already sold out when I tried, but they directed me to a nice little show held at the Sirkeçi train station where they have converted a waiting room area into a cultural performance space.

    In terms of trip mementos, I did purchase a couple nice porcelain plates at Yurdan, on Divan Yolu caddessi in Sultanahmet (just near the tram stop.) Of all the many shops I scouted, this seemed to have the nicest assortment and most friendly, non-pressuring staff; Yavuz was particularly nice. The other thing that provided a sense of comfort and security – even though I am a veteran solo traveler, it’s nice to have a local contact – was having access to Nuri, sort of a local ombudsman who helped resolve the few glitches that occurred (hotel room assignment, return airport transfer schedule). I met him when the driver transporting me to the hotel on my arrival stopped en route to introduce him and I admit that at first I thought he might be another opportunist trying to take advantage of a tourist, but he was great. We did not negotiate anything major like a tour or other services, so no quid pro quo prices were established; I did slip him a well deserved tip. Some folks who were staying at the Ambassador told me he was very helpful both in guiding them in town and arranging shipment of their purchases back to the US. He seems to operate out of the Ambassador hotel; his cell phone is 0533 769 9302. If you look him up, give him my regards from Texas!

    Likely I am omitting things I will recall later, but for info on the usual tourist haunts there are plenty of guidebooks (I really found the DK Eyewitness one quite handy and easy to use) and info sources, including right here on Fodor’s under the Destinations section. Another site with lots of info is www.turkeytravelplanner.com. Lots of good info including descriptions of Istanbul neighborhoods at http://goturkey.kultur.gov.tr/turizm_en.asp A nice site for expats living in Turkey that offers lots of practical info is http://www.mymerhaba.com/en/main/index.asp

    Getting around Istanbul is fairly easy for the ambulatory. (I did see some accommodation for people who use assistive devices such as wheelchair ramps at major sites, but the scale of some of the older architecture is virtually impossible to adapt for easy access. The few travelers in wheelchairs that I saw were smiling and seemed to be enjoying themselves, and I did see several instances of staff providing a helping hand.)

    So, in summary, Istanbul was a great place to visit. A week was a good schedule for a first visit, enough to see the major attractions without feeling rushed. Next time I think I’ll try to put together an itinerary with a few days in Istanbul then on to Cappadocia.

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