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Trip Report Turkey trip report: Istanbul and car trip to Aegean region..part one..

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After a 8 days in Athens and Santorini, I flew with a few friends to Istanbul on Turkish Airlines from Athens. The airline was excellent..comfy leather seats and good service. What follows will be a brief report on my 12 days in Turkey, which will be written in installments.

Upon arrival in Istanbul we took a taxi to the Four Seasons, where we had booked two nights. Taxis are easy to find at the airport and the ride to the hotel cost about 25 Turkish Lira, including an upcharge for baggage. Four of us fit in one taxi. Having heard some bad stories about Istanbul taxis, I will say here that I never had any problems during my stay. Meter was always on and the drivers seemed honest. I always hired a taxi outside my hotel or restaurant and had the doorman write the name of destination on it to forestall any problems. Taxis are not expensive (compared to NYC anyway) and were easy to find.

The Four Seasons has been written about often here so I do not go into much detail. The physical space is very impressive; my room was not very large but was comfortable times ten. The service is what sets this hotel apart. There seem to be many staff members for each guest and they will go out of their way to help guests. Although this is a chain hotel, the feeling is not chain-ish at all. Some of my friends had rooms overlooking the mosques which were lit at night. My room had a view of the inner courtyard and garden area. While the hotel has a roof deck that affords great views, I would recommend requesting a room with views of the two nearby mosques. My room cost me just over $400 US a night so I consider this a worthwhile once-in-a lifetime splurge. Next time I would choose one of the other nearby, more reasonable places. Freiends were very happy, for example, with the Nena Hotel.
On this portion of the trip, I stayed in the Sultanahmet area close to the hotel and did the usual sights, Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia along with Grand Bazaar and Topkapi Palace. For people who are limited to one or two days in Istanbul, I recommend the Sultanahmet neighborhood due to its proximity to these and other sights; they are each walkable from the Four Seasons and the other hotels nearby.

Much mention has been made here about carpet touts and other city hassles. For my part, I did not find the touts too troublesome. Yes, they approach you with all manner of lines intended to lure you into a carpet shop. Yes, they can be a bit persistent. But I used these encounters to ask for directions..for example, "Where can I find good borek around here?" and was always treated with courtesy even when it was apparent I did not want to buy any carpets, or at least not from them. If someone is interested in high-quality carpets, there are many well-known shops that you can find on your own. I visited the famous Sisko Osman in the Grand Bazaar, as well as another very high-end place (Begins with M and has two words in the name..the Four Seasons will know it )located on the other side of the Arasta Bazaar from the Four Seasons. I wish I could remember the name. This place, in particular, was a treasure trove and I only wish I had space at home for one of their rugs. Note that these high-end places do not employ touts.

While I did not find the touts disturbing, there is one issue that I will lpost a warning about and this is ATM machines in Istanbul. While I had no trouble, my friend was approached at an ATM machine by a "friendly" local holding the hand of a small child, who asked if he could offer assistance with the ATM since the machine appeared to be jammed. Well, this "local" found a way to get my friend's card in his hand and quickly switched it with sleight of hand so that when my friend next attempted to use the card it was, of course, denied since it was not his to begin with but probably the card of some unlucky sould who had fallen for this trick a few minutes before. On another occasion, I was with a friend at at ATM when we too, were approached by a guy purporting to be friendly. Of course now we were wary and told them to get lost. So I mention this only to impress the need to be very careful around ATM machines in any city and to avoid using them, if possible, when the bank itself is closed. These incldents happened both in Sultanahmet and on Istiklal Caddessi. There has been a lot of talk about bad stuff like this being carried out by recent immigrants to the city from the Balkans. I have no idea if this is true, but that is what the word is in Istanbul.

Well, on to better things: Food is, of course, great in Turkey. During our stay at Four Seasons, we had two dinners near the hotel; both were good. First: Balikci Sabahattin. We ate outside under a (grape?) arbor surrounded by many locals and some European tourists. Meal begins with the usual array of cold and hot mezzes proferred on platters for you to make your chose, and then moves on to fresh fish. I did not much care for Turkish wine..the drink du jour with locals is, of course, raki, which they order by the bottle for the entire table. Wine is not inexpensive, as compared with Italy, for example, and I would recommend the raki route if your tastes (and intentines) allow. The next night we ate at Hamdi Et Lokantasi (Et means "meat;" Balik is "fish" both words give a clue to a restaurants specialty.) The day before I tried to reserve a table on the terrace which is reputed to have a wonderful view but the place was booked so we ate in one of the dining rooms..place was packed and service is lightening fast, too fast, actually. Here, and in many of the places we ate, English is not spoken by most of the staff but menus have (in some cases rudimentary and funny) English translations and it is really simple to point to what you fancy and order, either from the large platters for meze or from behind the counter where the meats to be cooked are laid out. Food here was good....kebabs, especially. By the way, the entrance is by elevator through what looks like a bakery..take the elevator up following the lead of the guy posted at the door who wioll check your names on his sheet. Here and everywhere else I had dinner, reservations were made for me in advance by the hotel staff.

After two and a half days in Istanbul, three of us set out on a car trip with a driver supplied by Mr. Kutay Gurel from Auto Turkey/Sunday Car Rental. I recommend Mr. Kutay highly; his number is 235 41 31 in Istanbul. We had five days and four nights for our trip. I planned the route and made our hotel reservations and Mr. Kutay supplied the personable, English-speaking driver, 30-year-old Hamdi. I should add that Mr. Kutay told us he has arranged car/driver jaunts for people such as Bill Clinton and US consulary officials. The price of the car with driver came to $1150 USD, split three ways between us. This included food and hotel for the driver and all taxes and car insurance. Our hotels and food, of course, were extra, as was gasoline which is VERY expensive in Turkey. We used three tanks of gas in our full-sized Ford and each tank cost close to $100 USD.

Midday one Wednesday, the Ford with Hamdi at the wheel arrived at the Four Seasons and we were off, via Cannakale, to Assos and our first night's stay in the North Aegean. To be continured....

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