Amazing Istanbul

Mar 15th, 2009, 08:42 AM
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Amazing Istanbul

I posted a quick message last week when we were in Istanbul and remarked then at what an amazing city Istanbul is. We're back home now and feel that way even more so about Istanbul after a 5 night visit.

We left Boston late evening on March 5th. We flew out of Logan on Swiss International. I can't say anything bad about the airline or our flights both ways. There were no problems. The food and drink were pretty typical international airline fare. I would compare it to Air France. The flight attendants were pleasant and efficient. We connected through Zurich for a 2.5 hour flight to Ataturk airport in Istanbul. We had arranged through our hotel for a pick up at the airport. I am glad that we did that never having been to Istanbul, but in the future we would either take a taxi or the train.

The drive to the hotel was only around 20 to 25 minutes and the driver went through his talk about the local sights as we drove along. The Sea of Marmara near Istanbul is packed with freighters and other ships moored along the shore. We were driven to Sultanahmet where we stayed at the wonderful Hotel Empress Zoe. We absolutely loved the hotel. We stayed in the Penthouse Suite and had an amazing view of the Sea of Maramara, the Bosphorus, and the Blue Mosque and Aya Sofya. The room had a private stairway leading to it. The main living room was a good size, furnished in "Turkish" style with windows all around. The Suite had a private terrace with stairs leading to the main roof terrace. The bedroom nook had a large closet with full size mirror and windows overlooking a lush inner courtyard garden. There were views to the Bosphorus and the old ruins of a hammam next door. The common areas where we had breakfast in the morning and a glass of wine with internet in the evening were very comfortable and decorated nicely. The staff was helpful and friendly. I will definitely stay there again.

The weather was up and down. It rained every day but one. We didn't let it get in the way, however. We had warm coats and umbrellas. The first evening after arriving we walked over to the Blue Mosque/Aya Sofya area. We ate locally at a very nice small restaurant near our hotel, Magnaura Café on Akbiyk Caddesi. We ate outside; it was warm enough, and thoroughly enjoyed our meal of fried calamari, mantii (small lamb filled ravioli with yogurt sauce), my husband had a lamb and eggplant dish, and we shared a baklava for dessert. We had Efes beer with dinner. That is the beer we drank throughout the trip. I didn't see any other brand offered.

It was raining by the time we got back to the hotel and we called it a day, thoroughly exhausted. Tomorrow, Saturday, our first experience with a relentless carpet salesman, but not the last.
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Mar 15th, 2009, 12:44 PM
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Second day in Istanbul. Saturday morning we woke to the call to prayer from the small mosque next door and not to be outdone the Blue Mosque. In between "calls" you could hear the echo of other mosques all over the city. Call me crazy, I never got tired of it. To add to the wake up call, there was lightning and thunder over the Sea of Marmara. Every morning I sat at the table that looked over the water and watched the ships and ferries pass back and forth. I never got tired of that either.

After breakfast we headed up to the Blue Mosque area. We were immediately set upon by various carpet salesmen. I was not prepared for the strong sell. We decided to go to Aya Sofya first. It was busy with people and tour buses and as we were not sure where to go we obviously looked uncertain and puzzled. A man came over to tell us that we were at the exit not the entrance and that don't worry he was not a guide. He suggested we go to the Blue Mosque instead as it would only be open for one more hour before it closed at noon for prayer and it was free. I wanted to shake the guy so I thought that if we left and headed over there we would be free of him. How naive of me. He followed us every step of the way and of course he was trying to get us to go to the Arasta Bazaar to look at his carpets. I just put up the umbrella and put my head down and kept walking. My husband on the other hand was being way too friendly. The salesman was encouraged no doubt. He walked us all the way around to the entrance, explaining how we had to take our shoes off etc.

We went in and I told my husband that in no way should he continue to be so friendly. He didn't mind the guy and said don't worry, I'll get rid of him. Well we got to the exit and of course he was waiting across the street, pacing back and forth, looking for us. My husband went out and the carpet man brightened then saw I was not there and started to frown. Well I didn't come out for at least 10 to 15 minutes. Now my husband was getting irritated with me as well as the carpet guy. I finally relented and walked out the exit and down the steps and were immediately greeted by carpet guy. True to his word my husband told him in no way would we be looking at his carpet. He was incensed and said, "Oh my god, I can't believe it". I just kept walking, didn't look up and after awhile realized he was gone. I didn't know if I was going to like it in Istanbul at that point.

We joined the line for Aya Sofya. At the exit we were rushed by men telling us that that was the exit, go to the Blue Mosque. I saw there plan. Get the tourist to the Blue Mosque where there is only one exit and not too much to do inside, so in no time they'll be out and then you can get them into the carpet store. I actually saw the humor in it. I began to feel that I could like it in Istanbul.
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Mar 15th, 2009, 12:51 PM
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I am enjoying your report, opaldog, and am looking forward to more!
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Mar 15th, 2009, 02:25 PM
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..P_M's advice to get rid of pesky carpet shills is to speak
to them in Pig Latin - this confounds them. Unfortunately,
it would also confuse my non-Pig Latino DH!

Looking forward to more of your Istanbul adventures.
immimi is online now  
Mar 15th, 2009, 04:58 PM
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Thank you 5alive and immimi. I'll pick up again tomorrow where I left off today. Writing about the trip lets me relive it. Since I just got back four days ago, it's very fresh in my mind. I do keep a small notebook to jot down things; it's very easy to forget what I did the day before.
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Mar 15th, 2009, 05:16 PM
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Enjoying your report. Thanks for posting; I look forward to reading more.
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Mar 17th, 2009, 04:59 AM
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Aya Sofya, a former church and then mosque is now a state museum. No call to prayer from the minarets. From our hotel room we have a good view of both the Blue Mosque and the Aya Sofya and definitely hear the Blue Mosque. We toured around here and were relived upon exiting that there our carpet guy had truly given up on us. It had begun to rain pretty hard so we decided to run across the street to the Basilica Cistern. This is an underground cistern that supplied water to parts of the city. I've read that it was used in a James Bond movie way back when. It was interesting and got us out of the rain. We were only a ten minute walk to the hotel so we decided to go back and take a break from the rain.

I did alot of watching ships and ferries and trains and seagulls from our hotel windows. Taking a break with the rain it allowed me to still get a view on Istanbul. I could see the street traffic and foot traffic below if I walked out on the terrace. I know that it has been mentioned on this board about the cats and dogs of Istanbul (or Turkey, for that matter). They are everywhere! At night the cats come out and roam the city. They are really like huge packs of rats, but cat lovers wouldn't want to see it that way. They didn't bother anyone and were actually fairly friendly or very aloof. The dogs, which I assumed were stray, had tags in their ears and roamed around alone or in packs. They were large dogs, too. They never seemed to bother anyone and I noticed a lack of dog/cat waste on the streets. I also did not see people with dogs as pets, walking them on the street. The hotel had three house cats that slept all over and joined us on the terrace often.

After our hotel break we decided to walk over to Galata area. Still not being real familiar with the city we walked to Sultanahmet Square and followed the trolley tracks on Divanyolu Cad. down to Eminou where the New Mosque is located, although not new. The ferries are docked down here as well as a large train station. There were political campaign flags everywhere. Throughout our stay we saw many political rallies and trucks with speakers driving throughout the city.

We walked over the Galata Bridge and just sort of hung out on the top for awhile. It had stopped raining and the fishermen were out all along the top of the bridge. Under the bridge are expensive, touristy fish restaurants that our hotel had warned us not to eat at. We got some nice pictures of the action down on the waterfront. We then headed toward the Galata Tower. I have a fear of heights. I have done many of the tall sights in our European travels such as the Eiffel Tower, Sacre Coeur. But I know my limits. I didn't know how I would feel about this. I made my way on to the elevator and could feel my heart pounding out of my chest. We arrived indoors and walked up a winding staircase which brought us to the entrance of a restaurant and a door which took us outside on this very narrow walk around the tower with a railing that must have been 3 feet high. I took a step out the door, but couldn't make myself go too far from the safety of the indoors. My husband had a great time walking around and getting a wonderful view of Istanbul. I could see him from the restaurant windows. It was fairly crowded out there and other people were visibly scared. There were a couple of other chickens standing near the door with me. I did get outside to take a few pictures of the sun setting over Old Istanbul and the Galata Bridge.

From there were made our way down the hill back to the bridge. This time we walked along the bottom near the restaurants. We walked back to the hotel and got ready to go out for dinner.
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Mar 17th, 2009, 12:14 PM
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This is fun opaldog, I am reliving it as I trace your footsteps. Did it seem like a long walk to and from the Galata Tower from the Empress Zoe? We never found the Tower on foot, but didn't really try very hard. The carpet salesmen must have assumed we couldn't afford any carpet, because they usually left us alone, but it was fun to hear the different stories of where they had a cousin or a brother in the US. Keep going.
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Mar 17th, 2009, 02:38 PM
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happytotravel: glad you're enjoying the retelling of my trip. It really didn't seem too far from Galata Tower if you traveled back over the bridge and up along the trolley tracks to Sultanahmet Square. We however, chose to walk back from the tower by way of Eminou and then along the seawall on Kennedy Caddesi, the very busy and fast road along the water. That did take a long time, but it was a great walk. On one side was the wall (Theodosian?) and on the other the water. The freighters rode silently by us in the night. Some were so dark you could only see the light at the front and back. We only ran across a few people on our walk. At one point we were beside a building that appeared to be a government building with a large wall in front. My husband was in front of me and I was about 6 feet behind. As I passed the driveway opening of the wall I noticed a man crouching inside near the opening yet set back watching us pass. I ran by and whispered loudly to my husband, Didn't you see that guy there? He was totally oblivious. Got my blood racing for a few moments. It was definitely an invigorating walk in the dark, full moon, and bracing wind.

We rested up at the hotel and got ready to go out for dinner. We used Lonely Planet and DK guides for this trip, plus the internet. I chose to go to the Sultanahmet Fish House. Tripadvisor reviewed it favorably and their website looked nice. The restaurant was over past Aya Sofya, not far to walk. Of course as we approached the restaurant a waiter came out to try to entice us inside. This happened most everywhere we went. We went in and were seated in the front area at a nice table. The atmosphere was comfortable with nice jazz playing, service was friendly and attentive, but not too attentive, and the food was very good. We started with a cold mezze plate with all variety of vegetable dip-type food with yogurt and bread. We both had Efes beer. We asked about "the choice of the day". It was salt encrusted sea bass. It was brought to the table on a large tray and the waiter poured a liquer on the fish and set it on fire. He then cut the salt off the fish and deboned it and served it to us. It really was very moist and delicious. They were selling this "choice of the day" to everyone. The two other parties in our room also ordered it. For dessert we shared a hot halvah with ice cream, it was a surprisingly good combination. We tried our first Turkish coffee, dark and sludgy. We had a great evening there and I would certainly recommend it. The one surprise was the cost of the "choice of the day". I did inquire as to the cost as instructed by the menu. The waiter's reply was something like, I'm sure it will not be too expensive for you". The fish for two was 80 lira and the total bill was with tip 140 lira. That would be approximately $85 and the most expensive meal we had in Istanbul. In the U.S. we would have paid much more for a meal like that.

We walked back to the hotel with cats everywhere, chasing one another, eating garbage, but staying out of our way. We never had a problem walking around Istanbul at night. Of course we didn't stay out real late, maybe midnight being the latest.

Looking back at this report I left out a whole bit of walking that we did before we got to the Galata bridge. That idea of following the trolley tracks is true, but we just didn't do that on Saturday morning. We did it many days after. On saturday we left our hotel and headed over to the Grand Bazaar just to get a look at it. It was packed, being Saturday. The buses were pulling in and dropping off loads of people. I could only stay for about an hour before I started to feel overwhelmed. The constant selling of goods and being followed everywhere can get to you. I didn't dare look at anything if I didn't want to be set upon by the salesmen. Again, my husband enjoyed the whole thing. We made our way out onto a side street and headed in what we thought would be the direction of the Spice Bazaar. The streets were packed with locals buying everything from clothes to kitchenware to turkish delight. Just about when I was beginning to think we were totally lost and would never find our way we happened upon the Spice Bazaar. It was very much like the Grand Bazaar but with all the spices and sweets. From there we made our way down to Eminou and the Galata Bridge and the report above follows our footsteps from there. More later.
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Mar 18th, 2009, 03:01 AM
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Day Three - Sunday. It's my habit to get up much earlier than my husband and on vacation it's no different. I take this time to catch up on notes in my travel journal and just quietly enjoy the view from our living room windows. This morning the weather looks threatening, as it has every morning. Our plan is to try to do the Bosphorus tour up to Anadolu Kavagi on the 6 hour tour. (sort of sounds like Gilligan) During breakfast it starts to pour so we scratch that plan. Plan B - we walked up to Sultanahmet Sq. and caught the trolley and went over the Galata Bridge getting off at the Karakoy stop. We crossed the very busy street (not knowing there was an underground crossing) and found our way to the Tunel funicular stop. It is mentioned as a must do in the travel books and I was happy to experience it, but it did seem like it was for tourists only. There were a large number of American college students on board talking about towns around the US that they came from; mostly Michigan it seemed. After a very brief ride we got off at the top and looked around for what we thought would be the next phase of the trip, the old street car. We couldn't see where to get on it so we decided to walk up Isktiklal Caddesi, a wide street chock full of department like stores and american fast food, e.g. Starbucks, Burger King, Gloria Jeans, etc. We weren't really impressed with it all and think for us it was a good decision to stay in Sultanahmet. At one point I thought about Beyoglu, and I am sure there are areas in it that would be nice, just not this one.

It was a Sunday morning/midday and the streets were not crowded. We got to the top of Isklital Cad. to Taksim Sq. which was really a large roundabout with a bus terminal and a small square. There was a political candidate up at the top with lots of supporters singing and politicking for him. It looked as though the campaigns were for different districts of the city. We headed down a street somewhat parallel to Isklital and went down a very steep partially cobbled street coming out in an area near the Istanbul Modern Museum of Art, a warehouse along the Bosphorus. If you took the trolley it was off the Tophane stop. It turned out that as it was International Day of Women I got in for free. The museum itself was nicely put together in a large warehouse directly on the water. The view was spectacular. The collections were mainly Turkish artists. It was not a large museum which is to my liking. It was raining as we left the museum so we waited for the trolley and took it back to Sultanahmet. Back at the hotel we made plans for the afternoon and dried out. Next we will get on a ferry to Karakoy.
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Mar 18th, 2009, 06:55 AM
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We were determined to get over to the Asian side of Istanbul as we have yet to travel to Asia and wanted to be able to say to ourselves, "We've been to Asia". We went down to Eminou for the ferry to Karakoy. There seemed to be a ferry every 20 minutes or so. We got our ticket and went on the waiting ferry. We sat outside on top, although it looked as if it would rain any moment and it was windy. It was refreshing to say the least. I didn't know what to expect of Karakoy from reading about it in the guide books. I kind of had the idea that it was a sleepy burb of Istanbul. I couldn't have been more wrong. It was a very busy urban extension of European Istanbul. We got off the ferry and set off in search of Ciya Sofrasi, a recommended restaurant. Almost immediately we noticed and heard the sounds of a rally/protest in a park near the ferry. There were literally hundreds of swat type policemen lined up in large groups all around the ferry area. Many were armed with machine guns. We have seen this in other European cities, e.g. Paris, when any type of gathering is under way. I thought, oh great, there's going to be a riot and everyone is going to be running for the ferries to escape the police. On top of this we were getting ourselves pretty lost in the labyrinth of pedestrian streets in the vicinity of the restaurant. My husband had a totally different attitude and it was a good one; everything is an adventure, let's forge on. Fortunately I went with him and we ended up finding the restaurant.

I highly recommend Ciya Sofrasi. We arrived mid to late afternoon and the restaurant was fairly busy. We asked the waiter who greeted us if he spoke English. As an aside, unfortunately we do not know any Turkish, beyond hello and thank you. We definitely need to do better in this country with our language instruction. All people we encountered in Turkey as well as other countries, seemed to be able to speak fluently a number of languages. The waiter went and found a person who could speak with us. He couldn't have been nicer. He showed us the selections of hot and cold mezzes that were cafeteria style. My husband mentioned kebabs and he suggested that he give us a selection of mezzes and some kebabs. We happily agreed and asked him to give us his recommendations. Another waiter served us. It was the best meal we had in Istanbul. All reviews and recommendations about Ciya Sofrasi were correct. Do go there.

Feeling stuffed and happy, we walked around the pedestrian shopping area before heading back to the ferry. There was no sign of the rally/protest or a single policeman. Vanished into thin air. We returned on a full ferry to Eminou.
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Mar 18th, 2009, 07:58 AM
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I was in Istanbul the week before you and sounds like you had the same chilly weather we did. We didn't have any rain to deal with but only one day of sunshine. We didn't have any problems with pushy sales people but I think it was because my husband's Greek, so many people assumed he was Turkish. I miss all the fresh squeezed orange juice that was available all over the city as well the pides and gozeleme.
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Mar 18th, 2009, 09:07 AM
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How was it on the Asian side? What was the shopping like? Would you recommend visiting the Asian side for someone who will be staying for 6-7 days? I have been reading many things about the Bosphorus tour up to Anadolu Kavagi and I was wondering if it would be worth the 6 hours.
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Mar 18th, 2009, 09:11 AM
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opaldog; We has a similar incident with a rally/protest when we went to Taksim Sq, we thought oh no, what did we get ourselves into. I have no idea what it was, but I have never seen so many police. Then quietly everyone just vanished.
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Mar 18th, 2009, 09:33 AM
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Trish: I saw all the fresh squeezed orange juice, but never tried any. We did eat fresh oranges everyday at the hotel and they were very sweet and juicy. As you can tell, we loved Istanbul.
travelinfool4u: The very small part we saw of the Asian side was really no different than Beyoglu/Taksim. It was very busy in Kadikoy and definitely was the area for shopping. I highly recommend the Bosphorus 6 hour trip. Make sure you go on a nice day. Do have lunch at Anadolu Kavagi. We ate right on or you could say in the water for 12 lira complete. Make sure the weather is good the day you go.
happytotravel: The rally that we saw was all women and we think it revolved around International Women's Day, which made it even stranger that they would have so many police around.
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Mar 18th, 2009, 10:03 AM
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I'm enjoying reading of your adventures Opaldog, and re-living my own in 2006. Istanbul is a wonderful city, one of my favourites - I went in October, just at the tail end of Ramadan and it was dazzling. The weather was hot, sunny and dry and the city imbued with a spirit of wild abandon as sunset approached and the people prepared to break their fast each day. The feasting, dancing, firework displays and live music would go on until the wee hours each night in the vast outdoor area and streets around the Blue Mosque which was steps away from my hotel. Large tents, stalls and lean-tos were set up in the tree shaded parks to cater to the crowds and the food and variety of fresh pressed fruit juices - pomegranate ! - were abundant.

Didn't come across any protests or rallies but the carpet sellers were in full force. I have my own set of irritating stories too... But thats all part of the experience of Istanbul I suppose.

Looking forward to reading more of your trip.

Mathieu
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Mar 18th, 2009, 10:42 AM
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Opaldog - thanks you so much for your great report - we'll
be there for a week in late September and I'll be referring
to your wanderings - they're much more vivid than any guide
book (sorry, Mr. Fodor).

Mathieu - loved hearing about the Ramadan celebrations -
we're staying in Sultanamhet and I hope we will be able
to experience the fun!
immimi is online now  
Mar 18th, 2009, 12:14 PM
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Yes, Immimi, I hope you get to experience some of it. As I said, I went at the tail-end of Ramadan - the last week in fact, - and I was later in Sirince/Selcuk for the 'Bayram'/Eid celebration which marks the end of Ramadan, also a very pleasant quiet festival when I noticed many Turks go on local holiday. Accommodation can therfore cost you more or be hard to get during this time and for this reason.
I was told that the last week was the more celebratory part of Ramadan so I don't know what it will be like if you're there any earlier.
Still, Istanbul is Istanbul and you'll have plenty of interesting things to do.
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Mar 18th, 2009, 12:23 PM
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Opaldog:

Next trip, go to Kanlica on the Asian side and have lunch at the Ajia Hotel. Fabulous old Ottoman mansion on the Bosphorus. The manager of the hotel showed us a couple of the rooms and then arranged (at no cost!) to have the hotel's private launch take us back to Istanbul. A perfect day.
http://www.ajiahotel.com/
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Mar 18th, 2009, 01:55 PM
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Weekender: I do remember Kanlica. I watched a pretty distinguished looking older man get on the ferry at Yenikoy and go across and get off at Kanlica and walk off up the road into town. I thought that was a moment in time watching this person live a small piece of his life moving across the Bosphorus Strait between what appeared to be two affluent ports (if you can get what I mean).

Day Four, Monday - a long day. Monday morning was cloudy but we chanced it and took the 10:35 Bosphorus tour from Eminou. We sat up top and it was sunny and brisk. The ferry made it's way up the Bosphorus stopping at both the European and Asian shores. The landscape toppled down to the Bosphorus crowded with buildings and people. Large Turkish flags flew from the tops of large hills along the way. We went under the Ataturk Bridge and Fatih Bridge, two large spans over the Bosphorus. We passed the Rumeli Fortress built in the 1400's. Near there, although I don't remember the stop, my husband pointed out a "gang" of large dogs that were just sitting high up on a plateau overlooking the Bosphorus. They appeared to be watching the ferry. On the return trip they were gone. The trip up to Andalou Kavagi took 90 minutes. We actually let off passengers on the way up, but did not pick up any. On the way back people got on and off.

When we arrived at Andalou Kavagi we were among the first to get off the boat. We followed signs that took us past all the fish restaurants, through the small town and up a very steep incline that only got steeper and steeper. We reached some stairs and walked past the terrace of a restaurant where the waiters of course encouraged us to have lunch. We continued on and made our way to the top, out of breath but what a view. The ruins of a castle and walls were up there. There was also a small ramshackle farm that was on the other side of the castle near the roadside.

While we were up on the castle which looked down the Bosphorus and up to the Black Sea, we heard the call to prayer. It echoed all the way up and down the Bosphorus Strait. It was awesome. We stayed up there for awhile. There were a number of what appeared to be stray dogs, or perhaps they lived at the farm and plenty of cats. At one point we heard some rustling in the bushes and thought we saw a dog and what we assumed was a person hiding in the bushes. We didn't feel comfortable getting close. Then I heard a bell and lo and behold the "head" goat came out of the bushes and three other goats followed. So much for the strange dog and weird person hiding in the bushes. We thought that was pretty funny.

We walked back down along the road, skipping the terrace of the restaurant. Something we didn't go past or notice on the way up was the large military installation that was at this small town. There were military guards with guns and signs warning, no photos. When we got back down to the waterfront we allowed ourselves to be coaxed into a restaurant and when the waiter heard me say that I wanted to be on the water he ran in front of us and said he had a beautiful table on the water. He really meant it. It was a boat ramp with astro turf covering it. The tables were all at a slant and the water was lapping at our feet, but it was great. The sun was shining, the cats joined us for lunch and we just couldn't believe what a great day it had turned out to be.

After lunch we went across the way to a small bakery that seemed to specialize in items such as meringues and macaroons. We bought some things and brought them back on the boat for the return trip. We sat downstairs out of the wind on the way back. There was an amorous middle aged French couple that was making out about 2 inches from my head, so for comfort sake I moved across the way. We walked outside all along the way and enjoyed watching all of the stops until we got back to Eminou in Istanbul. More later
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