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General Impressions of Istanbul -- Trip Report

General Impressions of Istanbul -- Trip Report

Old Oct 3rd, 2006, 06:04 PM
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General Impressions of Istanbul -- Trip Report

The very first impression -- Ataturk International has a slight musty smell, reminding me of Pakistani airports, but it’s nowhere near as pronounced. Hmm, a first world airport with a slight third world smell? Istanbul, a city where east meets west? Too easy, I think.

The hotel -- On the way to Dersaadet, our hotel, the driver teaches us how to say ‘Thank you’ and ‘How are you?’ We don’t yet know we wouldn’t learn much more than this during our stay. I have only booked four nights at Dersaadet, since that was all I could get (the trip is last-minute), but after spending the first night there, we’re informed a room has opened up. My wife has me extend our stay to a week. Like many hotels in the area, it’s a small, boutique hotel, designed to look like an old Ottoman house from a century or so ago. The architectural details and interior design are very harmonious – nicely done. Who cares if it’s concrete and not wooden? It’s also located as much of the other hotels in Sultanahmet are, a couple of blocks from the Ayasofya, with a view from the terrace – the Blue Mosque and the Bosphorous Strait, in our case. Our room itself overlooks the Bosphorous. The service is impeccable – Umit, the manager, carries our bags to our room, and stands every time we enter the lobby, and all the others are unfailingly polite and attentive. Of course it’s not the famous Four Seasons of Istanbul, as fire extinguishers block entries to restricted areas, and maids can be seen, but at 1/6 or 1/7 the price of a Four Seasons room, these are not complaints at all. Of the one complaint I took note of on TripAdvisor, the size of the rooms, I can only ask how big are these people? Of course, my wife and me are of average size, so we might be unable to empathize no matter how hard we try. Overall, we love the hotel, and don’t mind the potential cringe factor we picked it because – allow me a stereotype here – hundreds of middle-aged Americans on TripAdvisor told us to pick it. That’s the only thing we can conclude after looking at our fellow hotel guests eating breakfast on the terrace. Who else would wear fleece, khakis, and tevas, without socks, no less?

The Blue Mosque -- Upon seeing the Ayasofya and the Blue Mosque, our only reaction is awe. Sunset is falling, the streets are a bit more empty, and we can’t stop staring. The wife and me comment it is a good thing we couldn’t book a room in Rome. Istanbul isn’t in second place at all. We enter the Blue Mosque, and our awe only increases. My knowledge is completely lacking (I think at the time Sinan designed it), so I have no idea the entire interior is covered with intricate tiles. Later I see reproduction Iznik tiles selling for thousands, so I do a quick calculation in my head, and approach a price near infinity for the price of the tiles in the mosque. Of course, a price can’t be put on something like the Blue Mosque (even evolution might allow a pig to fly one day), but if one had to, infinity sounds like a fair price. Our guidebook author calls the interior cramped and decorated with a mishmash of conflicting tiles. We realize our guidebook author is an idiot.

I am also tempted to act the holier-than-thou tourist and call the men in shorts, and women in shorts and uncovered hair, something along the same lines as the guidebook author, if much less harsh. At the least, I think it disrespectful, but maybe it’s my Muslim background that says a house of worship, even a touristed house of worship with hardly a believer in sight during the azan, is for the believers, not the tourists, even if they keep Turkey afloat with dollars and euros. The most egregious offenders are young European backpackers – capris, tanktops, and scraggly hair. But there is also a Chinese tour group consisting entirely of ladies, and a sprawling Persian family, among others. Every guidebook says dress as you would for a church, but then I realize most Europeans, Chinese, and Persians have probably never dressed for church. But even I can’t judge for long, as the mosque is utterly wonderful. I get back to doing what even the egregious offenders are doing – quietly staring in awe.

The Ayasofya – Now I realize I might be prone to judging a bit more than usual, but also disrespectful is french kissing under a Byzantine mosaic on the second floor opposite the biggest calligraphic panel in the world – one that spells ‘Allah,’ no less. They are Spanish, so I am tempted to give them a pass. But my wife thinks they aren’t that cute, so she is not. The interior has scaffolding, and there are several discrete clusters of tour groups in the way of nearly everything, and obviously, some people think the interior romantic, not reverent, but we hardly notice. Once again, utterly wonderful. Everyone must stand inside once in their lives and gaze heavenwards.

Topkapi Palace – The harem section bigger than the rest of the palace? A circumcision room next to a mosque? An insanely bejeweled dagger – ‘Wait, I dropped a ruby from my dagger. Don’t move while I find it. I still want to kill you.’ We don’t know we spend the whole day there without eating a thing.

Grand Bazaar – Ah, my wife and me are glad we’re multilingual through no effort of our own. Sometimes the shop owners speak Spanish, and sometimes Arabic. But mostly they leave us alone, because nobody in the biggest covered bazaar in the world speaks Urdu or Punjabi, and nobody thinks of speaking Dutch – so for that, we’re grateful. They have other tourists to attack. Like the old lady we meet outside, resting after negotiating for half an hour a price of 20 liras after being quoted 40 for each of her seven pashmina shawls. We enter the bazaar, and ask the price of the same shawls in pretend broken English. We’re quoted 15. We hardly negotiate, so consequently we don’t need to rest outside. But that also means we don’t have tales of triumphantly negotiating low prices from ruthless sellers. We buy silver pendants, plates, shawls, chess sets, and pretty much every other useless trinket on sale. I want to buy a painting inside Adnan Works of Art, but it’s $3000. I want to buy a rug, but it’s $10000. According to Grand Bazaar rules, some American was probably quoted $30000 for the same rug, and then followed mercilessly just because he expressed the tiniest bit of interest in it. Poor soul. And God forbid if the poor American was a young woman. But I suppose even the most dowdy ones have never been told they’re gorgeous so many times in their lives. A confidence boost, Turkish men are.

Bosphorous Strait – The Bosphorous has an impressive skyline of Istanbul, and as I look at the domes of all the mosques, I think how visitors of old times must have felt as they caught their first glimpse of the city. The sun shines, my wife’s hair is rippling in the wind, and I begin to think I should move here just so I can gaze at this water for the rest of my life. Then our guide points out a house that just sold for $130 million. This impresses us even more than the skyline, but this also puts all thoughts of moving here out of my head.

Dolmabahce – Utter decadence. Think African dictators. First time I’ve seen a mosque with a Murano glass chandelier. First time, matter of fact, I’ve seen a crystal staircase.

Egyptian Spice Bazaar – Interesting history: spices from Asia for European merchants to finance the neighboring Yeni Mosque. In decline, however, as my mother’s kitchen has more spices and less souvenirs. I’m not sure what the tourists do with all the spices on display, as I’m sure locals aren’t buying them.

Military Museum – Guns and swords run amok. The Mehter military band can be more fearsome than the army.

Yerebatan Cistern – Just how much history is in this city? Take away the platforms and tourists, imagine a Roman in a boat with a lantern inspecting the waters, and then wonder.

Suleymanye Mosque – This is why the Blue Mosque is criticized. Expansive interior, and sparingly used tiles. Wonderful. Find mosques that fit the trajectory – Byzantine to Byzantine-Ottoman to classical Ottoman (Suleymanye Mosque) to Ottoman baroque to baroque, all within a short walk of each other. You can’t see so much in such a small area even in Edinburgh.

The language – Sultanahmet is basically Disneyland. Ignore all claims of Istanbul being exotic. It is no such thing. Credit cards accepted, and everyone speaks English (except the stalls near the Blue Mosque during Ramadan). Our attempts at learning a word or two of Turkish are rebuffed, because no one wants to speak Turkish. They want to speak the language you speak, because only that way can they sell you something, or seat you at their restaurant. We pretend not to know English, so they try Spanish. That fails, so they try Arabic. That fails, so they even try Turkish. Then they give up, which is basically unheard of in Sultanahmet. Outside of Sultanahmet, no one tries anything. They just ask for directions in Turkish, causing us to grin like idiots.

Except for Haci Baba in Beyoglu. (I finally learn, a bit late, a ‘c’ is pronounced as ‘j,’ making ‘haci’ and ‘camii’ and ‘mescit’ words I finally recognize). Haci Baba is a restaurant frequented exclusively by tour groups, but we don’t know this at all. We are in Beyoglu during iftar (fast-breaking in Ramadan), thus all the kebap shops are extremely crowded. It’s pouring rain, and my wife wants to eat somewhere warm and dry (we are soaking wet), so we bypass all the delightful looking open mezes restaurants past the fish market on Istiklaal. We stop at the first sit-down restaurant we see. The man outside Haci Baba speaks Turkish, and we can’t see anything in the dark, so we enter. And find a room full of Americans. We’ve never seen this many Americans in Sultanahmet, or even in San Francisco. The Americans speak English, and the waiters speak English. Even the busboys speak English. I begin to act the holier-than-thou tourist and make preparations to run (ask the waiter for the time, and then pretend we’re going to miss our tour bus), but my wife acts the sensible, hungry tourist and sits. And this is when a middle-aged American lady enters, walks up to a waiter, and says in slow, enunciated English, ‘Do. You. Speak. English?’

The kebabs are decent, however, even as the waiter completely ignores us to wait on a table of Ritz-Carlton guests. How do I know this? The table says, ‘Reserved – Ritz Carlton.’ And what does the Ritz-Carlton staying middle-aged American lady say when she’s seated? ‘Do. You. Speak. English?’ I leave before I can hear it for a third time.

Asking ‘Do. You. Speak. English?’ in Haci Baba is worse than asking it in Holland. Of course they speak English in Disneyland, lady.

Food – Can one tire of perfectly grilled kebabs? Evidently, one can, even if they’re Sultanahmet Koftecisi kebabs. Which is why the Galata House is such a relief, serving Russian and Georgian food inside a converted British prison. We have a pleasant meal for hours. Why hours? The owner won’t bring a check until we finish all the food. The food is delicious, but plentiful. Utterly unique, and a highlight. We decide our guidebook author isn’t such an idiot after all.

As for kebabs, you must eat at Sultanahmet Koftecisi, and order only the kofte. There’s nothing else to order, anyway. You must not eat at Pudding House, which is next door, even if they accept credit cards, and Sultanahmet Koftecisi doesn’t, and all you have is a credit card and no cash. Find some cash. The restaurant at the Mavi Ev Blue House Hotel is decent for the view of the Blue Mosque, and not so decent (through no fault of their own) for the middle-aged American lady laughing loud enough to annoy even the dead of Istanbul, back when it was Byzantium, and not so decent (entirely its fault) for the average food served with French fries, and not so decent (again, its fault) for waiters who ignore you (If you’re not the stereotype of a middle-aged, khaki-and-New-Balance wearing white American, then tell the waiter you are nonetheless an American, and maybe service will improve. Don’t do this, under any circumstance, in a bazaar, even if it’s a small one like the Arasta Bazaar.) Eat at Amedros in Sultanahmet if you need a place to eat at in Sultanahmet, but realize better food can be probably be found at the Turkish restaurant in your neighborhood, or at least comparable. They, however, do provide very pleasant environment and food. Eat any doner or adana kebab on Istiklaal in Beyoglu (But don’t buy any Diesels or Pumas there– they’re cheaper at your local mall). Eat the street food in the stalls next to the Blue Mosque during Ramadan, and drink the pomegranate juice. Eat the corn, but make sure it’s been steamed enough. Eat the jellies served by your hotel during breakfast. Buy sour cherry juice from the market down the street from your hotel and stock your minibar fridge with it. Drink the wine if you must.

Public transportation – Why else is Istanbul like Disneyland? You can go anywhere on the tram, one of the most modern and cleanest in Europe. You wish to go two stops from the Ayasofya to the Grand Bazaar? 1.30 liras. You wish to go to the airport from the transfer station, with twenty or so stops in between? 1.30 liras. You wish to go to any museum, any restaurant in Beyoglu, to the ferry stop in Eminonu, to walk the neighborhoods past Eminonu? 1.30 liras. A jeton bought for 1.30 liras is your best friend.

Not so simple is the bus. Highly irregular, at least according to published schedules. A taxi might be better. And now that I think of it, the tram and metro won’t go everywhere you might want to go. The Rahmi Koc museum is bus or taxi only. Every other tourist site listed in your guidebook is tram or metro, and hence reachable with a jeton worth 1.30 liras.

Overall impression – I don’t think I can ever say enough to do justice to this city. Everyone must go.
EnnEss is offline  
Old Oct 3rd, 2006, 06:18 PM
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Wonderful, wonderful report. Thank you. I hope to go in 2007.
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Old Oct 3rd, 2006, 06:23 PM
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great report! my first visit to Istanbul was last summer - it was love at first sight!!
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Old Oct 3rd, 2006, 06:51 PM
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Great report! I agree everyone must go, it's a wonderful city. Thanks for sharing
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Old Oct 3rd, 2006, 07:08 PM
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Thanks for your report that I enjoyed reading. We leave for Turkey next week.
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Old Oct 3rd, 2006, 07:29 PM
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LOVED, loved, loved your report. When I wasn't nodding my head in agreement, I was laughing out loud. We spent a full week in Istanbul last April and had an absolutely marvelous time like you and your wife. Only exception: the entire restaurant - and I mean just about every single person at every single table around yours - smoking throughout the whole meal from beginning to end.

We visited almost every one of the places you wrote about and have to say that we met almost NO Americans anywhere. Tons of Germans, Italians and even Japanese but Americans? Nope. And we did make an effort to speak elementary words in Turkish which seemed to be appreciated by all in spite of the "negotiating", even with our mangled accents. My husband had the harder time since he is taken for a native wherever we go (Greek in Greece, Italian in Italy, Czech in Prague, etc.) and was constantly approached by other tourists who assumed he was Turkish and spoke the language fluently.

I can also add that I, who am American and Jewish, and my husband, who is Israeli and (ditto) Jewish, thought the Blue Mosque, Aya Sofia and the Suleyman Mosque were spectacular. Like you, we were craning our necks in awe looking upwards while every body part was appropriately covered. Respect is respect.

It would be fascinating to read any other trip reports you've written - bon voyage wherever you venture next !!!
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Old Oct 4th, 2006, 10:19 AM
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ready2travel: Tell my wife about the smoking. She was continually red-eyed. There was more smoke in the non-smoking family sections of restaurants than the smoking section of restaurants in other countries. Of course, my wife wanted to do the Dutch thing -- tap the smoker on the shoulder, say smoking bothers her, and could he please blow it the other way? I explained to her the Dutch thing isn't the Turkish thing. Also, she'd have to tap entirely too many shoulders.

And about the Americans -- in retrospect, they did seem outnumbered, even if they were everywhere. There was a huge tour bus that stopped in front of the Ayasofya, and out came dozens of Indians, complete with saris and joggers. We seemed to hear German everywhere we went. Limited French or Italian, oddly. And the Americans weren't the loudest everywhere. A group of Dutch kept talking over the guide at Dolmabahce about missing their tour bus. An Englishman was trying to impress his Turkish girlfriend by offering commentary on the glittery objects in the Topkapi treasury -- unfortunately, this primarily consisted of 'I've seen that before' or 'Oh, here's the famous, uh, jewel.' Sometimes I like to overhear a guide if they're interesting. This Englishman should never consider becoming one. And do the Spanish like to chatter, so much so that one particularly lady was shushed by others, primarily Australians, on our Bosphorous cruise. Of course, one of those Australians, thinking we could be from anywhere, stood in front of us, gesturing with his hands, hesitant to speak English, but wanting to see a brochure we were holding. Very embarassing for him, but appropriately respectful, assuming not everyone in the world speaks English, even a tourist in Disneyland.

More than you can say about us, since we started entirely too many requests for directions in English.
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Old Oct 4th, 2006, 12:00 PM
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I don't get your calling Istanbul a Disneyland. I have been to both Disneyland and Istanbul and they are nothing alike.

Also, I am an American citizen and I have never worn Teva sandals or fleece in my life. I don't have any friends who do, either. Many people all over the world wear fleece and Teva sandals.

So what if the older lady from the Ritz-Carlton went around asking if the waiters at Haci Baba spoke English. I don't think they minded half as much as you did.

Glad you had a good time in beautiful Istanbul. Thank you for your report.
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Old Oct 4th, 2006, 12:24 PM
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Been to Istanbul two times for two long stopovers in 2005 and enjoyed it.

Your report brought back some nice memories.

Thank you for a very nice and interestingly put report!
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Old Oct 5th, 2006, 09:15 AM
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Intresting take which makes for a refreshing point of view. Thanks.
Femi is offline  
Old Oct 20th, 2006, 07:12 PM
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Great report, thank you. Planning to go in 2007.
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Old Oct 25th, 2006, 09:48 AM
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Thanks for the report. I will be in Istanbul in September 2007. I will certainly refer to this report as I begin my trip planning!
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Old Oct 25th, 2006, 10:37 AM
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Nicely done! Sure brought back many fond memories. But, I too, see no resembance to Disneyland...Istanbul and the rest of the country (I drove a few thousand miles on two different visits) are quite unique in this entire world.

And I also feel that your description of Americans and other nationalities that crossed your path, a bit over the top. We experienced little or none of this.

But, all this aside, your descriptions are nicely detailed..thank you. It should be a help for the many who are planning future visits to this utterly fascinating place!

Stu T.
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