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Trip Report Turkey trip report - Aegean coast and Istanbul Oct2011

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For those planning a trip and for those that can dream (or remember) here are my daily notes from our recent three weeks in Turkey's Aegean coast and Istanbul. It was our second trip like this and we will be back!

Oh no we’ve been in turkey for 2 weeks and I have written nothing – put that down to having too much of a good time and no time to write about the good time we’ve been having? Something like that.

So we arrived in Marmaris on our ferry from Rhodes and immediately hopped into our rented car (hired very cheaply through ‘economy car rentals’ – about AUD $400 for two weeks) a diesel Fiat supposedly similar to the one we had in Italy… supposedly. This one was manufactured in Turkey and felt like it… certainly no frills version, clunky and slow (oh so slow up the endless hills of Turkey).

After dropping a couple of new friends in town, we were off on the fabulous road to Datca. Jaw dropping views all along the peninsula to a pleasant but messy town (Datca) where we at last found a map of the area so we could find the little beach we planned to call home for a few days…. And so it was on further down the peninsula to the first of a line of tiny coves, Hayit Buku. Here we found a small marina with international yachts and a row of friendly pensions lining a pebbly beach – gorgeous! We chose a front room at Ugun’s Pension (newly refurbished and a bit plush for 120 TL), sorted the internet access, ordered beers and chilled out… aaaahhh

Over the next days, in between eating (too much) drinking our duty free ouzo and kicking back, we explore the rest of the peninsula as far as the rather unimpressive ruins at Knidos and visit the other coves of Ova Buku (just beautiful!) and Palamat Buku (probably the best beach but a bit more touristy and without the comfy vibe of the other two). We really recommend this peninsula to everyone visiting this part of Turkey – unless of course the vast tourist haunts of Marmaris and Bodrum are more your style. Of course it’s best done with your own transport – the roads would be fantastic on a good motorbike!

But the rest of Turkey calls. We have a list of possible places to visit along the coast without much information about any of them and just head off hopefully… First stop is Oren on the coast above Bodrum. On the way we pass through the lovely seaside town of Akyaka and stop for lunch over the water, tempted to stay there… But no, on to Oren we go and find a rather strange wind-swept place – a long pebbly beach lined with holiday rentals and the occasional restaurant… can’t find a pension anywhere and the only hotel is decidedly uninviting. It’s a drag after such a long drive but we decide to continue on to the next name on the list Iassos…

Most of the time our trusty gps guides us well and we love her but this time, instead of the more direct highway route, she takes us on a windy mountain road which really tests us at this late hour of the day and we arrive in Iassos just a little frazzled, tired and hungry.

Arriving in a strange town it’s always hard to find out where we ‘should’ be… what part of town has the pensions, and which of those are good… arriving as it is getting dark, next time we really do have to learn a few words of Turkish. We end up at the waterfront where the fishing boats line up and a few little fish restaurants offer the day’s catch. Above are a couple of very basic pensions and we choose the one where the owner speaks a few words of English (always good to be able to communicate even a little)… it’s our cheapest room anywhere – 40TL (that’s about $22) including breakfast – and after a good meal at the restaurant right on the waterfront where the fishing boats land (fish of course), and some local raki (not nearly as good as our ouzo) we sleep well.

Next morning we wander round the hill right opposite the pension, the quite famous ruin of Iassos. We are alone on this sunny but windswept hill and it’s great to have the ruins all to ourselves although just a little bit more signage would help – we get quite lost and have to climb up over rocks and through prickly bushes. Our friendly pension owner tells us there is a lovely beach 8kms away in a place called Zeytinlikuyu and we head off, wind through confusing back streets, and eventually find a gorgeous sandy beach with that turquoise water, a couple of cafes and the obligatory deckchairs and umbrellas… noice… a tasty lunch, a gentle swim and a lot of lying around makes a lovely afternoon.

Next day it’s off again… heading for the little national park peninsula of Milli Park and in particular a spot called Guzelcamli.
But on the way we hit the ruins again – first the huge imposing temple of Jupiter (?) at Dydim. Notable is a rather sad line of shops outside. For some reason the council has closed the road there and they seem to have lost most of their customers… it almost makes us stop to look at an old man’s carpets… almost.

There are three special spots in this area, Dydym, Priene and Miletus, Last year we marvelled at the fantastic site that is Priene… on a beautiful flat over looking what used to be the harbour but is now silted up and provides lush growing land. This time we have to forego Priene but do go to Miletus and are really glad we do. Out of town, on its own in a rather drab area, is a magnificent amphitheatre, one of the most complete we have played on, and many other bits and pieces (bath, columns etc etc). We climb through the tunnels, sit on the seats and play with the great acoustics. The cafes and souvenir shops are kind of funky and friendly and we enjoy a quick lunch of gozleme (Turkish pancake) and salad…

But we have to head on to the coast for the night… hmmmm Milli Park may be great for those who like to tramp and camp and swim but in unreliable weather, with windy seas it doesn’t appeal, and what was supposed to be a lovely waterside spot to stay, Guzelcamli, is not the gentle space we are hoping for… disappointed we head for the tourist lights of Kusadasi where we know a hotel right on the water for 40E a night.

Great decision! The Limon Hotel near the bazaar is exactly what we need. Run by ‘Mr Happy’ who takes that name very seriously (but it’s the only thing he is serious about), it is comfortable and friendly and has a roof top to write home about – and that’s what I am doing! Sitting there with an evening drink, as the sun sets over the little island castle beyond the lined up cruise ships, we are inspired to write about great rooftops we have sat on… there’s the one in Kathmandu with the view of the Boudha stupa (and the Himalayas if the haze lifts), the one in Selcuk with the view of the Selcuk castle, the one in Jaisalmer out in the far western desert of Rajesthan where Rhianon and I lay on our backs and watched Haley’s comet pass over, the one at our favourite Istanbul hotel, the Hali, where the terrace looks out over the Hagia Sofia, the Blue Mosque and the Bosphoros AND the full moon rises out front if you are lucky enough to be there on the right day – and where I am actually sitting now gazing out at the lights of the Hagia Sofia as I write this (I really am behind… Istanbul is still many days away from Kusadasi)… so many rooftops in so many countries – send me your favourites… let’s collect them.

We (or was it just me) had some doubts about staying in Kusadasi… huge cruise boats (three on the docks in front of our hotel) spill out a fresh crop of tourists every day and the local businesses rely upon them of course. There are no real attractions to speak of, a wee castle on the water but other than that just many many shops and carpet emporiums and restaurants and carpet emporiums and bazaars and carpet emporiums… and prices to reflect the kind of tourists they expect. But in spite of it all, we actually like it. The hotel and its very helpful owner helps of course but also just wandering the streets and the shops we seem to meet lovely people and have a really enjoyable time. We decide to stay a few days, wash clothes and get organised again.

Tuesday is market day in Tire so in spite of Tom’s slight resistance to a 60km drive to yet another market (and with Mr Happy’s help telling him it’s a good thing to do and an easy drive) we are off to the hills. The gps goes a bit crazy trying to sort out the new highways and tells us to drive across open fields but we eventually find Tire, not at all what I was expecting (I should be used to that now), a bustling town, clearly the centre of a large farming region. The market is great, cabbages the size of which I haven’t seen since the volcanic soil of Kintamani, masses of beautiful fruit and vegetables and row after row of distinctly awful clothing, hardware, kitchen ware… hardly a tourist in site. We find an old traditional halva shop where they make it in trays about 1 metre in diameter and have to buy some with chocolate swirls – delicious – not as sweet as the packaged version we are used to, and our slab costs us about $1.

Tom chooses a barber carefully (whose assistant has the best haircut) and gets a great hair and beard trim while I wander and enjoy… and then we head back down to the coast and find the beautiful Pamacuk Beach and huge expanse of sand (yes real sand) usually I suspect taken over by tour groups doing all the things they do, paragliding, racing around on quad bikes, driving up the beach in four wheel drives etc etc… but for us, at the end of the season, there is just great Cuban music blasting out from a café and cold drinks in comfy chairs. Oops, near disaster! I life my sour cherry juice to drain the last of the bottle and feel searing pain. A few bees had been hovering and one must have gone into the top of my bottle. I shout for onion and ice and fortunately have removed the bee quickly so although I am very uncomfortable for a while and have a very sore face and head that night, the results are only mild really. Just shows how an idyll can turn so quickly.

After another pleasant evening watching the sunset from our rooftop, eating well at a local restaurant and sleeping like logs in our comfortable room we head off to Selcuk, just up the road but a town we loved last time and want to enjoy again even if only for one night.

Mr Happy rings our hotel of choice, the Bella, but found it full. The owner books a room for us at his second hotel, the Nyarli and although it is a little above our budget we agree. It does sound worth it. Hmmm life plays tricks. We arrive at the Bella to find the owner all hot and bothered. Not only does he not have a room for us at the Bella but the previous tenants of the room we were to move into at the Nyarli have rushed off to hospital in the night and not returned. He can’t really move their stuff out of the room and doesn’t know what is happening. He suggests he can book us into a pension down the road, the Barim, and to thank us for our understanding offers us dinner on his rooftop that night… great! The Barim is probably where we would have stayed if all this hadn’t happened anyway. It’s a bit funky but just fine for one night, and it only costs 70 lire with breakfast (as opposed to 150 lire at the Nyarli). So we save 80 lire AND enjoy a delightful meal with lovely wine on Mr Bella – a very satisfactory outcome.

Our day in Selcuk is very full. We ‘did’ Ephesus’ and Sirince (the lovely little winemaking village in the hills) last year, but there are lots of other sites here… a beautiful mosque, the ancient Basicila of St John (the Evangelist) where he is supposed to be actually buried, the temple of Artemis (the one people thought had many many breasts but which are actually now said to be bull’s balls – even stranger). The temple is a bit of a disappointment – nothing much left there at all – at least it doesn’t cost anything. But the mosque is stately and beautiful and the Basilica of St John wonderful, and following a group with an English speaking guide helps us to understand the great significance of the place. The site, overlooking the town and surrounding valley is lovely too and I take a little movie of it all with the muezzin calling in the background.

Culturally sated we wander the town itself, poke in the shops, buy some of the cool spice grinders we loved last visit, eat at a restaurant in a courtyard shaded by red and green vines and generally relax and enjoy.

Next stop is Pamukkale, the famous white travertines that are in every second Turkey Travel poster… we were there in 1973 with daughter Goodie on our backs (at 16 months) and it’s with a little trepidation that we return. It’s a long but easy drive (especially for me, the passenger) through regional Turkey, over mountains and through rich valleys. At one stage we drive from well over 1300 metres above sea level right down to 245 metres on one long hill – about one kilometre down without stopping (Tom did it in neutral – well, the diesel is 3.80 TL per litre) … I think about how many people I see on bicycles – I just hate to think about riding up that hill!

On the way we stop at Aphrodisias, one of the places I really wanted to see last visit to Turkey and had pencilled in as a MUST this time round. A work in progress that will only get better and better, this is a wonderful site with riches everywhere – a site where all the best bits have not already been removed to European museums. Intricate sarcophagi literally litter the place and the authorities are really attempting to make the environment conducive with a great museum and some bright green lawns around the beautiful gate. Tom and I somehow lose each other in the museum and end up wandering the extensive site (baths, theatre, colonnade and huge stadium etc etc) alone, but meet up for the best bits at the end.

Pamukkale is unrecognisable of course (after 38 years). The hotel we stayed in (in 1973) was at the top of the famous white cliffs, with hot water from the spring pumped into a huge swimming pool and also along little channels around each outside table as natural heating. Such practices have been completely stopped and the hotels above the travertines all pulled down. So many people were using what seemed an unlimited natural resource that the whole wonderful tourist attraction was in danger of complete destruction. The gorgeous turquoise pools were drying up and green algae growing. Now there is a concerted effort to re-establish the ecosystem. Water flow is strictly controlled with only a few pools open for people to play in at any one time. They are confident it is returning to normal but it will take a long time. But it is still a stunning view, with the sun sparkling on the crystalline formations and the luscious blue water of the pools. Tourists crowd the few pools open for swimming but the rest are quite deserted and lovely to wander. You can even fill your water bottle with the spring water (from a tap, not from the pools – yuk all those tourist feet) – tastes a bit chalky but is supposed to be healthy..

After enjoying the cliffs we wander the ruins of Hierapolis, hardly discovered when we were here in 1973… there’s a great amphitheatre and lots of temples, houses etc being uncovered, as well as a 2kms long necropolis (lots of sarcophagi). It constantly amazes me how much work is done (and is still to be done) in these sites. Each stone needs heavy equipment to move it and there are thousands of them laid out and numbered – waiting to be put together like a giant jigsaw puzzle.

We’ve decided to stay three nights at the lovely Venus Hotel - beautiful rooms, friendly helpful people, good food and all for 35 Euros a double. They have a set menu at night for 30 TL but we are doubtful about getting through it all and the waiter suggests we share it – it ends up a filling meal for two with the baklava and Turkish ice-cream dessert a highlight of every day – even the local Pamukkale wine turns out to be very drinkable.

So after one day at the travertines and Hierapolis what else is to do? The next town, Karahayit is a bit of a surprise. Pamukkale is so famous but actually the town itself is a bit of a ramshackle village with no big hotels – plenty of smaller hotels and guest houses, but nothing very classy. We find all this in Karahayit just down the road.

Pamukkale is the home of the white rocks and white water, Karahayit the home of the red rock and red water… not quite on the scale of the travertine cliffs they say (not at all!). We drive around town at least three times and eventually find a spa resort kind of place with pools and cafes and there at the end is the red rock – it’s about 10 ft high and out of the top bubbles boiling hot water which must contain certain minerals which turn the rock rusty red and bright green. It’s surrounded by steam and rainbows and is actually quite lovely, if a bit tiny after the huge white cliffs. There is a range of pools and channels of varying temperatures and we join a growing number of Turkish families soaking our feet and legs and braving hotter and hotter water convincing ourselves that cooking our feet is good for us. Children play (and fall in the warm water) old ladies bare legs that should not really be bared (and not just for religious reasons) and the men get macho about putting their feet into the really really hot water as it bubbles out. It’s a lovely scene on a sunny Sunday morning. Don’t miss it if you are visiting Pamukkale – it’s a real Turkish place, not a tourist in site (except us) and it’s free!!! an unusual thing in these tourist areas.

We have two 1/2 glorious sunny days in Pamukkale but the final night is threatening – and the next morning we huddle inside for breakfast as the wind whips off the outside tablecloths and blows down light fittings under the trellises. Good thing we are off today. I feel for the others just arriving for their day or two here… rain and storms are forecast.

We drive off into evil looking skies but the rain is light for most of the morning and we stop to enjoy the old Ottoman houses and lovely rustic views of Birgi (near Odemis) and to have fun with the girls at the tiny local market (and find some of the spice grinders too – lovely ones for only 5TL! – and they were asking 25TK in Selcuk). But the rain really sets in as we approach the coast and wind along the seaside north of Selcuk. We are heading ultimately for Sigacik a little hideaway near Seferihisar but know there are towns on the water along the way and are open to stopping at any one of them.

It looks like a lovely coast line but the weather is a disaster and at times the rain is so heavy we just have to stop and wait it out. Later we hear of flooding and people getting swept away but at this stage we are just driving and driving through sheets of water. Nothing looks inviting in this weather so we keep going and finally end up at Sigacik… here we just have to stop. The rain is a bit lighter for a while and I ask around – there must be somewhere nice. The chaps at the café say there are a couple of hotels on the main street (hmmm bit noisy) and a pension on the other side of the marina – we look at that and it is pretty seedy – like rooms at the back of a pub. After a few more rounds of the streets we see a big flash poster for a motel and head there… A motel?? It is all a bit odd. Seems like a couple have converted their private house and it has a decidedly odd vibe. There are dogs tied around the verandas at intervals and we enter through the lounge which has a huge plasma tv blaring out a news channel 24/7 and are shown the smallest room we have seen. But it’s only for one night, the owner assures us the water is hot (which it turns out it is not) and we really don’t want to wade flooded streets anymore.

Hmmm… the sky clears a little and we head for town and the fish restaurants that line the bay and the marina. Now we find where we should have been all along. Around the castle (it was all blocked off from traffic earlier in the afternoon because of a local market) we find a pleasant area and the Teos Pension right opposite the water. What a pity… but this is what can happen when you arrive in a strange place without any proper information. If it hadn’t been raining we might have walked around more and found this lovely place but … it’s all ok anyway. After a good feed we head home to our strange dwelling and actually sleep well. Next morning we have to shout and bang to wake our hosts before 9.00am to get some breakfast and pay our bill before we drive off…

Today’s plan is to head up to Bergama (for the ancient sites of Pergamon) and then come back south tomorrow to the little town of Foca for a couple of days before dropping the car and flying from Izmir to Istanbul.

But the rain continues and even gets worse… our lovely (if slightly crazy) gps decides to take us through the very centre of Izmir (right through the main shopping streets!) and by the time we get out of there and onto the rainsoaked highway again we are quite over this driving thing… As the rain gets even heavier and it becomes quite hard to see, Tom says ‘what’s the closest place we can go?’ It happens to be Foca and very soon we turn off onto a lovely road over the hills to the sea again, the sky even clears a little and we feel we have made the right decision.

Foca is lovely, really lovely… a fishing village that has become a bit trendy. Old stone Greek houses, reclaimed after the exodus in the 1920’s and now renovated and beautified, line the waterfront and streets behind. We take a lovely room at the Iyon Pension, one of these renovated old Greek Houses, the 100TL front room with extra sitting room (because it is wet and cold and it will be nice to have a place to hole up and be comfy with a view through to the bay). The owner Umut has good English and is really helpful, recommends a local food place for a warming soup lunch and tells us how to find the Fokai Restaurant, the best fish restaurant in Foca, for dinner (where we try the local Foca wine and decide it is the best so far in Turkey – very drinkable at 35TL). All is well except that with all the rain and standing around in wet clothes and shoes I have caught a bug and fight aches and pains… but the rain continues on and off and there isn’t a great deal we have to do in Foca so it’s nice to snuggle up in the lovely room (I could even call it a suite) and run out between showers to walk up and down the seafront, eat baklava and drink hot sweet coffee.

The rain stays off the next morning for the Foca market, a friendly event where everyone in the town seems to turn out to shop and chat. Beautiful vegetables and fruit are sold by old people with strange headgear and wonderful faces. Huge stalls of dried fruit and nuts tempt us, as do the huge slabs of halva… but we already have a few kilos to drop after the excesses of the past few weeks and resist… well perhaps a few fresh pistachios to go with the local dark beer this evening.

In the afternoon we take a run to Yeni Foca, 20kms down the road. We pass beautiful little bays all the way, bays which would be paradise in better weather, but when we stop the biting wind drives us back into the car quickly. Yeni Foca is where most tourists stay I believe and perhaps in the season, and in sunny weather, it has attractions, it certainly does have a long beach. But I certainly prefer Foca where we are staying. There are quite a few pensions and ‘boutique hotels’ there. We didn’t check the prices on many of them but we did try one of the hotels on the waterfront – the first we came to (can’t remember the name but it has blue and white awnings and is quite near the fish restaurants) and they had reasonable double rooms for 90L. I suspect the others are similar.

On one of our walks to the far end of the waterfront we find the Huzur Pension right on the water – not even a road or walkway in front. It is a bit deserted (rain and end of season) and it might be a little rundown, but what a position!! And they serve food too. Well worth checking further about this one.

After two days wandering and relaxing we feel the need to ‘do something’… Umut pushes us to make the drive to Bergama. The weather is clearing, there are even a few glimpses of blue shy, and he says it is an easy drive and the ruins well worth the effort so early next morning we head off again, this time up the highway north to Bergama. It’s always interesting to arrive in a town you have looked at on the internet. I feel like I knew Bergama from all the investigation I did a few nights ago looking for possible accommodation etc… It is nothing like I expected – yet again… It’s a business like bustling town with parking at an absolute premium. We visit the uninspiring Red Basilica and meet a lovely old man across the road, enjoy a tea with him, and share family photos. It’s the end of the season and I think he’s happy to have someone to talk to… and who knows we might just change our minds and want a carpet. Stranger things have happened.

Towering over the town is the Acropolis, what is left of it after so much has been carted off to the Pergamon Museum in Berlin. The archeologists are attempting to piece together what was a huge and varied site, used by successive civilisations over hundreds of years - a glorious temple of Apollo, a fortified castle and noble homes, an amazing amphitheatre for 10,000 set on a steep hillside - not comfortable for anyone with even a touch of vertigo. We explore tunnels and hidden stairways and climb to marvel at the great views from all sides. Seated on marble slabs we pull out bread and cheese and enjoy a picnic right there in the Apollo temple, huge columns towering above us.

2 ½ hours at the Acropolis is enough for us and we forgo the other attraction in town, the Asceplion, the ancient medical centre, and head back to Foca to catch the best (perhaps the only) sunset we have struck in Turkey. The weather is now glorious and of course we have to leave early in the morning. A final fish dinner at the Fokai restaurant and a good sleep and it’s time to hit the road for the Izmir airport and our flight to Istanbul - a last minute decision in Pamukkale because of the weather and my doubts about a ferry crossing in big seas. We expected to find prices high a few days out, but Onur air cost us less than AUD$39 each. What a smooth trip! The car delivery is fine (thank you economy car rentals), the flight budget but good and the whole experience very easy. We head for the metro at the airport and with a change to the tram find ourselves in Sultanahmet quickly in comfort. Love the public transport here. The trams especially are just so great! Smooth and quiet and cheap and prompt.

So we are back at our old favourite, the Hali Hotel – 75 Euros a double if you pay cash. I am sure there are better hotels in Istanbul but this one works so well for us. It is very close to the tram stop (and if you have pulled a suitcase on wheels over cobblestones you’ll appreciate that this is important). It is perhaps a little tired but the beds are good and everything works – the water is hot, the toilet flushes properly, the breakfast is generous and good, the staff don’t exactly go out of their way to help but if you ask they do have advice to give. The internet worked wonderfully for 48 hours but has now conked out and I have to go to the ground floor to get connected – the weather they say. But most important of all for me is the view. I made a point of asking for a room at the front ‘with the view’ and now as I type I can look straight out the window at the Hagia Sophia glorious, magnificent even in the rain. When the muezzin calls the faithful to prayer, I open the window and revel in the calls from at least three mosques in the near vicinity – a cacophony of glorious sound, they echo the names of god back and forth.

Rain continues and promises to do so until the day we leave – but it is light now (no more floods) and not such a great problem. We don all our warm clothes and buy cheap umbrellas and head for the few sites we didn’t visit last time.

No the rain is not such a great problem, but when you turn a corner and that icy wind hits you – whew! Coming from Queensland I am not used to that… It feels like it is blowing straight off ice and snow.

With advice from our increasingly helpful concierge we head out to Kariye Muzesi (Chora Church) – we didn’t get there last time because the trip seemed too daunting. It’s actually quite simple when you have a map with ALL the tram and metro routes (last year’s turns out to have been an old one which missed out a few routes). Now it’s just two trams and a walk through some rather confusing streets (following a nice old man from the tram) and we are there – the line of tour buses lets us know when we are close. The Chora is amazing – not at all what I was expecting. I thought it would be something huge like the Blue Mosque or the Hagia Sofia but it is actually quite small and rather reminiscent of the churches of Cappadocia, only of course not carved out of solid rock and much more elaborate. The frescoes and mosaics are exquisite and if you listen in on someone else’s guide (and you can hardly help it sometimes) you can learn a lot about the story told through them. I had no idea about the story of Mary (mother of Jesus). Here they show her parents and how they were childless and excluded from the temple until an angel came and told them of their coming child (as they do) etc etc….

After the church and a good browse in the wee shops about it (good value as it turned out) we decide to try to find the other church somewhere nearby – the Fethiye Museum. It is a most confusing area. Most of the time I have no idea whether I am going towards the river or away from it and the kind people in various shops and restaurants try to help but seem to give us opposing advice… we wander in the drizzle for a while and seek sustenance in a tiny kebab shop, sharing the best durum donor we have had – with ayran (that lovely ubiquitous yogurt drink) for 3.75TL (about $2.00), sitting up on stools with the school children. Energised we traipse up and down more narrow streets, it’s Friday so the Mosques are very active and it does seem like a rather devout area (lots of men and women in Islamic costume) photographing ancient buildings and thoroughly enjoying this old part of Istanbul. There is one amazing ancient huge building that we agree would suit a Harry Potter movie, dark and brooding with high walls and barbed wire and after photographing it from all angles we realise that it is a functioning school! Hard to imagine young people still spending long hours in those spooky halls.

And we do finally find the Fethiye Museum – small and not nearly as impressive as the Kariye Museum but worth the trek (and we loved the trek anyway) and then head straight down to the river to find the ferry no longer stops there (at Fener ferrystop) so we have to catch a bus anyway. What a great day in real Istanbul, the people we met so helpful and kind, from the young girl supporting her grand-mother who wanted so much to help us with her few words of English, to the young Muslim students who befriend us at the bus stop and help us to get home, even using their bus card to pay for us when we don’t have the right change. It warms the heart.

Another place we missed last visit was Dolmabahce Palace so next day we brave the rain (no longer drizzle) and the queues to see this glorious place. It’s an easy tram ride to the end of the line (Kabatas) and a short walk along the waterfront which must be lovely on a good day – we battled winds that threatened to blow our cheap umbrellas inside out. Hmmm it is a gorgeous place – totally over the top. I do appreciate that heads of state in those days did feel the need to impress other heads of state and ambassadors, but what surprised me more was the fact that Ataturk actually lived there. After all the man was a soldier … I just have to think his political friends persuaded him that it was most ‘suitable’ for him to do so – or his family perhaps. I may be wrong but I just can’t imagine the man I read so much about living in such spendour from choice.

We are used to doing our own thing very much and it is rather strange to don plastic covers for our shoes (like shower caps for feet) and walk in an organised group from room to room AND we can’t take any photos which takes a certain excitement out of the experience, but it’s a good thing to do on a rainy day and the main reception hall is quite astonishing, Greek columns, trompe l’eoil tricks everywhere, making the ceiling even more expansive. Must admit the harem life looks very stiff and boring – not like the old days at all.

Over the other days we wander the bazaars, not to buy (unless a must-have bargain jumps out at us) but just because we enjoy window shopping and the occasional stop for tea and a chat. So much colour and so many gorgeous things we just don’t need. Aresta Bazaar behind the Blue Mosque is quiet and rather lovely (if expensive) and we again enjoy the streets below it (down towards the lovely Kucuk Ayasofia). We try hard to buy a lovely small carpet in Aresta Bazaar but after looking at everything in the storehouse just can’t bring ourselves to pay the prices asked (and they won’t come down) and leave empty handed.

Everyone warns you about the Grand Bazaar and how the traders rip you off (apparently they pay their rent in gold and with the price of gold so high at the moment I expect bad bad prices) but with a lot of throwing hands in the air and horrified reactions at the first prices and some good-natured bargaining we find that the prices come down to the same as anywhere – just have to know what you want and what you want to pay. The streets around the bazaar are great too and last year we found a pudding shop there which sells the BEST chicken meals (1/4, ½ chicken with or without rice or as a soup – Carsi Muhallebicisi) and head there for lunch often (usually meaning we can’t fit in dinner that day. There’s also the wonderfully atmospheric nagila and tea place near the market (entrance from the main road – you’ll see the chaps preparing the charcoal for the water pipes) that keeps drawing us back to sit back in cushioned comfort drinking the best tea around (and the cheapest) not indulging in a nagila this year but enjoying the ambience very much. There seem to be a lot more tourists and young people this year – last year there were lots of old men, even some sitting around singing together… perhaps it’s the time of day or even the different weather.

One very cold morning we head down towards the spice market but first visit the Rustem Pasa Mosque nearby, small and exquisitely lined with old Iznik tiles. It is said to be quiet and not visited by many tourists, but we manage to arrive at the same time as a huge, very noisy Spanish group… ignoring the signs requesting quiet and to stay in certain areas, they fill the place with excited shouting, taking photos of each other in the sacred places. At last they leave and we enjoy a few moments in this lovely place until the caretaker comes out with a vacuum cleaner and the room deodoriser spray – getting rid of every trace of the noisy tourists. The spice bazaar a bit of a tourist trap now but fun, and in a beautiful building. We taste anything that is offered (yummm) and enjoy our wander and then head into the back streets for great coffee and baklava at back street prices.

So, we still don’t make it up the Galata Tower (just doesn’t seem worth it in such terrible weather) and we miss out on our old favourite, the ekmek bilek (fish sandwiches) next to the Galata Bridge because every time we pass it is simply too wet and windy (but we do note that they have gone from 4TK to 5TL in the past year) but even in cold drizzle Istanbul has delighted us thoroughly. We have not eaten in any fancy restaurants, choosing instead to try the local street food and cheap eateries and have loved it – such great flavours and such value! The Hali Hotel has proven a great haven once again and although we tell ourselves we should try another place next time (and there WILL be a next time), I suspect we will end up back there again – just can’t beat the position and that breakfast terrace!

At the last moment – with bags packed, we are sitting in the foyer of the Hali Hotel deciding where to have our last lunch and I notice a rather nice carpet has been put up on the wall (they have great old rugs everywhere). I casually say to the chap at the desk, “Don’t suppose you want to sell the carpet?” (well it worked with the camel carpet last year) and, surprise surprise, learn they have a carpet wholesale business downstairs (after all hali does mean carpet). They don’t make it a public thing and don’t usually encourage anyone to look at what they have but, since we are old customers of the hotel…. yada yada yada… An hour and lots of tea later, we have bought a lovely small carpet at what appears to be a very good price (almost half what they were asking in Aresta Bazaar). The manager even buys a special bag for us while we are out at lunch and when we return our luggage is all ready to go…

We leave Istanbul as we arrived by tram and metro to the airport and it is all easy and smooth (no not 40TL by taxi – 8TL for 4 jetons and we get a seat the whole way). Turkey has been great to us once again – I hope we are back soon. Istanbul is the perfect stopover on the way to anywhere, Emirates a great airline to fly – and they give you 30kg baggage allowance, so if you really do have to shop shop shop, you can carry it easily.

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