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Trip Report X-mas week in Istanbul trip report

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It was a great 7 days in mostly sunny Istanbul. here is my day-by-day account of it.

Saturday, 20th Dec

We have used Air Serbia flights from Ljubljana to Belgrade and from Belgrade to Istanbul. Very pleased with friendliness and punctuality of this ex JokingAboutTime airliners. Etihad had done a great job putting things in order. Also the price was almost half the price of Turkish Airlines on the same date (although Turkish is flying directly). We have paid 155 Eur return pp. We arrived at 16.45 exactly on time. The immigration process was a breeze, and we were out after 30 min. The transfer to Edibe Sultan Hotel in Sultanahmet area, just off Duvan Yolu, was organised by the hotel. We paid 45 Eur for 5 persons. The provider was a company named something like hotelshuttles, and the car was a new and clean Mercedes Vito, 6 seats behind the driver in two rows facing each other, so very comfortable.
Edibe Sultan Hotel is a new hotel a block off the Divan Yolu area. Being in the epicentre of most important touristic sights is good ... or bad. The hotel itself was opened 45 days when we arrived. It has 28 rooms and a nice lobby to hang around between walks. On our first evening we just stroll down Divan Yolu to the Hippodrome, to see Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque and to enjoy the coloured fountain in between these two monuments. Our first kebab and later turkish tea in the lobby of the hotel, and the travel day was over.

Sunday, 21st Dec

We were up at 8 am, and that was our time for the rest of our trip. Breakfast was both turkish style yet with added variety of some warm things like scrambled and boiled eggs and cereals. It was the same throughout our stay yet with enough variety that one does not get bored. Main target of the day was Topkapi Palace. Divan Yolu was almost empty on a Sunday morning, and we walked toward Topkapi passing by the Istanbul Archeology Museum, where we have stopped by the mobile Museum Kart shop. The 5 day museum pas is 115 TL, and we decided for a longer one (3 days is 85 TL for same number of museums) to give us more flexibility when to visit other sites. At 10 am there were people already strolling outside the entrance to the Palace however there were no line in front of the ticket office. One can hire a guide or buy an audio guide. We took neither. It was almost 2 pm when we finished with Topkapi, and it was also starting to rain (as forecasted by the weather report, almost exactly on the hour). Walked back to our hotel for what become a regular activity each day, a round or two of turkish tea/coffee, served free of charge in the lobby of the hotel. As the rain did not stopped we went out only to find a place to eat something light i.e. a kebab. Another evening stroll on Hippodrome and our first full day in Istanbul has ended.

Monday, 22nd Dec

Since Hagia Sophia is closed on Mondays, and Blue Mosque would probably be too crowded, we have decided to go on a long hike. Down the narrow streets and to the Egyptian (Spice) Bazaar first. Not impressed at all, All the same spices, and same turkish delights. However, to start with, this day started with a glorious blue sky. Thus we did not stay long inside and have instead went outside and to the nearby Yeni Cami. I love the interiors of a mosque, so much light inside, and those carpets feels so soft. Next we crossed the Galata Bridge with obligatory fishermen on both sides. Poor fishes down there in the murky water does not stand a chance against a barrage of fish hooks! To my surprise, some buckets even hold a fish or two. Very small specimen. So all this fishing is more like a hobby. The streets that leads to the Galata Tower are very steep. Luckily there are also some steps. Stopped near the tower to have a pit stop and a coffee/tea, and we continued further toward famous Istiklal Street. True passenger main street, plenty of people walking up and down, and an old tram connecting the Tunnel with Taksim, plus some street musicians makes for a very pleasant experience. In the middle of this street there is Santa Maria Draperis Church, and it was only proper that on the eve of the Christmas we entered and inspect how they arrange the Nativity Scene. After a while we reached Taksim square, with now also obligatory special police squad and a water canon. Two way down: by funicular to Karabates tram station or by foot the way we came. To save some money we did the second one. Sun has already started to set down, and we reached Galata Bridge too late to take any fine sunset photos. However the brightly and colourful lit (infamous) fish restaurants below the bridge were good substitutes. This was one long day on foot, and the way back up to Sultanahmet and our hotel was way longer than when we did it in the morning.

addendum to Monday, 22nd Dec

My wife found that I missed reporting about a mosque with great tile work. It is Rustem Pasa Mosque, just behind Spice bazaar. it is somewhat difficult to find the entrance so this is how we did: once out of the Spice bazaar and looking at the Golden Horn, we turn left and walked to the upper end of a parking lot. A mosque compound wall is already visible. We found nearest small street and walked up until next street right. About 50 m in the street there is a narrow flight of steps. if some people would not walked down we might miss the. However, as I recon, there was also a plaque with the name Rustempasa Cami. Up the stairs and around the corner is the entrance to the mosque. Inside you will find some of the best tiles fallen walls from the height of the Iznik period. As many other buildings also this one was designed by architect Mimar Sinan.
On a side note, it was great that my wife has just finished to watch the finest of all Turkish TV series, Suleiman The Magnificent. This 80-part series portrays the life of greatest of all Ottoman sultans in great details, together with lives of his most prominent men. Thus we were treated to many interesting details about buildings and people and stories behind those buildings.

Tuesday, 23rd Dec

Another beautiful sunny day! So we wanted to stay out as much as possible. We walked in the opposite direction as previous day, towards Grand Bazaar. But first we stopped at an old cemetery off Divan Yolu, before Cemberlitas.
Here we got one of those "You tourist are my best friend" lessons. While looking for the entrance to a grave chamber, an older man approached us and asked if we need help. Then he showed us twhere to enter, and continued to gave us some useful informations about the history of who was having their last rest place there. OK, I thought, an impromptu guide, no problem, 10 TL will make him happy. After about 15 min chatting with this guy we were ready to continue on our journey, and I offered him money. He looked at me with a stare as I was offending him. "You are my friends, my turkish hospitality does not allow me to accept any money. Instead I am offering you a cup of turkish tea!". Oh, from bad to worse. Half unable to just show him my back and walk away and half curious to show my friends how in real life a nice "bait and hook" technique is working, we followed him to his carpet shop. Upon entry I assure him we are not into buying anything. His boy brought us tea, and while sipping it the man (politely) tried to sell us something. From carpets down to cilim to bags and when the tea cups were empty, we settled for a small toiletries bag. At 35 TL we heavily overpaid it, but as all the lessons in our life. also this one came with a price. Ready to leave, he shake our hands, and to me he said"Please give my boy some basis. 10 TL will be enough". Heck, now I have to pay also for the tea?! So I gave the boy 5 TL for the tea (OK, it was basis) and out of the shop we were. Now I am sure that almost any first time visitor is a "victim" of a same or similar "selling technique". The bad thing is, once you pay for the lesson, if you want to avoid further ones you need to become quite a rude visitor, stepping away from anyone approaching you, and in general being non polite and down unfriendly. Not my idea how to enjoy another country's local culture and people.
So, finally arriving at Gran Bazaar we first visited the nearby Nuruosmaniye mosque; being very uncrowded, it was one of our best experiences. The Grand Bazar is, well, the Grand Bazaar. To my upmost surprise, sellers inside the bazaar were much more polite than the restaurant touts or shopkeepers outside. So we have a leisure stroll around several alleys exiting on Mahmutpasa Sokak where we were trying to reach one of the most impressive mosques, Suleymaniye Mosque. We made some shopping further away from Grand bazaar, for prices that were 2-3 times lower, and also had a quick lunch in one of many food places that are in that neighbourhood. Arriving at Suleymaniye Mosque we were treated to a fabulous view over the Gold Horn and to the modern part of Istanbul. The mosque itself was nice inside, and with very few visitors. Going back to the hotel we passed through university campus. Unfortunately, there is a major road work that blocks the main entry to the University and its park. So only a few photos of the old palace and the big flags. After 5 o'clock tea at the hotel, we went to see if light is any different at Hippodrome, and after a quick dinner we ended also this day.

Wednesday, 24th Dec

yet another beautiful sunny day was waiting outside. The average daily temperature on a sunny day was around 14 degrees Celsius, so only a light jacket was needed. The target of today was Hagia Sophia. Arrived early there were no cues so we enter this magnificent building quickly. Inside, well, there have been posted so many photos I really should not waste any time and space to describe it. Only one thing, left half of the main room was blocked by a huge scaffolding as there were some renovations going on. It does impact the grandeur of the whole place a lot. So another excuse for us to make a return trip when those renovations will be ended. Also, for photographers, no tripod is allowed to enter the premises. There are x-ray machines and even a small Gorillapod needed to be handed over to police (I've got a sticker with number placed on my Musem Card to withdraw it at exit). The light inside the place is much dimmer than in other mosques, because this was originally an Eastern roman church. However, today's quality of modern digital cameras make a good job also in such conditions, and using tripod is really not need if not for critical pro job. As expected the place inside was very crowded, about 10x the number of people we have met in other mosques. At any account it is a must see and to be experienced for anyone visiting Istanbul. One remark: just before exit, on the left hand side, there is an entry to a yard where there are mausoleums of several sultans (?). I've missed them but my wife didn't and she said is very interesting area to explore. It must have been as I have waited for her about 45 min outside. Luckily people watching in Istanbul is also excellent ... and free of charge.
Exiting the Hagia Sophia we went to explore near standing, and much smaller Hagia Irene. It was not open to public for many years, and my wife told me that it was used for concerts and exhibitions mainly. Inside there is almost nothing to see ... but a place has a certain positive vibe. Walking past main entrance to Topkapi Palace we have seen much more people as on Sunday, and a lot of school groups. Visiting museum is not my forte, but my wife and daughter cannot pass by one, so we entered the nearby Mueum of Archeology. Luckily for me there is a nice cafe in the garden outside so I was able to have my turkish coffee fix and to skip some rooms. Others were of interest to whoever has interest in old artefacts and history etc.
It was already late afternoon when we ended with our tour of museum for this day, and just enough time to have a leisure walk in the park. Gulhane Park is the biggest green area in that part of Istanbul. Lovely big trees, and if in season, many flowers can be seen, specially tulips in April/May. What surprised me was the huge number of exotic birds nesting on the trees in the park. I was able to identify the green ones as parrots however only after googling for it I learned that the species is Alexandrine Parakeets (Psittacula eupatria). As photographing birds is our newly adopted hobby we quickly switch the lens and as the light was great, we came home with some good photos of this exotic looking bird. Higher up the trees we have spotted also herons yet they were too much screen behind the many branches to get any usable photo.
As we have skipped the lunch, we were already hungry so a quick stop at the kebab place was in order, and after some coffee and tea in the hotel, we exited again to have a dinner. On this forum I've noticed a few restaurants being recommended in a walking distance from our hotel; Gulhane Kebab House is one, yet its prices were too high for us. So we returned up the street to Ayasofya Kebab House. A tiny place, friendly staff (owners?). The food itself was not above average, though.

Thursday, 25th Dec

After Hagia Sophia it is only proper to visit also the one on the opposite side of the Hippodrome, the Sultan Ahmet Mosque aka Blue Mosque. What was new? Well, not the weather as the sun shine again. More people around the mosque, that was obvious from first glance. So we stopped first to have a visit to recently re-opened Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts. The best part of this museum, for me anyway, is its terrace overlooking the Hippodrome and with great views to Hagia Sophia on the left and Sultan Ahmet Mosque on the right. And talking about recently opened venues (our hotel 45 days ago, this museum 7 days ago) there was a small counter with a nice young lady selling turkish tea on that terrace - opened just that day! While others were browsing the rooms (and I did catch up with a school tour myself, and did not regret doing it) I was sipping the hot tea (unfortunately from a paper cup) on a shaded terrace while watching the folks walking below, in a nice sunny day, on a warm x-mas day in the middle of Istanbul Does it gets any better than that?!
Finishing the museum we entered the mosque. Much brighter than Hagia Sophia, however the wow factor escaped us, maybe also because at that point of our trip we have seen our share on nice mosques. Anyway one must visit this one also. Below the mosque is a small bazaar (one street only) and another museum, The Mosaic Museum. It is made on a site of a discovery of a villa from a Romans times, where mosaics were found in great condition. Small but colourful and interesting museum, just the kind I like them, so no skipping it for me. From Blue Mosque we headed toward sea side part of Sultanahmet area, where my wife was about to look for more of Mimar Sinan works. First we stopped at the small garden/park in from of the Museum of Education, to have a view over the endless number of cargo ships anchored out in the sea. Next it was Sokollu Mehmet Pasa Mosque (the guy came from our parts of the world). It was closed so also the man that was about to do his prayer needed to do it outside. It seems that there are always carpets stored away to be used in such an occasion. Afterward we have just browsed the maze of side alleys, mainly those going lateral, as the hill here is quite steep. All kind of hotels, some looked very expensive (boutique) while others were modest to right unappealing ... all judged from the outside. returned slowly up towards Divan Yolu, more tea and coffee and we were ready for our x-mas dinner. Nothing fancy, really. On our second day we ventured to the far end of infamous restaurant street and the last one has the lowest prices (what a surprise, yes?!) and since the guy who was responsible to lure unaware clients into the "trap" was in fact kinda nice fella, and since he decided that I am his "brother of another mother", well, after some haggling we established the price for the beer on that day, and have returned to rehydrate every evening since. As we were asked over and over again if we want to eat there, we balked down on this occasion. Establishing the rules (no meze, no service charge, bread free, 10% discount on food) we ordered our x-mas dinner turkish style. Most of orders were guvec, with different type of meat. When the food arrived, it looked great, and later it also tasted great and delicious. Not only it was hot (it arrives in a clay pot) but also has enough of spices inside. So that was the best meal of the tour, and it reminded us on what we have eaten on our three previous visits to Istanbul. The final bill was a reasonably acceptable 175 TL, 3 beers and 3 apple teas included. If only the waiter would not wanted to talk with us all the time! But being the only clients for most of the time, I cannot blame him.

Friday, 26th Dec

The x-mas was over and so were the sunny days. Grey clouds have overacted the sky but not us. If it would be another nice warm sunny day, we would take a ferry to Asian side. So we have to execute Plan B. It was a visit to Dolmabahce Palace. Tram T1 goes to Karabatas and Sultanahmet Station was very close. There were machines to sell both Istanbul Kart and jetons. As it was our last day and only one ride we opted to buy jetons at 4 TL per person. However for any longer stay buying an Istanbul Kart is much better and cheaper option. Tram was full but not crowded, and also there was only a short line in front of Dolmabahce Palace. We bought a combined ticket for Selamlik (official part) and Harem (privy chambers) at 40 TL. Cash only but there are two ATM machines next to ticket booths. Both tours are guided, or better, escorted. No photography is allowed, they are very strict about it. One cannot take photos even from the entrance to the reception hall; or better, you will be yelled at if taking pictures but nobody will take your camera or similar. If really really in a need to have photos of one of the opulent chandeliers activate no flash option on your camera and do it not very obvious. Why I have said escorted group? Because a group of at least 50 persons can never be a guided group. Nor does the guide have spoken loud enough for all of us could hear him, nor they were using any electronic gadgets to help them (and specially us). And the pace is very fast, like a march through corridors with occasional stop at bigger ones, and a peek into rooms that we were passing by. 45 minutes top last the tour. Next we went to Harem. The group here was smaller but the tour even faster, with minimal information given by the guide/escort. If official part was at least interesting with its abundant crystal and lot of golden walls and red carpets, harem was a big disappointment. If only the view of the hammer would be possible, all the rest can be skipped, IMO. As a free bonus we went to see the exhibition of paintings from the period of Ottoman sultans (mostly the latter years of it). That one was non guided and even me I was able to stay inside for as long as the other two tours together. All in all, 3 hours later we exited this place, and it rained again. Back on tram, to the hotel, tea, coffee and when the rain slowed down, last visit to Grand Bazaar for souvenirs shopping. Strolling up and down little alleys lined with small shops (about 6000 if I am correct) was OK, shopkeepers were not too pushy, and here and there were even fun. Some money has exchange hands, some haggling taken place, some discounts obtained, and at the end of the day I think everybody was happy.

Saturday, 27th Dec

Departure day is always a sad day ... and a happy day. For sad, everybody knows why. For happy day, for us it is if the trip ended well, and the most of our targets have been reached. It has still rained, and due to both my miscalculation of departure flight time and the long drive we have had on arrival, we started at 12:00 for our flight at 16:30. The morning was used for preparing the packing (my wife) and for spending last turkish liras (me and my daughter). Same company and same vehicle came to pick us up, and they were 15 min early. The return drive was 35 min only, door to door, so we have had ample time to browse many shops in the huge Ataturk airport. Flights back home were punctual again, so we return on time at 20:00 to be greeted by a freshly fallen snow. Just right, it is winter time and New Year without a snow is not much fun.

All-in-all it was a good trip. Our friends first one, and they loved every aspect of it. I have checked ours, we have been there in Nov 2000 and May 2003, 5 days each time, and my wife in 2007, on her own. I hope we will not wait another 10 years to make another visit.

About 2000 photos has been taken. Once through them I will post a link to a web site.

I wish many great travels to everybody in 2015! Have fun.

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