All in all, my eight day in Istanbul (and supposedly my first day in Santorini) was the worst day in my entire 22-days trip. That’s because Olympic Airlines had major screw ups with all my flights. Case in point:
The flight from Istanbul to Athens was severely delayed. For some reasons, after cruising the runway for an hour (I didn’t realise, I was asleep), the plane had to go back to terminal to refuel. That resulted in a two-hour delay in our flight
By the time we reached Athens, obviously we have missed the flight to Santorini on Aegean Airlines. Major bummer. But we held our chins up and checked for flights to Santorini
Turned out that Olympic Airlines had the next earliest available flight to Santorini on the same day at 8.15 p.m. So Liping and I forked out an additional EUR100+ to get additional tickets
But for some fucked-up reason, even this flight was majorly delayed. By the time we eventually got up the plane to Santorini, it was already 10 p.m. plus at night.
So what did we do to make the whole situation less distressing? Well, if you are as optimistic as me, you’ll find joy in the smallest way:
Liping and I had a haircut. Right here at Athens Airport while we wait for our evening flight to Santorini. The damn place looked so stylish that we gave in to the temptation… over a coin toss. LOL. Mine cost me EUR35 and it wasn’t that nice (I think some of my cuts at QB House were better) but a novel experience nonetheless, especially when your hairdresser needed to ask you to speak in English slower
Find joy in the entire flight delay situation. We gotta be the smallest group onboard an airplane, ever. Less than 20 of us in total, including a baby. LOL. When we boarded the train, a very disgruntled stewardess was standing along the aisle with a pissed-off look on her face, arms crossed over her half-buttoned chest. Liping was right when she commented that the stewardess looked more like a porn star than a stewardess.
True to the Greek-spirit, the moment we settled down in our seats, the flight took off in less than five minutes and we reached Santorini in a record-time of 40 minutes.
There was only one baggage claim conveyor in the airport. The entire airport setup was almost a joke. There was no passport control to speak of, and visitors can actually walked into the arrival hall to greet their friends. Even Phuket Airport was more established than that!
So we were off to our hotel guided by our poor host, Lefteris from Hotel Antonia. He must have been waiting for us on and off the entire day. I felt so sorry for him… and yet he was so friendly and helpful, we felt totally undeserved of his hospitality.
I was totally impressed by Hotel Antonia (check out the hotel review here) was a God-sent. Absolutely heavenly. Let me tell you why:
The owner came to the airport to pick us up! I felt so bad to keep changing the pick up time due to the flight delays, but he never complained
The room was superb. Heater, private bathroom, wardrobe, fresh towel everyday… even our very own balcony!
The family who runs the place was very friendly, and speaks English very well… and coffee every morning!
This hotel in Fira, while not located right next to the Caldera, was a mere 5 minutes walk to the town centre.
Best of all, it was EUR28 per night for the two of us. I guess in summer the price will be higher, but at the winter time we were visiting, we are not complaining. Absolutely recommended. If you going Santorini, stay here.
When we are done choosing our bed (idiot Liping went for the double bed, and I went for more bathroom space), it was already 11.30 p.m. when we headed out to check out the nightlife in Fira. To be honest, it was way quieter than I thought it will be, but considering the winter months, I reckon tourists were really scarce.
That’s why when we visited the pub Kita Thira, and then Town Club, we are easily the only foreigners around. The crowd was decidedly local in a good way, but we must have been so Asian that no one really talked to us. Perhaps it was too late in the night for a dose of Greek hospitality.
Modern Greek music and mainstream are just right for the charmingly kitsch landscape of the upbeat Town Club. During our stay this is one of the VERY few places open in Fira (afterall, it’s winter), so we were lucky the place was pretty happening on a Wednesday night. The crowd seems to know each other, mainly youths in their late teens and early 20s, and they are absolutely friendly. After some minor hiccup and shy stares, one guy came up to me, ascertained that I speak English, and asked me to dance with them… of which I did.
Fun night indeed. Thanks, Christy, for your hospitality!
It’s day 7 in Istanbul, and to be honest, both Liping and I were getting a little tired of the city. I think spending such a long time within one city was not really a great idea. Thank goodness I planned to spend my nine days in Greece split between Santorini and Athens, so it wouldn’t be that bad.
Anyway, back to Istanbul.
This was going to be our last day of really touring the city as we have an early flight from Istanbul to Athens the next morning. Freshly recharged from our cruise yesterday, we decided to visit the Princes’ Islands – the last spot unvisited by us but recommended by Lonely Planet.
Princes’ Islands lie about 20km southeast of the city in the Sea of Marmara, and make a great destination for a day escape from the city. In Byzantines times, refractory princes, deposed monarchs and troublesome associates were interned here in convents and monasteries, hence the name “Princes’ Islands”. You’ll realise after landing that there are no cars on the islands, something that cones as a welcome relief after the traffic mayhem of Istanbul.
There are nine islands in the Princes’ Islands group, and the ferry service stops at four of them. The first two stops at the small islands of Kinalida and Burgazada offers little incentive to actually alight from the ferry. The real deal was located at Heybeliada and Buyukuda.
The charming island of Heybeliada (Heybelie for short) has much to offer. It’s home to the Deniz Lisesi (Turkish Naval Academy), which you’ll see to the left of the ferry dock as your arrive, and it has a number of restaurants and a thriving shopping strips, with bakeries and delicatessens selling picnic provisions to daytripper. Above is a shot of me and three sailors, obviously heading to the naval academy.
Liping, Jose and I rented a “feyton” (carriage pulled by two horses) for a long excursion around the island. The trip took about 40 minutes, allowing us to take in the various sights of Heybelie. It was refreshing not having to walk everywhere, and with the help of Lonely Planet I managed to identified a few landmarks along the way. I even manage to do a little video at a pit stop.
By the end of the ride, it was time for us to have a quick lunch (which was satisfactory – yet another grilled seabass!) and head for the next destination.
The largest island in the group, Buyukuda is impressive from the ferry, with gingerbread villas climbing up the slopps of the hill and the bulbous twin cupolas of the Splendid Otel proividing an unmistakable landmark. It’s a truly lovely spot to spend an afternoon.
The island’s main drawcard is the Greek Monastery of St. George, in the saddle” between Buyukuda’s two highest hills. We read many great things about this monastery, but we totally underestimated the amount of walking we need to reach the place (famous for its paranomic views from the terrace and Yucetepe Kir Gazinosu). When we reached Luna Park, where another 45-minutes of very steep climb up to the monastery awaits us, we decided to turn back since the sun is already setting and we wanted to catch the next ferry back to the mainland.
After a fond farewell to Jose and promises to write to each other, Liping and I crossed the Galata Bridge to visit the famous Galata Tower, which we never manage to visit during daytime.
The cylindrical Galata Tower stands sentry over the approach to “new” Istanbul. For centuries the tallest structure in Beyoglu, it domainates the skyline north of the Golden Horn. The paved public square surrounding the tower was created by the municipality as part of the ongoing Beyoglu Beautification Project and it’s been a big hit with the locals of all ages, who gather each day to play football and backgammon, drink tea, buy food from the street vendors and swap local news.
After Galata Tower, we went to the famous Seafood Market Street at Istiklal Cadessi for our last dinner in Istanbul. No surprises for guessing we had grilled seabass again. It was a rather satisfying dining at the busy street, with many locals and tourists mingling along its cobbled pathway.
We made our way back to Bahaus after dinner as we were told earlier there will be a belly dancing show at the bar at about 9 plus. True enough, by the time we reach the bar, it was rather packed with many eager fellow backpackers waiting for the show to start. Met up again with my Finnish friends, plus Steve (the Cambodian guy who is working in Australia – I hope I got that right!), Lucky (the Korean guy who bought a whole bottle of Raki – Turkish vodka – and offered shots all around and was mainly responsible for the amount of drunkeness that night) and a couple of others.
The belly dance was a great success, and a subject of many hilarious moments. I stayed on till late into the night with the gang until they decided to do some pub hopping. Regrettably I was unable to join them since I will leaving the hostel early morning the next day. So it was with a heavy heart I took some final photos with and bade farewell to many of my new found friends. I hope we will keep in touch – thank god for Facebook, LOL.
After a hectic first five day, Liping and I slowed down a little for today. We just want to relax a bit, eat something nice, look at some gorgeous view without a lot of walking.
So we did the Bosphorus Straits Cruise.
The mighty Bosphorus Strait runs from the Sea of Marmara at the Galata Bridge, all the way to the Black Sea, 32 km north. The strait’s name is taken from ancient mythology, roughly translates from ancient Greek as the “place where the cow crossed”; (it’s a long story). The strait separates Asia and Europe, both shores densely populated and have attraction galore for the day visitor.
Liping and I took the Bosphorus tour which make many stops along the way, including Uskudar, Besiktas, Kanlica, Yenikoy, Sariyer (where most visitors will alight), Rumeli Kavagi and finally Anadolu Kavagi, where we stopped for an hour or so before making another trip back to Emimonu.
Along the way, we took in the many great sights along the shores of Bosphorus. One of the highlights was the famous Bosphorus Bridge. For millenia, crossing the strait meant a boat trip – the only exceptions were the few occasions when it froze. Late in 1963, the Bosphorus Bridge, the fourth-longest suspension bridge in the world, was opened. For the first time there was a physical link across the straits from Europe to Asia. Traffic was so heavy over the bridge that it paid for itself in less than a decade.
During the two-hours journey, Liping and I took in many interesting sights, most of which were properly photographed by yours truly. The weather was cold and crisp, the sky was a little overcast, and everything was pretty serene. We found ourselves to be relaxing onboard… just what we needed.
At the end of the journey, we spent about two hours at Anadolu Kavagi, where the Bosphorus excursion ferry finishes its journey. It’s a pleasant spot in which to wander and have a seaood lunch at one of the touristy places on the square in front of the ferry terminal.
I had the best seafood meal in Turkey right here at Anadolu Kavagi, although the touting scene here was not for the fainthearted. I think we easily spend hour over the leisurely lunch. Liping and I enjoyed ourselves very very much.
After the hefty lunch, we made the somewhat-steep climb up the hill to an ancient Byzantine fortress. Perched above the village, the ruins of Anadolu Kavagi Kalesi wasa medieval castle that originally had eight massive towers in its wall. First built by the Byzantines, it was restored and reinforced by the Genoese in 1350, and later by the Ottomans.
This was where the Ottoman army watched out for invading armies, traveling into Turkey from the Black Sea (in the background) for the Bosphorus Strait. Standing at the ancient ruin was an experience to behold. Liping and I took about half an hour to walk up from the village to the top of the hill here, and it was well worth it. Though the site was littered with debris (picnickers, probably), the spectacular view of the Black Sea was worthwhile.
We rushed back to the terminal just in time to catch the return ferry. We eventually got back to Emimonu, went back to Sultanahmet for dinner, had a long shower, went up to Bahaus bar for some drinks and hang out with some fellow backpackers. I stayed on at the bar quite late with drinks and stuff, and it was then I get to know three Finnish friends who have just arrived at the backpackers place – Yasmin, Erno and Marko. But the poor things were soooo tired that we didn’t get to hang out late into the night, so consideringly, it was an early night for me.
Liping and I had pretty ambitious on our itinerary for Day 5 in Istanbul. Not only we wanted to look at the famous Topkapi Palace, we also wanted to make a trip down to the Asian shore of Istanbul, to the town of Uskudar.
So, first thing first.
Home to Selim the Sot, who drowned in the bath after drinking too much champagne; Ibrahim the Mad, who lost his reason after being locked up for four years in the infamous palace kafes (cages); abd Roxelana, beautiful and malevolent consort of Suleyman the Magnificent, Topkapi would have been the subject of more colourful stories than most of the world’s museums put together.
The best feature of the palace, in my opinion, was the Imperial Treasury. This treasury houses an incredible collection of precious objects made from or decorated with gold, silver, rubies, emeralds, jades, pearls and diamonds, as well as valuable artefacts of Muslim history. It was here where I saw the tooth relic and casted foot print of Prophet Mohammed. It was kinda… spooky, actually. Another highlight was the Spoonmaker’s Diamond, a teardrop-shaped, 86-carat rock surrounded by dozens of smaller stoned, making it the world’s fifth-largest diamond. Named so because it was originally found at a rubbish dump in Egrikapi and purchased by a street peddler for three spoons.
Liping and I spent most of our time here, absorbing the rich history of Ottoman empire and Islam religion. It was incredible… a pity that camera is not allowed in the place.
The entire place was divided into four courts (plus a harem)… by the time we reached the third court, Liping and I were so tired that we only gave the fourth court a cursory glance, and we didn’t even visit the harem at all. But Topkapi Palace has got to be the highlight of our visit to Istanbul. If you are heading there, make sure you dedicate an entire day to fully appreciate the rich Ottoman history.
Oh! I almost forgot to mention the cats in Istanbul! For some reasons I found cats keep flocking to Liping and I. Once at Chora Church, and another time at Topkapi Palace. This group of cats were literally frolicking on the ground when I approached them. Not only they did not shy away, in fact, they purred, pawed and played contentedly with me as I stroked, tickled and brushed the whole lot of them. It was really, really fun!
After spending close to four hours here, we headed to Emimonu ferry terminal, had lunch (at McDonald’s, LOL) and took a ferry enroute to Uskudar!
To get to Uskudar, you’ll have to take a ferry from Emimonu, and the 30-minute ferry ride itself illustrates the contrast between the European shore (Beyoglu) and the Asian shore (Uskudar) of Istanbul. But what really attracted Liping and i was the flock of seagulls trailing our ferry from Emimonu all the way to Uskudar. It was truly a National Geographic moment, haha. If you are interested, click here to view the photos we took of the many sea gulls.
Uskudar (pronounced “ooh-skoo-dar”) is the Turkish form of the Byzantine name, Scutari, which dates fro the 12th century. Even today, Uskudar is one of Istanbul’s more conservative suburbs. Home to many migrants from rural Anatolia, the mosques are busier here, the families are larger and the headscarf is more obvious than elsewhere in the city. Like Kadikoy and the Western District, it’s fascinating and totally untouristy place to explore.
Our trip here was pretty uneventful, since Uskudar doesn’t offer than many interesting sight… but it was a very refreshing experience to indulge yourself among the locals who obviously not used to see two Asian tourists among their midst. The walk along the shores was relaxing and calming… a respite from the hectic Istanbul city.
Here’s the photoset for you to visually visit Uskudar, including some of the landmarks I visited and their background history.
Again, for the life of me, I couldn’t remember what I did that night since I didn’t take any photos of my nocturnal adventure… but I have an inkling that it involved things I shouldn’t be blogging about. LOL!
It’s the fourth day of our stay here in Istanbul, and we decided to heed the advice of our Lonely Planet guide to visit the Western District!
Problem was, there was no tram service to the area we wanted to visit, and we didn’t want to take a cab there (being frugal backpackers… or sort of). So we decided to brave the odds to take the bus to go to the Western District. Yes, by bus. In a country where half the people don’t utter a single word of English.
Just for the record, no one knows where, or what, the Western District was.
The delightful owner of Bahaus told us to head to the bus terminal at the end of Sultanahmet, where the Grand Bazaar was, near the University of Istanbul. Which we did, and it took us another 30 minutes upon arrival to figure out which bus to take, and which stop to wait at. And it took us another 30 minutes to board the right bus…
… only to overshot the stop we were supposed to alight at. Thank goodness Liping was sharp enough to realise that, so we only got to retrace our route for one-bus-stop distant worth.
How did we know we got to the right place? Why, by the remains of the ancient wall of Istanbul, of course! As we stroll around the wall, we got so frustrated by the lack of dustbins around the area that we dumped these at the courtyard. Very atrocious of us, I know, but blame it on the Istanbul town council for failing to provide us with a proper place to dispose them!
(But I think in the end Liping went to take them back and found some other place to throw them. Good for you, girl!)
According to Lonely Planet, there were five spots we should visit in Western District, and the first one was Mihrimah Sultan Camii. The great Sinan put his stamp on the entire city and this mosque is one of his best works. It is noted for its delicate stained-glass windows and its large interior space, made particularly light by its 19 windows in each of the arched tympanum. The mosque occupies the highest point in the city.
At the time of visit, the mosque was closed to visitors due to restoration work – what a bummer!
Our next destination, the Chora Church, was less disappointing – in fact, it was the highlight of our entire trip to Western District. Chora literally means “country”, and when it was built Chora Church, or the Church of the Holy Saviour Outside the (ancient) Walls, was indeed outside the city walls built by Constantine the Great. However, within a century it was engulfed by Byzantine urban sprawl and enclosed within a new set of walls built by Emperor Theodosius II.
Liping and I spent almost two hours in this rather small-sized church because I was documenting the entire mosaic series according to the Lonely Planet guide. There are more than 78 mosaic panels in all, each depicting a different story of Christ, of which I documented in this set of photos. Each photo was described based on the information in Lonely Planet, so it is going to be kinda pictorial tour if you spent the time to go through them.
After Chora Church, it was lunch time and we had ours at this Asitane Restaurant, which was highly recommended by Lonely Planet… and was entirely empty during our visit. It was unnerving to be the only guests in the entire restaurant, but the excellent Ottoman cuisine more than made up for it, eventhough Liping didn’t really like such exotic food. All in all it was a very nice dining experience, and with a full stomach, we ventured out again to our third destination.
It took us quite a while to figure out our way to Sultan Selim Camii from Chora Church. The route took us to some neighbourhood of Istanbul, where we see Turkish people in totally untouristy environment. I figured out so because obviously Liping and I, two Asian tourists standing out like two sore thumbs in a sea of Turks, were obviously a treat to them. Many of the school kids said hi to us, smiling, waving… and not a tout in sight, which was a breath of relief. In fact, when we were lost and stood at a lamp post to consult our map, a gang of school kids came up to us, look at our map, and point us at the right direction. One of them looked up cheekily at us and asked “Money?” when all his friends shrieked and slapped his back, obviously embarrassed by his little tease.
Not me. I liked that. It was great to be welcomed by the locals that way!
By all accounts the sultan to whom this mosque was dedicated (Suleyman the Magnificent’s father, Selim I, known as "the Grim") was a nasty piece of work. He is famous for having his father poisoned and for killing two of his borthers, six of his nephews and three of his own sons. However, this mosque is famous because of its position on a lwaned terrace with spectacular views of the Golden Horn.
The mosque is close to visitors during our visit. It was a pity, because it looked really grand from the outside.
Our next destination was the Ecumenical Orthodox Patriarchate. The Ecumenical patriarch is a ceremonial head of the Orthodox Church, though most of the churches in Greece, Cyprus, Russia and other countries have their own patriarchs of archbishops who are independent of Istanbul. Nevertheless, the symbolic importance of the patriarchate, here in the city that saw the great era of Byzantine and Orthodox influence, is considerable. The patriarchate has been located in the Western District since 1601.
Again, this place is closed for winter during our visit, just like almost all the other places we went to. It is a pity because the building looked spectacularly different from its surrounding and you just know it doesn’t really belong there… but there it was, towering over all other buildings. Amazing.
Our final destination of our excursion to the Western District was the Church of St Stephen of the Bulgars, of which I made out to be a Bulgarian Church. These days we’re accustomed to kit homes and assemble-yourself furniture from Ikea, but back in 1871, when this Gothic Revival cast-iron church was constructed from pieces shipped from the Danube and across the Black Sea from Vienna on 100 barges, the idea was novel to say the least.
Alas, this place was closed during our visit. So all in all, out of the five destinations we wanted to visit, only Chora Church was open. So did we regret coming here? Not at all. The walking really was very pleasant, and like what Lonely Planet has recommended, Western District is one of the least visited by visitors and that’s a shame, because it’s one of the most interesting. Those travelers interested in veering of the tourist track and exploring will find that spending a day here is extremely rewarding. Which we did, and concurred.
To get back to Sultanahmet, we decided to take a ferry from the Fener Ferry Terminal to Emimonu. It was a 30-minutes wait for the next ferry when we got there, so we amused ourselves by taking photos around the area, and I did a little video clip as well (see below). While we were waiting, it was prayer time, and the mosques started their “calling” or what the Muslim call as “azan”. Istanbul is dotted with literally hundreds of mosques big and small, so when they did their azan, it was like one mosque calling out to another, with all the muftis chanting the same words but in different styles.
There I was standing transfixed by the sound, my hair standing on their ends in amazement. It was an indescribable experience, one that you must experience yourself to understand how grand it was.
Upon reaching Emimonu, we had the famous “balik” sandwich by the shore of Golden Horn. The stall is actually on the boat. With all the rocking due to strong waves, you wonder how they get any actual cooking done! Balik means fish in Turkish.
I honestly couldn’t remember what I did that night after getting back from the excursion. I think I might have done something not meant to be blogged on. LOL.
Considering the late night we had yesterday, it was amazing that we managed to get up at all. But woke up we did, and after a typical breakfast at Bahaus Guesthouse, we headed out… for more coffee at Starbucks before venturing out for the day. LOL. Our first stop of the day was the famous Grand Bazaar.
The Grand Bazaar is the heart of the city in much more than a geographical sense and has been so for centuries. With over 4000 shops and several kilometres of lanes, as well as mosques, banks, police stations, restaurants and workshops, it’s a covered city all of its own. Though there’s no doubt that it’s a tourist trap par excellence, it’s also a place where business deals are done between locals, and where import/export businesses flourish.
Grand Bazaar was the main reason why I wanted to visit Istanbul, having been captivated by the intoxicating love affair between Bette and Sammy in the book “Everyone Worth Knowing”. Alas… it was quite a disappointment. Nothing more than a glorified Chatucak (the famous bazaar in Bangkok), the touts really got us down despite the warning in my faithful Lonely Planet.
Would I be back? Nope, definitely not – so I took lots of photos for memory sake. That’s how bad it was. Luckily the rest of Istanbul more than made up for this disappointment.
After a seriously bad lunch at Grand Bazaar, we headed back to Starbuck to meet up with Wilson. We were debating if we should do the famous Turkish Bath thing – called a “hamam” – and in the end Wilson and I went to Cemberlitas Hamam for the experience, while Liping stayed put to enjoy her latte (and guard all our belongings, haha).
The Cemberlitas Bath is a still-functioning historical public bath that was built in 1584. It was commissioned by the foundation of Nurbanu Sultan, the wife of Sultan Selim II and the mother of Sultan Murat III. The bath is one of the most important works of 16th century Ottoman acrhitecture and was built according to a plan drawn up by the legendary Turkish architect, Mimar Sinan.
Cemberlita Bath is the only hamam I have visited in Turkey, and well worth it. The entire experience – showered and scrubbed by a hefty attendant, lying on the heated marble looking up at the heavenly dome, and a Turkish massage – was great. I wished I had the time to visit some of the less well-known and perhaps less touristy hamams. We were not allowed to take photos inside the bath itself for obvious reasons, so we took some photos at the reception area and outside the hamam instead.
Later on that night, we decided to walk from Emimonu to Beyoglu enroute to Istiklal Cadessi via Galata Bridge. Galata Bridge is a scenic bridge connecting the two shores of Istanbul – the old Istanbul (ancient cities such as Sultanahmet) and the newer, more arty-farty European shore (known as Beyoglu). Liping, Wilson and I decided to stroll over the bridge to take in the sight. But it was damn cold and I didn’t really get to soak in the atmosphere, so we took some interesting photos instead.
And we arrived at our destination, after a short furnicular ride from Tunel. Istiklal Cadessi (Independence Avenue) is the backbone of Beyoglu. Formerly known as the Grande Rue de Pera, it is home to the city’s smartest shops, European embassies and churches, many impressive residential buildings, and fashionable teashops and restaurants. Istanbullus work, sleep and shop within its orbit.
This street, stretches between Tunel and Taksim Square, is akin to Orchard Road in Singapore. This is where I spent most of the nights in Istanbul, since most other places are either too expensive (along the shore of Bosphorus) or closed (the rest of the city).
We had one of the most wonderful dinner here on the first night, at this famous restaurant recommended by Wilson called Haci Abdullah. The meal was wonderful – you can see all the photos here – even if it was pretty pricey. And oh! I bought a beanie for myself to cover up my messy hair since I didn’t have any hair wax on me after the hamam experience, and I gotta say, I looked pretty cool in it. LOL.
After the dinner, we strolled around for a little more, before catching another furnicular to Taksim Square, from where we took the tram ride from Kabatas back to Sultanahmet. Enroute back to Bahaus, we took some more photos of Blue Mosque at night – before calling it a night. We were all pretty beat, and it was only the third day of our stay here in Istanbul!
After a refreshing night rest, Liping, Wilson and I headed to Sultanahmet area for the beginning our tour. As Wilson already did Aya Sofya the day before, we split ways after taking several shots in front of Blue Mosque.
The itinerary of the day is simple – to sample to historical delights offered by Sultanahmet as much as possible. And boy, did we have a treat!
On the way to Aya Sofya (also known as Hagia Sofya in Greek), we were stopped by a man trying to sell us a guidebook to Istanbul. He was the very first of many, many touts we will encounter throughout the trip. I am still amazed by the fact how the tout slashed its price for TYL37 for a guidebook to a mere TYL15 for the book + two sets of postcards. Amazing how the power of walking away can do to save your wallet. Later on, we discovered that the same guidebook was selling for a mere TYL10. So remember, always buy from stalls which displayed prices prominently, and only from those located far, far away from Sultanahmet area.
My first day in Istanbul was spent at Aya Sofya, the monumental mosque AND church in Turkey. It was an awe-inspiring experience to be within this building. Called Hagia Sofia in Greek, Sancta Sophia in Latin and the Church of the Divine Wisom in English, Istanbul’s most famous monument has a history as long as it is fascinating.
If you find that Aya Sofya looks amazing from the outside, wait till you see the inside.
Look at the sheer size of the place! Aya Sofya is best experienced by exploring the two levels. Walking around the ground level, you canâ€™t help but be amazed by how grand the place is, with its huge dome rising dramatically skywards seemingly unsupported. In comparison to the nearby Blue Mosque, the dome of Aya Sofya was considered an architectural achievement because of the lack of huge pillars to support it.
Throughout my hour-long stay in Aya Sofya, what truly inspired awe in me is how, throughout history, this monument of mankind infused two of religions together. In this building, giant inscription of Islamic Quran coexisted with intricate mosaic depicting Jesus of Christianity. Coming from a Muslim country, this is indeed a very rare sight.
It was a pity that during my visit, part of Aya Sofya was under restoration, hence I was unable to capture a â€œwholeâ€ picture of its grand interior, with all its scaffolding rising all over the place. In fact, I realized that throughout my trip, many of the historical sites were either closed for restoration, or just off-limit to visitors. Perhaps Lonely Planet was right â€“ tourism in Turkey experiences a â€œdownâ€ period during winter time. This was both a curse and blessing for me. While I was spared by incessant crowd of tourists as it would have been had I visited during summer, it was also frustrating to venture all the way to a particular spot only to find its gates locked up.
After going up a circular stone pathway up to the second level, I was rewarded with a closer look at the design of the structure of the building itself. It was also here you get to see the ground level of Aya Sofya in its entirety. You can just imagine thousand of devotees gathered here at ancient time to pray.
Out of a whim, I decided to do a little “snap interview” (a v-log if you will) with Liping when we were at Aya Sofya… and I did the same once in a while during my entire trip!
I know… I sounded horrible. I wonder how I ever get selected into a choir. LOL.
I kept telling Liping how walking through Aya Sofya made me feel like part of the movie of DaVinci Code. The uneven, large-marbled floor, giving way through sunken walls and hidden corners, to heavily locked door the size of a small troll (hi Harry Potter fans!) and unidentifiable tombs, one can imagine how this place harboured centuries of secrets and tales untold through the generations.
In fact, that is exactly what is happen. The Marvelous Marmaray, an ambitious transportation project by the Turkish government, is constantly delayed due to continuous finds of archeological sites all over the place. For a country as steeped in history as Turkey, I find this hardly surprising.
On the way to our second destination, Blue Mosque, I stopped for a while at the Sultan Ahmed tomb. This place is unlisted in most guidebooks, which may not come as a surprise. Upon entering its interior, the sight of rows upon rows of tombs will definitely unnerve you. People are entering here pray here; in fact, I felt slightly disrespectful just to be taking photos here. So only after a very short time, I left the tomb feeling slightly chilled.
With Blue Mosque, Sultan Ahmet I set out to build a monument that would rival and even surpass the nearby Aya Sofya in grandeur and beauty. Its curves are voluptuous, it has more minarets than any other Istanbul mosque (in fact, there was consternation at the time of its construction that the sultan is being irreverent in specifying six minarets – the only equivalent being in Mecca) and the courtyard is the biggest of all the Ottoman mosques
Upon entering the Blue Mosque, youâ€™ll see a large stone courtyard, surrounded by pillars and walkway, with a stone fountain in the middle, and minorets at its corner. As I visit more mosques throughout the trip, I realized that this is a typical design of a mosque in Istanbul. The difference would be how grand the mosque is, and how well maintained. Blue Mosque is definitely the best maintained, if not the grandest.
The interior of Blue Mosque provided a stark difference to Aya Sofya. There was a complete lack of Christianity motives within its design, and therefore my experience here was rather different. The pillar in the photo is one of the four â€œelephantâ€ pillars built to support its less-grand dome, which was a major difference between Blue Mosque and Aya Sofya.
In a sea of Turks coming to the mosque, Liping and I stood out like two sore thumbs. When we tried to enter the main entrance, a guard stopped us and told us to go to the â€œvisitorsâ€™â€ entranceâ€¦ which is actually a small gate by the side of the building. And it was also rather unfortunate that we visited very near to prayer time, when the mosque will be closed and lingering visitors will be asked to leave. So Liping and I only managed to spend about 15 minutes inside Blue Mosque, but we managed to take quite a bit of photos.
After spending the morning at Aya Sofya and Blue Mosuq, Liping and I headed to the Arasta Bazaar and Hippodrome right after lunch.
To my surprise, Arasta Bazaar, which is located just outside Blue Mosque, was simply a long street lined with shops selling the usual tourist trinkets â€“ carpets, ceramics etc. I was expecting a smaller scale Grand Bazaar. Nothing to note here, actually.. Beware – prices here are severely inflated.
The Hippodrome was the scene of countless political drama during the Byzantium and Ottoman eras in Turkey. It hosted chariot races during its ancient days. When we visited, the hippodrome resembled nothing more than a well-tended park, with many of its old structure destroyed and artefacts removed.
Actually, it was kinda funny how we found the hippodrome. I was kinda imagining it to be similar to what you find in Rome. A stadium-like structure with rows and rows of seats. But after walking around for quite a bit, we still can’t find it so we asked the Sahlep seller. He looked at us puzzled, and said in halting English that we are at the Hippodrome. You see, the hippodrome in Istanbul is nothing but a circular pavement (where chariots raced during ancient times) and a “garden” in the middle.
I mean, we were literally standing in the middle of the hippodrome and yet didn’t know it. LOL. Click here to see some photos from Hippodrome. You’ll see some very interesting structure – like the strange looking oblelisk – and the Museum of Turkish & Islamic Arts.
At the end of our Hippodrome adventure, I was hungry and bought one roasted corn. Have you ever try one? If not, please don’t. It’s dry, hard, tasteless and absolutely foul. I wonder why would anyone wanted to eat roasted corns!
Next up, we went to the Basilica Cistern. This extraordinary subterranean structure is the largest surviving Byzantine cistern in Istanbul. Constructed using columns, capitals and plinths from ruined buildings, the cistern’s symmetry and sheer grandeur of conception are quite extraordinary.
The moment I descended into the cistern, I felt like I stepped into Lord of the Rings, when the fellowship ran through the Mines of Moria! It was cold and dripping wet, but I can’t help but feel mystified to be in the cistern. Imagine, such a historical site right beneath the center of Istanbul city!
More fantastic photos of the cistern are here on my Flick collection. The photos are a bit fuzzy though, because I wasn’t using flash and the camera was set to high ISO.
Soon it was getting dark, so we decided to take a rest and walked to this famous tea garden right in the heart of Sultanahmet. I can’t even begin to type the name of this place – it was in Turkish and very, very long.
It was my first experience having authentic Turkish tea (cay) and sisha (water) pipe (nargileh). The tea garder is tucked into the rear end right-hand corner of a shady courtyard filled with Ottoman tombs, this is the perfect place to escape the crowds and relax. They even have wireless internet connection and I even managed to webcam for a while! The drinks are very cheap by Sultanahmet standard. LOL. Here are some photos Liping and I took here.
Right after the tea garden, Liping had a sudden craving for kebabs, so we headed to one of the more touristy one just along the rail of Sultanahmet. Munching on juicy kebabs, watching people walking by while shop owners bantered with each other right in the heart of Sultanahmet was a heavenly experience. We were… very contended.
Soon we headed back to hostel, washed up a little, and dragged Wilson along with us for night out binge-drinking at one of the pubs along Akbiyik Cadessi (the famous stretch of backpacker inns). And drink we did… as well as learning how to play backgammon (I was notoriously bad at boardgame). Liping tried (and failed spectacularly) to enjoy nargileh while Wilson, Jan and I had no problem at all. LOL… more photos here.
After endless round of beer and tequila shots (and a sizable dent in our wallet), we headed back to Bahaus and called it a night.
All in all, it was a spectacular first day of real holiday. If this sets the tone for the rest of my trip, I wonder how I will have the energy to keep up!
My trip out from the Attartuk International Airport to Sultanahmet area where my guesthouse is located at was an uneventful one. I was pretty nervous at the thought of figuring out Istanbulâ€™s transportation system, but it was surprisingly advanced. And since Liping will not be arriving at Istanbul until late afternoon, I had the whole afternoon on my own after checking in at Bahaus Guesthouse.
The tram system in Istanbul is surprisingly well-established, connecting major spots within Istanbul with frequent and spacious trams. This was a breathe of relief from the sardine-packed Singaporeâ€™s public transportation system. According to Lonely Planet, the ambitious Marmaray Project were initiated to easy the congested Istanbulâ€™s streets, but throughout my stay here I hardly encountered any traffic jams. All in all, Liping and I were very impressed for the level of ease to move around this fine city.
From Sultanahmet tram station to the hostel area, youâ€™ll walk past two of the most iconic landmarks of Istanbul â€“ Aya Sofya and Blue Mosque. You would think that would have been a fabulous treat. Yes it was, but after walking past them everyday for the entire trip, they kinda blend into the background. How many travelers can say they got â€œboredâ€ by the two? Well, Liping and I can. LOL.
The kind of breakfast offered for free everyday at Bahaus, which I devoured with religious regularity between 8 a.m. â€“ 10 a.m. every morning. The spread is always the same: two slices of bread with butter, three slices of tomato, four cubes of cucumber, four olives, two slices of cheddar cheese, two cubes of feta cheese, three slices of ham meat, and a cup of coffee. You get kinda bored after the third or fourth of the same breakfast, but hey, you canâ€™t really complain about something offered for free, can you?
The view of my room at Bahaus Guesthouse. Overall I am very pleased with my choice of accommodation. The place was sufficiently clean, including the toilet, heater is always working, warm water is available throughout the day. The owner and his staff are very helpful and friendly… but I gotta say the best feature of staying here is the top floor bar (the famous roof top bar was closed as it was winter), where the friendly barman entertained visiting guests with games and drinks. I had some of my best times here, getting to know fellow backpackers from all over the world.
As luck would have it, one of my fellow roommates (there were four beds in the dorm) was a Singaporean! I met Wilson when I was unpacking in the room, and upon greeting each other, immediately we know we shared the same accent and all that. Wilson spent a few days in Istanbul as a â€œhop overâ€ to his real trip in Syria and Jordan. Boy… talk about being adventurous! Wilson, Liping and I ended up spending quite a bit of time together.
The other roommate we had was Ben Trimm. He was from LA â€“ yes, the land of Hollywood â€“ and, surprise! He is an actor! Too bad we only get to talk a little as he was heading of for a one week tour elsewhere within Turkey.
Sahlep is a winter drink in Turkey. Made out of tapioca root, it is a thick, milky concoction of heavenly sweetness sprinkled with a dash of cinnamon. I fall in love with it the first time I tried it, and subsequently got Liping hooked on it as well. The quality of Sahlep varies depends on where you buy it from. Your best bet are those from roadside peddlers and kiosks, instead of fancy eateries and onboard ferries. A cup of Sahlep shouldnâ€™t cost you more than YTL2.
Starbucks Coffee â€“ how could I do without it? The branch at Sultanahmet provided many instances of relief to me. Something familiar in a foreign environment.
On the same night we chilled out a place called Just Bar. Much to my annoyance, I realized that in Turkey, it is okay for smokers to light up within a confined space. So throughout my trip here I had to endure second-hand smoke in almost all the places I ventured into. It was either that, or I have to endure the cold weather of outdoor seats.
Talking about the weather. I really, really loved the chilly wind of winter. Yes, sometimes I shivered so much I canâ€™t speak, but I loved it. I had always wanted to experience a full-scale winter, so the â€œmildâ€ winter temperatures of Istanbul (about 8 â€“ 10 degrees most nights) was a good induction for me, before the more severe chill of London.
More photos of my first day in Istanbul? Click here.
A great journey starts with a dreamâ€¦ and friends.
Shafik and Cheryl had graciously agreed to send me off at Changi Airport on the night of my departure. We had dinner at Breeks right after my check-in, when I revealed my surprise Christmas gifts to them.
A heart-shaped Swarozki crystal pendant for the lovely Cheryl
A Braun Buffel â€œclubbingâ€ wallet for the adorable Shafik
Soon it was time for me to board SQ490 heading to Istanbul, with a short transit at Dubai Airport. The whole journey took me at least 14 hours, but overall it was a very pleasant experience worthy of the famed Singapore Airlinesâ€™ level of service. I was a happy camper when I finally landed in Istanbul at the wee hour of the morning.
More photos from the night of my departure from Changi Airport here.