20.04.2016 - 23.04.2016
We had managed to find super cheap flights to London which gave us 2 weeks in Turkey on the way for a honeymoon (of course our trip before the wedding doesn't count, why do you ask?!?!?). Since booking our flights, two bombs had gone off in Turkey and the New Zealand government had issued a travel warning, but as we had booked the cheapest possible flights we didn't have any option to change, plus we both really wanted to see Turkey!!!
We arrived in Istanbul at 4:45am and were through immigration and customs within half an hour, which meant we had to wait for 20 minutes until the first metro of the day. We checked in to our accommodation (Art City Hotel) in the centre of the old city at 7am, dropped our stuff off and had a little nap. After our nap we had an amazing breakfast courtesy of our hotel.
We walked through the intricate old streets of Istanbul, enjoying the different architecture of the old structures at every turn, and jumped on a cruise up the Bosphorus straight. We hired an audio guide and learnt about the historic buildings along the straight which connects the Black Sea to the Aegean and separates the European and Asian sides of Istanbul. The cruise dropped us off on the Asian side and we went for a walk up to an old castle which overlooks the Black Sea. The views were fantastic, and we enjoyed a fresh seafood lunch by the water. The cruise took us back to Istanbul around 5 and we were so tired we didn't leave again!!!
We were woken during the night by the call to prayer, which happens in Islamic countries 5 times a day, the first being before sunrise. The calls are melodic and haunting and are broadcast from speakers on towers by mosques (minarets) - we had minarets from about 6 mosques close enough to wake us!!!
When it was finally daylight, we set off for a full day of exploring. Having seen the amazing buildings from the water the day before we were looking forward to seeing them up close. We started at the blue mosque, a 15th century building which is one of the most famous mosques in the world. I was given a headscarf (I had thought a hoodie covering my hair would be enough but apparently not) and we had to off our shoes to enter. There were absolutely no queues and hardly any tourists.
Just across the road and next on our itinerary was the Hagia Sofia, a 6th century building that was originally a Christian church, then a mosque, and is now a museum. The building was amazing, absolutely huge and very intricately decorated, especially given its age. It was strange to see images of Jesus and Mary all through a building which looked so much like a mosque.
We then crossed the tram tracks and visited the Basilica Cistern, an underground reservoir from the Roman times. It was an amazing feat of engineering, with water brought from 19km away via aqueducts and over 100,000 cubic metres of storage capacity.
At this point it was only lunchtime, we had got in and around each attraction so easily, and they really are ridiculously close. We had a nice lunch, of fresh salad drenched in olive oil, Turkish bread, and kebab meat which is standard fare in Istanbul.
After lunch we visited the Turkish art and cultural centre. The art isn't really our thing, but there were some cool religious relics. These included dozens of ancient (and giant) handwritten copies of the Koran, and stands of Mohammed’s hair.
After that we went to the Topkapi palace, where the sultans lived. The buildings were ridiculously lavish, and the tulips were in full bloom and looked stunning. We also looked through the royal harem, where around 300 women lived!!!! The palace’s treasury and relics were also amazing, with a 80 carat diamond, and allegedly the staff of Moses and the sword of David.
The next day we had a look through the grand bazaar, a giant market which surprised us as the building was nice and the products were much higher quality than we had seen in Latin America.
We then caught a tram to the old city walls which were an unexpected highlight, giving us great views.
We also visited a couple of old churches which were great, but not as good as the ones we had seen the day before. David got a Turkish haircut, and we caught a ferry to the northern part of the city. We had a light lunch at the top floor of a restaurant beside the Galata tower and enjoyed a nice view.
Afterwards, we went to a Turkish cooking class which was great fun. Our teacher, Oguz, took us through a market where he bought local produce, and then we cooked 5 dishes from different regions of Turkey - hummus, roasted eggplant, stuffed vegetables, filo pasty rolls, and a semolina pudding.
On our last day in Istanbul we spent the morning at the archaeology museum. It was full of Roman, Egyptian and Anatolian items which were thousands of years old. That afternoon we got a ferry to the Asian side and then tried to get another ferry to the Princes islands south of Istanbul, but it was packed and we didn't make it on. Instead, we explored the Asian side and had a successful afternoon shopping.
We had a busy four days, but really enjoyed our time in Istanbul. Most of the tourist attractions are really close together which made it easy to see a lot in a short time. We really enjoyed the freshness of the food, and we never felt unsafe as the people were very helpful. There were a lot of stray cats, which were a pleasant change from the dogs in Latin America. It is sad to see how much the tourism industry is struggling at the moment due to the perceived threat of a terrorism attack, although this worked in our favour as there were no queues and our accommodation was about half its usual price.