Jason and I had been planning to go to Turkey for a long while now, so we’d booked our flights months in advance to celebrate my 27th birthday which also happened to coincide with the Easter long weekend, so suffice to say we were pretty excited to explore this country. Unfortunately 5 days before we were due to fly out to Istanbul the suicide bombing occurred not too far from where we booked our hotel, so our excitement quickly turned into apprehension. We ummed and ahhed for days with plenty of ‘what ifs’ playing through our heads. Of course both our family and friends were concerned about us going but in the end we decided to continue with our travel plans for two reasons:
1) The official UK and Australian travel warnings for Turkey did not change – it was still ‘exercise a high degree of caution’ which is what is has been for the past year. This warning has not deterred us from travelling to places like India or Tanzania in the past
2) The risk of another attack happening so close to the initial one was quite slim and the chances of an attack occurring at the exact location we happen to be in a city that is larger than London is even slimmer
Of course we were still nervous, but we weighed up the risks and were happy with our decision.
We landed at Istanbul airport at about midday. Unfortunately one of the first things we saw as we stepped off the plane was a man lying on the floor in a pool of blood – it is likely he fell and cracked his head open, but still, not a great start. We hopped into our pre-arranged airport transfer vehicle and we were taken straight to our hotel. Along the way we were amazed at the vast differences there was as we crossed through different towns – some areas had high rise government flats whereas others had boutique houses with high end shopping centres to match.
After checking in and having a quick rest, we made our way to the Sultanahmet area of Istanbul through a variety of public transport means involving metro, funicular and tram. This is the main tourist district and originally we decided not to stay here as there was another bombing in the area several months before. I’d booked an evening food tour with ‘My Local Guide Istanbul Tours’. Our guide Salih is a 34 year old who has lived in Istanbul for half of his life and has spent most of his working life giving tours of Turkey and travelling the world. He’d told us 30% of their clients cancelled their bookings after the recent bombings which is partly the reason why we were the only people on the tour. He said that for the first few days the locals were anxious about leaving their houses but ‘people quickly forget’ and have mostly returned to their normal routines. After all, what choice do they have?
At the beginning of the tour we took the public ferry from the Europe side of Turkey across to the Asia side which took about 30 minutes. The Asia side is not usually a tourist area, a large majority of the population live on this side and they often commute to the Europe side for work. It was absolutely bucketing down with rain by the time we docked so we quickly made our way to the market area where Salih took us through several different speciality stores sampling a variety of foods including: Turkish delight, pickled vegetables (including red pickle juice), mussels stuffed with spiced rice, cured meats, cheeses, olives and a wide selection of traditional Turkish dishes. I don’t think I have ever been so full in my life. Every dish was packed full of flavour which definitely overwhelmed our taste buds. After letting our tummies settle for a while, we headed back on the ferry towards the Europe side where we enjoyed some Baklava and Turkish ice cream.
As we were waiting for a tram we heard several loud explosions and both of us immediately thought the worst and froze at the thought of another possible bombing until our guide said ‘hey look at the fireworks,’ phew! The evening was finished off at a local Shisha bar which sits behind an ancient cemetery. Unfortunately Jason and I were both recovering from tonsillitis so sitting in the smoke filled bar for over an hour probably wasn’t this best thing. It was however quite interesting to see what type of people were there. It was mostly groups of young males with the occasional older male sitting by himself. Our guide told us its very much a common social activity to do, especially midweek when people just want to chill out. It was 11.30pm by the time we left and were absolutely exhausted by this stage. A great evening all up.
We had another jam-packed day lined up for us on the Friday with a full day tour with our guide Serif Yenen (http://www.serifyenen.com/) who also happens to be the first Turkish author of the Istanbul guide books. This guy knows everything there is to know about this country, and just a few days ago took a BBC presenter around the city for a documentary about the city. He took us to the main sites and explained to us about the history and culture at each site and the importance place on religion by the Turkish people.
This is a huge property consisting of 4 large courtyards which was the major residence to the Ottoman sultans for nearly 400 years. It has several interlinked buildings and has been beautifully decorated both inside and out.
From the outside this building looks like it’s been designed by several architects each with their own ideas of what it should look like because each portion of it is not only a different colour but also appears to be built using different styles. This building is probably one of the most important in history. It was used as a church for several hundred years, then became a mosque and now is a museum. The interior is beautiful and grand but half of it is under construction. It was about a 30 minute wait to get in despite having pre-paid tickets but this is due to the increased security since the recent events
The Blue Mosque
Definitely my favourite site in Istanbul. From the outside, the building looks like a palace with its blue domes and mirinets. The line to get in was extensive but moved relatively quickly as there was no security, just checks to make sure people were appropriately clothed (all women were required to have their heads covered by a scarf and everyone was required to take off their shoes and carry them in plastic bags provided). From the moment we stepped into the mosque I was in absolute awe at how beautiful it was. The domes were covered in a blue pattern with the walls lined with decorated ceramic tiles.
The Grand Bazaar
This the market of all markets. It is huge with over 3,000 shops it is near impossible to cover it in a day. Each section of the market is dedicated to certain items such as buttons, gold, clothing, lamps etc. We didn’t wander around here for too long purely because we would most likely be tempted to buy things we probably didn’t need! Our guide took us to a section of a bazaar which made us a little bit nervous. It was a dark abandoned part of the bazaar so we felt little bit uneasy. We reached a wooden door where he began to knock. No one answered so he made a phone call and within a few minutes a stooped 80 year old man appeared and unlocked the door. A few groups of tourists were also hanging around but were not allowed to enter. We walked through the doorway, climbed a few steps and were greeted by the most spectacular view of Istanbul. We were literally on the roof of the Grand Bazaar all by ourselves. It was amazing and definitely one of the most incredible views we’ve ever experienced!
I think one of the things that surprised me the most about Istanbul is how much of Western Culture has influenced the people here. It is the perfect mesh of East meets West with family and religious traditions still having a huge influence on the way people live, but being fashionable and tech savvy is also of huge importance especially to the younger generations. A large majority of women don’t wear heads scarves which I was surprised about and according to our guide 1 in 4 people drink alcohol (which is forbidden by Islam). It’s a city full of surprises and definitely unique. It is a great shame that they have been affected so much by terrorism recently, we can only hope that they can recover very soon. The people here are warm and friendly, the food is amazing, the sites have so much historical significance and the culture is so wonderfully unique that it would be a shame for any tourist to miss out on it.
Til next time
Ann & Jason xo