Leaving the Hong Kong humidity behind for a while, JP and I ventured O.S for Easter to visit Istanbul, Northern Italy and Moscow. “A strange combination?!” I hear you say… since we were young our travel philosophy has always seen a layover as an opportunity to explore a land that we might miss out on otherwise…Moscow was that layover.
Part One: Istanbul, Turkey
Taking the overnight 11 hour flight from Hong Kong to Ataturk Airport Istanbul was one of the better flights we have had, albeit a ‘minor’ altercation between an incredibly drunk Turk and a about 6 Turkish Air flight attendants may have put a mild dampener on it. Initially, when I heard the confrontation begin, I felt the colour drain from my face, my mouth go dry and my heart pound in my chest. I had flash backs of a 9/11 documentary I had watched previously, detailing the last moments of passengers on the first plane… the scene was familiar. I looked over at JP who seemed to be experiencing similar symptoms. Casting my gaze even wider, I noticed that every single passenger was as pale and wide eyed as I was. Flights attendants were running frantically up and down the aisles, another was one on the aircraft phone speaking rapid and frenetic Turkish and there was a man with wild eyes screaming at a hostess. This lasted, on and off, for about an hour, until the staff were able to hold down the hysterical man and eventually get him to sleep. Speaking to a Turkish-Australian man (what are the odds?), sitting behind me I was able to find out that the bloke was actually just incredibly drunk and talking nonsense the whole time.
Upon landing in Istanbul in the early (and rather fresh) hours of the morning, we sat on the tarmac for a while until the Turkish police boarded the plane and whisked the Turkish Troubler away for causing some ‘turbulence’ during our flight. I think the flight attendants that had him pinned down until he passed out were glad to see his big behind departing the plane in cuffs.
Driving from the airport to the hotel was magical; you are able to see the ‘Asian’ side of Turkey whilst travelling along the European highway.
(For those of you in the dark, as I was, Turkey covers two continents divided by the Bosphorus Strait. It separates Europe from Anatolia, and divides the two halves of Istanbul.)
We arrived at our hotel (The Grand Durmaz – which I am not going to recommend) dumped our bags and went to have our first ‘taste’ of Turkey. We ended up walking around Sultanahmet (which is part of the Old City) and finding a little eatery filled with locals having their breaky. We asked the owner if he could bring us some typical breakfast dishes while we munched on the big bowl of fresh crusty bread (which we later realised is pretty standard).
We dined on scrambled eggs with a kind of chorizo looking sausage speckled through it, which was surprisingly delicious (never judge a book by its cover), fresh tomatoes and cucumber and a slow cooked leg of lamb with potatoes and carrots drowned in clear tasteless broth. A touch heavier than my usual breakfast, bellies full we marched on, exploring the streets of Istanbul before the rest of the world was awake.
During our stay we visited the Grand Bazaar, which was my favourite part. It is a huge old hall with little lanes surrounding it, filled with thousands of little shops and alcoves, men (and only men) standing outside asking if they can “help you spend your money”. Jewelry is big here, particularly gold, textiles and Turkish cotton, antiques and ‘ancient artifacts’, sweet shops with glass counters filled with every kind of Turkish Delight you could imagine…I purchased a bag of mixed samples for 10TL (Turkish Lira), which is about $5 Aussie dollars, and together we demolished the gooey delicacy with great delight!
While JP was exploring the antique nooks and crannies, being assured that the wares were “authentic” and “original”, I was off bantering with the jewelry salesman nearby who wanted me to believe that his goods were made for ‘the beauty in my eyes’… Ha! I obliged his B.S and took home a very fine silver and blue glass Evil Eye bracelet, with a chuckle.
Due to our time restrictions, we decided to jump on one of those terribly impersonal and highly marketed red site seeing buses to orientate ourselves and in an attempt to see as much as we could in the time we had! We marveled at the Hagia Sofia and the several other similar yet awe inspiring mosques that dot the city, the palaces, the ruins, the ocean, the old and the new. We endured the brisk air on the open top of the double decker monstrosity and took photos of the stadium and the interesting and beautiful architecture that we passed by.
It was eventually lunch time when we hopped off at the Fish Markets (that we could smell a mile off) for some (more) food. Coaxed into pretty little restaurant on the water, we were served freshly caught King Prawns with a lemon dressing, tender calamari that melted in your mouth, washing it all down with an Efes (local beer).
Later that afternoon, after hours spent wandering the cobble stone lanes of the old town and waving at the wrinkly women that hang from the little balconettes, staring strangely at you – we stopped by a traditional Turkish bakery and stoked up on fresh Baklava and Borek. Borek is a thick puff of filo type pastry known as ‘yufka’, filled with meat, cottage cheese or spinach. I became a bit of a Baklava / Borek connoisseur during our time in Turkey sampling the wares of several bakeries! I even managed to convert Mr-I-hate-that-stuff-don’t-bring-it-near-me!
On our last night we decided to go to a highly recommended restaurant called ‘360’. We tried several times to get our hotel staff to help us make a booking but the answer was always; “Oh no, sorry, you’ll NEVER get a booking there!! Not tonight…not on a Saturday night…not on a Sunday night…blah blah…BLAH.” This somewhat infuriated me and just added to my growing ‘Why I hate this hotel’ list. It resulted in me calling the restaurant myself, getting a booking (no dramas) and calling the man at reception to ask him to book me a cab there. Quite obviously, I relished in that phone call, I delighted in the fact that the turd had to call me a cab to the restaurant he said I would never get a booking at.
We slipped into the taxi, as I simultaneously slipped hotel reception the finger and off we went. Murphy’s Law would have it that the food was average; however the view was spectacular from the 8th floor while we watched an aggressive thunderstorm roll in and roll out. Magic.
Overall, we both enjoyed Turkey for different reasons. While I wasn’t a huge fan of the food (besides the Borek and the Baklava…obviously), JP loved the meat inspired diet and indulged in almost as many different kebaps as I did bakery treats. The atmosphere was great, with something always happening. The sound of the Call to Prayer coming from the various mosques around the city was pretty special and added to the whole experience.
Here is a little video I found of the Call to Prayer. This is exactly what is was like and what could be seen and heard from the streets of Istanbul. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d5aMcuMUh1c
After 3 nights in the city we were ready to continue our adventure. Next stop…Italy.
A few tips for travelling to Turkey:
- We made the mistake of getting Euros rather than Turkish Lira (TL). The guidebooks will tell you euros but most places will only take TL, especially at places like the Grand Bazaar.
- You will need a visa to enter the country; however this can be purchased for about $20USD when you get to the airport (it all depends on where you are from). It is well sign posted; just make sure you have cash (Euros, Turkish Lira or US Dollars). Don’t count on your credit card working – several people in the queue had to go and find a teller machine or exchange booth as immigration didn’t take their card.
- If you’re into walking and exploring, I would suggest staying near the Old City (Sultanahmet). It is where most of the things you will want to see are located. Although in a good location, I would avoid ‘The Grand Durmaz Hotel’…the ‘hospitality’ will drive you bananas, the breakfast was less than satisfactory and the walls are paper thin which doesn’t help when there is strange music playing in the hallways until all hours. You will get better value elsewhere.
- Tipping taxis is up to you (we didn’t because they had usually already ripped us off), however 10% of the bill at restaurants is pretty standard. The bell boy at the hotel will usually expect 2-4 TL if he is taking your bags to your room, so have some change in your pocket if you can.
- The taxis can be dodgy mc dodge dodge. I would advise getting your hotel staff to book your taxis for you. When you are returning to your hotel, make sure the doorman helps you to organise payment of the fare. They rarely use meters (in our experience they flat-out refused to, or they have jigged the meter so that it increases faster than it should. As I said…dodgy).
- Learn the different names for the different kebabs (kepabs in Turkish). If you think you are a Kebab aficionado because you have indulged in a few late night servings at the shop in Kings Cross, think again. They are not the same and it would take you a month to get through all the different ones.
Here are a few that we came across during our stay:
- Donor kebap – shaved lamb, goat, chicken, turkey, beef, or a mix of meats roasted on a spit, served wrapped in a flatbread.
- Köfte kebap or Shish köfte – minced lamb meatballs with herbs, often including parsley and mint, on a stick, grilled.
- Iskender kebap– döner kebap served with yogurt, tomato sauce and butter.