Istanbul – An Unexpected Journey

Is it THE place you have to visit once in your life?

Yes, it is!

         I have always enjoyed traveling. It has been one of my top priorities. What can be better than meeting new cultures, customs, people…? Eating some completely different food, even I usually do not like it…. Listen some new sounds… Smell some new smells….. Anyway, all of that and even more you can find in Istanbul. I remember first Turkish TV show I was watching, beside the fact that my best friend and I were in love with main actress, I absolutely knew that I have to go there at least once. The time was passing… Soon, I have found myself watching at least third Turkish TV show on TV. I knew I have to do something about that…

New Year was approaching. We (my girlfriend and I) had some plans, but it all failed in last moment. When I consider it now, it was God’s work! We came up with new plan in some tree to four days, and presented it to our friends we were having dinner with that night. They absolutely loved it! Soon, some 5 minutes later, while they were eating desert I was on my IPhone checking Skyscanner for flights, and Suzy on Airbnb checking for accommodation…. We have find and booked it all. The departure was on 29th of December, and planed arrival back on 3rd of January 2015; the carrier was Turkish airlines.

Any whey, 29th of December, was that day. We have spent one day earlier in Zagreb, because flight was from Zagreb. I would recommend anyone to search flights from Zagreb, they can be up to 100€ cheaper than from those Split. On 29th, we woke up at 7 am. It was snowy morning in Zagreb. I think the four of us were the only people enjoying it really! We took a cab to airport. Soon, all luggage was in old Mercedes trunk, and we were heading airport. In mean time, we were listening weather forecast, and hoping that plain will flight as scheduled. Some lines were canceled because of the bad weather. It was not as we were expecting….. Let’s just say that we have spent all day in waiting room of Zagreb airport…. during that time, we have met all passengers, workers and read all posters! The Wi-Fi and power sockets for our mobile phones have saved the day. It’s better to skip the rest of it!

Departure was at 21:30. Two hours later, we have landed in Istanbul! Wow! At that time, I didn’t know that it was biggest airport, and only one fully operational 24/7……. I have never seen anything like that. We have landed, took luggage, and 15 minutes later, our friend Tomislav was waiting for us on arrivals. He was extremely helpful and kind! I am not sure we would manage to set in if he wasn’t there. He took us to hotel…. That’s story to tell. All I can remember was how we were wondering around narrow streets of old Istanbul, and Tomislav repeating words “Abi, Abi” (which is how you call someone to help you when you are local, abi = friend). We were situated in town center, next to the one of most famous monuments Galata tower. It was beautiful Galata Tower Suites by Mile Hotels, in amazing, historical but completely renewed building. The accommodation was absolutely amazing….

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Tower is overlooking all those mosques, bridges and city center…. I was quite shocked and have realized that we were in Instanbul next morning when call to morning prayers woke me up at 5am! We didn’t know that there are speakers all around town, and every day there is public call for prayers I believe three times a day.

Day 2 / 30th of December

           First morning was quite rainy. Since we were situated near Main Street called Istiklal, we have used that opportunity to wonder around and drink morning coffee. The street is some twenty meters wide, and few kilometers long, ending with beautiful Taxim square. There are many famous brands shops, stores, traditional and modern bars and restaurants. While enjoying scenery, we have chosen to drink coffee in one modern bar with traditional offer. I was dying to try real Turkish coffee, and baklava with pistachio. The prices were probably same as what you pay when in Split on Riva, some 2 Euros for coffee or tea. Cakes were much more expensive, some 5 Euros for simple cake…. Around noon, the breakfast was finished. It was drizzling snow… worst weather if you ask me. Since it was also windy my cheeks were red and tingling….

We took cab to town center. The destination was town center and famous Bazaar. Taxi experience was something you have to live to tell. I have never seen anyone driving so fast on slippery slope Street with mobile phone in one and prayer beads in other hand!

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Even dough it was real rip off and my friend was suspecting driver for missing some 100 liras (some 240 kunas), it was great experience. The driver dropped us up in town center, near famous Sultans mosque, which was closed for visitors, because Muslims still use it as place to pray. He told us, Bazaar was cross street, and some 100 meters left…. Actually, it was cross street, then 300 meters right, and then some 5 minutes walking straight! Bazaar is amazing. You need at least 2 days to see and taste everything, which we did! As real tourist, for the first time I was not ashamed to try everything what I was offered, including some 20 different taste of tea, some traditional sweets, and wear everything that was called traditional. We have returned next day too, and bought many souvenirs, including traditional tea, that was amazing.

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Later that day we had lunch/dinner in one of traditional restaurants. You could feel their hospitality. We were about to buy some leather gloves on Bazaar, when my friends suggested to go and eat something. I asked trader to give us suggestion. He was faster than our Istanbul Trip advisor app. He told his friend to look after his store and took us to restaurant. We were welcomed perfectly. Everything smelled quite strange, but it was good smell. First thing I have noticed was that there were no prices on the tables, and no woman anywhere, just our girlfriends. I must say, I was a bit skeptical about food, and asked for some suggestions. Our host told us: “Don’t worry, it you don’t like it you don’t have to pay”. I was like, OK! J We have tried everything! It’s great about Turkish cuisine; that they have this so called Meze. That is appetizer, you got several small dishes and you can taste everything. The drinks are something completely different. Locals usually drink Ajran with almost everything. That is mixture of water, sour milk and salt. Suzy and Marin loved it, but Vanja and I took Coke! Earlier that day, I have learned from one seller that when you want to ask how much you have to pay you can say “Kac para”. So I have decided to ask. Let me just say that it was small restaurant and everyone was looking at me and laughing. Owner gave us discount and desert on house! The restaurant wall was covered with many photos of famous people who had meal there. My friend Marin and I asked, and owner took photo with us; he didn’t want to take picture with girls.

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Later we have returned home, crossing beautiful bridge on foot even dough it was rain… one of those romantic moments…. Sometimes, a man has got to do, what a men has got to do! I am not sure it there will be rain next time we arrive to Istanbul!

Day 3 /31st of December

         After ignoring that call at 5am, we woke up at 10. We had lunch in one small traditional restaurant near Galata tower. Later we were heading, on foot, cross one of bridges that was near our hotel. I am not sure about restaurant name, but it can be found it on Trip advisor. The lunch was fine; meat was great but soup was not my thing. I have enjoyed, most, freshly squeezed pomegranate juice. It was part of offer in restaurant, but it can also be found on many places on street, the same as Simit which is pastry. Later, we have met our friends Vanja and Marin, who were in other restaurant enjoying chicken Kebab. Few minutes after, we were heading bridge, to catch metro. Marin had checked and memorized all lines and sights. It was real pleasure just to wonder around with at least 2 persons out of 4 who knew where they were heading. The weather was quite windy. The outcome was 4 broken umbrellas, 2 pissed off girlfriends, and the two of us enjoying rainy day and making plans where to go first. Somehow, we have split.

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As I recall, rain was persistent enough to make me and Suzy to take cab to Bazaar, and Vanja and Marin went cross the bridge. We have agreed to meet later in town. The cab left us in one of streets full of carpet stores. Shop windows were amazing, with beautiful carpets in all colors and patterns. On the end of street was eastern gate to Bazaar. This time, we were much more rational with the time, and have bought souvenirs for family and friends. We have spent more time sightseeing jewelry stores.

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I was especially impressed with amount of gold in shop windows. We had coffee in café in middle of Bazaar. It is beautiful memory. I remember I have heard more than 5 different languages including Croatian. We have also spent some time on smaller Egyptian market. It is place where you can buy almost any spice you can imagine! From all spices I preferred cinnamon, which I have bought as well as some baklavas, because my blood sugar was dropping! Since it was a New Year’s Eve we have all returned to hotel earlier to chill a bit and prepare for evening. The plan was to have dinner in hotel, and watch fireworks from roof top terrace, and then go on Main Square.

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The evening was perfect. We all dressed up, and really enjoyed it. The fireworks were amazing. The hotel was located on hill. We had million dollar view, on, I believe, all fireworks in town. It was breath taking experience. We had few drinks, took our coats, and went on Taxim. The street was full of people and police officers. There was music on every corner. People were walking in groups, hanging out and singing. We were crossing from one side of street to another soaking up atmosphere and enjoying it. Everyone was screaming happy new year, and so did we. Suddenly, I have noticed group of locals taking orange painted goat through the middle of 30 meters wide Istiklal Street. I took a selfy with them!

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We ended up that magical evening in beautiful bar enjoying rip off margaritas and Leffe beer. No matter price, we had to properly regard old year, and welcome new one.

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Party continued next few hours, and with first morning lights we went to hotel.

Day 4 / 1st of January

        Even dough, first morning in 2015th was quite cloudy in Istanbul, we were chill and ready for new adventures. Few minutes after light breakfast, we were heading to town.

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Since, the rain was lightly drizzling we have bought some umbrellas near our hotel. This time, all four of us were determinate to take metro.

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We went to town center, from where we had some 5 minutes of pleasant stroll to famous Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia. We have disembarked next to beautiful square, hippodrome, with Egyptian obelisk.

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The weather was great to wonder around. Since tourist guide contained all relevant information inside, it was quite easy to check all those monuments. On eastern side of square, there is entering to Blue mosque. The exterior is impressive.

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It is covered with white and blue stone. The entering line was more than 300 meters long. We have decided to wait. While waiting we have noticed that men were washing their feet before entering to mosque for praying, even dough it was extremely cold outside. All women had to cover their head when entering. In case you did not have one, they had prepared headscarf. Otherwise you couldn’t enter. Before enter you had to take off your shoes. The interior was really impressive. Architecture was something we have never seen before, with dominant circular praying area in middle, and large gilded iron chandelier.

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It was priority to maintain silent, since some locals were praying. It was reasonable for us, however some Italian youngster tourist have disagreed with that. They were entering on praying area with sunglasses on, and laughing. I have never seen such disrespect of local tradition before. Those were probably negative effects of tourism development for locals in such destinations. Later, we have left Blue mosque, and continued to Hagia Sophia, that was some 3 minutes walking away.

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The waiting line was once again extremely long. In case you do not want to wait you can always take guided tour with one of local guides. They will take you directly inside. Since we had time, and educated as we were, we have waited some 45 minutes and got inside. Entering was surreal experience. You realize how small you are, by standing in front of such great monuments. The interior is amazing. It left me speechless. It was one of those moments when you just want to observe. We took some photos…. But it’s quite hard to capture that beauty with camera.

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When entering inside you pass lobby characterized by massive stone walls and columns. The interactive maps and screens retell ancient history of the building. Passage through large wooden doors takes you inside. It is really hard to find right words to describe interior. Next two hours we were wondering around first and second floor of mosque soaking up all architectural and historical details. Much information about Christian history of Hagia Sophia can be found by reading descriptions in front of the preserved frescos. Later we have visited Sultan’s family tomb located outside the Hagia Sophia. Few minutes later we were heading Topkapi Saraj. That is sultan’s palace. It was closing, so we have decided to come tomorrow.

The night in hotel fueled our batteries for great adventure to be continued tomorrow.

Day 5 / 2nd of January

        First day without rain……. we were crossing beautiful bridge on foot.

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It was full of people caching fish. I have bought some hooks and baits for my brother who is passionate fisherman. They were all produced and created on bridge. You can also rent one of sticks and cache fish by yourself or buy some.

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As we passed beautiful promenade we stopped in a bookstore. I have custom to buy book and painting whenever I go somewhere. This time I have chosen to buy beautiful book “Istanbul – yabanci gazetecilerin gözüyle”. That is monograph with photos consisting of 23 articles about Istanbul penned by 23 foreign journalists. Later we have continued to Topkapi Saraj. After waiting in line to get tickets, we were inside. Palace is that massive that it takes at least 5 hours to look main sights. Interior as well as the exterior reflect the power of the Ottoman Empire. The view from many terraces is absolutely amazing, overlooking Istanbul and strait.

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There are several sections of palace that have been transformed to separate museum rooms. In some sultans jewelry can be found, and in some other articles like weapons and clothing. There is also impressive interactive display of main kitchen with many original kitchen supplies and ceramics and gold dishes. We were all especially impressed with marble pavilion.

Absolutely impressed we were heading to have our last late lunch in Istanbul. This time we have chosen traditional restaurant near Topkai Saraj. Lamb and sheep kebab was not my thing, so I have traded my dish for Suzys. Delighted, we have caught the subway, and went back to the hotel. Suzy and I have planned to meet here cousins who live in Istanbul and spend pleasant evening with them. It took us some 35 minutes with cab to come from our hotel to other block where they live. Istanbul is extremely big city, with more than 12 million inhabitants, and that number increases annually. It was real pleasure to sit and have drink and pleasant chat with Marijana and Tomislav. They were extremely welcoming and kind, and ready to listen our possibly exhausting retelling of impressions. We couldn’t help it. Marijana has prepared dinner. It was real fusion of Turkish and Mediterranean kitchen. We absolute loved it. The pleasant evening continued, until it was time to went back to hotel because early flight tomorrow morning.

Day 6 / 3rd of January

We woke up early to pack our bags and drink last original Turkish coffee.

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After checking out from hotel, we took cab and went on airport.

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This time we have asked driver to turn on taximeter, as Marijana told us. We have paid less for that 45 minute drive than we have paid on first day just to cross bridge!

After checking tickets we have waited in passenger room for some 30 minutes. Later, the small Turkish airlines plain, with us embarked, took off.

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We were all looking through windows saying goodbye, but not farewell Istanbul, because we were sure to come back!

regards

Ante,

September, 2015-09-29

Here are some important remarks you can find useful when going to Istanbul:

  1. Always book your flights much earlier. Cheapest flights you can find on Skyscanner app. If you are waiting for last minute flights check Turkish airlines official web page. They usually offer cheap last minute return flights.
  2. Use Airbnb to find accommodation. Be sure to read reviews. You can find out much more from review than from photos. Galata Tower Vip suite is highly recommended Hotel!
  3. It is always best option to find accommodation in town center. City is enormously big. If someone told you that it is some 20 minutes driving from town center that means that you will have to spend a lot on taxi.
  4. When taking taxi, always insist that taximeter is on. In opposite, they will charge you much more.
  5. One Turkish lira is cca. 2.5 Kunas that is 0, 30 Euros.
  6. Check out weather before you pack your bags!
  7. Use trip advisor apps that can function while offline in Istanbul.
  8. Enjoy, taking into the account that it is completely different culture, with completely different customs! Remember to treat people and their traditions with respect, the same as you would expect them to be!

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