Feb 2016 – Istanbul

Istanbul – Turkey (Feb 2016)

It will soon become clear that we favour a long weekend break in February, as it ties in perfectly with the school terms and is usually treated as being off-peak by holiday companies.

This year we chose Istanbul.
True to form, we flew with KLM from Aberdeen…why choose any other?
(But we have for November 2017!!)
With the online check-in and the fact that we both travel light, there is no rush to get to the airport.
The flight took a bit of time to leave Aberdeen as we had to de-ice the wings!!  Not ourselves obviously 😉
The flight via Amsterdam then on to Istanbul was ace, we really do love our KLM!
Although we love to travel and travelled a fair bit over the years, this was the first time we’d ventured to the land where East meets West.

 

I must admit, we did travel with a sense of trepidation, as on the 12th Jan 2016 there had been a suicide bombing beside the Blue Mosque and we were staying less than two minutes from there.  However, we did check with the foreign office, they told us to travel but “to be vigilant”…this didn’t exactly allay our fears, but we decided to go ahead as planned.

As mentioned previously, I look for public travel options from the airport to the hotel and Istanbul has an excellent tram network and the “Istanbulkart” is an award winning travel pass that covers trams, buses and even the Ferry across the Bospherus, so buying one was our first job when we landed.

Surprisingly, despite the fact the tram station is in the airport they didn’t sell the Istanbulkart…so we were stumped.
A very nice woman stopped and asked if we wanted help, we explained our predicament, she spoke to the guy in the travel booth, but no cards.  She then used her own card to swipe us through the barriers…this kindness was a great introduction to Istanbul.  This allowed us to travel away from the airport and into the centre where she told us we should be able to buy the card at any of the other stations.
However, we had to change trams and encountered the same problem at our next stop, but this time we managed to work out the options for ourselves…to buy one trip “barrier tokens” – which we did, only to find out our tokens didn’t work!!  Again step forward a very helpful young man who spoke to the guards on our behalf and they allowed us through.
This was to be a recurring theme during our holiday, the young folk of the City, were very helpful and approachable, the older locals…….less so!

We arrived at our hotel; Skalion Hotel & Spa, a lovely hotel and very well situated.  It was far enough off the main road to be quieter but close enough to be within walking distance of everything we hoped to see.

Coming from Scotland we are not that used to heat and Istanbul was a bit warm through the night, so we slept with the windows open…this gave us front row seats next morning for the call to prayer, which initially we found quite eerily beautiful but within a short space of time a very natural occurrence that acts as the most lovely alarm clock you could ever wish for.  As we were only here for a few days, we were up early and down for breakfast at 7.00am and man oh man what a breakfast it was!

 

We tend to book hotels with breakfast included, fill our boots, walk everywhere then have our supper at night.  The hotel breakfast fitted our needs perfectly, in fact we were there for almost an hour the first day! Imagine a comb of real honey drizzling fresh honey for the guests, an array of hot food, exotic cheeses, breads and strangely – various puddings.  Breakfast was quite literally a three course meal – fabulous.

After filling up, our first stop of the day was the Blue Mosque, what a place, but I wouldn’t fancy hoovering that carpet!

We had visited it briefly the night before, all lit up and we had walked around the perimeter of it admiring the architecture and beauty of this structure.

Four police cars were patrolling the square where the recent bombing had taken place, so a tangible reminder that the serenity of this scene could be shattered in a split second.

At this point we were approached by a very forward chap who wanted to know if we were interested in buying a carpet. We told him we had just arrived so no thank you, we parted on congenial terms with him assuring us he would catch up with us later…….

 

So, during our morning visit to the Blue Mosque it should not have come us a huge surprise that he was there waiting for us. He took us to a carpet shop quite a walk away, then upstairs to an attic room where the manager gave us tea and started rolling out heaps of carpets whilst outlining their individual qualities.

 

I got quite carried away with it all……something in the tea perhaps?!

We have a big rug in our living room and I was thinking of another one for one of the other rooms. We, or rather I, narrowed it down to three carpets, but I couldn’t make up my mind.
Carol sat there lips pursed and remained ominously silent.
The guy then asked, “would knowing the prices help with your decision” yes it would I replied, in pounds or Turkish Lira, Pounds I said, sipping yet another cup of sweet apple tea.
He casually rhymed off the following prices for each of the three smallish rugs; £2,800 / £2,300 & £1,800. Carol turned towards me and fixed me with that “Well what did you expect Mitchell?” look.

That settled it, decision made – time for a sharp exit!

Our next stop was the Basilica Cistern. Gratefully I paid for the guided tour headphones which just about drowned out Carol’s “what the f**k were you playing at in the carpet shop” line of conversation.

As the travel card works on busses, trams and ferries, we jumped on the ferry from Sirkeci to Kadikoy across the Bospherous.

This is a glorious experience. The views of Istanbul from the ferry are breath-taking. Independent food venders ply their wares and an army of squalling seagulls follow the boat.  Music fills the air and in the warm weather this mode of transport is a treat not to be missed.  In fact travelling in Istanbul in general is a very positive experience and one every visitor should try.

On arrival we had lunch in a nice café then the ferry back to Eminonu then the train to Beyzit.

Many of the cafes in Istanbul are set up a bit like school dinners.  The daily offerings are laid out in trays and by simply pointing at the trays of your choice, your plate will be filled and then you will pay at the cash till at the end. Simples.

 

No trip to Istanbul would be complete without a visit to the Grand Bazaar.

Personally, I hated it! The line of stall owners either side of you, continuously try to engage you “Hey Lady” is the inescapable cry as you pass…wandering freely and comparing prices isn’t an option (nothing has a price label).  As soon as you stop or look interested you are pounced on and literally harassed until either you buy something or leave.  We chose the latter! In fact we almost ended up running along the wee lanes of the Grand Bazaar looking for a way out as it was all too much!

However, we don’t recommend you do this as there are armed soldiers at every crossroads who check you, in case you are armed and I imagine anyone running would set them in motion.

 

The following day we had another splendid breakfast then headed off to see The Hagia Sophia Museum. It was ok, but at 30tl, I’m not sure?


We stopped in passed the Spice Bazaar before taking a few more ferry trips around Istanbul and then ca tching the T1 tram back to our hotel.
There is obviously an unwritten rule on the trams that the locals have precedent on the seating.

During this trip back to the hotel, we got on the tram and at one of the first stops, an Indian family got on with us and sat down. During the journey, the tram filled up. Unbelievably, at one of the stops a woman got on and physically pushed the Indian children off their seats. Their parents took them over beside them for safety. However, at the next stop, another woman physically pushed the parents off their seats, the family left soon after. We were quite stunned by the level of animosity and hostility displayed by the older locals on the tram to this family.

The most distressing thing was that there were other seats, but the Indian family were seen as easy targets.

We were targeted by another woman, but Carol is from Glasgow…dream big Turkish woman…no quarter was given 😉

The sickening part of all this was that if the same thing had happened in this country, there would be a human cry about racial discrimination. It was an unsettling insight into the older people and their culture.
We flew back home the day after with the feeling that three days in Istanbul was about two days too much.

It is a beautiful city where the hundreds of stray cats and dogs are treated like Kings but visitors are not always shown that same level of courtesy and consideration.

In the back streets the disregard for Health and Safety that we are accustomed to is striking and you need to have your wits about you at all times to avoid coming a cropper!

 

When we arrived at Ataturk Airport for our journey home, I was on tenterhooks.
There were two security gates to go through, normally you would think this was a good thing, but at the first gate, a man and a woman kept setting off the metal detector you walk through, after a few attempts, the guards just shrugged and let them through.  At the next gate the guards were more engrossed with their mobile phones to even look at the X-ray scanner screams of the bags going through.  Then, just before we boarded the flight we had to scan our tickets and enter into a “secure” waiting area…the problem was, it wasn’t secure.  We lost count of the passengers who nipped under the ropes to go to the toilet, whilst the whole time two security guards played on their mobile phones taking selfies!!
The airport staff were using a mobile boarding system stored in what looked like a briefcase.  I was standing right at it while folk were getting scanned in.

One guy scanned a passport that didn’t belong to him.

An extremely heated discussion grew.

A manager then came and agreed it wasn’t his passport judging by the photo…the discussion got more heated and another guy joined in, screaming that this was happening because the man in question was black and they wouldn’t do it to a white passenger etc.

It was almost becoming physically violent by the time they started boarding us.

We boarded the plane and I was horrified and terrified to see that the guy had actually been allowed on the flight with us.

I started taking pictures of him on my mobile phone just in case the flight went down!!!
I mentioned this to a friend of mine who is an ex Police Inspector, he told me to report it. I wrote to KLM with his seat number to KLM at the time, but heard nothing back.
This only reinforced our decision not to venture too far from home in the future.
I was horrified but not shocked when I heard about the attack at Ataturk Airport on 28th June 2016

Istanbul is a city of breath-taking beauty to the point of sensory overload; sights, sounds and smells are forever changing and assaulting the senses of the tourist making for an intense overall experience. Culturally there are significant differences between the people who live here and us visiting from the West, which we learned to be mindful of at all times; for example if you blow your nose in public you will be met with looks of disdain broaching on anger.  Due to the political climate in which we live at present, there is no escaping the fact that whilst we were in Istanbul we felt we had to be on our guard at all times. This, on top of the walking, exploring and learning makes for an exhausting experience – which we wouldn’t have missed for anything!

 

And yes, we did have a new selfie stick 😉