Istanbul, Turkey 2012

1 Turkish Lira (TRL) = $0.57

It’s that time again to start off on another vacation to a city that we have never visited before. As a volunteer in Ukraine, Turkey is one of the easiest places for us to travel to. A lot of it has to do with the proximity, being the closest country due south of where I am living. Almost everyone gets there by plane, making it a shorter travel time for me than getting to many points in Ukraine. Ordinarily I would probably get a flight out of Simferopol direct to Istanbul for about 1 hour, but this time I decided to head to Kiev for a couple of extra days before meeting El on a plane in Kiev to fly direct to Istanbul for 1hr40min. One day, in the beginning of October, we Skyped for a few hours and used the time to book all of our travel at the same time which really worked out well. She got a flight from New York to Istanbul with a layover in Kiev, so I got the same Kiev to Istanbul direct flight. We are on different flights home, but I won’t worry about that at this point.
Istanbul is sort of funny for me. The thing is that there are many places that just don’t really register on my “to visit” list. The list is admittedly long and it just means that it’s not near the top. It’s not that I am against going there, it is just that I thought if I had the opportunity to plan a trip, I thought it would be awhile before Istanbul hit my radar. However, for some reason unknown to me, Istanbul has always been closer to the top of El’s list. I always keep her input in mind when we look for trips to take, but the opportunity had never presented itself…until now. I thought, this is a place that she really wants to visit and with finances what they are (not as easy on a single income) I figured this would be a perfect time to visit. El and I had been planning to be together for the holidays no matter where, whether she came to my town, or we met in some third spot (I knew I had no intention of going to the US) we would still be together. Well, we did our planning and we will be together in the city of her choice that I have to admit I am more interested in today than I had been previously. I have done as much research as I could to figure out where to go and what to do. She also expressed an interest in taking a cooking class while we are there. I looked around and found a place that seems like it will be a unique experience if nothing else. It turns out that another volunteer will also be in Istanbul for the holidays and we arranged to be in the same class together. I am looking forward to it. In addition to finding the best deals we could on flights, we also chose to cash in many of our reward program benefits. That said, we were able to get 8 of our 9 nights of hotels for free. It’s one of those things where it seems to take so long to accumulate the free nights, but if you never use them, you may find you have more than you thought and they just might come in handy for times like these.
On Friday night I set my alarm for Saturday 9:00am. This would allow me enough time to get checked out of the hostel in Kiev and get the shuttle bus to the airport. I am awakened at 7:00am. Not by my alarm, but by my ringing phone. There are very few who would call me at this hour on a Saturday and as I picked up the phone and saw the caller ID, I already had a good idea what I was about to hear. You see, by my calculations, I was to meet El in about 4 hours…and if she was calling me, it could only mean one thing- she did not get on her flight from New York. It took me a few minutes to get the information about her flight that was cancelled for unspecified “technical issues”. She was not going to meet me today in Kiev, but rather tomorrow in Istanbul. I was still going to travel as expected and get started with figuring out as much as I could about the metro and how to get us around. Basically doing as much of the leg work that we would ordinarily do together, but as long as one of us knows can only serve to save us time. She was able to go back to NYC to stay with her mom so once I arrived to Istanbul we were able to Skype and iron out some new plans. I will plan to meet her at the Istanbul airport tomorrow at 4:15pm…which gives me about 8 hours to get to our hotel for tomorrow, figure out how to get downtown and back to the airport on the metro and buy our transit pass. All the while I will try to get the lay of the land (as it were).

A note about arrival: ALL citizens with US passports need to have a visa before going through passport control. You buy this visa at the airport between the time you get off the plane and get to passport control! At this time it costs (your choice) US$20 or 15 Euros that can ONLY be paid in cash. Be sure to get your visa before to go to the passport control or they will turn you around!

SUNDAY DECEMBER 23, 2012
When you arrive by plane to Ataturk Airport in Istanbul there is a metro stop on the lower level (underneath Terminal B). On metro maps the station is called “Ataturk Havalimani”. If you need to get to the Sultanahmet (the downtown area where most of the good tourist stuff is) or Taksim Square (the other side of the European portion where all the nightlife is) you need to take the metro to a stop called Zeytinburnu then transfer to the tram line to get to Sultanahmet which is a stop on the Eminonu or Kabatas trains. Or you can take a Kabatas tram to the end for Taksim Square. We are staying at the Hotel Dara on a recommendation which is located in the Sultanahmet neighborhood. The weather today is overcast and in the 30's. No rain yet, but everything has a fresh coat of wet. The metro is very clean and appears that people know how to use a garbage can. What a difference a couple hours from Ukraine makes. I will also need to buy an Istanbulkart which is the multi-trip mass transit card for the city. You can use it for multiple people and it is good for most, if not all public transports in the city. The only issue is that you cannot buy them at the airport and you have to go to one of the major stations and buy the card for 10TRL and you put on as much as you would like, recharging when necessary. You may be able to get them at minor stations too, but definitely not at the airport. I get off at the Sultanahmet tram stop. Note that you do have to pay a second fare to transfer to the tramway. As I exit the tram (all told about 45 minutes from the airport) I stop at the giant tourist map hanging off the platform to figure out the route to the hotel. I am approached by an older gentleman asking where I am going. I tell him the name of my hotel while trying to locate it on the map. I expect that if I had no reservation he would have been more than happy to provide me with a room in his brother’s/cousin’s/[insert relative relationship here] hotel. Instead he offers to show me the way to where I need to go. He walks me to the corner and describes where I want to go. A firm handshake and a smile as we part is a nice welcome to the city. His directions were very good and I walk past the Blue Mosque on the way to the hotel. Our room isn’t ready and I have a couple hours to kill before needing to be at the airport to pick up El. I ask for the way to the information center which is located about 50 meters from the Sultanahmet tram stop towards the Hagia Sophia. I ask about the Istanbulkart and am pointed to the Coca-Cola kiosk across the street. On my way across the street I am approached by an older gentleman who asks where I am from and we seem to make an instant connection as his son lives in Queens, NY (the cynical side of me goes out on a limb and bets that he “has” a relative in most cities in the US just for this purpose). He explains that I need to see his leather goods factory. I assure him that I am not in the market for any leather goods, but if I know anyone who is I will be happy to pass on the name and address of the contact. He is persistent and I have time to kill, so I follow him passed the "poor quality Chinese leather" and to his cousin’s/brother's leather factory. As we walk in, I am introduced to a middle aged man named Ramadan who is a leather goods salesman and handed a tall shot glass of apple tea. After introducing myself as Sim from New York, I sit with Ramadan talking about Montreal and other New York area things. He knows how to schmooze the customer, that’s for sure. I am up front with him that I am willing to look at anything he wants to show me, but that I was not in the market for leather today. We shake hands over the exchange of the business card. Now I am on a quest to make it to the Coca-Cola kiosk to buy the Istanbulkart. On my way, with the kiosk in sight, I am stopped by another gentleman who wants to show me his brother’s/cousin's carpet store. I tell him that while not in the market for a carpet, I would be happy to listen and take the contact information to give to any of my friends who are carpet inclined- but only after I buy my kart. He leads me to the kiosk and asks the workers for the card I am after. It costs 10TRL for the card and comes preloaded with 10TRL. I follow my new friend Umit to his brother’s/cousin's carpet shop and am offered a choice of Turkish coffee or tea. Upon his recommendation, I sit in the showroom, echoing that I do not wish to waste anyone’s time. Umit’s cousin Sam, in true salesman fashion, instead refers to our impending time together as an "investment of time" rather than a "waste" of it. I am delivered a cup of Turkish coffee and Sam begins to give me the only somewhat condensed version of the history of Turkish carpets. Interestingly, I learn, it is more about the people who make the carpets rather than physical location of manufacture. For example, you can get a Turkish carpet from China or Iran just as you can get poor quality carpets in Turkey. I wonder if you can get a Persian rug in Turkey? This spiel goes so long that I finish my coffee and Sam orders me a tea telling me that it is not good for blood pressure to drink more than two cups of Turkish coffee a day...and NEVER drink the "mud" on the bottom since it is bad for the stomach. I reiterate after my 45 minute crash course in carpetry. I have just learned so much more than I ever wanted to know about Turkish carpets. But, if you ever need a Turkish carpet, I have a guy. On the way out, Sam recommends a restaurant for "meatball sandwiches". This is apparently a popular street food and there are several places nearby. He sends me to the area with several shops describing more like a mine field than restaurant row. As in "the first place you will come to is OK, the second is very bad- avoid at all costs, but the third place is the best." I wind up at Semazen Restaurant. Sultanahmet meatballs and a Coke runs me 16TRL. The place is a little too busy for its own good. If I had it to do again, I would have gotten the food to go, because the way street food works, it's better to walk and eat, because the same food loses most character when sitting on a plate with garnish. The store front that looks like a regular street food vendor from the street perspective, quickly appears as a 4 floor café when you walk around the corner. Inside is a bustling team of waiters and bussers clearly in the business of get 'em in, feed 'em quick, roll 'em out, repeat. A well-oiled machine can pull that task off. This was a well-oiled machine...in need of some oil! Food was coming out cold. Plates were coming out before all of the components were assembled and when you have staff running around trying to stay a step ahead of the game, it can be difficult to catch someone’s attention to get some mayonnaise or the check. The bill is a little steep for the service and quality of food, but I leave full and thankful I didn’t pay more. At least I know a place to avoid when El arrives. After lunch I head back to the hotel. Our room is now ready and I get all of my gear up to the room and get everything I need for the airport. The ride will be about an hour so I check the airline website to see if there are any delays to report. None, so I am on my way. I arrive around 4:00pm to find a 10 minute delay in her flight. Let's hope that is all. My first impressions of this city: clean, bilingual, friendly, efficient, and welcoming. I expect to come up with some new adjectives in the coming days. Ironically, with the announced delay, El's flight arrives 10 minutes early! I meet her and head to the hotel to freshen up before taking our first stroll together around the neighborhood. The Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia are closed but lit up beautifully. 

Hagia Sophia at night

Hagia Sophia at night

Blue Mosque at night

El with the excellent camera work to get this shot in such low light

Hagia Sophia at night

The Fountain of Sultan Ahmet III behind Hagia Sophia

This reminds me that I want to try to get a recording of the call to prayer which occurs five times a day and can be heard throughout the city. For dinner, we stop at Old Ottoman Café and Restaurant. Our host/waiter spends more time telling us of the menu items that are NOT available, but the charm of the place works for us. I get a tomato salad and chicken kebab. No alcohol here, so it is Coca-Cola for us until the next stop after dinner. The "tomato salad" is more of a tomato and hot pepper puree it is a little salty. El's eggplant puree is mild and mixed with mine it is a nice combination. The dinner hits the spot and using their wi-fi, we plan our next stop for the night at a bar called Just Bar. It is closer to the hotel and we will probably call it a night afterwards to get an early start on the day tomorrow. As we walk down the street we are called to by several people trying to get us into their restaurant. Having already eaten it is easy to say “no”. As we come upon Just Bar we hear The Doors "L.A. Woman" playing. We order some beers and mixed nuts and check email. The beer is Turkish and called Efes Pilsen. It is a little bitter for my liking, but I will adjust. The music stays respectably classic rock for most of our time here and we look to plan parts of our next couple of days here. The streets are quiet as we head to the hotel and call it a night.

OBSERVATION: There are security cameras everywhere. From inside metros and bus stops to street corners and light posts. They are everywhere.  I would be curious to know how the cameras make residents here feel. They seem like they instill an extra sense of security. There are also a lot of metal detectors. In the metro station, in the bazaar, in the mall, even in the lobby of the Marriott hotel. Every metro stop has a manned security guard booth who can answer questions and diffuse security issues. It makes me feel better than the token booth worker in New York City.

MONDAY DECEMBER 24, 2012
We start with breakfast at the hotel. It is a pretty standard mix of fruits, vegetables, and assorted hot and cold salads. Nothing special, but free, fast, and convenient goes a long way when you want to get a start on the day. As we leave the hotel our first stop is a landmark called the Million. It looks like a portion of an old stone wall or gate. 

Million Stone

There is some contradictory information regarding what it was used for between our guide and the plaque on the site. Certainly not important enough to make a difference. It seems sufficient to say that during the Byzantine era, the benchmark was used to measure distances to key places in the empire. Afterwards we take some pictures of The Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. There is a large square that separates the two and makes for a good spot for pictures. As we walk, we discover one of the downsides of low season tourism: a significantly higher ratio of tourism related workers to actual tourists. Most are friendly and wish you well when you politely decline their offers. Others however, are a little more aggressive and are not as easy to shake. I wrote yesterday about the guys that took me to the leather and carpet stores, and I have now met more carpet store representatives than I would have thought one city could sustain. I usually can just tell them that I already have a carpet guy to get wished well. This morning, though, El and I were standing in one spot a little too long and were approached by a young man selling guide books. We said we didn’t need one and were just taking some moments to find the “Sultan’s Tomb”. Well, not only did he point out the tomb, he also started giving us (unsolicited, I might add) the history of several buildings within eyesight. Then, he asked us to follow him to his brother’s/cousin's ceramic shop. I explained there was no way I would be buying ceramics at this time, but he refused to take no for an answer. We wind up following him just a few blocks down to "his" store. We walk in and I assure the salesman we will NOT be buying any ceramic today, but offer to take his card. He tells me that it is not worth it for him to print cards for people who promise to return and don’t. After pondering that nugget of ironic retail wisdom, we thank him for his time and head back up the street with our impromptu guide. Minutes earlier he had set one of his guide books in my hand. When I refused and offered it back to him, he said it was for me. I found it impossible to believe that a guy who makes a portion of his living from selling these books, would choose to just give me one. As we walked up the street back towards the tomb we were originally looking for, he asks for money. I calmly explained that he did not perform any service for us and while handing his book back assured him there was no way he was getting any money from me. He then had the nerve to tell me that since I “asked” him to take me to his ceramics shop and he did, I should give him money for his efforts! I chuckled a little and asked him not to spoil the goodwill between us to which he said as I was laughing "you are not funny, you are American". Not sure what exactly that meant, but figured it was better to part ways as quickly as we could without spoiling our good time. We did, and beelined for the tomb (which, it turns out after all, is closed on Mondays). The Hagia Sophia is also closed on Mondays. We stand in front of the tomb reading about Sultan Ahmet and how some of his family members murdered each other and then got interred in the same tomb! Without much to see, we move on to find the hippodrome. We understand that it is not standing today in its original form, but as we read we continue to guess to which building is being described. After eliminating all buildings within eyesight, we read the passage again only to realize the landmark is not a building at all, but more of a square or quad with some minor landmarks in it and we were standing on it! We start at one end with the German fountain and continue down the open space. There are three monuments that make up the "spine" of the hippodrome. The guide books have a decent description of the significance of the monuments, but they look like old statues to me. Next we head down to the Sokollu Mehmet Pasha Mosque. It is our first mosque visit in Istanbul, so we are unclear of the expected etiquette- it has been years since our last mosque visit. It is small and does not have many tourists. We see the shoes outside, but cannot tell what the rules on photography are and there doesn’t appear to be anyone to ask or signage to answer the questions. It is close enough that we can go to the Blue Mosque and see what is required/forbidden, and then come back if we want. There are no signs prohibiting photography, but that could be because it should be obvious. El gets some shots of the mosque’s courtyard, but we don't enter. We will move onto the Little Hagia Sophia which El does venture into. She asks about photos and is told it is not a problem. The mosques are all closed during prayer time, but open for visiting the rest of the day. I journal while she goes inside for the photos. The Little Hagia Sophia is located amidst several backstreets. 

Southern side of Sultanahmet


neighborhood near Little Hagia Sophia

Little Hagia Sophia

Actually the journey to find it is fun, as the slice of "typical" small neighborhood Istanbul offers its own interesting views.Afterwards we walk towards the Blue Mosque and stop at a coffee shop called Denizen Coffee. The unmistakable American accent of the barista leads us to our introduction to "Ken from San Francisco" who, it turns out, owns this place. After delivering our orders, he sits down with us to hear our story. We tell him of our plans and he gives us all kinds of information, suggestions, and other kinds of helpful hints. Our drinks are very good and since it is in the 40's today, the warming stop isn't the worst thing. Afterwards we hit the Blue Mosque. Not knowing the protocol we stop to read the signs announcing the do's and don'ts of a tourist visit. As we do, we are approached by a young man who is friendly enough and tells us that we do not need to read any further since we are both dressed appropriately. He goes on to explain that only Muslims can use the front door to the mosque and all other visitors are required to use the back door on the right side. He walks to show us and, in now typical fashion, tells us the coincidental story of his family member living close to where we are from. He also offers that his girlfriend is from Colorado. As we get close to the entrance, a small line forms to enter. At this point he makes his move to give us a tour and also to bring us to his brother’s/cousin's souvenir shop once we finish with the tour. We first politely decline and then need to decline a little more forcefully. He gets the hint and instead of arguing decides, I suppose, to the head back to the sign of do's and don'ts for the next potential “customers”. Although there is no bag check here, there are rolls of plastic bags being dispensed for shoe storage during your visit. We forgo the bags and just put our shoes in our backpacks. Once inside there is a wooden barrier separating the prayer area from the tourist’s photo spot. The rugs are comfortable on the feet and everyone jockeys for best vantage point to take their photos. I am surprised by how many women wear the required head scarf to enter the mosque, but remove it once inside, even though it is required at all times. The inside is beautiful and there is no photography restriction. 

Entering the Blue Mosque


Inside the Blue Mosque

Inside the Blue Mosque

Inside the Blue Mosque

Inside the Blue Mosque

One thing that takes away from the beauty a little is the amount of support wires used to suspend the lights from the ceiling. We do not stay long, only about 30-40 minutes. Stepping out and putting on our shoes a man sits in a small booth calling for donations to the mosque in multiple languages. We head towards the Topkapi Palace and stop for lunch at a place called 4 Donner Café. My chicken wrap is not great, but hits the spot. It tasted like a shawarma with too many ingredients. Not surprisingly, the waiter tries to steer us to the carpet shop one storefront down. We politely decline although his reaction was as if he had never been rejected before. I feel my heart hardening with each new pitch. We walk down to the Topkapi Palace, but with only an hour until closing time I expect the entrance fee will not be worth it and decide to pass. We continue to walk down to the Galata Bridge and wharf area. 

Standing under the Galata Bridge. Hundreds of fishermen spend their hours casting off the bridge while vendors of hot tea walk back and forth looking for a sale

The bridge complex is a roadway over the Golden Horn waterway connecting the two European portions of the city, as well as a tram track, a small passageway for boats underneath, and a row of restaurants below street level. There are some nice views but too many people trying to get you into their restaurant or on their cruise or onto their tour bus. Annoying is the only adjective when you are just trying to look around. Underneath the bridge is a continuous strip of eateries that frankly look like they all have the exact same menu and seating arrangements. Each with their own hawkers on the walkway tasked with bringing in diners. The first one is a minor annoyance, the thirtieth confrontation is almost angering. Every exchange ripped straight from the same playbook…
Them: "Hey, are you American? Where are you from?"
Me: (not stopping) "New York"
Them: (moving into my walking path and slowing down) "Wow, New York! My sister lives in Brooklyn! You know Brooklyn? Hey, we have the best food on this pier."
Me: (trying to walk around or through him) "no thanks we are just walking"
Them: "what are you looking for? You want beer? wine? you like beef? We have seats inside or outside"
Me: (once passed and walking away) "no thanks, we're good"
Them: (walking to get back in front of us) "come on Mr. New York. What do you look for?"
Then we walk literally 20 feet and have the exact same conversation as if they had all gone to the same tourist wrangling class. We continue to walk across the bridge and once on the other side we start to look for a low key bar to grab a beer. As we walk, we begin to feel that we are in more of an industrial area with many shops related to hardware and machinery. There are no bars here. After a while we turn back to the bridge to head to where we know we can drink and eat. As we make our way back to the bridge and eventually get back to the Sultanahmet neighborhood, we decide to stop at a little restaurant near the hotel for a snack before heading out for the evening. The restaurant is called Vaha. We split a “pide” which is like pizza with a doughy crust and no sauce. Kind of like a white pizza. We also split a "Turkish salad" which is basically tomatoes and cucumbers tossed with vinegar. It is all average tasty and way more filling than expected. Afterwards, we head back to the hotel to change for the evening. The night is clear and we think we can get some good night shots of the Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque. Then we go to the same bar as last night called Just Bar and get the same order as last night. We even hear some of the same tunes. We are home around midnight. I have to be up early for my recording project in the morning.

FYI: A postcard stamp to any foreign country is 2TRL and you need to write “AIRMAIL” on the top. There are PTT’s (post offices) all over the city. We have passed some of these offices with very long lines for services. But, there is a mini-PTT kiosk near the Hagia Sophia that sells stamps and has a little mailbox in front of it. I have never seen a line there.

TUESDAY DECEMBER 25, 2012

I set my alarm for 6:10am to try to get a recording of the morning call to prayer. It starts around 6:15 and lasts until almost 6:30. Basically, every mosque has a person called a muezzin who performs the adhan (call to prayer) five times a day. I understand there are 16 styles of the call (which, frankly all sound the same to the untrained ear) and each mosque’s muezzin uses one of the styles. Unless you have ever been in a city with a large Muslim constituency, you have probably never heard the call quite like this. It’s almost like you hear an entire city waking up. Really beautiful, if you are on vacation and hearing it for the first time. Really annoying, being woken up every morning if you are not Muslim. The first calls are from mosques farther away and they get progressively closer.
Here is a portion of my recording. It runs a total of 9:28. If you listen from the beginning, you will hear the farther mosques first and eventually get to the one across the street from the hotel. If you just want to hear what the call to prayer sounds like, skip half way through, around 4:48.

Call To Prayer


The calls are the same five times a day, but I knew if I wanted to record it that the morning would have the least street and other ambient noise interference. It took 15 minutes for me to get what I wanted and then I went back to sleep, waking up hours later. Our first stop today is an ATM. They are all over the place and all seem to offer many languages for customers. In many respects, like this, Istanbul is "tourist friendly". Our first real stop of the day is the Hagia Sophia (or Ayasofya in Turkish). The line is about 50 people long. It gives the tourism vultures just enough time to give their pitches in many languages to drum up some business. We can pay 40TRL each for a ticket and audio guide, or 200TRL each for a guided tour. I find it funny that one of the selling points is that you can skip the long line if you take these tours. So if you arrive to a line that looks very long, some might think it would be worth it to jump the line, but with three ticket booths open, the line moves very quickly. We stick with the DIY plan. If you have a multimuseum pass you can also use it to skip the line. We didn’t and stood in wait for the ticket booths. Entrance is 25TRL each. There is a multi-lingual audio guide for and additional 15TRL. Our tripod is considered a "professional photography tool" and is confiscated by security for return after the visit. The museum is big and historic. Although I find the audio guide explanations too long and detailed at some points, I think it is well worth it. The place is visually stunning and I can see why I have heard about this building since Mr. Mangini's 6th grade social studies class. We spend quite a while here. It really is a wonderful site worthy of a lot of photos. 

Hagia Sophia

Inside the Hagia Sophia

Inside the Hagia Sophia

Hagia Sophia

Inside the Hagia Sophia

After about 2 hours in the museum we head out, dropping off our audio guide and picking up our tripod on the way out. Next stop is across the street at Basilica Cistern. The entrance is 10TRL with 5TRL for the audio guide. The limited information makes the guide here pointless, and not recommended. There are only 5 or 6 spots with audio information, which aren’t even that fascinating, and probably available in a guide book. The place itself is dark and beautiful. It is very difficult to get good photos inside, but with no tripod restriction, El is able to snap some great shots using it. 

Inside the Basilica Cistern

Inside the Basilica Cistern

Having not eaten since breakfast and coming up on 4:00pm, we head to a restaurant the rates #7 on TripAdvisor. It is called Aloran and like many restaurants has someone trying to get you inside. We are used to people saying that their food is good or that they have great views in their restaurant, but this guy opens with the question: "Do you know Trip Advisor? We are #7 on Trip Advisor. Other restaurants say they have tasty food, but our customers have said that our food is tasty. Go look up on TripAdvisor, #7 and then you come back to eat here!" Now, there was a pitch. Our new friend, Fatih is charming and talks his place up just enough to pique interest, but not enough to be annoying. We asked for his card to research the reviews on TripAdvisor, Yelp, guide books etc. and without batting an eye we had a business card and well wishes. This was the way to get our business. As we arrive to the restaurant, Fatih comes running out and welcomes us remembering us from our frequent passes of the front door. We order the mixed salad plate for two, the mixed grill for two, and two beers. This is our Christmas dinner and the complimentary pita is a good start. We discuss our plans for tonight and tomorrow as it will be our last night on the European side for four days. Our meal arrives and is very decent. All accounts tell us the Testy Kebab Mix Plate is the specialty of the house. It arrives to the table in fire and takes a small showman’s routine to open the clay pot and expose the contents to be poured out onto our plates.

Heating up the clay pot with our kebab dinner

Some steaming pita. About the size of a basketball.

The food is very tasty and hearty and served with a scoop of rice and half of a baked potato. We eat and discuss plans to head to the Taksim Square area afterwards. We take the tram to Kabatas and transfer to the F1 funicular to Taksim Square. One stop and we are there. Taksim Square is really bustling. El wants a coffee before we start drinking for the night. We pass a Starbucks and go to a café called GeziIstanbul. I have a list of several heavy metal bars in the city and El helps me locate them on the GPS while we wait for our coffees and desserts. It could be a long night. After dessert we find the street called Istiklal which is a pedestrian street with lots of people and no cars. The first bar we go to is called DoRock Heavy Metal Bar on a side street called Imam Adnan. We walk in to Metallica on the PA and Rocky IV on the bigscreen TV. The place looks like exactly what I wanted. El is so accommodating. It is only 6:30. We are told that the trams stop running at 11:50, so we will drink accordingly. My bottle of beer tastes terrible. I had ordered a dark beer for El and asked for a light beer for myself (in Ukraine light is just the opposite of dark). What arrives, is a bottle of dark beer and a bottle of Efes brand light beer. It tastes like Bud light and I will need to be more specific of what I want and don’t want in the future. The music is much better than the beer, but after one bottle each we decide to move on to the next bar down the street called Eloy Rock Bar. We find the address and they must have changed names as it is now The Wall Rock Bar with no signs of Eloy. The music is more classic rock than heavy metal. El Skypes home and I update the journal. 

A projection of fireworks on Istiklal Street

We plot our next stop up two blocks from where we sit. This one is called Rock N Rolla Bar at #4 Bekar St. (also a side street off Istiklal). We walk in to Quiet Riot, Motley Crue, and Kiss. It is pretty smoky in here and it is getting on 9:00pm, so we will probably stay for just one beer, maybe hitting one last bar or call it a night. It is obvious that our hotel is in the most popular place during the day, but we are sitting in the most popular place during the night. At this moment, I will happily say that there is no way that I would rather be spending my Christmas 2012. Nevertheless, the music here is more late 80's hair metal than the stuff I prefer. We continue a Scrabble game and plan to move on to our last stop of the night. We walk a few blocks to Haydar Bar. We walk in to Ted Nugent’s Stranglehold on the stereo. I order a beer for me and a soda for El that comes to 6TRL which isn't too bad- downright cheap even. We are both getting kind of tired and El has followed my list admirably this evening- I mean, she is not dragging me to dance clubs! It is about 10:00 and I don't want to miss the last train across the river. We discuss our plans for tomorrow. Although the quality of music is better in this place, the sound system combined with the Youtube sourced selections are not as high quality. There is one guy sitting at the bar whose job appears to be to smoke cigarettes and find Youtube videos to queue them in the stereo. Afterwards, we walk down to the end of Istiklal Street. We cannot seem to locate the tram stop we are looking for and the few people on the street that we ask only point us down the hill. Taksim Square is developed on top of a hill which results in a steep walk down streets that must be difficult to drive up after a rain or snow. We try to wait until the last minute to go down for fear of having to walk back up after a wrong turn. After about 20 minutes, we get to the bottom of the hill and see the Galata bridge. The metro is still running and the guard tells us that midnight is the last train. The train arrives in short order and we get back to Sultanahmet in good time. Instead of heading to the hotel, we make one last stop at our regular stop, Just Bar. It is late and we are tired. About half way through the beer, we decide to call it a night. We have no alarm set for the morning, but we will check out of here and move to the Asian side tomorrow.

OBSERVATION: The metro and the city in general are very clean. It really is quite inspiring coming from the land of litter.

El standing in front of an artists rendering of the Asian side metro network [inside the Kadikoy metro station]

WEDNESDAY DECEMBER 26, 2012
We are up around 9:00am and get ourselves fed, packed, and ready for the move. The first stop we will make today is the Topkapi Palace. We have plenty of time and as we decided against on Monday, today gave us a good amount of time to spend our last morning in Sultanahmet. We arrive to the Palace around 11:00am and buy our 25TRL tickets and 15TRL audio guide. Note that the area known as the "harem" is supplemental in both the entrance fee and the audio guide. On the way in, El's tripod is confiscated again as "pro photo equip". The audio guide starts off OK, but some of the programs are augmented with music that is just plain unwarranted. If they wanted, they could have directed you to the next stop and played music in the background instead of holding you in a single spot to listen to songs composed in the time of the Sultan’s reign. It looks like Wednesday is a big day at the Topkapi Palace. 

Gates to the Topkapi Palace

Inside the Topkapi Palace compound

Topkapi Palace

There are school groups and tour groups galore with many nationalities and ages represented. The makes getting clear pictures difficult. Also, it makes the waits to get in to see some features of the Palace very long. So long, that the payoff is not worth it. Just my opinion, of course, because El seems to like it. She came out of one room raving about a pair of 4 foot gold candlesticks encrusted with jewels. I know that I don’t need to see that, but her assessment that it puts stuff in the Vatican to shame should tell you something about the extravagance of the items on display here. When we visited China, specifically, the Forbidden City it sort of made all other imperial palaces pale in comparison. It seems, from what I remember, just one of the outer palaces in Beijing was bigger than this whole place and there were several in that compound. There are just so many people visiting this attraction today that it mars the beauty we are supposed to be impressed by. The section of the palace called the "treasury" is where the items of interest such as jewelry and handcrafted and bejeweled furniture are kept. There is no photography inside these chambers and people plod around from one display case to another to hear on the audio guide or read on the display card what they are looking at. We move at a snail’s pace and my interest is decidedly lost in this cattle line. After the letdown of the treasury room (on my part) I decide to cut El loose. Instead of holding her up, she should just take the audio guide and camera, and I will sit and wait for her to finish...then we can move on together. We wind up spending longer at the Palace than I expected, keeping us, probably, from visiting the Chora Church today. We will probably go back to the hotel, grab our bags and make our way down to the water to catch our ferry to Kadikoy and figure out how to get to our hotel on the Asian side. We have been able to find very little information about transport from the ferry dock to the hotel. We hope it will be easier to figure out once we are there. With our bags in tow, we go to the Sultanahmet tram station and take it down to the Eminonu stop where we can catch the ferry to Kadikoy (NOT to be confused with the ferry to Karikoy which leaves from the same area). NOTE: You can get the ferry to Kadikoy from either Eminonu or from the Karikoy dock across the Galata Bridge but the ferries from Eminonu stop running around 8:00pm and the only way to Kadikoy after that is from Karikoy with the last ferry leaving around 11:15pm (times can change in the summertime). I recommend getting a ferry schedule from the tourism office so you don’t miss your last boat back. That would be bad. The ferries run every 15 minutes or so and can be paid with the Istanbulkart. We still don’t know how to get from the ferry dock to the hotel, but we will soon enough! At the exit of the ferry dock in Kadikoy is a tourism information center. I stop in to get my local map and ask which bus number goes to our hotel, which by all accounts is waaaay out there. All online reviews remark at how great the hotel is and how lousy the location is. We are told to get on the bus #19S and get off at a specific stop (he wrote it in Turkish for me, so I could just show the driver). I hand the driver the note and he tells me that this is not one of his stops! Obviously, he knows better than I, but why would the information center have given me the wrong information? There is a girl on the bus whose English is better than our Turkish and the driver tells her to tell us to get off the bus and get a #19 (as opposed to #19S). We exit with our bags and stand for several minutes with not a #19 in sight. Eventually, we use El's cell phone to call the hotel to find out how to get there by bus. The hotel tells us to take a #19F, 19M, or 19E (not S). It is now starting rush hour and the buses are a bit crowded making traveling with two 50 pound suitcases that much more difficult. We grab the first #19F. As we ride the bus through rush hour traffic for going on 40 minutes, we finally see the hotel on the horizon (a 17 story building with the unmistakable Marriott logo in red lights on the face). But we don’t know how to get there or if the stop will be near the hotel. We catch the ear of a young man on the bus who tells us where exactly to get off and walk over a footbridge to cross a several lane highway, then, he says, walk through a mall to the backside where we will enter the hotel. We both exit the bus, carry our bags up steps, roll along above the highway, carry bags down the steps on the other side. We roll through the mall parking lot to the main entrance where we are summarily denied at the airport style security check. We are tired and sore and see the hotel within our grasp, but as we take two steps forward, so we go one step back. The officer motions that we are to walk around the mall and NOT through the mall. She too gets a mall patron who speaks a little English to tell us that we need to walk around and that we will not be allowed entrance with our baggage. We start walking and wind up walking down a not-very-well-lit corridor, through a storage area that looks like the rear of a Home Depot, past the trucks unloading produce for the wholesale produce market next door, across 6 lanes of car traffic, and through the security gates of the hotel. Well, when all was said and done, it took us 2 hours to get from the ferry to the hotel. We check in and discuss our disappointment with the directions and public transportation we have just experienced. The look of horror on the staff’s faces was priceless when they learned of our ordeal telling us that the 19”F” was the only 19 bus we didn’t want and that all others would have taken us to the hotel directly (including the original 19S! The info office guy had misspelled the name of the stop causing the confusion for the driver). They felt bad enough to give us the complimentary wi-fi in the room. We settle in with a stop at the bar for happy hour. The first real martini I have had in ages. We plan our evening and learn about the metro!! METRO?? Well, it turns out that the metro has opened in the past 3 months and most maps do not include it on their routes. Further, many people don’t seem to know that much about the specifics of the trains including where the stops are!! We read about a restaurant called Chiya Sofrita. Difficult to find based on directions. We take the metro to the Kadikoy stop and take the ring trolly to Moda stop, but have to walk. It is not too far and the weather is fine. It is my first indication that there is a disconnect between the GPS and the directions we get using various guide books and websites. Chiya Sofrita is recommended as one of the best in the city. 

Outside looking into Chiya Sofrasi. The man inside works the steam table and writes your order for your waiter to deliver.

We order a pistachio kebab, a mixed pide (like pizza), a bowl of lentil soup, and a plate of stewed spinach and black-eyed peas over bulgur and vermicelli. All is tasty, but a little cold. The flavors are a little strange, but very fine. Think of Indian curry with a lot of citrus and mint. The setup is a little odd ranging from a self-serve salad bar that you pay by the weight, to a steam table where you order from a server who writes your order on a paper and give the paper to your waiter, to a menu that sees your order taken at the table. The food arrives one at a time, and everything tastes decent enough, but I am a little surprised it made a list of “Best Restaurants”. It was worth the effort to find it. After dinner we head to find a place called "Rock Bar". We know the neighborhood and street name but not the address. We walk up and down the street to no avail and settle on a place called Zincir Pub. It is very dark and the music ranges from Eddie Grant to Herbie Hancock. I ask the only English speaking employee if he knows Rock Bar. He points us there, but it is getting late and we will not have enough time for drinks in both places. We end our evening here without knowing what time the trams and metro stop running. We walk to the tram stop and ask a passerby if this is the tram we want for where we are going, however, he tells us that the trams have stopped running for the night (they stop at 9::00pm). We walk back to Kadikoy which is not that far and the metro is still running (until midnight). We head back to the hotel and call it a night. As we walk back, I conclude that the Marriott does not intend for their customers to arrive by public transport- especially metro. While I know that the metro is a lot newer than the hotel, the path between the two is anything but direct. Anything but well lit. Anything but safe. We are glad when we walk through the hotel gates. (I will admit that we did not necessarily feel unsafe, but the area was clearly more industrial than you would ordinarily find a hotel like a Marriott).

OBSERVATION: It could be coincidence, but it seems that English is more widely spoken on the European side than the Asian side. Getting directions on the Asian side has proven to be difficult, even in the tourism information center. Our requests often result in a known English speaker being called over to help. But, everyone has at least made an effort to get us where we need to go, which is always a nice feeling.

THURSDAY DECEMBER 27, 2012
Our only appointment for today is a cooking class at Cooking Alaturka on Akbiyik St. in the Sultanahment district at 4:15pm. We decide to take a leisurely approach to the morning. By the time we leave the hotel it is almost noon. We take the metro to Kadikoy (Asian side ferry dock). We plan to hit the Egyptian Spice Bazaar and the Grand Bazaar before we need to be at the restaurant for the class. There are a couple more spots that I wouldn’t mind hitting if we had the time, but if we don’t, I won’t be disappointed. The game plan is to spend all of Friday in Kadikoy and Princes’ Islands and then we will head back to the Europe side for our last night and try to hit that Taksim Square area again. We take the 20 minute ferry from Kadikoy to Eminonu and walk through the spice bazaar which sells a whole lot more than spices. The market is very crowded and the views and smells are really inviting. The charming shop owners are very good at pulling you in and not letting you get away. We have to decide for ourselves how active we want to be in this market. We have both mental and paper lists of things we want to buy for family and friends. Now we have to figure if we want to stop at several shops or just get everything from one place and move on. Well, as we wade through the crush of people, we are pulled into one shop with the call of "apple tea". Apple tea is on our list. We can buy tea bags or loose leaf tea. Opening up jars to get you to smell his…offerings, you start to think that if he has more of what you need, this may be a good time to take care of the whole list. Before I know it, he is vacuum sealing spices and tea for El while his partner keeps me occupied with their version of "Turkish Viagra" which is a candy combination of pistachios and honey. It's not that I object to what El decides to buy, but I can see how this tactic could work very effectively by separating a couple to potentially buy twice as much as they intended. 

The sights, sounds, colors, and smells...and crowded streets of the Egyptian Spice Market

crowded streets of the Egyptian Spice Market

Our one stop shop in the Egyptian Spice Market

We wound up spending about 50TRL and leave with just about everything we need. I like the one-stop shop aspect of things and as we walk on we can refuse all invitations and subsequent offers. After making our way through the spice bazaar we head for the Grand Bazaar. We have to take the metro. Well, we could walk up the large hill connecting the two, but we opt to take the metro (2 stops past Sultanahmet) and work our way down the hill back to the spice bazaar. Our guide books actually have maps of the Grand Bazaar to direct you if you are looking for leather or carpet or jewelry or anything else that we are not in the market for. This place reminds me of walking through Chinatown in all of its knock-off glory or the garment district in NYC where you can see many button shops among shops that sell only zippers or shops that sell only specific kinds of fabric. The Grand Bazaar is like that. I saw stacks of sweatshirts that read "GAP" or "New York" and lots of component shops catering to the organizations who manufacture or repair all sorts of items. We walk aimlessly and head down the hill, once again with the hope of not having to walk up it! I have a sense of awe towards the guys whose job it is to deliver products to these shops. They load up these rickety dollies and one guy steers and pulls the handles while one or two others push from the bottom to give the cart speed. Did I mention these hills are steep? I can’t help but wonder why I saw way more carts heading uphill than I did see going down the hill, although keeping a downward load from running away must pose its own set of challenges. As we get to the bottom we find ourselves in the back side of the Egyptian Spice Bazaar once again. El saw a ceramic tile shop she wants to check out and we make that our last stop before heading to dinner. I sit in view of the Hagia Sophia and journal while El goes tile shopping. The weather is gorgeous and so far the hawkers have been mild in this area today. I wouldn’t mind checking my messages before dinner, but will deal if I can't. A friend of mine is in the city and we have no concrete meeting place, so I wanted to check his updates. The tiles are big coasters or small trivets and she buys for a few friends virtually finishing our shopping list. We feel it is time to head to our cooking class. We arrive a little early for our class at Alaturka Cooking which is a combination restaurant and cooking school. 

Cooking Alaturka: watching the chef do his thing

Cooking Alaturka: chef teaching us to stuff the roasted eggplants

Cooking Alaturka

We are the first of the group to arrive and are offered tea or coffee and settle up our 140TRL per person fee before sitting down. The group arrives one by one (or two by two) and takes in the scene as we wait for the last to arrive. There are printed copies of the recipes we will be making on the table as everyone sits down quietly not interacting. By the end of the night I am sure we will be livelier and friendlier. There are 10 of us in the class: El and I, a Canadian couple relocating to Israel for diplomatic work, an Australian guy whose wife did not want to take the cooking class, an American woman living in London traveling alone, a Belgian couple both on leave from the military, and other Peace Corps volunteers, MaryBeth and Steve with their daughter Molly. (Steve did not cook, he only ate with us). The restaurant is small and only has one seating a night for 25 people. Basically it is a five course, prix-fixe menu and the class basically prepares all of the ingredients for the chef to cook. He explains every step in the process as he adds our items. In some cases we got to prepare the plates for the guests, while in other cases we were shown how to plate them and the kitchen staff took on that duty. My jobs for the dinner prep were to prepare, then stuff roasted eggplant, chop the beef into small pieces, stuff figs with walnuts, and mince the herbs using a giant knife. Others did jobs like cutting onions and tomatoes and grind spices in a mortar and pestle. The course costs 140TRL each (cash only!) which includes cooking class with the chef, dinner, and two drinks each. Although I don’t think I got that much out of the cooking class in terms of techniques I can use in my own kitchen, I would probably do it again if El wanted to, but not necessarily by myself. I spoke with one of the women who had done classes like this in Thailand and England, so it might be something to look into on future trips. After the class the non-class restaurant guests start to arrive for the reservation around 7:00. We are finishing up and shown how to plate the fig dessert before being sent to our table for 10 (in our case 11). I am the last to sit and instead of asking everyone to consider moving, I just decide to take the last open seat. This places El and I on opposite ends of the table, but gives us each a little different of an experience due to who we are seated near. I sit near people who are very interested in the work I am doing in Ukraine, while she sits near people interested in how she copes being the wife of a serving Peace Corps Volunteer. The first course is "meadow soup"- it is a yogurt and milk soup with a sour taste and strange spice combinations. It is not bad, but nothing I would make at home. Next is a double course. A plate with stewed green beans with onion, garlic, oil, lemon, salt, sugar, and water on one side. The taste is nice, but I think it should have been served a little warmer as some of my bites were a little cold. The other side is rounded out with zucchini and feta-style cheese pancakes with a dollop of spicy yogurt sauce. This is also very good. The main course is roasted eggplant stuffed with a combination of beef, lamb, tomatoes and peppers and of course, spices. I didn't think I would like this dish as much as I did. In the following days I would have this dish at least one other time, and this one was just as good, if not better. I would probably try to make this at home. For dessert, we took raw figs, sliced them open, stuffed walnut pieces inside, sealed them up, and poached them in a water and sugar syrup. When they were done, we put them on a plate and sprinkled them with ground pistachios and dried coconut. Again, really nice. 

Cooking Alaturka: meadow soup

Cooking Alaturka: zucchini pancakes and stewed green beans

Cooking Alaturka: stuffed roasted eggplant

Cooking Alaturka: stuffed and poached figs

We end the evening with a cup of tea or coffee. Some order Turkish coffee and the chef invites us into the kitchen to watch him make it. It started at 4:15 and we wrap up just around 10:00. Just to be safe I suggest taking the ferry back to Kadikoy and then decide if we have enough time for pubbing before the metro closes. We arrive to the ferry dock at Eminonu to find the dock closed for the night. The thought of having to take a taxi makes me cringe because of sheer distance. I ask at the ticket booth for another route to get a Kadikoy ferry. She tells me to cross the Galata Bridge and take a Karikoy to Kadikoy ferry. The walk takes about 10 minutes and we arrive just as the ferry pulls away from the dock. We then have 30 minutes until the next and last ferry. That should get us to Kadikoy around 11:15 which then gives us 45 minutes before the metro closes. We understand that the buses run (on limited schedule) 24 hours. Once we are in Kadikoy we should be as good as home. I am thinking to just buy some drinks to take to our room and calling it a night, but there are no shops with liquor near us, so we opt for the complimentary coffee in the hotel room. Tomorrow is our full day on the Asian side and we plan to go to Princes’ Islands if the weather is good and maybe the Florence Nightingale museum. Otherwise spending our time in Kadikoy before leaving the Asian side for good on Saturday.

TRAVELER’S TIP: If you are unfamiliar with ferry routes, ask the people working at the terminal if you are getting on the right boat!! If you realize you are on the wrong bus, you can usually get off at the next stop and get the return bus nearby. If you are on a boat you are stuck going to the at least the next port before you can get turned back around! Lesson learned.

View of the European side from the Bosphorus

view from the ferry to Kadikoy

FRIDAY DECEMBER 28, 2012
With no solid plan, we get a decidedly late start to the day. Since we are on vacation, we don’t care. The reviews on the Princes’ Islands seem squarely mixed between volunteers, guide books, and tourism professionals. We want to take the ferry to grab a late lunch and then decide once we are there if we care enough to explore a bit. There are monasteries and such on the islands with descriptions ranging from "plain" to "boring". I am going to bet we will probably spend our time otherwise. There are four main islands and the ferry stops at each one. We find a positive review of a restaurant on the island called Buyukada (the farthest of the four stops). We head down to the ferry port and plan to hit the info center regarding the Metrobus we heard about to see if it might be our best option for getting to the European side with our baggage tomorrow. Tonight we plan to explore Kadikoy some more. The information center gives us an updated, full sized metro map of Istanbul. It would have been helpful earlier, but better late than never, I guess. I also confirm information on how to take the Metrobus to the airport from the Asian side, which old versions of the map would show (or more correctly not show) as an impossible route. We hit a small snag in that we did not realize that the terminal for the ferries to Princes’ Islands had boats to other ports as well. This resulted in us getting on the ferry going in the opposite direction. We basically rode for 30 minutes in the wrong direction, righted ourselves when we realized our error, cursed ourselves for not asking if we were getting on the correct boat, and took the ferry 30 minutes back to Kadikoy. 

view from the ferry to Kadikoy

This episode resulted in us missing the once every 2-3 hours ferry to the Princes’ Islands and by the time we got back we had a 2½ hour wait until the next departure. Now our schedule is off and we are getting hungry after having had no breakfast or lunch. We stop at a street cart for a simit which is street food much like a cross between a soft pretzel and a bagel. It is ring shaped and baked. It is crunchy on the outside and soft and doughy on the inside. It should be warm, but the longer you go between the time it leaves the oven to consumption, the harder, colder, and all-around worse it gets. We are just looking for a little something to hold us until dinner. We kill our time by heading up to the Karacaahmet Cemetery. We take the bus #12A from Kadikoy up to the cemetery (about 6 stops). We walk into the largest cemetery in Turkey which does not seem to have much in the way of memorial statues or ornate headstones like we have seen in other cemeteries. There is a tomb at the corner of the property with the burial of Karaca Ahmet who was a warrior in the 14th century and died in battle. We find the bus stop after visiting the tomb and head back to Kadikoy. Our lunch date on the farthest Princes’ Island turns into a dinner date on the farthest Princes’ Island. According to our calculations we should arrive around 6:00pm with the next and last ferry back to Kadikoy at 8:00 arriving back around 9:30 which should give us time to find that Rock Bar that we missed two nights ago. Note that in Kadikoy if you are looking at the Princes’ Islands terminal, the departures to the islands leave from the right hand door and NOT the main gateway of the building. The cost is 3.50TRL and the word in Turkish for the ferry destination is Adalar (island). Once you are headed to Adalar, you need to figure out which island you need to get off at. Once we are on the water it should take us 1hr20min to get to our destination. This gives us 2 hours there, and then another 1hr20min back. On the boat El looks up a restaurant I had read about called Sofrada Restoran and tried to locate the directions using her GPS feature. We get off the boat and immediately head away from the dock and into the unknown… Well, in the annals of shitty GPS directions this experience has to be among the worst. We had read about this place and one review even gave some pretty detailed directions. Sadly, when we got off the boat we did not have the review with us, only the GPS. We were a bit surprised on the outset by how far away it looked on the screen. We started walking, hoping that the scale of the map is what made it look so far. Well, being an island it only goes to follow that the land at the shore is the lowest point and the only place to go is up. And up it goes. We start walking with the GPS telling us that it is 3km to our destination! We are unsure of how that can be, but GPS' don’t lie. Do they? The first half kilometer is a relatively mild grade. Nothing too steep, but you can feel you aren’t walking flat. In the next half kilometer we see a guy riding a bicycle ahead of us. He starts to struggle a little, but maintains his slow and steady pace. Then, in a flash, the grade becomes too much for him and he gets off and walks the bike. All of the sudden, the street gets really steep and we are headed to the top. I am struggling, but am able to keep up with El. Meanwhile, there are no motor vehicles allowed on the streets (except emergency vehicles) and the streetlights are few and far between. So, let's recap...the GPS is taking us way farther than we thought we would go and we are walking up the side of a mountain in the dark trying to find a restaurant that would really have no business in this desolated area. [although in our travels we have eaten at some really remote places, so we know the possibility exits that we are on the right track]. We press on hoping that at every farthest point we can see, we would see a sign or lights or any other indication we have reached our destination. At one point we see an older couple sitting on the side of the road...in the dark. No idea what or who they were waiting for, but we ask them for confirmation of course and they both seem to know where we are looking for and point straight on from where we stand. We press on and do a time check as the road begins a downslope (knowing we will have to walk back up it after dinner). It is 6:38. Our next and last ferry back to Kadikoy is at 8:15. I think, even if we find this place now, we still have to walk 38 minutes, at least, back to the ferry and depending on how long service takes, we could be in trouble if we don’t find it soon. I make an executive decision that if we do not stumble upon the restaurant in the next 7 minutes I am going to turn back, go to the ferry dock and find food in that area. We cannot afford to get stuck on this island for the night. About 5 minutes into our 7 we come upon a clearing. There is no restaurant there, but there is something that makes me very happy...a horse drawn carriage! It is a spot where the carriage drivers rest their horses and wait for calls I suppose, since these carriages act like taxis on an island with no cars. I ask for a price to the ferry and he quotes 30TRL. I try to determine of this is negotiable and if this is per person or per carriage. He points to a posted price list that is non-negotiable and he assures me the price is per carriage and NOT per person (although, truth be told, I was ready to pay per person). We set off down the hill to the ferry, calling this a bust of a day and resigning to find some street food near the docks and go home. The ride takes about 15 minutes and smells like horseshit the whole way. I cannot comprehend the romanticism of carriage rides. He drops us in front of the ferry and as we get off, we ask if he has ever heard of this restaurant called Sofrada. He tells us he thinks it is around the corner but is not sure. El stops another pedestrian who also thinks it might be around the corner. We need to find a place to eat, so we have nothing to lose by heading down the side street. We walk one block and to our astonishment, like beacon in the night we see a sign half way down the block on the left that reads: Sofrada Restoran! 

The elusive Sofrada Restoran

picking and choosing our dinner at Sofrada

A quick time check says we have about 1hr20min before the ferry leaves. We walk in to a small, one room café with a couple of locals and the owner who has an array of food that she made earlier today laid out in the front window to tempt passersby. She grabs you a plate and explains the dishes and you point to what you want. I get stuffed eggplant, braised artichoke hearts, stewed green beans, fettucini with tomato sauce, and wrapped grape leaves. When you have made your selections, she microwaves the plate and brings it to the table. Besides having no idea what the GPS and the old couple who confirmed we were on the right track were talking about, it all seemed to work out. We had heard that the views on a clear day can be really spectacular, but we weren’t going to see that this trip. We eat and thank the old lady for the tasty, even though a little cold, food and head back to the ferry. We are actually a little early and try to plan our night after our 9:30 arrival to Kadikoy. There is at least one bar I’d like to hit before heading back to the room and calling it a night. On time, we arrive to the Kadikoy dock at 9:30. We have seen many mobile street food vendors selling, what look like mussels. I stop to check it out and see what exactly they do. They stand with a large tray of neatly arranged shells. They look as if they need to be shucked. The tray is cold and has some lemons on it. The yellow in stark contrast to the black shells. I ask to take a photo and he says yes. I ask how much for a mussel and he shows 1TRL. I motion for one and turn back to El for a moment- just a moment and when I turn my head back towards the tray, he is squeezing the lemon on a disturbing looking substance! You see, I assumed he had just taken a knife and opened the shell and squeezed the lemon on the contents. I examine what is in my hand and it looks like a shell full of large fish eggs, or even rice? 

"I'm gonna eat ya"

really, quite good

I look at it for a few moments (in my defense it is dark except for streetlights on the pier) and realize that what I hold in my hand is a cooked mussel that had been opened, stuffed with a spicy bulgur mixture, then closed and arranged on the platter. The platter then chilled and when someone orders one, the vendor just has to pry the top of the shell off, not with a knife, but with his fingers. He squeezes some lemon and you scoop the contents out with your teeth and discard the shell in his collection bag. Paying upon leaving. I loved it! I hope to try a roasted chestnut before I leave on Sunday. These vendors seem to be everywhere, except where I was today. Better luck tomorrow. It has taken us 28 minutes to find the pub called Rock Bar. We walk in to Megadeth playing on the stereo followed by a cover of Iron Maiden's Hallowed Be Thy Name. We know the metro stops running at midnight, so we still have some time to unwind from our odd last day in Asia. The music ranges from Cinderella and Motley Crue to Black Sabbath and Deep Purple. Although when I read that this place had "live music" I didn’t realize they meant that every song played on the stereo would be from a live CD. It was a little strange hearing all of these different live versions I was unfamiliar with. The wi-fi is not working, so we pull out Scrabble to play until it is time to leave and call it a night. We leave the bar around 11:10 which gives us plenty of time to get back, although actually finding the way back to the metro is another story. It was a lot easier for us to find the bar than our way back. We get to the train at 11:30 and are at the hotel before midnight.

SATURDAY DECEMBER 29, 2012

sunrise over Istanbul

We have had two leisurely mornings in a row and today we decide to set an alarm to get us on track. 8:00 wake up, we are able to shower and pack and get ready to roll out around 9:30. Today we are moving back to the European side for our last night. We picked the Courtyard since it is close to the airport and El has a morning flight tomorrow. My flight isn’t until the afternoon, but I will have some work I can do while I wait. The plan today is for us to get to the hotel which appears to be a chore in itself, check in, get back to the Chora Church, eat at Asitane Restaurant, meet up with my Peace Corps friend Patrick in Taksim Square and leave on the metro to the hotel around 10:00pm. The only free (or low cost) connection to/from our hotel is the free airport shuttle which stops running at 1:00am. With El needing to be at the airport at 5:00am, I think we want to be in long before they stop running. We think we will try to use the Metrobus to get us to the European side. Basically, we need to get ourselves to Ataturk Airport to catch that free shuttle to the hotel. We spoke with the tourist info center and got our plan as best as we could understand. We will see what happens. El had a funny discussion with one of our hotel staff who, upon hearing El ask about metro and bus routes to/from the hotel, responded in the way I expect any Marriott staff to respond with..."just take a taxi everywhere". We were able to get the info we needed and were able to avoid the taxis at all spots on our trip. She was not impressed and thought we really missed out on convenience by "having" to take the metro! On our way to the metro this morning, El stops at a supermarket in the mall to pick up some last minute gifts for people (both for her and I). It is our first day with overcast skies and rain and since the mall where the market is located has an airport style metal detector, I opt to take our bags to the metro while she does the shopping instead of doing it consecutively and one of us standing in the rain with the bags while the other buys the gifts. Once she finishes the shopping we are on our way to the Unalan station to learn everything we ever wanted to know about Metrobus and its stops. If you are on the Asian side and need to get to the airport, this is how you do it…Take the metro to Unalan (there are other stations that you can get to the Metrobus from, but this is what we used). In the Unalan station, follow signs for Metrobus. Pay fare here. You want Metrobus 34Z to Zincirlikuyu stop where everyone will exit the bus. Then follow everyone along the sidewalk and catch the 34 Metrobus towards Avcilar. Take that Metrobus to Sirinevler (shared with Atakoy) stop. (We know that the maps show that multiple stations are good for this transfer, but a few people were adamant we take only this one- as if the maps were wrong or something?) Once on the Metrobus platform, you have to use the footbridge to get to the Atakoy tram station portion, where you will pay another fare and take that train towards Ataturk Havalimani (airport). All in all it took us about 2 hours to get from the metro on the Asian side to the airport. I think it would be much faster to take the metro/ferry/tram combo to the airport except if you have a bunch of luggage, then I think this is the best option. We get to the airport and grab the shuttle to the hotel (there is no metro near our hotel). We check in and drop bags in the room. Then we take the next shuttle back to the airport to take the metro out to the Edirnekapi station. The Chora Church is a bit difficult to find. I think in some respects it could have had to do with the exit we used to come out of the metro. We found ourselves on streets that appeared to be feeders to a highway with no street signs. I suppose other exits would have let us off in a better place. After getting ourselves turned around then righted, we finally found the street and then the sign for the restaurant. We are hungry and decide to eat before going mosaic admiring in the Chora Church. Another Anthony Bourdain recommendation, we lunch at Asitane Restaurant which serves “fine Ottoman cuisine”. The menu items even have dates that the recipes were invented, some as early as 1469 (which are a hummus and some soups). Evidently, according to the menu, they researched recipes from the written records of sultan’s palaces to identify the earliest known written versions of them. They are prepared today as they were then. I order a garlic shrimp appetizer and a stewed duck entrée. El goes with a stuffed quince dish. They bring us bread spreads with one bowl of spicy olive oil and one of mashed olives and spices. 
The bread has cinnamon in it which is a little odd of a combo. Our shrimp arrives. It is shrimp, carrots, and onions stewed in garlic sauce and served chilled. It is a respectable dish. 

Garlic shrimp, served cold

El's stuffed quince

Duck is tasty, but portion is small. Like the shrimp in the appetizer, there are some stewed vegetables with it. Nothing spectacular, but not bad either. The lunch comes to 96TRL which I think is a little steep for what we got. I am glad we came here, if for nothing else than trying as official Ottoman cuisine as we could get. After lunch it is 3:45. We head around the corner and El goes into the The Church of the Holy Saviour in Chora [Chora Church] for 15TRL entrance. I choose to stand outside and journal. The church is known for its mosaics and while they do allow tripods, they do not allow flashes as it damages the art. El says it was worth going to, and the church combined with the restaurant made for a great last day together. 

Inside the Chora Church

Inside the Chora Church

Inside the Chora Church

It is starting to rain and we will head right to the metro afterwards to head to Taksim Square to meet up with my friend Patrick for our last night in town. We take the train up to Kabatas and then the funicular to Taksim Square. The plan is to meet at DoRock Bar around 6:00pm. El and I arrive at 6:05 and immediately check Facebook to see if he has responded to earlier postings (our (Patrick and my) phones are staggeringly expensive to use here). He tells us that he will be at DoRock around 7:00. This works well since there is a band starting at 9:00 and we want to be out before that starts. El and I order beers and play Scrabble waiting for him to show. He does show up around 7:00 and we all drink a beer. The music is good for me, but probably not for anyone else. Patrick tells us about a quiet jazz bar he found a night earlier and we think that would be a fine switch from the DoRock. We leave around 7:30 and I have some street food I am looking to try before I leave this city and this is my last chance. First up we stop at one of the mussels stands that I had last night and have told Patrick about tonight. There is one outside the bar and we both get one. Same spicy bulgur stuffing and it is again tasty. Next up are fresh roasted chestnuts. I don’t usually eat chestnuts, but the look and smell of them piqued my interest enough to get one small order from the vendor on the street. It costs 5TRL and tastes alright, even if they are a little undercooked. The next, and last, street food stop is at a spot for "wet hamburgers". I understand these are great drunk food for those out for the night on Istakal Street. The place is called Kizilkayalar [Sira Selviler Cad. No:2/L, Taksim MeydanI Istiklal Girisi, Istanbul] and it is on the corner of Istiklal and Sira Selviler They sell donner and "wet hamburgers". You go to the cashier and order and pay for your burgers from them. Then you go to the guy working at the burger booth and give him your slip. He gives you your order all in individual paper sleeves with a wad of napkins. 

Drunk food on Istiklal with El and Patrick

Drunk food "wet hamburgers" on Istiklal with El and Patrick

They are the size of McDonald’s hamburgers and the taste is something of a cross between a McDonald’s and a White Castle burger. They are premade. There is no asking for the burger without onions or with extra pickles. You get a "wet hamburger", you eat it, you like it. That is all. We all agree that this is a great (not perfect, but great) drunk food...we just haven’t had that much to drink yet. After eating the burgers, we walk down to the Galata Tower. 

The Galata Tower

The previous night Patrick had found a small jazz bar that fit the bill of quiet and relaxing. It is only three doors down the street from the tower and we get our pictures of the tower. Instead of jazz, tonight is blues night with a live band starting at 10:00. El and I plan to head back to the room starting at 10:00 so it works out perfectly since we are near the Karikoy metro stop. We sit in the bar for about 2 hours, drinking, and nibbling on snacks. The prices are right and the company is good. We are asked by the manager if we would like to stay for the live band, but she is understanding when we explain where we are staying. We take our last metro ride back to the airport to catch the shuttle to the hotel. El has to be up at 5:00am to catch her flight and we still have some last minute packing and odds and ends to wrap up before we sleep. All is good as we fall asleep for the last time together for another five months.

CONCLUSION: Istanbul is huge! 13 million people huge! There are some cities that are pretty small and easy to satisfactorily tour in 3-4 days, while others are so big that sections can be like small cities, worthy of dedicated touring time. This is one of those cities. I have a few confessions to make, besides the Hagia Sophia and the Bosphorus strait, I knew next to nothing about Istanbul before researching what to do here. It is a city that everyone who has been here seems to love, but still, for some reason, Istanbul had never really been on my travel agenda. I wasn’t against the idea, but always thought I would visit Tokyo, Cape Town, Moscow, Oslo etc., before hitting Istanbul. El, on the other hand has always listed Istanbul among the top of her list of places to visit. So, for that reason it has crossed my radar a few times, but the timing never worked out for us...until now. With me being in Ukraine for two years and us being a single income family we are doing what we can to stretch our money any way we can. With Istanbul being less than a two hour flight from Kiev, it is one of the closest and most popular vacation destinations for volunteers. So, meeting in Istanbul trumped all other places since El's flight would be about the same price to wherever we were looking to go, but my ticket started to increase in price with every place we looked into. All of the sudden, Istanbul shot to the top of the list and it became our obvious number one place to spend the holidays together. As I sit in Ataturk Airport waiting for my flight, I think I couldn't possibly have spent my last seven days any better. Even the speed bump of El having her flight canceled and arriving a day later gave me the opportunity to explore some of the mechanics of getting around the city so that once she did arrive we were able to go directly to the important places instead of dragging luggage into metro stations to get information about what to do- I was already familiar enough with our area. I have written before about the idea that good travelers can have a good time almost anywhere. You can imagine the least likely place to spend time and seasoned travelers will find some charming café or shop to pass the time, a park with a monument to some long past event, and maybe even take the opportunity to interact with some of the locals and ask them why they are proud of where they live. It is those moments that can underscore that there is an amazing world out there and if you want, you just have to go see it. As someone whose hopes for Istanbul were high, but who had no expectations, I would like to gladly report that I thought Istanbul was a great place to visit and would welcome the opportunity to get back and pick up where we left off. Now I just need to find out what other places are on El's list of places to visit! 


Sim

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