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Istanbul


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Edit from March 2019: The restaurant we went to was called Ahırkapı Balıkçısı - it's still going! Definitely a place I recommend! Piya Hostel is still going too and I recommend that as well.

Dave woke up not feeling well at all - but he made it OK to Istanbul. By the end of the flight he was feeling better. Instead of getting the bus, metro and tram to our hostel, we took the more unusual route of a bus to the Asian seafront (Sabiha Gökçen Airport is on the Asian side, but miles and miles out of the city itself), with a view then to take a ferry to the European side and lastly a tram and a walk to Piya Hostel, the same place we had stayed at before our Cappadocian and Aegean adventures.

Before we got on the ferry we had a great Balik Ekmek each for lunch on a café-boat. I really recommend Balik Ekmek - such a simple idea (freshly-caught fish boned, grilled and stuffed into a crusty roll with some optional salt and lemon juice) yet it works so well.

On arrival at Piya Hostel we went straight to bed for a nap - we had had an early start in the morning. Late afternoon we started out on a walk round the corner to the Arasta Bazaar and the Istanbul Handicrafts Market, but only about 100m away from the hotel Dave stubbed his toe and it was bleeding, so we went back to our room and I patched it up for him. The market would have started packing up by the time I finished, so we decided just to have some dinner instead.

We had tried to visit this restaurant before, but if was closed for Ramadan then. Ramadan has finished now though, so as soon as we realised it was open again we were there like a shot. It was a tiny seafood place just round the corner. I had a swordfish skewer and Dave had shrimp salad; the shrimps were massive and the chunks of swordfish on my skewer weren't far behind! We shared a cold (but cooked) aubergine and tomato appetiser as well, plus some baklava when it came to dessert and we still had space. The food was great and the owner/waiter was very softly spoken and charming, not pushy at all like some of the waiters are round here.

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After dinner we walked back to the waterfront in order to fulfill a long-held desire of mine; to at least dip my fingers in the Strait of Bosphorus. This was a little more difficult than it sounds, because the 'beach' consists only of big boulders piled up so closely together that there's no space on the ground to stand. I did, however, manage to get my hand in the water; mission successful.

Posted by 3Traveller 01:03 Archived in Turkey Tagged airport turkey istanbul hostel buses ferry bosphorus dave turkish_cuisine Comments (0)

The Spice Market & a taste of Asia

Istanbul


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The Spice Market was our morning destination on Saturday. Held within a building dating from 1666, it was formerly known as the Egyptian Market because the spices used to be shipped in from Cairo. As well as spices, it sells mounds of fruit teas, dried fruit, shelled nuts, Turkish Delight and wrapped and unwrapped blocks of olive oil soap. I couldn't wait to experience it...

Before we got there, however, we found ourselves wandering around the Main Market, which fills the streets around the Spice Market. In fact we had quite a job finding the latter due to the mazy street layout and all the market stalls! The Main Market was very interesting to look round in itself. It was filled with stalls selling a wide range of household goods, including wicker baskets, cooking utensils, tools, t-shirts, hats, headscarves, jeans, knives, plastic toys, towels, pets (cages of birds, green lizards and white rabbits), pet food, blocks of coloured soaps and some jars of live leeches in water.

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Needless to say, once we found the Spice Market I loved walking round, savouring the colours and the mix of exotic scents. I wished my family were there to appreciate it all, especially the piles of huge juicy-looking dates which they would have loved but were wasted on me. I bought some 'meatball spice' (which smelled genuinely lovely) and some 'Turkish saffron' which I've since found out is not saffron at all but a cheap imitation called safflower. I should have been suspicious about the price not being sky-high!

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These are the surroundings of the Spice Market;

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I had read somewhere that the Turkish Delight at the Spice Market is not actually that great, and the best place in Istanbul to get it is from a shop nearby. Before we set off to find it, however, we went to different shop nearby which apparently has the best baklava in Istanbul - at least we tried to find it, but didn't manage to - it was supposed to be in the main market, but around where it should have been we only found a baklava shop of a different name. We bought some from there anyway, as it looked good, plus some Turkish rice pudding. It was lovely, so no regrets.

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It was between one and two o'clock by now and we needed to move on to catch a ferry to the Asian side, so we decided to look for the Turkish Delight shop on our return to Istanbul before we go back to Bulgaria, instead. Before we got on the ferry we had a tasty 'Balik Ekmek' each; this is an ultra-fresh fish fillet thrown onto a grill and then stuffed into a huge crusty roll with some chopped lettuce and raw onion. Lemon juice and salt are optional condiments. These are made and sold on the seafront.

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The ferry trip was a great experience. It was a commuter ferry, not a public excursion one, so it only cost about 2 lira. It took about 20 minutes and we loved all the different views we got of the skyline. Minarets, skyscrapers, Topkapi Palace, Galata Tower... We passed a French destroyer docked at the headland next to the palace; Dave said he thought the small black and white flag displayed on it was the international quarantine signal.

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On arrival in Asia, we headed to Kadikoy produce market, where the locals go apparently. We just window-shopped instead of actually buying anything, but it was good fun to see all the different goods; fresh fish, containers filled with honeycombs, the biggest cherries I've ever seen, other fruit and vegetables, yoghurt and cheese, baklava, eggs, olives, dried peppers, crystallised and dried fruit...piles of colourful soaps, too.

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Something the Asian side had which we hadn't seen in the historic European area was sideless carts piled with antiques or secondhand books. These were wheeled about the streets and then set down for a while for people to browse at. Some if the books were in English, but none we wanted to buy, though I did enjoy having a look at a book for adult English as a second language learners which was published in the 1950s... I regret not buying that now, actually.

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Another thing we noticed was groups of older men sitting around cafe tables playing a particular game which involved a lot of clicking, sliding about and picking up rectangular cream counters. Some other cafés had younger people playing backgammon and other board games.

The last thing we did before returning to Europe was to have Turkish coffee and a Turkish dessert called 'Kazan dibi'. I tried some Kazan dibi once at the Lucky Man restaurant in Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria (a place with a small Turkish population); the stuff I had today proves that what I had in VT was genuine. It's delicious, if filling!

Some photos from the return ferry trip;

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On our return to Europe we decided not to get the tram back yet, but to walk across Galata Bridge to the other European side first for a look around. There were loads of fishermen on both sides of the bridge, using extremely long lines. One of them caught a fish just as we walked past him- it flopped around on the ground for a while before being captured and put into a container of water alive.

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The Strait of Bosphorus, while not crystal clear of course, was much cleaner than I was expecting for such a big city. We spotted a few white jellyfish and some small silvery fish (maybe sardines?).

For dinner we had another 'Balik Ekmek' each, from a cafe on the seafront; they were even better than the ones we had earlier!

When we were back in Sultanahmet and walking from the tram station to our hostel, we couldn't help but notice that hundreds, even thousands of people were pouring in from every direction and settling themselves and their families onto rugs spread out on the grass in Sultanahmet Park. We guessed that it was due to Ramadan- people sharing the breaking of the day's fast with their friends and family in a shared environment. It was nearly sunset by then, so this was more than likely.

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Posted by 3Traveller 08:58 Archived in Turkey Tagged bridges market turkey istanbul asia ferry bosphorus dave turkish_cuisine Comments (0)

Topkapi Palace

Istanbul


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Topkapi Palace was an absolutely wonderful experience; definately one of the top of my life to date. It just kept on giving - round every corner there was something else interesting, or another beautiful view.

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Topkapi Palace was the most important residence of the Ottoman sultans for 400 years, and was famous for its opulence, luxury and magnificence. Legends built up about the famous Harem and the eunuchs who guarded it. The very mention of Topkapi Palace brings to mind images of jewel-encrusted sultans lounging about on shady terraces and gardens, sipping at iced sherbert from crystal goblets and languorously picking at silver or fine porcelain platters of fruit or confectionery...

Anyway, having entered through the main gate into the fine gardens of the first courtyard (which are free to get into), we continued through the next gate into the second courtyard. We didn't have to pay at this point because we'd bought Istanbul Museum Cards on our first day, which allows free entry into lots of famous attractions within a 5 day period.

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From the second courtyard we entered the famous Harem. Only part of it was open to visitors, but due to the vastness of it, even that took quite a while to see. There were different apartments for the sultan, the Queen Mother, princes and other members of the sultan's family, a courtyard for the eunuchs, a short corridor with a long counter where eunuchs left dishes of food delivered by kitchen staff (for the concubines and other people to take), and one or two other places. The decoration of each room was beautiful, with stunning, colourful patterned tiles all over the walls. One room had paintings of piles of different fruits.

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My favourite part of the Harem, however, wasn't a room at all but the Courtyard of the Favourites, where only the sultan's favourite concubines were allowed to go. The terrace had a really good view of the Golden Horn, the river which separates the two European sections of Istanbul, in the distance. I sat on a bench and pictured how I thought the courtyard might have looked 400 years ago; I thought of an extract from a book of historic travel accounts from over the ages that I have, which was written by a European visitor to one of the earlier Ottoman sultans. He was the only visitor allowed to get a glimpse of the Harem; usually, he said, anyone caught within the Harem or even glancing into it from outside, who was not the Sultan himself, the Queen Mother, one or two other select members of the sultan's family, a concubine or a eunuch, was instantly put to death. He mentions peering through an iron-barred window for a few seconds and glimpsing concubines playing at ball in a courtyard.

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Once we emerged from the Harem, we wandered round the other two courtyards and then looked round the second one again properly, as the first time we'd been there we'd gone into the Harem almost straight away instead of exploring.

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We saw so many interesting places and things, it would take me forever to describe them all in appropriate detail! The following are some of the highlights;

- a lovely rose garden with a fountain in the middle; the rose season has clearly just turned, but there were still lots of relatively fresh-looking red and pink blooms left.

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- a terrace with an even more beautiful view of the Golden Horn and Galata Bridge than the courtyard in the Harem had. It also overlooked the Fig Garden and the Elephant Garden behind (no explanations for the name of the Elephant Garden were given; maybe one of the sultans kept a managerie in that garden at one point?) Overlooking this view was a small golden-roofed covered seat where one of the sultans liked to break each day's fast during Ramadan.

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- a terrace on the other side, with a magnificent view of the Strait of Bosphorus, the other European section and the Asian section. On the way there we looked through a couple of small but magnificent kiosks; the Terrace Kiosk, where the Sultan watched sporting contests in the garden, the Revan Kiosk, which was used to store the Sultan's turbans, and the Baghdad Pavilion, used as the library of the Pricy Chamber from the 18th century onwards.

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- a bottle rose sherbert we shared... It lived up to every expectation! It was sweet and tasted a lot of roses; apparently mashed rose petals was one of the main ingredients. The courtyard we sat in was the perfect place to drink it.

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- the palace kitchens, especially the confectionary kitchen where huge copper cauldrons, iron ladles and marble slabs were displayed. There was lots of fascinating information about the confectionary, syrups, sherberts and also medicines, soap and scented candles that were made here.

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- the Arms & Armour display. This was one of the best I've ever seen; extremely well preserved and beautifully engraved and patterned helmets, daggers, swords, axes, maces and bows. It also had arrows, chainmail and colourful wicker training shields.

- the Treasury; this contained a massive glittering diamond, a 22-carat gold jug and ewer, a basket of huge emeralds, rings encrusted with rubies and sapphires, more very finely engraved swords, a British Order of the Garter presented to one of the sultans by Queen Victoria, Chinese Ming pottery and lots more.

- Some of the holiest relics of Islam, including parts of the Prophet Mohammed's beard, his sword and of of his footprints set in stone. In the same exhibition we saw a metre square model of one of the holiest Islamic buildings in Mecca, made entirely from mother-of-pearl.

On our way out of the palace we stopped to flop for a bit on the grass. Outside the gates we bought two salted, grilled corn-on-the-cobs from a street seller and ate them on the way back to the hostel. It was now past 17.30 and we'd spent four and a half hours at Topkapi!

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For dinner we ate on the rooftop terrace of a fish restaurant round the corner from the hostel. Dave had bass, I had bream (both of which came with rice and salad) and we shared an iceberg salad and a spinach casserole. Dave also had some olives wrapped in anchovies. They gave us free baklava and Turkish coffee afterwards! Dave went into raptures about the baklava, and for good reason!

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Posted by 3Traveller 10:24 Archived in Turkey Tagged palace turkey museum istanbul roses bosphorus dave unesco_world_heritage_site turkish_cuisine Comments (0)

Arrival in Istanbul; the fulfilment of a dream...

Veliko Tarnovo and Istanbul


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The bus was only 5 minutes late from Veliko Tarnovo's Yug station.

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The driver didn't check our passports and tickets (so there was no need for us to have arrived half an hour early) but the 'road hostess' did, after walking up and down the aisle offering people splashes of lemon water. We just held out our hands and she poured it on.

The bus only had three or four people on it apart from us. Just before we started moving the old man in the seat behind us leaned over and started talking to us in Bulgarian. He asked where we were from, so I told him (also in Bulgarian). At that, he said something else but I simply couldn't understand what he said. Dave broke in at this point and said that the man had said 'Margaret Thatcher'!

The journey to the border took almost exactly four hours. We went by a highly scenic route with forested mountains on every side; the beauty was heightened even further by the sunset, which created silhouettes of the mountains and turned part of the sky pink. Although there were almost no clouds in the sky, for a while only two stars were visible; one of them was so incredibly bright we thought that it might actually be a planet. When the moon appeared, it seemed particularly large and yellow.

The border crossing took an hour and a half, much longer than it took between Bulgaria and Macedonia. It was physically much larger, with some duty-free shops in between the two countries' passport control that we stopped at for ten minutes, and there was much more traffic. There was also a baggage x-ray room to go through. This time I did get a passport stamp, although the writing and dates on it aren't clear!

On the resumption of our journey the road hostess made another round with the lemon water and then the TV, which had been showing a foreign talent show ever since Veliko Tarnovo, was turned off. It was now past 2 am and we could finally get some sleep.

I woke up to a very pink sky, pale and delicate very early morning light and... the city of Istanbul spread before me, with minarets silhouetted against the sky! I was bleary with fatigue, but still a great thrill of excitement ran through me. We were clearly on a hill, for I got a real sense of how large the city is.

It was 05.40 when I woke up. About twenty minutes later we got to the big otogar (bus station). This is about ten km from our hostel, so we had to get on the metro for a bit and then a tram for five stops. We passed mosque after mosque. On our walk from the Sultanahmet tram stop to our hostel we went through some gardens with the Hagia Sophia on our left and the Blue Mosque on our right. I almost couldn't believe we were there! The sun shone and although it was so early, it was already quite warm.

Although it was only about 07.30 when we got to the hostel and check-in wasn't until 12, they very kindly said that if we waited for half an hour, they could get our room ready for us by then.

We set the alarm for 12, but when it woke us up we fell back asleep as soon as I'd turned it off. Then I woke up again later due to the calls to prayer wailing from the mosques, but fell asleep as soon as they finished. We finally woke up for good at 15.20 - we clearly needed the sleep!

When we stepped outside, two women were sitting on a doorstep nearby, shelling peas. Someone was playing a flute inside. We passed them on our way back to the gardens we'd gone through earlier.

Our destination was the Museum of Turkish & Islamic Art, close to the Blue Mosque. We took some pictures of the mosque and of Hagia Sophia, the gardens and of the Hippodrome (where the Romans used to race horses, but is only really a long public square now, with one or two archaeological sections left) on the way.

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The museum was excellent - really well presented, and with exquisite examples of calligraphy, Medieval Turkish carpets, carvings, colourful glazed pottery and suchlike. It also gave a lot of information about and had artifacts from the Ottomans, Seljuks, Timiruds and other ruling dynasties of Turkey and Asia Minor. I remembered studying some of these in one of my first year History modules at Swansea.

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We stopped at the hostel for a short while to rest our feet and have a refreshing cold drink; then we headed round the corner to the seafront. Finally I was standing on the European side of Istanbul, gazing out at the Asian side across the Strait of Bosphorus! This was something I'd wanted to do for many years...

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We walked around for a while before going back to the hostel and then out for dinner. We shared bread and hummous; then Dave had a salad and the soup of the day, while I had sautéed chicken which turned out to come in chunks with a tasty tomato and onion sauce.

Posted by 3Traveller 09:32 Archived in Turkey Tagged mountains mosque turkey museum istanbul buses bosphorus dave bulgarian bulgaria hagia_sophia veliko_tarnovo roman_remains unesco_world_heritage_site turkish_cuisine Comments (0)

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