Monday, November 18, 2013

Istanbul Bazaars

Grand Bazaar

After spending the morning at Sultanahmet Square (previous post) and lunch, Zach and I ventured into the famous Spice Bazaar and Grand Bazaar. The spice bazaar was a series of tiny streets flanked with stall openings overflowing with… stuff. Spices (of course) but also clothes, knick knacks, pottery, shoes, electronics, scarves… the works! It was chaotic, but so fun. We also went to the Grand Bazaar, which is kind of like a mall. It was a labyrinth of aisles with tiny shops on either side for what felt like miles. You could seriously get lost. Thousands of booths!

And gradually over the course of the day, we grew accustomed to Turkish culture. Everyone calls out to you from their stalls. You glance at their wares and they engage in conversation with you and will haggle if you start walking away. The shopkeepers were so friendly and at times it was overwhelming, but we got used to it. And also got some great deals. :-)

Spice Bazaar

Spice Bazaar

Grand Bazaar

Incredible lights at the Grand Bazaar



One-of-a-kind sword
Zach and I had several things we wanted to purchase in Istanbul. We aren't usually the souvenir type, other than magnets and ornaments, but we were so taken with the unique things available that we bought a lot. We had hoped for a rug for our house (I'd been looking online for months to find rugs for our home) so we did a little looking at the Grand Bazaar.

A shop keeper invited us into his store and showed us his "credentials" that apparently attract tourists--an impressive story about him and his store in National Geographic. I have to admit, that's pretty high accolades, so we decided to go in. He sat us down surrounded by rolls and rolls of rugs and served us Turkish tea. This was a first for us. Everywhere you look in the afternoon, we saw Turkish men sipping tiny tulip shaped glasses of tea either on their stoops or engaged in conversations, but we had yet to try it. I was pleasantly surprised--I'm not usually a hot tea kind of person, but this was like magic in a glass with little sugar cubes!

Our first cup of Turkish tea
 Next, we visited about our tastes and our home and the shop owner started bringing us rug after rug that he thought might work for our budget and home. The ones we *really* liked were of course, silk and out of our price range---even with him trying to make a deal. But we found one that was wool and beautiful, and I knew it was a good price because I'd been researching rugs online. We were thrilled to bits with our rug!! Below is the rug hung in our home.

Our Istanbul rug on the wall
Later, we walked around the Old City near our hotel and were stopped by a restaurant owner to check out the menu. This happened all the time in that area--but instead of being a bit scared, we decided to go back to his restaurant. We watched the owner hustle for customers outside in the cold while we enjoyed a really good dinner and great service and realized that being approached by shop owners wasn't a negative all the time. Probably we wouldn't have ate at that place if he hadn't stopped us. When you stay in a touristy area, you get approached as a tourist. All in all, we really enjoyed our day and enjoyed chatting with our waiter and the owner. The owner even treated us to our first cups of Turkish coffee. hoo boy!

Delicious hummus

Some kind of yummy chicken meal
Turkish coffee has the texture of hot chocolate, but with coffee grounds. I had mine very sweet, and it was good, but it was very strong. It's interesting to me that they only drink it after dinner--not at breakfast.

Turkish coffee
Later, we found ourselves working on our laptops at the hotel till 2 am (I was still writing stories for magazines back home, even on our trip) and realized that this coffee REALLY keeps you up. We had a hard time falling asleep every time we had it. Oh well. :-) We had a great day!

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Intro to Istanbul and the Sultanahmet Grand Tour

I've been preparing for the next several posts for while. Sometimes, when you cram so many experiences and take too many photos into a short time, it's overwhelming to try to unpack it in a blog. Istanbul was one of those times.

On our trip last January, we visited Paris and Istanbul--which was once called the Paris of the East, so I thought that was pretty cool. Zach and I had never visited Turkey and the prospect of learning about an entirely new culture AND stepping foot in Asia for the first time was exciting. Zach had trepidation for our safety, because there was some unrest in Turkey, but we watched the news blasts for months and had no problems while we were there. There was some incidents in Ankara after we left the area, but nothing in Istanbul.

I really wanted to take a train from Paris to Istanbul along the route of the original Orient Express, one of the most famous train routes in history. It would have taken us through three more countries and taken several days. When we planned our trip, we didn't think we'd have enough time so we just flew. Looking back, we could have done the train, but now we have something to do next time we get to go to Istanbul. There's more we want to see there, and we also want to visit other places in Turkey.

Istanbul has turned out to be one of Zach's and my favorite places we've ever visited. My only experience with anything remotely close was traveling to Israel. There were a few similarities, but Istanbul was unlike any city we've been to before. I didn't get an accurate picture from movies like James Bond films or Taken 2. :-)

We flew Turkish Airlines to Istanbul -- our first time on that airline. All the seats were turquoise! We arrived in the afternoon and took a hired car to the hotel. We stayed in the historic Sultanahmet area, an old section of the city that is chock full of character and lots of sights. If you're looking for inexpensive lodging, there are several adorable boutique places in that area and you can walk to many attractions. Rick Steves has a bunch of suggestions for lodging in the area, but we went with Marmara Guest House. I highly recommend it. After settling in, we watched the sun set over the Bosphorus Strait--the waterway dividing European Istanbul from Asian Istanbul, and an important aspect of the city's history as a top port city.

Our adorable room!
 We walked toward Sultanahmet Square, and were immediately blown away by the views of the Blue Mosque and Aya Sophia. I mean, seriously cool.

Blue Mosque at night
 Our hotel landlady advised us to go to a restaurant across the square, and it was an interesting experience. On the walk there it was a total difference from Paris. We had people hassling us to buy things and go into their restaurants all the time we were walking. With no prior experiences, we didn't know if people would mug us or what. In our experience, people in Paris leave you alone unless they're up to no good, so to be approached multiple times at night in a strange new city was kind of stressful. The restaurant was called Sultanahmet Koftecisi, and I think there are two of them next to each other on the same street. We might have gone to the wrong one. :-). Also, it's RIGHT on the main tourist drag, so can't say this is "the best" food we had in Turkey. But it was our first meal. The service wasn't so good, the atmosphere was tense and it just wasn't the best experience we had that trip. I say this because every other place we went to on this trip was awesome and it only got better! Later, we learned these two restaurants with the same name are owned by rival brothers. Maybe that's why the staff was so cranky? The view was great from the restaurant…

Meatballs! These were on every menu we saw in Istanbul.

Blue Mosque at night- incredible. This is the view from the restaurant :-)
 After dinner, we walked around a bit and picked up some baklava. This is Zach's FAVORITE dessert, one we didn't realize was a specialty of Turkey as well as Greece. We chose a selection and went back to the hotel to enjoy.

On the way back, we stopped and looked at stunning lamp chandeliers like the one below. More on that later :-)

The next morning, we woke early and watched the sun paint the Asian side of Istanbul with beautiful light. We had a delicious Turkish breakfast on the terrace with lots of fresh fruit, vegetables cheeses and yogurt. I think this is typical for hotels in Istanbul to offer for free. Breakfasts in Istanbul were a highlight of our whole trip that January. Even though it was chilly, we LOVED this time!

View from our terrace

Turkish breakfast--fabulous
We set out for a full day of touring and started just a 5 minute walk away. Soon after arriving at the Aya Sophia, we ran into a tour guide that offered us an affordable rate for his services. It turned out to be a blessing.

Aya Sophia

Aya Sophia
Our tour guide's name was Çem, and he showed us around the church-turned-mosque-turned museum. I was fascinated by the writing on everything and the tile work. This building was gigantic. As was the Blue Mosque. So many monuments seem smaller in real life. But this was not the case in Istanbul. Everything was ornate and grand. Çem also taught us about Turkish history and a lot about Islam. We'd never visited a Muslim country, so it was really neat to learn the customs surrounding the mosques.

Aya Sophia

Aya Sophia

Cats are everywhere in Istanbul!

Aya Sophia

Aya Sophia

Fascinated by the writing!
In front of the Aya Sophia

In the Aya Sophia

So much detail in the Aya Sophia

Our tour guide Çem

Incredible - Aya Sophia

Ceiling - Aya Sophia

detail - Aya Sophia
Next, we tour the Basilica Cisterns, a fascinating underground reservoir now preserved as a tourist spot. We saw where James Bond's To Russia With Love scenes in the cistern were shot, and learned a great deal about its history. It was also present in a Dan Brown book… but I don't want to ruin the book with spoilers. :-)

Basilica Cistern

Very important part in that Dan Brown book! This is Medusa

Basilica Cistern
 We walked through the Hippodrome on our way to the Blue Mosque and looked at all the monuments built there.

In the Hippodrome

Obelisk of Theodosius


At the Blue Mosque, we had to remove our shoes and women had to cover their hair. The mosque was unreal. SO big and covered in intricate Iznik tiles painted with blue, hence the unofficial name of the mosque.

Blue Mosque

Cats in the courtyard of the Blue Mosque

Blue Mosque ceiling

Blue Mosque

Blue Mosque

Blue Mosque

The first of many photos of tile...

Unreal being here
Taking in the Blue Mosque

After our time at the Blue Mosque, Çem took us to the Eminonu area for lunch on diner kebabs… also known as shawarma (Arab) or gyros (Greek). It was yum!

already being seduced by Turkish wares...

Turkeys. In Turkey.

Parking in Eminonu

Doner Kebab
After lunch, we visited one more mosque with Çem and parted ways. Next post I'll talk about the Grand and Spice Bazaars!