Istanbul. A city split over two continents (Asia and Europe). A city with a countable population that is roughly half that of the entire country of Canada. The Turks speak of the country’s uncountable population (refugees and their growing families, primarily) as, well, uncountable–nobody knows how many more this adds to the population number–and Istanbul is a significant landing pad for many residents in that category.
We flew from Bodrum to Sabiha Gokcen, one of Istanbul’s two international airports, and then easily found the shuttle bus to take us to Taksim Square. When we crossed the bridge from Asia to Europe we could have been arriving in downtown Vancouver with the skyline filled with black and silver towers. That was our first and last view of the city’s modern financial district. From Taksim Square, we walked in the chilly wind to Casa Bava di Istanbul, our home for the next week.
Once we were settled in our suite and had walked out to the Carrefour for some groceries, it was time for a late afternoon explore of our surroundings. I had picked up an Instanbul transit map at the airport, and our host pointed out a few things on a tourist map she gave to us. She also loaned us her Istanbulkart (transit card) so we could take advantage of the discounts without having to find one of our own. With maps and card in hand, we headed out for a walk, down the hill to Karaköy, an area recommended by our host.
The colourful little streets filled with cafes, restaurants, bars and shops are part of a rejuvenated historic district along the Bosphorus.
From there we attempted a walk along the waterfront, hoping for great waterfront views. Instead, we found construction barriers for what appears to be a huge redevelopment effort blocking all water access. On the other side of the street, we ran into an enormous collection of birdhouses–an art installation on the sides of a couple of buildings.
We continued walking until we reached the Kabataş funicular station. On the way to Karaköy we had stopped at a transit station to load 20 Turkish lira (TRY) onto our card, so we were ready to ride. We hopped aboard and rode up, up to the top of the hill, exiting the station once again into Taksim Square.
Walking to our abode sans luggage, as we did the first time along this route, we had a chance to take a look at life along Istiklal Street, a tourist and local shopping route filled with glitzy clothing and shoe shops, restaurants and cafes, and many stacked displays of baklava and Turkish delight enticing passers-by to taste and purchase.
Along part of the street runs the Nostalgic Tram, a reminder of times gone by, but still a useful service.
The next day we walked down to catch the Metro across the bridge and up the hill to the Grand Bazaar. I had expected a very noisy, busy market, but it wasn’t really either, probably because it was a less busy tourist time (March). We walked through several hallways, but found the cigarette smoke inside the building too much to handle.
We walked from the Grand Bazaar toward the Spice (or Egyptian) Bazaar.
We actually found the streets between and around the two bazaars to be much more fun. They were interesting and varied and seemed to market more to locals than to tourists.
From the bazaar area, we walked uphill again, in search of the Bozdoğan Kemeri (Valens Aqueduct). There are always surprises in Istanbul, and this time it was a mosaic wall art piece from 1965.
The aqueduct edges a park area and has two major roads running through it. Though we didn’t see any, we read that in summer there are little cafes or shops under some of the arches.
Our plan for our Saturday in Istanbul was to take the Metro to the Sultanahmet area in the morning and visit the Sultan Ahmed Mosque (commonly known as the Blue Mosque), Hagia Sophia, and the Basilica Cistern, followed by a ferry ride on the Bosphorus.
We started off as planned, taking the Metro to the Sultanahmet station. Saturday wasn’t a very nice day, and it was freezing and damp standing outside on the huge square. We headed to the mosque only to find signs indicating that it was closed for renovations until May 15 (remember, this was March). All we could visit was the courtyard and exterior.
On the advice of a friendly fellow (I’m not a guide, but I have some carpets you will like) standing near the Hagia Sophia queue, we decided to postpone our visit to that mosque until the afternoon, and instead walk to the Basilica Cistern (named Basilica for the great basilica that once sat on the land above where the cistern was built in the 6th century). The cistern is capable of holding 80,000 cubic metres of water. Its ceiling is supported by 336 9-metre high columns. It is dark and damp and, when we were there, overrun by school kids. But fascinating to walk through nonetheless.
After a quick lunch break nearby, we headed to the Hagia Sophia church-then-mosque-now-museum.
Our next stop was the Topkapi Palace. We walked to it, but ended up not going in. After perusing books in the gift shop showing the opulence and chaos of colour and artifacts, we didn’t feel we wanted to invest the considerable time needed to walk through it.
The weather wasn’t conducive to a pleasant boat ride on the Bosphorus. It was windy and cold with poor visibility. We headed home instead, with a resolve to try again on Sunday.
Galata Tower and Galata Bridge
Since the ferry tour wasn’t scheduled until 2:45 p.m., we chose a slow wander over the Metro to get to the other side of the Golden Horn. Our walk took us by the Galata Tower, a landmark on the hill on our side of the Golden Horn. We purchased a simit with cream cheese from the ubiquitous simit cart. It was crispy and delicious–very much like a sesame bagel with a crunchy fresh crust. Though you can climb the tower for views, the line was long and we weren’t keen to wait (or, frankly, keen to climb!).
Since we hadn’t been able to enter the Blue Mosque, we walked to the Süleymaniye Mosque. After removing our shoes and covering my head with a scarf, we peeked inside.
From outside and around the back of the mosque we caught beautiful views over the old town to the Bosphorus
Again, the weather was not conducive to a boat ride, so we wandered back to our own neighbourhood, stopping in Karaköy for a warming coffee, a sweet treat, and a game of backgammon. We fit right in.
We were unaware that Turkey is a wine-producing nation and has been for thousands of years. The Solera Winery was only 200m away from our accommodation. In the evening, we walked over and waited about 15 minutes to get a seat at this popular spot. Once in, we ordered our sommelier’s recommended Sevilen Guney Bogazkere – Okuzgozu and found it to be an impossible mouthful to say, but a very enjoyable mouthful to drink.
Boating on the Bosphorus
Finally, on Monday while I was working (and our last day in Istanbul), Ken hopped the ferry for the short Bosphorus tour. The weather was still not very nice, but the winds were down and the rain had abated. Visibility wasn’t great, but he found out that this was due to the sandstorms over the Sahara Desert and the winds carrying the dust northeast.
- Flight from Bodrum to Istanbul: 211.98 TRY for both of us, including checked bags ($73.16 CAD), booked 1 week ahead.
- Shuttle from SAW airport to Taksim Square: 15 TRY each ($5 CAD)
- Istanbulkart and fares: Normally the card costs 6 TRY but since ours was a loaner, it was free. We loaded 20 TRY ($6.67 CAD) 2 times and didn’t use it all despite riding the Metro and funiculars several times. Each ride using the card is about 2.60 TRY, 1.80 for connecting rides ($.87/$.60 CAD).
- Basilica Cistern entry fee: 20 TRY each ($6.67 CAD)
- Hagia Sophia entry fee: 40 TRY each ($13.33 CAD)
- Ferry tour: 2 hours for 12 TRY ($4 CAD)