Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Istanbul – the Energetic New District

Charms to protect you from the "evil eye"
for sale all over Istanbul
We returned to Istanbul after our time in the Crimea, flying from the city of Simferopol to Istanbul on Turkish Airways.  After flying with them several times now, we like Turkish Airways a lot – comfortable seating, friendly service, and decent food even on the shortest flights.  And on this flight, Frank realized that they also give you free Turkish wine!

For our return visit to this city, we are staying north of the Golden Horn (one of the waterways that make up Istanbul) in what is known as the “New District.”  One of the advantages of staying over here is the amazing views of the Horn and the Old City across the water.  Our hotel is called Galata la Bella, and it is "bella" indeed.  The bed is super comfortable and the shower is probably the best we have ever found in a European hotel; it had a 10-inch diameter overhead waterfall-style showerhead and a powerful oversized handheld with adjustable spray formats.  Everyone treats us so nicely here too, although nothing can compare with our experience at the Sultan’s Royal Hotel.  But, in general, we must note that the Turks are masters when it comes to customer service.  Hospitality seems to be their mantra!!

Galata Tower view across the Golden Horn with
 Aya Sofia and the Blue Mosque in the distance
Galata Tower

A short walk up a steep hill took us to the Galata Tower.  Built originally in 1348 (although rebuilt many times), this stone tower with a conical top is one of Istanbul’s most distinctive landmarks.  We rode the elevator up to the top (about 170 ft.) for incredible views in all directions.  For the first time, we could truly appreciate Istanbul’s exceptional strategic position, practically surrounded by water with the Marmara Sea to the south, the Bosporus on the east providing a connection between the Sea of Marmara and the Black Sea, and the Golden Horn cutting a narrow swath through the middle of the city.  It is easy to see why this remarkable piece of land was so attractive to every invader who ever laid eyes on it.

The always busy Istiklal
shopping street in Istanbul
The biggest shopping street in Istanbul is the famous pedestrian walkway known as “Istiklal Street.”  This place is a people magnet for shopping, people-watching, eating, or just snacking on Turkish Delight; it is a zoo at all hours of the day and night, and elbow bumping with strangers is continuous.  

Red trolley on Istiklal Street in Istanbul


You need to be aware of the silent red trolley that runs up and down the center of the street - be prepared to dodge it when it unexpectedly sneaks up behind you. But these issues aside, we had a great time soaking in the vibrant bustling atmosphere and doing some shopping of our own. 

Cruisin' the Bosporus in Istanbul
No trip to Istanbul is complete without a cruise on the Bosporus.  Some of these cruises last all day, but we opted for the short 1-½ hr. version, and it was perfect for us.  The Bosporus is the main highway of Istanbul, and it was interesting to be a part of that, cruising along with Europe on one side and Asia on the other. 

Former hunting lodge of the Sultans
along the Bosporus in Istanbul
We passed former Sultan’s palaces and plenty of millionaire’s digs.  Homes along the Bosporus are prized real estate and some of the areas looked like they could have been estates along the Riviera in France.  How cool would it be to live in what looks like a resort area with all the delights of Istanbul just a ferry ride away?

ANZAC Cove at Gallipoli
Day Trip to Gallipoli
A highlight of our time in Istanbul was the day we spent in the remote village of Gallipoli.  You may recall that we first learned about the tragic WWI battle of Gallipoli when we happened to be in Sydney, Australia on ANZAC day (back in 2005), a day similar to our Veteran’s Day honoring those who served at Gallipoli as part of the ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) troops. 

This was a long day with a 6:30 a.m. pick-up at our hotel.  The driver did not speak English, and it was a bit disconcerting to be whisked away like that in the dark of the morning -- especially when our driver didn’t stop to pick up anyone else.  Anne had booked this trip with a recommended company called “Backpackers Travels”, and her understanding was that the driver would take us to a central bus station where we would hop on a public bus.  As the city of Istanbul receded into the distance, it became clear that we were somehow getting a private 4-hour ride south to Gallipoli.  Anne had a fleeting thought that we were being kidnapped and would be sold into white slavery, but then she figured, “Who would want two old people like us?”

Lone Pine Memorial at Gallipoli
Anyway, it all worked out (Anne will give Backpackers Travels some good feedback), and our day on the battlefields was educational and very moving.  The battle of Gallipoli is credited with creating three modern nations: Turkey, Australia, and New Zealand.  Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, made a name for himself here at Gallipoli, and the battle was a defining moment leading both Australia and New Zealand to develop as independent nations, eventually leaving the British Empire.  The battle, which raged from April to December of 1915, was a failed attempt by the British and the French to take the peninsula, and open up a supply route to the Mediterranean Sea, and to their ally Russia.  The fighting was an unnecessary bloodbath, and resulted in some horrific losses: 250,000 Turkish soldiers and another 250,000 from Australia, New Zealand, Britain, and France.

Tombstone at Gallipoli
Our Turkish guide Onur shared lots of stories from actual soldier’s diaries like the fact that the embattled Turks and the ANZACs traded food and cigarettes, and even played soccer together during the ceasefires.  And that while the ANZACs were dying at ANZAC cove (the landing spot of the ANZACS), the Brits were a short 1km away at Sulva Bay having fun swimming in the ocean!  Even Onur, who of course is a Turk, said that he felt most sorry for the ANZACs, saying they had no idea what they were getting into.

Statue of Turkish soldier carrying
a wounded ANZAC
We saw several small cemeteries with statues and memorials and graves of so many young Aussies and Kiwis. The most poignant statue was one of a Turkish soldier carrying a wounded ANZAC in his arms.  This was not Turkish propaganda – the statue was commissioned by an Australian Prime Minister to commemorate an actual event.  The whole Gallipoli Memorial, which consists of 31 cemeteries, is beautifully maintained by the Turkish government – you can actually feel the respect that the Turks have for their former enemies.  A large monument displays the words Ataturk wrote to the mothers of the dead ANZACs: “you, the mothers, who sent their sons from faraway countries, wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well.”

Special Memories of Istanbul 

Istanbul is truly a world class city and a new favorite on our list of top cities in the world.  This is a city where it just feels good being here.  To be honest, we were somewhat uncertain about visiting a Muslim country these days, especially in this part of the world; but we never felt the tiniest bit uneasy here.  And the Turkish people could not have been friendlier.  Ataturk is still strongly revered, and his belief in separation of church and state is obvious in this secular society where most women dress in western clothes (some with pretty scarves over their heads). 

Young woman in scarf
and trench coat
We only saw one woman wearing a burka during our whole visit, but we did see lots of women wearing dark trench coats and head scarves – apparently this is an acceptable new look for any pious Muslim woman in Turkey.  More than anything, the Turks seem to be happy people who are looking forward to a bright future – and why not with the second-fastest growing economy in the world (right behind China)?
Our best memories are of the people we met.  The only aggravating ones were the touts constantly trying to get us into their brother’s or cousin’s shops to buy a carpet.  Of course, their approach is a charming one, asking where we are from, drawing us into an innocuous conversation to ultimately lure us into their family’s shop.  One day, Frank had enough.  When the umpteenth salesman approached him asking, “Where are you from?”  Frank immediately answered in frustration, “I don’t care if your brother, your sister, or even your grandmother has a carpet shop, I don’t want a rug!”  The guy was taken aback momentarily, but answered, “But I have my own carpet shop!”  All three of us cracked up!  The guy was still laughing as he walked away, saying, “Have a good day, my friend.”

Our buddies (left to right)
Efes, Ersin, Frank, Anne and Emre
Some of our favorite conversations were with Ersin, the day manager at Sultan’s Royal.  Ersin really opened up to us telling us all about his life.  He even started calling Frank his “American Dad.”  Poor Ersin is at a crossroads in his young life with his girlfriend pressuring him to get married while he also has to decide whether to do his mandatory military service now or finish at the university (which will shorten his time in the military).  Yes, in Turkey, serving a few years in the military is mandatory.  

Ersin has good reason to be worried about this military service – the concern is not Syria as you might think, but a bloody civil uprising in the east with the Kurds that has been going on for 10 years.  But speaking of Ersin’s girlfriend, her parents only allow her to see him during daylight hours – he has to have her home by 7:00 p.m. and he can’t even visit in her home after that.  We asked Ersin how he felt about this, and he said she was a good girl like his sisters (who had the same restrictions).  Ersin said, “But once we are married, she will be mine!”
Frank drinking his favorite
Turkish beer, Efes
One night, we ate dinner at the Karina Fish Restaurant on our hotel’s street where we met the restaurant owner whose name is Efes.  Coincidentally, Frank’s beer of choice in Istanbul (and now one of his all-time favorites) is called “Efes.”  Plus of course, Frank’s initials are “F.S.”  Both of these are pronounced the same.  Well, he and the restaurant owner got into quite a discussion about all this, and from that point on, every time we walked by the restaurant (day or night), the owner would call out to Frank, “Hi F.S.!”  To which Frank would respond, “Efes, how are you!”  And, of course we'd would stop for a lengthy chat.  It was great – we really felt as if this was “our street.”

Young boys on their
 "circumcision day"
We could go on and on with these human interest stories.  One day, when we visited the Blue Mosque, we saw two boys about 6-years-old all decked out in white outfits decorated with white feathers, looking like Sultan princes.  We were admiring their astounding outfits, taking photos, etc. when a man came up and said to us, “They go to hospital tonight.”  Now this was disturbing news – apparently, they were decked out for their big circumcision day.  Ouch!  We thanked the man for telling us – but then he asked us to come see his carpet shop.  Haaa!!  The ubiquitous rug dealers are never shy. 

Turkish Delight!
We haven’t talked at all about the food in Turkey, but it is fabulous.  Much like in France, the Turks take their food seriously.  Some of our favorites are: Turkish apple tea, Turkish tea (very dark and flavorful), and Turkish Delight (chewy colorful candy that is surprisingly tasty).

Fresh pomegranates!
We also loved anything made with pomegranates (so cheap, fresh & plentiful here) – the freshly squeezed juice is unbelievable, especially when mixed with orange or even other juices!  Of course, the kebaps (kebabs), the meatballs called “kofte” (not like our meatballs, but more like sausage), and fresh cooked vegetables (like eggplant) are great, and the breads and pastries are excellent.  We will have to come back just to explore more of the food goodies!

The drinking water was always a problem in all of the cities and countries we visited.  I know we’ve talked about this ad nauseum in other blogs, but we cannot stress the importance of this problem enough when travelling to underdeveloped countries. You absolutely need to buy water for drinking, brushing your teeth, and anything else where water can be ingested. Even ordering salads in restaurants can be verboten since the restaurateur probably washed his veggies in tap water. Yes, it is a nuisance but, in our estimation, the rewards of the cultural exchange make it worth the trouble. And, consider the alternative.  YOU WILL more than likely get sick if you drink their tap water!!   Nothing can spoil a vacation quicker'n a bout of Montezuma's revenge.  Fortunately, clean water is easy and cheap to obtain in bottled format.

Also, we always buy a bottle of vodka and carry that with us too.  It allows us to sterilize our drinking glasses, wash our toothbrushes, and clean any silverware we used without adding too much of the flavor of the liquor.  Thank God (and the Ruskies) for vodka!!

We'll leave you with more of the good foods of Istanbul:

All kinds of baklava!

Delicious snacks
Other yummy Turkish goodies