Thursday, April 9, 2009

Hello Istanbul! Arrival in Turkey.

Sunday, April 5, 2009
Istanbul, Turkey

Arrival in Istanbul:
Our Easyjet flight left Gatwick airport at 6. 40 am and deposited us at Istanbul’s Sabiha Gokcen airport at 12. 30 pm local time. It had been a very pleasant flight indeed during which time I read my DK Eye-Witness Guide to Turkey with the idea of trying to figure out how to plan our three days in the city. The descent into Istanbul was particularly lovely and as we skirted the banks of the Bosphorus, I was grateful for my window seat and the glimpses it offered of the landscape that lay bathed in strong sunshine. The city was punctuated by the domes and minarets of countless mosques and the colors of the buildings were very similar to the palate of yellows and orche that we had seen in Italy.

To our horror, we discovered that we were required to stand in a long line at the airport to obtain visas for which we paid $20 a piece. I found this surprising as no one had prepared us for this occurrence. About an hour later, we cleared Immigration and found ourselves in a small and rather quiet airport. The journey to the city was rather complicated as Easyjet (like most budget airlines) flies to an airport very far from the city proper. We entered the Havas bus that took us as far as Taksim Square from where we took a public bus to the terminal in Sultanahmet where our hotel, the Sultan’s Inn, was located.

Only there was a mess up with our booking and there was no room for us at this hotel. However, the kindly receptionist placed us for one night in a neighboring hotel called Tashkonak and for the next two nights we were placed in Deniz Konark Hotel, which was also near by. Everyone was helpful and good natured and when we alighted from the car that took us and our belongings to Tashkonak Hotel, we were very pleased with the top floor and the sight from our window which provided a lovely view of the Sea of Marmara and the Princess Islands floating in their midst. We discovered that the hotel had a flower-filled terrace right above our room and we did climb upstairs only to notice the domes and many minarets of the Blue Mosque staring back at us only a stone’s throw away. What a brilliant location the hotel had!

Exploring the area around the Famous Blue Mosque:
Since it was still only about 4 pm, we decided to spend the evening discovering our vicinity and found to our delight that we were very conveniently located with regards to the main tourist attractions. Indeed, the Blue Mosque was so close to us that we could hear the muezzin’s call as azan began and, deciding to stroll through the nearby Arasta Bazaar, we stepped into the mosque later in the evening.

Arasta Bazaar offered a variety of wonderfully enticing merchandise from Turkish carpets and kilims to vibrantly colored ceramic items, from desserts like baklava and Turkish delight to skillfully carved bone pipes and cushion covers. Truly, Turkey is a shopper’s dream but neither Llew nor I were in the market for any goods to take back home.

Instead, we toured the area around the Hippodrome, so-called because cycling events as well as athletic contests were once held in this area. Once in the region, our attention was drawn to two towering obelisks, one with very distinct Egyptian hieroglyphs carved upon it, the other a plainer tower—both dated from centuries long gone. There was also a rather ornate fountain that was named after Kaiser Wilhem II. The Hipppodrome lies at the very heart of Sultanahmet which is Istanbul’s busiest neighborhood and for the next three days, we were, quite literally, in the thick of everything (including President Obama’s visit to Turkey!).

By this point, we discovered that the namaaz period had ended and we were able to enter the Blue Mosque. As in most places of worship, we were asked to take off our shoes and place them in a bag, which we were allowed to carry into the mosque. The space is huge and quite overwhelming indeed. Inside, we were introduced to the intricacy and artistry of what are called Iznik tiles—ceramic tiles in distinctive shades and patterns of blue that are used liberally to decorate the surfaces of walls on all Turkish structures.

Though community prayer time was over, there were still many worshippers in the front of the mosque, their faces turned towards the decorative mihrab that faces Mecca. We also saw the ornate minber or platform from which the priest leads prayers. The entire floor of the mosque was covered with rich Turkish carpets and aside from the tiles, there was calligraphy from the Koran painted all over the mosque. It made a very interesting beginning to our sightseeing in Istanbul but we soon realized that if being in Rome had meant traipsing from one church to the next, being in Istanbul means traipsing from one mosque to the other. As in the churches, while most architectural elements were basically the same, there were minor differences that made each one worthy of a visit.

Our first Turkish Meal:
We were ready for dinner at this point and since the very helpful young man called Ramazan at the hotel had recommended a restaurant nearby called the Ayasofya, we made our way there and sat down in a quiet alcove upstairs where we were very warmly greeted by the owner called Hassan and the wait staff. We decided that for our first Turkish meal, we would order a mixed plate of appetizers (mezze) and a mixed grill…and how pleased we were by the quality of the meal and its very reasonable price.

The mezze platter contains a variety of dips and pastes that are eaten with the most marvelous large flatbread. The mixed grill platter was equally hearty and easily shared by two. It contained a variety of kebabs from grilled lamb botis (chunks) and chicken wings to shish kebab and marinated chicken breast, all served with that delicous charcoal grilled flavor. Served with tzaziki (cucumber garlic dip) and pickled red cabbage, it was a truly wonderful meal and one we decided to return for again before our departure.

Then, we were picking our way back to our hotel again after warmly thanking the staff for taking such good care of us and presenting us with such memorable food. A short walk later, we were in Hotel Tashkonak amazed by how much we had already seen and done in Istabul.

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