Touring Eastern Europe v.1: Sightseeing in Istanbul

Hagia Sophia, Istanbul, Turkey

Getting to Istanbul

Before we get to sightseeing in Istanbul… I don’t typically do this for my journal posts, but for this one, I think it’s important. I’m beginning by giving some context around what sort of political events were happening in this region at the time of our visit. Because it does actually come up, more than once, in very small ways.


Social & Political Context

Turkey was very unstable at the time of our visit. Just prior to our trip, militants set off explosives in downtown Istanbul and a long-standing cease-fire between the Turkish government and Kurdish rebels collapsed. The American government issued a travel warning for Turkey and, while it primarily focused on southeast Turkey, there were still some pretty volatile protests occurring in Istanbul. Not to mention the periodic suicide bombing. Just a couple of weeks after we returned home, two suicide bombers killed 100 people at a peace protest in Ankara.

At the same time, the European Migrant Crisis had just begun, and refugees—mostly Syrians fleeing war in the Middle East—were flooding across the Turkish border in the hopes of reaching EU territories. Multiple European countries began cracking down on border controls and instituting tough entry requirements (Hungary and Austria, in particular). This eventually created an all-out disaster in the area with thousands of homeless refugees stranded at various border crossings, and re-routing many towards the Romanian and Bulgarian borders.

All of this in mind, I give you, “Touring Eastern Europe.”

Traditional Pre-Flight Libations

And we’re back on the road again! Not too much of note as last night and today were travel days. Getting ready to leave for a trip always feels a little like running a marathon—frantic packing, last-minute arrangements. And there are minor things—like visas—you need to prepare for when you travel to Turkey. By the time you get to the airport, you’re completely exhausted. It just emphasizes how desperately needed your vacation is.

We saw an older woman, clearly foreign, attempting to get on the escalator beside ours at Dulles. Fairly entertaining. She was struggling, poor thing. She’d try, get scared, and then try again, all the while laughing. I assumed it was her first time and, midway up, I started wondering how she was going to manage getting off without almost killing herself. Fortunately, her family was at the top to assist her, and they were all laughing hysterically together. Got to our gate after and had our traditional airport libations before boarding our overnight flight.

Traditional pre-flight libations

Turkish Airlines Awesomeness

Kudos to Turkish Air. This is the second time we’ve flown with them and they don’t let you down. Jeff and I decided Air France and Icelandair were equally awesome and, altogether, make up our top three airlines to date. This time, my Turkish Air flight was not a hot box. (I think last time I sweat ten pounds of water weight. Not necessarily a bad thing when you look at the bright side.) Lots of movies, substantial food, and Turkish Delight. I pretty much slept the whole flight.

Arrived at the airport where we were supposed to have a transfer waiting for us… supposed to. You basically have to scour hundreds of name signs because there are so many and then we ended up standing there for an hour with our assigned taxi company who kept telling everyone our rides were on our way. Exactly what you want to do after a ten hour flight. I just want to start sightseeing in Istanbul already.

We finally got a ride with an Australian couple from London on their way to a Black Sea cruise. They were smart enough to confirm with the cab driver that the hotel was paying before we left, which was fortunate because Jeff and I had not, and there seemed to be some issue initially. After they’d been dropped off, our driver had no idea where our hotel was and we actually had to give him directions from our GPS. A little ironic, but thank goodness for modern technology.

Turkish Kitty Awesomeness

Our hotel is nice and we have a balcony with a perfect view of the Hagia Sophia. Well priced, too, which kind of makes me wonder how much your average AirBnBs in Istanbul run. We made it just in time to witness the sunset prayer call, which is captivating and mystifying all at the same time. We were offered complimentary Turkish tea and water as soon as we’d arrived; the staff quite obviously take pride in their work and their establishment. Felt like a true taste of real life in Istanbul.

For dinner, we ate at the hotel restaurant outside on the cobblestone street under colorful glass lamps hanging from awnings. Traditional Turkish dishes of kabobs with all kinds of yogurt sauces and grilled vegetables.

Stray kittens hopefully looked up at us for free nibbles and the wait staff periodically chased them off. Seems to be their MO, clever kitties. Families with signs indicating they were Syrian refugees passed us several times. Young families, too. Very sad, but we hadn’t yet stopped at an ATM. We considered giving our leftover dinners away, but Jeff ate all of his and no families were around when our plates were cleared. Saw the Australian couple from the cab, too, which seems to happen a lot to us in our travels. Small world.

Tomorrow: Sightseeing in Istanbul.

Sightseeing in Istanbul

Woke up at 8:30, which is actually kind of late for us. Showering was interesting since the water just seemed to… stop… right before I hopped in. It eventually came back on, but the water pressure forced the shower nozzle out its the slot and sprayed water all over the bathroom. Good times. Had what I thought was a great Turkish breakfast, though Jeff was a little perplexed by the breakfast sausages that looked and tasted just like American hot dogs. I could eat pounds of the chilled spicy mushrooms and potatoes, though! Yummy to my tummy.

Sightseeing in Istanbul & Haggling

Blue Mosque, Istanbul, Turkey

Began our sightseeing in Istanbul by taking a walking tour of the city. Truthfully, you could probably spend an entire month in Turkey and never run out of things to do. For the single day, however, we hit up the Blue Mosque, the Hagia Sophia, the Basilica Cistern, Topkapi Palace, the Grand Bazaar, and the spice market.

The lines for the mosques, the Cistern, and the Palace were insanely long, so we just walked around outside and admired. Hopefully, we don’t regret that one day. I even brought my headscarf, special for the occasion. We both hate lines and crowds and, after traveling however long we traveled to get to destination X, we also seem to suddenly get cheap. Like, a $20 entry fee? No, thanks. At least we’re both on the same page.

The Grand Bazaar and the spice market were not at all what we were expecting. Hagglers at every store front and basically just lots of stores selling the same things. They’re both huge, though. Never ending hallways. We may have wandered through them more if we weren’t haggled and tired and tired of being haggled.

Hagia Sophia dress code

Meeting All the People

We were asked several times by random strangers on the street if we were American. Of course, they all wanted to sell us something. After the first accidental “yes” (accidental because you respond off-handedly and continue to walk wherever you’re going), we started insisting we were not American, but had no response for the next person who asked what we were then… if we weren’t American. Jeff and I just kind of looked at each other for an answer. Lol. I guess we should’ve come up with a fake nationality in advance. Um… Canadian? Though the fellow followed up with Australian, so… we’ll be Australian… and we’ll still keep walking. We’ll be whatever will make you not follow us anymore.

Ran into another American wearing an FSU shirt at Topkapi Palace. He said he lived in Miami, had family in Baltimore, but was from here. He kept referring to his wife and kids, but was walking with a woman in a full burka he didn’t seem to acknowledge during the conversation. Which seemed strange. Eventually, he gestured casually to her and said she was family. Sure, buddy.

He said he was here to buy rugs. Lol. Apparently, they’re great quality at great prices, but “don’t buy them at the Grand Bazaar.” Got it. The ones that had been presented to me there smelled treated, I told Jeff, to which he laughed. Better than untreated, I suppose. I can’t fit a seven-foot rug in my pack, anyway.

Turkish Tea

Took a couple wrong turns and walked completely the wrong direction more than once, but eventually made our way back to the hotel where we were greeted with more Turkish tea. They just continue to serve it to you. It doesn’t end. But it’s good, I’ll give them that.

Stopped by a travel agency for the local scoop on buses to Burgas, Bulgaria for tomorrow morning. “Don’t take this bus service, take any of these other three, but not that one because they have five accidents a month.” Duly noted. Attempted to confirm the departure time online and by phone at the hotel after, which was interesting since the phone line was automated in Turkish. Thank goodness for old military school friends because Ozlem was immediately available on Messenger to assist! (Thank you, Ozlem!)

Turkish Food

Took a nice, leisurely nap (still adjusting to the time warp) and, after, caught some dinner. Am amazed by the service. We’ve found in our travels that Europe, fancy restaurants and small cafes alike, takes tremendous pride in hospitality and food services work. They make livable wages and these jobs are defined, well-respected careers. They even sweep your table top with small silver brushes and dust pans between courses! It’s truly an art.

The food is great. We’re served breads with cheeses and drizzled olives with spices to start, and nuts and dried fruits and chocolates to finish. Delicious. We kept seeing some course (maybe some of our friends could chime in here) where they heat a clay pot over an open fire. They tap the pot until it cracks or the top pops off (can’t tell which) and everyone cheers. Then, they pour something out of it for the diner. Not sure what it is yet, but we must be missing out.

Aforementioned kitty peeing in plant at dinner

More Turkish Kitties

As expected, the kitties came to dine with us again. Not as expected, one of them jumped in a plant nearby and peed in it. Well played, kitteh. Well played indeed. That’s what we get for not giving in, I guess. You showed us.

Sightseeing in Istanbul was a success overall. Heading to Sozopol, Bulgaria tomorrow, a small medieval village on the Black Sea. Hopefully, we can successfully manage the taxis and bus station. Should be interesting.

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Cheers, Jordan