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Istanbul Skyline
You may be surprised to hear that I did like geography at school. Our female teacher was completely without enthusiasm, her voice a boring monotone that did nothing to capture a young girl’s imagination. Fortunately, my mind can wander all by itself and so, I would drift away to another world in my head.

I have always been enamoured with distant places and one of the first places I ever sat up and paid attention to was “Constantinople”. The name itself sounds so powerful and mysterious that I just knew it would be a vibrant and fascinating metropolis.

Founded by the Roman Emperor Constantine and built on the existing site of Byzantium, it lay across the land route from Europe to Asia and across the seas from the Black to the Med, boasting a practical and spacious harbour. What better location for the capitol of the ancient world?

In my imagination, the streets were bustling with merchants, their visitors wearing swathes of brightly coloured silk gathered in at the arms and feathers in their jaunty hats. Dark skinned gypsies would dance barefoot for loose change and cast their eyes like fishing nets to capture a wandering mans fancy. I myself would wander through the streets and be romanced by the beautiful architecture……But that’s just my imagination.

Dependent on its rulers, it has been known by many names: Byzantium, Constanopolis, Basileuousa, Nova Roma, Tsargrad, Miklagaro until finally, in 1930 it was renamed Istanbul (derived from the Greek term “eis ten polin” = to the City).

Therefore, to the City I must go!

PLANNING A TRIP TO ISTANBUL

First things first, find a hotel. Whenever I plan an adventure I normally look for accommodation on www.booking.com. or www.travelrepublic.com This time I look for anything close to ‘Sultan Ahmet’ district and decide on the ‘Celal Sultan’. It’s close to all the main attractions, reasonably priced and cosy looking in the photos; http://www.celalsultan.com/.

I used to think that by calling the hotels direct, we would get a better price but, no. These companies block book hotel rooms at special rates and I find that booking through them is actually cheaper than booking direct.

Next, I make the travel arrangements.  My husband does not like to fly so we always  take the bus;  ”A bus!” I used to cry in outrage but, that was before I’d actually been on one. The bus service here in Turkey is brilliant. The seats are comfortable and recline, you have your own personal entertainment system set into the headrest and on-board is a bus boy that does much the same as a hostess on a plane.  Your luggage is tagged with your seat number and stored in the hold under the coach. The one thing they don’t have are toilets (apart from Ulusoy), however, there are regular stops along the way.

İncidentally, if you are female and have booked one seat, it is common practice by the bus companies to slot you next to another female, not a man.

Our Istanbul trip cost just 55tl per ticket for the entire 12 hour journey. That included free tea, coffee, soft drinks and snacks on the bus.

My personal preference is the tour company ‘Pammukale’ as they have wireless internet on-board. Pamukkale.com.tr 

Alternatively there are other good companies you may want to try:

Metro http://www.metroturizm.com.tr/

Kamilkoc http://www.kamilkoc.com.tr/

Ulusoy http://www.ulusoy.com.tr/

If there is a particular region you are interested in and it’s not included on any of the above companies, type the region into a Google search and add the word ‘seyahat’ after it. This will bring up a list of companies that service the area.

The other benefit of travelling this way is the service bus. Once you disembark at the main bus garage, there are free service busses that will take you closer to your final destination. These run around every half hour and if you ask the staff at the bus garage they will tell you where to wait (Don’t worry if you can’t speak Turkish, simply saying ‘service’ and giving your destination will be enough for them to understand).

I eventually made my first trip at the end of 2010 for New Year. Finally, I was going to Constantinople and I can’t tell you how excited I was. Not only that but we planned to spend New Year’s Eve at the infamous Taksim Square.

Crossing the Bridge

Crossing the Bridge

We arrive at Esenler at something like 7am ish. The first thing I notice is the rather unfortunate looking mosque (see the photo gallery at the end of this post). The Istanbul branch of relatives arrive to greet us and we catch up over Simits and Cay before driving to Sultan Ahmet.  Driving into Sultan Ahmet is a mistake….It is of course, s a popular tourist area and as such, the majority of it is closed to normal traffic and the coaches have to pay.  It cost us 15tl just to drive in!

The hotel was very easy to find and situated in the center of Sultan Ahmet, slotted down a small side street. It is so close to the Basilica Cistern and  Hagia Sofia that it will take less than a minute to walk there.

Houses in Sultan Ahmet

Houses in Sultan Ahmet

Sultan Ahmet House

We had booked a triple room for me, hubby and son on the basis that we would only be using it to lay our heads.  Just as well as it was box like and definitely not suited to lounging around in.  However, this did not detract from the hotel itself as it was ideally suited to our needs and the breakfast and lounging areas of the hotel were beautifully designed, cosy and had plenty of interesting wall hangings and object d art to view as we relaxed with a drink or two.

Eager to get out onto the streets, I leave the men in my life napping and head out to get my bearings. A sign post tells me which way to go for the main attractions and one I feel like right now is the Grand Bazar.

The Grand Bazar

The Grand Bazar

Ten minutes later I am there and I have to say, I am disappointed. I thought it would be more atmospheric.

It was vibrant and colorful and there were hundreds of merchants selling their wares but, for the most part, it was the same old goods that I can find in my local shopping center.  Perhaps, for someone who has not lived in Turkey for so long, it would be more of an adventure and they may be enchanted by the spices, pashminas, glass lanterns and kilims and perhaps not so by the endless array of ‘Dolce & Gabana’, ‘Armani’ and countless other copy t-shirts and handbags.

With zero purchases, I head back to the hotel where my men slumber away and no amount of prodding will deter them from their mission. I am also tired from the journey and after a kebab takeaway from a friendly corner lokanta, we all opted for an early night after planning out the next days.

One of the things I love about staying at hotels here are the breakfasts. It’s a case of eyes bigger than belly definitely but so difficult to resist. Tables laden with dried figs, sultanas, apricots, raisins, walnuts, almonds, cereals and yoghurt. A plethora of cheese, cold meats, boiled eggs, scrambled eggs, small sausages, mini pastries, brown bread, white bread, flat bread, red, orange and yellow jams, pekmez (grape syrup) & tahini (sesame seed paste) spreadables. It’s a case of ‘did I bring elasticated waist trousers and if not should I go and buy some?’

Agia Sofia - Istanbul

Hagia Sofia

Sated and ready for the sights, we leave the hotel around 10am and walk across the road to join the large queue outside the Hagia Sofia (Holy Wisdom). Ten minutes later we part with 20tl each, walk through the gardens and stand in front of the beautiful carved wooden doors of one of Turkeys most famous attractions. The Hagia Sophia was at one time known as the Cathedral to Constantinople, with its huge dome, the epitome of Byzantine architecture. It was converted into a mosque in 1453 and has been a museum since 1935.

Once inside, the history of this amazing building bleeds from its walls as they tell the transitional story from Christian to Muslim. Some Christian symbols have been covered by Ottoman symbols but plenty remain and the first thing I notice above the inner door is the large gold mosaic cross.

On first sight, the inside makes me think ‘Ballroom’. Thousands of brightly shining glass bulbs hang down from huge chandeliers, casting both light and shadow. I’m surrounded by stone arches, intricate carvings, stained glass and mosaic tiles all contained under a canopy of stunning domes. It’s a lot to take in.

We spend two hours wandering around this magnificent building, gazing at the ceilings, the mosaics, the stained glass and finally, we join the queue to run our thumbs inside the ‘sweating column’ before heading out for a spot lunch.

Even after the size of breakfast, we are still ready for lunch! Across the road is a parade of small eateries. We choose the one where the outside staff do not hassle us to come in and munch away on plates of Menemem.. Its pricey (for Turkey) at 10tl a head but then, this is Istanbul.

Sated and in need of a little rest, we walk the two minutes back to our hotel, plonk ourselves down on the plush red velvet sofas, order an afternoon aperitif from the friendly barman and start making our plans for the following day.

There are more tales to tell of this Istanbul adventure but for now, I will leave you with a little photographic journey of the above:

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