Istanbul…or is it Constantinople?

31 May

We’ve been away on holiday for the past few days. A road trip to Istanbul.

When we first decided to come to Turkey this summer we considered the option of taking the boat through the Dardenelles and across the Sea of Marmara to visit Istanbul. After all, you can’t possibly come to Turkey and NOT visit one of the truly great romantic cities. After a lot of research and the presence of deadlines, we decided it would be easier to leave Two Choices somewhere safe further south and travel overland to Istanbul.

Ayvalik on the Aegean coast, with a bus & ferry link to Istanbul which would take around 5 hours, looked like a possibility. However, marina charges in Turkey are relatively high – around €75 per night at Ayvalik. So, when we heard that the marina just across the water in Mytilene on Lesvos were offering berthing at a third of the cost, it was a ‘no brainer’!

Of course, as with many ‘bargains’, there turned out to be a slight hitch. It was nigh on impossible to get up-to-date travel timetables for Turkey online and email enquiries to Turkish travel agencies weren’t any more fruitful. So, armed only with optimism and assurances from Vivi, the marina administrator, that it would be simplicity itself to get to Istanbul, we set off on our 90 minute, €10 return ferry journey to Ayvalik.

Alas! We arrived to be told that we were too late to connect with the fast ferry across the Sea of Marmara. The only way to Istanbul was a 9-hour bus journey! 😦

As it turned out, the bus ride wasn’t so bad. We got to see much more of the countryside than we’d otherwise have done, and Turkish coach travel gets top marks for the quality of service. Really friendly & helpful staff (& fellow passengers), a courtesy shuttle from the out-of-town bus station to the city centre and free coffee and cake!

Istanbul is amazing! If you haven’t already been there and you get the chance, go! Our stay was only 3 days; definitely not long enough.
It is a vibrant, bustling city, buzzing with life covering a vast area, over 2000 sq. miles on both sides of the Bosphorus. It has a population of almost 14 million and absolutely HOARDES of tourists: it’s the fifth most visited tourist destination in the world. The European side of the city is divided by a natural harbour, the Golden Horn. To the north is Beyoğlu, the newer district of the city. To the south is the Fatih distict: this covers the peninsular bordered by the Golden Horn and the Sea of Marmara and is the area where ancient Constantinople grew.

We stayed in the old city in Sultanahmet, which is part of Fatih, and is within walking distance of the most famous historic sights. Our hotel, Side Hotel & Pension was clean, comfortable and well-priced, with glorious views of the city from the roof-top terrace. I would recommend it.

Our first day was a shopping day. We started off at the Grand Bazaar, a labyrinth of little shops selling all sorts, from exquisite carpets and textiles to tacky t-shirts and Turkish Delight. It’s like an Aladdin’s cave.

The Grand Bazaar

The Grand Bazaar

I was on the lookout for a handbag. There were thousands to choose from but none that quite fitted the bill. I was surprised by the attitude of the traders though. I had been expecting endless hassle and pressure from touts. Yes, they were there and, yes, they did try to engage you in conversation (the usual is “Where are you from?”) and entice you with their wares, but the handbag sellers were genuinely helpful, taking us to several different shops in search of my elusive killim handbag.

We left the Grand Bazaar empty handed (living on a boat with very limited space available is a great deterrent to acquiring stuff!) and headed north via tram, metro and funicular railway to a proper shopping mall. A bit sad, I know, to come to such a historical city and to spend time in modern chain stores but there were a few bits and bobs that I wanted but had been unable to get in Greece so a quick visit to Marks & Spencer was on the agenda.

PT in the Cevahir Mall - patience personified!

PT in the Cevahir Mall – patience personified!

This little jaunt introduced us to Istanbul’s public transport system. It’s quick, efficient, clean and low cost – very impressive!

Day 2 was a whole day excursion on a boat trip up the Bosphorus. This had been recommended by friends and it didn’t disappoint.

The Bosphorus links the Black Sea with the Sea of Marmara and, via the Dardenelles, the Mediterranean. It is absolutely heaving with nautical traffic. There are ferries and tripper boats zipping to and fro, dodging massive ships ploughing their way through the narrow 30km long strait. At times there can be a current of up to 8 knots and visibility is blocked by the twists and turns of the channel – a huge navigational challenge. Some brave yachtsmen choose to venture through the Bosphorus to explore the Black Sea. Having experienced this waterway from a comfortable seat on a pleasure boat, I think we’ll give this one a miss in Two Choices!

Our trip with Şehir Hatları took 90 minutes each way with a 2 hour stop for lunch at the entrance to the Black Sea at Anadolu Kavağı on the Asian shore. Armed with a digital guide to explain the many points of interest along the way, it is an excellent way to see some of the sights outside Istanbul and to experience this significant waterway.

After an agreeable day on the water, we finished Day 2 in a most satisfying manner watching a Sufi dervish ceremony: a magical, serene experience.

Our last day saw us visiting perhaps the most recognisable sites in Istanbul, Hagia Sofia.
Dating back to 360 CE *, it is an amazing building that started life as a Greek cathedral before being converted to a mosque under Ottoman rule in 1453. In 1935 it took on its current role as a museum. The mosaics, architecture and sheer history of the place are wondrous. The only disappointment was the scaffolding in the cavernous interior which detracted from the sense of vastness and the ingenuity of the builders. A visit is highly recommended.
* CE is apparently the correct term for AD (Anno Domini)

By the time our third & last afternoon came round we were tiring of being tourists a tad. Rather than frantically trying to tick off more of the attractions on our list we strolled in the sunshine with ice creams and found ourselves at the Galata Bridge. This is one of the crossings over the Golden Horn and is thronged from morning till night with hopeful fishermen. On the level below the road, there are numerous fish restaurants where you can stop for a bite to eat. We didn’t, but carried on back to Sultanahmet through the Gülhane Park. A nice relaxing finish to our trip.

POST SCRIPT: We had a fantastic time and managed to fit in quite a bit in the short time that we’d allowed, it was really worth the effort. However, there are so many wonderful places that we didn’t get to: the Spice Bazaar, Beyoğlu, the Basilica Cistern, the Blue Mosque, a visit to a hamam…to name but a few. Aah well! There’s always next time 😉

1001 Columns Cistern - a poor substitute for the Basilica Cistern...but there were no queues to contend with!

1001 Columns Cistern – a poor substitute for the Basilica Cistern…but there were no queues to contend with!


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