On Tuesday 3rd May we flew to Istanbul, to begin our tour of Turkey. Back in 1995, we’d spent a few days in Istanbul as part of our silver wedding celebrations. Until this year, it was the only part of Turkey we’d seen. We loved the city, so were happy to spend a bit more time there, before setting off on our wanderings.
In 1995, as part of a ‘city break’ package we stayed in a hotel that was posh by our standards, though we had a small ‘attic’ room. It was some way from the main tourist area, so we used to catch a tram. This time we booked the hotel ourselves, and chose a more modest establishment that was closer to the sights. It meant that when we arrived we were able to go out for a short stroll and re-acquaint ourselves with the layout of the old city and the principal monuments.
In the courtyard of the Blue Mosque we were approached by three female students, doing a survey. They wanted to know what we had thought of Turkey before coming to the country, what we thought of it now (difficult, as we’d been there only an hour or so), what we knew about Islam, etc etc. With their limited English and our non-existent Turkish, it was impossible to engage in deep conversation. But clearly underlying their questions was the desire to know why people in the West have such a negative image of their religion.
The Bosphorus Cruise
One of the attractions of a stay in Istanbul is a cruise up the Bosphorus, the waterway that divides Europe from Asia. We missed out in 1995 (having discovered too late about departure times), so we were determined to do it this time. We had two full days in Istanbul, and showers were forecast for both, so we decided we might as well go on Wednesday, our first day. Early morning sun was encouraging, but there was a brief shower as we waited for the boat to leave.
We cruised for an hour and a half, with a number of brief stops on the way. About half way the rain came down again, and this time it wasn’t a shower, but a heavy, long-lasting storm. We arrived at a village called Anadolu Kavagi, on the Asian side; this was the end of the line for us. We had nearly three hours to spend there – and it was still pouring! Apart from lots of cafés and souvenir shops, the only place of interest was a Byzantine fort, way up on a hilltop.
We ignored all the hustlers, and found a quiet café where we had cappuccinos and waffles piled high with fruit. We waited until the rain had eased, and then headed up the hill. But suddenly there was a loud thunderclap, very close – so we turned and went back to the village. We looked in some souvenir shops, and saw some beautiful lamps, but had to resist temptation as we had no way of transporting them. Then the rain almost stopped, so we had a second try at going up the hill. This time we made it to the fort, but by the time we got there it was raining hard again. You cannot go in the fort anyway; there are good views, but they were spoilt by the weather!
And then there was lightning, and at the same moment another very loud thunderclap, right above our heads! A hilltop was not the best place to be, so we hurried down to a café on the hillside. We did not want more to eat, so asked if we could have a glass of wine, but they didn’t serve alcohol. However, the waiter kindly said we could sit inside to shelter from the rain.
While watching one of the most severe storms we’ve ever experienced, we got talking to two people at the next table. The woman was British, but born in Istanbul and bilingual. She arranged for a waiter to take us down to the ferry – it was far too wet to walk. We got the impression that this was not an unusual request!
Back to Istanbul
The boat sailed at 3, and the weather improved. We got off at Besiktas, the penultimate stop, so we could visit a few more places on our way back. We realised that we’d be too late to go inside the nearby Dolmabahce Palace, but the exterior was beautiful, and well worth seeing. We took the funicular up to Taksim Square, and walked down Istiklai Caddesi, the main street of modern Istanbul. At the end we planned to get the ‘antique funicular’ down to the Galata Bridge, but there was a police raid going on, and the station was closed. We saw one man, handcuffed, being put into a van; but given the enormous police presence, they were obviously expecting others.
We had no alternative but to walk down to the bridge. We crossed it and then had dinner at a restaurant under the walkway, with great views of the Bosphorus one way and the ‘New Mosque’ the other.
If Wednesday was about exploring new places, Thursday was for revisiting some of the highlights from our 1995 trip. Ayia Sofia is wonderful, but when we were there last Ian’s camcorder was not functioning and the cost of film meant we were limited in the photos we could take. The advent of digital photography meant that this time we could enjoy ourselves taking as many pictures as we wished.
In 1995 we loved the eerie atmosphere of the underground cistern, with its many pillars; this time it was more crowded, and the noise rather spoiled the effect. After lunch we revisited two of the principal mosques (Sandie had to buy a scarf, having stupidly forgotten to bring one) and strolled through the Grand Bazaar. We’d managed to pack a lot into our two days in Istanbul!