Istanbul, Turkey (Part One)
Firstly, a big thank you to Turkey for your wonderful, driveable roads. We won't miss yours, Bulgaria.
The scenery on the way to Istanbul changed frequently. At first it was thick forested mountains, then sparse rocky hills, followed by flat land with occasional civilisation (which reminded us of Morocco, with dusty roads and mosques looming over the towns), and finally the city's suburbs. The urban environment started about 45 km out from Istanbul and consisted almost exclusively of colourful high rise apartment blocks. At times it felt like we were in the middle of the city, when we were actually nowhere near it. I guess when you have a population of 16 million people you don't have the luxury of spacious blocks of land. It's hard to believe that three quarters of Australia's population fits into one city.
Traffic was surprisingly free-flowing, which we didn't expect. They only time we were held up was after a toll point, where 12 lanes suddenly became four. After half an hour of fighting for space with other vehicles the drive became smooth again.
Caravan parks are not convenient in Istanbul, the closest being about 40 km out from the centre. This was where we headed. It was fairly small, offered only cold showers but it was close to the Black Sea. The Call to Prayer screamed down at us periodically, a ritual we hadn't missed since our time in Morocco. The location wasn't conducive to sight-seeing, but we weren't confidant of parking on the streets closer to the city, so we made plans to take a mini-break from our campervaning holiday.
The next day we packed our backpacks, left the van at the caravan park and headed into Istanbul, planning to stay overnight in the city. The journey consisted of: 15 minutes on a minibus, which miraculously found us before we found it; a regular bus for 50 minutes that did not accept cash, a fact we only learnt once we were on board (luckily one of the friendly passengers swiped his card for us in exchange for our money); then a tram for another 15 minutes. You can see why decided to stay in town rather than make this trip twice each day.
Once we were in the centre we picked up a map, then immediately got sucked into a carpet store by a man telling us all about his brother in Australia selling Turkish handicrafts. You think we would have learnt after Morocco. Anyway, he gave us some fantastic apple tea (and I usually hate tea), then proceeded to show us about 20 different carpets, telling us about all the various types he stocked and how they differ from carpets in other countries. He persuaded us to choose our favourite, slowly narrowing down the selection until there was one left. Danny ended up picking the smallest, cheapest looking one. The man told us it was €550. Danny offered him €50, as we absolutely did not want the carpet and we presumed he wouldn't knock 90% off the price. The conversation went back and forth for a while before the salesman suddenly shook Danny's hand and said 'Sold! €50!' We mumbled a few excuses as we backed away towards the door and ran from the store. He wasn't too happy with us.
One thing we did learn at the carpet store (besides the massive discounts we could negotiate) was that it was now Ramadan. We wondered how this would affect the vibe of the city.
Our next mission was to find a hotel. We strolled through the popular area in old town for hotels and restaurants, trying to stick to a tight budget. On our second attempt we found a much more luxurious room than I was expecting for the price. It had dressing gowns, slippers, toiletries, TV and, best of all, air conditioning. We have suffered through so many hot, sleepless nights that a night with A/C sounded like heaven. Plus the room seemed massive compared to the shoebox we had been living in for the last six months. The man could have quoted us double the price and I probably would have taken it.
After dragging ourselves away from the spacious room we walked over to the Grand Bazaar. We imagined it would be something like Moroccan souks – bustling, cluttered, full of touts, no room to move – but it was nothing like that at all. It felt more similar to a shopping centre, but with arched stone ceilings, columned walkways and Eastern handicrafts. Only a handful of people tried to drag us in to their stores. It was not busy at all, and it was a little more expensive than we had anticipated. The only place we spent money was at a cafe, where we sat down to a plate of Turkish desserts (mainly baklava).
After the bazaar we wandered through the outdoor markets, which were much more chaotic, selling mostly everyday household objects. We found the spice market, much to Danny's delight, where he picked up a packet of Ras el hanout (a spice blend) and a small tin of caviar (apparently a high quality one). Back out on the streets we continued tasting the local delights, including pide (Turkish pizza; one meat and one cheese) and borek (a baked, filled, filo pastry; again one meat and one cheese). We may have gone a little overboard on the Turkish food.
The one thing Danny wanted to do in Istanbul was visit a hamam (a Turkish bath), and we managed to find the only one in the city that was mixed-gender. We bought a set package that included 40 minutes in the "hot room", and they weren't kidding about the name – I spent half the time near the exit where the temperatures were marginally cooler. The air was so heavy and thick that I could hardly breathe. Once it was finally over we moved into the next room, where we were both exfoliated before being massaged with soap bubbles. This was loads of fun, like one big bubble bath. They even washed our hair for us. My favourite part was when they washed us down with cold water, a much needed relief from the suffocating heat. Afterwards we were offered a selection of moisturisers, deodorants, perfumes and a hair dryer to make ourselves look (and smell) respectable again.
We stopped for a quick pre-dinner drink, where Danny chose Turkey's signature drink, raki (ew, no thanks), before finding a huge outdoor restaurant for dinner. And when I say huge, I mean there must have been over 100 tables. A band on the stage played music for a Kurdish dancer, who spent so long going around in circles I don't know how she didn't fall over. We tried dolma (stuffed vine leaves), spinach and feta pancakes, and a plate of mixed meats with pita bread to make our own kebabs. The waiter also provided us with free soup. It was all amazing and incredibly filling, but it didn't stop us heading out for an after-dinner drink at a terrace bar overlooking the water. Danny went for raki again, while I stuck to white wine (although it wasn't the best). It was the perfect end to our first day exploring this extraordinary city.
Actually, the perfect end was getting back to our air conditioned room. So happy right now.