Istanbul, Turkey (Part Two)
Not only did we wake up without being covered in our usual layer of sweat, but we also scored free breakfast with the room. Perched on the rooftop terrace overlooking the water, we loaded ourselves up on the generous buffet. Yoghurt and cheese seemed to be the main attractions, with several varieties available, plus the regular hot and cold items. We were full for most of the day. No regrets.
Our plan was to stay only one night in Istanbul, but after our fantastic day yesterday and realising how much the city had to offer, we knew we had to add on an extra day. Unfortunately our hotel was booked for tonight, so we went in search for another. Once again, the second hotel we tried came up with the goods. We had to pay a little more, and the room was nowhere near as extravagant, but it still had A/C. We were thrilled.
The first item on our agenda after changing hotels was to check out river cruises. We wanted one that stopped on the other side of the Bosphorus River, which is technically part of Asia. It's odd to think that one city can be located in two continents. We found the cheapest one on offer and signed up for the afternoon.
In the meantime we visited the Blue Mosque, one of the biggest mosques in Istanbul and by far the most touristy. The line to enter extended out for some distance, but we eventually made it to the front, covered ourselves with a shawl then entered the main building. They call it blue because there a blue tiles all over the inside, but it looked more off-white to me. The interior was huge and extraordinary, like nothing I had ever seen before, although the conspicuous speakers around the room (used for prayer) didn't suit the rest of the decor.
We stopped at a cafe so Danny could have his fix of Turkish coffee, and I decided to get in on the local drink scene too by trying ayran. I read that ayran was a watery yoghurt drink, which sounded alright, but they failed to mention that it was also very salty. It was like drinking liquid feta cheese. Never again.
For our cruise we were picked up by minibus and taken to the port, where we climbed aboard and sat up top of our decent-looking boat. It started in the Golden Horn, the river separating the old and new towns on the European side, then travelled up the Bosphorus, separating Europe and Asia. The journey was beautiful and relaxed, with turquoise blue waters and few other boats in sight. The European side was full of mosques, universities, apartment buildings and a fortress. The Asian side was also full of mosques, plus palaces and small wooden houses along the water. The most expensive wooden house, which looked fairly small, sold for US$101 million. The cheapest is apparently worth US$5 million. Ridiculous.
Our stopover in Asia was in a neighbourhood called Kanlica, which felt like a sleepy town. It is famous for its yoghurt, which came plain and we could add either jam, honey or icing sugar. We tried one with sugar and one with honey. Both were divine. That was pretty much our only highlight of Asian Turkey. On our way back to the port we stopped off at the Maiden's Tower, built in the middle of the river. We climbed up the small lookout for views over both sides of Istanbul, however we were looking into the sun on the European side so we couldn't make out much. It didn't spoil what a great tour it had been.
Walking back to our hotel Danny stopped in at a sweets store, which sold Turkish delight and baklava in an assortment of flavours. He loaded himself up on nearly every type, claiming it would last him ages. I give it two days. We also found another cafe selling dolmades, but this time the filling was stuffed inside peppers. We enjoyed these way more than the vine leaf variety we ate yesterday.
Next we visited the Hagia Sophia Museum, which was built as a church in the 4th century then turned into a mosque in the 15th century. Although now it is a museum, I have no idea what it is a museum of. It didn't matter - the central building, which was all we saw, was breathtaking. We visited the upper viewing gallery first, following a balcony around the circumference. The enormous room was filled with chandeliers that were attached to the ceiling well above us, but the lights hung far below the upper level. This resulted in us looking down on them, where they appeared to be floating above the floor. It looked magical, and could have been a scene in a movie. The view from the ground level was just as amazing, but now we were peering up to see the chandeliers and the rest of the room overhead. Easily one of the most beautiful buildings I had ever seen with my own eyes.
For dinner we headed to a terrace restaurant, overlooking the street and the water. We chowed down on free hummus, then ordered a mixture of grilled meats and Mediterranean veggies. The serving sizes were massive and everything tasted fantastic. The only slightly annoying aspect was the presence of wild cats. They seemed to show up everywhere we ate, and made a habit of jumping up on our laps to steal our food. Maybe I sound mean but I'm not someone who generally allows cats to eat straight off my plate, especially stray ones.
After dinner we returned to the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia to view them lit up at night. The parks around the outside were overflowing with locals having picnics on the grass, enjoying a feast with family and friends now that the sun had set (as per the rules of Ramadan). Street sellers were taking advantage of the crowds, offering mostly popcorn and corn on the cob. The buildings looked wonderful and the carefree, jovial atmosphere made for a pleasant stroll.
We excitedly headed to our terrace breakfast again the next morning (every building seemed to have a terrace), but the buffet of this hotel was mediocre compared to yesterday's. There was no hot food, most of the cold options were salad, and instead of juice they provided cordial. I don't go to buffets to eat salad, I can do that in my own time. We didn't eat much.
After our substandard breakfast we took a quick walk up to the Topkapi Palace and wandered around the outside. The board near the ticket office showed that roughly two thirds of the rooms were closed today. No idea if that was the norm or if it was because it was a Monday. Either way, we decided not to bother going inside.
We checked out of the hotel then walked over to the other side of old town, about two kilometres away, to visit to the hardware section of the outdoor markets (markets are always in sections – so handy). The part of our exhaust pipe that hadn't fallen off yet sounded like it was about ready to do so, and we needed wire to tie it up. After a couple of attempts Danny found what he was looking for, then it was time to leave Istanbul.
To reach the caravan park we knew we would need a swipe card for the bus, and we were informed that we could buy them at kiosks. After enquiring at three stores with no success we gave up and caught the tram to the bus stop. It was here that we finally found a kiosk selling the tickets. We purchased what we needed, lined up for the bus with a bunch of other tourists, then saw them all paying for their tickets on board with cash. Frustrating.
It was a little deflating coming back to the van, like we have returned home after an overindulgent holiday. Now it was time to get back to regular life.