I never really shared any parts of our trip to Istanbul last year and I thought I would show you a look at what we got up to.
We stayed in the amazing Pera Palace Hotel..once the glamorous stop over for the Orient Express, it is now managed by the Jumeirah Group of Hotels…as you step inside the lobby, the incredibly exotic marble is the first thing that makes an impact. While much smaller and a lot older than the Dubai Hotels, the Pera Palace does not disappoint in terms of 5 star service and luxury. The staff are very friendly and helpful and the concierge in particular, was an absolute delight. After a few days at the Pera Palace however, I realized why people are blown away by the 5 star hotels in Dubai. No one does over the top luxury quite like Dubai…the Pera Palace luxury was a subtle undertone rather than a full on brass band !
Istanbul is not for the unfit and while I nearly walked my feet off, I loved the change in scenery, the change in weather and most importantly , the change in routine….our mornings started fairly early, with a walk down the street to have breakfast at a trendy little restaurant. Then a walk back to collect our bags for the day and off we would go to explore the incredible city of Istanbul. Lunch was eaten at a street cafe somewhere and then more walking and a taxi ride back to the hotel to shower and freshen up for a late dinner nearby. I know our days sound fairly relaxed but we were absolutely exhausted each night and I slept like a log and awoke each day without my alarm…it was fantastic!
I loved Istanbul….I loved the crazy taxis, the traffic, the markets and bazaars, the steep hills, the exotic and delicious food,the cobbled streets, the traders who haggled and bargained constantly, the hundreds of cats all over the city….we stopped and chatted to all of them! Mad , I know…but my sister and I are both crazy about our cats ! I loved the old, old, old buildings which are still standing after hundreds and in some places even thousands of years, despite wars and earthquakes and invasions! The history of the city is palpable as you walk around and I found it completely invigorating compared to the newness,the buzz and electricity of Dubai. I loved the greenery and old trees all over the city….they have so many parks which I had forgotten or perhaps not had time to notice, on my previous trip a few years ago.
I also experienced a Hammam at our hotel spa, which was amazing and weird….weird having a complete stranger literally scrubbing every part of your naked body ,but amazing because my skin felt incredible afterwards…I would highly recommend it!!
The one thing which really bothered me was the litter…..litter is something which is generally absent in Dubai, except for certain areas, but Istanbul is grubby….while on the surface they seem to be “green” with recycling centers everywhere, but I noticed a lot of plastic bags and papers all over the city and particularly in the lovely waters of the Bosphorous, which was very sad I thought.
All in all, I saw most of what I wanted to see but due to some loooooong queues, we skipped a few places and I plan to head back for a three day trip in a few months to see them…..and do a little more shopping.
I did not shop too much but I did find a gorgeous Suzani in blues and greens, which I love and some fantastic prints at an fascinating old print shop a block away from our hotel. My sister also purchased some incredibly detailed 18th Century engravings at the same shop. The owner told us that the shop had been open in the same location for 22 years. I could have spent three days just looking at all his stock…it was quite extensive! I particularly loved the old maps of Istanbul an the various prints and engravings of the city which were very interesting and I was really surprised at how little the skyline had actually changed over the years!
We spent a whole day in the Grand Bazaar which I found a little overwhelming and annoying at times and I got very tired of being ripped off constantly because we were so clearly tourists. My sister wanted to buy a carpet but after half a day of looking we very quickly realised that we could get Persian carpets in Dubai for almost a third of the prices we were being quoted! We became a bit despondent but we did find the most fabulous Turkish delight (lokum) shop which also sold a small selection of the most exquisite herbal teas I have ever tasted! I bought some as gifts and a mixture called Relaxation for myself ,which honestly smells heavenly and works like a charm! I have to confess that my box of Turkish delight which I brought home with me lasted less than a week…..yes, I am ashamed! It was sublime!
On our second visit to the Grand Bazaar, I did buy a beautiful silk scarf with a traditional Turkish print which I loved ,and some very quirky little metal bowls which are used in the Hammam to douse the bodies with water. I liked the look of them, so I got them…my sister thought I was quite mad! One item I do wish I had bought was the cotton Hammam towels, which are like a sarong which is draped around you after the bath. They would make lovely throws or beach towels and I will definitely get some on another trip.
The Egyptian Bazaar or Spice Bazaar was an assault on the body and senses…it was heaving with people and at one point I felt positively claustrophobic as we were swept along with the crowds but as soon as we were pushed out of the door to the outside section of the market, I felt a bit better and we bought some incredible spices for gifts. We also got to see some interesting cheeses which were delicious!
The Turkish people seem to be obsessed with eating, and particularly with eating good, simple food and everywhere we went, there were restaurants and cafes serving fresh, easy food, surprisingly reasonably priced if you were not on the tourist route of course!
I found the food very similar to what we call “local food “in Dubai and it was familiar to us although somehow much tastier…possibly due to the fact that the produce has not been flown or shipped thousands of miles! The salads were crisp and fresh and utterly divine with juicy tomatoes which tasted like they had been picked that very day!
We also visited the Princes Islands via the ferry which cost a grand sum of 3TL….about $1.50 so a very cheap way to get there….if only we had not chosen a public holiday to do so! You have heard about those horror stories of overloaded ferries which capsize? Well, I had visions of this happening to us as hundreds and hundreds of people poured on to the ferry via a single gangplank with no rails!!! We eventually squeezed into two available seats with an Iraqi family visiting Turkey for a few days, and after a grueling hour and a half journey, we disembarked at the largest island for a day of what we hoped would be fun. Alas , it was not to be….there were so many people walking around that we were shoulder to shoulder and could not move in any direction other than the way the crowd was flowing! It was ghastly, and as soon as we could we escaped to a back alley where we found some horse and carriages (there are no cars allowed on the islands) who wanted to charge us each $80 to drive us less than a kilometer along the coast to a “beach”so we could at least escape the mad rush of insanity which turned out to be the same all over the island!! We were horrified and immediately started walking the opposite direction until we found a small restaurant which was mercifully not busy and we flopped into our chairs, exhausted,hot and disillusioned…where was the idyllic island everyone had told us about? About 45 minutes after placing our order , I realised why this restaurant was quiet. Our meal arrived about an hour after placing our order…we should have walked away, but in our somewhat bewildered state, we stayed and when our meal arrived, we were honestly shocked. I had ordered the fish of the day, which turned out to be what looked and tasted like a fresh sardine. I had specifically asked the waiter for a fish with no or few bones…well, I guess that didn’t work out too well for me! My sister ordered some calamari I think, and was equally dissatisfied. The presentation was nonexistent and my fish was slapped on a plate with a half onion as a garnish….an onion? What the hell? A half lemon I would have understood!
We wearily paid and then decided to head back home and we literally elbowed our way back through the hoards of adults and screaming children, who by now had reached the end of their tolerance for the heat and crowds (I knew how they felt!) and we bought our tickets back to the main land…except that of course, everyone else had the same idea….the Turkish people on this island also seemed to have no concept of queuing or personal space and by the time we had pushed and elbowed our way to the prized outdoor seats on the upper decks, we only just managed to get two seats on a bench next to the railing.
When we finally got back to our hotel that evening, we both collapsed in a heap onto our beds, exhausted by the whole disastrous episode! Living in Dubai , one forgets what crowds are like in European countries….there is so much space here in the UAE that one never feels overwhelmed by masses of people really…the total population is around 2 million, so it is not exactly a crush of humanity! It was quite a shock to us to realise how many people were out and about at the same time as we were…..
All in all,as I said, I loved Istanbul…I felt very comfortable there and I want to go back every year if I can….it feels exotic and yet has a European sensibility and while there are mosques everywhere, and the people appear to be religious, they still embrace life and enjoy it to the full!
We arrived during the last few days of Ramadan, and we fully expected the city, like Dubai, to shut down during daylight hours but every restaurant was open and people were eating and drinking in public as though it was a very normal day. I found it very tourist-friendly and possibly something Dubai might embrace in the future? Who knows…while I don’t find Ramadan a real hardship after 13 years, I sometimes feel it must be quite strange for tourists to experience and certainly a bit of a culture shock!
The aspect I found most intriguing was the history of Istanbul and the huge number of different Empires that have ruled over the years. I was constantly overwhelmed by the age of the city…thousands of years old in some places…it was mind boggling and very, very humbling. Our years will be but a blip in the history of Istanbul and she will continue to stand long after we have all departed the earth.
All photos taken via adeisgndiary.