Ok, I know, it has to stop – it is getting a bit ridiculous. But, when else in my life am I going to have this amount of vacation time?? So when my classmate Anthony got a summer internship in Dubai and wanted to know who was coming to visit, I signed on for the ride.But, Dubai is a long way to go – so MJ, Anita and I met up with Anthony in on Istanbul on the way. I’ll be honest, prior to this trip I hadn’t really thought much about the possibility of travelling in Turkey – but after just four days in Istanbul, I’m hooked, and will definitely be back.
We had the good fortune to visit when our Turkish classmate Gunay was home visiting family, and so had a wonderful guide and translator with us most of the time. We were also joined for the first part of our trip by another classmate, Karlyn.
On our first full day, cruising up the Bosphorus River on a ferry, you could quickly see that Istanbul is full of many contrasts. Straddling two continents and two seas, Istanbul forms a bridge between Europe and Asia. Through the years many empires have called this land their own, and there is no doubt that the ubiquitous Turkish flag which can be seen everywhere is a sign of the pride that modern day Turks have for their country. A mix of mosques, cathedrals, lush palaces and modern skyscrapers, Istanbul mixes the old and the new in a way that can be both breathtaking and overwhelming.
It is also a great place to celebrate a birthday, and I was lucky to spend my, um, 29th, enjoying the river by day and the winding streets and fabulous restaurants that night. And of course, all of this was topped off with a piece of birthday baklava (candle and all)!
Two of the city’s most well known monuments are the Aya Sofia and the Blue Mosque which are side by side in the old part of town. The Aya Sofia is most famous for its free-standing dome, which was a feat of engineering in its day, and has continued to be an architectural inspiration ever sense. What started as a cathedral then became a mosque and was eventually turned into a museum, so inside you find a mixture of Christian mosaics and Arabic script (and a tourist or two!). The Blue Mosque was built years later to outshine the Aya Sofia and is probably the most easily visible landmark with its towering minarets. It is also a still functional mosque so visitors can only enter during certain hours and are required to remove their shoes and cover their shoulders before venturing inside.
While impressed by both the Aya Sofia and the Blue Mosque, I was perhaps the biggest fan of the underground cistern which used to be the water source for both. In addition to being a fabulous place to cool off for a few minutes, it also boasts 336 columns and an elevated walkway so that you wander through the whole structure without getting wet!
After another day of sightseeing we had worked up quite an appetite, but stopped first for drinks at Mikla on the rooftop of the fancy Maramara Pera hotel. Definitely a place where local Turks and tourists come to be seen, the bar was complete with $30 cocktails and an in-house DJ. It also had fabulous views of the city. Anthony was quite happy with his harem of five women – though he didn’t look quite as cool when the wind turned him into an Indian version of Alfalfa!
The high price we paid for the drinks was somewhat offset by our dinner at the baked potato stand! For about seven dollars, you can get a baked potato stuffed with everything you can imagine – and then a lot of things you might not – like pickles, olives, corn, peas, or sliced up hot dogs. Once the potato is sufficiently stuffed it is topped with mayo and ketchup and makes for an excellent dinner. And just in case that’s not enough, you can follow it with a stuffed waffle. Pile anything you like – fruit, chocolate, nutella, etc. onto a large waffle, roll it up like a burrito, and voila – dessert.
The next morning we fit in one more palace before going to have our fortunes told from the grounds in the bottom of our cups of Turkish coffee. The experience got off to an interesting start given that the guy doing the readings had a very uncanny resemblance to the Devil. And after translating all of our readings for us, Gunay was more than a little bit skeptical. But there are parts of it that I’d like to believe – like that events in my career and my love life will make me very happy in September, that I will receive a large sum of money in December, and when I do eventually get married it will happen quickly and I will be very happy (sorry mom, no real specifics as to when that will be).
Last but not least we of course felt obliged to check out the local club scene, and spent our final night at the over the top club Reina, a several story outdoor venue on the banks of the Bosphorus. The club has two entrances, one for the who’s who of Istanbul, and one for the rest of us. It also has a back entrance where people pull up in their yachts (try as we might, we were not able to talk our way onto anyone’s yacht). Anthony was once again accompanied by his harem of women, though this time only four as Karlyn had moved on to Syria by that point. While he did revel in this role, he did have a conversation with a group of Turkish men celebrating a bachelor party which made him realize that one man with four women left some with the impression that he was not our friend, but actually our boss. We couldn’t decide if we were insulted or flattered – but needless to say Anthony made it clear that we were not for hire.
And that was the end of Turkey for now, but I hope to one day go back and spend more time exploring the countryside and the coastal towns. However, Dubai was calling – and it has not disappointed – but that story will have to wait because we are off to go skiing on an indoor mountain top (this place is a bit over the top!).