Melanie and I landed on Thursday morning and immediately started our first tour. We were met by our guide Oze and driven to the outskirts of the old city to see a park landscaped around the ancient walls of Constantinople constructed in 413-447. These walls were made just in time to turn away Attila the Hun!
Next we went to Chora Church, which is now a museum, known for its incredibly preserved mosaics and gold leaf. The Turks are known for a few things- rugs, spices, ceramic pottery, and especially their beautiful and enduring tile work. This church provides incredible examples of their craftsmanship since the 1320's.
The famous first station on the Orient Express.
After leaving the outer region, we headed into the heart of the city and took the ferry across from the European side of Istanbul to the Asian side. The water there is very clean and the most beautiful blue-green color. There are also incredible views of of the skyline including Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, and Topkapi Palace.
Istanbul is very hilly, on both the European and Asian sides, and we walked up some of the side streets to see the markets. Turkey is one of seven completely sustainable countries in the world. They grow all of their food locally and catch most of their fish near by.
Oze took us to his friend's restaurant Ciya. If you are ever in Istanbul you HAVE to go to this place. It was one of the best meals I have ever had. In fact, all of the food we've had here was been amazing! At lunch we had many typical Turkish dishes, shaved beef and rice with lots of vegetables including my favorite, eggplant. Their stuffed grape leaves were the best ever and they made a white lentil soup with peppers and lemon that was so light and fresh. Their pita bread is light and soft, more like Indian naan. We had stuffed peppers with sausage, lamb chops, and a blackberry type fruit juice. Everything was very flavorful with lots of spices, not spicy hot, just bold and well seasoned. We also had tea flavored with thyme and Turkish coffee, believe it or not I liked the coffee! The deserts were probably the most exotic thing about the meal. It was candied tomato, eggplant, olives, figs, walnuts, and pumpkin with cream. They tasted nothing like they do traditionally and were marinated in a sweet syrup that is kinda like honey. The meal was truly delicious!
Melanie: "Wow, I had lunch in Asia today!"
Next we went back to the European side and headed to the Spice Market and Grand Bazaar. On our way we stopped at a beautiful traditional Turkish rug store where we were able to meet the owner, an extremely nice man, and see his carpets and how they were made. We even got to help!
This woman was so lovely and extremely talented. Her family has been making these rugs since ancient times! She has a photographic memory and completes the design from memory! She ties the knots with incredible speed and complete accuracy, it is amazing to watch.
The Spice Market, which surprisingly didn't smell particularly strong.
Read the sign...
The Grand Bazaar
The Grand Bazaar is HUGE! We were told there are over 11,000 streets inside it and honestly that seems about right, you could get lost for days in there! There are all different kinds of shops selling all different things of all different value- food, leather, clothes, jewelry, lamps, rugs, purses, antiques, etc. We were surprised by how nice some of the shops were. I think i was imagining something outdoors where everything was very cheap, when in fact it is enclosed and there are glass front shops that sell real gold and jewels at very expensive prices.
We walked from the Bazaar to our hotel... Which was underwhelming with nonexistent AC and beds like rocks! The only rude and unhelpful people we met in Istanbul were two men from our front desk. In our bathroom you felt like you were doing the hurdles at a track meet when getting in and out of the shower. I am seriously hoping our accommodations improve in Greece.
However, it was redeemed with this rooftop view
Still full from lunch and exhausted after all our travels, we went straight to bed.
Our second day began with another tour, this time of the most famous and recognizable sites in Istanbul. Conveniently our hotel was located in the same neighborhood as these sites, called Sultanahmet. Our first stop was the Blue Mosque. It was important to cover up your arms and legs when entering a mosque as well as taking off your shoes. The chandeliers hung very low, only a few feet above our heads, and the ground was carpeted.
Next, and across the street, is Hagia Sophia
Hagia Sophia was built as a Greek Orthodox church but was later converted into a mosque during the Ottoman Empire. Now it is a museum and the white wash put up by the Muslims has been removed to show it's original Christian mosaics and paintings.
360 degree turns for good luck
After lunch we went to the Topkapi Palace where the Turkish sultans lived.
View from the palace
A pretty house on the way to see how they make pottery.
That night for dinner, we went to a fish restaurant our tour guide recommended. Again the food was delicious and we tried some Turkish white wine that was pretty good.
We had some special visitors.
Our last day in Istanbul we were on our own. We felt fairly comfortable in the city and decided it would be fun to explore on our own. One of Istanbul's big attractions is taking a boat tour along the Bosphorus straights. This straight divides Europe and Asia and flows between the Sea of Marmor to the west and the Black Sea to the east. After finding a quaint spot to have lunch we hopped on a ferry to see the buildings, mosques, and historical sites from the water.
After our tour we stopped at a charming bakery we had seen earlier for our first taste of Turkish delight.
That night we decided to go to dinner at Nostra Casa, a restaurant our friend from the rug store had suggested. After an interesting cab ride... Turkish drivers are, well, rather bold- unafraid to run over pedestrians or go the wrong way down one-way streets; we arrived at our destination. The restaurant is actually the chefs house. It's a four story building with seating on the roof. This was our view, the second photo is the Blue Mosque.
Ironically, the rug shop owner, Ozden, was there that night and other than him we had the roof to ourselves!
Now I have to describe the chef, Turgay... The best comparison I can come up with is a Turkish 'Captain Jack Sparrow', yes, as in the pirate. He is possibly one of the coolest people I have ever met and an AMAZING chef! He spent 21 years in Milan and creates the most delicious fusion of Italian and Turkish cuisine. He spends four months a year in Thailand, speaks at least 5 languages, and has the most gorgeous blue eyes.
Melanie and I spent the night enjoying his food and their company. We all talked for hours discussing travel, culture, history, and hearing stories of the incredible lives they have led. The night was perfection when there was an impromptu firework display behind the Blue Mosque. It was surely a night we will not soon forget!
Istanbul is an incredible city and our time there was unforgettable. Overall the people are friendly and helpful, they have great food, the views and sites are like no other, it was clean and didn't smell at all, they are proud and patriotic people and their culture and history are rich. We were also very lucky because we had great weather. I am very interested in going back some day and also seeing other parts of this beautiful and unique country.
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