I've seen friends' photos of their trips to Turkey and Jordan and both countries have always been on my wishlist to go. If life circumstances hadn't worked out the way they did (i.e. a cancelled trip to Australia / New Zealand, leaving my job mid-November), neither of those countries would have been on my radar this year. Convincing someone to go was the next task - so I recruited a seasoned travel buddy of mine, Lindsay. It wasn't that hard to twist her arm in going - within a matter of a weekend Skype call, a week's worth of itinerary planning and bookings, we were all set to go.
A quick side note before recapping my city adventures, I want to say a few words about how the media has completely exaggerated what is happening in the Middle East and the impact it is having on tourism. While it wasn't as obvious in Istanbul, the other places I visited (Petra, Cappadocia, Bodrum - which will be covered in future blogs), the effects of a hyped up media frenzy were pretty obvious. Tourism is suffering, all because of the perceived threat of ISIS. Folks, if terrorists are going to strike, you can't really stop them or stop living your lives. I'm not saying go book a plane and go into a war zone, but all of these places are not in harms way. I had a friend of mine who said that their annual conference in Istanbul was going to be rescheduled - and that's a shame. It's really disruptions like that play right into the terrorist's hands. <End rant.>
As an executive summary (sorry, the business world hasn't escaped me yet), Istanbul can be summed up into the four Cs (again, old business school habits):
Calling all cat ladies and gentlemen (eyeing particular friends on Facebook), if there was a city that's more cat friendly, I'd find it hard to believe. Cats here rule the streets - they are without fear and the nice ones just jump into your lap, as my friend Lindsay quickly found out on her first night as she was hanging out outside our Airbnb.
I think the funniest story with cats in this city has to be from our second day. After many kilometres of walking and sight seeing, we decided that life was hard enough for us that we needed to chug a few litres of Turkish wine (which by the way is fantastic and is discussed further on in this blog.) Having found a small café, whose waiters clearly recognised our alcoholic needs, we enjoyed a nice meal of Turkish cuisine and watched the world go by. A Spanish couple seated two tables from us, clearly exhausted from a full day of shopping, were completely oblivious to the fact that for some reason, the bags on one of their chairs seemed to be moving at a rhythmic pace and the sounds of cat moans were drowning out the daily calls to prayer. Both the copious amount of wine and the comical situation led to Lindsay and I practically doubling over and peeing ourselves, along with most of the staff. It culminated with a "wine spewing from your nose" funny moment at the end where the Spanish lady finally caught onto what was happening (about 10 minutes too late) and turned to the wait staff and said in broken English, "oh no, I don't like." Hey lady, cats have their needs too.
I think my friend definitely had the time of her life in Istanbul and the cats just added the cherry on top of the travel sundae. Lindsay was the definition of the Peter Piper of cats - during a walk home, I swear to God, there was a marching band of cats behind her. It was as if she was their Goddess heading the parade of followers.
But seriously - I can see why pet population control was such an initiative in North America. It breaks your heart to see a cat on the streets uncared for and worse, unloved. Spey and neuter your pets.
I know mosques are a place of worship, but what I found out during this trip was that they are in fact places of art and design. I knew that coming to Istanbul, I had two sites I definitely had to see - the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia. Good news to all you lazy travellers out there, they are literally right across from each other - so bonus for not having to go all that far to check off two of the world's most beautiful monuments off your list of to dos.
The Hagia Sophia is a short stroll away. Albeit a ticketed venue, the entry fee is worth every lira. As Istanbul has been a city that has changed hands several times from one religion to another, the Hagia Sophia is a standing monument to that, a trophy if you will to who's religion currently dominates the city. If you look close enough, there are old frescos dating back to when the Holy Roman Empire controlled the city that have been somewhat restored after someone from the Ottoman Empire was too keen to erase all signs that Christianity once ruled the city on the Bosphorus.
Set aside about two hours to do both venues properly. They are doing a massive renovation on the Hagia Sophia right now, which made my inner photographer / instagrammer a bit peeved, but you can still capture the beauty of the interiors nonetheless.
Much is made about the Grand Bazaar in the old city. I'll be honest, I wasn't a fan of this sprawling complex of tiny shops and boutiques. The famous SE Asian saying of "Same Same but Different" applies so well to this landmark. Unless you're desperate to find trinkets to buy for your friends and family at home to show off your Turkey trip, this place is a good 30 minute stroll for a few photos. The Spice Market was much more impressive. You see daily life happening - locals bartering for freshly caught fish from the Bosphorus and conical pyramids of spices arranged in a dazzling spectrum of gold, orange and red hues.
As mentioned above, Turkey is the perfect destination for wine lovers. I had no idea of the amazing quality of Turkish wines until several bottles later, the taste testing turned more into drunken professions of love for the regional vineyards. Out of all of the ones Lindsay and I tried, this one (Kavaklidere Angora White Wine) was my favourite. A bit gutted they didn't have it at duty free, but my sadness turned into pure delight knowing I can order it from Tesco here at home.
Finally, one cannot leave Istanbul without capturing its amazing street art. In contrast with Amman, where graffiti was just writing on the wall, Istanbul has embraced its local talented street artists and allowed its walls to be decorated into murals of humourous commentary. No wonder Istanbul has made it on several top lists for places to appreciate street art.
When reading up about Turkish baths, I was a bit weary and skeptical. Not that I have any issues with my body (thankfully, once you hit your thirties, you can't give two craps about who sees you naked), but the idea of someone bathing and scrubbing you down seems all a bit...medieval. Bathing is such a personal thing, so when it was suggested that I try a hamami, I got the juvenile giggles. My friend Sandy, recommended an amazing bath called the Kiliç Ali Pasa and told me that we needed to enjoy this place to its fullest. My friend Sandy is rarely wrong with her travel recommendations, so we booked as a #TreatYoself moment at the end of our two week trip.
One thing to note - if you're traveling as a guy/girl, this hamami does single sex sessions only during the day. Women are first from 10 to 4, men start in the evenings from 430 onwards. As conservative as that sounds, it really does make the experience better that you're not worrying about the opposite sex seeing you in your birthday suit.
Your hour session starts with the staff providing you with a cold juice made from dates (mmm...fibre) and showing you to the change rooms in which you're asked to strip down with only a wrap to hid your goodies. Women, from what I was told, go topless and can wear underwear or bathing bottoms to hid the downstairs, where as men are asked to go naked - there was a blush of embarrassment as I had to clarify the point having come prepared with my bathing shorts on.
You're led into the first chamber where you sit beside a marble basin. An attendant asks you to dip your hand into the bowl to see if you're good with the temperature, and the minute you say yes, you are baptised with several douses of water from head to toe. As refreshing as it was, you're caught off guard with the intensity of the splashing. You're then led to a heated marble slab as you recover from breathing in a bit of water during that first cleanse.
After lying down for about 20 minutes on the marble slab, you kind of get a bit stir crazy. As someone who can't keep still for more than 2 minutes, my constant rotation from back to front must have annoyed my neighbours. You're also constantly getting drips of warm water on you from the condensation off the ceilings of the hamami - it kind of reminded me of Hong Kong where you are constantly ducking from air conditioning drippings.
You're tapped on the leg by an attendant. He is also in a wrap and sporting the most fashionable, but functional non-slip Crocs you'll ever see. Mine was Onur (apologies if I've butchered your name Onur...) and he was a lean, mean scrubbing machine. Face, back, arms, legs...it felt super weird at first to have someone that close to you and cleaning you. At one point, he showed me the exfoliator and I dry heaved at all the dead skin he removed just from my back. Other than that, the entire process proved to be relaxing, if not, healing in a way. After two weeks of dirt and sweat from all of our adventures, this was proving to be such a great idea after all.
The best part of the cleanse is the soaping. They take what is like a pillow case, dip it in olive soap water, let some air in, twist it up into a big sack of suds and squeeze it all over you multiple times. It was as if you were in some giant bubble bath.
The effects of the bath were instant. I felt more relaxed than I've ever felt - no drug inducements with this level of tranquility. You're led to a cool down area and wrapped up as if you were planning to be discovered as a mummy in three millenia's time. There's no rushing, you take things at your own pace, and the staff is very courteous and attentive. Hands down the best 150 Turkish Lira spent.
I think one of the best parts of traveling is the fact that you can stuff your face and drink jugs of wine and know that the amount of walking will help counteract any weight gain. Istanbul steps it up a notch by adding in the incline. This city loves its hills, stairs and man, my ass thanks Istanbul for the workout.
One place you have to check out is the rainbow staircase, and there's quite an inspiring story behind it as well covered by the Huffington Post. It wasn't a statement for activism, it was just a man who simply wanted to make people smile. I don't remember the exact location, but if you take a wander or the tram up the Meclis-i Mebusan Cd., you'll see them standing out quite clearly.
Having spent a total of 6 days and 5 nights in this beautiful city, I've added it to my short list of cities that I will visit time and time again. Hell, if Turkish wasn't such a difficult language to learn, I'd move to the city if I could.
To say I haven't captured everything is an understatement. I could write chapters about Istanbul if I could and I might, as there are a few short story ideas brewing. As I have a few weeks of funemployment ahead, I'll be capturing my trip to Jordan and the ancient city of Petra, the hot air balloons of Cappadocia and the coastal beauty of Bodrum in later blogs.
Ciao for now. #TJTravels