Tuesday, February 3, 2015


Wednesday, November 26th:

In my very first post on my blog, I mentioned 5 places that I was excited about visiting after moving to Europe: Istanbul, Turkey was one of them. Two and a half years later, Nick and I were finally on our way to see Turkey! 
I'd told about a dozen friends that we were going. The majority were slightly concerned with the political climate. We still went without hesitation. A few sites on the top of my list were the Hagia Sofia, Blue Mosque, a cruise on the Bosphorus Strait, and the Grand Bazaar to name a few.

It's been a while since I've flown an airline other than the low cost airlines in Europe. This trip we flew Turkish airlines and it didn't disappoint. (The tickets were cheaper than some low cost air fare!) We had a relatively empty flight, so we were able to spread out. Each seat had individual TV monitors with countless movies and TV shows. I watched Moms' Night Out. (It was terrible.) The best part was we had an in-flight meal for free! Remember when airlines used to have free meals in the States?! Those really were the good ol' days.

It took about 45 minutes to get from the airport to our hotel via a tram and metro. Already, I was very aware that there were a LOT of men in Turkey. Within the first few stops from the airport I was the only woman on our metro car out of 48 people. It was so odd! 

When we switched over to the tram, Nick and I quickly jumped on as the doors were closing. A man immediately stood up and offered me his seat. He was so kind! Any slight fear that I had went flying out the door.

We stayed at Hotel Erboy. It was inexpensive and close to the main attractions. It was just a block from a tram station, and easy to find. 

Right under the hotel was the Pasazade Restaurant. It is one of the highest ranked restaurants in Istanbul. I had pinned it while trip planning, and hadn't realized it was so close. We ended up eating there the first night. I had the Sultan's special. It was by far my favorite meal I had in Istanbul. It was made of lamb cooked with apricot, apple, and raisins. Yum!

The next day we would hit some of the main sites. We were so excited!

Thursday, November 27th - Thanksgiving:

We awoke at 8am. (a one-hour time difference that felt like a 6 hour time difference) We grabbed a quick breakfast downstairs. I was slightly disappointed because the pictures had shown that the breakfast would be on a rooftop terrace with a beautiful view. Since it was winter, and cold, they offered breakfast in the basement. :( The breakfast was also not much to write home about. I usually go for yogurt and muesli. The muesli tasted old and dry. Oh well! 

We arrived at Hagia Sofia by 9:15am. There were only a few people in line in front of us. I had my Rick Steves guidebook cocked and ready. The tour took us a side route instead of through the front doors. 

Hagia Sofia

Before prayer, muslims wash their hands, feet and face here; it's called ablution. 

Hagia Sofia cat 

I kept pointing out all of the cats we had seen. Nick scoffed every time. When he saw this cat he couldn't resist petting her. I had to laugh. After rolling his eyes at every cat I would point out, he was the first to actually pet one. :):)

We made it to the entrance! The hooks at the top of the door used to hold leather curtains.

These lamps used to be filled with oil to light the church.

The Hagia Sofia was built as a Christian church during the Byzantine Empire. When the Ottoman's overthrew the Byzantines, it became a mosque almost immediately. The apse is facing Jerusalem, but the mihrab (Muslim apse) faces Mecca. It's just slightly off center. 

Although they were renovating the Hagia Sofia, we were still able to walk to most places. This was St. Gregory's Column. If your hand felt wet after touching it you would be cured of eye diseases or infertility. If that didn't work, then you keep your hand in place while turning 360 degrees. You can see it's been used by thousands of people over the years. We thought it looked like a fun game, so we both decided to try. Good thing I brought hand wipes with me. :)

Next we walked up the ramp to the second floor. The sultan used to ride up on horseback to the second floor. (!) Who rides horseback in a church?!

...Trying to hide the scaffolding in the background. :)

There was graffiti on the walls from centuries ago. You can see arrows and sailboats. Likely the slaves that stood on the second floor were dreaming of other places.

Pictures just don't do this church justice. It is massive. You can fit the Statue of Liberty inside!

There was a pretty good crowd that Thursday morning. We heard several tours walk by us; they were mostly in French and Japanese.

We spent at least an hour in the Hagia Sofia. I loved it more than I expected.

Next, Nick and I took a few quick pics of the Blue Mosque from the Hagia Sofia, and then headed over to the Underground Cistern.

This was one of my favorite places we visited. It can hold 27 million gallons of water. It covers the span of 2 football fields. 

Now it holds about a foot of rainwater, and large fish.

This was a quiet, peaceful escape from the hustle and bustle on the main street. There was soothing music playing as you walked on a platform above the water. 

In the farthest corner of the cistern, two medusa heads were propping up pillars. They were placed here during the prosperous Byzantine ere when christians were no longer persecuted by the Romans.  

When we returned to the street, we walked back over to the Blue mosque. I had Nick take a "few" photos for me. :)

Blue Mosque

We reached the Blue mosque right as they were closing for noon prayer. We decided to grab some food nearby until they reopened. 

I had originally pinned the Aloran Cafe on my map. It was ranked #9 on tripadvisor. They were unfortunately closed for lunch, so we went next door to Palatium Cafe # 123 on trip advisor. 
I had meze, which is several warm appetizers. They were delicious! I spilled a few on myself. Oops!

For dessert they brought us turkish delight and turkish coffee. They were so cute and little! The coffee cup is actually inside this tin cover pictured. You have to stir, or agitate, the coffee to keep the grounds from settling at the bottom. I didn't end up drinking the last sip because it was so potent. Nick, however, went for it. What he didn't realize was there was coffee in between the tin and coffee cup inside. When he tipped the cup and tin to get the last sip, hot coffee went pouring down his shirt. Fortunately, we were able to get it out. :) Nick and I were disasters! Spilling food on ourselves left and right!

After lunch, we headed back over to the Blue Mosque. 

Ablution at the Blue mosque. 

I was pretty cold standing outside fully clothed. I couldn't imagine how cold this must have felt to wash your feet, hands and face outside.

I wrapped my hair in my scarf, and we both took off our shoes to enter. You could smell the horrid foot odor from a mile away. It was a mixture of dog scat, cat pee, and really old socks. It was awful. It was not something Nick or I were expecting. 

Nick was over it from the moment we entered. I tried to buy some time by taking photos.

The blue tiles were really beautiful even if it was a bit smelly inside. 

After about 10 minutes we made it back out into the fresh air. Nick was relieved. :)

I must have taken about 100 photos of the Hagia Sofia and Blue Mosque. It's not every day you get to see these beautiful structures.

Blue Mosque

I kept my scarf on my head for a while. It really was SO much warmer!

Hagia Sofia

Before we got on a tram to see the New Town, we ventured over to the Hippodrome next to the Blue Mosque. It was mostly deserted other than a few women selling food to feed the pigeons. They were yelling at each other in Arabic; it was pretty hilarious to watch!

This Egyptian obelisk was built to honor a Pharaoh in 1500 BC. It was 3 times taller at one point. Those Egyptians sure know how to build an obelisk!

We walked over to the Sultanhamet tram stop, and rode to the end of the line. From there were rode a funicular up to Taksim Square to start our New Town walk.

This was the best photo I got of Taksim square. This is Nick saying he needs to find a restroom and quick. :) Haha! 

We were in luck! There was a Starbucks right across the street. It's so nice to see something familiar in a different country. I'm not a huge fan of Starbucks coffee, but I jumped at the opportunity in Istanbul. Little did I know that the restrooms in Starbucks were like a death trap. I couldn't figure out the door-lock system and ended up locking myself in. Not to mention, in Turkey you don't flush the toilet paper, you put it in a waste basket. Eeeeeeew! I was trapped in a stall with used toilet paper! After about 10 minutes of me yelling at the other women in the bathroom, I finally figured out how to open the door. Phew!

We didn't get very far before we stopped at a turkish delight store. They cut fresh slices for us to try. My favorite was the pomegranate. Nick liked the saffron. 

We headed down the wrong street for about 10 blocks. I still can't figure out how that happened...then made our way over to the pedestrian-only Istikal Street. (Independence Street) It was jam packed with people on a Thursday afternoon.

I had watched the Anthony Bourdain show on Istanbul before our trip. He found a delicious kebab place in New Town, so we decided to try it for ourselves. It's called Duremzade. It's a tiny hole-in-the-wall kind of restaurant. We ordered the house special. It was so yummy! (So good that we came back later!)

Cats everywhere!

Next we walked over to Dudu Odalari Sokak; it's a small neighborhood with vendors and restaurants. 

Rick Steves mentions a barber, Zek Erkek Kuaforu, that will do a fire shave. Nick was intrigued. We walked in, and tried to order it, but no one spoke English...Nick got a regular shave. :)

And then he got a mask! Hahaha! He didn't realize that was a part of the shave!

I watched Turkish soap operas while I waited. They are apparently very popular in Turkey and in Greece.

Nick got a great shave even if it wasn't what we were expecting. :)

Next we walked to the Galata Tower before the sunset. This little kitty was perched on the Galata Dervish Monastery.

I saw a photographer asking this gentleman if he could take his photo. I snapped a photo of him too as I walked by. He looked like a happy guy!

Galata Tower; we found it! 

While we waited in line for 5 minutes, I snapped a few photos around me.

This picture is somewhat deceiving. We actually took an elevator up most of the way, and then climbed a few staircases to the grand view.

Boy, did we get a view! Talk about perfect timing! Everyone was clamoring for the best spot to get pictures on a very narrow balcony. Yikes! 

It's hard to tell, but the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofia are in this photo.

Beautiful sunset on our first full day in Istanbul!

After our ride back down, we stopped in a few shops. We were told that it was wise to buy a robe and bath scrubber for the Hammams in Turkey. We were planning on visiting one on our last day. We didn't end up buying one, but we definitely enjoyed looking.
This cat got a bit of attention from tourists. He was taking a "bath" while his owner was making a scarf behind him.

We crossed the Galata Bridge to make it back to Old Town.

Istanbul is just as pretty at night as it is during the day.

This sweet man was so nice to stop for a photo. He was so excited! He was literally asking me to take his photo. I thought maybe he wanted money, but he was just really excited that someone wanted to take his photo! 

We went under the bridge to the restaurant row of the Galata Bridge. (You can see the fishing poles from the fisherman above.) We walked along restaurant row for about 10 minutes and were stopped by every waiter at every restaurant. Ugh! We decided not to go that way again.

We came across the famous rocking boats. They sell fresh mackerel on a bun. They were hopping when we walked by! 

We rode the tram back to our hotel for a little break before our dinner at the Cafe Aloran. 

We had a beautiful view on our walk to dinner. 

Happy tourists!

The moon was so bright that night! We really lucked out with weather. November is known as a pretty rainy month in Turkey, but it only rained on us once during our trip.

For our Thanksgiving feast at Aloran cafe, we ordered some yummy lamb dishes. (They didn't offer turkey.) 
There was only one other couple in the restaurant; they too were from the States. (We could hear every part of their loud and strange conversation. Sometimes I wish I couldn't understand English.) 

Our food was pretty good. They brought us a large fluffy tortilla-like appetizer. 
While we were eating dessert, the waiter got into an argument with another couple that came in. After they left, he proceeded to tell us why he was right and the customer was wrong. It was very awkward! 
We left feeling confused as to how that restaurant could have been voted #9 of 11,000 restaurants in Istanbul.

We were stopped by a man selling rugs on our way back to our hotel. He spoke perfect American English because he had studied English in San Diego. He was so nice. We got his information if we ever do decide to get a Turkish rug.

It was a jam packed day, but we were ready for round 2!

Friday, November 28th:

At 8:30 a.m, we hopped on a bus to take a day tour of Istanbul. We booked the tour through the Semkron Travel Agency. The tour included a cruise on the Golden Horn and Bosphorus, a cable car ride, a view of the City Walls, a fashion show, lunch, the Dolmabahce Palace, and a ride across the Bosphorus Bridge to the Asian side. It was only 50 Euro for the whole trip per person! 

Our first stop was a cruise on the Bosphorus. We had about 100 other people on our cruise, but the boat was big. 
It was cool outside, but we decided to stay up top and get some good photos.
The mosque pictured above is the Suleyman Mosque.

Looking at the other side of the Golden Horn, you can see the Galata Tower high above the rooftops.

The Turkish flag was blowing in the wind, as we looked back toward Old Town.

We got about a hundred photos of us with Old Town. This was probably the best one. 

First, we rode down the North side of the Bosphorus Strait. We came across the Dolmabahce palace. (We'd be visiting this Palace later in the day.)

Brrr. My face was freezing by this point!

It was so neat riding between two continents. It was the second time this year that I've done that! (I rode from Spain to Morocco last February.)

This is the 19th century Ortakoy Mosque under the Bosphorus Bridge.

Here we were under the Bosphorus Bridge; the first bridge to connect the two continents. It was built in 1973.

Here I am with the Bosphorus Bridge behind me. The Asian side of Istanbul is on the left and the European side is on the right.

Once we reached the Rumeli fortress, we turned around and traveled back on the Asian side.

Behind us in this photo is the Maiden's Tower. It's used as a lighthouse and a restaurant.

There were a lot of mansions on the Asian side that were pretty, but nothing to write home about. 

Old Town

After our 2-hour long boat ride, we hopped back in our buses and headed to the cable cars, after driving through the Pierre Loti neighborhood.

View from the cable cars. You're looking down the Golden Horn. On the left is the New District and on the right is the Old Town.

We all hopped back in the buses and were driven to the City Walls. We didn't get great photos because we took them from inside the buses. 

Next, they dropped us off at Gian Mori for a leather and fur fashion show.

I took a few pics of the jackets that I liked. There weren't too many.

I also took a pic of my favorite model. :) 

We walked through the show room afterward. The jackets were WAY overpriced. 

Some of the girls on our tour were from Malaysia. They all thought I was a model, so they each wanted to take a photo with me. They were so cute and sweet!

We stepped outside as soon as we could to wait for the rest of the group.

Nick spotted a man selling fresh pomegranate juice. He had to have some! By this point, it was almost 2 pm and we hadn't had anything to eat since 8am. We were so hungry! 

Nick loves sour things, but the juice was a little too tart even for him.

We were counting the minutes until we got food...I tried to keep us entertained by playing with some camera settings. Doesn't Nick look pretty?

The stop signs in Turkey don't say, "stop." They say, "DUR." Haha!

After dropping off the tourists that had only paid for the half-day tour, we were taken to lunch. It was pretty good. We were so hungry we would have eaten anything.
We were told about a drink called Lyon's Milk. We thought we would try it. It didn't take long to realize that it was an alcoholic drink. It tasted like licorice. Eew! Possibly the worst drink in the world.

After our rushed lunch, we drove to the Dolmabahce Palace. This little kitty greeted us.

There's always time to do a quick jumping photo!

Our tour was pretty rushed.
 We also weren't allowed to take photos, but I snapped a few anyway. :)

The chandeliers were made almost solely out of crystal! I can't imagine how heavy that must be.
The dance hall, which was the last room we visited, had a chandelier that weighed several tons.

After the tour, we stepped outside for 20 minutes before we had to get back on the buses.

Leaving the garden...

I could definitely live here. :)

The clock tower with the sultan's private mosque next to it.

After about an hour and a half we finally reached the Asian side of Istanbul. It should have taken us about 15 minutes from the Palace, but there are insane amounts of traffic in Istanbul during rush hour.

We stopped to refuel on some coffee. I had to get a photo with these sweet ladies that we had on our tour with us. They were on a girls trip from Malaysia.

We got a few last pics before we headed back to the European side. 

Looking at European Istanbul and the Bosphorus bridge from Asia.

After an hour ride back to our hotel, we were famished. We walked over to Imbat restaurant near our hotel. It was another top ranked restaurant. They had a spectacular view from the top of a hotel. We had a delicious meal once again!

When we returned to our hotel, I took a long shower to warm up. I was very careful not to drink any of the tap water. I have a bad habit of rinsing my mouth out while I'm in the shower. I had to CONSTANTLY remind myself not to open my mouth while I was showering because the water is not safe to drink. It was a hard habit to break, but I did it!

On to day 3!!

Saturday, November 29th:

That morning I inquired about the whirling dervish at the front desk. I had requested seats on a website I'd found before our trip, but hadn't heard back. The concierge informed us of a show just around the corner from our hotel. It was just an hour long show. Nick wasn't thrilled because he'd seen a performance of the whirling dervish in Seattle. He said they just spun in circles for an hour. :) I still wanted to cross it off my bucket list. He caved, and we bought tickets. He made me promise that we would spin our way to the show. Haha! Not a problem!

After buying tickets for that nights performance, we walked over to the Grand Bazaar from our hotel. There were so many people out and about. Many people were heading to work. Turkish people are really hard workers. There are 15 million people living in Istanbul and from what I saw they were all kind, hard working people. 

I pulled out my Rick Steves' book and took Nick on a walking tour. RS mentions a few places in the Bazaar where they actually make some of the goods that they sell. First we visited a silversmith. The door was closed, but we knocked and were let in. The man pictured above is working with a lathe. Nick was so impressed!

The master silversmith is in the back left corner of the picture. His apprentice is standing in the center working. They were so happy to show us their work. 

This was the silversmith area. All the shops around here make and sell the same type of items.

Next, we walked over to the gold shops. This man literally melts down unwanted gold pieces, and makes bars of gold. He was so happy to see that we had the Rick Steves' book. Without speaking a word of English, he demonstrated his skills.

How cute is he?! Nick was so impressed once again!

Last, we walked through the main drag to see the items for sale. We were keeping an eye our for bathrobes and loofas, and a strand of bells for my mom. 

We took a quick break in a courtyard for some hot tea. Even though most Americans have heard of Turkish coffee, most Turks drink tea. Many of the shopkeepers and workers were standing around with tea in their hands like the one pictured above.

I took a quick bathroom break in one of the few restrooms I found. There wasn't much of a wall between the men's and women's stall. I got my first real experience with a Turkish toilet, or hole in the ground. When you're done, there is no running water. They give you a bucket and you get to rinse the hole. Lovely, isn't it? It really made me appreciate Italy and the States.

We took one last look through the market before heading for lunch.

I was really grateful that none of the vendors put a lot of pressure on the tourists. In Turkey, they'll mostly just greet you as you pass by. Morocco was awful in comparison to Turkey.

I couldn't get over these boots. They were wild!

We stepped out of the Bazaar and headed down the street past the University to the Suleyman Mosque. It's one of the larger mosques in Istanbul. 

Our last view of the Bazaar...

I wasn't expecting this crowd. There were more people outside the Bazaar than inside! And there were so many men!

We found the Mosque. By the time we reached it, it was already noon. We weren't allowed to go inside because they were having a service. 

Even though it was grand, it was much more simple than the Blue Mosque.

We took some pictures from the side of the Mosque.

Next, we headed a few blocks over to the Spice Market. Once again, there were huge crowds.

We were getting hungry, so we stopped for a little snack. I ordered some bread and baklava, and Nick ordered a chicken breast pudding called tavuk gogsu. Nick loved it! It sort of had a doughy consistency with the taste of chicken. That was Nick's favorite meal he ate!

We slowly made our way back over to the Spice Market.

We didn't stay too long because there were so many people. 

Spices galore!

People galore!!

Nick and I loved that you could get chunks on honey.

We stepped outside into the square in front of the New Mosque for the Mother of the Sultan. There were pigeons everywhere. You could buy food to feed them.

Nick and I found a man selling Turkish flags. We bought one for Uncle Doug because we know that he collects flags. 

We were both still hungry, so we walked all the way back to New Town to get our delicious kebabs from Durumzade. 
I had to stop and take a few photos of the fishermen on the Galata Bridge. There were hundreds out! They were all trying to catch some dinner on their day off. 

Fishing's hard work. :)

We decided to take a quick ride on the old funicular to cut some time. Our tram was full of people speaking sign-language. This wasn't the first time we had seen "signers" on our trip. There was a large group on our plane as well. There must have been a conference while we were there. (?)

We moved our way through the crowd back to our favorite restaurant. 

(This isn't it, but it looked pretty impressive.)

Ahhh...delicious kebabs. :) These were so dang good. They weren't juicy like most kebabs we've had.

Next we walked back down near the Galata Tower to see if we could find some robes for our bath experience. We found some towels AND loofas! Success! Finally.

We crossed back over the Galata Bridge. It was one of my favorite views.

Nick got pushed by some guys on the bridge as we were walking back. I thought if there was going to be trouble, someone would likely pick on me since I look so different. Nope! They shoved into Nick and moved on. 
I had an older woman gently punch me in the arm as I was walking by the Spice Market. It felt more like a friendly punch than anything. Those were the only two encounters where people seemed pushy or slightly unkind. We never really felt unsafe there.

After freshening up back at our hotel, we whirled our way down the street to the whirling dervish performance. Laughing  alllll the way. :)

It wasn't until I arrived at the venue that I realized this was the same performance I had inquired about in an email before we left for Turkey. Hah! 
We weren't allowed to take photos during the performance, so I snapped a few before the show. I definitely considered trying to take a few during, but other tourists had been caught which slightly deterred me. They don't just call you out, they shine a laser at you so everyone knows you're trying to take a photo. Oops! 
The performance was good. They did just whirl to the left for about 45 minutes. Which, I might say, doesn't look very easy. I don't think I could whirl in a circle for 45 minutes with my hands in the air and my eyes closed. 

After the performance we walked to Fuego restaurant. They were also a top-rated eatery on tripAdviser. We sat outside under heat lamps and enjoyed some people-watching. 

This little kitty decided to join us. She sat right next to Nick for about 10 minutes until our food came. We tried to give her a little piece of bread, but she was too tired to eat.

She curled up next to us. It made me so happy! 

We whirled (or waddled) back to our hotel. We tried contacting a few family members when we got back. Nick kept telling people we were in INstanbul instead of Istanbul. Ha!

I couldn't believe our trip was almost over already! 

Sunday, November 30th

At 9am our last morning we headed over to the Hagia Sofia Hurrem Sultan Hammam. They were the most beautiful baths I've ever seen. The foyer had 3 stories of lockers around the massive room. I was the only woman there, so I was given a locker and told to enter into the main hot room immediately. I sat with my towel wrapped around me near a small fountain, and doused myself with the warm water. A sweet woman came over and grabbed me by the hand. She led me to another room where she scrubbed every ounce of dirt off my body. It was slightly embarrassing seeing the dead skin rolling off me and into the drain. I couldn't point the finger at anyone else, since I was the only one there! Afterward, I layed on a warm, marble stone, while she poured bubbles all over me. At the end, she rinsed the bubbles off and washed my hair. I should have paid her double for attempting to wash my hair. That's a feat in and of itself. She took me by the hand again and walked me out to the lobby where I was given a cinnamon drink with some fresh Turkish delight. What an experience! I would go back to Turkey just to get scrubbed down again by a woman in a towel. Haha!

On our walk back, it was raining. We took a quick stop into the Gulhane Park near the Topkapi Palace. 

It's hard to tell, but it's definitely raining here. 

We snapped a few funny photos, and then walked back to our hotel. Nick didn't bring an umbrella, so he was soaked! 

What an experience! I'd wanted to see Turkey for so long! I was grateful we did! 

I was also grateful to be heading home where I didn't have to worry about what water I drank or where I was going to throw my toilet paper. 

Here are a few things I loved about Turkey: the people, the food, the Christian and Muslim sites all in the same place, some of the most beautiful (and stinky) mosques, crossing over two continents but staying in one country, getting a Turkish bath, seeing the Bazaar and spice market. There were so many amazing things we saw on this trip! I won't forget this trip any time soon!

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