Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Turkey - First day in Istanbul

I have just returned from a three week trip around the western half of Turkey.  It was a phenomenal, eye opening trip and I loved every moment of it.  I have been procrastinating about starting my "Turkey" series on this blog because I have had no idea how to tackle the rich, extensive and ancient history of this amazing country.  In the end I have decided not to tackle it, far greater people than me have done that, so I have decided  just to recount my trip and some of the things I learnt along the way.

Istanbul from the sea

I knew comparatively little about Turkey before this trip.  I had read "Birds Without Wings" by Louis
de Bernieres, useful reading for anyone planning a trip there, and had touched on Turkey in my school day lessons of ancient history and the classics but essentially I was a Turkey novice and this fact made the trip an exciting voyage of discovery for me. It has also inspired me to read and learn more about the  history of this fascinating land.

Our first group photo. In the Basilica Cistern, Istanbul

I was travelling with a group of nine, including our tour leader, on a tour organised by Grassroots, an Auckland based tour company which creates tours for active people, people who enjoy a bit of hiking and kayaking etc. We were a great group of New Zealanders, all women purely by coincidence, and several of us knew each other before the trip.  Something I will always remember about this trip, apart from the amazing places we visited and things learnt, will be the easy camaraderie and the fun and laughter we shared.

  I met up with the group in Istanbul, on the first day of the tour, having spent a week in London with my son and his family. My first impression en route from the airport was of a big, modern city and  then, as my taxi wound its way through the colourful, narrow, cobbled streets of Sultanhamet to our hotel, I was utterly charmed and captivated.  I knew I was going to love this place.

Kumkapi Fish Market

 Sultanhamet is the heart of old Istanbul and the perfect place to stay.  It is an easy walk to the major attractions; The Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, the Basilica Cistern and the Grand Bazaar.  It is also a short walk to the waterfront for a cruise on the Bosphorous or to visit the spice market.  Trams pass close by making other destinations in Istanbul accessible too.  Our hotel was the family run Zynep Sultan, clean, friendly and comfortable on a quiet side street - in a perfect location.  Istanbul is a massive city.  With a population of nearly 14 million it covers a huge area so it pays to find accommodation near the places you want to see.


Dinner on our first night was at the Kumkapi Fish Market, an area of pedestrianized streets lined with restaurants and strung with colourful lights.    We dined on delicious mezze and fish dishes, while being entertained  by  several groups of roaming musicians and the enthusiastic diners who got up to dance with them. It was boisterous, lively and joyous. Our raised table gave us a perfect view of the crowds of strollers passing by. It was a fantastic introduction to Turkey.

The next morning we had breakfast, in pleasant balmy weather, on the hotel terrace, right beside an ancient mosque and with a stunning view of Hagia Sophia nearby.   We had a big day of sightseeing ahead of us and were excited and raring to go.

Breakfast on the hotel terrace

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