We spent two weeks in Istanbul, being tourists, relaxing, preparing our bikes for the next stage of our journey, obtaining visas and eating; we did a lot of eating. Rather than a blow-by-blow account of our time here, I thought I’d just mention some of our highlights and lowlights of our Istanbul experience.
Our number one favourite thing to do in Istanbul (which we did almost daily) was taking a ferry across the Bosphorus between Europe and Asia. The service is superb, with boats coming and going constantly and taking just 20 minutes to traverse the busy channel, dodging huge container ships as they line up like aircraft coming into land to make the journey between the Sea of Marmara and the Black Sea. The best thing about this was the çay man who walked up and down the upper decks balancing a tray laden with steaming cups of çay. It was fantastic each morning to take in the view of the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia and Topkapı Palace on the top deck of the ferry with a glass of çay in hand. Having spent the last 7 years commuting on the tube in London I can safely say that this is a far superior way to travel on a daily basis.
Büyük Çamlıca is the highest point in Istanbul. Robert (who we met in Plovdiv) took us up late one afternoon. There is a nice park and an outdoor café at the top where we sat, drinking çay, chatting and watching the sun set over the minarets and high rises spreading as far as the eye can see, the Bosphorus a silvery snake winding its way between the two sides of the city. There are an estimated 14 million people living here and having almost an aerial view really gives some perspective on how jaw-droppingly enormous this city is.
As a leaving present when we left the UK, my school friends gave us vouchers for a Culinary Backstreets food tour of the Karaköy and Kadıköy areas of Istanbul. This was a 6 hour food extravaganza with a fantastic guide and was a great introduction to Turkish food. This has given us a lot more confidence in exploring new food and restaurants that we otherwise might not have. We are now addicted to ayran; a salty yoghurt drink that Turkish people drink by the gallon. Our favourite quick snacks are lahmacun (a thin pizza type base topped with minced lamb and herbs to which you add parsley, lemon, chilli and sumac, roll up and eat with your fingers), kokoreç (lamb’s intestines kebab chopped up into small pieces and fried with some oregano and chilli and stuffed in half a baguette) and tantuni (the Turkish equivalent of tacos). Of course, we mustn’t forget the Turkish coffee, brewed with sugar already added according to your taste, of which you must only drink 90% of the cup unless you want an unpleasant mouthful of coffee grounds to finish. Turkish people love to eat and drink and socialise and this is clear from the multitudes of cafes, çay salons and restaurants packed from morning til night. This was therefore a perfect introduction to a very important part of Turkish culture for us.
Istanbul is hectic. The Sultanahmet area is as full of tourists (and the associated hawkers and hustlers that come with them) as Paris, London or Rome. This was a shock to the system, as we hadn’t really encountered many tourists since we left Budapest. To escape the madness we explored some of the mosques just slightly off the beaten path. The 16th century Rüstem Paşa mosque is located within a maze of market stalls and shops. We did a full circumnavigation of the walls before we noticed a narrow, twisting stone staircase leading up into the courtyard. There were only a handful of other tourists there and we were able to appreciate the incredible Islamic architecture and the intricate blue tiles covering the interior of the domes. The courtyard was a peaceful oasis from which we could look down into the bustling streets below. Süleymaniye mosque is the largest in Istanbul. There were fantastic views out over the Bosphorus from here as well as an interesting exhibition on understanding Islam.
We loved staying in Kadıköy, a lively suburb on the Asian side of Istanbul. First, it gave us a perfect excuse to take the ferry every day. Second, we really enjoyed exploring the markets, which were filled with fresh fish, vegetables, cheese, dried fruit and nuts. Third, it had great nightlife at a fraction of the price of the European side and every evening the “bar streets” are filled with students and young people enjoying themselves; it was hard to resist joining them.
We really weren’t prepared for the hordes of tourists around the main sights of the Hagia Sophia, Topkapı Palace, the Grand Bazaar, and the Blue Mosque. Luckily we could escape back across to Kadıköy when it all became a bit much.
Stray dogs (called street dogs in Turkey) are everywhere. There are an estimated 150,000 street dogs in Istanbul. A positive note is that most of them seem to be tagged, meaning they have been neutered and vaccinated against rabies. Interestingly, Turkish people in general are not bothered by them and even quite like having the dogs around. As cyclists, we are not big fans.
The impact of the war in Syria is highly noticeable in Istanbul where there are thought to be around 330,000 Syrian refugees. From my limited understanding of the situation, Turkey has been very welcoming to the refugees but there doesn’t seem to have been enough planning regarding what to do with them all. There was a Syrian family begging on the street close to where we were staying, a mother, father and two children. The parents’ eyes were downcast and they did not look up when I placed a few coins in front of them. I can’t imagine how helpless they must feel, unable to speak the language or work, their children sitting on the street day and night.
We both loved Istanbul…
… and thoroughly enjoyed our time here; my first and Steven’s third visit. Our recommendations for others wanting to visit are as follows:
1. Stay outside of the Sultanahmet area so that you experience something other than the tourist mayhem,
2. Eat at small local places and kebab shops; the food is delicious and far cheaper than a “proper” restaurant, and you’ll almost always get a çay for free at the end,
3. Take all types of public transport – ferries, dolmuş, trams, buses; it’s super cheap, efficient and essential for negotiating this massive city,
4. See the big sights BUT try to avoid days when there are multiple cruise ships in town.
By the end of our two weeks we were becoming lazy and far too comfortable for our own good. We felt like we had put off tackling the daunting Turkish hills for long enough; it was time to move on.