Thursday, February 16, 2012

Istanbul - a real Turkish Delight

Honestly Turkey was never at a high place on my traveling wish list, but when the opportunity came to visit Istanbul for a few days I went with it. With every place one is going to visit for the first time come the stereotypes - the suggestions from friends and family who visited the country before. Take the advise and trash their fears! People seem to have an obsession with making people Fear a place and then say "but overall it's nice and interesting". Thank you I say with my new list of "what can go wrong" items. The taxi driver will con you or fiddle with the meter, the people are not nice and unfriendly, the hotels are small and filthy etc etc.

Well on arrival at Istanbul's international airport we were greeted with quite an organised and very clear arrivals lounge. Got through passport control (which I suggest you have the Visa organised before arrival in Istanbul so that you don't waste time waiting to have the documents done there) and got our luggage and out. Changing money was simple as 1,2,3 whilst getting a taxi was even quicker and in less than 30 minutes we were at our hotel - ( maybe we were lucky we had no problems with the driver trying to get more money on the fare)

After check-in and a Friendly chat with the receptionist who after offering the usual tourist packaged tours, he also helped us on our exact location on the map and other ways how to get about using the metro. (again maybe we found an angel here - a helpful Turk! Not like what we read or heard !)

Immediately we set to explore in my opinion the best way is the simplest way - on foot! Getting oriented was not difficult at all and we easily found our way to central areas like the grand bazaar and after quite some hours going around we opted to venture further out towards the New mosque area and the site of the spice bazaar.

Now here is one simple observation. These places attract tourists, so it's obvious that they become full of touts and some 'pushy' salesmen, so when you go into one of these so called 'tourist traps' don't complain, you knew about it!!!

If, like us, you like the genuine local shops, get away from the tourist track and venture in local market areas. Simple way of knowing you are in the right place? Few people speak good English and they might be also a bit weary about you entering their shops. Overall it was a really nice experience and met lots of people just in the first hours of being their which really gave us a good impression of the country.

Dining is simply great and no Turkish food is not just Kebab - there's a lot more to it - but I must say having a taste for lamb helps as its quite a staple meat round here and they prepare it in most amazing ways!
During our stay we dined in several different places from a simple kebab corner shop to an amazing ottoman style restaurant, with decorated domed ceilings and a great view of the spice bazaar. All were amazing except for a small incident in which the lamb on my "Turkish pizza" (which is basically bread with lamb and sauce on it) was not cooked well so I refrained to eat. This happened after being in an area with not much of a dining choice on the first eve and after the restaurant we headed to look for in heavy rain was no where to be found although highly hailed on "lonely planet" and easily found within a mosque complex.

The mornings commence (quite early at 5am) with the morning prayers and then again at 6am, so for non- Muslims this might be a bit strange or even annoying since in Istanbul a mosque is always close at hand. I am not Muslim, but this didn't bother me at all - more so it made me think of it as something really nice ( kind of soothing).

Sight seeing is quite boring for me, but still essential, so a visit to the usual tourist destinations are a must. Hagia Sofia, the blue mosque - which is simply a spectacular monument, which in my opinion tourist need to treat with more respect than just removing their shoes before entering- the Bosporus, grand and spice bazaar etc. Also it's great to visit other places, such as other mosques in which less tourists tend to venture, respect the customs and the place and sit at the back and absorb the atmosphere - guess that was one great peaceful experience for both of us!

Other must do's in Turkey are the Hamam - the traditional Turkish baths. We chose to go to one of istanbul's oldest at Cemberlitas and although it not exactly cheap for the traditional bath (€30 per person), the service was great, the place was really clean and the experience was unique. Entering the hot marble room is a bit intimidating at first, but they let you relax and build a sweat before one of the bath hands/ masseurs calls you for the process to commence with a straight forward "you come!". After your bath, simply relax with a glass of chay (tea) and forget your worries for those few minutes that seem a lifetime.

Also trying out the Nargile lounges is a cool and relaxed idea. Tucked away in a small alley way off the main road to Cemberlitas, one can find a whole bunch of these water-pipe cafes. It's a great way of meeting locals and fellow travellers and make new friends even though you might never see them again in you life, it's a great way to share experiences or practise a language over an apple flavoured pipe and sublime Turkish tea. 

The weather at this time of year was quite chilly and actually we had one day of snow, which for us Maltese was great, although after the first half hour of easy walking in the snow the cold started to kick in and so had to seek refuge but all in all it was great as the sun always smiled down for some occasional moments and the interiors of every shop or restaurant are well heated so don't worry about the weather!

I can say I did love Istanbul and it is a place worth visiting indeed, with a lot of history, culture and friendly smiles.  I think this was another experience which gets me more and more drawn to the East, which I feel has so much to offer to all the five sense and maybe even the 6th sense.