Book II - Turkey
Saturday, June 22
With our reunification with Asmir and Miriam and with Daniel's birthday party complete, it was time for the next, perhaps most exotic, phase of our trip - a 4-day, 3-night visit to the crossroads of east and west: Istanbul, Turkey!
Miriam's deal-hunting had netted us a very well-priced package that included airfare and accommodation. We would be staying at a fairly upscale hotel in the heart of downtown "Old Istanbul", only blocks away from some of the city's biggest landmarks.
Breakfast in Germany
The package deal involved us flying a regional Turkish low-cost carrier from Stuttgart to Istanbul. Stuttgart, being one of Germany's southern industrial cities, worked well for us: it was only a one-hour drive away from Miriam's home town of Niederstotzingen.
After an informal morning breakfast at Miriam's house, we got into our rental cars and made the journey to Stuttgart. By 2pm, we were winging our way eastward, towards new lands.
Hanne's colorful suitcase
The flight was relatively short - just under three hours - and it wasn't long before we were nearing Istanbul. We were flying in over the Sea of Marmara - the inland body of water that is part of the connecting waterway between the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. Its role as a connector was obvious from the plane - there were scores upon scores of large shipping vessels plying the water below.
We descended over one of the Asian suburbs of Istanbul, bound for the smaller of its two international airports. Our first impression of the city was one of thick population. Even though we were almost thirty kilometres from the city center, the density of urbanization was still very high. We began to see the first of many minarets sticking up here and there - something you see rarely in any western city.
Kaynarca Merkez Cami Mosque
Sabiha Gökçen International Airport
We deplaned and soon were ready to continue on (only Hanne had any checked luggage to claim). We stopped at an airport kiosk to get a very reasonably-priced SIM card, then proceeded to wrangle a small discount on an airport shuttle to our hotel.
Our shuttle driver was a genial fellow. He set the tone for what would turn out to be a looser, more care-free type of attitude. He drove with a lane-lazy, boundary-pushing laissez-faire sort of driving style that would have been frowned-upon in more buttoned-up countries. For example, he gassed-up his shuttle bus with us on board, letting the engine idle throughout. He then left us to go inside and stand in line to pay. Again, with the engine still idling. Trusting fellow. Joyride, anyone?
Fast n' Loose Shuttle Bus
Brand-new roadside mosque
The ride to our hotel was interesting in itself. Although much of modern construction is similar the world over, there is still a tinge of individuality between nations. This was no exception here in Turkey: apart from the obvious differences, like the preponderence of mosques, there were slight near-eastern influences on modern buildings like high-rises and such. Maybe there was a faint echo of mesopotamia in the ziggurat-like blockiness of those 30-story high apartment towers.
Luxurious new high-end suburb
We got a much longer look at the eastern suburbs of Istanbul than we would have liked. Apparently, the end of some special holiday or festival had completely choked the main highway into the city with traffic, and we inched along for well over an hour in it. It only let up when we reached the famous Bosphorus bridge - the bridge over the narrow straight of inland sea that separates Asia and Europe. I had never before driven between continents!
Now in downtown Istanbul, our driver speedily but expertly weaved between cars and pedestrians (note to self - pedestrians are expected to move quickly out of the way of an approaching shuttle bus). Everything went by in a bit of a blur (as such things often do when you are being whisked through a huge and strange foreign city after dark), and soon he was idling in front of a tidy tan-colored downtown building, accented with glowing red decorative lighting. The Hotel Amira - our home for the next few days.
For a package/discount deal, this hotel was pretty nice. It had a kind of high-end boutique-hotel sort of feel - not at all a corporate cookie-cutter sort of place. We were greeted at the front desk by a very friendly woman named Sim.
Sim brought us into the hotel's lounge and sat us all down with sweets and drinks of our choice, then proceeded to introduce us to Istanbul. She gave each of us maps with various attractions, and, usefully, restaurant recommendations marked. I'm pretty sure she was hoping that we'd go with some package tours with which the hotel was affiliated, but seemed not at all perturbed when we indicated that we'd probably explore on foot by ourselves. A very nice lady.
Although it was 9:30pm, we were excited to get started on our exploration of Istanbul. We immediately took some of Sim's advice, and chose to go and have dinner at one of the restaurants she had recommended. Continuing with the theme of being professional and helpful, she immediately called ahead to the restaurant and reserved a table for us.
Out we went into the warm night, walking uphill towards our appointed restaurant - the Albura Kathisma Cafe. The streets were reasonably clean and reasonably bustling with people (but not overly so). There were some fantastic glimpses up narrow streets to the night-lit spires of the famous Blue Mosque - one of our sure-to-visit attractions in the coming days.
Heading to restaurant
Along the way, we passed through a small bazaar - a market - called the Arasta Bazaar. This one-street bazaar is immediately adjacent to the Blue Mosque. Many of the shops were closed at this point in the evening, but it was a nice atmospheric intro to one of Turkey's noteable cultural institutions. We would be visiting a lot more bazaar-scape in the days to come.
The restaurant was perhaps only 500 metres away from the hotel, situated on a very historic-looking, well-kept stretch of cobblestoned street. Everywhere were intricately-decorated shops, cafes and restaurants. The decorators 'round here also seem to like shining colored hidden spotlights onto building surfaces.
As for our meal... well, it turned out to be excellent. The restaurant had a wide array of traditional Turkish dishes, and as far as I can tell, all were excellent. I had as my main course a plate of Manti - a type of ravioli in a slightly sour, yoghurt-like sauce, and I thought it was excellent. I had first tried Manti at a Turkish festival in Ottawa a few years ago, and wanted to try another plate in a more official setting.
We got know our waiter - Islam - as we progressed through our meal. He turned out to have a dry, deadpan, slightly sarcastic sense of humor, and playfully bantered with us throughout our meal. When we were done, he ushered us back further into the restaurant, where he turned down a set of musty stairs that led into a huge airy space underneath, with vaulted ceilings and ancient brickwork. An ancient bit of Byazantine history, right underneath the restaurant!
Our friendly waiter - Islam
We thanked Islam for his generous time (and got a nice snapshot with him). I can highly recommend this restaurant. I thought it was reasonably priced, had a nice atmosphere, and I thoroughly enjoyed my food and our great waiter.
Well, satisfied, we headed back to the hotel. As a final activity before heading to bed, we climbed up to the rooftop terrace and took in a bit of Old Istanbul's night scene.