Monday, 24 February 2014

Istanbul In Winters

Its one of the most awe inspiring cities of the world. It is a concoction of the old & the new, the east & the west, Europe & Asia. Why I loved it more because it was winters and  in addition to the lovely whether, there were less tourists, shorter ques and hotel rates were reasonable.

 In my opinion the character of this transcontinental city is more  European than Asian. 



The Bosphorus 

This river is probably the first thing you see in Istanbul. Well,  technically yes. When you look down from the aircraft, Bosphorus is the first to catch your eye with many boats and ships in it. This strait also divides 2 very prominent football clubs, also very fierce rivals - Galagatasaray & Fenerbahce

My husband and I had booked a hotel in the Sultanahmet area - The Senatus. We took a cab from the airport. 

TAXI SVtip: Take only those taxis which are available right outside the airport. When you pay the driver, say the value of the note that you are giving him, so that he doesn't claim that you have given a lesser value note. Eg: If you are giving him a 50 lira note, say 50. Taxi drivers in Istanbul seem to have a notorious reputation. Advisable to carry change. keep the address of the hotel handy.

 We wanted to take the metro, but with all the luggage we decided against the idea. 

While in the taxi, we could see the river on the right. It looked like a modern city. Then after travelling for a while we entered an area, with cobbled streets. We passed the beautiful blue mosque and turned into a lane with outdoor cafes & restaurants, souvenir shops, hotels. And after going a little distance, we arrived at our small little hotel 

It took us 40 minutes, 41 liras and some amazing views to reach the hotel. 

                                           The Senatus - Compact. Modern. Comfortable

 We were given a room on the 4th floor. The room had everything - a queen size bed, fridge, desk, candles, bath robes, a shower cabinet, a locker. Quite amazing how so many things were put in such a tiny room. There was also a spa in the hotel, which I never actually visited. the breakfast was ordinary, but sufficient.

Frankly the only thing missing in the room was a good view. All that we could see when we opened our window was somebody's balcony. And a few times I saw a lady in the balcony, once hanging her clothes to dry. I wouldn't  have actually minded the view of our charming alley.

I had read so many good things about the staff, but I wasn't so impressed. They weren't bad, but they were definitely not the most friendly.

Anyways, the best part about the hotel was its location. Just a few steps away from the Sultanahmet square. 

                                                 Sultanahmet Square - The centre of culture & heritage


                                            Beautiful Weather. An Amazing Atmosphere...

  Blue mosque on one side, Hagia Sophia on the other. There were a few souvenir shops and small stalls selling food and ice cream. There were tourists all around. Not so  many that we couldn't find a place to sit on one of the benches. We sat there for quite a while not just to soak in the sun but also to enjoy the amazing view and the atmosphere. To break our trance, there were these Bosphorus cruise sales agents all over the square. They insisted we took the cruise and they wouldn't leave unless we told them that we have already done it. 
 Even they had to meet their targets ;).

                                                               THE GRAND BAZAAR - Retail Madness

 The Bazaar was definitely grand. Its one of the largest covered markets in the world with over 3600 shops. Its nice to visit, but I felt that since its meant for tourists, the shopkeepers always quote a very high price.Definitely, there is a lot of scope for bargaining. I remember coming here a few years back in the peak season. There was no place to walk. The shopkeepers were arrogant and quoted exorbitant prices. This time (low season) was definitely better.

We bought a few coasters and an evil eye souvenir from The Grand Bazaar.

                                                                                   THE GALATA BRIDGE

Not the most clean and beautiful, but definitely worth visiting.

 After our trip to the Grand Bazaar, we walked towards the Bosphorus and then finally reached the Galata bridge. There was lot of crowd. We could see a lot of men with their fishing rods on top of the bridge. There were a number of seafood restaurants just below the bridge. We decided to eat lunch in one of them. Apart from kebabs, seafood is also very popular in Istanbul. We walked towards the restaurants. There was a strong odor of fish. Wasn't very pleasant. This area somehow did not give us the feel of Europe at all. The restaurant managers were standing outside, trying to get as many customers as they can. We chose one restaurant. Enjoyed the view. Had some fish  and then moved back towards Sultanahmet.

                                               Mesale Cafe/restaurant/tea bar - Our favourite hangout

I would say, Masale is the most happening cafe/tea bar in Sultanahmet. 

When we crossed it for the first, it didn't really appeal to me. Looked extremely casual. It was an open cafe. On one end was the open kitchen, where we saw the kebab sticks hanging. In the centre was a stage with some instruments and a mic. The cafe was huge and behind it were shops selling souvenirs and rugs.

We decided to have a snack there in the evening. We called for the menu. This old, thin man, came and handed it over to us. There were kebabs, mezze, teas, coffees, shishas, desserts. We weren't sure whether the kebab platter was sufficient for 2, so we asked him. And he said it was only good for one and if we wanted a platter for two he would make it seperately and he started telling us the cost. He didn't seem friendly initially, but that changed very soon. 

We wanted to try first, so we ordered only one kebab platter. I had heard a lot about turkish green apple tea, so we ordered one.

When the platter came, it definitely was sufficient for both of us, considering it was a snack. It had different kebabs - chicken, lamb, beef, jalapeno pepper, purple cabbage, pickled cabbage, some dip. Kebabs were nice. I didn't really like the apple tea. It was too sour for my taste. I ordered normal turkish chai. Had it and instantly fell in love with it. 

                                                                                     Whirling Dervish

We came  to Mesale again that night. The stage in the middle was occupied. There was live music and soon we experienced something absolutely mesmerizing- The whirling dervish performance. Its a must watch when you come to Istanbul. You have to experience it to believe it. Cloaked in black, the dervish came on stage, removed his cloak, bowed and said a silent prayer, and then slowly he started spinning. with his hands outward and head tilted, his skirt spinning and rising. He was in a state of spiritual trance. This spinning lasted for 8-9 minutes. What amazed us most was that after the performance, he was so well balanced. In fact he just bowed, then bent down, picked up his cloak, wore it and walked away. Simply stunning.

                                                         Taksim Square/Istikal Street

                    Restaurants. cafes. shops. bars. malls - all on one street.
Sultanahmet is usually very empty and dead at nights. There are very few places to party there, so we decided to head towards Istikal street. We took a cab and reached the street in about 15 mins. It is located between Taksim square and the tunnel in the Beyoglu district. It was super crowded. We started walking, trying to get the feel of the place. Somehow, we spotted a lot of cops on the street. Well, it never occurred to us that something serious is actually going on. We were quite curious about the cops, but we were more interested in finding Nevizade - the party lane. We asked one shopkeeper, where this lane was, and he asked us to go straight and then take the second right. after 5 mins of walking we heard a loud bang and then a gunshot, and then we saw hundreds of people running towards us. We looked at each other, turned around and we also started running. There was definitely something seriously wrong.

After a few minutes, every seemed normal again. We stopped and turned back again to where we were headed. This time we stopped again at the same shop to ask what was going on? The man smiled and said that its a game and that we should not worry and just go. Well, it definitely dint feel like a game. Anyways, we walked and we reached nevizade. There were many cafes and restaurants. We decided to walk till the end and then decide where to sit. Before we reached the end, we saw a group of people with red cloth over their face, walking in our direction. They were shouting some slogans, which for obvious reasons we didnot understand. It wasn't a very comfortable situation.I wanted to go back. We heard another gun shot. We walked fast, moved out of the lane , took the first cab we saw and escaped to Sultanahmet. What a relief!!

It was only when we reached our hotel, later in the night, we found that what we witnessed was an anti government protest. It was clash between protesters and police over a new internet law.


                                                                  The Sultan Pub - The Pub with a view

After the Istikal street debacle, we wanted to go somewhere nice. somewhere peaceful. I had read good reviews of the Sultan pub, and I knew where it was, so we decided to spend the rest of the evening there. The manager welcomed us and we asked him if there was a table available on the terrace. He gladly sent us 3 floors up. There was indoor and outdoor seating both. It was freezing outside, but we still wanted to sit there. There were hardly any people. We went outside. The view was breathtaking. On one side was the Hagia Sophia and on the other was the blue mosque. Both lit up. I should admit the blue mosque is much grander than the Hagia Sophia. And somehow you can always spot seagulls circling on top of the blue mosque. Never saw them near Hagia Sophia. Wonder why.

                                                                                The Basilica Cistern

Also known as the Sunken Palace, this enormous structure covered the water needs of the imperial palace and other residents of that area  in the Byzantine period. When I entered the cistern, it reminded me of the Inferno (book by Dan Brown).  It looked so magical with the dim lighting and pillars which seemed countless. We walked deeper into the cistern, and then we spotted the Medusa heads. They are placed in different positions. There is a myth behind it. Medusa looked herself in the mirror and converted herself into stone. The sculptor who made these heads placed them in different positions.


                                                                               KARAFIRINOtur bi׳ cay içelim 


Located at the beginning of our hotel lane. This cute little cafe cum bakery added charisma to it. So modern. A place to have something sweet or just a cup of coffee or tea. Loved it.


 A small and a very charming neighborhood in the Beşiktaş district.
To reach Ortoköy, we took the tram from Sultanahmet. Got down at Kabataş, which is the last station. 

TRAM SVtip: Keep coins handy. There are coupon machines on every tram station. You can travel to any station in 3 liras. 5, 10 & 20 lira notes can also be put in the machine, but sometimes, the machine just does not accept the notes, so its better to carry coins.

From Kabataş, you can either take a taxi or the bus to reach Ortaköy. We decided to walk. 
We crossed Dolmabahçe mosque, Dolmabahçe palace, the four seasons hotel. After walking for almost an hour, we reached Ortoköy mosque. It is located on the waterside of the Ortaköy pier square. There were many narrow streets with restaurants, cafes, bars, pubs, stands selling Kumpir. souvenir and jewelry (junk) stands. It gave a feel of a flea market. Maybe it was one.  We had lunch in one of the cafes and then sipped turkish tea in one. I also bought a bracelet for myself from one of the jewelry stands. 

We took a taxi back to Kabataş & then took the tram back to Sultanahmet.

Below is the description of our walk from Kabataş to Ortaköy  in pictures. 

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