I’m in Istanbul! One year after my Japanese oddysey I’m once again out and about, so I’m coming back to the blog to make sure you don’t miss a thing!
The flight from Orly to Ataturk airport, which takes three hours, went without a hitch. Things got interesting once in Turkey. When I landed I was directed to a little visa shop, where you literally just fork over 15€ to get a visa, and then I made it to Passport Control… where I found a massive queue between my passport and the border guards charged with letting me into the country. Hundreds of people, Disneyland style. As soon as I took my position the cultural differences became apparent, as queuing seemed to be largely optional -groups of ladies in their hijabs and niqabs would just merrily elbow their way straight ahead, regardless of how many people they had to trample to get to the front of the queue. It was like one of those awful nature documentaries, where these ladies were the lions and the French tourists from my flight and I were the terrified zebras. I can almost hear David Attenborough narrating.
It was then that a huge -tall, fat- man went into the queue like a freight train and began making his way towards me. I feared for my safety, but he just pushed me aside to keep moving on. I saw in this an opportunity, though, so I stuck to him like a lawyer driving behind a speeding ambulance. He carved a path along the queue and I just discretely followed behind. Every once in a while even he would have to stop, he’d glance behind him, and I instinctively took a step away from his field of vision. Even then it was still a solid 30 min queue!
When I finally got to the border check, this was the full, unedited exchange:
Officer: (checking my passport) “Soooooo… Martin Torres?”
Once officially allowed into the country, the hotel shuttle service took me to Sultanahmet. On this trip I learned that in the roads of Istanbul things like lanes are more of a suggestion than a rule, and that if you’re in a two-lane road with cars parked on both sides and somebody coming up in the opposite direction, you should still go ahead and overtake the car ahead of you. It works fine in GTA, right? Note to self: stick to the tram for transport while here.
We drove along the coast for a while, and the whole sea is covered in cargo ships. It almost looked like they were preparing to lay siege to Constantinople once more. Of course, the Bosphorus is key to lots of trade routes, one of the reasons why Istanbul was always so important in the first place.
After a good hour’s drive, I finally made it to the hotel. i’m staying at Empress Zoe, a beautiful 25-room hotel occupying a set of ancient buildings around a tiny, picturesque garden. It’s full of winding stairs, corridors, alcoves, and generally has lots of character. My room is tiny, but it has two large windows from which I can see a minaret, the sea, and Asia on the other side! Hello, Asia!
After touching base at the hotel, I went on a little scouting expedition. It’s right in the very heart of Sultanahment, so after just two turns I found myself on the square between Ayasofya and the Blue Mosque.
That’s Ayasofya, as the sun was beginning to set, but I chose to leave that for tomorrow, when I’ll have more time. Instead I walked into the Blue Mosque, or the Mosque of Sultanahmet, as my very first visit in Istanbul. The entrance is free, and you have to take your shoes off before you enter, which brought me back to all those temples in Japan last year. It was good training for this!
It’s such a beautiful building. I don’t know if it shows in the picture, but almost every surface is painted, with artful Arabic writing adorning the most visible spots. It gives the place a warmer feeling than if it was all bare stone. As a 16th century construction, it’s a whooping 1000 years newer than the Ayasofya, and yet it looks like its little sister.
When I walked out of the Mosque, I was immediately approached by a tout trying to plug a shop from the Arasta bazaar, a short street filled with shops right next to the Blue Mosque. Touts really get on my nerves (like, get off my back!), but in this case I was actually looking for the bazaar, so I played the gormless tourist until he pointed me in the right direction. At that point I respectfully declined buying scarves or whatever and went on my way.
As soon as the sun began hiding under the horizon, a freezing cold wind started blowing and the prospect of spending an hour or so walking around the neighbourhood suddenly became a lot less appealing. I ran back to the hotel before frostbite set in and only came out again to have dinner.
From what I’ve seen of Sultanahmet every place is a touristy place, so it’s more of a matter of choosing the right tourist traps than anything else. I ended up going to Buhara 93, as seen on Tripadvisor (if Tripadvisor and Lonely Planet gave “jumping off a cliff” 5 out of 5 stars, would I do it?), where I had a nice chicken kebab with tomatoes and peppers, a side of rice, enough bread for three people, an orange juice that was surprisingly the best part of the meal, and tea to top everything off. The bill came up to 25 Turkish lira, or… 8.30€. Yeah, I think I can afford to go a little more upscale next time!