Retour à la maison

OK, not really home, but more familiar territory

We returned to Nice Tuesday evening. Compared to Istanbul, the world seems familiar here. We can sort of understand things, systems make sense and there’s a Monoprix!

Before we left Istanbul, we had some last-minute eating to do. Turkish churros!(They were yummy!)

Leaving Istanbul was an adventure in itself. The van ride to the airport was uneventful since we knew to expect crazy road conditions until we got on the highway. We arrived with plenty of time. We’re too old to cut it down to the last minute! The first interesting encounter was that we had to line up to get our bags X-rayed before we even entered the terminal. OK, we thought maybe that was security so fine.

Then we had to figure out which of the lines to get in to check in. They were lettered A-G. The screen said F or G, but F was closed so off we went to G. The wait wasn’t too long but then the woman at the counter asked for our PCR test. Um, what PCR test? We don’t have no stinking PCR test! I showed my CDC card and she waved away the HES code we had gotten from the Turkish government, but she didn’t really say that was OK. She typed and typed and typed while Steven and I gave each other nervous glances. Then, my boarding pass printed and we breathed sighs of relief. Phew.

Next stop, security check part 2. This was the one where you have to take off your belt, remove liquids and electronics from your carry-on, etc. Pas de problème. As we waited, several people asked to cut the line because they were about to miss their flights. Go right ahead. But then, one guy behind us made a comment to a couple trying to squeeze by. Suddenly, fight! They started yelling. The wife of the guy who was late for his flight was begging him to just come on (she was through security) then there was a shove and the husband picked up a suitcase and threw it at the other man’s head. In the meantime, the Turkish TSA (or whatever they are called) just sat there. The man who got hit started yelling for the police, who finally arrived. The couple missed their flight while they were detained by the police, the other man got through security after telling his story and we all proceeded to our gates.

The Istanbul airport is new and the world’s largest. I guess that explains why we had to take a bus to the plane and then climb the steps up, but not really since there were tons of empty gates. The process was smooth, so we didn’t mind. Then, they fed us and gave us free wine (do you want Turkish or French? What do you think??(I know! I can’t believe Sue had Turkish wine. OK, not really).

We took the tram from the airport back to our AirBnB since that costs about 1€ and a cab costs about 30€. It’s really very convenient even if it takes a little extra time. As you loyal readers know, we had bought a cheap suitcase for our nephew Michael to schlep back with him. I am happy to say that it made the trip (a little worse for the wear). (I am not sure you can call the handle plastic separating and the wheels not working properly “a little worse for wear.”) Thank you, Michael. We had a nice dinner with him and he showed us a blackmail-worthy video of our brother-in-law Mario Greek dancing. (Unfortunately he was unwilling to send me a copy despite an offer of hard cold cash. I am so disappointed in my little sister, she has a raised a really nice young man.) They also have a blog so maybe the video will appear there.

Last weekend in Istanbul

Sue and I had a busy week with work and all, so we decided to spend this weekend doing nothing. We woke up late, sat around drinking coffee and watched TV for three full days.

Not.

Friday our plan was to have street food for lunch, then head for the Dolmabahçe Palace, then walk over to the  Ortaköy Mosque and finish the day off with kumpir (potatoes stuffed with all sorts of interesting things) that you buy street vendors near the mosque.

We relaxed a bit in the morning, and then headed down the big hill to grab lunch. Sue had a takeout balık ekmek (fish sandwich) from a place right on the Karaköy pier and I grabbed a chicken dürüm (a chicken wrap), which we sat on a stone wall overlooking the straits and ate. Yummy.

We rode the tram to the Dolmabahçe Palace, which was simply amazing. It is huge and while it was only completed in the 19th century, so it isn’t old, what it lacks in age it makes up with splendor. You are not allowed to take photos in the palace (seems a little odd that taking pictures in mosques is OK, but not in the palace). (Also, I think we were the only ones following that rule.) It is situated right on the Bosporus Straits and views are incredible. My uncle David would describe the décor as early French brothel, but I would be a bit more generous and say it was decorated fashionably for the time. The chandeliers are incredible. The tour also includes the Harem; which I always thought was only for the women. In reality it is the private quarters of the Sultan, his wives, concubines and his mother. It was pretty amazing and along with everything else there is an audio tour that is well worth getting.

The Ortaköy Mosque

Once we had finished poking around, we headed to the Ortaköy mosque. Sue’s friend, Dana, recommended seeing the mosque, which is also built on the waterfront, and then eating kumpir from one of the food stands. We figured it was only a “short” 3km walk so we thought it would be a nice stroll along the waterfront. The walk was nice, but like everywhere in Istanbul, it was very crowded. We arrived at the mosque at about 5. .pm, went inside for a quick look and then decided to have a drink and a short rest. We bought freshly squeezed pomegranate juice from a stand outside the mosque and sat down on a bench. Neither of us was particularly hungry but the next thing on our agenda was to eat kumpir. We wandered around the town for an hour or so and then decided to head back to the AirBnB. We just weren’t hungry enough to eat and there didn’t seem to be a good reason to stick around for another hour or so.

Our plan was to catch a ferry. We had looked at the schedule the day before and planned taking a ferry from Ortaköy to Karaköy (which is just down the hill from our AirBnB). Unfortunately, we apparently misunderstood the directions because no such ferry existed. We put our heads back into our Trafi App (the official Istanbul public transit app) and found we could go from Ortaköy across the straits to the Asian side and stop in Üsküdar, then transfer to a ferry from Üsküdar to Karaköy. We smiled, knowing we had solved the problem and got on the ferry to Üsküdar. Once there we asked about the ferry to Karaköy; only to be told it was not running. We had somehow misread or misunderstood the directions. A very gruff, but nice man who was working the ferries, told us to wait for about 45 minutes and then there would be another ferry. Another ferry guy told us that there was a different Karaköy so we walked over to that, once again, to find that it was not running. But there was a ferry leaving for Eminönü in 20 minutes. Eminönü is just across the bridge from Karaköy. So we hopped that ferry, walked across the bridge and by the time we got back home, it was 8:30 so we headed out for dinner.

One day, 10.6 miles and the equivalent of walking up 65 flights of stairs. Whew.

Saturday we decided to only go to two places. First a museum call the Sakıp Sabanci Museum and then on the way home, we were going to stop at the Rumeli Fortress.  Once again, we examined our trusty(?) Trafi app and determined that the only way to get to the museum would be to take a bus. We headed to the bus stop and waited. The bus we were supposed to be on did not arrive at all, so we grabbed another that would get us as far as Ortaköy. We quickly amended our plans, and decided that once we were in Ortaköy we would grab lunch. Sue could have kumpir (the loaded potatoes that we wanted to try) and I would have another dürüm, this time with lamb. My potato was delicious!

Once lunch was finished, we waited for the next bus. Once again, the one we wanted didn’t arrive, but another one that would take us to the museum did after about 15 minutes. Back on the bus and after about a 30-minute ride, we reached the museum. It was great. Sue enjoyed the art and furnishings, while I found the rooms on calligraphy fascinating. We somehow thought it was going to be small because it is associated with a university, but it was large and on beautiful grounds.

After a couple of hours in the museum we decided to walk about 30 minutes to the fortress. The walk was really pleasant. It was mostly flat (YAY!) and along the waterfront. The fort was the first incursion by the Ottoman Empire into Europe. It was built in 1452 in order to facilitate the siege of Constantinople. Amazingly it was built over a four-month period and it is situated in the narrowest point of the straits.  The ramparts and towers were closed for renovations, but we wandered the gardens and climbed up to the top of the inside of the fort. The views over the straits were amazing.

Once we had our fill of the fort, we mapped our way home. We had two choices. First option: two buses that would take an hour and 10 minutes, if they came on time and if we managed to get on the right ones. Second option: 20 minute walk to the Metro then a 30-minute Metro ride. Seems like a pretty easy choice. HAHAHAHA! Well what Google did not bother to tell us was that the 15-minute walk was – you guessed it – uphill – all uphill – 400 feet vertical climb over 2km.  The least steep portions were the stairs. As Sue led us on our latest death march, I reminded myself that I chose this option – and that I should check to make sure my life insurance was paid up. We finally reached the top of the hill, found the Metro and (I at least) collapsed into (my) seat.

The Funicular

Another 6.5 miles and 57 flights of stairs.

Sunday we really did decide to take it easy. We walked down the hill just so we could ride the funicular up to the top. We had lunch and then walked to the Dervish museum. It was well done, as all the museums we have been to here have been. We learned about the history of the Dervish and the philosophy. Once we finished that we avoided the draw of wandering through the adjacent cemetery and headed home for the day. Steven neglects to mention that we also decided to get some snacks for our upcoming plane ride even though Turkish Airways actually feeds passengers and we ended up with enough dried fruit and nuts to see us through getting back home in November.

Grand shopping adventure

Have we got some advice for you! If you like us and your curiosity outstrips your taste for shopping in massive crowds, try heading to the Grand Bazaar on a Monday morning. That’s what we did and it worked out great (although we didn’t buy anything). Well, we did buy one thing, but it was outside the bazaar.

The vendors weren’t quite awake yet so all we got were a few halfhearted, “Welcome, want to see my rugs?” No pressure and we just kept walking.

I don’t want to discourage anyone from heading to the bazaar, but most anything we wanted to buy was also for sale on our street in Beyoğlu. We went back and forth on the idea of a rug, but no one wants to feel the fool and we just assumed we would get ripped off. Plus, we’re nomads, so what to do with a rug? I am sure if you love bargaining, you could buy anything you wanted and maybe even for a bit less than you could find it elsewhere. Istanbul is shopping heaven, with everything from bargain basement merch to high-end Fifth Avenue stores. (I suspect the $10 Nikes are not real, but….)

OK, now for the big reveal … We bought a suitcase! We went back and forth on this too. I wanted to be cheap (surprise!) and get a duffel on wheels from a vendor and Steven wanted (quality) to get a hard-sided case on Istiklal Cadessi. Guess who won. We only brought one suitcase here from Nice so we could buy a cheap one here. Then, we could buy gifts (don’t worry Mom, nothing for you) and send them home with our nephew, who is in Nice too. Of course, we then realized that he would be going back to Pennsylvania and many of the gifts have to come with us to Chicago. Oh well. We’ll make it work.

Most of the rest of the week we chilled out (and bought those gifts), but today it is beautiful out so we finally made it to the top of Galata Tower. Well, one of us did. Can you guess which one? (The one who isn’t petrified of heights.) We could see our apartment (oh, and lots of other stuff). Each floor of the tower also houses small museum exhibits, a model of the city and information. Definitely worth the price of admission (about $8.75).

Since it was so beautiful, we decided to head to a shoreline area at the tip of the Golden Horn, which we had seen from our ferry ride. What a view! Then, after paying our respects to the statue of Ataturk, we crossed the street into Gulhane Park, which houses the Column of the Goths and runs adjacent to Topkapi Palace. We walked the length of the park and then headed home to work. (She forgot to mention that we agreed to walk one way and ended up walking both ways – a mere 5.3 miles, 13,000 steps and 32 floors worth of climbing – good thing we had relatively light work days.)

Settling into Istanbul

The days here are long as we tend to get up by 9, head out for some sightseeing until 1 or 2 p.m., then home to work until 8 p.m. and then have dinner. We are generally getting to sleep between 1 and 2 a.m. Long, but really fun days. One thing to note is that Istanbul is built on a series of seven hills, however in a feat of geologic engineering, they have managed to make it so that no matter what direction we walk, we are going uphill.

Monday we acquired train passes. I know it doesn’t sound like much, but if Kafka were going to design a way to sell transit passes, he would have used the Istanbul system as a model, perhaps even deciding it was too complicated and bizarre for one of his stories. It started Sunday evening when we wanted to ride a bus to see a mosque about 40 minutes away.

You can only buy single ride passes at the bus/metro/tram stops and they cost 6 T₺ (which is about $0.67each — the Turkish lira is about 9 U.S. cents). However, the machines only take cash and gives no change. Our smallest notes were 50 T₺ and that didn’t seem worth it. So, we asked the guard where to find the InstanbulKart, the refillable train pass. He vaguely waved in the direction of another tram stop about 10 minutes away. We went there. Nothing. We found a sign to a metro station and walked over to it and it had a tourist information booth. It was empty. (We assumed because it was Sunday evening.) There were machines that apparently sold the pass. However, the language selection function didn’t work and the screen would go blank after about 20 seconds. So we tried a few times to translate as we went and then gave up. We planned to return on Monday. As we were walking out we found a sign that explained that due to COVID you needed a code that registered your card to you and gave instructions (in English!) to get them. We went home, got the code, logged into the app and tried again. Nope. That did work either.

The codes in the app were limited to numbers and ours were alphanumeric. Which brings us to Monday morning. We returned to the station hoping that there would be someone in the tourist booth, but yet again, no luck. We found a guard and asked him. In broken English he said you have buy the card from the IstanbullKart office, which was a few doors down. We found it easily, because it was the place with the line out the door. After about 30 minutes, we were able to purchase the cards and were informed that the card had no balance. To load it, we needed to go back to the station (technically we could load it at any station or tram stop, but the metro station was the closest place). We went back to the station, and tried our luck at filling the card. We were really lucky because after we tried and failed a couple of times, a mann wandered up and was waiting to refill his card. We stepped aside, figuring we would watch him and mimic those steps. He was kind enough to see that we were idiot tourists and showed us how to do it. Hurrah! We could now ride the transit system – at a discounted rate! The tram costs only about 3T₺ (we think).

Tuesday we took the tram (using our InstanbulKarts!) and visited the Turkish Archeological museum. The museum has three buildings. The main one has three floors, the other two are single story. Unfortunately, while the two smaller buildings were both fully open, only the ground floor of the main building was accessible as the others were undergoing renovation. The museum is really well done and houses an enormous collection of ancient statutes, sarcophagi, friezes and other antiquities. The main building’s collection is all from Turkey and the Ottoman Empire, with quite a bit from an excavation in Sidon (in what is now Lebanon). The other two buildings housed collections from Egypt/Babalyonia and Turkish ceramics. It was very impressive and well worth the visit. We purchased the audio tour (4T₺) and while almost all the signs were in both Turkish and English, it was worth having.

Tuesday was also our wedding anniversary, and we had a nice (early) dinner at a Mexican place called Los Altos which had a beautiful view overlooking the Golden Horn (thanks again Dana!). We spent the rest of evening the listening to the Bebop Project at a local jazz club which is about 3 minutes’ walk (uphill of course – both ways) from our AirBnb. It was wonderful.

Wednesday morning we headed for the Süleymaniye Mosque. It was about 25 minutes away on the top of one of the hills of Istanbul. We took the metro for the first time (using our IstanbulKarts again!). I think it took us longer to get down to the trains than the train took for the couple of stops we were on it. The metro is a DEEP subway system. I assume it is because Istanbul is built on hills and the trains run relatively flat, but I am not sure. Suffice to say the next escalator down had a sign over the top saying “Abandon hope all ye who enter.” When we left the metro, we walked (uphill, of course) to the mosque complex. It is only the third or fourth most famous mosque in Istanbul, but is was still extremely impressive. I am not including any of our photos as our amateur ones do not do the place justice. Please look at the photos in the link above.

After wandering out of the complex, we headed for a coffee shop that Dana (Sue’s friend) suggested. The directions were (I am paraphrasing); exit the back of the complex, go across the alley, head down a sketchy looking hallway, up the rickety stairs and the café is there. We followed the directions and found a rooftop café. We have no idea if it was the right one or not, but who cares. The place had huge windows and we had a great view from the Golden Horn looking back on the area where we are staying which is called Beyoğlu (it also had a roof deck, but it was a bit too chilly to eat outside).  We ordered the Turkish breakfast, which was enough food for a small (or not so small) army. It included:

I liken this to having the entire brunch buffet on your table.

bread

french toast

simit (a Turkish bagel)

Two types of jam, honey & nutella

harissa

five types of cheese

cucumbers and tomatoes

two eggs

some sort of processed meat product that was vaguely smoky

hot dogs

french fries

spring rolls (which are like blintzes but made with filo dough)

and a pot of tea.

We also ordered coffee, because we didn’t think it through. We ate and ate and ate, and barely made a dent in the food.

After we finished we headed back on the metro, took it one extra stop and walked an extra kilometer or two to allow some of the food to digest, before we sat down to work. Needless to say, we had a very light dinner of yogurt, fruit and nuts.