Thursday, August 19, 2010


AOG, Istanbul

We took a flight from Heathrow yesterday into Istanbul, ancient capital of the Ottoman Empire, ancient Constantinople, and even more ancient Bizantium. As it happens, it is 2010's European capital of culture.

City info:

Istanbul, Turkey, the largest city in Turkey and the industrial, commercial, and cultural center of the nation. 

Istanbul, formerly the capital of the Byzantine Empire and later of the Ottoman Empire, was for centuries one of the world's preeminent cities.

The city lies partly in Europe and partly in Asia on the traditional land route between Europe and Asia Minor. It commands the sea route connecting the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. 

The city's site has been of great commercial and military significance for centuries.

Flying BA

The flight went well, British Airways is definitely a step up from the low-budget airlines, and one is grateful for not having to pay extra for luggage, or sparkling water.

When I flew to Athens, I remember the flight lasting about 4 hours and a half. This time, however, the journey time was roughly 3 hours and 40 minutes, and this city is further from London than Athens. I think we either had a good tail wind, or the pilot stepped on the gas. Either way, I'm happy to have arrived.

At the airport
My first impression of Istanbul International Ataturk Airport, is that it looked fairly modern, though the journey from the plane to the terminal on the finger was hot, to say the least. 

No, it appears a/c is not big in these parts. 

We went straight to passport control, failing to notice the VISA section just before it. After waiting in line for about 10 minutes, the policeman laughs (as in "stupid tourists, this happens everyday, when will they learn") with some resignation and points to the VISA section where the line is even longer. 
We aim for the shortest line, which is, of course, the one with the difficult nationality "du jour" passenger which is holding up everything. 

There were some screens which showed how much each country has to pay to enter the country for 30, 60, or 90 days. We see ours and see that it is 10 euros for 30 days. 

We come up to the window only to be told that it is 15 euros. No discussion, no explanation, just pay. So we did.

We have just arrived and are too tired to argue, especially since we slept little the night before, and, most of all, we want to enjoy ourselves.

So, with our visas (a paper stamp) in our passports, we head back to passport control. We get get the thing rubber stamped and head off towards our luggage which was waiting for us at the -by now motionless-, carousel like two beached whales awaiting death. 

We pick them up and try to look not too conspicuous as we walk past customs. No, we aren't carrying anything dodgy, but it is a pain to open your bags and have the security forces look through your underwear.

We didn't get stopped and went outside. Our hotel was meant to send us a driver to pick us up (airport pick and and delivery being one of the reasons why this place got chosen). 

We leave the arrivals exit looking at a small army of people holding up signs for different travelers, none of them us. We had written to the hotel asking for confirmation that they would come, and when we called them this morning, they confirmed that somebody would come. 

No one is there. We call the hotel, twice, and get told to wait at the information desk. There are two information desks, so we split up. After 20 minutes, we call again. 

"He is coming".

After another 15 minutes, we call again.

"He is coming".
After another 8 minutes, he shows up making excuses about the traffic. Very nice man, but very late. I assume that if this is his  regular job, he knows the journey times by heart since he must do this every day. 

I keep thinking that he should have left his departure point sooner, to prevent this. In any case, it is true that the traffic is a bit heavy at times.

First impressions from the transport van

Istanbul is big. Gigantic. And not too wealthy. We see colorful blocks of flats on the sides of the highway into the city, which would not have looked out of place behind the iron curtain. Totalitarian architecture, what a joy.

The other thing which we notice right away is that a) this place is very hilly, and b) Minaret city. They are everywhere, looking like some sort of holy silo pointing at the heavens.

Whilst on the highway, other cities come to mind. Buenos Aires, because of the driving style -at one point a passenger bus makes a sharp turn in front of us to catch the exit, almost crashing into us and, by the way, almost running over the pedestrian (yes) that was crossing over at the time, right by the exit (Cape Town). The other city which Istanbul reminds us of is Salvador de Bahia. 

Although I wouldn't say that Istanbul has Favelas, it does have a tendency to have grubby, old buildings next to new ones, and in the distance we soon spot what could be a luxurious downtown area à l'americaine

They tend to stand out a lot since most buildings are not as tall, and also, they are probably built in a high part of town, so they really stick out against the skyline. Once we cross the Golden Horn we notice that this city has a lot of small streets going up steep hills, which are lined with old wooden Ottoman houses which look like they are about to fall apart, and a mixture of old and new, business and civil, architecture. It shares this aspect of itself  with Bahia.

The Hotel 
We arrive at the hotel and give the driver a small tip. On the whole, the journey took about 35 minutes and the hotel does not look too bad on the outside. A porter comes out to fetch our bags and walks us inside. Slow day, I gather, we were not left at the doorstep,  but rather a few feet away.

We check in and are told, after the initial "Oh there's been a mistake, you want two beds- No there's no mistake, one large bed thank you" that there are no rooms with a view or that face the street. 

We are given a room on the 4th floor which we dislike because a) it connects with another room and b) it faces the rooftops of the adjacent buildings and their loud a/c machines. Not good.

We go back downstairs and complain. They give us another room. Our welcome fruit basket stays behind. 

The new room is smaller (like Tokyo proportions) but it has a nice view of the street, which we like, and the a/c works great. In the coming days this will be a major plus.

We unpack, shower, and decide to visit the Gym/ Sports Club since we are told we get our pool towels from there. The hotel has two pools, and indoor pool and a rooftop pool.

We go down to the -3 floor. When we step out of the lift we see a gym to the right, and two guys talking. No one is manning the front desk. We ring the bell and no one comes. So after 10 minutes, we split.

The Bar Hunt

A friend of ours had told us about a bar we should visit in the city, and that became our first priority.

It was meant to be near our hotel so we headed out and started walking around the hotel quarter where we were staying, but with no luck. We saw the first glimpses of Turkish life then. 

Men playing chess, men talking, children playing on the street, men who want you to eat at their restaurant, men working. 

We don't find the bar in question, so we check our map and venture off into Beyoğlu, the quarter where we are staying.

First stop: Taksim square

Large and busy. Not a beautiful square, particularly, but it certainly is bustling. And it is exciting.

 People, children, movement, traffic, vendors, beggars, women with veils, men holding hands, some tourists.

We go down Istiklal street (Istiklal caddesi) and are amazed by the large number of people, shops, hustle and bustle of the place.

On it are to be found many former embassies from when Istanbul was the capital of the Ottoman Empire which are now only consulates. 

The first one which caught my eye is the Greek consulate. And how do you say Greece in Turkish? Yunanistan. I loved it! Yunanistan.
The whole street is half Western, half Turkish and I'm not sure about which half I love best.

We find a music shop and pop in quickly. CDs are not expensive, so I spot a couple I want to buy, including Tarkan's latest album.

Our search for the "holy" bar takes us all the way down to Galatasaray square, from where the street begins to loose glamour and excitement and the less moneyed businesses have set up shop. 

Ironic since Galatasary High School is meant to be very upmarket and a place where most of the country's politicians studied.

Se we turn back upon ourselves, and head towards this small alley where we think we spotted something resembling a rainbow flag.

The alley in question is wonderful. Street musicians, coffee tables, some local graffiti, and a bar called Love on Sakızağacı street. 

We walk in and I can't help but to be reminded of Havana. It is old, with some attempt at being fashionable and Western, but tatty and decadent. And with Wi-Fi. So, of course, we like it. Also, we are the only ones there.

We order a couple of drinks (no alcohol, it is Ramadan) and we discover that -and it will only grow more obvious as they days pass, that hardly anyone speaks English in Turkey's most international city. 

At this bar one of the guys spoke some German, but not English. We were surprised. They tell us where the bar is, and we have our drinks and head back. A couple of hours have gone by at this point. 

As we approach Taksim square once again, we get a phone call from our friend who tells us that he had, in fact, been given us the wrong information all along. 
Great. The street he meant, which is the one we had on our piece of paper, is the same street our hotel is on. Yes, you guessed it, we walked right past it! Oh how we laughed when we stood in front of it like two idiots!

It is closed, and even looks like it won't ever open. It is now getting late (not a problem in this city. It truly does not sleep), and we settle for a local kebab shop on a parallel street. 

They serve us some nice food, but nothing amazing. And we get no alcohol because it is Ramadan, but they are very polite about it.

We pay up, cross the pavement, buy some water and bananas for the room at an underground shop, and head home. 
We are very tired at this point. 

Long day.