Istanbul (not Constantinople) – Sunday

Feasted on our first breakfast buffet which duly set us up for a day’s sight seeing. We ferried over to Uskadar ands thence to Eminonu, and took the tram up the Sultanahmet.

First stop was Aya Sophia, disappointingly half filled with scaffolding, such that the nave was inaccessible and the tremendous ceiling obscured. Lots of tourist parties, and cold inside.

Next stop were the Baths of Lady Hurrem, now a state run rug shop, but the inside of the baths have been restored to provide an inventive to peruse the rugs in a splendid setting. and it was warm!

En route to the Blue Mosque we went to the beautifully tiled tomb of the Blue Mosque’s patron, Sultan Ahment I, filled with green baize covered tombs of the Ottoman sultans I learned about in A-level European history. Well worth the 1m TL donation, and the chilled feet – gorgeous tiles and painted ceiling.

The Blue Mosque, aka Sultan Ahmed Camii, proved the highlight of the day, even with the touts trying to persuade us into the carpet/souvenir shops. Each one of them seemed to have a friend or relation living in London! Stunning tiles, painted ceiling and carved exterior, and fantastical huge and curving light holders. They’re not really chandeliers, but impressive and elaborate light providers at least.

After a warming, albeit small, hot chocolate in the famous Pudding Shop (which is definitely no longer the hippie hangout it used to be according to the newspaper cuttings adorning the walls), we moved on to the Topkapi palace where yet again we encountered the Turkish state’s 15m TL pricing double whammy. We elected to give the Treasury a miss, and see how we felt about shelling out for the Harem once we’d had a look inside the main palace. The Agia Sophia had not been a good introduction the Turkish monument VFM.

The Topkapi Palace was fascinating, particularly the sultans wardrobes, with 16th century robes bearing patterns looked like they as inspired by the 1970s. The talismanic paper shirts were equally impressive – hard to believe that the oldest have survived over 500 years. The views from the lower courtyards were lovely, and the Baghdad Kiosk (built by Sultan Murat IV to celebrate his victory over the city of Baghdad in 1638 – hmm, wonder what Geo. Bush Jr will do….) beautifully decorated with more Iznik tiles. It must be a lovely spot in summer, but by 4pm the warmth had gone from the generally overcast day, and we ended up taking a taxi back to the Conrad, in suitable style.

After a hour or so’s snooze, we went to check out the eating options, not feeling able to shell out on $ price room service, we sought a local recommendation from the info desk. Their suggestion proved decidedly un-veggie friendly, and we ended up stuffing ourselves in more relaxed environment of the local equivalent of IHOP, except these were very filling turkish savoury filled pancakes. Although eyes turned out to be too big for tummies, I really enjoyed it!

Before attempting our first uphill walk to the Conrad, we nipped into the Tansas to stock up on a 5l bottle of water and Nestlé fruit and nut chocolate, the yummy dark chocolate variety. TV films not a patch on last night’s Carlos the Jackal epic, starring contact lens wearing Aidan Quinn (to provide different colour eyes, so that you could tell when he was Carlos, and when he was the guy impersonating him….)

09 February 2014: for photos see my Flickr set Istanbul, March 2003

Istanbul (not Constantinople) – Saturday

At last the long-awaited long weekend arrived, and with our BA flight from London Heathrow necessitating a <8am check in, I took up Janette's offer of spending Friday night in Surbiton with her and Richard. That meant leaving H's farewell JPM drinks at 7pm, but I'm sure Raji made sure she made the most of her evening!

Fast flight out, thanks to an easterly tailwind, and we landed at Istanbul Ataturk airport 6 minutes early. A v smart shiny and new airport, in stark contrast to the shabby congestion of Heathrow Terminal 1.

The £10 tourist visa really was as simple as the blurb suggested – hand over your £10 note, and you get a 3 month tourist visa sticker in your passport in return.

After stocking up on 10,000,000 Turkish Lira notes, we hopped on the Havas bus, handed over 20,000,000 TL and got 8 million back- the first indicator of the impact of the 60% pa inflation which the guide books tell us afflicts Turkey’s economy.

The Conrad Hotel proved every inch the international 5*hotel, coming complete with red uniformed doormen and sweeping spiral staircase in the lobby. We had a great room and swanky bathroom goodies and luxury towelling bathrobes and matching slippers.

After settling in and sussing out the transport options, we headed out to the Besiktas ferry, much to the surprise of the reception staff…..managed to buy jetons and the work out the need to take the ferry over the Bosphorus to Uskadar on the Asian side, and to pick up the Eminonu ferry from there. Nipped into the Tansas supermarket en route buying water and nuts for sustenance en route.

From Eminonu quay we took the tram (more jetons!) to Sultanahmnet, a stone’s throw from the Blue Mosque and the Agia Sophia. In the heart of the old town, we opted for the friendly Mosaic cafe next the our intended eaterie (the Rumeli restaurant) but still we dined in a cosy timbered merchants house, and feasted on grilled vegetables, domades and tortelini. All for the princely sum of 28m TL.

After dinner, we walked over and explored the floodlit Blue Mosque and the Agia Sophia by the light of a crescent moon, and then taxied back home from Eminonu quay.

I Return R-E-L-A-X-E-D

Back from a lovely relaxing weekend at dad’s which saw us venture up to Leominster (great ‘antique’ shops!) and to Forty Acres to view the snowdrops on Saturday, winding up at The Neville Arms for dinner.

On Sunday, I slobbed under the duvet in the lounge in front of Hollyoaks whilst dad and jean were at church, until being shamed from my stupor and out for a gentle stroll to Holme Lacy church, where dad showed me the heroic gravestone statue of the last of the local gentry, and we all admired the snowdrops.

Returned bearing Christmas gifts – principally a swanky breadmaker from dad and Jean, but also a large scale OS map of the world (with wipe-off surface, so I’m planning to plot H’s route whilst she’s in South America) and a nifty tripod-for-all-surfaces.

Birthday Beers in Battambang

Am too pissed on Angkor beer to be coherent – celebrating H’s 32th with a beeeeeeeg meal and many bottles of beer and a great cake! surprise from the tour leader.

Had a v cool day hanging off the back of a bike, and driving through rural villages – doing the queen thing, waving and saying hello to the locals. sounds tacky? but was ace. and then we rode home on the railway, but not on a train, more of flat bed bamboo screens with a DIY lawn mower engine power alternative.

Lots of fun!

So, as you can tell, having a whale of a time on our Heart of Cambodia trip.

Intrepid Cambodia: It’s going great!!

I’ve have just eaten a huge khmer veg and tofu curry, and am fit to burst, or maybe that is due to the big bottle of Angkor beer I had with it…. I passed on the deep fried spiders thankyouverymuch! i’m not kidding!!!!

Each day is packed with new things, and having 10 new people to get to know and to get along with, not to mention the challenge of trying to communicate with the Cambodians we meet on the way, means that the days feel fuller than the itinerary suggests.

Blue blue skies here, temperatures in the high 20s and low 30s, and I got sun burned the day before yesterday to prove it (doh!), on top of a morning express boating along the Mighty Mekong from Phnom Penh to Kampong Cham (map) which left me with a rosy red face 🙂 not quite so red now, thank heavens. En route from from Phnom Penh we visited some off the beaten track towns and temples, and as a consequence have done lots of smiling and waving and “helloing”, and riding pillion on motorbikes.

It’s a good trip – bit of an odd mix of people (10+leader), but not bad, and probably less oddball than any trip which takes people away for the Christmas holiday has any right to be. We’ll be spending Christmas Day in Sihanoukville, down by the coast and on the Gulf of Thailand.

We’re now in Siem Reap which is the town 6 km from Angkor Wat, where all the tourists base themselves for their X days in the temple sites. It’s a bit like going into Alton Towers, with tourist buses pulling up at the toll booth, disgorging passengers who get their photopass tickets and then climb on board again to be ferried to their site-du-choix.

We spent the morning on a bumpy bus ride from our overnight stop at Kampong Thom, and the afternoon at one of the Angkor Wat sites – lovely detailed carvings of everyday Khmer life in the 12 century… and great big faces carved onto the temple towers – in honour of the king who commissioned the temple. Next door is a vast frieze of elephants doing what elephants did in the 11 century – hunting, carrying, warring….

We’re here until Saturday morning, with tomorrow a full day’s Angkor Watting, Friday a half day, with the afternoon free to do what we want, which for H and I will involve a Seeing Hands massage (blind masseurs, Japanese massage) from 4-5pm.

And back in PP before the trip got underway, we bumped into Miss Universe at the Russian Market, as you do….

And I’ve taken lots of photos!!