Istanbul (not Constantinople) – Tuesday

Another lazy morning, getting to our third and final buffet breakfast bonanza just before 10am deadline. Stuffed with tasty morsels, we packed up and checked out, leaving our bags at the hotel, and walked down to the Dolmabache Palace.

The Palace is little off the beaten track for most tourists, but is definitely worth a visit, for the amazing European style opulence, the stunning crystal chandeliers and the grand waterfront gardens. A beautiful building in a beautiful setting.

We strolled back to base, collected our bags and took a final taxi to Taksim Square where we picked up the Havas bus. Reaching the airport at 14.45, we were first in the queue for our return flight check-in, and whiled away the next 2 hours the lounge, duty free and burger king restaurant.

A good flight back, although I’m not sure the raising of the Kursk hit quite the right tone on the in-flight documentary front! And descending towards Heathrow over central London on a clear-as-a-bell night was amazing.

Istanbul (not Constantinople) – Monday
Istanbul (not Constantinople) – Sunday
Istanbul (not Constantinople) – Saturday
Weekend breaks – woo hoo!

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

Istanbul (not Constantinople) – Monday

Our original plan to do the Bosphorus tour was ditched in view of the generally cold climate – 8c daytime average during our stay – and instead we followed our usual ferry route to Eminonu, enjoying the bluer skies and weak sunshine.

First off, we explored the “New Mosque” (commissioned in the 16 century, and actually The New Queen Mother’s Mosque), which boasted another stunning interior, before exploring the delights of the Spice Market. You can tell there aren’t many tourist in town given the various wiles employed by the stall-owners to get us to look at their rugs/ spices/ Turkish Delight/ apple tea/ tiles/ plates/ belly dancer outfits/ Turkish viagra….

Out in the alleyways we found our way to the Rushtem Pasha mosque, initially coinciding with lunchtime prayers, so we did another circuit to kill some time before going into the mosque and being stuck again by the interior, which contrasts so with the chromatic simplicity of the stone exterior.

Wandered back round to the cafes, where we took apple tea at the breathtaking price of 3m TL a cup, and fended off perfume sellers a plenty.

Walked through the streets of shops to the Grand Bazaar and spent the afternoon exploring there, taking sandwich sustenance at the hip Fez Cafe in one of the caves near the Central Market.

Around 4pm we emerged through one of the main gates and took the tram back to Eminonu and thence back to Conrad via the ferries (and, of course, Tansas for more water!).

I had a throbbing headache by the time we got in, and went straight to bed to sleep it off, despite the BBC reports of non Russian vetos and American warmongering.

Slept on and off until 8pm when Janette returned from killing time scouting out the health club and the pool, and the dining options. Headache abated by water and ibuprofen, I got up and allowed myself to be persuaded of the merits of dining at the hotel’s Prego Italian restaurant, and I’m glad I did (overcoming my innate meanness). We had a delightfully civilised meal – delicious food, charming service, complete with amuse-bouche mini pizza squares and three x three mini meringues (which looked a bit like mini-burgers, but tasted beautifully light and sweet, with a hint of lemon/coffee/chocolate-noisette).

We rounded off the evening with a drink (mineral water for 2, which confused the bar waitress no end) in the Skyline Bar on the 14th floor, agreeing that the nighttime view wasn’t quite as impressive as the daytime skyline. But it wasn’t bad!

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

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.