ISTANBUL - November 15-18, 2016

(Click here to see some pictures from this trip plus links to the SmugMug slideshow.)

Since we were flying back from the Maldives through Istanbul, and also because it's such a long trip (8 hours male-Istanbul and then 13 hours Istanbul-LAX), we decided to do a 3-day stopover in Istanbul to tour this history-rich city.

In short, we found Istanbul to be a very vibrant, modern, lively city. In terms of size and population, it's roughly on a par with Los Angeles with 14 million people living in the area. And they've got all the modern amenities you would expect in a major city, although there are mosques literally everywhere you look. According to our guide, there are 2,047 of them spread throughout the city. Taxis and buses are everywhere and there's a very good light rail system as well, so getting around the city didn't pose a problem at all.

Hotelwise, we booked ourselves into a Hilton Doubletree in the Old Town section of the city. The hotel was nice and well-situated, being a short walk from near the Grand Bazaar and the Blue Mosque, and there was a very good restaurant district a few blocks away as well. Plus, we got breakfast as part  of our deal so it worked out very well.

We'd arranged for airport transfers and guided tours through Sea Song Tours and found them to be excellent. They met us at the airport with two vans (one was just for our luggage) and got us through rush-hour traffic to the hotel. Then the larger of the two vans, which very comfortably accommodated all 10 of us plus the English-speaking guide and our driver, became our transportation around town to the various highlights.

We want to give high praise to our guide Cenk (pronounced "Jenk") who was not only very knowledgeable but opinionated as well. He didn't shy away from any of our questions about the political situation in Turkey and he was also interested in our situation in America. The travel guides in Turkey are all licensed and he has to pass knowledge exams and do some yearly updates so he was very well-versed in all aspects of Istanbul. If you're going to visit this city and want a guide, we'd highly recommend both Sea Song and Cenk.

Most of our three days of touring consisted of visiting palaces and mosques, plus a few other places. but one thing I found interesting was that there's still standing in Istanbul a section of the Roman Aqueduct. I think Cenk said it's about half a mile long and it was pretty amazing to see that straddling a major highway in the city. (There's a picture of it in the SmugMug slideshow.)

On our first day there, we visited the Dolmabahce Palace, which was home to the last sultan of Turkey. then it was on to a tiny side street where we found the Church of St. Savior in Cjora, which now is a mosaic museum, and which as some amazing pieces of mosaic and frescoes. We rounded out the day (after lunch) with a visit to the Spice Bazaar, which dates back to the 1660s.

One thing we noticed was that there were a lot of dogs running around loose and some cats a well. Cenk told us that these were actually "city" dogs who roamed freely and if we looked closely, we'd see that each of them had an ear tag. the city of Istanbul actually looks after the dogs and not only has public doghouses for them in some areas, but every six months it rounds them all up, gives them shots and a medical checkup, and then returns them to the streets. So if you go to the city, prepare yourself for some dog encounters.

Our second day was a big walking day. We started at the site of the old Hippodrome, where they actually held chariot races. Not much of it exists anymore but there are still some Egyptian pillars there that were used as markers when the chariots ran. From there we walked to the Blue Mosque which gets its name not because its painted blue (which it is not), but because of the blue tile and blue-tinted windows that are found on the inside. As with all the mosques we visited (some now function as museums but are still referred to as mosques), the tile work inside was intricate and stunning. You'll see a lot of it in the SmugMug slideshow.

After that, it was a short walk over to the Basilica Cistern, constructed in 532AD and which supplied water for the Great Palace and parts of the city. If you saw the movie "Inferno" with Tom Hanks, much of it was actually filmed inside the Cistern. There are 336 columns that hold the place up. Pretty amazing, although my first thought was, "It looks like we could dive it . . ."

Then it was off to the Ayasofya (which I thought was "The Eye of Sophia") which apparently started out as a Byzantine Orthodox Church, was then converted into a mosque by the sultan, and is now a museum. But it's pretty impressive inside with intricate tile work and mosaics. There's also a huge scaffolding as they doing some restoration work so we couldn't quite grasp the full splendor of the place, but it was pretty cool nonetheless.

After a much-needed lunch break, we toured Topkapi Palace, which was the residence of the sultans for almost three centuries and the seat of government for the Ottoman Empire. It sits on a promontory overlooking the Bosporus and the Golden Horn so you can see -and we did from our restaurant view - Europe to the left and Asia to the right. Unfortunately, the part of Topkapi known as the Treasury was closed, and that's the place that holds the famed Topkapi dagger (which I knew of from the 1964 Peter Ustinov film "Topkapi") and the "Spoonmaker's Diamond" which is the 7th largest in the world. But even without seeing those, it was a pretty nice place to explore.

We wrapped the day up at the Grand Bazaar, which has over 4,000 shops arrayed along little streets (everything's under a huge roof) and where you can probably buy just about anything you want. You could probably spend days and days wandering around examining what each of the vendors has to offer.

Our final tour day was the one I'd look  forward to the most because it started off with a 2-hour cruise of the Bosporus. The weather was perfectly gorgeous and the boat Sea Songs had arranged for us was magnificent, plus they served us coffee and tea while we cruised. We got a good look at the European side as we headed northward, and then crossed over and headed south along the Asian side. We disembarked on that side at a neighborhood called Kuzguncuk, which actually reminded me a lot of Avalon. It was a very different feel on the Asian side, must less hustle-and-bustle and much less touristy.

We had lunch over there in a restaurant situated amongst dozens of open-market markets selling fresh fish and vegetables, and then we took a public ferry (cost all of $0.75/person) back across the Bosporus and went overt to the Suleymaniye Mosque, built by the great Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan. It also has the burial sites of a couple of sultans.

One final thing to mention is security concerns and the short version of this is that we had none. Although Turkey borders on Syria, Istanbul is over 500 miles away from that area. That's roughly the distance from downtown L.A. to downtown Salt Lake City. Following the airport bombing in July, the U.S. State Department issues a travel warning advising people to cancel non-essential travel to Turkey and specifically to Istanbul. I never really know how to evaluate all of that. One the one hand, there's bit of CYA going on in that, if something were to happen, the government can say, "We warned you." On the other hand, at some point, it feel like crying wolf. We were fortunate in that we had some contacts with independent security people who work for a firm we know if Turkey and we got some insight from their perspective, which was it's safe to come but just be prudent & aware, and don't take any unnecessary chances.

What was really ironic was that while we were there and following the U.S. election results, apparently Turkey issued a travel warning to THEIR people suggesting avoiding travel to the U.S. because of the anti-Trump demonstrations and the chance that Turkish citizens could get caught between demonstrators and the police and get injured or even shot. And while we would listen to that warning about our country and scoff as it being a bit over-blown, they hear the warning from State and feel the same way.

Anyhow, we had a great time, it was an interesting city to explore, especially with such a rich history and tradition, and we'd go back again for more. Take a look at the pictures and enjoy Istanbul vicariously.


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