Thursday, 19 May 2011

33 hours in Istanbul and goodbye to Greece

Up and at 'em this 5am but checking out of the hotel was frustratingly slow. Everything is done manually....even though I paid the day before so we could avoid any delays but we had to stand and wait for a hand written receipt .We had to be patient as the hotel are looking after our bags while we are in Istanbul and we are checking back in there again on our return. Yes the noisy one but too late it’s booked.

There was not much traffic around at 5.30 this morning but a surprising amount of people on the Metro. All went to plan and we were off to Istanbul, a short flight of 55 mins on an Airbus 319 (3-3 seat configuration). Olympic Air had lovely leather seats and a good service with breakfast served in lightning speed...shame we didn't know what the food was but the coffee was nice.

Istanbul customs felt a little scary as some Americans in front of us were sent off to get Visas. NZ was not on the significant list of countries that needed one and we sailed through with another stamp in the passports. Because of the limited time here I had booked airport transfers from a reputable company or so I thought. They were not there to greet us and after we had checked all the  shuttle drivers waiting holding up at least 50 people’s  names    - 3 times over we gave up (   I had not prepaid...maybe that was the problem) and resigned ourselves to catching the Metro.
We first had to change our Euros to Turkish Lire and we got a little more than the NZ equivalent i.e. 50E = 106 TL.

We had to change trains after 5 stops and did so with no difficulties...chuffed that we had saved ourselves a 20 E airport transfer fee. However there were consequences for our smugness. We had about 15 stops to our hotel and at each stop more and more and more people got on. We were squashed in like sardines and at each stop there was a major shuffle around as some got out (somehow) and more got on (somehow). As we were standing and holding onto the hand loops (like those that were standing with us- when in Turkey do as the Turks do) I have never smelt so many stinky smelly armpits in my life!

We are very much aware of our short stay and with so much to do we have followed the must see and dos of many a traveller that has gone before us. Istanbul is the third most popular European destination. It has a population of 13 million plus it feels like our trip today to the Basilica Cistern, Haiga Sophia,

Sultanahmet (Blue) Mosque and the Grand Bazaar has been with another 13 million tourists and we have said no! (nicely) to the the carpet  sellers  13 million times!

We sampled some of the local fare for lunch...some baklava and delicious nougat with pistachios, although it wasn't cheap or anything like reasonable. Brent thought they could see us coming:)

We have had a lovely walk down by the Bosphorus tonight was like a washing machine with countless big ferries going in what seemed like every direction and lots of people on their way home from work. Street vendors are plentiful selling charred corn as they do, roasted chestnuts, fish bread (  fried fish and salad in a bread roll) and ice-cream vendors that had a spoon on the end of a metre long rod  and genuine fake Gucci sunglasses , Spiro graphs ( yes , they appear to be back) ...oh and carpets!

We had a lovely Turkish meal in a a big restaurant not far from our hotel.  The staff were amazingly polite and very attentive. They all seem to speak a little English, just enough to get by.We spent some time talking to our lovely waiter who told us that life as a single man was not too bad as he earned something like 3000 TL. However he works 12 hour days and 7 days a week!

We had the free hotel breakfast this morning, beautiful Turkish apricots both dried and in syrup, Turkish bread...again and Turkish delight plus an array of other food that was a little odd to us. We were keen to get to the Topkapi Palace which was the Sultans palace for centuries.  Brent had found a book on Istanbul at the little library in the hotel that travellers can borrow and this came in very useful. Actually the book was on the shelf and he took it!

The book told us that as Tuesdays is when the Palace is closed Wednesdays are always going to be busy. The best time to come was 10 am when the initial crowds had gone. Shame we only read that as we stood in the queue for some time as we went at 9am when it opened. The crowds were huge but we spent the time talking to other travellers from Ireland and Britain. The Palace had some amazing things to see, the most impressive were the jewels, rubies and emeralds mostly, the huge diamond (70 Carat) and the infamous Topkapi dagger. I was impressed with the real live chanting that has been going non-stop for the last 600 years or so. Brent tells me it is not the same chanter and they change from time to time! It is one of the few palaces that we have seen that has survived centuries of plundering and well worth the 20 TL entry fee

We walked on the only piece of grass for the last week and I managed to walk in some dog poo.......thank goodness for Kathmandu travel wipes. Perfect for the job. Brent was most impressed with the man mowing the lawns but he did think that he was cutting them too short.

We walked down by the Bosphorus and through and underground walkway to get through the Spice Bazaar. It was almost another market in itself. Despite what the travel books say there are fixed prices in most places. The call to prayers resounded loudly as we exited the walkway’s enough to give you a fright. The loud chanting is played through speakers high up on the mosques   around the   city centre and we have taken videos at this time to capture this so you can experience some of what we mean.

The Spice Bazaar was an amazing experience with a huge array of things most we had never seen or heard of. What we could recognise is what we would normally see in 50g packets and not used to seeing these in 20 kg drums...saffron included.

Brent was particularly concerned that the Spice Girls weren't there! However lots of other people were and it was very crowded.

It is not just spices that are being offered here there is the whole array of food, fruit, fish, breads as well as scarves, clothes, carpets, ceramics, bags ( 100% fake) and garden shops selling lawnmowers! (It’s true, mowing lawns is the spice of life!)We got a little lost when the Spice Bazaar seemed to merge with the Grand Bazaar however the crowds were no less.
We thought we would take the Metro back to the airport as it was relatively easy and knew that there was one train change on the way. We waited patiently and when it arrived managed to squeeze on by breathing in. What a jam and I got the giggles especially when it comes to the next station and it’s like gridlock on the train, nobody can move  yet people squeeze themselves out and more squeeze themselves in. After a few stops quite a few people got out. We spied a seat thinking weren't we the lucky ones as it is nearly an hour to the airport and standing for that amount of time is tiring in the heat or at any time. Only thing was when we looked around everyone had got off and there was us sitting there with the best seats on a train going nowhere. Apparently all trains change at this station and everyone had got off onto another waiting train. Quite different from our trip into Istanbul the day before. One kind man (the Director of Police) went out of his way to help us but of course everyone on our train had changed and we were last off and last ones on the train waiting....more breathing in.

A very bumpy flight later we were back in Athens. One poor extremely nervous woman yelped and screamed every time the plane shuddered (often) and a few people were clutching the waxed bags in anticipation and others used them accordingly. Yes, it was pretty rough and being late at night probably didn't help. Its 40 mins on the metro from the airport at Athens and we arrived at our hotel, tired, hot and sticky at midnight.

Last day in Athens and we wanted to do a few things we hadn't had time for previously. A visit to the National Archaeological Museum which is said to be one of the great museums of the world with a huge collection of ancient Greek sculpture, jewellery, pottery and a 2000 year old computer found in a shipwreck off the Island of Antikithera.

We also had a cable car trip up Mt Lycabettus, a mountain  rising out of the centre of Athens. It was an amazing view over this extensive city and from here you could see the amphitheatre that stages well known acts that visit Greece in the summer e.g. Leonard Cohen, James Brown etc.

We squeezed in a tram trip out to Athens beaches. The tram runs for 30 km past shaded squares and old churches, through narrow canyons of streets all the way to a new beachside resort of Glyfada. New shops with all the name brands you can imagine and right by the sea. We couldn't help but think what a contrast this was from everything else we had seen in the last 10 days.

Our last Greek meal was in an up and coming area of Psiri with endless small streets of cafes, ouzeries, restaurants, bars and theatres. It’s very close to the main shopping street (all pedestrian ...well most of the time) and apparently came of age as the centre of Athens nightlife during the 2004 Olympics. It certainly was alive and well tonight when we visited.

And so we have had our last Greek salad in Greece and sadly say goodbye .Tomorrow ...London here we come.

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