Wednesday, May 21, 2014


One of the best things about living in Abu Dhabi is that it is a perfect launching point for visiting a whole host of other countries. While perusing the travel section in a local book store I even found a book called Short Breaks From and Within the UAE, and a recent Time Out Abu Dhabi magazine included an insert with a similar theme.

I have found these to be very handy guide books

The book includes a map with Dubai at the center and circles radiating outward, the last circle representing a flight time of 5 hours. In one hour or less I can be in Muscat or Doha, in two hours I can be in Kuwait or Western Pakistan (think I'll pass....); four hours would get me to most of India, Egypt, Jordan (Petra is on my List), Israel and Lebanon; and five hours takes me all the way to the Seychelles and Maldives, Sri Lanka and Nepal, Georgia and Kenya. And five hours travel time also takes me to Istanbul.

Some places in the world call to me solely by the exotic sound of their name: Marakesh, Zanzibar, Kathmandu, Santorini, Casablanca. And Istanbul. So when my Hoboken friend, Mary Jo, told me that she and her husband would be traveling there in May I knew I had to get there too. I didn't want to crash their vacation, but I thought how cool would it be to "rendezvous in Istanbul". 

Turkey is fairly large and shares its border with a LOT of countries

A few months later Doug and I were seated in the extra leg-room section of an Istanbul-bound Etihad jet across from an Armenian flight attendant. At takeoff we encountered some mild turbulence, and our attendant, firmly buckled into his jump seat, exclaimed nervously, "What's that?!?!" When we landed 4-1/2 hours later in even more turbulence, he muttered, "I hate this!"  Doug and I exchanged amused glances because in all our years of flying, we've never encountered a flight attendant who was a nervous flyer!

On the approach to Ataturk International Airport I got a wonderful view of the city. It is the only city which straddles two continents, and it is enormous. It has almost twice the population of New York City but nowhere near the density because of its sheer size. I could clearly make out the Golden Horn, the Straits of Bosphorus, and the Marmara Sea. Dozens of freighters dotted the harbor, and ferries, tour boats and pleasure craft left wakes as they criss-crossed the waterways. 

The Weatherunderground web site predicted highs in the mid 60's all week, so I'd packed long-sleeved tops, sweaters and a jacket. I had to bundle up in the freezing cold jet, but once I stepped out of the airport I was greeted by gorgeous blue skies and absolutely perfect temperatures. I shed my jacket and breathed in air that was clean and sweet and green. Green! 

Ataturk International Airport is out of frame to the left. We followed the shoreline along Kennedy Caddesi to the old part of the city, the Sultanahmet, which is in the center of this map

Our driver sped along Kennedy Caddesi on the way to a little hotel I'd found on TripAdvisor, the Hotel Sari Konak. When we got to the Sultanahmet the driver turned off the highway onto a narrow, winding cobblestone street, and to my delight we wound our way up and down and all around, passing shops with windows that beckoned, full of colorful tiles and carpets, jewelry, handbags, and ceramics. The streets were filled with people which the van narrowly missed, but they seemed nonplussed. Cafes were everywhere, all with outdoor seating. I was entranced! Alas poor Doug missed all of this as his attention was on his cellphone because work "issues" had arisen, and he needed to deal with them.

Exterior of the Hotel Sari Konak

Check-In Desk - It felt so quaint to get an actual key instead of a card key

Doug on his laptop within minutes of setting foot in our room

The Hotel Sari Konak turned out to be a charming little place, and once we checked in Doug pulled out his laptop, planted himself in a chair and got to work. I emptied our suitcase and wandered up a winding, marble staircase to the rooftop where I'd been told I'd find a bar and lounge area. I wanted to see what there was to see. 

TripAdvisor did not steer me wrong - we were indeed very close to the famous Blue Mosque. And in the predawn hours when the Call to Prayer was broadcast from all 4 minarets, I was reminded of our proximity ;-)

Sari Konak is on a corner. This narrow street leads uphill to a Bazaar, the Blue Mosque (minarets just visible to the upper left, and the Hagia Sophia out of frame to the right. Our first evening in Istanbul we dined at the restaurant with the white awning. 

Rooftop porches, restaurants, bars and lounge areas are very popular in this neighborhood. The Marmara Sea is in the background.

This is the street below our hotel room window. 

As I walked around peering over the sides of the rooftop lounge, I thought I was all alone. Then a lovely young woman walked up to me and asked me if I'd like something to drink. "Why not?" I thought. She suggested a Turkish wine, and in the spirit of experiencing all things Turkish I said sure. "Hmmmm", I thought and then asked, "Is there wifi up here?"

It did not take much persuading to convince Doug to bring his laptop to the roof. I figured if he had to do work, at least he could do it outside and with a glass of wine. That is not a Happy Face, is it? As I sat sipping my wine I noticed movement on the roof behind Doug's head......

and to my dismay I spotted two large, fluffy Seagull chicks wandering on the roof right near the edge. I guess this is where they were hatched. I was fearful they'd pitch off the roof, but when we left 4 days later they were still there. I didn't know gulls would roost on a rooftop. 

I felt like I was back in Hoboken when a cruise ship went by. 

Once Doug got things sorted out with work, we went out to explore our neighborhood, the Sultanahmet, the Old City. Think of it like the French Quarter in New Orleans - the quaint, historical part of the city. 

My first impression as we walked along the streets was that it was Alive! Just bustling with tourist and shopkeepers and "regular" people. The streets were narrow, yet somehow large buses made their way by regularly. The buildings were mostly 4-6 stories high and built side-by-side. The shop windows were so enticing with beautiful displays, window boxes dripped geraniums, ivy wound it's way up stone walls and trailed along terraces, and in front of every restaurant and cafe stood a man inviting you to dine within. I felt like I was in New York's Little Italy!

Even though Turkey is a predominantly Muslim country, alcohol is served in most establishments. This is very different from the UAE where you only find alcohol in resort restaurants. This sign had me laughing and thinking of my Happy Hour Friends back in Hoboken. 

I had in mind to find the hotel where my friend, Mary Jo, and her husband, John, would be staying.With  map in hand we wandered the streets, but I could not spot it. Finally a shopkeeper came over and asked if he could help. "Ah yes, the Hotel Empress Zoe. Go down this street, take a right and then a left and then another left and it's right there". Seemed simple enough. An hour later (or so it felt) we wandered by the same store again. The shopkeeper called out cheerfully, "Did you find it?" and I admitted sheepishly that I had not. "Come come come come!" he said, and off we went down the street, Doug trailing with mobile phone in hand. We went right, then left and then left again, and we found ourselves in front of a stone building almost buried in ivy. The sign was faded, but there it was under the ivy. My shopkeeper waved and headed back to his store as I walked in the door of the hotel. The concierge waved me in, and even though I was not a guest he ushered up a winding set of stairs to visit the rooftop garden. "It's a beautiful view" he said. 

The staircase opened up onto a terrace. Below I saw this abandoned structure which I later learned was part of an old bath house. 

The terrace had two levels, so of course I went up to the top. 

Perched on the rail was this bird, one I've never seen before. He looked sort of like a crow and cawed like one. I sent the photo to my friend Linda, and she idenfied it a Hooded Crow - Corvus cornix pallescens

By now it was dinner time, and Doug voted we return to a little restaurant we'd passed as we first left the hotel. The gentleman at the entryway had modestly described it as having "some of the best food in Istanbul". I liked that because he didn't say "THE best" which would immediately have made me skeptical. 

I wouldn't say the name was the most imaginative, but the place was cozy

Doug decided to order a lamb shish kebab - this is the country that invented them after all - but the waiter suggested something a little different. Clearly he felt shish kebabs were cliche. His recommendation was a "stew" that was prepared for two in a clay pot, and we could choose either lamb or chicken. So lamb it was. I thought the dish would be prepared in the kitchen and then presented to us when done.

But it turned out to be prepared table-side! Out came a small table which was set up behind me, and next thing I knew flames were shooting up around a foil-topped clay vessel. Everyone nearby paused in their eating to watch. It was quite the spectacle.

After several minutes on the fire the cook placed a thick cloth over the foil and inverted the pot.

Then he briskly tapped the pot all along the circumference, breaking off the bottom.

Our plates were already in front of us with a small salad, couscous and roasted potato. Our cook poured the contents of the clay pot onto these plates. 

Doug's Happy Face has returned!

I just loved the whole preparation process - such an unexpected treat! And the dish was absolutely delicious. 

Halfway through my meal this pretty cat appeared. Clearly she was the Restaurant Kitty. The waiter told me she'd recently had a litter of kittens which were out back. She didn't make a scene of begging - she just sat and looked at me with those huge, light blue eyes waiting for me to do the right thing. So I did. I fed her morsels of lamb. 

DAY TWO: For our first full day in Istanbul we'd booked an afternoon lunch cruise up the Straits of Bosphorus. Our concierge advised us we still had a little over an hour until the shuttle picked us up, so he told us to "Go see the Basilica Cistern. It's not on any tours, but you will like it. Go! Go! Go". So we went.

On our way we walked through lovely Sultan Ahmet Square. On one side is the Hagia Sophia and on the other is the Blue Mosque (above). As you can see it was an absolutely perfect day. 

We spotted this sign with no problem.

Here is the entrance - pretty nondescript. One could easily walk by it and have no idea of what lay beneath your feet. 

The Cistern was recently restored

We walked down a long, steep staircase and found this. The lighting was low, a moody kind of music was softly playing, and we could hear and feel water drip-drip-dripping from the ceiling.

A wooden walkway followed the perimeter of this cavernous space. To our surprise there were numerous fish swimming in the water below. They had to have come via the aquaduct from the cistern's source, a forest 19 kilometers away. The place was just plain eerie. 

One of the mysteries of the cistern are two column bases carved in the likeness of a Medusa head. Where they came from originally and why they were placed in the cistern upside down is not known. 

One of the strangest sights was this small cafe in a corner of the cistern. I looked up and noted that this was the only spot that had plastic sheeting on the ceiling. I'm guessing not many people would want to dine at the little cafe tables with water dripping on them and their food! 

A tour company shuttle picked us up at our hotel and drove us through the city to the harbor. I loved the juxtaposition of this ancient aqueduct with the busy highway. 

We boarded our boat and waited 30 minutes for all the other guests to arrive on their respective shuttles. One of the crew glanced apologetically at his watch, commenting in heavily accented English on the traffic. Then he shrugged his shoulders, smiled and declared, "We wait for Istanbul!" 

Doug loves the water and being on a boat. I knew this trip would relax him for sure. You can see the Galata Bridge behind him.

We traveled up the Straits of Bosphorus towards the Black Sea. Along the shore we saw palaces, marinas, expensive water-front homes and hotels, charming towns, and several forts. This fort was built centuries ago to choke off Constantinople (now Istanbul) from the Eastern trade route. Now concerts are held on the grounds. 

Just before reaching the Black Sea we went ashore at a small fishing village. Well it maybe it was a fishing village at one time. Now it is primarily a tourist stop-over with lots of little shops and cafes. We strolled into a tiny bakery, lured by meringues in the window - Doug loves meringues. The shopkeeper picked up an almond cookie and ripped it into pieces, placing large chunks in our hand to sample. And then he did the same for a coconut cookie. We ended up walking out the door with a bag of all three kinds of cookie. 

The view as pulled away from shore

On DAY THREE we signed up for a all-day tour of the Sultanhamet. Our guide was a lovely and vivacious young Turkish woman. The first stop, just steps from our door, was the Hippodrome, the site of chariot races many centuries ago. 

At one time there were dozens of obelisks marking the course, but today only three remain. This one came from Egypt by a special barge. It was no easy task to load it up and get it to the city, but once they off-loaded it, there it sat on the shore for 70 years before it was finally transported up the hill to this spot. 

Our next stop, just a short walk across the square, was the Hagia Sophia, probably THE most famous landmark in Istanbul. Inaugurated by Emperor Justinian in 537, Christians worshipped in this "Church of Holy Wisdom" for almost 1,000 years. After the Ottoman conquest in the 15th century, the church was modified to become a mosque with the addition of four minarets, 8 wooden plaques in the interior with calligraphic inscriptions, fountains and tombs. Today the Hagia Sophia is a museum and open to the public.

The interior space is vast and under constant restoration and repair. In this photo you can see one of the large, round wooden plaques that were hung in the nave when the church was converted to a mosque. 

Next we headed to the Cagaloglu, or the Bazaar Quarter. Here you can find upscale shops and galleries as well as the sprawling Grand Bazaar, a warren of covered narrow streets and alleys that literally covers acres. But first we stopped at Istanbul Handicraft Center for an informative presentation on Oriental carpets. 

Now I have always been fascinated with Oriental carpets but also intimidated - so many kinds and from so many countries, different materials (wool, cotton, silk), hundreds of patterns and designs, machine-woven versus hand-tied, chemical dyes versus vegetable dyes, knots per square inch, and on and on - overwhelming! So when our guide told us about this stop, I was thrilled.

We were first offered something to drink - a very Turkish thing to do - and then the presentation began. All the carpets in this house were hand-tied, and after a demonstration in the actual construction of a carpet, assistants brought out carpet after carpet after carpet and unrolled them before us. I was fascinated to see how the intensity of the color changed depending on the angle from which you viewed the carpet. 

So yes, I bought one. This is a 4x6 Turkish carpet, a Bahtimari (denotes the town of origin) and the pattern is 1001 Nights (as in 1001 Arabian Nights). I was able to carry it home in a snazzy little carry case (provided), and it will go in one of my bedrooms. 

After I paid for the carpet, Doug and I headed to the Grand Bazaar. We did not stay long. After my carpet purchase, I figured I better not buy anything more. For a long time.....

We wandered back to our meeting place in front of the carpet store, and I bumped into the gentleman who sold me my carpet. Such a nice guy! I learned his wife is from White Plains. Small world. 

After our much-needed lunch break we walked to the the Blue Mosque, and I learned that this name was coined by tourists because of the blue Isnik tilework which adorns the walls and ceiling. It's real name is the Sultan Ahmet Camii. As with all mosques, the floor is carpeted, so we had to remove our shoes.

And women had to cover their heads. If you didn't have a head scarf, one was provided at the door.

By now it was late afternoon, and we were weary. Our last stop was the Topkapi Palace  built between 1459 and 1465 shortly after the conquest of Constantinople. It served as the royal residence for the Ottoman sultans. And yes there was a harem!

The palace was not a single structure, rather it was a series of courtyards containing several pavillions. And lots of lovely gardens! Talk about location..... the palace sits right on the corner of Istanbul where all the waters meet. In this photo the Golden Horn is to your left, the Straits of Bosphorus are in the middle, and the Marmara Sea is to the right.

Lots of beautiful flowers!

Weeks before we left for Istanbul I'd made plans with Mary Jo to meet her and her huband, John, for dinner. My friend, Mary Catherine, who had visited Istanbul several years previously, suggested Imbat Restaurant, saying it had gorgeous views and delicious food. 

The lighting is not great in this photo, but here is Mary Jo and Doug.

This is the cold mixed mezza appetizer which was served with a variety of bread.

John got some kind of lamb dish which came came on a little "heater"

It looked pretty good to me! I do love lamb.

I think John and Mary Jo got better photos - this one is pretty dark. When MJ sends me one of hers, I'll replace this shot, but in the meantime you can get a sense of our surroundings. Just lovely.

After dinner we strolled back towards home. We took MJ and John up to our hotel's rooftop for an after dinner drink. The moon was rising, and it was a lovely way to end the evening. 

What's the only thing better than spending your vacation in Istanbul? Sharing part of it with friends. 

DAY FOUR - the Sari Konak provided a little breakfast buffet each morning, and this, our final day, we sat outside in the tiny garden. The garden is nestled below street level, and ivy and flowers cascade down the stone walls. Birds sang in the trees overhead, and honestly, I could not have felt more relaxed. 

I don't know if I'll every get back to Istanbul because there are still so many other places I want to go and explore. We saw only a fraction of this amazing city, and I am grateful for that. But if you ever, ever, have the chance to go to Istanbul, leap at the chance. Grab it. Don't let it pass you by. You will love it. Promise. 

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