Category Archives: Istanbul 2011

End of the line

DAY EIGHTEEN – Thursday 7th April

Boo. It’s the last day of the holiday. I’m going to need at least a week off to recover from it. The trip back to Istanbul Airport is a drag – quite literally. It seems the manager of the Asmali Hotel has forgotten his previous offer to drive me there after the check in disaster on Saturday. Still, at least it’s a dry and sunny day – the first one since I’ve been in Turkey.

It’s a well known fact that stuff always costs more at the airport. A captive audience means over inflated prices. But 2.50 Lira for a bottle of water is ridiculous – five times the amount it costs on the streets. And of course you can’t take it through security so they can screw you there too.

The PA system at Ataturk International needs to be heard to be believed. It seems that anyone can butt in during announcements to make their own. Some are calm and measured, whilst others – even though they’re only announcing a flight – may as well be proclaiming Armageddon. Slightly hungover from the night before, the sound of a foreign woman screaming in your ears on the toilet isn’t exactly pleasant.

Thank goodness, then, for British Airways. Polite and friendly service as before. When they’re not on strike, the cabin crew a great advert for the company. Which is more than can be said for some of the staff at St Pancras Station.

St Pancras Station - a typically British welcome

I’ve always loved the feel of St Pancras. It gives you the impression of having arrived in a Proper Country. But changing my train ticket so I can get home earlier doesn’t prove to be all that easy.

“You want six o clock train?” shouts the unhelpful woman at the East Midlands Trains desk by the platform.

“Yes – I want to change my reservation. How much will that be.”

“I don’t know – you must go to the booking office downstairs.”

“But this is the Customer Services desk?”

“Yes. No tickets or prices. Go downstairs.”

Welcome home. “So how much will it be?” I ask the man in the office downstairs.

“I dunno. Erm… a lot. Seventy quid.”

“But my original ticket was £61 for the whole return.”

“Yes – that’s just how it is.”

How very British. If there’s a barrier to be put up, we’ll glady do it for you.

Thanks for following the travel blog. More when I next go on holiday. In the meantime it’s back to the radio stuff.


Islands, Horses and Dogs


So there was a Chinese/Swiss, and Arab and a Turk on this boat. No, it’s not a dubiously racist joke, but the scene on board the ferry coming back from the Princes’ Islands – a collection of beautiful outcrops off the coast of Istanbul.

“Beautiful unless you live here in the summer”, says the woman o half Chinese, but comes from Switzerland – yet lives here. I guess she’s got a point, The population of Buyukada (Big Island) increases from around 4,000 to about 20,000 during the height of the tourist season. But you can see why. even with today’s overcast, cold weather, it’s a lovely view.

The Princes' Islands - Istanbul

Buyukada is the last of four islands the ferry stops off at. And it’s another fantastic bit of value for money – just 3.75 Lira each way. The downside is that you can’t hop on and off as you please.

Arrival seems to be a big event for everyone, not least the dozens of cats and dogs that crowd around the gangway, giving passengers the kind of hungry eyes that only animals can. At island number two they’re in a luck. A man gets off briefly and scatters dry food on the dock. The six cats beat the two dogs for the lion’s share. (See what I did there?)

I'm not after food, honestly, I'm definitely not

Apart from the now familiar local businessmen queuing up to offer their “best price” for almost anything you’d like, there’s a real difference in the air. the sound of honking taxi horns, screeching trams and general mechanical mayhem is taken over by the smell of manure. This is Buyukada’s taxi rank.

That's two lira on the meter and some lovely feed for your roses

It’s either a horse or a hire bike. I opt for a coffee and ice cream on the front. Much less stressful. And although vehicles are generally banned from the Island, there are a few diggers and small lorries about as improvement works take place on the waterfront and a couple of nearby hotels.

“Buyukada is Greek,” says the Chinese woman – “One of the other islands is Arminian and another is Jewish”.

“I am from Dubai,” says the young Arab man. “But I love Champions League. Tonight I want to see Manchester and Chelsea but my wife thinks not.” His wife laughs generously and tells him he can go to the pub.

Which is exactly where I end up on my final night in Turkey. At the North Shield bar watching the match. I’m become a British tourist again. But not for long.

“Notts County – they’re a great team. And they had Sven managing them?”

Paul is from Washington DC, but his father is Chilean. It makes for a brash and friendly combination of character. He loves football, women and the BBC. I won’t say in which order. Talking of being reminded of home, I saw this sign as well

Mi Duck Mosque is just round the corner


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Posted by on April 7, 2011 in Istanbul 2011, Travel Stuff


Spice Up Your Life

DAY SIXTEEN – Tuesday 5th April

“So, you are from England? My first wife was from Kent. Then she screwed me over. My second wife was from Australia – she is also screwing me over. I am marrying a girl from New Zealand next month.”

It was an astonishingly frank admission from the security guard at the post office in Istanbul. All I’d done was ask him where I could by stamps for my postcards. but it was a welcome change from the usual over-friendly greeting you generally get from men who approach you in this town. This guy wasn’t after my money.

Royal Mail – the ornate post office in Istanbul
The post office was like a throwback to a lost era. On the outside a sign read “Telegraf” and inside was decked out with ornate columns, wooden panels and glass windows with various titles on them. Yet like any other post office in the world, there was only one window open, and the man at the desk seemed to be having trouble multi-tasking. A couple of girls wanted to post something but had to fill out a form. Then, a second man jumped the queue with a couple of normal looking envelopes, which seemed to take an age to stamp up. During all of this a third, concerned man came in and tried to jump the queue but changed his mind after glares from the rest of us. It’s not like Greendale here.
In fact, it’s been a bit of a bazaar day all round. What a seamless link…

Rug, sir?

The Grand Bazaar is just that. Stretching over several streets near Sultenahmet, it’s an indoor frenzy of carpets, jewellery and gifts.. And almost nothing has a price on it. Bartering is the order of the day here.
Now, I have some previous experience of this, having visited the bazaar in Marrakesh. Rule one : never make eye contact. Rile two : never enter into a conversation unless you’re serious about making a purchase. Rule three : when they say you have “insulted” them by naming a low price, you’re pretty close to what you’ll be paying.

Even getting a coffee is a task

It’s all a bit much for me, as I have no intention of buying a carpet anyway. I’m after a couple of small, cheap souvenirs. So a better option is back by the waterfront at the Egyptian Bazaar, also known as the Spice Bazaar.
As its name suggests, this is the place to buy spices, nuts or piles of Turkish Delight. There’s also all manner of soaps, perfumes and small gifts – many at “fixed price”, which in fact, doesn’t mean fixed at all – though it does mean less bartaring – you just keep the margins tighter.
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Posted by on April 6, 2011 in Istanbul 2011, Travel Stuff


Trust, a Tower and Tunes

DAY FIFTEEN : Monday  4th April

It’s entirely possible to visit two continents in the same day – but Istanbul is one of the few cities in the world where you can do this The Bosphorus divides not only the two sides of the city, but also marks the boundary between Europe and Asia.

Since it’s been raining for much of the past two days, I decided that I’d get no wetter by seeing all of this from the water, so today I hopped on the ferry from Eminou to Uskudar on the Asian shore.

Getting the Golden Horn - on the water in Istanbul

I’d love to see this place in the sunshine, but the views around us are pretty spectacular anyway. The city towers up the hilly terrain beyond the shore, and the waterfront contains a huge array of buildings in different styles – and almost everywhere you can see minarets from the various mosques. It’s also just 1.75TL – much cheaper than the organised tours which essentially take you to the same places.

I’d expected my arrival in Asia to mark a very different style to Istanbul. After all, this is where East meets West, where Christianity and Islam live side by side – and where the authentic taste of the Middle East really hits home…

Istanbul - I'm lovin it...

This is Uskadar, a practical, working suburb if Istanbul. To be honest, it’s a bit grotty. But as ever, there are many alternatives to MacDonalds. Pop into any supermarket or bakery for tasty pastries and biscuits.

Despite the fact that Istanbul can seem intimidating at first, its people are incredibly trustworthy. Yeah, I know that makes me sound like some colonial toff – but there’s no better example of this than the Dolmus – a shared minibus. You see these all over Turkey and other Middle Eastern countries, offering cheap transport between towns and villages. Starting in Uskadar, the bus only leaves when full. Everybody pays a modest 2TL to the driver, and you just shout when you want to get out. It’s an incredibly efficient and eco friendly way of getting about. But can you imagine it working in the UK? I think not.

The Dolmus takes me to Kadikoy –  a busy port town which has connections back to the European side of Istanbul. From there, it’s a steep walk up the hill to the Galata Tower.

The Galata Tower - well worth the walk

Thankfully, there’s a lift to take you to the top of the tower. And what a view :

Top of the world - in Europe and Asia

It’s stunning stuff – although the platform around the edge of the tower gets pretty crowded with tourists. And today I hit the worst kind : the Italians. Now don’t get me wrong, I love their beer and their ice cream. But when it comes to tourism, they’ll spend forever blocking the best views, stopping at the most inappropriate moment and generally being annoying.

OK, rant over. The streets around the tower, in Beyoglu, have plenty of lovely bars and cafes to relax in. But there are two sides to the district. Streets full of music and electrical shops look pretty enough – but one of the roads in the process of being refurbished. and it doesn’t all look great.

In the evening, I head back to the tower for a meal at Enginar cafe, on the edge of a picturesque square and a great place for watching the world go by. But after a while it all gets a bit chilly, so I go inside. And here, the rules of Turkish bars finally hit me.

Love meze, Love muzak

1. You must have a sound system with huge bass speakers. Treble hasn;t been invented.

2. Your Itunes account must only play Turkish music. Or, if it’s western, nothing beyond 1985 – and preferably soft rock.

3. The music must clearly be audible in the street, so it appears your bar is heaving even if it’s empty.

4. The building must be old – or at least appear to be. Authentic touches include broken tiles, uneven floors and “interesting” interpretations of toilet facilities.

5. All bar snacks must contain cheese and/or pastry. Even the non dairy option.

6. Staff must at least give the impression of being bisexual.

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Posted by on April 5, 2011 in Istanbul 2011, Travel Stuff


Istanbul’s Got Talent


Sunset is the best time to see Istanbul’s varied people doing varied things. Unfortunately there’s been no sun here so far – but dusk gives you some interesting sights, including the fishermen crowding along Galata Bridge, presumably hoping to catch their dinner.

Rod and his mates at the Galata Bridge
This is one of the first sights that passengers would have been met with at the end of the Orient Express. The journey from Paris used to take three and a half days but the last time it ran the full route was in 1961. It seems a bit of a shame, really. Though these days you can still travel from Istanbul on long distance trains to Budapest, Syria and Greece. Oh, and there’s that sodding local service that clattered past the Kaftan Hotel every fifteen minutes.
End of the line – you’ll wait a long time for the Orient Express

If you want to see a slice of real life in Istanbul you can do it one of two ways. You could pay a tour company a small fortune to take you to an evening of belly dancing, a traditional Turkish meal or – as one leaflet boasts – a real Turkish wedding. Now in the Uk wedding discos once used to be notorious for gate crashers eager to get a bit of free booze and food, and perhaps one of the bridesmaids. I didn’t really think that was the polite thing to do as an Englishman abroad, so I took the second option – and found a bit of local tradition myself.

Sunday isn’t the busiest night of the week in Istanbul, but I stumbled into the Cafe Turco, just off Istiklal Street – the main road where the city’s nightlife is based. Inside it’s open mic night, where a selection of performers entertain the young crowd with traditional Turkish songs.

Altogether now - music at Cafe Turco

To the untrained ear, this could sound like Now That’s What I Call Eurovision 1983, but that would be unfair on both Eurovision and these performers. Several musicians take to the PA system and almost everybody sings along. Except me, of course. This isn’t Bobby Darin or Robbie Williams so I’m left on the sidelines.

The street itself was rammed with revellers last night – but tonight I get to see the full range of shops and cafes, still open for business late on a Sunday evening. There’s also an interesting form of advertising going on around here, with giant shopping bags and illuminated booths.

Absolutely Fabulous - advertising Turkish style

The photo doesn’t really do justice to the stunning display. And it’s really effective. I’m sure that if it were tried in the UK there’d be all kinds of issues planning permission and Saturday night yobs vomiting all over them, but there’s no reason why it wouldn’t work.

Sultenahmet, the area where I’m staying, boasts some of the biggest tourist attractions in Istanbul. But it’s not so good for nightlife. as I head back across the bridge I end up at the Sah Bar, described by Time Out as “rocking to a backpacker vibe”. The only vibes are loud bass speakers pumping out Dire Straits to the two bar staff and a couple of drunk German men.

“I wast in dis same bar TWO years ago” says one of them to the bartender, who has no idea what he’s saying. “Ze music wast ROCK. You have ze rock?”

The bartender looks apologetically at his guest and pours him a large beer. Rock or not, Hans is happy enough.

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Posted by on April 4, 2011 in Istanbul 2011, Travel Stuff


No Place Like Dome

DAY FOURTEEN – 3rd April 2011

Things often look better in the morning, though before I get a chance to see if that’s the case, I’m woken at 6am by the call to prayer from the nearest mosque. A couple of hours later I learn that my actual hotel room will be available at noon. The manager from the Asmali Hotel collects my bags giving me some time to kill.

Sunday morning in Sultenahmet, Istanbul.

Whenever you’re in a Muslim country, the chances are that your hotel will be within close distance of the loudspeaker announcing worship three times a day, so I decide to go to church.

Well, a mosque actually, and not just any old mosque.

Line up - but take your shoes off

It’s barely 10am, but already the queues are forming outside the Blue Mosque right in the heart of old Istanbul. There’s no admission fee, but visitors are asked to follow etiquette and remove their shoes. The building was commissioned by Sulten Ahmet I in the early 17th century, and like many religious buildings, it doesn’t do modest interiors

Look up! This is not a composite picture.

Below the magnificent domes, thousands of tourists click their cameras. It’s all to easy to forget that this is still very much a living and working mosque. To the sides of the main building, women gather for silent prayer.

Old stuff, of course, tends to get worn out. and much of the Square outside the mosque in being repaired. 

Look duck - it's just like the Owd Market Square in Nottingham in't it? Where's the wheel?

Just across the main square is Haghia Sophia, which dates back to AD 537. It’s since been deconsecrated, but it no less impressive.

Not quite the Pitcher and Piano - yet...

Probably some local famous bloke

It’s simply a stunning building, with history shouting out at you from every corner, though personally I think it’d make a lovely pub.

Reminds me of the Hand and Heart

What? Did I offend someone?

Anyway, I finally have my hotel room and at least the outside looks a bit more welcoming than the last place.

Doors for windows - what's all that about then?

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Posted by on April 3, 2011 in Istanbul 2011, Travel Stuff


A Room With A View

DAY 13 – 2nd April 2011

this blog post is being written thanks to a long cable and a power socket in the bathroom of my accommodation in Istanbul. But more on that later.

I can highly recommend Heathrow Terminal 5 as a place to start a journey – so long as you don’t mind admiring the architecture rather than the service.

The building has a striking design, and as you ascend from the bus drop off zone to the departure hall you get the impression that, for once, you’re in a Proper Country. A Britain that could be Great again. A symbol of efficiency, modernity and functionality. A Can Do attitude. Then you meet the British Airways staff.

“You see, the thing is sir, our text messages aren’t working this morning, so nobody really knows what job they’ve been assigned,” says the BA woman who’s trying to be helpful, but isn’t really helping at all. This is as passengers for early flights queue up at one of the four our five desks of the 150 that are actually open. Not all of the desks are doing check in, not all are accepting luggage, some do all, others do none.

Terminal 5 will forever be remembered for its disastrous launch, when thousands of bags piled up because of teething problems. Several years on and it would seem that T5 still has a lot of growing up to do.

That said, once in the air, BA still provides a great service. The Boeing 767 is roomy and there’s an almost 50/50 split between tourists and Turks on the three and a half flight to Istanbul.

East Meets West

I’d chosen Istanbul as my destination for two reasons. Firstly, it’s a city I’ve been meaning to see for some time, and secondly, I wanted a contrast from the United States. I certainly got that.

1. It’s raining.

It hardly rained at all in the US, apart from a grotty afternoon in Nashville. Oh, and that huge thunderstorm in Memphis. Erm, and the rain in New York. OK, it rained a bit, but arriving in Istanbul and negotiating its public transport system on a Saturday afternoon is both hairy and miserable at the same time. The city’s very efficient metro and tram systems are full of local shoppers, some carrying huge plastic bags of purchases from the markets.

2.The streets are narrower.

Before arriving, I’d studied a map closely to identify the location of the Asmali Hotel. It’s tucked away in one of the streets in Sultenhamet – the old district close to the famous Blue Mosque. But I hadn’t accounted for just how small the area is. This meant a short walk from the tram stop, but I was constantly pestered by people trying to sell me an umbrella – “this is crazy rain, sir” or book me a taxi. This would have been pretty pointless too as the narrow streets were already backed up with tourist coaches and taxis.

3. Mansion means something else in Istanbul.

I finally made it to the steps of the Asmali Turkish Mansion hotel, soaked from the rain. The young man who lets me in is very polite and takes my passport, showing it to the manager – a traditional Turkish businessman, busy dealing with something else. Then the young man helpfully informs me that there is a “small problem” with my booking – but not to worry – my first night will be spent in a “nearby partner hotel”. I’m also briefly shown the room I’ll be staying in – it’s a lot more basic than what I’ve grown used to.

The Kaftan is indeed close by, but the manager takes me there in his own car through the pouring rain. A second manger shows me to the room. Now, I’ve been to Turkey before, but only to the tourist resorts of the Mediterranean. And I’m mindful of the fact here are very different. But it’s hardly a mansion…

The Kaftan Hotel - a whole new meaning to the word mansion

That said, it’s about as close to the city centre as you can get. Istanbul, of course is famous as being one end of the line for the Orient Express. And from the very room I’m sitting in, you could almost be on it. Or at least the railway line that used to carry it. What’s more, there’s a very traditional view of Turkish living…

A Room With A View - looking out from the Kaftan Hotel

At least the bathroom is (a) clean and (b) has a power socket that accepts my adapter. No doubt things look better when the rain stops. I hope that’s going to be soon.

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Posted by on April 2, 2011 in Istanbul 2011, Travel Stuff