I didn't see a single turkey while in Turkey, Part 1 - Istanbul

With Christmas celebrations in the UAE basically being non-existent,  it was determined that a trip abroad should be undertaken to fill in the two week break given to expats here. Destination selected: Turkey.

Welcome to Turkey
In my fantasy world there is this weird belief that locations with animal's names are ultimately filled with the animals that they are named after. I'd like to think this is the case for places like Chihuahua - Mexico, Labrador - Canada, Snake Island - Australia and of course Turkey. I wish to inform you that I did not see a single turkey in Turkey. Outcome: fantasy destroyed. Having said that I found Turkey to be a real treasure and to be truly amazing. I will break my journey into 3 parts for convenience.

For those interested Turkey covers approx 783,000 square kilometers with the capital being Ankara, but the largest city is Istanbul. The main religion is Muslim and the national population is  approximately 70 million.  Occupations by the Mongols and the Ottomans have shaped Turkey greatly and the influence of these empires is evident in its culture and architecture.

An early morning arrival meant I was able to enjoy the morning light coming over the old quarter of Istanbul, also know as Sultanahmet. This is your more stereotypical traditional looking part of Istanbul and its cobblestone roads and bright box shaped houses down narrow lane ways provide hours of walking pleasure.

Morning lights hits Sultanahment

House with character

Sultanahmet is a great location as it's close to the Blue Mosque, Ayasofya as well as down town Istanbul. You will pay a premium to stay there. Having said that the atmosphere is warm and cozy and I would encourage first time visitors to give it a go.

The Blue Mosque (properly known as the Sultan Ahmed Mosque) was built in 1616 and still stands proud as one of (if not the most) beautiful mosque in Istanbul. It is given the title blue mosque due to the blue tiles on the roof. Thankfully, it is open to the public and will require your shoes to be taken off at the door so wear your best socks to avoid embarrassment.

The Blue Mosque in all its glory
I loved this tree

Main entrance to the mosque

With the weather being quite dreary the interior of the mosque was incredibly dark, but it did not detract from the beauty of this historical place of worship. Low hanging chandeliers emitted soft yellow light throughout the mosque and gave a feeling of tranquility and calm that immediately brought the crowds of tourists to a state of silence. Something about it relaxed me greatly and the high domed ceilings let rays of soft sunlight trickle there way down to the carpet, adding to an overall state of elation.

Main courtyard of the Blue Mosque

Even though it's open to tourists, respect must still be given to those who are praying

Sunlight sneaks through the domes

As with any other mosque that are open to the public, respect should be given to all worshipers present. Ultimately this is a place of worship, not a tourist attraction and that should be kept in the back of the minds of anyone attending a place of worship or of spiritual importance.

Unfortunately, with it being a Friday my time within the Blue Mosque was very limited but memorable nonetheless and highly recommended. As you depart the grounds of the Mosque you enter the Hippodrome of Constantinople, which is the former sight of chariot races and other entertainment. It's a small park area with pigeons, seating and cafes (along with the standard carpet shops) and has information boards giving a basic history of the square. It's a nice area and there is an enjoyable historical walkway between the Mosque and the Ayasofya.

Mosque detail
Obelisk of Thutmosis III in the Hippodrome of Constantinople

Noe-Byzantine German fountain

The next must see sight of Istanbul has definitely got to be the Ayasofya. Its history is amazing and from its dedication in 360 until 1463 when it served as a Greek Patriarchal church and then as a mosque from 1463 until 1931. In 1935, it was converted to a museum and what a museum it is.

Outside of Ayasofya looks like a bad building extension, but don't be fooled

After a small payment at the gate, you enter the majesty of this museum and can't help but be blown away by it. Like the Blue Mosque, it is dark and highly domed and yet having a similar tranquil feel. The alter stands at the far end of the room and huge low hanging chandeliers give the feeling of being in a two-story building except there is no roof between the two floors.  It is hard to describe, but if you get there you will know exactly what I mean.

Looking down on the main alcove

Original and stunning roof

Details fill this museum.

Many hours could be filled in this museum and the more you investigate the more this holy place reveals itself to you. It feels gothic in design yet it is not and the beauty of it, although incredibly old, still shines through to this present day allowing the Ayasofya to stand proudly next to more modern "new and opulent" Mosques and buildings.

After exploring some of the great treasures of Istanbul I'm sure you fellow eager travelers will be ready for a bite to eat. Generally, if you mention the word Turkey people automatically conjure up a desert that feels exotic when eaten yet can be difficult to find in its purer form. I will say that the culinary joys of Turkey are easy to find in Istanbul. Basically there are 4 parts to experiencing true Turkish dishes and they are as follows: Turkish tea, Lentil soup, Shish kebab and Turkish delight/baklava. Turkish tea flows through Turkish people's veins and everywhere you go it will be offered to you to drink out of small tea glasses. Offering it is a sign of hospitality and friendship.

Traditional tea setup with tea in the top pot and hot water in the bottom pot

Tea porters walk around constantly picking up and dropping off tea cups

It is a beautiful way to break the ice with a shop vendor or local and becomes highly addictive especially during the cold throws of winter and the temperature constantly dropping.  But as anyone who drinks tea knows a good cuppa is followed by a sweet of some sort. Here Turkey comes into its own with Turkish Delight and Baklava being crowd favorites even though there are many other types of sweets out there. With all the tea you will drink there will be plenty of time to try them all out.

Baklava in all its glory

Not baklava or Turkish delight but delicious nonetheless

Finally, after all the nibbling it will be time for a real meal. For outstanding value for money and freshness you can't go by a good kebap. This hot meat dish comprises of either chicken or mixed meat (lamb and beef) and is served with french fries, lettuce, tomato, cabbage and garlic sauce in pita bread. It is cheap and very filling and is always made fresh. Walking down the street every man and his dog is selling kebaps, but look out for the shops that are crazy busy with locals as this generally indicates high quality food at a reasonable price. If you have time take a minute to watch how the meat is cut from the spit. The knives are long and sharp and the skill to cut the meat off at just the right level to get the most succulent meat is an art form in itself. I lost count at the total number I consumed.

I saw this at lunchtime and by breakfast the next day it had been finished!

Istanbul isn't just old building it has its fair share of garden areas and compared to most capital cities, it is quite green. The Topkapi Palace is situated high on a hill just behind the Ayasofya. Its long walkways lead you to sensational views of the Bosphorus. This park with is manicured gardens are a favorite hangout for local couples and there is no shortage of park benches and art work to sit and enjoy. It is indeed a welcome refuge from the hustle and bustle of downtown Istanbul. Touring this park and having a cup of tea from one of the scenic view points was a personal highlight for me.

Relaxing and beautiful

Local street cat having a nap

A cup with a view awaits you at Topkapi Palace
The last must-do aspect of Turkey and one that I enjoyed thoroughly was a visit to the Grand Bazaar. Located a short walk from the Blue Mosque it was completed in 1461 and contains 58 covered streets. The place is massive and if your wishing to buy trinkets and souvenirs from here, dont be afraid to haggle the shop keepers down. If you dont like the price just move on to the next shop. You will be amazed at how far you can get the shop keeper's price down. On a side note, it seems as though every shop owner runs a carpet or a leather jacket business on the side and they will eagerly encourage you to visit their other shop. It's upto you if you do so and its only an anecdote and not a warning of danger.

Street venders both legal and illegal abound in the bazaar

Water fountain in bazaar

Stunning ceramics are easily found

Traditional lights

Only the best spices are available.
Carpets, ceramics, pottery, glassware, clothing, spices, livestock, plants and leather goods are just some of the items found in the bazaar. Take your time in this place and get there early to beat the crowds. The architecture is wonderful and by the time you have left you with have a million Turkish "friends".

Once you have completed the majority of the tourist highlights of Istanbul, I would encourage (as I always do) people to hit the pavement and see the real parts of the city. Roam the back streets, eat in local restaurants, talk to random shop owners and immerse yourself in the true Turkish culture. They are incredibly friendly and their hospitality is always warm and inviting. Although their English may not be spectacular, they will be keen to have a cup of tea with you and share stories.

Warm chestnuts and trams

Washing for prayer time
Typical Istanbul street

Bird seed lady

Original carpet maker

Plenty of live music and culture

Rainbow bus station
I hope you enjoyed my blog of Istanbul as much as I enjoyed being there. It is a vibrant city full of history, culture, great food and bargains and best of all it's all within walking distance. I look forward to my return and seeing what other gems are there to be discovered.

Soon to follow are my blogs on Cappadoccia, which is a true marvel and the rest of my travels through Turkey.

Take care and safe travels,