Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine I would be moving to a foreign country to live, let alone a country in the Middle East. Over the 2009 Christmas and New Year’s holidays, my husband Roger and I discussed what we wanted the next part of our life to be like. He thought that before retiring, he would like to do one more airport project but only if he could find something very interesting. I half-jokingly agreed that would be fine but could he try for an exotic location? As usual, Roger came through and soon we were headed to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. This blog is a recap of our "leap-of- faith" wanderings around the Middle East and beyond. We joyfully share these expat experiences.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Travel to Turkey . . . TŰRKIYE ODYSSEY – PART 2 – Ìstanbul, the Alpha City

Our Türkiye odyssey continues as we travel from the tranquil rustic landscape of the mountains along the Aegean coast to the majestic but jarring urban bustle that is the alpha city of Ìstanbul.

Ìstanbul welcomes us with an overload of sensory experiences; glorious cool weather, obscene traffic jams, lots of hills, more obscene traffic jams, old men sitting at sidewalk cafes, still more obscene traffic jams, lots of bright young people, still more obscene traffic jams and the national drink of Turkey, “lion’s milk” also known as Raki, which relieves all the pain of the traffic jams.

A Raki toast to traffic jams!
We still find Ìstanbul bedazzling with its kinetic, frenzied atmosphere that is contagious from the moment you reach the city.

As the third largest metropolitan city in Europe, after London and Moscow, it is immense. It is the only city in the world that occupies two continents – Europe and Asia.  

Straddling the Bosphorus, a strait that divides Europe and Asia, this alpha city climbs up the hills that ring the city for as far as you can see. We are enthralled by it all. Well, except for the traffic!

Before we leave Ìstanbul we will be even more in love with this vibrant city of opulent palaces, quaint gingerbread yalis, colorful apartment houses hugging the steep hills, stunning mosques and churches, the harmonious, if a bit disjointed, timbre of the spoken Turkish language and most enjoyable, the warm hospitality of the people.

But first we must settle into our accommodations. For a second time, I am faced with a difficult situation.

We requested a boutique hotel with an elevator in the Sultanahmet district, the old part of town.

 “What part of the memo ‘stairs are difficult for me’ did the tour operator miss?” I wonder.

The uniqueness and charm of the Nişanyan House outweighed the discomfort there; however, our little Ìstanbul “boutique hotel” has a definite lack of charm. The manager proudly and graciously announces that he is upgrading us to the deluxe suite . . . on the 4th floor . . . but they don’t have a lift!!!

Proving to be an un-flappable host, the manager quickly suggests, “Perhaps you will be more comfortable at our other hotel that does have a lift.”

This proves to be a good decision and while we aren’t upgraded to a suite (the room is so small only one of us can move around at a time), we are able to secure the one and only suite the second night for an extra charge.

In deference to the Hotel Kűpeli Palace, what it lacks in charm (its lobby is more like a store front than the charming boutique hotel ordered), it makes up for in cleanliness and the gracious hospitality of the staff. 

They make our stay fantastic. It is within walking distance of all the important sites of Sultanahmet if you can mount the hills. Across the street, we find decent food and wonderful service at the Tandistanbul restaurant.

On our first excursion we get a break from the traffic (once we get to the ferry) with a cruise along the Asian side of Ìstanbul on the Sea of Marmara. We are headed for the Princes’ Islands, a cluster of nine islands off the Asian side of Ìstanbul where they used to send deposed royalty to cool their heels. We visit the largest island, Bűyűkadal.

We enjoy a “fayton” (horse drawn carriage) ride around the island viewing the stunning “gingerbread” mansions and have a delightful lunch on the waterfront savoring fresh seafood.

“I love the Bűyűkadalians – no traffic jams as motorized transport is banned here!”

The excitement comes from a few quick sprint races with other faytons with the drivers cheer their might steeds on with, “deh, dıgı dık, deh.”  

On the trip home, we are delighted to meet a merry band of teenage Tűrks who have gone to the island for an afternoon of swimming. They are all around 16 years old and delight in speaking with Americans. If they are the future of Tűrkiye, the country is in good hands. See postscripts.

Yalis on the Bosphorus
We enjoy a second cruise is along the Bosporus which runs from the Sea of Marmara to the Black Sea. It gives us a sense of the breath of the city that stretches unendingly in either direction.

The shores are lined with a plethora of ancient castles, palaces, yalis (quaint wooden summer mansions built next to the water), and other interesting sites. We are riveted by the scale and majesty of the view. We enjoy another wonderful fresh fish lunch on the Bosporus at Seastar 1 Fish and Wine Centre.

Oh, by the way, our considered opinion is that Turkish wine is not to our taste – or maybe we just didn’t get to the “good stuff.” However, the real find was the Efes beer. Outstanding when icy cold and it becomes our elixir washing away all the aches and pains of crawling all over these mesmerizing ancient sites.

Boy does Ìstanbul “got palaces.” 

The Beylerbeyí Palace was originally built in 1839, but it burned down in 1865, and was rebuilt by Sultan Abdűlaziz who used his summer palace to entertain foreign statesmen. Among its guests were Franz Joseph, Emperor of Austro-Hungry, Empress Eugenie of France, and German Emperor Wilhelm II. The opulence, while wildly extravagant by our standards, we come to find is quite sedate compared to other palaces we see.

Roger in the Topkapi Palace's Harem courtyard
The Topkapi Palace was completed in 1478 by Sultan Mehmed II. It served as the imperial residence of the Ottoman Sultans as well as the administrative, education and art centre of the Empire for four centuries. The marvels of this palace are stunning but the bus load after bus load of people keep us from truly savoring the magnificence of this Sultan’s palace.  The Treasury, which showcases the sultan’s “bling-bling” does afford us a quick peek at Sultan Mahmud 1’s infamous Topkapi dagger as well as breathtaking jewelry and jeweled clothing.

The third palace we visit is the Dolmabahaçe Palace, the last great palace built in Ìstanbul. This opulent palace was completed by Sultan Abdűl Mecit in 1856. It was his way of disparaging rumors of the Ottoman’s decline. Of special note is the Crystal Staircase made of Baccarat crystal. President Atatűk died here in 1938 and all the clocks are set at 9:05 to commemorate this event.

In Istanbul’s ancient Hippodrome stands the
Obelisk of Theodosius 
erected in 390 AD
The Hippodrome captivates Roger with its layers of history and dignity. As he stands in what was once the site of a 100,000 seat stadium, he re-lives the chariot races, athletic competitions and major civic events that were central to Byzantine life here for more than 1300 years.

Now a pleasantly landscaped public promenade lined with a few remaining ancient monuments, here more than any place we visit, we feel the ancient city’s heartbeat.

Within walking distance are the renowned Blue Mosque and the stunning Hagia Sophia considered the epitome of Byzantine architecture. 

Blue Mosque
One of the most famous religious structures in the world, the Blue Mosque takes its name from the tens of thousands of blue Iznik tiles that adorn its interior.

Commissioned by Sultan Ahmet I, its opulence sparked considerable “controversy as a sacrilegious attempt to rival the architecture of Mecca.”   The beauty of the building is enhanced by its perfect proportions and the six minarets and domes which give it a distinctive voluptuous profile.

Hagia Sophia
Entering the Hagia Sophia, the “Church of Holy Wisdom,” we are awed by its soaring dome (184 feet) that imparts an incredible celestial aura. Built more than 1400 years ago in 537 by Emperor Justinian, it was converted into a mosque by the Ottomans in the 15th century. When Justinian entered the Hagia Sophia for the first time he exclaimed,

“Glory to God that I have been judged worthy of such a work. Oh Solomon! I have outdone you!”    

Once again, amazing architecture was used to dispel rumors of the Empire’s demise – this time the Roman Empire.

Basilica Underground Cistern
The underground Basilica Cistern, located under the Sultanahmet Square, was built by Justinian in 532 to supply the city with water. It was fed by water brought from the Belgrade forest by canals and aqueducts and holds 100,000 tons of water.  That is equal to the amount of water displaced by the Nimitz-class nuclear-powered aircraft carriers. 

Today, it has a supernatural feel given the dramatic lights, the two Medusa heads that form the base of two of the 336 columns, and the scads of fish swimming around.      

The fresco in the dome of Chora’s paraecclesion depicts theVirgin Mary and the child Jesus attended by 12 angels.
Tucked into the western district, we find the most charming site - the diminutive Church of St. Saviour in Chora valued for its Byzantine architecture and stunning mosaics and frescoes. In 1511 it was converted to a mosque. When converted, the mosaics, depicting the lives of Jesus and Mary, and frescos, depicting scenes from the Old Testament, were left untouched with some being “preserved” behind layers of plaster and wooden panels.  

For the fourth day in a row we are dropped back at our hotel exhausted and dazed by all that we have taken in and slightly disappointed that there is still so much more to be discovered in Ìstanbul.  This is definitely a city that will take quite a few visits to conquer.

 “Oh please Roger! How can we come all this way to Ìstanbul and not go to the Grand Bazaar? This is on our last day; we just have to do it!” Poor weary Roger wakes up on our last day in Ìstanbul to a pleading wife.

My darling Roger gives in and we set off on foot up a very steep hill, I can do this when there is something really important to me, to find the Grand Bazaar reputed to be within walking distance.

We are not disappointed. It is a colorful warren, not unlike the souqs of Dubai, with goods of all kinds – clothing, antiques, rugs, jewelry – just take your pick. 

Roger purchases a Turkish tea set while I discover an amazing leather store and buy a beautiful white leather jacket (see postscripts). We pass on the antique rifle, just can’t figure out how to get it through customs and on the plane, and I am unable to find the right leather purse or harem pants that I have been looking for since arriving in Tűrkiye . . . just a more excuses to return.

Since we are not totally annihilated from traversing sites today, we spend our last night dining at the beautiful rooftop restaurant of the Seven Hills Hotel.

We leisurely savor a delightful meal, a surprisingly good bottle of wine and the amazing view. On one side we overlook the Bosporus, and on one side the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia.  It is a perfect romantic ending to an outstanding trip through the amazing country of Tűrkiye.        

Add L. to r. footballer Huseyin Itkin, weight lifter Özgűr Bilen,
 footballers Furkor Gundede, Batuhan Diler,
Emre Huan, Samet Ilhan and basketballer Akin Simit.

The Young Tűrkes . . . We love meeting people when we travel and was absolutely delighted when we were approached by this merry band of 7 teenagers. Their curious enthusiasm in us and America was enchanting. 

Bright and charming, all of them professed to be good students. As I said before, If this is the future face of Tűrkiye, I think the country is in good hands. 

Study hard boys!

Katie in her leather jacket at sunset
overlooking the Hagia Sophia
Turkish leather . . . One item Tűrkiye is known for is its leather. I was hoping to find a nice leather purse but instead wound up with the most amazing leather jacket.
It is amazingly light and just right for the Dubai and South Florida warm climate! Proprietor Fahrettin Zengin was most cordial in helping me make my selection.
I highly recommend a visit there if you get to Ìstanbul or to their wholesale outlet in New Jersey.  Nuretti Exclusive  

Fadwa Al Qasem . . . Roger and I were not the only ones visiting Turkey in September. My new, very talented friend, Fadwa was also there and shared some of her magnificent photos.

Fadwa is a woman with a restless soul & gypsy's spirit of Palestinian origin, born in Libya, with Canadian citizenship. Currently teaching Art Journaling courses at WAFI Cleopatra Club.
This is one talented lady who is an author, artist, translator and most importantly stunning jewelry designer. You know how I love my bling-bling! Visiting with her in the very near future. 


  1. Wonderful post. I had to laugh at the hotel story. We stayed at the Lady Diana, but I feel sure that she would have never set foot there. Still, it was charming and my roommate and I shared a very cozy (small) room. I didn't even know they made 1/2 bath tubs until then, but it all made for some fantastic memories that I wouldn't trade for anything.

  2. Wow! These two posts on your TŰRKIYE odyssey were fabulous!!! Thanks so much for sharing and for the inspiration. I want to visit there now. Especially the Hagia Sophia!

  3. Wonderful post Katie! Glad you loved Istanbul, too. Thank you so much for including my photos and for mentioning me in your post.. you're a sweat heart!

  4. We stayed at the 7 hills - the best view in Istanbul from that restaurant. Glorious city.

  5. So glad everyone is enjoying my Turkey stories . . . it is a marvelous country . . . more to come I promise. Although we did not visit the eastern part of Turkey, our prayers are with those who have suffered through the devastating earthquake.

  6. What a great post - you did so much! How long were you there? We went for 5 days and only got through about a third of that!

  7. We were in Istanbul for 5 days . .and as Roger reminded me, "You over booked us again!" It was a bit of a forced march, and I payed for it when I came home, but it was worth every minute, every palace step and every ache and pain!

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