This is a blog post that I wrote in 2013 after first moving to Kiev, Ukraine. We had a break from work near the end of October and decided to go to Istanbul for the week. This was basically my first time going on a trip outside of Canada and the US, and my first time traveling without any family. Luckily, Britt had a little bit of experience traveling around Europe, but for the most part this was a very new experience.
Britt and I arrived in Istanbul on Sunday, October 20th. We had an early morning flight from Kiev which went pretty well considering we are both pretty big babies when it comes to flying. We maneuvered our way from the airport to our hostel quite easily using the metro, with only one setback as we missed our first stop and had to get off, go back, and correct ourselves. It was no big deal though, it just gave us something to laugh about! We made it to our hostel which was right near the metro and next door to a Starbucks, which was pretty exciting for Britt as we don’t have a Starbucks in Kiev.
This was my first hostel experience, and while I won’t say it will be my last, I am not so sure it will be something I am eager to do again. I think our hostel was clean, but it was very old and kind of gave me the heeby geebies. I am all up for roughing it, but more so in a tent with my own sleeping bags and pillows than in an uncomfortable old bed that we have to ask to have the sheets changed on because we’re not convinced they are clean. Anyways, we decided we were comfortable enough that we would stay, and we set off with our map in the general direction of Taxim Square where we were promised lots of shops and interesting sights along the way.
It was so refreshing to get to the sea line and be able to look out across the water. In Kiev, I’ve begun to feel a bit chlosterphobic out among the tall, tall buildings. It’s kind of like after being in BC for awhile. It is so beautiful and I absolutely love the trees and mountains, but after awhile I just want to be able to SEE! I guess I am just a true Saskatchewan girl, and I really do want to watch my dog run away for days and days.
One thing that we immediately noticed was all of the cats! They are literally everywhere! There are obviously stray cats and dogs in Kiev, but not like this! We could not believe how many there were, and how tame they were. Cats were everywhere, including hanging around the tables outside of restaurants. This is a good time to mention that Britt is actually afraid of cats, so needless to say we mostly spent the rest of the week dining indoors! We had to Google it when we got back to our hostel the first night, because it was just so strange to see so many cats. Turns out cats are highly tolerated and even respected within Islamic societies because of the prophet Mohammad’s love of them. It has kind of become folklore the way people will tell stories about Mohammed and cats. Most of the cats we saw were well taken care of, you can see many shops that have little food and water dishes out front for them. We read a saying, “if you kill a cat, you need to build a mosque to be forgiven by God.” It’s pretty cool to see how the city kind of networks together to take care of its collection of cats.
Anyways, we enjoyed walking down the long cobblestone street that is lined with all types of shops, including some we’ve been deprived of, like The Body Shop and Sephora. It was a very long walk, I think over an hour there, and well over an hour back because of all the shopping. We went back to our neighbourhood for a delicious dinner of hummus, pita bread, chicken curry and more. Then we headed back to our hostel. We were exhausted and ready for an early night!
The next morning we decided to get all of our shopping out of our system, so we headed to a mall! It was huge, with some of the highlights being H&M, IKEA, Zara, and Mudo. Again, we came home played out after a long and successful day in the mall.
We decided to hang out at the hostel for a bit, and then had a place in mind for dinner and were looking forward to another early night in. Because there are SO many restaurants everywhere, the waiters stand on the sidewalk and try to entice you to come in by being charming and adorable (sidetrack- if Ukraine has the most beautiful women, then Turkey has the most gorgeous men!) but it’s a lot to handle, especially for two Canadians who would never want to offend anyone, so we literally walked up the streets saying, “hi, hi, hi, hi, no thank you, hi…” Totally Night at the Roxbury.
So that night when we left the hostel I said to Britt, “get your game face on,” the plan was made, we were just going to go straight to our destination and not be swayed. About ten steps out of our hostel Brittany was having a full conversation with a local. He totally sucked us in with the line, “are you lost?” A special note here, this was not exactly a young man, and not one of the better looking ones, either.
Okay, Mom, Grandma, and any aunties, etc, you should probably stop reading now. Just a warning! But I know you won’t now, so get ready! This man told us he could recommend a restaurant to us. A really great restaurant that is was near the Blue Mosque, only two minutes away from where we were. For some reason our game plan went out the window and before I knew it we were wandering around with Omar, who was almost acting as a tour guide. Eventually we learned that he is a shop owner in a nearby market. So, naturally we ended up in the market checking out his carpets. Then, it turned out he was coming with us to dinner, not just showing us a place. I do not know why we continued to go along with this. I just kept looking at Brittany but she seemed totally fine, so I thought I’d just go along with it as well.
We found ourselves in this tiny little deserted restaurant sitting with this strange man and not really trying to make conversation. Brittany didn’t take my bate when I threw out my secret code words, “Britt, are you feeling okay?” So we stuck with it and picked something off the not-so-appealing menu. I think he lost hope in us when we wouldn’t order a drink and then said we also weren’t interested in smoking the water pipe after dinner with him. Luckily he ended up leaving without even finishing his beer. So Britt and I were left waiting for our food, and it ended up that he didn’t even order Britt what she wanted, but got her the most expensive thing on the menu.
Nothing like drumming up a bit of business for your buddies! Anyways, we ate super fast and got out of there as quickly as we could! So, being kind of kidnapped was a fun experience on our second day in Istanbul. Just kidding. Obviously, if Britt or I had ever felt like there was a real risk to our safety, we would not have gone along with it. We realize that it was still not the best choice, and after that definitely became a little more hardened to any advances that men would make at us. And we were always looking over our shoulder for Omar! Lesson learned.
To end off the night on a better note, we stopped at McDonalds to get ice cream, and were very excited to see that they served Smarties (Bonibon) McFlurry’s, which they don’t in Kiev.
Tuesday we had a really low-key and lovely day. Our motivation to leave our room was pretty much that the free breakfast ended at 10:30 and we wanted to get up to the rooftop before it was gone. The main office and lounge is at the top of a five story building, and the rooftop breakfast area has a gorgeous view overlooking the sea. It was so nice to sit up there at any time of the day, especially with the sun was shining down on us.
After breakfast we headed down to the seawall for a beautiful run along the water. The sun shone on us the whole time, so it was a really awesome run.
When we got back we took our time getting ready, then headed out towards the Grand Bizzare. We had lunch before going in, which was probably the best lunch of the trip…I had pizza and Britt had some kind of a wrap thing. Very good, anyways! The Grand Bizzare was absolutely huge, and we kind of just wandered around for a bit and then found our way out again. Britt decided she wanted to have a nap, so I went up to the rooftop of our hostel and she went back to the room. After a couple of hours I decided I should maybe go and check on her, since the plan was to only have a 20 minute nap. It was fine though, she just had a much longer nap which was obviously needed. We headed back out and did a bit of shopping and then found a great restaurant to have dinner. We sat on low couches with tons of cushions and ate our salads and our dip plate with flatbread. We also decided to carve out a plan for the rest of the week to ensure we didn’t miss anything that we were really wanting to do.
Our coworker and friend, Sean (also a Canadian) and his bf who was visiting from Toronto flew into Istanbul on Tuesday, so Wednesday we were excited to meet up and spend most of the day together. It was a pretty packed day. We went to the Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace Museum, and to the Spice Market. These places were really beautiful and I still have a hard time comprehending just how old things in Europe really are. The grandness and beauty of such places really takes your breath away, along with standing amongst things that people hundreds and hundreds of years ago built together themselves.
Britt and I did some more shopping later that afternoon, and then hung out at Starbucks in the early evening. We met up with the guys later in the evening and went out for dinner at a Thai restaurant the guys had come across. It was a really great meal. I had fried bananas and ice cream for dessert, which was so amazing! We laughed away the night, while sipping (or maybe chugging) back bottles of wine until we all decided we better make our way home.
We had a bit of a slow start on Thursday morning, which may have had something to do with the aforementioned wine. Despite this we still had a productive day. We went to the brilliant Haiga Sofia Museum which has a really rich history of being turned from a Greek Orthodox church to a mosque and now to a museum. It’s construction started in 537 and lasted several years,at which time it was opened as a church. In 1453 the area was conquered by the Ottoman Turks who then turned it into a mosque. All Christian relics were removed and any of the mosaics depicting Jesus, Mary, Saints, or angels were removed or plastered over. Islamic features took their places. It stayed this way until1931 when it was closed from public use. It re-opened four years later as a museum. Some of the original tile has been scrapped clean and you can see some of the original Christian mosaics coming through again. The tile work and grandness of this building left us in awe.
For the afternoon, we took a ferry across the straight to the side of Istanbul which is on the Asian continent. We pretty much just ate and hung out at Starbucks over there, but now I can say I’ve been to three continents, so that’s cool. I guess Istanbul is like the Lloydminister of Turkey! We also got to enjoy a beautiful sunset on the ferry ride back over to Europe. Well, I did anyways. Britt took a nap! Sensing a theme?
I think we absolutely saved the best for last. Friday, we got up just in time to get the continental breakfast, went for a gorgeous run through a small park and along the sea wall, and then went to a hamam.
I have to admit, when I first read about Turkish baths in the guidebook my reaction was, oh hell no! But the more we talked about it the more I thought it would be worth a try. So that afternoon we headed down the street to the nearest bath.
It was this super old building, and once inside, you go and change and then walk into this amazing sauna-like room with the highest ceilings and tonnes of little tiny round windows in the curved ceiling. In the center of the room was a big marble slab, and that’s where you laid down to relax and eventually be bathed. You just lay there and sweat until it is your turn, and one of the women call you over. Basically it’s like a massage, but with an exfoliater glove and lots of bubbles! When you are done you have to sit by a little sink and they dump water over you and wash your hair. Then you get to go sit in a jacuzzi.
At this point, a lady came to get me to take me to get a pedicure. After the pedi I went for my oil massage. Up until this point I was able to get away with keeping my two-piece bathing suit on, unlike all the other woman who changed into the black bottoms they supply you with, and nothing else. However, when I got to the massage table the woman pointed at my top and before I could even say “no” she undid the halter and yanked my top down around my waist. Eep! I don’t think it was hard for anyone to tell that there were two North Americans in amongst the Europeans that day! Even in the buff, it was a truly relaxing and renewing experience, and we left feeling pampered and refreshed.
Back to food… I wanted to have one more pizza before we left, so we went back to the restaurant we had eaten at the first night and had a late lunch. We spent the next few hours lounging about, Britt in our room and me up on the rooftop. The hostel owner is a really cool older Turkish man, who is very kind, funny, and easy going. He was fun to sit around and visit with, and he liked to talk about Turkey and tell us cool things about it. His name was Dodo and he kept us quite entertained!
The pizza I had for lunch hadn’t been what I was hoping for, so later that evening when we went to a restaurant that had been recommended to us by coworkers, I tried the pizza from there, and it was SO good! It’s a place we probably should have gone to earlier in the week, because the owner is really cool and we had a lot of fun there.
I even got to try Raki that night, which is a Turkish unsweetened, anise flavoured alcoholic drink that’s really popular in Turkey as a before-meal drink. It smelt like black liquorice and reminded me of zambooka. It is the national drink of Turkey and you either chase it with water or pour water into it and it turns milky. It was so gross!
As we got our bags all packed up that night, I felt like I had done pretty much all I had wanted to do while in Istanbul. We had a busy but relaxing week in a beautiful city filled with history, culture, and beauty. I will miss the friendliness of the people, the sea and the sunshine, the beautiful call to prayer that rang out over the city several times a day from the mosques, the laid back lifestyle, the food, and the cats! What an amazing week.