A quick weekend getaway to Istanbul
09.09.2010 - 13.09.2010 26 °C
M and I decided that we should do something interesting for the Eid break. A whole 2 days off was not something to take lightly. Tag a weekend to that and you have 4 days to play with. Fortunately, our homebase offers us a myriad of options for a quick getaway. We both quickly agreed that Istanbul is definitely a place not to be missed. So off we were -- in view of my upcoming, extended adventure, we decided that this should be a budget getaway. So we booked a cheap-ish package with Emirates. The total cost of flights (direct from Dxb - Ist) and accommodation (on a b+b basis with airport transfers) came to roughly USD 850 for four days and four nights. Not bad eh? This was through a travel agent - and yes, I know that one can get cheaper deals on the net but we didn't have the time, inclination or the mindset to trawl through 100 different websites in the hope of finding that perfect cheap deal. What follows is just a snapshot of our trip but hopefully it will assist those who are considering stunning Istanbul as their next holiday destination.
A number of nationalities do not need to obtain visas prior to reaching Turkey. I know it can be a real nuisance to try and figure out whether you need a visa (not just for Turkey but for any country) if you hold a non-US/UK/Aus passport. After doing a number of searches on the net, I finally came across the perfect visa inquiry page -- and it was on none other than Emirates' website. You just need to feed in your nationality, your place of residence and your destinations (main and transit) and voila! You have the required info. It is also kept up to date. So here is the all important link to the page: Visa check
Turkey is generally quite relaxed about tourist visas and, in my case, I was told that I could obtain one upon arrival at the airport since I had a valid US visa. If you are an Indian passport holder and have a valid US, UK or Schengen visa, you are allowed to get the Turkish visa on arrival. That is the new rule but did the Turkish immigration officials know about the new rule when I reached Istanbul?
If the answer was "yes", would I be asking the question? So, as you can probably guess my wait at immigration in Istanbul airport was not a matter of minutes but a matter of hours. Two to be precise. Interestingly, Emirates officials in Dubai airport were well aware of the new Turkish immigration rules. Emirates rocks.
The cost for the visa is USD 20.
As with any other major city, there are options to suit every budget and taste.
M and I chose a modest hotel in the Taksim area which was comfortable but not recommendation-worthy. My suggestion would be to stay at Sultanahamet or by the Bosphorus. Try the Pera Palace Hotel, where M and I enjoyed some delicious pastries. Apparently, Agatha Christie wrote her novel, Murder on the Orient Express, in room 411. Other fab hotels by the Bosphorus include the Four Seasons, the Hilton and Kempinski.
You HAVE to visit Aya Sofya, the Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace and the Dolmabahce Palace. There is enough literature on them in the various guide books. Each of these can take as much time as you allot to them, i.e you can spend a few hours in each if you choose to so do. M and I spent between 3 - 4 hours in each place.
Grab something to eat/drink and spend time gazing at the locals from the park just outside the Blue Mosque too. Nice way to spend a lazy afternoon!
Dolmabahce was my favourite -- it's the place where Ataturk lived and died. Ataturk is the founder/creator of Turkey as we know it. The palace is absolutely stunning! Don't miss it. M and I braved a harsh downpour to visit but it was sooo worth it!
Walking along the Galata bridge was also very enjoyable -- tons of people fishing makes for great photographs!
We didn't have time to make it to Princes Islands but that was highly recommended by people who have been to Turkey more than once.
Do try the set menu at the seafood restaurant, the Blue Topaz, at Reina . The set menu is TL 90 pp (TL = USD 0.667 approx) and is a real feast! Entry to the restaurant means you can stay on until the DJ starts spinning. Reina seems to be the most popular place to party in Istanbul as of now.
Also have a drink at 360 which is located in an apartment building on Istiklal Street. The drinks are average and the service dismal - but the view is good!
M and I had lunch at the restaurant at Topkapi palace and were pleasantly surprised - yes, the prices were a bit steep but the view was magnificent. I had the spinach pastry, an apple tea and fruit salad. All yummy! Came to roughly TL 35.
Also try the restaurants and bars in the Beyoglu area -- very entertaining as a result of the mix of people who are around at any one point in time. M and I had dinner at Refik's which had excellent mezze. We also tried Raki, the local liquor (which reminded me a lot of Greek Ouzo), and let's just say it sent us on a bit of a ride.
The House Cafe and ADA Cafe at Istiklal Street are good places to have coffee or a glass of wine or lunch and just chill out and people-watch!
Do try the Pudding Shop at Sultanahamet -- very satisfying Turkish food at rock bottom prices - around TL 20 pp. M and I had the lamp doner and the chicken doner, respectively. Huge portions.
If you're after another great view of Istanbul, try the Pierre Loti cafe, located on the terrace of the Pierre Loti Hotel - M and I only had a drink there but the food looked good too.
We didn't care for the Turkish icecream that is available at every street corner in Istanbul -- it may be because it is apparently made of goat's milk and not cow's milk. The texture was very un-icecream like.
Grand Bazaar is overrated for someone coming from the Middle East -- which has its share of souks and shopkeepers trying to rip you off. Worth a visit for souvenirs I guess but the haggling can be quite tiring. Start with 50% of whatever the shopkeeper quotes and take it from there. M and I ended up buying Turkish delight, t-shirts, evil eye medallions and apple tea. Other things you could buy there include carpets, lamps, jewellery, fake bags and shoes.
I quite liked the Spice Souk (the Egyptian Bazaar) -- people were warm, welcoming and friendly. Didn't buy anything from there but good to check out the atmosphere and locals haggling for cheap spices.
Istiklal Street is good for shopping, although we didn't do much as there were so many more interesting things to do!
The Bosphorus cruise is a must - you could do the private thing (which lasts close to 6 hours) but M and I chose to do the shorter and more economical "Turyol" cruise which leaves from the base of the Galata bridge, lasts 90 minutes and costs TL 20 pp. It leaves every hour so you can just walk up to the counter and buy tickets. It's the way the locals do it. There are drinks and snacks onboard. Unfortunately, the audio commentary was only in Turkish so we missed out on the names of the buildings that we were passing but if you have your guide book handy this should not be too much of an issue.
The whirling Sufi/Dervish dancers show was hugely entertaining and trance-inducing. In a good way. It lasted one hour and tickets can be bought on the day. M and I watched one at a theatre off Istiklal.
Travelling by Metro is cheap, convenient and comfortable. Each token or "jeton" is TL 1.50 for a one way ride. Taxis, though metered, can be expensive.
Nothing and I mean nothing can prepare you for a Turkish bath. But it has to be done. M and I chose to visit the Galatasaray Hammam which is located off Istiklal Street, in the Beyoglu area, for our quintessential Turkish experience. The hammam is one of the oldest in Istanbul and was built in 1481.
We were shown to the ladies area entrance and, after climbing a narrow staircase, reached the main reception area. It was basic and populated by a receptionist who spoke English and had a price list behind her. The price list set out the various options, ranging from "only bath" to "pasha service". M and I chose the "full service" (approx USD 65) which included a bath, scrub and massage. The pasha service also includes an oil massage after the bath.
We were shown to our changing room, given a sarong-type sover and politely asked to strip. Since the instructions came from a lady old enough to be my grandmother, who had a no-nonsense, mean look about her, M and I quickly did as we were told. I suddenly felt like I was 7 again and, this was the point at which, for M and me, our friendship reached a new, more familiar level.
We were then shown into the hot room, which has natural sunlight coming through the dome-shaped roof and where there is a huge stone in the middle (on which there are other bath-seeking individuals sprawled) made of marble. After a rinse, we were asked to lay on the stone. The steam pervading the room made our muscles go into a semi-coma state. There were basins surrounding the marble slab with side stones to sit on and wash. After a 20 minute lie on the hot stone, my human scrubber came in and asked me to come to the edge of the hot stone. She then proceeded to slather me with soap and scrub at the same time. Although my scrubber was on the heavy side, her arms were toned and rock solid, and my bones felt their wrath. Each soap-filled stroke was determined to extract whatever dirt it could find on my epidermis. Soap, scrub, repeat. This went on for about 15 minutes -- although in the hot room, time seemed to be irrelevant as a concept. After the soaping, my scrubber sat on the side stone of one of the basins and made me sit on the floor in front of her. She then proceeded to wash my hair and scrub some more. Finally, it was time for the much-needed rinse. De-soapified, I was made to lie on the edge of the hot stone again to enjoy a very relaxing head to toe massage. This lasted another 15 minutes.
At the end, my scrubber looked at me and asked, with a toothy grin, "Goodh?". I only had enough energy by that point to give her a thumbs up sign.
Having been soaped, scrubbed, rinsed, massaged and hung out to dry, I was then left alone. To just be. To reflect on the last 50 minutes.
And to ask myself the question: "So, if this is a bath, what have I been doing all my life?".