While many thought it odd, Deanna had wanted to go to Romania for quite some time. The Transylvania region, Carpathian Mountains, and of course... Dracula! Who wouldn't want to go? Looking into the trip, it would be easy to stay over a week just to have enough time to travel to each city and landmark, but since we want to carefully manage vacation days, 6 nights was the minimum. Since we were going to be traveling so far east, Kevin had said he really wanted to check out Istanbul, Turkey. So we decided to make it a just over a week-long trip between two weekends, traveling direct to Istanbul, staying 3 nights, flying to Bucharest, renting a car and driving all over for 6 nights, before finally flying back to Hannover.
We actually got a really good deal with the airlines. Flying direct to Istanbul, then one-way to Bucharest, then back to Hannover (with a layover in Istanbul) with Turkish Airlines only cost $270 per person! The best part was actually the “old school” service on the flights that can only be read about in history books in the US… First we were greeted not only by the flight attendants when boarding, but also a chef! They passed out Turkish delight appetizers as soon as we got in the air, then came around with 3-course menus so you knew what to choose from when the food cart came, then with the food came the drink cart, where you could choose from freshly squeezed orange juice or lemonade, soda, or alcohol -- all for free! This is all despite the fact that most Turkish people don’t drink alcohol, due to religion. For us, this was an excellent start to our trip.
As the largest city in the Middle East with over 15 million inhabitants, Istanbul has over 3,000 mosques. While only a few are popular tourist sites, it is amazing to be able to look in any direction and see such beautiful, historical structures, with so many of them dating back to the 15th century.
The Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque are directly across from each other and are the main focal points connecting a large, beautiful square. While the Hagia Sophia is well known by name, the view from the outside is nowhere near as impressive as the other mosques, especially in comparison to the stunning Blue Mosque. However, once inside, the Hagia Sophia is gorgeous, whereas the Blue Mosque is interesting, but wouldn’t be worth the wait (we went 10 minutes before it closed to the public and got right in, but heard of people waiting in line for over an hour to see it!) The Hagia Sophia was also extremely interesting, because it was initially built as an Orthdox Church, and over the many centuries and re-constructions due to fires and wars, was converted into a mosque. Now it is just a museum, but it’s so interesting to see scripture from the Koran in one area, then pictures or carvings of Jesus or the Virgin Mary in another.
The one thing that can (literally) not be missed is the call to prayer. Five times a day the ezan is bellowed through loud speakers from the towers of different mosques. While it will easily be heard while roaming the streets, the call from the Blue Mosque is the most entrancing. One day we sat on a bench in the square between the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia, and the surround-sound of the approximately 10-minute call was both beautiful and surreal.
The most well-known thing to do when visiting Istanbul is going to their bazaars. The Spice Bazaar is amazing, and not a place to go if you are hungry. The aroma from all the spices and teas are overwhelming (in a good way), and the constant presentation of Turkish Delight and baklava makes your mouth water. It is very easy to walk in just to look around, but walk out with bags of goodies and needing another trip to the ATM… The Grand Bazaar certainly lives up to its name. It is one of the largest covered markets in the world, and with over 3,000 shops easily attracts between 250,000 and 400,000 visitors per day. Navigating the Bazaar is near impossible for new visitors, as it’s easy to get lost among the endless rows of stands. After a few twists and turns, we needed to use GPS just to figure out which direction we were headed so that we could exit!
While shopping through the Bazaars is certainly a big plus of Istanbul, the biggest negative is the constant harassment of the workers for you to come into their shop and buy something. While the people were all extremely nice, constantly hearing “Money for your honey?” or “Can I help you spend your money?” while funny at first, quickly became an annoyance and we found ourselves speeding past some areas that we might have actually had interest in purchasing something.
While digging though travel forums and blogs and reddit posts on things to do in Istanbul, Kevin came across an interesting find. A person had written about a place near the Grand Bazaar, where you walk through a side entryway that just leads to a parking lot. However, if you go up a set of stairs before the lot, you end up walking around and old, run-down building that is a mix of apartment entrances, back-entrances into restaurants, and abandoned buildings. Walking for a bit (and being unsure if we were in the right place or not), we came across an old man standing in front of a big locked door. He looked at us and said something, to which we just pointed up and the old man nodded his head. He unlocked the door and we gave him 5 Turkish Lira (about 2 dollars) and we walked up to the roof. There we were able to walk around and get stunning views of Istanbul, and some great pictures! Luckily, it is not a well-known tourist spot, because it felt quite crowded with the 5-10 other people there taking in the views (almost all of which had DSLR cameras and tripods).
We spent about a half a day at Topkapi Palace, which served as residence and seat of the Ottoman Empire for about 400 years. While not as visually stunning as other parts of the city, the history and artifacts stored here are not to be missed. There were huge crowds to see the exhibits, which contain some possessions of the Islamic prophet Mohammad. Istanbul is commonly seen as a juxtaposition; with a bridge crossing from Europe to Asia, the overlapping of the Christian and Muslim faiths, and the varied rulers over time. However, we feel that this picture (taken at Topkapi) accurately sums up the city today as a westernized version of Islamic society.
Below the city lies the ancient Basilica Cistern, which is essentially a water storage area built underneath the city. It is absolutely impressive due to its size once one considers the time that it was built. Unfortunately, that was based on slave power and resulted in the death of many of the workers. The Basilica has been commonly used in media references, most recently in Dan Brown’s latest book Inferno. In the far corner of the Basilica are two columns with a Medusa head as the base: one upside down, one on the side. While the exact reason is not known, it is rumored they were sculpted to help ward off bad luck and evil spirits.
One of our last trips to a souvenir shop proved to be a bit more somber than we had expected. We ended up chatting with one of the employees there for about 30 minutes as we were deciding on certain items. He moved to Istanbul about 2 years ago from Syria. All of the fighting, and why people want to kill each other, especially in the name of religion, he just can’t understand. He was studying at a university there, and will never forget the day he decided to leave: when one of his best friends dropped dead next to him, hit by a sniper shot to the head, with more bullets whizzing past him. Hearing stories such as this is part of the reason that we are here, to truly learn and experience the world around us, outside the bubble that we lived in in the US. However, this salesman was quite in contrast to another we spoke to in the spice bazaar, who’s goal is to save up enough money to get out of Istanbul, the place where he grew up, and go travel around Norway with his bike.
On our last day in Istanbul, we signed up for a food tour with a local company. The tour lasted about 6 hours, and took us to about 10 different restaurants, shops and markets to experience a full day of authentic Turkish food like a local would eat. We started off at a little hole in the wall tea shop. The tea in Istanbul works like this: everyone has a “tea guy,” who knows exactly how you like your tea and how often you want it. In advance, you purchase 50 or so cups of tea, each cup represented by a small plastic token. He brings the tea by to you, and when you’re finished you leave the cup with one plastic token and he comes by later and picks it all up. When out of tokens, you go back and purchase more; simple and efficient. Next up was a full Turkish breakfast. The majority of the food was nothing like American breakfast foods: vegetables, salads, olives, cheeses, meats, breads—there was one item with egg in it. But our favorite item there was a sort of cream cheese that comes from water buffalo, which are raised by the owner’s family. You drizzle honey on top of it and dip into it with simit, which is like a pretzel covered with sesame seeds—that was heavenly. The theme of our specific food tour was “two continents,” so we took the ferry over to the Asian side and walked through a market there, trying some interesting things: fried sardine like fish that you eat whole (head, tail and all!) with lemon and arugula, some sort of green leafy seaweed, and fried stuffed mussels. Our next stop introduced us to tripe soup, which is based from cow’s stomach—it was quite creamy, but tasted almost fatty. Then we had a kebap wrap with incredible sauces, however served on the side was homemade Ayran, which is a sort of yogurt based drink, with some hint of sourness—Deanna liked it better the second time we had it, but Kevin wouldn’t even try it a second time! The day finished off with some sweets (Turkish delight, baklava, something that looked like a churro), and learning how to drink a Turkish coffee (including turning it upside down at the end and “reading” the plate like a fortune). What a unique experience!
Walking around Istanbul, you are bound to run into the many stray cats and dogs. Noticeable are the tags on the animals, which indicates they have already been picked up by the city and vaccinated. We never saw any animals that looked sick, undernourished, or aggressive towards humans—by the time we left, they seemed to fit in and are just a part of the city’s culture. This was essentially a warm-up to all the roaming animals we were about to see on the next part of our trip.
Part 2, Romania -- Up Next!