I got to the airport plenty early on Thursday morning for a noon flight. I thought I did a pretty terrible job of packing, since I did most of it that morning I managed to get it all in a carry-on (miracle!) and only took a skirt and a pair of leggings that I didn't wear. Bravo.
I figured MCB wouldn't show up til last call - turns out he beat me to the airport. We left LA on a beautiful sunny day, stopped in Chicago where it was 32 degrees, and I was dying to find a slice of pizza before the long haul. By the time I switched terminals, checked in again for the Istanbul flight, and went through security at the crappy terminal, there was not much time for pizza and absolutely none to be found anywhere near our gate. Boo. I ate a very expensive crappy sandwich instead.
As I stood in line to board, voila! There was the lovely Jihan. I knew she was going to Istanbul during Thanksgiving, but we didn't realize we were on the same flight over. Her friend Mark was joining her from Seattle, so the four of us swapped hellos and our dreams of Turkey while boarding. We were all split up on the plane and I was a little glum when I realized I had a middle seat. Uh....yeah, I only do long flights in business class, remember? I settled in next to a Russian lady who spoke little English, and was very confused with the video screen and menu options. She ended up in the video games section, stuck, looked at me and said 'out! out!' I helped, of course.
Turkish Airlines is apparently the best airline in Europe, and while I didn't particularly enjoy the movie selections (I'd seen most everything and wasn't able to make a dent in my Netflix queue), the food was excellent and the lip balm is still being enjoyed. I survived without getting up from my seat once.
Friday afternoon we stumbled out the plane, deplaned onto a bus, and went to figure out the visa situation. which turns out to be a ridiculously easy thing to do. You walk to a booth (short line), hand them a $20 bill, and they give you a little sticker to put in your passport. Takes all of 10 seconds.
Walking into the arrival area with tons of people smashed on top of each other waiting for friends/family was a little overwhelming, and it took us a bit to find the man with my name on a sign. Mr. Lauren, it said. I couldn't figure out gender of Turkish names before I went, turns out the reverse is also true. I'm glad I had arranged a shuttle in advance because 1) Turkish is really, really hard and I hadn't even mastered saying hello at this point 2) public transport on the subway would've required a transfer or two and walking through an area with twisty turny streets. I'm sure I would've figured it out, but I didn't want to take 2+ hours to do it. Turkish words are so foreign, there's no way I could've remember subway stop and street names without staring at written directions the entire time. I looked at the word for 'street' a gazillion times while I was there, and I definitely couldn't tell you what it is, even what letter it starts with.
One man with the sign in the airport took us to another man who drove the van, who took us to another man who had the keys to the apartment I had rented in Sultanahmet, from another man. It wasn't a bad little place, despite being pretty cold (no central heat) and a heater only in the bedroom part. Normal room temperature for the heater setting - 22C. I think I had it cranked to 30C the whole time. Getting out of the shower with wet hair in a non-heated room - almost my worst nightmare.
My first glimpse into Turkish TV - a gazillion music video channels. I saw the Turkish Lady Gaga and Turkish Ricky Martin. There were no English channels to be had, despite a plethora of news from Azerbaijan and Georgia. Does anyone even care about these places? I do now.
We ventured out into the night, aiming to aimlessly wander and not get too lost. After some twists and turns and hassles at a marketplace, we came upon the Blue Mosque.
Has anyone else seen this set up? You plug the iron into the board and the board into the wall? I guess that solves any cord problems, but I've never seen this....random.
wailing bright and early at 530); I survived a shower in a cold room with wet hair and it was time to set off. My DC friend, Robin, was also in Turkey for an 11-day tour and she had that day free in Istanbul. We met up near the Blue Mosque and got started on the tourist checklist. First stop, back at the Blue Mosque.
It's old. And religiously significant. And that's all very fascinating to me. In case you don't remember history class, today's structure was completed in 537 - it was the center of the Eastern Orthodox church for almost 1000 years and the pinnacle of Byzantine architecture. It was pretty beat up by earthquakes, fires and sieges, so when the Ottomans rolled into Constantinople in the mid-15th century, the Sultan overhauled it and converted it to a mosque. Ataturk made it into a museum in 1935.
I wen through this door, even though it was emperors only at one point.
Deësis Mosaic is a traditional depiction, with the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist on either side of Christ.
Bottom line - you should see this place.
I grabbed some Pom juice to go - fresh squeezed. It's delicious and plentiful.
Next stop up the road, Topkapi Palace, home to the Ottoman Sultans, their harems and courtspeople for 400 years, starting in the mid-15th century. It's almost 200 acres, overlooking the sea.
this one, and clothes of the sultan (my one stealth photo). Emeralds, glittering swords, an 88-carat diamond, Chinese vases, the wealth went on and on....
It's underground, it's dark and slightly creepy, and there are MEDUSA HEADS. It's apparently one of many cisterns underneath Istanbul, but definitely the best known.
hammam, but I wasn't yet smart in my Turkish ways.
Barış had lived in the US for awhile, and I'm sure he only wanted to practice English with me. I promised to come back the next morning for their first tour at 930.
I also stopped by a travel agency to book an airport shuttle the next day and ended up booking a full day tour in my next city of Selçuk, because I hadn't done any planning for that leg of the trip. Travel agency > internet in most cases in Turkey, just so you know. Find one on your first day in the country and they'll hook you up. Saves you a lot of time trying to figure out airport transfers to a tiny hotel that doesn't do online bookings and doesn't speak English. Take the easy road and save yourself some headaches. Have a Turk make some calls for you. It works well.
I made a grocery store trip and scored two bottles of water and a candy bar for one dollar for dinner.
I was up again at the crack of down in my cold little apartment, grabbed a sesame bagel and pom juice to go, and sure enough - Barış was waiting for me like he said.
Dolmabahce is a guided tour only which I didn't realize and takes a little over an hour, which meant I'd miss the bus that only comes 'round once an hour. To do it or not to do it? I was already off the bus and on the grounds, so I went.
After lunch I headed back to my little apartment, gathered my things and went to wait outside the travel agency for my airport shuttle. They invited me inside to wait and shoved more apple tea down my throat (it's delicious!) until the crazy young driver showed up in van to haul a bunch of tourists to the airport. I got stuck in the middle front seat and was sure I was going to be thrown out the windshield when we wrecked.