End of the line at Istanbul’s Sirkeci station – at last!
Well, what can I say about Istanbul? Busy? Yes. Vibrant? Definitely. Beautiful? Without a doubt. It’s pretty much lived up to expectations and then some – stunning mosques; East meets West; the noisy and bustling pace of life – and that’s just during the daytime.
The Blue Mosque, Sultanahmet
We were lucky that when we arrived the sun had come out, and by the time we made it out into Sultanahmet the day was positively balmy. Well, it was compared to the crisp February Bulgarian air the previous evening! The Blue Mosque is the first thing we saw as we get off at the tram stop, with all the imposing beauty you’d expect from an ancient place of worship.
The Blue Mosque
The fountains that play between it and the neighbouring Aya Sofia make me think English stately home though, and the formal park gardens as you face the Aya Sofia complete the confusing sense that you’re at once at home and somewhere very different and exciting at the same time. It’s Friday, and prayer time, and calls ringing out from every minaret (of which there are many, wherever you look in Istanbul) add to the magic of the city.
The Aya Sofia
But then we pay a visit to the Grand Bazaar, one of the biggest covered markets in the world, and the wonderful smelling Spice Bazaar – and quickly learn to say “no thankyou” and “maybe later” in Turkish. It’s not a scary experience though, and walking through a Turkish marketplace is nothing like avoiding pushy UK Del Trotters. It’s almost like bidding on ebay, but with interaction with actual human beings, and ones that take actual joy and pride in the small talk that surrounds a good sales pitch. The shopkeepers here are complete masters of the art and we quickly learn that we can reply to a shout of “Where you from? English?” without obligation to stop or buy, and can stop and look without obligation to buy – as long as we buy into the dance, the business flirtation, and aren’t afraid to say “no not today” with a laugh and a smile, it’s all part of the fun of Istanbul.
The Grand Bazaar
This spirit extends to everywhere we go, and street cafe waiters stand on the street and offer us tea and kebabs. In England we’d not touch places who resorted to such pushiness, but in Istanbul it’s not pushy, it’s just the way they advertise. When we decide to accept a seat and a menu, the waiters keep popping back to chat to us, laugh with us, try and guess where in England our accents are from, teach us some Turkish, and treat us like we’re long lost friends. At the end of the day of course it makes good business sense to treat your customers like this, but it’s also obvious these waiter-maitre’Ds quite enjoy chatting and gossiping with their guests. It beats standing in a hot kitchen bitching about the menu if nothing else!
Berna, Dave, Derya and me overlooking the Bosphorous on the Terrace of a swanky 5th floor bar
The best bits of Istanbul for me were both down to my wonderful new friend Berna and her fiance Derya, who live in their native Istanbul. Berna offered to take us out and show us the famous Istanbul nightlife, Turkish style. Our first port of call was a swanky rooftop bar overlooking the Bosphorous, with breathtaking views of a spectacularly lit up city (captured, albeit through plexi-glass, above). Then onto heaving backstreet bars full of atmosphere, crammed with street tables – even electricity failure (a particularly smelly generator blow-out) didn’t damped the fun – 5 minutes later and a back-up generator had the lights and music back on again, unlike in England where if there’s a power cut we’re all unceremoniously asked to leave and go home early.
Me & Berna
Not content with wowing us with the vibrancy of the Turkish bar and clubbing culture, Berna and Derya then took us for midnight munchies, again traditional Turkish style, and persuaded us to try deep fried mussels (very nice), deep fried whitebait (um, fishy), seasoned pig intestine (less seasony, more intestiney to my freshly non-vegetarian palate, but Dave liked it so all was not lost), and raki. Raki is of course the Turkish tipple, similar to Ouzo, and Derya explains to us how it should be drunk correctly, which involves filling your glass half with raki, topping up with water, and savouring it. In Turkey, your raki doesn’t accompany your meal, your meal accompanies your raki. We’d never have found any of these little streets or bars or restaurants without our expert hosts, but it’s safe to say that our Istanbul experience was the best night out of the trip – it’s certainly obvious why the vibe of Taksim during the day, and even more so at night, makes it the bit of Istanbul to visit if you want to feel the city.
Midnight munchies & raki
So on to my final highlight, a tourist trip along the Bosphorus river, again recommended by Berna. The Bosphorus splits the European side of Istanbul into two (Sultanahmet on the West and Taksim on the East), and also flows out into the Mediterranean to mark the easternmost end of Europe in Turkey, and the start of Asia. Boat tours start at the noisy hubbub of the New Mosque and Spice Market in Eminonu, where the boat tour operators blare catchy Turkish pop music at you while chanting “Bosfor, Bosfor” into their microphones (doing a good impression of Shaggy practicing his MCing), while colourful but violently bobbing kitchen-boats, moored at the side of the river, dish out kebabs, donuts and glasses of Turkish tea to diners (who I’m relieved to say stay on dry land to eat, just watching the boats lurch was enough to make me feel ill).
Kitchen Party Disco!
But as the boat sets off towards Asia, leaving Sultanahmet behind, you quickly feel the calm wash over you. The Bosphorus is a busy yet tranquil river, wide and blue, and as you head for the Asian bank and watch the silhouetted skyline of Sultanahmet drift away, softened by the haze, and see the mix of modern skyscrapers and apartments and ancient minarets and palaces, you realise you’re between continents – between East and West.
East on the left; West on the right; Bosphor in the middle
And so that brings me to the end of our trip. 2 weeks by train from London to Istanbul, not quite on the old route of the Orient Express, but near enough to be able to tell my proverbial grandkids about. It’s been an experience, and as a pretty novice traveller, one which I never imagined I’d ever have. I must admit that thinking about all the things I’d managed to do and see in such a short amount of time, and that I’d actually made it in one piece (well just about, we won’t mention the food poisoning on my last night), I found myself a little bit emotional at the airport (Sabiha Gokcen, on the Asian side of Istanbul) while I sipped my Turkish tea – and waited for my flight home.
Days since leaving the UK: 12, 13 and 14
Kilometers travelled by train: 3310 + 485 = 3795. Plus another 31km by coach, which makes a grand total of… drum roll please… 3826km,or 2377 miles! (ish).
Weather: a hazy and balmy 10 degrees C
Continents crossed: 1