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Like all the others, I began writing this post during our time in country. Also like many posts before, it wasn’t possible to publish it while I was there. Sometimes we were too busy living it for me to write. Other times the Internet connection was too slow to upload photos.
Upon arriving back home in the USA I gave myself permission to relax and settle back into life. So I put off finishing the blog posts until I had a quiet moment to myself. I waited until the kids were at camp. In the meantime two things happened. Big things.
Another terrorist attack, this time at Atatürk International Airport and a military coup d’état. Big things indeed.
Having many times crisscrossed the Bosphorus just weeks ago, we were glued to the TV set as these events unfolded and texting our new friends back in Turkey to find out if they were okay.
Here’s the thing. This really hit us hard because we had an extraordinarily wonderful three days in Istanbul. It’s a vibrant, hospitable, cosmopolitan, beautiful city with so much to offer its visitors. Even before the events of the last two weeks no one was traveling to Turkey. We felt lucky to have the city to ourselves, so to speak.
It’s such a shame. I hope you will consider keeping Turkey on your travel bucket list. It is worth seeing. One day.
MY ORIGINAL POST IS AS FOLLOWS:
I’ll admit it. I was a bit nervous. Recent terrorist attacks in Turkey were enough to make even me, fearless and intrepid traveler, think about changing our plans.
“Most of the tourists in our shop come from the US and Canada,” one gentlemen managing a famous carpet shop in Istanbul told us.
“Where are most of the tourists coming from now, Europe?” I inquired.
“Not Europe, not anywhere. No one is coming. No one,” he shrugged.
It’s such a shame that a few nut jobs have ruined it for so many. The entire tourism industry, the third largest industry behind textiles and agriculture in Turkey, is suffering. The streets, hotels, shops, restaurants and attractions are virtually empty. It’s pretty great for those of us willing to come here, but a bit sad all the same.
We had an absolutely brilliant time in Istanbul, current world news headlines, Ramadan and all. There is certainly more to see and do here in Istanbul than our three days would allow. It’s a city worth repeating. Many times. It’s hip yet historic, youthful yet conservative, cosmopolitan with a small town friendly feel, all at the same time.
Thanks to the much adored Atatürk, first President and founder of the Republic in 1923, Turkey is culturally Islamic but politically democratic. Therefore, Istanbul feels more open and Western than some of its Islamic cousins.
The city is clean and well cared for. It’s fairly easy to get around although there was so much to see packed into our chosen corner of this very large city that we didn’t need to venture too far. Mostly we made our way around on foot with the help of a few “taksis” as they are called. But we didn’t neglect the water and took several opportunities to see the shoreline from a boat.
The best decision I made was to hire a guide recommended by a friend who’d been to Istanbul just a few months earlier. Our time here wouldn’t have been nearly as endearing without Cenk (pronounced Jenk). Not only did he show us around, he made us feel like family. And I swear, he knows everyone in Istanbul!
Because Istanbul is so big and I’d been to Turkey before but the rest of my family had not, I wanted to see some of the best known sights for sure. Months before I emailed Cenk a few times and shared my ideas with him. Once we arrived and met him in person I let him navigate and choose what would be best; he knows the city so well.
Our hotel, Aren Suites, was within a short walk to the Blue Mosque so we started there. Next we made our way to the Hagia Sofia across the promenade. Cenk explained the history of these two very significant buildings in Istanbul. Having just been to Egypt and Italy, it was all the more fascinating as the story of the world was forming in our minds as we were seeing it with our eyes.
Let me just get this out of the way. Turkish food is DIVINE. It was a hands down favorite of everyone in our family on our RTW trip. High praise but well deserved. We had a fantastic lunch at a place called Seyhmuz Kebap. Being Ramadan restaurants were all but empty during the day, but Cenk knew just where to take us.
After an hour or so at the Grand Bazaar and the Spice Market we embarked on a very special adventure. Cenk had invited us to break the fast of the day at his friend’s restaurant in the Princes’ Islands. Iftar is the meal that Muslims take after the sun goes down each day during the month of Ramadan. We were thrilled and honored to be going!
Grand Bazaar and Spice Market
The Princes’ Island archipelago is just off the coast of Istanbul in the Sea of Marmara. During the Byzantine era Turkish royalty were exiled to the islands giving them their regal name. In the 19th Century they were a favored summer resort destination among Istanbul’s wealthy; today they are still a popular respite from the city for locals. Pedestrians, horses and buggies only.
Waiting for one of the ferries.
We had to take two ferry boats to get to Buyukada, the Big Island, but it was a wonderful ride. With Cenk at the helm we zipped through the crowds and then took our seats on each of the boats to enjoy the views. We were warmly welcomed by the owner of Alibaba Restaurant and took our seats with at least 150 other people for iftar. The food was again delicious and generously catered by Alibaba for all those in attendance, free of charge.
The Topkapi Palace, former home of the Ottoman Sultans of old, is now a museum and a fantastic opportunity to learn a lot of world history. I have to admit, it’s not a history as familiar to me as that of Egypt, Israel, Europe or the USA. For that reason I really enjoyed seeing the Palace grounds and the many artifacts on display (no photos are allowed in the most interesting exhibits) including Moses’ staff. Whether it’s authentic or not, you be the judge, but it certainly gets you thinking!
Our family with Cenk at the Topkapi Palace.
Topkapi Palace – Kitchens [check out those huge caldrons and the meat supply list!]
That afternoon we chartered a private boat to take us out for a cruise on the Bosphorus. How could we miss seeing the city from the water? We picked up lunch on the way and ate on the boat while enjoying the views.
We disembarked north of the Golden Horn’s junction with the Bosphorus near the Karaköy district of Istanbul so we could head to the Galata Tower. The original tower on a different site built by the Byzantines was destroyed during the Crusades in 1204. The medieval stone tower standing today was built in 1348 by the Genoese. Again, it’s interesting history…
During this time, the Republic of Genoa was an independent state for nearly 800 years. It controlled one-fourth of Constantinople (today Istanbul, if you know the tune) which was capital of the Byzantine Empire, also known as the Eastern Roman Empire. Then in the 15th century most of the Genoese territories were conquered by the Ottoman Empire, also known as the Turkish Empire. Having just been to Rome prior to Istanbul and Cairo prior to that, well, let’s just say all this history stuff became clearer in our minds.
Back to the tower. Elevators take paying guests to the top floors where you can enjoy magnificent 360 degree views of Istanbul and the Bosphorus. There is even a restaurant and cafe up there. And you can pay for cheesy photos with people in costumes if that’s your thing.
Once we finished visiting the tower and stopping for a drink and a snack we wandered the streets of Karaköy, lined with shops galore. It was here that we bought some of our favorite souvenirs: sweets, Turkish towels, jewelry and fun trinkets to remind of us Istanbul.
Later that evening we accepted another generous invitation by our guide, now our friend, to break the fast with his friends. It was the perfect end to another busy day in this most enchanting city. Counting our many blessings!
Glow in the dark pottery! How do they do that? Visit Istanbul and ask Cenk to find out!
Learning about the art of carpet making. This is homeschool after all!