Istanbul 2008 - Matt West
May 19th saw me off to Istanbul, a place I have been to many times before but hardly had a chance to really explore the place. This time was to be different.
I was to meet up with Yavuz Salataci our Destination Manager for Turkey, Syria, Iran and Eastern Europe. Yavuz organises all our tours and tour leaders himself. He has been with the company since it began in 1991 and is highly regarded by all who deal with him. He works from a 2-room office (with an office cat that really needs to go on a diet..)
The first night Yavuz took me to the Hamdi kebab restaurant on the 5th floor of a building on the Bosphorus, where we met up with two of our tour leaders - Huseyin from Turkey and Kat from Germany. The view of one of the illuminated bridges was awesome and the food even more so!
I’ve always enjoyed Turkish mezes, but I discovered new ones this time. I particularly liked ‘Acili Ezme’ - Chilli pepper mashed with chilli paste and olive oil, and ‘Urfa Peynir’ - cheese from the Urfa region boiled in hot water. Then of course we had to have mains. How about ‘Pistacia Kebab’ - minced meat with spices mix with mashed pistachio? Finally, although trying to keep a ‘handle on the size of the handles’, Yavuz insisted I try ‘Kunefe’ - desert which is two layers of very thin Kadayifi with cheese served hot. All washed down with Raki and some Turkish sparkling wine naturally...
Off for late drinks under the Galata Bridge which stretches across the Golden Horn from Karakoy to Eminonu. The upper level buzzed with traffic and local fishermen casting lines enthusiastically into the water while we drank Efes beer underneath.
The next day I took a city tour, guided by Halluk who was full of fascinating facts, few of which I can now remember! It was a walking tour and the first stop was an ancient cistern, not yet open to the public whilst it was being restored. Not as grand as the Basilica, but fascinating - and completely empty except for us. That’s one of the great things about an Imaginative Traveller City Tour, you go to places both on and off the tourist routes.
Next stop the Hippodrome, where in the 4th Century AD, an unknown Roman emperor who wanted to create something impressive and exciting transported the colossal obelisk made for the Karnak Temple in Luxor (Egypt) to Istanbul. It is the oldest monument in the city and has always been considered magical.
Next door was the Blue Mosque and its stunning mosaics, followed by Haghia Sofia which was originally a Byzantine church but was then converted into a mosque by Muslim conquerers.
We took a walk to the Grand Bazaar and the fragrant Spice Bazaar which sells lotions and potions, with salty white cheese and olives outside.
From the chaotic Eminönü harbour we took a Bosphorus Boat Tour for a more relaxed cruise along the river. I was pleased to see the yacht of Ata Turk moored up and now a museum.
Halluk was great fun to be with and full of stories. He told me a great tale about one of the Sultans whose mother wanted to run the country so gave him a harem of thousands of ladies and continued to give him women and wine to keep him busy while she ran the country!
He was a huge football fan and proudly showed me Galatasary Island and Galatasary University, as well as pointing out that the colours of the streets were also Galatasary colours ! They must be bigger than Man United (but not as big as my team, Portsmouth, 2008 FA CUP winners!).
That night Yavuz took me, along with his wife Gulay, a famous Turkish singer, to KumKapi where the restaurants are famous for fish and entertainment, fabulous food and company. Late into the night we stopped at a cafe where Yavuz shared a shisha pipe with his wife (what is it about our staff that they love these pipes?)
Istanbul hasn’t lost any charm even 20 years on from when I first went and I would highly recommend it. And if you get a chance to meet Halluk, Yavuz or Gulay, say ‘Hi’ from me.
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