From Wikipedia: Formerly known as Constantinople, Istanbul is the largest city in Turkey (now renamed and spelled Türkiye but still pronounced Turkey.) It is the country’s economic, cultural and historic center. The city straddles the Bosporus Strait and lies both in Europe and Asia, and is the world’s 15th largest city.
Founded in the 7th century as Byzantion and renamed by Constantine the Great as New Rome, it was a major stop at the end of the Silk Road. The city grew, changed rulers and until 1923 Turkish War of Independence, was the seat of the Ottoman Caliphate. A city was instrumental in the advancement of Christianity during Roman and Byzantine times, before becoming an Islamic stronghold following the fall of Constantinople in 1453 CE. The city’s name officially changed to Istanbul in 1930.
This was my first visit to Istanbul and I was really excited. I had been told that the new IST Airport was the largest in the world. Even after traipsing through Atlanta’s Hartsfield and Chicago’s O’Hare, I wasn’t prepared for the SIZE of this place. I also learned after standing in the LONG, long passport control line upon arrival (Turkey is not part of the Schengen) that I needed to have a Turkish Visa to enter the country. Somehow, in all the websites I had perused and people I had chatted with, I somehow missed this necessary requirement to enter the country.
Upon finally reaching Passport Control Desk, I was tossed out of the line, sent down a long hallway to find the sign that said VISA, and told by a gentleman? that I needed to pay $30 for my VISA. He gruffly told me to go to the currency exchange and come back with the correct money. I saw an ATM in front of the currency exchange so I thought I might as well stock up on the Turkish lira and get enough to pay the gentleman? at the VISA desk. I took a huge handful of lira put it on the counter in front of him and he yelled NO! Only $30US Dollars!!!
Now, I do realize that I am in Turkey, a country that uses lira as their currency (more on that later) and they want to be paid in USD? Yep! So back to the currency exchange, give them a wad of lira in exchange for $30USD, back to the VISA guy, get my little stamp, back to stand in another long, LONG line to reach passport control, then a 20-minute walk while praying the entire time that my suitcase is still on the baggage-go-round as it’s been way over an hour since I landed.
Yeah! There was my bag, all by itself, going round and round. Now to find the shuttle van I had hired to take me into town. Thinking like a normal person, I presumed that the shuttles and taxis would be outside the baggage claim area. And some were. Just not mine.
I learned quickly that the average Turkish person does not speak English, and even Google-translate is not always helpful. The airport wifi wasn’t working so I couldn’t call the shuttle company. After another hour and almost in tears, when trying to re-enter the airport and use the bathroom (not!) a lovely young policewoman took pity on me, used her phone, got hold of the shuttle company and said my ride was waiting, 3 stories up at Gate 13, a 1/2 mile walk from the gate where I was presently standing.
I tried and couldn’t find a photo of how the numerous shuttle companies are lined up, with paper signs Scotch-taped to the walls as passengers come out of the airport doors and try to find their specific company’s logo and representative. Not a guy with a sign with your last name, just a company name or logo – in Turkish.
I arrived at Gate 13 huffing and puffing, sure my driver had left as I was now over 2 hours late. After finding another kind soul who spoke some English, he found my shuttle-company rep who took me up another level and put me into a big, black van all by myself. I was a wee bit worried that I was being whisked away into a white-slavery but soon dismissed that idea as being way too old, and when the driver showed me a piece of paper with the address of my AirBnB in Istanbul. I closed my eyes and finally relaxed for the first time after landing almost 3 hours before.
Before I move on to my actual arrival in downtown Istanbul, which FYI is an hour’s drive from the airport in good traffic, I have to share a photo of this beautifully dressed young lady who was waiting at my gate in Athens to board the same flight to Istanbul. Remember when you used to get dressed up to fly? When flying was a pleasure – not a chore to be endured? She gave me hope that maybe, just maybe things may change. And if not, loved her outfit!
After a good hour and a half ride, the last 30 minutes winding in and out and through the tiny streets packed with honking, traffic of all sizes and kinds, we arrive at my AirBnB and my wonderful host was waiting on the front step.
Past the Tower Pub entrance and through a heavy metal door, I was ushered up to the first floor in the world’s smallest elevator. It held one suitcase and me tucking my arms and stomach in as tightly as possible. This 3-bedroom AirBnB, which was really massive for just one person, was located a short, 2-minute walk to the Galata Tower and the wonderful array of restaurants and shops that are on that side of Istanbul’s ‘ Golden Horn.’
The Bosporus divides the city and separates the European from the Asian side. The Golden Horn is an estuarial inlet that divides the ‘historical center’ of Istanbul from the rest of the city. Also, when the sun sets, the waters turn a glorious shade of gold. My AirBnB was on the tip of that rounded area bumping out into the Golden Horn near the word ‘horn.’
As I mentioned, I was just around the corner from The Galata Tower. Built-in 1381 as a watchtower, it is now a museum and tourist attraction because of the panoramic view of the city you get from the observation deck at the top. People were standing in line to enter the Tower every single day when it opened at 9:00 am. As heights are not my thing and crowds during Covid aren’t either, I was happy to take lots of photos from the ground and water level. And yes, that’s snow covering the ground in the photo on the bottom row. It was sent to me by a friend who took it the night I left for home. They got 5″ of snow!
And now it’s time to introduce you to Bilge (pronounced Be-Gay). I had been given the name of a local Istanbul tour guide by a friend here in San Miguel. She, unfortunately, wasn’t available, but her friend, fellow university professor, and the tour guide was.
Bilge is a professor of the Ancient Turkish language and writings. Students looking to become historical researchers and librarians study with her. I soon learned she possessed a vast knowledge of local history.
She graciously volunteered to swing by the evening I arrived and we shared a great dinner at what became my favorite neighborhood go-to restaurant. We then took a long walk around the local Beyoğlu neighborhood where I was staying and talked about politics, food, history, family, etc. And… she asked that I pay her for the two days of tour-guiding that I hired her for… in US dollars!
It seems that that pile of lira I got at the airport is worth so little in exchange at the moment, that being paid in USD or Euros is how anyone in Turkey wants to be paid. The exchange rate when I was there was 13.5 lira to one USD. The week before it was 20 to one. Turkey is experiencing a massive recession and everyone I spoke to is hoping and praying that this will be the ruin and ousting of their ‘dictator’ – opps – president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. It was really interesting to find that ATMs in Turkey gave you your choice of lira, Euros, or USD, so I was happy to pay Bilge in dollars.
The next morning, my first full day in Istanbul, after a delicious breakfast (fresh squeezed OJ, a cheese and spinach omelet and Turkish coffee all served by my smiling waiter) at the same restaurant where I had had the delicious dinner (steak grilled in butter – I too hungry to take a photo)
Bilge arrived at 9:00 a.m.to take me on a day that consisted of 16,000+ steps (she wore at FitBit!!) and jaw-dropping sites! Our first stop – The Topkapi Palace.
The main residence and administrative headquarters of the Ottoman sultans during the 15th and 16th centuries, today it’s a breathtaking museum filled with so much history and treasures that it would take days to see it all.
The story of Ali Baba and The 40 Thieves is about the theft of the Palace Sultan’s gold and gem-filled treasury. The plot of the 1964 Oscar-winning movie, Topkapi, starring Melina Mercouri, Peter Ustinov, Maximilian Schell, Robert Morley, and Akim Tamiroff is the story of a heist to steal the fabulous jewels from the palace. They didn’t get them because I saw them!
Bilge had story after story to share, telling me the history of the residents of the Palace as we moved from building to building, room to room, kitchen to the harem to the library. It was a chilly day, a few snowflakes falling but a lovely winter sun made for really good picture taking.
From the Palace, we walked a short distance to the huge, magnificent, and jaw-dropping HAGIA SOPHIA.
Built in 537 as the patriarchal cathedral of the imperial capital of Constantinople, it was the largest Christian church of the eastern Roman Empire (the Byzantine Empire) and the Eastern Orthodox church, except during the Latin Empire from 1204 to 1261, when it became the city’s Latin Catholic cathedral. In 1453, after the Fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Empire, it was converted into a mosque. In 1935, the secular Republic of Turkey established it as a museum. In 2020, at the decree of the current Turkish president, it re-opened as a mosque.
To be continued.…..in Part Two.