I had just a few days left in Istanbul and still so much to see and do!
I love walking tours. There are wonderful, interesting, fact and history-filled, and FREE! You need only tip your guide based on how well he or she did their job. I have found free walking tours in every big city I have visited. Istanbul was no exception. I had the option of choosing several companies offering this service and I chose Guru Walking Tours and their Beyond Old Town tour.
The tour started in Fatih, the heart of the Old Town and the busiest part of the city. I hopped in a taxi (which I came to learn is like taking your life in your own hands!) gave the driver a printed copy of the address where I was to meet my tour guide and off we went!
The speed of the taxi weaving and winding through jammed-packed traffic, everyone inching along, had me hanging on tightly to the door handle and trying to get the seat belt fastened at the same time. My driver honked his horn repeatedly, rolled down his window and yelled, slammed on his breaks just before back-ending the car in front of us, turned to me, and screamed a few choice Turkish words while taking both hands off the wheel and waving them in the general direction of the cars all around us! I seriously thought I was going to die! Think a ‘whirling dervish’ put behind a steering wheel and you have what I came to learn as a TYPICAL Istanbul taxi driver!
After 20 minutes of this, he stopped at a corner, reached back, threw open my door and I understood quite clearly he was done and I was to GET OUT!. I threw him some lira and jumped out quickly before he sped off to find another passenger to try and kill.
I hadn’t a clue where I was; if I was even close to where I should be? I stopped several people to ask and ventured into a couple of stores but no one knew where I was to go. Standing on a corner, literally turning in circles with Google maps on my phone and trying to reach my guide via WhatsApp, a very nice, handsome, middle-aged Turkish gentleman came up to me and asked if I could use some help!
Always the skeptic – and well-aware of the dangers of being a single woman alone in any big city – I hemmed and hawed until he said, in perfect English that he worked at the American military base, knew I must be a little scared, but he just wanted to help. I showed him where I was to meet my guide, he pointed down the street we were on and said, come along, I’ll walk you there. Again, my instincts thought…hmmmmm. But it was an extremely crowded street filled with lots of people with trams running up and down the middle, so we started walking.
I told him about my harrowing taxi ride and he laughed, informing me that my driver was ‘the norm!’ and he couldn’t have driven me to where I was to go without going out of his way, which he would never do, with the tram in the middle of the road – therefore the reason for throwing me out of his taxi.
As we walked, he told me about his family, his job, his brother who had a stall where he sold carpets by the Hagia Sophia if I wanted a deal, and by then we had found my guide. (They always hold a colored umbrella so they can be spotted in a crowd). He walked me over, introduced himself to my guide, bid me a fond farewell, and headed back the way we had come. All of this had taken 10 minutes of his time, something he did not have to do. Most certainly, chivalry in Turkey is not dead!
I had actually arrived first and I was 15 minutes late. So we waited until a beautiful, young Indian woman from Vancouver, BC arrived, and then a very tall and talkative young man from Russia showed up. It was a small group but it made it much easier to hear our guide and ask all the questions we wanted.
We started at a very old mosque that had been turned into a boy’s school with a graveyard going back centuries and was now abandoned. From there we walked through the soon-to-be-closed book bazaar. The lack of customers, all due to the internet, is the reason this wonderful, historic landmark will soon no longer exist. I could have spent hours there just looking at all the fabulous textbooks and art books that filled the stalls.
We next wandered around and through the University of Istanbul. This huge campus has been the epicenter of political protests over the past 20 years, but due to the ever-increasing military crackdown on any type of protest, the campus seemed eerily quiet. We saw very few students just roaming the area.
While we wandered, I chatted with my other tour members. I learned the lovely young woman from Vancouver, Vivian, was getting her Ph.D. in psychology and was in Istanbul to support her sister while she got breast augmentation surgery. That’s when I learned that Istanbul is huge on medical tourism, specializing in hair replacement, new noses, and the aforementioned, breast augmentation. Otto, our gregarious Russian techie had just returned from living and working in Thailand for 6 years and was enjoying wandering around Europe for a few months. He was a dear – he would grab my elbow to help me up and down the steep stairs while constantly chatting in his type of English.
Our next stop was the Çamlica Mosque, the largest mosque in Turkey. It was only completed in 2019 at a cost of $110 million USD. It was a project of Mr. E and the Turkish government. It sure is big! It’s beautiful and I was amazed at the amount of carpet each mosque must buy to cover the football-field-sized floors. I asked and was told that the carpets are replaced about every 2-3 years. Even though you must remove your shoes when entering any mosque, thousands of pairs of feet that walk on them each day wear them out quickly!
While at the Çamlica, we were surrounded by the sounds of the afternoon ‘call to worship’ that is blasted via loudspeakers all across the city from every mosque in town. It was so loud, I had to put my hands over my ears and I still didn’t miss a word. Worth it though as the view across the Bosporus from the Çamlica courtyard with all of the minarets in the foreground is truly amazing.
The day was cold! The wind was blowing and snowflakes were fluttering. Poor Otto didn’t have a warm coat and both Vivian and I were freezing. After a few words of ‘poor us’ our wonderful guide guided us down another set of stairs to a side street where we found a wonderful kebab cafe! Our choice of fresh-made kebabs was served while we warmed our hands over cups of steaming tea.
We ended the tour with a quick walk through the Grand Bazaar before our guide departed and Otto volunteered to walk Vivian and me across the bridge to my side of town where she wanted to go shopping! I invited them to stop in for a beer and to get warm at the pub under my AirBnB. Vivian passed but Otto showed up 30 minutes later – with a much warmer coat he had stopped to purchase! We had a lovely conversation and because I bought his beer, he treated me to breakfast the next day.
My last day in Istanbul was totally different and totally amazing. My dear friend and neighbor in San Miguel de Allende, Phyllis Myers, has a long-time friend who lives in Istanbul. She had contacted him and said he must entertain me while I was in town! This is a very high-powered, businessman who sits on many company boards and consults with numerous businesses all over Europe – and he’s going to take the time to entertain me – a total stranger?
And he did – in grand style! After picking me up at my Airbnb we went to lunch at a gorgeous restaurant at the far western edge of the city, sitting high on a hill overlooking the Bosporus. A huge lunch, including a bottle of wine, was accompanied by a conversation that touched on every subject imaginable. The time was hopefully enjoyed by both! I know I was blown away by Yetik’s kindness, generosity, and intelligence.
After lunch, when I could barely move, we went to the Sakip Sabanci Musem. (Be sure and click on the link, let the video load, and spend a few minutes marveling at the photos of the museum, its beautiful grounds, and wondrous works of art!)
Sakip Sabanci was a Turkish businessman (really a tycoon) and philanthropist who did great things for Turkey with his wealth and generosity during his lifetime. When he died, his mansion was left to the city of Istanbul with the money needed to add the magnificent museum wing to the house which not only showcases his collection of art but works of the great masters. We toured both the house and the museum where I learned that Yetik had worked many years on an executive level for one of Mr. Sabanci’s companies.
Though photos were not allowed in the museum, I did take a quick pix of the grand chandelier at the entrance of the mansion. I am guessing, if the front door was open and a light wind was blowing, the little bells which hang down from the fixture would produce a wonderful tintinnabulation – the sound of tiny wind chimes blowing in the breeze..
Our last stop was the Çiragan Palace Kempinski Hotel. OMG! This 5-star hotel is mind-blowing in its scale and luxury. What really sets it apart is that has encompassed the Ciragan Palace, the residence of Ottoman Sultan Abdulaziz – the 32nd Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, as part of the hotel complex. You can rent the Sultan’s bedroom in the Palace for (this was only a rumor) $5,000+USD a night.
Yetik and I had a lovely walk around the hotel and grounds before sitting down in the main dining area for late afternoon tea and several different types of honey-oozing baklava! A glorious way to end a perfect day.
Yetik returned me to my front door after a day I will remember forever. But before I tell you about my 24 hour-plus return travel day, once again taking advantage of Air France’s really reasonable upgrade to First Class (which gave me entry into their Paris lounge for my 4-hour layover before my 11 1/2 hour flight from Paris to Mexico City) I can’t leave Istanbul without mentioning the cats.
They are everywhere. And I mean everywhere. I even found one who managed to sneak in the front door and was howling loudly while wandering up and down the stairwell in my building. There is a great documentary called Street Cats of Istanbul which you can watch on YouTube that will give you an idea about how pervasive these kitties are. I could have taken hundreds of photos of all the cats I saw during my week in Istanbul, but I just snapped a few of my favorites to share. Of course, I wanted to take every one of them home.
Can you tell I fell in love with Istanbul? I don’t think I have been anywhere else that has taken me three very long blog posts to share all the sites, sounds, and delights of such a fantastic city. And I didn’t begin to see even a tiny bit of all there is to see and do. ( And I never mentioned the dreaded squat toilets or hawkers trying to sell you any and everything.)
As I walked back to my AirBnB after my last dinner in Istanbul, I snapped one last photo of the Galata Tower just as a few snowflakes were falling. My ride to the airport was at 1:30 a.m. and I learned after arriving in Paris that Istanbul had gotten almost 5″ of snow by morning! So it really was time to leave this magical place – but I must go back – in the Spring or Fall – and spend more time in this city before checking out Türkiye’s many archaeological ruins and many of her beautiful beaches.
Until next time……