Memories of a long week end in Istanbul

Another journey……another snippet of travels, adventure and of course lots of shopping!
The holidays were announced and as usual, in those days….the private sector and public sector had different days off….to top it off, Raj working in Abu Dhabi had extra holidays always, in comparison to me. This had always been a hot contentious topic for us for 2 full years:(
Grudgingly, I left to work that morning, while Raj was pottering around the house on his extra day off….he had made his plans, a cup of tea, the newspaper, followed by a session in the gym…..
It was 11am, when he called to ask what my plans were…..and guess what they were!
Panic struck, Raj had 30 mins to pack our bags and get to the airport…..we were taking an afternoon flight to Istanbul. Thousand questions sprang in Raj’s mind, while I didn’t have the time to answer them…so all that was to be was I would wear what he packed (please don’t leave this to any imagination) and I had to look out for the tickets and the hotel!
It’s so easy to remember the check in agent’s frustrations, when I arrived at the checkin desk as I had so little time to get to the gates…..a slight worry about receiving my bags in Istanbul plagued me, but other million things raced in my mind.
Running through the terminal that day, I got my first hand experience of sprinting against the sea of humans in the concourse. Any airport staff can vouch for this increase in traffic just before the holidays….
Gates close 35mins before departure, and we just made it to the aircraft door, found our seats and as I plonked down to catch my breath, my fingers were dialling a friend’s number…..help…please book a room for three nights in the hotel using the booking.com portal! Thinking back at this today, I wonder how this was done!

The 4:15 hours flight, was uneventful and little did I know what was in store for me at touch down.
Visa on arrival is provided to Indian nationals who have an existing Schengen visa or a valid but used multiple entry visa to the US. As you may have already guessed, Raj n I were of the latter and now starts the ordeal.
With a few instances of being misguided to different queues, finally managed to speak to friendly looking customs/immigration official who directed us to another section of the airport. As we waited for their coffee and chat break to finish, I realised there were some more familiar faces from the same flight joining us….
What we heard next almost swept the ground from under my feet…oh where is your Schengen visa Raj and I were asked – we don’t have one , but the Turkish consulate had informed us that the US visa would suffice and we could get a visa on arrival!

Thankfully we were not the only ones saying this, so we’re many others as the queue behind us got longer! With tears welling up in my eyes, I was only thankful for the fact that Raj and I were together. A gentleman we befriend in this ordeal, explained that his wife and son had a visa issued, but since he had the US visa, his passport was returned….imagine that – with two members of the family in a separate queue and the immigration officials feigning ignorance of the rule applied at our departure destination…..a sure shot spoiler for a week end break that may have been planned with so much anticipation.
Many conversations, some angry, some close to pleading, until better sense prevailed and a group of 12 passengers were assisted by one of the officer on a senior’s command.
Finally after a wait that seemed eternity, where I had lost sight of my passport, our names were called, passport and receipt for the visa cost handed over and shown the way to baggage claim.
With all the delay we had experienced the bags were waiting for their rightful owners…..grabbed them and made our way to the exit. It was a taxi to the hotel and in no time we passed the aqueduct in Instanbul, on our way to old quarter of the city. Our hotel was in the Sulthanamet area. Having lost precious hours in the airport, the night had already set in and the city was bathed in glorious moon light.
Checking in at the hotel was a breeze, guess it helps to be late at times…we agreed as we kicked off our shoes and looked around the room. We had a lovely room with a balcony, where I could have spent the rest of my holiday…..the room was tastefully decorated, with lovely pictures and the bathroom was spic and span and included a jacuzzi.
Having looked around and agreed that this was above acceptable, particularly since you will recall the way this hotel was booked, we agreed it was time for some walking around, we were on holiday!!
The guys at the reception desk were very helpful giving us tips of getting to places. It’s then we realized that we could walk all the way to the Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace and the Hagia Sofia. The grand bazaar was a stone’s throw away from the hotel. All this excited me as I could already see that this was going to be a lovely walking holiday for long week end.
That was settled, and we were now asking about a quick stop for a bite, directions were given to the most happening place – the Galata bridge area for some mouth watering sea food. The walk to the Galata bridge, passing by all the shops and the shop keepers calling out to us to check their wares….I was transported into the magical world of bazaars, colorful Turkish lights that threw a million sparkles, intricately designed ceramic ware and of course charm of hawkers with their Turkish ice creams, delectable sweets and the baklavas! The aroma of the Turkish doner kebabs wafted through, mixed with the heady combination of the spices from the nearby spice market.
Given that it was getting past dinner time, Raj hurried me on to the destination…..while the beautifully lit new mosque, captured my imagination. I promised myself to pass by the same route, so that I could etch this memory in my mind and also capture this on film. Once I crossed the road, the view of the lit mosque followed by the gentle lapping sound of the water, as it hit the breakwaters of the bridge, was calming.
We managed to be coaxed by the first friendly waiter to try his restaurant and I must say his recommendations from the menu were delicious. While we waited for the grilled fish and all the accompaniments that he had suggested, the cool breeze from the water soothed us as we watched the world go by…the sheesha smoke from the next table was heady and sometimes stifling. The food was soon at the table and disappeared in a matter of minutes as we dug into the hot delicious fare.
An hour later, we decided to take a leisurely walk towards the old town area, little realizing that this would be route that we walk for the next 3 days. Passing little shops, walking over the tram line, and sometimes following the crowd, while often Raj and I formed the crowd…Friendly shop owners and passers by smiled and called out to us, and the tree laden path around the university had a smattering of students, having their fun but never in a moment did the place feel unsafe or dangerous.
Tired after a days work, the flight, the nerve wracking episode at the airport, the sights and sounds I had already immersed myself in, we decided to walk back to the hotel to call it a night. That night was a classic example of being physically exhausted ( if I didn’t mention earlier the walk back to the hotel is an uphill climb) but mentally I was making plans for the next few days in this vibrant city with its old world charm.
I was up with larks the next day and raring to go. While Raj stirred in bed, I was in the balcony watching the sun rise on the horizon. The next couple of hours flew by as we prepared for a day on foot.
The tourist attractions of Beyazit and Sultanamet was all neatly laid out. Map in hand, we set out for the day, to be awed by the enormity of this city, and to marvel at the past glory of the Ottoman Empire. The fascinating inlaid work in the mosques, the architecture, the lavish gardens, all transported us back in time, when this bustling city bridged Europe and Asia as Constantinople. Photo ops never ceased and each picture showed a different aspect, diverse from each interpretation revelling in different moods.
The grand bazaar – with its maze of little shops, friendly shopkeepers who invite you to a cup of coffee/tea and for a chat while they display their wares, hoping for a deal. In the two visits to the grand bazaar, I’m uncertain how we got lost, how we passed by the same shops a zillion times and why we were never able to keep to our time in this place. It amazed me as how they would find exactly what you were looking for in their shops. Tea invites were just a part of their hospitality…..no strings attached. They would happily share their stories and loved to display their knowledge of the very famous Indian Bollywood film industry. They call out the names of actors and actresses or better still, they would establish that we were Indians before a”namaste India” Shahrukh Khan and Amitabh Bachchan were discussed.
All this while secretly my shopping list was being drawn up and this was my secret alone. I has to wait for the right time to include Raj into this conspiracy. I had to be sure of all that I wanted – souvenirs for the team, for friends and then those precious little knick knacks for the house. My eyes roved at top speed, in each shop zeroing in on items of interest, then a close look for the quality of workmanship, the colors and then in my mind’s eye, I would picture them at home.
By the evening our feet were killing us, blisters had formed, yet the enthusiasm to walk, live and breath Istanbul was still alive. It had been doner kebabs rolls for lunch and dinner, rolls that were filled with the most succulent grilled chicken ever. The wrap was filling and top it with fresh fruit juice with crushed ice and there was nothing more we wanted. Nuts and chocolates that we carried from home, gave us the much needed energy for the long haul, however the delicious maras tukra and the ever spongy, sticky Turkish delights kept us on our feet.
It was a straight 12 hour since we had stepped out of the hotel, only sitting in the shaded gardens of the Topkapi palace in the middle of the afternoon. As much as we saw the city in the day time, at night there was a different charm to this place. The Turkish coffee vendors dressed in all their splendor, the inviting call of the ice cream vendors and of course all the activity at the eateries on the side walks transforms the place into a buzzing hive. We felt like we had walked every inch of the old town, every street corner had a story to tell, each of which bought a smile.
I only dreaded the climb up the incline back to the hotel, however the thought of warm shower and seeing all the photos of the day, kept me going!

A sunset heralds another sun rise, another day in this city!

The next day was for the sights beyond the old quarter…..to step out further and explore another side of this town, a cruise on the Bosphorus, to saunter along Takshim square and to feel a part of the revolutions that had taken place.
As I nod of to sleep, I believe in the chances that life throws at us and feel blessed that I’m able to traverse the globe and enrich by living these experiences.
The short bus ride into the other part of town, the heart of the commercial district….now comes the glitzy stores and the brands from across the globe make their presence felt. What a stark contrast to the sights and sounds of yesterday, I muse.
We pass by the housing districts, the seat of the government and other rather imposing public houses, which have many a tales themselves.

As the mid morning sun beat upon us, the cruise boats were already teaming with passengers. Our agent herded us both on to the right ship and wished us a good afternoon. Grabbing the best seats we could possibly find, we promised ourselves that we would be wandering the deck for pictures rather than be seated. The whistles sounded and the gangway plank was removed, with a final short hoot, we were on our way…..the salty spray from the Strait of Bosphorus on our face. The crowds moved along as the ship passed by the sights on the waterfront and soon the Bosphorus bridge was straight ahead of us. We marveled at the engineering feat and the bridge of cultures. The time flew by and the memory card on the DSLR seemed to fill up so quickly.
As dusk set in, we found ourselves at Takshim square…it was the week end in Instanbul, need I say any more??? The crowds at the square seems to take you with it….one couldn’t resist the sea of humanity around. All that I was worried of was getting separated as I hung on to Raj for dear life. If personal space is something precious to you, one will value it far more after a visit to Takshim Square on the week end… We agreed this was Rigga street ten times more crowded than we ever remembered it to be. Pictures with camera held high above our head was like a shot out of a sci -fi movie.
The respite from this rush was an open air craft bazaar. I could easily spend hours here marveling at the large brass coffee pots, straight out of a middle eastern fairy tale, the ceramics and the Turkish lamps that seemed to wink and beckon me.
I finally confided to Raj and shared my shopping list, I was in my penultimate day of my holiday, so what better moment than now?
Although he was flabbergasted at my list, as always the kind soul, just smiled at me and agreed. I wouldn’t be surprised if it had crossed his mind even for a split second that I expected most of my shopping to be hand carried this time – all fragile items. Shopping done, the creative bazaar ransacked, we were ready to head back to the hotel in public transport, a city bus. Eminouno was our stop and the bus had the driver and a man seated on the right side who collected money and issued tickets. On the bus we met with many a stare as it’s not often an alien tourist is on the bus which is overflowing with locals in their week end rush. I must say that the ticket collector and the driver were very helpful, even if language was indeed a barrier. They signaled to us when we got to Eminouno and even helped with directions to get us on our way – the miracles of sign language.
So as you can imagine, the last day of my stay in Istanbul was interspersed with some sightseeing (Hagia Sophia) and more shopping, bargaining and haggling with the friendly shop keepers. A deal for me without breaking my bank and a good enough deal for them to close the sale (profit based on the bargaining skills). We went back to some of the side streets we had roamed earlier, to check and make decisions, took pictures to compare the products and designs and in all the fun I was having Raj was not so sure.
My shopping was done and packed – a beautiful set of lights (9 lights to be precise) that would adorn the landing at home…..a similar single lamp for my friend and ceramic coasters for another, along with shawls for the rest of the team. I was completely in love with all my shopping, until I saw some hand painted tiles that showed intricate workmanship and an artists skills at drawing out the best from imagination. I couldn’t resist these, but…..
The day dawned and as I opened the curtains and stepped out into the balcony, dark clouds welcomed me…..the sun rays wanted to pierce through the dark curtains and there seemed to be tussle of might between the two.
I knew I didn’t have too much time to waste, before my 1500 return flight, so I had to move fast. All packed and ready to check out, Raj agreed to a last minute run to check the tiles, and we did…! Half way through, the downpour caught us unaware and soon we were running for shelter, into a mosque. The number of people clambering in there for shelter was unbelievable. A vendor appeared soon with umbrellas, making a few quick bucks due to the rain. We were his customers too, as we rushed to the shop where I had seen the tiles.
I saw what I liked, picked them up and then my eyes fell on another piece that blew me away. I was so enchanted with the second piece and wanted both sets of tiles, only to realise that we didn’t have enough money on us. Credit cards was not an option as the artisan only had a workshop and preferred to deal with hard cash. Upset, we decided to only choose one and leave as we didn’t have time, when he made a suggestion. We were amazed at his trust in us and agreed immediately. He was sending his young son with us to the hotel to collect the balance as he wanted us to have both the pieces that I liked. I was dumbstruck, by couldn’t have been more happier. The walk to our hotel was a pleasant one as I had my prized possessions neatly wrapped in my arms and a young Turkish boy to speak to about his life, his school and his passion. My eyes widened as I heard his wish for his family and himself, yet very shyly he shared his own dreams….engrossed in conversation, I never knew when we reached and before we could say bye, he had collected the money and run as fast his little legs could carry him….I did wonder if he reached his father’s shop safe, if he had been caught in the intermittent rains that afternoon and if he had safely handed over the money to his father.
As these thoughts raced through, I was in a taxi, on my way to the airport and all I could think off was the artisan and his son…..from amongst all the sights and sounds of Istanbul!

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2 thoughts on “Memories of a long week end in Istanbul

  1. 4 years after our trip to Istanbul, the vivid descriptions and your choice of incidents, unlike a normal travel blog was a trip down memory lane. Over the years I forgot about the artisan’s son and your long list of shopping. Reading through this it all felt like yesterday. This rocks, keep going!

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