The madness of the last few weeks has been dramatically exchanged for pure bliss. Max-e and I are in Istanbul, en route to see our kids and granddaughter in Bugaria next month.
No matter how many photos you see, or how much surfing you do online to get an idea of the place, nothing can possibly communicate the reality to you, because Istanbul is not a place to see, it is a place to EXPERIENCE.
Writing this post is going to be a real challenge for me, I am so prone to using superlatives in my normal life that I just don't know how I am going to express the enormity of this place, not only in actual size (20 million people, not counting the swarms of tourists!) spread across 7 hills and positioned on two continents, but in terms of age and impact as well.
We arrived on Saturday at 6am, and a shuttle took us to our accomodation in the heart of Sultanahmet, the ancient area where many of the "must see" sites are clustered. We hate regimented travel, pre booked and structured tours make us claustrophobic. So we booked the first two nights only, just to give us a base to orientate ourselves from and from here we will go where the road takes us.
We decided a casual hostel would be much more our cup of tea than having to look respectable at a hotel. We really hit the jackpot. The Mavi Guesthouse is the most inviting fun place and the owner Ali (who has never heard of the word "sleep") makes sure his guests are welcome, looked after and well informed. He organises forward travel at really good prices, protects young visitors from chancers, and generally makes you feel completely at home. Facilities are spartan, but for us that is part of the experience (just as, if you look back to our Lesotho trip, our nights in the mud hut were WAY more enjoyable than our night in the luxury hotel) and we have met such a cosmopolitan stream of people (90% a lot younger than us) that it enriches the travel experience enormously. We all sit and exchange stories on the sidewalk in the mornings and evenings, before rushing off to see the sights or shop or whatever the day holds.
In South Africa, we get excited about our historic buildings that are 200 years old, so you can just imagine how this place, where history is counted in millenia, has blown our socks off. Staying on a hilltop in the historic heart of the city, with a section of the ancient city wall right across the narrow street, is just awe inspiring. We stroll across the street when we wake up, sit at a table and chairs set up on the sidewalk next to the wall (bravely risking pigeon poop on the heads!) and eat a typical Turkish breakfast consisiting of a bottomless basket of freshly baked crispy bread, fabulous creamy Turkish cheese, boiled eggs, tomato and cucumber slices, washed down with a choice of coffee, tea or the delicious apple tea that is a staple here.
From here, a short walk up the hill brings you to the entrance of the Topkapi Palace on your right, and the Hagia Sopia on the left.
Further down the road is a stunning park, with big fountain in the centre, and the spectacular Blue Mosque behind it. In any direction you care to turn, there are delightful narrow cobbled streets winding down from the hilltop
Getting into the spirit of supporting local entrepreneurs, Max-e had a shoeshine on the sidewalk. Note the amazing brass apparatus, lovingly polished as thoroughly as his shoes were!
One thing it took us very little time to discover is the delight of buying food on the streets. There is a regular stream of men pushing barrows, or balancing piles of bread on their heads, or selling fresh fruit.
Pavement booths have chicken and lamb on a rotisserie, which gets sliced off as you order, mixed with lettuce and tomatoes and a lovely green pepper sauce served in a bread roll (in the Middle East they are called schwarmas, the Turkish name is Doner, pronounced "dernesh"...) and Max-e is ecstatic because so much of the local cuisine is cholesterol friendly and dairy free.
But there are also any number of charming restaurants, with sidewalk areas and also roof terraces, from where you can relax and enjoy views of the city that leave you limp with delight.
What better way to end the day than with a stroll to the edge of the Bosphorus to see sunset over the exotic Istanbul skyline, followed by a delicious Turkish meal served on a rooftop terrace, on a balmy summer night.
followed by a stroll through the park back to the hotel...
(It took me so long to edit the copious photos i keep taking, we are no longer in Istanbul, but living in a cave in Cappadocia. So there is tons to catch up, but I promise it will be worth the wait!)