Monday, April 25, 2011

Turkey (2008): Istanbul

POST DOSTĘPNY TAKŻE PO POLSKU


August 19 - September 9, 2008
Route: Istanbul / İstanbul - Bursa - Bergama - İzmir - Çeşme - Selçuk / Efes - Bodrum - Kos - Pamukkale - Istanbul / İstanbul - Bourgas

Apart from Istanbul, I give the place names in original spelling, in addition to the so-called umlauts: ö and ü, there are other letters, such as: 
çş and ĝ; pay also attention to an “i” with a dot – just like in the English language, and the second “ı” without an upper dot.



Some remarks to begin with
This text contains the reminiscences of my holiday in 2008. Prices given here and some information may be outdated. There are no low-cost airlines from Poland to Turkey. You can try to find the promotional fares of Lufthansa and LOT or do as we did - fly from Katowice with Wizzair to Bourgas in Bulgaria and from there take a bus to Istanbul.
Poles don't need a visa to enter Bulgaria, because both countries are in the European Union. However, we need a visa to enter Turkey. You can buy it at the border. It's rather a border fee, you don't need a photo for it. Cost: $15 or 
12.

Infrastructure: Turkey is a very fast developing country, with a well-developed road network - at least in the western part, and good links between major cities. Bus companies offer a high level of service, including service on board, the buses are clean, neat and comfortable.
Money: It's better to exchange U.S. dollars or euros for the new Turkish liras (YTL) in Turkey. Keep the receipts, just in case. For a Pole, Turkey isn't an expensive country, it's cheaper than, for example, Italy or Spain, but don't presume that the vacation here will be cheap.
Vaccinations: not required nor recommended.

Religion: Turkey is an Islamic country, but it's a secular state (it's not just a cliche). Everyone can feel comfortable here. On the streets of big cities you can meet both the veiled women and scantily dressed girls. In smaller towns and villages the population is, of course, as elsewhere, more traditionally oriented. In large cities you'd have no problem with drinking beer or wine to lunch or dinner, but in smaller towns and villages – it may be available in a bar to which only men go.

Interior of the huge Blue Mosque in Istanbul
Mosques: don't enter at a time of prayer and on Friday; take your shoes off; don't touch anyone; don't walk in front of the praying persons.
Tipping: 10-15% in the restaurants; 5% - if the service is included; taxi – no tipping, but you can round up the sum you give.


BOURGAS

From Kraków we take a bus to Katowice and then we fly with Wizzair low-cost airlines to Bourgas in Bulgaria, on August 19, early morning, at 5.20. We land in Bourgas at 8.05 (note the change of time). Airport is small, we run to the exchange, a fast food stall, and to the bus. The airport is situated 13 km from the city center. It's best to get there by bus no. 15, going to the train station. It runs every 20 minutes, 5.55-23.25. Tickets are bought from the woman who walks around the bus among passengers, which at peak times takes a while.
Buses from Bourgas to Istanbul depart from outside the booths on the Bulair street, about 500 m from the main bus and railway stations. You can get there on foot. Buses to Turkey are run by several companies, so between hours 12 and 20 there's a service almost every hour. Route of 365 km takes 7 hours, including a break for crossing the border. The ticket is paid in Bulgarian levs, more or less 100 PLN (25). Traveling by bus lets you admire the beautiful landscapes along the way. Vehicles are comfortable, air conditioned. In Istanbul we arrive at Otogar Esenler, a huge bus station, it seems you can easily get lost here. Besides the station there's an entrance to the subway, which makes the access to the center is quite easy. No need to overpay for a taxi. People are nice and willing to help tourists.
Above the subway station there's a pavilion where you can eat something and exchange money; and on the way back it's a place to buy some souvenirs.

ISTANBUL / İSTANBUL

In Istanbul we spend several days and go sightseeing. For fun and relaxation we'll have time later, when on the way back we'll stop here again.
Planning your visit to Istanbul you must provide yourself with all the information about attractions or take a guide book. Although there's a tourist information office in the main square in the center, Sultanahmet Meydan
ı, it's useless to go there.


Images of God's Mother and an Angel in the ceiling of Aya Sofia
Accommodation
Most cheap hotels are located in the Golden Horn, especially around the old Hippodrome. Accommodation can be found here for 20-25 YTL per person. Alternatively, you can try small hotels in the vicinity of the Sirkeci railway station or in the district of Laleli. In the latter case the prices will be slightly higher, and yet you'll be in the heart of the shopping district; which is dominated by wholesale buyers from Eastern Europe, tourists can hardly be met here. Outside the Golden Horn hotels are quite expensive, prices start from 50 YTL per person.
Cheap hotels and guesthouses can also be found around the mosque of Sultan Ahmed and Aksaray (approx. 20 minutes from the mosque).
Don't think the rooms are comfortable. They're usually small, with a fan that barely works, so in the summer there's quite hot here. Everywhere else, outside Istanbul, the rooms are mostly air conditioned, clean and neat. Tourists bring them a lot of income so they know they have to take care of them.
Most cheap hotels and guesthouses offer a room and a breakfast. Don't think, however, that you'll eat up. Turkish breakfast consists usually of bread, boiled egg, several olives, a few slices of tomato and cucumber, a spoon of honey, tea or coffee.
So it's best to look around for cheap premises open from early morning near you hotel where you could eat something more.

Transport
Although Istanbul is a city with more then 10 million inhabitants, moving around isn't a problem.
From the main bus station to the center you can take the subway to Zeytinburnu and change for the tram Kabatas-Zeytinburnu, which will take you to the Sultan Ahmet Square. This is where the most monuments are situated. Subway from the bus station runs also to Taksim Square, in the heart of shopping and entertainment district.
The tram line cross the Golden Horn where the majority of sites is situated. Instead of tickets there are tokens that are thrown at the gate entrance to the bus / tram stop. It costs 1.25 YTL, regardless of how many stops you go.
It's more convenient to buy akbil - it looks as if someone put a large battery to a watch or a calculator into a small plastic handle. You attach it to a special sensor at the gate entrance to the tram stop or subway. Almost everywhere there are machines where you can buy tokens or recharge akbil.

Refreshing tea with apple juice
Stops are guarded by security guards / police officers, so there are no crowds there. Coaches are modern and comfortable, air conditioned, more like metro wagons than the seedy Polish trams.
Outside the Golden Horn city buses and subway run and through the strait - ferries.
You can also move around the city by taxi. At the start you pay 1.75 YTL and then 1.25 YTL per kilometer. If the taxi is to cross the Bosphorus you pay additional fee. How it works, I don't know, we would take public transport only.
Ships and boats depart from the main harbor in
Beşiktaş or Eminönü on the European side. They go to the harbors at Kadiköy and Üsküdar on the Asian side. In the window (gişe) you buy a token (jeton). You can also take one of the private water buses which cross the Bosporus at certain points. At peak hours, they're reportedly the fastest way. They run until 1.00 in the night, longer than the state ferries.


Intercity buses
Long-distance transportation is well developed, at least in the western part of Turkey. Various forums recommend the company Kamilkoc. In practice, however, you use various carriers, choosing a route that suits you best. Most companies offer services at a similar level. Buses are comfortable, air conditioned, clean. Traveling at night isn't tiresome, you can sleep comfortably.
Something we don't have in Poland is a service on board. In every bus on the long route you get bottled water, coffee or tea, a cake or a croissant - almost like in a Polish airplane. Stewards (we were only once served by a woman) come up with a liquid for hand wash.
The only problem at the beginning is the orientation at the bus stations. The thing is that there's no central information desk, and each line has its own schedule and pricing. In large cities there can be more than a hundred such companies and desks - it's not a joke! Sometimes you need to walk around for quite a while to find a carrier that operates on the route that interests you, and convenient time.
If anyone feels lost, just ask an employee at the first desk. They are usually well informed and willing to help. If anyone has an unpleasant experience from other countries, such as Morocco, where everyone wants money for showing you the way, forget it. In Turkey such assistance is offered without expectation of payment. Turks are generally very polite and sympathetic. At least these are my experiences, both from big cities and small towns.


Attractions

Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts
In Istanbul there are plenty of attractions worth seeing, so you'll need to choose. Below list of some of them.
*Cruise on the Bosphorus – there are a lot of ships and boats that you can choose from to have a shorter or longer ride.
*Aya Sofia or the Basilica of Divine Wisdom - the most famous monument of the Turkish capital. For about 1000 years it's been a church, then over the next five centuries - a mosque, and in 1935 it was transformed into a museum; open Tues-Sun 9-16.30, admission 20 YTL.
*Yerabatan
Sarayı and Yerabatan Cistern - Sunken Palace and Cisterns, opposite the Aya Sofia; open 9-18.30.
*Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts - the best museum in Turkey; open Tues-Sun 9-17, admission 10 YTL; worth visiting, there are many things to see here.
*Süleymaniye Camii - Suleymaniye Mosque, also known as the Blue Mosque, the second largest in the city; free admission; visiting 9-12.30, 14-16.30, 17.30-18.15 (breaks for prayer).
*Sultan Ahmet I Camii - Mosque of Sultan Ahmed I; visiting 9-21 (breaks for prayer as above).
*
Topkapı Sarayı - Topkapi Palace; some say you need a day to see the place; for others two-three hours will be enough; access to key facilities: 20 YTL, you need to pay extra for the opportunity to enter the harem and the treasury; palace can be visited 9-17, except on Tues. Theoretically, filming and photographing is prohibited in the interiors.


Topkapi Palace is a place to rest for a while
*Kariye Museum - Kariye Camii, Church of the Savior on the Mount; on the coast of the Golden Horn; there are some of the finest Byzantine mosaics picturing Adam and Eve in the world here and the frescoes with scenes from the life of Christ; open 9.30-16.30, closed Wed.
*At Meydanı – Hippodrome; located here are: the obelisk of Pharaoh Totmes, the Column of Constantine VII and the Serpent Column.
*
Kapalı Çarşı - Grand Bazaar and Spicy Bazaar; open 8.30-19, Sun closed; a place worth to go not only for shopping but also to soak up its atmosphere.
*Arkeoloji Müzesi - Archaeological Museum; open Tues-Sun 9.30-16.30, entrance 5 YTL.
*Eski Sark Eserleri Müzesi - Sumerian, Babylonian, and Hittite treasures; open Tues-Sun 9-17.
Moreover, it's worth to take a walk along Istiklal Caddesi - the most elegant street where there are palaces, churches, shops, restaurants and bars. Between the squares of Tünel and Taksim the historic tram runs.
In the old town you can take advantage of hamam, admission is usually 12-25 YTL, but you must remember that they're exclusively places for tourists, you won't find there the atmosphere known from old movies or hamams which can be found for example in Morocco.
Close to the Taksim Square there's the entertainment district, where pubs and bars are open almost until dawn. It's a good place to relax after a day of sightseeing, and for clubbing.


Blue Mosque and near-by gardens
make an impression on each tourist
I must admit that I fell in love with Istanbul. I'll definitely return there someday. People are friendly and smiling, you feel safe even after dark. You can admire the sights, get to know a different culture, but you don't feel like you're from another planet. You can spend an evening in front of the Blue Mosque, sitting on the bench, snacking peanuts or sipping apple tea, served by boys and men running among visitors. In one of the near-by restaurants you can watch the Dervish performance. I didn't suppose that a guy who turns around and around to the music can enchant the audience so much. Indeed, the performances of Dervishes are a kind of a spell. It's a pity we don't have time to go to Konya, which is the center of the Dervish culture. Maybe in the future...
You can spend late evening in one of the dozens of pubs or discos. There are even places where waiters come among the dancing crowd and collect orders. No need to huddle at the bar. Visitor from Western Europe or Polish can only regret a bit that in the discos they play mostly the Turkish hits. For me, it's OK, because they are very melodic, and they help to learn some phrases quickly.


One of the beautiful parks in the center of Istanbul
In Istanbul, you can try almost every cuisine. But of course you don't go to Turkey to eat steaks or go to McDonald's. Unless it's a local equivalent of fast food. The most popular dish is obviously a kebab, served in a variety of ways. Every region and city, even some restaurants, has its own kind of kebab.

The shops and big bazaars of Istanbul are great places for shopping. You can buy both Turkish genuine leather shoes and Chinese sneakers, clothes from the finest materials and cheap jeans. Shopkeepers and stallholders are nice towards a customer and don't try to cheat him. After the experiences from Morocco we approach the sellers with caution, but it soon becomes clear that they don't require outrageous sums for any thing. Prices are real, and the goods are not expensive. Here they really care about the customer. At one of the stalls we see nice jeans, but not our size. The boy first shakes his head, but when he sees that we're determined to buy, leads us to a storeroom, where we try on several pairs of trousers and finally buy... three or four. It paid off for him.

Read also:
Turkey (2008): Izmir, Çeşme, Selçuk, Efes
Turkey (2008): Bodrum, Kos
Turkey (2008): Pamukkale

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