With a few weeks to fill in before we collect the camper and head off, we booked a week in Istanbul. After heading back to Heathrow, we spent a night in a hotel called the Comfort Hotel which was anything but ... dreary but close to the airport as its only saving grace.
So having left the cold and drizzle of England, we arrived in sunnier climes in Istanbul. Our hotel is a small family run affair right in the Sultanahmet area of Old Istanbul and only a short walk to all the "biggies" - the Blue Mosque, the Hagia Sofia and the Topkapi Palace. The roof terrace where breakfast is served has a sweeping view over the Sea of Marmora over to the Asian side (haze and smog permitting) and the thousands of ships anchored and awaiting cargo.
First up we booked a tour around the city to get our bearings and see some of the more outlying sights. And so a morning of mosques and old Greek churches, all with magnificent decorations, whether painted frescoes or golden mosaics or highly decorated tiles. A trip up a mountain to a lookout called Pierre Loti after a Frenchman who lived in Istanbul gave us sweeping views down the Golden Horn towards the Bosphorus. After lunch, we struggled through the crowds - people everywhere, it was a Sunday - to board a boat which cruised up the Bosphorus along the European shore then back along the Asian shore. The rulers of the past built magnificent palaces along the shore and remnants of fortifications tumble down into the water. And everywhere the local citizens of Istanbul were out and about, picnicking, fishing, strolling the esplanades. Not hard to believe this is a city of 15 million people - they were all out for the day!
The famous attractions of Istanbul are fully deserving of their reputations as wonders of the world: the Blue Mosque with its soaring dome and richly tiled interior, the Haghia Sofia gleaming gold paint and mosaics, and the magnificent grounds and buildings of the Topkapi Palace with stunning interiors and jewels to behold.
But there are smaller wonders to see in the old city. We walked a short distance to the 'Little Haghia Sofia' just a block or two from our hotel. This small gem of a mosque is unspoiled by crowds and has a serene and elegant interior. Next to it is a small medrassa, now a calligraphers' market. One young woman artist painted the most exquisite Ottoman style miniatures on 150 year old paper as well much more modern paintings on paper and on tiles.
Under the bazaar next to the Blue Mosque is a mosaic museum with splendid, carefully restored pavements of the tiniest marble and glass tesserae dating from the time of Emperor Justinian nearly 1500 years ago.
The underground cisterns from the same time are eerie cavernous spaces where you can wander amongst the columns in the gloom with water dripping through the ceiling all around.
The Grand Bazaar is grand indeed with its hectares of area and its labyrinth of lanes and alleys. For those with a dominant shopping gene this is heaven. The Book Bazaar next door was full of, obviously, books but also of stalls selling beautiful miniatures, copies of old masters on old paper.
The museums are well set out and organised and one can while away hours looking at ancient manuscripts, centuries old carpets, tiles and ceramics, and magnificent Roman era marbles.
One day was the 'Ataturk Commemoration, Youth and Sport Day' - a public holiday it seemed as again Istanbul was full of locals, strolling, shopping, eating and meeting in large groups. We went to Kumkapi Square, away from the tourist spots where some lanes radiate from a small square with a fountain. It was wall-to-wall seafood restaurants and we decided that would be a good spot for dinner. We were surprised to find the place was filled to the brim with locals out eating in big and small groups. There was hardly a tourist to be seen and we looked down while we ate from a balcony on no fewer than 13 small music bands roaming from table to table, on belly dancers dancing atop tables for the diners and accepting money in their heavily sequinned cleavages, on diners breaking into song or dancing to the music, to young boys selling the most enormous fluffy toys or renting water pipes. It was pure theatre and we felt we had not only enjoyed the meal but also the entertainment.
And of course we had to have a traditional Turkish Bath. A small hammam around the corner was built in 1777 and looked as if minimal maintenance had been done since. But we ventured in for 90 minutes of sweating on heated marble slabs, a scrub down with a very rough loofah mitt, a soapy frothy wash followed by a pretty severe massage. Don't think we have ever been so relaxed - or so clean- in our entire lives!
One surprise for the week in Istanbul was the news that friends of ours would be there at the same time. We met Jen and Tim from Adelaide when we were living in London in 1984, but it's been about 14 years since we last saw them! They were travelling with friends but we joined them all for a drink and then for dinner. Tim was determined to find a restaurant that he'd heard about where a meal is cooked in a sealed clay pot, comes to the table in flames and is broken apart at the table in front of you. We found the restaurant and chose a table on the rooftop terrace four floors up with sweeping views over the rooftops to the Sea of Marmara. Naturally we ordered the clay pots and what a piece of theatre! We watched as the fiery pots had their tops sliced off with a huge knife and the contents were poured into our plates. Very tasty the dish was too! And of course it was a complete pleasure to see Jen and Tim and catch up after all these years
But a week had come to an end. Our impressions of Istanbul?
What strikes us most about the city and its people are how friendly it and they are. Stand on a street corner with map in hand and someone will generally ask if you need help finding your destination. More often than not they will take you some of the way so you don't get lost. Street vendors take no for an answer but still want to chat and ask about you. Shop keepers or restaurant spruikers invite you in to their places but if you shake your head just accept it. Practically all the time, you can browse through goods on display in peace without any pressure to buy. And it's surprising how quiet the place is: drivers don't get upset with each other to any great degree and just allow cars, trucks, buses to get through the narrow streets with a minimum of angst and horn tooting. Perhaps it's because our preconceptions were quite different, but we have been pleasantly surprised!