Turkey

Last weekend I had the opportunity to go on vacation to Istanbul, Turkey. Travelling to Turkey seems to be a rite of passage amongst Bulgarian Peace Corps Volunteers; every volunteer I know has gone. I and another volunteer, left from Plovdiv on a midnight bus after going to a very nice Turkish restaurant.

The bus was more or less empty and we hit the road southeast to Turkey. We reached the border around 03:30. As Americans, we had to purchase a 90 day, multiple entry visa for 20 USD. We crossed the border and then had our bags searched (in the most liberal sense).

Four hours later, we woke up at the MASSIVE bus station. Seriously, this bus station is the size of like, two professional football stadiums. According to wikitravel.org, you can get anywhere within 1,000 miles of Istanbul.

We then set out to explore the city. A few things came as a surprise to me as I did research: 1) Istanbul is the world’s fourth largest city with over 11 MILLION people. Pretty crazy. 2) It wasn’t officially called “Istanbul” until Attaturk ingloriously renamed the city when organizing the postal system in 1930. That fact made me feel kinda stupid since I thought it was renamed during the middle ages. And 3) “Istanbul” is Turkish for “the city”, which if you just said that, everyone way back when knew what city you were talking about as Istanbul was the wealthiest and most populous city back in the day (I’m being vague since I don’t know the time frame. This is just want i remember from a tour book in the hostel).

Speaking hostels, our hostel was near the Blue Mosque, this absolutely HUGE mosque in the historical district.

One interesting thing about Istanbul is, despite being a very secular country, they have mosques everywhere. I read (somewhere), that the Sultan that captured Constantinople he found it mostly abandoned as people knew his armies where advancing. To repopulate the city, he embarked on mosque building spree. This brought work to the different quarters that also brought axillary jobs (like stores, schools, hospitals, etc) to support the workers. The mosques took several years and once they were finished the quarter was completely repopulated and the mosque served as the community center. Relating back to the secular note before going on that tangent, since there were so many mosques, there were several calls to prayer every day. I thought it was beautiful, though depending where in the city you were, it could be a bit much with four or five mosques all singing at once!

Also in the historical district was the carpet bazaar (which was really touristy) and the grand bazaar (which I think only tourists frequent). The grand bazaar was a sight to behold. Grand Bazaar Istanbul, Turkey This is the world’s largest covered bazaar and according to signs there, employs some 7,000 people! It has been on it’s current location since the 15th century and was created to create a finance base to build a mosque.

On the subject of bazaars, we also went to the spice bazaar. This felt more authentic and was open air (for the most part). It felt a lot more authentic too (the large number of Turkish shoppers gave that away) Spices at the Spice Bazaar Istanbul, Turkey

This bazaar has been on this site for about 500 years or so. Pretty impressive. From the bazaar it was a straight shot to the sea. As you can see from the below photo, it was about to rain. And rain it did! We were soaked from head to toe but found refuge in a Turkish cafe and had a nice authentic lunch.

The flags you see there are actually campaign posters for the upcoming national Turkish election and were found throughout the city. There were also vans covered with the faces of party leaders blaring annoyingly loud music. It just added to the overall atmosphere. Speaking of atmosphere, I was surprised how widely English was spoken. It seemed everyone everywhere spoke it (on a related note, I am amazed with number of British people I encounter when I go in more developed countries (Croatia, Austria, Slovenia, etc)). It was a definite plus being able to go to a foreign country and being able to speak a different language. Most shop owners/people on the street were very interested to know where we were from since they heard us speaking English. When we said that we were from Bulgaria, they couldn’t believe it and we continued our conversation in Bulgarian to their amazement.

Most shop/restaurant owners try all kinds of gimmicks to get you to enter their store. Some of the best things we heard were:
“Excuse me, may I hassle you?”
“If you come back tomorrow, I will give you this plant (as he holds up a decorative bush)”
“You walk like you need a rug”

Having people actually want you to come into their store was a huge change from the customer service one experiences in Bulgaria.

We also went to Attaturk’s palace which was really impressive. It was originally build by the sultans who moved from from their palace at Topkarpi (sp?) and was handed over to the people when the Sultanate was abolished in 1924.

The views form the palace weren’t bad either

Later, we went to the Galata tower which had some amazing views of the city.

And then, before we knew it, the trip was over. Four days wasn’t enough to explore this awesome city. If you ever have the chance to go, I highly recommend it. Though if you take the bus, be wary of crying babies sitting behind you, especially if the mother asks you to look after him when she goes to the bathroom/buy smokes.

Istanbul
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