As some of you may now know, my friend Cheyenne and I have been traveling around Turkey for the last week or so. Going into it, however, we didn’t quite know what to expect; websites and blogs gave us travel advice, some of which was helpful, other parts of which were somewhat less than helpful. As soon as we got into Istanbul it was overwhelming, but looking back on it now, I can say that the first few hours in the city completely set the tone for what our experience was going to be like.
We flew into the Sahiba Goken airport, which is the unfavored sibling-airport of Ataturk airport. We had some fairly complicated directions to our hostel, which was in Sultanhamet near the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia. The directions indicated that we should take a bus from the airport to Taksim (not a great recommendation considering that we were arriving just as the RIOTS IN TAKSIM started), and attempted to get said bus at the designated point at the airport. A Turkish man who worked for the bus company and who spoke a confusing hybrid of German-English enthusiastically suggested an alternate route for us that involved taking a ferry to ENIKOU? And then taking the tram from there to Sultanhamet, where we would then somehow walk to our hostel. We decided to take his advice and took the ferry over, but could not for the life of us figure out how the tram system worked, or even figure out where the tram stop at the port was. Ultimately we ended up taking a taxi, which still dropped us off relatively far away from our hostel, and through the semi-kindness of men trying to get us to eat at their restaurants, eventually found or way to Bahaus.
Tip: In Istanbul, the tram system works more strictly than it does in other parts of the world. Stops are designated by large, semi-covered platforms, with turnstiles that require tokens or tram passes for entry. To get a token, look for the machines that should be fairly close to the tram stop, but are not always obvious. One token costs 3 TL, or €1.5.
After settling in to our room at the hostel, we decided to wander around and try and get oriented. We were only a few minutes’ walk from Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, so our first adventure was to there. Unfortunately for us, we had to walk up a long street full of restaurants, all of which came with their very own gaggle of heckling, young-to-middle-age men. The street was difficult to avoid, and attracting attention was inevitable; it didn’t matter what we wore, how fast we walked, how straight of a face we kept, we’d get questioned and heckled by men from every side. Some were good-natured and, once it became evident that we had no interest at eating at their restaurant, settled only for a ‘hello’ or a ‘good evening.’ Others were rude or persistent, and while they were often irritating, overall they were non-threatening. The only time we were not heavily heckled was when we were walking with guys or other men.
Eventually we made our way up to the mosques and spent some time just appreciating the domineering structures. We took the obligatory photos by the fountain in front of Hagia Sophia, then were stopped by a tour guide, Fehrat, who offered to take our photos. We were wary at first, but he was so good natured that we sat and spoke to him for a while, and he gave us advice about the city. The most useful advice he gave us was that we should try and visit the Prince’s Islands one day, which we did, and couldn’t have been more grateful. He was working for a boat company, however, and offered us a free evening cruise as his guests, after which he invited us to come smoke shisha with him. We politely deferred the offer and didn’t see him again.
Several times over the course of the day we were stopped by groups of schoolgirls who needed to interview us for a class, and Cheyenne had the misfortune of being forced to do some impromptu (and depressing) karaoke with one of the girls while another one awkwardly videotaped the whole thing. Eventually we returned to the hostel and had some fairly bland dinner, chatted with a few people there, then promptly went to sleep.
One the second day we decided to be incredibly ambitious (by our standards, anyway) and visited Hagia Sophia, the Basilica Cisterns, the Blue Mosque, and then top it off with a nighttime boat tour. We were unable to enter the Blue Mosque, however, as Fridays are the day when many Muslims go to the mosque to pray.
Tip: If you want to see the main sites, like Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, try and visit either early in the morning or late in the afternoon, when lines are least long. Hagia Sophia appears to be closed on Mondays, while the Blue Mosque is insufferably busy on Fridays.
We stopped for lunch after Hagia Sophia at a café called Palatium just down the street from the main attractions. On our way to and from the Mosques (and tram stops, etc), we passed the restaurant many times, and decided to try it for two reasons: for one, the interior was attractive, with lounge-style seating and alternate patio seating, and also because the men working at the restaurant did not heckle us to try and get us to come inside. Instead, we were allowed to enter, peruse the menu, and decide where to sit without being bothered by anyone, which was already refreshing even on the first day. This restaurant became a favorite of ours, with tasty food (at competitive prices—especially the baklava with ice cream, which was some of the tastiest I had in Turkey!), and we ate there many times. One day when I was feeling ill our waiter even came and brought me a pillow and a blanket, and happily encouraged me to relax, take a nap, and not feel rushed about eating. He did mock me a bit for ordering two different types of tea at once, but it was all very good natured.
After lunch we toured around the Basilica Cistern, which was a refreshing break from the heat of the day. We returned to the hostel briefly, then left for our boat tour, which was about two hours long and covered the main parts of the city, several waterside night clubs, some residential districts, and some open-water time. The whole cruise lasted about two hours, which was more than enough time to see the sites before we got antsy to come home.
For diner we went to a restaurant that I’d seen recommended on a blog post that my mother had sent me, and we were absolutely not disappointed! The restaurant is called Med Cezir, and it is absolutely great. The prices are on-par with others in the area, but the food is superior to almost all restaurants on the main strip of Sultanhamet and the staff were amazing. I wrote them a review on TRIPADVISOR, and when the owner saw it, he stopped and thanked me personally for the review, which is always appreciated! I ordered a chicken kebab and Cheyenne ordered a shrimp casserole, which she loved. The meal also came with free bread and a tasty, spicy, tomato-y oil that was worth coming back for on its own. Highly recommended!
Our third day was quite lazy, and we were feeling burnt out after our day the day before. Nevertheless we made it our mission to see Topekai Palace, which was interesting but crowded and a bit confusing. The most interesting part of the tour was seeing the harem, which we were fairly enthusiastic about, but the most interesting part of the day on the whole was definitely the people around the palace. Not only did we see a man with a newspaper captain’s hat, but we also saw the lovely specimen pictured below: bright blue unitard-wearing, mullet-ed, socks-and-sandals kid. Talk about a fashion statement.
Probably my favorite day in the city proper of Istanbul. In the morning we went to a Hammam, which was surprisingly amazing. When we got there it was not particularly busy, and we did not have to wait. For €50 we got the complete package, which consisted of time in the steamy room, a washing with some fragrant soap, a massage, then some more washing and rinsing, a shampooing, and even a braid at the end (if your hairs long enough). Going to the hammam was intensely surreal at first, and a bit uncomfortable; you’re in a room with many women in various stages of undress, but often naked, and for a while you’re all just sitting and trying not to stare at each other. When you get to the proper bathing portion, however, everything becomes much more comfortable. My bath matron was kind of like a big, Turkish grandmother that I’ve only met once or twice in my life and who didn’t really speak the same language as me. Either way, Cheyenne and I agreed that it was one of our favorite things we’d done on the trip, if not the most favorite.
In the evening we went and saw a traditional dancing show at the Hojapasha Cultural Center, which was an amazing opportunity in and of itself. The show featured many different types of dancers, including male and female belly dancers and an accompanying music troupe. I’m not very knowledgeable about Turkish cultural dances, however, so I’ll let the pictures I have do the talking:
On the fifth day we decided to escape the city and follow the advice of Fehrat, the boat promoter that we’d met on the first day, and went to the Prince’s Islands. We had an idyllic day of bike riding and dining on the cheap, which I talk about more in my blog post here.
Getting to the Prince’s Islands:
Take a tram to Kabutas, which is the last stop on the line. From there get a ferry going to Buyukada, which run on the hour. (Tram: 3TL one way, ferry 5 tl one way). Ferry takes an hour and a half.
So that pretty effectively sums up our travels in Istanbul. On the final day that we had there I had a massive, debilitating migraine, so we didn’t get to see the Spice Market or go into the Blue Mosque. All the same, we had a great time and had lots of fun exploring the city, even in the midst of the anti-government riots that were happening in Taksim.
When I first started planning my trip to Turkey, I knew very little about what I actually wanted to do and see. There was the exotic, loud allure of Istanbul, the Oceanside resorts on the coast, and a lot of mosques. After some basic research, I knew I wanted to go further than the typical big city/beach dynamic and discovered Cappadocia, a place that looks like its come from a sci-fi film and has a name that I didn’t know how to pronounce until I was in Turkey for a full week (the alternate spelling of Kapadokya is a handy phonetic reminder). It became evident very quickly that one of the big-ticket tourist items was hot air ballooning, and I couldn’t have been more excited to figure this out. This item tops the “activities” section of my bucket list, and I can honestly say that the experience was everything I could have hoped for and more.
In Cappadocia we stayed at the Guven Cave Hotel, which is a lovely little place just off the main street. The owner/manager of the hotel, Mustafa, was immensely accommodating, and when we asked him about booking balloon tours he gave us a detailed run-down of the various companies that offered their services. He explained the differences in prices, which ran from €100-€170 for a standard flight, and the benefits and drawbacks of each company. Mustafa, conveniently, is also a pilot, and ended up being the pilot for our flight.
The company we chose was Air Kapadokya, which we chose based on Mustafa’s recommendation. The flight lasted slightly longer than one hour, cost €130, and came with a small, no-frills variety of biscuits and breads for breakfast. We were picked up from our hotel at 4:30 in the morning, which is an ungodly hour to have to be awake and prepared for an adventure, and were driven to the Air Kapadokya centre, where we were divided into groups and allowed some time to eat breakfast. Around 5:00 or 5:30 am we set out in the vans again and were driven to a large field full of colorful, flaccid hot air balloons, then led to our balloon. A few safety features were covered before the flight, and soon we were up in the air.
Mustafa took us into the Rose Valley, where we floated at just the right height to watch the sun rise over the flat plateaus. We then ascended up higher, with an amazing view of dozens of other balloons starting their flight as well. The entire experience was peaceful and serene, and didn’t even really give the impression of being at a height—which was a relief for Cheyenne and I, as Cheyenne is apparently fairly afraid of heights. We had six people in our basket, which was admittedly a bit snug, but everyone was friendly enough and we circulated around so that everyone could have a chance to be at the outer rim of the basket. If you go ballooning, try and be the last one to get into your basket—you’re more likely to have the coveted, unobstructed corner spot, which is definitely the best for taking photos.
After an hour and five minutes (exactly, as Mustafa informed us), we began to descend, with a small troupe of men running under our balloon in an effort to catch the rope that would secure us to the ground. Once we were there we were helped out of the balloon, allowed to take some pictures in the field with the other descending balloons, and given some surprisingly tasty 6:30 am champagne to toast our flight. Once the champagne was popped everyone was given a flight certificate, and we all piled back into the vans that would drop us back off at our hotel. Some of the flight attendants, if you could call them that had cut some roses along the way, and gave them (free of charge, a rarity in Turkey!) to me and some other girls in the van before we were dropped off, feeling giddy and energized from this amazing experience.
And, if you’re really, really lucky, you might even get to play with some renegade puppies afterward.
When I was planning my trip to Eastern Europe, I wasn’t really sure what I was in for. I knew there were a few key sights I wanted to see; the bone church in Kutna Hora, the entire city of Prague, and most importantly Auschwitz concentration camp. I have always had a keen interest in the Holocaust and in the general trend of the persecution of Jewish populations throughout Europe, particularly throughout Moldova and Ukraine, where my family came from, and the museum at Auschwitz has one of the most prolific and interesting exhibits on the subject. I had visited Dachau before, and so I was expecting something similar when I went to Auschwitz, but found myself very surprised by the reality of the camp.
When I got to my hostel I booked a tour for the next day, and headed out with our tour group the next afternoon. We started by watching a documentary consisting of the footage taken by Soviet troops who came to liberate the camps near the end of the Second World War. There were many familiar and very famous images presented, but also many that I had never seen before. The video explained how the Nazis at Auschwitz were essentially utilizing Jewish people as though they were raw materials; the healthy were forced to do manual labor to support the military, their belongings (including gold teeth, shoes, prosthetic limbs, crockery, and jewelry) were taken and used to clothe soldiers and add to the wealth of the government, and even their hair was used to make rope or felt for stockings and blankets.
When we got to the camp we were first brought to the infamous ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ gate, which prisoners would walk through on their way to work each day. We were then led through several barracks, all of which hosted exhibits about the camp; we learned how many prisoners were sent through, about how many died, about the child prisoners, and about life and death within the camps. One particular barrack held many possessions that had not already been utilized by the Germans, but were waiting in storage when the camps were liberated. There were entire rooms full of shoes, crockery, and personal care items, but the most disturbing room was the one that was full of human hair, which we were not allowed to photograph. Many of the locks of hair were still in their original braids, which was a tactile reminder of the fact that this actually happened to people, not just ambiguous numbers or concepts that you read about in the books.
Our next stop was to Barrack 11, which was essentially a prison within a prison; the barrack housed various interrogation rooms, holding cells (for those committed to death by starvation), several standing punishment cells, which held up to four men at a time and forced them to stand all night, and was the first building in which Zyclon B, the gas used to kill the majority of Jewish prisoners, was tested. There was a commemorative cell in which a priest, who had volunteered to take the punishment of death by starvation in place of another prisoner, was killed by poison after withstanding two weeks of starvation. The man whose life he saved lived to be 94.
Before we made our way to Birkinau, the sister camp to Auschwitz, we went through the last standing gas chamber and crematorium. Our guide explained the layout of the rooms to us outside, as silence is mandatory within the chambers. We were shown through the first room, in which prisoners stripped down for ‘showers and delousing,’ and where they were repeatedly told to remember their hook numbers to prevent suspicion. The next room looked like a standard communal shower, complete with shower heads on the walls. The gas entered the room from several disguised holes in the ceiling, and within 15-20 minutes everyone within the chambers would perish. They were then taken to the next room, where their bodies were cremated, their ashes used to fertilize the fields in the area.
We took a short break and then headed to Brikinau, where the majority of prisoners were held. The remnants of the barracks stand behind the infamous entry gate through which thousands of Jews and other ‘undesirables’ were brought to the camp in cattle train cars. There is one commemorative cattle car left on site, the bottom rails of which are lined with small stones, as per Jewish funerary custom. While we were here we were told that up to 80 people were often crammed into these small cars, which were devoid of any creature comforts, like toilets, food, or water. The trips often lasted many days, and people often perished along the way. Some were even made to pay for their ticket as though they were taking legitimate trains to their “new homes.”
We continued down the infamous platform where families were separated by gender and sent either to the gas chambers or to work, making our way toward the ruins of two of the larger gas chamber and crematorium complexes, both of which had been destroyed by the Nazis during the war in an effort to cover their atrocities. From there we toured one of the remaining barracks and toilet chambers, and were told more about daily camp life and the advantages and disadvantages of working for particular sectors of camp labor. After this we went back to solemnly to the bus to return to Krakow. All in all a day trip that is well worth it, but definitely not uplifting.
After spending four days being heckled and hounded in Istanbul, Cheyenne and I decided to take a nice day trip to the biggest of the Princes’ Islands, about an hour and a half away from Istanbul. We weren’t too sure what to expect; we were told, vaguely, that there were no cars on the Islands (mostly true), that there were many horse-drawn carriages that we could tour on (very true), that it was pleasant to bike around (questionable for those who don’t like hills—ahem, Cheyenne!), and that there was, at one point, a very steep part that you couldn’t ride your bike up (we failed to actually get all the way halfway around the island, so this could very well be true, but I have no real evidence of this). The ferries ran roughly every hour from the (Port) port, conveniently located at the end of a tram line. We took the 11:30 ferry over, and spent the next hour and a half watching locals and tourists alike play musical chairs with the on-deck seating as they tried to get a good photo or escape the wind.
We got to the island around 1:00 pm, and immediately stopped for some lunch. We were pleasantly surprised by the cost of the food, which was approximately 1/3 to ½ as expensive as it was in Sultanhamet, where our hostel was located. (Tip: getting food slightly off the beaten tourist path and a few streets up from the water guarantees a cheaper and tastier meal, even by island standards!) After this we took a walk, deciding we were going to try and find Yoruk Ali “beach” and promptly got very lost. With the help of a friendly local man who just so happened to have a map handy, we 180’d and made our way back to our port of entry, then rented a pair of bikes and set off in search of the beach.
When we got there, we were unpleasantly surprised to find that it was not so much as a resort-style fake beach, with lawn chairs laid out on icky Astroturf and a tiny, overcrowded strip of sand. The entry fee alone was 25 TL, though they offered us 15 when we began to leave. Still unsatisfied, we got back on our bikes and went back up the many hills, tired and hot. We also needed to use the bathroom, and found a small park on the top of the hill with an entry listed at 4 TL. We locked our bikes to a picnic table and used the washrooms, which were clean but offered the squat-variety of toilet, much to Cheyenne’s distaste (she’d never used one before—see below for her post-toilet reaction). When we finished with the WC we decided to take a walk around, and ended up spending several hours frolicking in the park.
Eventually we got hungry, and so we took the short route back to the main town and stopped for some more dinner. Naturally we made a pit-stop for some well deserved ice cream, then walked two streets in from the strip of overpriced restaurants overlooking the water and found a pleasant little restaurant, which offered massive portions of tasty food for only 12 lira (in Istanbul, it would have cost at least 25-30 lira). I ordered chicken wings, which came with pancakes, French fries, flavorful rice, a full salad and bread. The food was delicious, and filling enough that I was able to give some of the chicken wing fatty scraps to the impatient cats waiting near our table.
After dinner we rushed to catch the last ferry home, exhausted and a bit sunburnt, but happy to have a day away from the bustle and heckling of Istanbul. We took loads of photos, god some fresh air, and spent half the money we would have in the city, and overall had a great time. Highly recommended for any prolonged trip to Istanbul!