Planes, Trains and Automobiles
Several years ago, I saw an ad in a travel magazine in which Turkish Airlines stated that it was voted the number one airline in Europe. When I researched their routes and fares, I found that the fares were lower than most other airlines but every flight from the U.S. had a layover in Istanbul, some of them as long as 24 hours. My sister and I talked about using Turkish Airlines from time to time as we planned other trips but the layover just didn’t fit in.
Then in 2018 we started making travel plans several months later than usual (May instead of February) and air fares to Italy were already pretty steep. So I threw out the idea of using Turkish Airlines from Chicago to Bologna with a 16 hour layover in Istanbul. Before we made a final decision, we looked at possible layover tours and found one we thought would work, an Istanbul by Night Tour, since we arrived at 4:15 pm and left at 8:30 am the next morning.
While I have no regrets about using Turkish Airlines in order to have the layover, which was the high point of the trip, all I can say is that if Turkish Airlines is number one, I’d hate to fly on number two. I will get to our phenomenal tour in a moment but I have to warn anyone thinking about using this airline, that they should reconsider.
First, we had to pay in order to choose our seats and their web site wouldn’t accept our credit cards. So I spent an interminable amount of time talking to a less than friendly customer service agent and paying $180 to select two aisle seats. Then when we checked in, we had window and middle seats.
This was without a doubt the roughest international flight I’ve ever been on. Granted there’s not a lot a pilot can do to control turbulence but it was so bad I thought the plane was coming apart on several occasions and the pilot never once came on to explain either the cause or why he wasn’t changing our flight pattern to get out of it. Given that the food was disgusting, there was nothing to distract me from the constant shaking, I just prayed that I’d see my grandsons again.
The final blow was staggering off the plane after 10 interminable hours to find the biggest passport entry mess, I’ve ever seen. Then when my sister and I finally got to an officer, he said we had to go back and get a visa. When we found the visa officer, he said it would cost $30 for each of us for an entry visa. When I protested that we were only going to be in Istanbul 16 hours, he curtly informed me that I could spent the time in the transit lounge. So we paid up and got through customs control. We received no information from TA regarding the visa requirement although if you scroll to the bottom of their website, there is a link to e- visa.
I booked us in to WOW Hotel near the airport since it was one of the hotels where our tour guide would meet us. While it is in serious need of refurbishing, their staff is great and was extremely helpful before the trip, sending me information on the shuttle and taxis. In fact the shuttle pulled up right as we walked out of the terminal and it only took about 5 minutes to get to the hotel. The return trip in the morning for our 8:30 am flight was equally easy.
Our terrific guide, Latif Eseler, from Istanbul Layover Tours, http://www.istanbullayovertours.com/, was waiting at the hotel and after we took our bags to our room and freshened up, we sat down with him and went over our itinerary. While talking with him, I mentioned the visa fiasco and he asked, “Didn’t you buy one online? I always include a link in my e-mails.’ A few days later I dug through all my e-mails and found this information in one of them: For your visa, you can easily obtain from website; https://www.evisa.gov.tr/en/ Please make sure that you enter the correct date for section of traveling date. I felt pretty stupid but still think TA should flag that information for everyone.
But the phenomenal tour made us forget all the hassles. Latif first told us that he had booked a driver at no extra cost. (Later, after our more than 5 hour walk, we were extremely grateful for the car.)
He, then, gave us some background on himself; that his parents had immigrated to Turkey, then moved to Germany as guest workers. Latif was born in Germany but his parents sent him back to Turkey at a young age where he was educated, including a university degree in tourism.
We quickly took off for the old city but as we got into the Eminonu shopping district, traffic became impossible so our driver dropped us off and we started walking toward the Grand Bazaar. As we walked along the crowded streets it quickly became apparent that Latif not only had excellent English skills but was extremely knowledgeable about the history of Turkey and Istanbul. I think what separates a good guide from a great guide is passion for his/her subject and Latif was obviously passionate about every aspect of Istanbul–from history to religion to food.
As we walked toward the Grand Bazaar he pointed out Roman ruins and early mosques, giving us background on the early rulers of Constantinople/Istanbul.
Streets of Istanbul
A friend had told me not miss the bazaar and I was amazed not only at its size but the variety and number of shops–gold, leather, rugs, foods,–each in their own area of the bazaar. We thought it was fascinating. Latif told us that you have to negotiate the price of gold and some of the other goods and need someone knowledgeable before you attempt to barter.
The Grand Bazaar
From the Grand Bazaar we walked through an area with shops dedicated to weddings; dress shop after dress shop then shops with every type of household goods.
Wedding Dress District Istanbul
It was about a 15 minute walk to the Spice Bazaar which I estimated to be about a fourth the size of the Grand Bazaar and includes spice shops as well as stores selling teas, herbs, dried fruits, and candies. Both the Grand Bazaar and the Spice Bazaar have beautiful frescoes on the ceilings and walls which you can see in the galleries.
A number of shops in the Spice Bazaar allow customers to taste their products before buying. Latif asked if there were any teas or fruits we wanted to try but we were anxious for the next portion of the tour–taking a ferry to the Asian side.
When we reached the harbor, Latif pointed out some interesting boats that were very ornate and Oriental looking. The chefs cook a local fish on the ship and people sit outside and eat. We watched the ships in the harbor, referred to as the Golden Horn because of its shape and also, according to http://www.greatistanbul.com/golden_horn.html because “In the first half of 18th century the Golden Horn was famous for its tulip gardens where upscale people came to enjoy and row with their boats at the romantic sunset. Many poets called it as “Sadabad” in their poems, or “place of bliss.” Latif also explained how ships can only go one way through the Bosporus Straits and the direction changes every 6 hours.
The Golden Horn
By the time we got on the ferry, it was getting dark and my sister took some lovely pictures of the skyline–including the Blue Mosque and Topkapi Palace.
Latif also gives food tours on the Asian side (the Karaköy District, see ‘Istanbul’s Cool New District https://www.cntraveller.com/gallery/karakoy-istanbul-turkey) and after walking a couple of blocks from the harbor, I could understand why. There was one restaurant after another, every possible type of food market–fruits, vegetables, meats, cheeses–plus all types of street food vendors. Everything looked wonderful except maybe the goat cheese wrapped in goat skin. Latif told us that pastrami was first made in Turkey; that it was meat placed between the nomad’s saddle and his horse and means pressed in Turkish. (I may never eat pastrami again after that visual.)
As we walked up the street of restaurants and markets, Latif stopped at a vendor who was selling stuffed and fried mussels. He bought several for us to try. They were amazing. Then we did a photo op with the owners or workers–not sure which.
Istanbul markets and street food
We had a really interesting dinner at a traditional Turkish restaurant called Cya where the chef has been written up in Food and Wine. I’ve scanned in portions of a booklet on the restaurant and included a link here: Ciya Restaurant– Latif selected our food which included several salads; my favorite being the couscous, plus stuffed eggplant and two types of lamb stew.
After dinner we walked back to the harbor and took the ferry to the European side, then caught the tram to Sultanahmet Square. There is a green space and lovely fountain in the middle, with the Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque on two sides. Seeing these iconic landmarks by night was a phenomenal experience.
Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque
We continued to a nearby park on the edge of the Sultanahmet Square where there’s a 15th century BC Egyptian obelisk of the Pharaoh Thutmosis III , the remains of a sculpture which originally had snake heads, and another ‘obelisk’ made from the remains of a Hippodrome. They were equally phenomenal by night as you can see below.
Obelisks of Istanbul
As much as we loved the tour, we were glad to see our driver and return to the hotel to get a few hours of rest before traveling on to Bologna.