For those of you who don’t know me, I am Andrea Brandle, a Canadian living in Singapore. I have travelled to and lived in North and South America, Africa, Asia, and Europe but I had never been to Turkey. Fathiah at Flight Centre Singapore made the arrangements with Turkish Airlines and On the Go Tours for my 10-day introduction to Turkey.
My adventure began Friday evening at Changi Airport, one of my all-time favourite airports. The daily, direct flight on Turkish Airlines from SIN to IST (Ataturk Airport, Istanbul) takes 12 hours and 10 minutes and has you arrive in the wee, small hours of the morning. The flight was extremely pleasant, in part, because the flight attendants are friendly and helpful, the plane is comfortable and the entertainment is up-to-date with an extensive choice, but also, in part because my seat partner was a delightful, young doctor who was returning home from a conference in Jakarta. When I asked her in a conspiratorial whisper if she was Turkish, she answered “yes” proudly and without hesitation. I then asked her to teach me how to say thank you in Turkish. In spite of her best efforts, I still cannot say anything except “Raki”, the ‘national’ alcohol of Turkey. I tasted Raki for the first time on the flight and it was also my first time to taste Turkish wine. I knew right away that I was going to enjoy my visit to Turkey.
Many of the people on my flight were not going to Istanbul as I discovered when I chatted with other passengers waiting to depart. Skylife, the inflight magazine, claims that Turkish Airlines flies to more countries than any other airline in the world. That would mean a lot of people are changing planes in Istanbul; so, Turkish Airlines put together TourIstanbul, “an enjoyable tour program for our passengers who are traveling internationally with layovers in Istanbul that overlap with the tour times shown below.” (9am to 3pm, 12 noon to 6pm, and 9am to 6pm) “On our complimentary TourIstanbul tours, we pick up our passengers from Ataturk Airport and take them to the city’s historic sites and finest restaurants…Don’t miss this experience if you have a layover of more than six hours in Istanbul that overlaps with the tour times.”
A representative of On the Go Tours met me at the airport and brought me to the Kent Hotel. We chatted on the way to the hotel about the weather and he filled me in on some basic information about Turkey in general (98% Muslim but very “westernized”), and Istanbul (unofficially, 20 million people live in Turkey’s largest city). The Kent Hotel, which Tripadvisor ranked 267 out of 869 hotels, is located in Istanbul’s garment district which is only a couple of tram stops away from the ‘old city’. With several hours before check-in, I left my luggage, donned my hoodie and went out to explore. The city was just waking up.
The streets in this part of Istanbul are generally narrow and cobbled. Ordu Street, along which the tram runs, is an exception, as it is very wide. The side streets off Ordu, which run north (uphill) and south, to the Marmara Sea, are very steep. A young fellow with a handcart stacked high with cargo that appeared to weigh three times as much as he did, came careening down the hill with his feet barely touching the ground. I feared for his safety and wondered how on Earth he would be able to stop. He managed to turn on to an East-West running street and his momentum gradually slowed. He had obviously done this before.
I saw lots and lots and lots of cats. https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10152154417655860.1073741831.567485859&type=1
I wandered for hours and finally, I decided to stop for lunch at a welcoming dining room in Hotel Momento. It turned out that it was only 10:30 a.m.! I chose to have breakfast instead, even though I had already had breakfast on the plane, and to buy a watch as soon as I found a cheap one. I pulled out my Lonely Planet and made a plan to go to a Turkish bath. On my way to one of the hamams recommended in the guidebook, I found my own and I was feeling pretty, proud of myself. Gedikpasa Bath was built by the architect Gedik Ahmet Pasa in 1475 and it is the real deal.
After sitting in the sauna for a while, I stretched out on a hot marble platform and was scrubbed with a loofah by an attractive, young lady wearing a black lace bra and a red G-string with ‘sexy’ in rhinestones on the front. In the steamy environment of the hamam, this was suitable work clothing. Another of the ladies who worked there was wearing a string bikini and she made me look small! When the scrub was finished, I was rinsed off and back to the hot marble for a soap massage. Finally, my hair was shampooed and then I went for a swim in a cool pool. As I lay floating, staring up at the ancient ceiling, I had one of those surreal moments that I am prone to. I thought to myself, “OMG, I am in a Turkish bath in Istanbul!” I dried off, got dressed and headed back to the Kent to check in.
On the Go Tours offers to match up single travellers with a roommate of the same gender in order to save them from paying the single supplement. Claudia, my roommate, had checked in about five minutes before I arrived back at the hotel. She told me that she planned to visit the Grand Bazaar as it is closed on Sunday and would not be included on our tour of Istanbul’s Old City. I was glad she had found this out. Off we went together to what the brochure describes as a shopper’s paradise. The guide books suggest allowing a minimum of three hours to explore this sprawling labyrinth of shops and stalls. I bought a watch and earrings. Claudia bought scarves and we had doner in a pita style wrap for lunch.
The itinerary, given to me by the airport representative, indicated that we were to meet our guide at 8 p.m. in the lobby of the Kent Hotel. In fact, we met in a meeting room off the restaurant, one floor above the lobby. Teli, part of our small group, arrived late and a bit peeved because he had been waiting down in the lobby. Our group was an interesting mix. Our guide, Huseyin Salikoglu is Turkish, a former university lecturer, and, my guess, is in his forties. The passengers were comprised of an older couple, Trish and Russell, from New Zealand; newlyweds on their honeymoon, Marina and Daniel, from Australia; and a couple of paramedics, Laura and Steven, also from Australia. In addition to the three couples, there was Claudia, who was travelling without her partner and Teli, who is divorced. When I asked Teli if his name was like Telly Savalas (a 70’s television star) he explained about his background. His family are Greeks with roots in Turkey. This was sort of a pilgrimage for him.