Wednesday, October 1, 2014

2014 Istanbul Vacation – A la turca, bre!

There was no talk of Paris this year. Mom suggested going to Istanbul as she and dad had been there ten years ago and wanted us, the kids, to see it too. Dad had nothing against it, but wanted me to look for a hotel instead of an apartment, and while I wasn’t entirely convinced it was a good idea, I gave in.

There are tons of hotels, more or less affordable, in Istanbul. Finding a decent one in the old town is easy, figuring out if an elevator is available not so much, and there was also the parking issue. In the end, the trick was to find a hotel on one of the hotel booking websites and then look for the hotel’s official website and talk to the manager directly. Once I figured that out, it didn’t take long to make our booking. No elevator, but we can manage a few steps so no problem there.
At one point, I flirted with the thought of going a few days to Thessaloniki too, I even found an apartment, but other things came up, and in the end I didn’t even mention it to the family.
So here we were, the usual suspects (we'll keep their names secret to protect the innocents, hehe): my mom (MM), my dad (MD), little brother (LB) and yours truly. The same car, plus the two GPSs and the roof box, and a trunk full of food. As usual, these are random thoughts about our vacation and the places and things we've seen, non-edited (editors, stay away!), and most likely politically incorrect. :P Some things might be missing as I wrote the diary a month after we got back. OK, let the circus begin!

Sunday, August 17, 2014
Our yearly summer vacations taught me it’s best to schedule our departure day on a Sunday to have a full day for preparations previous to that. We had two days because of the bank holiday on Friday, which I had simply forgotten about while planning the trip. Still, guess when we finally managed to leave the house? At 2 PM. Not exactly a problem since we were only going to Giurgiu, near the south border, but still. The sky was clouded after several days in a row with over 30 C, which was good, it even rained for a few minutes, but the traffic was insane.
The sun was setting when we arrived to Bucharest. We had to take a detour to pick up LB from my cousin’s house who had moved in a village outside Bucharest. The GPS didn’t recognize the address, so we went in blind, having no idea where we were going and based on only some vague directions. To make it worse, the cell phones had no signal in the area. If I hadn’t checked out the location on Google maps a few days earlier out of curiosity, we would have driven in circles even longer. Since it was already dark when we got there, we saw little of the yard and outside of the house, but we were impressed by the number of stray dogs.
We picked up LB and headed off to Giurgiu to MD’s friends where we were going to spend the night. They had been waiting for us with the dinner ready for hours, so of course it got long after midnight by the time we went to bed. Oh, we slept in a kick-ass round room!

Monday, August 18, 2014
We managed to leave our very hospitable friends by 10 AM (this is considered a decent hour, according to our standards), and after a short stop at the market to get vegetables and fruits, we were on our way.
Bulgaria looked as poor as I remembered it from ten years ago, still despite the poverty, they still manage to have better roads than us. Poor villages, with many unfinished houses, and we rarely saw any cars on the empty roads. It was as if aliens had come and abducted them all.
The little we saw of Veliko Tarnovo, we liked a lot. We talked about stopping on our way back to visit it properly, which I think we all knew wasn’t going to happen because we’re always late and on the rush.
Around noon, MD got tired and let MM drive while he slept in the back seat. The plan was to follow the route Veliko Tarnovo – Stara Zagora – Svilengrad – Edirne, only we must have taken a wrong turn somewhere on the way because instead of passing by Stara Zagora, we ended up in Nova Stara, which is also on the route to Istanbul but more to the east. MM was freaking out, thinking we were lost since we didn’t recognize any of the names on the plate signs, but I insisted that as long as the sun was on the right side and we were traveling south, it was fine. MD slept during the entire drama.
We woke him up before reaching the border because MM didn’t want to drive in a country she was unfamiliar with, and we put on some gas. We had to pay cash since they didn’t take credit cards, and we suspected we got fooled when we received the change in the local currency, but we had no way to check the exchange rate so we just moved on.
Passing through the border controls went rather fast despite having to show our papers like four times. Good thing we had the car papers translated into Turkish, or we would have been forced to turn back.
Turkey. Better roads, more civilization. Only a few kilometers into the country, and I was already impressed. I hadn’t expected them to be so advanced and so much ahead of us. Granted, all I knew about Turkish people from our history books was that they used to cross the Danube and steal our women. Really, if they want to join UE, they get my vote.
We had no sticker to pay for the Edirne – Istanbul highway, but since it could be bought later on at the post office, we didn’t fret about it.
Istanbul started long before getting to the old town, many sky scrappers and new buildings at the periphery. It was all so big and the traffic so busy that if the GPS hadn’t known the way, we would have been forever lost.
Well, we did feel a little lost when were unable to find the hotel. MM got out of the car and asked a carpet store owner for directions. He didn’t know where the hotel was, but he saw the phone number on the paper with the address so he pulled out his phone and called the front desk. We could have done that too, but while the manager had been very accommodating during our email exchange, his English was just so so, and we figured it would be much worse over the phone.
We were told to wait where we were, and a guy showed up shortly after that – a sign that they were prepared for this type of situation – and led us to the hotel. There we had a nice surprise. Because the hotel was advertized as having an elevator when it didn’t have any, we had been upgraded to a newly refurbished apartment on the first floor and we were allowed to park the car and leave it in the street in front of the building for the entire stay.
The apartment was very chic despite not having a real stove and the small fridge. Beds were good, and while we could hear everything happening in the street, sleeping was quite possible with the windows closed. The only thing I would complain about was the absence of a regular table, which made eating and using the computer uncomfortable.
We ate quickly and headed out. The hotel was located 5 minutes away from Sultan Ahmet Park, with the ancient hippodrome, Blue Mosque, Hagia Sofia, and the colored fountain, and this became our daily route for leaving and returning to the hotel. In fact, we crossed the hippodrome so many times that we decided to change out name from the traveling bunnies (the way my uncle call us when we’re on vacation) to the racing horses.
It was a bit windy, and after spending the entire day cooked up in the car, MM worried I might catch a cold. We didn’t want to return to the hotel to get a sweater, so we used the change given by the hotel manager to buy a purple shawl. I guess MM will have something new to wear this fall.
We headed to the water and walked along the quay to Galata Bridge, passed underneath it through the passage and continued on the quay until the end through the crowd of street vendors. It was past midnight when we made it back to the hotel.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014
Since it was our first day, we decided to take it slow. We left the apartment between 10 and 11 AM (our usual hour regardless of how early we tried to wake up) and enjoyed the hippodrome, Sultan Ahmet Park, Blue Mosque, Hagia Sofia, and the fountain in the daylight. Really beautiful, and plenty of tourists around. A street vendor tricked us into buying an Istanbul guide. We already had one with us, but it was nine years old so…
Then we went to visit the Grand Bazaar. The place is huge, lovely arched ceiling, but the whole building is in badly need of repairs. The stores are packed close together, not much different from our malls. Aside for the traditional stuff, I wasn’t impressed with the regular merchandise or the prices. Of course, I was already tired after cruising the first aisle full of only jewelry stores. I haven’t seen that much gold put together in my entire life, more than on the golden bridge in Florence even.
We spent a couple of hours in there without buying anything, and then we moved to the spice bazaar, smaller, and oh so crowded. Oh, full of more sweets, spices, and tea than one could use in a lifetime. We crossed it twice, and when we got out in the square next to the Small Mosque, MM wasn’t with us. MD said she was just behind us and asked us if we wanted an ice cream so busied ourselves with the ice cream for a while. Then MM came storming out, pissed because we left her in there and didn’t go back after her. In her defense, her purse was with us, which included her phone, wallet, passport, and she didn’t know the hotel address. But the ice cream was good…
We visited the animal market, book market, and grocery market nearby while she gave us the silence treatment, then we returned to the hotel for a late lunch and rest.
In the evening, we went out again on the quay, which became our favorite evening walk. This time we went along the length of the bridge, crossing all the restaurants on the water level. On the west side, right at the end, it’s a restaurant, rather expensive considering the dress code, but with really good dancing music.

First general impressions:
- Istanbul is a beautiful city, but tourists leave a lot of litter behind.
- we heard English, French, Spanish, Russian, and Romanian, duh, however, Turkish people don’t speak English that well. They’re helpful, though, and polite, even while driving.
- everyone seems to wear flip-flops. I know it was hot, but I don’t know how they managed to walk in those things on those streets. Pavement’s not so good.
- many of the women still wear traditional attire, which ranges from fully clothed to which several other layers are added like head scarf, long coat, another long black coat, big overall black robe, black head piece, with the occasional black face cover (creepy!). The make-up consists of lipstick and black eyeliner. And they wear quite a bit of gold.
- it’s full of sweet shops, tea shops, and carpet stores. There are restaurants, hotels, and souvenir stores everywhere; the blue glass eye that’s supposed to bring luck seems to be very popular.
- I love their lively ceramics and colorful lamps!
- popular food sold in the street was corn on the web, water melon slices, and oysters, though who would risk eating those after sitting in the sun the whole day.
- I don’t think I’ve seen more than two dogs on a leash and a couple of stray ones, but there are cats everywhere, and it’s clear people are taking care of them because there was cat food on the sidewalk in every street. After recently losing our kittens, it was bitter sweet to see so many cats around. Unlike the long-tailed cats from Croatia, these ones had faces looking different than ours. Weird.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014
It was time for art and culture. So at noon, when the sun shone brightly on top of our heads, we hid from the heat inside Hagia Sophia. Massive, red brick walls, typical Roman architectures. Lovely golden ceilings with green decorations. Plus a grumpy cat sitting on a threshold, who glared at us, annoyed by all the visitors’ flashes who wanted to take a photo of it.
The inside was undergoing repair works so it was hard to take a good look at the entire room because of the scaffolding on a side. MM claimed it was still there when they visited nine years ago. The boys went to check the upper level and take more photos from above, and before leaving, MM wanted to stay in line at the wishing column. She’s got great elasticity, so she managed to do a full circle with her hand on that bronze disk. It’s supposed to bring you health, but I think all she got was germs, considering how many people had touched it only that day.
Back to the heat and hurrying to the Blue Mosque where we had to take off our shoes and cover our heads with a scarf. Well, the women did, which is a huge discrimination if you ask me. The entire walls and ceiling are covered in blue mosaics, very delicate and pretty, but a little too busy for my taste. The all around windows were a nice effect though. The carpet looked clean despite how many barefooted people walked on it, but it didn’t smell so good.
We went next to the small mosque from across the square. It had a cute, small yard in front where we refilled our water bottles. The tap water was ok but tasted bad, so we had to rely on bought water. This one didn’t taste much better either.
Since it was so hot, we decided to head south and see the Marmara Sea from close. The quiet neighborhood was nice and we got to visit two more mosques on the way, and see more cats. LB set his eyes set on a tiger eye beads on a string, but MM didn’t feel like bargaining with the vendor to make him drop the price (she’s very good at that), so we got the pleasure of him grumping about it the entire rest of the week.
We reached a dead end, and while we figured we were only a couple of streets away from the water, there was no way of getting there. Since we weren’t in the mood to walk much longer, we headed back to the hotel, passing through a rich vegetable market on the way.
Usual evening walk on the quay later that night.

Thursday, August 21, 2014
We’d talked about taking a bus or something to get to Taksim Square on the other shore, but in the morning they decided they wanted to walk. Crossing the bridge was fine, but there was work on the road on the other end, so we had to take a slight detour which took us through a small bazaar where we spent more time than needed.
The climb up the hill was a steep one. Oh, did I tell you Istanbul is full of up and down streets? Well, it is. Luckily, the effort was worth it. I absolutely loved Istiklal Cadesi, the pedestrian boulevard. It reminded me of the old part of Köln.
I wasn’t impressed by Taksim Square, even less by the patrolling police cars armed with water canons, but the little streets around it were pretty cool. We even found a set of Turkish tea glasses LB wanted to buy and had been searching for for a while.
We walked back on the same road and stopped to look in the cat yard – there’s a yard towards the end on the right side of the street and there must have been over 20 cats lying in the sun there. Then we made it to Galata Tower, circled it, and it was all down hill from there. Just before reaching the bridge, I hit my knee, which considerably lowered my spirit, but compared to other times, it could have been much worse.
I think it was the only day when we were too tired to go out for an evening walk.

Friday, August 22, 2014
The hottest day so far, so of course we had to spend it inside a museum. Topkapi Palace is in fact a collection of several small museums, most of them located in the third courtyard.
The first courtyard looks like a regular park surrounded by high stone walls. It’s where we had to wait in line for tickets along with too many other sweaty tourists.
The second courtyard includes several models of the palace, the entrance to the harem and the one to the third courtyard through the Gate of Felicity.
The tour started well with the Audience Hall in the third courtyard, a nicely decorated pavilion right in front of the entrance, including the sultan’s bed, which was huge. As soon as we entered the courtyard, it stopped being so hot, the heat being replaced by a pleasant breeze.
Out of the one or two-room museums, the ones that stood out were:
- the clothes museum – we noticed how tiny people’s necks were back in the days, based on the clothes neck openings;
- the weapon museum – swords, swords, and more swords, all heavily decorated, especially the Turkish ones. The Huns’ swords were over 1.5 meter long, big and heavy, probably used on horses and carried with two hands. One simple sword stood out, the one belonging to Stefan the Great. Simple but obviously very efficient if you check all of his victories recorded in our history. Bayasid’s sword resembled a snake and didn’t look efficient at all, no wonder we beat him.
- the ancient texts library – one passage caught my attention because it stated the prophet was a regular looking man, not too tall or too short, and with white skin. Umm, okay.
Once we entered the fourth courtyard, we stopped on the south-east terrace to rest and look at the sea. Then it was time for my favorite part of the palace, several small kiosks decorated with many windows and covered in mosaics. My favorite was the sofa kiosk.
By the time we were done with the fourth courtyard, we were tired and the rest of the family complained about being hungry, so we skipped the harem and went home.
In the evening, we went out again on the usual route towards the quay. We had an extra mission as we had to look for souvenirs for the friends and family back home, so it took a while.

Saturday, August 23, 2014
During each trip, there has to be a day that feels like it was wasted. This was one of those. First, we woke up late and decided to postpone our trip to the Asian shore. Second, LB woke up with some kind of itchy bite marks on his forearms, and he was in a terrible mood all day.
So, we headed to Suleyimanie Mosque, up yet another hill. Hot, a long way to go, and when we got there the mass was on so we had to wait. The courtyard was big and impressive, but rather cold. The garden surrounding it was better and with a nice view over the water and city. The cemetery was closed.
Entering the mosque was quite a hassle and made for a terrible experience. The interior reminded me of the Blue Mosque, only bigger, colder, and less decorated. The carpet smelled even worse.
We returned by Valens Aqueduct, then along the quay for a bit. We wanted to wanted to visit the Small Mosque but couldn’t, so we went up the hill through the busy market streets. One of them was so crowded you could only pass through with great difficulty. Those vendors had to have a lousy day since no one could stop to buy anything.
Since it wasn’t late enough, we went back to our usual walking area. And of course we remembered we’d seen another market close to the Mosaic Museum and we had to check it.
LB was feeling worse, so after we returned to the hotel, MM and MD went out again to look for a pharmacy and get some ointment for him. Unfortunately, being weekend, they were all closed. They did, however, brought him the tiger eye beads he wanted, and of course MM got them cheaper. Some online digging and heavy use of Google Translate revealed the on-duty pharmacy for our area was close to Suleyimanie, and we were all like “No way we’re going all the way back there!” So we just went for our regular evening walk. Finding some trinkets on the way improved LB’s mood even more.
MM’s mood kind of dropped when we made reservation at a hotel in Thessaloniki. I had mentioned my initial vacation plan during one of those “We only have X days left of staying here? Why didn’t we book more nights from the start?” talks, and MD had really set his mind on it after that.

Sunday, August 24, 2014
We managed to take a boat and sail to the Eastern coast before noon. Granted, the ship had no sails and both MM and I got seasick while waiting to leave the pier, but the cruise was smooth and enjoyable after that.
Despite the heat, we walked along the border of the water until we reached the harbor, and then we turned and went up the hill, yes, yet another one, to explore this side of the city. Our map didn’t cover this area so we played it by ear, based on old memories and street signs. We ended up mostly in a residential area, but it was nice and quiet, and we found a mini-market to buy drinks, and then a pharmacy for LB. The eruption on his skin had gotten worse since morning, so we had to agree those weren’t bite marks but some kind of allergy or food poisoning. Poor thing, he’s the one most likely to get sick while abroad out of all of us, just like the cat who’s often getting sick while we’re away.
We went down the hill on the other side and explored the square and market near the harbor until the time for our boat ride came. We headed back to the hotel, but only for a quick stop because it was our last evening in town and we wanted to make the best of it.
So we went on a last minute souvenir hunt. If you plan to get those 3 baclava boxes packages that are sold everywhere, don’t! The boxes might look nice and big, but that’s just the box. They only contain twelve pieces of baklava when there’s room for twice as much. Of course, we only discovered that when we opened them at home. Man, we were glad we hadn’t tried to give them as present to anyone. It would have been so embarrassing.
We ended the night with one last walk along the water and under the bridge to the restaurant with good music. There were even fireworks fired from a passing boat. A fun night!

Monday, August 25, 2014
At 10 AM, we were leaving towards Thessaloniki. MD drove up to the Greek border where we had to wait for a bit as it appeared to be the lunch hour and only one gate was open which made the line crawl like a snail.
Once we entered the highway, he let MM drive and she did most part of the way. Nice scenery, the road mostly empty, the only thing I found unusual was that we didn’t receive a ticket when we entered the highway but had to pay the toll several times on the way. The road goes up and down the mountain with quite a few twists and turns, which reminded me of Oituz area.
MD woke up shortly before entering Thessaloniki and drove to the hotel. Because the streets around the building were undergoing repairs, the manager told us we could leave the cars right in front. The sun was still up while we carried our luggage upstairs, but it had gotten dark by the time we went out again so we missed the sunset. The constructions in the street detoured us for a little bit and without a map we missed the main boulevards and got sidetracked, but we made it to the main square eventually.
A walk along the water is always nice, despite the walkway being crowded with girls in short shorts and all of the noise and fumes coming from the cars speeding on the street parallel to the water. Really, there should be some strict speed limit on that road to make the walk more enjoyable and less damaging to the lungs.
Walked only a little past the tower and then returned by the main square because it was getting late and we were tired. Imagine me at midnight wearing short sleeves. I don’t think it has happened since the last time we’ve been to Thessaloniki.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014
We were in the breakfast room, faced with the big breakfast, when we all had to agree this was the hotel where we had stayed the last time too, though we didn’t remember its name and it wasn’t written on my blog. I checked. It has also looked much better back then. We ate, good pastry and yogurt with fruits, which made LB abandon his diet, and then we went out.
We got a map and explored the part of the city away from the water first while also running some errands for a couple of things we couldn’t find at home. What had been less obvious the previous night, it became clear in the daylight. This wasn’t the Thessaloniki we had visited nine years ago. Now there were many closed stores, leaving empty rooms instead, there was graffti everywhere, and everything looked dirty and neglected. Plus, only the main roads are still lit in the evening, the rest of the city looking like an abandoned ghost town.
More up and down walking before getting to the water again. We followed the waterfront up to the main square, then checked the market and headed back to the hotel through the city.
We missed the sunset again because of their nap, and then argued over ice cream, and took a longer walk along the water up to the new blue lit hotel that hadn’t been there before. The metal sculpture with many umbrellas from the border of the water was interesting.
Not bad, but not a vacation destination I’d recommend at this point.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014
My uncle had warned us to be careful while crossing Bulgaria because there was going to be a Romania – Bulgaria soccer match in Sofia that evening, and the roads were most likely going to be crawling with police. So we decided to avoid Sofia and go back on the highway towards Turkey and then up north on the same route we had come from or we should have… Yes, I know it sounds like we were making it hard for ourselves on purpose but… I don’t drive. I’m only the co-pilot.
We didn’t know exactly where we were supposed to leave the highway, and the GPS seemed also clueless, so we followed two cars with Bucharest plates. If they had gone anywhere else but home… but they did and we made it to Bulgaria on a seemingly new road. This time we did make it to Stara Zagora, and we arrived to Veliko Tarnovo along with the sunset.
My aunt called to ask where we were just before crossing the border. Gotta love the employees at the Romanian border-crossing point. The guy asked, “Everyone’s Romanian inside?” and then said, “Good night!” and signaled us to pass through without asking for our passports. And of course, the moment we entered our half of the bridge across the Danube, the holes appeared in the road. We were clearly home.
It was too late to stop by our friends’ house in Giurgiu, so we went straight to my aunt in Radu Voda. She was waiting for us with a lot of yummy food so it was very late when we went to bed.

Thursday, August 28, 2014
We spent the morning in the garden. It was windy after having rained during the night, but still warm and pleasant. After lunch, we stopped by our friends’ house in Giurgiu, but they weren’t home, so then we went straight to my cousin’s house outside Bucharest to pick up her daughter. She took turns diving with LB up to Iasi. One policeman signaled us to pull over while she drove, and of course she panicked and wondered what she did wrong, but it turned out the policeman was only looking for a free ride. Unfortunately for him, our car was full.
And so we arrived home two nights later than planned to an anxious grandma and a limping cat. Yes, again.
At this point, I have no idea where we’ll go next year. The local airport is opening some new flights, which will make traveling easier, but it will be a shame to fly when we’ll have three drivers available next year. Well, we’ll see… Until then!

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