By Helen Ario
I am about to enter the country where Agatha Christie wrote “Murder on the Orient Express.”
The magnetic pull of this historic destination and the idea that Marc Anthony gave the Turkish Riviera to Cleopatra for a wedding gift makes me lose track of my present reality. I am entering Turkey, a country like no other. This magical destination is a country bordering two continents filled with palaces, harems, hamams and of course shopping.
Upon arriving in Istanbul, I am offered expensive taxis and rental of private cars. Finding the shuttle into the city for less than $15 starts the journey. Istanbul has quite a few choices for mass transit, and even though the people do not speak English, everyone offers to help. The communication being a bit difficult, I have to resort to a simple combination of hand gestures and comical attempts at speaking Turkish.
As it is a Muslim country, I am expecting not to be welcomed as an American. I find the opposite to be true. Dressing respectfully by covering up my arms and legs is not a problem as I arrived in November and the temperatures make it impossible to go out without a warm jacket. I need an umbrella for the occasional rain, walking shoes, a bathing suit, scarf, jeans and coat. I travel light and leave my bags in Istanbul when I go to the south of Turkey. It is much easier to travel when not carrying a large suitcase.
Trying to get around town without changing money is difficult as this country uses the euro and the Turkish lira but I discovered that it is best to have Turkish lira handy as so many establishments want to exchange the dollar for a much lower rate than can be found at the changing offices or banks.
My suggestion for places to stay depend on which area of the city you would like to experience, as the three most popular areas to visit are in the Beyoglu, Sultanahmet or near the Bosphorus. If you happen to be a night owl, the Beyoglu area is located in the center of the shopping, trendy rooftop restaurants, cafes and nightclubs. Those who want to site-see and visit the Grand Bazaar, Egyptian (Spice) Bazaar, Blue Mosque and Aya Sophia, staying in the Sultanahmet District would be within walking distance.
Of course, those with extra money and the desire for a luxurious stay would most likely enjoy the Four Seasons on the Bosphorus which is one of the more elegant hotels in Istanbul. I stayed several days near the Bosphorus and then changed hotels and stayed in the Sultanahmet District also for a few days. The hotel on the Bosphorus was elegant and wonderful but staying at a small hotel in Sultanahmet gave me the opportunity to experience staying with a Turkish family who treated me with warmth and consideration not found in a large hotel.
To acquaint myself with this city, I decide to take the bus tour (email@example.com). The double-decker buses travel around the city and allow one to jump on and off at different sites.
The must see places are the Aya Sophia, constructed in the 6th Century and currently a museum; the Topkapi Palace, which was a residence of the Ottoman sultans for nearly 400 years; The Blue Mosque, which is one of the most beautiful working mosques in the world; and the Dolmabahce’s Palace, the first European style palace built by Ottoman sultans in 1843.
While visiting the Topkapi Palace I start taking photographs of the beautiful peacocks as they are strutting about on the lawn. As I follow the peacocks, a young man gestures to me to follow him. I enter a large place filled with exotic birds. He guides me from room to room and am rewarded with a kiss on the check when I take his photo with the peacocks.
And for those of us who must shop, a stop at the Grand Bazaar with over 4,000 shops will let you explore fashion, leather and fur jackets, designer handbags, Turkish carpets and jewelry.
I noticed everyone buying the pashmina scarfs. I would be on my guard as these were not authentic pashmina but cheap rayon scarfs of very poor quality. The fake Gucci boots at $250 did not really look like authentic Gucci but if someone wishes to pay over $200 for a leather boot with a “G” on the side then this is the place to shop. As for the Turkish carpet, I would be concerned as I did meet many carpet buyers from the Grand Bazaar bringing carpets from India. I had an office in India for many years so I did meet these buyers first hand.
While wandering on the side streets, one vendor invited me to the back of his shop where he proceeded to take out suitcases of fake watches. It was quite surprising as I felt like I was in some James Bond movie as trunks filled with fake watches were pulled out of large vaults. The prices of fake jewelry can be upwards from $300 so be prepared to haggle, as I found that you could easily drop the price by 30 to 50 percent. If you want to buy one of these watches, I think this would be the place as these copies looked much more authentic then watches I had seen in Thailand or Korea.
I am losing track of time inside the Grand Bazaar so I decide to relax at one of the small coffee shops and have baklava and Turkish coffee. Here you may have the possibility to find a fortune teller who will read your coffee grounds. Maybe the fortune teller will predict that you will make a killing in the gold market. The gold and silver market is another temptation in this shopping Mecca. Be sure you look at the price of gold and silver on the stock exchange before you purchase the gold by the gram as the prices are fluctuating by the minute.
I never did find out the names of the restaurants I enjoyed. I would be somewhere and feel the energy of the restaurant or hear the people in front of the restaurant trying to entice me to enter and I would go with the flow. For those who need to be at the most new and trendy restaurants, I suggest looking at www.istanbuleats.com.
A desire to see both sides of the Bosphorus can be done with either Bosphorus & Two Continents Cruise or taking the 90 minute ferry ride. The cruise is a relaxing and beautiful opportunity to sit back and admire the Dolmabahce Palace, the Beylerbeyi Palace and the Ciragan Palace, the ancient wooden villas, bridges, yacht club and all the homes and palaces that line the shore. The Bosphorus strait connects the Sea of Marmara to the Black Sea and separates Europe and Asia.
At the end of a long day and after reading “1,000 Places To See Before Your Die” by Patricia Schultz, I knew I had to go to Cagaloglu Hamam, a Turkish Bath to help you decompress. After leaving the Cagaloglu, my hair still dripping wet, I start to wander back to my hotel. A few streets away, I am starting to notice that my stomach is grumbling, I see the restaurant where the whirling dervishes are performing. I ask for a table and am told that I have to be very quiet as the dervishes go into a trance when they perform. It is hypnotic to watch them twirling and whirling in their white robes. I have just finished reading “Shantaram,” and the mention of the dervishes in the book make this moment more exciting.
Within a few days of non-stop activity and with the lines of people and crowds in all the restaurants, I feel a desire to go to a more relaxed and sunny environment and shed my overcoat. It is time to fly, drive or take a train to the Turkish Riviera. I hop a flight to Marmaris where I stay at the Royal Maris Hotel, a very centrally located hotel with beautiful views of the sea. There’s nothing like relaxing in the Turkish Riviera where the prices are reasonable for a lobster dinner at less than $30 and fresh caught fish can be found at all the seaside restaurants. I should also add that the diving in the Aegean Sea, while not the most exciting, was definitely the least expensive with two dives at less than $35.
The water taxis are available and depart to the different ports in the area and I also take a boat to Rhodes, Greece for the day, which is only a few hours away. The leisurely life of traveling around the south of Turkey is very different from the hectic pace of Istanbul.
While some countries have historical sites, romantic coves, delicious food, shopping or nightlife, Turkey is the seductive country with all the passion, food and seaside enchantment. I cannot imagine why I waited so long to come to Turkey.
Helen spent years traveling across the world as an importer, selling clothes, fabrics and jewelry. To learn more about Helen’s trip, contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.