Category Archives: Turkey

Istanbul round-up

It’s now nearly a month since I got back and it’s taken me this long to get round to blog about everything, I really need to get more organised (although I do have the excuse of work getting in the way).

There are a couple of other travel tips I didn’t get a chance to fit in elsewhere, so I just wanted to get them up her before I move onto other things:

  • If I was going again, I’d definitely stay in Beyoglu and not Sultanahmet – Sultanahment is the obvious choice, as it has a much wider selection of hotels as well as all the obvious historic sites. However Beyoglu has a much wider selection of good restaurants and bars, which makes it much easier to plan your evenings around. It’s also more convenient for getting to other places such as the Prince’s Islands or the Black Sea coast. And it’s easy enough to get to Sultanahment by the very efficient tram system during the day.
  • I’d also research ways of getting from Sabiha Gocken airport (where Easyjet and other budget airlines fly to) in advance. We just picked up a taxi, and clearly got ripped off by him taking a very circuitous route into town. Pre-booking a taxi or shared minibus would probably have been a much better option (and is how we returned to the airport)

Still, other than that I’d recommend Istanbul to anyone. It’s a fantastic city, definitely one of my favourites in Europe.

In case you missed any of the previous posts, here’s links to:
The historic sights of the city
Cruising down the Bosphorus
Why visiting in one of the hottest months of the year may not have been the best idea in the world
Fantastic islamic design
An unusual beer discovery
and finally why not all tourists are welcome

Oil Wrestling

When I first booked the holiday to Istanbul, I had a look on the Turkish tourist board website to see if anything was going on while I was there, and found that my visit coincided with the annual Kirkpinar oil wrestling festival in Edirne, a couple of hours away from Istanbul.

Intrigued, I tried to find more info online, but there was very little available. I found this surprising – these days, you expect to be able to find anything on the internet. To find almost nothing about one of the oldest sporting events in the world was odd, to say the least. But ultimately I wasn’t all that bothered, so gave up.

One night while we were out in Istanbul, we got chatting to another group of tourists from Finland, who it had come over partly for the festival. It turned out one of them was an expat Turk, so I mentioned the difficulty I’d had in finding information, and he explained that the reason there was so little available in English was that in recent years the event had been attracting increasing numbers of western gay tourists. So the organisers apparently decided to stop promoting it to (English-speaking) tourists – which is quite a step when the event in question is apparently the oldest continuously held annual sporting event in the world (this year was the 647th).

I find it amazing – surely even without the presence of large numbers of drooling bears, the locals must have noticed the spectacle of large hairy men covering themselves in olive oil and shoving their hands down each others tight leather shorts as they grapple with each other on the ground was a tad homo-erotic?

I also find it sad – obviously Turkey is a more conservative country than the UK, and I understand that an influx of gay visitors may make some people uncomfortable – but the fact that they’ve now stopped publicising such a historic event means people are missing out.

Anyway, here’s a not-at-all gratuitous shot of this year’s tournament I snapped from this year’s TV coverage:

Any sport fans reading may be interested in these far better shots of this year’s festival, from Flickr.

Coffee + Beer

I love Coffee.

I love Beer.

But if someone had told me that combining the two could ever taste anything other than disgusting I’d have told them they were mad.

Until Istanbul, where I tasted Efes Dark Brown. I thought I was just going to get a European-style dark ale. What I got was a European-style dark ale, but with the taste of black coffee.

And you know what? It pretty much worked. Not the sort of drink I can imagine having all the time, but definitely better than a mere novelty. Now I just need to find someone selling it in London.

Istanbul Blue

One of the highlights of my trip was the cruise down the Bosphorus to the mouth of the Black Sea. As the ferry heads down the narrow strait, you get to see all the poshest bits of the city – the shore is littered with exclusive suburbs, Ottoman Palaces, beautiful villages backed by forested hills, and castles. It’s a fantastically relaxing way to spend a day, and we ended it up with a walk uphill to a ruined Byzantine castle overlooking the Black Sea.

As usual, I ended up taking hundreds of photos (I’m a rubbish photographer, so figure by the the law of averages I should get at least one or two decent snaps if I take loads), and one of the things I was most pleased with was the way the camera caught the real intensity of the blues, both of the sky and the sea.

Dolmabahce Palace, Istanbul

Dolmabahce Palace, Istanbul

Mouth of the Bosphorus looking towards the Black Sea

Mouth of the Bosphorus looking towards the Black Sea

No swimming

When you’ve been wandering around sightseeing in a big city in 34 degree heat all day, it would be really nice to cool off in a pool. And that’s where you’re out of luck in Istanbul.

The only hotels with pools are the really posh, high-end ones, and they charge a fortune for day passes. If you take a cruise down the Bosphorus, you’ll see a fair few as well – but they are all in private members clubs, where the same applies. Being on the coast, you’d think beaches would be an option – but no, most of the city doesn’t have them, and anyway, the water is too polluted. The nearest mainland beach is about 60km away on the Black Sea coast, which is quite a trek on public transport when you’re just going for the day.

Best option is to head to the Princes’ Islands. The guide books play down (or fail to mention) that these have beaches, and it’s true, they’re not stunners. But when the city’s hot, they are the best option. Even these have a major downside – the ferry only goes once an hour, and being one of the few options of its type, it feels like half of Istanbul is on the ferry with you.

We got off at the first of the four islands, Kinaliada (or Kınalıada to spell it properly), which is just less than an hour’s journey. The town surrounding the port is very pretty, with lots of cafes along a tree-lined main street. The beaches nearest the port are free but get very, very crowded. Better bet is to walk or cycle round the coast road to the south side of the island, which takes about twenty minutes. There you’ll find a couple of beach clubs – you still have to pay to get in, but it’s nowhere near the price of the clubs on the mainland, and there you have the option of a pool as well. It was well worth the journey, and it’s a great way to escape the hustle of the city. There are a further three islands the ferry stops at, all of which I believe have at least one beach. One thing to note: our guidebook (Time Out) stated that the ferry went from Eminonu (nearest terminal to the Sultanahment hostels and hotels), whereas when we were there it only went from Kabatas, a short tram-ride away in Beyoglu.

Of course you may decide a better option is to combine a weekend in Istanbul with more time on Aegean or Mediterranean coast. Or go in Spring or Autumn where the heat is more bearable. Evenings are better though – most hotels and many bars & restaurants have fantastic roof terraces, where you can cool down with fantastic views out over the water.


I’m never going straight back to work after Glastonbury again.

Last year, after four days of non-stop rain, (at best) ankle-deep mud, far more beer than is strictly wise and not an awful lot of sleep, I struggled back into work the next day and spent the whole week trying not to fall asleep at work and snapping at colleagues and clients.

This year I arrived in Istanbul the next day and spent the first afternoon on the roof terrace of our hotel reading, relaxing, and marvelling at the views of the Sea of Marmara and the Blue Mosque. The rest of the week followed in a similarly chilled fashion. Infinitely preferable.

It was the first time I’ve been to a large Islamic city, and obviously the first thing that stands out compared to the other European cities I’ve been to is the sea of minarets and the regular calls to prayer ringing out across the city, often with multiple calls from different mosques overlapping. I thought I might find it annoying but it’s a beautiful sound, simultaneously very alien sounding but also strangely relaxing.

Most prominent of the mosques is the Sultanahmet Mosque (better known as the Blue Mosque), sitting atop one of the highest points of the old town. It’s a really magnificent building, visible from across the city.

It was the first mosque I’ve ever been inside, and the thing that struck me compared to the many cathedrals I’ve been to, is the emptiness. Aside from the beautiful pattern work covering every part of the interior, and lights hanging from the ceiling, it’s an empty space just used for prayer, which surprised me, and certainly makes for a very different atmosphere to christian places of worship.

Istanbul has an awful lot of history, and it shows – there are fantastic sights from every era of the city’s history.

The Basilica Cistern was built in the 6th century, and was used to store water under the city. Aside from looking impressive, it’s a great place to cool off when it’s 34 degrees outside:

Nearby is the Hagia Sofia, also built in the 6th century, which was the biggest cathedral in the world for a thousand years (and was later turned into a mosque, and is now a museum):

Unfortunately the elegant interior, unspoilt by as many big supporting columns as its neighbour, the Blue Mosque, was largely taken up by one of the largest pieces of scaffolding I’ve ever seen:

Biggest disappointnment was the Grand Bazaar. TV travel shows and guide books had led me to believe the whole thing would be a full-on assault on the senses, and I’d be lucky to escape without buying something. Either we caught them on an off day, or they’ve really chilled out. I didn’t get hassled once despite wandering around for quite a while. Eventually, as we were heading out, a man did approach us, and we were all set for a prolonged spot of haggling, only to find he thought we were lost and was offering us directions on the way out. At that point, we gave up and left.

Islamic patternwork in Istanbul

One of the things I love most about Islamic art & architecture is their concept of decoration.

The repeating, tessellating patterns are used on tiles to cover walls, ceilings and doors, and similar patterns are used on carpets. My favourite are the intricate geometric patterns, although the floral based designs are beautiful too.

Topkapi Palace, the old home of the Ottoman Sultans, has some of the best examples I’ve seen (although noting will ever compare with the beauty of the Alhambra in Granada, Spain), especially in the Harem:

The other great spot was the interior of the Blue Mosque:

Patterned carpet in the Blue Mosque. Less decorative - my feet.

Patterned carpet in the Blue Mosque. Less decorative - my feet.

And that’s just the insides of places. The city is beautiful outside too…more of that to follow.