Tuesday, May 6, 2014


The night bus from Bulgaria took about 7 hours (including the one hour or so we spent at the border). We arrived bright and early in the morning. Alexa and I were very disoriented when we got off the bus. Not only were we still a little groggy from our long journey, but everything was written in Turkish and no one seemed to speak English.  Also, the bus station was ENORMOUS, by far the biggest bus station I've ever been to. Luckily, Alexa had written down the directions to the hostel, and after one metro, one tram and a little walking we managed to find it. Our hostel brought us up to their roof terrace to have breakfast and it was quite the view.  Fog still hung low over most of the city, so the only thing that could be seen there the tops of the towers and minarets of the surrounding mosques, including the iconic Hagia Sofia. As we at breakfast the fog settled and we got an even better view of the city and realized how close we were to the water. From our terrace countless rooftops could be seen in addition to the Bosphorus strait leading across to the Asian part of Istanbul. The incredible view got us very excited about the next 5 days!

We spent most of the first day exploring and getting our bearings. Later in the afternoon we caved into doing one of the really touristy activities- taking a boat cruise around the Bosphorus. It was actually a nice 2 hour cruise. They gave us a little info about the city, but mostly it was just beautiful views of the coastline. Istanbul has a really interesting location. Its where the Sea of Marmara passes into the Black Sea, creating the Bosphorus strait which forks of to make another strait called "Golden Horn". So basically, Istanbul is three peninsulas coming together! You can see why it's location made it such a powerful city at one point, they could control anyone wanting to get into the Black Sea! Anyway, enough about my nerdy georgraphy talk. After the boat tour we went to a delicious Turkish restaurant that served up amazing food. Alexa and I split a shepherds salad, and chicken stuffed with spinach, mushrooms and almonds. It was so good. And we got to try some complimentary Turkish delight at the end of the meal. I have to admit, it wasn't my favorite.  A little too sweet and too gummy for my taste, but I'd still recommend trying it. To each their own!

Blue Mosque
Day 2 we woke up to quite the surprise. When we had gone to sleep, they other 4 beds in Alexa's and my 6 person room were empty. In the morning, they were full! We started talking to our roommates and found out something incredible, they were four Johnnies (my almamatter) doing post study abroad travel.  What's more is that they had just been studying in Spain and one of the Johnnies was fro
m Eden Prairie (my hometown). Just one of those small world experiences that is too crazy to believe! They seemed like nice guys, so we decided to hang out with them that day. After breakfast on the roof, we went to the Hagia Sophia. I could write about the incredible Hagia Sophia forever, but I'll try to keep it short. When the Hagia Sophia (also spelt Ayasofya) was built in 537, it was the largest cathedral in the world and remained so for a thousands years. And did I mention it only took 5 years and 10 months to build? That's insane! In 1453 Istanbul (then Costantinople) was taken by the Ottoman Empire who converted the Hagia Sophia into a mosque.  Finally in 1935 the Turkish President transformed the mosque into a museum, which it remains today. Alexa and I spent a solid 2 hours in the Hagia Sophia awe-ing over the incredible architecture, immaculately well-preserved thousand year old mosaics, and rich history. Later on, we got a simple lunch of simit (bagel-like bread which is sold for about 50 cents in the street) and nutella with fresh squeezed pomegranate juice. After lunch, we and the boys went to the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, more commonly known as the Blue Mosque because the beautiful blue tiles that line the mosque's interior. The boys had to change into pants, Alexa and I had to cover our hair with a scarf, and we all had to remove our shoes before entering the mosque. I've only been in a couple of mosques before, so I don't have much to compare it to, but I can't imagine many in the world were more spectacular than this one. The attention to detail and intricate patterns were stunning. We had to remain quiet at muslims were praying during that time.  There are five times a day when the streets of Istanbul ring with the voices of prayer cantors coming from the minaret of every mosque in the city (and there's a mosque every few blocks) so you can only imagine what that must sound like. Anyway, later on that day we took a trip to the famous spice market of Istanbul. To my surprise, there was much more than spices being sold there! Everything from scarves and t-shirts to baklava, meat and cheese to of course, spices, with Iranian saffron being the crown jewel. There are a million stands, and the vendors are very competitive (as they are everywhere in town) and so they will do anything just to get you to look at their products, but we had to be careful because they can be pushy and pressuring to the point of discomfort. After we felt like we had had enough of the vendors shenanigans, we headed back to the hostel. That night Alexa and I had a delicious Turkish meal and called it another early night.

Day 3 Alexa and I woke up bright and early to visit Istanbul's #1 attraction, The Topakapi Palace. This "palace" was more like a serious of connecting courtyards as much of it was outdoors. However, there was plenty to see and it took us about four hours to see most of the palace and jewelry, paintings and artifacts collections, with the audio guide. By then, it was lunch time and we sat down to enjoy "Turkish pizza" which is a thin pita bread topped with tomatoes, spicy minced meat and fresh herbs.  Very tasty! Then, we went into the esteemed archeological museum and just planned on "passing through" but had no idea what we were getting into. The museum is GIGANTIC so we didn't have the time (or the patience) to see it all. So we walked through and stopped at the really important looking things, and after about 2 hours we were at our limit. Nevertheless, it was extremely impressive. Then, we turned the corner from the museum and entered the breathtaking Gülhane Park which is lined with thousands and thousands of colorful tulips! After a relaxing walk through the park, we went back to the hostel to meet up with the guys as we had promised to show them where we had found soccer jerseys for 5 lira (less than 2 euro) at the Grand Bazaar. After the boys picked out there jerseys, we started getting pumped up to watch Real Madrid take on Barcelona in the Copa del Rey championship (one of Spain's soccer leagues).  We were all walking down a street near our hostel on the way to find somewhere to watch the game when the owner of a hookah bar that the boys were at the night before stopped them to chat. When we told them we were looking for somewhere to watch the game, he told us to sit down on the outdoor couches and he would take care of it. We were confused as he had no TV until we saw him bringing out a big screen and projector. The guy tied the screen to a tree next to the restaurant just for US! So we got to watch the game outside while drinking Turkish beer at a hookah bar! What an awesome experience! Plus Madrid won which made it all the better.

Watching the game with our new Johnnie friends!
The next morning we said goodbye to the boys. Alexa and I ventured across the Golden Horn to Taksim Square to see the more modern side of Istanbul. As we made our way down the main road, we started to see a whole different side to the city! Instead of little stands and markets, we saw big department stores, malls and chain restaurants (including Caribou Coffee, the Shake Shack and Pink Berry!). We spent our day window shopping and walking around the more modern side of Istanbul.  Later that night, we had the best dinner of all! In the Golden Horn, there are three boats attached to the dock. On the boats, there are giant grills with fishermen cooking up hundreds of fresh fish fillets for something called "fish bread". It's simply a grilled fish fillet served on a baguette bread with a lettuce/onion mixture. Only 4 lira  and my favorite dish of the trip! So rustic and tasty! Not to mention it was an authentic experience with few tourists in sight. We washed it down with fresh lemonade and later on enjoyed some loukoumades which are actually Greek doughnut holes soaked in honey and sprinkled with cinnamon. Absolutely delectable. Then, we went back to the hostel to meet some very interesting roommates from all different walks of life and spent the rest of the night chatting with them! My favorite part about staying in a hostel is meeting interesting people :)

On day 5 in Istanbul we took the ferry over to the Asian side of Istanbul. The boys had told us about their Turkish bath experience at a hammam on the asian side, and so we decided to try it out two! We knew going into it that the workers didn't speak English and that it would be a slightly more awkward experience, but hey, it was less than half the price of the touristy hammams so we decided to go for it! We walked into the women's entrance of the hammam and were immediately directed into the changing stalls. Without any instructions Alexa and I were handed what looked like a table cloth and sandals and dressed down to just our bottoms. Then we were ushered into the hammam which is sort of like a sauna but instead of steam it has hot tiles on the floors and walls and sinks all around. We were given a bucket of sorts and then left along to sweat it out. We watched the couple of other local women in the hamman as the dumped buckets of water on top of themselves repeatedly. After a few minutes of the awkward "what do we do" moments we filled our buckets and began to drench ourselves as well. Then, a women came back in with what looked like an oven mitt covered in sand paper. We were scrubbed down head to toe while laying on the hot tiles and watched as a hole layer of dirty, dead skin was taken off our bodies. Then, we were lathered up with soap in a similar fashion and given a semi-message. After a few buckets that the women splashed on us to rinse us off we had our hair washed by them women. I struggled to breathe or see for a few moments as the suds covered my face but eventually I was rinsed down again. Then, the woman left and we laughed about our awkward experience as we enjoyed a last few moments in the hammam. I must admit, I did feel better and cleaner after the whole experience. The Asian side is much more industrial, so there's not much to do there, so we decided to walk across to the other ferry port just to see a bit of "asia". We happened about a giant local flea market which was fun to see! Then, we finally reached the other port and took the ferry back to European Istanbul. As it was our last night we treated ourselves to a special dinner and desert out.

The amazing view from our hostel's terrace (Hagia Sophia on the left)
The next morning we left bright and early to catch our bus back to Bulgaria. Turkey was an amazing experience and my only regret is that I didn't have more time to see more of Turkey! I know Istanbul is just the tip of the iceberg as far as Turkish culture goes, and I'd like to see more. Although Turkish people could be overly pushy sometimes, I found them to be overall very nice and friendly people. The food was just as amazing as I expected but I ended up liking the street food more than any meal we sat down to.  The colors, architecture and smells were all pretty new to me, and I enjoyed it all.

Can't wait to get back to Turkey to see more one day!

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