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Getting some use out of the new black passport

October 25th, 2022 · Posted by Skuds in Life · No Comments · Life

Last week I had my first taste of overseas travel since before the pandemic, and the first outing for my new black passport. It wasn’t my first flight of the year: I have had three flights out of Gatwick this year, but all of them were up to Glasgow which is not (yet) a foreign country, so no passport was needed for them. The destination this time was Istanbul, a place that I have never been to before, but fully intend to go back to some time.

This was a sort of holiday. Jayne was being a health tourist, and I was along to keep her company and look after her where necessary, so it was all a bit strange. We arrived on the Sunday, then she was off to hospital on Monday, and discharged on Thursday. This meant that I was knocking around the city for a few days on my own, so by the time Jayne was out I was able to show her around with some confidence.

What a place Istanbul is! It is huge, crowded, busy and brilliant. Our hotel was near Taksim Square, which is the sort of place where it all kicks off if it kicks off. Sort of like the equivalent of Tahrir Square I guess. I really only saw the area between there and the Galata bridge, and the old part of the city on the other side of the bridge. Every time you turn a corner you are confronted with some sort of impressive monument or building, and 90% of the time it is yet another mosque.

I saw the Blue mosque and the Hagia Sophia from the outside, and the Topkapi Palace. There were massive queues to go in and I didn’t fancy that on my own. I figure it will be something to save for a future visit. I did go into the Bayezid II mosque, which is is amazing enough, even if it isn’t one of the two ‘big’ ones.

Inside the Beyazid II Mosque

It is a bit of a cliche that Istanbul is one city in two continents but it really is like that. The parts of the city that I went round were all on the European side and it did feel like a large European city but with added mosques, apart from the Grand Bazaar which really did feel like being in the souks of Tunis or Sousse, but on a larger scale, and without getting hassled anywhere near as much as you do in Tunisia or Egypt.

A few random thoughts and observations:

  • The traffic is absolutely mad. Even in apparently pedestrianised squares you have to keep an eye out for vehicles, especially mopeds, scooters, motorbikes and police vehicles. There seems to be no highway code and all communication is via constant beeping of the horn. A green ‘walk’ light at a crossing is no guarantee of safety.
  • The public transport is brilliant. It is easy to use once you get the hang of it, reliable and dirt cheap. A pass that is good for three journeys costs 35 TL, which is a bit less than two quid. It is even cheaper if you get a sort of Turkish equivalent of an Oyster card and charge it up, or can find somewhere that does the 10-journey card for 90 TL, but even the expensive option is cheap compared to London, or even Crawley. The metro stations feel a lot like the Paris metro but with cleaner trains and there are also trams, buses, a couple of funiculars and a cable car on the network.
    I am saving the funiculars for a future trip. Something to look forward to.
  • Not only is Istanbul huge, it is really hilly. Which is why they have a couple of funiculars, and why I spend a few days walking around before I even saw a single bicycle. It makes Bristol look flat so is not a place you want to be if you use a wheelchair. Apart from the hills, the pavements are anything but even and are often blocked with parked cars, mopeds and electric scooters.
  • It feels like the biggest employer in Istanbul is the Police. They are everywhere. Often in large numbers and sometimes in armoured cars with water cannons on top – though some of them look like flamethrowers. There are police, traffic police, tourist police, police in high vis vests, private security guards in some areas that might as well be police. In spite of that, it didn’t feel threatening. The police mostly seemed to be bored rather than looking for trouble.
  • Istanbul is a go-to destination for various medical procedures like bariatric surgery, cosmetic surgery, dentistry and hair transplants. The hair transplant visitors are the most obvious. There were so many men with bandaged heads in the restaurant at breakfast that it resembled a WWI field hospital.
  • There are cats and dogs everywhere! I though there were lots of cats in Greece but that is nothing compared to this. The place seems very tolerant of stray animals, which is good to see. Round the corner from us in Taksim square there were four or five regular stray dogs who seem to live in the park and spend most of the day laying wherever the hell they like. They all looked very healthy and well fed and were friendly – but mostly just kept to themselves.
  • The city is very clean. Despite the large numbers of stray dogs, there are no signs of dog turds. It seems like, after the police, the second-largest employer must be the city cleaners who hose all the streets down regularly.

As the week went on, we developed quite a taste for the Turkish tea, and would spend the evenings in the cafe in Gezi park, overlooking Taksim square, having several teas and just watching all the activity in the square, and there was always something worth watching even if it was just the traffic chaos at the end of the square.

Enjoying a cheeky tea in the Grand Bazaar, while rocking the ‘double denim’ look.

Inbetween sampling the kebabs, relaxing with the teas, and strolling round the bazaars and other shops, we did see some sights of course. Mostly mosques of course, but we did go up into the Galata tower which is a remarkable place. It is about 700 years old, though with some rebuilding following various fires and storms, and the view from the top is fantastic. The place has been converted to a museum with a lift installed that goes nearly all the way to the top, leaving just a couple of floors’ worth of spiral stairs to climb up to the observation platform. We got there before 9am and it was not too busy, but I can imagine it getting pretty rammed at times.

The view from the Galata Tower, across to the Golden Horn

We didn’t know much about Istanbul before going there so did not know what to expect. My main knowledge of it comes from various films set there which mostly end up with motorbike chases across the rooftops of the Grand Bazaar, and I suspected I would not see any such activity. We certainly did not expect to enjoy the place as much as we did and we plan to return which Jayne is in a better state to spend the hours walking around that it deserves. One this is certain: we will not even think about hiring a car or motorbike there!

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