On our way back to Johannesburg after a boat cruise in Croatia we had a long layover in Istanbul. So we decided to do a day trip of the city. You’re allowed into Turkey with a South African passport so there was no need for a visa. The only initial hiccup was that the blue and white sign-posting in the airport was a bit confusing. As a result we got into the wrong queue so we were sent from pillar to post to explain to various Turkish officials why we were in Istanbul. Eventually we succeeded in clearing passport control.
Airport lobbies are no fun when you’re tired and Istanbul was no exception. And when you’re served by a nameless, rather featureless clerk, it can become a bit of a challenge. With his abrupt, slightly distracted manner it was difficult for two tired travellers to negotiate successfully for the best possible rate for a good day’s experience in Turkey’s capital. We eventually agreed on a tariff and, soon thereafter, our clerk produced a driver cum tour guide with a comfortable motor vehicle.
The traffic was very bad so unfortunately we spent a lot of wasted time in the car. Our guide did his best to be friendly, but all the time during the journey I kept getting this rather cosmic sense of the “great divide” between East and West. There was this huge disconnect between us and him. We talked back as best we could and sounded interested in the things he pointed out along the way. In this way we hoped to make the most of tour.
Eventually we made it to the Haghia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. These landmarks are stately and beautiful. We also saw the Egyptian-style obelisks just next to the Blue Mosque. Unfortunately we were too late for entry into the Blue Mosque, and the Haghia Sophia was closed on that day, but we were able to admire them from the outside and from within the courtyard. They were ornamental and lovely to behold. Thereafter we visited the Topkapi Palace close by. This is a veritable treasure trove of Turkish art and precious objects. We had to go through it quite hurriedly because there was a lot else we wanted to do still, and the afternoon was marching on.
Our next stop was at the Grand Bazaar. The Bazaar was daunting in terms of its sheer size. Hundreds of little shops are crammed into this covered market. There are roughly 60 streets of them! There were spice merchants, shops selling Turkish delight, jewellers, ceramic shops and many others. The market was also fairly crowded so – in typically neurotic tourist fashion – we were careful to guard our bags and make sure we had all our belongings with us at all times as we took in the sights and smells.
After these excursions we were both hungry and tired. It was early evening and our flight was only due to leave at about one the next morning. Our guide then drove us to a restaurant overlooking the Bosphorous Sea – an establishment by the name of Gala Pera. It was one of many that was situated in this prime location. I’m pretty sure the rental must be quite high there. We were overjoyed because of the beautiful view of moon rising over the Bosphorous. What a wonderful way to end a day in Istanbul, we thought. We could relax over supper and think about all the sights we had seen. And we were both quite starving.
The maitre d’ seemed nice enough: friendly, affable, glad to be of service … but a tad too much, maybe? Soon he brought out a tray of model food to show us what we could have and we made our choices. There were starters, and then mains, but the bill in the end was not what we expected. The maitre d’ had not been upfront about the price and we felt cheated by the whole experience. I think there are relationships between some of these restaurants and certain tour companies where the companies are encouraged to bring gullible, non-Turkish speaking guests to the restaurant where they are charged an arm and a leg before being allowed to leave. It is probably based on a system of kick-backs.
Our last stop was Taksim Square. We visited some of the sweet shops here to make a few last minute purchases. The range of delicacies available was absolutely daunting and there was an abundance of stock wherever you looked. We also walked around upon the Square itself, but because it was dark and the lighting was inadequate, we were not able to see much. At last, tired and ready for sleep, our Turkish companion dropped us off at the international section of the airport so that we could begin check-in procedures. Although it was a whirlwind tour of the capital city, it did whet my appetite. I hope to return one day – better rested with a few Turkish phrases memorized – to better explore the rich history that Istanbul has to offer.