Friday, August 29, 2014

A Serendipitous Holiday In Istanbul

Adding to our airline 'firsts' we flew Thai Airways from Denpasar, Bali to Bangkok, Thailand.  We spent one night in Bangkok before our 10 plus hour flight to the historic city of Istanbul.  The service on board was surprisingly spectacular.  We were pampered with an on board chef that took our order, dined by candle light in the clouds and then were tucked into bed with the enjoyment of a plentiful overnight kit.  The food was even more amazing boasting a pairing of both asian and european cuisine matching the geographic uniqueness of the airline's namesake.  The flight path took us right over some counties Amy and I had never expected to see granted from 30, 000 feet.  We flew directly over Tehran and saw its beautiful snow capped peaks and over a partly cloudy Iraqi sky.
Our bird from Thailand to Turkey.
Turkish Airlines even had a "Chef" that took our order. 
...and we ate it all
First course
Second...We were so impressed with the initial courses we forgot to take photos of the main.
The candlelight dinner was a very nice touch.
Belly full, first movie done, candle on, but I'm out.
Flying over Iraq and Iran and it all looks good from up here.
Somewhere over Iran
After getting some rest, catching up on some movies we missed throughout the year and filling our bellies with Turkish delights and high octane coffee we landed safely in Istanbul.  We jumped into a cab and were whisked away to our hotel.  After a crazy, death defying ride in some 19 year old Turkish boy's cab we arrived at the entrance to the Hilton.  Another one of our 'firsts' was having our cab checked for bombs under the car and in the trunk they searched before allowing us to move on to the regal front doors of the Hilton.
View of the Bosphorus river from our hotel.  Complementary "appetizers" which we made our dinner the first night.
Our balcony looking over the city.

The other side of our room.  The Hilton really treats their Honors members nicely.
Amy and I have been saving up Hilton Honors points for awhile and decided to blow a bunch on a week's stay at the Hilton Bosphorus.  The Hilton was on the European side of Istanbul and had a fantastic view over the Bosphorus river and onto the asian side of Istanbul.  As a result of our Hilton Honors status we had our own separate check in, an upgraded room on the Executive Level and free breakfasts and happy hour privileges for the duration of our stay.  Our room came with bottled water and fruit on our arrival.  Since we arrived in the evening we had just enough time to grab something to eat and drink at the open bar happy hour and take in the phenomenal view of the Istanbul lights from the penthouse lounge.

The next morning we scoped out our hotel a bit and then headed out to see the city.  The hotel sat on a huge piece of land complete with a nice garden, an indoor and outdoor pool, tennis courts and an authentic Turkish bath.  The temperature was around the high 50s and low 60s for our first day of sightseeing.  We were happy though that we would not have to be walking all over in town in the heat.  Our hotel was a block away from Taksim square and about a 30 minute walk into town.  As we have noted before we are quite the frugal travelers.  There was a tram or an underground, but to save a penny (or a Turkish lira) we always went by foot.  Did I mention yet our frugalness at the hotel?  Well...allow me to explain.  You see as a Hilton Honors member and having been situated on the Executive level we had evening happy hour and breakfast available.  We ate a healthy breakfast early every morning.  We took a piece of fruit each and a muffin from the breakfast buffet along with us on our sightseeing. This served as our midday snack.  Somedays we paid for a simple lunch and then some days we even made our "happy hour appetizers" our dinner.  Hey...we weren't the only ones, so don't judge.
The lobby had the most elaborate shoe shine chair I had ever seen.
Taksim Square, me and the Turkish flag
Our early morning walk to see the sights.

Yes, we are on the european side of Istanbul.
Nice view of the Galata Tower in Istanbul
One of the many store fronts displaying the huge variety of Turkish delights and baklavas.
Us on the Galata Bridge with a picturesque mosque and the spice market behind us.
Amy making her way through the spice market.
Spices, teas and Turkish treats

Making our way to the Grand Bazaar and enjoying the tile work in town.
Amy tried her hardest, but we finally left Turkey without a lamp.  Something tells me we might be back.
Here we are about to enter the famous Grand Bazaar.
We were there in the morning before the crowds arrived.
Drinking fountain in the middle of the Bazaar.

Turkish tea delivery boy
One of the many fabric stores in the Bazaar.
Careful or you can get lost in the Bazaar.  We ducked around a couple of corners exploring and found this nice little courtyard.
Walking through the oldest part of the Bazaar.
Exiting the Bazaar
Another Turkish dessert store

...oh and another.  Check out the size of that baklava.
We stopped in this one and bought a candy treat I remember one of my Armenian friends in college introduced me to.  It was a rope of assorted nuts encased in a chewy jelly outside.  They called it "sausage".
The food displays were colorful and plentiful.
Istanbul was in full bloom.
Me, the "sausage" and the Blue Mosque.
This was posted at the entrance to the Blue Mosque.
Amy all ready to enter her first mosque.
Waiting in line to enter the Blue Mosque.  They provided us with plastic bags to put our shoes in and made sure the women were properly attired before entry.
The lined looked long, but it really wasn't a long wait.
Inside the Blue Mosque
The main prayer area with the large chandeliers hanging low.
A glimpse of the blue mosque from the beautifully landscaped grounds around both the Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque.
The Hagia Sophia
After a full morning of sightseeing and seeing all of the tasty Turkish food on display in the store fronts we decided to track down a restaurant that came highly recommended to us from our good friend Ken.  Ken was in Istanbul about 6 months prior and said that the food and the service at this particular restaurant was great, so we had to find it.  Up the road a bit and a couple of blocks away from the Hagia Sophia was this beautiful little area of the city that was filled with a bunch of cafes, kebab houses, hookah parlors and restaurants.  We wandered through the streets looking at all of the signs while being greeted by the restauranteurs standing in front of their shops.  While politely refusing their invitations to try "Turkey's best cuisine", admiring the colorful plates the patrons were eating along the street and hearing the clang of glasses and lively music we couldn't help but notice that Turkey really reminded us of Italy.

After about 30 minutes of smelling the wonderful smells wafting out of the restaurants we passed and practically making a couple trips around this area we finally stumbled upon our recommending lunch locale.  Before our food came out we mentioned that our friend was here earlier on in the year.  We showed the waiter the photo that Ken gave us to spot the restaurant out and he actually remembered him.  We ate freshly made pita bread and a spicy dip that they called Turkish salsa.  I cannot remember what we had as our main course, but will not forget the pita and that dip.
Making our way to lunch
Pita, spicy dip and a beer while watching the people passing by.
Our first lunch in Istanbul.
Turkish ouzo and tea after lunch.
The restaurant had free Wifi so we were able to check our mail and make a quick Facebook post that we had made it to Istanbul and were enjoying our time.  As we were leaving the restaurant and making our way to the underground Cistern I received a Facebook message from an old friend from Santa Barbara.  The message said, " hey Mike and Amy it is Sasha I am in Istanbul too".  I read it to Amy and we couldn't believe it.  Sasha was our friend and old coworker from United Airlines in Santa Barbara.  We visited him and his family in Croatia a couple years back and it appears that now he is living in Istanbul.  We quickly wrote him back and made plans to meet him the next day.  We were very excited to have some company and at the chance to catch up with Sasha.
Spectacular views were to be had all over town.
The Cistern
A medusa head upside down in the Cistern.  
Amy wanted to do some shopping, so we stopped at couple of places and looked.  That is my kind of shopping.
We found this little courtyard tucked behind some of the stores we visited.

Left the courtyard and wandered down the cobble stone street.
At the bottom of the street we found this nice hookah cafe.
The waiter added the apple flavored tobacco to the pipe.

After our hookah experience we decided to take a leisure walk back to our hotel and finish the day with some drinks and a nice view at our hotel.  We walked through the palace's beautiful park and gardens before running into the riverfront.  We then walked along the riverfront, crossed the bridge and headed straight up to the Galata Tower. After taking in the views and looking in a couple of the boutique stores we took the popular pedestrian street 'Istiklal' up to Taksim Square and back to our hotel.
The palace park was probably the most beautiful and well kept parks we had ever seen.
Just over that hill where the Galata Tower stands and down the road a bit was our hotel.
Making our way up the narrow streets towards the Galata Tower.
Fancy shoe shine in use on our way up the steep hill.
The Galata Tower
If there was ever a place in Turkey that truly felt like the more popular cities of Europe this area around the Galata Tower was it.  
Pomegranate, mixed fruit and blood orange freshly squeezed drinks were spread all around town.
Istiklal (independence) Street with the cable car
This kid was scooping up Istanbul's finest sticky ice cream to a curious crowd.  
The next morning Amy woke up early to indulge in a Turkish bath.  About a hour later I met her and walked down to meet our friend Sasha.  We spent the next couple of days with Sasha seeing the city on land and water while catching up on old times.  He introduced us to some Turkish specialty foods, toured us around the Asian side of Istanbul and gave us the insider's/local look on what there is to see around town.  Thank you Sasha for showing us such a good time and spending two very memorable days with us.
Amy in front of her "Hamam" or bathhouse (Turkish massage parlor).  I couldn't even go in since the morning time was reserved for women only.
Inside of the traditional Hamam.  This one in particular was quite historical.

The final product.  Amy post rub, soap, wash and buff job.  She said it was a nice experience, but may not want to do it again.  She happened to go to one of the most expensive ones in town so that might have something to do with it. 
Ataturk monument in Taksim Square.  This is where we planned to meet Sasha.
Sasha treated us to a Turkish pudding and some tea before we headed out touring. 
Never got to try all the different types of baklava, but I guess I'll just have to go back.
Cruising the Bosphorus and taking in the view of both the European and the Asian sides of the city.

This was the Orient Express Train Station.
Inside of the Orient Express Station
Wandered around on the Asian side of Istanbul.
Visited a Turkish outdoor market

A traditional Turkish coffee/tea stand
We stopped and had a little pick me up for the rest of the day.
I had a tea and Sasha and Amy tried the coffee.
A colorful sight in town along our way to grab a bite to eat before meeting Sasha for another day of sightseeing.
A tastey Turkish snack before meeting Sasha in town.
Kebab stand in the heart of Istanbul.
Met Sasha in a cafe before heading out for another day of touring.
Stopped to get some freshly squeezed pomegranate juice.
The Hagia Sophia, Amy and Sasha.

Our dogs were barking from all of the walking.  I wonder what this dog's excuse was.
Grabbed a small bite to eat at this restaurant.

Sasha found us this awesome location on the Asian side with a perfect sunset view of the European side.
Sitting on Turkish rugs and watching the boats go by on the Bosphorous River.

Cheers to Turkey and a excellent adventure in Istanbul.
Before heading off to our final country and taking that last leg back to the US we visited the best airline lounge that we have ever experienced.  The Turkish Airline's lounge in Istanbul pampered us immensely before our trip to Brussels (our final city in our year long trip).  Over the top is the only way to describe the service and amenities.  We only wish we had known about the lounge earlier and had arrived at the airport with enough spare time to take advantage of all that it had to offer.  Trust me...if you find yourself in this part of the world you must find your way to this lounge.  Contrary to some beliefs Amy and are not posh and don't typically find ourselves living like the other half.  For this trip around the world we never lived lavishly and always spared coin whenever we could.  This was a benefit that came with Amy's association with the interline world.  We appreciated it immensely and never took this experience for granted.  Now, if we lived like the other half then these photos will illustrate what I envision that half to be.
Inside Turkish Airline's lounge.
Amy taking it all in.

Yes,...that is a massage therapist.
Fresh honey comb...just because.
A chef cooking up Turkish specialities to order.
Another chef's station and an all-you-can-drink bar.
Crystal chandeliers and marble sinks in the bathroom.
Amy finally getting her free massage.
Pool table in the library.
We found many things special about our time in Istanbul.  Turkey was a last minute addition to our journey around the world and turned out to be one of our most favorite countries.  We not only were surprised at how comfortable and exciting we found Istanbul to be, but were comforted by the fact that one of our old friends is now calling Istanbul home.  Finding such a dynamic country that marries the Asian with the European provided us with an exceptional experience and one that we look forward to re-visiting in the very near future.  Thank you again Sasha for showing us a good time.  We hope to see you and your family some time soon.