A continuation of my TopDeck Turkey diary. If you haven’t read the first post in the series yet go and start here.
The hotel I stayed in thanks to TopDeck was the Hotel Monaco in the Laleli area of Istanbul. A pretty bog standard hotel really, nothing special, but in a great location close to the tram and some of the main sights. The bathroom was small and the shower only just good enough, but it was all clean and I was only there for a very few number of hours so it was irrelevant. I was in a twin room and was expecting to be joined by another TopDecker that evening, the start of my coach tour experience, but in the mean time I had a day to myself to spend in one of the most fascinating cities in the world.
I should mention breakfast. Here in the UK we know how to do breakfast. Yes we do! We might have a hot savoury breakfast with sausages and bacon and eggs and hashbrowns and everything else. Or we may do a cold sweeter breakfast of cereal and milk or toast and jam. What we don’t generally have for breakfast is salad, pasta, chips and cheese. When I got to breakfast in Hotel Monaco, and in fact most hotels on the tour, that is what I was faced with. Lettuce, olives, tomato, cucumber, cold pasta, coleslaw, potato salad, hot chips, and a variety of cold meats and cheeses. Bizarre! To me anyway. My fellow guests were filling their plates with what I can only describe as a nice lunch. I couldn’t do it. Thankfully the Turkish also know how to do bread (oh how they like their bread!), so I had some lovely fresh white bloomer with some honey. The Turkish also know how to do tea, so I had plenty of that to start my day before heading off to explore.
Sea of Marmara, Istanbul.
I knew that I’d be going on a walking tour of Istanbul the next day and what sights that would include, so I’d made a little list (thanks to twitter) of a few things I wanted to do on my own. My first priority, you won’t be surprised to learn, was to go and make sure the sea was still there. I did manage to get a teeny bit lost on the way and ended up walking along loads of cobbled streets and through shopping streets and residential areas, past a School and a couple of Mosques, before eventually making it to the Sea of Marmara. Once on the waterfront I followed the path around to the Galata Bridge, watching people swimming, fishing, running, selling stuff on the way.
The Galata Bridge goes across the Golden Horn on the European side of Istanbul. This river separates the bit of Instanbul with all the historical buildings such as the Blue Mosque and Topkapi Palace from the more modern sky-scrapered skyline. There are men fishing over the side from the top of the bridge, and a long line of restaurants along the bottom selling locally caught fish. Once there I headed to the Galata Tower, which was a good idea of something to do I got from twitter. It cost 25 Lira to get in (there was a short queue; only a few people can get in the lift each time), something like £5.50. It’s a medieval stone tower with walls nearly four metres thick, that sits on top of a hill and provides some great views of the city from the top. The viewing balcony is narrow but it wasn’t overly busy so was easy to walk around. I didn’t bother with the café or restaurant inside the tower, overpriced and loads of people just like me standing on the balcony between you and the view. Instead I made good use of one of the many cafes in the immediate vicinity once back down on the streets.
Views from Galata Tower.
I had a choice now, either head to Taxim Square or go back to the Galata Bridge and take a boat trip up the Bosphorus, I didn’t have time for both. As I’d been told it was a must I headed back down the hill and over the Golden Horn and got a ticket for a boat trip. I opted for the “Şehir Hatları Short Bosphorus Cruise”, a two hour cruise up and down the Bosphorus that cost just 12 Lira (under £3). There was no commentary, you had to pay extra for a headset if you wanted that, but I was fine with that – it was nice to sit on the open deck in the sunshine and watch the world go by for a couple of hours. I’d bought a couple of bottles of water from a street seller (0.75 Lira for half a litre) before I got on to avoid the expected high refreshment prices, so I simply sat and enjoyed. Very relaxing. We sailed under the Bosphorus Bridge, with Europe on our left and Asia on our right, and up through Ortakoy, Cubuklu and Istinye before turning around and heading back down. The short cruise isn’t long enough to get all the way to the Black Sea, you need a full day for that, but having done this short boat trip that has gone on the list for another visit. It was a great way to see some of the sights of Istanbul.
Galata Tower from the Boat.
I took a long and slow walk back to the hotel, wandering by the Spice Market and Grand Bazaar (although sadly no time to go inside and explore) and some other very large and impressive looking buildings covered in marble. I noticed outside every Mosque, there were women with very young children begging, which was sad to see but I guess not unlike any other city in the world. Parts of Istanbul are very poor, and being on the border of Asia and Europe it tends to be a place those fleeing war and terror gravitate towards. I’m told there are something like two million Syrian refugees in Istanbul, all hoping for a better life. They’ve travelled a long way – some 750 miles from the border. I hope they find what they are looking for.
When I got back to the hotel there was an Aussie girl called Bridget in the room, who will be my roommate (roomie!) for the tour. TopDeck works on a shared room basis, normally twin, which allows the group to bond and of course keeps the costs down. I quickly learnt that Bridget had already been travelling for eight months, which just sounded completely amazing to me. In her early 20s, she was making the most of some time in Europe before going back home to start a career. Fantastic.
Our tour officially started that evening when we all gathered in the hotel lobby to meet each other and our TopDeck tour leader, Alex. Well not actually Alex, but we called him Alex so that we a) didn’t offend and b) didn’t end up confusing anyone else in the vicinity when we called out to him. An official Turkey tour guide as well as a TopDeck tour leader, we knew straight away that we were going to learn a lot about Turkey and it’s culture and history over the next few days. There were about 30 of us in total (29 to be precise), and were a varied bunch. Some were couples, some had travelled with friends, a few were solo travelers like myself. Most were on some kind of trip of a lifetime involving large backpacks and months away from home; my one week away to experience something different definitely made me the odd one out in that sense. But no-one seemed to mind that, they were surprised for sure, but not bothered. Most of the group were either from Australia or New Zealand, and thankfully everyone seemed pretty okay!
Kybele Hotel Cafe Restaurant, Istanbul.
After some quick introductions and tour etiquette tips we headed out of the hotel and onto the tram to the Blue Mosque area of the city for our welcome dinner. It was at the Kybele, a hotel restaurant that had the coolest décor thanks to hundreds of lamps and lampshades hanging from the ceiling. We ate a traditional three course dinner; bread and dips with salad to start, kebab with rice and chips for main, and then a fruit platter for dessert. The welcome dinner was included in the tour price, and was a great way for us to chat and get to know each other before we got going the following morning. Alex lead us to a bar afterwards where some people stopped for a drink (or two, perhaps), but the majority of us just headed back to the hotel for some sleep to prepare us for what was ahead.
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Thank you SO MUCH to TopDeck for inviting me to join them on the tour. TopDeck covered my flights and the tour itself in return for coverage here on Splodz Blogz, and I covered all other expenses (including food, entrance fees and excursions) myself. I definitely recommend this kind of travel to anyone who wants to explore somewhere new without any hassle. Take a look at the TopDeck website for the full range of tours available.