Turkey had been on my list of places to see since my first year working abroad in France. That was over three years ago, and I didn’t have the opportunity to head over until this June. I, along with a fellow English teacher, spent ten days traversing the Eurasian country, taking in tons of sights and food, all the while enjoying the whirlwind of a ride.
I admit, I was at first apprehensive about visiting Turkey– its political climate has changed considerably over the last few years, from the Turkish-Syrian conflict to growing disfavor with the U.S. (I’m looking at you, Trump). Not to forget the Atatürk Airport attack in 2016, which killed close to 50 people.
Knowing of these recent events had caused me to hesitate going for years, but I ended up biting the bullet and booking to go this summer. I really wanted to visit the country, as I’d heard nothing but good things about its history, architecture, and culture. I knew it was a matter of exercising caution, so I chose to go with a friend, booked a multi-day guided tour, and paid travel insurance as forms of precaution.
In the end, I found my visit to be quite safe. Again, I went with a guided tour, and even when I went solo for a day or two in Istanbul, it was such a touristy city that I blended in with the crowd. There were many armed forces patrolling around that put my mind at ease, too. Of course, I kept my wits: if I felt uneasy about being in a specific location or talking to certain people, I quickly extracted myself from the situation.
I began my trip to Turkey following an afternoon of invigilating rattrapage at my university. I left in the mid-afternoon to catch my bus to the airport, where I boarded my evening flight. The flight lasted about 3-1/2 hours, and I soon landed in Istanbul just a bit past 22:30. The guided tour I’d booked offered complementary shuttle service to the hotel I would be staying in, so it was a matter of finding my driver and heading into the city center. It was about a 45-minute ride, and I soon reached the hotel, located a block or two from Sultanahmet Square.
My friend had already arrived at the hotel, so I directly headed upstairs to meet her in our room. I did the usual routine of dropping my belongings off and inspecting the bed for any signs of bed bugs. Lo and behold, a small critter came crawling out! I swiftly killed it and, upon closer inspection, I confirmed it was indeed a tiny bed bug, and I was immediately pissed. Considering that I’d arrived close to midnight after a long day’s travel, the last thing I wanted to encounter was bed bugs on my very first day in.
We hauled all of our stuff out of the room (thankfully, I hadn’t unpacked yet) and headed downstairs to the lobby to alert the receptionist. After getting in touch with our tour company, we ended up getting moved to another hotel just down the road at no extra cost. No bed bugs there, thank goodness, and while I didn’t get to sleep until past 2:00, I was at least relieved that we’d dodged a bullet with those god-awful critters.
I didn’t get much sleep before we had to wake up around 7:00 for breakfast. We also had to check out and drop off our belongings at the reception desk, since we were only there for one night before heading east of the country. Our tour picked us up around 8:30, and we officially began our tour around 9:00.
Our tour guide was a brash and hilarious Turkish woman who did a great job of herding our group (15 to 20 people) around the chaotic crowds of Istanbul. The city is massive and one of the most-visited in Europe, so it was imperative that we stuck close together at the risk of getting lost. We began at the Hippodrome (aka Sultanahmet Square), which is the former sporting site during the Byzantine Empire– today, it’s an open plaza that’s the hub of Istanbul’s historic center. If you ever get lost, head there!
The Hippodrome is pretty sparse, made up of two obelisks at opposite ends of the square, along with remnants of the Serpent Column which date back to 478 BCE. It commemorates the Persian’s defeat by the Greeks around that era, and over the centuries the Serpent Column has gone through a lot of wear and tear (even theft) and today looks rather unassuming. However, its 2500-year history is impressive, and to stand in front of such a classical art piece was an honor.
We spent the rest of our morning at two of the most-popular sites in town: the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia. We went to the former first, stepping through its gates to line up around the courtyard to enter. Women, including my friend and I, were required to wear headscarves, which were provided for free just before entering the courtyard. We got periwinkle-colored ones, which were appropriate for the Blue Mosque itself!
The Blue Mosque’s exterior is actually closer to a grey color, but its interior is what gives the mosque its name. Decorated with thousands of blue tiles, its ceilings are flowery and intricate, with names of Islamic prophets in Arabic. The artwork was so ornate that it was almost dizzying to look at. Stunning in its aesthetic, this 17th century site was a pleasure to visit, with its art and faith combined to make something worth worshiping for.
Just across the plaza was the Hagia Sophia. It’s the most-famous building of the city, with its fame dating back to the Byzantine Empire. Over the centuries, it has gone from being a church to a mosque to a secular museum today. That said, we weren’t required to cover our heads as we stepped onto its grounds. Inside was a brilliant gold, again with the Islamic prophets’ names decorated on the ceilings. I found the Hagia Sophia to be a bit bare in design, but what made it distinctive was that we could climb to its second floor and get 360° views of the entire area. Personally, I preferred the Blue Mosque more, but the Hagia Sophia was also lovely.
Lunch followed, and we were taken to a restaurant nearby for some Turkish cuisine. I ordered the adana kebab, which is made of lamb. I hadn’t expected the meat to be incredibly juicy and tender, but it was! It paired perfectly with the fried potatoes and rice, and I capped off the satisfying lunch with a slice of sticky baklava and Turkish tea. It was my first proper meal since arriving in the country, and I would spend the next nine days eating to my heart’s desire.
Just before we reconvened for the tour’s afternoon portion, a few of us in the group came across a small Turkish ice cream stand. I, along with another tourist, decided to have fun and subjected ourselves to the whims and tricks of the Turkish ice cream man, who spent a minute “refusing” to give us our ice cream in front of an audience. It was entertaining, and the Turkish ice cream (lemon-flavored) was surprisingly-chewy and creamy– it was a solid 15 lira (2 euros) well-spent!
Our tour guide brought us to one of the many sultans’ tombs in Istanbul, this one of Sultan Selim II from the 16th century. The building appears like a mini-mosque– however, what makes it different are the dozen small tents lining the room’s center, where the bodies of the sultan’s family are placed. A few locals were indoors praying, as respect to the historic leader of their country.
Final stop of the day was at the Topkapi Palace, once a notable residence of the sultans in the 15th to 17th centuries. It was enormous, consisting of four large courtyards with a few smaller ones in between: we shuttled from one to the other, taking in the various buildings that once housed prayers, harems, even circumcisions! We also saw the living quarters of the sultans’ families, and that of the sultans themselves. The opulence of the palace accumulated with stunning views of the Bosporus, which was where we ended our tour.
My friend and I headed back to our hotel to prepare for our overnight bus to our next destination in Turkey. Our first 24 hours in the country was already a whirlwind, from the hotel bed bug scare to the all-day tour throughout the city. It was also the start of our week-and-a-half adventure throughout Turkey, which would be even more exhilarating. There was no stopping us, and we would continue to push forward and see as much as possible during our time there.
More of Istanbul to come soon! Stay tuned.