Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Extended Travel Report: Italian Holiday 2015 - Istanbul Layover

Day 8, it was time to fly back home. We took the bus from our apartment rental to the Pisa airport to catch our flight in the late morning. The bus ride took about 30 minutes and the flight to Istanbul took only 2.5 hours but due to the different time zone, we would be landing in Istanbul at around 4:00 pm.
Pisa Aeroporto

Inside the waiting lounge

Bye, Pisa!

Can you spot the Leaning Tower complex?

That's the Apuan Alps.

We were served delicious Turkish cuisine on the plane. If I remember it correctly, you could choose between two menu options on the Istanbul - Pisa flight but not on the Istanbul - Singapore flight. We were also given a small piece of Turkish delight on this flight.

Stuffed eggplant

Some kind of meat patties with bulgur

We landed at Attaturk airport on time and I quickly went to arrival to look for someone from Arif Yasa with my name.
Hello, Istanbul!
A little word about Arif Yasa, they've got good reviews on Trip Advisor and after exchanging several emails with a total stranger who had used them for their own layover in Istanbul, I contacted Arif Yasa to get a quote. Before that, I had also contacted other agency with similar good reviews but thought their reply was somewhat cold. They also asked for a deposit in advance while Arif Yasa didn't. So I went with my gut instinct and booked an Istanbul Sunset Walking Tour with Arif Yasa.

At first glance, the other agency seemed more professional because they had all this procedure for booking the tour down while with Arif Yasa, you book the tour via email and all you have is a very casual confirmation (again, via email) that they have booked your trip. They didn't send any invoice or proper confirmation with the details of your trip and as I had booked the tour 1.5 months in advance, it was radio silence all the way. I had to email them a reminder a day before the trip date just for my own peace of mind, to which they promptly replied.

So, anyway, we met up with the driver who whisked us to a very spacious van and took us to the Sultanahmet area. The drive took about half an hour and bit by bit we started to get glimpses of Istanbul.

First impression: Istanbul is gorgeous! Everything looked so...dynamic. It's an assault on the eyes in the very best sense of the word.

At Sultanahmet, we met with our tour guide, Erkan. A little note: You can leave your luggage and other belongings in the car. We didn't but I'd read about people who had done this and they had no issue.

And so the walking tour began!

First, Erkan took us to see the famous Hippodrome, the obelisks, and the serpent column. I initially didn't get what the fuss was all about but then I thought about it; these monuments had stood for a loooong time. They had seen a lot, been through so much, it's crazy. And to think that the average lifespan of a modern building in Singapore is 30 years before they are being 'redeveloped'...they become much more impressive.
Obelisk at the Hippodrome


Serpent column

We then went to see the Blue Mosque which is so beautiful. You need to cover your hair and legs to go in. They'll loan you scarves for free and you can make a donation upon returning them. The scarves are in these various shades of blue which compliment the blue interior nicely. Whoever came up with this idea, great job!

Next, we went to see Hagia Sophia but we didn't go in because we were short of time. I noticed there were a lot of stray dogs roaming around freely which I must say amazes me since Turkey is a predominantly Muslim country. I don't know how that works.
Hagia Sophia a.k.a. Aya Sofia

Next we went to the famous Grand Bazaar, which I had always wanted to see but also had been daunted by since I'd heard the sellers could get quite aggressive. Well, some people did call at you but overall, most sellers left us alone. Erkan gave us 15 minutes to do some shopping and I went straight to the jewelry section and bought a couple of bracelets. I could be pretty decisive when I need to be =D

The oldest section of the Grand Bazaar. You can tell by the ceiling.

Bracelets from the Grand Bazaar

What comes next is the most surprising part of the tour: Erkan took us through these very shady and old-looking alleyways that reminded me of illustrations of marketplace in 1001 nights children books. Through a very old-looking door and up a few steps, we arrived on the rooftop of the building where we got to see Istanbul from an elevated vantage point. I have no idea what the place is called and there were no signs whatsoever that point to the place but it seems to be a well-known secret among tourists because there were several other tourists there, some seemed to have come to the place on their own with the help of guidebooks.

Interesting-looking mounds on the rooftop

Panoramic Istanbul

Our last stop on the European side was the Spice Market. We had mentioned that we would like to buy some Turkish Delights and Erkan took us to this particular shop. No doubt there was some sort of arrangement between them but I didn't mind. The seller was quite pushy, kept feeding us Turkish delights and every time you inquired about any products, he would take it as if you were buying them. It's the oldest trick in the book, just stand your ground and don't feel guilty to correct him, they rely on it.


Now, it's time to cross the strait to the Asian side.

Going to the pier

I don't know what this is

This is Blue Mosque, I believe

On board the ferry

Full moon rising

We got off to the Asian side just in time to watch the sunset. According to Erkan, the sunset was "no fun" that evening. Well, I don't know about that, looks pretty fun to me.
Sunset in Istanbul
After that, he flagged a cab and took us to Kadikoy which was bustling with restaurants and crowds having dinner. On the way, he bought and hand-fed us stuffed mussels. Yum!


Tasting stuffed mussel
He then took us to this restaurant that in his word, "selling traditional home-cooked Turkish dishes". I found out later that this restaurant was famous. Thank you, Erkan!

He ordered for us as we were pretty clueless about Turkish cuisine. I still don't know what we ate that night but all I know is, they were all delish. Yum. Just yum.


After all that, we walked back to the pier and boarded the ferry back to the European side where our driver had been waiting to take us back to the airport. It was on this ferry that Erkan asked us to make the payment for the trip. Money well-spent, I'd say.
Admiring the beautiful view from the deck

Bosphorus bridge?

A view from on board the ferry

Beautiful, isn't it?

We're back on the European side!

It's time to say goodbye to Istanbul. Thank you for all the happy memories!
Aerial Istanbul at Night