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My Very Cheap Home Exchange Holiday in Turkey

Author: LSKahn (More Trip Reviews by LSKahn)
Date of Trip: August 2011

I travel mostly through home exchanges and this trip was no exception. I arrived in Turkey August 6th, met my home exchangers and took off for Cappadocia for 4 nights (Fairy Chimney Inn). The hotel was one of the cave hotels and was very nice. I was charged 55 euros a night. Be aware that many tourist places quote prices in euros (and less frequently in dollars) to protect against the ups and downs of the Turkish lira). I spent my days doing tours with Yama tours to all the usual places (underground city, Goreme open air museum, hiking along a river, seeing churches in caves, etc.). My only problem -- and it was to cause problems throughout the trip -- was that my hiking boots blistered my right foot and problems with the blisters were to recur throughout the trip. The hiking boots, I guess, should not be worn several days in a row. Yuk. I enjoyed everything I saw. If you go and stay at the Fairy Chimney Inn, enjoy the breakfasts and have dinner there at night as well on the nights when it was available. I did see the dervishes whirl one evening in an old caravanserai -- definitely worth it.

I used Pegasus Air from Sabitha Gokcen Airport to get back and forth from Istanbul (Asian side). If you are going to do this, do it the day after you arrive in Istanbul -- the European side airport (Ataturk) is the one you will arrive at and the two airports are very far apart. I was in Cappadocia August 7-11, 2011.

Arriving back in Istanbul on the Asian side, I thought it would be easy to get where I was staying. I had a street address and a map. It wasn't easy. After 3 Turkish taxi driver experiences during my stay, I concluded that, unless it is a major site or hotel, the taxi drivers (most of whom work out of a centralized station) really only know places in and around their area or major hotels downtown. I never felt I was being "taken for a ride" (as can happen in NYC) but the drivers kept rolling down the window to ask for directions (while keeping the meter running over my protests; one taxi driver did take a few lira off the fare, but only one of them). Istanbul is very difficult to navigate because a lot of streets simply do not have signs (you have troubles with reading maps when you are exploring as well). The locals know where everything is, but, of course, the tourists just get confused. If you ask someone where you are, no one can tell you with certainty because they don't know the names of the streets either. Suffice it to say, I got to the house.

This was a very difficult home exchange. My exchangers left me very little information. Since their son has a BA from a college in the United States and speaks English better than some Americans I know, there should have been written directions -- at a minimum -- of all the ways I could get downtown from Cevezli. After a couple of tries with the minibus to the Eminou ferry, I found the train station (a 10 minute walk from the apartment) and took that to Hydrapassa and then the ferry to Kadakoy. I also liked Kadakoy better than Eminou because the tram to Sultanamet -- the one I used constantly -- was a shorter walk from Kadoky than from Eminou. I do recommend the pistachio baklava at Hafiz Muhammed on the way to Sultanamet if you are going to walk up (not advisable but I did it the first time because, well, I was stupid).

Things I saw in Istanbul (not a comprehensive list):

1. Topkapi Palace. I spent about 5 hours there. It was the first thing I saw when I got to Istanbul as it is one of those sights that you dream of seeing all your life and it did not disappoint. I did buy the ticket for the harem and thoroughly enjoyed every minute of my time there. It was the only day I had overcast weather. I had absolutely no rain during my trip while my exchangers had the eastcoast earthquake and a hurricane (fortunately missed the DC area where I live). You cannot predict the weather on a holiday. Istanbul was warm and sticky, but DC is worse during the summer. Just remember that, unlike the East Coast US, it cools off at night in Istanbul. I ate at the restaurant at the Palace. Yes, it is a tourist trap and the food was lousy, but the view was worth it and my feet were tired. I did purchase the audioguide. Some of the commentary was good, some routine. When you get ready to see the treasures, there is a long queue (which I waited in). If you are pressed for time, bypass the first set of rooms (and the queue) and just go to the second set of rooms. The interesting stuff -- the dagger with the 3 emeralds and the so called spponmakers' diamond -- are in the last one.

2. Ayasofia. I think I enjoyed this more than Topkapi. It is absolutely stunning. Remember to climb to upper floor via the ramp because the most stunning mosaic (the ones that are in all the books) are there. To think it was all built by hand and has lasted this long. Unbelievable. What was really nice is someone handed me a ticket to it the previous day at Topkapi. He had bought it and was not going to use it. There can be huge queues for tickets and I did not have to submit to that experience. I was told that the renovation scaffolding had recently been removed in case any of you experienced Turkey travelers wondered.

3. The Blue Mosque. You will have to brave the carpet shop hustlers ("I just want to practice my English") going in and out, but, of couse you will want to see this. If you need them, long skirt wraps and headscarves are provided. I had no problem in all the mosques.

4. Sulimanye mosque. I saw this one with Gamze Artaman (who I engaged for a private one day tour -- expensive, but worth it, as we went to a lot of out of the way places, and, of course, she knows everything). Much quieter than the Blue Mosque. Designed by Sinan. I saw his tomb but those of Suleiman and Roxanne were unavailable tdue to renovations. There is a nice restaurant attached but I never got there.

5. Rustem Paha Mosque. This small mosque is the one with all the Itzik tiles that you see in all the books. Another Gamze Artaman winner.

6. The Chora Church. Put this one up there right with the Topkapi Palace. The mosaics are stunning. I took a lot of photos (in fact I have over 1,000 photos and a major job awaits me with those). Went with Gamze

7. The Archeological Museum. Really great museum. If you have the time, it's a must see.

8. The Istanbul Eats tour. This was fabulous although we could only do the Beygolu walk. Sultanamet was not operating because it was Ramazan the entire time of my trip (with houme exchanges, you do take what you get). Tasted all sorts of unusual food I would have missed. We did eat the milk pudding that has the chicken breast in it (no it does not taste like chicken).

9. Basilica Cistern. Interesting for about 15 minutes. I bet there is a lto more to be seen underneath Istanbul's streets with so much history.

10. The Great Palace Mosaic Museum. This one blew me away. Almost no tourists at all. Basically, they have discovered where the Byzantine Palace was located and the mosaics have been left in situ and turned into a museum. Off the Arasta Bazaar. Very difficult to find, but worth the effort.

11. The Great Bazaar. I went with Gamze for about 20 minutes and she bargained for me for a small necklace with the tugra (sultan's seal) on it that you see all over Turkey. I never went back because, well, if I did, I might have regretted it.

12. Arasta Bazaar and Ramazan booths on the plaza in front of the Blue Mosque. I bought a necklace from one of the stalls (my major purchases were some small jewelry itemsand nothing of any significant value). The Arasta Bazaar is much more manageable than The Grand Bazaar with its 4,000 shops. You will not get lost. I bought a t-shirt that says "Turkish Tea Shirt" with a recipe for tea on it. I had another interaction with a rug guy (this time very funny). When he approached, I said I had no intention of buying a rug. His response was "Couldn't you buy a rug by accident?" Now that line would have gotten me in his shop if I had had the least bit interest. Since I don't know Turkish carpets from rubbermaid bathmats, I just thought it was a scene I had better avoidand I did.

13. Jewish Museum in Kadakoy. It's in an old synagogue. Very small, but interesting. I read a novel by Ayse Kushin called "Last Train to Istanbul" based on a true story about how Turkey got some of its Jews (and some others who really weren't Turkish) out of France during World War II during my stay in Istanbul. It is based on a true story and the true story was in the museum. Very interesting especially if you are Jewish.

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