Istanbul was almost like a milestone for us as we had been looking forward to it for so long. It was also to be our gateway back into Europe after spending so many months traipsing across Central Asia.
We had learned that there are 6.5 million cars registered in Istanbul alone. This became apparent on our approach with a maze of freeway systems with very confusing spaghetti like on/off ramps. One wrong turn and you could end up anywhere. Naturally we messed one up before even hitting the outskirts which put us on a freeway in the opposite direction without a single exit for 47km. Buy the time we had finished our 100km detour we were finally headed in the right direction. Our first stop was to be DHL Istanbul as we had some important parts to pick up to finally get our awning repaired as well as other random bits and pieces. We put the address into our GPS and did our best to follow. As the depot came into sight we realised it was on the other side of the road. We then proceeded to waste the next 45 minutes trying to find our way across through the maze of one way streets and battle the impossible traffic. For this reason we decided on a hotel in Sultanamet leaving everything of interest within walking distance. Crossing the bridge that divides the Asian and European continental plates felt like an achievement but was hardly an occasion as undivided attention was required to navigate the traffic and roads.
After checking into a hotel and being lucky enough to park the car out the front we decided to take a stroll up to Sultan Ahmet park. On either side of the park stands the Blue Mosque and Aysofya two iconic landmarks of Istanbul. It felt great to finally be in Istanbul and to see the landmarks we had heard so much about. After a nice Turkish diner we retired for the night excited about exploring the next day.
With an early start to the day we began by visiting Aysofya, unfortunately almost half of the interior was being restored with scaffolding everywhere. Sophia is more than 1400 years old with its huge domed roof reaching 56m. An architectural marvel of the Byzantine era. The interior was for a long time the largest unsupported open area in the world, due to it’s domed roof and many supporting arches.
From there we crossed Sultanahmet square and headed for the iconic blue mosque. It’s grandeur and architecture was impressive but to be honest we were both underwhelmed by the two buildings. Maybe due to the shear amount of tourists there, neither were particularly well preserved or original. Particularly the blue mosque which had all sorts of tacky wiring hanging from the roof for cheap looking chandeliers. It just felt like they lacked the allure and mystique of the mosques and mausoleums of Samarkand and Bukhara. However both buildings had wheel chair access, in the blue mosque you had to give up your wheel chair and use one of theirs with out push rims. Same as taking off your shoes I guess. Sofia can only be viewed from the ground floor, there are no lifts to the second floor.
What we did find really interesting and unique was the Basilica Cistern, an underground labyrinth built in the 5th century to satisfy the water demands of the royal palace. Held up by 336 columns each 8m high the underground reservoir was capable of holding an astonishing 8,000,000L Thankfully the Cistern is wheelchair accessible with a stair lift that takes you down two flights of stairs, very slowly.
Christmas was fast approaching so we thought what better place to find some presents for the family than the grand bazar. We made our way across the streets bustling with street hawkers selling roasted chest nuts, gozleme and corn on the cob. It’s like a nonstop smorgasbord for your senses.
Arriving at the grand bazaar we were at first impressed by the building itself and the atmosphere. Tourists haggling for the best price, shop owners trying to draw you in, the hustle and bustle. After a few minutes we realised they were all pretty much selling the same old touristy crap. The experience diminished more when we were told to F off after a disagreement on the price of a chess set we were interested in for ourselves. It was starting to become a disappointment until we found the antique bazar section. I had missed my brothers 30th and really wanted to bring him home something special. This seemed like a gold mine. Trouble was finding some thing just for him amongst all the other treasures (if your reading this Sandhya, say nothing!) After a couple of hours we left feeling well pleased with our purchases. We also bought things for other family members.
It is was only a short walk to the water so we headed down and took a stroll along the Bosphrous harbor before heading back to the hotel.
The following day were off to the spice market. While the building itself wasn’t that impressive the stalls and plethora of spices for sale were mind boggling. Every stall we passed we were beaconed in with offers to try different delicacies Turkish delight, apple chi, flavoured nuts. It was hard to turn down the offers unless you wanted to spend days there. We had a list of herbs and spices we needed to top up with for our travels as well as a list of people we still wanted to grab gifts for. After some looking around and haggling we were off, fully loaded with hundreds of dollars worth of gifts and stock for our kitchen.
We wondered back down to the Sultanahmet square and on to the Topkapi Palace. This was the royal palace for the Ottoman Sultans for around 400 years from the 14th-18th century.
Once again we were put off by the hoards of tourists and also the inaccessibility of most of the buildings. There were some interesting exhibits with very finely detailed jewellery also some swords owned by different members of the royal family. All of which you had to get in line to view and in my case try and hustle your way to the front to actually be able to see.
The next few days were to be very testing for us once again. My infection had come back even after our 6 day hospital visit in Georgia. We tossed up with the decision of visiting the international hospital in Istanbul where the facilities were supposed to be first rate. Although I hadn’t experienced any major symptoms yet we were worried about having a repeat of my episode in Georgia. With some consultation from my specialist at home and a new plan of attack we were back in hospital the next day. We spoke with a urologist and discussed what options we had, deciding not to take any half measures, surgery was our next best bet. It is a small procedure called a cysostopy where my bladder is flushed with anti-biotics followed by Botox injections into the bladder wall to reduce the spasming. This all has to be performed under general anaesthetic. Whilst waiting for the hospital to prepare for the op we spent the next few nights sleeping in the back of the car in the car park of a manchester store close to the hospital. It was our lowest few days trying to save money as the hotels were really expensive as was the upcoming operation.
The day came and we got to the hospital early. The operation went well I guess, if you consider waking up halfway through the op ok. That was a new one for me but on the upside I didn’t feel as groggy after the procedure was complete. We retired to a hotel next door for the night as rest is vital after general anaesthetic.
Hoping that our insurance would cover the hospital bill which came to whopping $10,000 it was all up in the air. The next morning we were very keen to leave Istanbul after our last few days kind of ruined the experience. Jess did the driving as I was forbidden for 24 hours due to the anaesthetic and we were back on the road again hoping that the last few days were worth it.