Day 1. Hubby and I are ensconced in the KAL lounge at JFK, enjoying the complimentary snacks and adult beverages. We’re on a layover between our home in Pittsburgh and our ultimate destination, Istanbul. Yes, Istanbul. The one in Turkey. Why KAL lounge? Here’s a travel tip. If you apply for a Fairmont Visa card and are approved, you get 2 free nights at any Fairmont Hotel or resort, including breakfast, for 2, anywhere in the world. And you get a free pass to their associated airport lounges. And they waive the annual fee. As long as you spend $1000 in the first 3 months you own the card. Well, I can do that pretty much in my sleep, so here we are.
But why Turkey? There is a simple explanation. When I turned 50, and yes I must confess that I am now a woman of a certain age, I made a list of 10 places to go before I die. That sounds morbid, but let’s face it. I’m getting to the age where things start happening to people. If I want to do stuff, I better do it now. After all, in 20 short years I would be 70 years old, and who knows what kind of nonsense mother nature wants to throw at me between now and then? So according to my logic, if I visit one place in the list every 2 years, I’ll hit all 10 by the time I hit 70. If I live longer than that, BONUS! I’ll add Myanmar to the list.
I studied Hagia Sophia in an art history course back in college. It was built back when Istanbul was called Constantinople. It looked romantic. We also studied the 5th century churches in Ravenna. Some day, my 20 year old self said, I would really like too see those churches in Constantinople and Ravenna. In 1984, after I got into law school I quit my crappy paralegal job and went to Ravenna. Those 5th century mosaics lived up to their reputation. In 1986, I was in a job interview in Pittsburgh. The interviewer was well traveled and had photos of Hagia Sophia on his wall. “Is that Constantinople?” I asked. He enthusiastically replied yes, but said it was Istanbul. Doh! I knew that. But I think he liked that I got his travel passion. And he hired me.
In 1987, after taking the bar exam and before starting work in the Real World, I went to Paris for 3 weeks. I had the great luxury of staying at the apartment of a Parisian friend who was away on vacation. In Turkey. The French often had these long leisurely vacations, and a lot of them went to Turkey. Damn, I said to my 27 year old self. I really want to go to Turkey.
Forward 25 plus years. I won’t get into the details but we’ve been busy. In 2011, we went to Banff, high on my top 10 list. Wow Wow Wow! I will post some photos from that trip soon, but for now you have to trust me that Banff’s place on the list was well-deserved. So this year we picked Turkey. The situation in Turkey and the Muslim world generally is such that I believe things may get a lot worse before they get better. By “worse” I mean less hospitable to Americans. And I don’t want to wait until I’m 70 to see Hagia Sophia. So off we go.
We’re boarding now. Turkish Airlines. Let’s see if they merit their reputation as Europe’s number 1 airline.
I guess technically it’s still Day 1 since we have not actually landed yet. But the calendar has turned so for our purposes, it’s Day 2. Let’s talk about Turkish Airlines. I’m seated in the center seat of Row 11, Comfort Class, of a Boeing 777. This is a freaking huge plane. The appeal of Comfort Class is said to be its reclining seats, raised leg rests and ample leg room. Row 11 is the first row in Comfort Class, so the leg room is more than ample. I can stretch my legs straight out in front of me and not come close to touching the wall. Reclining seats? Not so much. They go back about as far as any other airline seat. Leg rests? They only rise about 6 inches. If you’re tall like my hubby, they don’t serve much purpose.
Each seat has its own entertainment center, where you can watch BBC news, catch a recent movie, or listen to a variety of musical styles. The entertainment center also lists email and internet services, but those were not available. Maybe they’re for use only on the ground, but it didn’t make a whole lot of sense to list them when they weren’t functioning. I decided to watch the movie “The Heat,” starring Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy, two very appealing actresses, in a female buddy cop scenario. This movie was described to me as “hilarious” by other women of a certain age, so I thought, why not a little guilty pleasure. Let me add that the reviews of this movie had not been kind. Unfortunately the critics were right on this one. Add the lameness of the plot to the fact that the movie was edited to remove all salty language and you have a pretty unwatchable piece of celluloid. Bad choices, Sandy and Melissa, bad choices. Turned it off about half way in.
How about the food? Let me share with you the excitement I felt when I booked this flight back in January and was given a wide variety of meal choices. Jain, halal, kosher, vegan, seafood, oriental vegetarian, to name just a few. Sorry to report the quality of food was just, meh. But the service! There’s an attendant whose only function seems to walking up and down the aisles, attired in a white chef’s coat and hat, offering piping hot rolls to the hungry passengers. Other attendants are equally friendly, and attractive to boot, seeming genuinely pleased to be serving us. When was the last time you saw that on a US carrier? Never? That’s correct. So the food may be lackluster but I sure did enjoy having it served to me.
Hate to end on a negative note, but check in was less than optimal. The Turkish Airlines counter opened promptly at 3:00 yesterday. We were 4th in a very long line of passengers of every possible race and persuasion. Check in should have been smooth and efficient. Our tickets were paid for and I had printed out the receipts. Did I have the credit card I used to book the flight, the perky agent asked. No, I did not. I didn’t want to use that card in Turkey, so why would I bring it? Without getting into the tedious details of what followed, I will just say that I tweeted once or twice (OK maybe 3 times) expressing displeasure with the chaotic hour I spent sorting out this nonissue. I must have done it right, because within minutes I received not one but 3 emails from Turkish Airlines asking how they could help. Long story short, we lost an hour we could have been spending luxuriating with the (other) beautiful people at the KAL lounge.
Would I flu Turkish Airlines again? Absolutely. Just bring the right credit card, and remember, it may be Comfort Class, but its still airline food.
We landed Turkish time: 11:26 a.m. Body time: 4:26 a.m. A long but fun day. We checked into our room at the Radisson Blu Bosphorus in the Ortakoy area on the European side and spent a lovely, leisurely afternoon ambling across the Galata Bridge that spans the Bosphorus, stopping under the bridge for fresh fish sandwiches (you point to the fish and they cook it up on the spot!) At the other side of the bridge, we found the Egyptian Market, which was packed with people but still very fun to wander around in. Then we crossed back over and walked up the street to the Galata Tower, bought tickets and climbed up for a really great view of the city. Weather was beyond perfect, sunny, warm, blue skies as far as they eye could see.
Well our first full day in Istanbul was so full of sightseeing and information and new experience I just don’t know what to say first. Should I talk about Fulaya, our private tour guide, who knows everything about Turkey and the mosques and the people and the art and the architecture and the history and where to eat and how to use the tram? Should I talk about Hagia Sophia and how it was built by Emperor Justinian in the 5th century and remained a church until around 1453 when the Ottomans defeated the Romans and changed it to a mosque, until around 1923 when Atatürk took over and made Turkey a secular country and changed it to a museum, or how that now that there’s an Islamist president it might be changed back to a mosque?
Or should I talk about the Blue Mosque, and how we had to remove our shoes and put them in a plastic bag, and I had to cover my head with the LLBean scarf I was wearing, and Jon had to tie a blue sheet-like thing around himself to cover his legs (he was the only man in Turkey wearing shorts) as we went inside and watched men praying on the carpet, on their knees, facing Mecca, and as we walked outside all the minarets in town were broadcasting the call to worship for the second of 5 times today?
Or maybe I should mention Topkapi Palace, where the Sultans used to live with their Harems, and the painted mosaics covering all the rooms, and the rose garden and the views of the Golden Horn, and the rooms full of jewels and daggers and boxes containing hairs or broken teeth of the prophet Mohammed and let’s not forget the room that contained the staff of Moses and the turban of Joseph (yes, the one with the coat of many colors) and as we’re viewing all of this there’s someone chanting verses of the Quran because the stuff we’re viewing is, you know, kind of holy and special to a whole lot of people in this world?
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the Basilica Cistern underneath the old city which back in the day used to hold enough water to sustain a city under siege and has columns holding it up, including one with a carved head of Medusa on its side as its pedestal, but which is now used to impress tourists (it does impress, profoundly) and serves as a venue for musical acts.
How abut the food? Flaming salted fish, grilled calamari, eggplant 10 different ways, Turkish coffee, pistachio baklava, Turkish delight, and the thing I intend to try tomorrow, raki.
We also visited the Grand Bazaar, one of the largest covered markets in the world (and supposedly where the opening motorcycle chase scene from the James Bond movie “Skyfall” was filmed). What a crazy place, so full of people and shops and sounds and smells! We visited the shop of the artist Nick Merdenyan and bought the most gorgeous artwork, calligraphy on some kind of plant leaf that is unlike anything I have ever seen. He even framed it and delivered it to our hotel.
Believe me, we have barely scratched the surface of this fascinating city. Tomorrow we are on our own and will navigate public transportation to see few places off the beaten track.
Pierre Loti, Kariye Museum & Archaeology Museum
Today was not sightseeing as much as just tooling around like a local. We took buses, trams, taxis, and even a funicular up to the celebrated Pierre Loti Cafe, a charming spot high above the Golden Horn, where we drank tea and shared a bowl of ice cream and enjoyed some magnificent views.