My boyfriend and I were all set to travel to Nepal and hike the Himalayas when a week before our departure, the earthquake hit. We were devastated for the people of Nepal and all their rich history that now lay in ruins. We wavered if maybe we should still go to try and help, until our government issued a red travel advisory and our flights were canceled and being refunded.
Determined to still make the most of our vacation time, we had to act quickly. We spent one day going around the world trying to find a destination that suited the warm climate we had bought gear for, a country that required similar (expensive!) travel shots, and a place that didn’t require a visa. We discovered Turkey while looking through some G travel tours that were unfortunately standby only. Turkey was always on my travel list, mainly because I had heard that Istanbul was an amazing city to visit, but I knew very little about the country in general. We were immediately intrigued by what Turkey had to offer – a fascinating history, varied landscapes and cities and also lots adventure. I managed to plan the first week of our trip before we left and had a general idea of where we would end up for the second week. I felt very thankful for my past experience as a TV travel coordinator, booking last minute trips under pressure is my forte!
Before we knew it we were off! We flew Air Canada to London and then connected with Turkish Airlines to Istanbul. I have to say I was really impressed by Turkish Airlines, the service was four star. There was also a chef on board who served us delicious local food, and they offered free booze to boot! We arrived in Istanbul at 7AM, and though the city was very quiet so early in the morning, I immediately felt at ease. Transit from the airport to the Sultanahmet district was straightforward, and we were able to walk to our hotel from the tram stop. My review of the Ahmet Efendi Evi is on Trip Advisor. For the most part I found all the hotels we stayed in during our trip to be small, but charming, with very helpful and friendly owners, and this one was no exception.
We headed right to Sultanahmet Park that lies between two of Istanbul’s most prized landmarks: the Blue Mosque and Aya Sofya. Our early arrival was a blessing as we managed to snap some really nice photos before crowds of tourists started piling in.
We decided to head to Aya Sofya first, and this turned out to be a wise choice as we avoided long lines later in the day. Aya Sofya was commissioned by the Byzantine emperor Justinian, was then consecrated as a church in 537, converted to a mosque in 1453 and finally declared as a museum in 1935. Much of Turkey’s history reads like this – establishments and cities being taken over by different empires or religions.
We walked through these impressive Imperial Doors and into the building’s main space. I was taken back by the sheer grandeur of the Aya Sofya. I’ve been to churches in France and Italy but this one was so different and beautiful.
Gorgeous, massive, low hanging chandeliers lit the huge space, the walls were filled with Ottoman details, Christian mosaics and impressive domes and archways.
Most prominent were the Ottoman Medallions that hung around the space. These large medallions are inscribed with gilt Arabic letters that spell the names of God (Allah), Mohammed and early caliphs Abu Bakr and Ali.
Looking down from the upstairs gallery, you can get a sense of the magnitude of Aya Sofya. The massive chandeliers from the first floor look so tiny from above! High in the top corner you can still see the Seraph figure – one of four – that were originally mosaics, but were recreated as frescoes after being damaged during the Latin occupation between the years of 1204-1261.
One thing I miss about Turkey is pointing out every cat that crosses my path! The country is filled with wild felines, which helped to distract me (a bit) from missing my own kitties back home. Below is a black cat just like mine, taking a quiet moment to clean himself. I love how I captured the light at this moment.
Then there was the food. Turkey jumped to the top of my list for favourite travel food (behind Japan, but tied with Italy). For our first lunch we had juicy kebabs – a beef kofte wrapped in eggplant and a lamb kofta with pistachios. I loved both, and swore then and there that I would consume nothing but kebobs for the next two weeks. This vow didn’t last long however, as Turkey had so much amazing food to offer!
In the afternoon we bit the bullet and stood in a long line to check out the Basilica Cistern, a creepy, never-ending subterranean structure also commissioned by Emperor Justinian. Built in 552 it is Istanbul’s largest surviving Byzantine cistern and is constructed using 336 columns.
Cavernous and atmospheric, we took our time trying to capture the endless rows of columns. I could help but think what a perfect set this would be to shoot a horror film! Something like The Descent meets Dark Water. The possibilities are endless!
Many of these columns were salvaged from ruined temples, like this Medusa capital below.
For our first dinner in Turkey, we took the Lonely Planet recommendation for the Ahirkapi Balikcisi fish house. Conveniently located right beside our hotel, this small, unassuming restaurant was a neighbourhood gem. From the bread, to the eggplant to the fish – everything was so fresh and simple, my mouth waters now thinking of that meal. We also discovered the popular Turkish drink, Raki. Mixed with water, this light, anise-flavoured, unsweetened drink is similar to Ouzo or Sambuca – but much more addictive because, as we quickly discovered, it pairs well with everything!