A trip to Byzantium/New Rome/Constantinople/Istanbul

As alluded to, we spent the last week of 2008 trompsing around Istanbul.  Why Turkey?  We had one more SWU to use on American and wanted to go as far as possible on it to soak up all the business class goodness but Asia was way expensive and Western Europe not far enough.  Istanbul was a good compromise, straddling two continents and with a favorable exchange rate (though see my previous post).  I’ll recap in detail but here are some general notes:

Timing/Itinerary
We arrived on Christmas night and left early on New Year’s Day, giving us 6 full days in Istanbul.  We never left the city and wasted no time in exploring the city, and it was still barely enough time to see all of the sights we wanted.  Even though the weather was shite (cold and some form of precipitation every day) and I was sick most of the trip, I was really glad we went at that time of year.  We’d love to explore Turkey’s coastline and countryside in summer, now we can return in warmer weather and be satisfied that we’ve “done” the must-see spots in Istanbul.  Also, I can’t imagine how hatefu and touristy the city is in summer; it was great to not fight crowds and the few times there were a lot of tourists (Blue Mosque rant TK), it was a far cry from what I hear high season is like.  I did feel like I “missed” the holidays this year, being in a Muslim country for Christmas (although the Turks are crazy about Santa) and our return flight was so early we missed ringing in the New Year, which was good and bad in its own right.

Language and Background
As one of my colleagues warned me, there is no inheirent logic in the Turkish language.  Unlike romance languages where you can often figure out the translation, Turkish may as well be Greek (ba dum dum).  Thank you is  Teşekkür ederim and please is Lütfen and I could never remember them.  As much as I tried to study pronunciation guides, I was utterly hopeless in Turkish, as one time I tried to order a meatball (kofte) sandwich and got a cup of coffee (kahve).  No matter, nearly everyone speaks English.  Also, it is a good idea to study up on some history before you go, as it will provide a lot more context if you understand which sultan was evil or how many changes in culture and religion the city has been through or why everyone loves Ataturk so much (seriously, the man is essentially considered a saint there and I kept looking for some secret sinister side but have yet to find anything).  I’ll admit I’m not always a history buff, but the Ottoman Empire, is hell cool, people.  I found the history in the Frommer’s guidebook to be a lively read and sufficient to provide background, and after my trip I read Orhan Pamuk’s excellent memoir.

Guidebooks (or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Rick Steves)
I admit, for years I had made fun of Rick Steves and his fanny pack followers, associating him with the kind of tips I used to read in Budget Travel magazine (note: it’s changed a lot now and now it’s my fave travel mag) like make sure you have a kettle in your Paris hotel room so you can make Cup o’ Noodles to save on cash.  Then I picked up his Portugal guide at the library and learned the err of my ways.  Okay, so he’s not exactly on the pulse of nightlife or shopping, but his museum tours are awesome and often tell you ways to beat crowds by doing a tour backwards or something.  But enough about my new boyfriend Rick, I also loved Frommer’s, as it also has a voice.  Too many guidebooks take a generic tone but Frommer’s has a point of view and an opinion; it will often tell you if something is overrated but why you might want to check it out anyway.  I found this also to be the case with their Buenos Aires guide and will seek out their guides in the future.  I should have known that my other travel boyfriend Arthur Frommer would produce a quality product.  Other books?  Feh, feh, Lonely Planet.  Fine as always.  I took a LUXE guide (one of my clients) and while many of the shopping and dining entries were out of my league, the walking tours were great, the reviews spot on, the format easy to carry, and many of the recommendations were not in any other book, including several museums and mosques. Note to self: my theoretical future guidebook series will have information such as how long it takes to get TO the airport for your trip home (why does no one have this?!).

Tea (aka Cay, pronounced like Chai)
I don’t have much to say about the food as general note, it’s quite good but it’s so varied it would be silly to generalize.  Except maybe the fact that I was surprised how little hummus was available.  Anyway, I would like to comment about how much I loved the whole tea culture.  The tiny glasses, the sugar cubes, the men who carry trays of tea around town to give everyone their fix, it’s all neat.  One day I did notice how strong it was when I had a few glasses in quick succession on an empty stomach and felt like a strung-out rock star.  But it was a great ritual to go have a tea break while walking around all day to quickly warm up, very civilized.  We’ve had similar cerveza breaks when visiting many Latin American countries, but that tends to be less, er, productive.

That’s all for now, I’ll be back with hotel info and reviews…

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