Friday, July 31, 2009

Dolmabahce Palace and Sunday Mass in Istanbul

Today is Sunday and I have planned a day out to include Mass at St Anthony, the largest Catholic Church in Istanbul. To prepare for the trip, I bought the Akbil, the electronic ticket that can be used on all the public transport in Istanbul. Here's what it looks like and you press it against the receptacle on the station turnstile and on the buses. This cost 6 lira and is refundable (according to some) but others say it is not refundable. I did not find out since I took my back as a souvenir which I can also lend to friends going to Turkey for a holiday.

Since we'll be moving over to the Erboy Hotel, I got my luggage to the lobby after breakfast where the hotel will arrange to send it over from Oriente Express. From the hotel, we took the tram to Karakoy across the Galata Bridge and then the funicular to Tunel.

We took a casual stroll along Istikalal Caddesi, the main pedestrian shopping street in the new town where the antique tram still operates as a tourist attraction.

St.Anthony is located along this street but we almost missed it since it is hidden behind an apartment facade.

The Mass was in English and the choir members were mainly Filipinos. The singing was good but the acoustic of the church was bad with too much echo. The presiding priest was not too friendly as he did not say any word of welcome to the many tourists who were present at the Mass.

After Mass, we continue along the pedestrian street passing many shops and restaurants before we reached Taksim Square where there were some some Turkish cultural dances.

From here, we took another funicular ride to Kabatas and we walked towards Dolmabahce Palace. As it was near lunch time, we looked for something to eat but could not find any eating place nearby the Palace. I suppose they want to keep the area clean so they kept the food stores away. So we had to walk quite a distance (almost to Besiktas) before we reach an area with shops. Along the way there were many fans of the local football team Besiktas who were making their way to the Besitas Stadium nearby for some celebration since their team had just won the local football league.

We made our way back to the Dolmabahce Palace after our lunch, this time using the bus. There were two guided tours of the Palace and you get a very interesting taste of life within the palace in the glory days of the Sultans.

As we were rather tired after all the walking, we intended to take the tram straight back to the hotel for a rest. But since my wife had not bought what she wanted, we made our way back to the Spice Market. Though it was open, most of the shops around the area were closed, being a Sunday so my wife was rather disappointed.

After a rest at the hotel, we had dinner at the roof-top restaurant of the Erboy. Most of the hotels in the old city have some kind of roof top restaurant that will have a view overlooking the Bosphorus. It was a rather romantic setting and we had another sunset as well but not as beautiful as the one the previous night.

We did some more window shopping after the dinner before we adjourned for bed.

Ronald Kwok

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Back to Istanbul

It was in the morning news that I learned that there was a hot air balloon crash in Cappadocia yesterday morning. This resulted in one death and 9 injured, a shocking news since this was the first such accident in 20 years. And to think that we were there just yesterday morning itself.

Well, today was the last day for the package tour of Turkey and our tour group will head for the airport and home after a visit to the Spice Bazaar in the morning. But my wife and I would be staying back in Istanbul for another 3 nights on our own. So after breakfast, my wife and I bid farewell to our fellow travellers as they took the coach for the Spice Market before going to the airport. We enjoyed the Crowne Plaza for a while longer before we took a taxi to our new hotel since we cannot afford this 5-star hotel for our extended stay.

Instead, I have booked Hotel Erboy, a 3-star hotel that is highly rated for its location and the friendly service from feedback in TripAdvisor. I found the comments to be true, the staff was friendly, especially the guest relation lady. Since I have put down in my booking as going on a honeymoon, I was offered a free upgrade to their sister hotel, the 4-star Oriente Express that was located at the next street for the first night. While waiting, we were given free apple tea which was easily the best so far that I had tasted.

Since it was too early to move into the hotel room, we did some sightseeing first. We made our way to the Suleymaniye Mosque after some shopping along the way. The streets were quite crowded as it was a Saturday. Unfortunately the mosque itself was closed for renovation but we had a look at the garden with the tomb of Sultan Suleyman and also his wife, Roxelana.

On our way to the tomb of Sinan, the great architect of many of Istanbul's mosques and public buildings, we met a Turk giving out "free" cherry drinks. After we had the drinks, he demanded some money and in order not to make a scene, I gave him 5 lira. Later I was told that there are also shoe-shines who gave you a free shine and then demand a high sum of payment. So if you meet someone who gives you some free stuff, be wary and don't mistake this as Turkish hospitality. Generally, the Turkish people are very hospitable and friendly (especially if they are trying to make a sale) but there are those who misuse this and give them a bad name.

Our next stop was the Spice Bazaar which is much smaller than the Grand Bazaar and thus more manageable but no less colourful.

After our lunch, we went back to the Erboy Hotel and the porter took our luggage to the new hotel, the Oriente Express. We were given a room at the top floor with a good view of the Bosphorus. We had more free apple tea (though not as good as the one at Erboy) before we went out for more sightseeing.

We made our way to the busy Eminonu waterfront with ferry services to all parts of Istanbul.

On the way was the old Sirkeci station, the terminus for the famous Orient Express. I was rather disappointed since the station itself was rather gloomy and deserted. Maybe it was the wrong time of the day.

We spent the rest of the afternoon strolling in Gulhane Park (next to the Topkapi Palace) enjoying the greenery and the flowers. Many Turks were doing the same thing since it was a Saturday.

Then we walked the cobbled street of Sogukcesme Sokagi with many pastel coloured wooden houses and took in other sights along the way before we made our way back to the hotel for a rest before we ventured out again for our dinner.

There are many eating places along Hudavendigar Caddesi (where Oriente Express is located)together with many souvenir shops and is certainly more lively than Ebusuut Caddesi where Erboy Hotel is located. For dinner, we had the lamb kebab on a wok that looked similar to the Spanish paella but with much less rice. Hmm, yummy but fattening, look at the amount of oil!

After dinner, we still had enough time to take in the sunset across the Bosphorus at Eminonu at the vintage point of the pedestrian bridge.

When we got back to the hotel, we were pleasantly surprised to find a plate of Turkish Delight waiting on our bed. From our room we had a good view of the Bosphorus Bridge that was lit up at night before we tucked in for our honeymoon.

Ronald Kwok

Friday, July 17, 2009

Salt Lake and Ankara

Today was the second last day of the package tour and we had to make our way back to Istanbul and it was the longest journey so far, a total of 730km on the road. We had to leave early because of the long distance and we could still see some hot air balloons while on our way. Little did we know that a tragedy had occurred earlier in the morning.

Our first stop today was at the great Salt Lake, the second largest lake in Turkey. As its name suggests, it is a great source of salt and salt mining is the main activity around the area.

Surveying for salt....

Found, a solid chunk of salt.

We arrived at Ankara around noon and we went to a restaurant at the main railway station to have our lunch. After lunch, we went to visit the Mausoleum of Ataturk. There were plenty of school children visiting the palce and it was very heart warming to see them paying their respects inside to the founder of modern Turkey.

Exterior of the mausoleum

Ataturk is buried here.

Lonely, I'm so lonely........

The garden overlooking the city

After this, it was a long. long journey back to Istanbul. Since it was a Friday, there was a terrible jam crossing the Bosphorus back into Istanbul. As a compensation, we managed to see the sunset from the bus.

Sunset over Istanbul

This was to be our last dinner of the package tour and it was in a Chinese restaurant in the Taksim area. Because of the jam, we reached the restaurant almost at 9 pm and frankly the food was nothing to shout about but as we were all hungry, the food never tasted so good. The photos on the wall had Jackie Chan as one of the customers and I suppose he did not have much choice in Istanbul!

After dinner, it was back to the comfort of the 5-star Crowne Plaza Hotel in the old city and there's no better place to be in after a long, long journey.

Ronald Kwok

Wednesday, July 15, 2009


In the early hours of the morning, those of us who had opted for the hot-air balloon ride were picked up and went for their early morning tour. I did not opt for this as I found it too expensive and I had chosen instead to extent my stay in Istanbul for three nights for the same cost.

After breakfast, we were driven around the area in Cappadocia and saw some ancient houses built on the face of the hills on our way to the first stop today which was the underground city of Kaymakli.

It was good that we were the first group and had the whole place to ourselves. There were two stretches of tunnels where we had to bend over and were quite narrow. Cannot imagine what would happen if some big size tourist get stuck in between. There are several underground cities in the region and they were all used by the early Christians as hiding place from persecutions by the Romans and other enemies.

After this visit we went to an Onyx factory where the ladies had a field day shopping for their favourite jewellery while the poor men just had to get their credit card on standby!

We had lunch at another cave restaurant where we were served kebab cooked in an earthen jar, something like the style of the Chinese beggar chicken but it was more like beef stew.

After lunch, it was a visit to the open-air museum of Goreme, one of the UNESCO World Heritage sites. Here are stone formations of various shapes and sizes and many of the caves were used as Christian chapels from the 4th century.

Next stop was a carpet factory where they really brought out their ware for all to see but no purchase was done since they were rather expensive.

From the factory we went to a vintage point to view the various rock formations (the fairy chimneys) and for some souvenir hunting.

Next view was the Ice-cream Valley (creamy and yummy) and Uschisar Castle followed by the Pigeon Valley

The final stop for the day was a pottery factory before we went back to our hotel for our dinner.

Ronald Kwok