Istanbul 1

Sunday 24th April 2011, Istanbul, Turkey
Well here we are. We've made it to the nearest campsite to Istanbul. It will do for tonight but really we will need to sort something else out if we are to see the city rather than spend our time here commuting on the bus and walking long distances to get back to the campsite. It's expensive and with the cost of fares it wouldn't cost much more to stay in the city, if only we can sort out something safe for Modestine.

So far we've seen very little of Turkey apart from the main route leading from the Greek/Turkish border. What we've seen is rather dismal and quickly sapped our enthusiasm for beginning a new adventure here. The roads are badly surfaced and broken while no matter where the eye looks, there is rubble and rubbish along either side of the road. Houses and flats are scattered haphazardly beside the dual carriage way while to reach the other side people must climb over the central reservation crash barrier. Children, dogs, women and workers wander across or stand chatting on the roadside. There are quite a few battered carts around, loaded with peasant families, pulled by weary looking horses. They move slowly along the hard shoulder of the highway, often with small children running alongside.

Villages along the way have been ugly and functional. Nothing looks older than a few years and many buildings are unfinished, with the notable exception of the mosques with their tall minarets. Everything we've seen today makes Turkey look like a very untidy building site. Meanwhile, out in the boring, treeless countryside, fields are littered with the torn remains of plastic bags and the verges are full of drinks bottles.

Today the roads were quiet. Yesterday was Independence Day and the evidence remains in the number of red flags with a white star and crescent moon and the large portraits of Kemal Atatürk we have seen draped in front of buildings today.

Welcome to Turkey

The most interesting part of the day has probably been crossing between Greece and Turkey. We went through five different border controls. All wanted our passports, Modestine's registration document and our green card.

Turkish border police are rather unfriendly people who smoke continuously on duty, blowing it into our faces and working with the speed of arthritic snails. They shout at us and gesticulate, sending us round in circles visiting different sections to get passports stamped, pay them some money for visas, get the passport stamped again to prove ownership of Modestine etc. I gather I have temporarily imported Modestine and cannot leave Turkey without her. You see why I'm particularly anxious to find somewhere safe to leave her while we visit Istanbul!

We've not seen anywhere to get Turkish money yet and haven't really worked out what their lirasi (tl) is worth. We stopped at a fuel station, which has to double as a rest area and toilet stop. Impossible to use the toilet though as we had no Turkish currency. Our credit card was okay for fuel but we couldn't really use it to spend a penny! Nobody we have met so far speaks any English. I had to draw the number of litres of diesel I needed with my finger in the dust on Modestine's side as there is no such thing as self-service here. (First though, I had to work out which pump was diesel! It's called "Motorin"). We then had our windscreen forcibly washed for us and had the embarrassment of being unable to pay for it!

Right down the centre of the bumpy and cracked duel carriageway is a deep gully. Obviously quite a few vehicles have ended up in it and they are gradually fixing crash barriers. There are houses and villages along either side, cut in two by the route. There are very few turn-offs and if you miss your exit it's a long time before you can turn round. We missed ours and drove almost to the outskirts of Istanbul before I could work out a way back! And it's all so UGLY everywhere. Our route has been following the north coast of the Sea of Marmara. It looks lovely on the map and sounds so exciting, with Asia on the far side. It's neither lovely nor exciting. Just filling stations, builders' yards, horrid concrete hotels and enclosed holiday complexes that I'd want to be paid serious money before I'd stay even a night in one.

Our first glimpse of the Sea of Marmara

Once we reached here we were welcomed by Ismail, the warden and joined a little convoy of three Slovenian 4x4s with sleeping accommodation on their roofs. This evening temperatures are expected to drop to 2 degrees and we are using the fan heater in Modestine. The eight Slovenians are shivering in the kitchen area drinking their own red wine from a jerry can to while away the evening. They invited us to join them and were really very friendly people. However, after a glass of their home produced red wine, we made our escape before they could top us up! We very much appreciated the gesture but our stomachs couldn't cope with the roughness of the wine. Their vehicles are better suited to the potholes of Eastern Europe but they envy us Modestine. They told us she looked "exotic". They had planned to go as far as Syria but with the present troubles there they are revising their programme.

Last night we fell asleep to the sound of the Greek priest chanting away until midnight when Easter officially began and fireworks exploded all over Alexandroupoli. Tonight, out in the countryside around Istanbul, we can hear the Turkish imam at the top of his minaret somewhere calling the faithful to the mosque. Both are preferable to the ceaseless barking of dogs we can expect once we reach Bulgaria and Romania.

We've still not had a chance to get any Turkish money so it might prove interesting paying for the campsite in the morning. Hopefully they will accept euros.

Monday 25th April 2011, Istanbul, Turkey
This evening we have returned to the same campsite with our tail between our legs. This morning we'd left Ismail with a handful of euros and departed, expecting to find a hotel for a few days somewhere between Selimpaşa and the centre of Istanbul where we could leave Modestine and catch the bus or metro in to the city. This campsite, the nearest to the centre, is some fifty kilometres out and eight kilometers along a rutted, broken road from the bus route, so it's impractical to say the least.

We have discovered that nobody, except stupid west European campervanners, attempts to arrive in this fashion and therefore there are no hotels along the route waiting to welcome them. Even along the coast road we found nothing except blocks of flats catering for mass tourism wedged between the sea and the multi-lane highway into the city.

The Turkish driver is really good at doing two things. He knows exactly how to use his accelerator pedal and his horn. It's a completely different driving technique from the west and it scares me rigid – or it would if I had the chance, but I've been too busy weaving between buses, lorries, cars and pony carts. Speed limits exist to be ignored. There is no chance to double back if you miss the turn-off and they come up on you very suddenly – long before we've had chance to work out the Turkish names and where they are on our inadequate maps. All the road signs are only in Turkish and by grim experience I now recognise Stop, One way, Low bridge and Motorway traffic only. This last landed us at the toll booth requiring an electronic swipe card to take the motorway between Edirne and Ankara. We didn't even want to go that way but could not turn round. The cheapest card cost us about £10 – valid for 3 trips, none of which we want to take but there was nothing else we could do.

Local traffic crossing the highway at Selimpaşa

Still searching for somewhere safe to park and with distended bladders, we turned into a business park near the airport. Metal spikes stuck up in the road. If we went over them we couldn't get back. We stopped short, and every car driver in Istanbul hooted me continuously, but I was past caring and made them wait while I turned round. It's all noise really; they seem quite friendly, often giving thumbs-up signs of appreciation to Modestine who certainly looks incongruous amidst the battered assortment of vehicles to be seen here.

Eventually we found ourselves in a large and pleasant car park set in a landscaped park area near the metro link into town and close to a smart modern complex of restaurants and Starbucks coffee lounges that were anything but Turkish in character. Inside we found the cleanest western-style toilets we've seen outside of Austria. They even had revolving self-sanitising seats!

So exhausted were we, and so relieved to stop driving at last that we had no strength left to fight the persistent waiters who could spot tourists a mile off and virtually forced us to sit down and eat what they decided we wanted. "Nice Turkish pizza and coca-cola"! We did scream and make a bid for the exit at that but were forced back and offered salad, kebab and mineral water instead. It was overpriced, boring and disappointing but it gave me strength to cope with facing the mayhem of the Istanbul traffic again.

Back at the car park we discovered two young security guards peering in at Modestine's windows. "Beautiful" they cried, patting her sides. We showed them inside and, bless them, their eyes were round with delight. They spoke no English as we tried to ask if it was okay leaving her there while we looked for a hotel. They laughed, pointing to Modestine and repeating "hotel, hotel!" They then pointed to their badges saying "security". I really think they would have let us sleep there in her while they guarded her! They were still standing beside her when we returned from an unsuccessful attempt to find anywhere to stay at less than 265 Euros a night. Why do they charge in Euros when they use Lirasi? Usefully for us, there are about 240 Kuruş (100 make a Lirasi) to the £ so I think of them as old pennies. (A trip on public transport at 1.75tl is therefore 14s 7d in old money!)

So we've been driving all day in the most dreadful of conditions and haven't even reached the main centre of Istanbul. What we've seen today has been something most tourists would never experience – the everyday lives of the people who live here. Not just the drivers on the chaotic roads, but the people who live out their lives along the sides of Istanbul's arteries. Service roads run alongside, full of ruts and potholes. Building work, road works, dust and rubble are everywhere. Many buildings are half finished and everywhere looks dilapidated.

Clearly a city of 15-20 million requires a different strategy to attack than little places like Amboise or Weimar. Not knowing what to do for the best we returned back to this campsite to lick our wounds and think out another plan to overthrow the Ottomans and capture their stronghold. Constantinople may yet fall a second time!!

We stopped down in the town of Selimpaşa to buy bread and a few things for supper. Scruffy as it undoubtedly is we really liked it. It's a town untouched by tourism. Visitors would rarely end up there and we were obviously a curiosity but people smiled and were helpful. We've yet to meet anyone who speaks English but we manage. At least we can say thank you. Mercifully it's mersi, sounding just as in French. Indeed there are lots of French words here and we can work out quite a few written signs, though rarely anything useful. Bus though is Otocar and ticket is Bilet so all we need to do tomorrow is work out where to buy a bilet for the otocar to Istanbul and our troubles will be over.

Selimpaşa feels comfortable and safe. It's bustling, dusty, untidy, with broken steps and pavements. Men sit on park benches with nothing to do, women do the shopping and then return home for the rest of the day. Every other shop is a hardware store selling buckets and brooms. Butchers sell halal meat, there are stalls of fresh vegetables on street corners and several sticky cake shops selling goodies stuffed with nuts and oozing with syrup and honey. Cars clutter the streets and some seem to have been parked for a little longer than it takes to buy a loaf of bread.

And not even a parking ticket! Selimpaşa

There are several old, abandoned Turkish houses down towards the harbour. The top floor is constructed from wood. Most are now abandoned but we've seen a couple that have recently been restored. We also discovered a couple of stone Turkish fountains and the marble washing area with taps for people to clean themselves before attending the mosque.

Decayed grandeur, Selimpaşa

Decayed Turkish house, Selimpaşa

Restored Turkish residence, Selimpaşa

Fountain, Miladi (AD) 1828, Selimpaşa

Mosque and minaret, Selimpaşa

Washing facilities at the mosque, Selimpaşa

The harbour itself is a pleasant area where men nodded to us in a very friendly way as we passed them cleaning the paintwork on their boats. Gulls and cormorants bobbed on the water while beyond the harbour the coast of the Sea of Marmara stretched away towards Istanbul.

Harbour at Selimpaşa

In Selimpaşa I was one of the very few women not wearing a headscarf and an ankle-length black coat. These ladies all look exactly the same to me. They all walk slowly with a sort of rolling gait. Rarely here though have we seen anybody veiled. I began to feel very conspicuous in jeans and a green jacket with my head uncovered. At the internet shop I also felt uncomfortable. Inside it's a man's world. Boys play war games while older men congregate there to chat and fiddle with their worry beads. While working on our own tiny laptop, loading up our blog, I counted twenty men while I was the only woman. (I also imagine I was the only woman in Selimpaşa who'd driven a camper van from England and spent the day racing it around the road infrastructure of Istanbul.)

Bother, Ian's just told me Florence Nightingale's lamp is in Istanbul but we cannot see it as it's held in a military area and we need to apply in advance! Gutted!

Tuesday 26th April 2011, Istanbul, Turkey
YES!! Constantinople has fallen! It proved unequal to the combined forces of our determination and the co-operation of Istanbul's transport infrastructure.

We drove down to Selimpaşa where we left Modestine, and with the aid of one of the elderly gentleman who frequents the bench near the bus stop and held up the bus for us as we hurried along, we were soon heading along the five lane highway towards the capital. Surprisingly, I actually enjoyed the one hour ride now I wasn't driving and could watch the mayhem taking place in each direction with awe. Was I really out there doing that yesterday? We realised too, just how far in to the centre we'd travelled before finding an escape route.

Multi-lane highway into Istanbul

It took over two hours to reach the old city with the palaces and mosques and involved changing from the bus to the metro and finally the tram. At each change we had to crack how to buy tickets and work out our route simply by observing everybody else. Machines provide plastic disks called jetonlar which operate the turnstiles leading to the platform. Whenever we needed to change transport we had to discover where the connecting link might be – the tram was several streets away over bridges crossing several lanes of traffic.

Public toilets are clustered around the mosques but as there are so many mosques there is usually one somewhere nearby. They are managed by men in a little booth who charge you "30 pence" to go to a tiled cubical. The toilet has no seat or paper, indeed no loo or chain even! Just a hole with a jug and a tap to fill and flush. But it's getting late and I'm exhausted from all day on my feet so let's cut to the culture.

We spent most of the day in the Sultanahmet area, the core of the old town. It is named after the mosque that the architect Mehmet Aga built for Sultan Ahmet in 1609. It is known as the Blue Mosque because of it rich decoration of blue Iznik tiles – there are over 20,000 of them. The exterior with its minarets was magnificent when seen from the long esplanade which was once the Roman hippodrome, complete with an Egyptian obelisk and other antiquities. We just had time to visit before it closed for prayer. At the entrance we removed shoes and I wrapped up in a headscarf. It felt quite luxurious walking in socks on the thick-piled carpet. The interior was vast with the decorated dome supported on four massive columns.

Blue Mosque, Istanbul

Blue Mosque, Istanbul

Blue Mosque, Istanbul

Interior of the Blue Mosque, Istanbul

Detail of tiling inside the Blue Mosque, Istanbul

Everywhere was crowded of course and surprisingly, there were no restrictions on photographs. As we came out worshippers were washing their feet in preparation for midday prayers and we were able to remain in the courtyard with its central fountain. Tucked around the mosque are traditional timbered buildings, some of them in poor repair but others brightly painted and in use as souvenir shops.

Traditional timber house, Istanbul

Restored traditional timber houses, Istanbul

A stroll through these streets brought us to Aya Sofya which we observed from the outside as there were long queues to enter it. The building is considered to be the best example of Byzantine architecture, mosaics and frescos in the world. The present building was constructed for the emperor Justinian in the sixth century and was once the largest enclosed space in the world. On the fall of Byzantium it became a mosque and more recently a museum. It, along with the massive underground water cistern and the aqueduct are amongst the few remnants remaining in the city that date from before the fall of Byzantium in 1453.

Aya Sofya, Istanbul

Baptistry, Aya Sofya, Istanbul

Aya Sofya, Istanbul

Although a part of the precinct of Aya Sofya the mausoleums of the sultans were free to enter and were uncrowded. By chance we recently picked up a dvd on the life and achievements of the 16th century Turkish architect Mimar Sinan. As a young stone mason he'd been drafted into the Ottoman army to work on their roads and bridges. There he picked up engineering skills and was soon singled out for special training once his skill was recognised. He designed several of the most beautiful mosques in the Islamic world as well as public baths, mausoleums and bridges. Several of his best works are to be found in the heart of Istanbul including the mosque of Süleyman the Magnificent and its associated hammam and the Mausoleum of Selim II, all of which we managed to see this afternoon.

Mausoleum of Sultan Selim II, built by Mimar Sinan, Istanbul

Mausoleum of Sultan Selim II, built by Mimar Sinan, Istanbul

Entrance to the Mausoleum of Sultan Selim II, built by Mimar Sinan, Istanbul

Besides Selim's mausoleum, richly decorated with tiles, we visited those of Ahmet and Murad III.

Mausoleum of Sultan Ahmet, Istanbul

Decorated dome of the mausoleum of Sultan Ahmet, Istanbul

Mausoleum of Sultan Murad III, Istanbul

The tombs of the sultans and their families, covered in deep green fabric, some with royal topknots, were very simple in contrast with the lavish decoration. At each mausoleum we removed our shoes and walked around on the thick carpet. All were colourfully tiled and decorated with domed roofs beneath which lay up to fifty sarcophagi of the Ottoman dynasties. As we went to enter the one built by Sinan somebody pushed in front and went to enter wearing his shoes. The guard shouted and pulled him back to remove them. Later inside he asked us to take his photo in front of the tombs and was amazed when we said we didn't think it appropriate. Ian explained that generally there are no depictions of people or animals in Islamic art so it could be considered insensitive or worse to take holiday pictures of people standing inside one of Sinan's masterpieces alongside the coffins of the Sultan's family. The young man snapped back that we didn't need to tell him about Islam as he was Iranian and he wanted his photo taken. We told him in that case he'd best find someone else to take it for him.

Nearby is the Yerebatan Sarnici, an immense water cistern dating from the 6th century, built by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian. It lies below the streets, huge and eerie in the darkness. The 336 supporting marble columns with their Corinthian capitals rise from the clear water where huge fish are swimming. Illumination comes from orange glowing lights at the bases of the columns. The cistern is 140 metres long and 70 wide. The cistern was fed via the Roman aqueduct carrying water from the surrounding hills to feed the city's fountains. Incorporated in the structure are a couple of massive Medusa heads, one on its side and one upside down.

Yerebatan Sarnici cistern, Istanbul

Medusa, Yerebatan Sarnici cistern, Istanbul

The cistern supplied water to the Topkapi palace whose gate is guarded by the fountain of Ahmed III, an 18th century structure in what we were amused to lean was Turkish rococo style. The palace was closed today but we were able to wander in the public gardens, a riot of colour with banks of tulips in full flower.

Fountain of Ahmet III,Turkish rococo, Istanbul

Entrance gate to the Topkapi Palace, Istanbul

Topkapi. Ortakapi gate, Istanbul

Atatürk statue in Gulhane Park, Istanbul

Little Turks! Istanbul

Sinan's masterpiece is the mosque he built for Süleyman the Magnificent. Much more sober in decoration than the Blue Mosque it is equally massive and forms part of a much larger complex which includes the mausoleum of the sultan and Sinan's own tomb in the grounds.
It also includes the Hamman or baths of Süleyman which are still operating. For 35 euros you can enjoy mixed treatment – men and women – where you will be immersed, cleaned and scrubbed then massaged by a male masseur. The setting of course, in Sinan's 16th century masterpiece, would be magnificent.

Suleymaniye Hamam, Istanbul

At Süleyman's mosque we joined other people to sit on the grass for a rest. We also drank our individual flasks of tea we'd brought with us. A worried guard came up to ask what we were drinking and smiled with relief when we said tea. That's okay but there are really strict rules concerning alcohol in the vicinity of the mosques.

Mosque of Süleyman the Magnificent, built by Mimar Sinan, Istanbul

Mosque of Süleyman the Magnificent, built by Mimar Sinan, Mirab, Istanbul

Having visited several of the city's major mosques we made our way towards the Grand Bazaar, reputed to be the largest covered bazaar in the world. It was crowded with tourists and carpet sellers. Personally I found it a disagreeable experience. Whenever we paused for any reason we were pounced upon and urged to buy carpets, perfumes, ceramics, jewellery, fabrics and foodstuffs. I hate to be rude but if you so much as hesitate you are doomed. As far as carpet salesmen were concerned I found the best tactic was to say we were not interested unless we could fly home on it. Very often it would have been pleasant to look at the goods but the pestering was unbearable. Ian says it's just the way things are done here but it doesn't happen like that outside tourist areas and I resent knowing people are interested in me only for what they can take from me.

Entrance to the Grand Bazaar, Istanbul

Inside the Grand Bazaar, Istanbul

Carpet weaving, Istanbul

So we left having purchased nothing despite being prepared to buy various little gifts. Somehow we ended up in a shabby quarter full of small shopkeepers. One was making tambourines, another hammering copper jugs and incised brass trays, another sold hardware goods and pans. This was much nicer. We'd not eaten and were hungry. We didn't have time to sit to eat and in any case waiters pressed so hard for us to enter their restaurants we couldn't stop to consult any menus. Here though, we found someone selling bread stuffed with hot meat, tomatoes and spices. It was cheap and tasty and the vendor was an old man with a happy smile.

We continued our walk along the pavements which are even more of an obstacle course than those in Greece, past sections of the university and through an archaeological park scattered with columns and remains of the early Byzantine period from which we could see the aqueduct of Valens. We found we were heading gradually back to the metro station and, faced with a long journey, made longer by the rush hour, we decided to call it a day, arriving "home" exhausted but triumphant.

Aqueduct of Valens, Istanbul