Capital Pride in Washington D.C.

12 06 2013
Rainbows decorate P Street along the parade route.

Rainbows decorate P Street along the parade route.

It’s June, the month where gay pride festivals pop up in cities and towns all over the United States.  Why June?  Well, on June 28th, 1969 the Stonewall Riots occurred in New York City.  This was the impetus of the gay rights movement in the US and thus June has become the month we celebrate our diversity and culture. This year, I decided to travel to DC and join the party there.  Washington DC is not new to me.  I have made made annual visits four times now, but one item I have not attended is Capital Pride.  So, this was the year I took a gay-cation to my nation’s capital city.

Over the past visits I have made a number of great friends in the area.  This means I have no need to fret about hotels or finding my way around.  I’m not ignorant of public transportation in DC, but one can focus more on the sights and sounds when not having to constantly orient yourself to the nearest bus or metro stop.  Let’s just say that this blog entry will be more about pride than the logistics of travel in and around DC.

Like most gay pride events, Capital Pride is a week-long affair that starts on a Monday and slowly builds to a climax on Sunday evening (pun intended).  I did not arrive until Friday, but I was able to participate in the main events on Saturday and Sunday.

Peace Corps contingent marching in the parade.

Peace Corps contingent marching in the parade.

Saturday was parade day and my friends and I staked out a shady spot along the route about 30 minutes prior to the start time.  It was a sticky hot and humid day, but everyone was in good spirits.  The streets were closed off by the police and so began a mile long swath of colorful floats, marching bands, dancers, and more glitter than a RuPaul gown all weaved through the famously gay Dupont neighborhood.  It seemed that almost everyone was represented.  Participants ranged from the British Embassy, The Peace Corps, many of the local inclusive churches, gay friendly businesses, most of the local clubs and bars, and gay social clubs.  However, one of the highlights for myself was the Grand Marshal Lynda Carter.

Lynda Carter waves to the crowd.

Lynda Carter waves to the crowd.

Yes, Wonder Woman had us all in a big gay tizzy!  We couldn’t get that theme song out of our heads all day.  She looked fantastic flanked by women in Wonder Woman costumes as she rode past us in a pink Ford Thunderbird convertible.  Then after 2 hours and just as suddenly as it began, the last float went by, and the streets were reopened as the hoards of revelers vanished into the many nearby eateries for dinner.  Parades are not something I see very often, but I found this one particularly fun.  Maybe it’s the fact I haven’t done this in several years, or I am in a different mindset now.  Either way, it was an enjoyable and memorable time.

A group performs with flags behind a marching band.

A group performs with flags behind a marching band.

Sunday morning arrived with an overcast sky that I knew wouldn’t last, but gave me hope that the Pride Festival would not be a scorching affair.  You see, the festival on Sunday is held on Pennsylvania Ave, not in a park.  That means hot pavement.  It would be my only complaint regarding the festival.  So with sunscreen applied, camera in hand, and friends in tow, we set out for a day of festivities.

A swarming crowd descends on Pennsylvania Ave for Capital Pride.

A swarming crowd descends on Pennsylvania Ave for Capital Pride.

Entering the event you must go through a gauntlet of people with buckets asking for donations.  I really didn’t mind this since the festival is run on donations and sponsorships.  I dropped my donation in one of them and proceeded to explore the many rainbow clad booths lined up the avenue.  Once again, it seemed everyone was represented.  From the PFLAG guy holding the sign offering “Free Hugs” to the gay rugby team tossing around a ball in the street, it seemed all were there to have a great time and celebrate.  This festival is not unlike many others you’ll see around the country, lots of color, people dressed in costumes and others dressed in their normal attire.  Families pushing strollers and plenty of dogs wearing rainbow bandanas were walked up and down the festival grounds.  Two performance stages provided a plethora of entertainment options.  Everything from folk/country musicians, dance troops, drag, pop, and rock echoed in the background through the entire day from the huge stage speakers.  The festival runs from noon until 8pm when the headliners finish their set.  And just like the ending of the parade, everyone dispersed into the city high on pride.

I would not say DC has the biggest pride, that honor goes to San Francisco and New York, but I will say it was just about right for me.  Good crowds and a great mix of people made it fun without being overwhelming.  It wasn’t as risqué as I have seen at San Fran Pride years ago. Nobody walked around completely naked and there were no porn star booths.  It was more subtle and celebratory than shocking.  I would definitely attend again.

Who would say no to a free hug?

Who would say no to a free hug?





Accidentally Gay in Istanbul

20 05 2013

For My final post on Istanbul I want to cover a more personal topic, homosexuality in Turkey.  When it comes to travel, I am a tourist first and gay second.  The idea of going on a trip simply for gay tourism is rare in my case.  So when I booked my trip to Istanbul it didn’t even occur to me that there might be an opportunity to discover any gay culture in Turkey.  I’m certain that part of this was due to my own predisposed thoughts on the added stigma of being gay in a Muslim country.  Now that stigma isn’t unique to Islam, I have been spurned by Christians many times.  I just didn’t figure there would be much to discover in this arena in Turkey.  Also, I wasn’t sure how safe it would be even if I had found something.  Is that stereotyping?  Probably, but when you are a member of an often denigrated group, you must consider these things.

While doing some web browsing a couple months before my trip I came across an article that listed the top 10 gay travel destinations for 2013.  I was shocked to see Istanbul listed as #1.  Really?  Intrigued, I read through it and discovered that purely by accident I was going to be in Istanbul during the spring IstanBear Fest!  What a crazy coincidence, and thus began a series of web searches looking into the event.  Would I be able to squeeze this in among my other touring desires?  Yep, since I refuse to be structured, I looked at this as something of fate.  I immediately registered for the event.

Istanbul Bears is a relatively small club compared to those in the US, but they are a very close knit group bound out of years of struggle.  The gay community as a whole in Istanbul is somewhat of a fledgling movement when compared to the more progressive Europe, but they are becoming an increasingly more visible group.  There are many gay clubs in Beyoğlu that are becoming quite popular with tourists, but my time was spent with the bears so that is what I will discuss.

A banner hangs at the IstanBear Fest host bar.

A banner hangs at the festival’s host bar.

IstanBear Fest isn’t that much different than other bear festivals I have attended.  It’s an event that is attended by a very international crowd of bears who travel to Istanbul to meet and make friends.  There were nightly parties at the host bar, group gatherings, events at various places around town, and plenty of socializing with lots of drinking.  I met many wonderful people from all over the region.  However, with this event, the difference was subtle but fairly obvious to me.  Sadly, not all of these guys are able to be openly gay in public.  I think too many of us take our ability to be open in public for granted.  Many of these events were in places where the general public would not see them, and a number of guys asked not to have their picture taken and/or requested their faces be blurred out of group pics.  It was a far cry from the open hand holding and kissing that happened when I attended Bears on Ice in Reykjavik last September.  But behind closed doors and away from the prying eyes of those who would hate, these men were wonderfully warm, friendly, and caring.  Those who were fortunate enough to be “out” in Turkey were confident and understanding of those who could not.

Tragically, their history includes the story of a man who has become something of a bear community martyr.  Ahmet Yildiz embraced his homosexuality and even represented his country at a gay scientist at an event in the US.  He was proud to be himself, but this was not something his family would tolerate.  He received multiple death threats from family  members.  His refusal to seek a “cure” for his homosexuality led to his murder at the hand of his father.  They’d rather have him dead than gay.  Here is a more detailed article on Ahmet.  This event galvanized the gay community in Istanbul, and has only served to create a stronger movement towards acceptance.  It’s going to take time, but I believe they are on a solid path.  The struggle in America was brought to the forefront by the Stonewall Riots in 1969, in Turkey it was brought out by the 2008 honor killing of Ahmet Yildiz.  Like American gays in 1969, Istanbul gays still have a long way to go. As members of the LGBT community we can do our part by increasing the gay presence in Istanbul, visiting and spending our money at gay friendly businesses in and around the city.  This will go a long way to help their cause.

I am glad I was able to experience gay Istanbul despite it not being part of my original plan.  Travel is about culture for me and this made my visit much more fulfilling.  Gays do exist in the Muslim world, and regardless of what anyone thinks, they will not fade away or be bullied into deeper hiding.  Killing gays will only serve the opposite effect, we only become stronger through oppression.  We are human, we are brothers, sisters, friends, and loving contributors to society.  We deserve respect and acceptance like everyone else regardless of religion, culture, or race.





Feasting on Istanbul

13 05 2013

Turkish food is more than kebabs even though that’s what you’ll end up eating the most.  Why?  Well, because they are delicious.  I can’t imagine anyone struggling to find good food in Istanbul.  It’s literally everywhere.  Like every major city there are high end choices that will bust your budget, and there are street foods that won’t.  I tried to strike a balance between them, but ended up eating mostly street food.  Sure I had some full service restaurant meals, but the cost, taste, and convenience of street vendors made it just too easy to eat cheap and on the fly.  Besides, the money you save by eating cheaply can be put towards a couple expensive meals later on.

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Chicken kebab at Med Cezir.

Now I talk about research a lot, but researching food is one of the most important things one can do.  I couldn’t possibly take a trip with zero knowledge of the local flavors.  I mostly use Trip Advisor to find highly rated eateries, then I’ll make a list of places to dine but never fully hold myself to it (I refuse to be overly structured when I travel).  Trip Advisor also has several offline city guides that’ll allow any traveler to find restaurants on a GPS equipped smartphone without cel service.  I used the Istanbul guide several times to locate what I felt would be gastronomical wins for me.  Thanks to my planning, I had far more hits when it came to my dining experiences than misses.  So, let me point out the restaurants I’d recommend if you ever visit Istanbul.

  1. Med Cezir was just around the corner from my hotel and the place I dined the most, 4 visits to be exact.  I found the food to be simple yet delicious.  This place is not fancy, it was affordable and reliable, two things I look for in a restaurant.  The service was attentive and the manager enjoys a good conversation with his guests.  My favorite meals there were chicken kebabs and a spicy lamb pidé (something of a Turkish pizza without cheese).
  2. The House Café is located along the famed İstiklal Avenue pedestrian zone.  Their outside seating provides you with a great opportunity to people watch while dining on an eclectic menu of international foods.  So it wasn’t Turkish food, but it was still damn good.  I enjoyed one of their customized lemonades, delicious grilled chicken, and a pear salad.  Reviewers complain about the prices, but I always plan on eating a couple of expensive meals each trip and had no complaints here.
  3. Galata Meyhanesi specializes in mezes, Turkey’s answer to Spain’s tapas.  These little plates of deliciousness are varied and plentiful.  There is also live music and plenty of dancing to be had once the raki has taken hold of you.  Raki is a love or hate alcoholic drink flavored with anise, and since I have a taste for licorice, I found it easy and enjoyable to drink.  On that night, after only a few drinks, I surrendered to the Raki and danced the night away to traditional Turkish music.

    Typical Istanbul food cart.

    Typical Istanbul food cart.

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Slicing lamb for a wrap or pita.

When it comes to eating on the go, Istanbul is filled with tasty offerings.  Among my favorite was the tortilla-like wrap filled with chicken or lamb freshly sliced from a spindle.  They don’t offer much in the way of flavor, but they were hearty.  I was easily filled up for only 4-6TL.  Another favorite of mine was the bagel-like sesame seed covered breads that were sold from small red carts conspicuous throughout the city.  There are actually several types of cart foods one can enjoy in Istanbul.  Vendor carts selling corn-on-the-cob and roasted chestnuts were also quite common.

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Fresh squeezed pomegranate juice was a favorite of mine.

As for the need to quell my thirst, I couldn’t resist buying freshly squeezed pomegranate juice.  Honestly, I have never tried pomegranate juice before this trip.  That changed in dramatic fashion after my first cup, and with those little juice stalls everywhere, I seemed to always have it readily available.  Other prevalent drinks are tea and coffee.  Tea is tea, it’s served hot in a glass and saucer with a sugar cube.  Simple, yet delicious.  Turkish coffee is the more interesting of the two in my opinion.  Served in a small cup with saucer, Turkish coffee is sweet and strong.  The extremely fine ground coffee beans must be allowed to settle before you drink, don’t stir it or you’ll get a mouth-full of what can only be described as coffee mud.  Since you have to let it cool down anyway, time will allow the grounds to rest at the bottom of the cup.  I found it appalling that a country with such an amazing coffee drink was littered with Starbucks everywhere, blasphemy!  If you go to Istanbul and get a coffee at Starbucks then you are no longer my friend, you’ll be perpetuating a western coup of their traditional drink.

Trays of baklava tempted me from nearly every angle.

Trays of tempting baklava.

But I must say that my biggest culinary weakness in Turkey came in the form of layered phyllo dough and crushed nuts all soaked in a heavenly sweet syrup or honey, baklava!  Holy baklava, this stuff was staring at me from every window it seemed.  Calling to me, “come taste another variety and savor another blast of sweetness.”  Once I started eating baklava it became apparent I wasn’t going to stop.  My favorite variety contained crushed walnuts rather than the traditional pistachios, but that favorite was by a narrow margin.  I will never turn away any baklava!  I am all about treating them equally and with dignity right down to the last crispy and syrupy bite.  This desert ruined me forever, no baklava will ever compare to what I had in Istanbul.

Endless mounds of spice at the Egyptian Bazaar.

Endless mounds of spice at the Egyptian Bazaar.

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Turkish coffee served with a small square of Turkish delight.

A great place to pick up and sample baklava is the Egyptian Bazaar (also called known as the Spice Bazaar).  This place is filled with booths selling every possible temptation known in the region.  Dried fruits, nuts, baklava, spices, and even some cheeses are easily sampled and bought here.  Are the prices a little high, yes, but haggle and sample your way to a better deal.  What I didn’t get in the bag was made up for by what I managed to eat for free.

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Basil and pear lemonade from The House Café.

The Spice Bazaar is also a good place to find the famed Turkish delight.  This sugary confection is known for it’s varieties.  It’s not terribly sweet.  In fact, turkish delight has a refreshing light sweetness to it that won’t leave you running for insulin the way baklava can.  Funny, I didn’t eat as much of it as the baklava, but I enjoyed it thoroughly when given the opportunity.

A full month after returning home I still find myself yearning for the wonderful flavors of Istanbul.  One of the ways to extend my taste bud’s satisfaction was to bring some food home.  US Customs will allow prepared and packaged foods without problem.  Your only restrictions are fresh fruits, vegetables, and/or meat.  Knowing this, bought a few boxes of Turkish delight and baklava to share with my friends and family.  Nearly every shop, especially at the Spice Bazaar, has a vacuum pack machine and will gladly seal these items for free.  The best part, none of it requires refrigeration.  Baklava can last for about 7-10 days without refrigeration if it’s kept sealed, and Turkish delight can easily go a month or more.  It was a successful way to ease the withdrawal symptoms of my addicted taste buds.

Damn, here come the cravings again!  Does anyone know a place that serves quality baklava in Denver?





Impressions of Istanbul: Beyoğlu and Asia

6 05 2013

As I said before, Istanbul is a city of contrasts.  A patchwork of both old and new creating a broad mosaic throughout the city.  However, there are three distinct districts most travelers will come to know in Istanbul: Sultanahmet, Beyoğlu, and the Asian side.  This post will discuss my thoughts and impressions of the latter two.

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Fishermen trying their luck on Galata Bridge.

Beyoğlu is situated on the European side just north of Sultanahmet.  Getting there requires crossing the Golden Horn waterway.  Most will utilize the easily accessed Galata Bridge either by tram, taxi, or my preferred method, on foot.  The Galata Bridge is a double level bridge with restaurants on the lower level while hosting traffic and fishermen on the upper, and I do mean a lot of fisherman.  They are literally lined up from one end of the bridge to the other.  I found myself captivated and curious each time one would reel in a fish.  Watching this scene from the upper level was fun, but imagine sitting in a restaurant on the lower level and seeing a fish dance at the end of a line as it seemingly levitates to the fisherman 20 feet above.  It was a strange sight indeed.

The historic underground tram.

The historic underground tram.

Upon crossing the Galata Bridge you have three choices to get where the action is.  You can take the historic Tünel underground tram, taxi, or hike up a very steep series of sidewalks and streets.  I just couldn’t resist the historic and unique Tünel.  It seems like a short ride, but it’s all up hill and I wasn’t about to wear myself out walking up streets with angles that would make even a San Francisco resident cringe.  I will say, regardless of how you get to the top, your reward awaits in the form of İstiklal Avenue.  

A bustling pedestrian zone lined with restaurants, clubs, high street shopping, and sprinkled with historic sites, İstiklal Avenue is where fun loving people want to be in Istanbul after dark.  It quickly became my favorite place to people watch while burning the late night hours away into early morning.  Dissecting the crowds of pedestrians is a lovely old red tram that chugs through the masses.  I enjoyed watching it more than riding it.  Kids would hitch rides on the back while tourists would overcrowd the interior to the bursting point, leaving many hanging on at the entrance barely balanced on a tiny platform of foot room.  It moves at a slow pace, thereby keeping passengers and pedestrians from any real danger, but it was fun to watch as it parted the crowds of people like schools of fish in the sea.

The bustling high street of İstiklal Avenue.

The bustling high street of İstiklal Avenue.

As daylight starts to fade in Beyoğlu the crowds become only slightly less dense and the thumping of dance music starts to overpower the typical sounds of the bustling scene.  It seems every side street is lined with multiple dance clubs.  There is definitely no shortage of fun and partying to be had in Beyoğlu.  Unlike the touristy Sultanahmet with its carpet salesmen and Grand Bazaar, I never once was approached by someone trying to sell me something, and it was refreshing to say the least.

Is İstiklal Avenue the only reason to visit or stay in Beyoğlu?  No, it just happened to be my favorite.  There are plenty of monuments and museums on this side of the city.  However, I never made it to any of them except Galata Tower.  From the top of Galata Tower one is afforded sweeping views of the entire city of Istanbul.  Many feel it’s the first place someone should go to get oriented.  I waited until my final day.  As a photographer, I certainly did want to capture these panoramic images, but I also wanted to wait until I knew what I was seeing and photographing.  I feel it was a great way to say farewell to a city that I had become very aquatinted with over my 8 day visit.

I only graced the Asian side of Istanbul twice.  I’ll admit that I’m really not sure what a tourist would do over there outside of what I went for.  It struck me as a mostly residential and business area, but with my limited time, I will have to save exploring for another trip.  I’m more likely to return and take my time to discover the hidden gems that I’m sure exist, but it wasn’t going to happen on this visit.  My main goal of ferrying to Asia was to photograph Maiden’s Tower at sunset with the minarets of Sultahnamet in the background.

Enjoying a tea with Maiden's Tower in the distance.

Enjoying a tea with Maiden’s Tower in the distance.

Getting across the Bosphorus is not as daunting as one might think.  There are a couple of huge bridges to the north, but they aren’t very practical for tourists.  The best way to make the trip is by ferry.  Taking a ferry is easy, reliable, and there are frequent departures.  Your biggest challenge lies in catching the route you want.  I did my research and determined the best route to get me close to Maidens’ Tower was the Eminönü – Üsküdar ferry.  I kept an eye on the forecast and as it turned out, the only day predicted to be clear enough for a sunset was my last night.  I caught the ferry and walked one kilometer south along the shore to view Maiden’s Tower.  There are several tables down near the water maintained by little shops serving them with tea, coffee, and snacks.  It was quite a pleasant atmosphere to sit back and watch the sun go down over the city while I enjoyed a tea.  It was a wonderful and peaceful atmosphere, a far cry from the hustle of Sultanahmet and Beyoğlu.  A fitting last glimpse of daylight that brought my holiday in Istanbul to a close.

Maiden’s Tower with Beyoglu in the background to the right.

Maiden’s Tower with Beyoğlu in the background to the right

Maiden's tower watching over Sultanahmet.

Maiden’s tower watching over Sultanahmet.





Tips: Book Early or Pay

1 05 2013

I am obsessed and it’s a good thing.  Some guys spend all their time online looking at porn, I spend all my time searching for flights.  I don’t believe it’s unhealthy to try and save money, but I do spend an exceptional amount of time on booking sites searching and looking at prices.  This is especially true when I am in the throws of booking my next big trip.  I see it as a challenge to try and outsmart the airlines and catch them when their fares dip.  It’s a fact of air travel that we all must deal with, prices fluctuate frequently.

There are a lot of tools out there to help you catch tickets in that narrow window when prices drop.  Take a look at Kayak.  It’s a great app that allows you to set up price alerts.  So when the fare starts to drop, you will be in the know.  Of course that means you have to be ready to buy at any given moment.  Having a little vacation savings account stocked and ready to go will help those, like myself, who are on a budget.  So try and start saving money ahead, I don’t even begin looking until I have a nice kitty of cash ready to spend.

The one common thread I have seen consistently is that booking early will often save you money.  Sure there are last minute deals, but are they to the place you actually wanted to visit?  Sometimes, but it’s a real gamble to wait until these deals publish.  I find that booking 7-5 months early has proven to be the best overall pricing.

For example, when I was searching for my upcoming trip to Iceland this September, I booked my complete itinerary on March 10th for $1021.  This price includes round-trip flights from Denver to Reykjavik on Icelandair and 5 nights in a studio with Apartment K.  Six months early seems extreme to many, but doing the exact same search on Expedia today (2 months closer to the trip) yields a price of $1732 for the same accommodations.

The same trip for I booked on March 10th is now $700 more for the same dates!

Ouch!  Now maybe I don’t have to stay at the same place.  If I repeat the search and just choose the lowest priced package near city center (not including hostels or rooms with shared bathrooms) I can book for $1252.  Still more than $200 over what I paid by searching often and booking early.

Are there destinations where it pays off to wait a little bit?  Sure, but it’s definitely not the norm.  Here’s and example from my recent trip to Puerto Vallarta.  I paid $587 for flights and 5 nights hotel that I bought in mid November for mid January travel.  When I started researching this trip I was seeing it fluctuate around $700-750 for a solid two months, but knowing I booked the same hotel in Puerto Vallarta the year before for $615, I knew it could/should get lower.  It dropped around 3 months out and I booked it immediately.

What I want you to see here is a common theme, constant price checking until you feel you’re getting the best deal.

Here’s a short summary-

  • Have the money ready so you can pull the trigger when prices drop
  • Start searching early
  • Be aware the best deal might be a hostel or shared facilities (not my thing, but book what’s right for you)
  • Check other booking sites and compare
  • Consider packages based on the reported discount for booking flight and hotel together.
  • Booking a flight and hotel separate can also be a good thing.  Try using AirBnB (I’ll expand on them in another post)

Be patient.  If you loose a couple dollars waiting for prices to go down, I’ll bet you still get a better deal than if you booked less than 2-3 months out.





Impressions of Istanbul: Sultanahmet

28 04 2013

Vibrant, friendly, eclectic, and beautiful are adjectives that all come to mind when I look back at my trip to Istanbul.  The city has it all.  You can tour a 1,500 year old cathedral converted to a mosque then a museum, the famed Hagia Sophia, and within minutes be in the hustling modern pedestrian zone lined with nightclubs and high end shops of Taksim.  Yes, if you can’t find something to love in Istanbul then you didn’t open your eyes.  This city makes it impossible to get bored.

The turks are a mixed people and exceedingly friendly.  They came from everywhere.  Over the course of centuries, trade or conquering empires brought these people here to establish what was, many times throughout history, regarded as the capital of the world (I’ll save you the history lesson).  Each new group brought their own style thus creating a melting pot of people at the crossroads of Europe and Asia.  Is it perfect?  No, but no destination ever is.  The key is to see through the bullshit and appreciate a place for what’s at it’s core.  Sure a trip to Istanbul with a schedule and itinerary will leave you with a content.  It’s the time one spends getting to know the city that turns content into love.  If you are going to love a place, then you have to accept it for the good and bad.  It’s a package deal just like marriage.

With that said, I’ll list list some of my highlights and a short commentary on each, both good and bad.  I’m not going to post a “must do” list, to be honest, I hate them.  All they do is present an unattainable itinerary of rushing from place to place just to get it all done.  “Well the book said this must be seen (or done).”  I don’t care what any travel author or book tells you is a “must see”, that doesn’t make it right for you or your vacation.  Travel must have balance.

View of Hagia Sophia Museum from the square's fountain.

View of Hagia Sophia Museum from the square’s fountain.

This post will focus on the old city of Sultanahmet, and like the rest of Istanbul, it’s a place of contrasts.  Sultanahmet Square includes the tourist staples of Hagia Sophia, Basilica Cistern, and the Blue Mosque.  They are definitely places to behold, words like ancient and wondrous come to mind.  The square between them provides a beautiful view of each monument centered by a large fountain.  Touring and photographing these buildings was amazing.  However, I found myself really enjoying the views from the square almost more than the interiors.  Nearly every day I took a small lunch to a bench in the square.  I’d eat, listen, and just sit back taking in the view.  Tulips were blooming, children were playing, and venders were selling.  It all created a beautiful vibrant and memorable scene.

Life in the shadow of the Blue Mosque from Sultanahmet Square.

Life in the shadow of the Blue Mosque from Sultanahmet Square.

However, that brings me to my one and only complaint or annoyance I have of the area.  The carpet/rug salesmen drove me nuts.  It works like this:  I walk through the square (obviously a tourist since I can’t hide my camera) and get approached by a man who immediately compliments me on something.  Well they’ve apparently learned the flattery will get you everywhere.  He proceeds to strike up friendly conversation, offers a cigarette/gum, or proceeds to give you an impromptu tour of the place you’re walking to.  These guys ask lots of questions.  You know, “where are you from?”, “oh I have a (insert any relative here) that lives there.”, the conversation continues now that they have manufactured something you have in common.  Over the next few minutes you get the inevitable proposal, “My brother has a shop nearby and I’d love to give you my card.  No obligation, just look and have some tea, my friend.”  This scenario played out 3-4 times before I figured out it was something I could not escape in the Sultanahmet area.  I realize they need to make a living and need to point out their shop among the hundreds of shops, they are friendly/harmless men,  but I told them repeatedly I wasn’t interested and not in Istanbul to buy.  Regardless, most will persist despite all my polite attempts to encourage them not to waste their time on me.  I’d say to little avail, “While you’re talking to me, you are missing a customer who will buy.”  Eventually they do give up and walk away.  I’ll even admit a few of them actually got me into a shop or two, but nothing was ever bought and I politely declined the tea that would have only kept me there longer.  Accepting the fact that they were something I’d just have to deal with, I eventually just turned it into a game of cat and mouse.  I set a goal of walking from end to end of the square without being approached.  I only won my little game twice.

The imposing symmetry of the Blue Mosque.

The imposing symmetry of the Blue Mosque.

All of that was during the daytime, Sultanahmet is entirely different at night.  It’s well lit and very peaceful.  I never once felt unsafe during the many late night strolls I took to admire the glowing monuments and watch the locals take their families out for a walk.  Since my hotel was only a block away, when I caught a taxi back at night, I’d tell the driver to just drop me at the square.  I never got tired of the peaceful night scene.  One night at around 1am I was literally the only person there, it was magical!

Other places of note near Sultanahmet include the Grand Bazaar.  It’s the world’s oldest longest running marketplace.  It’s also the best place to get ripped off by high mark-ups and badgering salesmen.  I went, but I left my money and credit card at the hotel just in case something tempted me or I fell under the spell of a convincing vendor.  There are many other places where you can buy what you seek at the bazaar without the headache or mark-ups.  This is not just my opinion, Google it or read this write-up on The Other Tour’s site.  The article might be a bit blunt and vulgar, but it shows the distaste even locals have for the Grand Bazaar and the business practices used there.

A visit to a hamam is the one thing I will tell you that should be done.  Don’t squeeze it in amongst your crowded itinerary.  Make it a priority!  Between Hagia Sophia and the Grand Bazaar is the Cemberlitas Hamami.  It’s a beautiful and old place that dates back to the 1500’s.  Turkish baths are a one of a kind experience of relaxation and massage; you will leave feeling clean and refreshed.  The key to this hamam is the hours it’s open.  It can be quite crowded thanks to it being in Sultanahmet, but since they open (when I was there) at 6am and close at 11pm making it easy to avoid other tourists.  I went at 9:30pm and had the entire place to myself.  It was surreal.  I felt like a sultan enjoying the spoils of my kingdom without interruption.  I relaxed in the hot steam, received a hand washing from the attendant, and listened to the running water echo off the marble walls and dome.  Yes, I was the sultan for an hour.

Last, if you are a museum junkie, Sultanahmet is home to the Istanbul Archeological Museum and Topkapi Palace.  I only went to one of them, the Archeological Museum.  I’ll spare you a detailed description, but it housed some very old and interesting artifacts from the Babylonian period.  I never made it to Topkapi Palace.  I walked the grounds, but never went inside.  Did I miss something most would consider a “must see”?  Perhaps, but I am at peace with it.  I have another reason to go back, and I wasn’t pressed for time while touring.  What I saw was absorbed fully.  I prefer to avoid seeing everything but not actually getting to know anything.  I know Sultanahmet, I didn’t just see it.

In my next post I’ll discuss my take on the opposite side of Istanbul, Taksim and Beyoglu.

The Blue Mosque interior provides an eruption of color for the eyes.

The Blue Mosque interior provides an eruption of color for the eyes.

One of many ornate column capitals supporting the Hagia Sophia.

One of many ornate column capitals supporting the Hagia Sophia.

Lighting inside Hagia Sophia.

Lighting inside Hagia Sophia.





Why not Istanbul?

23 04 2013

I have travelled much more extensively than most people I know, but when it comes to choosing a new destination I still have plenty of places to decide on.  I try not to repeat destinations, there is still so much to be seen before I do that.  So last September (I like to book early), I started searching for a spring vacation.

The process for me always starts with a map of the world.  I will zoom in and zoom out, look at pictures and climate until something strikes me.  Then I start doing some research.  Is it safe?  What is the weather like when I intend to visit? Is it affordable?  What will I do there?…These are the questions I ask myself each time I settle on a destination.  Affordability is the main factor for me as a solo traveler, I don’t have someone to share the hotel cost with.  Safety (unless it’s a war zone) can be handled with some light reading of State Department warnings and using some good old fashioned smarts and savvy while on a trip.  What I do at a destination varies, but something has to peak my interest.

So that lead me to Istanbul.

Why?  I loved seeing images of the skyline dotted with minarets.  I was intrigued by the history of a city at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, and for centuries the capital of powerful empires.  Istanbul presented a city of diverse cultures with the blending of both old and new world charm.  This city shouted culture, history, and photography at me.  As a bonus, my early research proved Istanbul a good fit in spring with both rain and sun, but overall not freezing cold or too hot for my taste.  Spring is also their shoulder season (this means it’s between the high/low tourist seasons.  Crowds are much more tolerable during these times of year, but the weather is mild enough to bring travel bargains).  Yes, when Istanbul popped up, I was hooked.  Would it be affordable?  I typically book through Expedia (not a plug, I just like their interface and verified customer reviews), and after a couple of quick searches and I was confident I could afford this destination.

Over the next several days I combed through hotels and reviews.  I knew that I wanted to stay in the Sultanahmet area near the major monuments and museums, so I filtered them down by guest review scores and location (often looking reviews vs. number of reviews.  For example, a 5/5 star review that is the only review for a hotel is not enough information for me to feel confident, but a 4.1 review score from 30 reviewers is a good sign.  I’m also not paying as much attention to the hotel’s star rating.  I have stayed at many 2 and 3 star hotels and been quite satisfied, it’s the customer’s responses that mean more to me).  So with that, I settled on my hotel.  A little boutique hotel a block from Sultanahmet Square for 8 nights including my round-trip flights from Denver for $1420!  I think that was a steal.

I booked it, and thus began the long 6 month wait occupied by a few hours of research and planning.

View of Sultanahmet and Maiden’s Tower at sunset from the Asian side of Istanbul.

View of Sultanahmet and Maiden’s Tower at sunset from the Asian side of Istanbul.