Travel Heaven and Hell

Yesterday was a gorgeous day in Istanbul. 22C and sunny. We packed our stuff, had breakfast and the Hotel Niles stored the cases in their luggage room for us. They had a yellow taxi (ordinary taxi) booked for us for 3 but until then we were out enjoying Sunday in the city.

It was very quiet when we set out at about 930. Many shops were closed and the streets were very quiet – very different from normal. Our first stop was the Great Palace Mosaic Museum which is adjacent to Sultanahmet Square. We’ve been to it before but I wanted to see the mosaics again. I’m extremely fond of Roman mosaics pavements and floors. I love them.

It was about a 15 minute walk from our hotel. The museum is just off the Arasta Bazaar, in the Blue Mosque area. We were quite thirsty and the sun was so nice we decided to sit a while at an open air cafe and have some apple tea. We’ve become addicted to that. Shops were beginning to open and people appear so we hastened on to the museum.

When Constantine 1 relocated the capital of the Roman Empire to Byzantium (Constantinople – Istanbul), he built a great palace in the area now known as Sultanahment- Topkapi. It was enlarged over the years and probably consisted of a series of pavilions built in terraces down to the sea. It was sacked in the 6th Century and rebuilt by Justinian 1 and was used and enlarged up until the 11th Century, when it fell into disrepair and was demolished and built over by the current buildings and mosques. Excavations in the 20th Century have revealed parts of it, in particular a large section of what was a huge mosaic pavement surrounded by a peristyle. The pavement had a surface area of 1872 m² and was covered by mosaic scenes of great artistry depicting nature, mythical creatures, people performing everyday tasks. The work is of the highest quality and artists from around the empire would have been brought here to create it. The pavement as excavated (much more lies under mosques and cannot be excavated) has been preserved in the small Mosaic Museum. It is viewed from above largely and well worth a visit. Admission is 60tl (£3). Part of the fascination with mosaics is what you can learn about life from the pictures and a pavement like this which had a public audience is interesting in that the scenes depicted would need to be recognisable to the public without interpretation. So, the animals we see – bears, lions, tigers, elephants, wild boar, deer and antelopes, horses, camels, donkeys, dogs, monkeys – must have been widely recognisable by then. We enjoyed our visit very much.

After that we wandered around the lovely and colourful side streets on that side of Sultanahment square. It was already crazy crowded in the actual square. We found ourselves outside the Yesil Ev, the old Ottoman mansion turned hotel where we’d stayed on that first visit to Istanbul in 2000. We went in and had a look. It has been closed for renovation for some years and is now managed by Hilton and called Yesil Ev, the Agia Sofia Mansions. It was still very recognisable from our stay although some of the downstairs area which had been lounge has been turned into 2 more bedrooms. Our suite on the top floor is still there – we didn’t see it though. We sat in the gardens and had more apple tea. It was so peaceful there. The centre of the garden has a lovely and very old marble fountain which was tinkling away. They open the garden now as a restaurant and shisha cafe. It is a haven of peace and yet less than 50m from the square. We spoke to a waiter and told him we stayed there 22 years ago. It was so funny, his reaction was priceless. 22 years!!!!!?????? But I am 22 years old! You stayed here so long ago….. He was fascinated to hear about it.

We went to lunch at 1230 at a restaurant recommended by our friends, John and Susan, called the Palatium These old Ottoman mansion streets to the side of Sultanahmet have become quite upmarket these last 20 years. The old prison buildings are now the Four Seasons Hotel and many of the mansions have been renovated into boutique hotels. The restaurants have gone upmarket accordingly. The Palatium is a very stylish restaurant, lovely decorations and furniture and it looks expensive. It has an inside dining room, a garden area and a lovely rooftop dining terrace. However, the prices are amazing – much less than any other restaurant in the area of a similar quality or indeed any that we found. We had a great lunch there. The special thing about the Palatium is that in 1996 the owners were renovating their cellar when they found they had broken through into the ruins of the Great Palace. At their own expense, they had the whole area dug out and it revealed large domed areas, vaults all dating from the 4th Century. They make it freely available to view and the work continues. I imagine, much like in Rome, if you dug down under any building up around Sultanahmet, you would encounter Roman/Byzantine ruins eventually. Anyway, highly recommended both for food and for an interesting bit of time travel down into the Roman Empire.

We walked back to the Niles Hotel and our taxi arrived bang on time to take us to Sabiha Gokcen Airport, the second airport of Istanbul, on the Asian side. We had a fantastic time in Istanbul, a wonderful few days.

At this point, our day took a marked turn for the worse…… As we pulled out into the heavy Istanbul traffic, our taxi driver, who had been all charm up until then, began a pressure offensive to get us to pay far more than the regulated rate to the airport. As he couldn’t speak English and we couldn’t speak Turkish, it was conducted via his phone using a translation app. Which wasn’t that good. We had a very fierce conversation for some time during which at times I ordered him to pull over, but in the end Bob reminded me we were arguing about £15 so, I acquiesced the point, if not the principal. His driving was atrocious too. He drove very fast, weaving in and out of other cars at speed while carrying on a deep phone conversation with someone the entire way. At one point we drove up the divider between queuing traffic. Bob and I just sat frozen in the back. We did the 55 minute trip in a little over 35. When we arrived, frazzled, I jumped out and went to get a luggage trolley and when I got back to the car, there was clearly another altercation going on, and Bob just hustled us away into the terminal. Apparently he’d handed the guy the cash which was to the lira right. I’d seen him counting through the cash twice in the back seat before we arrived and he had it ready. The taxi driver, had counted it and done the old trick of palming a big note and saying it was the wrong amount. Bob just told him to stuff it and we hastened inside. Horrible experience.

We had to go through a luggage scan immediately inside the terminal and that was chaotic. Everything out and into seperate trays, plus the big cases too. We got through the scan and then they wanted Bob to open one of the big cases to see something. I gathered up his and my stuff from the trays, and then they asked to open one of the small cases. It was very stressful in the crowd. Once they were satisfied, we moved forward. Bob had lost his belt in the melee but thankfully we found it again wrapped round one of the cases!!!!

Check in was pretty smooth and we went straight to passport control, were stamped out and then through another security check scan which was almost as bad as the first….. we were shattered by then. I had a quick look in the duty free and then we bought a couple of cold drinks and went to the loos and the gate….. where I discovered my phone was not in my bag anymore……. oh god….. panic….. I absolutely hate losing anything. The phone is nearly 6 years old so long out of contract, but it has a lot of “stuff” on it…. and did I mention how much I hate losing things…..

I ran back to the second security area – the furthest back in the journey I could go and visited all the lines asking if a phone had been found. They were busy and not very interested and it hadn’t been. I went to the duty free, the drinks stall, the loo…. nothing….. we re-examined our trail mentally and it was a blur to be honest. I thought I’d had the phone in the airport but I wasn’t entirely sure. Oh god, what if it had fallen out in the crooked taxi driver’s taxi. It is password protected but could data be accessed on it? We rang Three and they were reassuring and cancelled the sim and said a new one with my number would be waiting when we got home. I still felt uneasy about someone getting hold of it though…… I went back to all the previous areas and checked again – no luck….. Bob suddenly remembered that I definitely did have it in the airport as I’d had to show the digital boarding card to get into the bag drop queue. So… phew…. taxi crook didn’t have it. So I probably had it in my hand as I approached the check in desk….. Hmmmm then I remembered that I’d had to do a two handed task as I stuck a Hand Luggage label onto my hand bag…. had I left it at the desk???? I went back to the other gates to try and find a Pegasus Airlines person to ring the desk for me. No one there.

Our flight had been delayed 40 minutes and no one had been at our gate. At 7pm, 30 minutes before re-scheduled take off, some staff turned up and a big line formed. I went to the head of the queue and asked one of the young male staff if he could help me and explained that I believed I might have left my phone at check in desk D6. He rang through to the desks and said they would check. Not at all hopeful, I rejoined the line. After a few minutes he came back to me. Was it a white Iphone? No, I said it was a black Huawei. He phoned again. After some more minutes he came back and showed me a photo of a phone. Is this yours? YES YES YES!!! They will bring it to you at security. So again… I ran back (I always seem to have a running episode in Istanbul) back to security. But which line? I ran up and down. No one was helpful and of course it was a madhouse. I went back to line 1 feeling desperate, and then I saw a young girl in uniform on the other side and she signalled to me “phone”. I signalled yes and approached where she was eluding the security guard who attempted to stop me. Once I proved it was my phone by fingerprint, she gave it to me. The security guard made it go through the x ray – surely the longest x ray EVER or so it seemed and then I RAN back to the gate. We boarded at 720. The flight was even later than the delay scheduled and we arrived in Cyprus at 935, over 90 minutes late. But with my phone!!! I was so, so lucky.

We were in row 2, so we got off very quickly and got through passport control easily enough. Now came another stressful episode. We have been waiting for weeks to book a visa appointment with the Indian High Commission in London. It’s been a horrible business and many thousands have been forced to cancel their upcoming holidays. Yesterday at 730pm London time (930 in Cyprus), the online system opened up appointments for the day we wanted, December 8th. They go like hot cakes. I had intended to do this in a leisurely manner in the airport coffee shop after we arrived, but the lateness put paid to that. So while Bob went to get the bags from the belt I crouched over a small table with my laptop and went online to the HCI system to book. It’s a horrible system and the situation wasn’t the best, but eventually I managed it!!! Success.

After that, we came out, our Gunray chap was waiting for us with our car and we loaded and sped home. Got to the house at about 11pm and fell in the door just about. So… so tired. What a day!!!!! Very glad to get in bed.

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