So happy we had a chance to visit Istanbul

Ottoman luxury
Typical Ottoman Empire luxury!

The news is sad. It’s always sad when stories of terrorism and mayhem make their way into our lives either directly or indirectly, but we find it especially distressing to hear of death and destruction in places that should be on everyone’s travel radar – but sadly sometimes they have to be shelved.

Over this past month the news out of Istanbul is frightening: tourists killed by a suicide bomber right in Sultanamet Square near some of the world’s most wonderful edifices. We are just so happy that we had a chance to visit Istanbul before this latest round of terror attacks.

It is one of the world’s finest cities – some say the most romantic. Apart from the frantic traffic – you take your life into your hands just crossing a street downtown – the sights are without equal.

The apparent emphasis on security was evident to us, though, even from the beginning of our visit. When we drove up to the front of the new Marriott Hotel in the Sisli district, the car was stopped at a gate and inspected with a long-handled mirror to check for hidden explosives underneath before we were permitted to approach the front door. When we entered the hotel for the first time and for every time thereafter, we walked through metal detectors and our bags went through an X-ray scanner – every time we returned. Once through that gauntlet, though, the hotel was outstanding – one of the loveliest Marriott’s we have ever stayed in (and we’ve stayed in many). And we cannot say enough about the professionalism, competence and friendliness of the staff.

dolmabahce palace
Dolmabahce Palace – one of our favourite spots to visit in Istanbul – but they won’t permit interior photography

Our days in Istanbul were spent with a private guide we hired through Tours by Locals, a Vancouver-based travel company whose guides are second to none. Young Emre, with his patriotic fervour and deep knowledge of his city and country, introduced us to so much of what that wonderful city has to offer – he led us through places that we would not have seen either on our own or with a group tour.

Of course we visited Haiga Sofia, the Blue Mosque, the Basilica Cistern, the markets and Topkapi Palace, places so close to last month’s bombings. But he also took us to Dolmabache Palace, the nineteenth-century palace and home to the last of the Sultans on the Bosphorus and many small mosques, early Christian churches, and he included a truly one-of-a-kind restaurant experience where they serve food based on original Ottoman Empire recipes – Deraliye Ottoman Restaurant. Our lives have been greatly enriched by having visited Turkey in general, and Istanbul in particular.

After the recent current events, it’s fair to say that there will be some travelers who will think twice about visiting, then perhaps avoid it: this is so sad, if understandable. We are grateful that we did not have to make that choice.

Our video shows how we saw Istanbul. If you’ve been there, we hope it brings back wonderful memories. If you haven’t, please enjoy.

Walking a city: The only way to get to know it

In October of this year the Tower lf London was home to a magnificent display of ceramic poppies to honor the WW I veterans.  A stroll around it was the only way to appreciate it.
In October of this year the Tower of London was home to a magnificent display of ceramic poppies to honor the WW I veterans. A stroll around it was the only way to appreciate it.

We’re now ensconced back home in Toronto and walking this beautiful downtown is how we get around: how we buy groceries, how we go out to dinner, how we appreciate all it has to offer.  This last consideration is one we take to heart when we travel abroad.

In October we revisited London (the fact that our youngest son makes his more there now is an added benefit).  Every time we venture across the pond to this other marvelous city, we stay at different hotels in different parts of the city.  In fact, in recent years, we’ve stayed at five different hotels each of which is centered in a different district or neighborhood of London.  On this last visit, we stayed at the wonderful Threadneedles Hotel.  Threadneedles is located right in the heart of the “City of London”, that single square mile of real London town.  Housed in a building that was originally home to the City Bank of London, this boutique property exudes a timeless elegance that draws you into the history of this venerable city.  On each of our three days there, we headed out in the morning to walk different directions – never treading the same street twice is our motto when walking a city.

A walk through the Borghese Gardens brings you to many delightful places you simply cannot see if you don't get out and walk.
A walk through the Borghese Gardens brings you to many delightful places you simply cannot see if you don’t get out and walk.

We then flew from London to Rome, a city we’ve visited several times before, each time for only a day trip from a Mediterranean cruise.  Although we had seen the highlights of the tourist sites: the Vatican (hours and hours spent there on one visit, the Colosseum, the Spanish Steps,  the Trevi Fountain etc.) – we had never really been able to get a feeling for the city of Rome.  This visit was different.  We walked.  In fact, one day we walked eight miles!  How do we know this?  We find it interesting to always wear a pedometer when we travel.  Knowing how far we walked is the best rationalization for all that wonderful pasta we ate and Barolo we drank.

Our last stop on this visit was the magnificent city of Istanbul.  We stayed at the fabulous new Marriott Hotel in the modern Istanbul, a couple of kilometers north of Taksim Square.  Although that might seem counter-intuitive to anyone who wants to spend time walking around the old city of Istanbul where the main historical sites are located, the fact that we weren’t confined to that relatively small area was a real bonus.  We walked around the modern city to get a feel for the everyday life of Istanbul’s 15 million residents!  Although we didn’t walk around the Asian side where a large proportion of the residents actually live, the modern city of Istanbul did provide us with a sense of the

A walk through the Spice Market in Istanbul uncovers more than spices!
A walk through the Spice Market in Istanbul uncovers more than spices!

city.  Of course, sitting high above the city each evening overlooking both the old and new parts of the city along the shores of the Golden Horn with the Blue Mosque shining in the distance was an added benefit from the top floor lounge in the hotel.

Then our driver and guide picked us up to take us to the historical sites (read about our fantastic private experience in Istanbul here).  We walked through museums, palaces, the Grand Bazaar, the Spice Market, and market streets that cater only to the locals.  We would never have had that opportunity without our guide!  But with or without a guide, walking is our recommended method for seeing a city.

Get out of that taxi or off that bus.  And for heaven’s sakes, get above ground and out of that subway or tube!  You’ll never get to know a city that way.

Private tours: A discerning travel choice

Art enjoying a tour of the ruins at Ephesus with our private guide.
Art enjoying a tour of the ruins at Ephesus with our private guide.

We’re just back from another wonderful travel adventure that took us from London to Istanbul with many fabulous experiences in between.

We began with three exceptional days in London to visit our son, then flew from Gatwick to Rome where we spent three days on self-guided walking tours.  After Rome, we boarded an Oceania ship and set sail for various islands – Crete, Sicily, Santorini – then Athens and Turkey, ending in Istanbul.  Along the way we did some touring on our own, a few of the dreaded “shore excursions” (we’ll tell you about the good and bad of those in the upcoming posts) and several private tours.  There is little doubt in our minds that when you need to be guided around a new-to-you city where there is a significant language barrier (and sometimes even when there isn’t) you cannot beat a private guided tour.

We’ve had private tour experiences in places like Costa Rica, Tahiti, England, France and Ireland among others, but our recent sojourn in Turkey reiterated for us the myriad reasons why for us it’s one of the very best ways to experience a culture.

Arriving in Istanbul by ship.
Arriving in Istanbul by ship.

The tour really began months before as we searched online for the ideal tour.  We had used several tour companies previously – with great results – but this time those ones didn’t really have what we were looking for.  During the research we discovered a company called Tours By Locals.  Based in Vancouver, this Canadian-owned company has local guides seemingly all over the world.  We zeroed in on Istanbul and found that their presentation of the guides was fascinating. Each guide was showcased by personally-written biographies, a listing of credentials and the all-important feedback and ratings from previous customers.  We zoned in on a young man named Emre Ozkara and contacted him to see if he could accommodate our needs in Istanbul.

This company permits you to make the arrangements directly with the guide thereby eliminating communication barriers and allowing you to get to know your guide through email.  Then, when you have come to a decision about the tour, the guide prices it for you, uploads it to the company, and the itinerary is sent to you via the company’s web site.  You pay the company who then pays the guide after the tour is over.  For a discerning traveler, knowing that you have third-party recourse is comforting should anything go wrong.  We were happy with this layer of security, so we booked the tour.

Emre did his homework and emailed us to let us know that he had noted that our ship would actually be docking in Kusadasi down the coast from Istanbul several days before our final disembarkation and private tour days in Istanbul.  A home-town boy from Kusadasi, Emre indicated that he would be visiting his family at the precise time we were there and did we want to add a day tour to the ruins at Ephesus to the Istanbul days?  We had already booked a small-group tour of the ruins through the cruise line, but the price was almost identical (!) and we thought that we would, indeed, prefer a private tour.  Since it was early enough to cancel the group tour and get a refund, we went ahead. We were very glad we did.

Seven Sages Winery & boutique hotel near Ephesus is worth a visit.
Seven Sages Winery & boutique hotel near Ephesus is worth a visit.

Just as promised, Emre was waiting for us at the cruise terminal in Kusadasi where he whisked us off in a BMW 4X4 to Ephesus (more about that in a later post).  While we were driving to Ephesus, he got to know us a bit better discovering that in addition to history and culture, we are also interested in food and wine.  After finding that we would be happy with lunch at a boutique winery (we were not aware that Turkey had such places), he made a call and the arrangements were complete.

To say that our day with our private guide was fabulous would be an understatement, but we didn’t’ know at that point how fabulous our time with this guide would be.

Three days later, as arranged, we were picked up at the cruise port and had a general orientation to Istanbul before checking into our hotel.  The next morning, Emre and his brother who was to be the driver arrived at the hotel to begin our in-depth two days touring the magnificent city of Istanbul.

What can we say?  He is among the best private tour guides we have ever had.  What makes a great tour guide? Here’s what we think.  A guide should demonstrate…

  • A commitment to determining our personal interests;
  • Deep knowledge of the history and culture;
  • Passion about sharing the culture; and
  • An extraordinary ability to tell a story – not relay facts.
Deraliye Restaurant in the old city in Istanbul.
Deraliye Restaurant in the old city in Istanbul.

This is what we got.  Imagine sitting on the carpet at the back of a quiet mosque in the heart of Istanbul (after visiting the bigger tourist magnets like the Blue Mosque) and listening to a story about the Muslim way of life and how this religion is a part of but doesn’t define the Turkish culture.  Our understanding of Islam now goes far beyond the front-page stories we see on a daily basis in the media.  Emre knew that we were interested in this story: not everyone would be, but he had gotten to know us and we asked the questions. He also arranged two wonderful lunches including one at Deraliye, a new Ottoman food restaurant that had searched out and presented twelfth and thirteenth century dishes.  What a great experience!

After our days in Istanbul, we were dropped at the airport as we requested in the tour package.  We were truly sorry to say good-bye to our guide who had made us feel that we had shared a bit of his culture and his home.  What a way to go!

You can visit Tours by Locals at http://www.toursbylocals.com/

You can visit Emre’s own tour company Delightful Istanbul Tours web site at http://www.delightist.com/

You can visit Deraliye Ottoman Palace Cuisine at http://deraliyerestaurant.com/

You can read about other places we’ve taken private tours and the companies we’ve used in the past:

Stonehenge: Mystical or just mysterious?

Costa Rica: It really is as terrific as they say!

Five tips for finding your perfect, private, personalized, dream tour

A bespoke tour of Ireland: Custom-made for a discerning traveler (or two!)

Finding our way in exotic Tahiti