Istanbul, one big UNESCO site

Istanbul's Skyline
Istanbul’s Skyline showing the Blue Mosque

Walking around Istanbul essentially consists of stumbling clumsily from one United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) protected site to another. The city has a jaunty skyline punctuated by some of the worlds greatest mosques, it didn’t take long to realise that the city had more than it’s fair share of brilliance. Just one of the many sites of cultural interest would make a great city, a handful of them would even make a world class capital but Istanbul is bursting at the seams. It’s also bursting at the seams in other ways; the city is swamped by a population of about 16 million people – the road networks and public transport system are choked every hour of every day. Bodies teem through the vast network of bazzars, which are themselves of world heritage value. Istanbul it’s a highly crowded but highly stimulating and enjoyable place to be and I was absolutely thrilled be be there.

Jamming with Ayse and Murat
Jamming (sort of) Turkish tunes with Ayse and Murat

A few years ago I rode solo through France and Italy, in the back of my mind I knew I was heading towards Istanbul but regrettably I didn’t think I had enough money to ride that far. The year after I rode a similar route with a friend and this time made it as far as Slovenia. I was still nowhere close. So this time, on my much larger ride, I was determined to get there. As you’d expect, It was one of my key destinations and on my mind from the start. After spending a disappointing day in a cheap hotel, wi-fi being one the persistently poor aspects of the service, we decided instead to CouchSurf. We soon found a willing host just outside of the ‘old city’ that was well located alongside the city tram network.

Inside the Hagia Sophia
Inside the Hagia Sophia. . . after Ellie cut my hair!

The moment we met our host Aysa I was sure we’d made the right choice, a few days later and there could be no disputing it, she was brilliant. She taught us about the formation of the modern Turkish republic, showed us some of the city and politely ate all of Ellie’s cooking when she arrived home from work (I’m joking of course; Ellie’s cooking is delicious, the point is that we all ate together and it was always enjoyable). She also  introduced us to some of her friends, notably Murat who kindly drove us all to a outer city park where we walked and had a picnic. From a proposed stay of three days we ended up living with Aysa for almost two weeks which allowed us to sort out visas for India and for Ellie to set in motion her job applications in OZ.

When I think back over the last few weeks many memories compete for dominance in my mind but ultimately walking beneath the richly decorated dome of Hagia Sophia, contemplating the rediscovery of the Basilica Cistern, a 9,800 metre squared man-made underground reservoir (which the city authorities managed completely forget exited right in the centre of the city for some time until rediscovered in 1545), and attempting to play Turkish songs on the guitar whilst Aysa and Murat sung the lyrics over at Murat’s house.

Basilica Cistern, Istanbul
Basilica Cistern, Istanbul – teeming with Carp

After jumping through the last bureaucratic hurdle for visas and job applications it was time to say goodbye to our kind hosts. It was with a heavy heart we left our new friends but on the way to the airport, with the bikes boxed for the flight to India I felt an enormous sense of well-being too. Europe has surpassed my expectations and thrown up plenty of challenges overcome and now it was time for something altogether different. It was time for India.

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