The boat was nearly still, anchored in the bay with a half-full moon hanging in the starry sky above. Diana Krall’s “Just the Way You Are” began playing over the central speaker system echoing into the warm night air. Our new friends from Michigan got up and began dancing across the boat’s wooden deck as we lounged, drinking our wine.
You can’t make this shit up.
The best view in the world
After entering the somewhat suspect lobby, we took a tacky, claustrophobic elevator barely large enough to fit the four of us. Getting out on the 6th floor, we entered a vast restaurant, where waiters immediately descended upon us. We all pointed or gestured “up,” indicating roof, rooftop, sky—whatever would get through. They nodded happily and pointed us to a staircase that induced similar claustrophobia. After what seemed like six flights of stairs, we arrived on the 8th-floor rooftop.
It was worth the effort.
We were greeted with a perfect view of the Bosphorus strait, flanked by Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. What a great first night in Istanbul.
Then it got even better.
We ordered a bottle of Turkish sparkling wine that we’d found at our hotel across the street, the Four Seasons Sultanahmet (except it was three times the cost at the Four Seasons, of course), and toasted our arrival in Turkey. With four semi-professional wine drinkers, the first bottle doesn’t last—so we quickly ordered a second.
After several minutes, our adorable waiter came back and explained that he was so sorry, that was the last bottle. Then he pointed at the menu. They offered the wine we just drank them out of—and Dom Perignon at about ten times the cost. We smiled, said no, thank you, and we’d like our check. He quickly pointed at the Dom and said “Same price.” In unison, we repeated, “Same price?” Yes, yes, he nodded. OK, then. Come to Papa.
As our waiter poured the Dom, we started to toast again. It was just turning to dusk, and the exterior lights from Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque were coming on. We heard the call to prayer echoed from multiple places around all of Istanbul.
The mystery of Asia meets the flair of Europe, over the best sunset view in the world with a cheap bottle of expensive champagne.
Again, you can’t make this shit up.
Or replicate the experience.
Okay, so we did replicate it every night while in Istanbul until we drank them out of Donny P.
Welcome to Istanbul
If you go to Istanbul, head to the Seven Hills rooftop (it’s a restaurant and hotel) across from the Four Seasons in the old city. You won’t find a better view in the world. They probably learned their lesson from us, though, and I’m betting the Dom is back to full price.
Our introduction to the mezzes that first night was out of guilt. With the wine so cheap, we felt we had to order all the mezzes on the menu. We devoured the collection of appetizers and dips, heavy on the eggplant and yogurt. We were in heaven.
We stayed in the old city and wouldn’t have traded the location for any other. The Ciragan Palace (the grande dame of hotels in Istanbul) and the other Four Seasons, both on the Bosphorus, have beautiful settings. Near Taksim Square and the embassies is every international hotel brand imaginable.
But the Four Seasons Sultanahmet is one of the more memorable hotels in the world. It’s a century-old former prison turned luxury hotel in heart of the old city, almost right next door to the Topkapi Palace, and a short walk to Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, and the Grand Bazaar. We even walked over the Galata Bridge to the more hip and contemporary neighborhood of Beyoglu (embassies and Taksim Square). It was a nice contrast to the old city, but we loved our location.
The don’t-miss list in Istanbul is fairly simple:
- The Grand Bazaar and Spice Market: Dating back to 1455, this market makes the Moroccan souks look tiny, and it’s a total sensory overload. Our greatest find there was a set of the raki glasses we’d been introduced to the night before. They’re basically ice collars, with a tall, skinny glass in the middle. Brilliant—you keep your drink ice-cold without watering it down with actual ice.
- Sultanahmet: It’s the old city of Istanbul, named after the Sultan at the time the Blue Mosque was built, and has all the highlights (Topkapi, Hagia Sophia, Grand Bazaar, minarets, etc.).
- Aforementioned Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque: The interior of the Blue Mosque is a celebration of ceramic tiles (hence the nickname Blue Mosque) and a great example of Ottoman mosques. Hagia Sophia is a former Christian basilica turned mosque and a great example of how religions and centuries collide.
- The Golden Horn/Bosphorus cruise: If you take a boat through the waters, you ride between two continents, Asia and Europe, in waters that lead from the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara and, eventually, the Aegean.
- Topkapi Palace: This was a residence for the Ottoman Sultans for 400 years, starting in the 15th century, and has its very own haram wing (doesn’t everyone need one?) for concubines, mothers, and eunuchs. There are great views of the city from the surrounding grounds.
- The “Neighborhoods”: After the old city, head to Karakoy and Beyoglu, walking by the Galata Tower through the area to Taksim Square. It’s the heart of modern Istanbul, with tons of restaurants, retail, hotels, etc.
- Then head to the Four Seasons Bosphorus for a spectacular lunch right on the water. Or try a traditional Turkish lunch on the roof of Hamdi Restaurant, with panoramic views of Istanbul.
- Raki: AKA Turkish jet fuel. Every culture has the “I can’t choke it down” liquor. Ouzo, Pastis, Sambuca, Arak. It’s an unsweeted anise-flavored drink served as an aperitif with mezzes. Try it. It’s terrible, but the ice collars are great.
- Mezzes: Selection of small plates, usually as apps before the main dish. They are always served, and there is always ample eggplant. In the beginning of your trip, you will love the mezzes. By the end, you never want to see them again. Especially the eggplant.
- Hammams: Turkish baths—a great place if you like to be scrubbed down and thrown around a little.
- Etiquette (or not so much): Don’t put your hands in your pockets or on your hips (too defensive), female drivers have the right of way and typically don’t yield to male drivers, and placing your thumb between your first two fingers is giving the finger (which comes in handy with the female drivers, I imagine).
And now we head south.
Turkey is a fascinating place to learn about ancient world history. It’s a place to really understand the religious connections and rule through history.
It’s also the best place to see Greek and Roman ruins. Yes, even more than Greece or Italy.
Most people either stick to Istanbul or make the trek to Ephesus (a World Heritage site from 10th century BC. Roman rule in 29 BC, third largest in the Roman nation Asia Minor, and another of the 7 wonders of the ancient world. One of the 7 churches of Asia part of the book of Revelation, gladiator graveyard.)
You can see the appeal.
But don’t just stop there, head further south.
Bodrum is a distinctive port city on the Aegean Sea where discos and luxury yachts contrast with the traditional minarets. You’ll see fishermen and sponge divers in the beautiful blue water on one side and an ancient wonder of the world on the other. It’s also the birthplace of the gulet, a two-mast wooden sailing vessel (a boat) which we would make our home later in the trip.
We stayed in the Marmara Bodrum Hotel, and incredible hotel up on the hillside with an expansive view of the water, marina, and sunset. (Of course, the sunset wasn’t perfect until he unscrewed all the outdoor lightbulbs. According to him, the lighting was all wrong— not dimmable and the wrong degree of Kelvin. Sigh.)
Bodrum is a great intro to Turkey’s spectacular coastline, covered with turquoise water on one side and rocky hills on the other. It also has the Mausoleum of Mausolus, one of the 7 Wonders of the ancient world. Another highlight, Bodrum Castle, was built in the 15th century when the Christians were fighting the Muslims.
From Bodrum, our trip led us on a ferry to the Datca Peninsula, a promontory facing a Greek island. We rode along sweeping vistas and hills with that beautiful blue water everywhere we looked. It was punctuated with a visit to Knidos, an ancient settlement in what was then Asia Minor. It was uncovered in the 1800s and is former home of the statue of Aphrodite.
Our trip then led us to Hisaronu Bay, then to the cities of Selmiye and Turgotkoy and across the peninsula to Iclemer. There is nothing flat in this part of Turkey. It’s unexpectedly dramatic and beautiful, with the rocky hillsides sliding into the crystalline blue water.
Enter the gullet.
OK, I admit, I’m not afraid of really anything. Except being trapped. The whole idea of spending several nights on a wooden boat wasn’t my favorite. And, when we saw our new home for the first time, I panicked. It was not a private luxury yacht. The staterooms were small, and the in-suite bathroom? Close the toilet and the whole room becomes your shower. Ummmm, yeah. I think you’ll find us on the deck most of the time.
But the gulet did give us the chance to explore the whole coastline, from Marmaris to Kaunos to Dalyan to Gocek. You can’t beat that.
Highlights included everything from remains of tombs and funerary monuments to sections of an acropolis and a hike into Cleopatra’s bay, where we saw the site of the ruins of her bath where she (allegedly) kept her boy toy.
During our hike, he, of course, went wandering off to find the ancient amphitheater people had been searching for centuries. (He thinks he may have found it.)
The gulet grew on me. Cruising along the gentle waters and swimming in the clean water was a treat.
Turkey is one in a series of Niki and George chronicles, each of which inevitably includes George’s underwear drying in plain sight from last night’s laundry. The gullet was no exception, and often our views were encumbered by tighty whiteys blowing in the breeze.
One last major lesson from Turkey is that in Muslim country, if you find a place to buy booze, do it. Buy as much as you can, then buy more. If nothing else, you can sell it to your fellow travelers. It’s quite the commodity.