Long-time Untourists Steve and Karen Savel recently returned from our new Istanbul Untour. This marked their 21st Untour! How did Istanbul compare? Read what Steve had to say about their exciting time in a city they adore.
Q: You were an early advocate for an Istanbul Untour, asking us to add it to our offerings a couple years before we did. Why were you so excited about Istanbul?
A: In the summer of 2010 I was on a guided tour of Turkey. This tour included only four days in Istanbul. I was able to visit the usual sights that tourists see in Istanbul but could only dream about the option to be in this great city for an extended period of time. It seemed to me Istanbul begged to be an Untour. The Museums, mosques and bazaars that tourists visit on a guided tour were wonderful appetizers, but I could see the possibilities of going off the beaten track to experience additional wonders of this great city. The Turkish people were proud, respectful, and willing to help. The Turkish food was rich with spices and flavors that appealed to my taste buds. The location of the city between Asia and Europe was magical. When I returned from this trip I called Untours and presented a case to add Istanbul as an Untour.
Q: You were among the first to sign up for this new Untour. How does the Untour concept translate in Istanbul?
A: When the Istanbul Untour was reality, my wife and I were eager to be among the first to experience it. We thought two weeks would be great. The first part of the first week could be used to adjust to the ten-hour time difference between California and Istanbul, and we could revisit the main sights that we saw in 2010 and become familiar with using mass transit to move around the city. Then the remaining part of the first week and the entire second week could provide time for the adventures that are possible with an Untour. This included walking tours with our landlord in areas of Istanbul that are not usually visited by tourists. We found that Istanbul is an ideal location for an Untour.
Q: You have been on 21 Untours now. How is Istanbul different than our other destinations?
A: The Istanbul Untour is different from our previous twenty Untours because it is located in a predominately Muslim city. This creates differences for sound and sight. During the day you can hear the call to prayer, and when you look around, instead of church steeples you see mosque minarets. The location between Asia and Europe makes it very different, with diverse cultures present. This diversity translates into great experiences with people, food, drink, etc. Turkey is the longest distance to the east that we have visited from our home in southern California. Previously, our furthest trip east was a Greece untour.
Q: Any practical advice you might offer to first time visitors?
A: I would recommend keeping an open mind. This will permit understanding of all the history, cultures and especially the differences of Istanbul. Ask lots of questions during the orientation. Try to get used to maps of Istanbul. The street maps available will be confusing at first since there seems to be no rectangular grid for streets. As long as you have some good landmarks, know your general direction, and are willing to ask locals for help you will find your destination. Be prepared to experience one of your very best trips.
Q: You were there when the Gezi Park protests were at their peak. Thankfully things have settled down since your stay in Istanbul. How was it to be in Istanbul at such an interesting time?
A: From our first day we were made aware by our landlord exactly where it would be safe to visit in the city. One day we were standing in line to visit the Dolmabahce Palace Museum and received a cell phone call from our landlord. He said we needed to leave that area immediately since police action was pending nearby. After we left, police advanced from there to Taksim Square and Gezi Park, where they used tear gas and water cannons to “move” the demonstrators out.
Another day we visited the Modern Art Museum. We had been told to be in the apartment by 4pm since more police action was planned. We used our local funicular to get up the hill to our apartment. The exit is called Tunel Square, which is one end of Istiklal Street. Taksim Square is on the opposite end of Istiklal Street. Demonstrators were in Tunel Square and the police had already begun using tear gas to move them down the hill. The demonstrators seemed to notice that we were tourists caught in the action and helped us merge into the crowd to safely move to our apartment house. I learned just how astringent tear gas is when we exited Tunel, what the sounds are like of the tear gas canisters being fired, hitting the cobblestone streets, and clinking down the street.
I felt fortunate to be in Istanbul during that time because I believe the demonstrators are trying to make a positive difference in their government.
Q: What were your favorite parts of your travels in Istanbul?
A: All of the sights, sounds and smells of Istanbul set a foundation to make this one of my favorite places to visit. The Turkish people that I have met on both trips to Turkey have been wonderful. The guide and driver for our guided trip were so personable, that made me want to revisit the country. The Istanbul Untour permitted us to meet our landlord, Izel. He fit the Untours philosophy of an onsite staff person extremely well. When we arrived he explained the basics of our apartment, gave a walking tour of our neighborhood and promised to keep us informed about the demonstrations during our stay. Every day Izel kept us up to date. Sometimes we had to adjust time or day, but an Untour gives you the flexibility to adjust your schedule. Izel also provided two walking tours, one on his own and one when his sister joined us. These tours were of parts of Istanbul that ordinarily tourists would not visit. We felt very special and fortunate to have these Untour-style adventures.
Standing on the Galata Bridge all I needed to do was look, listen and smell the wonders of Istanbul. Sometimes I forget how great it is to smell the foods on trips. In Istanbul the spices added to prepare foods for grilling enhance the wonderful aromas. Also, along the water there are many small fish restaurants grilling really fresh fish. Do not be afraid to inhale.
Visit the Untours blog again next Thursday for a rundown of Steve and Karen’s favorite Istanbul sites and restaurants!