From experience, I know there is some stress when planning a trip on your own. What are the hotels, or the hostels, (as in our case) like? Will you be disappointed? Are they in a good area? Are they clean? Are they central to what you want to do? Are they close to the metro stations? Do they offer breakfast? Do you have to take your own linen and towels? (This is sometimes a requirement in some hostels). Are the rooms ensuite? Do they have WiFi and internet access? What are check-in and check-out times? Do they have a custodian on site 24/7? Do they offer laundry facilities? How many are in a room and are they same sex rooms or mixed gender? Do they take Visa or cash only? A lot of these concerns will apply when booking hotels too, particularly lower budget ones and especially when travelling internationally. And we had to make a decision about how long we were going to stay in each place and where we wanted to visit in our limited time.
To try and avoid problems, we thoroughly researched each hostel or hotel, the area, where the attractions were and the metro stations and read all the reviews. Reviews were difficult because there was such a variety of opinions so we went with the majority. We were very fortunate that in all of the places we stayed, they were all decent, fitting most of our criteria. There were some that were better than others but we considered ourselves lucky in the ones we chose. And only once did we end up with a man in the room with us and that was quickly taken care of with no problems.
Days prior to departure, I as engulfed in fear this trip wouldn’t go. The volcanic ash cloud parked over Europe was heading straight for Istanbul. April 22, I was never so happy to board an airplane along with 44 wonderful adventurers of our group tour in tow. Turkish Airlines revamped it’s entire fleet now vying to rank #3 of all European carriers. Economy class provided the new sliding seats to maximize legroom, amenities kits, seatback blockbuster on-demand movies and the freshest airline meals I’ve ever had.
Istanbul, located in both Asia and Europe is the only city that straddles two continents with a thrilling cultural mosaic blending the old with the new. Our guide Gigi was assigned to fly with us 24/7 throughout the entire tour of this magnificent country. From day one, she was so outstanding I doubled her anticipated tip. On a city tour, we covered all major sites with the frenetic energy of whirling dervishes. It included the Blue Mosque, Haggia Sophia, Hippodrome and Topaki Palace, home to sultans, harems and eunuchs I stood in awe there at the 87 carat Spoonmaker’s Diamond that was found discarded in trash and traded for 3 spoons. Later we got lost in the labyrinth of the 4300 shops of the Grand Bazaar. The chronic pleas from vendors can assault one’s senses if you don’t know how to bounce it off.
I pretended to be a deaf mute strolling zen-like with a smile, My greatest treasure was a butter leather “Prada” or should I say “Prado” bag for $30. At night, many experienced their first authentic Turkish Bath at a 300 year old hamman which can be totally confusing if you don’t know the procedure and no one speaks English. First you get naked in a steam room and are pounded like a piece of meat on a warm marble slab. Then they loofa off several epidermal layers followed by tons of soapy suds and an oil massage. It ends with torrents of water. I felt I was being water-boarded and wanted to “spill my secrets” but left squeaky clean as I ever felt in my life. The younger group participants partied late into the night Istanbul never sleeps.