A Travellerspoint blog

Day thirty-six - the journey home begins

Tuesday 1 October 2019

sunny 29 °C

Funicular fun

With a day to kill before getting the overnight train, I began with a leisurely start to the day, making sure everything was packed. Ironically, being in a smaller room made it more likely that I’d overlook something in the clutter. My plan was to get my bag down to the station to leave it in the left luggage lockers so that I was bag free for the rest of the day. Before getting the Tunel funicular, I stopped for a coffee and was besieged by a friendly cat who seemed to think my bag was great fun.

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Taking the funicular down and then the tramway to the station made it a smooth journey but when I got there, all of the lockers were full, upsetting my plan. When I’d looked at left luggage options earlier in the week, I’d found a site called BagBNB. I needed another coffee so found a cafe with WiFi and booked my luggage into a hotel close to the station. BagBNB site is a start up and I have to say, their business idea saved me from a hideous day of dragging my bag around. Also the people in the hotel where I left the luggage where very helpful.

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Baklava and ice-cream

Once free of luggage I decided to do a bit of public transport hopping, starting by going to the tramway to Kabatas as there is another funicular that goes up to Taksim Square. I rewarded myself with lunch plus a baklava with ice-cream at Sutis at the top of Istikial Caddesi. I practically rolled down the street after such indulgence. Although it’s great that the street is pedestrianised, it’s also incredibly busy and full of the larger chains including familiar names such as Mango and H&M, so less interesting. Diverting off into the side streets you are rewarded with small interesting shops and cafes as well as getting a slice of Istanbul life as people sit on doorsteps or shout to each other from balconies.

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Beyoglu to Sultanahmet

Hopping on the train from Tophane to Sultanahmet means that you enter a very different type of district. The houses here have a distinct style and many of them are wooden with overhanging upper floors. It’s less frenetic in this part of the town once you get away from the main tourist spots by the bazaars and mosques.

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It’s tempting to keep on the move when you are on a trip like this but it’s also good to find a quiet, shady spot to read and rest. Gulhane Park is large with lots of seating and shade.

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As there are no refreshments on the overnight train or at the station, I bought snacks and water to keep me going whilst en route. Basically, it’s a 12 hour journey with several stops for border control. The man in seat 61 https://www.seat61.com is a mine of information about train travel and the availability or more likely, unavailability of food is high on the list of essential information. The train leaves Halkali station at 21.50 but it takes one hour from Sirkeci to Halkali via the Marmaray line. To be on the safe side, I thought it best to give plenty of time despite Halkali sounding rather lacking in facilities. I collected my luggage from the BagB&B hotel and headed out.

The Marmaray line to Halkali

The lift down to the Marmaray line has a long queue because it can only take about ten people, less if there is a wheelchair or luggage. It’s meant for disabled access, people with buggies or heavy luggage but the queue was actually full of overweight guys who obviously couldn’t be bothered to use stairs. It seemed strange that they’d queue rather than walk.

The Marmaray line was busy but there were less and less people as the train went further away from the city. It took less than an hour but I was still glad that I gave myself loads of time. I hadn't quite recovered from the taxi incident. Once at the station there was absolutely nothing to indicate which platform the train would be going from but when I asked someone in the waiting room, I was told we had to wait until called.

Overnight train to Sofia

Eventually, about 40 minutes before the train was due to leave, someone came to collect us and we dutifully made our way down to the platform. Luckily there are lifts at the station for those of us with heavy luggage. A bit like the Tbilisi to Yerevan train, there are stewards who show you to your compartment. It turned out that I had the space to myself which was great. This was a far superior train to the previous overnight one - comfortable beds, a sink and even a fridge with water, juice and biscuits. Although I knew I wouldn’t have the perfect sleep, it was definitely a pretty pleasant space to be in. There was also quite a camaraderie built up with fellow travellers as we chatted in the corridors before the train started.

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Quite a mix of people but from what I could tell from the people in my carriage, again, I seemed to be the only person from the UK.

Posted by Cath_Greig 09:29 Archived in Turkey Tagged trains parks istanbul Comments (0)

Day thirty-five - Istanbul

Monday 30 September 2019

sunny 29 °C

Vibrant Istanbul

I planned to visit my friend Yusuf at his ceramics shop in the Sultanahmet area on Küçük AyaSofya Caddesi no 37. Rather than jumping on the tramway, I walked across the city, firstly down the narrow streets near the Galata tower to the Galata bridge.

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There are a lot of fish restaurants on the lower level of the bridge, and above, it's lined with fishermen. The river itself is incredibly busy with ferries, small boats and tourist boat trips. Istanbul is a real city of movement.

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Once across the bridge, I found myself near the spice market so wandered through, the sight and smells are very enticing, but I wasn’t here to buy. From here I was in the Grand Bazaar, much busier than when I was last here in 2016 after there had been several bombings in the city. Definitely more tourists around, and like Armenia, large groups, mainly Chinese. You still need to go through security when entering the bazaars and other key places and there is a huge police presence around the city - it feels as if they are on constant high alert.

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Bustling Bazaars

I stopped for a coffee at the Grand Bazaar. It’s a great place to people watch. It’s interesting to see young women walking arm in arm, one in very western tight fitting clothes and the other wearing a traditional headscarf. It’s a real mix of East meets west. Getting out of the bazaar is a challenge as it’s huge. Once I managed to get out I headed past the Blue Mosque towards the area of my friend’s shop.

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Chewing the fat - Istanbul style

Yusuf and I sat outside in the shade, drinking coffee and catching up. It made me feel like a local. Apparently, friends are always passing by for a catch up. Yusuf has adopted a cat that loves to sleep at the front of the shop. If Yusuf charged everyone for very photo they've taken of the cat, he would be a millionaire. We arranged to meet later at Hamid restaurant near the Galata Bridge. Yusuf closes his shop late so we arranged to meet at 10.30pm - my default bedtime since travelling on my own! I had to keep awake somehow.

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Cat City

I found somewhere for lunch and probably made a bad choice - going into the Capadocia restaurant. They have pushy people outside encouraging patrons into the restaurant, but once inside the service is quite lacklustre. The food is okay but nothing to write home about.

There are lots of cats in Istanbul. There is even a film called Kedi [2016] - the City seen through the eyes of its resident cats. I haven’t seen it but would like to try and get hold of a copy when I back to the UK. People leave food and water out for them and they can often be seen in shop doorways guarding the goods. Little huts are also provided for them. There is a definite affection for cats, just like there is in Cyprus and Armenia.

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After walking over the Galata Bridge, I thought I’d try out the funicular. Not that I can’t walk up the hill, but I love going on the different modes of transport in the city. The top station is very close to my hotel. I sat out on the terrace reading and relaxing until the sun started to set. The view across the river was beautiful. Soon it was time to get ready and cross the river again to get to meet Yusuf.

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Hamid's

Hamid restaurant is a bit of an institution, and is one that features on a lot of the highly recommended lists. However, it’s quite meat orientated so I chose food off the starter list - stuffed peppers, pickles, shepherd's salad and Muhammara - more than enough for me. Yusuf hardly seems to eat anything at all. Apparently, once he’s full, he stops eating. Now I know where I’ve been going wrong all of these years. Anyway, I hate wasting food so I ate all of mine! It was very delicious.

I was happy to walk back to the hotel but Yusuf didn’t feel it was safe, so we got a taxi which dropped me off close to the hotel. The Beyoğlu area is busy so probably be safe to walk around there but I wondered if the Galata Bridge was maybe not so safe. Certainly, I was grateful for Yusuf's concern. It was way after midnight when I got back so I was glad to crawl into bed for a good night’s sleep.

Posted by Cath_Greig 07:22 Archived in Turkey Tagged bridges river istanbul bazaar coffee cafe Comments (0)

Day thirty-four - the only flight on my journey home

Sunday 29 September 2019

Taxi problems

After a rude awakening, I quickly got ready as the taxi was due at 3am. At about 3.10am it still hadn’t arrived. I discovered that the hotel hadn’t actually ordered it for me. One was sorted through Yandex ( a type of Uber) and to my relief it turned up 5 minutes later. However, once installed in the cab, it wouldn’t start. By this time I could feel the anxiety levels rising. My fears weren’t allayed when the driver proceeded to open the bonnet and started to bang away at something under the hood. With anxiety levels rising, the engine suddenly sprung into life and we were off. Now we just needed to make it to the airport. Although only 15-20 minutes away from the centre, anything could happen!

I was flying to Istanbul because there is no border access to Turkey from Armenia, only this one flight. To take the train through Turkey, I would have had to go back to Tbilisi and then travel from there, something I couldn't face doing.

Always allow two hours

One I arrived at Zvartnot Airport departures I breathed a sigh of relief. Check-in took two minutes but then I saw the queue at the departure gate. One person was checking passengers just to let them through the door to passport control. It wasn’t until a second person came along that the queue really started to move. Once through, my heart sank at the queue which snaked round for what seemed like miles. I had been advised by both the airline and hotel that arriving one hour before departure was enough. This advice went contrary to my better judgement as I am paranoid about missing departures. To anyone flying from Zvartnots, I would definitely allow two hours minimum to get through. What with the taxi farrago, There was now only 30 minutes before boarding. It took 25 minutes to get through - luckily security was swift. No time for sitting around - the plane was boarding as I got through into the departure lounge.

Arriving in Istanbul

The flight itself was uneventful, arriving at 6.50 local time at the new airport. There was -1 hour difference in Istanbul. Transportation to the city is good - best to take the Havaist buses - the IST-19 goes to Taksim Square. There is no metro or tramway yet. I had a lot of time to kill before check in so wandered about stopping for coffee intermittently at places with WiFi. Being a Sunday, there were a lot of people having breakfast - there is a really buzzy cafe culture here. On İstiklal Caddesi - one of the main shopping areas in this part of the city - I stopped for a late buffet breakfast. All you can eat plus copious amounts of Turkish tea which is served as soon as you finish a glass.

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Arriving at the hotel a bit early, I managed to check in with an upgrade - a room looking out over the water. The Taksim Terrace Hotel is in a side street fairly near the main drag. It is well placed close to Sishane metro, the Tunel funicular and Galata tower. Like the buildings around it, there is a narrow frontage that’s five floors high and, as it’s name suggests, a terrace. The room was quite small but had a great view. It was a relief to get rid of my bag, shower and go for a wander.

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Train tickets and Museums

Walking down through the steep and narrow streets to the waterfront I walked along the river by the fish restaurants and fish market that are close to Galata Bridge. I planned to go and sort out my ticket to Sofia first and then visit the Museum of Innocence in the Beyoğlu area of the city. Museums are closed on Mondays so best to do it today. Using my Istanbualkart travel card, I took the tramway to the station. It’s within walking distance but I love riding the tramway!

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There is a special booking office for international tickets at Sirkesi station and it was easy to purchase. I went for a double compartment on the sleeper. You pay for a ticket and pay an additional amount for a bed. The overnight train actually leaves from Halkali station 25k from the Centre and is reached via the Marmaray line that links Asian and European Istanbul. I spotted left luggage lockers near the ticket office and also found the lift access to the Marmaray line just around the corner from the station. All important knowledge when you have a large, heavy bag in tow.

I then took the tramway to Tophane as it’s the nearest stop to the Museum of Innocence in the Beyoğlu area. The museum is a beautiful collection of artefacts relating to the book by Orhan Pamuk. Although I read it a few years ago, the story came back to me as I viewed the installations. There were lots of young women there, clutching their own copies. I would definitely recommend a visit - even if you haven’t read the book - it’s an intricate art gallery of objects.

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An Early night

The breakfast must have filled me up as I only started feeling hungry late in the afternoon. As I wandered around the area I found a cafe near to the Galata tower. There is absolutely no problem finding vegetarian options in Istanbul. By now the lack of sleep started to hit me so I headed back to the hotel to have a really early night and catch up on much needed sleep.

Posted by Cath_Greig 06:15 Archived in Turkey Tagged museum istanbul railway coffee tramway Comments (0)

Day thirty-three - last day in Yerevan

Saturday 28 September 2019

rain 22 °C

Shopping mission

My last full day in Armenia was going to be focused on shopping. I’d seen a craft fair advertised by the Cascades so headed there after breakfast. The stalls had lovely handmade goods made by the variety of different craftspeople. I priced things up so that I could withdraw enough cash, I didn’t want lots of drams on my hands just as I was about to leave.

The Fem library

Close to the Cascades is the Fem library where my niece volunteered. Having met two women on my travels who had strong connections with it, I really wanted to visit and say hello. To ensure it remains a safe space, the place is not signposted but I managed to find it and was shown around by one of the women who uses the space. As well as the library of feminist fiction and non-fiction, there is a meeting space, kitchen and chill out area where they’d just been running a yoga class. A very calm and safe space.

Downpours

It was threatening rain so I walked back to the hotel, and had a rest whilst sheltering from what became an incredibly heavy downpour. When it stopped, I had a late lunch at Eat:Fit. Totally delicious roasted quinoa salad which would not go amiss at a Bristol hipster cafe. Always good to have a respite from starchy carbs. I wandered back to the craft fair prepared to make my purchases and the whole thing had been disbanded. The gazebos probably couldn’t cope with such heavy rain.

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Vernissage

Vernissage, the street market close to Republic Square, has more stalls at the weekend. In amongst the usual touristy stuff there is some lovely handcrafted crafts and artwork. For a change I took a different route walking east past the Yerevan puppet theatre until the end of Sayat Nova, then through the circular park until I reached the market. As I got there people were starting to pack things away. Not sure where the day had gone but I had managed to achieve very little. My plans to do shopping were unravelling but I didn’t want to panic buy so decided to buy gifts elsewhere on my travels.

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Getting ready to leave

Back at the hotel, I packed up my bag before heading out to Byblos, a Lebanese restaurant around the corner from the hotel. Had a delicious eggplant in tahini cold dish, as recommended by the waiter, with tabouleh salad and mint tea. A very nice last meal.

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As I had to be up early at 2.30am, I had an early night in the hope that I could a few hours sleep before my very early morning flight to Istanbul.

Posted by Cath_Greig 05:42 Archived in Armenia Tagged markets cascades yerevan armenia Comments (0)

Day thirty-two - last day on the road....for now

Friday 27 September 2019

sunny 29 °C

The road to Yerevan

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The distance to Yerevan is about 144 km and dependent on traffic, should take about two hours. We had three short stops en route. I was definitely beginning to have tour overload as I was tempted to scotch the plan and head straight back to Yerevan. There are a lot of roadworks as the M1 is being improved. Eventually it will be a dual carriageway linking the Black Sea area of Georgia to Iran. It has been funded by a Chinese company. Roads in general have improved but I can’t help thinking it’s so that the big tour buses can access previously inaccessible sites. Karen is a careful driver but even then, the type of driving needed to cope with the road conditions, can be particularly hair raising. Where tarmac is missing, cars swerve to avoid them so that from afar it looks like some mad bumper car rally.

Amberd Fortress

The first stop was Amberd Fortress. I’d been 9 years previously when we were the only tourists with a rough pathway to the fortress. The only way to get to the top was via a steep scree slope which I didn’t do. Now there is a pathway with information signs and steps - albeit quite rough and steep - up to the fortress entrance. It’s an impressive place built atop a ridge made by the confluence of two rivers. On one side walls had weren’t needed because the steep gorge made it unassailable. As we made our way back down the twisty road, We passed a Soviet era observatory which is still in use - Byurakan Astrophysical Observatory. There is a guesthouse on site and guided tours can be arranged.

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The last two monasteries of the tour

Next stop was Saghmosavank, most notable personally as it was the first monastery I had ever visited in Armenia and where my sister and I were blessed by the priest. Poor man didn’t realise that his blessings were wasted on us. Like Amberd, last time there were no tourists about but that has changed. The building is perched on the edge of the Kasagh Gorge with stunning views towards Mount Aragat’s.

Last stop was the 7th century Karmavor Church - the name means reddish hue. It was a tiny little church and the only one on this tour that I hadn’t seen before. A party of school children, who looked about 5 years old, were around the church careering about and generally causing havoc.

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Busy, busy Yerevan

Finally we arrived in Yerevan, hitting busy traffic as we entered the city. This time I was staying at the Diamond House Hotel on Aram Street, two doors up from the first restaurant that I ate at - Fit-Eat and close to the other favourite - Amar on the other side of the Kond pedestrian tunnel. The room at the hotel was pretty good although I didn’t have a balcony. I enquired about laundry but it would have cost me a small fortune to get a few items cleaned.

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After settling in I thought that I’d eat lunch at Amar as it’s better to walk through the tunnel during the day. I had the zucchini rissoles that had been recommended on my last visit there, together with a salad. After this, I walked around the Kond area, a very old part of the city that feels very different from the rest of Yerevan. It’s like finding a village in the middle of a city. The streets are narrow and winding with access mostly via steps and just a few roads in.

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Dancing Fountains

Once I got back I had an Apricot ale at Dargett Craft beers which was about four doors down from my hotel - this really is the street to be on. I decided that tonight was the night for visiting the Dancing/Singing fountains in Republic Square so needed to have a little siesta after the beer.

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The fountains don’t start until 9pm so I had plenty of time to have a rest. The fountains are quite an institution. They are accompanied by a light show and music nightly and there are always lots of families down there and tons of hawkers selling stuff for kids - exactly the sort of things sold at festivals etc. The fountains are in the background when when Armenia relay their votes for the Eurovision Song Contest. It’s pretty cheesy but I think that something that brings everyone out and together is great.

After an hour I decided to walk back and happened on Shrivan’s as recommended by my niece so popped in for a bit of food. The menu was pretty meat orientated so had fries and soup - a bit of a strange combo but pretty good all the same. My culinary choices haven’t necessarily fitted with my ‘avoid starchy carb’ regime on this holiday but I am sure I can reverse the anticipated weight gain once I get home.

Posted by Cath_Greig 22:16 Archived in Armenia Tagged monastery yerevan armenia saghmosavank amberd amar dargett Comments (0)

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