Friday, 16 March 2012

Arriving in Istanbul (or, how not to travel)

Apparently I have more in common with Oasis than a boy scout. On my recent trip to Istanbul, my motto was most definitely 'roll with it' as opposed to my more customary 'always be prepared'.

Surprise number one was the weather. After spending a week in Spain in January, during which the unsuspecting sevillanos and valencianos were treated to a glimpse of my winter white arms, I'd been expecting Turkey to deliver the goods, sun-wise. We certainly weren't expecting snow. Touching down at Sabiha Gokcen airport in early February, the cityscape wasn't just studded with endless minarets - it was also shrouded in slush.

Following the long bus transfer into the city and a lunch purchased largely by pointing and smiling, we set out in search of the hotel we'd booked months ago (very prepared) after a glass or two of wine (less advisable). Like most others, our hotel was located in the Sultanahmet district among the majority of Istanbul's sights, while the transport hub of Taksim Square is north of the Golden Horn, the inlet of the Bosphorus that separates the old and new European sides of the city. The easy option would have been to take a taxi, but who needs ease when you have public trabsport? With the help of a map, the metro station security guard and a moustachioed shoe-shiner, we purchased an Istanbulkart (similar to London's Oyster card) and planned a circuitous route involving a funicular, a tram and a suburban commuter train. The first two methods of transport were modern and efficient, whirling us downhill and across the water onto the southern side of the Golden Horn, the picture-postcard side of the city. The commuter train was akin to something from the Soviet era, and deposited us in an equally joyless area close to the water's edge. At this point, the wine-inspired hotel booking seemed like a distinctly dodgy idea.

A typical Sultanahmet view

Trailing up the hill from Cankurtan station (not a Sultanahmet sight you ever need to acquaint yourself with), our map-reading skills led us to our hotel's address. A tumbledown, uninhabited house complete with broken windows and a mournful-looking mangy cat on the doorstep. Either the past few months had been very unkind to Esans Hotel, or we needed to sort out our sense of direction. Fortunately, more friendly locals came to our rescue and pointed us towards our home for the next three days. Thankfully, it was still standing. The immediate area around the hotel was only slightly more inviting than Cankurtan's environs though, so we weren't out of the panic woods yet.

A view of Cankurtan by day. It was bad, honestly.

Sultanahmet is peppered with houses-turned-hotels, set up by families with varying degrees of success. If the TripAdvisor reviews of Esans Hotel were anything to go by, the proprietors had managed it admirably: guests praised the establishment's atmosphere, service and value. Stepping inside and being greeted by four different people and a budgie was definitely a warm welcome, though somewhat unexpected. So too was the talk (some more prone to exaggeration may even have termed it a lecture) we received about the different perfume diffusers available for us to try out during our stay. Named 'Essence' Hotel after the perfumier who resided there during the nineteenth century, not only are the rooms named after different scents (or 'odours', following an unfortunate translation), the owners have also developed a range of scents for guests to fragrance their rooms according to mood. It's certainly a USP, but as welcome information goes, a map would have been more handy.

We were also offered a cup of tea, and being British and polite, we accepted. The chill was soon banished from our bones, but due to the tea's temperature, we had to linger in reception. Taking in the surroudings, we relaxed a little. Esans Hotel definitely homely: the breakfast area and lounge merged, and comfort was prioritized over the usual trappings of a hotel lobby. The budgie swooping overhead added a quirky feel, which continued in our superior room: the Sultan odour room. It may not have smelt of sultans, but it did have glittery wallpaper. Bling aside, it was well-appointed and comfortable - and a definite bargain at just €100 each for a three-night stay with breakfast. It just goes to show that sometimes, Oasis have the edge over boy scouts.

You can read about the rest of my trip in part 2 next week. For information on Istanbul's culinary delights, read my 'on location' post for Girl Eats Oxford here.

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Inspiration Initiative: #InspiringTravel

Flights without food. This is the first thing I remember about low-cost airlines. 'You buy the flights seperately from your hotel, and you have to pay if you want an in-flight meal', I was told. Being a pre-teen, the part about food stuck in my mind. That'll never catch on, I thought. Years later, budget flights are a regular part of my life, linking up the corners of my world and making it possible for me to fly out to see friends scattered around Europe and even further afield. Given the merest excuse to jet off, you'll find me passport in hand and liquids in regulation plastic bag at the departure gate. But what inspires me to travel?

Tomorrow sees the launch of easyJet Holidays' Inspiration Initiative, a competition designed to uncover where travellers' wanderlust comes from. Following their list of 'wh-' questions, I took a look at my own inspirations.


With my grandparents in Venice

Way before granny chic was cool, I was turning to my grandparents for inspiration. When I was growing up, there were no coach trips to Bognor for my mum's parents; instead they lounged by Lake Garda, toured the Scottish Highlands and even jetted off to Jamaica. It wasn't just their choices of destinations that caught my attention though: it was the frequency of their trips. Now that I work full time, I'm wondering if being inspired by my globetrotting grandparents might be a curse as well as a blessing: apparently six holidays per year isn't 'normal'...


Inspired by Israel

Given my penchant for multiple annual holidays, I tend to take short haul trips within Europe. Branching out into Israel in 2010, I encountered not just a new continent and a new culture, but a desire to experience the world beyond  Europe's borders. From tanning in Tel Aviv to wandering the walled old city in Jerusalem, Israel captivated me and inspired me to try different destinations. Since that trip, I've visited Malaysia, Singapore, Morocco and Turkey – and still managed some European trips too.


We found the Duomo without Gianni's help

My first parent-free holiday, a week in Albufeira, may have been ideal for post-school fun, but inspiring it was not. One year on, my university friend and I chose Italy as a holiday destination, for the arbitrary reason that the cheapest available flight was to Milan. Ten days of ill-prepared independent travel ensued; selected highlights of which included a heated argument with an Italian pensioner on a train and getting so lost in a random suburb of Bologna by night that we had to appeal to the helpful Gianni of Blockbuster Video for directions. By the end of the trip, we'd mastered the art of ordering three-scoop ice creams in Italian, seen more churches than some bishops ever will and had almost as good a sense of direction as Gianni. My interest in independent travel had definitely been awakened.


The Alhambra

Spain. It would be a surprise to regular readers if I said anywhere else, and I'd hate to disappoint. Holidaying in the south of Spain as a teenager certainly fuelled my fondness for sunshine, and moving to Seville on my year abroad from university led to my full-blown love affair with the country. It's not just Andalucia that inspires me, though: Spain's diversity encourages me to return time and time again. There's the cosmopolitan-meets-traditional mix that is Madrid, the striking monuments of old Castile, the chic Catalan city of Barcelona and the wild natural landscapes of Galicia. And that's only scratching the surface of Spain.

Inspiration Initiative nominees:

1) Starry-Eyed Travels
2) Becoming Sevillana
3) Rambling Tart
4) Jessica In Search Of
5) Ruthie Rolo

You can find out more about the easyJet Holidays Inspiration Initiative competition and how to enter here.
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