Wednesday, June 29, 2016

The Bosphorus ferry tour of Istanbul

April 4, 2015

I was super excited! It was going to be a 2-week long trip in Turkey, starting from Istanbul. Not many would be aware that Istanbul or Constantinopole of ancient times,  is a city on two continents - one part in Asia (known locally as Anatolia) and other part in Europe.  The Bosphorus Strait runs across the city dividing it into continents and connects the Black Sea to the Marmara Sea. The Strait has been a site of significant settlement and civilisation since ancient times. It was here, on the European side of the Bosphorus, the Greeks founded the city of Byzantium, which later came to be known as Istanbul.

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We landed at the airport and hired a cab to our hotel near Sultanahmet square. We were waiting for the cab when a German backpacker student approached us and asked if we would be willing to share a cab with her.  Of course, we agreed and started off towards the city (50 TL per person). It took us a good two hours to make our way to our hotel. The sights and sounds as we neared the city, felt familiar - the chaos on the road, traffic jams, ladies and children [most of them were the displaced Syrian refugees :( ] selling trinkets on the street and lots and lots of crowds everywhere. The driver took upon himself to show us his beautiful city as we rode by. The traffic was heavy as we passed along the Bosphorus Strait, but the sights were stunning.

The air travel, and the cab ride had drained us out for the day. It was almost 6 pm in the evening when we checked in to our hotel. It was a cold and windy day and the weather was unusually cold at 6 degrees Celcius for that time of the year.  We wrapped ourselves in jackets and headed out to explore the neighbourhood and grab some food.

We had a quick dinner of Mezes (local word for appetizers) in a nearby Turkish restaurant. Being a vegetarian, left me with very little options on the first day. I  ordered some falafel and hummus. The bread was complimentary. It was a big roti like bread sprinkled with a variety of seeds, including sesame seeds.  The hummus which came with it was lipsmackingly delicious. Later, in my coming days, I found out that vegetarians do have plenty of food options in Turkey. Not only in a big city like Istanbul but elsewhere too.  Its good to go green ;)

We still had to plan our 3-day stay in Istanbul. Our hotel owner was a friendly and helpful guy. He made us feel comfortable with all the little tips and pointers one needs to get around a new city in a new country. Not only he helped us book  our Istanbul tours but he also helped us in booking the Cappadocia and Izmir tours!

We decided to take the Bosphorus Strait Tour early in the morning the next day. We were picked up at our hotel in a bus and dropped near the ferry point.<span class="Apple-converted-space"> We were a group of around 12-15 people, all excited to start the tour. </span>I was wondering how will I brave the biting cold on the open deck of the cruise. Hubby was insistent  that we be on the open deck on the top floor to enjoy the view rather than be in the cosy warmth of the covered lower deck. I agreed.

Our first halt was at the Ortakoy mosque, one of the most famous locations on the Bosphorus. It is a picturesque mosque with the Bosphorus bridge in the background. We stopped here for about 40 minutes and got ample of time to see the mosque and get some shopping done as well. The mosque is very pretty as you see in the pics below with beautiful in-laid tiles and decorated ceilings. The area near the mosque is lined with roadside shops selling knick knacks and other items. We were lucky to find some beautifully embroidered table cloths at a steal deal and a pair of gloves to help me beat the chill.

The Bosphorus bridge joins the Asian side with the European side of the city. As we ferried on, we passed under the bridge to reach the Kucuksu Pavilion. This was the Sultan’s guesthouse during his frequent hunting expeditions and is now turned into a museum. It is a beautiful palace with intricate engravings and other motifs adorning the walls. We spent around an hour at this place clicking away to glory.

Back on the ferry, we were treated to some delectable cookies and a sweet sherbet. Munching on the food, we were drinking in the beauty of the stunning views of the city.

Our next stop was the Rumesli fortress built by the Ottoman king, Sultan Mehmed-II. We were told that the fortress was constructed at the narrowest point of the Bosphorus strait, opposite an Anatolian Castle on the other side. These two vantage points served to protect the city from invaders via the Strait and also to prevent any aid from the Black Sea to reach the city during its Turkish seige. Interestingly, this fortress, was built in a very short span of 4 months and 16 days to help the conquest of the city from the Byzantines.

We clicked a lot of random pictures while listening to our guide narrating us the history of the place. The view of the Bosphorus strait from the top of the fortress was amazing! We hurried back down so as to not miss seeing the gigantic chains, which run between Rumeli fortress and the Anatolian Castle on the other side. These were again used to safeguard the city by preventing the enemy ships from crossing the narrow strait.

The highlight of our cruise though, was the yummy lunch they served us on the the ferry. Inspite of being a vegetarian, my options were not limited and I was served a delicious spread of  close to 8-10 cold </span>Turkish mezes and soft drinks. I loved the mezes so much that I ended up asking the guide about its recipes and was not surprised that a lot of effort of pounding and grinding the spices, lent the dishes its delicious flavours.

After lunch, we started cruising again towards the Black Sea. Our last stop was at the fishing village of Anadolu Kavagi. It is a typical fishing village dotted with  fish-n-chips shops, not far from the mouth of the Black Sea. There were ruins of a castle up a nearby hill, which we intended to see. The view from the top was quite raved about. The walk to the castle was quite steep and it took us around 20-25 minutes to get there. The castle had a lovely restaurant overlooking the Black Sea. There was nothing much remaining of the castle except its walls. However, we soaked ourselves in the vastness of the Black Sea spread out there to our heart's content! It feels amazing to experience the history and culture of a foreign city in such a wonderful way.

On the way down, we saw a local lady in a lovely local attire, swirling something like a pizza base in her hands. On getting closer, I saw that it was a small kiosk selling something very similar to aloo parathas – Gozleme Patate. She had small bowls filled with mashed potatoes, &amp; cheese and was expertly making those Gozlemes by making them fly like saucers. All the trek up and down the castle had whetted our appetites and we ordered one plate of those steaming hot parathas (Gozlemes ;)) We relished every bit of it along with the mesmerising views that the castle offered us. The new culture, new cuisine, ever-sociable Turks and the new sights made our trip a truly memorable one.

Back on the ferry, I convinced my hubby to sit on the lower deck ensconced in the warmth of the cabin. We reached our drop-off point in around 45 minutes bidding adieu to the wonderful Bosphorus!

This cruise is one of the must-do's in Istanbul and will definitely leave you with long-lasting, and scenic memories :)

Monday, June 20, 2016

Tryst with Nature and Solitude @ Sakleshpur

May 14-16, 2016

Sakleshpur is a quaint little hill station, tucked away on the slopes of the verdant Western ghats. Famous for its coffee plantations, the town is amidst green hills full of coffee, cardamom, pepper and areca plantations. It is not as popular as the neighbouring Coorg but nevertheless, equally beautiful, less commercialized and more peaceful.

Our drive from Bangalore was a beautiful one on wonderfully maintained, lush green roads. We reached the destination in under 5 hours with stops in between for refreshments.The Bangalore-Mangalore (BM) Road which took us to Sakleshpur is a beautiful tree-lined road offering scenic views time and again. The road is lined with picturesque tall hedges enclosing coffee and pepper plantations within. While driving, we could also see swathes of mist flying down towards our car. That was truly a sight to behold as we felt we are floating in the clouds! The mild temperatures, cool, fresh breeze, abundant greenery interspersed with bright red May flowers in their full bloom, made for a refreshing sight.

We were really thrilled to be at such a place, away from the crowds of Bangalore and also from the crowds usually seen at other popular hill stations at this time of the year.

On reaching Sakleshpur, we found our way to our homestay, which was located some 15 odd kms away from the town. We checked in our homestay at around noon and decided to spend our time relaxing there in the afternoon.

Evening came and we wanted to get out and explore the rural surroundings. Deciding to take a stroll nearby, we walked on and reached vast, rolling expanses of grasslands, without any civilization in sight. It felt magical to be in the middle of nowhere, with just small hills covered with lush green vegetation rising in the background. We proceeded along the mud path on the grassland and reached a small rivulet flowing through a few paddy fields. There was a small arch-shaped bridge, which helped us cross over to the paddy fields. It all seemed very charming and serene! Thatches of hay lay stacked in the paddy fields; a lone village woman making her way back to her village, seemed picturesque!

Suddenly dark clouds started gathering in the sky and we decided to hurry our way back to the homestay. Already tired with the day's driving, we decided to call it a day.

The next day after a hearty breakfast, we decided to visit the ancient Belur temple, renowned for its architectural beauty. We were advised against visiting the Manjarabad fort and the Bisle view point. The fort it seems was in a filthy condition and the road leading to the Bisle view point was in a bad shape as well. Hence, we decided on Belur.

The drive to Belur from Sakleshpur was again a very smooth one with verdant roads all the way. It took us around 1 hour to reach Belur and we parked our car near the temple wall in one of the lanes there. We hired a government guide at the entrance of the temple. He was to charge us Rs 300 for about 30-35 minutes of the guided tour of the main temple.

He explained all the sculptures and carvings on the temple gopuram, and on the walls, in detail. He was an expert in his work – I guess practice made him talk perfectly in a rhythm non stop! The lady with the mirror; the queen who danced on the pedestal in front of the main shrine; the fashion (saaj shringar) in those days; all these and other stories carved on the temple walls fascinated us. The soapstone carvings are so intricate that the temple indeed seems to be decorated with a filigree all around it.We were mesmerized by the architectural beauty of the temple and were  dumbstruck with the intricate carvings it has. One of the pillars near the sanctum sanctorum, actually used to rotate around its axis till some 200-300 years ago (Picture below). A architectural wonder, I must say!

It was about 1 pm in the afternoon and hunger pangs started to kick in. There were no restaurants or eateries in sight near Belur. We started towards Sakleshpur hoping for some delicious  lunch. We stopped at a vegetarian restaurant next to the Ossoor coffee estates on BM road. The place was full and we had to wait for 5 minutes before we could get a table for ourselves. The waiter got us seated and handed us the menu card. And man, what an extensive menu they had! – They had everything from North Indian, South Indian to Chinese. The food was tasty and the quantities were huge. While we were busy eating, the rain gods descended upon us with a fervour. The rains lashing in the adjacent lush green coffee estate  made for a splendid sight from the restaurant (Meal with a view! :D).We ended our meal with a delicious filter coffee, which it seems was from their own coffee estate. So obviously we ended up buying 2kgs of their coffee powder and some garam masala before we started for our homestay again.

The rains had subsided by the time we reached our homestay. However, later in the evening, the rains started again with loud thunderstorms and lightning.  It was already dark outside by 6pm and the atmosphere was cool and windy.We decided that it was best to spend our time indoors. We wrapped ourselves warm and chillaxed in the room with a cup of hot chai and a good book on the kindle.

Although, there is not much to sightsee in Sakleshpur, it makes for a good short stay if one is willing to spend time with oneself amidst nature.

Finding a place in the lap of nature, beholding the undulating landscape of the Western ghats, with not a soul in a sight, made our weekend getaway even better! We could unwind away from the humdrum of the city and could truly drift away in the clouds of Sakleshpur.

Route taken from Bangalore: ORR- Tumkur Road- NH-48 – BM Road- Sakleshpur