Thursday, 22 April 2010

Last one home's a rotten egg!

Simon made it to London City Airport this morning, having talked his way on to a flight that was supposedly full, only to find plenty of empty seats. That reminded me to call BA and cancel our remaining bookings, to ensure the seats can be re-allocated to others who need them. The man I spoke to sounded genuinely pleased that I had bothered.

Sophie, Carl and Tilly have also been transferred from their indirect KLM flight to the BA direct flight this lunchtime. So by this evening, we will all be where we are supposed to be.

Alex wants to have a welcome home party - an excellent idea. I certainly feel like celebrating!

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Divide and conquer

When we return to the city, we go to find out more about the poster we noticed at the tram stop. It turns out to be advertising a book, which I decide to buy. We check back into the Sapphire hotel, and pay in advance since we've decided to set off early for the airport in case we can get on the earlier flight. Then we meet the Walters at the Grup restaurant near the hippodrome - we've decided that we'll continue to eat here every night until we escape from Istanbul, Groundhog Day-style.

When we get back to hotel, we check the BA site and to our dismay our flight tomorrow is cancelled. This is particularly frustrating since the BBC is reporting that airspace is beginning to open up. We take stock and review our options. We think that we might get back quicker if we split up, since single seats might be easier to find. We also decide to return to the airport in time for the first flight out in the morning - if it is reinstated, we might be able to get a standby place.  This means getting up at 5 am. We're feeling pretty despondent at this point, and decide a bottle of wine is the answer. Perhaps not the best preparation for an early start!

Via Facebook, we ask Tash to call BA in the UK for us and try to book us on an earlier flight than Saturday, and she manages to get me on the afternoon flight tomorrow, but there is only one seat. While we're doing this, Lord Adonis (what kind of name is that?) announces that all UK airspace is being opened from 2200 UK time - right about now. But BA still shows the morning and lunchtime flights to Heathrow as cancelled. We decide to check again at 5am, but by the time we go to bed it's midnight.

I can't sleep, so at 4.30 I get up and check the flight status - the two earlier flights are still cancelled, but mine is operating. There seems little point going to the airport to stand by for a cancelled flight, so I switch off the alarm and finally get some sleep. It's 8.30 when we wake up and Simon tries to get through on the Turkish BA number but it won't connect. Then Sophie calls from the airport, where she has managed to book them on to a KLM flight via Amsterdam on Thursday, and offers to book Simon on, too. We accept this gratefully. She also tells us that my flight is apparently overbooked and recommends I get to the airport early.

After some deliberation, we decide that I'll take the suitcase and leave Simon with a small rucksack, and he will try to get on standby - with hand luggage only this should be easier. We set off for the airport by tram, and are waved off by the shopkeeper who sold me the book yesterday. On the tram, a man called Mustapha engages me in conversation, endearingly keen to practise his English.

The airport is a little busier today, and the small queue at the BA desk a little less calm. They confirm that my seat is secure, but that the flight is full. They have a standby list but the sick, elderly and families with babies will have priority. It's three hours before my flight is due to start check in, so we pay an extortionate TL11.50 for a latte and feel justified in occupying the comfy chairs in the cafe until check in begins. Simon checks the KLM situation and decides he has a better chance on standby there - the flight is due to leave just before mine.

Check in is uneventful and with a boarding pass in my hand I begin to have faith that I might actually get home. I leave Simon to go through passport control, but 20 minutes later he finds me in the departure lounge having secured a standby seat on the KLM flight. As I wait to leave the gate, I watch his flight taxi and take off. My flight is uneventful, and I am met by Leigh who has kindly agreed to pick me up - this will get me home quicker than the Rail Air bus, and I can't wait to see Tash and Alex. In fact, I don't have to wait long as she's brought them with her!

The only disappointment is that Simon was unable to get a connecting flight and has to spend the night in Amsterdam. But our colleague there has found him a hotel and I'm confident that he'll make it home tomorrow.

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Between madness and chaos in a strange land

The title of this entry is from a poster opposite the tram stop where we began our journey to the airport this morning. It couldn't be more apt. My mailbox this morning contained an email from Sophie saying that their cancelled flight had been reinstated. My phone has been blocked due to all the calls to BA, but Simon called BA's local office as soon as it opened and although our flight was still cancelled, they offered us a flight tomorrow, which we accepted gratefully. Since the return journey by tram to the airport costs only 12TL we decide to go there on spec, just in case there are free seats on the Walters' flight or the one we were orginally booked onto today gets miraculously reinstated.

When we arrived, I checked at the BA desk, where the queue was surprisingly short and everybody remarkably calm. A TV crew was interviewing passengers nearby. The good news is that our flight tomorrow is still scheduled to depart, and they have also left our booking in place for Saturday, as back-up. The bad news is, all BA flights from Istanbul today are cancelled, including Sophie and Carl's. When I return to Simon who was minding our luggage, he is on the phone to the Reading Post, who are looking for an update. This story could run and run.

Simon calls Sophie who, it turns out, is already in a taxi en route to the airport, and less than impressed that BA contacted her when her flight was reinstated but neglected to do so when it was cancelled again. As I write this, Simon is waiting to meet them at the entrance to departures so he can show them where to find the BA desk. I hope they can get booked on a flight tomorrow, like us. When they get here, we'll head back to the city and check back in to the Sapphire Hotel. We'll be back tomorrow to have another go.

Monday, 19 April 2010

Not going home - again

So, for the second time, we begin our final day in Istanbul. Simon worked most of the day, I ran errands - stocking up on essentials that were running out due to our extended stay, buying gifts for those who are helping out at home and getting laundry done.  Wandering with time on my hands I found some parts of Istanbul I hadn't discovered before, but also got 'befriended' by carpet salesmen. They are apparently also having a hard time as the flow of tourists has largely dried up.

A visit to the travel agent uncovered a daily coach to Athens for 125 Euros, and we also found a coach to Dusseldorf for an exorbitant 350 Euros that will leave as soon as it has 45 passengers booked. Do the maths. As the day went on, there was encouraging news from NATS - Scottish airspace is to be opened up in the morning and possibly English airspace later on tomorrow. We begin to get our hopes up that we might get home.

We met the Walters as usual and had dinner at the Harem restaurant opposite the Sapphire Hotel. We left with the hope that we would see each other next in England. But when we got back to the hotel and checked the BA website, which said that they would not be operating any shorthaul flights before 7pm tomorrow. We went into our booking and - sure enough - cancelled. Then the inevitable runaround trying to re-book. The website says call us, the call centre has a recorded message saying go online. The German call centre that serves Turkey advertises extended hours but the recorded message gives its normal hours. Finally, I get a text from BA - the first since the start of the problems - confirming that the flight is cancelled, and it gives an 0800 number where they answer quite quickly. Initially they offer us a flight on 29th April - a full two weeks after we were supposed to leave. Then we explore other options and Izmir comes up with a flight on 26th which we agree to. Then suddenly a flight from Istanbul becomes free on Saturday 24th, and we snap that up.

Apparently, they are not booking any seats before saturday, although it is clear that some people who were unable to fly out will have un-used return seats. We're advised to monitor the BA website for news and to call when the restrictions are lifted, as we may well be able to secure earlier seats.

We could take a coach or a train but if we do, we'll be out of contact for at least a day while in transit and then will have to find onward connections. Meanwhile, BA will pay for our food and accommodation and we have free wi-fi. Given what needs to be done at work, we feel we need to be in touch with the office and we can work from here, at least part-time.

The biggest problem is the lack of communication about either the flight status or our options. We don't know whether to set off, or in which direction, for the best chance of getting home, or whether to wait for a flight. The news talks of royal navy rescue ships and alternative transport being laid on by airlines, but nobody we speak to knows anything about it. And anyway, we are nearly 2000 miles from a suitable port. It's a mess.

Sunday, 18 April 2010

A week in Istanbul

Sunday again, so today we will have been here for a week. At breakfast a waiter says the dust cloud is due here on Tuesday. The couple I met in reception yesterday have been told that if their flight doesn't take off tonight, they can't rebook until 29th April - that's over a week away! They're considering the train but worried about how they will prepare milk for their youngest child. After breakfast Simon goes to watch the Grand Prix and I check, which has full instructions on how to get back by train. We're also considering trying to find enough like-minded people to rent a coach.

I work for a couple of hours, then we set out towards the Kariye Museum on foot. Our route took us through the textile district, where I bought some more infidel knickers, and round the outside of the Grand Bazaar, which was closed today. We skirted round the side of the university and Suleymaniye Mosque and picked up the Sehzadebasi Cadesi, stopping to admire the Sehzadebasi Mosque and the aqueduct. We crossed Ataturk Boulevard and continued into the bridal district, where we were astonished by the gowns.

Two hours later we arrived at Kariye Museum, which is a 13th century Byzantine church with amazing frescos and mosaics.Like all churches here it has been converted to a mosque in the past, but most of the decoration was left intact. From here we walked up to the city walls and followed them to the tram line, emerging surprisingly at Sophie and Carl's hotel, the Barcelo. Then back to the hotel for a long-awaited conversation with Alex who is home at last.

We met the Walters in the usual place and went for a beer, then to the Turkestan restaurant that Tilly had wanted to go to before. We debate the options for returning home, including driving the 1900 miles. The flying ban in UK has been extended to tomorrow morning at 7am, but some airlines have completed test flights without any problems and are beginning to challenge the need for the ban.

Saturday, 17 April 2010

Archaeology Museum and more mosques

The weather is overcast this morning, so we decide to go to the Archaeology Museum. It rains a little on the way. The museum is in three sections; we start with the Museum of the Ancient Orient, which conains some interesting Egyptian artefacts and some murals, stelae and statues from Babylon. The Babylonian kings really liked to big themselves up, and were also rather strict - threatening to hang homeowners above their house if they built it too far out into a road, for example.

The museum of Turkish ceramics is housed in a charming building called the Tiled Pavilion and contains some beautiful tilework. The main museum is massive, covering several floors and containing a wide range of exhibits, so many that we ran out of steam eventually. One of the most impressive was the Alexander sarcophagus, and the most poignant were the Roman burial plaques. We were taken aback by the high prices in the cafeteria where we had to buy a snack because we had been in the museum so long.

We had a late lunch in the restaurant with the gift shop by the hippodrome, then went to explore two lesser mosques. The first, Sokollu Mehmet Pasa, was quite modest but in an interesting part of town with some traditional timber houses with overhanging balconies, most in a sad state of repair. The second, Kucuk Ayasophia, was my favourite so far - beautifully decorated inside and sympathetically restored.

We returned briefly to the hotel to check the news, which wasn't good, then headed off towards Taksim to meet Sophie and Carl. We walked over Galata Bridge and took the Tunel, then the antique tram to Taksim Square. We had a quick look at Taksim Park then got a text from Sophie asking us to meet them in the Cicek Pasaji, a charming arcade of restaurants, where we had dinner with Nefise.

Istiklal Cadesi was a sea of people, with the shops open late and clubs in the streets behind it's a popular spot in the evening. After dinner we joined them and Simon bought some Levis (for the same price as at home!). We spoke to Alex, who has left on the coach for Calais and is expected home about midday tomorrow. Then we took the funicular to Kabatas and the tram back to the hotel.

Friday, 16 April 2010

More eruption disruption

BBC World News is keeping us fairly well informed - just as well, since we've heard nothing from BA since they emailed to confirm our online check-in. We now know that flights won't resume before tomorrow, and we're beginning to realise that transferring to an earlier flight might be a mistake even if we get the chance. It could easily be cancelled, leaving us worse off.

After breakfast, I put in half a day's work to deal with the urgent issues in my inbox, since I was supposed to be back at the office today. It's a beautiful day so we have lunch al fresco, then back to the hotel where we watch the news again. It's Simon's turn on the laptop, so I go out shopping and discover that Istanbul is more enjoyable when you have time to chat to the people who tout for your trade. In the lobby of our hotel I meet  a retired couple who have booked the train as far as Bucharest rather than wait indefinitely for a flight.

We meet Sophie, Carl and Tilly nearby for a drink before dinner, but before we can order, the boys phone from France. Their travel plans have been changed and they will return by coach and ferry, arriving sunday, assuming they can get on a ferry without too much delay.

Thursday, 15 April 2010

Leaving today - or not

We awoke to the news that a cloud of ash from the volcano erupting in Iceland was disrupting flights in the UK. By the time we returned from breakfast it was clear that the eruption disruption was extensive, but we hoped for an update from Sophie and Carl who were booked on the flight before ours. I went to do last minute shopping and left Simon monitoring the situation. By the time we checked out, Sophie's flight had been cancelled. While we were having lunch it became clear that ours was, too, and we asked the Sapphire Hotel if they had a room.

They were full, but had already realised there was a good chance we would be stranded and had asked a sister hotel, the Maywood, if they could fit us in. A member of staff walked us there and showed us the room, which was lovely. It should be more expensive but they are matching the rate we were paying before.

It took ages to get through to BA but when we did they told us the first flight they could get us on was Tuesday afternoon. We can keep phoning in the hope of securing an earlier cancellation, and if we're lucky can transfer. We managed to book our new hotel room for the additional nights - and by now it was late afternoon. The final task was to buy enough underwear to see us through to Tuesday, which we did very cheaply in the clothing quarter.

The delay means that we won't be home when Alex gets back from skiing. We quickly put together a plan to cover our absence, We'll also have to let the builder know, as he's due to start work on Monday. And, of course, we have to tell the office we won't be in - although with wi-fi and a laptop I'm sure we can get some work done. Bottom line is, there's nothing we can do, so we may as well make the best of it.

We meet Sophie and co for dinner near the hippodrome with a sense of deja vu. During the meal we speak to Alex and explain what's happened. By the time we've finished, I'm feeling less philosophical. I just want to go home.

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Suleymaniye Mosque, New Mosque, Bosphorous Cruise and Hammam

Woke up late this morning, leg muscles a bit tight from so much walking. After breakfast, we set off for Suleymaniye Mosque which turned out to be closed for renovation. We bought a turkish coffee pot in the cooking implements quarter opposite a shop selling only eyes, and returned to the Galata Bridge via the plastic toys quarter and the clothing quarter. We visited Yenii Camii, the new mosque (only 400 years old!), then went looking for green plums near the grand bazaar. Our search for fruit was fruitless, but we grabbed a chicken kebab for Simon and a freshly squeezed grapefruit juice for me.

Went back to the cistern to meet Sophie and Carl and bought some roasted chestnuts, then walked back to the hotel for our cruise pick-up. Tilly made friends with the parrot in the Sapphire Hotel reception. Our tour guide turned out to have raced greyhounds in Reading and tried (and failed) to ingratiate himself with us by telling a story about ramming a police car while driving drunk. The tour first stopped at the spice market, where we bought some vanilla, then went to Kabatas to catch the boat.

It was an overcast day so not very warm but we braved the outside deck. There are some fantastic buildings along the coast, many very dilapidated, others with personal funiculars down to the beach. Coming back down the asian coast, we were lucky enough to see a school of dolphins.

When we got back we went for a drink opposite the hotel, then wandered towards Cemberlitas and found a restaurant for dinner. They provided a heater and pashminas so we could eat outside, but kept Sophie's card when she paid. She didn't notice until we got to the hammam, so we had to dash back. The waiter was most embarrassed. The hammam was great - we had the luxury package plus indian head massage and emerged feeling squeaky clean and relaxed. Everything was provided, including capacious pants to wear. I took the tram back to Gulhane, followed by a short walk through mostly deserted streets to the hotel.

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Ayia Sophia, two bazaars, the Galata Tower and Dolmabahce Palace

Nefise led the sightseeing today, we met her and the Walters at Ayia Sophia. It was very busy, but still the people were dwarfed - it's massive. Restoration is ongoing and will probably never end.

Nefise led us to the Grand Bazaar, and we left the boys drinking in a cafe and went to benchmark prices. It's massive; you could easily get lost in it. From there, we walked to the spice market which is much more compact and manageable. Then we walked across the Galata Bridge, which has cars and trams on the top level with fish restaurants underneath. Anglers line its sides. Once across, we stopped for a beer by the water, at the second attempt - the first place we stopped didn't serve alcohol.

We climbed the steep hill to the Galata Tower, from where there are great views of the city. The first recorded human flight took place from there, 6km across the Bosphorous, but the airman was exiled as a threat to national security. We were going to take the antique tram to Taksim Square but it wasn't running because of a demonstration. We made a small diversion to find the Pera Palace, where Carl and Sophie stayed on their honeymoon, but it was closed for renovation. We continued along Istiklal Cadesi, which was just like Oxford Street, teeming with people and lined with familiar stores like Starbucks, Lush and Accessorise. It was a long walk up to Taksim Square where the demonstration had just finished. There were a couple of armoured cars and many police in riot gear, including quite a few women. Nefise explained that it's a popular career choice for female graduates who can't get another job.

Simon and I left the others and took the funicular down to Kabatas on the coast and then picked up a tram to the end of the line and walked the rest of the way to Dolmabahce Palace, which we named the palace of bling. Massive and hugely impressive, but so ornate it makes your eyes hurt. We got a tram all the way back to Gulhane, then went to meet Sophie and co at the cistern. We took them to our part of town for an aperitif on the comfy cushions and had dinner on the roof terrace of the Ozler restaurant near the hotel, which was lovely until it got annexed by a rowdy party of German students.

Monday, 12 April 2010

Topkapi Palace, the Blue Mosque and Cistern

We set off early for Topkapi Palace, hoping to get there before the rush. There were already some tour groups in the first and second courtyard, but Simon had the idea to go straight to the far end of the complex, where we were the only visitors.

The palace is vast and was developed over centuries, on a commanding site overlooking the Golden Horn. Many of the buildings feature ornate filigree work and tiles, with distinctive niches. Pools and fountains, now dry, once provided humidity and small fountains inside the window frames ensured a cooling breeze.
We bumped into Sophie, Carl and Tilly in the treasury, admiring the gem-encrusted weapons and medals, and again outside the Harem. By lunchtime it was very crowded, and we left for lunch at the world-famous Pudding Shop, once the start of the hippie trail but  now a rather ordinary self-service restaurant. Our plan to visit the Blue Mosque was foiled by prayer time so we explored the monoliths in the hippodrome. When we did make it into the Blue Mosque it was hard to see past the lighting grid to the cupola above.

After a brief visit to Sultan Ahmed's tomb, we descended into the Basilica Cistern, an astonishing space below the city filled with towering columns. The giant carp were a surprise, as were the Medusa heads that hold up two of the columns. Emerging into the sunshine we decided to find a rooftop bar and have a drink - an expensive choice but the view from the Sultan Pub was impressive.

We had been invited to dinner by the family of Nefise, who used to be Sophie's au pair. Sophie had confirmed that we would meet at her hotel at 6 before dinner at Nefise's house, so we took a brief walk round the park and then went in search of some baklava as a gift for our hosts. We easily found the Barcelo Hotel by tram, and took the tram again to Nefise's, changing to the main line train for the final leg. The trams are crowded but frequent and good value at TL1.50 per journey.

Dinner at Nefise's was lovely; her mother is an excellent cook and her father insisted on driving us back. Some friends dropped in, too, and one of them entertained us by reading our coffee grounds. And tomorrow Nefise has offered to show us all her Istanbul.

Sunday, 11 April 2010

Istanbul - first impressions

I have waited so long to visit Istanbul that it could easily be a disappointment. Early signs are encouraging, though. Getting here was easy enough - the flight was smooth and on time, our promised free hotel transfer showed up and initial impressions of the hotel are good. Safir Hotel is in a quiet pedestrianised street very close to the Topkapi Palace and Ali on reception was keen to explain what to see and how best to see it. Our room is traditionally furnished and quite compact but has everything we need, including bathrobes and free wi-fi.

It's cloudy and not very warm - in fact, I think it was warmer at home - but I can't wait to get out and explore. We had passed many of the key sites on the drive from the hotel, it's all very close by. Rather than head for these, we walk down to the waterfront. I'm immediately struck by how grey the people are; everybody wears dark, drab colours. There are vendors selling roasted chestnuts, bagels and fish sandwiches, and boats touting for passengers. We walk up as far as the Galata Bridge and quite by chance find ourselves at the New Mosque - which is still half  century old - and the spice market where we buy some sumac that we've been looking for at home.

For dinner we go to Hamdi's restaurant, recommended for its view across the Golden Horn. The view is certainly stunning but the service is rather quirky, with dishes arriving in  no particular order and then being whisked away before we've finished with them. We wander back to the hotel via the Topkapi Palace - there is some uncetainty about what time it opens so we want to check. No opening hours are on display but I'm so glad we went. The minarets of Aya Sophia are spectacular, illuminated against the night sky, and there are so few people about. I'm sure it will be very different in the morning.