Category Archives: Europe

Maya’s Corner Cafe – Istanbul – Tasty, cheap and well placed for tourists

When I travel I often get caught out needing something quick to eat. Whilst I am amongst the tourist attractions I find that cafes and restaurants will charge a premium due to their locality to the areas heaviest with tourists. Putting myself into this situation due to a lack of research and preparedness is one of things I berate myself over the most. At lunch time I just want a quick and cheap snack. Not a sit down meal with obligatory bread and the lure of a beer and an ice cream.

So to stumble upon a top quality and cheap place to eat only 3 minutes walk from Hagia Sophia in Istanbul was a stroke of luck.

Maya’s Corner Cafe is a very small hole in the wall type eatery which offers a small selection of healthy chicken doner wraps and salads. At the time I visited there was just one table for two outside which was taken, but I was invited to sit inside. This enabled me to watch closely as my Chicken Doner Wrap was lovingly but swiftly prepared. My travel partner had the same wrap but with roasted vegetables added. Both were delicious, though I would say that the wrap with the vegetables was better.

Also on offer are salads, a veggie wrap, fresh orange juice and teas and coffees. All at a very reasonably price and but a short stroll from Hagia Sophia, the Basilica Cistern, Topkapi Palace and the Blue Mosque.

Maya’s Corner Cafe is located at Alemdar Mahallesi, Yerebatan Caddesi, No 25. Lunch for two cost around 20 Turkish Lira, which is roughly UK£5.50 or US$9.00.

SuB Hotel – Istanbul

That first journey when you arrive in a country is usually the toughest. Finding an ATM, getting to grips with the local public transport, juggling a map and a bag whilst searching for a hotel. Add to that a level of heat somewhat higher than this Brit usually has to contend with and you have yourself a challenge.

So when I burst through the doors of the unassuming SuB Hotel in the Karakoy district of Istanbul, I was in need of a cold drink and a sit down. The guy at the reception desk clearly knows his stuff though, as he showed me straight to a seat and offered me refreshment.

Three days later it had become clear to me that SuB is a hotel that recognises the importance of excellent customer service. The staff were all very welcoming and helpful without stepping over that unseen line were helpfulness becomes annoying. That wonderful welcome was merely an indication of what would follow.

The hotel itself is a little unusual. Anybody who likes a formal, modern, and dare I say stuffy hotel experience may well find SuB to be not to entirely to their tastes. The hotel has been designed with a particular look in mind and I feel that what I am about to say needs to done carefully….

“SuB has some attributes that seem to have more in common with a hostel. But in a good way.”

The reception area has a selection of used books for example. And the walls around reception are adorned with some interesting and  “opinionated” art which compliments the attractive exposed brickwork. The cafe area next to reception has a charmingly hap hazard blackboard explaining the food options. Relaxing chilled music plays gently in the background at all times creating a wonderful atmosphere. These are all plus points. I loved sitting in the cafe area, tapping my toe to the superb tunes whilst I planned my daily adventures.

The rooms, mine was spotlessly clean by the way, are also a little unlike your average hotel room. My bed had a metal head board painted in bright red. The door to the bathroom was also made of heavy riveted metal. Neither of which was an issue, and some three weeks later I remember this clearly, which can only be a good thing.

The Star of the Show

The star of the show though, bettering even the superb staff, was the excellent breakfast. Every morning a large buffet of cheeses, breads, meats, jams, biscuits and more is crammed onto a large table. Eggs are cooked to order and the chef even brought us out his own special creation. On day one we had a delicious panna cotta and on our third morning we were offered a rice pudding which was a challenger to my mother’s. There is a culinary genius hidden in the SuB kitchen I think. And if you stay, be sure to try the home made hazelnut spread. It is wonderful.

Breakfast at SuB

The hotel is located in a great area. It is only a 10 minute stroll from the Karakoy metro stop which takes you quickly across the Golden Horn to the major attractions. Close by is also the interesting Tunel train, a short funicular line which climbs the steep hill up to the shopping street of Istiklal Cad and Taksim Square. Karakoy itself has a great selection of small restaurants, some overlooking the Bosphurus Straight. These are no more than 5 minutes walk from SuB.

The Price

I paid just under 100 Euros per night for a double room, which when compared to other hotels in Istanbul seems about right.

Competition seems strong in Istanbul so I don’t doubt there are better hotels in this price bracket. But if you are a semi retired backpacker like me, with a love of relaxing music and great food, SuB is probably the place for you.

Their website
http://subkarakoy.com/

Location on Google Maps
https://www.google.com/maps/place/SuB+Hotel/@41.025513,28.979023,17z/data=!3m1!4b1!4m2!3m1!1s0x14cab9ddcaec8d3b:0x2c00f95f406c7888

My Explorations in Istanbul
click here

How I explored Istanbul in 1 Day

No city can realistically be explored in 1 day, not least a city as vast and historic as Istanbul. But I love a challenge, so with only one full day to spare I gave it shot.

1. Hagia Sophia

Hagia Sophia, Istanbul

This huge and imposing building, which dominates the skyline as you cross the Golden Horn, was originally built as a Byzantine church in AD537. Then it was a mosque when Constantinople became the capital of the Ottoman empire. But in the 1930’s the Turkish Government re-opened it as a museum.

The scale of the building becomes truly apparent once you enter the museum. The main dome is 55 metres high and there is so much open space between the ground and the roof that a haze of dust hangs in the air, giving a mystical feel to the place.

The decorations seem to be mostly Christian, but in stark contrast four huge black and gold medallions are hung high up. They bear some beautiful gold Ottoman calligraphy.

Inside Hagia Sophia, Istanbul

The best views can be had from the first floor, accessed by a fantastic spiralling walkway. Windows on the first floor also enable great views out towards the Blue Mosque. It is worth seeking these windows out.

Access costs 30 Turkish Lira, which is around UK£8. It is open every day except Monday. Be sure to look out of the windows. Most people seemed to miss the impressive views that they afford.

2. The Blue Mosque

An easy walk across the park from the Sophia brings you to the equally striking Blue Mosque.  Be sure to turn around and get a proper look back at Hagia Sophia once you reach the mosque.

The exterior of the Blue Mosque is quite something. The size of the building becomes apparent as you reach the base and look up.

Sadly at the moment I reached the Mosque the call to prayer started. My awful planning showing itself once again. I was assured by the tour guides outside that the interior is an awesome spectacle. I am sure it is, but I will have to come back next time to see for myself.

Access is free though, and I was told that the mosque offers clothing to tourists not dressed suitably.

3. The Grand Bazaar

This is something I was really looking forward to. I hoped it would rival the crazy, confusing and exciting souks of Morocco.

In fact the Grand Bazaar is far more organised and sedate. It is a rather pleasant shopping experience, with areas specifically for gold, handbags, belly dancing costumes and the like.

The Grand Bazaar

Exploring is easy and the goods on offer are more than enough to keep a souvenir hunter busy for hours. I didn’t need any souvenirs though so after an hour I moved on..

4. The Spice Market

Now this was an experience. The Spice Market was crowded and loud, with the pungent smell of spices in the air. The sellers work hard to draw customers into the shops, handing out free samples of Turkish Delight as they delivered their smooth sales pitch.

The Turkish Delight, offered in every colour and shape imaginable, makes a trip here worth it. I left with a box to devour later.

Turkish Delight at the Istanbul Spice Market

5.The Boshpurus

Istanbul is dominated by the Bosphurus, which divides the European and Asian parts of the city and is one the busiest shipping lanes in the world. The Spice Market is right at the end of the Galata Bridge across the Golden Horn at Eminönü, and here a great number of tour boats and ferries dock.

The tours, venturing in all directions, take 2 to 3 hours and are priced from 20 Turkish Lira (UK£5.50).

As I was trying to cram as much into the day as possible I opted to take the passenger ferry to Üsküdar instead, which is over on the Asian part of the city.

The views were great from the top deck, and if you can’t spare 2 hours for a tour this makes perfect sense.

The View from The Bosphurus

Üsküdar seemed a little unremarkable, so I stayed for a Turkish coffee and then boarded the ferry back to Eminönü. I sat on the other side to get a different view.

The journey cost 4 Turkish Lira each way. Payment is made with some metal tokens, available from the slightly confusing machines outside the ferry terminal. Luckily there always seems to a helpful official close by in Istanbul.

If you too are short of time you should consider the ferry trip. There are various destinations and the views really are splendid.

7. Tünel

I love finding slightly unusual things to do and I spotted this on a map I was carrying around with me.

By this point in my self guided tour the sun was beginning to set and I was determined to eat in the Galatasary area, which is high up above the Golden Horn. I crossed the Galata Bridge, trying a fish sandwich (balik ekmek) on the way, and then I sought out the Tünel funicular railway.

Tunel in Istanbu;

This short service saves a rather tiring walk up the hill. It is the only funicular railway I have ever seen that is underground, and in fact this is the second oldest underground railway in the world. It was built in 1875, 12 years after the London Underground was completed.

It only takes a couple of minutes to reach the top station, but the tunnel is well lit so I could see that it was brick lined. I guess I am a bit of an engineering geek and I found this a really interesting experience. So much so that when I ventured back into the tunnel for a photograph a local chap became concerned for my safety.

The  Tünel costs 4 Turkish Lira per journey, a small price to pay to save your energy for…

8. Istiklal Street

After visiting this absolutely brilliant and very long pedestrianised street I can say with great confidence that Istanbul has one hell of a night-life.

The road starts close to the Tünel and leads all the way to Taksim Square. As I walked I encountered street performers, happy couples, excitable kids and endless restaurants and snacks that made my mouth water. The street has a great buzz in the evening.

The side streets and alleyways that lead away from Istiklal street are quieter but just as interesting. I saw endless bars and music clubs as well as cheaper restaurants.

I can not speak for any other evening destinations in Istanbul, but I am pretty sure that Istiklal Street would not disappoint.

What I Missed

Well, that wasn’t a bad effort for one day. Though I did miss the Topkapi Palace – but I managed to visit the morning after before my flight.

I also think the longer Bosphurus Cruises would be worth trying.

And I wish I had managed to get inside the Blue Mosque.

What Would You Have Done Differently?

I admit to not liking planning, so I always miss something great. Let me know what your favourite Istanbul sites are and tell me where I went wrong…

 

 

 

Museums, Climbing and Weddings in my own big smoke – London City

For some bizarre reason, I have always found visiting London a bit of a chore. I think this is because it usually is a chore. Despite living so close to the big smoke, a train fare from our part of Kent can cost as much as £36 and it takes at least an hour. But over the past month I have found myself visiting London as a tourist.

My first port of call on this tourist adventure was the Natural History Museum. A perfect antidote to the train fare as this wonderful museum is completely free.

I actually visited the museum to see an exhibition by photographer Sabastiao Salgado entitled Genesis. Which was travel related photography of the highest order. The photographs were of spectacular wildlife, landscapes and remote communities.

Sebatiao Salgado

I have never been a major fan of black and white photography but this guy is clearly talented. If you ever get the chance to see his work I would highly recommend it. Or you could buy his book.

After this I took a stroll through the museum itself. I am a bit of a science geek so I was in my element. I got to see the dinosaur, which I am pleased to report was not missing.

Up at the o2

Next I headed off for our second tourist activity of the day at the o2, or as it used to be know, the Millennium Dome.

This upturned wok of a building was constructed for the millennium celebrations. I never visited in the lead up to the year 2000 as I was too busy worrying that all of my gadgets would cease to work. So this was in fact my first ever visit. The dome now contains many restaurants, some shops and a cinema, and is used to stage music concerts.

I was not here to explore the interior of the Dome however. I was going to climb over the Dome.

After completing a disclaimer, the likes of which would never stand up in court, the group was ushered into “base camp”, which was a room with flimsy walls and lots of seats. We watched a “comedy” introductory video before being issued with footwear, jump suits and a harness.

The route over the Dome is in fact on a suspended walkway which is a bit like a very long trampoline. After being shown how to use the harness I was volunteered to be the responsible leader on the ascent. Which doesn’t really say much for the rest of the group as I am not famed for my ability to act responsibly in situations such as this..

Up at the o2

Nevertheless, it seems I am good with mildly complicated safety clips and found myself making good progress. The rest of the group got held up by somebody with no ability to carry out simple instructions so I reached the summit and had the viewing area all to myself for a few minutes.

At first the climb is quite steep and it takes some effort to progress. But as one starts to climb higher the the slope shallows. Not really very difficult..

The views were great, and it occurred to me that there can’t be many places in London that afford a 360 degree view such as can be enjoyed from upon the Dome.

The View from the o2

Eventually the rest of the group arrived, most clearly fed up with being behind the person that could not operate the clip, and who it also transpired was entirely petrified of heights. Which kind of begs the question, why climb up the Millennium Dome. It isn’t like the Dome creeps up on you and before you realise it you are halfway up. It can be seen from quite a long way off.

Anyway, after enjoying the view for a while we started to descend. This was incredibly easy with gravity on my side so I put the hammer down and bounded like a new born giraffe so that I could capture a photograph of the group as they descended. Some of the group inexplicably got stuck behind the now hysterical fearer of heights again.

Descending the o2

Tickets to climb the o2, or “Up at the o2” as it seems to be know, start at £26.

Seven days later I spent two more days in London as part of a family wedding.

I was fortunate enough to be offered the chance to have a tour of The Houses of Parliament. This was somewhere I had never thought of visiting, but it was a thoroughly interesting and at times breathtaking experience.

Sadly no photographs are allowed, but we visited most of the important rooms, including the House of Lords and the House of Commons. We also saw endless photographs, statues and our guide, a jovial scouser with a hit and miss sense of humour had plenty of interesting bits of information to tell us.

Tours can be arranged as follows (click on this link for info).

The following day I attended a fantastic family wedding at The Swan at the Globe , which is the brilliant restaurant at the Globe Theater. The location of the restaurant is superb, just a short walk from London Bridge railway station, and it enjoys this astounding view.

St Pauls Cathedral - View from The Swan at the Globe

I have visited a fair few cities over the past 4 years. So it was really interesting to look upon London with the eyes of a tourist.  I can now see that it really is deserving of it’s status as one of the greatest cities in the world. It may be expensive, but on the flip side a large number of museums are free to enter. Street food is very big at the moment which makes eating almost reasonable. Transport around London, whilst a little expensive, is incredibly easy. And the sights are actually pretty astonishing.

So I will be back, as it would be rude not to.

Tenerife – The West Coast and Mount Teide

A lot of people were a little surprised when we said we we were going on holiday to Tenerife. The Canary Islands are a haven for beach lovers and beer guzzlers though, so I suppose it did seem rather far removed from our usual adventures. But we had undertaken a smattering of research and we knew that the volcanic Spanish island could offer more than beaches, beer and fry ups.

We have a slightly strange love of local transport. There is something quite rewarding about successfully negotiating foreign lands by local bus, shared taxi or worse. But we also have wonderful memories of our time in New Zealand, where we hired a car. Having the car gave us the freedom to explore thoroughly, and it was this sort of licence to roam that we wanted for this short break. So we hired a car.

I was very proud of myself when I found a great car hire deal online 3 weeks before we left. The company I found offered a mid sized car for less than £20 per day. On reflection I think we will return to “making it up as we go” next time. We queued for 3 hours for our car at the Goldcar desk at Tenerife South airport, whilst the other more well known providers sat and twiddled their thumbs. If you take one thing from reading this blog, it should probably be that you never ever use Goldcar if you travel to The Canaries.

That said, the car itself was fine. I had never driven a left hand drive car on the other side of the road before, and despite assurances from many people who have, I was still a little apprehensive. I promptly hit the kerb as I drove out of the car park and Claire had to politely suggest I drive on the correct side of the road shortly afterwards. I also had an annoying habit of trying to change gear with the door handle at the most inappropriate moments.

After leaving the airport the quick run along the motorway went well, but then we had to climb up into the hills to our hotel in Vilaflor. Driving along the endless switchback roads to get there was a baptism of fire that would set me in good stead for the week.

Our hotel, Alta Montana, was an absolute gem. We had a wonderful room with a curving balcony looking out across the hillside and down towards the south coast. At 1,400m above sea level Vilaflor is the highest village in Tenerife, and after a couple of hours sleep we awoke to see the sun setting across a beautiful layer of cloud below us.

Sunset over Vilaflor

The staff at Alta Montana were great. Faultless in fact, and though they spoke only a few words of English my limited Spanish was enough to plug the gaps. Our conversations left things vague enough to make our evening meal at the hotel a bit of a surprise. We had Canarian Soup (meat, noodles, chick peas) and then a hunk of slow cooked beef with big lumps of vegetable placed around the plate. That may sound like a lazy description, but that really does sum it up. I forgot to take a photograph, but rest assured that it ticked all of the claireandmarkgotravelling boxes. Tasty. Ugly.

Whilst staying at Vilaflor we wanted to explore the western area of the island, including the Volcano of Teide, which looms over the island when it isn’t hiding in the clouds.

When we woke on our first full day we decided to explore the west coast first. As we descended the perilous roads I was a little more relaxed and able to take in the surroundings. The south coast is quite arid, and the locals use agricultural terracing for growing crops. Claire and I both agreed that it reminded us a little of Peru, without the hair raising bus journeys.

The road descended through small settlements before eventually reaching the resort town of Puerto de Santiago. This was a place that was recommended to us by friends, on the basis that the town was fairly low key. It apparently has a large British Ex-pat community, but they were presumably all in bed hungover when we were there. We had breakfast at a slightly dubious bar, received some alarmist advice from the English waiter – “don’t drink the tap water here mate” (he was selling us drinks at the time) – and then walked to the edge of town to see the real draw.

Los Gigantes are the highest cliffs in the Canaries. In places they reach the staggering height of 500 meters. One can take a boat trip to see them, but we were happy to see them from afar and then head off into the hills above the cliffs.

The roads were again challenging but my confidence was growing so we decided to press on to the isolated town of Masca. The western area of Tenerife is a fairly dry mountainous region with patches of strikingly green vegetation against the backdrop of the volcanic debris. This area is accessed by winding roads which patiently make their way up and over steep mountains. We first reached the town of Santiago del Teide, which looked sleepy and pleasant, before turning left for Masca.

Thereafter the road was more often than not balanced perilously on steep hillsides. Gradually it climbed, through endless switchbacks, up and over the highest point. From here we could see the tiny town of Masca far below, balanced on a steep ridge, and beyond, the Atlantic and the islands of La Gomera and La Palma.

The road to Masca

We descended carefully into the village and parked up to explore. The village of Masca is said to be the most spectacular in Tenerife and it is very hard to disagree. The few buildings seem to be placed in positions which defy gravity, and the main street winds it’s way along the ridge line. We strolled, admiring the views and then bought some fruit from a local guy. His family had been residents of Masca for many generations and their garden was positioned right in the middle of town. He proudly pointed out some of the various fruit trees from where he had plucked the fruit that morning. He was selling mandarins, cactus fruit and persimmon fruit, all of which we tried. There is something very satisfying about eating fruit so fresh. We bought a bag of mandarins and some almonds for our onward journey.

Masca

We followed the road northwards and eventually reached Buenavista del Norte, and from here we had hoped to drive to the most westerly point on the island, the remote Faro de Teno. We had been warned that the road to Faro is often blocked in bad weather. As the road signs had all been removed and warnings put in place we decided it was probably best we not continue.

Instead we set off along the northern coast to Garachico, undoubtedly the unluckiest town on the island. It’s history is one of storms, floods, fires and epidemics, and then in 1706 an eruption buried a large part of the town in lava and destroyed the port which gave the town it’s livelihood.

Now, however, the town is a lovely example of what a small settlement in Tenerife would be like without the tourist resorts and bars. It sits below a high cliff, and has wonderful cobbled streets and a delightful plaza. The inhabitants speak very little aside from Spanish, which was pleasing as I was enjoying having the chance to practice my Spanish. We strolled and then had lunch in a restaurant which served nothing but Canarian food.

The most famous of Canarian foods is the Papas Arrugadas, which translates as Wrinkly Potatoes. These are quite salty and pretty non descript until you eat them with Mojo. The Mojo is a salsa, of which there are many types. coriander, chilli and parsley appeared to be the most popular. All three are delicious and would bring life to any meal.

The other amazing gastronomic discovery of this meal was bread with fennel seeds. I love the aniseed flavour of the fennel seed and when baked within the excellent bread of Tenerife they seem to work some magic. I try not to eat much bread, but this bread was irresistible.

Garachico has no beach or large hotels, which is no doubt why it feels so authentic and genuine. It does have some natural swimming pools within the lava on the shore though. Not that swimming would have been sensible on the day we visited.

The Plaza at Garachico

The Lava Rock Pools at Garachico

This was turning into an epic day. I was now enjoying the driving and the climb back up into the hills backs to Santiago del Teide weaved gradually up and over the cliff above Garachico. The view back down to the town was fantastic.

The next day we awoke early to make our to the top of Teide, the highest point in all of Spain. Due to some confusion as to the time difference (there was one it transpired) we actually got up an hour early.

To get to the Teide we had to climb a further 1,500m in the car. This road weaved it’s way into the forests above Vilaflor, where the harsh volcanic ground has a soft brown coating of pine needles. As a mountain biker (of sorts) it looked so appealing. But we pressed on, eventually clearing the tree line and passing through and then above the clouds before driving into the caldera of Canada Blanca. This was the original volcano, which collapsed inwards and from which Teide eventually grew.

Looking down from above the tree line

The collapsed caldera stretched out in front of us. On a larger scale it is essentially flat, but the ground is strewn with jumbled lava flows and scattered rocks. Navigating across the caldera would be impossible without the road, which itself seemed unique in Tenerife for its straightness.

The day before we departed my Mum brought my nephew William to see me. William is 5, and when I explained that we were going on holiday he did that thing that kids do when they are not interested. He just completely ignored me. In an attempt to get a reaction from him I introduced a little drama. “We are going to climb a volcano” I said. He turned to look at me, suddenly interested. In his mind a volcano violently spews molten rock high into the air. Then I went and committed myself. “I’ll bring you back a rock” I said. He was happy.

So when I found out the night before our climb that stealing a rock from the volcano is a criminal offense I had a dilemma on my hands.

From around 2,350m there is a well established climbing route. There is also a cable car. We took the cable car, which deposits passengers 200m short of the summit.

This was the highest we had been since we left Peru in May of 2011. Back then Claire had absolutely no problems with the altitude whereas I struggled to adapt, suffering headaches and extreme lethargy. So I was a little concerned as to how my body would cope.

Once we exited the cable car and set off, Claire once again showed a seemingly incredible ability to perform at altitude. After 30 seconds of trying to keep up my lungs were crying out for oxygen and I had to stop. It is an unsettling feeling to be breathing as hard and fast as you can but to feel no better. Slowly though I started to catch my breath and I set off again, this time much slower. My legs were feeling weak and I was slightly dizzy. A couple of times I missed my footing.

The top of Teide

Nearing the summit

Claire, no doubt out of sympathy, slowed and waited for me. She was struggling too though. In South America we made our way to altitude slowly, which allows the body to adapt and makes the whole process easier. Here we had gone from sea level to 12,000ft in less than 24 hours.

Another couple were also climbing at the same time as us. They too were struggling but in the end the four of us reached the peak. The view was breathtaking in every possible way. A 360 degree view is not an easy thing to attain and the feeling of not knowing where to look takes a few moments to pass.

The Ginger Beard and Hat Combo Return!

The Spanish Government only allow 200 people to go the summit each day and it necessary to arrange a permit in advance. The permit is free, though the cable car costs 25 Euros. Our twenty minutes at the peak were nice and peaceful as a result though. We then picked our way down, chatting to a German couple as we descended. They had spent the previous five hours climbing without the aid of the cable car, which probably explained why they weren’t that interested in the view. I felt awful having climbed for only 20 minutes!

That morning before we set off, blessed with more time than I needed to get ready, I read about the Spanish Guardia Civil opening a UK diplomatic bag at the Gibraltar border. This was a rare breach of the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. As we descended in the cable car I ran my thumb over the rough surface of the small rock in my pocket. My small act of defiance felt justified, and William would get his rock.