May 242013

We spent four days in beautiful sun-kissed Greece, toured the Acropolis and Delphi ruins and visited the Delphi Museum with our second tour guide Electra Toya from the Greek Ministry of Culture who guided us through Delphi so knowledgeably and patiently. We also spent about half a day in the quaint island of Hydra where no cars or motorcycles are allowed and the locals and tourists alike still travel only on bicycles, mules and donkeys or taxi boats. Small wonder that close to 17 million tourists descend upon this lovely country every year, with more tourists than locals even, because Greece has so much to offer, from antiquity via their world-famous archaeological sites to leisure through their scenic islands.

It was time for our next stop: Istanbul in Turkey. We breezed through the short one hour-20 minute trip comfortably, enjoyed the light meal on board our chosen airline Qatar Airways, and so soon we landed smoothly at the Istanbul Ataturk International Terminal.

The airport, vast and modern, was literally a sea of people, the line to the immigration counters snaking several long loops, and we inched our way through like everyone else, sweating from the sheer volume of people in the airport for at least an hour before reaching the counter where several booths were efficiently manned– that is how many tourists arrive daily in Turkey.

Airport transfer cost us TL170, and we soon realized why —our hotel, Asia Artemis, was about two hours away from the airport. At $160/night for twin sharing, it was reasonably priced and comfortable enough, but it was located in the Asian part of Istanbul. To get to the Old City where all the old sites are located with excellent shopping and dining, it will take you at least an hour by taxi or rented car. The rate of exchange here is Turkish Lira 1.80 to $1, and you can have a private car/driver for a day at TL150/day inclusive of petrol. Travel tip no. 1 in Turkey: make sure your hotel is located in the Old City — what you save in hotel rates you will eventually spend on taxis. Also, the money changer shops charge an additional four percent so the hotel exchange rate is acceptable, and safer.

We crossed the long Bosphorous Bridge connecting the Black Sea to the Mediterranean to get to the Old City. Traffic is a big problem in Istanbul, so travelling in cool comfort is a priority. On Day 1, we hired an old compact car with a bad air conditioner and an even older driver recommended by the hotel for TL150 for the day. To our dismay, the dishonest driver reneged on the contracted price, claiming miscommunication as he did not speak English. For the same price, we got ourselves a bigger, brand-new Mercedes-Benz Vito on our 2nd day.

Unlike Greece, English is not a second language here and communication can be a problem. Our first stop was the Blue Mosque, a must-see for first time visitors to Istanbul, but the day we went, they had “special prayers” and we would have to wait hours to get in, so we toured the grounds and admired the different colors of tulips abloom all around before proceeding to the Hippodrome, a low-end shopping area. Independent “tour guides” abound here, and we were approached by one, Allatin ( who spoke good English and knew every nook and cranny in the Old City. Allatin is himself a businessman who runs his own leather shop (jackets) and we were fortunate enough not to run into a rogue in him. He patiently brought us to shopping areas and haggled for us, which is a must here in Istanbul. We bought cashmere shawls for a third of the price of one which we got before we ran into Allatin.

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The Grand Bazaar, also in the Old City, has 4,000 shops so it will take you a full day to scour it. This ancient site is 500 years old and was originally built to house the horses during winter – remember that in the olden days, wars were waged with horses. Excellent knock-offs can be had here, finely crafted with excellent leather, but they are not cheap. “Branded” leather bags go for $250 upwards. My sister-in-law Evelyn bought a second set of coasters which are replicas of Persian carpets for $6 — she had earlier purchased a set for $16 at the Duty Free. We also got reasonably-priced small Turkish carpets.  Over at the Spice Bazaar which is still in the same complex, we purchased dried cranberries, and went away with bags of these confectionaries called Turkish Delights loaded with pistachios and walnuts which were sold by the pound.

One good lunch we had here was in a restaurant full of locals, so we were sure food was going to be good. Allatin had ordered the specialty — grilled meats of lamb and beef, rolled and sold by the meter(!) which came with roasted veggies, plates of humus and baskets of flat bread.

Evelyn also got an excellent bargain when she purchased good Persian rugs made of silk, the price inclusive of shipping. Important tip: deal only with reliable establishments when buying Persian rugs, and haggle to your heart’s content. You can actually shave off a third of the price.

Good calf and lamb leather was what we got from Allatin’s store. His sewers take precise measures, and they can deliver the custom-made leather jacket (your choice of leather, color, etc.) to your hotel in 24 hours.

Turkey is one big shopping place, and after two days here, we were ready for our next stop, Jerusalem, two hours away by plane.

The Ben Gurion Terminal in Tel Aviv was not teeming with people, a stark contrast from Turkey, and the airport is comfortable but modest in size. We were going to stay with Babes’ sister Susan who is with the United Nations stationed in Jerusalem. Her residence, a charming three-bedroom house, is in the Arab side, a residential area in a quiet suburb within walking distance of the UN compound.

On our second day here, we went around Bethlehem, inside of the wall which was just recently built, on the Palestinian side though still controlled by the Jews and visited the Shepherd’s Field, a low cave with a grotto where the shepherds supposedly told the angels of Jesus’ birth. The church here was built in the 1800s, and yes, Easter is celebrated on different dates in the region. Last week, it was Easter for the Armenians (a rapidly dwindling race), next week is Jerusalem’s turn, and Jordan’s is a few weeks later.

We went to the Church of the Nativity where tourists lined up to see the Manger Square two at a time. An interesting fact: there are three crosses in this ancient church – Armenian, Catholic and Greek Orthodox. The 14-pt star pinpoints the site where the Blessed Virgin gave birth to the Baby Jesus.

St. Catherine Church built in the 1800s by the Franciscans is in the same complex. Also nearby was Gethsamane, the Garden of Olives with centuries’ old olive trees, where Jesus agonized over his impending crucifixion. The whole site is fenced off now but visible from all sides.

We couldn’t trace the Via Crucis on foot, tired as we were, but our driver graciously traced it by car, a tight passageway good for a single car that was a good 10-minute drive.

We drove along the long wall of the Citadel, an old fortress overlooking the graveyard on the hillside with separate areas for Arab and Jewish graves.

More on our visit to Jerusalem on the 4th and final part of this series.

Mabuhay!!! Be proud to be a Filipino.

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