standing space as well. Then we were guided – or rather herded - off the minibus and onto the boat by a very enthusiastic (it turned out to be impatient and non-caring was more appropriate) tour guide.
So far, so good.
The boat sailed off – with no sign of the promised commentary in various languages. Every twenty minutes or so, the tour guide would read a few sentences off a sheet of paper, using a malfunctioning microphone, and then read the same sentences again. Only the people closest to him on a backed boat could hear anything that was not gobbledegook. Oh well, at least we had the sights to see – even though we did not know what we were seeing.
What was this?
I had a lovely conversation with a lady from Riyadh in Saudi Arabia, who was travelling with her son. It is not easy to communicate with a person when you can literally only see her eyes, but heart-to-heart contact always works. We chatted about her travels to the United States and the challenges of travelling alone.
There was also a lovely Indian family (originally from India, now from Wimbledon, UK) on the boat. Interesting that during the same trip I met an Indian couple now living in Tokyo, Japan, and another Indian couple now living in Chicago, USA.
After over two hours of enjoying the fresh air and ignoring the occasional grinding noise of the "commentary", we were finally herded off the boat by the tour guide (who was talking on the phone while gesturing for us to follow him).
Then the race started. I don't know why we had to walk about half a mile to get to the funicular at the foot of Pierre Loti Hill, because there was a road right to the funicular station and a parking area outside it. Anyway, the tour guide would run ahead, with the fast walkers in the group trying in vain to keep up with him. He had no way of identifying himself in the crowd – and there are crowds everywhere in Istanbul. After a while he would retrace his steps and we would see him again (speaking on the phone) while we catch up, look out for each other and wave to the elderly people in the group so that they could at least see in which direction to walk to reach us.
We finally reached the entrance to the funicular – and there was no reason for any rush, because there was a long queue to the outside of the building.
Some people wanted to use the restrooms. The tour guide pointed in the general direction of the parking area and told us to hurry up. We looked at each other, confused, and decided to follow his direction.
The toilets were hidden at the back of an unlighted parking garage but we spotted the signs and kept looking around until we found them. Of course the light switch would be outside or inside the door. Uh ... no. Then all we had to do was walk in and the motion detectors would switch on the lights. Uh ... no.
I had a torch app on my phone and we managed to find the cubicles.
How do you use an eastern (squat) toilet? I did it with gratitude for spending childhood days on a farm where squatting was the way to go, and for having willing knees.
The Indian lady had knee trouble. With half of her clothes draped around me, and with me holding the torch over my shoulder to give her some privacy, she managed while the other ladies did the best they could in the dark.
Then we hit the queue to the funicular. I would not expect preferential treatment, but this was a paid tour. Or not. We then had to fork out the cash for the funicular tickets – and the money went straight into the pocket of the tour guide (who was on the phone while collecting the money). So now we could get past the very long queue and finish the tour. No? Wait in the queue for nearly 45 minutes with a crying child and nowhere for the elderly people to sit for a moment.
Finally we got into the funicular that took us to the top of Pierre Loti Hill – a journey of about two minutes. I was starving, and had a lunch of simit (a local kind of solid bread that is shaped like a doughnut on steroids), candy floss and a weird ice cream. Yes, I know, but it was a tourist trap and beggars cannot be choosers. The ice dream was a Magnum, rock solid on the outside and half filled with liquid ice cream on the inside. Quality control is not a priority in Istanbul.
After about twenty minutes on the hill, the tour guide (still on the phone) finally collected us all – we were wearing a badge from his company – and told us the story of Pierre Loti, a Frenchman who came to Istanbul and fell in love with a local girl. He had to leave, but returned after two years to discover that his love had been married off to a man of their choice by her parents. The two of them had clandestine meetings on the hill (which is also the most expensive graveyard in Istanbul) until her husband discovered them and killed the girl. Pierre Loti spent the rest of his days grieving for her on the hill.
However, this seems to be the tourist version according to the tour guide – Wikipedia never heard of it.
Here is the view from the top of the hill:
The descent, on foot, followed the now familiar pattern with the tour guide (still on the phone) rushing ahead to a gravestone, and then waiting for the group to catch up. Then he would get off the phone for a few minutes and give some interesting facts (in English – why did he not use it on the boat where everyone understood English?) about the graves.
Apparently this graveyard is the most expensive in Istanbul, because
· It is close to the grave of some or other sultan, and therefore in good company.
· It has a beautiful view of Istanbul
· Unlike other graveyards, your grave will not be recycled after 100 years
It seems these plots sell for around $50 000. Can you believe – some of the plots are empty because they belong to property speculators!
According to the tour guide (bring on the pinch of salt) the gravestones indicate whether a man or a woman is buried there. The woman's hairdo on the gravestone also indicates how many children she had, and whether they were married or not. The flowers on the hairdo depict girls, and open flowers depict married girls.
Apparently this lady had five daughters of which three were married when she died:
The four-hour tour was now close to six hours and I had written off my arranged afternoon visit to a hamam (Turkish bath).
When we reached the bottom of the hill, there was no sign of a bus – which was the promised last leg of the journey. This guide (on the phone) jogged into a marketplace – not the size of the grand bazaar but similar – and expected us all to keep up. Fortunately the alley through the marketplace was straight and we just kept going until we reached the end – and there was no sign of the tour guide.
Or, there he was – returning to find us and speaking on the phone.
We finally reached the bus after crossing a very busy plain and a few roads. There was less need for standing on the bus, because some members of the group had bought the short version of the tour and we left them on the boat. Clever people.
Finally we were heading back for the hotels – except that the tour guide sprang to life and started singing the praises of some restaurants where he obviously preferred to drop us off. Draw your own conclusions.
Most of the people wanted to return to the hotels, and he gave the driver some instructions. About fifteen minutes later the first stop was made – not at any hotel. The tour guide shouted out the names of some hotels and a few people left the bus and walked away.
I held up the business card of the hotel I was staying in to remind him where to take me – big mistake. He made the driver stop right there in the traffic, and told me that my hotel was a "two-minute-walk" away and pointed in a direction. The place looked quite unfamiliar to me, but I left the bus. I wandered in the direction that he had pointed in, and saw some signs for the Topkapi Palace.
So I walked in that direction – the Topkapi was near the Haggia Sophia which was near my hotel, so surely I would find the hotel on my way to the Topkapi? No. I was on the other side of the Topkapi.
After a walk of about twenty minutes and asking directions from carpet sellers and restaurateurs three times – only to then dodge their sales pitches – I managed to find the hotel – and a concierge who was quite worried because I had missed my earlier appointment.
I told him what had happened and that I was very unhappy about the events of the day. He got on the phone immediately and chattered in Turkish. I waited for a few minutes, and then decided to go to my room and at least get ready for another event in the evening.
As I was reaching the room, the phone rang. The reason for the hold-ups with the tour was that a woman with a child in the car had driven onto a ferry, and the ferry pulled away before the gangplank was lifted and secured. As a result a child later died in hospital, and this caused delays in the traffic.
Yes, that is a very sad incident, but that was not the cause of the lack of commentary, the useless tour guide and me being dropped off far from my hotel with inadequate directions.
So I was getting a full refund as per the instruction of the tour operators. Or ... no, wait – I did say that I was hungry after a late lunch of pure sugar, so I would get a refund of 10 Euros, and the concierge would use the other 10 Euros to order me a special Turkish meal and Airan, a delicious, tangy yoghurt drink that tastes like buttermilk.
Convert 10 Euros into 30 Turkish Lira. The Airan cost about 3 Turkish Lira. The pita (like a pizza with a minced meat filling) cost at most 10 Turkish Lira as a take-away, even if you added delivery costs and a tip.
I have been had – by a Kurdish Turk concierge in a country where theft is not even an option in a crowded market place. I let it go because I had three days left and thought I might need his goodwill at a later stage
Such is life.