The plane touched down the runway of Istanbul Ataturk Airport at 4:10 AM on 31st July, one hour ahead of the 5:10 AM ETA. I was feeling a bit worn out already as I have been technically on the road for over a day having left Davao the day before at 8:10 AM local time. I spent almost 11 hours at NAIA Terminals 3 and 1 waiting for my evening flight to Istanbul and spent most of the roughly 12-hour flight awake as my two seatmates sitting on the window and middle seats kept making trips to the toilet.
But despite the creeping fatigue, I was buoyed by the prospect of seeing even a little of Istanbul. I was looking forward to the sightseeing tour that Turkish Airlines offers for passengers with at least six hours of wait time at the airport.
I wanted to take the 9:00 AM to 3:00 PM tour schedule that includes a visit inside the Hagia Sophia. But my flight to Kaunas, Lithuania was at 4:00 PM (which got delayed for 1 hour and 20 minutes), the much shorter 8:30 to 11:00 AM sightseeing tour will have to do.
With still about three hours to kill, I decided to explore the terminal and see if I could find a place to get a cup of coffee. But I had trouble finding a table at the many jampacked coffee shops I saw. So I decided to look for the Old Bazaar I read about where I could buy some souvenirs. I figured I should buy what I need already since I may not have the time to do it on my return flight.
Luckily, I quickly found the shop and spent some time there browsing a wide array of items many of which I really liked. I managed to stick to my list and bought what I needed except that I could not find the black soap and Turkey mini-bell I promised to buy for my friends.
At around half past six in the morning, I decided to start looking for the Hotel Desk where I needed to register for the tour. I had a bit of trouble locating it so I asked one of the airport staff at the information booth just across the passport control area in the departures terminal. The girl told me to head out to the food court, take the elevator located on the left side, and go down to level 1.
As I reached level 1, I asked one of the airport personnel I saw there where the Hotel Desk is located. He told me to pass through passport control first. I was surprised to see the long queue. It took me more than 15 minutes to reach the line closer to the booths. But it was then that things got a bit frustrating. Some people were so eager to go first that there were double lines queueing for each booth and with many people jumping lines to get ahead.
I finally managed to get through after a little over ten more minutes of waiting. I passed through customs to get to the exit, turned right, and walked straight looking for Starbucks that serves as an easy-to-find landmark for the Hotel Desk that sits beside it. There was no one in line so I went straight to one of the windows and asked about the tour. The guy asked for my boarding pass, checked it, and told me that I will have to take the 8:30-11:00 AM tour. He then told me to wait at the cafe and wait for my name to be called.
I observed that there were already a handful of passengers that seem to be waiting for the tour as well. But Starbucks still have plenty of tables and seats so I was finally I able to get a cup of coffee that I have been longing for since I arrived.
Just before 8:00 AM, one of the Turkish Airlines staff started calling names. I was confused because I did not hear my name. As the group was about to leave, I went to the Hotel Desk to ask if that was for the tour and he told me that it was for the group going to the free accommodation. The hotel stay is for passengers with at least 10 hours of layover who probably prefer to sleep or rest than go for a quick tour of the city.
At about 8:20 AM, the staff called the names on their list. There were more than twenty of us in the group. We were told to follow the tour guide and we left at exactly 8:30 AM. We walked a bit to where the bus will pick us up and waited for about ten minutes there. We got on the bus as soon as it arrived and it left the moment everyone was on board.
I have read a lot of things about Istanbul and seen numerous photos of it over the years. I thought I have a fairly good idea of what I will see. But there was something about actually seeing some parts of the city that made me wish I have more time to enjoy the sights longer than the few seconds that it takes for the bus to pass by. What little traffic on the road was a welcome experience for a change for it meant slowing down to take in some of the views.
I was sitting in the window seat at the right side of the bus with a great view of the coastal scenery. We were coming from the European side of the city where the airport was located. On the left, there were many fascinating sights as well including the views of the Yedikule Fortress, Old Samatya Armanian District, the Walls of Constantinople (Istanbul City Walls), Hagia Sophia, and so much more. I was really hoping we could at least slow down or stop for a few minutes just to see more of them. But we were on a tight schedule. I just have to remind myself that the short tour is much better than just staying at the airport and not seeing any of it at all.
I did not take many photos as I did not want to miss the sights as the bus continues on its route. The first stop was at Galata Bridge. Our tour guide told us we will spend ten minutes there to take photos. The sight of birds flying and gliding gracefully against a backdrop of the water and the cityscape was among the most beautiful things I have seen as the bus journeyed along the coastal road. And I got to see it again as we spent time at the bridge. Birds were soaring above the Golden Horn that glistened as the thin clouds on the clear, blue sky offered little cover from the bright sunlight.
The second and last stop was at Dolmabahçe Palace where we spent twenty minutes wandering around taking photos. There was a cafe at the palace grounds with outdoor seating with a nice view of the European coast of the Bosphorus.
We left Dolmabahçe Palace at exactly twenty minutes after we arrived and continued the sightseeing tour, this time en route to the airport.
I have always been fascinated with the things I have read about Istanbul. While I thought of wanting to see it at some point, I did not really have that much of a strong desire to do it until that moment when the tour started last week. As the tour guide started telling us about the city, I found myself wanting to explore it at length, see its breathtaking architecture and landmarks, taste as many of the foods as I can, and drink plenty of Turkish coffee and tea, among many other things.
If there was one thing I was sure about as I stepped off the bus back at the airport, it would be this: I want to come back. I started the tour just curious about what I would see. And I finished it already in love with the city.