A Travellerspoint blog

May 2019

Istanbul - Travel Tips

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Vapur

Vapur

I have blogged on travel tips for Istanbul before.

My visits in May ’19 produced a couple of useful new tips, so this is just a wee update.

The first is the new airport. Turkish Airlines transferred all passenger operations there in April 2019. Atatürk is no longer used. The new airport is massive, and you have to allow plenty time to move between gates if you have a connection. On the other hand, it is spacious and pleasant compared to Atatürk and so a longer layover would be a more civilised experience.

Istanbul Airport

Istanbul Airport

The new airport is a long way (43 km/26 miles) north of the city (measured to Sultanahmet, where I was staying) so if you are breaking a journey there a trip into the centre is now longer and more expensive.

I was told a taxi from Sultanahmet would cost 150 TRY (£19.50 or €22.20) and it is safe to assume airport taxis charge more. My guesthouse organised transfers for me at €40 (£35) per trip. Another option is HavaIst, which operates a coach service between the new airport and the city centre. The Metro is being extended to reach the new airport. The information I found suggests it could be ready in 2020.

Door to Door

Door to Door

It took just 30 minute to go to the airport on a Sunday morning. It took over an hour in the other direction during Friday night rush hour - even allowing for going against the flow of traffic.

Istanbul’s other airport - Sabiha Gökçen - is still operating as before but it is a long way from the city centre too - on the Asian side.

Sunrise, Terrace Guesthouse

Sunrise, Terrace Guesthouse

For this trip I flew with Turkish Airlines from Edinburgh to Istanbul, and then on to Tbilisi. I broke my journey to Tbilisi in Istanbul, but (from memory) that was choice rather than necessity. The EDI/IST leg cost £280 (return) and the IST/TBS one was £290 return.

The other Istanbul travel update to mention is taking the vapur (passenger ferry) across the Bosphorus from Eminönü on the European side to Kadıköy on the Asian side. It is a commuter hop, but the views of the city are amazing - unless you hit a thunderstorm, as I did!

Kadıköy

Kadıköy

The cost is 5 TRY each way - that was £0.65/€0.74 at the time. The last time I did the “voyage” (about 10 years ago) you bought a metal jeton (token) to put in a turnstile type entry gate to board the ship. Now you buy a plastic card. I could not find any ticket kiosk and maybe you can only buy from one of the automatic machine.

1 Trip

1 Trip

Locals all use a rechargeable IstanbulKart. The cards are also what you need for the tram, metro and bus services, so buying the rechargeable version (for 6 TRY) will save you time if you expect to be using public transport a lot.

Dusk, Aya Sofya

Dusk, Aya Sofya

Certainly the tram, metro and vapur services are very user friendly once you get familiar with them and can save you from getting hot and sweaty in the summer months. The trams’ air conditioning is worth 5 lira alone when it gets you out of the summer heat!

The vapur have a buffet cabin on board for snacks and drinks. In the morning I recommend you buy a simit - the bagel shaped, sesame seed covered bread roll - to take on board to eat with a Turkish tea from the buffet. Eat and drink out on one of the open air decks if the weather is good.

Another top tip is to buy a balık ekmek - fish sandwich - before you board. They sell them at the büfe on the quay at Eminönü. Ayran is ideal to drink with it (or beer, if so inclined).

Posted by IainT 13:58 Archived in Turkey Tagged turkey istanbul transport Comments (0)

Baku - Travel Tips

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Azerbaijani

Azerbaijani

I was unsure about doing a “travel tips” post for Baku, since my visit was so brief. Eventually I decided to go for it because it is - relatively speaking - a much less visited city when it comes to tourism.

Coming Soon

Coming Soon

I flew with Buta Airlines from/to Tbilisi. Buta is the low cost brand of Azerbaijan Airlines. The cost was €78 return, in their cheapest category - no hold luggage and no “hand luggage”. The experience was (almost) ideal.

They operate Embraer 190s and being quite small planes, boarding and disembarking is quick and painless. They operate an unusual seat numbering plan. Seat rows start at 14 (front row) and rise from there to 20 something. Seats on the starboard side are L and M. I have never seen that before.

They put a lot of emphasis on passengers taking their allocated seats and - yes - they charge if you want to select your seat.

All of that is fine, obviously. Hand luggage rules are unusual too. A briefcase or handbag is allowed. My tiny backpack was permitted on the outward flight, but not on the return. They only allowed it when I said I would remove all the contents - camera, wallet, passport, phone & medication (all allowed as hand luggage) - and then they could check in my empty backpack.

Surprisingly - in this context - cabin service includes a free sandwich and water. You have to pay for their other goodies.

The airport in Baku (Heydar Aliyev International) has two terminals. A brand new one and what was the old airport building. Buta flights arrive at Terminal 2 (the new one) and leave from Terminal 1. The new one is excellent. The old one is not.

Heydar Aliyev International, Terminal 2

Heydar Aliyev International, Terminal 2

To get to the city centre the choice is between a taxi and an express coach. I suspect a public bus can be used too, but I opted for the coach service. It leaves from right outside Terminal 2 and is easy to find.

That is where the fun begins, of course. Naturally, having seen the bus you head straight for it. What you then miss, because they are behind you, are the machines which sell the BakıKart you will need so as to get on the bus.

BakıKart

BakıKart

Next, the driver sends you back to the terminal to buy your card. As far as I can ascertain, you cannot buy the card anywhere else in the terminal. The machines are not signposted. I had some difficulty with the machines. I had a 10 manat note and I could not get it accepted. I did not have any coins. Eventually a cleaner (!) told me to get a 5 manat note and try it.

So, I bought a bottle of water at the cafe next door to get change, used the 5 manat note, and bingo!

By then the bus had left of course, so I had to wait for the next one. They run very 30 minutes during the day. Journey time is 30 minutes - depending on traffic. The bus also stops at Terminal 1.

Downtown Baku

Downtown Baku

Another wee tip - you have to go through a security control to re-enter the terminal after you have left it, so going back inside to an ATM or currency exchange desk is not a quick solution to the 5 manat problem.

The cost depends on your choice of card. I chose the paper “disposable” card as opposed to a rechargeable plastic one. The paper card can be bought loaded with one up to 4 journeys on it. I expected to need just need 2 journeys. The cost was 2.80 AZN, which includes 0.20 AZN to buy the card. The exchange rate was 2.05 AZN to £1 at the time.

Aeroexpress

Aeroexpress

The Aeroexpress terminates at the Central Railway Station.

It was a very pleasant walk of 3.5 km from there to the İçəri şəhər (Old City) via the Bulvar - I wanted to see the Caspian for the first time!

City Centre Calm

City Centre Calm

You can wander the Old City without paying to go into anything, but I did pay to visit the Palace of the Shirvanshahs (Şirvanşahlar Sarayı). It was 7.50 AZN - but only 2 AZN for locals.

Palace of Shirvanshahs

Palace of Shirvanshahs

The Azerbaijani language is Turkic and the people are mostly Shia Moslem, so it looks and feels totally different as compared with Georgia.

I believe Azerbaijan was like Russia and Belarus until recently, and visiting involved quite a bit of expense and inconvenience to obtain a visa. My experience was entirely comparable to visiting Turkey. I needed a visa but it was easy, cheap (US$20) and quick (3 days) to obtain through the government’s official e-visa website.

The visa form will ask if you have made any unauthorised visit to Nagorno-Karabakh. Usually the answer will be easy. If you do have an inkling to visit Nagorno-Kharabak, doing so via Azerbaijan counts as an authorised visit and via Armenia will be treated as unauthorised. My guess is your visa request will be rejected if you have done it the “wrong” way.

Passport control at the airport was quick, friendly and efficient.

Trivia…

Baku is 125 miles (200 km) from the border with Iran. It is the same distance going north to the border with the Russian Federation - the Republic of Dagestan. If you head east across the Caspian Sea you come to Turkmenistan.

A weekly train service operates between Baku and Moscow. It takes 59 hours.

A ferry service runs almost every day to Turkmenbashi in Turkmenistan. It takes about 17 hours.

Posted by IainT 02:11 Archived in Azerbaijan Tagged sport transport flights baku azerbaijan airlines Comments (1)

Tbilisi - Travel Tips

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Greater Caucasus

Greater Caucasus

Well then… here are some details about the arrangements for my (first) visit to Georgia.

I flew with Turkish Airlines from Edinburgh to Istanbul, and then on to Tbilisi. I chose to break the journey in Istanbul, but (from memory) that was choice rather than necessity. The EDI/IST leg cost £280 and the IST/TBS one was £290.

It adds up to a lot of cash, but I know a ticket from Edinburgh to Tbilisi via Istanbul without a stopover would have been cheaper. I chose convenient flight times for the IST/TBS leg, and I know I could have found a ticket for £100 or less by going for off peak flights.

Georgian Airways has a small route network, but with flights to/from London, Brussels, Amsterdam and Paris, it is a credible alternative.

If you do choose to fly via Istanbul, remember the new airport there opened in April 2019. Atatürk is no longer used. The new airport is massive, and you have to allow plenty time to move between gates if you have a connection. On the other hand, the new airport is spacious and pleasant compared to Atatürk and so a longer layover would be a more civilised experience.

Istanbul Airport

Istanbul Airport

The new airport is a long way (26 km) north of the city, so if you are breaking a journey there a trip into the centre is now longer and more expensive. I was told a taxi from Sultanahmet would cost 150 TRY (£19.50 or €22.20) and it is safe to assume airport taxis charge more. My guesthouse organised transfers for me at €40 (£35) per trip. Another option is HavaIst, which operates a coach service between the new airport and the city centre. The Metro is being extended to reach the new airport.

It took just 30 minute to go to the airport on a Sunday morning. It took over an hour in the other direction during Friday night rush hour - even allowing for going against the flow of traffic.

Istanbul’s other airport - Sabiha Gökçen - also has several flights between the city and Tbilisi. Some are with Pegasus, and so much cheaper. It is a long way from the city centre too - on the Asian side.

Tbilisi Airport is modern, efficient and user friendly.

Tbilisi Airport - Airside

Tbilisi Airport - Airside

You can take a city bus (number 37, or 137 at night) to/from the city centre for 0.50 GEL (£0.14 or €0.16) each way. You can buy a Metromoney card for 2 GEL and load credit onto it.

Metromoney

Metromoney

Then you just swipe it at the machine on the bus. Alternatively you can buy a single paper ticket for 0.50 GEL but you need coins and will not get any change.

Tbilisi Airport

Tbilisi Airport

The bus runs every 10-15 minutes during the day, and every 30-40 minutes after 11pm.

The Metromoney card is also used for the Metro and the cablecar to Narikala. Incidentally, locals refer to the cable car as the “ropeway” or the “aerial tramway”. It is a cablecar. Trust me.

Cablecar

Cablecar

Do not confuse it with the zipline from Narikala into the Botanic Gardens. It is a zipline.

Metered taxis wait at arrivals at the airport. I did not use them, but word is the fare will be 30-50 GEL depending on which part of the city you go to, but prices increase after 11pm. Most city taxis are not metered, so negotiation is needed before getting in. This is normal. It what locals do. The driver will expect it. If he does not like the fare you are willing to pay, try the next taxi to come along. They will try to charge a tourist “premium”.

My apartment owner arranged for her father to pick me up and drop me off for US$15 each trip. I was delighted for them to be getting the extra cash.

My apartment was arranged through Airbnb. It cost me £160 for 6 nights, including a cleaning fee and the Airbnb charge. It was excellent in all kinds of ways. It was sparkling clean, quiet and comfortable. It gave me an insight into living conditions for locals. It was central - just 400 m from Freedom Square - and with shops and restaurants all around.

Apartment Kitchen

Apartment Kitchen

As for language, Georgian is the native language for Georgians. The minorities in the country may well speak something else as well (or instead of). English seems to be understood/spoken by most in the tourism/restaurant etc business whom I came across. I guess Russian is too, although my information had been Russian as a second language is for the older generation and English is what the younger generation learns.

Georgian Alphabet

Georgian Alphabet

Service was excellent (with one minor exception) in my experience, however limited the communication was by language, and no-one need be concerned about the “Intourist School of Charm” type attitude.

I bought a couple of guidebooks for the trip. The Bradt one is more detailed obviously, as it only covers Georgia. Probably I would have left it at that but for the day out in Baku which I arranged. I bought the Lonely Planet guide mostly for the Baku visit, but it was useful for Tbilisi too.

References

References

The Bradt one is particularly good for background - such as history - for a country so little known about in the UK.

My other source was Tbilisi in Your Pocket. Being online, but printable and/or downloadable, it was a great facility.

In Your Pocket

I have not included any tips on restaurants - it is such a subjective topic. I am ready to try eating almost anything, and not everyone is so adventurous.

Posted by IainT 22:17 Archived in Georgia Tagged churches food transport georgia airlines tbilisi Comments (0)

Tbilisi

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Peace Bridge

Peace Bridge

My 6 days in Tbilisi (well, 6 nights anyway) are over.

It is a long trip from Scotland with very limited flight connections, but it was an excellent decision to make it. I will blog about the nuts and bolts of the travel and accommodation another time.

City View

City View

I reckon 80% of the other tourists around were Russian speaking, which may reflect the easy access for them (depending on where exactly they live, obviously) and more difficult travel arrangements if you live in northwest Europe.

Metekhis aghmarti (Metekhi Church)

Metekhis aghmarti (Metekhi Church)

The weather was hotter than I expected for May and I did have to adjust my ambitions in terms of activities. An excursion to another part of the country had been a possibility, but with the temperature between 25⁰ and 29⁰ for much of the day, I was not going to spend large chunks of it in a tour bus or minivan.

Not seeing anything of Georgia apart from the capital is a regret. It is also good reason to go back.

King Vakhtang Gorgasali

King Vakhtang Gorgasali

Wine is a huge part of the economy and you find wine shops around every corner. Excursions to vineyards are popular and tastings in Tbilisi are too. I tried it a couple of times and was very impressed with the Saperavi (a grape variety native to Georgia).

Great Variety

Great Variety

I enjoyed the local food too.

Acharuli Xachapuri

Acharuli Xachapuri

My apartment was a huge success. It was clean, quiet and comfortable - just as I hoped. It was very central and only 5 minutes walk to Tavisuplebis moedani (Freedom Square) - one of the city’s hubs - so ideal for taking a bus or the metro. I had shops close by, and restaurants.

My Balcony

My Balcony

Prices can be incredibly low by Western European standards, but needless to say they can be westernised upwards when it suits. The airport charges “western” prices. I also remember paying 18 lari (£4.80) for a cappuccino and cake in a hipster type place in the city.

On the other hand, the public bus and metro fare is 0.50 lari. At about £1 to 3.75 lari, that’s a real bargain. I got an excellent bottle of Saperavi from Schuchmann (one of the best known vineyards) for 12 lari (£3).

Theatre & Language

Theatre & Language

I found the people to be friendly and helpful. In some parts Tbilisi looks very dilapidated, but the renovated or redeveloped parts look fantastic.

I hope I do get the chance to go back!

Posted by IainT 03:19 Archived in Georgia Tagged food georgia tbilisi Comments (0)

Baku

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Flame Towers

Flame Towers

I had an away day yesterday (Wednesday, 15th May).

I had booked a cheap (about €70 return) flight from Tbilisi (my current location) to Baku. It is an hour each way. Out late morning. Back late at night. Buta Airways did the honours - it is the low cost brand of Azerbaijan Airlines.

Smart move. The outward flight was amazing, with the snow covered Greater Caucusas on one side, and the snow covered Lesser Caucasus on the other (small plane - you can see out of both sides). Just as I was getting bored by this, the coastline of the Caspian Sea appeared and we started to descend.

Relaxation

Relaxation

Baku is so different from Tbilisi in so many ways. It would be easier to mention how little they have in common - geographic location, and both being former Soviet republics.

I had time for an exhausting - but gentle - wander around the city centre (it was warm) and then it was back to the airport bus. One moment I will always remember is coming around a corner in the downtown area and smelling the sea. The Caspian.

Another highlight was the İçəri şəhər - Old City - which is fun just to wander through, get lost and then find your way again.

İçəri şəhər

İçəri şəhər

One thing you notice from that part of the city is the Flame Towers. 28-33 stories high, they are indicative of the city’s modern architecture. At night they are illuminated to provide a light show, alternating between flames, falling water and the colours of the national flag. It was clearly visible from my plane as it climbed away from the airport after takeoff.

The only place I paid to visit is the Şirvanşahlar saray kompleksi - Palace of the Shirvanshahs. It was 15 manat to get in (£7.50) for foreigners and 2 manat for locals. It was a lovely oasis of calm in the middle of a bustling city. It is mostly 15th century and was the seat of northern Azerbaijan’s ruling dynasty at the time.

Şirvanşahlar saray kompleksi

Şirvanşahlar saray kompleksi

The “one that got away” is the Nizami Museum of Azerbaijan Literature (or Nizami Gəncəvi Adına Azərbaycan Ədəbiyyatı Muzeyi, if you are local). I wanted to go in., but it was coming up to closing time.

Nizami Gəncəvi Adına Azərbaycan Ədəbiyyatı Muzeyi

Nizami Gəncəvi Adına Azərbaycan Ədəbiyyatı Muzeyi

My impression is I could easily spend 7 to 10 days visiting the country. I saw every few tourists, but until quite recently it was like trying to get into Russia - tough going and expensive to get a visa without booking a tour. Now it can be done online, costs just US$20, and takes 3 days.

Posted by IainT 00:20 Archived in Azerbaijan Tagged baku azerbaijan airlines Comments (0)

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