The best holiday we’ve had – Istanbul, what an amazing city you are, I miss you already! Flea markets, history, food, buzzing neighbourhoods, the best people watching, clean streets, efficient public transport and the beautiful mighty bosphorous always in your viewfinder; plus such friendly people eager for a chat over a cup of tea. This is a city I’ll go back to in a heart beat…
It was about a week ago that we returned from Istanbul and honestly, I’ve found it difficult to write about because it’s just too depressing to relive the wonderful time we had there! But we must share this experience so here goes the first of several posts on this historic yet modern yet friendly city.The vacation was off to a wonderful start: my father happened to be passing through Mumbai airport, his flight landing a few minutes after ours. So we had a nice chinwag with him who has also been to Istanbul and told me about the time his taxi driver drove in reverse down a one way street because going all the way around to reach the hotel was just too much hassle. I thought this was a one-off story but hardly so; we saw and were in cabs that drove in reverse down one-ways! I thought Indians were crazy drivers – the Turks have a whole other take on driving.
The only hassle with international travel is all that waiting around at the dead of night in airports. OK, the departure lounge of the new mumbai airport is pretty fancy but too much art, not enough places to sit or lie down. And here’s a tip, if you show up early for check in, get the seats at the first entry gate, there’s at least four rows of seating and a bathroom that hardly anyone uses – rest of the check in area you’ll be lucky if you get a place to sit. After security check, there were some comfortable though oddly shaped swirly S shaped sofas you had to contort your spine like a slithering snake to fit on and only half a dozen recliners. Like I said, too much art, not enough comfort. Unfortunately some of the nicer recliners either had people or food/coffee in them and with no real cleaning going on, it pretty much ruled out half the seating area. But we spread out on two sofas and managed a couple of hours sleep. Later I found out that when you head towards the gates there are fantastic recliners (little known) on the left hand side of the travellators.
The Turks were kind to us right from the start with great movies onboard starting even before we took off and very decent food on Turkish airlines. We had our first taste of a variety of olives, cheese, wine and the famous borek – a flaky Turkish pastry filled with spinach and cheese or meat and cheese – which wasn’t all that flaky, it is an airlines after all.
When we were checking in, we couldn’t believe the number of people flying to Istanbul. All sorts of people too – families with ginormous suitcases, students, workers, some touristy looking upwardly mobile Indian men and young women. I was super impressed that so many Indians were making their way to Turkey for what seemed like work, study, tourism and settling down.As we were making our way to immigration at Istanbul airport, along with tons of other flights from Europe, there were separate lines for Europeans, Turkish passport holders, transit and India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and some other south east asian countries. As we walked past long lines spilling out in to the main corridor , I was dreading the wait at immigration (based on the number of Indians at check in) that would be one more delay before we could finally lay our eyes on the city that was Constantinople. We walked right to the end, to a sign for Indians and south east asian countries and we were the only ones there except for a lone Indonesian businessman. This must be the only place in the world where only two Indians were queing up in a queue for Indians! We had to call out to an immigration official to get him to check our passports. He didn’t even look at our visas, or photographs – just blindly stamped and sent us on our way. I guess they never had Indian tourists from India before. Turns out Turkish Airlines is a popular connection for Indians travelling to Boston. All those Indians were heading for the US of A. I should’ve known…the empty baggage claim was proof… there were hardly four bags on the carousel.
Tons of taxis awaited us outside the airport, and the taxi driver asked us in broken but comprehensible English to type in the phone number of our host, using his own phone, so he could get exact directions to the flat. A beautiful stretch of highway (Kennedy Cadessi) along the bosphorous, the most picturesque drive to an airport I’ve ever seen took us to the apartment we had booked for our ten days in Istanbul via Air BnB. This is where a bit of driving in reverse took place. Air BnB is a great website and its where we found Faruk’s place in the buzzing neighbourhood of Cihangir.
If you are debating staying near Sultanahmet where are all the touristy sightseeing is or Beyoglu/Cihangir, there is no question that you should stay in the latter and experience life in a real Istanbul neighbourhood where people lower their baskets from kitchen windows in to the street below so the shop keeper, vegetable seller or their kid can put in provisions; authentic turkish neighbourhood cafes and shops; narrow cobbled streets where the vege man calls at 3pm. We stayed in a cute little apartment in an old style Turkish building with a heavy iron door, creaky wooden floors, old switches and light fittings. The place was simply decorated with two Turkish ceiling lamps, quirky wooden stools from a store called Ege (more on that later). The flat was just what we needed, much bigger, better, homey (and cheaper) than a hotel room. Faruk left us with an assortment of teas, coffees and cooking utensils, a washing machine and an oven – all of which we used. Not to mention, the best shower I have ever used. I was having three showers a day just to use it more.
As the holiday progressed it got warmer and warmer and our host actually brought us a table fan. And we bought slippers, abandoning our adidas. Before we left I had debated taking shorts and looked at some of the forums on TripAdvisor about appropriate dress code being a muslim country during Ramazan and all. Other travellers to Istanbul had similar concerns and one of the most vocal people on TripAdvisor about anything Turkish said that shorts, sleeveless and anything above the knee was not appropriate – that women did not wear that in Istanbul. I’m going to end the debate once and for all – the skimpiest shorts, the tightest tank tops… I would hate to see what they are wearing in California. Fine, these might be the tourists and not the Turkish girls but the Turkish women were smartly dressed and wearing tight sleeveless things too. The DH took a couple of fab india pyjamas and short kurtas (apart from shorts and t-shirts) thinking he’d blend in with the locals and because we’d be visiting some mosques. It turned out that the DH was the most traditionally dressed man in Istanbul. In fact, the only other person dressed like the DH was the imam on our street (from the Firuz Aga mosque). People must have thought this was his slightly darker son!
And sporting his holiday beard, begger children would run up to him and say, ‘salam alaikum’ thinking he was a muslim (muslims especially during ramadan should not refuse giving arms). People must have been looking at him in shock – not giving arms, stuffing his face when he should be fasting…what a brazenly terrible muslim’ they must have been saying to themselves. So to be clear, this is a very liberal country, there are no restrictions during ramazan, there is food at all times and if it weren’t for the over 3000 mosques (each an architectural wonder in itself) you wouldn’t know this was a muslim country. The mosques are historic and beautiful. Even the new ones are built with real aesthetics in mind, each one with a character of its own. There’s around 3011 mosques in Istanbul and the call to prayer five times a day is truly hypnotic, their voices mesmerizing and they can hold a note comfortably for 34 seconds (yes, one afternoon we timed the note). It was truly a joy to be woken up to the call to prayer.
Istanbul is the perfect blend of European cleanliness, efficient public transport and civic amenities with Asian colour, noise, bustle, character, charm, markets and food. We loved riding the tram, metro and funicular. We didn’t try the buses though. The trams are trains on road level and follow the traffic light system. They are superbly air-conditioned, get a bit crowded at rush hour but never unpleasant. It’s a bit expensive at 1.50TL per ride. But the efficiency and speed makes up for it. To that efficiency is added charm: every stop we got off at had a beautiful mosque or monument waiting to greet us. At Tophane (our stop) it was Kalic Pasha mosque and a 15th century cannon foundry now turned arts centre ; at Emininou (for ferries and spice bazaar) it was Yeni Cami or New Mosque (completed in 1665, so ‘new’; around the times of the Mughal emperors Shah Jahan, Jihangir in India); at Taksim metro its the Ataturk statue; the list goes on.
The funicular was something I’d seen in Budapest outside a castle and here was a working one. A truly genious piece of equipment – a funicular is also known as an inclined plane or cliff railway, is cable railway in which a cable is attached to a pair of tram-like vehicles on rails moves them up and down a steep slope; the ascending and descending vehicles counterbalance each other.
It’s such a pleasure to get to a city and be able to navigate and figure out the layout in just a day. Everything is made easy and accessible. And all public transport is integrated. So you can take a tram, metro, bus or ferry using the same Istanbul Kart (travel card). This is unlike KL in Malaysia where the lines were built by different companies so you can only buy a ticket till your interchange not to your final destination- a mistake we made on our visit there.
But this is a city built on seven hills, so while the view is fabulous on the way down, at some point you’ll find yourself at the bottom of a hill and be working those inner thigh muscles all the steep way up.
The Turks struck me as fiercely patriotic loaded with artistic flare. From the beautiful monuments and mosques, massive flag poles with the rich red flag bellowing proudly in the clear blue sky, right down to the cobbled streets laid out in a beautiful fan or shell pattern and their thoughtful window treatments.
And then there is the tea – their flags and their tea are everywhere. The tea – black tea ie. no milk and two sugar cubes is consumed at all times of the day and it is fabulous. I thought the Brits were tea fanatics but the Turks are the masters. In Malaysia I always felt overfed and bloated no matter how much or how little I ate (OK, i rarely ate little) but over here, I think the tea and the ayran (buttermilk) does something to your tummy to make you feel light.
Our other favourite thing were the ferry rides on the Bosphorous and the flea markets. The food of course was colourful and varied – more than just meat on a stick. Our favourite food has to be mussels filled with a peppery rice. I also loved the bread and bakeries pumping out fresh bread – an extra batch at 8:30pm when the fast is broken during Ramazan. Our local bakery was the Tophane Ring Bakery that I’d drop in to at 3:15 for little snack with our cup of tea in the flat. But a whole other post on the food we ate yet to come.
This was a fairly relaxed holiday – we planned our days so that we’d get an afternoon nap and cup of tea at home on most days and then hit the streets around 5pm – the sun only sets around 9pm during summer. Because we lived in a neighbourhood for so many days, we met the same people almost everyday: the corner shop, the lokantasi (working man’s cafe), the supermarket, the kebab shop, the mussels guys and my friend, the old man at the Tophane bakery. The people of Istanbul are very friendly, even to tourists. Of course, many of them thought I was Turkish and would start rattling off to me in Turkish. Learning a few Turkish phrases didn’t abate their confusion when I couldn’t respond to what they were saying! It’s great when someone thinks you’re a local, especially of a city you wish you were a local of! They have a fabulous tradition of walking in to a shop or restaurant and greeting the person with ‘Merhaba’ which means ‘hello!’. In India when is the last time you walked in a shop and said ‘namaste’ to the shop clerk? without them saying it to you first!? People really are friendly here. Being brown and looking local also meant that we hardly got harassed at markets.
Our neighbourhood in Istanbul was very animal friendly. We saw stray cats and dogs everywhere who were well fed, well looked after and tagged – that means they are spayed or neutered and vaccinated. In fact we saw very few young dogs which means that mating of street dogs is infrequent and the population is being maintained. Clearly, their neutering was a huge success because we only ever saw old street dogs which means that no new ones had been produced and people were not leaving puppies on the street. People in these liberal areas of the city would leave bowls of water and food – some very tasty food like macaroni and cheese – out for the street cats and dogs, even cardboard and little dog houses for dogs to sleep on. While we saw many people taking their beautifully groomed dogs for a walk the street dogs were equally beautiful, huge, well fed and cared for. Some blogs say that in more conservative neighbourhoods like Fatih (which we visited) the dogs are considered a dirty menace.
We loved the dogs of Istanbul and brought any leftover bread to the dogs near where we had breakdfast – although they were so well fed they didn’t need it
There were a few things I never quite figured out about Istanbul: why the lokantasi next door was so popular with taxi drivers; how do drivers know which is a one way (there are no signs saying one-way); and what do the water jugs with bottle caps in it mean? (they are everywhere!
Istanbul is the kind of city you want to get lost in. It’s the kind of city you want to be outdoors in, you want to enjoy being outside, just watching the world go by with the bosphorous adding energy to everything you see. I can’t say that for many cities. This is a city of over 3000 years old (formed in 660B.C) and history is everywhere not tucked away in little corners but everywhere, in every public tap, fountain, mosque, aquaduct and cobbled street. It might be a city of 14 million but it sure doesn’t feel that crowded – perhaps it’s the bosphorous that opens up the city. And a 1.5TL ride on the ferry is enough to melt any urban claustrophobia you may have.
The only dissapointing little corner I saw that had much potential and would probably get gentrified very soon, was Findikli near Tophane – an area along the bosphorous. There were a few restaurants but it is a bit drab, the park had more mud than grass, but there were a few food stalls and delicious ice cream, people fishing, and a lady with a HUGE dog who was chomping on a beef bone and shouted at a little girl who came too close. Taksim square was also too touristy for me and reminded me of Leicester Square in London. Other than that there’s nothing I could fault the city for.
Life in Indian cities, makes me want to run away from urban living to somewhere quiet and alone. Even London (exciting though it was), where I lived for six years, was not an easy, friendly, clean or affordable global city to live in. But Istanbul is a city that draws you in, swallows you up and leaves you begging for more. ‘You take delight not in a city’s seven or seventy wonders but in the answer it gives to a question of yours or the question it asks you forcing you to answer… a traveller through cities on his journey is a traveller through meeting places and people that are everyday taking from you, giving to you, changing the way you see your life and the new present that awaits you on this journey through life.’ Italo Calvino’s words (in Invisible Cities a novel of what he imagined explorer Marco Polo told to emperor Kublai Khan of the world’s cities) meant little to me but I can see this taking on meaning living in a city like Istanbul.
Plenty more blogs and photos to come of the food, flea markets and historical sights we saw…