Istanbul (AKA, The Gateway to the East)

Once again, I can sit here and write that I’ve been absolutely floored by a Turkish city. When people try to draw comparisons between Istanbul and some other cities in the world, they claim that it’s like Rome, or London, maybe even Paris - but in my opinion, though the size of these cities are certainly similar they have very little in common. There’s something magical that makes the city of Istanbul something more than these other cities. Perhaps it’s the history - thousands of years of stories building upon each other. But, of course, these other cities that I’ve mentioned perviously have their own stories. I think, more than anything, it’s the people that make this city unique. Unique and amazing.

When we arrived in Istanbul, we did so early in the evening having forked over a small sum of money to get out of Denizli as fast as possible (That is, Paul and I arrived early in the evening. Max stuck with our original plans and arrived just after 1AM). We checked into the hostel, and then walked to Istikal street in search of dinner. Forgetting momentarily about our hunger and enchanted by the bustle of people along this street at 9PM, we wandered along the street taking in the fresh air and multitude of smells, from roasted walnuts to grilled corn on the cob that the fruit vendors were selling. We eventually found ourselves in Taksim Square which would usually be bustling with tourists, but was for the most part deserted. In fact, this was a recurrent theme in our travel in Istanbul, what should have been crowded was often empty. After grabbing dinner at a popular Dönër Kebab place, we had a drink or two and retired to the hostel (to wait for Max). Max arrived about 1AM, but it must have been 3AM before any of us fell asleep - the guitar player outside would just not shut up. And of course, he was really bad. It was pretty unfortunate.

We woke up the next morning hardly rested, but ready to experience the city. After a disappointing hostel breakfast we started at the spice market, and once again found it almost abandoned. Three of perhaps only thirty or forty shoppers, the lively atmosphere that we had heard so much about seemed missing - a few vendors half-heartedly called out to us proclaiming their wares, mostly turkish delight, but there was nothing like the constant bustle of activity that we had expected and read so much about. After the spice market,we walked to Topkapi palace. After strolling through the gardens, we grabbed some coffee at a café and then went inside to the museum. The museum was pretty uneventful - full of the opulence of the Sultans of the Ottoman empire and not much more, though there was a delightful set of exhibits on the history of cooking in the palace, which would at times throw banquets for over 15,000 people at a time.

After Topkapi palace, we took a short walk to the Basilica Cisterns. Hidden underground near the Hagia Sophia these underground cisterns supplied the city of Istanbul with water for hundreds of years. They were as cavernous as expected, and really pretty crazy to walk around in, our feet echoing amongst the columns. Leaving the Cisterns, we next visited the Hagia Sophia. Constructed in the early 9th century it was designed first as a Byzantine church, then was converted into a mosque, and finally into a museum in the 1900s. It has been both destroyed by earthquakes and sacked a number of times in the middle. The surviving architecture was amazing. I’ve never been to a building that inspired so much awe fas to the constructions of such an early time period. When we realized that the time was inconvenient for visiting the Blue Mosque just across the square (It is closed for 90 minutes during the prayers 5 times daily) we decided to go for Baklava.

After finding out (surprised) that Max and Paul had never had the delicious pastry, it became a priority to try, and no better place than (INSERT BAKLAVA PLACE HERE). After this, and with the Grand Bazaar closed just steps away, we went for dinner at (DINNER PLACE HERE) where after dinner we chatted a bit with the owner about tourism in Turkey. It turns out that what we had noticed was quite true - the tourism industry was suffering because of the recent terror attacks and attempted coup. Places that we had just walked into such as the Hagia Sophia and the Topkapi Palace had hosted lines of over an hour. It really put it into perspective. We stopped for some of the uniquely chewy Turkish ice cream on the way back to the hostel, and then turned in for the night. The guitar players (this time two of them, both awful) didn’t stop playing until 3:30AM.

With only a few major things left to do on the schedule, we set out a bit later in the day. We started at the Blue Mosque which we had missed the day before. Though it wasn’t, perhaps, as blue as suggested, the architecture and design was amazing. We then visited the Grand Bazaar properly, and to be honest, it was one of the most crazy things I have ever experienced. Street upon street selling all kinds of crazy goods that you might be unable to imagine. We had a bit of a competition here - 20 TL, what is the oddest thing you could buy? I’m pretty sure that Paul and Max didn’t try that hard, as they ended up with a fez and a spinning top respectively. I got a drain spout, certifiably appropriated from one of the many drinking fountains across the city (it was returned to the city when I was done with it). I think I won the competition. After a late lunch at a Kebab place, we once more set forth, and visited the Istanbul museum of Science and Technology in Islam. The museum highlighted the science of the Islamic world, and gave some insight into a number of fields where Islamic discoveries had been overlooked or ignored by the western world.

After finishing up at the museum, we grabbed some more coffee and then went back to the Hostel. After chilling out for a time, we ent to grab dinner. We ended up at a small restaurant run by a french family where instead of a menu, they prepared all of the dishes, and had you pick them on sight and taste. They were then prepared fresh and hot, and served to your table. It was an amazing little place - and the ambiance was pretty amazing for something to just stumble upon. When we got back to the Hostel, I had my last Türk Çay, and fel asleep. This time, I think the Guitarists stopped around 2, but I was too tired to care.

Istanbul may not have sounded like much from my poor descriptions above. I mean, it’s impossible to capture something so impressive in just a few words. And even though a lot of the things that we did are the traditional touristy stuff, I think that we experienced something very different from the people who usually find themselves in Turkey. We visited Turkey in a time where there is a lot of uncertainty, a lot of questions, and I think that that came through in all of our journeys - but more than that, I think we got to see a more authentic place, with no time or energy for a façade or false face. We saw a truer Turkey. And I loved it.

** Sorry for the lack of photos in this one! I've been trying to sort through them all, and I'll post a bunch when it's all said and done in a few weeks!