Saturday, January 26, 2013

Getting acquainted with Istanbul

Istanbul and I are not quite friends - it's too early to say that.  We could be considered acquaintances, we've met each other a few times, we've hung out for a couple days.  Istanbul has shown me its best.  It's been hospitable and welcoming, but I've been very cautious while treading around the typical tourist haunts - realizing that this is not the "real" Istanbul that most of the city's inhabitants experience on a daily basis.  I know that Istanbul has many faces and I feel that I have only seen a few of them.

Perhaps I should let go of this scrutinizing nature, but that's me, and in this case, it's also serious business.  You see, I love to be a tourist, but I also question what is propped on display and sold to me for the price of an entrance ticket or pricey photo op.  In the tourism industry, nothing is ever quite what it seems.  Perhaps for this reason I am cautious of Istanbul.  Also, in the near future, Istanbul may be our future home (depending on job opportunities and the like), so I am seriously evaluating this city as a place where I may one day commute to work, grocery shop and, perhaps, raise a family. 

Can I envision living in Istanbul?  While taking a ferry down the Bosphorus, or while strolling down the tram line past nice restaurants and great shops - sure!  While sitting in rush hour traffic in a bus for over an hour, maybe or maybe not.

This was my second time in Istanbul, and it was much more revealing than the first.  While traveling on the bus for about an hour to get into the Sultanahmet area, I felt like I was traveling between two entirely different cities with different cityscapes.  We began in a city block no different from many other city blocks around Turkey - with high rise apartments and the various shops and grocers that occupy the street level.  However, we ended in an area with beautiful two to three story buildings, with the crust of history peaking in between cafes, shops and narrow lanes.  As in many big cities, neighborhoods have entirely different personalities and often there is a large distinction between one and another.  In Istanbul this is perhaps even more pronounced as layers of history are revealed as one travels closer to the water and especially near the Golden Horn. 

An example of a charismatic Istanbul street scene.  By the way, that beautiful building in the center of the photo is a büfe, or a stand selling snacks, cigarettes and other random items - not your typical convenience store.
So what did we do in Istanbul for the 3 short days before we left Turkey?

We enjoyed many stops for simit and cay, and various small treats.  We stopped into shops, looked at books and shopped for gifts to bring home.  We checked out Medusa and enjoyed the subdued atmosphere in the Basilica Cistern.  While also noting one of tourism's silly cultural incongruities - the "Ottoman Harem" photo ops inside the Basilica Cistern.  

A discrete photo of the Harem photo op stage in the Basilica Cistern.

Maybe I'm just reading too much into things - but Basilica Cistern represents Byzantine culture, not Ottoman.  Although, according to the brochure offered inside the Cistern, the Ottomans did use the Cistern water for their gardens at the Topkapı Palace for a short while before they secured their own water system in the city.  Details, details…

We had one of life's funny moments when walking up the path to the Blue Mosque as a couple started screaming in surprise and hugging H.  I figured they were Turkish friends that we happened to cross paths with in Istanbul.  Oh no, the world is much smaller.  These were two old friends from Kansas - yes, Kansas.  What are the chances that we should cross paths in such a way?  I would say probably one in a million - but I'm not that good at statistics.  We spent the rest of the afternoon eating, drinking tea and chatting. 

We got up at 4:30 to head to the airport for our flight, only to find out while attempting to check in that we were one day early…  It's okay, you can laugh, it's funny (although it wasn't at the time).   As I mentioned before, travel does strange things to the brain's time recognition system.

Due to this snafu we had one more day to go visit the Hagia Sophia and take in one of Istanbul's most famous cultural monuments.
The Hagia Sophia is a perfect example of overlapping cultures and civilizations in Istanbul. Some of the Islamic art was removed during restoration to reveal the Christian imagery and art beneath the paint.  The museum is an amazing place to spend a few hours to enjoy beauty and take in the history.

We also walked by the Bosphorus and had street food for our last dinner in Turkey - fish sandwiches, fried dough and salep.

One of the restaurants selling fish from a boat.  You just hop up to the edge, pay for your sandwich and then head to a modest table to enjoy your meal.  You'll see all types of people enjoying a quick bite - businessmen in suits, families with baby strollers, old couples, young couples and of course, tourists like us.

Lokma bought on the street in Istanbul.  Not my favorite, but tasty nonetheless.  

However, for me, the highlight of our time in Istanbul was our visit to the Maiden's Tower, a sight that for us symbolizes the romance of Istanbul.  More on the Maiden's Tower in the next post...


  1. I love your writing in the opening - your relationship with the city. I think your assessment is so similar to mine, but you got it down into words so well.

    I am LOL about the day early departure, but thrilled that you got to visit the Aya Sofya - I find such wonder in that place, and do not tire of going there - it is the only place I want to go back to in tourist land.

    It is so wonderful to see your relationship with Turkey unfolding - I wish I had kept a journal like this as I went! I am doing my work from memory. :)

    1. Thanks for the lovely comment Liz! I really appreciate your feedback on my writing.

      It is funny about the airport - I don't know how we didn't catch that on our itineraries. It was a silly mistake, but caused minor damage - and that last day was well-savored because of it.

      It is hard to tell that you are writing from memory - it all seems very fresh and recent! That shows the true skills of a good writer :-)


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