When I found out that I was going to travel to Istanbul I was so excited to be replacing the easternmost point of my travels that I happily told a friend about it, adding that the furthest to the east I’d been up until now had been Prague.
She laughed and said that Prague was to the west of Vienna, where I live, which I not only found embarrassing, as it exposed my geographic ignorance, but also quite revealing, since it became obvious to me that very moment, that borders today as ever are really more or less drawn in one’s mind, emotionally, rather than geographically on a map. Prague still evoked visions of the eastern block, the iron curtain and therefore simply had to be further east. In my head.
Regardless of the fact, that I later realized that the easternmost point of my traveling wasn’t Vienna but Helsinki, I was leaving for Istanbul, which, apart from the philosophic aspect, rendered the whole discussion more or less obsolete.
I left for Istanbul on October 27th, part of a group of Bloggers and Twitterers (aka „nerds“), led by a native of the city, who had not only organized the trip, but would also guarantee that we would get something of an insider-view as well.
After a bumpy flight, which led me to the brink of performing one of those popelike groundkissing gestures after we had landed, I was quickly hauled back to more profane levels by witnessing a perfect scheme of legal extortion. When you arrive in Istanbul you have to buy a visa. Nobody of course mentions this beforehand, so you grudgingly pay the price of 20 Euros which allows you to enter the country, wondering, if ever somebody had had the guts to say: I’m not paying! (and getting back on the flight back to wherever she had come from). I’m still of the opinion that this form of visa is nothing but a modern version of highway robbery.
The perfectly organized transport to the hotel, which was located in the old part of town, erased the remaining traces of resentment and after checking in, we quickly left for a first walk around the vicinity of the hotel. Excellently situated in walking distance to Hagia Sophia, Sultan Ahmed Mosque, the grand bazaar and the spice bazaar, we had our first turkish coffee (apart from the typical Cay, which is black tea, a definite must in Istanbul) and later on found ourself on our first tour through the bustling grand bazaar.
The place is indoors, as is the spice bazaar, which was a delight, because it had already begun to rain and so we spent our first afternoon wandering through the maze of lanes in the bazaar, a labyrinth of stores which offer everything one can possibly imagine, from leather to jewelry, from carpets to scarfs, from artwork to oriental kitsch.
The downside of this colorful place? Apart from the impression that the trashy by far outweighs the beautiful, if you happen to be female and without a „male guardian“, wandering the lanes can become a steeplechase, which constantly seems to be brushing on the border of outright harassment. And not answering the 20th insinuating „can I help you“ with a blunt „go fuck yourself“, can only be prevented with an extra-amount of zen-like self-discipline. Or you just leave the place quickly and head on over to the spice bazaar, where salespeople are less intrusive and which in addition offers the more interesting selection of goods. Spices, teas and more – lovely!
Day number two, unfortunately, saw horrendous amounts of rain, which would have been ok, if that day hadn’t been planned for touring most of the historic monuments in the old part of town.
We started out with Hagia Sophia, which used to be a church, then a mosque and today is a museum, where islamic and christian architecture converge and can be appreciated for their diversity as well as artistic mastery.
On we headed to the blue mosque, which is really called Sultan Ahmed mosque and by the time I had taken off my shoes, which up to this point in time were beyond wet, and stepped onto the soft carpet of the mosque, I could barely feel my toes anymore, because not only had it been raining without end, it was also freezing cold.
The stunning beauty of the mosque, rightfully nicknamed for the thousands of pale blue tiles, which turn the entering light into a milky-blue, almost dreamlike, haze, let me forget the cold and the wetness outside. Only for a short while though, because we left again, and so I forced my feet back into my shoes, which at this point would emit a squishy sound every time I took a step.
I mustered the strength for one more sight – the roman cistern – a wonderful display of functional architecture which to this day is still partially in use for the city’s water supply – and then I caved. I succumbed to the vision of a hot shower and dry socks and left the group, which headed on towards the next sight. Topkapi Palace would just have to wait.
The next day was Turkey’s national holiday „Republic Day“ and there would have been a parade, only it was postponed to Sunday because of the rain, which showed one of the many amiable qualities of the Turks. Something’s not working right now, doesn’t make sense, would be too dangerous/complicated etc… we’ll do it another time. An unknown amout of flexibility which in this case extended to the parade to be held on the most important day of the nation. Very impressive!
As for my tourist program. The morning was spent walking across Galata Bridge, which was lovely, because despite predictions that the bad weather would continue, it had stopped raining and the walking tour through the part of town across the bridge over the Golden Horn – Beyoğlu – turned out to be nicer than expected. Galata Tower was climbed with the help of an elevator and offered a fantastic view over Istanbul, lunch was spent on the sidewalk of one of the many Kebab stands, with – yes of course Kebab – and – again of course – Turkish coffee.
The afternoon had been reserved for a visit to the hamam, an experience nobody should miss. In my opinion, you haven’t lived until you’ve been to one of these washing machines for humans, where they manage to scrub away not only physical dirt, but everything which remotely resembles an emotional stain as well. You will leave the place clean and happy.
Saturday came around and the plan for the day was a) Topkapi Palace and b) Asia. As one well knows Istanbul lies at the intersection of Europe and Asia and since I had left for this trip with something of a geographic agenda, I would not miss the opportunity to set foot on another continent just like that.
But first things first. The decision to skip Topkapi on Thursday had been wise, because apart from the fact that we didn’t have a guide this time around, the sun was out, which beat any accompanying historic narration by lengths. Topkapi is a former sultan’s palace which sits atop one of the seven hills of Istanbul and not only permits great views over the city, the Golden Horn and the Sea of Marmara, but also offers an interesting display of jewelry (yes the movie…) and reliquies (the beard of the prophet!).
Finally we were headed over to Asia. With ferries leaving from the harbor every 15 minutes, we had opted for Üsküdar and only 20 minutes later my feet touched Asian ground.
That part of the city is really not any different from the rest, it would be absurd if had been, because after all Istanbul is a metropolis of over 14 million citizens, still growing and expanding, again, not following laws of geography but opportunity and space. Hence while we had landed in a more trashy part of the city, with bustling crowds and a lively market that sold anything from cow’s feet to fresh fish, others of our group had been to upper-class neighborhoods, diversifiying the Asian experience just as much as the European one.
The last evening was spent, as the evenings beforehand, with excessive amounts of food. This time accompanied by live music, which turned out to be a life saver, because only the dancing part towards the end of the night prevented me from keeling over and exploding. Turkish food is dangerously good.
On Sunday, after the final shopping at the Spice Bazaar, the bus was already waiting outside of the hotel, ready to take us to the airport, our trip was nearing its end. And what did I take with me, apart from the usual knickknack, candies, teas and spices? I took with me the experience that the Orient is vastly different from the Occident and at then again not so different at all.
Istanbul, like any big city in the world is a busy place, with lots of different people from everywhere crowding the streets. It’s as tolerant or intolerant as any other city in the world, and where one might expect narrow-mindedness or dogma, liberality and patience prevailed.
Take for example the blue mosque – yes you had to take your shoes off, but women for example didn’t have to wear a head scarf. Neither did they in Suleymanye mosque, which is located at the harbour. The only bigotry I experienced was exhibited by a German tourist complaining that asking to take one’s shoes of „is a bit much, really“.
Then again I did have problems with what Turkish men mistake as „gentlemanliness“ or „chivalry“, but finding it restricted to the Grand Bazaar and some very touristy restaurants, it could easily be avoided, which nicely corresponds with the first rule in my book of zenlike-tourism: „if you don’t like it – don’t go there!“
Over all, Istanbul is a grand city in every aspect. It’s lively, it’s beautiful, the people are lovely and heartwarmingly tolerant, so much so, that even a suicide-bombing (which thankfully claimed only the life of the bomber) on sunday morning, wasn’t disruptive enough to change this impression. Not at all.
Accommodation: Hotel Erboy was ideally located in the center of the old part of town. In walking distance to all major sights, its room were clean, buffet breakfast and free wi-fi access included, there’s a roof terrace in the summer.
Hamam: Cagaloglu Hamam is an ok Place to visit, though I doubt that it really is one of the New York Times Bestseller’s „1000 places to visit before you die“ – because of that attribute, it is rather touristy and crowded, you may be better off, visiting one of the smaller local Hamams.
Restaurants: I can heartily recommend the restaurants Hamdi in the old part of town, Mekan in Beyoğlu as well as Otto (also located in Beyoğlu). Hamdi and Mekan offer traditional Turkish cuisine, while Otto is more of a loungy kind of place, which has a rather eclectic menu).
Susanne, December 15, 2010