Istanbul, a city where Asia and Europe meet. A city torn between two continents but a hundred different cultures. A place that has had more history happen within its borders than some of the most well-known cities in Europe or Asia. A place where every single adult male seems to smoke. A city where the coffee is thicker than the mustaches – and that is saying something! All that and it has a lot of cats. Like seriously; a lot.
We spent a cold, rainy three days there at the beginning of December, but with the warmth of the people we didn’t feel like we needed those two layers! As we had been chasing the end of summer temperatures down through Europe for the past two months, culminating in what was the longest almost-still-summer season in history, the chill of Istanbul was both a welcome change, but also a wake up that the cooler weather was not far away and we needed to head even further south to continue our version of the Endless Summer (without surfing).
Arrival in Istanbul can be relatively straight forward if you have a contact before you arrive to arrange transport, otherwise you face a barrage of touts looking to get you in their taxi, minibus, car trunk, or other; for a first time traveller it would be a bit overwhelming, but for us it is just an annoyance at this point – as you have to ignore and walk, despite what people offer. For convenience sake we had contacted out Airbnb host to arrange some transport, but really there are a ton of companies online that will do it for you as well, and the price turned out to be similar.
Our flat for the stay was in the Sultanhumet area of old Istanbul, where just across the street was the oldest street in the city, once a connection from the waters of the Bosporus and the city. We were within a 5 minutes walk from the famous Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia, and about 12 minutes from the famous Grand Bazaar. The view of the mosque and Hagia Sophia (an ancient church, now museum) was impressive. Both structures are imposing on their own but bookending the plaza they share added to their grand auras. A small light show in the moderate fountain in the plaza made for a nice photo opportunity at night and with a 2 hour time change from Spain, we had no problem staying up late enough to get the plaza almost all to ourselves for photos.
The next day we again visited the two religious domes, but in the light, they were more grandiose with the hundreds or thousands of people crawling all over the area. We visited each, the Blue Mosque being free to enter, but obviously a revered religious place to the Muslim community so many of the visitors where people there to pray. A modicum of respect was asked, so that people praying could be left in peace, yet few seemed to heed that note and snapped away. Much of the interior of the mosque was under repair or refurbishment, unsure which, so the impressive ceiling was barely visible. The Hagia Sophia was much more impressive with its visible high ceilings (although some was under repair) and internal structure and artifacts. There was one strange, yet popular place in the church that always seemed to attract a line of people. A simple hole, worn smooth in the marble of one pillar, was constantly being probed by people’s thumbs. They would insert their thumb and twist their wrist almost 360 degrees – while making a wish. The ‘weeping pillar’ was supposed to grant wishes – but besides from a wish of a less sore wrist after that twist, I’m not sure how it works.
So besides those two huge religious places we took a 3 hour boat tour around the Bosporus and wandered around the Grand Bazaar, a market that is hundred of years old and has somewhere around 4,000 vendors. Out of 4,000 vendors, only about 5 or 10 different types of stores were visible, with hundreds of similar stores of each type visible in any direction. Most stores seemed to see either sweets, lamps, dishes, tourist souvenirs (of varying types), some weird assortment of clothes with obviously fakes North American or European brands, jewellery, or carpets. There were of course a few other stores that popped up here and there but if you really liked the lamp you just saw, don’t need to turn back to double check, just keep walking and five other stores selling the same will be right around the corner. The Grand Bazaar was huge, but surprisingly well integrated and almost camouflaged into the city. We didn’t know we had entered or left it until we were literally at a doorway. It was also a nice reprieve to wander the ancient market on a dreary, wet day in Istanbul.
Now, most of our Istanbul adventure was fairly tame. We avoided our flat like the plague, as a horrendous sewage smell was continuously emanating from the bathroom. Apparently, the building was old and as such had old plumbing which would odorously pollute the flat whenever the wind blew – it made for an unpleasant 3 nights. The rest of the time we spent wandering around Istanbul being offered all kinds of amazing food from the seemingly endless supply of restaurants, listening to every single man call our daughters princesses, getting wet from the rain, and most importantly (for the girls anyway) making friends with as many cats as possible!
Istanbul is famous for its street cats as there are thousands and even one of them has a statue – a small statue though! Cats are as much a part of Istanbul as are the churches, temples, mosques, ancient markets and old cobblestone streets. Cats are well fed by many of the city’s residents and are generally friendly. The girls has a blast petting an endless stream of felines that seemed to come out of every nook and cranny when a gentle ‘psstpsst’ was uttered. I was sure we weren’t going to escape Istanbul without at least 2 or 3 of the four-legged furballs stashed in our luggage, especially after we ran into a little kitten, no more than a couple of weeks old, mewing at us as we strolled past. Needless to say, that little guy got a lot of love in a few minutes. I think if we were returning directly to Canada, and not continuing on, we might have been at the airport with a new family member… or three!
These of course aren’t the only reasons to visit Istanbul, but with our limited time, we just stuck to one area and took our time there, no need to try to do too much! And to my friend who worked at the restaurant right next to our flat, thanks for the tea, the conversation, and the recommendations for the city. While everyone in Istanbul is trying to sell you something, they need to eat too, be kind to them, as not once did I meet an unfriendly person, even after I said no, or moved on. They all said, ‘see you again soon – come back to see me when you want something’, regardless of what they were selling they all seemed to actually enjoy talking to people.
After our first blast of actual winter (similar to back home in Vancouver!) we were off to Dubai, and our first taste of real heat in months. Until then…
M (Sub-secretary to the treasurer)