I recently returned from Istanbul, Turkey. And don’t worry, family, I wasn’t affected by any of those protests that you’ve probably seen on TV lately.
Istanbul is a place that I’ve wanted to visit for over 10 years, but I never made it that far east during my European travels. Back in January or February, my dearest friend, Maria, and I were talking, trying to coincide our travel schedules and plan a trip together since we’re both living in Europe at the moment. She mentioned Istanbul and I gave a resounding “yes!” As it turns out, our friend, Harry (also from Kansas), had some free days and wanted to join us. Side note: Harry is teaching at the University of Santiago de Compostela which is located in the northeast of Spain, so he is also nearby.
I wasn’t sure what to expect, exactly. I mean, I knew they had awesome food (döner kebabs, humus and baklava anyone?) and I knew they had a famous bazaar, a famous mosque and a “European” feel. But I was really ignorant when it came to Turkey. I messaged my friend, Elainne, who has lived in Istanbul for 4 years, with some naive questions. I asked her about women’s clothing in general, appropriate dress for visiting a mosque, which areas are less safe for tourists, etc. I was surprised when she simply replied with “just a scarf for the mosque” and that’s about it. Well, it turns out that she was perfectly right. With my lack of education, I was imaging the situation to be a bit more sensitive for tourists.
Maria arrived nearly an hour before me. To my relief, she was waiting right behind the customs area of the airport. Together we made our way to the exit where our driver was waiting for us. Immediately we were feeling strange/feeling guilty that we couldn’t speak with our driver. Between the two of us we speak around 4 languages. None of them are Turkish. And it had been a long time since I had traveled in a country where I didn’t speak the language at least a little and where English wasn’t prevalent. I couldn’t even pronounce the driver’s name, so he just sighed and said “Rudy”. Great. Glad we solved that. And off we went with Rudy to the rental apartment.
The apartment was cozy, we were hungry, and Harry’s flight didn’t arrive until much later in the evening. So we decided to look up a few restaurants from our list and head out to find something to eat. Well, we weren’t able to find the two restaurants that we had mapped, but we ended up finding food to fill our bellies anyway. We moseyed up and down Istiklal Avenue, enjoyed some sweet and savory treats and did a lot of people watching. The sun was setting, prayers were being recited over loud speakers, and we were soaking it all in. Around 9pm, we decided to head home and grab a durum kebab to-go for Harry since he would be arriving late.
After an uneventful evening, we woke up around 9am and spent a few minutes choosing our breakfast spot. If you’re not familiar with Turkish breakfasts, you should be. They put the U.S. breakfast/brunch to shame. And we sure did pick the best spot. In fact, Van Kahvalti Evi was SO good that we ate breakfast there 2 days in a row! There was a line out of the door when we arrived, but we didn’t have to wait long. The staff was friendly and helpful. But the best part was the bottomless cups of Turkish tea, the plates of cheeses and spreads and the bottomless basket of delicious breads. Mmm. Here’s the verdict: Maria’s favorite was the bal kaymak, or clotted cream with honey; my favorite was mixing the bibir salcasi, or red pepper spread, with cheese and spreading it on warm bread; and I believe Harry’s favorite was the dense bread-stick-thing and the kavut or “warm sand” as we like to call it. Kavut is a warm sandy paste made from walnuts, honey and flour. So delicious!
After we were stuffed, we headed out to see touristy things. Nearly every mosque we saw was impressive. I think I took just as many pictures of regular mosques as I did of the famous Blue Mosque. Here are a few photos of the “everyday” or “ordinary” sights.
We then stumbled upon the Grand Bazaar which is one of the largest bazaars in the world. We weren’t quite ready to shop, but we did take a stroll and eventually found a cozy spot to “enjoy” a Turkish coffee. Turkish coffee grounds are boiled in a pot and then served in these little cups where the grounds settle towards the bottom. Well, once you near the mid-way point of your cup, I suggest you stop drinking. It gets really muddy from there and not so tasty.
After getting lost a few times, we finally found the famous Hagia Sophia which is a Greek Orthodox basilica-turned mosque-turned museum. Construction began in 537 and ended in the 15th century. Yeah. I’m unable to describe the effect that the lighting created, but it was breathtaking.
After the Hagia Sophia, we took a little break to warm up with some hot wine. Then we headed over to the Basilica Cistern. This cistern is one of the largest cisterns underneath the city and was built in the 6th century during the reign of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian. Towards the back of the cistern, there are two heads of Medusa. According to Wikipedia, “tradition has it that the blocks are oriented sideways and inverted in order to negate the power of the Gorgons‘ gaze.” Great. Love it. Let’s go with that story.
We were beat after that long day, but we managed to work up enough stamina to join Elainne and her friend for a few drinks. We enjoyed some Turkish rock music, asked her a million questions about Turkey and then headed home for a long awaited sleep.
I might be getting this a little out of order, but the next day we decided to have breakfast at our trusty place. This time it was quite crowded and we felt a bit rushed. So we decided that we would try something new the next day.
After breakfast, we headed to the Blue Mosque. The mosque is closed during prayer times, but we were first in line for the afternoon visitor session. The entire entry process was very quick and in hindsight, I wish I would have taken some photos at that point. We quickly pulled off our shoes and stuffed them in plastic bags that we were given to carry them. If women weren’t covered, there were robes available. Maria and I had come fully covered with scarves which we quickly wrapped over our hair. Once inside, we just gazed at the ceiling and tile work for what seemed like seconds even though it was quite a bit of time.
After the Blue Mosque, we decided to briskly walk towards Topkapi Palace to make it before closing time…but we weren’t so lucky. Then we decided to take the bus towards home so that we could dry off and warm up because it had been raining all day. Once we stepped off at our last stop, we decided to enjoy some Turkish street food: simit, açma, and I also ordered a börek stuffed with cheese. There is so much street food in Istanbul, from stuffed potatoes to oysters to roasted chestnuts to döner kebabs. I highly recommend trying them out if you ever visit.
The next day, we decided to try a new place for breakfast which was equally satisfying and had a huge selection of teas which was nice. After breakfast, we wanted to head over to Topkapi Palace which we had missed the day before. When crossing the bridge, we had always taken the bus, but this day we decided to walk across the bridge instead. The bridge was full of fishermen and good views.
Once we crossed the bridge, we made a beeline for Topkapi Palace. It is quite large and was home to many of the Ottoman Sultans. It is also an UNESCO Heritage site and it hosts a laundry-list of famous artifacts. I saw *supposedly* Moses’ staff, the skull of John the Baptist, Prophet Mohammed’s beard and cloak, and humongous diamonds to name a few. Unfortunately, no photos are allowed of the artifacts. But here are some pictures from the outside and inside the courtyard.
The next morning (and very early!), Harry left for Santiago. Maria and I made a quick trip to the bazaar to spend our last few Turkish lira and then headed back to the apartment to pack up. I was very proud of us because we managed to find the bus shuttle to the airport in time for our flights despite the language barrier. Yay us!
Once at the airport, Maria and I chatted until her flight left. I was trying to hold back the emotions, but I kept thinking that this would be the last time that I would see Maria until after graduation. She is so kind and is such a positive influence in my life, so it was a little hard to say goodbye. Skype is always there for us, but the real thing is so much better. Until next time.
Enough of the sad stuff. Before I end, I also want to say that I loved Istanbul. The people seemed very nice, the food was terrific and there is much more to see in the future. I know why Elainne loves living there. Sadly, there is still a lot of political craziness going on right now. I hope that it is resolved soon.