“You don’t need seatbelt…”, shouted the taxi driver, loud enough for us to hear him over the blaring Turkish radio and the incessant sound of car horns. He smiled, “…this is Istanbul!”
We’d touched down at Sabiha Gökçen airport on the Asian side of Istanbul at approximately 8:45pm. Our first glimpse of Turkey saw the silhouettes of dozens of minarets rising up from the sprawling cityscape. One hour later and we were whizzing across the Atatürk bridge towards Sultanahmet while the taxi driver kept himself busy by scrolling through his Facebook profile pictures with seemingly no fear for his own safety or that of his cargo. After stopping to buy water mid-journey (apparently swerving past all those other taxis is thirsty work) we eventually entered a more densely populated area. It was here where the driver slowed down, turned the radio off and wound all the windows down. A booming voice reverberated from a nearby mosque – we’d caught the nightfall call to prayer, and with it we’d arrived at our destination.
The gargantuan metropolis of Istanbul, sliced into 3 parts by the Bosphorus strait and the Golden Horn, is home to some of the most iconic monuments in the world. A true concoction of East meets West, this huge city is awash with stunning architecture, friendly locals and mouthwatering cuisine, not to mention the fact that it’s utterly doused in history. Founded in around 660 BC, Istanbul now straddles both Europe and Asia and in the past has seen conquests by the Byzantine, Roman and Ottoman empires. Home to over 14 million people, Istanbul city alone spans over 1500km2 – that’s bigger than Madrid, Barcelona, Seville and Valencia put together.
The sheer quantity of people can only mean one thing… The key word here is hectic. The traffic; the locals; the port; the tourists…
Pedestrians cross the road willy nilly -the Turks detached and aloof, the tourists like Frogger- , boys with wheelbarrows full of water narrowly avoid oncoming traffic, motorists become tired of waiting and edge out into the road, blocking several lanes at a time while they find a gap to join traffic going in the opposite direction, others try to avoid the jams by using tram lanes only to end up making the whole situation even worse, tourists and locals alike gather at the port side eateries at Eminönü or queue to board one of the dozens of boats leaving the port to Beyoğlu, Üsküdar or beyond… All to the backdrop of honking horns, general hustle and bustle and -if at the opportune moment- the call to prayer. Istanbul is a bustling hub of never-ending activity – night or day. It’s common to see people still out eating in the early hours and shops are open until well past midnight. It also isn’t seen at all odd to do roadworks and literally dig up roads at 1am.
By day, people upon people over people scramble through the narrow alleyways surrounding the Egyptian Bazaar with streets only becoming sightly more dispersed as you head up the hill towards the Grand Bazaar – it’s actually hard to see where the Grand Bazaar begins or ends due to the sheer amount of stalls. Thousands of trinkets, rugs, candles, lanterns and Turkish nazars (left) used to protect against the evil eye hang from every available surface of the hundreds of shop fronts, interspersed with the smells of spice stalls and coffee shops, while men with several cups of tea on ornate trays expertly weave around tourists without spilling a drop. This myriad of seemingly identical, covered streets is a souvenir shopper’s paradise – although a local told us that many of the goods found here can be bought for a much cheaper price outside of the market. We were persuaded into going into a basement rug stall one day after stopping for a cup of coffee inside the Grand Bazaar. The lovely owner was so excited that he showed us his book full of happy customers to whom he had given a “right price”. This became quite the catchphrase and we even found out that he’d given the “right price” to none other than Police singer, “Stink”.*
At the end of this post you’ll find our Istanbul gallery. Before, though, here’s a run-down of some of the other things that caught our attention:
Turkish. Our first words were all about the necessities: su (water), tavuk döner (chicken kebab) and çay (tea). And with just a few days in Istanbul you’ll soon get to know the difference between your giriş (entrance) and your çikiş (exit). We never quite mastered how to say “thank you” (Teşekkür ederim) properly though, oops.
Cats. Everywhere. In, around and sometimes even on your table. Purposefully getting into lifts with you to 6th floor, attic lounge bars and tempting death by walking on the precipice of the balcony. Trust me, that cat had been in that lift before! Far from being the flea-ridden street cats that you may be picturing in your mind’s eye, the often tame Istanbul cats look clean, friendly and certainly do their part in keeping kids from all over the world entertained as their parents sip tea and smoke shishas in heaving restaurant terraces. We even came home with a nice souvenir – a coffee table-worthy slab of a book called The Street Cats of Istanbul. There was also a Street Dogs version, but all the dogs in the city looked like this little fellow to the right who was enjoying a lovely snooze in the Blue Mosque courtyard. Hot, motionless and, let’s face it, dead-looking dogs wouldn’t have made for good coffee table material. You only have to walk through the gardens between the Blue Mosque and the Ayasofya to see dozens of our four legged friends.
Men. Men in bars. Men walking together. Men running – and not for exercise, just…running. One cultural difference is that, especially in the old town of Sultanahmet, Turkish women are scarcely seen. Whole bars are often occupied by older Turkish men sat on small seats at small tables, drinking çay and playing card games. It’s also rare to see a female shop owner in the Grand Bazaar, or anywhere else for that matter. Hey, Istanbul ladies, where are you?
Pushy waiters. Multilingual fiends from every restaurant on the stretch follow you down the street to the tune of “¿Cómo estás, mi amigo? ¿Queréis comer?” and continue to reel off their daily specials at you until you dash across the road in an attempt to escape. One Pushy Waiter was ecstatic to tell us that the restaurants in our area were, of course, open 24 hours. Much to the same ilk as the PW comes the Pushy Salesperson: “Hi! How are you? Enjoying your day? Where are you going now? Would you like to go on a Bosphorus cruise? etc. etc.” Friendly and well-mannered, sure, but after saying “No thanks, we’re going for dinner”, this little exchange turned sour. I draw the line at Turkish people scoffing and engaging me in a lunch vs. dinner debate worthy of a freshers’ ice breaking session. Viva The North!
Call to prayer. And so we arrive at the main cultural difference: religion. Turkey has been a secular state since Atatürk’s reforms in the early 20th century but Islam is still very widely practised. The call to worship, or ezan, happens 5 times a day in Istanbul: dawn, midday, around 5pm, sunset and finally when the last light of day has disappeared. Of course, our favourite was at dawn -just after 5am-, made all the more interesting because we were staying literally 10 metres from the nearest mosque (and the roadworks had been going on until 2am!). The call to prayer involves the local muezzin reciting the ezan and it being broadcast via speakers from the minarets of the mosques. It is “intended to bring to the mind of every believer and non-believer the substance of Islamic beliefs, or its spiritual ideology.” The times change daily due to their connection with the position of the Sun. Non-Muslim visitors aren’t allowed in the mosques at times of worship, but when you do enter, be sure to take note of the proper dress code for entering the mosques and grounds (see gallery image).
Food and drink. Never has a lamb kebab tasted so…lamby (!?) And never has a kebab so delicious been so cheap. Turkey: we salute you on your fine cuisine. Whether it be iskender, köfte, kebabs from a street stall, fresh fish or things so spicy we had to cool them down with yoghurt and an Ayran, we were never short of a tasty meal. Nor were we left wanting for a good cup of coffee – Turkish coffee is dense, heavy and has a bitty texture. Sugar is added before it is brought to the table and you shouldn’t drink the heavy grounds left in the bottom of the cup. Tea seems to be the drink of choice, even during the hottest parts of the day. Despite beer being expensive and hard to find in the old town, a short metro trip over the Golden Horn to the Beyoğlu area was key to showing us a younger, more relaxed part of Istanbul. Bars, quirky cafés and restaurants here line the streets and offer alcohol a-plenty, so much so, in fact, that we stumbled upon what appeared to be another tradition: drinking raki with your meal. The dry, aniseed flavoured liqueur is drunk alone or mixed with water and is forever being topped up for another round of cheers-ing. Did someone say Anis Tenis or palometa? There are also endless amounts of mobile food stalls selling pastries, corn on the cob, chestnuts, melon, juices and mussels starting at just 1 Lira.
Sailor hats. Do you remember those cheap fancy dress hats you bought for that university bar crawl when Sarah From Spanish Class decided she wanted to make everyone dress up like the Jean Paul Gaultier advert for her birthday? Is this some new fashion trend that’s heading West? We hope not.
That one Valencian that you can’t get away from. In a bizarre moment on our final day, we didn’t know whether to laugh or cry as we heard someone bellowing from their balcony about “EL CALOREEET QUE FA”. Rita Barberà’s linguistically challenged legacy lives on.
And last but not least we have the crowning glory of Istanbul: the must-see sights, including the magnificent Ayasofya museum (30 Lira entrance fee), Sultanahmet Camii (Blue Mosque), Topkapi Palace (30/45 Lira), Basilica Cistern (20 Lira), Gálata Tower (20 Lira), Grand Bazaar and the Bosphorus strait. Take a look at our gallery below.
Are you planning on heading to Istanbul? Here are a few tips and suggestions:
- Aside from changing Euros into Lira at the airport, we also risked taking money out at cash machines with our Spanish bank cards. The exchange rate was always round about what it should be, with an extra charge of €4 for using a foreign bank. Let’s face it – I’ve been charged more than that to take money out in Madrid.
- Public transport tokens are just 4 Lira per trip, but it’s worth getting the travel card which you can then top up and benefit from even cheaper journies on all public transport including metros, trams and ferries to Üsküdar on the Asian side of the Bosphorus.
- Catch some Whirling Dervish dancing (right) everyday at the Dervish Café located between the Blue Mosque and Ayasofya. Have some tea, smoke a shisha, stroke the cats and wonder how the dancer doesn’t get dizzy and topple over.
- Entrance to Topkapi Palace is 30 Lira but it’s well worth paying 15 Lira more to gain entrance to the tile-adorned Harem – by far the crowning glory of the palace.
- Shawls/headscarves are available to borrow for free at Topkapi Palace and the Blue Mosque – remember ladies have to cover their heads, shoulders and knees in all mosques and in one part of the palace.
- The Basilica Cistern is an old, ornate, underground water deposit from the 6th century. Pay just 20 Lira to go and see this eerie chamber and read about the legend of the huge medusa heads.
- Head to the Gálata Tower at sundown for spectacular views of the sunset over Istanbul.
- Take a trip to Suleymaniye Camii, a large, beautifully decorated mosque behind the university – you won’t regret it!
- Don’t forget to see the Bosphorus by way of a 2 hour cruise priced at just 12 Lira departing from Eminönü port.
- While you’re there, grab a tasty fish sandwich for only 5 Lira at the floating Derya restaurant close to Gálata bridge.
- *Go and hear the story about Stink for yourself and maybe buy a nice rug at Export & Import in the Grand Bazaar.
A heaving, multicultural, open-24-hours explosion of colour, taste, rich history and religion, Istanbul deserves a place on your to-visit list.
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