Ultimate Adventures: Soaking Up Istanbul
These words were true 200 years ago and they remain truly compelling today. Istanbul is a magical city to wake up to, and the appeal of the place only increases as the day goes on. The pull of the city is strong, magnetic, undeniable. There is an abundance of life everywhere around you: spices, mosques, markets, fish and fisherman, traditional handiwork, beautiful vistas, haunting calls to prayer, police on Segways, swooping gulls, playing children, women in burkas, kids in chauffered limos, shouting vendors, sleeping kitties, fresh watermelon, a flourishing music scene, and millions and millions of people drawn to the energy and the cacophony of cultures and possibilities that exist in Istanbul. It is a place of wonder, of sensory overload, a meeting point between East and West that is larger than New York—- and boy did I love it!
My first day in Istanbul was spent exploring with my friend Joao (thank god for long Interrail journeys that foster friendships!. The fact that we had just gotten off of a 17-hour train ride did not deter our enthusiasm for seeing what Istanbul had to offer). We crisscrossed the old city, going wherever our senses (and our appetites!) took us. We saw what we thought were lots of mosques, until we discovered that Istanbul has over 4000. We shopped at the Grand Bazaar, where again we were able to only see a small percentage of the thousands and thousands of shops in the ‘world’s oldest shopping mall.’
We sampled everything from Baklava to Turkish coffee to typical pastries to kebabs to Turkish tea to ice cream to watermelon to baked goods to chocolate to fresh juices, and still we had not even begun to taste the flavors of Turkey. Eventually, we came to the realization that the beauty of Istanbul is that you cannot possibly see, do, or taste it all, and so we settled instead for absorbing as much as we could. We walked until we got lost, wandering from seaside ports to quiet residential neighborhoods to deep into the heart of Istanbul’s manufacturing district, where we saw people in windowless basements producing designer bags and shoes. It served as a poignant reminder that the city consists of much more than that which is intended for tourists to see; that although Turkey may be one of the fastest growing economies the wealth is not always equally distributed.
I was up bright and early for an Urban Adventures tour with Joao and my guide Salih. We started with the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia then moved on to the Hippodrome, the Bazaar, the spice market, the book market, the university, and more mosques and ancient streets. Salih was an engaging guide who was eager to share with is his love of Istanbul and his wealth of knowledge about Turkish life past and present. He took us to his favorite Baklava cafe, let us try everything from Turkish delight to cheese in goat skin, and even explained to us the tradition of hookah while smoking one in beautiful converted courtyard.
Better yet, we were able to ask him about his rural Kurdish background and his own experiences in Istanbul, giving us a much-appreciated human element to all of the information that we had just acquired. A favorite tidbit was learning that many Kurds did not have last names upon the establishment of the Turkish Republic in 1923. Therefore, many were assigned names according to their profession or characteristics: “fat,”fishmerman,” etc. His own surname is the result of someone’s idea of a joke. Because his grandfather was not able to speak the language of administrator’s assigning the names, he ended up with a name which the family has been left wondering about for generations: “sunken.”
That evening, I was lucky enough to be part of Viator‘s “Dinner and Dance” experience, where I was treated to a 5-course meal while watching typical Turkish dances and knife throwing displays. A special treat was seeing Turkey’s #1 belly-dancer, and being able to try some typical dancing of my own!
When I was looking for a place to stay in Istanbul, I looked for hostels on Student Universe and local hosts on Triptrotting. Luckily, I found local Triptrotter to stay with… So my last two days in Turkey were spent “doing the local thing;” that is, heading to the secluded island of Avsa to soak in the sunshine with my Triptrotting host, Turkay, and his extended family. Once again, I can assure you that local is the way to go! I spent my time there indulging in home-cooked meals, hiking up mountains for unparalleled vistas of sunsets, swimming in clear blue sea waters, bonding with Turkay’s adorable little niece and nephew, and just generally soaking in the sunshine and the warmth of Turkish hospitality. A much needed break, and an all around great way to wrap up my stay in Turkey after all of the hustle and bustle of Istanbul!
Check out Triptrotting TV next week for my update on Athens!