I’ve spent the last several days exploring Istanbul neighborhoods seeing famous attractions and observing everyday Turkish life. The weather is slightly overcast but not cold or unpleasant. Hopefully we’ll have sunshine in the next few days.
Beyoğlu and Eminönü – Istanbul’s Backstreets, Bazaars, Hookahs, and Çay
Istanbul has 39 districts and many unique neighborhoods, quarters, and boroughs. Today I explored Eminönü and Beyoğlu. Sirkeci is in Eminönü, a neighborhood in the Fatih District of Sultanahmet on the Bosphorus Strait waterfront. It’s a major “transportation nexus for trains, trams buses, and ferries”. The Eminönü ferry docks are always busy. Beyoğlu is part of the Taksim Square area known for its popular cafés, nightclubs, and theaters.
Sultanahmet’s ancient cobblestone backstreets are fascinating! On Thursday I explored the Fatih District – not far from the exotic Grand Bazaar and near the remains of ancient Roman aqueducts and stone walls built to surround Istanbul. Some streets in Fatih are very steep with small steps on either side. Many are narrow and one-way only. One area I explored was mostly occupied by shoe and carpet merchants. There were outside displays where old, weathered Turkish men were hanging out and moving their wares around on wooden carts.
I discovered delicious Turkish traditional black tea (Çay) and stopped at cafés along the way to smooze with the locals and drink tea. Depending on which area of the city you’re in, you can pay from 1 Turkish Lira (about fifty cents) up to 5 Lira for the same cup of tea served piping hot in pretty tulip-shaped glasses called “ince belli”. Çay has an interesting, strong full-bodied flavor and isn’t sweet like Moroccan mint tea.
Many of Istanbul’s coffee and tea cafés also have hookahs on the tables, but I haven’t tried one yet… The place I enjoyed most was an outside café on a hill overlooking the Golden Horn which was full of wiry, serious looking Turkish merchants with solemn, weathered faces. They were friendly and seemed amused I had joined them in their daily tea ritual. It was fun!
Street Cats, Mosques, Burkas, and Turkish Delight
There are many stray cats roaming the streets of Istanbul. Some are in bad shape, but none look emaciated. They’re well fed by tourists and locals. Often the cats get shooed away. I tried petting one. At first it flinched and then when it realized I wasn’t going to hurt it, melted into my touch and purred. It’s sad Istanbul doesn’t have better animal control. Somehow the cats exist and are a well-known part of the city.
Since there are mosques all around Istanbul, the haunting Muslim call to worship definitely makes itself known at dawn and dusk and several other times throughout the day. I think there’s a special Islāmic observance happening now and keep forgetting to ask about it. Most Muslim women wear headscarves but I’ve only seen a few full burkas. It’s amusing to see women wearing burkas walking a few steps apart from others dressed in miniskirts and platform boots.
Istanbul is full of gorgeous fruit and vegetable stands. You can buy a glass of fresh pomegranate juice squeezed right in front of your eyes for about a dollar – delicious! Turkish delight and seductive pastry shops are abundant with displays of local candies, baklava variations, tarts, and fancy cakes. I tried a bright green pistachio sweet the other day that was incredible.
During rush hour – 7 to 10 and 4 to 7 – Istanbul traffic is atrocious! Cars back up and come to a complete standstill all over the city – both main and backstreets. I bought an Istanbul Card that can be used on all the public transportation lines – buses, metros, ferries, funiculars, and tramways. So far I’ve ridden most methods of Istanbul transportation, including taxis. The trams and underground metro are clean, inexpensive, fast, and efficient and a great alternative to getting trapped in Istanbul’s brutal traffic jams.
I got hopelessly lost today, and by the time I figured a way out of the situation (8 hours later) I had used every mode of transportation in Istanbul except ferry – saved for tomorrow. The areas had few English-speaking residents and even the police did not understand my basic direction questions. I planned to go to Kobatas and caught the wrong tram, so at Karakoy I had to switch – a long story resulting in my going around the block 10 times to get next door. After learning the hard way, NOW I’m more confident about finding my way around Istanbul – but certainly could get lost again easily…
With today’s outing, I realized that when you’re in Istanbul’s tourist districts you’re charged triple and sometimes quadruple for any service or food – fact of life. It’s a depressed economy in Turkey but Istanbul seems to be flourishing and vibrant. You really have to pay attention when shopping. Today I bought a small gift but not until I walked away and the street vendor followed me to accept my price. The first price asked was totally absurd. I don’t mind paying a little too much, but draw the line at outright robbery.
Turkish merchants are aggressive, and if you’ve walked by their shop and admired the window display (from outside) they might come out and get on your case for not coming inside to buy something. I had that happen and met Suleyman Aun and his Ukrainian wife.
Restaurants & Rugs
Suleyman appears to own the whole block next to my hotel, including Alemdar Restaurant that has live entertainment including Sufi music, whirling dervishes, and belly dancers. He has a carpet shop with gorgeous handmade rugs, a travel agency, an art gallery, and a jewelry shop. Suleyman invited me into the carpet shop for apple tea and of course tried to sell me a $14K handmade Turkish silk-on-silk rug which he said was a bargain at that price. Apparently it took the artisan almost a year to complete – incredible colors and design with no visible flaws! These fine handmade silk rugs, called Hereke, are truly masterpieces.
Suleyman’s nephew, Murat, who runs the travel agency offered to prepare a custom travel itinerary for me listing other parts of Turkey he recommends visiting after leaving Istanbul – not sure how much Turkish Lira that will cost…
Last night I had dinner at Altin Kupa Restaurant where the most popular dish was a fancy kebap which came out of the kitchen in a flaming earthenware pot! The waiter broke off the top of the pot before serving the kebap – a pretty dramatic presentation! I’m planning to write a post on cuisine and am still learning about delicious Turkish food. You can find a fancy meal in Istanbul for under $30. Many food shops offer healthy, fresh meals for under $10.
I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts as to how the Turkish people view Americans, if you feel you can have an informed opinion after but a few days. Additionally, Turkey has become ”more Muslim” over the years, and I don’t know if this would influence people’s opinions of Americans or the West in general.
Andy – so far I’ve observed many cannot tell Americans from other nationalities. They almost always ask “where” you are from and in other countries I’ve visited the accent gives Americans away but with so many people speaking English now… There are tons of Europeans visiting Istanbul – it’s close and fun so very popular with Brits, French, Italians, Germans, Dutch – haven’t seen any Americans here so far. The merchants are brutal and extremely agressive. The one I mentiond in the blog who tried to really over price a small gift asked me where I was from and when I answered then made an insulting comment which I only got part of to the effect that America was “finished”. Guess he was angry because I didn’t pay the inflated price – not sure. It may be too early to comment on the subject as my head is still a bit foggy from jet lag. Of course the “real” Turkish people versus the hard core merchants would be an entirely differnet subject. The latter being not so nice…
Enjoying every word and feeling every moment there with you. Thank you for sharing so much fortune.