After a few days in Istanbul, I’m smitten with the vibrant, diverse, exotic city where things are always in motion! Communication is slightly more difficult than I remembered from a previous visit, although I’m getting by.
None of the flight attendants on Turkish Airlines spoke English. When I asked for details about landing and immigration procedures provided in Turkish only, I got the “deer in the headlight” look. The plane landed away from the terminal, so we disembarked down the plank and took a bus to immigration. I followed the other passengers – they were stoic, fast moving, and focused on getting to the front of any lines. I waited in line and finally made my way to passport immigration control, only to discover that I had to get a visa (30 Euros cash) not at immigration but BEFORE. The immigration officer reprimanded me.
Turkey isn’t a member of European Schengen countries that “abolished internal borders with other member nations and have unrestricted movement of people, goods, services, and capital”. I knew a Turkish entry visa was necessary, but was mistaken thinking that happened when passing through immigration – lesson well learned.
I felt slightly rattled and hoped I’d make it to the baggage carousel in time to retrieve my luggage. After waiting in the passport control line, then walking to the visa counter to pay for my visa, passing through immigration a second time, and finally locating the right baggage carousel, all the other passengers had already collected their luggage and were gone. Some kind person removed mine from the carousel and placed it aside – luckily my baggage was still there and unharmed! The other good luck was a calm, patient airport pickup service. I was late, but they quietly waited for me. I chilled during the ride to my hotel in the Beyoğlu District on the European side of the Bosphorus.
In Istanbul, May 27th to June 24th is the 2017 Islamic holy month of Ramadan. It’s a happy time – a “month of fasting, prayer, empathy, and celebration across Turkey”. During Ramadan, Istanbul is even “more special than usual”. “Istanbul-style Ramadan” is lighthearted and liberal compared to other Muslim countries.
“During Ramadan, there’s a feeling of anticipation in the air. Multiple calls to prayer are even more vivid. After sunset, it’s a festive atmosphere with music and soft lights. Trees are draped with small, coloured fairy lights and mosques display sparkling celebratory messages between their minarets. Families and friends come out together to promenade. Stalls sell religious items and provide traditional snacks for children.”
Except for Istanbul’s more conservative Muslim districts, during Ramadan restaurants, bars, and clubs are generally open as usual. They become especially busy at sunset – the time for fast to be broken, called iftar in Turkish. Some restaurants offer a special banquet-like iftar menu with unusual dishes on display – an opportunity to taste something new!
“In Istanbul, May 27th to June 24th is the 2017 Islamic holy month of Ramadan – a month of fasting, prayer, empathy, and celebration across Turkey””
Even if you’re not Muslim and haven’t fasted, you can join an iftar table. Temporary “marquee tents in crowded public areas allow local families to enjoy iftar provided by the neighborhood’s district governors”. Along Istiklal Caddesi near my hotel, there’s a large iftar picnic. Special foods enjoyed during Ramadan include:
- Pide – a large baked round flatbread for sharing
- Güllaç – a pudding with pomegranate seeds and pistachio nuts
Baklava is one of my favorite sweets, and last night I stopped at a shop along Istiklal Caddesi to buy some of the treats. The person who waited on me explained the various kinds of baklava – he pointed to a special baklava made during Ramadan, called şekerpare (sheh-ker-pah-reh). Şekerpare is prepared by “baking soft balls of almond based pastry dipped in thick lemon-flavored syrup”. It’s incredible!
“In Turkey, sweet foods symbolize happiness and goodwill, and no special occasion is complete without sweets and candies.”
“Golden baklava baked pastries drizzled with syrup served with rich clotted cream, crumbly homemade halvah with roasted pine nuts, cheese fillings served hot, custards sprinkled with rose-water and ground nuts, honey, and strings of walnuts coated in grape molasses. Each version is delicious, but they’re more than that. Desserts and candies are an essential part of every Turkish meal and a symbol of hospitality to visitors.”
During Ramadan, you hear “nasheeds” – Islamic singers – everywhere. I’ve noticed the sweet exotic sounds made by street musicians playing wonderful traditional Turkish instruments. In some neighborhoods, an hour or so before dawn, “Ramadan drummers and their entourage walk the streets while beating rhythm to wake everyone in time for sahur – the early morning meal eaten before sunrise and fasting.”
The last day of Ramadan, streets are hectic with “everyone trying to reach extended family for the three-day Şeker Bayram (sugar feast) – also called Eid al-Fitr.” Şeker Bayram marks the end of Ramadan. It’s a busy day on trams, ferries, and subway.
I’m happy staying in Beyoğlu (Pera) district on the European side – a quarter block from Istiklal Caddesi (Independence Avenue) which is interesting and always hopping! Bought an Istanbul Card good for metros, ferries, funiculars, and tramways. Metro and tram connections are nearby. Yesterday, I visited Sultanahmet and the magnificent Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia on the old historic side. I took the special Tünel tram that goes under the Golden Horn – an inlet of the Bosphorus Strait – connecting Sultanahmet with Karaköy and Beyoğlu.
Riding ferries and exploring the amazing Bosphorus islands is next! Istanbul’s skyline is best seen from the water. I’ve become lazy about taking photos, partly because of the intense, constantly moving crowds. Photographs don’t do Istanbul justice….