Spices at the Grand Bazaar
This is the last and most flavorful stop on our journey through Europe. At roughly 15 million residents, Istanbul is more populous than any other European city, and has the gridlock to prove it. Situated at the crossroads between Europe and Asia, straddling the narrow Bosphorus Strait which connects the Black Sea with the Sea of Marmara and ultimately the Mediterranean, this has historically been a strategic location for trade routes and empires on the move.
Like most of Europe, there are many layers of history here, having been occupied by one empire or another over the past several millennia. Istanbul is the largest city in Turkey, although not its capital. That distinction belongs to Ankara.
We learn that Turks are descended from Mongol tribes that migrated here many centuries ago. In this way Turkey shares a common thread with Hungary, which is also descended from Mongol tribes. Today Turkey is a secular nation, although an estimated 85% of the population consider themselves Muslims, some religiously observant, some not. Other major religions are also represented here. Many women wear headscarves, though perhaps just as many don’t. Some restaurants serve alcohol, some don’t.
Ruled by Sultans until 1920, modern Turkey owes much of its current political structure and secular policies to Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who became the republic’s first president in 1923. Among other changes, he abandoned the difficult Arabic alphabet, replacing it with the Latin alphabet. This had the short-term effective of lowering the literacy rate to near zero, though long-term seems to have benefitted the nation. Today literacy is about 93%. Turkish pronunciation for many words is fairly easy for those accustomed to the Latin alphabet. Pronunciation is literal, so for ‘taxi’ they write ‘taksi’, for ‘ ‘tourism’, ‘turizm.’
If you have trouble with their language, you can try English, which many people know at least a bit. And if that fails, you can always gesture emphatically. Sooner or later you’ll end up with either a nice silk jacket or some shish kebab.
For the formal part of our touring, we visit a few historical sites. First stop is the Topkapi, which was the palace of the Sultans. Today it’s a museum, large, impressive and unmemorable. Next we visit the Hagia Sophia, built in the sixth century as a Christian church, then converted to a mosque many years later. The stone and marble building is massive, with intricate Christian tile mosaics, once covered with plaster, now undergoing a painstaking restoration. It’s an impressive structure, especially for having survived for so long, though after three weeks of cathedrals, castles and palaces, we are a bit jaded in our assessments.
From the Hagia Sophia we walk to the Blue Mosque, built in the seventeenth century. Whitish-grey on the outside, this mosque gets its name from the predominantly blue decorations on the inside. While this huge and ornate structure is indeed impressive, I find the profusion of flowers outside of the mosque more pleasing than the structure itself. Indeed, I notice that flowers are neatly planted extensively throughout the city. Most numerous are tulips,which are the national flower of Turkey, even though that bulb originated in China. Planted in many bright colors, they offer visual relief from the hardscape jungle and relentless traffic.
Istanbul has an efficient subway and surface trams that are easy and inexpensive to use. With gasoline prices around $9/gallon, such public systems are a necessity. Cars are small and drivers negotiate the road as if they are haggling over a Turkish rug. From my perch in the tall tour bus, I marvel at the unexplainable success of these road warriors, who most of the time escape unwounded from their daily vehicular battle.
After the obligatory tours of buildings whose sole use is for tourism, we are treated to a boat ride on the Bosphorus. It’s a beautiful Spring day, perfect for a two-hour ride along this narrow strait, soaking up the sun, sailing past Istanbul’s fashionable hillside homes, past stately palaces and elegant public buildings. We sail under several of the suspension bridges that connect Europe and Asia. Here I exhibit a sinful pride in noting that none of these bridges are as attractive as San Francisco’s Golden Gate bridge. At night however the story changes, as some of these spans delight onlookers with an artful show of LED lights.
For lunch one day we go to the waterfront in search of a good meal. There are dozens of restaurants on both sides of a wide pier, adjacent to the fish market. As we stroll by trying to decide which to choose, we are heavily lobbied by staff from each eatery. We make our selection, which probably doesn’t matter since most of the food here is probably the same. Of course the meal price is negotiated before we order. The food is good, not great, and the waterfront setting is perfect for this sunny day.
One evening we venture out into the quieter streets of our neighborhood, searching for an Italian restaurant that a fellow traveler recommended. We fail to locate our target so I scan the street, locate a sufficiently dressed resident and ask directions. His response is predictably entertaining, considering that the mere act of making eye-contact with a Turk is an invitation to haggle, or as they see it, to socialize. In broken English he dismisses the very idea of dining at an Italian restaurant and especially this one, and instead manages to convince me to dine at his favorite Turkish establishment just a few blocks away. Better food and cheaper prices are promised.
This man is finely dressed – one might even say dapper – middle aged and well groomed. He wears a black tie with white polka-dots. My group follows him a few blocks, then we turn into a small commercial building, walk up several flights and enter a plain room filled with local Turks, enjoying their meal at long straight tables with paper tablecloths. At a quick glance it looks like the cafeteria of a small school, except everyone is smoking. Everyone in the room immediately notices our presence and their expressions betray the fact that foreigners don’t eat here very often. Then they proceed to ignore us.
Our new-found local guide introduces us to the owner of the restaurant, who speaks no English. We are seated and our new friend sits at a nearby table, joining another local for a drink. Instantly we are offered various appetizers, or ‘meze’. We select a few, then peruse a picture menu. The whole process moves very quickly and is a bit confusing. I somehow manage to convey that we want the owner to serve us whatever he deems best. As is often the case, this works out well. We are served several dishes family-style, plus large loaves of a type of pita bread. Red wine materializes and we feast on delicately seasoned lamb, chicken and vegetables, all buttery soft with subtle, unfamiliar flavors.
We express our satisfaction to the owner and the gentleman who directed us to this local eatery. So he joins us at our table and we chat. He was born in the Anatolia region of eastern Turkey, though has lived most of his life in Istanbul. He considers himself a non-practicing Muslim, fearful that the current prime minister will adopt Islamic fundamentalism and forgo Turkey’s long-standing policy of secularism. He is worried about the influx of Syrians since that country’s troubles. On a napkin he draws a map, showing how Turkey borders Greece, Bulgaria, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijani. Some might consider this location to be a lemon, but Turkey has turned it into lemonade, becoming an ally of western powers yet maintaining relations with its neighbors. Our new friend says he is in the textile business, though that story eventually morphs into his being a personal shopper. He has been divorced for two years, and apparently is happy about it. We drink together, imbibing the national beverage called raki, which when mixed with water is sometimes called ouzo. After just one glass of this 80 proof beverage, I temporarily become fluent in Turkish.
At some point during our conversation, our personal shopper produced a garment bag with a gray double-breasted sport coat, which I adventurously tried on. He explained that I was under no pressure to buy this coat, and that tomorrow he would gladly assist me in finding a suitable outfit. It was never clear where the garment came from or why it was in the restaurant. My fellow-travelers watched while I wondered about the odd situation of a salesman fitting me for a sport coat in a Turkish restaurant. Some in my group suggested that black or navy blue would be a better choice. I didn’t have the heart to tell the group that I hadn’t purchased a sport coat since 1984. I declined the garment and thanked everyone for their encouragement. We finished our meal and said our goodbyes, having enjoyed the people and food at this establishment.
I leave on my fourth night with favorable impressions: clean, vibrant, diverse, tasty, crowded, negotiable. I add Istanbul to my list of places to revisit.
Fashionable neighborhood overlooking the Bosphorus
On the European side of the Bosphorus
Blue Mosque – grey on the outside, blue on the inside