Following ten days in Florence and Rome with my parents and brother, I met up with a fellow auxiliar de conversación in Istanbul for the rest of Christmas vacation. Despite an average of 1.21 mishaps per day, each of varying severity (most of them minor), we had an enjoyable stay and an eye-opening experience. I say “eye-opening” because this trip was my first self-planned and self-guided jaunt to a non-Western, non-Christian nation. Two years ago, while living in Sevilla, I joined a tour group of expats to Morocco, a nation even less similar to my own, but the organized tour provided a buffer from some, though not all, of the realities of Moroccan culture. Although Istanbul straddles Europe and Asia and has a sprinkling of Starbucks, McDonald’s and other less tangible markers of globalization, it is still a far cry from a Western city. This is by no means a denigration, but rather an explanation of the experience’s educational potential.
Instead of chronicling our journey day by day, I will share some of the most beautiful and lasting images and memories through words, my own photos, and a few borrowed from Flickr users who were able to capture certain moments better than I.
My Istanbul guidebook described Turkish breakfast as “a hard-boiled egg with bread, olives, white cheese, tomatoes, cucumbers and honey.” I didn’t find the description particularly appealing, but when Erika and I walked into Privato Café on our first morning and ordered the “Turkish Village Breakfast” (after eyeing another customer’s table and being told we must order it), my opinion took a complete 180°. Our waiters brought us approximately 15 China dishes filled with sweet Turkish pancakes, spinach and cheese pastries, cucumber and tomato salad with fresh herbs, grilled Haloumi cheese, various sliced fruit in delicious syrups, bread, olives, honey, fresh cheeses and spreads, our eyes and taste buds were completely charmed. We ordered tea a la carte – one day I enjoyed the mint tea – hot water, mint leaves and lemon slices, and on another day (yes, we went back) the cinnamon honey tea, in a mug filled with cinnamon sticks.
As a city in a Muslim nation, Istanbul’s streets and skylines are liberally dotted with the minarets of its many mosques. From these towers, five times per day, one can hear the call to prayer, a hauntingly beautiful Arabic chant that is timed according to the location of the sun. In any corner of the city, one is in earshot of at least one mosque. From my experience, prayer appears to be put aside for nothing, and the best example can be found in the Grand Bazaar, where many shopkeepers closed their stands and the usually-bustling aisles fell silent and full of kneeling men, performing the early-afternoon prayer.
Tea (and coffee and juice)
While Spain holds the culture of the café con leche (more or less a latte) and the caña (small beer on tap), and Italy is the land of the espresso, Turkey is the territory of tea. Turks consume more tea per capita than any other nation in the world, including the Brits. The popular drink is of the chai variety and is served piping hot without milk but with optional sugar cubes in small hourglass-shaped clear glass. The tea was offered to us at the end of many meals, but the most curious phenomenon surrounding the chai was the deliverymen who carried trays of the hot tea up and down city streets and aisles of the bazaars to anxiously awaiting shopkeepers.
Turkish coffee, which I knew was thick and “sludge-like,” was actually not far from an Italian espresso (but certainly not the same), although there was a significant amount of thick residue left at the bottom of the mug. With a spoonful of sugar, it went down just fine.
And finally, the fresh-squeezed juices available at many a roadside stand were refreshing and delicious, my favorite being the pomegranate.
Istanbul is the world’s only “legitimate” two-continent city, as a few other cities have small portions that spill over onto other continents, but Istanbul actually has a legitimate European side and Asian side. A mere 15-minute and 3 lira (less than $2) ferry ride brought us to Asia. Another continent checked off the list.
Right along the Bosphorus Straight, one can find a series of boats on which fishermen grill up freshly caught fish, throw them in a half of a loaf of bread with some lettuce and onions and sell them for cheap right off the boat. This was one of the most fresh, delicious and charming dining experiences I’ve had.
Erika and I signed up for a cooking class at Cooking Alaturka, where we were joined by an Australian family, a Canadian couple, and a British solo traveler. Charming chef Feyzi guided us through the preparation of five courses, from zucchini and cheese fritters to lamb stew atop smoky eggplant puree to walnut-stuffed dates in clove syrup. After a few hours in the kitchen, we sat down to enjoy the fruits (and meats and legumes and vegetables…) of our labors, alongside restaurant patrons who also got to taste our delectable dishes!
And of course, no recap of a trip to Istanbul (or a trip anywhere taken by yours truly) is complete without gawk-worthy photos of churches and such…or in this case, mosques. Below are a few of the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque and Topkapi Palace.