Istanbul

Blue Mosque - view from Hagia Sophia

This is my second trip to Istanbul.

My first was two years ago. Having just broken up with my first serious boyfriend, I spontaneously booked a trip to Istanbul to get away from London and to get him out of my mind.

Big mistake. Everywhere I turned, I saw things that he’d love and I wished that he was there. A couple of Turkish men offered to show me around and, when one of them commented that the Basilica Cistern was “very romantic”, I burst into tears.

I knew it was time to leave and, 25 hours after I landed, my return flight took off.

So I was really curious to see what Istanbul would be like without baggage.

It was amazing – I joined forces with three Americans (Madeline, Tom and Amir) from Cordial House Hostel and I spent the first day and a half with them in a state of euphoria. Because I’d been here before, everything was familiar, but it all seemed to be sparkling new.

The Blue Mosque was stunning, the Basilica Cistern was eerie and mysterious and the Hagia Sophia was so beautiful that I grew teary as I walked around the golden corridors.

Then I broke away from the Americans for a bit and started accepting offers of local hospitality – I sat down in carpet stores, souvenir shops, travel agencies and laundry back-rooms for apple tea and conversation. I saw Whirling Dervishes, ate seafood and went dancing with one local, and had a home-cooked dinner with another. I was given food samples, a pair of earrings and an evil eye pin for free.

And all of this was because I was open to these offers. I think so many tourists shut down when a local shows some genuine interest in them. All I had to do was accept, and I got to hear about people’s relatives in Australia, or what I should do before I left Istanbul. True, some of them were interested in more than a smile and a conversation, but they were all completely honourable when I refused.

I was staying in Sultanahmet, between the Blue Mosque and the Grand Bazaar. Sultanahmet is always what comes to mind when I dream of Istanbul – the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque mirror each other across a large garden area with curving paths for pedestrians and a fountain that is lit in different colours at night. It’s the perfect place to enjoy a two lira pastry from one of the nearby patisseries, and the mosques are an awe-inspiring sight at any time of day.

The Grand Bazaar is worth visiting once, but it’s not really my cup of tea. A covered maze of shops selling scarves, leather bags and jackets, jewellery, and trinkets for tourists, the vendors can be quite aggressive. Although it’s entertaining, it makes it difficult to window shop. And as it’s a popular tourist destination, you’ll be paying tourist prices.

However, if you venture onto the surrounding streets and head towards the Spice Market, the prices come down and the people are much less intense. I loved the Spice Market – stalls display pyramids of spices, tea leaves, dried fruit, nuts and Turkish delight and the vendors are happy for you to try before you buy.

Madeline and I got stuck tasting Turkish delight in Develi Baharat Spice Centre, and I left with a kilo of it – cubes of sugar-based Turkish delight dusted in icing sugar and coconut, and rolls of honey-based Turkish delight that they cut into cubes with scissors. There were two vendors working, one who spoke English and one who didn’t. Osman, the one who spoke English, battled with Madeline over prices for half-an-hour (I’m a pushover – give me free samples and you have me) while the other one insisted on calling us both Jennifer, no matter how many times we repeated our names. In the end, Madeline and Osman locked horns over one lira, and Osman said he would drop the price for a kiss on the cheek – I happily obliged.

The European part of Istanbul is across the river – when I crossed the Galata Bridge there were dozens of fishermen lined up on each side, with buckets containing their catches. I inhaled the scent of fresh fish, tickled that I could actually see where the ‘fresh fish’ I’d eaten the night before had come from. I took a short hike to the Galata Tower then walked to Taksim Square along Istklal Caddesi.

Spice Market

Istklal Caddesi

Karaköy Güllüoğlu

Asian side - market

This may seem obvious, being the European side and all, but I was shocked by how European it was! Istklal Caddesi is a long pedestrian shopping street full of brand-name shops in late 19th and early 20th century buildings with an old-fashioned tram running its length. On the way back I popped into Karaköy Güllüoğlu. This is like the Ladurée for Baklava – shiny walnut tables with gold bars and rows and rows of Baklava on display in shiny glass cabinets. I was served by an adorable boy with braces who selected 400g of Baklava for me, and also gave me an extra chocolate piece (mmm!) as a gift after I talked to him about kangaroos.

I also visited the Asian side of Istanbul, taking the 20 minute ferry from Eminönü to Kadiköy. Unfortunately I couldn’t get a map for the area, so didn’t really know what there was to see, but still enjoyed wandering around for a couple of hours. It was like a completely different city (though I couldn’t say which one) – large streets filled with modern shops selling clothes and accessories, and smaller streets with punk shops and some selling household goods like Tupperware and balls of wool. Near the water, there is a group of market streets selling fresh fish, fruit, vegetables and olives. What I liked about this section was my relative anonymity – having been in Istanbul for five days at this point, there were a number of men in Sultanahmet who knew me and would stop me in the street to talk. Although this was fun, it was nice to have a break from it all.

I think my favourite part will always be Sultanahmet, but the entire experience was exhilarating. If you get a chance, go to Istanbul.

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