Oh, to live the life of a feral cat in Istanbul.
To spend languid days bathed in sunlight, and to be fed, coddled by strangers and generally looked after as we wander aimlessly through this wondrous city.
But wait! That was us, at least in the seven days we enjoyed exploring the depths and edges of ancient and contemporary Istanbul. We’ve sampled its food (amazing), probed its neighborhoods (walkable, friendly and fascinating) and met its people (they ooze warmth and hospitality). Herein follows a rundown of our findings.
Istanbul is a sprawling city of 14 million split in three by the Bosphorus and The Golden Horn, and there’s affordable, clean and efficient transport to help people get around. The tramway ($2 a ride, no matter how far you go) and ferries ($5 took us on the 45 minute ride to the wonderful island of BuyukAda) are simple and go most central places one would want to visit.
Convenient buses fill in the gaps, and once we figured out how to buy a ticket (you step on the bus, look dumb, and the driver beckons a nearby vendor to pay for your fares using a handy Istanbul Travel Card, then you pay the vendor for the fare) the bus lines are easy to navigate as well. Note that taking the buses place you at the mercy of Istanbul’s impressive traffic, as we learned the night we went to a nearby neighborhood for dinner and spent an hour looking at the cars around us.
Best to take the tram, the ferry, or walk. You’ll get there faster on foot.
Before we left for Turkey, I’d written to a friend in Cambodia, bemoaning the weight I’d put on while in Cyprus and commenting that I was looking forward to a less imposing diet. A veteran of Turkish travel, he responded. “A bit of frying pans and fires, I think.” He was right.
This is Mecca for foodies. The restaurants burst with action, noise and delicious seafoods, Turkish mezze delights (not the noxious candy, which I loathe) and all sorts of meats. Indulge in a bit of culinary exploration and you’ll have a ball. Last night we sampled radish juice, courtesy of a friendly and slightly drunk guy at the table next to us named Borat. Really. I’m not making this up. Radish juice is intensely bitter and salty, but my new buddy Borat insured me that it was the perfect antidote for a lapse in libido.
We don’t eat meat, but not to worry: it was easy to choose from the fish and crustaceans, vegetables and other concoctions that appeared in abundance.
The street food is fantastic, too, and the king of this genre has to be the cooked mussels stuffed with rice that are available on many a street corner. You belly up, nod to the vendor and eat your fill as he works into a rhythm, shelling and drizzling a mussel with lemon before forking it over for you to slurp. We had four each for about 10 lira ($5.)
Then there’s fish bread, which is, well, grilled fish in bread, with a handful of slivered onions and lettuce tossed in. It’s 6 lira ($3) and served daily from a number of floating barges where the cooks fry their beards off to meet up with demand. Pick from several moored cookeries at the end of Galata Bridge closest to the old city, pull up a plastic stool at one of the plastic tables spread around the canopied restaurants, and chow down. It’s a bit fishy but an experience you don’t want to miss.
Dining is a deeply cultural and spiritual thing here. People are eager to make new friends and happy to share both what’s on their tables and what’s going on in their lives. Our dinner adjacent to Borat and his pal (also Borat, or so he said) elicited tawdry details of both their private lives. Borat with the ponytail is married with a son but flush with girlfriends and, therefore, “big troubles”; Borat my tableside buddy is the proud holder of a US visa that he proudly said gives him 10-year unrestricted access to the States. He was recently fired from his US-owned company after 19 years of loyal service because he tried to join a trade union. Or so he said in his admittedly slightly inebriated state, courtesy of the empty bottle of Raki sitting on their table.
We like dining casually best, but Istanbul also offers some of the finest cuisine served in sophisticated, eye-popping settings. We sampled a delicious basil/mint mojito in a rooftop bar overlooking the historic Galata Tower on our last night there. At 30 lira a pop ($15) the bar tab wound up costing the same as the street side dinner we ate an hour later next to the two Borats.
The language thing
No big deal. We quickly learned how to say thank you (tush-a-couleur) and then abandoned all effort to figure out the language and its quirky alphabet. English is widely spoken, and when all else fails you can point and use calculators to figure out prices in bazaars and restaurants. My smart phone came in handy in a small bakery in a village well outside of the city center where we’d ventured when, having figured out the guy’s frantic jabbering and gesturing was an attempt to ask if we had children, I was able to show him photos of Kirsty and Emme and give the poor guy a rest.
People are so friendly and eager to meet new friends they’ll often babble away in Turkish, well aware that the communication barrier is hard at work. But it doesn’t seem to matter, or to dampen their wonderful enthusiasm.
Getting lost is finding your way
Our hotel owner in Cappadoccia – a barren expanse of sand, rock and scrub brush whose timeless landscape has been shaped by winds and rains – told us we’d have no problem when we ventured into the vast valleys of the region. “No lost, only surprises,” he grinned, and he was right.
As we turned many a corner in all the places we visited – the islands off Istanbul, villages around Cappadoccia, the Asian side of Istanbul and the countless neighborhoods and districts within – we encountered beautiful sights, fascinating and warm people and many a slice of authentic Turkey.
It’s approachable, accessible, safe and fun.
Istanbul’s not an inexpensive city by our twisted standards (three years in Phnom Penh will give you a distorted sense of reality) but it’s still an affordable city that would easily be a great home for us. Transportation is reasonable (the bus was 2 Lira, $1; tram rides 4 Lira or $2), food was mid-range (we’d typically spend $12 for lunch for two; $25-30 for dinner).
Tourist attractions like Topkapi Palace charge reasonable rates. Mosques are free to enter, for the most part. We passed on a tour of the Byzantine Cistern, owing more to the long lines than the hefty entry price of $10.
Our sparkling, brand new boutique hotel about a block from the Bosphorus was $100 per night, but we’d decided to splurge after six weeks living free in Cyprus at our house sit. You can find budget hotels and hostels close to the action that are clean and perfectly fine.
Hot spots for walking and staying
We walked everywhere, from Kadakoy to Sultanahmet, Topkapi to Kabatas, and reaffirmed our love of our feet as our favorite mode of urban transport. We’d hop on a tram, jump off at a random spot and see what we could find. On one such journey we stumbled upon the incredible 1453 Panorama display near the Topkapi stop, which recreated in gorgeous detail the fall of Istanbul in 1453 to the Ottomans.
We also spent a lot of time in around the Galata Tower and saw a wonderful mix of pubs, restaurants and great places to stay.
Everywhere we went in Turkey, we saw touches of random human kindness that touched our hearts and further warmed us to the city and its people. One young man on a bus hustled to where we were sitting and enthusiastically pointed out that we were at our stop to visit Pierrelotti. Two waiters quickly tended to a young couple passing by who’d been crapped on by pigeons, hustling them off to the restrooms, joking, “In Turkey, this is very good luck. You must buy a lottery ticket.”
Vendors and restaurant managers urged us to buy and eat, but gently and respectfully, often offering a business card and a reminder, “maybe later.”
People seemed wired to give and genuinely friendly, and to decline an offer it to risk offending. Better to dutifully sip the radish juice than turn it down, I felt, so down the hatch it went.
It’s all part of the magic of Istanbul, with its sights, sounds, wonderful vibe and amazing tastes. And like the city’s feral but well-tended cats, we happily accepted everything Istanbul could offer.