Enter Istanbul into google search today, and you are met with news articles and images of protests. Here’s a different story I would like to narrate of this wonderful city. One that it told me itself, through its colours, its smells, its streets, and its people.
So last month I visited Istanbul with a few friends on mine. We pre-booked an inexpensive apartment near the Galata Tower and the apartment owner also organised a pick-up and drop off to and from the airport for an additional cost. The ride took us through narrow lanes and lovely tiny shops that seemed to be open at 11 pm. So we asked the driver till what time the shops around here were open.
He turned, nodded and said “Yes yes”
That was that. We realised he spoke no English, and went back to minding our own business (which was quite a noisy affair given we were four girls). All of a sudden, when the road couldn’t get any narrower or darker, he came to a sudden halt before two scrawny, pierced and tattooed men. One of them went up to the driver’s window, they exchanged a couple of words in Turkish. He then came to the back of the van, swinging open our door and grinned at us in a very ‘Stan Shunpikey‘ manner.
Stan: He said you had question
We: Erm…till when are the shops around here open, you know, like for shopping?
Stan: Yes yes. Shopping; clothes, spices, everything (remember again, this was 11:30 pm)
We (tapping our wrist): Till what time. When shop close?
Stan: Yes yes.
We: Okay thank you
Stan: And if you want tattoo, you know where to find me
We: *slam van door*
We were relieved when we safely got into our apartment.
The dark narrow lanes…
Next morning, we woke up the explore the city. The location of our apartment was perfect. Its streets were filled with eclectic boutiques, galleries and shops: where traditional met modern. The cafe we chose for breakfast had the most adorable setting and looked almost Parisian. The waiter there was friendly, a bit too friendly at times and kept referring to us as Michelle Obama, Angelina Jolie, Lady Gaga, and …I don’t remember the last one. But the ambiance and food won us over, and there we went every day for our dose of morning caffeine.
Our wandering further took us up the stairs of the Galata tower. A bright sunny day and no cloud in the sky. The city of Istanbul spread out below in all its glory. The very amateur photographer in me went berserk.
Later it was the Grand Bazaar. It’s not just the best place to collect little trinkets (and fake luxury goods if you are into that), but its a great place to experience some bizarre salesmanship.
Scenario – An English friend of mine of Indian descent walks into a scarf stall. The shopkeeper turns to her and starts bobbing his head from side to side and asks her in what I can only guess to be his sorry attempt at an Indian accent, “Yes yes lady. Follow me, follow me. Cheap scarf, good price.” You guessed it, he did not make that sale.
But once you take the craziness in, its truly a shopping haven. Just do not forget to brush up on your bargaining skills before you get here. The array of colours and scents only add to wonderful experience.
The walk further took us to an architectural marvel – the Sultan Ahmed Mosque or the Blue Mosque. Bring a scarf along to cover your head if you want to go inside the mosque, or buy one of the pretty ones so cleverly sold just outside the mosque.
Neighbouring it, is the beauty Hagia Sophia – formerly and church, then a mosque and museum.
The waters of Istanbul are not one to miss. It entices you with its beauty and captures you by its elegant movement. We had two encounters with the waters. One, a short tour through the Bosphorus river (This name has really stuck with me. I do hope it becomes an adjective one day) and a journey to the Prince Islands.
If you do decide to do one of the tours, it may be a great idea to completely switch off and take in the lovely sights of nature.
Gastronomy tales – The food is finger licking good! Try kebabs, fish, or continental cuisines. The array of fancy terrace restaurants, local food stalls and cafes will keep you coming back for more. The Turkish tea and coffee is not to be missed at any cost. Just don’t be surprised if the waiter at the cafe suddenly inverts your coffee cup and starts reading out your fortune to you. (this could actually take up to an hour, so start thinking of excuses to get away without seeming rude). Two places you must check out simply to relax and have a good chat with friends are 360 and Midpoint.
Never-ending nightlife – The people know how to party. Luckily for us we had two local guides. I had met two people from Istanbul during my travels to Valencia, Spain, and they took us around to some of the coolest pubs and clubs. The club seems full? Not an issue in Istanbul: they will just get their speakers out on the streets and start partying there.
Walk the streets – Every little street, lane, path of Istanbul has something to offer. Be it a hidden art gallery or brazen graffiti on the street corners. Istanbul is a mesh of culture, colour and creativity. The people are very friendly and helpful and you will always feel welcomed here. So pack up and head there, but remember to pack light, as you will not return without filling your bags with much more than just Istanbul memories.