ISTANBUL - Part 1 “City of Senses” (TR 5/2011)
ISTANBUL - Part 2 “Sense of Completion” 12/2011
You knew I would be back.
Even before I did.
The shattered survivors of the Tulip Festival in May, replaced now with perky petunias and pansies of purple, yellow and white.
The sky and sea still brilliant blue. But now with an attitude, the day I arrived.
It was December 1, 2011.
As thrilling this time as last, was the first sight of Mosque minarets welcoming visitors now as they had welcomed and warned visitors of centuries past. Perhaps a warning to those returning, like myself, that you are to re-enter this city that stirs up mysteries not yet solved, the birthplace of unforgettable memories and dreams, longing, enlightenment and equanimity.
I wished that, above all, I would see a snowflake against their silhouette.
I chose this time to not follow an itinerary, but rather wake up each morning and be moved by instinct and desire, weather and opportunity.
Turkish Air was a good choice from Washington Dulles non-stop to Istanbul. Even an awarded airline cannot, however, compete with a screaming child. They tried. And tried. Passengers, glassy-eyed, hoping there were no international sky regulations prohibiting the serving of fine Turkish or French wines to a Terrible Two. The meal was actually memorable in spite of eating with ear plugs. Smoked salmon appetizer and traditional mezzes, stuffed eggplant with beef, vanilla pannacotta and sour cherry cake. The wines, remarkably offered at no additional charge and I was flying economy.
I had such a conceited, yet very proud, attitude as I pointed out skyline images to the two Dutch gentlemen who were visiting for only two days. And here I am acting like an excited tour guide with only 5 days under my belt from a previous visit. They were sharing the same van furnished by our hotel, The Odda.
I stayed now in Taksim instead of Sirkeci.
There was such an immediate contrast to Sultanahmet and Sirkeci in the historical peninsula where I was separated now by the Golden Horn. I had seen most of my “must sees and dos” in just 5 days, 7 months ago. It was 6 PM by now and dark when I checked in. The staff most intrigued by a Texan as is the case when I travel outside the U.S. Always, “JR?” and he hasn’t hung his Stetson in decades. I think he got shot in 1980 way before the concierge was even born.
I checked out the room; impeccably clean, adequate size with the best mattress, shower, soaps, lotions, towels and slippers. The decision to stay in Taksim this time based entirely on it being closer to those sights I missed last time. I knew that with the excellent transit system and endless choices, I could probably be viewing the stunning night-lit Blue Mosque in as much time as it would take to decide which meyhane to visit in Beyoglu.
It was now time to walk Istiklal which was only 1 block away. It was also time to change my inner clock from Houston to Istanbul, and to reset my purpose, priorities and expectations. I was again starting a journey with no real destination. I just knew I wanted to be charmed, flattered and seduced by sights, sounds, smells and tastes.
After two hours of burning off energy, I had my first of many iskenders and the harsh realization that I should have waited to buy my boots. Although not necessarily a price bargain, the selection was remarkable and vast. I evaluated just how many pairs I could afford or that would be practical in hot and humid Texas. So I just walked on.
This was just the first night, and the first street. I encourage you to hold off buying anything before your trip. You will find it in Istanbul in markets, bazaars, malls and in wonderful neighborhood street shopping areas for sure. Haute Couture or Bohemian, choices are endless.
Crowds were everywhere. Hordes, really, on Istiklal. This wide pedestrian avenue not nearly wide enough that night. One side going this way … the other going that. You take your life in your hands if you want to cross to a store on the other side. Besides dodging the enthusiastic shoppers, you will forever be competing with the ubiquitous chestnut roasters. Those with cruise ship experience….. think photographers! Maybe the crowds were holiday shopping and seeking bargains. Almost every store had “INDIRIM” (discount/sale) signs. 50% off were the most noticeable and appreciated.
Without ever being able to determine the cause, I heard, then saw, a peaceful demonstration being led by candles and chants. Mostly ignored by locals, their voices comingling with Turkish rock, pop and folk, tango, hip hop and Lady Gaga spilling out of jammed side streets. And let me tell you, if you have not experienced Turkish tango, you must prepared to be transported to a whole new world of sensuality. Memphisto is the name of a music store on Istiklal that has a wide selection of CD’s. What a gift for someone special to you. But you must be prepared for the consequences!
Istiklal is a pedestrian only street from mid-morning to early morning. It is like the Passegiata on Via del Corso in Rome on brilliant steroids. Instead of lovely elderly couples walking proudly arm-in-arm dressed fashionably and hoping to “be seen”, we have many interpretations of fashion in skinny jeans, thigh-high boots, elegant outfits, leathers and feathers. Very hip. Very cool. Very Taksim.
Before I found my way back to the hotel for my first night, I discovered a small café and ordered my first Turkish coffee. This is all they served. I am used to judging coffee by roast, aroma and country of origin rather than viscosity! I found my way back to the hotel and settled into my first night. It was 3AM. There were a few seedy characters seemingly lurking in corners, but I never felt threatened even at that hour, because there were always people twice their number catching their breaths between sets at some local club. This area boasts of it’s restaurants, cafes, bars, clubs and meyhanes.
Somewhere between 4:30 and 5AM, the pounding bass beat from nearly bars and meyhanes stop and give way to clanking dishes, delivery and garbage trucks with brakes in need of repair, honks, and the squeaking sounds of the rubber boots and coarse broom bristles by men in green scrubbing down the adventures of the night before.
But I woke at 5AM Friday and needed a breath of fresh air. BBC announced that it was 9 degrees Celcius. Of course, being American, I had no idea the conversion to Fahrenheit. I only knew that anything in single digits was out of my comfort zone. As I stepped outside, I was overwhelmed by the smell of fresh yeast baking. It was quaffing from so many directions. I once again felt I was where I was meant to be and was warmed on the inside. Where it counts.
It was early morning damp and the street shone with a patina that made me think perhaps there was my snowflake in the wee hours. Not today. Only cats, vendors, joggers and a few locals. What a contrast to the throng from the night before. Now I could see that ATM’s were on virtually every other corner. Just laying back, smiling, and waiting. Where does that cash come from anyway? How do they work? There are holiday decorations now stretching high above the street where their illumination is not compromised by crowds. They are peaceful and welcoming. Much like the people of Istanbul.
I knew at breakfast today I was going to finish off Istiklal Street. This area is massive. It would take days to just sort out where and what to do. Both walks, Istiklal an Nisantasi provided by DE Enigma to this forum, proved to be invaluable. They point out highlights and recommendations that made selections much easier and saved time and foot leather. Thank you much. What I like most about this Forum is that every question you ask will get a response and for the most part are geared to the average traveler and are considerate to your special needs.
My hotel is on a side street half way between Tunel and Taksim Square. Ideal really. But do make sure wherever you stay in this area, to reserve a room above the street sounds if you are a light sleeper. I was moved from a second story room to a first because of an internet connection difficulty due to some new construction. I could sleep easily and undisturbed on the second, but was impossible on the first until that 4:30 AM transfiguration.
Later that day, close again to my hotel, I stumbled onto the DOGANCAY MUZESI at Balo Sokak 42. It is Turkey’s first museum of modern art. It features works from both Burhan Dogancay, one of Turkey’s leading artists and his father, Adil. This little secret is tucked in on a side street in an historic 150-year old 5-story building. With elevator! As with most secrets, it is deliciously unique. Burhan had a fascination with urban walls of the world. Besides a great sampling of his interpretations of such, including paintings, sculptures and collages, are land and seascapes and still lifes by the father. It takes no more that ½ hour to visit, but the presentation of the exhibit is much the exhibit itself. It is open daily 10 to 6 and between 3 and 6PM, complimentary tea is served. A fun delight.
Lunch was also a discovery. From my balcony at the hotel I could see the Lokantasi across the street. Almost the entire day and night, queues of 15 people streamed from the door. Workers, businessmen, students, tourists, mostly locals were eating in or taking away. I saw a near opening and I dashed for my spot. Everything was delicious. However, I am not so sure I knew what I was eating. Not knowing Turkish and the guys at the steam table not knowing a word of English became easier as I ate there 4 times during my stay. We just engaged in the smell-and-point technique. On your jaunt to Istiklal consider this place. Eggplant dishes and soups are exquisite and their meats are all grilled on an open flame. There is lovely burnt carmel custards, and for side dishes or vegetarians, tons of unrecognizable but delicious choices. Your lunch or dinner will probably cost under 12TL including a beverage. Can you believe it? EHLITAT Lokantasi – Open 24/7 Istiklal Cad. Balo Sk. No:21 – Beyoglu.
More walking and more shopping. One hightlight I suggest is the Demiroen shopping mall.The one place to go to join the controversy and decide for yourself if the beautiful façade and restoration are displaced. But it houses 40 stores and 12 restaurants. Mostly it gives you the opportunity to see how totally old and inept you really are in the world of current electronics. The Saturn store encompasses and embarrasses you over three floors.There is also a Virgin megastore and of course, what can be more authentic, than Popeye's Fried chicken. "Extra spicy"
Mado ice cream is a must. It has a thick chewy smooth texture, served in a cone of decent proportion. U.S. cones are way too big and expensive to just be a nice snack. I chose the pistachio/dark raspberry combo. It was delicious. I don’t know the exact size or calorie count, but it lasted 2 blocks. Ice cream cones here in Houston are generally abandoned because of sheer exhaustion.
It is time for dinner with Enigma. He is meeting me at the entrance to Nevizade Street. I couldn’t have been more fortunate to have a Turkish-speaking companion when I stood looking down a street where on both sides, tables and restaurants were jammed one next to the other. Inside and out. And it was cold. And it was late. He chose Kadirin Yeri.
I decided rather than the sniff-and-point technique, I would just pick the cutest fish on the menu. I let him do the ordering and out came plates of creamy mezzes and something with a more substantial texture. All to die for. The fish choice was excellent as well. And the conversation delightful.
I think of how many times a woman solo traveler has questions on dining alone. Myself included. Of course tonight I was not, but I couldn’t help but notice many singles, women and men, who sat by themselves and enjoyed both the food and anonymity. There doesn’t seem to be any urgency to vacate tables. And it is quite obvious that you are welcome to enjoy the fine art of people watching. It appears most menus are similar and the appeal to sit outside with plates piled high with mussel shells and lemons is quite appealing. While you are checking out the numerous menus displayed on podiums outside, you may also want to check out the beautiful display of waiters!
It was a great day. But the temps are warming and things are not looking good for my snowflake. But after a few beers. Who cares.
Good night. I’ve got 5 more to go.