Istanbul 2021: Part 1
Updated: Jan 31, 2022
Here I sit outside my new hostel. It’s 1:20pm, 32°C, and as I write this now fires are breaking out all over Turkey. No such problems for us yet (and hopefully never). Maybe future destinations will, who knows. I wasn’t planning on being here, not yet anyway. I had everything ready for Skopje, North Macedonia. I had the hostel booked, the route planned out, and even took the 4 ½ hour train from Athens to Thessaloniki to be more environmentally friendly. But upon arrival, I discovered that my information was out of date, and there were no trains or buses that went anywhere near the border with Macedonia, let alone to the capital. From the train station, I went to the bus station, to the woman seated in front of a promotional sign for ‘Tours to Skopje’. Surely, she would be able to help me.
“No, no, never!!” was her ultimate response, and she waved me away aggressively. I sat on the floor and stared at my phone wondering what to do next. And that, dear reader, is how I spent two very expensive days in Thessaloniki trying to work out what to do and where to go. I’m afraid my impression of that city is now tainted. As you can probably gather, I settled for Istanbul (which I had to fly back to Athens for and making the whole trip redundant). If there was ever a time where the title of this series was more appropriate, it would be now. Thankfully, all of that trouble is in the past.
The most immediate difference between Greece and Turkey, specifically Athens and Istanbul, is how much more money there seems to be here. Athens and Istanbul airports are incomparable: Istanbul feels more like Heathrow, while Athens felt like Southampton. Where I felt central Athens was barely being held together (with a condemned, fire-gutted building literally opposite my balcony) Istanbul is massive, consistent, perhaps even thriving. The difference that money makes is starkly realised here. My Greek friend Michael once told me that the Greek people themselves have money, it’s the government that’s poor. After talking to some people in Crete, I’m not entirely certain that’s true anymore, if it ever was in the first place. Comparing Crete to Istanbul seems like a false equivalency in any case.
I’ve immediately taken a liking to Istanbul. As my taxi reached the crest of a hill the whole city was revealed to me. Every other hill I could see was covered in houses. Minarets were sprinkled throughout the skyline. This is the first predominantly Muslim country I’ve ever been to, so the architectural style is brand new to me. There are so many mosques, so many towers, and so many people! I absolutely adore how some buildings look taller than they are because they sit partway up a slope, giving some parts of the city a staggered, layered look. I love how this city is somehow spread over two continents. It’s just incredible to be able to walk down to the edge of the estuary and be able to see so much of the city, including the other side of the Bosporus. I can have a sandwich whilst watching the clouds pass over Asia and arrive in Europe. I don’t know where else in the world you could be able to say something like that.
My final destination was Cagaloglu, in the Old City. I can see Hagia Sophia from where I’m sitting right now. It’s so omnipresent that even if I were to go inside my room, I wouldn’t be able to avoid hearing the call to prayer. Mostly, I cannot believe I can have breakfast less than two hundred meters from Justinian’s church, a still functioning building from the 500s. And here I am in 2021 to see it in all its splendour. I think that’s neat. And the food! Super cheap comparatively, and decent too. I still need to get used to eating kebabs outside of the context of 4am after four hundred shots, which is why I took this one to the nearby Gülhane Park. God, what a pretty place. Tall, leafy trees, bright flowerbeds, and new birdsongs I’ve never heard before! A great place for a snack.
The clubs are pretty good too.
The positioning of this hostel is incredible. Want food? There’s a kebab house thirty metres away. Laundry? You can see the laundry sign from here, and they’re damn good at their job. My laundry caused a slight rift between the staff. Tamara, the manager, was super lovely and happy to take my things, but I came back within the hour to discover a huge argument had broken out between her and her workmate. When the workmate left, Tamara apologised and explained the situation. I was told it was caused by a disagreement about when my clothes should be cleaned. In me, she found a kindred soul. She griped about her co-worker, I finished the thought, she nodded with wide eyes and exclaimed “exactly!” finally finding vindication for her criticisms. Having a persistently incompetent co-worker is the most frustrating thing ever; talking to someone who completely understands where you’re coming from is the most satisfying feeling in the world.
Tamara is Jamaican, and studying Psychology at Liverpool, long-distance. She fell in love with Istanbul and has been here for five years now. Everybody has a story. That’s why I love travelling so much. You meet so many new people who are all living their own lives their own way. For instance, in this hostel I’ve met an Iranian man, Mami, who revealed he’d been travelling for around five years, and in that time has gone all over the world. Most recently, he had been stuck in Nepal for nineteen months because of coronavirus. Now he’s in Istanbul, he can barely cope with the culture shock. Everything is so much busier, louder, and flooded with tourists. Even something as simple as meat, and its ubiquity, is a massive contrast to the ubiquitous vegetarianism of Nepal. Again, I heard the Iranian government condemned in no uncertain terms, which I sense is a far more popular opinion than I’d ever considered before. Mami had tried to go home after leaving Nepal, but was denied entry for an unspecified reason, presumably because of the virus situation. He spent a surprising amount of time yesterday trying to convince me to continue growing my hair:
“You have to respect your hair, man!”
“Are you siding with my hair over me?”
“It’s all part of nature, just let it grow out!” I do not subscribe to his hair-raising ideology.
In the afternoon, once the temperature had cooled down by exactly one degree, I took a walk around the Old City. You can see Asia from the top of the ridge, which is a cool sentence to write. Sultan Ahmed is the name of the area, which includes Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. and whilst I would have loved to look inside both (though Blue Mosque is undergoing renovations), I was side-tracked quite violently by a sneaky hawker who approached me out of nowhere.
“Hello!” he said.
“Hello!” I said back.
“Now I will list off many vapid compliments in an attempt to personalise our relationship, so when I ask you to come to my shop it won’t be as obvious that I just want to sell you something,” he may as well have declared.
“Turkish Delight? Hell yeah, let’s go!” I only realised hours after that I’d essentially fallen for the same trap as Edmund did in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Coerced by Turkish Delight to follow a stranger down a threatening alleyway. In all fairness, it was actually pretty good. I think the staff tried a bit too hard to butter me up, so the atmosphere became uncomfortable for me quite quickly. But how bad can it have been when I was given free sweets and tea? I’m such a child.
Been out for the day, but I’m back now to finish things. In the evening, a couple of us went out to get some food, guided by Gage, a food writer from Washington. It was the first time I’d ever met a food writer, so I was expecting big things when he led the way to dinner. He certainly didn’t disappoint. After a brief evening walk around an increasingly illuminated city, we arrived at an innocuous-looking restaurant on a backstreet tourist strip. Our first impressions were perhaps too unkind, but we didn’t see anything special about it. The same cut-out waiter as every other eatery on the strip was flagging us down to choose from the same laminated menu with pictures of food and approximate English translations on them.
But our first impressions were completely and utterly wrong. All of the food we had was outstanding. The chicken kebab was impossibly juicy. The lamb kebab meat flaked away in dense, tender strips. It was solid enough to hold its place on the fork but fell apart after the first bite. Lahmacuns are a revelation! Self-described Turkish pizza for £1.20: paper-thin flatbread; peppers, tomato, onion, minced lamb, garlic – all pressed down evenly in one fine layer of goodness and cooked in a wood-fired oven in fifteen seconds. All of the food was so good!
For a drink, I tried ayran - a buttermilk drink served foamy – in a bottom-heavy copper cup. The handle was high, and the cup bulged at the bottom, giving an inflated weightiness when you drank. It was sour-tasting and trod a delicate line between enjoyable and unsavoury. It was a good accompaniment to the meat and spices, but lost its appeal for me when drunk on its own. Finally, to round everything off there was a dish I could describe as a small calzone, cut open and filled with cheese. It was an oval bread boat filled with an inoffensive curd. It was honestly just cheese on toast.
Yesterday, I was awake by 6:30 thanks to a loud snorer and a sleepless night. I couldn’t get out of the hostel because the front door was locked, and the receptionist was snoring in his chair alongside a golden retriever. Instead, I went upstairs to the bar and sat alone at the open window, looking at Hagia Sophia in the soft light of the sunrise. Gage came to join me as he too had had a sleepless night. We talked about nothing in particular and listened to the city wake up together. There was something nostalgic about the smoke from his cigarette swirling up out of the window in the early morning. It reminded me of my mum.
In the afternoon, Gage and I went out for lunch at another spot on the same street at the night before. I asked him, as a food writer, what he looks for when selecting a place to visit.
“You’ve gotta look at the people going in and out. If they’re workers going out for lunch, that’s how you know it’s good local food. If the place has massive pots of one or two dishes, you know that they know what they’re doing, and it’s gonna be good.” He led me to a busy cantina that was within lunging distance of yesterday’s restaurant. Gage picked haricot beans in a slightly spicy tomato sauce with some slices of fresh bread, declaring how good it was. He always made a conscious effort to eat these beans when he was in Istanbul. It was just baked beans and toast. Baked beans are confirmed to be the best food in the world by a professional food writer. I accidentally bought fried chicken pieces, because I am no better.
We then explored some of the archaeological museums just up the road, centred around the old Ottoman Topkapi Palace. I was more excited than I care to admit to Gage at the time, though it became quickly apparent once we’d arrived. I offered to explain the evolution of Egyptian and Greek sculpture and architecture, hoping to build off of my practice from the Louvre with Alice and Nicholas. He was kind enough to enable me for the next few hours. Ancient history is so cool, don’t be ashamed to share your passion, Alex.
Speaking of segues, you remember those videos of Turkish ice-cream men who do that whole song and dance, keeping it away from you? I asked the man serving us about it, and he said he’d been doing it as a job for 10 years. He was only 22. I tried to outmanoeuvre him when he began the display by grabbing the rod he was using to shape the ice-cream and slide it off onto the cone. It didn’t work, of course, and in hindsight it was rude of me to interrupt his display to test if I could beat the trick. The ice-cream itself – probably influenced by the choreography of the server – was so thick and slow to melt that I couldn’t eat it by licking. It was like toffee: you had to bite through it in chunks in order to eat it at all. I wonder if it was the syrup they use, or if it was similar to mastic? I guess I’ll never know, unless I look it up, which I don’t care enough to do.
This morning has been a trip through geopolitics and philosophy already. I think I’ll go find something to eat and come back to this later.