Updated: Feb 27
It’s that time again where I’ve fallen so far behind that the dates I write these under are never correct. Case in point, on what was the 6th of August, Alex B., Jenya, and Rebecca (both of whom I’d met the previous night at Palatin) visited Balat, a district of Istanbul slightly further out from our base at the Golden Horn. It was supposed to have colourful houses and staircases. Sounded simple enough. On the way I got to see what Istanbul looked like away from the tourist centres, which seemed to involve a lot of construction. It made me wonder how much of Istanbul outside of the old city were new developments. It seems like almost everywhere I’ve gone so far on this trip has had some level of renovation/ construction project happening. I think that’s just how cities are.
Funnily enough, Balat had neither of these features, and yet was the most in need of them. Once we’d got lost completely in the zig-zagging cross-streets we realised just how far out of the tourist bubble we had come. The streets were dusty from rubble. Children sat in the sill of barred window with their fingers in their mouths and watched us pass by. On a 4th floor balcony, a toddler was being shown off by a proud parent to a few people in the street. There was no traffic on the roads, save for the occasional scooter. It was the quietest Istanbul had yet been for me yet.
We wandered around this antithesis of the Old District trying to find a specific street for a good while, before arriving back at the start, only to discover that the street had been right there all along. We found the street of umbrellas and many colours. We had our Instagram moment by the painted staircase, though there was a queue, which made me wonder again if any of it was special when everyone takes the exact same picture (including me). For lunch, I bit the bullet and ordered the “clay pot chicken” since it was about time I tested this highly recommended dish. You see plenty of the shattered pots in alleys and around the back of restaurants in Istanbul, so clearly clay pots are a popular way of cooking, though I hadn’t yet met anyone who could attest to the taste. They had a surprisingly involved presentation; cooked on salt in front of our table and smashed open when it was cooked, then poured onto my plate in an unflattering pile of meat and vegetables. It tasted like a bland version of Spanish Chicken. I was devastated. Jenya cried. Alex B. stared blankly ahead, and Rebecca became violent with the staff.
Fortunately, the ice-cream place we passed on the same street was fantastic. Pomegranate ice-cream is fast becoming my favourite flavour. However, Rebecca managed to pick the blandest flavour on the menu in an incredible act of self-sabotage. It may as well have been called blandberry. Afterwards, and just before we headed home, Jenya checked in on a vintner by chance. I joined her, and together we discovered a beautiful bar upstairs that which had incorporated into an old Byzantine building, as is evidently the case with so many buildings in this city. The wine wasn’t too bad either, but who chills red wine? Very poor form from a vintner. I just found out that the word for wine-seller is vintner. You learn something new every day.
For the 7th of August, nothing really happened of note. Lunch with friends, and the evening we planned to spend at a jazz club. We’d gathered a decent party too; Emily, Gage, Jonathan, Rebecca, and others besides - everybody was excited to get going. Alex B. needed to stop at a club on the way to meet an old friend, so we paused there for what we assumed would be a moment. In the end, a few of us stayed for much longer, and others left. Nobody ended up at the jazz club after all, though the few of us that did stay were treated to a roof terrace and a gorgeous night-time view of the city. It became clear after a while that Alex B. was there for more than just a catch-up with an old friend, so Rebecca and I slipped away, leaving Emily as their unexpected third wheel.
We’d left after an hour or so, and after discovering that the jazz club was no longer allowing new entrants, we decided to try looking for some late-night ice-cream. Ice-cream was becoming a big part of my experience in Turkey, surprisingly. When we failed, we walked back along the waterfront to the hostel, arriving just before Emily showed up in a taxi. She told us how it became increasingly obvious that they’d prefer her to leave them alone, which she did. To counteract the delated end to the evening, Rebecca and I convinced Emily to try some swing dancing with us at the front of the hostel. We pushed the tables and chairs to the outer edges of the patio, found the right music, and danced the night away. It felt lovely to dance with people again after what felt like such a long time.
8th of August! Everybody slept. I was the third member of last night’s party to wake up, making for a slow morning. Slowly, the rest of us trickled out of their rooms. Jenya was leaving that day, so we said goodbye and took some scrapbook photos before she left for the airport. I couldn’t face going out again that night with the rest of the gang, so I stayed behind with Rebecca. We ended up having an unexpectedly deep and frank conversation about ourselves, warts and all. It was therapeutic to drop the façade and talk without fear of judgement. It was a wonderful night, truly.
9th of August, now we’re picking up speed! Turkish baths were the only thing on the agenda, and by 11:15 Rebecca and I were 5 minutes up the road from an extremely conveniently placed bathhouse. The building itself was meant to be at least 300 years old, which was far from the oldest, but far from the newest. Everything about the interior had been preserved in layout and function, save for necessary renovations and modern comforts. Everything was original except for the changing rooms. This was a good move, as the changing rooms were cosy and well-equipped; private as well, which was a nice surprise. We had to sign a declaration form giving our general details and health conditions for reasons I still don’t fully understand. However, the pen we used to sign the document was so nice to write with that I had to let the assistant know. He came back with two of them for me, which I thanked him for the surprise gesture. Rebecca has one now, and I’ll switch to mine after this one runs out soon.
I need to catch an overnight bus to Antalya now, I’ll catch up with you soon Alex!
Thanks, past Alex! To return to the bathhouse, almost all of the interior was original, which produced an interesting contrast between the fading 18th century tessellation on the ceiling, and the modern design of the reception and changing rooms below. Past met present in a most tasteful way. Once I had changed into the sarong they provided, I was led through a heavy wooden door with an iron latch, and entered a huge room filled with no one at all. I had half of the entire bathhouse to myself! I must assume this was different from normal, as the absence of all other noise - save single irregular water drops from the roof of the domed ceiling – made the atmosphere even more intimate. The intimacy was accentuated by the arrival of the masseuse. The domed space made the sound of the heavy door banging shut reverberate all around, and a shower of water droplets fell onto the floor to announce his arrival. He politely asked me to stop wandering around the rest of the bathhouse and stay where he told me to, because I am a child. I tried to make small talk, but the man was having none of it, so I was obliged to focus purely on the sensation. The headrest was very uncomfortable. The bubble massage was unexpected; they brought out a bag full of bubbles and emptied it onto my back, which left my skin incredibly soft and sweet-smelling afterwards.
Rebecca’s time was apparently much more sensual. Her masseuse pushed her head right into her breasts whilst her hair was being washed. Mine had no hair or breasts, alas. He did say he’d been working in the industry for the last 3 years, but the language barrier prevented any further elaboration. The massage was over before I realised it, which left me sitting in my dressing gown in reception at a little table. I was enjoying the complementary tea, Turkish Delight, and several shots of a ‘cinnamon and Turkish Sherbert’ syrup when Rebecca emerged and asked me why I wasn’t dressed yet. 10/10, would highly recommend.
The final significant event of my time in Istanbul was spent at Topkapi Palace. Rebecca had a special pass that allowed her to enter every site in the palace complex, so we went to the ticket booth that I could buy one as well. For some unknown reason the queue to the ticket booth was slower than a snail in glue. So long did it take that I crumpled to the floor and expired months before there was any hint of movement. Darkness took me, and every moment seemed like a life-age of the Earth. Then the queue moved, and it was all fine.
Technically, we were already in the palace grounds, as the first quarter encompassed the gardens we arrived at, but the truly impressive elements were behind a great stone wall. Inside were so many things to investigate and appreciate. I enjoyed the artistry on display; the architectural style was pleasing, with lots of tessellation and domed roofs. The gardens were full of flower beds and summer blooms. The view over the Bosporus was exceptional, save for the ill-timed cargo ship crossing the scene. The view over the opposite end was the familiar site of the Golden Horn, then Karaköy, and the rest of Istanbul stretching out to forever.
Under the water run-offs in the palace grounds were more than a few stray kittens, and their heads would pop up out of the grates every now and again like adorable whack-a-moles. It was easily the best part of the visit. I told Rebecca about how funny it was that regardless of how impressive any human achievement may be, people will always go to look at the cats first. Cats are better than anything mankind can create.
Finally, in the evening, a group of us once again went out for dinner to a restaurant once again recommended by Gage. When I saw the cafeteria, I started to doubt his choice, but in the end it was fine. Inoffensive food. Not the most exciting end to the last night in Istanbul, but so ended the 9th of August.
10th August was the day Rebecca and I left Istanbul. We’d hit it off pretty well and decided to travel together for the next week or so until she had to return to Paris. It’s quite a nice parallel that her journey ends where mine began. Anyway, our flight left in the early afternoon, so after a brief breakfast we said goodbye to Emily and Gage for the last time...or did we? The plot thickens. Or does it? Yes.
Altogether, I can't quite decide how to feel about Istanbul. Certainly, it seems like one of the more liveable cities I’ve visited, one that’s just familiar enough to be comfortable, but dissimilar enough to remain interesting. I can safely say that I’m burnt out on black tea and kebabs for a good while. On the other hand, there was so much depth to the Old District alone that I feel that I can’t possibly evaluate the whole city in one short paragraph. I mean depth in the literal sense; you could be sitting above (or in) thousand-year-old ruins without giving it a second thought. I also didn’t experience as much of a culture shock as I thought; then again, I did only see the parts of the city which the city wanted me to see. The suburbs of Balat may not be on everyone’s itinerary. Neither may the stretch of road we walked up for 45 minutes trying to find a decent place to drink. However, for how little of Istanbul I experienced in my short stay, I left with the full intention of returning one day, if only for the food alone. It is a truly unique place to visit.
- (Hostel life)