Sitting through a sweet Turkish Airlines flight heading west across Europe, I can finally exhale now that my brief stay in Istanbul is over. Over the course of four adventurous days and five lively nights, I was lucky enough to experience one of the earth’s truly amazing cities. With a population of 17 million Istanbul is the world’s second-largest proper city, after Shanghai, and this fact is certainly ever present. The metropolis is immense, situated on each side of the Bosphorus Strait, straddling not only multiple continents but also ways of life. While not the capital of Turkey (Ankara) it is the political, social, and commercial center of a country that is mired in a severe identity crisis, facing decisions to make regarding political authoritarianism, democracy, and the role of religion in daily life. The country appears to be a land of many contrasts: massive public works projects are flaunted around Istanbul, but much of the population is unemployed; Prime Minister Erdogan yearns to join the EU and claims to have made strides in the areas of the democratic process and an independent judiciary, but huge anti-government protests are a regularity, and shows of strength from the state are frequent.
Additionally, but more positively, Istanbul presents a wonderful mixture of the ancient and the modern, with thousands of years of history present alongside a bustling cosmopolitan city containing a dizzying array of peoples, cultures, and sights. Located in the heart of the Mediterranean and the Middle East, it is both a commercial hub and a tourist spot for people from all over the world. One experiences an absolute sensual onslaught in Istanbul, an attack of colors, smells, sounds, tastes, and textures that really is overwhelming. It is scarily easy to lose track of time in a place that seems to have no end in sight, and I feel like a lifetime might not be sufficient to explore every nook and cranny present upon the hilly, twisting city. With my best bud Griffin and his roommate Conor, my five day stretch in Constantinople provided a blur of excitement that leaves me hopelessly longing for a similar level of adventure simply not present in the refined cultural centers of the West.
During my first day Griffin and I took in some of the main tourist attractions, sights and locations of extreme historical importance. Following the fall of the Byzantine Empire in 1453, Justinian’s cathedral was converted into a mosque by the Ottomans, and to this day the Hagia Sophia remains one of the most recognized religious centers across the globe.
Situated next to the remains of the Roman Hippodrome and the Blue Mosque, the structure is a dated, interesting mixture of faiths. Christian mosaics dot the walls of the interior, and the symmetrical marble slabs that comprise the walls are very impressive. The dome is the fourth-largest in the world after the Vatican, Notre Dame, and the cathedral in Seville, and it really is an immense structure that is literally crumbling from within. Needless to say it was very cool.
We then moved on to the Topkapi Palace, the old seat of the Ottoman Empire. The collections and structures amassed by the sultans of an imperial dynasty that spanned centuries and included wide swaths of Asia, Africa, and Europe is extraordinary. The private quarters of the sultan were intricately detailed and beautifully patterned, but my favorite parts were the series of clocks, watches, jewels, weapons, and armor that represented every corner of the empire across many, many years. The sentiments of wealth and power on display were obvious and incredible, with heaping amounts of diamonds, emeralds, gold, and jade adorning everything from swords to lamps to clothing and everything in between.
For me the palace didn’t have quite the same level of beauty compared to the Alhambra with regards to its physical makeup, but the richness of the Ottoman legacy was extraordinary.
With Connor in hand the next day was spent at the bazaars. The Grand Bazaar, formerly the hub of global commercial life for many years, is now a touristy, expensive set of shops and stalls that wind endlessly under a covered structure. Nevertheless it was cool to see the various products offered from all over Turkey.
Following a walk down the hill we did the Egyptian bazaar, or the Spice Market, which was a ton of fun. Countless vendors offering dried fruits, nuts, teas, and yes spices of all kinds yell and shout peddling their wares, creating a din that is really fun to be a part of. Tasting was often encouraged, and we spent the better part of two hours trying figs, dates, berries, Ginger, walnuts, apricots, tropical fruits, and pieces of Turkish Delight, candies with an assortment of nuts, fruits, and honey, some with a nougat base, others more marshmallowy, but all very interesting and tasty. Common combinations included rose and pistachio and walnut, pomegranates, and honey, but there were ones with black peppercorns, apple, orange, and other flavors I could not identify. We ate enough Turkey D’s to serve as lunch, and I can officially say that Istanbul has the world’s premier trail mix game by far.
In a country where soccer is so much more than just a sport but literally represents ideologies, politics, and ways of life, I was lucky enough to go to a game. Galatasaray, Fenerbahce, and Besitkas are the three clubs of the city, and each one contains rabid fan bases formed not solely by geography and history but also by politics. During recent protests the joining of supporters from different clubs enabled an anti-government force to form. Violence and riots are frequent, and it is extremely difficult to get tickets to games. With Griff, Conor, and two of their friends from school, we were led by one of their program directors, a 29-year old Turk named Burak who is an ardent Galatasaray fan. The club is currently the best of the three, competing in the Champions League and featuring big international names such as Didier Drogba, Wesley Sneijder, Felipe Melo, and Emmanuel Eboue, and though just a league game against Konyaspor, a team in the middle of the pack, the stadium of nearly 60,000 was virtually full. The metro ride to the game was a crowded mash of burgundy and yellow, and the game was crazy. I have been to countless high school, college, and professional sporting events of all kinds, but this was a truly unique experience. There was an energy and a vigor present in the crowd that is much different from in the States. Fans jump, sing, and chant in unison, and it seems like every single person is paying full attention to the proceedings. The hisses and catcalls towards Konyaspor were loud and harsh, and home field advantage was evident. The highlight of the game was a Drogba goal and subsequent celebration right in front of our seats, and we went home very satisfied after a 2-1 Galatasaray victory. Çimbom indeed!
Going out at night, simply to wander the streets of any neighborhood, whether the main touristy drag off Taksim Square or any of the areas surrounding Griffin’s dorm, was unreal. The plethora of languages, faces, restaurants, flashing lights, and blaring sounds present is simply unimaginable. Every street corner reveals yet another set of bars, clubs, and shops to try, and the only hope is to just explore until stumbling upon a new gem every night. There were raucous young people abounding on Halloween in costume, Turks dancing on top of tables at outdoor cafés, countless fast food stands of incredible quality, and bars playing music ranging from smooth jazz to punk rock, with a little of everything in between. The city is amazing and absolutely buzzing with life, and it was exhausting to simply exist in the presence of such energy that I have not experienced anywhere else in the world.
The other days were filled with a variety of activities: a nice morning 15k with Griff along the waterfront, catching up with Camille Wasinger, an old friend from high school in some sweet parks, and an exploration of an old castle build by Sultan Mehmet II at the narrowest point of the Strait at the beginning of the conquering siege of 1453. The active holiday was somewhat diminished by the sheer size of the city and the necessity of public transportation, but we still walked a ton and made it work. The weather was usually a bit foggy, cloudy, and humid, but the temperature was pleasant and I absolutely had a blast.
Last but certainly not least, I will touch on a cuisine that ranks among my all-time favorites. A mixture of legacies and traditions literally from all over the world, supplied by fresh, diverse ingredients from a fertile Mediterranean climate, Turkish food is simply amazing. The fast food is the best I’ve ever had, although I eagerly await a trip to Southeast Asia to further explore that department, but the eats are good, spiced immensely, and are pretty cheap as well. Among the fast food items I had were kumpir, a baked potato filled Chipotle-style with olives, veggies, spices, grains, and gobs of butter and cheese that was incredible. We had a dinner at a sit down restaurant with salad, a kebab plate of lamb in tomato sauce sitting on top of freshly baked pita bread with pide, a thin pizza-like bread with cheese, lamb, and veggies on top, everything accompanied with spicy sumac and lemon juice.
With Camille we had a foodie experience at the Istanbul Culinary Academy restaurant, with kebab, mezes, (Turkish appetizers) and a salad of pickled veggies that was certainly interesting.
We ate at the God of Doner, a kebab stand of immense proportions and popularity that was finished by noon, a girthy, pulsating oval of lamb and beef that literally oozed with goodness. The doner itself, we learned, was three parts lamb and one part beef, was served in a fresh pita with tomatoes and hot peppers and eaten with Ayran, a yogurty drink, and was heavenly. The place was a hole in the wall manned by a single chef, and the carving of the doner was an art, right over a picture of the supposed “God”, the original founder. Turks gathered around and sat on tiny stools, and it really was a scene.
We had a Turkish breakfast at the boys’ local neighborhood cafe, a great meal of scrambled eggs with peppers and spices, olives, tomatoes, cucumbers, goat cheese, and a big mug of Turkish çay, or tea.
We ate at a cafeteria style restaurant, an Istanbul institution, and I had some great spiced rice filled with dried fruit, a pot pie of yogurty spinach on top of chicken and potatoes, and some chicken, mushrooms, and eggplant.
As I previously mentioned the incredible trail mix to go along with massive fruit stands selling everything from persimmons to quinces to plums, pears, apples, bananas, and grapes made for wonderful yogurt in the morning. Luckily for Griff, the dessert game is unmatched, with scrumptious baklava filled with pistachios, walnuts, and pomegranates drenched in honey being the best, although nougatey halva and an interesting cream-cheese pastry that Griffin had a kilogram of in his room were good as well.
And finally, I ate a raw, spicy mussel at 2 am on the street, a shaky moment that would have made Bourdain proud. In short, I did a lot of eating, and the food was good, cheap, spicy, and certainly plentiful.
The immense amount of culture, music, food, history – of everything – makes Istanbul my favorite city destination so far in Europe, Griffin’s presence non withstanding. Being in such a crazy place brought a true feeling of life that has definitely been missing in relaxed Andalusia. It is incredible to stand in Taksim Square, where massive domestic protests occurred mere months ago, and see the deserted area that once was a teeming center of the city. I tasted tear gas, and the omnipresence of riot police, Turkish flags, and the portrait of Ataturk, the founder of the modern republic, serve as a constant reminder of the unease that still exists between the government and the people in a country navigating the tricky path towards democracy. I cannot wait until Ecuador to live in and experience a culture that is something other than the first world of the West, and while a month of consecutive travel certainly has me weary, the final seven weeks of my European journey promise many more adventures to come.
Until next time,