This post is long-overdue, but when I returned from Easter weekend in Istanbul, I was distracted by all the drama in Georgia. Now, of course, Istanbul has it’s own drama ongoing (if you don’t know what I’m talking about, catch up here or at any major news source). Because of the protests in Istanbul, don’t follow my itinerary without doing some research and figuring out how the political situation will affect your travels. Here’s the current update from the US State Department. Now that I’ve said that, I talked to a friend who was in town as a tourist last week, and he said that the tourist attractions weren’t affected, and he found it interesting to watch the protests outside his hotel window and get the occasional whiff of tear gas–it certainly gives his stories of his long weekend in Istanbul a very different flavor than mine.
But, back to your postcard. Meghan and I had both really wanted to go to Istanbul, and the long weekend off work for Orthodox Easter (which fell very late this year) gave us the perfect opportunity to hop on a plane and visit Turkey. Because we were flying from Tbilisi to…well, anywhere, but in this case Istanbul, our flight left at the usual ridiculous 4 AM. Meghan chose option A and opted for a nap before taking a cab to the airport; I chose option B and took the bus and pulled an airport all-nighter. Needless to say, neither of us was particularly well-rested for our first day in Istanbul. We didn’t even make it out of Ataturk Airport before we rejoiced in the spread of American businesses and indulged in some Starbucks. (I’m not generally a fan of American cultural hegemony making street corners all over the world indistinguishable, but MAN was that chai tea latte amazing!). Slightly invigorated by some caffeine, we headed into the city and found our way to Istanbul Hostel, where the staff took very good care of us in our slower-thinking-than-usual states (giving us an extra day of free breakfast–including more coffee).
We spent our first day in Istanbul just wandering around and getting our bearings. We stumbled across the main sights quite quickly and saw the exteriors of the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. We wandered more through the Sultanahmet neighborhood, and found ourselves at the Grand Bazaar, where we had more caffeine, absorbed the sights, and got turned around. Since we had exited the Bazaar nowhere near where we thought we had, we wound up exploring the Laleli neighborhood, which was quite an experience. It’s the wholesale clothing district, so we kept going into shops where we weren’t allowed to buy anything. Interestingly enough, the common language of the area (probably in addition to Turkish) is Russian. I assume this is because this is where all the clothes for sale in the boutiques on the streets of Tbilisi and other former Soviet republics come from. It was a very different side of Istanbul, and it felt like a glimpse into the inner workings of the Caucasus. Eventually we got our bearings and made our way back to the hostel for an early night.
The next day was our big tourism day. The Underground Cistern, the Hagia Sophia, and Topkapi Palace. We started at the Underground Cistern, because travel guides recommended that that was the most efficient route to minimize time spent standing in line–I think other people have read the same suggestion, so I don’t know if it’s really such a great strategy right now. That being said, the Underground Cistern is definitely worth a visit–it’s cool and dark and really quite impressive in its scope. The line for the Hagia Sophia was quite overwhelming, and at first I was unimpressed “Oh, look, another old Orthodox Church, I’ve seen a million….WOW”. The splendor is somewhat overshadowed by the crowds of tourists, but it really is a spectacular place. The number of exclamations from visitors saying “Oh my God, it’s so beautiful” suggest that the architects’ goal is to this day being achieved. (The Russian tourists were, however, incredibly obnoxious. Our Russian skills came in handing pointing out to the новые русские that lines did, in fact, apply to them as well).
We stopped by the Blue Mosque, but it was closed for prayers, so we proceeded on to lunch. We chose a restaurant at random, and found ourselves in the Stone House Restaurant. It was exactly what we were looking for: classic, simple Turkish food that was delicious. As it turned out, the staff were Georgians (Unfortunately, I hadn’t miraculous developed the ability to understand Turkish: they were speaking Georgian). Our new friends Zaza and Natia overwhelmed us with a combination of Turkish and Georgian hospitality, and we got lots of delicious extras with our meal. We still had a busy afternoon of sightseeing, though, so we had to make our excuses and find our way to Topkapi Palace. It lived up to its name and was certainly palatial. Although I had read the descriptions in tour books, I was unprepared for just how extensive the museum and grounds are. We didn’t even bother trying to see everything and felt quite fatigued from trying. The additional 15 lira to see the harem was, in my opinion, worth it. What impressed me most about the palace was not the jewels or the opulent living quarters, but the beautiful, beautiful tiles covering almost every surface in jewel tones and geometric and floral designs. Very impressive.
The next day was a bit more relaxing, we started off with a visit to the Blue Mosque, which was (of course) incredibly beautiful. Then we were horrible American tourists and went to the mall. It was awesome. I was able to replace some of my clothes that Georgia has killed, and I got some food souvenirs at the Carrefour (better quality and lower prices than at a candy shop near the tourist attractions. Pro Tip). That evening we gathered together a group of friends from all over the world and various parts of our lives who all happened to be in Istanbul for the weekend (so great) and had dinner together. It was fantastic to get together with people who’d never met before, but all had something in common and spend time together sort of like old friends. We went to Galata Kiva, a restaurant specializing in “Modern Eastern Turkish Fusion” or something like that (the fancy menu is only available in the front portion of the restaurant) where I was able to mark Orthodox Easter with the traditional Georgian Easter dish of lamb with plums and tarragon (ჩაქაფული chakapuli), which is apparently also popular in Eastern Turkey. Not that surprising, really, but still a nice surprise. I also highly recommend the “eggplant dessert”. It’s weird, but amazing.
The next morning we were off to the airport. I woke up early, though, partially due to my nerves about flying, and partially because I still had a few things I wanted to do. I savored a last Starbucks drink, changed some last money into lira to get me to the airport, and bought a scarf. This was actually my favorite wander around Istanbul, though. It was lovely to see the city when it was quiet and peaceful and empty of tourists. It left a good final impression of the city (and I saw some kitties).
Overall, Istanbul is crowded and expensive and stressful. And I loved it because it’s also welcoming, and beautiful and exciting. Nonetheless, I was glad to arrive back “home” in Tbilisi.