This is our first real travel diary post about our visit to Istanbul – delayed in part because we’ve been orienting ourselves in this unusual city, and in part because we were a little distracted by the Taksim protests. The arrival of Pasha Phil flicked the switch. The sun came out and we have had an uninterrupted string of perfect days. “Come and use our spare room in Istanbul” was our 50th birthday present to Helen’s brother Phil, and since his arrival on Monday, we have been going hard. So this then is the tale of Phil’s first fifty hours in Istanbul – Part 1.
Phil arrived at our Istanbul apartment via a visit to London, a truly generous birthday gift from Mary, Pat and Claire back home in Brisbane, so fortunately there was no time-zone jet lag for him. After an Efes beer and a quick catch up, we were all down to the Kabataş ferry terminal at the end of our street, and off to another continent.
With a spectacular sunset over the European side behind us, we crossed to Kadiköy in the Asian half of Istanbul. We walked through the bustling waterfront district, past dozens of restaurants beginning to fill, and through narrow market streets where the fresh-food stalls were only just beginning to close at 8.00pm. A long day for the fishmongers and fruiterers; even longer for the cake shops and delis. We headed for Ciya Kebap (Guneslibahce Sk), the often-overlooked younger sister to the renowned Ciya Sofrasi opposite (where we have a booking later in the week). All the street-level tables were full, but they directed us up to the fourth-floor roof terrace, even better. We looked out across the rooftops and minarets and the street scene below.
We had two simple gorgeous salads (one with minced tomato, garlic and parsley, and one with thyme, parsley and onion), plus a complimentary dish of chilli-flavoured soft cheese, and two kinds of flat bread. Phil chose the Ciya Kebap (a bread-wrapped minced lamb skewer, flavoured with walnuts), Helen had the Sour Kebap (a flat plate of minced lamb, flavoured with pomegranate and on a bed of eggplant) and John opted for the Poppy Seed Kebap (a minced lamb skewer heavily flavoured with white poppy seed). Everything was superb, and the setting was sublime. Along with three waters and two ayrans (the salty yoghurt drink that traditionally accompanies kebap) the meal cost the princely sum of 90 TL, about AU$20 each.
One tiny concern we had heading across the Bosphorus, was that by going further afield, Phil would miss the nightly “pots and pans” protest in our neighbourhood. Oh we of little faith. On the dot of nine o’clock, a group of young people began to wend their way through the now-crowded street of restaurants, chanting and clapping. Immediately, a huge percentage of the restaurant patrons, including us of course, began to tap their knives on their glasses and plates in support – an astoundingly subtle and atmospheric protest.
After dinner, as we strolled back through Kadiköy, we encountered a group of musicians and dancers performing boisterous Turkisk folk songs with full audience participation, while nearby a group of young contemporary artists were doing shadow puppets over a backdrop of short computer animations projected onto a nearby wall. Nothing left for us now but to head down to the ferry for a return trip across the Bosphorus, to the sparkling lights and minaret skyline of Beyoğlu and Sultanahmet.
The second day began with a traditional Turkish breakfast of white bread, tomatoes, cheese, pastirma, yoghurt, fruit and tea. Then it was off to the treasures of the Old Town. The Kabataş (No 1) tram at the bottom of our street goes straight to Sultanahmet, and then it’s a walk through the Hippodrome, where the scale of the horse and chariot racing track from the Roman days are there if you look carefully.
The Sultanahmet Camii (the Blue Mosque) is unmissable, pretty much unchanged since 1616, if you don’t count electric lights instead of candles, and a PA system on the minarets to assist the Imam’s call to prayer. It is a truly impressive place, with 20,000 mostly blue tiles (from which the mosque’s Western name derives), a high domed ceiling, and the beautiful Arabic script found in all mosques. Even we infidels found this a profoundly moving place – providing you can overlook the “cover all flesh” and “stay up the back, behind the screens” rules that apply to women.
Then on to Hagia Sophia, the world’s fifth largest Christian church (in this, it’s third incantation) and built almost 1500 years ago. It was also a mosque, converted after Mehmet the Conquerer took Constantinople in 1453. Remarkably, the conversion was quite modest, almost respectful and, as part of the creation of the modern Turkish Republic by Kemal Ataturk in the 1935, it was made a museum, retaining clear evidence of its former roles for two faiths.
Now it was time to plunge into modern Istanbul, and the chaotic, narrow and steep market-streets that surround both the Grand Bazaar and the Spice Bazaar, but are far more interesting (and challenging) for visitors than the more formal covered bazaars. Other than undertaking the most intense version of window-shopping imaginable, the main goal for visitors to the market district is to decide which hole-in-the-wall street eatery you are going to choose for lunch, a task we largely handed over to Phil. We pulled up some tiny stools to a tiny table on the edge of the street and had great mixed kebabs for 32 TL. Then more market streets till we’d exhausted ourselves, and home for a relax and freshen up.
In the evening we caught the underground funicular on its short run up to Taksim Square, now without the noisy protests, but still full of people. They stood silently, showing support for the “Standing Man” silent protest that entrances the foreign media, perplexes the police, and frustrates the government with its simplicity. It’s very compelling.
After paying due respect, we headed off down Istiklal Street to the Mamara Pera Hotel and its rooftop Mikla Restaurant. The stunning views from the rooftop bar included an amazing sunset, and of course an ideal spot for a g & t. Then it’s down one level to the restaurant, and an equally stunning seven-course tasting menu (225 TL) with matching wines (120 TL). The first course was the unanimous pick of the night – Balik Ekmek (Crispy Sardines, Olive Oil, Bread, Lemon) – two succulent sardine fillets magically attached to wafer-thin toasts, served sail-like on a slotted stone. The night was long and jolly, the food and wine excellent, and the view over Istanbul brilliant all night. The view got even better when we were moved to the best table in the place, on the corner of the balcony, when those diners finished early.
Life is good. More to come.