May 20, 2008

Istanbul, Turkey






The road from Ephesus led to Istanbul and I arrived in the very early morning on the overnight bus and was immediately thrust into you-can’t-scam-me mode when the taxi driver tried two tricky stunts to score himself some extra Turkish pounds, which after traveling through five countries in two months couldn’t penetrate my Gullible Guard. I was dropped off at a hostel in the touristy Sultanahmed district and because the popular destination of this city is reflected in it’s prices, in an effort to conserve cash, I chose to recreate my college days by lodging in a dorm room with four other people of which, luckily, only one of them smelled like wet socks. After some breakfast and coffee I hit the streets with an agenda to take a momentary break from antiquity and visit the Museum of Modern (yes, modern) Art and on my way started to get my bearings and hone in on the vibe which I found to be incredibly easy going and attractive.
Walking through the different neighborhoods of this bi-continental city felt like putting on a favorite pair of jeans fresh out of the dryer; I was instantly comfortable with the layout and the flow of the people. There is a lot of ground to cover as it is dissected by two wide rivers and spans two continents and passing from Europe to Asia with no border control can add unlimited amusement. I spent most of my time exploring the neighborhoods banking the Bosphorous river; passing through busy shopping promenades in Taksim while stumbling upon the opening of a photography exhibit and weaving through charming side streets stopping to rest with tea and Baklava at one of the many cute cafés to watching the sunset bathe the river and multitude of minarets rising from the skyline sumptuous hues of amber and gold.
Istanbul houses some pretty famous and spectacular sights, the Blue Mosque and the Aya Sofya among them. The Blue Mosque gets all the attention in a city that has mosques in the same frequency as Starbucks in the United States; one is around the corner from the other that is down the street from the one that neighbors the other which is five feet away from the last. Although it is beautiful inside I am not quite sure why it is the most popular as I found some of the other lesser known mosques to be just as lovely. If you sit in the surrounding park at any of the prayer times you can be witness to what I labeled “Battle of the Mosques 2008”; The Blue Mosque will start with an ear- crunching call to prayer followed by a pause that a nearby mosque uses as a gateway to blast their equally deafening call to prayer followed by a pause that the Blue Mosque then takes advantage of and after a full ten minutes of this battle the only call to prayer you can hear is the one inside your head begging for them both to stop. The close by Aya Sofya should be a must on any traveler’s to do list not only because it’s interior beauty almost brought me to tears but, as a friend pointed out, it is very conveniently a church turned into a mosque turned into a museum and where else can you get three attractions bundled into the price of one. An unexpected favorite on the popular tourist trail was the Cistern which is a cavernous, underground, out-of-use water storage that was built a really long time ago by I forget who. Through good design and attention to atmosphere, they cleverly turned what could have been a fairly underwhelming destination into a contender to become a UNESCO World Groove Site by lighting the symmetrical columns in a disco themed color arrangement while wafting a Muzac version of Donny Hathaway’s “Where is.the Love” from the speakers. Now that’s inventive!
For as much as there is to do during the day there is an equal amount to do at night and Istanbul balances it’s attractions perfectly. One night was spent dining at a bustling restaurant providing live Turkish music and, after, people watching in one of the many nightclubs. The next evening a lovely new friend and I discovered a fantastic local jazz club that hosted a group playing an eclectic mix of international rhythms that so inspired a member of the audience that she broke out into an impromptu belly dance routine entertaining us all. We followed the music trail to a small bar with traditional gypsy beats and ended the night sipping wine while watching the rain fall on the quiet streets from a big, open window.
Bouncing around this beautiful and energetic city for four days visiting the many mosques and museums, exploring new neighborhoods, listening to live music, taking photographs and relaxing in the warmth of the hamam, I feel as though I just barely scratched the surface of all it has to offer. The vibe was so smooth that it has become one of my favorite urban destinations so far and with it’s very own edition of New York’s Time Out Magazine it seems perfectly legitimate to warrant a return trip to start uncovering the many layers of Istanbul.

1 comment:

Nipun said...

I visited Istanbul in Oct. last year and i'm still to write about it on my blog...But reading your post, i just got so nostalgic about my 5 days in Istanbul. Lovely. I see you are a travel addict. Are you on couchsurfing....? :)

 

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