Monday, January 7, 2013

Istanbul—Take #2

The Blue Mosque, or Sultan Ahmed, with four of its six minarets pictured
We left Istanbul three days ago, but as usual it's never easy to find the time (or the right time) for another post. A week in Turkey's largest city (but not its capital—that's of course Ankara) was just right to get reacquainted after all those years.
Ottoman splendor in the harem section of the Topkapı Sarayı, inside ....
... and outside
First off, let me recommend a visit to the former capital of the Roman and Ottoman empires to anyone who has even the slightest sense of adventure. Really, this is no longer the strangely semi-oriental stepping stone before one heads out into the Muslim world across the Bosporus. What we saw of the city reminded us of any large European metropolis, with the odd sight of mosques and their minarets thrown in to give the skyline just enough mystique. Sure enough, the bazaar still has a bit of the aura of the 19th century, but it's no longer populated by nargile-smoking shopkeepers who will try to drag you into their tiny stalls. Water pipes have been banned from most public spaces, just as there is a general ban on cigarette smoking in most public places. All fine and good, but the atmosphere simply is different. It's a bit like that Irish pub that no longer reeks of tobacco.
A water pipe, or nargile, with fresh charcoal on top of the foil-covered tobacco

Here the çay and the nargiles are being prepared by the attendants
Lest you think we're teetotalers, we did go to one very cool tea and nargile den. It was a cozy place just a few steps away from the Blue Mosque, but the clientele was probably 50 percent sophisticated local students (the area is close to the university), 35 percent other customers with local roots, and maybe another 15 percent tourists. This establishment, within the perimeter wall of an ancient cemetery, apparently sidestepped the new regulations against indoor smoking by enclosing a summer terrace area with plastic and thus technically being located at least partly out-of-doors. The çay cost all of one lira (about 60 cents), and a water pipe would have set us back from about 15 lira and onward (maybe 9 dollars), depending on the tobacco chosen. But we pussied out (we thought we'd have a major cough attack), even though there were some cute high-school aged babes at the table next to us innocently yet intently sucking on the exquisite mouthpiece of their communal nargile. Still, the experience was second to none, and the second-hand smoke was pleasant and comforting, nothing like the regular pipe smoke or, much worse, cigar or heaven-forbid cigarette fumes.
Inside the Grand Bazaar
The Topkapı Sarayı, the former palace where the Ottoman sultans ruled for close to half a millennium, is a place where you can lose yourself for the better part of the day. Close-by are the Hagia Sophia and the Sultanahmet Camii (or Blue Mosque), and the Grand Bazaar and the Spice Market are just a short walk away, too. That's the Istanbul one sees in the travel brochures, and that's probably why one visits the city in the first place. Tourism is definitely high on the list of revenue generators for Istanbul (and the entire southern coast of Asiatic Turkey where sun-starved central Europeans book their summer vacations). We read somewhere that Istanbul is one of the most-desired weekend-trip destinations in all of Europe. Judging from the immense number of Japanese tourists, it's also on top of the list for longer trips.
Even street-corner döner kebap is most of the time more expensive than in Berlin, and less tasty
With all those tourists come high prices. Man, I could not believe how one of the cheapest cities I had ever traveled to has become another Paris or London! Take a few extra bucks along if you plan to eat a nice meal out, take a taxi, or drink something stronger than the ubiquitous çay. The country still uses the Turkish Lira, and things would have looked more expensive had I calculated the exchange rate from American dollars instead of used my German euros. But then, everybody knows that I am a cheapskate, so you may think the prices are just fine—but heck, I still think of the Istanbul I saw 35 years ago.
Freshly caught fish near the Galata Bridge is one of the cheap items
Spices, teas, and sweets outside of the Spice Bazaar
Istanbul is now home to close to an estimated 17 million people, and many of them live in extremely poor neighborhoods. Shanty towns are apparently a big problem as peasants flee the countryside to find jobs and fortune in the big city. We didn't see these slums, but we read about them. The areas in Old Town and on the north side of the Golden Horn that we saw looked OK, but not fabulous. In the distance we saw all those skyscrapers that are evidence of modern jobs and a middle class, but we were wondering more than once about the large divide in income in this country, which has a median income far less than most European countries. (Of course, outside of Istanbul and Ankara as well as some of the tourist destinations in the south, the country is poorer than dirt, dragging down any averages.) The areas that we saw in the city that were obviously frequented by Turkish citizens reminded us of the fairly affluent city centers of other European metropolises. The shops and brands are the same, the way people dress is the same, and the price level is the same.
Have van, have plastic chairs, will travel, and am pleased to serve çay—well-off vendor

All it takes is a few gas stoves to be an entrepreneur...
... or a BB-hand gun to shoot for a few lira ...
... the balloons on the beach. Talk about entrepreneurism!
One of the amazing things is how everybody seems to find a niche to eke out a living. It had been a long time since I had seen such an unbelievable number of street vendors; the last time was in India. It seems that all of Istanbul is a market place—every sidewalk becomes the showroom for some thing that somebody will need at some point in his or her life. A new leather jacket? An Adidas or Izod shirt? What about a Louis Vuitton hand-bag? Designer perfume or a Rolex? Soccer paraphernalia such as scarves and jerseys? Bath sandals? Note blocks and pens? Baby shoes and mittens? A new cell phone? A charger for said phone? Or corn-on-the-cob and sesame simit pastries and chestnuts? Dude, you got it! We also noticed that like industries were located next to one another—there were entire streets with nothing but shoes being sold, or hand-bags, or copper kettles, or boat anchors and chains, or sexy underwear, or whatever you happen to need.
A shoeshine artist and his cat attend to business
One afternoon we took the ferry boat across to the Asian side, to Karaköy. Seeing the city from the water gave us a completely different perspective, and exploring the neighborhood around the ferry station gave us a completely different view of the city: We suddenly felt immersed into the bohemian Paris of 15 years ago! Trendy pubs, art galleries, tiny bookstores with an even tinier café built in, an intellectual-looking crowd, rooftop bars—you get the idea. That was probably the biggest surprise for us as we had expected the Asian side to be the one that was, well, more traditional.
One afternoon we took a 2-hour tour of the Bosporus
On another afternoon we took a boat ride up and down the Bosporus, marveling at old palaces, burned down wooden yalıs, and posh mansions. The weather sucked, but that gave it all a bit of the melancholic feeling that the locals fondly call the hüsün. Maybe I'll get a chance tomorrow to add a quotation from an interesting tome that Sabine found in the opium, I meant nargile, den.
The Argonauts on the Bosporus
Well, this entry has already become quite unwieldy and only the truly dedicated will have read this far, so I better close. Istanbul is definitely worth a trip, whether as an excursion during your next European sojourn or as a destination in itself. We'll certainly be back.


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