Do any research on Istanbul and you’ll find the Blue Mosque dominating the Google Image results and also the front cover of any guidebook. From my previous travels, I’ve always been drawn to these places of worship, regardless of denomination. They’re places where you can momentarily cast away your mental baggage at the entrance and find a cool and peaceful place gather your own thoughts. It’s theses mosques in Istanbul that kept repeatedly popping up in my research and a curiosity in discovering more about Islam, a religion that I had pretty much no exposure to that eventually drew me to this part of the world – and of course, the Turkish food.
Where did all the people from?
My first impression was that Istanbul is insanely busy. In 2013, nearly forty million people visited the city which straddles the Bosphorus and occupies both Europe and Asia and is inhabited by over fourteen million people. With the limited time that I had, the extent of what I saw was confined to the north around Taksim square, the Blue Mosque in the South and to the East across the Bosphorus into the Asian part of the city.
Before I left, I didn’t know many Turkish people and while I was in Istanbul, most locals that I met looked different to one another in appearance which I found like no other place I had ever been to. As a result, it was difficult to distinguish who was visiting or who was Turkish as seemed like such a mix of ethnic backgrounds.
The addictive energy.
I couldn’t help but feel swept up in the energy of Istanbul. I was worried that things may have changed since the protests earlier on in the year, but there was no sign of that with regards to the tourist numbers and the enthusiasm that sprung from the local vendors whether it be from the comedic ice cream men or the doner kebab masters who seemed to work what felt like 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Every time I’d walk past the kebab stores, the same guys would be manning it as though only they were qualified to man the rotisserie and they wouldn’t be afraid of telling us that their doner kebab were also the best in Istanbul.
Late at night is where it comes to life, as the sun sets and the temperature becomes bearable and the crowd numbers in Istiklal Street would swell to a point where you would be rubbing shoulders with the person next to you. The best way to deal with it is to submit to the tidal flow of people, like a surging mosh pit at a rock concert and let it carry you up or down the street.
Veer off Istiklal Street to discover the many bars and tea houses amongst the network of alleyways. There, people would sipping on tea and enjoying a shisha (which I also enjoyed on a few occasions) and each others company. From the bars and clubs, there’d be a variety of sounds playing: Rock, Hip Hop, Electronic and Reggae – nothing too inoffensive. Even the festival advertising on the street posters were promoting bands and DJ’s that I would even pay money to go and see. For what feels like somewhat of a conservative country, there is a youthful and progressive vibe to be found.
Despite this newfound energy, the local authorities always seemed to make their presence known, especially halfway down Istiklal street. Parked on the side of the road where truck loads of heavily armed riot police would be on guard, as though they were just waiting for the signal to put an end to the fun. Luckily everything was quite peaceful during that time and I didn’t witness any of the fun police in action.
Escaping the heat.
Afternoons temperatures in August in Istanbul are crazy hot and I found myself finding refuge amongst the narrower streets and alleyways around the bazaars. I’d recommend to go to the grand Bazaar at least once to appreciate the history, but the best parts for me were the network of the smaller alleyways along the outskirts of the bazaar . The people seemed a lot nicer and weren’t so pushy to make a sale or tell false stories of how they know Russell Crowe each time I said I was from Australia.
I found that the better market to visit was the Spice Market. Here, all of the senses come to life as you can’t help become immersed in the array of colours from the lamps that hung from the store fixtures, the smell of handmade perfumes, sounds of store owner banter and flavours of sweets and rose syrup. Here, the store owners loved striking up a conversation and joking around and weren’t shy about letting us try as many sweets as we wanted without guilt tripping or pressuring us into buying anything.
Peace amongst the chaos.
Although Turkey is a secular state, over 99% of the population is registered as being Muslim, so this was the first time that I had ever travelled to a primarily Muslim country. I was curious about the religion as well as the history of a country that dates back thousands of years and has seen the exchange of power across multiple empires in this time.
In Istanbul, you’re never too far away from a Mosque and now, when somebody mentions Istanbul, what I think of first is the call to prayer each afternoon. Also known as an Ezan, it’s performed five times a day and the time varies according to the rotation of the earth, revolution of the sun, sunrise and sunset times. With each session, the chanting would echo from the loudspeakers in each mosque and travel across the city in every direction. For me, the time where it had a profound impact was around 5pm, after a long days walking and as the sun would set and paint the sky in shades of pink and orange.
One afternoon, I was in the park in between the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sofia during the Ezan. The sound echoing from the Blue Mosque was intense and powerful, which was followed by Hagia Sofia, as though it was returning serve, but only at a softer volume it was a truly hypnotic experience. It was definitely the favourite time of the day for me and a reminder to stop each day and reflect on what’s happening at the present moment.
A perspective on the world.
Turkey is geographically placed at the doorstep of the violence and wars that are currently taking place in the middle east, and it was in Istanbul on my first day where I had my first encounter with the realities of war. The conflict in the neighbouring country of Syria has meant that thousands of people have been displaced and have made their way to Turkey for refuge. On my first day in Istanbul, as I made my way from the Airport into the city, there were many people who I thought were beggars pressing themselves against the taxi window with the look of desperation asking for money. It came as a shock to me and I wasn’t sure how to react as the driver acted as though it was normal. He must have sensed my uneasiness at the situation and told me that they were all Syrians who had fled their country.
I don’t normally involve myself in discussions and debates about the topic of war as I’m no expert on foreign policy. However, it’s difficult not to pay closer attention to it here. I was in a country and is also on the doorstep of Eastern Europe, Asia and the Arab countries where there is so much conflict that is ongoing with what feels like no end in sight. I feel fortunate to be from a relatively safe place in Australia where our liberties are still in tact; so travelling to places that have had a history of wars, dictatorships and hardship makes me feel even humbler with each visit.
The Food – The sweet and the salty.
In Istanbul, finding food is never a difficult task . There are plenty of doner kebab shops, both traditional and others with a modern and western chain spin targeting the middle class. Turkish cuisine is characterised by strong and contrasting flavours: from salty kebabs, the frothy and salty yoghurt drink called Ayran and mouth-watering pickles to overly sweet desserts; laced with liberal doses of rose-water syrup.
The day could typically start with selection of cheese, olives, tomatoes, hard-boiled eggs, cucumbers, jam and honey. I found that the honey and cheese combination worked well in balancing the saltiness of the cheese and as the juice from the tomatoes seeped onto the plate and mixed with the honey, it would transform into a sweet and sour like dressing. My favourite breakfast dish though was the menemen; a dish made of scrambled eggs, tomatoes, onions, peppers, oregano and a medley of ground black and red pepper. Served with bread, I would have had this at New York – Istanbul cafe most mornings while I was there.
I found that secret to enjoying Turkish food was that it all needed to be balanced accordingly and you could not have one without the other in order to achieve an overall pleasant experience. A plate of salty kebabs had to be consumed with some pickles, onions and washed down with either a complimentary salty flavours of an Ayran or counterbalanced with the sweetness of a soft drink. With the salty flavours still lingering on the palate, only then I could find it appropriate that I could take on the sugary high of a baklava which would always result with my hands drenched in rose-water syrup. It’s a messy affair that will eventually add another inch onto the waistline.
While I loved a shish kebab most days, I also equally loved the buffet style eateries where the variety of food was a lot milder on the seasoning and where slow cooked, home style meals were more prominent; My favourites were the peppers stuffed with meat and baked as well as the silky fleshed baked eggplants that would just melt in my mouth.
Turkish Coffee: Nay. Turkish Tea: YAY!
I have to confess, I found Turkish Coffee difficult to swallow. It had a lingering muddy consistency that would prevent my brain from registering any other tastes and textures shortly afterwards; so I avoided it most of my time in Turkey. The Turkish tea however is something that I relished every day. Tea is enjoyed throughout all times during the day, inside the home and out socially and variety of tea available was exceptional. Fragrant with a fruity notes and noticeably lacking in bitterness that is common in the tea leaves drunk in the west. Don’t even think about adding milk to it as all that’s required is a cube of sugar to sweeten things up.
One daily habit that I started in Istanbul to which I still continue to this day is starting each day with a fresh juice . I’ve been diligent in maintaining a healthy lifestyle now and when the fruit in this region is cheap and abundant, you jump onto that gravy train. For $1, I was having at least a cup of freshly squeezed orange juice each morning and if I felt like I have been eating too many kebabs, I’d order a pomegranate juice for $3.
I had a great time in Istanbul as it is a place like no other that I have ever been to. It felt both European as well as Middle Eastern and its complex history and geographical location made for an interesting observation of the many cultures that make this a great city and the differences in attitudes between the old and new generations. Of the six days that I spent there, I felt that barely scratched the surface and that I could have spent my entire time in Turkey just in Istanbul. It’s not a place where you can just visit, tick off a few things to see and then move on. It takes time to get out there, talking to people and making new friends who you can learn more from than you could by reading a guide-book. Just sitting there doing nothing but observing people was a learning experience in itself.
One thing is certain though is that I’ll be back again, to explore more of the nooks and crannies, gain a better understanding of the events and historical figures that have shaped the country’s identity to the present day, and also experience more of the food and customs that I missed out on this time around.
Have you been to Istanbul? What did you think?
If you love any of the photos from this post, you can purchase them from my portfolio site here.
Subscribe to my newsletter updates where I’ll have additional stories and content on travel and photography that you won’t find here on the blog. You will also receive a FREE 50 page e-book from me of my travel highlights from Central and South America, including stories, tips and a budget breakdown for both continents