I had no idea what to expect of the city that spans two continents, neither as I was planning nor as we made our bumpy approach and landing during a torrential downpour at Ataturk airport in Istanbul. To be honest, I was a bit nervous about my stay there. I’d never traveled to that part of Europe, nor had I ever been to Asia. I’ve always been very comfortable living and traveling in Western and Southern Europe. And, being bilingual, I’ve never had any problems communicating, either in English or Italian. And when push comes to shove, I can always gesticulate. I just didn’t know what I would encounter as far as culture and language. I didn’t want to make any faux pas. But, with phrase book in hand, an open mind and a pleasant demeanor, I was determined to get to know this cosmopolitan city. In the end, other than the landing, there were no bumps in the road.
I had only four days in Istanbul, with the objective of seeing the sites, visiting some apartments, meeting some contacts and making others. Efficiency was of the utmost importance, so I set appointments before I left the US and kept track of my emails while I was vacationing in Greece.
Upon arrival, I was whisked away to my first of several business meetings. I met with potential staff and suppliers of both transfer services and apartments. It was like meeting old friends. We embraced and kissed and were so happy to finally put faces to names. It was a welcome way to start and quickly put me at ease. On that first day, I was on the go from the moment I woke up in Athens at 5 am until about 7 pm when I returned from the supermarket. I visited several apartments and toured a neighborhood where we’d hope to find some others.
Finally, sitting down to lunch with my new friends at 4 pm, we were able to take a moment and talk about our homes and our families. We quickly came to realize that life here isn’t all that different from life there. After our meal my contacts gave me a lift to the supermarket near my apartment so that I could get provisions for the next few days.
Needless to say, going to a supermarket, alone, tired and without my phrase book, which I had left behind in the apartment, was a bit of a challenge. But, I got through. I was just so exhausted I couldn’t concentrate and didn’t know what I really wanted or needed. I wandered around in a daze. No worries, though. Once my cart was full with water, bread, fruit, cereal and milk, your faithful blogger found solace in a Snickers bar at the check out counter. Nothing like the comforts of home.
After a good night’s sleep, which ended around 6:00 am with the call to prayer, I began my task of getting to know the city. Our general manager had suggested that I hire a guide so that I could see the sights efficiently and get some real insight. I planned two days of guided visits, one visiting all of the typical sights in Sultanahmet, the other visiting the residential neighborhoods on the Asian side of the city. Talk about whirlwind. It basically meant cutting down the time spent at each monument, but it was very worth it as the lines were long and the crowds large. My first stop of the day was Topkapi Palace, which I saw in about two hours rather than the full day all the guidebooks recommend.
From there we went on to the Hippodrome, the Blue Mosque and then to my favorite of all, the Hagia Sofia. All the while Hakan, my guide, explained the history and meaning behind things, pointed out interesting bits of art and architecture to take note of, and spoke of his own experience of life in Istanbul after having grown up in a small town. It was all fascinating and new. We also visited the Basilica Cistern before finally sitting down to an amazing fish lunch, again at about 4 pm.
Our last visit was to the Grand Bazaar, where I had about an hour and a half of free time to roam the maze in one of the oldest covered markets in the world. Fabulous. The sites, the smells, the people walking by, the hustle and bustle of every day life were amazing. Yes, there were plenty of tourists there. And, yes, there were wares that were meant for tourists only. But, there were also locals, haggling and buying, chatting, having tea, carrying loads that were meant to be delivered to shops and restaurants. I observed regular people, doing their regular every day activities as they have been for centuries in that very same spot. I was happy to just to roam around and take it all in. I didn’t make a single purchase, very surprising. My day ended at about 7:30 pm, and needless to say, because of the late lunch, it was cereal for dinner that night too.
My other day of organized touring was with a young woman named Ozlem. When setting things up she asked me if I liked to eat. “Yes, of course” was my answer. She was pleased because her itinerary primarily consisted of walking and eating on Asian side of Istanbul. We were lucky to have such beautiful, sunny weather that day, perfect for eating and walking. And, it was a Sunday, so there were lots of people out and about, families with children, groups of friends, wedding parties; typical life in Istanbul.
We started off at breakfast. Unlike my visits to Italy where breakfast consists of a cappuccino and a pastry, in Turkey they actually eat! As we made our way to the restaurant I told Ozlem that typically I have some cereal and fruit or perhaps yogurt and toast for breakfast. She told me to prepare myself as we’d be having a meal, and not my typical “snack” which I call breakfast. We sat at an outside table and had eggs, a type of spicy sausage, three or four types of cheese, several types of cold cuts, tomatoes, cucumbers, tea, bread, and an assortment of pastries. Oh, I can’t even remember what else. I know there was more. And then, when we were satiated, or beyond satiated, we boarded the ferry for Asia!
We explored several areas, including Kadikoy and Uskudar. And from my first step onto the Asian side of the city, I could see the difference from the European side. It was greener, there were more open spaces, the shops catered to every day needs rather than souvenirs and it was much more residential. I got a clearer picture of real life in Istanbul. We spent our time window-shopping, looking at the different architecture, talking about family life and struggles and, of course, eating. We had ice cream before noon!
We went to a park along the Bosphorus, sat in the grass and kicked off our shoes as a young boy sold tea from a cart. We walked some more and then had our next snacks in the Kuzguncuk neighborhood. Again, we sat back facing the water and had some tea and bite-sized pastries and took in the view. Thankfully, we did a lot of walking that day, in and out of streets through parks and then finally to lunch. Can you guess what time? Not as late as the previous two days, this time around 3:30 pm. Another feast for the eyes and the palate.
As we wobbled our way back to the ferry and Europe, we thought a casual walk along the Istiklal up to Taksim Square would be a good way to work off all we had eaten. So, once across, we took the Tünel (underground funicular) to the bottom of Istiklal, the main shopping street in the New District. It felt good just to walk and chat and see another area of town. Once we reached Taksim Square, we parted ways and then I began my journey on my own back to my apartment.
With the help of several really practical guides and my contacts, I had learned how to use the public transit system and was able to easily navigate that evening and the next day when I ventured on my own to several appointments then back to some of my favorite spots. It was all so much easier after having been oriented by my contacts. I felt confident and excited to do and see things on my own. I went to the Spice Bazaar that I hadn’t been to previously, and bought some lovely Turkish Delight to munch on as a snack, then back to the Grand Bazaar where I bought a few trinkets for my nephews and a lovely silver bracelet for myself. And, most of all, I was excited to have secured some really lovely apartments for our new Untour to Istanbul. It was the first of many steps we’ll have to take to complete the program, but it was a good start.
Istanbul was fabulous – the sights, the sounds, the food, and finally the people. So welcoming are the Turks. I had read about their hospitality in all of the guidebooks, but to experience it first-hand was borderline embarrassing. Everywhere I went, every shop or café, and when I sat to break bread with my newfound friends, I experienced genuine generosity. I was made to feel like one of the family. I can’t say enough about the people I came across or the city that hosted me for four short days. All I can do is look forward to returning there, hopefully for a longer sojourn, and when I can be the one reciprocating and emulating their hospitality.
One last challenge awaited me in Istanbul, the 4 am pick up for the airport. And though it seemed like a good idea when I booked the first flight from Constantinople, er um, I mean Istanbul, to Rome, I wondered what I could have possibly been thinking when the time came to actually get up in the morning, or middle of the night, actually. However, once I was up and dressed and all checked in at the airport and waiting to board, I knew the “hard” part was over and that I had the comforts of my home away from home to look forward to. As I boarded the Alitalia flight at 5:35 am, I was greeted with “Buon giorno, signora”, and I knew all was right with the world.
Next stop, the capital of the Western Empire, Caput Mundi, the eternal city, Rome…
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