Saturday, August 1, 2015

Istanbul - Part 1

I've been super fortunate to have traveled to many many places but there's always been one that's held special intrigue. That place is Istanbul. I think it's partly that, growing up, it just seemed so far away and it sounded exotic and strange. We learned in grade school that it "was the crossroads of the world" and the European end of the great spice road, which starts in another exotic city, Xi'an China. Oh, and of course there was that They Might Be Giants remake of Istanbul (Not Constantinople) my friend Mike introduced me to during high school...

Anyway, I went to Istanbul back in 2010 for what was basically a long layover. The short time I spent there, it was blustery with heavy rain mixed with snow so getting a feel was basically reduced to how to stay dry. When Diana told me her friend Monica invited us to come visit her and her family, I was super happy.

A quick note about this story and our visit overall. It was a relatively short one but we did a TON and took LOTS of photos. There are 17 photos in this story and Part 2 will probably be the same or more - sorry for the page-load time!

The flight from Barcelona is about three hours but it's a world away. Istanbul, if you didn't already know, is a city that straddles two continents; Europe and Asia. Monica and her family lived (more about that below) in Besiktas, which is in the European side of the city, and, interestingly enough, the closest metro stop coming from the airport to their house is in Asia. Once out of the metro, it's a short walk to the ferry to cross back to the European side.

Good afternoon Istanbul!

A view towards the European side:

While we were there, Turkey was preparing for national elections so every part of the city was covered in political banners and Turkish flags. Barbaros Boulevard view in the Besiktas neighborhood:

We arrived at Monica's house early Saturday afternoon and went exploring while she prepared for a party happening later that evening. Diana and I walked along the Bosphorus up towards the Ortakoy neighborhood where there's an outdoor shopping and dining area with an impressive location, mosque, and views:

There was a street festival going on with food stalls and a stage. Diana and I ate way too much and enjoyed watching a bunch of different folk performances including a Latin salsa group! Small world.

Diana buying one of our snacks from women making a quesadilla-ish treat:

Oh yeah, tea time. What can I say? I'm a sucker for tea time and always have been. I think it goes back to hanging out with my mom's sister drinking tea when she used to babysit me. I love the idea of taking time to enjoy a cup, some talk, and a bit of life.

Diana got me on a boat ride on the Bosphorus, which I actually ended up enjoying (but don't tell her). We then headed back to Monica's house, which, can I tell you, was in an amazing location with even more amazing views. That's Asia out towards the left, the Bosphorus in the middle, and Europe out towards the right. Nice, huh?

I mentioned above about how Monica, who Diana met while living in Barcelona, and her family used to live in Besiktas. Monica's husband, Olivier, is originally from France and works for a car company. Like Diana and I, they're a bit nomadic and they've lived in several places including China and, of course, Turkey. Well, their five-year stint in Istanbul was coming to a close and they told us it was now or never to come before they moved to France (for a few years???).

The long weekend that we could finally all make it work happened to overlap with a going-away party at their house. Again, like Diana and I, they have friends from pretty much everywhere and it was a fun time getting to know a bunch of interesting people and even more fun using a strange combination of English, Spanish, a bit of German, and even maybe ten words of French!

Au revoir les amis!

On Sunday morning, Monica and Olivier took us out for an early lunch and to visit the Chora Church and Museum. Like Barcelona's Sant Pau del Camp, the name comes from the fact that the church was built beyond the old Roman city walls in the 'countryside'.

Like a bunch of old churches in Istanbul, this one was converted to a mosque during the Ottoman era (the opposite of what happened in Spain). What makes the church extra special is the Byzantine-style mosaics and frescoes, which are considered some of the finest examples from the time, that decorate the interior. As with many of the converted churches, the decorations were covered up at some point only to be uncovered more recently.

According to the audio tour guide, the artwork was a way to share bible stories with the locals most of whom couldn't read. The stories progressed as you walk through the church.

From there, we walked through the surrounding neighborhood, which is full of older wooden houses that would fit right in some parts of California. The old city wall runs along one side of the neighborhood and, at one of the wall's doorways, we saw what looked like a flea market or swap meet. It wasn't until we were inside that I realized it was full of stands selling...PIGEONS! And, of course, pigeon accessories, pigeon food, and who knows what else. There was even a veterinarian set up over in one of the corners.

Olivier and Diana checking out some Istanbul pigeon bazaar action:

So what, you ask, can be more interesting than the pigeon bazaar? I'm going to tell you.

Our next stop was basically at the "top" of Istanbul's Golden Horn at a mosque and nearby park that has a great view of the city. The plaza out front was packed, packed, packed with families, old folks, young couples in love, and scenes like the wedding below. You know, basically like any other major city park.

But...what you may not have noticed (and should have) in the photo below is the two young boys dressed like sultans handing out candy. The park was full of very happy boys dressed similarly. Monica, who takes tour guiding as serious if not more than me (if you can believe it) told me they were dressed this way because it was their circumcision day. "WHAT did she just say?", I thought to myself assuming I misunderstood her Spanish.

Nope. This surprisingly-public right-of-passage is a big deal in Turkey. I had never heard of it but was floored when I read up about it back home. Based on my google searching in-depth research, I learned that the bigger and more public your child's circumcision day, the better. Boys get dressed up in extravagant outfits, get to ride ponies, eat special treats, and have their friends, neighbors, and relatives over for the big day.

Super interesting. It's moments like this that continue to make me continue exploring more of the world. As I've always said and am trying to do, learning something new every day!

By this point in the day, Olivier had gone off to the airport to catch a flight but Monica, like Diana and I, is a trooper and loves to walk. We decided to walk all the way back down the Horn, which took us through some neighborhoody places like this where we got a small taste of daily life:

The walk also gave us time to do some shopping:

A lot of the over-four-mile walk was along the waterfront. It seemed like half of Istanbul's 14 million people were out barbecuing that day. Another great opportunity to take in a small slice of local life. Every family was spread out on a blanket and/or playing ball and for sure every dad was hovering over a small grill like the guy below.

Wait, but that's not a grill the guy's tending? If you noticed, you'd be right. What was even better than every group having their own grill was that every group also had their own charcoal-fired coffee/tea maker! And, if you've noticed hot beverages have an exalted place in Turkish life, you'd be right again. Can. You. Tell. That. I. Love. This. Stuff?

We arrived at the bottom of the Golden Horn right around sunset, which gave us a chance to experience first hand how it got it's name. Each afternoon, as the sun sets, the sky turns a golden color, which reflects on the water below making everything glow. I took a bunch of lovely photos and had a heck of a time choosing. My favorite ended up being this one I took off the back of the ferry as we left the European side of town to go to the Asian side to catch another ferry to take us back to the European side.

There are some places I've gone that could never live up to expectations. Istanbul's not one of those. It's better than what I had imagined. It's crazy big. There are a lot of people. The culture's an interesting blend owing to its bridging Asia/middle east and Europe. But, still, there's something about it; maybe even a bit of Barcelona familiarity. Yes, I think I love it. Oh, and I haven't been able to get that song out of my head the whole day as I wrote this story. Istanbul, not Constantinople... Istanbul, not Constantinople...


  1. I'm surprised you didn't try Turkish coffee.
    It's the best.
    Cheers mate.

  2. It seems like Olivier and Monica left Turkey just in time. Perhaps they sensed that something like an attempted coup and state of emergency was going to take place. You chose the perfect time to travel to Istanbul.


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