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Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Europe-Asia, Asia-Europe: Enthralling Istanbul

Of all the languages we've encountered in our travels through twelve countries so far, Turkish has been the most interesting.  We had NO chance with Vietnamese, Thai, Cambodian, Malaysian or Chinese.  The characters made it impossible to decipher printed words.  We managed to pick up a few words and phrases at each location, and at least attempting to speak the local lingo would usually go a long way toward helping complete whatever transaction we were attempting to make.

Turkish is something of a dichotomy in that some words are wonderfully economical while others make your eyes spin.  Like polis (police) and ofis (office).  Then some other words attempt to use as many letters as possible.  Such as teşekkür ederim for thank you.  Really?  I mean that looks like the sound you make when you sneeze.

We first encountered the Turkish language when we arrived in Istanbul from our stopover for four days in Abu Dhabi.  Leaving Abu Dhabi didn't involve much sorrow.  We were ready to get into Europe, and thrilled to get to Istanbul.   The flight there was interesting if for no other reason than we flew over directly over Iraq for much of the trip.  I wish I could report some fascinating image that we saw but from 38,000 feet all that was visible was sand.  In golf terms, it was a big waste area.  Local rules probably provide a lot of free drops.  And I imagine you can ground your club pretty much anywhere.

We did get a good view of Istanbul as we prepared for landing.  The city is literally on the Asia/Europe border, with the Bosphorus River providing a watery dividing line.

Our first night in Istanbul was spent in the Old City, near an area called Sultanahmet.  I had found a place online that we really liked but it wasn't available until our second night in Istanbul.  Our apartment for night one turned out to be in walking distance to some of the most iconic buildings in the ancient city, including the Grand Bazaar and the Blue Mosque. 

Some things don't live up to their names.  Like Great American Ballpark.  I love the Reds and GABP is a definite improvement over Riverfront, but a more accurately descriptive name would be Pretty Good Ballpark That Should Have Been Built Turned Around So You Can See The Skyline.  But the Grand Bazaar doesn't disappoint.

It's a sprawling complex of shops, almost all of which are inside of a building that dates back centuries.  On our way there, I was thinking it might be like the Ben Thanh Market in Ho Chi Minh City, which was fascinating but also a bit annoying thanks to the aggressiveness of the vendors.  That wasn't the case here at all.  Occasionally you would have someone invite you into his shop as you passed by, but a friendly "no thank you" was all that was necessary to keep moving along.

The shops featured all kinds of products, from watches and jewelry to clothing to rugs.  The Bazaar covers about sixty city blocks and features about five thousand shops.  Almost like an outlet mall back in the States but without all the RVs in the parking lot.

The neighborhood surrounding the Grand Bazaar just oozes with character and history.  There are no US-based fast food restaurants that we've seen so much of on the trip in other parts of the world. 

A stroll up the hill from where we were staying the first night led us to a restaurant with some outdoor seating, called the Why Not cafe.  A sign boasted of Pizza and Pasta and Kebaps so we figured we would find something to meet all our culinary needs.

Our server, Omar, set a good precedent for the friendliness of the Turkish people we would encounter in our first foray into Europe.  He was very kind and courteous, and took time to show off his mad skills of making a rose out of a napkin.  Marley happily sported it in her hair the rest of our first day in Istanbul. 

Day two in Istanbul presented us with some time on our hands since we couldn't check into the next place we were staying until five in the afternoon.  Cemal, who ran the 4-unit apartment we stayed in the first night, was kind enough to let us keep our luggage at his place all day so we could check out some nearby sights without lugging our bags around.

The Blue Mosque was about a fifteen-minute stroll from our apartment, and the weather was perfect.  Mosques are the most distinctive part of the urban landscape in Istanbul, with their minarets dotting the hillsides.

The Blue Mosque was a quick visit, at least for us.  It was built around 1610, which is about 25 years before the Taj Mahal was erected.  It got me to thinking, did these sultans, kings and other emperors know about other massive temples and mosques being built in other parts of the world at roughly the same time?  It's not like Sultan Ahmet I who had the Blue Mosque built was tweeting about it.

If he had been and including some pics in that tweet, other sultans, kings and emperors would probably have had mosque envy.  It's gorgeous, with blue tiles that give the mosque it's name lining the interior walls.

As spectacular as some of the sights to be viewed inside buildings in Istanbul are, it's magic for me is out on the streets.  We discovered that more on day three in Istanbul when we headed to the apartment we had booked for four nights.  It was in the Nisantasi neighborhood, about a twenty-minute cab ride from our first place.

It's a more modern neighborhood, but still has a great feel, with shops and restaurants lining the streets.  The experience was pretty much exactly what I hoped would happen once we got into Europe.  I wanted to have a bakery to go to every morning to get still steaming hot bread and croissants.  There are certainly plenty to choose from in the area around the Osmanbey Metro stop where our apartment was.

The roomy apartment was on a narrow street lined with textile (tekstil in Turkish) shops, so on the weekdays while we were there the sounds of Turks getting on with their day would waft through the windows with the early morning sun.

For much of our time heading into Istanbul and also while we were there I had the song "Wheels" by Cake in my head.  In the song, John McCrea sings about a seedy Karaoke bar by the banks of the mighty Bosphorus.  I didn't see any such establishment as we took a 90 minute boat ride up the river dividing Europe and Asia.

The boat was filled pretty much to capacity as it headed north, certainly the two or three row closest to both sides.  One of the more interesting aspects of the trip was that the boat seemed to be filled mostly with locals.  There were a few people like ourselves who obviously were not locals, but not as many as I thought there would be.

In her best "when in Istanbul..." mode, Annie went along with the Turkish tradition of drinking some tea, which is served with a sugar cube.  Everywhere you look on the streets you see men carrying trays of tea at all times of the day.  It added to the flavor of our river ride.

The only mistake we made was getting on the side of the boat that was furthest from the opposite banks of the mighty Bosphorous.  We still had a good time cruising along looking at the ancient city and marveling at being able to see both Europe and Asia at the same time.  It's a little more exciting than sitting outside at Don Pablo's on the river in Newport and marveling at the Ohio side of the river.  Although, actually, some nachos and salsa would have been a nice addition to the cruise.

Once we disembarked (I like writing that word and love saying it!) we took a stroll across a bridge lined with men fishing.  The bustling crowds on a sunny afternoon made for a fantastic stroll toward where we would catch a cab back to Nisantasi.  We first had to check out a market teeming with freshly caught fish, and then walk down an alleyway which featured some hardware and paint, including a store that had the pigment out on the sidewalk in cans.

The energy of the people on the streets of Istanbul was contagious and we enjoyed just walking along, soaking in the atmosphere.  The colors and the aromas combined with the intensity of the Turkish language made for a fascinating experience.

We managed to strike a comfortable balance of seeing and doing things and just enjoying our apartment and the neighborhood.  Having good internet helped us plan for the next part of our journey, plus allowed for Ben and Marley to catch up on some school work through Khan Academy and help plan the next part of the trip as we head deeper into Europe.  

As much we like to immerse ourselves in local culture, having good internet and a nice flat screen TV with some satellite channels was enjoyable as well.  Three of the four nights we were there, the Fox Sports Channel carried the PGA Tour golf event from Quail Hollow in Charlotte, which is where I saw my first live professional golf back in the late 80s when a Senior Tour event was played there.  It came on at 11pm, so the kids were done watching what they wanted to see, and I could kick back and enjoy what turned out to be a very competitive tournament.

It's always good to get some local knowledge in unfamiliar surroundings, and we got that in friends of friends of ours from back home.  They were a married couple with a seven-month old son, and gave us some great options for meeting for lunch.  The one we chose was on the banks of the Mighty Bosphorus near the base of the Bosphorus Bridge.  The setting and company was spectacular and the food wasn't bad either.

After an enjoyable mid-day meal, Nuray and Can (pronounced John) were generous enough with their time to meet back up with us about an hour later at a restaurant near the Galata Tower that provided a spectacular view of Istanbul, looking east toward the Asian side of things.  It was down an alley off an alley off an alley that we never would have found had it not been for the help of a local.
When we were planning our trip, probably the overall highlight for me was getting into Europe.   I love the feel and the history of the place and Istanbul met both of those requirements. 

We got a serious taste of the local fervor for football as we walked down a caddesi called Istiklal.  It's supposedly the busiest pedestrian street in Turkey.  The feeling was electric, in part because it was just a couple of hours ahead of a big match between Galatasaray and Bestikas at the football stadium close by in Istanbul. 

Fans decked out in the local colors strolled along, singing songs.  They politely ignored my attempts at getting a Who-Dey cheer going, and we were happy to see later that evening that the Galatasaray squad was victorious.

After spending five days in Istanbul, the other cities we will be visiting in Europe have a major challenge ahead of them.  It's going to be difficult to surpass the atmosphere of this ancient city.  The feeling on the streets was truly magical and the people were very friendly and the food fantastic.  The only drawback was the occasional mish-mash of architectural styles.  

Wonderful old buildings dripping with character would be neighbors to some modern monstrosity. It would be like building One Lytle Place in Cincinnati right next to Music Hall.  

Istanbul is the perfect place to make the transition from Asia to Europe.  Our few days there truly whetted our appetite for more experiences in Europe, and as Anthony Bourdain likes to say, I'm hungry for more!

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