Fate never ceases to amaze me. Sometimes it’s cruel in that when you want something and go after it whole-hog, many times your goal stays doggedly out of reach, no matter what obscene measures you are willing to take or who you are willing to sleep with. Then, like a practical joke, once you’ve admitted defeat and moved on to something else, fate delivers your dream on a silver platter.
I spent four months in the spring of 2004 editing and sending out destination articles that I had composed from my seven months of traveling Western Europe in 2003. Nothing. Not a single fricking bite. The scant few rejection notices I received – sometimes six weeks after sending in the submission – were the only, albeit brief, highlights of that exercise. It was discouraging to say the least, seeing as how I had abandoned a fairly comfortable life for this gig. But I pressed on. The articles were done (and collecting dust) and now I had to hunker down and write the “The Book.” My intention for “The Book” was to write an educational, enlightening and laugh-riot account of backpacking Western Europe, peppered with sections of soul searching, introspection and jabbering about the non-stop naked boobie bonanza. It was while I was deep into that undertaking, that my deliverance from the title of “Unemployable Travel Writer” arrived.
An “executive traveler” magazine pulled a one-two on me that would have knocked me down if I weren’t already prone on the couch at the time of receipt. They wanted to buy my Lisbon article, which they had blundered upon on this very web site and then, noting my proximity to Istanbul (I was in Romania at the time), they offer to send me there, put me up in a five star hotel, provide me with a two day, private, guided tour, give me a plane ticket for onward travel to Athens and, oh yeah, pay me! After a protracted happy dance around my efficiency apartment I humbly accepted and we were on. As a bonus, I was able to finesse my sweet girlfriend Catalina’s cute presence into the trip. Does it get any better than this?
Due to the fact that Turkish Air is still using the paper-based ticketing system established in the Byzantine Empire and the last minute nature of the arrangements, a ticket from Romania to Istanbul could not be DHLed to me from New York in time for the flight (doesn’t Turkish Air issue tickets in Turkey???). I was forced to take the 24 hour bus ride, across the entirety of Romania, over the winding mountains of Bulgaria and finally through the sliver of Turkey leading to Istanbul.
We arrived on the doorstep of the five star Conrad Hotel at the crack of 8:00 a.m. In the prior 36 hours I had not shaved, bathed or eaten a full meal and I had only managed 5 hours of sleep. I did not look like a potential candidate for a room at a five star hotel, but the staff welcomed us warmly and to my utter astonishment, handed over a keycard immediately. I had steeled myself for an hours long, cross-eyed wait for our room to be ready, but this was the Conrad Hotel, where if it something is even faintly possible, they make it happen. We were whisked up to our room, showered and in feathery bed of beguiling comfort in mere minutes.
After a lavish nap, we set out to see Istanbul. The Conrad is slightly off the central Istanbul beaten path, so we sorted out the bus situation while we enjoyed the first of countless doner kebabs that we would consume over the next five days. We wandered the Old City for some time before stumbling upon the Grand Bazaar. There are few places in the world where you can literally buy anything. Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar (A.K.A. Kapali Carsi to the Turkish), open Monday through Saturday, is one of them. What started out as a small warehouse in the mid-15th century has swelled into a debilitating labyrinth of 4,000 shops where escaping in less than two hours, without at least two bags of intently haggled plunder, is considered a modern miracle. Every nook and cranny has been turned into shop-space, some the size of an MRI chamber, with goods displayed on every reasonable square inch of surface area. Among other things, you will be overwhelmed with jewelry, leather, wood-crafts, clothing, porcelain, fabrics, ceramics, tea, and of course, carpets.
Ah yes, carpets. Carpets and the touts that sell them are an integral part to your visit to Turkey. Carpets are to an Istanbul shopping excursion as a wino is to a Bartles and James tanker accident. The carpet shop touts are so smooth and polished that you will find yourself seated in a showroom couch with an apple tea in one hand and a carpet exhibition opening in front of you before you can even lift a hand in protest. While some will argue that you can get the same quality carpets for a better price on eBay or even in Chicago, nothing beats the spectacle of a live carpet show. Of course, even after a 45 minute presentation and four teas, you are not obliged to buy anything, but unless you want a cargo shipping container with your name on it chugging it’s way to your house, you had better leave your wallet at the hotel. The carpet merchants put on a hard sell that would humble a life insurance agent.
I was fortunate enough to make the acquaintance of Sisko Osman, one of the last old carpet masters on Earth, who despite a declared retirement, makes the two hour daily commute to his 106-year-old, family-run shop in the old Zincirli Han Hotel portion of the Grand Bazaar where he keeps four show rooms. Mr. Osman, his son and army of nephews do a brisk business when they aren’t putting on perfectly choreographed carpet shows for wide-eyed travel writers. Their mainstay is old and restored classic carpets, some dating back to the Ottoman Empire, specially made for Imperial functions. Mr. Osman divides his time outside of the shop by traveling Turkey to acquire old carpets, some requiring painstaking restoration work that can last for over two years, and contributing to carpet exhibitions around the world from his private stash of 1,755 traditional carpets. His boundless knowledge, coupled with the dazzling display of carpets woven with silk, fabric dyed with volcanic stone and even gold fiber will keep you agog and cause you to let your complimentary tea go cold. After the requisite carpet pitch, we shopped for a short while. Then we shopped for a long while as we were so hopelessly turned around inside the Bazaar that it took us an embarrassing amount of time to find an exit.
That was pretty much all we had the strength for on the first day. The bus hangover was still exerting itself on us, so we headed back to the hotel and retired to the indoor, heated pool for some idle floating and a short sauna. I took the second of what would be dozens of showers in our gleaming, marble festooned, surgically sterile bathroom, as Cat nosed through the room, taking inventory of all the things that she could pilfer without incurring extra charges, a practice she claims to have learned from American movies. Isn’t that cute?
Istanbul, indeed all of Turkey, sparks a difficult geographic quandary, namely where the hell is it exactly? Europe? Asia? The Middle East? Every travel web site has it categorized in a different region and the debate among seasoned travels can get ugly. Istanbul itself undeniably sprawls across both Europe and Asia, as is evident by the titles of the city sections. The European parts and the Asian section are separated by the Bosphorus Strait and easily traversed by a 10 minute ferry ride. The European side is divided yet again into the “Old City and the “Modern” section by the Golden Horn (spanned by two bridges), a miles long natural port which made Istanbul a de facto trader’s paradise for hundreds of years.
Istanbul is a teeming, cramped and, at times, awkwardly developed city. There are few streets in the Old City where you can swing your bag a full circle and not hit at least a dozen people, three cars and maybe two carpet shops. You can find streets with more personal space of course, but the reason why this space exists is because the streets are so steeped and dauntingly uneven that many wouldn’t dare ascend them without a defibrillator charged and standing by. On paper, Istanbul seems like a place that would push your buttons. The bad ones. The crowds are endless, the noise is potent, the air quality is at times gruesome and the touts from the shops, restaurants and street vendors are insufferable. But when you’re in the thick of it, these minutiae are rolled up and completely forgotten in the face of the giddying intrigue that comes with knowing that you have arrived someplace very, very different. Gigantic, other-worldly mosques with soaring spires are visible in every direction. The Muslim call to prayer resonates over the din five times a day from copious loudspeakers peppered around the city. The physical history left behind by three powerful empires – Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman – in the form of walls, aqueducts, monuments, cisterns and lavish palaces confront you around every corner. The sights in the European Old City are so abundant and in such close proximity that a full day guided tour won’t take you further than a 300 yard radius. The wealth of history, stupefying structures and oh-wow moments will affect you so deeply, that you will forget all about the car horns, the sea of people and even your need for food and sleep.
If you choose to navigate Istanbul and seek out the sights unassisted, you will inevitably find yourself hopelessly lost for a fair portion of the day. This isn’t necessarily a bad turn of events, as accidentally finding Istanbul’s smaller treasures is half the fun once you’ve surrendered yourself to indiscriminate wandering. But if you’re pressed for time and would like the luxury of walking straight to a sight without circling the block twice to find the entrance, or a quick and painless van ride to the sights that are further out, it would behoove you to look into a guided tour. I had the pleasure of enjoying the company of Ms. Nesli from Pacha Tours, courtesy of the magazine, who was a wealth of information, not only on the sights she guided us through, but on just about every other Istanbul-related subject that I threw at her. I quizzed her at great length as our van driver deftly maneuvered through the tight Istanbul knot of streets, allowing us to cover seven major sights in two days and ferrying Cat and I to and from Istanbul’s nicer pedestrian areas, allowing us to have some unsupervised strolling time before being whisked back to the Conrad. Ms. Nesli’s advice on shopping, restaurants, hotels and nightlife saved me hours of legwork that I was required to perform for my writing assignment.
Our first day was the “Best of the Old City” tour. We started at the centrally located Atmeydani (Hippodrome) and worked our way out from there. Those Byzantines couldn’t be bothered to hold any wimpy elections. Emperors won and lost their seats by competing in gutsy, unruly chariot races around the Hippodrome. Today it is a rectangular park, bulls-eyed by an Egyptian granite obelisk, circa 1450 BC, which looks as if it were carved yesterday.
Mere steps from the Hippodrome are the equaling awe inspiring Ayasofya Church (A.K.A. Church of the Divine Wisdom) and the Blue Mosque (Imperial Sultanahmet Mosque). Ayasofya was the greatest church in all of Christendom for over 900 years until the fall of Constantinople in 1453, when it was put into use as a mosque. Built on the orders of Emperor Justinian in 537 AD, in an effort to reinvigorate the prominence of the Roman Empire, Ayasofya’s brain-scrambling interior will likely induce an unintentional, transcendental stupor upon your entry. They say a picture is worth a thousand words, which is just as well, as the golden mosaics, tiles, carvings, marble columns and ornamentations within the Church cannot be done justice in print without a generous book deal. The church was closed for worship and declared a museum in 1935.
The short walk to the Blue Mosque will melt what remaining brain cells that survive your Ayasofya experience. The Blue Mosque is so named by European tourists due to the overwhelmingly blue interior adornments. This massive structure, built in a scant seven years (1609 – 1616 AD), is highlighted by the 141-foot-tall, 75-foot-wide main dome, supported by gigantic, elephant leg columns and surrounded by a medley of smaller domes. The gaping interior is wallpapered with intricate stained glass windows, tiles and trim that will jerk your head straight up and force you to slowly circle backwards into other tourists as you attempt to take it all in. Like all of Istanbul’s many mosques, the Blue Mosque is as functional as it is a tourist site. Take care to not stumble over or interrupt worshipers while you are lost in reverence.
What was meant to be a small palette cleansing was nothing of the sort. Just across the street from Ayasofya is the Yerebatan Saray (Basilica Cistern), a gigantic underground water storage chamber used for over 1,000 years during the Byzantine Empire. The total cubic space inside the Cistern, which is supporting by a forest of stone and marble columns collected from sites and ruins around the Empire and beyond, is greater than the interior space of Ayasofya. Despite its immense size and importance, as is wont to happen over long spans of time, the Basilica Cistern was eventually sealed off and forgotten until the 1980s when the guy that owned the house above it tried to dig a hole one day and fell into the Cistern. It was more than half filled with mud and the man mistakenly thought that he had stumbled onto a lost section of the city. The Cistern was painstakingly cleared of mud and is now a dark, eerily moody tourist sight. The acoustics inside were too weird and sharp to be ignored, so now small concerts are periodically held inside the Cistern during tourist high-season.
Finally, we were ferried to Topkapi Palace. The size and marvels of the palace, constructed by order of Mehmet the Conqueror in the mid-15th century, can be covered in a measured, half day amble, or a two hour sprint depending on your schedule or exhaustion fueled desire to collapse into a chair and plead for someone to bring you a cup of apple tea. The sticker-shock of the entry price (US$15) will soon be eclipsed by the sensory-shock of the palace’s features. In no particular order, the highlights include the Imperial Council Chamber, the Imperial Treasury (alas, photography is prohibited), the Sacred Safekeeping Rooms, Baghdad Kiosk, the Tower of Justice and, if possible, the Harem if you are fortunate enough to arrive on one of the select days that it is open to the public. In between these features are the palace’s four courtyards which are picturesque, serene and a welcome opportunity to take a lingering break.
Countless other cisterns, churches, ruins and smaller, but notable mosques are scattered throughout both the European Old City and Modern section, which, in all likelihood, you will stumble upon while you are en route to other attractions.
After all that walking and mind-boggling amazement, you will need to unwind. An unrivaled, Turkish mainstay are the “hamams,” or bath houses. The granddaddy of them all is the Cemberlitas Hamam, built in 1584. Open from 6:00 a.m. to midnight, the bath has large, marble “hot area” chambers, divided for men and women patrons, to laze and sweat, scrub themselves or be scrubbed by an attendant into a marshmallow-shaped ball of lather and/or partake in a rigorous massage treatment. Towels and a modesty covering “peptemal” are provided for you, so a mid-day, impromptu stop is entirely feasible.
When you emerge with scrupulously cleansed pores, as relaxed as a wet washcloth, you can retire to a tea garden where smokers and non-smokers alike might like to sample the mild tobacco tastes from a traditional “narglieh” – better known in the U.S. as a “hookah” or water pipe – with a variety of flavors including mocha, rose petal, cherry, orange and lemon. Once you’ve exhausted your pursuit of the perfect smoke ring, watch or partake in your own vigorous game of backgammon, which may sound like an oxymoron, but you should see these guys play!
Istanbul’s Atatürk airport is Turkey’s busiest. Sabiha Gokçen International Airport, on the Asian side of the city, opened in 2001, but most flights still arrive and depart from Atatürk. Upon arrival, the quickest way into the city is a 30 minute taxi ride (make sure there is a meter and that it is running), but the 14-mile journey coupled with Istanbul’s traffic congestion can result in a hefty fare. Alternately there are airport buses that will drop you off in a number of locations in central Istanbul for a fraction of the taxi fare, but twice the driving time. When departing, the two hour pre-international flight airport arrival request, which has turned into a passing suggestion at some major airports, should be strictly adhered to in Istanbul. Lines are long and security is tighter than Vegas nickel slot machines.
Finally, it has to be mentioned that the Turks are the friendliest, most hospitable people that I have ever encountered. Hotel staff, tourism officials, shopkeepers and strangers on the street, some lacking even basic English language skills, will not hesitate to stop what they are doing, take your arm and lead you six blocks to your destination when you are lost. Even the carpet touts that would seemingly knock down a wall of puppies to get your business, will lavish you with kindness and assistance, almost to the point of absurdity, expecting nothing but a smile and a ‘thank you’ in return.
>> More reading: Fast Travel in Turkey