Istanbul may not be what you Expect

One develops an image of what a place will be like from reading and hearsay. Inevitably this image is what a place used to be once upon a time and, as the world becomes more global, so everywhere becomes more of the same. The unique image one visualizes is no more.  So it is for me with Istanbul.  I keep searching for the world that I imagine. Here and there I find glimpses but, in the main, there is a lot of change. Areas like Karakoy are changing rapidly and already it appears they will become like the East Village in New York or Surry Hills in Sydney.  Taksim Square and Istklai Cadesi have been invaded by hordes of tourists so the shops and eateries reflect the goods that tourists want at a quality and price only the unwary foreigner will put up with. The tourists have surprised me – they appear to be either Asian or Arab.  I expected Americans, Europeans, Australians and the British and have yet to find even one of those.  I have come across Moldavians (didn’t even know there was such a country before), Kazakhstanis, Saudis, and many Iranians – some from Iran and many born in Iran and now living somewhere else.

I have the luxury of knowing that I have three days in Istanbul by myself and will be back in a month’s time for another five days on a tour where I will do all the touristy things.  This gives me the opportunity to try to find the Istanbul of my imagination and to mix with some locals.  I am staying in a wonderful location on the border of Taksim and Cihangir. The hotel is in a quiet street, so narrow that cars cannot fit, and it has a wonderful feel. Here, I did find the Turkey of my imagination – men on little stools in the street drinking coffee and playing backgammon, men chewing the fat outside second hand bookshops drinking tea, men eating local food in local restaurants. The lack of women is scary. The whole situation is so intimidating when you are on your own. For a day I was stuck between not wanting to go near the touristy places that sicken me and the local places where I am the only woman and an intrusion.  Then I discovered Cihangir proper and there are women!!! Everyone is local – so much so that menus are Turkish and the staff don’t speak English.  I keep guessing at things on the menu and each time I seem to end up with Turkish breakfast!!! It appears Istanbul is incredibly diverse with Kurds, Zevs, Armenians, Greeks, Jews, and the list goes on.  Cihangir is an area where women wear normal dress, can go out on their own and demand cool places to hang out in.  I love it.  I have also discovered a pretty interesting set of narrow streets around Tumacibasi Sokak, Galatasaray where there are antique shops and art galleries together with great eating places in an original historic setting – certainly tourists are at a minimum, thank goodness. There is nowhere for that many people to fit.

Even though the food is what you expect, there are surprises. I did not expect tomatoes, cucumber, olives and feta were the standard breakfast. The things I love are the homemade lemonade and beautiful fresh juices.  Today my highlight was a proud upright Turkish man smartly dressed with his streetcart of oranges and orange press, squeezing orange juice just for me for 50c a glass. The smell of freshly squeezed oranges is heaven and it tasted just as good. I also love the mountains of fresh spices, dried fruits, the huge array of nuts, chocolate embedded with nuts, and, of course, the baklava and the amazing selection of Turkish Delight.  I appreciated finding Haci Bekir to buy Turkish Delight – supposedly invented by a distant relative here in 1777 – the Turkish Delight still looks delicate and more beautiful than anywhere else.

A must is to try a Hammam(Turkish Bath).  I went to the Galatasaray Hammam which is supposedly one of the old famous Hammams.  There is a beautiful marble entry for the men due to the strong Islam influence where men reign.  However, as a woman I was sent down some horrible steep and dirty side alley. The graffiti covered entry was plain and basic. I discovered the term, Turkish Bath, is misleading. I expected it to be like a Japanese Bath House with a series of baths and was surprised to find no bath. A round room, large and heated – not quite as hot as a sauna – circled by basins, and no actual bath. One washes using a bowl to pour water over the body from the basin.  In the centre of the room is a large round marble slab, a bit like a stage. This slab is heated and, once washed, one lies down on the slab sans clothes for the body to absorb heat.  After the body has absorbed heat for around twenty minutes, a treatment of exfoliation precedes a foamy soap wash. The massage is almost non-existent – it’s like five minutes. Then it’s back to the basins where the therapist throws basins of water over one.  This includes full basins of water thrown directly at the face. I felt like I was drowning – it seemed less than a second to breathe before the next basin of water hit. Whilst the experience left me feeling hot and uncomfortable, I did find that later on I was very relaxed. It obviously does some good – one should try everything at least once. Then, in my wanderings, I discovered there is a beautiful hammam, Kilic Ali Pasa,  built in 1580 by the famous architect, Sinan.  It has been recently restored and has two shifts – day for women and night for men.  Obviously it’s beautiful because it serves the men!!! Next time…

What else is there to do in a lazy two days in Istanbul.  Nisantasi is not worth mentioning – as with all major cities there is nothing unique about streets with the usual Prada, Armani, Christian Louboutin, etc.  I also went on the Sunset Boat Dinner Cruise.  I thought Sydney harbour was big, but Istanbul is at least four times the size of Sydney harbour.  Unfortunately the boat on the cruise didn’t go very far.  What we did see was beautiful – the skyline with all the mosques, palaces, etc is truly special. Catching the last normal passenger ferry around the Bosphorus at 8:00pm is a much better bet for seeing the harbor at sunset and something on my list when I return. However, the cruise was fun.  It wasn’t a big boat so not too many people.  Whilst the food was ordinary as is usual on these sort of things, the entertainment was excellent.  I also discovered that whilst the Japanese are into Karaoke, the middle east are into belly dancing – men and women.  Outside of a few women, who are basically guarded and not allowed to do anything, EVERYONE was on the dance floor having a great time. They must all learn this at school.  It was something to see.

Finally it is worth a visit to the Pera Museum – I caught the Andy Warhol Exhibition there and of course taste some Turkish Delight before leaving.

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