21 Sept 2015
Upon arrival in Istanbul, the first thing I noticed while walking toward the customs & immigration area was the odor. It smelled like human sweat - not the dirty, stale, rancid stink of the unwashed, but the fresh slightly musky scent that is produced by honest labor. I felt an instant sense of connection on a primal level. In "western" society, it is unacceptable to smell like a human being, even a clean one.
Upon exiting the baggage area, there was a wall of people holding signs with names... a little overwhelming, but I did manage to find my name and my driver. I had originally planned to take the tram, but decided that it was worth the extra money to have more time and energy to go out and explore.
I stayed at the Mini House hotel, a small place on a back street in the shoemaking district. While it would not be a good fit for someone used to five star hotels, it was perfect for me, a thousand times better than a hostel. The room was private and clean, with its own bathroom and plenty of hot water. The young man who owns the hotel, Hüsayin, was really nice, and would do anything to help his guests. Much more my style than a fancy Hotel Anonymous where no one makes anything more than polite conversation.
After getting settled and showered, I ventured out. The daytime is still hot this time of year there, and humid by the sea, but the night was absolutely the perfect temperature to be outside. Following Hüsayin's directions in search of dinner, I walked uphill and took a couple of turns through the back streets, which were dark and dirty, and squared my shoulders to put on an air of confidence I wasn't quite feeling. Finally I emerged into an alley with several brightly lit restaurants and a couple of merchants selling their wares on the street. Strangely, the one closest to the main street was either McDonald's or Burger King. A little overwhelmed, I decided to walk a bit more and turned left on the main street, just walking and looking at the people, the shape of the dark buildings, the streetcars... until I saw this:
Turkish Delight... mountains and mountains of it, in a shiny confectionery shop window.
Koska is a famous brand in Turkey, and a variety of sweets and jams, but I only had eyes for one thing: the mysterious Turkish Delight, which was used by the White Queen to ensnare Edmund in C.S. Lewis' "Chronicles of Narnia", but which is unknown to most Americans.
I was curious to try it, and the shop clerks kindly obliged me to try
several varieties, including one covered in rose petals which was quite
possibly the most exotic and exquisite thing I've ever tasted. There
were an amazing variety of flavors, including rose, saffron,
pomegranate, pistachio, walnut, coconut, chocolate, apricot, and more.
I purchased a small bag of Turkish Delight for later, and decided to head back to the alley for some food. Standing indecisive between two shops which both offered cafeteria style dining, the representative of each shop promptly descended on this potential customer and were holding their menus up for my inspection. Pretty soon they were getting so insistent that, images of having my arms stretched like Plastic Man, I hurriedly chose one. Apparently cafeteria food is "family style", as rather than a single portion I got a whole plate full of the first thing I wanted to try (a dish made with okra). Unable to determine whether it was possible to get a plated meal, I just decided to go ahead and accept that and a green salad. The bread was served along with it. The okra and bread were true soul food, not elegant but delicious and satisfying.
The temperature of the evening was so warm and inviting that I decided to take a walk the other direction down the main street, toward the main attractions of the downtown area.
Istanbul is quite lively in the evening, and while some shops were closed, there were plenty still open for a little window shopping. My eye was attracted to this display of charms against the evil eye hung on plain twine.
In China, Germany and Turkey, ice cream is displayed so beautifully, it really is so much more visually appealing than a bunch of buckets hidden away in the bottom of the case. Any good restaurateur knows that presentation is important!
I was unable to do this scene justice with my camera. Left of center is the Column of Constantine, which was erected in 330 AD to commemorate the declaration of Byzantium as the new capital of the Roman Empire. This link shows a reconstruction of what it originally looked like. It was severely damaged by earthquake and fire in 1779, when it was given the nickname Çemberlitaş ("Burnt Column").
A short walk, which looked much further on the map and so took me totally by surprise, brought me to a sort of walking mall area alongside the Blue Mosque. At the near end is Alman Çeşmesi (the German Fountain), erected by Kaiser Wilhelm II in the year 1900.
Here is a detail of the ceiling, which is painted in gold.
Progressing down the mall area, next come the columns, all of which are placed precisely in a row. The quarter moon was an unexpected and lovely bonus.
First is Dikilitaş, known as the Obelisk of Theodosius or the Egyptian Obelisk. A monument of Pharaoh Thutmose III, it was brought to Istanbul by the emperor Theodosius in the 4th century AD.
Something I found fascinating was the depth of the column below the current ground level, showing clearly that the level of the street in Byzantian times was about 2m below where it is today.
Between the two tall obelisks is Yılanlı Sütun, (the Serpentine Column), a Greek monument which was brought by Constantine I from Delphi to Istanbul around the same time as the Egyptian Column. Its base has been dug out and exposed and it also lies about 2m down.
This was a random building I passed in the street, I don't know what it was.
Heading back to my hotel, or at least trying to, I stopped to ask directions of a gentleman by the name of Mustafa, the owner of this hotel and restaurant. He gave me directions and then offered me to stay for a complimentary cup of tea, which I thought was a lovely offer and sat at the outdoor tables.
It was a perfect place for a little winding down.
The young man working there didn't have a lot to do as business was quiet, so he chatted with me about football (soccer), Istanbul, English, and his life goals. By the time I finally decided to call it a night, It felt as though I had new friends.
And finally.... BED...
... where I was still too excited and wound up to sleep despite the calming tea. I ate my Turkish Delight in bed and no doubt that didn't help me sleep either. All the newness was enough to keep my mind busy until around 4am, when I finally fell asleep.