Istanbul straddles two continents, half in Europe and half in Asia. Surrounded by water and with easy shipping access to both the Black Sea and the Mediterranean, Istanbul stands at a global crossroads. Its strategic location made it a real plum for emperors and would-be emperors over the centuries.
“If the Earth were a single state, Istanbul would be its capital.”
– Napoleon Bonaparte
Today, Istanbul is a cosmopolitan blend of old and new. Although no longer the center of a vast empire, as it was for almost two millennia, Istanbul retains its dignity and an inherited sense of self-importance. The city is teeming with life.
Five times a day, Islamic calls to prayer are broadcast over loudspeakers from mosques all over the city. Many restaurants do not offer alcohol. Everywhere are women in full burkas and headscarves.
Meanwhile, though, some sections of town are alive with a boisterous bar scene, especially down the small side streets.
Istanbul is a city steeped in history and growing at a breakneck speed.
With a population of 14 million, Istanbul is the largest city in Europe and the 7th largest in the world. Its seafront setting also makes it a beautiful city.
Our decision to visit Istanbul was somewhat impromptu. We had worked our way progressively eastward, from Munich to Budapest, with stops in Salzburg and Vienna.
On the Buda (west) side of the Danube River in Budapest, we visited an old Turkish bath.
The beautiful bathhouse in Budapest dates back to the period of Turkish conquest of what is now Hungary.
The bathhouse experience was a revelation.
An affinity for Turkish traditions was taking root.
With only 36 hours left in Budapest, we booked a Turkish Air flight, nonstop to Istanbul.
In fairness, the idea of visiting Istanbul was not new to us. Several close friends and relatives had raved about it. But somehow we had put off Istanbul, opting instead for the more familiar comforts of Western Europe and the UK.
Now it was time to give Istanbul a try.
Because we expected Istanbul to be a bit challenging, we opted for a more traditional boutique hotel for our first two nights, and then an apartment for a full week after. This would let us take advantage of the hotel staff for recommendations and general grounding in the local customs for the first couple of days.
At first blush, Istanbul seemed like a pleasant blend of Havana and Marrakesh — Havana, because we were in a neighborhood where everyone knew one another; Marrakesh, because of the Islamic culture.
Our little hotel was just downhill from the Taksim Square, in a relatively new section of Istanbul, only about 150 years old. The buildings are generally non-descript. The streets are narrow and busy with pedestrians, motor bikes and occasional cars.
Taksim Square itself is modern and stark, a flat mass of granite and concrete, not at all pretty or charming. But it is vibrant.
Pretty much any time of the day, but especially at night, Taksim is full of people, mostly just strolling.
Running south from Taksim Square is a major commercial street called İstiklâl Caddesi. It is a wide, pedestrian-only thoroughfare, lined on both sides with all kinds of merchants.
An old trolley car line that used to run up the middle of Istiklal is currently in the process of being rebuilt (very slowly, it seemed). The construction added an element of confusion to a street that is already somewhat chaotic.
According to Wikipedia, Istiklal has three million visitors per day.
That’s a lot of people!
The nice woman who ran our small hotel suggested some restaurants in the neighborhood. The hotel was recommended on a “Gay Istanbul” website, so we were able to be open about being a couple. It was not an issue at all.
There was a friendly man who also worked at the hotel. Pointing down the street from the hotel, downhill and in the opposite direction from Taksim Square, he cautioned us not to walk there, especially at night.
It was advice we were happy to follow. We oriented ourselves uphill, toward Taksim Square.
Three things stood out for us in those first few hours in Istanbul. First, the air was fresh and clean. A constant breeze was provided by the sea. Second, although the city was very crowded and the infrastructure a little tattered, it seemed safe and free of street crime. Third, the city was quite diverse. While Islam is the dominant religion, people of every race, religion and region of the world are represented on the streets of Istanbul.
Tour of Old Stamboul
The historical center of Istanbul, known as Stamboul, is the place where the royal palaces and great houses of worship of the imperial dynasties were located — first the Byzantine and later the Ottoman. We took a walking tour with an informative and friendly guide.
Few places in the world can match the beauty and historical significance of this fairly compact urban area.
We can honestly say our lives were enriched by having seen this remarkable city, and also having read a bit about the history while we were staying in Istanbul.
From the Byzantine era, which lasted more than 1,000 years (from the Fourth Century until the 15th Century), there are two principal remnants.
The first of these is the magnificent Hagia Sophia cathedral (built in 537 AD).
The second of the prominent Byzantine remains is the Roman Hippodrome. Originally a chariot racing arena, it is now a large public square. The Hippodrome dates from AD 203 — more than 100 years before the Emperor Constantine moved the imperial capital from Rome to Byzantium.
From the Ottoman era, which lasted another five centuries (from the Turkish conquest of 1453 until just after World War I), there are several major mosques and the Topkapi Palace, the royal palace complex of the Ottoman emperors.
Of the Islamic mosques, the most famous are the Blue Mosque and the Sülaymaniye Mosque. Each of these is actually a complex, consisting of a magnificent mosque, an adjoining school (or madrassa), and a public market (or bazaar).
A welcoming feature about the mosques is that they are active houses of worship. They charge no admission to visitors. Visitation is open, except during prayer times.
We visited all of these outstanding Ottoman landmarks.
It was not until our last full day in Istanbul that we visited the Topkapi Palace.
We spent a few hours strolling around the extensive grounds.
We also wandered freely and in and out of the ornate and very beautiful buildings once restricted to the Sultans and the elite members of their imperial courts.
It is a palace worthy of an expansive empire.
The harem was magnificent and alluring. According to some historians, its voluptuous extravagance was a source of distraction to several emperors, causing them to lose focus on military matters. Thus, their preoccupation with the goings-on in the harem may have contributed to the decline and ultimate demise of the Ottoman Empire.
Galata Tower View
Our apartment in Istanbul was located across the Golden Horn from old Stamboul. The neighborhood is more bohemian and European than other parts of the city and was once the Jewish Quarter of Istanbul.
We were just a stone’s throw away from the Galata Tower. This iconic Istanbul landmark was originally built by the Genoese in 1348 when this corner of the city, then called Constantinople, was a Genoese colony.
It was an exceptionally nice apartment. The building itself was a little dilapidated, and it was a long walk up six stories, but life up there at the top was very nice indeed.
The walls of the apartment had been stripped of a 100 years’ worth of paint and wall paper, revealing faded but elegant century-old stencils embedded in the plaster.
We really loved this quiet penthouse retreat, in the heart of a very busy city.
Around noon on Tuesday, we went to the top of the Glalata Tower. The weather was very fair and the viewing deck was not at all crowded.
The views were spectacular.
Triptych of Turkish Treatments
During our visit to Istanbul, we submitted to three different forms of man-handling by Turkish experts. We use the word “submitted” deliberately.
It would have been an incomplete experience of the culture of Turkey had we not taken these three opportunities.
The first was our visit to a Turkish barbershop. Ostensibly we dropped in only so that Brian could get a simple haircut.
But we fell into the hands of two experienced barbers. Like friendly kidnappers, they proceeded, more-or-less without our consent, to subject both of us to a full Turkish barbering experience.
This included removal of nose hair and ear hair. They applied some sort of hot wax substance to nostrils and ear holes. After the wax cooled a bit, it was forcibly extracted, like ripping off a bandage, abruptly tearing out the hairs by their roots in a painful swift jolt. Ouch!
They applied hot mud to our faces, which they allowed to dry before rinsing it off.
They roughly ran electric hair trimmers across our scalps, and across Frank’s beard, followed by rapid clip-clip-clip with scissors.
They shaved our necks, and Brian’s beard, with hot shaving cream and straight-edged razors.
They massaged our shoulders.
We were thoroughly man-handled for about an hour. It was quite an experience.
You might compare it to a spa visit, but it was more rough than gentle.
Do you remember the scene in The Wizard of Oz where all the characters get makeovers before their audience with the Wizard — the Scarecrow gets new stuffing, etc.?
That’s pretty much what it felt like.
We emerged from the barbershop looking like freshly plucked chickens.
We were completely invigorated.
The second of our three Turkish treatments was less invasive.
As we were about to emerge from a pedestrian tunnel up to the street early one evening near the Galata Bridge, a shoeshine man passed us. He reached the bottom of the stairs as we were about to start up. Suddenly, he dropped his brush on the concrete floor, but kept walking as if unaware.
It was a setup, but we didn’t see it coming. Trying to be a nice guy, Frank picked the brush up off the ground, chased a few steps after the man, and handed him the brush.
Oh, he was so grateful, he just had to repay the favor by dropping to his knee with his shoeshine kit.
“Suede?” he asked pointing to Frank’s shoes? “Yes,” Frank responded. In a flash, he had Frank’s foot on the little stool and was cleaning his shoe with a wire brush dipped in detergent. Then he did the next foot.
Then he motioned for Brian to get his shoes treated as well. That’s where we drew the line. He began telling us about his baby at home. Even though he cleaned our shoes as a thanks for telling him about the dropped brush, we paid him a few Turkish lire as thanks. He then informed us that the cost of the shoe shine was actually twice that amount. Frank wavered.
At this point, Brian invoked our code words indicating a scam, “Frank, the wives are waiting. Let’s go.” We both left and headed up the steps to the bridge without looking back.
Later we learned this is such a common trick in Istanbul that there is a video on the internet showing exactly how it works, recorded right there on the Galata Bridge.
You could say we were naïve tourists who fell for an unscrupulous scam. But it would be uncharitable and incorrect to say we were “scammed.” Frank’s heavily-traveled shoes looked great after the cleaning.
Our third and final man-handling occurred in a Turkish bath, or “hammam,” next to an old mosque at the base of Golata Tower hill, near the waterfront.
The hammam, called Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamamı, is situated next to a mosque and was built in 1578-83 as part of the mosque complex. It is a beautiful structure and the hammam experience was a real delight. All of the employees were very courteous and friendly.
Once again we were man-handled, this time draped only in a thin apron made of Turkish cotton, by skilled men who were similarly attired.
The main event was a soapy scrubbing as we sat on the marble seat next to a sink of hot water. The assistant scrubbed us head to toe with a rough mitt which pealed the dead skin from our bodies. He applied alternating soapy scrubs with pails of hot water to rinse us off.
Few people receive a treatment like this after they outgrow a mother-attended bath as a small child. Here was a marvelous tradition performed the same way since the Roman times. It was one of the most relaxing experiences in the world.
The video at this link by British comedian Michael Palin accurately and humorously portrays the hammam experience.
From the book, “Strolling Through Istanbul: The Classic Guide to the City,” by Hilary Sumner-Boyd and John Freely:
“Turkish hamams are the direct descendants of the baths of ancient Rome and are built to the same general plan. Ordinarily, a hamam has three distinct sections. The first is the camekân, the Roman apoditarium, which is used s a reception and dressing room, and where one recovers and relaxes after the bath. Next comes the soǧukluk, or tepidarium, a chamber of intermediate temperature which serves as an ante-room to the bath, keeping the cold air out on one side and the hot air in on the other. Finally there is the hararet, or steam-room, anciently called the calidarium. In Turkish baths the first of these areas, the camekân, is the most monumental. It is typically a vast square room covered by a dome on pendentives or conches, with an elaborate fountain in the centre; around the walls is a raised platform where the bathers undress and leave their clothes. The soǧukluk is almost always a mere passageway, which usually contains the lavatories. In . . . most hamams, the most elaborate chamber is the hararet. Here there is an open cruciform area, with a central dome supported by a circlet of columns and with domed side-chambers in the arms of the cross. In the centre there is a large marble platform, the göbektaşi, or belly-stone, which is heated from the furnace room below. The patrons lie on the belly-stone to sweat and be massaged before bathing at one of the wall-fountains in the side chambers. The light in the hararet is dim and shimmering, diffusing down through the steam from the constellation of little glass windows in the dome. Lying on the hot belly-stone, under the glimmering dome, and lazily observing the mists of vapour condensing into pearls of moisture on the marble columns, one has the voluptuous feeling of being in an undersea palace, in which everyone is his own sultan.“
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Istanbul is a most stimulating city. We are so glad we visited. We were grateful we were able to stay as long as we did (9 days), so we did not feel rushed.
We encountered almost no other American tourists, and their absence only served to make Istanbul seem all the more exotic.