Turkey is a country that straddles two continents and one of the only countries that truly embraces the influences of Europe, Asia and the Middle East. It holds the remnants and class of European Emperors, the mystique of Sultans and the history of a place once ruled by all fractions. The sights and smells of Istanbul are ones that can only be truly appreciated when experienced for yourself. However, an insight into this beautiful country will leave you either sitting at the edge of your seat in suspense or rolling over in laughter at the sheer madness that happens in the country that diffuses elements of two distinct worlds.
Istanbul. A word that whenever said brings a smile to my face. A city that stands out on its own like no other. And, the home to many foreign sounds and smells, food and shopping malls that would make any avid shopper drool at the sight, size and organization of these gigantic fashion houses. A city with 13.5 million people could be nothing short of an unexpected escapade waiting to happen. In every nook and cranny of this city are people who are willing to greet you with a smile and sell you something.
The first time we visited Istanbul, we stayed in the central district of Beyoglu and off the main street of Istiklal Caddessi (Independence Avenue). Istiklal Caddessi can only be compared to a Canadian Yonge Street or a New York Broadway Avenue. A busy street full of shopping, North American restaurants blended in with kebab shops, baklava bakeries and tea shops lined with waiters calling you in for a glass or two. At the top or start of Beyoglu is Taksim Square which houses the largest statue of Ataturk; the father of the modern Turkish state. The square is lined with merchants selling flowers of every colour and style. Roses of yellow, pink, and red line the square and the smells are only accompanied by the smell of street merchants selling simit, a bread that looks like a mix of a bagel and a pretzel. The square is in constant movement and the hustle and bustle can only be compared to the busy movement of people in the historic area of Sultanahmet. I have never been one for travel books; except to see the list of must visit bars. The rest of my travel has always been on foot and by exploration. Some may be disgusted with the thought of avoiding all the “Must See” tourist sites, other would flourish with the thought of going off the beaten track and finding out what the real Istanbul has to offer. Sultanahmet is the home to Hagia Sophia, The Blue Mosque and a maze of markets which are all beautiful and well worth a see. I however have only seen the outside of these majestic mosques since Hagia Sophia charges an exorbitant amount to enter. When I find myself in these predicaments, I can do only one feasible thing: stand in front, take a picture and read about it when I get home. To me this isn’t the real city; this isn’t where the heart and soul of the city beat so this isn’t where you will find me.
Of all the busy areas a traveller can find in Istanbul, Nisantasi and Ortakoy are worth a visit. Often not noted in the travel books, Nistantasi is the home to trendy European cafes, beautiful people that could grace the covers of Vogue Magazine and the home to the beautiful mall of City Nistantasi. Sipping fancy cocktails in one of the posh bars, watching supermodels flock on the arms of famous people I know nothing about and dancing the night away at Reina is what champagne dreams are made of. Ortakoy on the other hand, is home to café lined streets, undisturbed views of the Bosphorus and the home of Topane, a group of Nargile cafes where one can smoke as much shisa (flavoured water pipe) as your hearts content. The mix of these areas infused with the smells and noise of Sultanahmet give each of Istanbul’s districts their own distinct feel.
The posh areas of Istanbul are just one side of the coin. Recognizing the duality in everything that happens in the city is vital in understand the fuel that makes the city run. In Turkey, a common practice for many is to visit a bath house called a hammam. After exhausting ourselves from trekking around the city by foot for many days, a friend and I decided to relax by getting a massage. I was expecting the typical Western spa experience, an experience I got, but it was nothing I could have ever expected and it was nothing like the spa experiences back home in Toronto. We were instructed by the bath attendants to disrobe and made our way into the main hall that housed a massive room decorated in white and blue marble. The steam room was decorated in the most intricate floral and geometric patterns that echoed the vision of artists long gone. The complexity of the patterns transported me to the 16th century and I envisioned what being in Constantinople had been like and what the life of a concubine consisted of. Visiting a hammam is a common experience for Turks who go and wash away the day and relax in what becomes an important social experience. For me however, this was cultural learning at its finest. It was also at this point that I wished that I had packed not just a bathing suit but a wet suit. What went from uncomfortable went to sheer shock as a bucket full of cold water splashed against me. I soon figured that the cold water was to shock the system which was followed by warm water and a thoroughly cleaning and the deepest tissue massage I have ever had in my 30 years. One hour and three luffas later, I had finally figured out that with travel, you need to let go. In certain situations you don’t fight the cultural differences; you just go with it and enjoy the ride!
Istanbul is the type of city you go into knowing that you will get out of the city whatever you put into it. You will experience foods, smells and sounds unlike anything you would find in the Western world. You will also find exactly that- the West. It is exactly this that makes you want to visit over and over again. The fact that it is one of the only cities that mixes the two: old and new, east and west so well and allows the two to live harmoniously together without one outshining or competing with the other is what makes this city a must see and experience.