In late May 2019, I spent just six days in Istanbul, the land of the generous, the land of the hospitable, the land of the darlings. And I loved it so much, I wrote a book about it.*
A special component of this visit – 50 years after my first – was an adult awareness that I was walking on the same soil that was under the feet of my grandparents and parents before me (Greeks born in Turkey and living there for a time, before going to Greece and eventually coming to South Africa). It afforded me simultaneous experiences – the privilege of metaphorically being with my family of origin, whose spirit I could feel all around me, and the exquisite pleasure of savouring the present. It was a sublime mental and emotional space to be in as a Greek living in Africa, where what is Greek and what is Turkish is often indistinguishable.
Istanbul these days is a modern, vibrant, youthful, cosmopolitan, secular city throbbing with life-giving energy. It is safe, it is welcoming, it is filled with character. It is Turkey’s powerhouse, its largest city and its most populated, with innumerable treasures – not least the warm, elegant, thoughtful Istanbulites. ‘My (six-day) Istanbul Lifetime’ resulted in 1400 photos, following a desire not to confine myself only to well-known sights and experiences, even though I certainly experienced some of them.
For example, I spent time in the must-see majestic, imposing, mesmerising Hagia Sophia (church turned mosque turned museum). The impact on one’s senses is palpable, dramatic. Every inch of this extraordinary monument dating to the sixth century encapsulates the long, complicated history of Turkey. My senses were enchanted further by the fabulous Blue Mosque dating to the 17th century with its 21 000+ handmade Iznik tiles on the interior, its alluring calligraphy, its many columns that sparkle and its tantalising decorated cupolas. And I loved the night-time cruise on the Bosphorus with high energy traditional dancers, a Whirling Dervish, a tireless belly dancer, food, music, good company and the unimaginably glorious sight of the landmarks, along the shore, lit up in gold, white, red and pink everywhere I looked.
I delved deeper into the soul of the city by walking in the footsteps of those who came and went on the Orient Express almost 150 years ago and by touring Balat and Fener and learning about the Orthodox Jewish and Greek populations and about the Armenians in Samatya. The history of this city is long, ubiquitous and fascinating. The world’s populations calling Istanbul home have left discernible footprints. The city’s transformations over the aeons are complicated and as enthralling as the land-city-seascapes. There is almost nothing superficial about this city. Everything is much more than meets the eye. If you allow it, Istanbul will draw you into its core and caress your very being.
And as a foodie’s paradise, its every morsel will excite your taste buds. With (nine) booked guided tours, in addition to wandering around on my own, I was occupied and could not devour as much as I wanted of the cuisine that’s in my blood and I love it. Still, on the two foodie tours (one on each side of Istanbul – the European side and the Asian side) and the rest of the time, I sampled the epicurean banquet including unbelievably tasty fresh fruit; spectacular dried fruit and nuts; fabulous stuffed mussels; warm, soft chestnuts; delicious meze and the iconic balik ekmek (fish wrap mentioned on one of Rick Stein’s shows). And I couldn’t get enough of dondurma, the elastic, mastic piece of ice cream heaven that invariably comes with a playful sideshow. You’ve just got to have some! I also spied the baked sheep’s heads complete with teeth that I remember eating in my childhood in South Africa. It’s comforting when some things remain the same throughout the decades.
I got around on numerous modes of transportation that afforded me spectacular perspectives and included the adorable historical funicular (Tünel) that became my best friend, taking me from Karaköy at the base of a seriously steep incline to my temporary home base in Galata (in the new town, European side). I was breathless and mesmerised on the Big Bus with a view of the stunning cerulean Bosphorus Strait, the beautiful shoreline and gorgeous homes and villas on either side of the Bosphorus Bridge going from west to east and back in a matter of minutes. Imagine that: One city, two continents! My short ride on a (genuine) fishing boat with a (genuine) fisherman on the Golden Horn was charming and gave me a memorable experience of the water up close, a view of Galata Tower, various mosques and neighbourhoods filled with character and life. The commuter ferries with a man selling simit (ring-shaped bread) and Turkish tea provided a lovely ride and a fabulous glimpse of the vibrant red ECG sign on a renowned cardiac hospital when approaching Üsküdar on the Asian side. The user-friendly Istanbulkart that can be used for most modes of transportation was cheap and indispensable. And the treks on the steep roads on foot, in the City of Seven Hills, showed me parts of the city’s soul I might otherwise have missed, e.g. the well-looked after stray dogs and cats.
I bought beautifully crafted products in quiet environments and in vibrant markets and bazaars and engaged with attentive, respectful, generous vendors. I luxuriated over tea and cake in the Kubbeli Lounge at the historical Pera Palace, whose history is intertwined with the history of the country, and on my balcony with the crisp, soothing sea air, the call to prayer and the unparalleled, expansive, breath-taking views of the rooftops of Galata, the magnificent historical peninsula, and the astonishing kinetic energy on the gorgeous bodies of water. I expanded my knowledge through tours, with and without university-educated licensed guides, and I learnt about adorable beliefs and sayings. And as a bonus, I gained personal insight into the lives of Istanbulites through the new friends I made (my new family). I observed the city at work and at play and I saw its big heart everywhere I went. I’ve travelled fairly widely, but this trip changed my life.
Wherever I went in this provocative city, I could breathe easily and fully and, with carefree abandon, move around as though walking on air. The weather was perfect. The city was calm. The traffic was manic but orderly with polite, considerate drivers. The Istanbulites were out on the streets, in the cafés, in the shops, in the markets, living their lives calmly but with passion.
The pulsating energy of this magnificent city gently guides you along. For me “Istanbul is the ultimate alchemist: It takes burnt out, fragmented souls with guns blazing, breathes life into them, calms them down, and makes them whole again. And it lubricates the well-oiled machinery of the energetic among us and reaffirms life’s privileges.”
You’ve just got to get to Istanbul. You’ve just got to give yourself this gift of life. For my part, I “hunger to be in Istanbul again”; it has “spoiled me for other cities and other people”. And I don’t want to (just) go back to Istanbul – I want to make it my home.
* “You’ve just got to visit Istanbul! The land of plenty. The land of culture. The foodie’s paradise. You’ve just got to!” is available as an eBook and a paperback on Amazon
© The intellectual property rights of both the text and images vest in the author and may not be utilised by anyone without the author’s written consent. The source of the text in quotation marks is the book named in the title of this article.