We were heading south to escape the cold of the central European winter and to bask in the rich Mediterranean sun. Our two month long journey during the mid-February semester Grand Bazaarbreak began in Southern Germany, and wound it’s way slowly through the Czech Republic, Hungary, Bulgaria, Serbia and then a final long haul train down to the port of Istanbul, the European gateway to Asia. After weeks of traveling in snow and cold, visions of warm clear days in Istanbul framed by the turquoise waters of the Bosporus Strait sounded pretty good.
Arriving in the afternoon, we immediately noticed that our intentions of basking in the sunshine might have been thwarted, as not only was it cold in the city, but it was uncharacteristically snowing. Glumly, we set out to find one of the backpacker hotels recommended by our guide book, and after working our way further into the labyrinth streets of Istanbul, we finally found the place we were looking for. We were shown upstairs to a bedroom with eight single beds aligned. The price was right, so we decided to stay and were oddly (at the time it seemed odd) given six or seven large wool blankets for our bedding.
To orient ourselves, we began our explorations at the massive complex of impressive structures in the Sultanahmet district, the heart of the old city. Sprawling parks dotted with fountains and lawns connected beautiful mosques like the Ayasofya (Hagia Sofia) and the Blue Mosque, as well as historical buildings and museums. We had planned to explore on our own avoiding guided tours and the like, but after ignoring a number of offers from touts, we were approached by a middle aged man who pursued us in an impressive variety of Hagia Sophialanguages including Russian and some form of Scandinavian. For reasons that have been lost to me over time, we decided to finally engage Ahmed, representing ourselves as Germans instead of Americans. We were studying in Germany at the time, and it seemed like we would garner more enthusiasm from the Turks than a couple of Americans might. Ahmed had lived in Germany for many years it turned out, and we made arrangements to meet him the next day for a personal and intimate tour of the city.
That night we discovered why we needed so many blankets for our beds….there was no heat! Istanbul is generally very mild to hot, so most cheap hotels and homes didn’t have heat. We slept that night with many layers of clothing and still were miserably cold the entire time. The next day, we upgraded to another youth hostel that offered little space heaters for about an extra dollar per night. Running on empty from a sleepless night, we met Ahmed back at the Sultanahmet district and began our behind the scenes tour of the city, and behind the scenes it was.
Aside from visiting the aforementioned mosques, which were magnificently adorned in rich wall to wall mosaics and tiles, we rambled through the city down passageways no tourist would ever find, or more to the point find their way back out of. Small steep alleyways crisscrossed the sprawl of Istanbul, affording wonderful views of the crystal blue strait below and glimpses of the cobbled together houses that the common people lived in. As we got further out from the center, it took on the look and feel of shanty towns, with structures made from whatever people could find, barely able to withstand the mild weather, and certainly offering no running water or electricity. We visited a traditional tea house, beautifully tiled and peaceful, where old men sipped the strong sweet nectar that is Turkish tea and played dominoes. We visited small pastry shops that offered sticky treats all based on puff pastry and flavored with pistachio, honey and rosewater. Minarets could be seen everywhere and the haunting and mesmerizing call to prayer that rolled through the city from these towers blended with the sights and smells to create an exotic and truly intoxicating experience. The day with Ahmed turned out to be one of my most lasting memories of the entire trip.
However, no visit to Istanbul can be complete without a visit to the expansive bazaar, a large area of narrow streets lined with vendors of all shapes and sizes selling pretty much anything you could think of. Passageways were clogged with people, animals and cars, all trying to make their way from here to there. Boisterous and endless shopkeepers offered their wares to anyone passing by. If you saw something you liked, you had better buy it then, because you’d never find that particular stall again, as I quickly found out. Haggling was expected and required with many beautiful items worthy of purchasing, especially rugs, pottery, spices and antiques. Leaving the bizarre was as challenging as navigating through it, as you get so turned around that you’re not sure where you are when you leave. But the chaotic nature of the bazaar is what makes it so wonderful…you can go back many times and never have the same experience twice.
To this day, I still consider that first trip to Istanbul as one of my most cherished travel adventures, despite the weather. We were young and free, with no time limit, and this city on the doorstep of the greater Middle East oozed sensuality from its pores, putting a spell on me that was not soon forgotten.