Wandering Istanbul

Istanbul. It’s the type of city you could spend a lifetime in and never learn all of its secrets. Every turn you take, you find an image straight from a magazine. There is beauty, grit, religion, art, people, tea, cats, cobbled streets, old, young, modern, historic—inspiration at every turn. It’s intoxicating and vivid memories of it last for days, weeks, years. You can’t help but leave transformed. We spent a week in Istanbul in true wanderer fashion letting it reveal its magic—the way Istanbul is meant to be explored.

Day 1

I arrive via Red-eye flight to meet Dave. He arrived the day before from a film shoot in Mumbai. He takes me to a small coffee shop he discovered called Holy Coffee. I’m grateful for the caffeine. We stroll the streets to stretch my legs before heading to dinner. Something I notice: tea served in tulip-shaped glasses on painted saucers. It’s everywhere. I make a note to try it tomorrow.

Day 2

We wake up in search of a traditional Turkish breakfast. Dave has been dying to try one. We find a place that is known for its breakfasts. It does not disappoint. And yes, there is tea. And yes, it is delicious. During our meal, we’re visited by a cat. They’re everywhere here—especially in the neighborhood of Cihangir. You can tell this cat is smart. He’s done this before. He charms the food right off my plate. After breakfast, we meet our colleagues. We’re here to film the ancient streets of the historic peninsula. We discuss film locations, get our itinerary, hop on a tram to Sultanahmet to check it out. The public transportation in the city is incredible. There are trams, funiculars and ferries. All are reasonably priced, exceptionally clean and well run—great for budget-minded travelers.

I’ve become obsessed with the tea glasses I see everywhere—at restaurants, on the ground outside shops, carried on trays throughout the city. I’m not normally a souvenir person, but I make it my mission to find a set to bring home. We walk through the massive and winding Grand Bazaar. It’s easy to get lost in here. I spy the exact set I want—the one with red-striped saucers, like they have at all the restaurants. I ask the vendor how much. Haggling ensues. After several back and forths, Dave walks away. The vendor yells a new price. I go back to get it. Dave says it’s still too much, but I really, really want these glasses. As I hand over the money, the vendor points to Dave and asks, “Is he Scottish? They’re hard people. They pinch their money.” “No, American,” I reply. Later, I found out I spent at least twice as much as I should have. Apparently, I’m no good at haggling. I wonder if my Scottish ancestors are rolling over in their graves.

“There is beauty, grit, religion, art, people, tea, cats, cobbled streets, old, young, modern, historic—inspiration at every turn.”


Day 3

Film day. We wake up early, meet our guide at the ferry and embark across the Bosphorus. We arrive on the Asian side of Istanbul—a modern contrast to the European side. Things are brighter, roads are wider. The buildings are larger and more spread out. The locals that live here, tell us people here are friendlier, more relaxed. The crew grab a late breakfast together.

One thing about traveling, you start comparing the country you’re in to your own country. And right now, I’m wishing the US had more of a café culture. Even though it’s slightly chilly, I love eating outdoors. After breakfast we head back to the European side to film within the historic peninsula.

Our guide takes us through meandering streets and bustling markets. Dave has to be discrete about carrying his camera through the Grand Bazaar. We’re told repeatedly, there’s absolutely no filming there. Dave and I have no tourist plan for Istanbul, but there is one thing we definitely want to have before we leave, lahmajun. Our fixer takes us to her uncle, who she assures us would know the best place in Istanbul. We are buzzed into his jewelry shop along with the tea delivery man. After kisses and a chat, our fixer says, “okay, let’s go.” After several turns along crowded streets we arrive at the restaurant. We each order what I guess can best be described as a thin pizza topped with spicy meat, and to drink Ayran—a thin yogurt drink that reminds me of buttermilk. “Here, if we’re sleepy, we blame it on the Ayran,” our fixer tells us. I believe her. My eyelids are getting heavy.

Day 4

It’s day two of filming. We need pickup shots for the film. We walk through the Spice Market, much smaller than the Grand Bazaar. Open containers of spices line the aisles. I know people talk about the smell of spices but I can’t help but notice how bright and vibrant they all look. We emerge outside next to a mosque. What catches my eye are the little booths in front of the mosque. In each sits a man or woman selling food for the pigeons. An old woman reaches out a pan of food. I turn around and see a man spinning in the center of a large circle of people—a whirling dervish. I feel like I’ve accidentally wandered onto a film set. It’s all so beautiful. The only thing spoiling the illusion are the dervish’s black Adidas Sambas.

Day 5

While the plan was to wander, there were a few things I knew I wanted to see: the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, and the Cistern—all the things you see in a guide book. I’m not above playing tourist. We hit all of them. The lines for the Hagia Sophia are incredibly long. Dave gets antsy. He’s nervous this is going to suck. I start to get nervous it’s going to suck. We finally get past the entrance. Let me tell you, it definitely doesn’t suck. It’s incredible. The volume of the space, the detail of the art, a place where Christianity and Islam co-exist peacefully restores your faith in humanity. Next we visit the Blue Mosque. The domed ceiling is magnificent. It is a sight to watch everyone looking up through the screens of their phones, cameras and ipads. Modern world meets historic. And yet, you get the sense they do it out of reverence. They just want to remember this moment.

That evening we meet up with our colleague who takes us to Karaköy. On our way, we pass rainbow colored steps. She explains they are a symbol of protest (read more about the steps here). Over coffee in the gentrified neighborhood, she says the street art has gotten better since the Taksim Square Protests last year. As one of the protestors, she has stories to share. We walk back up to Istiklal street to hear more over dinner and drinks. Yes, even though Turkey is a Muslim country, you can drink—heavily if you want, although I only ever saw one obviously intoxicated person while there. I’ll guess no one warned him, Raki doesn’t mess around.

Day 6 We head home. As the plane’s wheels leave the runway I’m already dreaming of a return to the city.

This post originally appeared on South of Brooklyn. Image: Dave Cooper