After a few tries, I finally ended up visiting Istanbul! A few misadventures prior to that and unforeseen changes of plans that lead to cancel the trip once, this time I flew alone and I ended up having a memorable time in this ancient city! So memorable that I decided to split this article by days.
Going to the airport…, hop into the bus early at 6 in the morning, and queueing to check-in…, again… Once at the check-in desk, the lady asks how to pronounce my surname – Sousa – which made me laugh immediately, and I say it out loud “It is Sousa, not Susa“. The lady from the next desk starts laughing uncontrollably once I say that. In greek, lowercase “Y” is represented by a symbol that resembles “u”, and the combination OY is equivalent to the sound U, “Susa” in greek means popping a wheelie.
Not long until reaching Istanbul from Athens, and right on international soil I tried to pass the boarder, which I learnt that I need to pay visa…, I assumed that all EU citizens could get in freely, considering I knew greeks and even french people friends of mine who just visited Istanbul without any visa, but back then I had to pay 15€. No questions ask, I just paid and that was it. Once I passed the passport control, I did my first money withdraw in that new currency, and I headed towards the city center by metro. I had to wander around for a while since my couchsurfing host couldn’t meet with me until only after lunch.
The tram trip was something, I never imagined I would meet so many nice people, actually, I think I never did! One old man, who couldn’t even speak a word in english, started a chat with me (I speak absolutely no Turkish). He was trying to figure out where I am from and trying to help me with my stop. The guy sitting next to me saw my face of desperation, and he helped with the translations, plus a few other tips. First hours in that amazing city, and that was the reception I got! I couldn’t be better impressed!
I got out in Sultan Ahmed, I went for a walk to visit the mosque and the nearby area… I had to pay to drop evidences…, and there were people everywhere trying to sell me water. It seems every country have those annoying sellers with a particular characteristic. In Portugal we have the quéfrô (I won’t even explain this), in Greece the vérynaíce and apparently in Istanbul they have the su (which means water in Turkish). The area is really pleasant and totally different from what I was expecting, and for better! The park was what surprised me the most, I was not expecting to find Istanbul as such a green city, mostly right after coming from 6 months living in Athens…
After a few hours wandering in the European side, it was time to cross the canal and set foot for the first time in Asia! As a matter of a fact, the first time I left Europe! Does this even count? That’s when I met my host and the couch where I would stay for the following days, and then a shower before scratching one of my Istambul ToDo Items! Play backgammon and smoke narghile with a Turkish person! A friend of his also joined us for the very pleasant afternoon. Unsurprisingly, I won the first match! Though, I am pretty sure he did let me win…
While we were playing and smoking, a street food seller came by with oysters with rice. That’s just delicious! Street food is definitely the best thing ever! After that we went to Taksim for a walk, SO MANY PEOPLE!!! The area is really pleasant, filled with bars, restaurants and a few pubs. Loads of people outside, which reminded me of home, like a night of Santos Populares, the most known street party in Lisbon and in Portugal.
And to end such an amazing day, my host took to to a roof restaurant, if I am not mistaken, that’s even the name of the restaurant itself, where we dine with the view to the Golden Horn! What a view! Once back home we kept talking, I was absolutely wrecked but still really eager to keep talking like if he was a flat mate. Yes, like a flat mate, that’s how comfortable I felt with such a welcoming day in Istanbul!
There’s no better way to start a day than with a brunch! My host invited me for a brunch at one of his friends’ place, whom also treated me the same way like he did, like an old friend. Two hours eating, chatting and trying all those Turkish delicacies, the first time I had tea at breakfast, which I really did like and it is something to repeat.
Back to the ferry and back to Europe, or at least the European side of the city. It’s amazing how easy it is to cross from Europe to Asia and vice-versa. We went to the Spices Bazaar, where I took several photos to all those stalls filled with spices, colors and smells of the Oriente. I fell in love with that place! Next to the Spices Bazaar there is a really nice park, maybe a bit also too European style, that totally fascinated me, mostly because of what they were selling there! Leeches!! And in that same park we ended up drinking another Turkish Coffee and play a bit more backgammon. play like in slow motion for Turkish standards, but who cares? I am Portuguese, not Turkish! And the rest of the day? Loads of “shots” of tea! Oddly it seems to refresh more than cold water…
We went back to the avenue that starts in Taksim and goes to the Tower, though this time during the day, and again, filled with people! It seems that that Avenue never sleeps! And the fact that cars are not allowed, it makes it even scarier by the quantity of people who passes there. I am not much into crowded places, but I have to admit I did like that atmosphere. We had a late lunch (or early dinner) in one of the restaurants by the University, or is it a school? I am not much into meat, but that was exactly what I ended up eating, when I travel I always make an effort to try the local flavors…, it was nice, but I still prefer other things.
After dinner we went back “home” again, and while my host went to practice some sports I stayed with his friends at the place were we had the brunch, probably more than one hour always chatting with them. And to end the day in a great way again, we went to the park by the sea to drink beers and more chats! We talked about everything, I reckon we stayed there for over two hours, and to finalize it, we went for an ice cream to a place nearby. Probably one of the best ice creams I have ever had! The ice scoops dropped into hot chocolate, which solidified instantly. Simply perfect!
Visit to the Historical Peninsula, again…, but way more paced! I went back to the park I been to on the first day, but instead of just crossing it, I explored it a bit further and I noticed how “prepared” the local culture is…, Istanbul is an amazing mix of religions and cultures, no one cares about what the other is wearing, burkas or tops, everyone minds their own business. At the park you can find really cute and romantic corners, perfect for couples to date with a bit more privacy (but not too much). It is really a cosy park.
I went back to the Blue Mosque, and this time I actually got in. I had to take my shoes off and what I saw inside totally amazed me. Nothing alike what the catholic religion got me used to, inside kids were playing, people were taking photos and talking freely, though there is still a segregation for praying. Women and men are apart, and there silence is requested. A sacred place where you don’t feel tied to religion, but where the same religion also constraints you. A bit like an oxymoron, no?
I get out of the Blue Mosque straight to the Historical Bazaar, right next to the Mosque. There I bought some tobacco for my narghile, orange flavor! Let’s see if it is any good…, the odd moment of the day was the fact that more than one guy offered to clean my shoes… for free! I bet they looked really dirty…
Since I was still in the Historical Peninsula, why not trying to get lost? I opened my map, I saw some kind of a draw, and I headed towards that place without looking at the map again! I passed by a graveyard where supposedly is buried some sultan, which I didn’t find, and then I kept walking towards that draw I saw until I stumble with the Grand Bazaar! Another amazing Bazaar! Though this one seems to be very tourist-oriented, but still amazing. I walked, walked and I kept walking, though I didn’t buy anything… I am not a tourist, I am a visitor. And from the Grand Bazaar I went back to the Spices Bazaar. I have no idea how I got there…
Since I was enjoying my time, I thought I could do something cool to please my host as a way to thank him for the amazing experience. I remembered that the day before he wanted to buy a watermelon for me, so I did it for him! Though, when he got home he said “Gil, I have some fruits for dinner“, to which I replied with a bit smile and a “Me too…, check in the kitchen…“, he went back to the living room really pleased by that! Something so simple, though very personal. And that’s why I love couchsurfing, you don’t need to buy something expensive, instead something personal works way better.
But the day wasn’t over…, we crossed the canal again towards Europe! And again on our way to Taksim, we stopped at a tiny food stand, so small that only had a table and three chairs! We ate what they described as “meatball without meat“, something REALLY spicy, but REALLY GOOD!!! Thank you Ozan for this! And as a beverage I drunk a juice of…, peppers our something alike…, interesting, but not that good… We had to wash down our throats with some beers afterwards!
Another rooftop bar (I really love rooftop bars…), with another amazing view! And to end the third night in a great way…, we went to a bar with gipsy music, great atmosphere! That was also the greek night, where something interesting and funny happened to me, one of their friends joined us and said “Geia sou fili” (hello friend, in greek), though my brain was already ready to not understand anything that I didn’t even considered that it could be greek, so I looked back at my hosts awaiting for a translation… which I shouldn’t need… And it was time to go back “home”…
Something I forgot to mention about the third day, I wrote on Istanbul CS group if anyone wanted to join me to the islands next to Istanbul, and only a 46 years old woman replied. Though I changed my mind regarding that, only 5 days in Istanbul, why leaving the city to visit more islands? She still joined me for the day…
I went (again) to Taksim, and I waited for her about 45 minutes (gotta love punctuality), until she finally showed up. Since my plans were only to enjoy the city, we decided to cross the whole avenue and go to the Tower, in a very paced way. Then we would decide where to go. On the way we stopped for tea and for a chat, and after the tower another stop for a freshly squeezed juice (where she starts complaining that it was too expensive…).
We then went down to Karaköy, and while she went to an internet café, I tried to find a map for her in some tourist office. When we met again at the internet café, she was again complaining about the prices. Though this time I started to be annoyed, she KNEW beforehand what the price was, why did she complain again? To ease the moment I suggested to go to a bazaar of cafés (where I smoked narghile on my first day) to drink some tea or a Turkish coffee…, and again, she complains again about the prices. I was really starting to be fed up of her by then…
From there we went to the Palace where Ataturk died, unfortunately we arrived right after closure time. We decided to stay in the area for another tea (I think my kidneys never worked that well before…), and again…… she complained! This time she had some reason, all waiters couldn’t speak english, and the café was next to the palace, a very touristy area. Though, if they don’t speak english…, why would one complain to THEM in ENGLISH???
I walked her to Takim where she would meet with her host, we drunk a beer and I went back to my host’s place! My host was tired, and I was tired of the company I had for the day, so we decided to stay at home!
Last day in Istanbul…, and that was the day I realized I actually like to suffer…, I met again with the woman from the day before! At the Historical Peninsula! I went to Hagia Sophia from inside, a bit expensive (10€), but still quite interesting, and the local history is just amazing which fueled a bit more the pet-hate I have for the catholic church! Besides the way the destroyed the Parthenon in Athens, with Hagia Sophia the other religions proved to be way more respectful towards art from other people and religions.
Hagia Sophia was originally a Cristian Cathedral, you can find loads of references and art related to Our Lady, Christ and other Cristian symbols inside the church, however the muslims conquered the church (I am not sure about this part), and instead of destroying the symbols that are not related to their believes, like the Catholic Church did with the Parthenon, they kept it all! Is there a better way to show respect than this? Everything related to the catholic church that is more damaged is mostly due lack of preservation instead of destruction. It is amazing to be inside a catedral that resembles more like a Mosque but that it has symbols from both religions! Amazing!
Then we went to the Castle, I was not much in the mood to get in at the time…, I was a bit hungry and I was not particularly curious to get it. She wasn’t either, so we decided to go for lunch. After lunch we visited the Basilica Cistern, A M A Z I N G!!!! Half the price of Hagia Sophia, though the surprising factor was twice as much! Something REALLY amazing! I highly recommend a visit, I can’t even describe it besides the obvious, an underground basilica! Flooded with water and FISH! Something really amazing!
After the Basilica Cistern, we went (again) to the park, where she started complaining again…, though this time I understood where all that rage was coming from. Her Turkish ex-boyfriend knew she would be there, and didn’t say anything to her. Apparently I was the perfect target as a punch bag…, it seems like my karma… We ended with an ice cream at the hill with a view to the Canal, and after that I went to Kadiköy to meet with my host and get ready for the night.
We had a light dinner, we bought some beer, and we went to the park by the sea. My third wish in Istanbul! CS Meeting! Amazing night, where I found out that my accent sounds absolutely like Russian, or at least when I get a bit more tipsy… unfortunately that night also meant that my visit was close to an end….
Back home, I said my goodbyes, and a few hours to nap before the very early wake up. I crossed the canal to the European side (my last crossing), and last moments to enjoy of both sides of Istanbul. Got the tram, passing through Sultan Ahmed, another last look at the Mosques that welcome all the visitors when they arrive. Arrived at the airport, where I met more Portuguese people, though they were unable to have a chat, besides asking how is the weather in Athens. I just politely dumped them and I tried to focus on how amazing those days were! What a trip!
Istanbul left a big mark in me! Amazing city!