Istanbul, rich in history and comfort food
Flying to Byzantium
I have traveled a good bit. My favorite region is Provence, where I have been fortunate to spend some time every year for nearly thirty years; my favorite city –this week—is London, for its authenticity and theater (and the Experimental Cocktail Club). But en route to the Marmara Hotel in Istanbul from Ataturk Airport, I was so taken with the skyline, with mosques and minarets abounding, that I had my trusty camera out and firing before we were halfway there.
The city feels vibrant. Not crowded and bustling like Riyadh or (mercy!) New Delhi. Not even the hustle and bustle of New York or Rome. It just feels alive, with men fishing from the bridge or sitting outside a café drinking coffee and talking with their cronies.
We stayed at the Hotel Marmara, a nice hotel. Had I made the arrangements, we would have been in a smaller hotel, something more ...Turkish. I prefer smaller, preferably independent, hotels that maintain the flavor of the locale. The Marmara is a beautiful five-star, but it could be any five-star anywhere in the world, with two exceptions: the panoramic view of the Golden Horn and the Sea of Marmara beyond from the top floor restaurant and its proximity to Taksim Square, the heart of sprawling Istanbul.
Taksim Square, with its central Monument of the Republic, is the center of Istanbul’s metro system. Not coincidentally, one translation of Taksim is distribution. At one point, the square was the locus of the distribution system for water piped in from the north. Now it is a meeting place, the Memorial to the Republic its central feature.
Demonstrators in Taksim Square
On the anniversary of the day that Israeli commandos had intercepted the flotilla carrying medical supplies to Palestinians in Gaza, the square was packed with what looked like thousands of Palestinian sympathizers in protest and commemoration. The crowd was loud but not violent, and after harangues in Turkish and Arabic, they sent aloft what appeared to be balloons bearing candles in an ethereal display of what looked like aerial jellyfish. We watched from street level until the crowd seemed to be getting too riled up for our taste, and then from our hotel room.
Until 2010, demonstrations were banned from Taksim Square, following a litany of violence including protests in 1969 that left some 150 demonstrators injured on "Bloody Sunday," and what is remembered asthe Taksim Square Massacre, in which 36 demonstrators were killed by gunmen during Labor Day demonstrations in 1977.
Istiklal Caddesi (Independence Avenue)
Off Taksim Square extends the broad Independence (Istiklal) Avenue (Caddesi), amazing for the number of pedestrians (on weekends, upwards of three million pedestrians stroll the broad avenue on a single day), shopping, eating at upscale restaurants–or McDonald’s or Burger King or Subway….), looking for entertainment at the Opera House or enjoying the lively promenade, punctuated by the quaint tram running frequently along the middle of the road with the swarm casually and unhurriedly stepping off the tracks to make way. Although it always seemed that we were going in the opposite direction to the sea of people swarming the popular shopping district, we were struck by the calm, good-natured acceptance of the throngs engaged in a graceful minuet of peaceful coexistence. I also was aware that while we saw people, especially young people, clinging to the outside of the tram, nothing separated it from the masses of people filling the boulevard. We wouldn’t see that in the States.
On the Avenue
Along the avenue, vendors tend their carts of hot chestnuts or “Egyptian corn” (which appears to be corn roasted on a grill) and crowds surround Turkish ice cream vendors entertaining and teasing tourists with their showmanship and intricate routine for serving an ice cream cone. Turkish ice cream, dondurma, is not at all like that we find at Baskin Robbins or Coldstone, or even the frozen yogurt at the Dairy Godmother. Turkish ice cream contains salep and mastic, respectively, flour and resin, that make it thick, chewy and highly resistant to melting. Its consistency, more like Silly Putty® than ice cream in most western countries, lends itself to the sleight-of-hand involved in serving it.
But my favorite part of the renowned boulevard of history, shops, and arts was the restaurants with “pointer” food. I tried several of them when I could duck out and avoid generic hotel food. Essentially cafeterias, the pointer restaurants are stocked with a tantalizing array of enticing Turkish food, real Turkish food, with lots of dishes featuring eggplant and ground beef, all of it delicious. I over-ordered every time, and every time I felt sated, satisfied, and content.
Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque
One afternoon, we took the short ride to the incomparable Hagia Sophia, which I had long longed to see. Across from it, stood the famous Blue Mosque, an intentional balance against what was originally a Christian church. Now a tourist attraction, the Hagia Sophia has also served as a mosque.
Europe to the left; Asia to the Right
My favorite evening in Istanbul was a dinner cruise on the Bosphorus, the strait that divides Europe from Asia. We embarked at the Ortaköy Mosque near the Bosphorus Bridge. The evening was clear and mild, as we sipped cocktails on deck before adjourning to a buffet of all the wonderful, aromatic and delicious pointer foods from Istiklal Avenue–and more. We headed out in afternoon daylight and returned amid the lighted beauty of graceful buildings, of Asia on the one side and Europe on the other. It was a magical evening—a magical visit—and I hope to repeat it soon.