The anticipation of visiting Istanbul was the only thing that made ending our vacation in Paris bearable. Istanbul is foremost a unique location, with the city split by the Bosphorus Strait that runs between Europe and Asia, the only city that straddles two continents. The Bosphorus connects the Mediterranean to the Black Sea/Russia so is an important route. Istanbul is a huge metropolis—over 2,000 square miles, with 14 million people—both ancient and modern, with a Roman pagan then Christian past and most recently almost entirely Muslim, though Turkey is constitutionally a secular country.
Leaving Paris was the only part of the trip that was not memorable—at that point, uneventful was good because it meant all went smoothly. Unfortunately, clouds blocked any view from the airplane window. When we arrived at the airport, the lines were very long and we were quite late for our pickup and I failed to keep handy the phone numbers we needed. In the US, the few times I’d been greeted at the airport, the signholder was also the driver. In Istanbul, the signholder specialized in just that, and texted the driver when we arrived.
Ataturk Airport was lovely outside and we again saw NO sign there’d been a horrific bombing less than a week before. This was a huge cultural difference from the US, where you’d expect forensic teams with roped off areas, visible damage, makeshift memorials, and media for weeks, or at least until the next attack. While the quick cleanup and minimal sensationalism at Ataturk had its positive points, there seemed to be a bit of sweeping under the rug, as if not visibly acknowledging the terror might somehow reduce its impact. On the ride into the city, we saw the Bosphorus, countless men by its shore walking, dangling feet over walls, playing, eating, etc., but oddly there were no women with them. Construction was everywhere and cranes were a part of the skyline. We immediately saw a real mix of the modern, old, fancy, and run down.
Our hotel was in the old part of the city with some narrow streets on small steep hills and a few places that looked like they’d seen better days. It turned out to be the ideal spot. We were literally within a stone’s throw (if you have Tom Brady’s arm, that is) of the Hippodrome, Blue Mosque, Cistern, and many shops and restaurants. The Hagia Sophia, Palace, Bazaar and ferries were just a little further, and no doubt Tom will be able to reach them in a decade or so.
It was a stylish, modern apartment with everything we needed and some things we didn’t, like thousands of Turkish TV channels on a huge TV. That was okay for Freeman, as sports is its own international language. After we dropped off our bags, we had to get a bite to eat for the kids as they didn’t partake of the feast on the plane. The hotel manager, Onur, spoke plenty of English and was MOST accommodating; he directed us to the nearby square chockfull of food vendors.
On the corner of our street was a fine looking restaurant with a beckoner—I don’t know what the name is for someone who sits in front of a restaurant calling out to passersby to dine there. I’ve encountered them in Paris’s Latin Quarter, in Playa Del Carmen, and occasionally in Manhattan. You would never find that in Boston—New Englanders are far too uptight. Whatever-you-call-him showed us photos of poofy bread and described the rooftop view of the water but I wanted to explore and not jump at the first eatery we found. It would turn out I’d been a fool in this matter.
We entered the Hippodrome, so called because of the chariot and horse racing events held there through the Byzantine era. The large, open area was filled with shops and restaurants and people milling about some very old structures, including an Egyptian obelisk, no kidding! Almost immediately, a dapper young man leaving a hookah bar and struck up a conversation with us; I’ll call him Mehir. We were the first Americans he’d seen in months and he wanted to show us around and find us a place to eat. He pointed out the Blue Mosque, grandly lit and simply stunning and the Hagia Sophia. WOW.
There were thousands of people milling about. About half the women wore hijabs, some were in burkas, and we did see one with even her eyes covered. This first night, it was something different. We also saw many stray dogs and cats around, not something we were used to either.
For some reason, Mehir passed eatery after eatery and you could hear Kamala’s stomach rumbling. As we crossed the main street, what I thought was the sound of her tummy turned out to be a trolley and I had a close call. Finally, Mehir stopped at a plain shop that made hot sandwiches. It took forever to get the takeout food. Perhaps he got a cut for directing us there. By day, Mehir was a rug salesman, as it turns out were half the men in the old part of Istanbul, and he gave us his card.
We headed back to our hotel and along the way heard the call to prayer booming through the square. It was fascinating to be there at the Blue Mosque at that time. The food was meh, but the trip to get it was special.