ISTANBUL – City of Dreams

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I had always wanted to visit Istanbul. I imagined it would be similar to Napoli, an ancient chaotic city of contrasts on the Mediterranean sea with the added allure of straddling two continents. Arriving at Sabiha Gökçen airport on a humid Autumn day I joke to Murat, my partner, about not having the right visa to get into Turkey. At Passport control a young man checks every page of my passport and asks

“Didn’t you get a visa?”


“Queue over there.” I look back to where he is pointing and see hoards of confused tourists waiting to part with 10 British Pounds.

Finally, I cross Turkey’s threshold and we greet two of Murat’s smiling friends. I try to take in my surroundings while whizzing towards the Bosphorus Bridge.The traffic is chaotic, but then I expected that. Sezen Aksu plays on the stereo, her sultry voice echoing the tired building facades surrounding us.

I’m leaning forward in my seat with my nose pressed against the window like a child without realising. Gokhan smiles in the rearview mirror. We can’t communicate in spoken word yet, only in signs and gestures. 

Men with stacks of limit ( traditional round sesame bread) and gypsy flower sellers meander through semi stationary cars, these are the only residents of Istanbul who could the relentless traffic as a blessing. Skyscrapers and minarets dominate the skyline. Huge crescent moon flags and images of Ataturk adorn buildings but there will be no celebrations for National Day this year in solidarity for the victims of the earthquake in Van.

We arrive at Murat’s family home in Güzeltepe, Kağıthane, not too far from the city centre The future family-in-law, whom I haven’t actually met in person yet, come out to greet us with open arms – Murat’s mother, four out of his five adorable sisters and a niece and nephew who are even more gorgeous in real life than in the numerous photos I’ve seen. There are tears as soon as we step out of the car and countless words which make up for two years of absence. We are lead to a huge breakfast spread with different types of bread, cheese, honey, eggs, börek, sucuk (beef paprika sausage), olives, and my absolute favorite – hazelnut butter all to be washed down with lots of tea. And then a strong, sweet Turkish coffee. Dilek, Murat’s oldest sister, reads our fortunes out of the grainy coffee dregs. What she says makes absolute perfect sense and again I find myself in tears. It’s all so overwhelming!

We stay at home on our first day. Murat’s mother brings out a huge basin of a meaty rice mixture and the family set about stuffing vine leaves. We eat, more family come to visit, we eat again and I am made to feel at home.

A gravelly call to prayer wakes me at the crack of dawn when the sun is yet to rise. Stray dogs howl along creating an otherworldly chorus.  When we’re finally awake, another huge breakfast spread is on the table. Famous Turkish hospitality and the daily ritual of kahvaltı (breakfast) greet us every morning and I have to battle the sisters to do my part around the house. After breakfast the rag & bone man drives past practically screaming into a megaphone. Murat’s mother sorts through the cupboards and pulls out blankets to donate for a charity collection heading to Van. When we leave the house we are bid farewell and when we later return hugs and kisses are neglected. Güzeltepe is an area mainly by Alevi families, the Alevis being a Shia minority hailing from the East. Murat and his family are also Alevi. I have experienced Alevi festivals in London, I guess you could say the regular Alevi family is more spiritual than devoutly religious, adhering to the main belief of love and acceptance. There are no divides in Alevism, Turk or Kurd it doesn’t matter. They intermarry easily, tolerate differences and have a whole culture of music, a medium in which they worship. (See Aynur Dogan and Mustafa Ozarslan for examples of Alevi music.)

In our first few days we have many visits to make to relatives, relatives of relatives, friends, friends of friends – all with a warm welcome and a laid table. Some friends offer musial entertainment with sad (traditional Turkish instrument rather like a Mandolin) and song.

Luckily I understand bits and pieces of the language; I can say the very basics, and M continues to translate anyway. I feared smiling and nodding wouldn’t be enough but I have two weeks of practise ahead of me and even surprise myself with the knowledge of the most random words. Sinek – fly. zor – difficult,  cirkin – ugly. After a few days I start to repeat things without noticing

“Sekiz, dokuz.”

“What?” Murat is in fits of laughter. “Eight, nine. Eight nine what?”

During our stay we accompanied one of Murat’s sisters who lives in Germany to Ataturk airport. Men shuffle along in towling about to embark on Hajj, a necessary pilgrimage to Mecca. Groups of family twenty people strong, wave them off proudly, twenty per passenger. Exotically clad women sit on their mountains of luggage waiting to check in. Their costumes were unlike anything I’d ever seen before and their language not unlike Turkish. I checked the counter; ‘Ashgabat.’

“Turkmenistan” Murat whispers, aware that my fascination had led me to stop and stare.

Fascinated by Istanbul and it’s mix of people cohabiting side by side, you can feel that the city lies is a melting pot situated at an important crossroads. Turkish, Kurdish, Iranian, Central Asians, Alevi, Sunnis, Laz, Azeris, Jews, Pontians, Ex Yugolslavians, Albanians, Gypsies… People from all reaches of the Ottoman empire and beyond. We visit a church or two as well as several Mosques and marvel at intricate carvings and details hand painted Iznik tiles.

After seeing documentary film Muezzin last year, hearing the voice of Halit Aslan calling  the city to prayer was something I wanted to experience during my stay. Unfortunately we were never in the right place at the right time. Oh well – it’ll be an excuse to go back 🙂

Istanbul is a city which alights the senses. It was as if the most precious things I were to take away (aside from hazelnut butter!) were the memories of sights, smells, sounds and flavours.  The Ezan (call to prayer) is ever more elaborate on a Friday especially during the lead up to Bayram, and it reminds you not only of the time of day but also that you’re on the edge of the Orient. I got goose pimples when I heard the Ezan from the Ortakoy Mosque while overlooking the slither of sea which separates two continents. Just beyond the Bospherous is Asia.

Food is everywhere, a feast for the eyes and nose as well as the stomach. Kiosks, bakeries, fish, kokoreç (spitroast offal), cheese and towering mountains of syrupy baklava provoke the palate. Especially pleasing is what’s in the windows of Saray Muhallebicisi cafe, Taksim.  Try the Kazan dibi, a caramelised milk pudding, it’s the best in the city apparently. I also tried Asure, a festive dessert eaten by at Bayram made from 15 pulses and grains including beans, wheat and dried fruits. On the next visit we ate pistachio baklava and a heavy syrupy cake with kaymak. (Kaymak is the cream which rises to the top during the yoghurt making process. It’s similar to clotted cream and often eaten with bread and honey for breakfast.)

The district of Beyoğlu is busy both day and night. Before Taksim Square is pedestrianised we risk our lives to cross it, Murat always amused by my squealing. I never even realised I was doing it but it was certainly a rush risking you life while dodging angry motorists! Shoppers and musicians line Istiklal Caddesi street by day and revellers and musicians line it by night. Istanbul is certainly a musical city, music is in the blood of the people and the city has many voices. From Taksim square filled with simit / chestnut / corn-on-the-cob vendors, stretching right down to Galata bridge, Istiklal Caddesi and it’s sidestreets is where I felt the pulsating heart of the city where modernity sits alongside it’s ancient core. A vendor pokes at his Ice Cream with a long paddle and brings the gummy mass out of it’s pot in one piece. He swings it to and fro until the mass starts to drop but he fails to misjudge it’s gummyness and misses the head of a passer-by by millimetres. Everyone laughs. Venturing into side alleys we’re thankful for a chance to take refreshment on stools under the shade of grape vines. It was in this maze of backstreets where I found my favorite restaurant Medi Sark Sofrasi. Decked out in typical Eastern style decor, balloons of steaming bread, huge mixed grills and frothy mugs of ayran became us.                                 We drink a strong coffee in Kumbara Cafe, a second floor cafe in a backstreet building where bohemian youth play backgammon, drink cappuccinos and determine each other’s coffee fortunes (Kumbara also do a generous portion of Tiramisu too.)

Heading towards the Galata tower, we pass the Balık Pazarı (Fish Bazaar), a side street on the right lined with street food stalls – mainly fish (try Midiye; deep-fried mussel kebabs) and meze. Bars in these streets begin to heave as evening closes in. Venues offer fasıl (live Turkish music) in the evenings. One night Murat hired an entire floor of a restaurant and we make a fasıl of our own as his musical friends bring guitars and bağlamas. After we finish a few bottles of rakı, an aniseed liquor which turns milky white when diluted, everyone is singing along, everyone that is, apart from me.

The bottom of Istiklal Caddesi where building crumble and narrow doorways house a hive of activity, you start to feel the real culture of the city. It’s not uncommon to stumble upon a jamming session in one of its many music shops; modern music, traditional music, rock, arabesque – all kinds of sounds from East to West.

We buy a freshly squeezed pomegranate juice from one of the street  kiosks – beware the faint hearted!  If you’ve never had freshly squeezed pomegranate juice it packs a sour punch, a world away from the ‘juice drink’ you buy in the UK. In fact, I have noticed that all fruit in Turkey is deliciously juicy. One lemon in Turkey seems to produce the amount of five back home.

The view of Istanbul’s skyline from the Galata tower is stunning. You can see Agia Sofia and Sultanahmet Mosques, whole silhouettes seem blackened against a golden sky. Go when the sun dips in the sky.  We paid a reduced rate claiming to be residents – tourists pay over double.

The Grand Bazaar is a world of colour with countless, confusing alleys and lanes. Shop owners are pushy, tourists are eager and goods are hugely over priced. Haggle with a smile, you’ll get your way eventually. We hear the Ezan while finding ourselves lost and overwhelmed. I bought a pair of intricately carved silver earrings after Murat manages to bring the price down. We head out of the Bazaar and meander instead in the narrow streets of Eminnonu whose markets feel authentic, where the locals haggle and barter. Traders call you in to sample their dried fruits and nuts, stringy cheese catches the eye, as do clusters of dried peppers and aubergines hanging from canopys. Freshly ground coffee perfumes the air. There is a pet market too and once you get over the shock of barrels of leeches, you can see fresh pups and powdery kittens.

At the end of these markets, you reach the sea. Elaborately decorated boats float on the water’s edge and offer weary shoppers freshly fried fish in bread for 5TL (about £1.50!). Perch on a stool, buy a cup of pickles and take in the atmosphere. From there you have a great view of the Galata bridge and the iconic mosques behind you, perforating the city’s skyline.

Ortakoy Mosque was under construction when we first visited but it didn’t matter; the most memorable images engrained in my minds eye are lovers embracing as they marvelled at the Bosphorus Bridge, children teasing indifferent street cats and the silhouettes of men fishing on a slither of sea which divided two continents.

Shopping centres are big business in Istanbul; people who err away from the city’s historical centre flock here to drink American style coffee and shop international brand names. Security is tight; every car/bag/person is thoroughly checked and x-rayed before entry. Atop City shopping centre in the affluent district of Nişantaşı, we lunched in Limonata surrounded by soap opera stars and wealthy Istanbul residents. Two tables away, Asena, one of Turkey’s revered belly dancers sipped coffee. From Limonata’s terrace you can survey a stunning panorama of the city. The food was also great, modern European cuisine with a hint of Turkish tradition – think cornbread flavoured with dill and grilled lamb on a bed of aubergine and potato puree. Their homemade lemonade is to die for. Modern, trendy eateries in Istanbul are plentiful; stunning views are usually reserved for those who can afford pricey menus. For me, I prefer tea gardens, mangal (BBQ) picnics in the woods, floating fish restaurants – anything authentic and unpretentious.

How can you possibly capture the essence of a city like Istanbul? Well… you can’t, it must be lived in sensory experiences.

Gypsy women bicker at the side of the road, their proud and defiant faces embellished with flashes of gold. Street kids gather on traffic islands scoffing borek. Men with fantastically full moustaches carve giant kebabs in kiosk windows. Cats scratch at rubbish bags nearby, thankful for meager pickings. Pings of bağlama strings and clinks of teaspoons against delicate tea glasses are standard sounds and seem omnipresent. Solitary men with dark, gloomy expressions perch on tiny stools inhaling cigarettes right down to the butt. Houseproud women in Çağlayan sweep front door steps, then hang perilously out of windows several stories up, buffing and shining glass. Traffic is chaos. Boys who can’t be older than 10 lug huge bags of cardboard up steep hills.Street kids cling onto the back of the Taksim Tunnel tram for dear life. A hopeful dog waits behind fishermen of all ages who line the water’s edge. Pungent wool hangs on backstreet washing lines, begging for a beating. Entire families celebrate weddings and dance halay on the streets of run down residential areas with deafening volume – the music is attractive and intoxicating. A man salting filets of freshly caught fish, jarring them up for hard times. We stumble upon a party on a fishing boat – typical Black Sea style music blares from a stereo. One man jumps up and down with his arms outstretched whistling furiously, perhaps he has had more Rakı than the others. These are all images I recall, gathered in just one day.

Smells of meat and bread fill the air. We stop at Gulluoglu a few times for su böreği (a thick, substantial type of borek) and tea. We buy a kilo of candied chestnuts covered with chocolate to take back to London. On return I discover Gulluoglu has a franchise patisserie in North London – yay! Gulluoglu Patisserie London address here.

We spend time with Dilek at her home in Çağlayan. It’s a colourful neighbourhood, people cram into blocks of flats and live piled on top of each other. I like it there, it feels raw edged. We watch soap operas and I find myself weeping; although I haven’t a clue what is really being said the dark, swarthy pageful men and delicate women exchange glances, there is love, the type that wounds. Beyond the window behind the TV is Paşa, the family Kangal dog. He peers over a wall with hopeful eyes silently begging for someone to play with. He’s shedding puppyhood although on his hind legs his is taller than Murat who stands at 6 ft 2. A dusty light ray filters through the open window and cay glasses are filled and refilled by a scalding kettle which rests on top of a central wood burner. Neighbours (who are also extended family) pop round with offerings of food. We are offered spicy Gaziantep style bulgur wheat patties and cake.

These are the experiences which will stay with me and are far more precious than any material souvenir.

The night before we depart we have a family meal. There are more tears, singing and plenty of rakı. We bid each other farewell, grabbing each other by the shoulders, reluctant to let go.

Driving to the airport, Sezen Aksu’s new song comes onto the stereo. We are held in traffic gridlock and cut the engine just metres from the Bosphorus Bridge. I take it all in for the last time. Sure, I’d always found Sezen Aksu’s music pleasant to the ear but I never actually got it. After my stay I get it. The sentiments of Istanbul play in her voice; its joy, its pain and solitude. It’s a city of contrasts, a beautiful and dirty place, both a wonderful dream and a terrifying nightmare.                                                                                                             I’ll miss piling into the car with the entire family. I’ll miss the gravelly voices of smokers singing and laughing one minute, enraged the next. Two weeks is simply not enough, I’ve barely scratched the surface.

I’ll be back, city of dreams.

*  *  *

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8 thoughts on “ISTANBUL – City of Dreams

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