Sultanahmet and Surrounds

Our hotel was bang smack in the middle of Sultanahmet, the ancient jewel in Istanbul’s oft-fought for crown. We were a mere five minute’s trot from the Basilica Cisterns, the National Archaeological Museum, the Mosaic Museum and Grand Bazaar. Every morning we ate our breakfast with the spires of Agia Sophia and the Blue Mosque inspecting our plates and of an evening, if we felt up to the spruiking, we’d have a raki and water pipe somewhere on or around the popular, bar and restaurant-filled Akbıyık street. We were a train ride away from the Galata Tower, Istiklal Street with its millions of shoppers, and the ship-filled, oily, inky Bosporus.

To wit, our traipsings around Sultanahmet and its surrounds, in pictures.

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And so ends Documenting Istanbul. What a week, what a wonderful week. Catch up here on food, a puppy and an island.

Big City

Like any huge city, Istanbul is a place of extremes. Extreme beauty and its very opposite. Extravagant wealth and visible poverty. Its sheer size and sprawl accommodates the gamut of humanity, and indeed its sheer age has done the same.

And like with any huge city, sometimes it gets too much. All of it. The noise, the people, the constant state of action. The rubbish, the haggling, the begging, the mangy animals – not every street animal is lucky enough to score a food sponsor in the form of a restaurant – picking through bins.

Five days into our week in Istanbul, I hit a wall. It was a Sunday and most things were closed, so we hopped on the tram and caught it out to Topkapi station, where you can see the remains of the huge, ancient Walls of Constantinople. From a distance, the walls are sensational. Imposing, even in the places they’re crumbling.

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Up close, there is rubbish everywhere, trodden on and added to so as to form thick, matted carpets of plastic bags and cans and wrappers and old shoes. Walking up some narrow stairs, I saw a litter of puppies, just a week old, huddling. Nearby two lay dead, one from a broken neck, the other from who knows. We tramped on a little further, past clusters of men loitering and smoking behind the wall, the matted carpet of trash underfoot, until quite literally and indeed metaphorically, I hit a wall.

So I retreated. Back in our sliver-in-the-wall hotel, in the quiet emptiness of the lounge room, I sat by window with my notebook and watched Istanbul do its thing outside.

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And I wrote:

Istanbul has beaten me today. The noise, the people, the dirt, the crush. Perhaps it was the puppies, one week old and curled around each other for warmth, two siblings already dead. Then the clambering around this big old wall that was once a city’s border and is now a dumping ground for human shit, literally human shit.

We went for tea and baklava afterwards, the waiter gave me a napkin rose. Both of us had exhausted the ‘can we take a puppy home’ discussion on the train, until it stopped being about the puppy and just became about being tired.

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But it’s all part of it. The wonder, the awe, the energy, the fatigue, the confrontation, the processing, the overwhelming sense of how vast, how varied this world is. All big cities have dead puppies and matted carpets of rubbish. Picking through the shit is part of the parcel. And sometimes, most of the time, you can’t take the puppy home.

 

An Island off Istanbul

On a sunny day, one of the sunniest we had, we went down to the water to catch a boat. We waited for a while at a Starbucks (clean bathroom and reliably the same coffee) at the wrong port, with Mum, before hopping on a tram and taking ourselves to the right port. We got a bit too clever (confident) with our schedule-reading. There, aided by a seemingly freelance spruiker, we bought tickets to the boat that would ferry us to Büyükada, one of the nine ‘Princes’ Islands’ just off the coast of Istanbul.

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The boat pulled out seemingly loaded to full capacity. Mum, Queen of the Worst Case Scenario, made a few comments along the line of sinking/dying and I enthusiastically shared the tale of the plaque on Santorini which acknowledges a ferry incident in which ‘nearly everyone survived.’ We scored a seat by the rails with an excellent view of Istanbul in all her sprawling, dusty, old, glimmering glory passing us by. As we sailed, the inevitable occurred – a few cultures began clashing on the idea of a) space and b) view blocking. The queuing cultures bristled as the non-queuing cultures brazenly swooped in and blocked views. Our Swiss neighbours warded off view-blockers by keeping their legs cleverly positioned so as to make getting through to the barrier impossible. My mother thanked them at the end of the trip. There are few things she detests more than pusher-innerers.

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On the boat, our freelance spruiker found us. He threaded his way through the crush of people snapping photos of water and after checking we were okay, thrust his business card at Mum. He had a restaurant on the island we were going to and it transpired his spruiking went beyond the classic ‘hanging outside the entrance and pestering tourists into entering’; it began at the ticket gates at the port on the mainland, where he helped people buy tickets, continued on the boat, when he went looking for the handful of faces he’d made an impression on at the ticket machines and ended back outside his restaurant on the island where he kept a keen eye out for the people he’d pressed his business card upon. I was gobsmacked. It was the most invested, elaborate spruiking system I had yet come across.

As it turned out we were starving upon alighting the boat and thus couldn’t wait to look for his restaurant, opting instead for a tiny pide place. So his energy was, sadly, wasted on us and our hunger impulses. But when we unwittingly found it later and passed by, it seemed to be pumping. He had clearly caught a few fish on the boat.

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The Princes’ Islands were originally where, during the Byzantine period, members of the royal families were banished for various reasons. I read somewhere, and can’t remember where, sons born out of royal harems were also sent to the islands. During the 19th century, the islands became popular holiday destinations for wealthy British people and consequently the island we visited, Büyükada, is full of big, old 19th century British summer houses, mansions of white timber with lush, neatly kept front gardens hemmed in with wrought iron gates covered in wisteria.

Today, the island is home, year-round to a few thousand Turkish people and many thousands more in the summer; the big, old wooden mansions are holiday homes for many Turkish families. There are no cars, just horses and carts, bicycles and hundreds of cats. The inevitable hustle and bustle occurs down near the port where there are lines of restaurants and ice cream cafes with waiters waving their scooping spoons and calling out to passersby. But you can find peace and quiet if you keep walking, up the hills, the narrow stairs, further and further away. There you can almost see the 19th century holiday-makers sipping their Pimms and twirling their parasols.

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We walked, we bought ice cream (mint), we sat in the sun and we enjoyed being out of that big, busy city, if only for a few hours. On the boat trip home, men walked up and down selling tea and drinks and chips and bread and then we were back, back among the tooting horns and jammed trams.

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Eating Istanbul

So, we ate Istanbul. We ate it all. Cheese, bread, mezze, rice, kebabs, rice puddings, iskender, baklava, olives. Both of us are now on a slightly more regimented eating plan that cannot be called a diet because diets are not ideally meant to include Doppelkeks and camenbert, which mine does, liberally. But travel is not travel without food. Food is the way to a country’s heart and indeed the way to mine. Istanbul had to be eaten, there was so other option.

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We used the Trip Advisor Istanbul app to separate the wheat from the chaff. Istanbul is absolutely packed with restaurants and cafes, there are thousands of them, all with a persistent spruiker out the front trying to out-entice the one next door. Falter, hover, stand still for more than 2 seconds and you’re gone baby, gone; you will be seated at a table with a basket of bread and a waiter waiting to take your drink order while a cat watches belligerently from afar.

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There were, of course, occasions we went off book, for example at a tiny, local pide place on one of the Princes’ Islands, which was hot, cheesy and delicious. And for lunch one day, we were sucked into this hole of rapid movements wherein we were seated and served within 20 seconds flat, huge plates of rice, meat, bread and garlic and mint yoghurt. The most notable excursion off book, however, occurred when we made the fatal error of dithering. Just down the way were two top-ten places and at the precise location we dithered was a decent looking place that seemed to be reasonably full and so in we went. Bad food, awful service and a bill that was as expensive as the two top-ten places down the way. Lesson learnt.

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The below is where we ate and drank. It goes without saying 7 days limits one to sampling a really solid amount of places, but we gave it a good crack.

Food

Fuego’s in Sultanahmet and Cafe Mesa in Gülhane. Both serve really fresh, really good, authentic food with a smile and sans the spruiking. Aloran in Sultanahmet also serves up a mean Iskender kebab and the service is truly lovely. If you’re after a serious view and somewhere quite ‘upmarket’ (read swanky and corporate) then you can venture down to Vogue which sits high above Istanbul, down near the water. But perhaps a cocktail is enough at this place – the cocktails are good and come served with a delightful array of snacks – that’s main attraction is its view. The food isn’t anything to write home about, however the wine list is.

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Wine

Solera Winery in Beyoglu. Just off Istiklal, Istanbul’s enormous shopping street that sees millions pass through everyday. The winery is down a quiet little street, away from the manic crowds and has a great wine list with a lot of Turkish wines.

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Treats

Hafiz Mustafa in Sirkeci. These guys are a bit of an institution. Their shop just opposite the Sirkeci tram station is treat heaven. Floor to ceiling baklava, nougat and pudding. You can go upstairs to the cafe and drink Turkish tea with a plate of baklava or put your own box together downstairs. We went twice – both times for tea and treats upstairs with one visit resulting in a sample box for Mum. The place is almost always full of locals and tourists alike, seeking a little restoration.

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Coffee

I come from Sydney. We are ghastly about coffee. Annoying and whiny and snobby. We turn up our little noses at anything less than barista brewed espresso. When I read that Denizen serves the best coffee in Istanbul (as we are used to it, not the Turkish coffee) I beelined for its warm walls and availed myself of its services. Strong. Good. Full of silver haired Australian Baby Boomer travellers who had also clearly heard the same thing. They also have free wifi which is always useful when on the move.

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Documenting Istanbul

Often, I want to relieve myself of the responsibility I feel to document travel (if responsibility is indeed the correct word, and if it is, it pertains only to the sense I feel to myself, not to others). Considering this blog is full of travel and indeed it is something I find myself desiring or doing rather frequently, this sounds like an odd admission. But what is so often the case with places, and what is absolutely the case with the unfathomable depths of online content, is that all of what I have to say has been variously said before. What can I add? Should I bother trying to add anything at all? I could just show photos, but arguably those photos have also been seen before, a million times and in far higher resolution. But I can’t say nothing. Obviously.

Istanbul (83)

So, Istanbul. 13 million people. Thousands of years of history. Hundreds of mosques. The city heaves with life in a way only a city of millions can. It is never quiet. It is never still. It is never anything less than full to bursting. Shop owners entice, restaurant and cafe spruikers throw out phrases in German and English and French, certain one of them will hit the jackpot. The street dogs and cats are well-fed and seemingly healthy. The trams are crammed full and as one leaves the station, another one is quick on its tail because there will always be enough people to fill a tram.

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We stayed in Sultanahmet, the old part of the city. We looked out at the spikes and domes of the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia every morning, over breakfast of olives, bread and honey. We ate at absolutely every possible opportunity; pide, iskender kebab, döner, baklava, milk-rice pudding, ezme, flat bread, hummus. In a city of thousands of places to eat, many mediocre but as expensive as the culinary gems, it’s difficult to tease your options apart. We used the Istanbul Trip Advisor app, which gave us the top 5500 restaurants and cafes and it didn’t lead us astray once. When you’re only somewhere for a week, it is all too easy to be enticed into a series of average restaurants and leave a city deprived of its real food potential. Having the weeding-out done for you, makes for a much higher success rate.

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More will come. More food, more photos (many, many more photos), more old places that have blinked and found themselves in the 21st century, more expressions of wonder which I will try very hard to keep the cliches out of. And more of those moments peculiar to travel, the ones that drive you into a quiet room to process it all. I am going to break the trip down into four posts – food, Sultanahmet and surrounds, Princes’ Islands and a little story about a puppy – and attempt to strike a balance between informative and personal, not straying too far into the territory of either. Both, when overdone, tend to make for boring reading.

So, documenting Istanbul – it starts here.

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