Friday, June 22, 2012

Istanbul: First Impressions

The flight to Istanbul took us over the northern Greek coastline and we could clearly distinguish the Halkidiki peninsula southeast of Thessaloniki with its three slender fingers stretching into the northern Aegean. Our plane then plunged into a thick cloud cover but as soon as we emerged ten minutes later and the terrain below reappeared, we knew we had entered new territory. The neat geometrical green and brow fields had transformed into irregularly shaped parcels in a rainbow of colors, like the art project of a kindergartener who scribbles freehand and then colors in the haphazard shapes that result. Disturbing visions of a Fes-like experience to-come unsettled our anticipation, despite the fact that multiple fellow travelers had told us that although there would be similarities, Turkey would not be another Morocco. We were flying into a murky, indefinite undertaking, having done only bits of inadequate research for this part of our trip. Turkey was going to be a whole new adventure, starting with its largest metropolis, that much was clear. We had no idea what we would find in this ancient city that dates back to 3,000 BC and has been known over the centuries as Istanbul, Constantinople, Byzantium, “The New Rome” and myriad other exotic labels.

Arriving in 80-plus-degree heat, we appeared to have come in from the Arctic dressed in multiple layers of our heaviest clothing in a successful effort to avoid extra baggage weight fees. Joe may have stuck out a bit with his travel sports jacket fitted snuggly over bulky upper wear, but my sartorial excess of tights under baggy black sweats, hiking boots, several shirts covered by a dark fleece and a woolen pashmina enveloping my neck was hardly out of place. The sun was shining and the airport terminal stifling, but all around us were women whose clothing concealed any hint of exposed flesh. The minute I disembarked the air-conditioned plane the sweating started in earnest. I couldn’t imagine having to don this many layers as a matter of course, blistering Turkish temperatures be damned. The variety of female attire in the terminal ran from close-fitting mini-skirts and tank tops to full, black burkas with narrow slits that revealed only the wearer’s eyes. Welcome to the mix that is Turkey, I mused. More the norm were dozens of women in loose, colorful head scarves and belted, floor-length London Fogs cum burkas. All I could imagine while observing the heavy maxi coats was the perspiring that must have been taking place beneath them. These women had to have been swimming in sweat, but of course, any evidence of their indignity was safely hidden from view.

The drive from Ataturk Airport into old town Istanbul was via broad modern boulevards lined with bright, orderly beds of purple petunias, red geraniums and yellow marigolds and closely mowed grassy lawns worthy of an affluent American suburb. We passed scores of tankers and cargo ships lying low in the distance on the Sea of Marmara, waiting patiently to pass through the Bosporus Strait and north into the Black Sea. All along the waterside promenade were men running in gym shorts and singlets and women clad in head scarves and long skirts power-walking. The juxtaposition of male versus female exercise apparel was remarkable.

As our airport shuttle approached our destination, the scenery took a drastic turn and our curiosity about why there were two drivers in the front seats was sated. How many men does it take to navigate a mini-van through Istanbul? Always two: one to concentrate on operating the vehicle with a hair-trigger braking foot and one who knows the ins and outs of every tortuous lane and directs the guy behind the wheel. Our van-with-two-drivers entered a rat’s nest of dusty, narrow streets that wound up and down the hilly Sultanahmet quarter of the old town dropping off passengers along the way. I’m not sure why, but I had expected the city to be flat and here we were climbing steep hills and twisting down sharp curves to finally reach our hotel – the final stop.

Istanbul is home to a sea of humanity -- almost 14 million people live there – and we learned very quickly that everywhere is crowded and constantly teeming with activity. Our mini-van battled tram lines, cars, motorbikes, trucks, bicycles and handcarts through Istanbul’s crazy road system built, rebuilt and reworked over centuries with all drivers ignoring the universal octagonal red signs that commanded “DUR” in big white capitals. Gargantuan tinted-windowed tourist coaches squeezed through the tight neighborhood lanes ill-equipped to handle the complications of contemporary traffic at the risk of snapping off side mirrors and scraping bright enamel paint jobs. Istanbul made unruly Rome seem like a buttoned down English city by comparison.

Our accommodations were of the modern tourist variety (we prefer not to take chances when arriving in an unfamiliar city). Although bright and welcoming itself, the Lady Diana Hotel (apparently the owner loved the late princess) was in the middle of blocks of old wooden structures, some with broken windows and many of which looked like the termites had gotten the better of them. Many appeared uninhabited and needed a good chipping and a few coats of thick paint. Hmm, I thought, this is going to be interesting. The Lady Diana was perfectly situated not far from the Golden Horn, the broad natural harbor off the Bosporus in the center of a triangle formed by the city’s top sights (Hagia Sofia, the Blue Mosque, the Basilica Cistern, Topkapi Palace and the Grand Bazaar). Istanbul straddles the 17-mile-long Bosporus, one of the world's busiest waterways, which runs between the Sea of Marmara and the Black Sea and separates the city’s old sections from the new. It is the world’s only metropolis situated on two continents: one third of the transcontinental city’s population lives to the east in Asian Anatolia but its commercial and historic center is to the west -- in Europe -- along with the remaining bulk of its residents.

On our first night in the swarming city, we ventured out in search of a restaurant with a rooftop terrace and traditional food recommended by Frommer’s. After wandering the old town labyrinth for over an hour and stopping for directions multiple times, we finally arrived hot, tired, hungry and ready to relax. The view over the Blue Mosque was magnificent but as luck would have it, the restaurant served no alcohol and I thought, “So much for our relaxing evening,” as I feigned a smile while ordering a bottle of sparkling mineral water. The alarm had roused us for an early flight at 4:30 that morning and all day in transit we’d looked forward to having some wine with our kebabs and baba ganoush. “Are we really going to have to battle the temperance monster?” I moaned, just as the call to prayer sounded over the city. I warned Joe that if coming to Turkey was going to be like vacationing in Utah where the prevailing religion was ever-present and finding a restaurant that serves wine and beer can be a struggle, I was going to be cranky for a week.

After just eight hours in Istanbul, with its resplendent past and complicated present, Joe and I were on sensory overload. The city was ancient and modern, conservative and free-wheeling, cramped and sprawling, filthy and spotless, young and old, deafening and serene. Overall, it was congested, just like I’d imagined, but even grittier and noisier. It was definitely not Morocco since no one had hassled us on the street but what had we gotten ourselves into. But I had to tell myself to be patient, you’ve only just arrived. First impressions may be misleading but I knew that Istanbul was going to have to do its best to grow on me.

Pictures of our adventures:

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