I probably spent more time thinking about, planning for and anticipating Istanbul than any other destination on our last trip. And really, probably more than anywhere we’ve ever been on any of our trips.
I’ve hesitated to write about our too-brief stay in this city because I cannot begin to quill (sorry, I just finished reading the last Harry Potter) adequately the mesmerizing nature of Istanbul. Even its names speak magic to me — Istanbul, Constantinople, Byzantium — conjuring up a place of such mystery and exotic beauty that I loathe to trivialize it with my mundane activity report.
But I write this to relive it — now, and in the future, when I may not recall the details anymore.
I struggled for months with the question of how best to approach our time in Istanbul. I chose the cruise itinerary specifically because it spent 24 hours in the city — it was to be the zenith of the trip. I spent time, too, worrying that the cruise line may again decide to bypass Istanbul for “safety concerns,” and anxiously followed news of unrest and violence in Turkey.
My biggest decision was whether to make use of a guide, to better use our time and learn more about the monumental sites we’d be seeing, or go it totally on our own, to really live the experience as travelers, not simply cruise ship passengers following someone around. In the end, after much discussion, we decided to go on our own for the first afternoon and meet with a guide for the second morning. That led to months of research and reading about the many guide services available. We settled, finally, on Credo tours, for their proclaimed desire to help travelers really experience their culture (though I came to doubt that when the debacle of the costumed waiters arose).
We also decided to stay in a hotel instead of returning to the ship. Waste of money I know others may have thought, but how does one assign a value to time spent in one of the most wondrous cities of the world? I wanted not only to not waste time going back and forth to the port, but to satisfy myself that we had visited Istanbul, not just hopped off a ship, snapped a picture or 300, and hopped back on. I chose Dersaadet Hotel because of its high ratings on Trip Advisor, location in the heart of Sultanhamet and reasonable cost.
My anticipation and exhilaration steadily built as we approached first the trip departure date, and finally the coast of Turkey itself. With most of the rest of the passengers, Brian and I pressed ourselves against the rails of our ship’s deck to watch the minarets slowly materialize in the hazy distance. It hardly felt real.
I thought we may be delayed disembarking the ship. Our scheduled arrival was 1:00, but we had heard the announcement that before we could leave the ship the Turkish officials must board and everyone must receive a landing card. (I was most disappointed to have learned earlier that the ship would keep our passports for the duration of the trip and we wouldn’t receive a visa or stamp.) I was taken by surprise then, standing in the pasta line at 1:00 when the announcement came over the speakers that we could now pick up our landing cards in our room and go. I was torn. My friends and husband were having lunch, but if we waited we’d lose precious time out of our paltry 24 hours. And if we didn’t leave *now* we’d be stuck behind the hundreds and hundreds of people leaving on ship tours and would lose even more time. I left Holly standing in the pasta line, found Brian and laid my woes and desperation up on him — “I’ve waited a YEAR for this,” I moaned, “I can’t sit still and eat lunch now that we’re here!” I ran back to our cabin to retrieve our landing cards and returned to the dining room — “We’ll eat later,” I said breathlessly, “just meet us at the Spice Bazaar, that’s where we’re going first.” I don’t know if they had gobbled a bite while I was gone, or had decided to skip lunch too, but everyone stood and Holly said they were coming now, so off we dashed.
We had attended the Turkish language help session that morning and hung around after wards to grill the cruise director, who had visited Istanbul many times. We knew from him where to go when we exited, and how to take the tram to the area of the city we’d be staying in.
We left the ship and set out, the four of us appearing to be the only passengers not taking a ship excursion or at least ship shuttle. We exited to the left at the port gates and used the ATM to withdraw our lira. Immediately we were surrounded by men peddling things and asking us where we were going … I had never experienced a situation like this of quite their intensity and it made me uncomfortable. The first few minutes in the pressing heat, not knowing quite which way to go towards the tram stop, surrounded by these persistent men was a little unnerving.
A backpacker walking by pointed us in the right direction though, and we walked (“in Istanbul!” my mind kept shouting) a few blocks to the tram. I had bought a bottle of water a couple blocks back, so used my change to buy a few tram tokens and we waited for the next train to come along. I was already perspiring freely and turning pink — in my rush to get off the ship I neglected to apply my sunscreen. The tram was crowded but blessedly air conditioned and we stuck close together, looking around with a bit of incredulity that we were on a tram in Istanbul. We exited for the Spice Bazaar in the Eminönü neighborhood.
I know I looked the tourist every inch as I gaped around at the scene. Minarets from a nearby mosque thrust into the blue of the sky. Women in headscarves rushed by alongside teenagers in modern Western clothing. Pigeons spun overhead. A man nearby sold what looked like large pretzels from a stand. We asked his help in finding the entrance to the Spice Bazaar and he amicably gave us assistance.
We stood at the entrance and I waited impatiently while Brian and Chas worked to secure my camera backpack to my person. I scoffed at their precautions and dire warnings of pickpockets and fidgeted like a racehorse ready to bolt the starting gate.
An experience to be oft-repeated in the next 24 hours, I stepped inside and struggled to know where to lay my eyes first. The competing sights of mounded spices, colorful shoes, painted ceramics, belly-dance costumes, jewel-toned hanging lamps, lokum (“Turkish delight”), pistachios and so much more surrounded me and left my head dancing from side to side as I sought to take it all in. Holly and I each bought small pepper grinders, feeling as if the bargaining was a game, and then some small painted bowls. My hand skimmed and touched down on nearly all the bowls in the shop as I tried to decide which pattern I most wanted.
We pushed through the crowds, trying not to lose sight of one another, and Brian and I bought sandwiches from a shopkeeper. I pointed at all the fillings I wanted — tomatoes, lettuce, some kind of cheese, and the bread I wanted it on. As we continued through the bazaar shopkeepers called out to us, inviting us to sample or to come look.
We emerged out of the bazaar back into the heat and brilliance of the day and I tried, again, to absorb my surroundings. I know Istanbul is part of Europe, but this felt like no part of Europe we’d seen. It felt so different, this vibrant, pulsing street, so foreign and yes, so exotic, that despite the heat I think I felt a chill. This feeling, this is what I was after.
We made our way slowly, pausing to observe the men performing their ablutions before entering the mosque and to just look, look, and look more. Brian vehemently wished to take a taxi to our hotel now, not a tram, so we stepped into the mêlée at the curb and somehow managed to hail a taxi.
All the warnings and tales I’d heard about Istanbul taxis swirled in my head as I showed the driver the name and address and map of our hotel. “20 lira” he said. I had no sense of the scale of the city yet. I forgot the warning to make the taxi use the meter instead of a set price. We were all in with our bags in the back. And no one else seemed interested in taking charge of the transaction. So off we went, swerving through the wildly congested streets, trying still to look around and see it all. Horns blared, Turkish music from the car radio filled the taxi, and none of us spoke as we held on. After just a few minutes of his daredevil driving, the driver stopped the car, pointed down a street and told us our hotel was that way. The four of us ignorant tourists climbed out of the car, gathered our bags, paid him 20 lira and set off in the direction he indicated. It took about a block to discover we were nowhere near the hotel.
For at least 30 minutes, more probably, we trudged in the heat, Brian asking passersby and shopkeepers every few minutes where to go. Heat + backpacks + being lost in a strange new city can fray tempers but we kept it pretty together and finally reached our hotel. The clerk on duty was welcoming and friendly, a relief after the cab swindle. We deposited our bags in our rooms, I washed my hands, Brian tried to dry his sweat-soaked shirt with a hairdryer, and we met back in the lobby five minutes later.