So, we’re two full days into Istanbul and I’m wishing we weren’t jetting south tomorrow to see my dad and the southwest Turkish coast. This is a spectacular city, and for a whole lot of reasons, many of which I’ll detail below and in my next couple of posts. Since it’s taken me longer than I’d hoped to get online and scribe, I’m going to split my Istanbul highlights into three back-to-back posts, one for each day here. That way you won’t be faced with endless scrolling, involuntary yawning, and that secret wish to jump ahead simply because it’s so dang long!
Okay, Day Numero Uno. (Presently, my kindergarten level Spanish is still better than my Turkish.)
1. Here’s some sage advice from a guy who knows it firsthand: fly on a single airline your entire life, use their credit card, and take advantage of every partnered perk they have that earns you points/miles. Believe me, it all adds up. In the 20 years that I’ve been flying tons I’ve earned almost 900,000 actual air miles with my home-based Alaska Airlines. Add to that bonus miles, credit card miles, rental car miles, 1-800-FLOWERS miles, etc., etc. and it’s probably 3-4 million. And I’ve been able to leverage that into a bunch of free flights for myself and extended family.
We left Seattle on Thursday morning at 8:45 with free tickets to Chicago, then connected to free first class seats on Air France to Paris. Fancy schmancy. (That’s an amuse bouche in the photo, by the way.) We had all the amenities, including full extension bed-like seats, which were exactly what the doctor ordered since we didn’t land in Ah, Paree until 9am. That’s 15 hours + a 9 hour time zone change. My internal clock was freaking out big time. And me who can’t sleep on a plane!
2. Charles de Gaulle airport sucks!
3. Okay. let me qualify that. We’d been warned by a few CDG veterans that this renowned French airport is not exactly magnifique in its efficiency. That, in fact, one should double the anticipated connection time while passing through.
We landed at Terminal 2E. Our flight 65 minutes later would leave from Terminal 2F. Yeah, 2E to 2F. What would you think? 5 minutes? 10 minutes? Oh, no. 55 minutes!! No lie. You see, here’s the problem: even though they both start with a “2” these are technically two separate terminals, and the between-terminal shuttle buses travel the same service roads and operations byways as luggage transports, fuel trucks, security vans, forklifts carrying double-stacked pallets of rubber tires (really?!), and it appears that anyone garbed in a Day-Glo yellow vest can stand in the middle of the road at any time and stop traffic, as long as they have no apparent reason for doing so.
Ah, the French. Next time, we’ll connect in Amsterdam.
4. If you can get yourself into a window seat for your daytime arrival in Istanbul, do it. The aerial viewpoint of this vast metropolis will simply blow you away, from the dozens of domed and minareted mosques scattered across the cityscape to the intersection of its two major waterways, the Golden Horn which splits the European Istanbul in half, and the Bosphorus, a liquid border separating Europe from Asia and connecting the Black Sea with the Sea of Marmara. Breathtaking.
5. Now, pause for a second and imagine your favorite theme park ride. The one that makes you throw up and pee your pants at the same time. The wildest, hairyest, most death-defying thrill ride on the planet. The one where your heart takes up temporary residence in your throat and your knuckles clench whitely to anything within reach. Including your spouse.
I’m convinced that the brain of a Turkish cabbie works something like this: 2 marked lanes actually means 3 lanes. And 3 marked lanes actually means 5 lanes. These guys bob and weave better than the Miami Heat, cutting in, cutting out, and with bursts of speed that press you another inch into your seat, followed abruptly by screeching halts, bumpers and fenders mere centimeters apart. The weird thing, though, is that we got used to it. By the end of our third day here, heck, we don’t even blink anymore. Well, maybe a little.
6. Turkish coffee. Rich, tart, thick, grainy. Go with the medium sugar. And watch out for the dregs.
7. Turkish beer. Efes. That’s the brand. E-F-E-S. Drink it not because it’s a great pilsner, there simply isn’t any other beer available. It does the trick, though. And goes great with the local, ubiquitous bar snack, a tasty blend of pistachios, soybeans, filberts, and almonds. Light dust of salt.
8. We’re staying at the W Hotel on the east side of the Golden Horn, a block up from the Bosphorus. Nice place. Kind of funky, as I guess all W’s are apt to be. The outdoor nightclub terrace is lit up in blue. Their concierge is a guy named Gem and he took great care of us. And there’s a comfortable breakfast cafe right around the corner.
Oh, and one of those rainfall water fixtures on the ceiling of the marble-tiled shower. Nice.
And a bidet spout built into the toilet. Uh, surprising.
But not in a bad way.
9. We checked into our room at 4pm Turkey time and napped until 8, showered, dressed down, then cabbed — gulp! — to the popular Taksim Square, the more bohemian of the several nighttime hotspots in the city. And oh what a spectacular experience that was. Many thousands of people, many hundreds of businesses. Street vendors, product hawkers, restaurant hosts aggressively steering potential diners into their establishments. We wandered around for a while completely intrigued by the Turkish spin on the usual late night marketplace.
9b. Turkish ice cream is thick like taffy and they toss and twist and flamboyantly serve it in sugar cones, all with the aid of this yard-long spoon-spatula hybrid, and they’re costumed up like capuchin monkeys (who no doubt ripped off their music box-cranking wardrobe from Turkish ice cream vendors).
9c. Okay, I’m uncomfortably naive when it comes to the whole Muslim women in burkas and/or headscarves thing, but I did think it was pretty cool that the broad spectrum of people mingling around Taksim Square included dozens of different languages and cultures and religions, the most obvious evidenced by women scarfed in every imaginable pattern of designer silk, as well as the more orthodox robed from head-to-toe in black, their only hint of individuality displayed in a 1 x 6 inch window exposing their eyes.
Well, not really their ONLY display of individuality. There was, after all, the woman with iPad in hand, video-recording the wild, oh so unorthodox festivities.
9d. Full disclosure alert: McDonalds, KFC, Burger King, Subway, Pizza Hut. Yeah, they’re all there. People lined up out the door. Oh, and Starbucks. (See point 6 above. I checked and yes, Turkish coffee is on the menu.)
9e. After wandering for an hour or so we veered down one of the alley sidestreets; that’s where you’ll find all of the restaurants and bars, sandwiched one right next to the other, each vying for your patronage.
Be prepared! Every restaurant has a smooth-talking wheeler dealer out on the street whose sole purpose is to get your butts in their seats and not anyone else’s. To give you an idea, we finished our dinner at one place (see next point), stepped out onto the bricks, and instantly Mr. Smoothtongue next door — who had watched us from 20 feet away for the previous 2 hours — was in my face advising me that his was the greatest restaurant in Istanbul and we surely must still be hungry. I could only smile and shake my head.
9f. Okay, the place we did choose is named Vesta (and I love their clever catchphrase slogan: So Far, So Good). Our waiter appeared knowledgeable, so we basically turned over our food decisions to him, and he done us so good. First he had us walk over to an ice-cooled display of local seafood caught that day and we picked out a mullety-looking fish that they would grill whole. Then we enjoyed an opening appetizer salvo of olives, an eggplanty hummus, fig-leaf wrapped dolmas, cucumber tzaziki, shredded green beans, and a spicy pseudo-salsa called acili ezme. Accompanied by one of those Efes beers. All of it was so yummy.
This was followed by fried calamari and then our main course, which was accented with boiled potatoes, fresh tomatoes, and white onions. The fish itself was delicious, though we had to dig some to separate the tasty white meat from the bony parts (one of the bummers of eating whole fish). And we finished everything off with a traditional Mediterranean post-entree platter of sliced fruit: watermelon, some sort of honeydew, strawberries, and figs. All in all, a great first dinner.
9g. We weren’t done yet. You see, I hadn’t had my raki yet. One thing you need to know about me is that I’m a licorice guy. Soft black licorice. My dad introduced me at a young age to those crafted by British confectioner Callard and Bowser and I’ve experimented over the years with many other varieties. As an adult I discovered the adult liquid versions: ouzo, sambuca, anisette, absinthe, pastis, and even Jagermeister. But I’d never had the opportunity to try the Turkish anise-based liquor called raki. So, we stopped at this dive bar named bubblepub and Nancy and I indulged. Like most of the anise liquors, it’s served with small ice cubes and water, the addition to the liquor of either causing what’s called the “ouzo effect” where a microemulsion forms and the liquid turns cloudy white. Raki is a bit more harsh than sambuca — more alcoholly — but still delish.
9h. Then we walked back to central Taksim Square, tempted along the way by the famous honey-dripping kadayif in the window of Saray Muhallebicisi’s bakery, but way too full to have even a sniff, let alone a bite.
And that was that, our first night in Istanbul. We rolled into bed at about 1am — that’d be 3pm Seattle time — my body jet-lagged and travel weary, but ready to tackle the next day’s plans for the Grand Bazaar and a boat tour of the Bosphorus Strait.
More on that later, if you’re interested.
Just a thought.