As we land over the Sea of Marmara, a gray drizzle bathes the view of huddled ships waiting their turn to cross the Bosporus, the turquoise waterway that runs through the city, separating its European and Asian sides.
The misty sea views continue along the coastal route to the historic Sultanahmet district and the restored Ottoman mansion-turned-hotel where I stay my first three nights, steps from the world-famous Blue Mosque, an impressive sight day and night.
Every day, I wake up to fishermen taking out small boats under uncertain skies, freighters blowing their horns in competition with squawking seagulls, and the piercing, soulful Muslim callto prayer heard four more times throughout the day until dusk.
This is the mystical Istanbul I had imagined as I devoured the coming-of-age memoir of the country’s best-known writer, Orhan Pamuk.
The city’s blue palette and the mellow weather instantly evoke the “huzun,” the melancholy that Istanbuli are said to carry with them, and that Pamuk depicts in his book with disarming intimacy. It’s a feeling of “deep spiritual loss” made up of layers of tradition, a history of faded imperial Ottoman glory, and Sufi mysticism.To understand that emotional backdrop to this city makes the visit all the more special.
Not that Istanbul is all internal drama. There’s tremendous stamina, vivid nooks of color and unscripted fun to be found in the streets of this sprawling metropolis. Name a district and there’s a party area, a shopper’s paradise, a dining revelation. “Mezes” (small dishes similar to Spanish tapas), kebabs and fresh fish are only a small part of the multiethnic cuisine of a city that served as the capital of the Ottoman empire for almost 500 years.
On my first night, the front desk clerk at Azade Hotel recommends that I dine nearby at a place called Shadow. When I survey the menu at the cozy abode on a quaint cobblestone street, tables covered in red tapestry and hookah pipes at the ready, the charming host assures me that his Anatolian cuisine is so good that if I don’t like it, I won’t have to pay.
When he confirms that I’m alone, he demonstrates the famous Turkish hospitality I’ll experience again and again. “Madam,” he says with a regal, commanding accent and loud enough for others to hear, “you cannot dine alone when there is a fine gentleman over there desirous of your company.”
He’s already walking me to the man’s table and diners are cheerfully nodding, demonstrating their approval. What can I do but smile and agree?
He brings me a generous glass of the local red wine. Who started the rumor that Turkish wines are bad? And Shadow’s juicy, tender strips of beef served on a bed of eggplant purée didn’t disappoint.
I dine in the company of a handsome Kurdish-American clothing merchant from San Diego, who insists on picking up my tab after I deliver late in the conversation the news that I’m a journalist. He lowers his voice and advises me to keep that to myself.
The conservative ruling party of this supposedly secular country has a contentious relationship with the media. Attempts at muzzling women and free speech are the reason I would stand in the middle of historic Taksim Square and enjoy a hearty public laugh, my humble gesture of solidarity and protest against a deputy prime minister’s proposal that Turkish women be forbidden from openly laughing in public.
The government sometimes does act in bizarre and scary ways. A prominent Chicago businessman recently spent eight days in prison for buying a sword that authorities wrongly thought was an ancient relic. I’m warned by a guide not to photograph military installations.
But people are another story: They go the extra mile for visitors. As I leave Shadow, I run into the clerk who recommended the restaurant. I thought he might be picking up food or a commission for his referral. But he says that since it was my first night in town, he wanted to make sure that I had made it safely and was enjoying myself. I travel widely and often — and that kind of care I had never experienced.
On my birthday the next night, I decide to splurge at the elegant restaurant at the Four Seasons Sultanahmet, housed in a century-old neoclassical compound that was once a Turkish prison. The fine Turkish wine, the dainty and sublime eggplant appetizer, and the perfect sea bass and potatoes dish are unforgettable — and so is the service.
After I ask for the bill, my waiter surprises me with a stylish candlelit birthday dessert. To top the night, the manager gives me a tour of stately gardens that smell of jasmine and herbs, and of an adjacent prayer room used by prisoners, now gloriously restored for guests. The night’s cost, given the strength of the dollar against the Turkish lira: $38, plus tip.
Mosques and mosaics
Visits to exquisitely tiled mosques, Turkish baths, the bustling Grand Bazaar and the fragrant Spice Market are standard tourist fare in Istanbul.
I dutifully don a scarf to cover my head, leave my shoes in a communal rack before entering, and visit historic mosques built to honor Ottoman pashas and sultans. The exquisite Iznik tiling, the domed roofs, the minarets and the fountains for ablution, the Muslim rite of cleansing before prayer, are fascinating. But, regrettably, I run out of time for the leisure visit to the legendary “hamams,” where I’m told I’ll get the scrub of my life.
This is a walking city with distinct neighborhoods that beg to be explored on foot, by a combination of tram, rail line and bus, and of course, by ferries that connect East and West — and that’s how I best spend my time.
I become addicted to streets such as Istiklal in the New District that surprise with unique shops, public art, a hidden church — or simply a merchant’s imaginative window display of color and texture.
I tour the ancient Chora Church, where the mosaics and frescoes are considered some of the most important surviving examples of early Byzantine painting. They’re so engaging and high up that I leave with a strained neck, a condition that becomes chronic as the elaborate tiled patterns of domed ceilings also are the most striking features of mosques.
At the labyrinthine Grand Bazaar, not only do I get to test my negotiation skills purchasing embroidered silk scarves, but I experience the infamous Turkish bathroom, a hole in the ground that costs a lira to use. That isn’t as much of a rip-off as it sounds. It’s kept quite clean. Alas, I would later compare my purchases with other tourists and discover that my haggling skills aren’t good enough for these clever merchants. But win or lose, it’s all part of the experience.
An excursion along the Bosporus is a must-do, not only to appreciate the unique city skyline and coast, but also the history of what was once called Constantinople, conquered and renamed by the invading Ottomans in 1453.
From the water, the well-preserved Walls of Constantinople come into view as does the architecture of landmarks such as Ortakoy Mosque. And it’s one way to be right in the bustle of the waters of the Golden Horn inlet, the imposing Suleyman Mosque rising in the distance.
Coming back for more
After traveling to some of the most interesting regions of Turkey with a Rick Steves tour, I fly back from Izmir for an extra day’s stay in Istanbul. I decide to remain close to Ataturk Airport at the Renaissance Polat Hotel in the practical, seaside Yesilyurt enclave.
And here, Istanbul transforms into a cloak-and-dagger Casablanca of sorts.
My taxi driver tells me the hotel was bombed so there’s tight, airport-like security. When I stroll the grounds, I see tall chain-link fences and a padlocked dock. A man in white emirati robes, his black-clad female entourage, and their rambunctious children roam the high-end shops on the ground floor.
I’m nursing a bad cold, it’s too noisy in my room with planes landing and taking off, and I attempt to walk the neighborhood looking for one last warm meal. But it’s too chilly, I’m too sick, and there’s Pamuk’s melancholic drizzle again.
I slip into the restaurant next door, Fener Lokantasi, inside a historic and working lighthouse, and try to order a fish soup to go. But the host escorts me to a table with the bluest view of the Sea of Marmara and its waiting ships. I surrender.
I sip my heavenly soup and ask for the bill.
The waiter refuses, explains that the soup is on the house.
“When you feel better, you come back and have a good meal,” he tells me, “and then you pay.”
I suspect that I will return.As it is with all the great European cities, to Istanbul you don’t bid a definitive goodbye — and I did leave that heavenly scrub pending.