Istanbul is a city like no other... literally. It is the only major city on the planet that's geography rests on two continents, Asia and Europe.
Our visit to Turkey marked the final chapter of our 5-week tour of the Middle East before we tackled the cold of Eastern Europe. The short two hour flight on Royal Jordanian Airlines had us in Istanbul just after lunch.
Before passing through Customs and Immigration we were stunned to learn that Canadians are required to purchase a US$60 visa. We looked at each other with curiousity, disbelief and disgust, "What?!"
Needless to say it was an unexpected expense.
It was like pouring vinegar on an open wound when we learned that every other nation was only required to pay between $10 to $20. Seriously?! Canadians are charged 3-times MORE than everyone else? I gather someone must have pissed off the Turkish government at some point. We had flashbacks of entering Santiago, Chile earlier on the trip - Canadians entering via the Santiago airport were required to pay US $132 in reciprocity fees, also topping the list when compared to other nations.
Let's just say our first impressions were not going too well!
Once we left the airport, and its discriminatory fees, our opinions of Istanbul started to shift (positively that is). One of our first observations was the green grass… a welcome change from the dirt, dust and sand that we had been living in for the past month. Although it was much cooler and required us to take out our jeans and sweaters.
Istanbul is a historical city that used to be called Constantinople after the Roman Empire overtook the small city-state of Byzantium. In 1453, the important trade city became the capital of the Ottoman Empire but today the capital of Turkey is Ankara (about 5 hours east).
The city is filled with historical sites, making it a sightseer's playground. There are beautiful old mosques everywhere… it seemed every corner had a new treasure to discover! The more we explored Istanbul, the more we liked it.
Istanbul was not the Muslim city we expected. We expected a city dominated with head scarves and traditional attire. We expected strict Muslim practices and limited Western influences. We envisioned a derelict infrastructure with dusty streets and endless shisha smoking cafes. We essentially visualized a more Middle Eastern city, like Amman or Cairo. We couldn't have been more mistaken!
Instead, it's a very cosmopolitan and progressive city with over 18 million in population (depending on who you ask). It's comparable to any other major European city with a good transportation system, swanky restaurants and nightclubs and booze sold at every corner store. Women rarely cover themselves with traditional Muslim dress and it seems that the people have a much more liberal approach to their religion.
We had arranged to stay with Onur, a friend of Nicole's from her time with The Company of Young Professionals in Vancouver. We've been extremely fortunate to be able to stay with friends throughout our global adventure. Exploring a city with someone who knows the lay of the land and the culture is always preferred; and saving on hotel expenses definitely helps our rapidly diminishing, non-replenishing travel budget.
Onur had moved back to Turkey about 7 months prior so our timing was good. He picked us up from Taksim Square in Beyoglu and welcomed us to his very spacious three bedroom apartment. We were extremely thankful and appreciative for Onur's hospitality. It's not every day that we can do laundry, call home, post photos online and cook dinner… it's the little things that we miss most on this year long journey.
That evening, our first in Istanbul, we headed out to enjoy the crisp shoreline of the Bosphorus Straight, arguably one of the most unique rivers in the world because it flows from the Black to the Sea of Marmara (ultimately reaching the Mediterranean) and separates Asia and Europe.
We had tea in a café along the river while Onur taught Cameron to play backgammon, a popular board game in Turkey. Onur then took us to the Beyoglu waterfront. We walked for several km's along the paved Bosphorus seawall, passing hopeful fisherman and couples on a romantic evening. The night-time views along the river were incredible and had us bypass several multi-million dollar yachts and swanky waterfront nightclubs; we quickly understood that there is a lot of money circulating Istanbul. The waterfront reminded us of the Stanley Park seawall in Vancouver.
The evening concluded with a stroll down the energetic and stylish Istiklal Cad strip in the Taksim area. We had to ask ourselves, "Where did Asia and the Middle East go?" The strip is very European and modern with trendy boutique shops sandwiched by Western fast food chains and local donair joints. Istiklal Cad is the core of an even larger network of restaurants, lounges, pubs and nightclubs that make it the social place to be. It's a very popular, fun and lively place to be at any time of day.
So what about the food? Well, its simple. Turkish people love their meat and its readily available everywhere. If it can be cooked on a stick, it's a Turkish cuisine! Cameron was in heaven. Nicole, not so much. Luckily all of the donair restaurants make a vegetarian wrap or pita, albeit with a confused and somewhat judgmental glare (how can someone survive without meat?!). That said, Turkey is also known for its decadent deserts and sweets - this made Nicole happy.
If we had to compare Turkey to another nation we would say it's more like Greece than other Muslim countries in the Middle East. The food and coffee are quite similar (almost identical), although we wouldn't dare say which we like better because both countries claim to have been the 'inventors'.
Unfortunately, like the rest of Europe and the Middle East, everyone smokes everywhere at all times (even in taxis with the windows rolled up!). It's never good when you get home and your clothes reek of campfire and Marlboros.
We didn't know exactly what the plan for Turkey was. We were thrilled to finally be in Istanbul and planned to spend a good portion of our 10 days in the superb mega-city.
November 10th, 2009
Continued on the next Turkey blog titled "Sultanahmet and Old Istanbul"