When my parents informed me, last August, that we would be evading grandparent’s obligations by escaping to Istanbul, I started imagining the ancient walls of Constantinople, golden with Byzantine art, and the cadenced call of the muezzin rising from the minaret into the orange sky.
When we got there, I was almost physically hit by the force of the Turkish city. Istanbul turned out to be much different than what I had pictured: immense, crowded, loud, full of contrasts between East and West, ancient and new. It’s the second-largest city in the world, and it makes exactly the sound of 14 million people talking and existing all together.
It is not one of those cities where you wake up at dawn to enjoy the sweet secret bond that is created when it’s only you and silent century-old monuments. It is not one of those cities that you enjoy whilst sipping tea in a bohémienne glass café. There is plenty of tea-sipping, but it happens out there, in front of the Blue Mosque, where a man shouting ‘çay (chai)!’ serves the said Turkish tea in its typical tiny glasses, which are afterwards collected and impeccably re-used for the next customer without even a rinse.
It is a city where the watermelons served on the streets are so juicy and sweet that you don’t care if they are cut and handled by dirty hands, where you almost don’t feel guilty about eating lokma, the deep fried-dough pastries soaked in honey and cinnamon at the port.
And, whilst street food is probably the most fun to try, one should not miss out on a good meal in a proper restaurant. After all, after a long day spent elbowing people to reach the other side of the street, sitting down to enjoy an İskender kebap might come as a relief. And if one is not a fan of meat, there is also a big variety of fish-based dishes. In fact the best dinner we had, and the most delicious appetizer, consisting of peppers and yogurt on bread, was in a tiny and hidden restaurant where you could hear the cook whistling in the kitchen while grilling our fish.
Another unavoidable destination is, of course, the bazaar. When we went, the Kapali Carsi, the Grand Bazaar, was unfortunately closed for the end of Ramadan, but we found another market not too far which, even if smaller, still proved to be a magnificent sensory overdose. Stunned by the amount of things we had the instinct to touch or smell, it is hard to resist the annoyingly lovable sellers, who find any way— from complementing your smile to complimenting your mother— to sell you their spices, dried fruits, teas and tea sets. Even if the prices are double than everywhere else, their loud charm will make you leave their stand with a higher self-esteem and feeling like you just got the greatest bargain.
There is much to see in Istanbul, but what I find to be most beautiful is that of which the city is made of: the chaotic kaleidoscope of smells, flavours, sounds and colours that tells us about the history, and the future, of this beautifully untidy transcontinental metropolis.
After all, that’s what Istanbul is: you take a lot of pictures, you eat a lot of baklava, you fall in love a little bit.
By Beatrice Staffini