I just finished watching the latest James Bond installment: Skyfall. I’m glad I waited until it came out on Netflix rather than paying the exorbitant theater prices. To say I was a tad disappointed was an understatement. The movie had one redeeming value, it reminded me of my time spent in Turkey a year ago as Bond chased his villain around the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul. As shocking as it may seem, there are times, in the past year, that I have simply forgot I ever entered into that country. When I arrived home, I could not muster any words to summarize my experience. I started post after post and I was never able to come up with anything to sum up my experience. After I year, I thought I would finally summarize my experience on this cold, winter, flashback of a Saturday.
I chose to visit Turkey since it was one of the few places my fiance, at the time, could travel without any restrictions from Morocco. Also, he used to live in Turkey. So, he could show me the ropes since I didn’t speak any Turkish. The most enticing thing about going to Turkey was finding airfare from the US for around $500. I can’t remember the exact total, but it was in the $500 range. As I tell my clients all the time, having flexibility (about dates and departure airport) can you save you a lot of money on travel.
My trip was a bit of a hodgepodge: 1 night at a hotel close to the airport overlooking the Marmara sea; a few nights at a boutique hotel that sat across the street from the Blue Mosque, and the remainder of my time in the new part (close to Istiklal Avenue) in an apartment we rented on AirBNB. If I had to go back and plan the trip again, I would still split my time between the historic and the new parts of Istanbul as they are very different and offer different experiences.
Istanbul was sold to me as a city with a deep intersection between European, Asian, and Middle Eastern cultures as it is situated on both the continent of Europe and Asia. It is in fact interesting how all these things blend to make one city, but not unique. My personality connected with the ancient side. Although loud, I enjoyed hearing the call to prayer blaring from the Blue Mosque. I’m not Muslim nor deeply religious, but there is something about hearing the call to prayer that really moves me.
While in the old part, I enjoyed looking at the old buildings, walking down the cobbled streets, and feeling as if I had taken a step back in history. It also helped that when I first arrived, the weather was warm. So, it made for strolling around the city pleasant. Other than walking around and viewing some of the ancient buildings, one of the highlights of my first few days was having hookah in a small square and watching a Whirling Dervish.
Before leaving the old city, we headed to a few bazaars: the Spice Bazaar and the Grand Bazaar. Both bazaars were huge and offered a lot of options for tourists and locals. Both were extremely crowded and unbearable to walk through. There were rows upon rows of things to look at and gawk over. If I could compare the two bazaar’s, I would say the Spice Bazaar was more “authentic” with goods from Turkey. There was tea, spices, herbs, and custom goods. Whereas the Grand Bazaar was filled with Western imports such as Mac Cosmetics. For many who have visited Istanbul, these bazaars are a sight to behold. It is nothing like they have ever seen before. Since I have already visited Morocco, known for their souks, I wasn’t impressed upon seeing the various bazaars. I kept saying to myself, “been there, done that”. If I had to compare the two, if they can even be compared, the souks in Morocco really ring “old school” and a tiny representation of what I perceive as authentic Moroccan culture. There isn’t too much modernity about the markets except for electricity. The souks are mainly open-air and there aren’t too many (if any) western imports. The Grand Bazaar in Istanbul reminded me of a shopping mall.
Going from the old city to the new part provided a different perspective. There weren’t as many tourists as our apartment was in a very residential neighborhood. We were close to a lot of banks and office buildings. It looked very much like any other European neighborhood I have been to. I was urged to spend some time shopping on the famous Istiklal Avenue. When I arrived on Istiklal Avenue I was shocked, confused, and disappointed at the same time. I wasn’t sure if I was in Istanbul, Turkey or Madrid Spain on the busy Gran Via. Most of the stores were chains, many of which we have back in the United States. Although I was disappointed, it didn’t stop me from purchasing Krispy Kreme donuts or McDonald’s when I really couldn’t decide on anything else to snack on. Because there is this pre-dominant theme of class of cultures, with regard to Istanbul, I expected to see more of what I saw in Morocco. Instead, I saw another big, European city.
I did a lot of other things during my visit such as taking the ferry to Princes Island, walking by the sea, and of course eating some great Turkish food. At the close of my trip, I went to a reggae club called Nayah. Reggae has the ability, in my mind, to make everything right. It soothes the soul, turns my frown into a smile, and completely puts me in a trance. Nayah was a real gem with great music and not so bad drinks. As I was dancing to Jah Cure, Tarrus Riley, or perhaps Beres Hammond, I thought “Istanbul isn’t that bad”.
I don’t necessarily feel inclined to return to Istanbul again as I do other cities like London or Paris. However, as I have had a year to ponder my experience, I think I would have gotten more out of my Turkish experience had I visited other places such as Cappadocia or the Turkish Riviera. With Turkey in the spotlight for recent government protests and the conflict in Syria, I am thankful that I had a chance to visit in person. Working in the travel industry, I’ve heard clients and colleagues say now is not a good time to go to Turkey considering the recent protests and it’s proximity to Syria. I always feel the need to respond and say “I just returned from Turkey, it’s fine.” I usually get a blank stare following by “really”? Although Turkey is officially part of the European Union, there is still some mystery around this country and this part of the world for Americans. My experience was purely superficial and aesthetic, from a tourist gaze. However, I am fully aware that Turkey has a lot to offer and uncover with regards to its political and economic structure. Likewise, it has a deep and important history that I didn’t even begin to uncover.
My only suggestion for the pure tourists…if you have been to other European cities and/or the middle east, you may be a bit disappointed. However, if you are making your first trip out of the US – you will be completely blown away – positively!