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Allahaısmarladık, Istanbul

It didn’t seem possible. Had our 91 days in Istanbul really come to an end? I couldn’t believe it, so I opened my journal and counted the pages. Although it felt as though we’d just arrived… although we were still in the process of settling into the city’s rhythm… that was it. Our time in Istanbul had reached its conclusion.

Goodbye Istanbul

Having taken a couple months off after an action-packed 91 days in Idaho, we were unusually well-prepared for our time in Istanbul. We’d read books about the city and watched a few movies set on its streets. We had pored over guidebooks, compiled lists of things to do, and even learned some of the language. Istanbul was the largest city we had yet tackled, and we wanted to hit the ground running.

Over the course of three months, we barely rested. Every day was occupied by a visit to another museum, mosque or church. Taking another ferry ride, exploring a different neighborhood, meeting a new acquaintance, trying out a restaurant or bar… usually a combo of at least three such activities. “No time, no time!” soon became our motto, as we shuffled breathlessly from one sight to the next. Mosque, museum, bar. Ferry, mosque, cafe.

I won’t lie: Istanbul wore us out. In our final weeks, we started to strike things from our list (apologies to Belgrade Forest), in favor of a few more leisurely hours in our favorite hangouts. But the quieter memories will be among those which most endure. Sitting across from the Maiden’s Tower, a light rain tapping onto the umbrella above our heads. Discovering a tea garden in Kadiköy and joining backgammon-playing students in hours-long nargile sessions. Relaxing in Gülhane Park with a simit and a view of the Bosphorus. Listening to the calls to prayer while sipping rakı at a rooftop terrace.

Istanbul is an amazing city, completely unlike any other place we’ve been. There’s so much history here, so many stories. And as we were reminded in our final weekend, Istanbul is not all about the past — it’s vibrantly alive. The Gezi Park protests awakened in us a new respect for the city’s citizens; a liberal, secular minority often at odds with the rest of Turkey. Clearly, this is a people determined to defend their city as a haven for tolerance, environmentalism and modernity in an increasingly conservative and capitalist country.

So, we leave exhausted, but with the knowledge that we’ll never forget our time here, nor look back on it with anything other than warmth. These were three of the most entertaining months of our lives. We learned so much, met so many wonderful people, ate such incredible food, and visited sights which rank among the world’s most amazing… Istanbul has enriched our lives in ways we’ll probably never fully understand. And for that, we can only say “Thanks”.

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July 13, 2013 at 7:21 pm Comments (11)

Istanbul By Night

Cihangir At Night

After the sun goes down, the usually lively neighborhoods of Istanbul undergo a transformation. Gone are the simit sellers, the shouting schoolkids and the turbulent traffic, leaving behind empty streets, silhouetted minarets and decrepit houses which look all the more haunting by moonlight. Striding down the cobblestone alleys in search of a stiff drink, with your collar up against the wind, you’ll wish you wearing a fedora: Istanbul at night would be the perfect backdrop for a classic film noir.

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July 13, 2013 at 2:57 pm Comment (1)

A Final Batch of Photos from Istanbul

Istanbul Look

Istanbul is a photographer’s paradise. Both colorful and gritty, beautiful but deteriorated, and filled with people who always seem happy to have caught the camera’s eye. We’ve had a fun time browsing through the tens of thousands of photographs we’ve collected during our 91 days here, and have selected some which show off the many facets of Istanbul. It’s probably impossible to define a city with a few images, but this is our best shot.

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Modern Design Istanbul
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Neaon Tabela Istanbul
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Dinner Istanbul
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July 13, 2013 at 1:44 pm Comments (4)

The Cats of Istanbul

It was a common sight in Istanbul. You’d be standing in front of some amazing building like the Hagia Sophia or the Galata Tower, and all the tourists would be completely ignoring it. Their cameras were trained on something cuter than some ancient old structure: a playful pack of mewling kittens.

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Istanbul’s street cats are a phenomenon. They’re everywhere in the city; balancing on windowsills, cowering beneath cars, slinking between gravestones, sunning on benches, even relaxing in churches. And despite yourself, despite having sworn that, today, you would not be taking any more cat photos… that the 50,000 pics you’ve already snapped are quite enough… and that, to be honest, your cat picture obsession is starting to alarm you… you see another! And it’s chasing a butterfly, or making a grumpy face, or wrestling with its equally cute little sister, and you just can’t resist.

The city loves its cats. Almost as frequently as the animals themselves, you’ll find little plastic containers of food that people have set out for them. You’ll run across tiny cat houses built to provide shelter during storms. In many other cities, they’d be considered a pest and “dealt with” in some nefarious way, but Istanbul focuses its efforts on caring for them.

During our three months in the city, we must have photographed hundreds of cats. We got to know our neighborhood crew fairly well… there was Stink Face, Whitey and Scab Licker. In May, kittens started appearing, and we even rescued a baby who’d been abandoned by its mother. We have so many cat pictures, we started a Tumblr photo series called Daily Cat Istanbul.

The cats were an unexpected highlight of our 91 days in Istanbul. If you’re in the city, make sure to play with a few… and if you swing by Çukurcuma, say “hi” to Scab Licker for us. He’ll be the one licking his scabs.

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July 12, 2013 at 11:13 am Comments (17)

Hidden Corners Behind the Grand Bazaar

Istanbul is the kind of place which favors bold exploration, as we learned after an exciting day spent in the maze of streets around the Grand Bazaar. The city is filled with quiet, secret spots… if you can muster up the courage to go down that darkened hall, into that empty courtyard, or up those crumbling stairs.

Secret Hans Istanbul

Of course, I’m not recommending that anyone skip off willy-nilly into Istanbul’s abandoned buildings. We ventured into a couple places that I would never go into were I by myself, or were it after dark. But a cautious exploration of the old hans around the Grand Bazaar can be very rewarding.

Our day began in the Subuncu Han, near Eminönü Plaza. This han itself doesn’t have much to recommend it, just a bunch of jewelry stores surrounding a tiny courtyard, but there was a great locals-only spot for lunch on the second floor. Instead of sitting down in one of Eminönü’s döner shops for an overpriced lunch geared toward tourists, we munched on excellent and very cheap lahmaçun (Turkish pizza) with a few guys who work in the han.

We progressed steadily from Eminönü towards the Grand Bazaar, every once in awhile escaping the crowds to duck into another han. We found gold and silver-smiths at work in the Leblebici Han, and watched a couple men train flocks of trick pigeons in the Büyuk Yeni Han. And in the gray, French-influenced Stamboul Yeni Tcharchi Han, we were the only people at all. A young guy witnessed our hesitation about venturing down an long, dark tunnel-like hallway in the Sair Han, and encouraged us to proceed without fear. At the end, we found a nargile workshop. The most well-hidden nargile workshop in the world!

Inside a couple hans, we were able to get onto the roofs for amazing views of the city. The first was at the northwest corner of the Sair Han; before going inside, you can scale a flight of stairs directly to the roof. But the better view was at the massive Büyük Valide Han. Here, we were approached by a key-wielding man who knew exactly what we wanted. “Go on roof, yes?” A small five lira tip later, we were up on top, looking over the city and the Golden Horn.

It was an incredible day out. If you’re interested in doing something similar, check out a great book called Istanbul’s Bazaar Quarter, by Edda Renker Weissenbacher and Ann Marie Mershon: a comprehensive guide to the Grand Bazaar and the streets which surround it, with four self-guided walking tours.

Locations on our Map: Subuncu Han | Sair Han | Büyük Valide Han

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June 21, 2013 at 2:22 pm Comments (6)

Istanbul’s April Showers

Foam-Art-Istanbul

We had been suffering through some rough weather for weeks, but spring finally arrived toward the end of April. The bad weather had us a bit of an emotional rollercoaster — overcast days are not normally our thing, but somehow the clouds struck a melancholic note appropriate to Istanbul.

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April 29, 2013 at 3:15 pm Comment (1)

From Sultanhamet Square to Beyazit

Before we arrived in Istanbul, I spent a long time poring over a map of the city. And I needed a long time, because Istanbul is catastrophically huge. The megalopolis has stretched its border (and the bounds of belief) to over 2000 square miles, remorselessly swallowing any unlucky village in its path. I was nervous that in order to reach the various sights scattered about Istanbul, we’d have a lot of long bus and train rides to look forward to.

Triumphal-Arch-of-Theodosius
The Arch of Theodosius

So the reality of getting around in Istanbul has come as a major relief. The city is far easier to walk than I’d feared, and public transportation is cheap, quick and efficient (if crowded). Most importantly, most of the major sights are packed closely together in or near the historic center. On one of our first days, we walked along the tram line from Sultanhamet Square (next to the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia) to Beyazit: a short, straight walk during which we saw one historic treasure after the other.

We started at the fountain between the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. Tourist central. Locals have almost entirely moved out of this neighborhood, which is now dominated by foreigners and the people who cater to them. After visiting the Sunken Cistern, we escaped the morass by walking west down the Divan Yolu, or the “Road to the Imperial Council”. As the name suggests, it’s a thoroughfare which has been integral to the city since Roman times.

Column-of-Constantine

Following the tram tracks, we soon reached the Column of Constantine. Known in Turkish as the Çemberlitaş sütunu (Hooped Stone), this is one of Istanbul’s oldest surviving relics, erected in 330 AD, when the city was christened Constantinople and became the capital of Roman Empire. The column was damaged by an earthquake in 416, after which the iron hoops were added, and again in a massive 1779 fire that earned it another nickname: the Burnt Column.

Across from the gate to the university, we found the ruins of the Triumphal Arch of Theodosius. There’s not much left to see; the ruins, only discovered in the 1950s, are laid rather haphazardly on the ground and won’t mean much to the archaeological layperson. But experts have been able to determine how the arch must once of looked.

Perhaps even more than the monuments, we enjoyed the modern city sights: the googly-eyed tourists at Sultanahmet Square (I don’t mean that disparagingly; googly-eyed is the only way to be when flanked by the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque), stray cats lounging on city benches, men hard at work on one of Istanbul’s endless construction projects, and students on their way to class. The 21st century hurrying busily along its path, oblivious to the ancient relics all around. It’s a fun dynamic, and one we’ll be seeing a lot of in Istanbul.

Location of the Column of Constantine | Arch of Theodosius
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March 17, 2013 at 3:49 pm Comment (1)

Impending Spring in Istanbul

Spring-in-Istanbul

The beginning of our stay in Istanbul coincided with the beginning of March, and the slow onset of spring. The temperature was still cold, but blossoms were starting to appear on the trees and every day was milder than the last. And on the streets, we could sense the optimistic, expectant energy which always goes hand-in-hand with the end of winter.

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March 11, 2013 at 9:46 am Comments (5)