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Hagia Sofia, viewed from the courtyard of the Sultan Ahmed (Blue) Mosque. Photos by Chance St. John. Click on photo to enlarge.
Hagia Sofia, viewed from the courtyard of the Sultan Ahmed (Blue) Mosque in Istanbul, Turkey.

Touring Turkey, Part I

An Inside View of Istanbul: Family Dinners and Fortunetelling

Flying into Turkey, I expected a diverse population, a unique trip, and a cultural adventure. Turkey not only surpassed all of my expectations, but also lifted the bar in every way. Future trips beware; the standards have been redefined.

After landing in the airport and taking a taxi ride to the Constantine Hotel, I was able to wander around the surrounding area. To my delight I found that the Constantine is located right in the heart of Istanbul and mere blocks away from the Hagia Sofia and the Sultan Ahmed (Blue) Mosque.

Orientation

An hour or so after my arrival I met my Intrepid Travel tour guide, Julie Keldoulis, along with a few other travel writers from New York, Toronto, and London.

Due to the torrential downpour outside, we passed some time by going over our travel itinerary for the week, oohing and aahing over tantalizing events like the ferry ride to Asia and hot air ballooning in Cappadocia.

Julie filled us in on the history and cultural background that led from the Ottoman Empire to modern Turkey while also beginning what became a daily tradition of learning common Turkish phrases and expressions. Our Day 1 assignment? The most important expression of all: thank you! Or rather, “teşekkür ederim” (pronounced tah-sha-coor-eh-der-rem).

Once the rain subsided we spent the rest of the afternoon touring some of the nearby sights around Istanbul. Unfortunately we didn’t have time to explore the Hagia Sofia, but the Sultan Ahmed Mosque was truly beautiful and impressive.

We had to wait for prayer time to finish before we were able to enter the mosque; everyone was required to take off their shoes first, while the women were politely asked to wear headscarves out of respect.

Dinner being prepared in the kitchen of the local family who hosted us for the evening
Dinner being prepared in the kitchen of the local family who hosted us for the evening

Dinner Guests

Later we regrouped for dinner with a local family. Dinner was truly a highlight of the trip and an example of what Intrepid Travel can offer that most travelers couldn’t do on their own.

Three families lived in the house in total and it was fascinating to hear their stories of migrating from Eastern Turkey to Istanbul in order to find work.

Only one of the fathers spoke even limited English, so a translator was provided to facilitate communication. Apparently the men had come first to find work and establish themselves before the women and children followed.

It was clear (and later verified) that they were lower middle-class by Turkish standards, but seemed generally happy and eager to share their experiences while asking us questions of their own.

A colorful food shop in the Egyptian Spice Market
A colorful food shop in the Egyptian Spice Market

Dinner itself was delicious and plentiful, with heaping plates of freshly baked bread and various side dishes. The main course included stuffed peppers and zucchini along with an interesting milk/tapioca beverage to wash everything down.

Markets and Markets and Markets, Oh My!

The next day we spent many hours walking around Istanbul and taking in the sights of the Grand Bazaar and the Egyptian Spice Market. Stretching out over nearly 60 covered streets, the bazaar is one of the more awe-inspiring human creations I’ve come across. You can find almost anything you desire within the 1,200 shops, ranging from fine jewelry to caged ducks.

The Egyptian Spice Market was similarly impressive and serves as the hub of spice trading in Turkey. The market is a must-visit for those with a sweet tooth due to the numerous merchants eager to hand out free samples of a variety of Turkish Delight (lokum).

Istanbul University, proudly one of the oldest in the world
Istanbul University, proudly one of the oldest in the world

We then passed through the Sahaflar Çarşısı, also known as the Old Book Bazaar. Although the Internet and modern bookstores have made the market seem more antiquated than influential, it was once the center for book sales and distribution for the entire Ottoman Empire. It is also conveniently located right in front of the Istanbul University.

Walking Tour Continued

Although we missed the regular school year for the university, the campus was sprawling and well groomed, reminding me of the Vassar College campus in New York. Currently in its 557th year, Istanbul University is not only one of the oldest universities in Turkey, but in the entire world.

The Rüstem Pasha Mosque was next on our walking tour of the city, and although not in the same league as the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, it is more befitting of the title “Blue Mosque.” Adorned in rare İznik tiles, the mosque is not particularly large but makes up for it in elegance. Intricate blue designs decorate the exterior of the mosque, which is composed of more İznik tiles than any other building in Turkey.

The Constantine Hotel, located in the heart of historic Istanbul
The Constantine Hotel, located in the heart of historic Istanbul

Fish Please!

We took a break from walking by stopping for a fish sandwich lunch at one of Istanbul’s famous floating fish restaurants along the Golden Horn (an inlet of the Bosphorus Strait).

I’m amazed anyone working on the “restaurants” (read: small boats) is able to avoid becoming sea sick with the heavy waves continually rocking the vessels back and forth. Regardless, lunch was delicious and comes highly recommended; you couldn’t get fresher in Maine (sorry family)!

Fame and Fortune in Taksim Square

After returning to the hotel for some showering and blogging, we took Istanbul’s subway system to Taksim Square. Considered the heart of modern Istanbul, the Taksim area contains many shops, art galleries, and clubs.

Of particular interest was the opportunity to hear my future from a Turkish fortuneteller. As the tradition goes, you must drink a cup of Turkish coffee and flip your cup upside down on top of the saucer. Then you bring the cup and saucer to the fortuneteller, place your thumb briefly on the bottom of the cup, and then allow them to read your energy by running their own thumb along the cup.

A boy dressed in traditional Turkish circumcision garb
A boy dressed in traditional Turkish circumcision garb

It goes without saying that the full results of my reading would be far too scandalous and incriminating to share, but although I am a skeptic, the reading was surprisingly accurate. The important thing you should know is that I’ll have my own business by 2011 with a countrywide network (that will apparently go worldwide once I get settled). If my fortuneteller told me, it must be true.

Ferry Ride to Asia

Our itinerary included dinner at the Galata Bridge before a ferry ride from the European side of Turkey to the Asian side. Instead, our small group made a unanimous decision to explore more of the other side and have dinner in Asia.

Although the Asian side of the Bosphorus was similar in certain regards, it was also noticeably less touristy than the European side. Dinner was excellent and featured a wide array of appetizers that were easily shared, similar to tapas. Unfortunately we missed the live band that was setting up nearby, as we had to catch a ferry back.

Only the Beginning…

Back at the hotel for the night, I was excited for the morning’s trip to Bursa. Istanbul was wonderful and everyone should put a visit on their bucket list, but I wanted to explore the less traveled areas that Turkey had to offer.

I can’t wait to catch you up on the rest, but every area deserves its own article, and that’s exactly what you’re going to get. For now, plenty more pictures and stories are available on my blog. Tune in soon for my adventures in Bursa and Selçuk!

Chance St. John

 

Chauncey (Chance) St. John is a Magna Cum Laude graduate of SUNY Albany. He freelances as a travel writer while preparing to join the Peace Corps and currently works with GE as a financial analyst.

 

 

Read more GoNOMAD stories by Chance St. John:

The Magic of Madrid: Salsa and Siesta in the Center of Spain

The Dominican Republic: Tropical Terrains and Pristine Beaches

Climbing the Shawangunks in Upstate New York

Historic Denver: A Journey through Colorado's Gold Rush

 

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