I really thought I’d not get a holiday this year. But then it dawned on me, if I cut back from drinking 75 litres of Jack Daniels a week, I might be able to afford at least a couple of days, if I, you know, went full-on budget. Plus I might even remember what I did while I was there. So where to? Hmm. Somewhere slightly more challenging than Italy for the umpteenth time. Somewhere with a different culture. Somewhere to make me think I’d actually left the UK. What about Istanbul? There’s direct flights. There’s Turkish Delight. And there are cats. Oodles of them just wandering the streets, apparently. Perfect.
Normally I research the shit out of places before I go. After an initial couple of hours’ perusal told me that taxi drivers will most probably try to rip you off, there’s 14 million people (ugghh) and terrorists had set off a bomb outside one of the biggest tourist attractions that very day, I decided to stop reading. I also decided not to go to any top tourist attractions, but this was more about having an authentic experience , not silly, media induced fear, I swear.
Come travel day, we hadn’t even taken off before I knew I’d chosen well. I was surrounded with culture the second I squished myself into my seat; the man to my left stroked religious beads, the man on my right sat cross legged and chanted, other men prayed, women in veils outnumbered those without and there was a not unpleasant, but very distinctive, aroma of incense whenever someone in robes swished by me.
Then it all went to shit.
But let’s not focus on the bad things. Well, maybe just quickly – no power, no water, no air con and an unexpected September humidity that had me permanently looking like I’d just jumped into the Bosphorous. Oh and I had to actually punch a handsy a-hole before he understood that no, I did not want to go and make porno with him at 5am while waiting for my airport bus back home. I did say I wanted a challenge, right?
Despite the above, I’d picked a great area to stay in; Beyoglu. Mere steps from my shitty apartment was a lively local community. It bubbled away each day with cafes run by young, trendy twenty-somethings, a Borek shop (pastry stuffed with meat or cheese), a Pide shop (like a pizza), a ‘club’ where old men gathered to play cards and drink tea, a little corner store often run by a bunch of kids serving people between games of soccer and enough neighbourhood cats to keep any cat lady happy for weeks.
It was so nice, not even the Beyoglu hills bothered me, the many, many, 45 degree-angled, narrow, cobblestone lined hills. OK, that’s a lie. I’m betting high heels are not big sellers in Istanbul. I actually wouldn’t be surprised to find Beyoglu is built up over a pyramid. A myriad of paths wind up to the top, shops along the way full of panting tourists trying to catch their breath by feigning interest in Turkish flag t-shirts and all-seeing-eye fridge magnets. That look of delight on everyone’s faces at the top is probably not from seeing the shiny shops of Istiklal Avenue, but because it’s finally, blissfully flat.
I only stayed here long enough to see the famous ice cream sellers making fools of their customers with a deft, almost vaudevillian sleight of hand act. Buy an ice cream from them and try to remain cheerful while he hands you the cone, only to snatch it back at the last moment. Again and again he’ll trick you, to the cheers and ever building mirth of the gathering crowds. By about the twentieth time, see if you can keep your frustration and embarrassment in check and don’t want to punch him in the face. Such fun.
I was travelling alone for this trip, so had booked myself on a couple of tours. One was a day with a local photographer, something that I suppose you need to have a bit of interest in photography to get enjoyment out of, but the other, a food tour, I would recommend to everyone. Who knew how great these were? Ridiculously, I love food. I say ridiculous because I am intolerant to all but about eight ingredients on the planet, and then of those eight, I only like about three.
But even so, I love history, and one of the best ways to learn about a city is through its food. You can spend hours traipsing through yet another museum or gallery, staring at art and sculpture to learn who’s invaded them over the centuries, their climate and their crops, their traditions and culture and influences, walking round a maze of quiet, stuffy rooms until you’ve got a headache from those fluro lights. Or, you can spend a day walking through markets and side streets teaming with locals and colour and noise, slipping into cafes and restaurants to sample amazing things made with ingredients you’ve never heard of and learn exactly the same things. And, you get to eat. You get to eat a lot. Why have I not done this before?
But enough words. Here’s the Istanbul I saw through its food.
Good to Know:
I did my food tour with Culinary Backstreets. They are the number one on Trip Advisor and for good reason. The tour I did was Culinary Secrets of the Old City.
As I briefly mentioned, I was unlucky with my choice of accommodation. I used Air BnB and have until now had nothing but fabulous experiences with them in the past. My advice if you’re thinking of Air Bnb for Istanbul is to either make sure you read other travelers reviews very carefully (ie- more than a few pages worth) or better yet, spend a bit more moola and stay in a hotel. At least then you can be sure to get some kind of refund if you have no power or water for all or part of your stay.