Byzantium and Constantinople

Istanbul has a rich history that has been influenced by many cultures in many times. Istanbul was Constantinople. Now it’s Istanbul, not Constantinople. Been a long time gone, Constantinople. Now it’s Turkish delight on a moonlit night! Throughout its long history, this city that touches both the European and Asian continents was once the capital of the expansive Roman and Ottoman Empires.

The Blue Mosque

Hagia Sophia

The sites we visited that most highlighted both the city’s history and its grandeur included the Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya), the Topkapi Palace, the Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmet Camii), the New Mosque (Yeni Cami), and the Istanbul Archeology Museum. The Archeology Museum was overwhelming as I made my way through the one million artifacts including some beautiful Roman statues and some very elaborate sarcophagi. And with our hostel located just next to the Sultanahmet District, all of these sites were only a short walk away.

Hagia Sophia 2

Topkapi Palace

Ferry Boats

Athens and Istanbul both had great ferries. Athens had a system with boats that looked like cruise-liners while Turkey’s boats were more ferry-like, but they both were effective and enjoyable. In addition, Athens boats traveled longer distances instead of just over the Bosphorus in Istanbul. Given my positive ferry-riding experiences in these two countries, Dr. Derek Shepherd may have had it right when he chose to work in Seattle because of their ferry boats. A daily commute that includes a short ferry ride could be enjoyable (as long as traffic wasn’t an issue).

Ferry across the Bosphorus

Ferry back to Rafina Port, Athens

One City, Two Continents

Before leaving Istanbul, it wouldn’t be fair to us or to the city itself not to go explore the Asian side, so Adam and I hopped on a ferry and ventured over to Kadikoy. Here, we enjoyed a much less touristy experience, good food at a restaurant called Ciya Sofrazi, and a fun network of lively, filled streets. From this journey over to Kadikoy, we can now better appreciate the fact that one city is built on two different continents. That said, the area still had a more Turkish than Asian feel, and based on the shear number of Turkish flags (which we have seen all over the city hanging from almost every building), there was no question that we were in Istanbul first and Asia second.

Traditional Turkish Tea
Traditional Turkish Tea from Ciya Sofrazi

A Haircut and A Shave

Walking around Istanbul, barber shops with men receiving haircuts and shaves are a popular site. I have gone about 10 days without shaving and my hair is the longest its been in months as my pre-Nepal trek haircut in Bangkok was not too short. Instead of buying a new razor to replace the electric one that I blew out because it couldn’t handle the correct voltage, I venture into one of these shops, haggle with the barber, and sit down for a close haircut and even closer shave.

The haircut is as expected as the barber grabs an electric shaver and guard, cuts my hair to all one length, and adds a little fade on the sides while cleaning up the edges. The shave, on the other hand, is a new experience. The best part of the shave is probably at the beginning when my chin and neck are lathered up with warm suds. I then watch to make sure the barber uses a new blade, and sit back as the sharp edges passes over my face. At the end of the shave, the barber gives me a burning alcohol rinse followed by a cooling lotion. Lastly, the barber uses a lighter to singe off my sparse but apparently present ear hairs. At this point, I flinch a bit and we share a good laugh. Looking several years younger and with one my closest shaves, I leave the shop refreshed and re-energized.

More from Istanbul

During the day, Adam and I explored the sites of Istanbul and wandered through both its Grand Bazaar and Spice Bazaar. The smells and sights from particularly the Spice Bazaar were always strong and always changing. The spices organized neatly in bins or baskets lined the aisles and every seller stood directly in front waiting to try to pull anyone and everyone into their shop.

Spice Bazaar

In the evening, we changed gears and crossed the river to Taksim Square where it was easy to find cheap beers, Tavla sets, and live music. In fact, right in the middle of the square was a live concert featuring a group playing traditional Turkish music with a heavy bass beat. The crowd around the stage was young, enthusiastic, and fun to watch. As we moved away from the square, the streets were flooded with people. Every alley was full of tables and chairs set up outside to take advantage of the nice weather, and restaurants remained open serving all types of food. We stopped at one restaurant to enjoy a savory filled pancake that we saw being artistically prepared in the window. Unfortunately, we became so involved in the scene in and around Taksim that we missed the last tram home. We could’ve taken a taxi, but there were two of us and the walk wasn’t long even after making a couple wrong turns. On the return trip, Adam and I walked under Galata Bridge, another area full of bars and restuarants. Istanbul, as I’ve mentioned before, is clearly a young and active city.

alley near Taksim

On my way to Taksim

Istanbul, Turkey

Adam and Andrew’s excellent adventure continues onwards to Turkey, but instead of using a phone booth, we’ll probably stick to an airplane for this journey.

Kebabs, hazelnuts, corn, smashed ice cream and more all the line the streets around Istanbul. More than a snack, the smashed ice cream felt like a show. A server who was all dressed up swung around a half meter long spade-esque utensil kneading the ice cream, lifting it out of its freezer, spinning it around, hitting a bell or two, and then returning the ice cream back only to perform the same routine on another flavor. After a little haggling, Adam and I tried a layering of many flavors atop a sugar cone. The hazelnuts stands, although not as exciting, were impossible to ignore as they sent out smoke signals letting us know when we were close. The smoke from roasting the nuts may have been more okay if the amount of cigarette smoke had not already over-sensitized me.

From the Istanbul Grand Bazaar

A quick aside on cigarettes: Most of the cigarette packs I have seen thus far in Europe have largely printed warnings such as “Smoking kills!” and “Smoking causes cancer” along with graphic images of diseased lungs, removed larynx’s, hospitalized patients and more. However, despite these efforts, smoking companies seem to have little to fear on this side of the Atlantic as most people are not slowing down consumption. During this trip, without ever having a cigarette of my own, I feel like I have begun regular consumption through second hand smoke. In addition, in Turkey, hookah is a very popular activity, and although it is not addictive, it still shares most of the negative effects of cigarettes.

Although cigarettes are one of Europe’s bad habits I am trying to come to terms with, a different Turkish habit that I immediately embraced is the widespread Tavla (also known as backgammon). Most bars and cafes leave out Tavla boards to play while guests drink a beer or tea. One evening, Adam and I enjoy a bit of a Tavla marathon before heading back to our hostel.

While in Istanbul, we are staying at the Bahaus Hostel, where we are greeted by the friendly and always joking Volcano. Volcano is in fact what he called himself; however, it was a nickname for a different name that I did not learn. We walk inside and Volcano steals my hat and sunglasses before giving us a tour of the common areas, bathrooms, and rooftop. Full of information and always willing to help, Volcano made the hostel experience very enjoyable. In addition, Adam and I met the other guests on our first evening while enjoying the rooftop bar, cheap beers and kebabs. And by the end of the evening, we made a plan to tour with three girls we met from Hawaii the following morning. But before morning came, the rooftop provided an international experience in itself as we all taught each other popular games from our respective world regions including the USA, Belgium, France and the UK. I recommend the Bahaus Hostel near the old city of Istanbul to any future backpackers and budget travelers.

Istanbul is a fun city, alive with young people, with culture, and with a proud history. Istanbul and Turkey will be a place to which I already know I need to return.

The view from Bahaus Hostel, Istanbul
The view from Bahaus Hostel, Istanbul