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Istanbul, not Constantinople

May 7, 2015

I really can’t explain often enough how amazing it is to live in a place where we can take a weekend vacation to a place like Istanbul.  The other weekend we had the chance to meet our friend Umut in Istanbul, where was home visiting his family for the month.  We of course jumped at the chance.

So, after a quick two hour train ride to Leipzig, followed by a three hour flight with free alchohol and dinner, we were in Istanbul! Unfortunately it would take another two hours to get to our Umut’s house, since we had to drive from the airport on the european side of Istanbul, to Umut’s family’s house on the asian side.  And that was in light traffic.  Istanbul traffic makes traffic in any city in the U.S. I have been to seem like a minor problem.  It doesn’t help at all that Istanbul is cut in half by the Bosphorus Strait, so that all traffic is funneled into just two bridges.

When we got up the next morning Umut’s mom had prepared an amazing Turkish breakfast for us with all sorts of delicious things to eat:  Three different types of bread, olives, various cheeses, jams, honey, cream, olives, vegetables, and eggs with a spicy type of meat called Soujouk.   The spread of food looked better than you could find at a restaurant.

After breakfast we headed to the tourist district (the golden horn) by subway, followed by a ferry ride across the Bosphorus strait.

What followed was an epic tourist sight-seeing trip:  we saw the spice bazaar, bought a bunch of turkish delight, tried some fresh squeezed pomegranate juice, and then toured the grand bazaar and the Hagia Sofia, all before lunch. The size and history of this city is very imposing and a reminder of how complex a place Istanbul is and was, with its more-than-2500 year history.

After that we met up with Umut’s friend, Ahmed.  We went to one of the oldest places that makes Kofte (delicious meatball-type things, served with spicy pickled chiles) in Istanbul.  We tried Ayran for the first time too – an unsweetened, sour-tasting yogurt drink – and surprised our friends by actually enjoying it and drinking it all, in contrast to most western foreigners, apparently.

The next stop for us was the Blue Mosque.  Alexandra had to don a bright pink headscarf, which amused all of us while we waited in the entrance queue for nearly half an hour.  Neither of us had ever been inside of a mosque before, so it was an interesting and also somewhat awe-inspiring experience.

Next we walked up the “hill” to the old imperial palace, called Topkapi.  By this time, we were too foot-sore to do the palace real justice, so we just made a pre-cursory tour of the easy-to-access courtyards and chambers, and skipped the popular areas with long queues to get inside. The best part for Alexandra seemed to be the fat and friendly stray dogs, and beautiful gardens in and around the palace.

We tried to catch a tram to rest a bit on our way to our next destination – a cafe renowned for its baklava – but instead, we ended up walked along side the packed tram, and made much better time.  On our way, we got to try a fish sandwich, which seems to be an Istanbul-classic.  Relaxing and munching on baklava in the rain was pretty amazing (once we won a place to sit!), and because we needed some more relaxation after we were done relaxing, we found a charming coffee cafe, and enjoyed some Turkish coffee.  When the rain let up and our feet were restored to working order, we found a bar and had a few (very expensive) beers.  It was quite the crazy day.  Finally, tired and extremely full we went back to Umut’s for the night.

The next morning, after sleeping in a bit, we drove (because there is supposed to be less traffic on Sundays) up the European side of the Bosphorus to a small wealthy suburb for brunch.  Turkish breakfast is an amazing meal and is not to be missed, and it tastes even better after you are stuck in unexpected traffic for 2 hours, and it’s already almost lunch time.  We ate a lot (again) and then took a lovely sunny walk along the strait.

Later, we drove up into the hills to the nearby, and nearly brand new, Koc University where both Umut and Ahmed.  After a quick tour, we continued north to a very pleasantly unexpected site, right on the shore of the Black Sea.  Here were the ruins of a 400 year old fortress, with no entrance fee, no gates, and no railings.   We clambered around the ruins of this incredible ancient site, but we didn’t go as high as the more daring tourists, who seemed to enjoy risking their necks.

Finally, we then headed back into the city to visit Taksim, which is the biggest shopping street in Istanbul, and is really the heart of downtown. The street is absolutely packed with people even on a quiet Sunday and there are shops selling literally everything you can imagine.  Alexandra found a few small souvenirs and I got to try a real Turkish Durum (picture a Turkish burrito).  We have Durum in Germany also, but in Turkey they are completely different, and way way more delicious.  After a bit more shopping and walking we found a  place to try Meze for dinner, which is a bit like Spanish tapas.  Meze is meant to be eaten as a late snack and with plenty of beer or wine.  Afterwards we went up to the roof of a skyscraper where we could look down on the city and have a quiet drink.  It was the perfect end to a whirlwind trip.

The next morning after another incredible breakfast and a quick flight we were home!   It all happened so fast!  But I think of all the cities we have seen in Europe so far Istanbul made the biggest impression.  It is so foreign and exotic for us – similar to visiting China for the first time.  So busy and loud and full of sights and smells.  Istanbul is a city of 15 million people.  It is enormous in all ways possible.  It is an amazing place with amazing food and you could spend a lifetime there and find something new every day.

If you can go, it is worth braving the crowds of tourist and people to see and taste as much as you possibly can.

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