When my friend Hilary emailed me a few weeks ago to say she was going to Istanbul for work and wondered if I could swing a trip east to meet her, I thought for all of two minutes before booking my flight.
The Bosphorus Sea had always grabbed my imagination and Istanbul was a city I was dying to visit. Spanning Europe and Asia, with a deep, varied history, and by all accounts fantastic food and shopping, I was in.
I read dozens of travel stories, blogs and websites in preparation and was feeling overwhelmed by the task of narrowing down the lists of things to do and see. Four days is no match for two continents, thousands of years of history and too many mosques, palaces and ruins to count.
So, I changed tack and decided to just arrive with an open mind and see where the city took me.
We chose a hotel in Sultanahmet (the old city), walking distance to most of the big tourist sites. I had read that it was super touristy, but since we were only in town for a few days it was perfect. The location was really convenient and the hotel was cute and comfortable with great staff.
Hilary was working so I had lots of time to explore on my own and after a Turkish breakfast of cucumbers, tomatoes, olives and many soft cheeses in the trendy hotel restaurant, I set off to find a museum about the Orient Express I’d read about.
Apparently it is the best kept secret in the city. I’d read that it was inside the Sirkeci train station not far from Sultanahmet, so I asked the concierge how to get there.
He looked at me like I was crazy and conferred with a few colleagues who had never heard of it either. They pointed me in the direction of the station anyway and wished me luck.
The little museum was there alright, tucked away in the train station that had served as the terminus for the Orient Express, right between the long benches of the waiting area and the restrooms.
It was just one room, filled with artifacts, bizarre scale models, and the highlight for me – a mock up of a dining car table complete with a fake view and an original, china table setting. I’d always heard about the Orient Express, and it sounded so mysterious and romantic. I love a kitschy museum, and a free one even more. So if you are of like mind, I’d highly recommend it.
The station is on the edge of the Sea of Marmara where the walkway is lined with tour boats and men selling corn on the cob, roasted chestnuts and Simit – the ubiquitous sesame seeded rounds of bread – from little red carts.
Sirkeci is a bustling area in the larger Faith district, which encompasses most of the historic area. It’s filled with shops, offices, restaurants and brightly lit, and bakeries full of dazzling arrays of Baklava, Turkish delight and and bowls filled with all kinds of pudding.
I walked passed a little alleyway lined with tiny, brightly colored fabric covered tables and stools filled with people drinking tea out of small curvy glass glasses.
I stopped to take a picture and the young man carrying trays of tea and coffee from table to table persuaded me to take a seat and have one myself. He pointed to a small glass encased grill and showed me how they heat the copper cups of tea and coffee over logs of coal.
I ordered a Turkish tea and got comfortable on one of the low stools. The alleyway led to a motorcycle shop, and the clientele seemed to be mostly heavy smoking Turkish businessmen.
My bill came to 1 TL ($.55), well worth it for a the scenery alone and the steaming cup of slightly bitter, highly caffeinated tea wasn’t bad either.
Ahmet, the friendly waiter, told me his real job was at a seafood restaurant on the waterfront, and that he was just helping out a friend who had opened the tea shop – called Cay Evi (Cay pronounced chai, means tea) last year.
He said he would write down the name of the restaurant for me, but when he handed my note pad back I realized he had actually just given me his phone number – my frist taste of the unique charms of Turkish men.
After sheepishly paying for my 1 lira tea with a 50 lira note, garnering a pained look and an “oh lady” from Ahmet, I headed back towards the hotel.
I passed by an adorable looking hole in the wall restaurant and stopped to peer through the window. Inside I saw a few tables and an old man cooking up meatballs and bright green chillies over a grill.
The mustachioed chef caught my eye and waved me inside. The tables were all full but he motioned towards a tiny spiral staircase and I climbed up to a second floor which held a tiny second dining room with a hand full of empty tables.
I saw a framed picture on the wall of the same man with a proud smile under his mustache holding a plate full of glistening meatballs, and it dawned on me that the chances of finding something vegetarian on the menu was slim.
I now realize that the clue was in the name of the restaurant: Mesher Filibe Koftecisi – Koftecisi means meatball.
The same man who had waved me in, appeared at the top of the stairs holding a white plate piled high with beans, shredded carrots and lettuce.
I tried explaining that I was a vegetarian but wasn’t making any headway.
“no meat?” I ventured
He said something in Turkish and then I heard something I recognized “Salad?”
“Yes! Salad!” I said.
I pointed to the picture on the wall and said “meatball?”
He agreed and I said “okay, no meatball, yes salad.”
I wasn’t sure if we were on the same page, but I stayed put, and soon enough he returned with the plate of salad now piled even higher with onions and a basket full of big hunks of bread.
He placed it in front of me, squeezed a lemon over it and sprinkled deep red chili flakes on top and motioned for me to stir it all in.
People started filing into the small room and all of the tables quickly filled. After watching for a few minutes it became clear that salad and meatballs were the only two dishes the restaurant made.
As I tucked into the salad, which was delicious – a delightful mix of hearty white beans, crunchy carrots, onions and lettuce and a zesty lemony chili dressing – the waiter appeared on the top of the stairs again, this time holding a plate of gleaming meatballs and grilled chillies. He looked at me, pointed at the plate, pointed to me and shrugged.
I mimed no thank you and he acquiesced. When it came time to settle the bill, the grand total came to 5 TL (less than $3)
This was the first of many comical conversations that contained one noun and lots of miming. It’s been a while since I’ve been in a place where there is not a whiff of shared language, and it was a challenge at times, but also a reminder of how much is said with hand gestures and facial expressions alone.Even without a common language, I found the Turkish people I met to met to be amazingly helpful and friendly.
After lunch I wandered around the imposing Blue Mosque and found a little shopping area behind it, the Arasta Bazaar.
According to the shop keepers and sales people I spoke to, business is booming in Istanbul and people are doing very well. The shops were filled with delicately painted pottery, gorgeous Pestemals – Turkish woven towels – and so much kilim – the traditional Turkish woven carpets.
One vendor, Moses, whose shop was packed with kilim covered leather bags and shoes, told me he goes around to villages all over Turkey buying up old carpets and then turns them into other products in his factory.
The things in his shop were beautiful but quite pricey – $130 for a pair of kiim covered shoes and upwards of $200 for the bags. But he told me he had just returned from a selling trip to Alexandria, Virginia where a shop there was planning on selling his bags for $800 and his shoes for $300.
My first impressions of Istanbul were of a stunning, thriving, cosmopolitan city, and that was just day one.