Istanbul, Turkey Oct 2020
After a very early start, we bid farewell to Ian at Istanbul (he was due to return to work so travelled straight back to London to quarantine!) and took the coach through the traffic into the city. Constantinople, as it was called back in the 30’s, had always sounded like one of those exotic places you read about in spy or adventure novels and I was looking forward to exploring. Dan had stayed here previously on a couple of occasions (once worryingly just before terrorists planted a bomb at a nearby nightclub). Istanbul had always been on my bucket list and I had originally planned to visit once things were safer – what better time than in the middle of a pandemic?!
Although the streets were busy, the Turks were very sensible, mostly wearing masks, and every shop, restaurant and hotel had plentiful supplies of hand sanitizer (or it could have been Raki!). To be honest, the chance of being mowed down as you tried to cross the road hugely outweighed any risk of catching the virus. Our hotel was in the Karaköy area on the Golden Horn (as it resembled the head of a rhino I presumed – unless there’s another less innocuous explanation I was yet to discover!) and we had splashed out on a sea view room. The views overlooking the Bosphorous and skyline of Istanbul were superb… apart from being slightly ruined by the dilapidated 70’s built multi-storey hardware storage facility which stood directly opposite our window. Still, we knew where to go if we wanted to buy a lawnmower or a crate of nails!
Feeling more in the market for something to eat, we set of in search of some “borekis” – crispy, cigar shaped pastries, filled with cheese and spinach. “Meşhur Sarıyer Börekçisi” (try saying that when you’ve had a few Rakis) had been serving up these delicious snacks since 1895 and had branches all over the city. It didn’t disappoint.
Feeling fortified, we joined our charming young guide Emir on a walking tour of the main sights of the ancient district of Sultanahmet. Picking up interesting anecdotes and tips, we wound our way past The Blue Mosque (not blue, and actually called the Sultan Ahmed Mosque), the Hagia Sophia (which over the centuries has transformed from a church to a mosque to a museum, and is now once again a mosque), strolled through the Hippodrome with its relics of the Byzantine, Ottoman and Egyptian dynasties, were flushed to explore one of the city’s many Roman underground cisterns, and finally made our way to the Grand Bazaar.
Our brief foray through this massive indoor market’s maze of shops selling everything from ornate tea sets to belly dancing outfits was enough to send my head spinning, and we were glad to be led to a quiet courtyard where we gratefully sank into the soft cushioned seats for a well-earned cup of tea (well glass of tea to be precise!). The Turks love their tea (and coffee) but I’ll never understand why they always serve it in small glasses instead of cups. You either need to wait for it to cool down or have asbestos fingertips in order to pick up your beverage.
Here, Emir amused us with stories of his life as a tour guide in Istanbul and impressed with his grasp of several languages. He was fluent in Spanish and explained that before the pandemic, Istanbul was incredibly popular with Hispanics (and Americans) who came to visit the filming locations of their beloved Turkish soap operas!
Finding just enough energy (and lured by the promise of a Margarita or two), we climbed up the hill behind our hotel to a trendy rooftop (more stairs…) Mexican restaurant Dan had found for dinner.
Watching the sun set over the city, followed by a quick cocktail back at the hotel where the approaching storm put on an impressive display, made for a memorable end to our first evening in Istanbul.