So I’ve neglected this blog for a little longer than I meant to (whoops) but between midterms, a trip to the Peloponnese (you can see pictures here but I don’t really have a lot of extra words to say) and a weekend trip to Istanbul, I’ve been quite busy. But I do have some things I want to say about Istanbul before I leave for fall break tomorrow!
I want to say first and foremost that I had an incredible time. I traveled with my roommate, Emily and a friend of ours, Amber. We did have a little bit of a hard time with Turkish men–we found them to be much more aggressive and forward than Greek men (which is saying something, since Greek men aren’t known for being shy!) and I was glad I was with two friends as, even all together, I still felt ill at ease at some points. Still, it was a wonderful trip and we had a fantastic time. I would definitely recommend a visit to any of my friends, as long as they travel in groups!
We arrived at our hostel at midnight, after some confusion at the airport, and we were happy that a young man from reception met us downstairs and helped us carry our bags to check in on the 7th (!) floor. I realized right away that Istanbul is a very vertical city–most places we went into were very long and narrow but were several stories high. We were treated to Turkish hospitality right away, with a warm tea while we checked in. The little caffeine boost was just what we needed to venture out for a little midnight walk!
Unlike Athens, central Istanbul was nearly deserted at midnight, with no cars on most of the streets except for a few cabs hopeful to gain our fare (they wouldn’t have any luck–our hostel was a three minute walk from the Blue Mosque). While we were exhausted after our travels, our eyes widened as we took in the sight of the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque lit up in the darkness, windows chock full of Turkish Delight and baklava, and storefronts displaying silk harem pants and cashmere scarves.
That night, as we settled in to our room we shared with a friendly young German woman named Nora, we slept lightly, too full of excitement to sleep soundly. We were all awoken at 5am to the Islamic call to prayer ringing out in beautiful, clear voices before the sun was even close to rising. Groggy from our lack of sleep, we wondered if the beautiful music was a part of our dreams, but when we woke up later that morning until we realized we’d all heard it. Our hostel offered us fresh, soft bread and jams, hard boiled eggs, and of course all the tea we could drink for breakfast, with a view from their rooftop balcony:After we’d filled ourselves up, we set out for our obligatory first stop: the Hagia Sophia.
This place left me speechless. It took my breath away. No pictures can do it justice. The scale is absolutely incredible and the mix of Orthodox iconography and Islamic script was not only beautiful, it spoke to Turkey’s long and complicated past. I was so moved by this experience, I can’t put it into words.
Afterwords, we found a comfy, dry space to eat traditional Turkish pancakes stuffed with potatoes, spinach, and meat.
Our energies renewed, we headed to Topkapi palace. I was nervous at first as the first few rooms of the complex we moved through were full of impatient, pushy tourists, but after we reached the courtyard, the crowds eased up and we were able to spend some time relaxing in this beautiful corner.
We somehow managed to fit in a visit to the Grand Bazaar about an hour before it closed and while it wasn’t as crowded as we had been warned, it was still an overwhelming experience. So many things to buy, such a limited student budget! We did try our hands at haggling, and I think we got some pretty good deals (or at least got prices down to reasonable). Again, I was shocked by how forward and bold Turkish men are–I’m not really a fan of this, but sticking with friends, I felt pretty safe. We had one really cool experience when my friend wandered into a carpet store. She did not intend to buy a rug that night, but we sat on the second floor of this carpet store and sipped on tea for about an hour and haggled without the intention of buying, which ended up helping us get the price down to a point where Amber couldn’t resist any longer and bought a pretty rug she’d had her eye on. Maybe that was the salesman’s ploy all along, but whether this was the case or not, we had a lovely time chatting with him about life in Turkey.
After walking around all morning, afternoon, and evening, we stopped for a quick coffee and checked back with the hostel to see if they had found any activities for us to do that night. Our friend who had given us tea the night before had found two things for us to do: see a whirling dervish and visit a Turkish bath!
We arrived at the cafe just as the dervish was taking the stage, and as we sat in the shadow of the Blue Mosque, surrounded by hookah smoke, listening to live music and sipping on apple tea, I truly felt that I had been transported to another world.
But this was nothing compared to the experience of the Turkish bath, or hamam. This experience was a little bit more spur of the moment than our main priorities, but it was something I’d heard other people say good things about, so I was excited to go. We went to the bath recommended by our hostel and opted for the massage option to treat ourselves after a long day of walking in the rain, and it was worth it! The whole experience was so relaxing, from the warm towels we received when we first walked in, to the sauna, to our massages (with buckets of foam!), to a dip in a cold pool afterwards. We ended up staying for two hours and when we were finally done, I felt the cleanest I think I’ve ever felt. We smelled heavenly as we walked back to our hostel, and we all slept like babies that night. The next day we took things a little bit easier. We started with a visit to the Blue Mosque, which was absolutely stunning. The Blue Mosque, unlike the Hagia Sophia, is still a functioning mosque, so women are required to cover their heads and everyone is required to take their shoes off. We spent quite a bit of time here, hypnotized by the beautiful painting all around the mosque and discussing our feelings on covering one’s head. It was my first time covering my head in public and I have to say, it was quite warm and hid the fact that I hadn’t showered that morning!
We slowly made our way to lunch (pita with barbecued meat and hummus for me!) and then the Egyptian Spice Market. I was a little turned off by how crowded this market was and actually ended up getting separated from my friends. Luckily we had set a meeting point and I found them there a few minutes later, but I was traumatized by the experience and we headed back to our home base to go to a quiet cafe and write postcards.
Since we were leaving early the next morning and we had to use up the rest of our Turkish lira, we decided to treat ourselves at the bakery a few floors down from our hostel room to baklava and Turkish delight for dinner (with a healthy side of apple tea, of course). I managed not to eat the entire store full, and had our friendly neighbors wrap some up to take home as a sweet memory from Turkey.