Istanbul has had a record growth in the last 5-10 years. You can see this in every corner of the tourist city. People are flooding the streets of Istikal avenue and the shops are always packed with tourists wiling to spend their liras in anything from a simple souvenir to an expensive digital gadget. But is this the real Istanbul or is it just an image, a cover to hide the life of the real people working hard to make ends meet? I am not so sure.
After spending 4 days photographing the streets of the city I have very mixed feelings. In this journal I will try to cover my impressions of the city in different areas, from lodging and people, to food and local stores. 4 days is definitely not long enough to cover or fully understand a culture, that's why this journal will remain a work in progress as I intend to visit the city again. So the trip begins...
Me and my friend Yannis booked our flat using AirBnb, a relatively new web service that allow local owners to rent out their spare flats to people all around the world with ease. As with any new service you try, I was a bit anxious to see how good the place would be. Baris, the owner seemed very friendly from the emails we exchanged during the booking process and I was more than happy to find out that he was even better when we met in a person. He was there at the airport waiting for us after a 30 minutes delay with the flight. Driving home, he explained many things about the city and the places to visit. He even proposed to arrange for entrance to some nightclubs that were the best in the city. The flat was better than anybody would require for a few days trip. Very closely located to the Taksim square but at very quiet and friendly neighborhood. I highly recommend him! After a few minutes unpacking were ready ready to hit the streets.
If there is a paradise for food lovers then Istanbul must be it. The variety of local and international tastes is so great, that is impossible to try everything in a few days without gaining some serious weight. Istanbul is by no means a "fat city". Young people are slim and fit and ladies are very well dressed with clothes that emphasize their physique. Most of the photos with the overweight people shown here are tourists or elder people. The variety of tastes in the city is vast as are the prices. Istanbul is not a cheap city, but there so many options to fit any traveler, even the budget one. In Instikal you can find the local buffets, where you can taste traditional Turkish cuisine.
Cooking has many similarities to the Greek way. Meat and oven prepared dishes are the most common, like the famous Kofteci (in Greek 'keftes'), which are meatballs with a red tomato based sauce and a lot of spices. Rice, aubergines, peppers and tomatoes are also used in many of their dishes. Small local stores sell fruits and vegetables at low prices and you can find plenty of kiosks (small grocery stores) that sell chips, candies, cigarettes and other small products all over the city. In general Istanbul is a great city to experience new tastes. I think you need to be careful in some places about the quality, especially on the meat and when eating things like Kokorec which is a mixture of lamp internal organs. We didn't encounter any issues and we tried a lot of different things. Worst case scenario there is always the good old fashioned junk food chain restaurant like Burger Kings and Pizza Hut.
Cafes & Entertainment
Coffee, tea and shisha are everywhere. In Istanbul you can find the small and old traditional cafes where you can enjoy the fabulous aroma of the Turkish coffee boiled on warm sand. New style cafes, like bistros and modern bakeries are also very prominent especially in tourist areas with prices not different if not higher from other European countries. What is interesting though is that all these places try to keep the old Turkish style and feeling that we've all seen in the movies or old photos.
I was always under the impression that Islamic countries are very much into their religion. Maybe influenced by the movies or old photos and even more by the gatherings of Muslims in London I was expecting to see mosques full of people praying, and meditating.
That's not the case with Istanbul. When we first visited the mosque next to the Galata bridge we found a very quite, almost empty, space with a few people praying inside. I am not a particularly religious man but I can definitely understand why believers choose to enter the temple and find a quit corner. The lightning, the smell even the lack of noise inside a mosque makes you feel so far away from the busy city. A place where you can come closer to your god and even closer to yourself.
Hagia Sofia, one of the most famous monuments in Istanbul, is no longer a mosque but an extremely popular museum, where thousands of tourists visit every day. The Turkish government started restoring most of destroyed parts of the old Christian temple and a 25 lira ticket helps to this cause. Hagia Sofia is very complex due to the many forms it has taken over the years. From a Christian temple to a mosque and now a museum, a person standing inside the building can still feel the vibe of all those different people and cultures that used it in so many different ways.
Personally I was impressed with the architecture, but found the photographic opportunities to be very limited due to the large amount of tourists.
In my opinion and that's just the opinion of a fool, religion in Istanbul is slowly fading away just like it started and continues to happen over the years in Europe. People do accept their god and are much more humble than Europeans and especially Christians, but the emptiness of the mosques, the voice of the imam that was heard by none and absolute commercialization of famous ex-mosques like Agia Sofia, tells me that people are slowly turning away from god or simply turning away from the priests and buildings that represent god on earth.
Istanbul is an extremely multi cultural city. Although it belongs to Turkey and thus to east/Asia, it's hard not view it as another European area. The great thing about Istanbul is that it manages to mix and very well so, the European liberty, quality of life and equality with the eastern beauty, tradition and nostalgia, thus creating a very attractive place to be.
Spas and traditional hamams where tourists can relax and enjoy a masaz can be found all over the city. Combine these with beautiful and traditional hotels or even the resorts on the sea side and you can have an idea why almost 200.000 tourists are flooding Istinkal avenue on a Thursday afternoon.
Of course the most prominent reason for someone to come to Istanbul are the many museums, mosques and other monuments constructed during the Byzantine empire and the Ottoman empire.
Hagia Sofia and Top Kapi are 2 of the top destinations to visit while in the city. Personally I found more interest in the old Yerabatan Cistern which was a construction under the earth that was build by Justinian the great and it was part of the water supply systems in ancient Istanbul. The Top Kapi palace, although very impressive when looking at it from outside, I found it rather empty when entering the rooms. All the rooms had a very minimal design, with beautiful and precise drawings on the walls. That made me wonder how can there be such a contrast between the simple living spaces and the very rich and colorful clothes of the sultans and their harems, that we've all seen in photos.
Hagia Sofia on the other side was a mixture of Christian and Muslim tradition both inside and outside that made extremely interesting.
Houses and flats in Istanbul are very old and traditional looking. However this differs from the inside, where you find all the latest comforts and qualities of a modern house. Our host Baris explained to us that construction business is very high demand the last years in the city and new buildings and renovations are happening all the time. During our visit we also went to a very well hidden tango or Milonga as my friend Yannis called it.
The building was very old and even the entrance reminded me of an abandoned house. When we entered the flat it was a proper dancing school room with wooden floors high ceilings and lovely balcony with view of the whole town.
Final destination was the Istanbul modern museum that was located at the port of the old city. A beautiful and modern building probably reconstructed from an old port warehouse. The museum/gallery had many similarities to the Tate modern with many paintings and other visual creations from artists all around the world. The best part was the ground floor that was dedicated to visual arts like photography and film making. We had a chance to enjoy photos from some great and very creative Turkish photographers. There is also a library and a cozy cafe/restaurant inside.
People People in Istanbul are kind and smiling most of the time (at least at the tourist part of the city). We never felt unwelcome or scared during our visit and we did travel in many areas very late at night.
Of course like every major city there are places and things that you should avoid to do but if you just use common sense you'll be just fine. In many places like the Grand Bazaar people talked several languages and many of them greeted us with some Greek 'kalispera' when we told them where we are from.
Fashion is certainly there, especially with young people and I personally liked the fact that I saw many well dressed people without a lot of extremes like I see daily in Greece. Women in the city have very different styles. Of course there are the modern girls that get dressed like in Europe with high street clothes, but there are also many women who are following the Muslim law and are using full length robes and even cover their hands with gloves.
As I said before, extremes, like very short skirts and other highly revealing clothes is something we didn't encounter at all in Istanbul. Older people in Istanbul are very much respected and helped by young ones. In general I found people to be more respectful to each other and much closer than you would expect to be in a big city. Although everybody seems to be working hard (in many parts of the city shops are open till midnight) they just seem to be more relaxed and happier than in other cities I've visited in the past.