Constantinople. The Second Rome. The City of the World’s Desire. And more recently, the city of my desire that I have been tirelessly trying to convince my parents to let me go to for the past three summers, alas, without success. But in the wake of the moon eclipse on the last weekend of July, an astrological event so rare and unique that even I knew about it through my obscure astrology meme pages, the stars finally seemed perfectly aligned for my contemporary crusade to Istanbul.
Much like my knowledge of astrology, my history background is way too superficial and rusty for me to be able to imagine what an actual medieval crusade was like, but for all I know, it seems like a good word to describe my journey. First, there was the necessary obtaining of the Pope’s blessing, or in my case, convincing my parents that Istanbul is relatively safe and that I wouldn’t get raped, murdered or worse, married to a Turk. Ah, it’s amazing what five centuries of Ottoman domination or, as we like to call it, “Turkish enslavement”, and a little nationalist bias in history books can do to even the most progressive Bulgarian minds.
After the patriarch(al parent body) was taken on board, it was time to mobilize the troops. Only, in my case, my army consisted of only one soldier: my Serbian friend Boris, or the token white Christian strong male, armed with the crucial task of keeping me safe from those suspicious bearded men and all the other dangers that can befall innocent young girls traveling alone (but not guys, cause nothing bad can ever happen to the patriarchy’s favorites).
Finally, there came the time for the prophetic journey. In the era of modern technology and transportation, passing on the somewhat pricy one hour Turkish Airlines flight deal for the much more authentic experience of a nine hour bus drive seemed like an actual crusade. 600 kilometers, one border, two passport checks, three to four hours of poor sleep and about five bathroom breaks later, we had finally done it: we had arrived at the gates of Constantinople. Or, to be more exact, we got off at a noisy otogar in Bayrampaşa, at the far end of the European side of Istanbul.
Branding, Borek and the Bosphorus
As someone who does marketing for a living, the first thing that struck me was how much Turkish people relied on direct advertising: as we were wandering around the bus station, trying to find a bathroom or the metro entrance, I was overwhelmed by the number of local salesmen repeatedly shouting the name of the product or service that they were offering. “Bursa, Bursa, Bursa! Izmiiiiiir, hayde, Izmir!”, the voice of an apparent traveling agent echoed in the parking lot. “Soğuk su”, shouted a man carrying a mini refrigerator, which, as I later found out, meant “cold water” and was your best shot at surviving the smoldering summer heat. Seriously, the equivalent of thanking the bus driver in Istanbul should be thanking the man selling that sweet one lira (less than 20 euro cents) icy cold water on every corner.
The trip to our Airbnb, strategically located in Kadiköy, one of the Asian side’s up and coming neighborhoods near the Bosphorus, was less troublesome than expected. One metro change and a quick ride on the Marmaray, a line passing directly under the Bosphorus, took us to our designated home for the next couple of days. We dropped off our luggage and proceeded to our first and most important destination: the börek shop. For my non-Balkan readers, börek is a type of pastry made out of thin layers of dough and filled with cheese, spinach, eggplant, meat or various combinations of all the above. It’s crispy and buttery and it tastes sweeter than the dream of lasting peace and prosperity on the Balkan peninsula.
Of course, having grown up in Bulgaria, nothing about this breakfast delight was new to me, except the name (we call it banitsa because we’re real Slavs). However, this particular börek shop was a whole new gastronomic experience. We were greeted by the chef (The master? The Börek King?), who, without being able to say even a word in English, made us feel like we were the most important guests he’s ever had. He insisted that he serve us a piece of each different flavor directly in our mouths (I know it sounds weird, but trust me, at the moment it felt very gourmet-like), after which we were seated on a traditional knee-high table with even tinier chairs and each of us was served a carefully selected börek mix. The meal was accompanied by an ayran which, even for my snobby Bulgarian standards, was delicious, as well as the typical tall glass of çay, the classic strong Turkish black tea that wakes you up faster than a shot of Italian espresso.
From Magnificent Century to Kadiköy Hipsterism Real Quick
This impromptu börek tasting was one of the first of my many delightful encounters with the traditional Turkish cuisine, the accumulation of which made my return to Sofia and the nine hours of sitting without being able to lie down to relieve the bloating almost unbearable, all the while completely worth it. But more on the food later. Barely arrived on the Asian side, we had to hop on the Marmaray again to get to the historical center. It was our first day and we were tired, so we only had a glimpse of the Ottoman Empire’s “Magnificent Century” glory, but I’ll tell you this much: décor-wise, the eponymous soap opera is not as over-the-top as you might think.
Speaking of over-the-top, the historical center was also the place with the most contrast in female dress code that I have ever seen. On one end of the spectrums, you have the Western tourists in shorts and crop tops, on the other – the Saudi multiple wives’ squads, covered in black veil from head to toe with only their eyes and their Gucci bags left uncovered. While women in burqas are a common sight in touristy places, it is not at all a common practice among Turkish women and is even frowned upon and ridiculed by the more progressive Turks, which call the integrally veiled ladies “the penguins”. As for the local women, obviously some of them cover their hair with surprisingly stylish headscarves, but even among the secular majority I immediately noticed a specific Istanbul street fashion. 70’s overalls, wide high-waist pajama pants and heavy but flawless makeup even in the sweating heat are among the trends that I will be desperately trying to recreate for the rest of the summer. And no wonder Turkish women are so stylish, since they have a huge variety of local and international clothes brands and some of the best shopping deals!
But back to the more vital stuff: dinner. In the evening, we met with our somewhat local friends who had been working in Istanbul for the summer and they took us to a meyhane – a traditional Turkish mezze restaurant with a view of the Marmara Sea. The principle is essentially the same as the mezze restaurants that I had tried in Greece: you all share at least six or seven small appetizers, which consist of different variations of veggies, salads or seafood. The main courses are typically fish or meat. It all sounds very nice and healthy, if it wasn’t for the waiters constantly walking around with these giant plateaus and tempting you with more and more food. Like I said, direct marketing is big here. The same approach is applied to the drinks: we ordered a bottle of raki – a traditional Turkish/Greek digestive which kinda tastes like cough medicine, but after the waiter came for a third refill, I started thinking about it as more of a life medicine. It all felt very spiritual as we were sipping our raki and watching the moon turn red over the sea. Some of the people in the restaurant even applauded the eclipse, which was the most extra thing I had seen since the Russians clapping when a plane lands and when the engine turns off.
After dinner, we walked around and sat for drinks in the heart of Kadiköy, the cool progressive neighborhood where intense gentrification has made it look and feel a lot more like a Greek or Italian town center, rather than the Asian part of Turkey. People were young and hip, drinking foreign alcohol and discussing Turkish politics. The average age of our surrounding crowd was not more than 25, everyone looked like they were taken out of an American Apparel commercial and you could not see a single headscarf.
Blue is the Warmest Color?
Over the next two days, I discovered other parts of Istanbul, but my heart remained in Kadiköy. I thought I would spend a lot more time sightseeing, but the endless waiting lines and the burning heat forced me to seek refuge in less mainstream places. Still, seeing Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque gave me the sense of grandeur that everyone describes when talking about Istanbul, but I couldn’t really apprehend it until I stood in the middle of a square with those majestic buildings on both my sides. However, my favorite historical site was the Topkapi Palace with its beautiful gardens and breathtaking view of the Bosphorus.
Ah, the Bosphorus. In three days, I crossed it four times, contemplating its blue waters from the docks of ferry boats, sitting in coastal cafés or walking on the shore past local fishermen. It’s fascinating how integrated this unique body of water is in the ordinary life of the city. On my last day and my last crossing of the Bosphorus, I discovered what I call “the Riviera of Istanbul”: a picturesque upper middle class neighborhood on the European coast, filled with Italian-style cafés and gelato shops and people roaming around the tiny streets on tiny Vespa motorcycles.
Finally, I’d like to finish this love letter to the Second Rome with a special mention to its one and true conqueror: the cats. More than any king or sultan that has ruled over this holy city, the cats of Istanbul are the only ones that asserted a lasting dominance and eternal devotion. You can see them on every corner, being fed börek by the local shopkeepers or hiding from the sun in their specifically designed cat shelters. And my personal favorite? The liberal hipster black cat of Kadiköy, of course.