Having arrived at the hotel at 8.00am with about 2 hours sleep behind us, we were not a sight for sore eyes. Tired, sweaty, hungry and in desperate need of a toilet, we checked in, dropped our heavy suitcases off and started the long wait until our room would be ready at 14.00.
The Hunt For Breakfast In Istanbul
The first stop was food. A new country. New cuisine. Think of all the yummies we would find! Our second wind came, and quickly.
The footpaths were wide enough for only one person and taxis, trucks and cars raced along the narrow roads at speeds that we were not entirely comfortable with. Tiny cafes popped up every couple of meters with big vertical skewers of meat rotating at their shopfronts. Men sat on miniature chairs around miniature tables placed strategically on the footpaths, sipping almost crimson Turkish tea from petite hour-glass shaped cups. Bakers were working, cutting some kind of fried pastry and filling their display windows. To the right of us the streets ran down to the seaside, to the left they sloped sharply upwards towards the old center.
We quickly found a quaint little bakery with an impressive display window full of unknown delicacies. We decided coffee was in order and stepped inside.
Our First Turkish Cafe
As it was our first time in Turkey, we had no idea what to expect. What was that orange cake? And that pasta bake with cheese? And that turnover covered in walnuts? Where was the menu in English? Where were the prices? Where should we pay?
The waiter, a middle-aged Turkish man, answered a few of our questions very abruptly, took our coffee order and then told us to “Sit down.” I hesitated. I hadn’t yet found out what even half of these baked goods were. How could I sit down? I needed to know EVERYTHING. Maybe it was a peculiarity of Turkish hospitality or this specific waiter’s hesitance to explain every product in English, but he insisted that we sit down and order from the table. We did. The coffee was good but bitter. Very bitter. We paid after the meal and then headed uphill to the old center.
The walk was a mini adventure in itself. We passed more cafes boasting kebabs and pides, tiny green grocers with enormous nectarines and peaches lining their stalls and a huge variety of bulging, fresh figs. Many buildings had four or five stories with the ground floor functioning as a shoe or clothes shop where nike, converse, leather sandals, boots and all kinds of (faux) handbags and outfits (for both children and adults). The remaining stories were the manufacturing outlets/factories. Having climbed high enough up the street, we could look down and catch a glimpse inside these rooms where men were frantically snipping, sewing and measuring material.
One street over, in the middle of the road, groups of men were packing (or unpacking) cardboard boxes full of textiles. The screech of masking tape, the indecipherable cries of the workers and discarded pieces of plastic tumbling down the street.
Stray Cats and Dogs
We climbed higher. Stray cats were everywhere, and stray dogs no less ubiquitous. We noticed that outside many storefronts, someone had left a bowl of water and some food for the animals. This explained why they were all so portly and self-satisfied, strolling among the locals and tourists and plopping down for a nap wherever they liked, whether it be directly in the cafes entrance or in the middle of the footpath.
We reached the peak of the hill and walked out into large Sultan Ahmet Square with two giant pillars (The Walled Obelisk and Obelisk of Theodosius) standing in the middle. Further on there was a large pagoda-shaped building with an ornately patterned green roof and basins and taps around the outside for people to wash themselves. Small market stalls selling textile bags and wallets lined the square and a myriad of foreign tongues could be heard as tour guides rushed about, leading large groups from one point to another. The sun was beating down and we had already broken a sweat after our small hike up the hill. We walked further and, in a few minutes, arrived at an even larger square flanked by two enormous, grandiose mosques; Sofia and the Blue Mosque. The middle of the square consisted of small pathways winding through fountains and one side was lined with small stalls selling fried chestnuts, corn on the cob (both fried and boiled) and giant Hop on Hop off tour buses. Hawkers’ cries filled the air, offering their goods in zealous tones. It was beautiful but hot. Oh so very hot. And there was no shade anywhere.
We decided to stroll on and started our descent to the left of Sofia where we took a right hand turn and found our way into a city park. Gülhane Park. There was a small police booth to the right and a giant police car stood nearby that looked like it had come straight from a transformers movie. There was lots of green grass, flower beds in shades of red and purple, and tall Plane trees shadowing us from the sun. The park was filled with interesting sculptures and water features, including one whose droplets formed a picture or word when they fell down. Families lounged around on the grass enjoying picnics and groups of friends walked around, gossiping and joking. Despite there being several women without some kind of head covering, the majority dressed much more conservatively than what I was used to.
We made our way to a wooden park bench and sat down for a rest. Nearly an hour later we opened our eyes and realized that we had spent our first day in Turkey, the first day of our new nomad lives, sleeping on a park bench. It seemed fitting.
After exiting the park from the opposite end, we came out onto the main road that runs along the Marmara Sea seaside. We walked along, watching the local men swimming in the choppy but sapphire blue water. Some remained on the giant boulders lining the shore, roasting mussels, keeping cool under strategically propped-up umbrellas. Some lay sprawled out on the boulders, roasting themselves under the fiery sun. A stray dog joined us for a few minutes before being called over by one of the locals for a pat. We walked along this road until we found the next turn into the old city and were well and truly parched. Summer in Istanbul is definitely not mild.
The Old Streets
Our turn took us into a residential area of the old city. We wandered through narrow, cobblestone streets that were home to both old, dilapidated wooden houses and newly-renovated, polished boutique hotels. Children chasing each other, playing tiggie and middle-aged women carrying home bags of groceries home passed us. Everything was colourful, everything had character.