I recently spent a happy week in Istanbul. I was staying in a family-run hostel in Beyoğlu close to the main pedestrian drag, Istiklal Street. I visited mosques, palaces and bazaars, the names of which will be familiar to anyone who has visited Istanbul. I rode a ferry along the Bosphorus and lolled on the warm marble at a steamy hammam. What I liked most, though, were the small things that usually aren’t worth writing home about, those intricate details that fill the space between sightseeing and sleeping.
For one, I loved drinking tea in the afternoons in leafy tea gardens. I would read my book as waiters walked around with silver trays, depositing a glass of tea at a slight nod of the head. I nodded my head a lot as I worked through the last sixty-odd pages of Anna Funder’s All that I Am, each cup of tea fortifying me in the face of yet another betrayal. It was a peculiar but excellent choice for a holiday read. I loved syrupy baklava with my tea, especially the kind with walnuts, incompatible as it was with holding a book (or, actually, anything), fingers sticky with honey.
I drank Turkish coffee in the morning, the afternoon, the evening. I loved the dainty little cups, even with my clumsy hands. The generous owner of a local café would bring out a sweet or cake with my coffee as I sat at a little table with my Lonely Planet. I got to sample all kinds of homemade Turkish sweets and returned the favour by leaving a box of baklava on my last day. When it was really hot, I drank homemade lemonade and fanned myself with holiday brochures. I picked up jewelled lokum (Turkish Delight) studded with nuts and fruit from the Spice Market, confirming my suspicion that my favourite is the plain rose we also have in Sydney. It’s funny how we like the things we’re used to.
I liked to be still. This was my favourite ‘activity’ after a long day of sightseeing. Gülhane Park, behind Topkapi Palace, turned out to be a great spot for resting and people watching. I snacked on a sesame encrusted simit or bagel by the fountains or, one time, sprawled on the hill to watch the ferries cruise along the Golden Horn. One night, I watched the sunset at Galata Bridge, sitting on the concrete outpost with my legs tucked in. The mosques along the shore were eerily lit up and the boats ferried people back and forth, some thumping with party music – as I sat quietly and watched it all.
On my walks in Istanbul, I passed lots of stray cats, little darlings sunning on the pavement or hiding under café chairs. I noticed strangers leaving behind a trail of kibble for the strays while shopkeepers refilled plastic tubs on the kerbside with water. A local woman I met told me it was better for the cats to be outside; they were freer that way, she said. Sometimes I stopped to buy mussels for a lira or börek to sustain me on my walks. The touts I passed were pretty apt at guessing my nationality, choosing ‘Russian’ and ‘Australian’ about equally when hawking carpets and gold. I could tell the time of day by the call to prayer, reliable as clockwork.
One night, there was a blackout in Beyoğlu. It lasted 4 or five hours, which to a sheltered Sydneysider like me seemed rather exciting. I went out to dinner with a fellow Australian; we ended up at a little unassuming spot where we ordered by charade and dined by candlelight. We ate dolma and stuffed peppers, and I ate a big bowl of vegetables – some of the best Turkish fare I’d had in Istanbul. Afterwards, we got our smartphone torches out and found a spot at a terrace café on French Street. We drank Efes and talked about all manner of things, silly, fun and sometimes serious. I had many fascinating conversations over breakfast or in the evenings in bars and restaurants with the people I met in Istanbul, a new friend for every day.
Next time around, I’ll probably revisit the big drawcard attractions, but mostly I think I’ll drink tea and eat baklava. It was when I was standing still or sitting down, seemingly doing nothing, that I really got a glimpse of the city. The time-fillers between tourist landmarks – cups of tea or coffee, the taste of street food, the conversations and encounters – are what give a city its character and set it apart from all others. This is the stuff memories are made of.
Written by Tanya Vavilova | Image via Istanbul Travel Guide