Istanbul: Old & New

Wednesday, July 09, 2014
Istanbul, Turkey
"Istanbul was Constantinople
Now it's Istanbul, not Constantinople
Been a long time gone, Constantinople
Now it's Turkish delight on a moonlit night"

- "Istanbul was Constantinople", The Four Lads

Tonight on the Amazing Race, Kristin and Chad, Team Out of the Office, are eliminated and sent packing. Try as the might, they could not successfully navigate Istanbul's old neighborhoods and find their way on their own to the colorful old streets of Balat. They were dropped off by taxi, which most definitely ripped them off, at the city's original walled gate at the far northern outskirts of Istanbul, on the western side of the Golden Horn. Their map was clearly not accurate and, in the blazing heat, they walked through winding old streets, up and down hills, around numerous churches, mosques and synagogues, but could not find the meeting point. Chad did, however, find baklavah for about a quarter. 
"You feel like a real loser when you have to flag down a taxi to drive you five minutes away," said Chad after the defeat. "I turned my freaking phone's data package on to get some GPS and see exactly where we were. No lower feeling, epic fail." was Kristin's only comment. 

It was worth it though, Balat, the old Jewish quarter of the city, was an area we had both wanted to see. Its old wooden houses and colorful buildings did not disappoint. We even made a friend, a 13-year old boy who lived in the neighborhood who was clearly bored and knew how to earn a quick lira. He casually guided us around with a noticeable limp, and took us to an incredible church we never would have seen otherwise. He ended our tour with a story in broken English that made it sound like he and his older brother got into it with a neighbor who was picking on their little sister. Chad's convinced the kid was shanked in the thigh by a switchblade. Take our money dude...
Istanbul really is an incredible city, with old and new, east and west meeting. We stayed in the historic core of Sultanahmet, where old relics lay around every corner - maybe a random headstone or wall from an ancient palace. Istanbul is OLD, like 660 BC old, and today feels like a combo of Europe and the Middle East with stylish shops and cafes, and women in headscarves. 

The Blue Mosque was out our window and the call to prayer seeped in five times a day. I love that sound, takes me back to Morocco. It's also Ramadan, an annual month of fasting according to the Five Pillars of Islam, so many locals were starving themselves from sun up to sundown. Each night around 8pm, the lawns and parks in the city became covered with families ready to chow down on their picnics as soon as that last call to prayer of the day declared dinnertime. Chad and I have no doubt that the muezzin in town battle it out over the loudspeakers, especially for final call, like dueling DJs at a rave, for a shot at the Blue Mosque gig. On our last night we had a drink at sundown on a rooftop and listened to a few throw down.
Turkey seems to be Islam Light though, with most shops and restaurants open throughout the day, I did not see people drop to their knees at call to prayer time, plenty of booze available, and we noticed many Muslims eating. Turkey went through secularization long ago and it can be felt today.

We spent some time being super tourists and hit up the Hagia Sophia which was stunning and Chad's favorite, the incredible and eerie underground Basilica Cistern with Medusa pillars, a lovely sunset river cruise on the Bosphorus, the bustling Spice Market and crazy Grand Bazaar, and the extraordinary Blue Mosque with its dreamy hues of pink, green. yellow and blue, which we waited in line for and was worth it, until our covered-from-head-to-toe bodies couldn't take the heat and thick air anymore and we took off. 
We also explored Beyoglu, the "newer" part of Istanbul over the Galata Bridge where we found an edgier Turkey with gay bars, dance clubs, street art, thrift shops selling old records and Turkish versions of American movie posters, and young Turkish hipsters smoking weird cigarettes and drinking colorful cocktails.

We did a lot of shopping where we made friends with the shop keepers - Turkish cotton towels, blown glass lanterns, evil eyes - and even more eating - shish kabob, doners, freshly caught fish sandwiches, mezze plates, Turkish Delight. We hunted down a rice pilaf cart in the middle of nowhere we had read about, and it was worth the hunt. The cart was filled with layers of chic peas and rice and the best chicken anywhere. They dish it up on paper plates, serve it with hot peppers, a splash of ketchup, and a local white yogurt drink, Ayran, for $3. We sat on short plastic stools on a slab of concrete with about a dozen cats, and got seconds.  

Istanbul is a city where you could spend weeks and weeks and always find new places to explore. We loved roaming around, even though it was 97* degrees, so we ate ice cream and popsicles along the way (have you ever had a Magnum Pink Bar - Jesus). 

In three days we barley skimmed it, but got a good idea. It's a metropolitan city with a laid back feeling and a tourism machine. The buses of July were unreal, so getting out into random streets and off the map neighborhoods was ideal, even if we barley knew where we were. Losing your way is half the fun, because you're never really lost, with or without GPS. 



Gorgeous pics as usual Kristin. I knew you would looooove Istanbul. Isn't it a fascinating mix of old and new, European and Asian. So cool. I did not get to that cool Balat neighborhood. Sorry I missed it. Glad you got there. xo


Sounds like a place I need to put on my list! Thanks for the wonderful story.


Kristin, absolutely amazing! It's so wonderful receiving the emails of your awesome traveling experience. Thank you so much for sharing.