My sandal tan lines are quickly fading now that we’re back in London! The sun glittered on the choppy Bosphorus the entire week we spent in Istanbul, and while we may have done little in the way of traditional sightseeing, we ate decadently and thanks to our local friends, got to experience the city much like they do. Armed with guidebooks, Anya von Bremzen’s recent Travel & Leisure Magazine guide to Istanbul, and the incomparable Aziz (a terrific friend of my husband’s), we were still only able to skim the surface of this city on two continents, home to 15 million people from numerous backgrounds. It’s a city with something for everyone, full of Middle Eastern charm with European sensibilities, girls in short shorts happily coexisting with women in the hijab. It’s a place I’d very happily call home.
The weekend we arrived was a holiday to commemorate Ataturk, the leader whose face peers down from photographs and posters all over Istanbul. He is credited with bringing Turkey into the modern, prosperous era it still enjoys today. While there was much talk over raki (the aniseed liquor favored here) of the recent problems with current leader Erdogan, the demonstrations where police have shot at civilians, and the slap of a bereaved miner’s relative by the President himself, Ataturk’s memory remains hallowed territory. It took us two hours to get from the airport to our hotel because the entire city appeared to be picnicking in the parks along the Bosphorus that line the airport road. Small grills with kebabs and elaborate teapots bubbling away on the grass where children played with their parents and others lazed in hammocks. Parking laws be damned, double parking on the highway seemed to be the accepted way of things, and my stomach rumbled at the smells of the grilling meat.
We finally arrived in the twisty small streets of the Cihangir neighborhood, home to expats, bohemians, and artists and met up with our Turkish friends for a late dinner. First some raki on the balcony, with a view of the entire Golden Horn, minarets like white spears piercing the midnight blue sky, and the busy Bosphorus, boats frantically crisscrossing the waves. Yakup II, a place I’d normally walk right by given its lack of atmosphere, was the meyhane (what they call a restaurant serving mezze to go with raki) Aziz had chosen for our first dinner. I’m told it’s a hangout for journalists, which seemed only fair as that’s what we mostly were. Aziz knew all of the waiters and they brought over a trolley full of small plates wrapped in plastic so he could see what they had on the menu that night. Within moments the plates began to appear: eggplant stewed with tomatoes with yoghurt on top, fried calamari, smoked bottarga served with thick slices of raw red onion, fava bean puree, hummus, fried horse makerel, cold shrimp, farmers’ salad. My favorite though was what they first brought us, slices of honeydew mellon and feta cheese. This is all a traditional accompaniment to the raki – and the one we drank that night was particularly special, a new discovery once the Turkish government deregulated the raki industry ten years ago. Apparently, this Tekirdag variety was discovered by accident when barrels of the liquor had been left to age (mistakenly) and someone took a swig. The result is an amber-colored liquid with an incredibly smooth taste. We didn’t get home until 2am.
The next day also a holiday, we decided to eschew the big sights in the city center and opt for a leisurely walk along the Bosphorus, through the once quaint villages that were holiday retreats for the city’s elite back in the day. The beautiful Nazli, a piano teacher we’d met the night before, had written directions for our walk. Three miles through what are now just an extension of Istanbul – small enclaves with boats tethered all along. We stopped for tea served in tulip shaped cups served by two men out of their little boat, watched as bushels of mussels were yanked out of the water, met a man selling fresh almonds arranged around a large block of ice meant to keep them cool. For lunch our friends met us once again and we sat in Chilai, the Bosphorus literally lapping at our table. We ate pizza with mushroom and truffles, langoustine, squid ink pasta with seafood and again lots of raki.
Four hours later, sunkissed and content, Aziz took us just across the street to Meshur Bebek Badem Ezmesi, a little shop selling delicate homemade marzipan in this same spot since 1904. The white hair proprietor gave us samples of her delicious morsels of almond paste, proudly pointing to black and white photos on the wall of the family members who had come before her. Meanwhile, Aziz had arranged a private water taxi to ferry us back to Karakoy, near our hotel. As the sun dipped lower in the sky turning the walls of the grand palaces lining the water a lovely pink hue, I marvelled at the enormity of the city, the warmth I felt from everyone we encountered. I couldn’t wait for the adventures still awaiting us!