East Meets West
Once Chris and I decided on Turkey as our NYE destination, it seemed as if somehow everyone we knew or met accidentally had been to Istanbul, or knew someone who’d lived there, or knew a lot about it from somewhere. I couldn’t wait to see this city that Bulgaria’s history is so intimately intertwined with, and that holds the charms and perils of many centuries of turbulent and violent history.
On my way to Sultanahmet, the old part of Istanbul where many of the mosques, palaces and bazars are located, I could already see ancient and modern living side by side. While on the highway, we passed the old city wall dating back to Ottoman times – one could easily imagine it being the gatekeeper to the heart of Istanbul. As we got closer to the city, I could see Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque and their minarets aiming for the skies ahead of me, while the waters of the Sea of Marmara reflected the soft midday sun to my right.
As soon as we got off the highway and entered the district of Sultanahmet, the narrow streets and harrowing hills left no mistake that this was the heart of Istanbul. Listening to Psy’s “Gangnam Style” in the taxi was in odd contrast with my surroundings.
Once at the hotel, I had a few hours before Chris arrived from LA so I decided to walk around and get my bearings. I knew our hotel was in the heart of Sultanahmet but I didn’t fully appreciate it until I realized that Topkapi palace is literally right around the corner, and Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque were just hillside away. I saw a signs for the Basilica Cisterns and Kapali Carsi (the Grand Bazaar in English), and the tram line leading over the Galata Bridge over Taksim was right here too, so I was very excited to realize that we probably would be able to see everything on both of our lists in our 3 short days here.
I took a few snapshots of Hagia Sophia (left) and the Blue Mosque (right) because I simply couldn’t resist, and then headed in the other direction to see how to get to the Galata Bridge.
On the way, I stumbled upon Yeni Camii (New Mosque) and I sat down for a minute to marvel at its amazing courtyard while consulting my map so I can get a better sense of where I’d walked and what I’d passed. In doing so, I realized I’d passed the Spice Market, which was not evident to me because it’s closed on Sundays. I imagine the area would be a lot busier when it’s open, although that was hard to imagine as there were already hoards of people around.
I decided to walk back to the hotel for some R&R but not before I stopped by a little cafe I’d seen earlier. Their selection of bureks just seemed too enticing to pass by, and walking around had made me hungry. Bureks are simply the Turkish permutations of the Bulgarian banitza – a pastry made out of phyllo dough and filled with either feta cheese, minced meat or vegetables. I seemed to be the only foreigner there despite the fact that the place was on a main tourist drag. After I was done eating, I lingered for a little while longer looking at my map, and the store keeper made a point to come over and make sure I was aware of all the places I should check out, even though his English was limited to reciting the selections of bureks on his storefront. It was an expression of the typical Turkish hospitality I’d heard about from everyone who’d been to this lovely city. I’d also noticed it earlier in the day as I talked to some of the storekeepers and the street vendors littering the area around Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. Upon finding out I am from Bulgaria, they’d always nod approvingly: “Ah, komsu, komsu” (Ah, neighbor, neighbor).
I can’t wait to explore more in the next few days! But now, the lokum on the side table are calling my name.