Istanbul is a city of massive population, estimated between 12-18 million. How a discrepancy of 6 million or so folks can occur is puzzling indeed. What is absolutely certain is that while visiting we jostled shoulder to shoulder with each one of the inhabitants as well as a million or so tourists.
Istanbul is a city of vibrancy, working hard to become part of the European Union on behalf of the country of Turkey. At the same time Istanbul is a city of memories of past glories and this remains the heart of its being.
The city belongs to two continents, Asia and Europe. Both a mix of ancient amid modern and the flow of people and traffic show both worlds. In early afternoon the call to prayer from the Blue Mosque brings droves of burka clad women and those with less traditional head dress along with men in long flowing white garb. They pass by Starbucks and McDonalds on their pilgrimage.
Our days began gazing from the rooftop restaurant of our hotel. Istanbul is entangled in waterways, the Bosphorus Strait, the Golden Horn for which our hotel is named, and on yet another side the Marmara Sea all connecting to both the Black and Mediterranean seas. With the usual breakfast of tomatoes, cucumber, feta, boiled egg and fresh figs to provide sustenance we headed to the bazaar district.
Call it an act of fate my only pair of shoes on this trip disintegrated prior to departure. Always the prepared traveler ( or wanna-be boy scout ) I pulled out my duct tape and secured my sandal with the very fashionable shiny grey adhesive. I have been accused of shoe shopping to excess. I pointed out to my koja (husband) that this was a very necessary shopping excursion indeed.
In the times of the Ottoman Empire ships traveled to the capital city to sell goods at the Grand Bazaar and Spice Market. These ancient shopping malls remain today. With big eyes and at least four maps, we stepped in to a complex maze of over 4000 shops and many sellers in each one.
The merchants are friendly and of course they beg, plead and cajole you to come and look at their merchandise of rugs, scarves, clothing, jewelry, leather, gold, silver, souvenirs and Turkish delight. Should you show any true interest in an item, then tea will be called for. If you rush a seller they instruct you to “relax”. Those of us from North America seem to be obsessed with efficiency but here the market experience is meant to include enjoyment of the bargaining process.
As the morning wore on, the crowds became thicker, my sandal required more duct tape repair (which the local children gathered and watched with humored interest) and the sun gained strength as all fog was long forgotten. On the streets the vendors with fresh cobs of corn, roasted chestnuts, mussels with fresh lemon waiting to be drizzled over the seafood treasure inside and large warm pretzel like breads called out in booming Turkish voices to the thousands now milling on the streets.
We found ourselves at an intersection of life in Istanbul, the base of the Galata Bridge, linking old Istanbul with the new city. Here the ferry boats honked madly and the masses of vehicles answered back with their own irritations of waiting to get by, through or around something in their path.
It is a meeting place of restaurants on the sea, waterways, road systems and….people….possibly 18 million or so. We found our way to the bridge, lined with locals fishing of the edge. There, on each side of the bridge were endless fisherman and their rods, with lines stretching down a hundred feet or more to the sea.
Apparently it is a tradition of centuries to fish in these waters although one has to wonder at the effect of all of the ferry motors on the ‘quality and freshness’ of such a catch.
With yet another shoe blowout I expressed my concern that we needed to reach Beyoglu (bey-oh-loo), the heart of shopping in modern Istanbul sooner rather than later unless someone would like to piggy back me up in the incompressible inclines of the narrow winding streets.
At last we found ourselves at the grand boulevard of Istiklal, known in the 19th century as Pera. At that time it was home to the latest in European fashions, restaurants and boutiques. Well some things don’t change much over the centuries. Here there would be little bargaining and although the language is different one could imagine being in a large metropolitan centre such as Toronto or New York.
The long sought after shoes were found and I must tell you that as I handed the well dressed young salesman my well used ‘aromatic’ duct taped footwear for disposal, he politely smiled and held them as though I had just passed him a dose of the bubonic plague.
With the pilgrimage complete the four headed back, in the rush hour of pedestrian traffic late Saturday afternoon, in one of the busiest cities in the world. The donkeys and chickens so frequently seen just days ago, would be a puzzled lot in this neck of the woods and so it was with the Canadian pedestrians.
One must never, ever step out on a road without repeatedly checking for motorcycles, cars, or vans no matter what the traffic lights say. The theme here is if you would like to have any road rights, get into a vehicle and drive as though you are rushing a dying friend to the emergency department.
At one point in our journey we entered a pedestrian tunnel where the four of us clung on to each other for fear of being swept off in the crush and never being found again. Perhaps 400 feet in length the underground path was a solid mass of human movement running twenty people abreast. The noise of thousands of people talking at the same time created a deafening roar.
Another hour later, winding our way through people laden sidewalks, merchants calling out to us to buy their wares, outdoor restaurant owners ensuring us they were world famous and dodging a speeding tram or two, we collapsed in the lobby of our hotel. With tousled hair and looking half dazed we looked at the time….thirty minutes till we met our Australian friends for dinner. Just a walk back to the bridge and a ferry trip or two ….but that adventure is a story for another day.
To see other takes on the theme metal click here.
What is the most chaotic or crowded destination you have visited?