Don’t ask me why, but ever since I first heard of Constantinople or Istanbul from art class, history class – you name it, I always pictured a city made almost entirely of bronze. Seriously, don’t ask why, because I’ll tell you: it has something to do with studying all those bronze reliefs in old Byzantine churches …and that just kinda stuck. In my mind, all the buildings, stores, restaurants, would all have that warm, deep, weather-worn, yellowish brown tint.
Cool, deep, weather-worn, gray is what we found instead. Gray has a connotation of being a sad and dreary color, but while the color fits the city, the connotation does not. The buildings were strong, close together, knit with character, and absolutely laced with mystery. Bronze or not, I loved it. Behind the skyline of rectangles and boxy rooftops were countless minarets, piercing the sky, waiting to call the faithful to prayer. No, Istanbul was not at all what I expected, but I was immediately entranced.
Most of the roads were cobbled, the signs were old and the trolley reminded me of something out of a 1950s movie, yet there was a modern feel about the place, too. Channel, Swatch, Gap and Virgin Records dotted the shopping street, Istiklal, but walk through the alley between the mall and the cinema and you’d find an old rustic courtyard for tea and backgammon, with used book sellers and artisan shops. The city was much more European than I’d imagined. Street carts, peddlers, women in headdress… they were all there, just not in the abundance I was expecting.
Istanbul was absolutely unique. A bit European, a bit Middle Eastern, A bit Asian, hilly, compact, and beautiful.
The first Turkish woman we met was Yeliz, a worker at the hostel Chillout Cengo (our home for the next 7 days). Yeliz loved her country. She was passionate about the people, the geography, the food and the tea. ……mmmm Turkish Tea. We spent the first couple of hours, fresh off an overnight flight from South Africa, talking with Yeliz about places to explore around Turkey. She, too, wanted to travel and see the world, but why, if Turkey was so beautiful and had so much to offer. Especially if she worked at a hostel and got to meet travelers from around the world. While I wouldn’t give up my wanderlust, after exploring more of Turkey, I definitely saw her point.
The exciting thing about Turkey, at least for me, was that I’d never really heard much about it. I remember the massive earthquake that hit several years back, but beyond that I had no idea of what the country would be like. In Western Europe, you can pretty much guess or imagine what kinds of things you’ll see. You know about windmills in Holland, cobbled streets and columns in Rome, lederhosen in Bavaria, blue roofs on Greek Islands, a certain green plant in Amsterdam, skiing in Switzerland…. etc etc etc, but Turkey? I had nothing in my mind except kebabs and, well, bronze. One of the greatest joys of travel is to be genuinely surprised and delighted by what you find. And I was.
The city alone was enough to captivate me, but the people we met there gave Istanbul gravity, keeping us there longer than we planned, and pulling us back another 2 times during our trip. Some of the coolest people we met along our journey were staying with us at Chillout Cengo. We all explored the city together, made meals together, played games, shared music, went out to see the night life…. Here, home truly was where my rucksack was. Yeliz was always making tea for us, Ibrahim was keen to swap music whenever, and Faris always had a kung fu move to demonstrate, or a funny youtube video to share. And when we returned to the hostel after our two-week tour around the rest of Turkey, we were greeted with such expressions of joy – as if we were long-lost relatives. When Okan heard that I’d been ill during my travels and Yeliz pointed out that I was looking a bit thin, he immediately planned a meal to prepare for me, then we all sat around the kitchen table, like a family, to share the feast.
I know I keep saying the same things over and over again: surprising, strange, mysterious, beautiful, wonderful…. It doesn’t make for good writing to be so repetitive, but it does make for truth. I seriously could go on and on about how much I loved our time in Turkey, but I’m sure you get the point, so I’ll stop this blabbering on, and later, post a blog or two of what we actually did there…. stay tuned.
P.S. Did I mention that I loved Turkey?
P.P.S. The FOOD! I didn’t even mention the food!!! AHHHHH! eggplant, mushrooms, all the bread you can eat, rice with beans, waffles! stuffed potatoes, fish sandwiches, AH! Maybe the food deserves its own blog…. maybe.