My last night in Istanbul. In the past few days I,d taken in some of the most gorgeous sights of the city— the Hagia Sophia and Sultan Ahmed mosques, the Topkapi Palace, the glittering lanes of Istiklal, the deep blue expanse of the Bosphorus River... and yet, my most distinct memory of my last night is of sitting on the pavement at 3.00 am, rubbing my very sore head.
A few minutes earlier, I had been standing with my Turkish host and friend, waiting for the bus to take us to his home. Behind me, I noticed an open food stall and suddenly remembered that I was very hungry. In my enthusiasm, I ran towards it not realizing that part of the bus shelter,s structure, a solid pane of very clean and transparent Plexiglas, stood between me and the food. I crashed my head into it and sat heavily on the pavement, in a daze, while my friend bent over me, very concerned for my welfare, but at the same time very amused at my apparent talent for slapstick. A painful end to an otherwise exhilarating day of exploring the older quarters of the city!
I,d flown in five days earlier and had to very quickly discard an unfounded misconception that I,d come with – that Istanbul would be crowded and grimy, not very different from the big cities of India. I couldn,t have been more wrong, and a simple online search before I traveled would have revealed to me that Istanbul is a very modernized metropolis, a “first-world” city if you will, bearing more resemblance to the grand European cities than to the developing cities of Asia.
Famously, Istanbul is also a city that straddles two continents – Europe and Asia. It is very common for people to live in Asia, commute to Europe for work and return to Asia in the evenings, the rents being cheaper on the Asian side of the city.
Traveling from the Ataturk International Airport (named after the founder of the Turkish Republic, Kemal Ataturk) to my friend,s house in Goztepe, my first impressions of Istanbul were of broad, clean streets, smooth public transport systems and attractive public spaces. The landscape of the city is dotted with the red flags of the Turkish Republic, and it immediately struck me that the flags are designed never to hang limply in the air.
I couldn,t figure out how this was done; perhaps it has something to do with the material they are made of, but even in the slightest breeze, the Turkish flags furl and unfurl regally. To watch them is to feel like you,re watching cinematic slow motion, and it,s impossible not to be a little awed by it.
The Bosphorus River winds through Istanbul, and a pale blue mist seems to rise from its shimmering waters and color the very air in the city. Over the next few days, we returned several times to the Bosphorus, eating fried fish sandwiches and drinking crisp, cool beers in restaurants along its banks, taking ferries across the city, or just walking along the river past rows of fisherman and simit (a kind of bread with sesame seeds) sellers.
The blue seeped slowly into my spirit. It left me melancholy and yet, acutely happy. The blue of the Bosphorus reminded me of what Orhan Pamuk describes as the huzun that pervades Istanbul, a spirit of sadness mingled with a keen sense of being alive in each moment.
I don,t like to see myself as a tourist, but in Istanbul I ventured out onto the tourist trail a few times. I visited the Hagia Sophia, once a cathedral, then a mosque, now a museum— a dazzling work of architecture where the East and West combine with almost operatic force. With its soaring dome and sharp minarets, the Hagia Sophia revolutionized architecture when it was built, and its stylistic influence is visible in mosques throughout Istanbul and the rest of Turkey.
In the evenings, my friend and I plunged into the dense crowds of Istiklal Avenue. We popped in and out of cafes, pubs and nightclubs that throb with the gathered energy of thousands of people. We gorged on a variety of Turkish food, from the simple doner kebab to more elaborate meat stews. And of course, I always made sure to leave space for dessert!
To someone like me, blessed (or cursed) with a sweet tooth, it is impossible to exercise restraint in a Turkish sweet shop. I had heard of baklava (a kind of pastry, flavored with pistachios) before, but in Istanbul my eyes were opened to an even more mouth-watering array of desserts. Creamy, layers of kunefeh, the chewy pudding-like kadayif, deep fried, syrup-soaked balls of lokma... some of my happiest moments in Istanbul were spent sitting at a table with my eyes closed, chewing slowly and feeling the glorious rush of sugar to my brain.
Our bus arrived and, my head still sore, I stepped onto it, flashed my travel card against the scanner and found a seat. I rubbed my head to ease the pain.
“This is Istanbul for you,” said my friend with a grin, as the lights of the Bosphorus Bridge flashed past our bus, “She makes you fall in love with her, then she breaks your heart.” And I didn,t disagree.
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