On the Road Again: A Summer In Turkey

July 18 – 31, 2017
Istanbul, Turkey

Rods over the Bosphorus

Given the (in)activity here in our tiny corner of the internet, you’d be forgiven for assuming that our family had, once and for all, hung up our backpacks and closed the chapter on our traveling story. Back in December 2015, after seven months of exploring the Iberian Peninsula, we discovered, El Gastor, a tiny pueblo in a remote, mountainous corner of Andalucía, and made a temporary home for ourselves. The plan: refresh and relax after nearly two and a half years of nomadism, acquire a new language and navigate the final few months of my third pregnancy. In short order, we signed a 1-year lease on a home, the kids were enrolled in a brick-and-mortar school for the first time in their lives and we were all on our way to speaking our village’s signature Andalúz (an already heavily-accented variation of the Queen’s Castilian, infamous for, among other things, word-combining and eliminating practically all consonants from day-to-day speech). And that baby I mentioned? Eneko Gael Rauch, Basque for “our little love”, arrived June 2nd, 2015.

There are many stories here that are best told when there is more time to be had, perhaps over tapas and a glass of tinto at our local mesón. A good reason to come and visit us, perhaps? I’d like to shift gears here to talk about where we are at this moment, which happens to be hundreds of miles away from our home among the olive trees…

Turkey. It’s been on my radar for some time, ever since an expat hill-walker we befriended in our pueblo whispered to us about the ethereal Kabak Valley, which set into motion my consumption of all things Anatolian. And why not? Turkey’s military coup turned one year old this past July, and rumors suggested that western tourists had yet to venture back to the country in any kind of numbers. That notion played right to our sweet spot. For a family of five choosing to travel without pre-arranged accommodation in the months of July and August, pickings are predictably slim and wildly expensive. Nearly all of Europe is jammed and anything seaside during the peak summer months is always out of the question. But Turkey…now there was an idea.

So off we went, making Istanbul our first target. We were armed with a rough plan of seeing the big city followed by a self-driven road-trip along the southern coast before hopping a ferry into Greece. But with nearly three-and-a-half months before we’d need to be back in Spain to renew our residence visa, we figured that we’d see how it went.

Cut to Istanbul. It had been some time since we’d made a temporary home in a metropolis on the scale of this one. Nearly 15 million people live in the sprawling metropolitan area that spans 5,461 square kilometers. Folks are fond of saying that, in Istanbul, the east meets the west, but we found an enigmatic amalgamation of history, humanity and culture that was all its very own.

Every morning we skirted Taksim Square before descending one of the city’s major arteries down towards the Bosphorous. Our apartment was a charming duplex in Beyoğlu, just a stone’s throw from Istiklal Cadessi, Istanbul’s most famed shopping promenade.   From there, Cihangir, the avant-garde core of the city and incidentally my favorite neighborhood, abounded with neon-grafittied alcoves, crumbling historic hamams, antique stalls full of Ottoman bric-a-brac and armies of cats. At Van Kahvalti Evi, a funky cafe tucked into one of Cihangir’s vertiginous streets, we became devotees to kahvaltı, the famous multi-course Turkish breakfast.

The day would usually lead us across the Golden Horn into Sultanahmet, where the Hagia Sofia, Blue Mosque and Topkapi Palace welcomed us along with the throngs of tourists. In two weeks, we ticked off the city’s historical hit list at a leisurely pace, and measured our day with the friendly exchanges we had with outgoing Middle Eastern tourists and vacationing Turks from other cities around the country.

But we truly fell for the city in her twilight hours. Every evening, we made our way homeward on foot, which usually involved crossing the Galata Bridge as scores of amateur anglers were just casting off. All three of our kids ritually inspected every catch and cheered if we happened upon a fisherman in the act of hauling in a tiny thrashing mackerel.   That would certainly set the mood for the evening, and just as the muezzins issued their call to prayer from the surrounding mosques right after sunset, we’d stop for balik ekmek, a fish-filet sandwich grilled on the spot and served with lettuce and seasoned onions, at the ferry dock in Karaköy. From there, we’d hop a taxi back to Taksim, or trek up the hill past the Galata Tower, which at that hour, was illuminated red, presumably for the anniversary of the coup.

Other highlights:

  • The cherished Turkish coffee ritual. “Turk kahvesi az sekerli”. I can utter it in my sleep. Turkish coffee with just a little sugar served with a fine, frothy top. Brought to the table alongside a powdery square of Turkish Delight and cold glass of water, there’s no wonder that this experience has been inscribed on UNESCO’s intangible cultural heritage list.

  • Listening to the stereophonic call to prayer between the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia. As one muezzin finishes the first verse of the ezan, the second echoes it as if they are both singing in rounds.
  • Listening to live folk music at Taksim Square. Festooned in innumerable tiny Turkish flags, the summer festival at Taksim Square became our nightly stopover just before heading to bed.
  • Tricky dondurma (Turkish ice cream) vendors throughout the city. Our favorite guy worked at a pop-up stand in Taksim. His clever fake-outs and dissapearing ice-cream cone stunts followed by an over-head cow-bell crescendo made our kids scream for more.
  • Twilight at the Süleymaniye Mosque. The garden that flanks the northern side of the mosque affords a stunning terraced view across both the Bosporus and Golden Horn. As the sun goes down and the lights blink on in the city and over the water, there is no better place to be.

  • Beyoğlu’s street art trail. We followed the StreetArt Istanbul App on different improvised tours to see and learn about all kinds of kaleidescopic urban masterpieces.
  • The sublime Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamamı. Spent the day being doused in several pillowcases full of bubbles and hot-scrubbed into oblivion!

  • Overhearing Oliver and Kendley attempt to determine their little brother’s fair value in gold bouillon at the Grand Bazaar. They went so far as to march him into a currency exchange and ask one of the attendants what he thought they “could get for him”.
  • Reeling amidst all the colors! From the weekly vegetable markets bursting at the seams with beautiful produce; to the Izik tiles and opulent domes of the city’s mosques; the sporadic licks of primary colors given to random city steps, and the hazy neon-blue glow spilling out from the various meyhanes that line Istiklal’s side streets…

While Istanbul with all of its allure, ambiance and energy will always hold a special place in our hearts (we are actually discussing the possibility of living in Istanbul for six months in the next year or two), the true highlight was not found in anything we saw, but in the friendship that we forged with two local kindred spirits, Handan and Ramazan. In all of our travels, it is always the people that we meet that weave an indelible stitch in our hearts, and Handan and Ramazan were two of the kindest, most loving and utterly enjoyable souls we have met in quite some time. H&R, thank you for all that you did for us during our stay in Istanbul and most of all, for the unforgettable time that we spent together. We will definitely see you again as we trudge our path towards our ‘happy destiny.’

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Posted from Istanbul, Istanbul, Turkey.

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