After our first big day in Istanbul, we were eager to see more.
First, we checked out of our AirBnB (which was really closer to a hotel without a lobby). Its location was alright, and it even had a small balcony, but not much of a view. While waiting for Alex to style her hair, I stepped outside, looking up and down our street. There were a lot of cats, but I was distracted by the distant view of the water – and then I saw a cat walk down a cross street, bracketed by buildings as if in a movie, dragging an entire pigeon. It moved resolutely until it was out of frame, the bird flapping the whole time. What a weird start to the day.
Our first big stop of the day was the Grand Bazaar. I was pretty excited about this – you see it on travel shows, and the very name is evocative of Indiana Jones. It simply didn’t live up to expectations. The building is pretty cool, and filled with booths, but there just wasn’t much for sale: lanterns, carpets, lots of silk, lots of tacky jewelry, all of it extremely pricey. Alex wanted to get a silk scarf, so we stepped into a shop, where she resolutely negotiated down the price.
The bazaar was labrynthine and we left, disoriented, into a side courtyard. A threadbare canopy of leafless trees covered book stalls abutting the bazaar. These stalls sold discount books, all with colorful covers, mostly college and test prep books. I found it easy to resist the temptation to buy books I couldn’t read.
We continued past the bazaar in a straight line toward Galata, where our next AirBnB was located. I liked Galata quite a bit – it was near the vibrant main streets, had the same windy alleys and cozy shops, and also had lots of cafes with live music.
This was the best AirBnB location I’ve stayed in, over many years of travel. It was an entire apartment, just three blocks from the trendy music-cafe downtown. The apartment was huge, with a balcony that overlooked the Sea of Marmara, complete with double-wide rocking chair. And just $45 per night.
Having dropped off our stuff, we left our new apartment – and right across the street was some pretty cool graffiti. There was actually great street art all over Istanbul. After all, there were enough abandoned buildings. As I was taking a picture, we heard a voice behind us. Turning around, we didn’t see anyone. But – there was a broad wooden grate pulled across what looked like a former storefront window, with a woman behind it – she was camping out there and doing street art in the neighborhood. We all talked – she was an artist, and I had been photographing her painting. It was a nice surprise to actually meet someone doing this, and I think she was flattered.
We set off down to the water to find a friend-of-a-friends restaurant. This was in the Karaköy neighborhood. I had an address I’d found online, but our maps were no good. We were getting lost. Finally, in an alley, the proprietor of an adjacent coffeeshop realized we were lost. We asked for directions and he consulted with his barber neighbor. They had some ideas, and we found our place – but it was shut down, I think for a week or two. This whole area was very hip – narrow cobblestone streets with vines overhead, outdoor bars, cafes, street art. We ended up eating at a restaurant where the waiter, I’m pretty sure, didn’t speak English. We managed to convey that we wanted vegetarian food, and that was it.
And the food was really good. Not anything I ever would have picked out for myself (beets, carrots in oil, and so on), but I really enjoyed it. Then we returned back to the coffeeshop. After all, they had given us directions. And I needed a haircut.
Luckily, it’s pretty easy for a guy to get a haircut, so the fact that the barber didn’t speak English wasn’t a big deal. He was a really nice guy, and we got coffee afterwards. The cafe was called Karanköy, and we made friends with the owner (we’d return a few days later).
That night we also made friends with some neighborhood cats. The cats in Istanbul weren’t feral, like strays in the US, so if sit down near them, the more adventurous will come to get scratched, or even sit on your lap. We frequently saw cat food outside. And it turns out, in Islam there’s a tradition of helping cats, though people don’t really own as many pets. Apparently while the prophet Muhammad was alive, a cat sat on his cloak, and he cut off the fabric rather than disturb it. So the cats are revered, and the dogs have it tougher in Turkey.