Part two of my trip to Istanbul – you can find part one here.
Galata Tower, Cihangir and Taksim Square
When you look at Istanbul’s impressive skyline, the Galata Tower is one of the stand out buildings. Built in 1348 by the Genoese as part of a defensive wall, it has since been used as a platform to detect fires and also, according to legend, as a take off point for the first flying Turk. In the 17th century this courageous young man is said to have studied the wings of birds, constructed his own and flown from the tower to the Asian shore – about 6km away.
Now the iconic tower is home to a café, restaurant and, up until recently, a nightclub. The queue to get in goes the whole way round the small square, which combined with a high entry fee might put you off going inside. So might the fact that the surrounding area is filled with trendy shops, art galleries, bars and restaurants. It’s a nice area to wander around.
At night I looked up and saw it being circled by gulls. The light from the tower lit up each bird and the effect was magnificent. I tried to capture it with my camera, but lack the skills to do so. You can see one of my better efforts below
The tower and the gulls
My favourite neighbourhood was Cihangir. Part of the Beyoglu district, this area reminded me of East London. Not so much for its steep winding roads, but for its abundance of graffiti, coffee shops and young creatives. If you like alfresco dining and local craft beers, it’s a great place to get lost for a few hours.
I stayed near Taksim Square, where a few years ago you might remember police clashing with locals who wanted to stop Taksim Gezi Park being turned into more shops. The development of the area has since been halted, but there remains a large police presence. My first impressions of the square were not positive. It reminded me of something from the Soviet-era. Colourless and surrounded by ugly, blocky buildings.
In one corner an elderly woman was selling pigeon feed. Why anyone would want to support the already thriving pigeon population I have no idea, but I saw several tourists purchase plastic cups of seeds. In another area, some traveller children were crying and begging. I spotted their mothers a bit further away, keeping an eye on them. I appreciate the square’s rich history – it has been a key venue for political protests through the years – but for an outsider it’s hard to understand local attachment to it. A Turkish friend told me it was one of their few large, open public spaces, but it’s difficult to see any beauty in it.
Food for thought
In terms of food, I must admit that I’m not a huge fan of kebabs. I had a few during my stay and enjoyed them, but am not qualified to pass judgement. Of the restaurants I visited, I would highly recommend Hayat 13 in Cihangir. I went there on my last night after having enjoyed a few beers on a nearby terrace. For starters I shared a quartet of mezze dishes. Aubergine, seaweed, beans and feta doused in an orange powder. All good.
Our waiter then brought us a selection of the fish caught that day and we selected a large Sea Bream. It was returned to us a bit later, grilled to perfection. Everything was accompanied by a couple of glasses of Raki with ice. This liquorice based drink is very similar to Pastis and is drunk in the same way. We finished with a light, semiloa based desert. The bill wasn’t cheap, but was well worth it.
I also left Istanbul a big fan of Baklava. I had never cared much for the sugary dessert, but was faced with a much larger and fresher selection than I had ever seen. Not the healthiest cuisine I’ve encountered and I wasn’t surprised to learn the country has a high obesity rate.
Stray dogs and goodbyes
One of the most charming aspects of Istanbul is its array of stray cats and dogs. The dogs in particular are a welcome sight for anyone who’s looking for some calm in the city’s bustling streets. Whereas the dogs I saw seemed healthy, calm and well looked after, I read that they are the lucky ones.
Rabies outbreaks are a real issue and every year several Turks die from bites. To further complicate matters, locals are very much against euthanizing the animals, but there is a real lack of resources to look after the dogs. Personally I found their presence wonderful – they add a lot of character to the city and the individuals I saw were all tagged and friendly.
My trip to Istanbul took place in April 2015. I mention the date because soon after booking the tickets, people began asking me if I was afraid to be going to Turkey due to issues in nearby Syria.
My answer, at least initially, was no.
I saw no reason to fret. The British press had been full of stories about people heading to Syria to join Isis, however, Istanbul is about 1,500km from the Syrian border. To put this into context, it’s more than the distance between London and Prague, or Madrid and Marrakesh. I was hardly going to be next to the border. Secondly, I have always been of the opinion that if you start deciding not to go to places because there’s a slight risk of something going wrong, then you’ll never go anywhere.
I did begin to feel a bit nervous as I was waiting in the airport. To reassure myself, I searched Twitter for the latest mentions of Turkish Airlines, my carrier. I found that three bomb threats had been made to the airline in the past few weeks. More alarmingly, a group of three teenage boys had been pulled to one side during boarding. An attendant took their passports and began making calls. I can only assume he was making sure their parents knew they were on the flight and that they weren’t heading to Syria to join Isis.
As a nervous flyer I didn’t enjoy any of this and it’s safe to say I’ve never been more fearful about getting on a plane. This was not helped by the worst landing I’ve ever experienced (heavy turbulence and need for two attempts) and a pilot who spoke to us only at the beginning and end of the flight.
But, I got to Istanbul, enjoyed my holiday and am looking forward to my next trip.