Istanbul is a place I had been fascinated by ever since I heard the story of Hagia Sofia, the church turned mosque turned museum where Christianity and Islam sit side by side above the main altar.
I landed knowing but snippets about the place gathered from friends who had visited recently. Go to the Blue Mosque, they said, and Hagia Sofia, the Grand Bazaar. Eat Halva.
A sense of (mis)direction
I arrived at my hotel by hotel taxi, a choice I made on my dad’s insistence and sponsorship (I’m usually more of a metro / bus kind of girl). This choice turned out to be a wonderful one that saved me endless roaming around the block to find the hotel that was nestled in the most unlikely of narrow lanes and signed as ‘Café’.
Armed with a good map and a sense of direction, the Blue Istanbul Hotel Taksim is nothing short of amazing. I paid €68 for 3 nights in a deluxe double room which was new, massive, spotless, well equipped and very pleasantly decorated. Breakfast is simple but yummy, there’s WiFi and the staff went out of their way to offer absolutely faultless service (like Aybek the night receptionist making me breakfast at 5.30am when I was checking out).
Unfortunately I had neither a good map nor any kind of sense of direction (except one that seems to point diametrically opposite to wherever I’m trying to get to), so despite being shown the way to the (close) Karakoy tram station by Aybek, my re-entry in the evening involved 2.5 hours of circling a few blocks with a rather vague map that did not seem to help either me or the numerous Turkish assistors who tried their best to point me in the right direction. It finally took a random guy walking with me across what looked like a building site (shortcut) to get me to the hotel lane literally 200m from my original destination. Needless to say, the guy received a massive and very grateful hug.
The Turkish bath experience
Being scrubbed from head to toe by a hefty Turkish mamma was one of my favourite Istanbul experiences. Elated but tired out after my full-on second day of sightseeing I visited the Cemberlitas Hamami baths in the Sultanahmet area. Although perhaps not the most visually stunning of baths (my friend highly recommended Kilic Ali Pasa Hamami) it was exactly what I needed. Having changed into my new ‘bikini’ (a.k.a black cotton pants that the baths issue all guests), I was ushered into the baths, and invited to lay on my towel on top of the central heat stone. Lying on a pleasantly warm marble platform in a warm, humid, dome, I could feel the past few months’ tiredness flowing out into the stone. I must have lay there for about half an hour before my lovely attendant came back, this time armed with a scrubbing mitten (again issued to all guests by the baths) and a tiny metal bucket. She proceeded to scrub me from top to bottom, removing layers of dirt and dead skin lurking on my body. When the scrubbing was done she doused me with several buckets of pleasantly warm water and then started washing me using a soft cloth and copious amounts of foamy soap, massaging me firmly as she went. Being washed as an adult is a peculiar experience that I found nurturing, soothing and slightly unnerving (I found it difficult to look in my attendant’s eyes). Motioning me to the water basin she went on to lather my hair and rinse it, giving me a head-to-toe squeaky-clean experience. Once satisfied no more dirt lurked anywhere she said her goodbyes, inviting me once again to lie on the heat stone and relax for as long as I wanted.
Some take-homes from my Istanbul experience
Listen to the little voice inside:
Being my first time traveling alone, Istanbul was the first time I started to really listen to my intuition, my gut feeling. With the little voice inside being my only full time companion I decided to indulge it a little bit more. I did not always listen but I can’t deny it made perfect sense. It gave me the signal to talk to people who opened up new prospects, adventures, gave me a resounding yes or no when faced with choices that involved some degree of risk (whether real or perceived). The time when I did not listen, I ended up lost for a few hours, feeling like I was in some kind of maze full of tricks. Even then though, my intuition guided me to find safe, kind people to ask directions to, internet and even food when my blood sugar levels were low even though I had not consciously noticed. We seem to come equipped with a top-notch life-navigation system yet in my case, it took traveling alone for me to start actually listening to it.
Be open to kindness:
Kindness is everywhere. People rallied to help me get back to my hotel when I was lost, a restaurant owner invited me in and offered me tea when he saw me get shelter from the rain under his restaurant canopy. Aybek the hotel’s night receptionist toured me around Istanbul, made me breakfast at 5.30am on my day of departure and came running out to point me in the right direction when I was (unsurprisingly) heading the wrong way. I could have overlooked all of these opportunities if I had listened to my fears but I was open to kindness and it surrounded me.
Some more mundane notes:
Have a detailed map of your area together with hotel name, exact address and phone number. Elementary you’d think, no?
Falafel in Istanbul is nothing like the hard, dry stuff I am used to. This stuff is nothing short of amazing. And Kikero Falafel makes the most amazing falafel you can imagine.
If two local guys invite you for dinner and pay for it then insist they take you to a club, watch out. Two of my friends (both male) fell for a scam where they were threatened at the said club and asked to pay exorbitant amounts for watered down drinks. These scammers use people’s need to reciprocate a kind act to their advantage, sometimes it’s ok to just receive if giving back doesn’t feel good at the time. Gut feeling over duty any day.