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Istanbul, August 2015

In 2016 (or 2015, as it was) it's not that hard to get around foreign cities. You can download a map, you'll probably have enough wifi to search directions, smartphone GPS works even when the internet doesn't - you manage.

Except when you've just arrived in the city, when the GPS spits the dummy because you're so far from where you were last time it paid attention, and you haven't got online, and you're following poorly written directions with pretty minimal faith they're going to get you where you need to go. That part, you don't necessarily manage. This became a bit of an arrival pattern on our way through Europe - an increasingly stressful one - but since Istanbul was stop number one, we were pretty tolerant at this point in the trip.

Lots of people in Istanbul speak English - lots more than Sile - but not our taxi driver, and neither he nor the navigation app on his phone could make sense of the address we'd been given. He went in a general direction, and pulled over three times to ask people walking on the side of the road where he should be going, and eventually we got somewhere kind of near our Airbnb. Then we rang the doorbell on a house which we were pretty sure had the right street number, but which also looked totally derelict. It turned out to be around the corner. I don't even remember how we worked that out.

Unsurprisingly there are no photos from the section of the evening where we thought we might be lost or homeless. But we did get inside, and got a very friendly greeting from a man whose name we never learned despite staying there for five days. (The Airbnb host was called 'Manwar', and this guy responded to that name, but clearly didn't look like the photo of Manwar, or speak any of the languages we'd written to him in, so it's an abiding source of mystery.) We sat on this terrace with him, drinking Turkish tea (├žay, pronounced 'chai'), while he circled tourist attractions on a map which he then didn't let us keep.

Between us, we took 800 photos in Istanbul, so I don't really know where to start. (Or finish.) I think it would be a bit of a travesty not to say more about the Airbnb. Our room was a kind of shed on the roof terrace, which contained two very uncomfortable beds and an overwhelming stench. Beneath us there were four floors, and every room was being separately rented out to a motley crew of international travellers like us. Every morning we all gathered in the kitchen for what was either a traditional Turkish breakfast or a random collection of food that mystery host decided he could fob us off with. If you, like me, don't like olives or cold feta, or tomato and cucumber at breakfast, this was not really your scene.


The neighbourhood we were in was not touristy. We picked it because it was within comfortable walking distance of the old city mosques and palaces, but as far as I can tell - from a combination of Wikipedia, Airbnb reviews, talking to the other guests and walking around the place - it's a quite conservative and quite poor working-class neighbourhood. There may have been more stealthy Airbnbs around, but it was not an area full of hostels or travellers. I'm sure they must be pretty used to it, but it still seemed fairly regularly that the locals were really puzzled by us being there and walking around.



The last one is the banks of the Golden Horn, on the walk back to the house. Every afternoon the parks along the banks filled up with people cooking meat on temporary barbeques and waving away seagulls. These are the daring few still out after the sun set. (It was not, obviously, cold in any way, so not too much bravery required.)

Being near the old city means being right in the middle of the densest concentration of Istanbul mosques, and pretty close to some of the biggest, loudest ones. Because I promised this'd be a photo blog and don't want to divert from the concept too quickly, you'll have to go without the recordings we made of the late night calls-to-prayer echoing across the river and (so it really seemed) fighting with each other for attention. This photo conveys none of the noise, and only a few of the buildings.

I'd never been in a mosque before this trip. (Or a synagogue, but that's for later.) It is really difficult not to be shocked by the segregation of women from the main space. In one, we saw a Muslim woman walk onto the prayer floor with her family - they were not Turkish - and have attendants run after her and direct her to the women's section at the back. On the whole, though, the inside of a mosque is much less oppressive than the inside of a church. It's usually much lighter, for one thing. We were obviously only allowed inside between main prayer times, and at those times the environment was mostly very welcoming: fathers played with their babies on the floor, and old men sat there just to chat with each other.

Istanbul was one place I experimented with my phone's ability to take 'photo spheres'. I can't put them here and have them look like anything, but here's a shot of the inside of Sultan Suleyman Mosque. The spheres don't actually work that well, but it does a much better job of capturing the height than you can get otherwise.

Mosques, palaces...

I love blue mosaics. I hadn't forgotten that, but if I had going through these photos would be plenty of reminder. I discovered this in the British Museum a few years ago, and haven't had my love shaken since. It seems to be a distinctly Muslim/Middle Eastern style, and it's just the best, especially with the calligraphy over the top.

The other things you need to know about Istanbul relate to eating and drinking. Number one is that there is an unbelievable amount of orange juice, and it's all very cheap and unbelievably good. This sample doesn't do justice to the variety of places (on a boat!) we had orange juice freshly squeezed in front of us for two or three lira, and then drank it in a really over-the-top blissful state.


Number two: no meal is complete until a cat has come up to your table to check out what's going on. We made this a formal rule of the holiday on our first full day in Istanbul, and didn't let ourselves leave any cafe until a cat had arrived. We were not delayed.


Number three: Turkish desserts. There's so much more to it than baklava, even if you're using baklava as the catch-all sweet-nutty-pastry word.


This is called 'kanafeh'. It's basically a rich, soft cheese all through, with pastry and syrup on top. Basically inedible. (But I don't like soft cheese.)


I assume nobody ever bought this, and the tower was just built as some kind of weird competition with the other bakeries to see who could make the tallest, most hideously syrup-oozing pile of pastries. These guys won.


The last was one of three desserts we had at a cafe just outside the Grand Bazaar. We got given several things for free when the owner found out we were Australian, because he has a good friend who's moved to Brisbane. He said he hoped to see us in Australia some time - and seemed genuinely upset to hear that Brisbane is really not close to either Melbourne or Perth - and then yelled out "Aussie Aussie Aussie!" as we left. (An unrelated Australian woman, who happened to be walking past at the time, was extremely confused, but dutifully yelled back "oi oi oi!")

On our last night, we decided to eat on a boat moored along the riverbank. You could have fish, grilled by the owner at the back of the boat, either on a plate or in a sandwich. It cost the equivalent of less than $3, which was really cheap even in Turkey. And it was - not a word of exaggeration - the nicest fish I've ever eaten. I thought about starting a TripAdvisor account to give a review to Mr Genc Osman and his balk ekmek, but there is no TripAdvisor listing for his boat.

These photos don't really fit in anywhere, but I like them too much to leave out. The one on the left is from the Museum of Innocents, which is too hard to do justice to in an explanation, but is a really fascinating place to spend a day. (Especially if you've read the book.)


The end of the trip was another very trying taxi experience. The main bus station in Istanbul, it turns out, is the size of a small town, and if you don't know which bit of it you want to go to you're in a bit of trouble. But we managed. And nine hours and three (!) border crossings later, arrived at the next new city - without internet, or GPS, and with directions which named the closest metro station using Roman letters, when all the signs are written in Cyrillic.