It was June 2013 when we landed in Istanbul, amidst news of civil unrest. The taxi drivers had all chosen to hike their prices for insurance against damage to their vehicle, they said. “Oh no!” I thought, exasperated. “This is the end of beginning a perfect holiday… We are going to be cooped up in the hotel till I can manage to get the earliest flight out.”
The entire drive from the airport to the city was interspersed with varied arguments. I was of the opinion that we should shift our hotel to somewhere safer, my children were getting over-excited about actually witnessing a war zone, and my hubby saying let’s decide after we reach there. “We are supposed to be on a holiday not risking our lives in midst of a political upsurge!” I reminded them. By then our driver had conveniently got himself stuck in a one-way street, so that kind of made the decision for us. The polis looking into the car realised we were tourists and started directing the cabbie warily, trying to explain the dangers upfront. That’s when we saw it – a bus that had been burnt and vandalised… it was just the first of the many cars strewn on the way. I felt my heart clamp down as I heard a mob rushing down the slope where our car had stalled. The cabbie refused to go further and quickly dumped our bags and us not with standing the extra payment he had taken already.
“No no no… this can’t be happening,” my heart thudded against my chest. Fortunately, the crowd was simply a group of mere bystanders being told to vacate by the polis. My kids meanwhile had thrown caution to the winds as they surged against the tide of people, “Come on Mom, we can see the hotel. Pull the trolley bag.” I scrambled, moving towards them, my eyes darting all over to ascertain any unforeseen danger. Thankfully, we managed to enter the well protected premises of the Grand Hyatt.
The polis seemed to have things well under their control there as they smiled and ushered us in. My daughter came to my side, “Mom, they look so handsome in their uniforms.” I gave her an admonishing look as we went in. The staff at the hotel was very courteous, explaining to us that there was no cause of worry. We had barely entered the room, when my hubby and the kids posted themselves by the window giving me live commentary of the scenario outside.
The central park had become a camping site for the protestors who had put up their colourful tents. The polis was trying to cordon off the area. A group of the protestors had just set a car of fire, while some were hurling stones at an adjoining bank. Yet strangely enough, civilians and tourists were allowed to pass peacefully without any hindrance. As the evening began to set in, campfires were lit to ward off the cold and music filtered through the open windows. This was the strangest protest I had ever witnessed. The roads suddenly had multiple stalls selling fries and hotdogs… the music upped its volume almost like a rock band performing… it was as if a carnival had started. My super excited family decided to go down and get a feel of the atmosphere, much against my wishes. It was a youth protest against the bureaucrats and the government for sanctioning the construction of a mall in place of the Gezi Park. It was all peaceful till the riot police suddenly started throwing tear gas shells. I was petrified as I suddenly heard screams and the crowd running helter-skelter. I must have cursed my hubby a thousand times for exposing my children to the potentially dangerous situation. Fortunately, I heard my doorbell ring and my daughter entered loudly proclaiming, “Mom you were right… I told them not to go further.” She was followed quickly by both men rubbing their eyes, “it burns like hell.” With ice applications and a hot temper alternating, we went to bed ending our first day at Istanbul.
The morning after, I ventured down skeptically wanting to ascertain the situation myself. The entire street looked ravaged but the atmosphere was peaceful as the commuters were going about their daily chores. I enquired with the police personnel, “The rest of Istanbul is absolutely fine ma’am, it’s only this area that has been cordoned off. Besides you are tourists, you will have no problem.” He quickly guided me as to how I could get to the Blue Mosque, the Grand Bazaar and all the places I wanted to see. I went up with a wide grin on my face, “We are all set, let’s go.”
For some reason our cabbie was insistent that we see the Eminonu Yenicamii, the New Mosque soon after we had seen the Blue Mosque. Though initially all of us felt we wanted to head for something new but I must say we weren’t disappointed. It is beautiful – the colored glasswork in the windows, the chandeliers, the artistic work on the belly of the dome, everything matched its more popular cousin…. the only thing that it could fall short of is the massive structure of the Blue mosque and its well manicured gardens. Everyone had to have their heads covered inside the mosque and there was a sacred silence except for the soft buzz of whispering awestruck tourists. Luckily we managed to steal a few clicks with our faithful Nikon.
Hunger pangs beginning, my kids as usual wanted to try the local cuisine/street food so our lunch was the Lahmacun, which is more like a local interpretation of a pizza and Durum which is like a wrap of veggies or meat as one prefers it. Very tasty and filling, I must say. Our next stop was the fascinating Grand Bazaar which was very close to the New Mosque. It has everything – from leather and fur coats to a spectrum of tea varieties (I love tea), exquisite smelling soaps to outstanding sweets (Turkish Viagra), spices, jewellery and more. But one could get lost here and the scare of pickpockets is so large that we decided to literally stick together. We must have easily spent close to 3 hours wandering inside it, fascinated by the wares on display. Fortunately there was enough to keep the men occupied too, trying on the trendy leather jackets, Travoltas in the making we guffawed. But we couldn’t complain, it gave us enough leeway to do our stuff till finally, I must have spent a packet on the different teas and intoxicating “ittars” (concentrate perfume), cause as soon as my hubby picked up the bag, he smiled, “time to head home, unless someone else wants to carry this.”
So we headed back to the hotel, my son online with his gastronomically-inclined friend to ask where we should head for dinner. Since we were back well in time, he decided to ask us to embark on a long drive to Sunset Bar and Grill. All showered and dressed for an evening out, doused with the latest perfume, we started out with great anticipation for the evening to follow. But soon the empty wall of our stomach started the death knell of our enthusiasm. It wasn’t a very interesting name to begin with, so when the road began to seem endless, we began our cribbing to the stoic silence of my son. And then we arrived… Oh! It simply took my breath away. Situated atop a hill overlooking a lush green suburb on the Bosphorus, white canopied umbrellas spread above the well laid tables awaited us. The hostesses ushered us with a dazzling smile, welcoming us by name… Now that is impeccable personalised hospitability. I was floored. The vibe was set by the vibrant lounge music, to which the fire danced in the torches set at each table as the setting sun gave rise to a nip in the air. The huge bar was of lit onyx, opulent and grand. My son smiled slyly as he witnessed our changing moods, “Well Mom, if you don’t like this place we could go elsewhere.” Now, here was the Istanbul holiday I was looking for.
The next day, after a relaxed lunch at the Four Seasons, enjoying the spectacular view of the Bosphorus, we headed to the Egyptian bazaar – a quaint market in the by-lanes, where the locals sold their wares, from jewellery of colored stones, exquisite stoles and scarves. We completely lost track of time strolling near the river as my hubby filled us with information about the famous Bosphorus Bridge. It is the only bridge in the world that connects 2 continents. A mile long, at any given point it carries close to 20000 vehicles. As if on cue, the LED lights on the bridge came on, creating a visual delight. Awestruck, we stood there, witnessing the beautiful creativity of man.
The gastronomical chief was on the job again. “Come with me and you can enjoy this view through the night,” he said. My son had booked a table at Reina – a splendid fine dining setting with 6 restaurants under one roof. You could choose your cuisine and dining preference from the Park, Samdan Kosebasi, Dragon, Ninja Sushi, Blue Topaz, Reina. All of them overlooked the beautiful Bosphorus Bridge. We ended up staying there late into the night savouring the ambience.
Istanbul has a mix of Arabic and Egyptian culture. There is the high-end five-star culture of international brands as well as the local ones. In the 4 days that we spent in Istanbul, we enjoyed both. On our last evening, we went to a small bar, where they had a lovely inscription on the wall, which said wine is poetry created by the earth, sun and rain. Now that sure set the right ‘spirit’ for our journey ahead – sometimes we just need a sign.
A sweet memory that stayed with me long after we returned was one when we were walking on Istiklal in Beyoglu, the main shopping street near Taksim Square. A man carrying a bunch of red roses stopped my hubby asking him to buy some for me. I smiled at my hubby, gesturing that I didn’t want any. The man quickly noticed it. He came up behind my hubby, put his arms around, lifted my hubby’s hands with his and one by one gave me all the roses. ‘A beautiful lady always deserves roses’ he said, and walked away without accepting a single penny. Ahaa Istanbul!