Saturday, November 4, 2023

Postcards from Istanbul


When I used to travel, I would diligently send postcards to friends and family. It was a chore but was satisfying when someone mentioned they got one. (My mother saved my postcards and gave them back to me as if she was just holding on to them for me. I never understood that.)

In the last 10 years, I’ve stopped sending cards. It’s a shame because at least when you send a postcard you have to find where the post office is and learn how to buy stamps – with all the adventure and interesting experiences that can bring.

Come to think of it, we saw few postcard kiosks in Istanbul. Maybe the demand for postcards has decreased? Supposing we were to send a postcard, what image or images would we choose? A photo of the Galata Tower, the Galata Bridge, Taksim Square, the Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace, or the most unoriginal but safe: just the Turkish flag?

Sample postcards

It would be hard to capture the essence of Istanbul in one image or many for that matter. After 6 short days in the city, here are our hypothetical postcards we might have sent, with images and cryptic greetings as we might write them for real.

Postcard - Corn vendor outside of Yeni Cami
Hi Julie! Chestnut and corn on the cob venders everywhere are something we’ve appreciated. (Italy doesn’t do corn on the cob!) We tried the corn once: kind of dry. Maybe a bad selection? We ate it in Topkapi Gardens with a simit (bagel-like) treat.

Postcard - Istiklal Street Scene
Hello family! Istanbul is a lively city, not exactly chaotic but not orderly either. Watch out for the uneven sidewalks! Felt safe the whole time here. The only trouble we heard were cat fights outside our window. A lot of our time here revolved around the Galata Bridge and the famous İstiklal Avenue shown in this postcard.

Postcard - Pope John XXIII statue in Istanbul 
Hi Grandma and Grandpa! We were surprised to learn about the colorful Italian history in Istanbul – for better or worse. We stayed just by the Galata Tower, built by the Genovese. One evening we stopped into the The Church of St. Anthony of Padua (Turkish: Sent Antuan Kilisesi) on İstiklal Avenue. Outside, there is a statue of Pope John XXIII – the Bergamasco pope! He preached for 10 years here while ambassador to Turkey. We can’t escape Bergamo even if we try!

Postcard - Istiklal street trolly with crazy family
Andrew, how are you? You'd love Istanbul. It’s a hilly city! The Fatih and the Beyoğlu districts where we hung out require powering up hills if you are walking. Of course, the transit system can get you to where you want to go efficiently, especially the T1 tram and the historic trolley that runs on Istikal Avenue to Taksim Square. (We saw some crazy tourists directing the trolley to stop where they wanted it for their perfect photo.)

Postcard - Spice Market Postcard - Grand Bazaar 
Hi Mom! This city is one big bazaar. Besides the Grand Bazaar and the Spice Market, you can find everything you need almost everywhere. Not too many pressure tactics to buy. We were told that to buy something, buy it outside the Grand Bazaar because it will be cheaper. The rents inside the GB require higher prices. But still, you must go inside at least once to experience the bazaars.

Postcard - Cat walks over word of Nazim Hikmet Postcard - Cats at the  Suleymaniye Mosque  Postcard - cat with hookah pipe Postcard - cat in store window
Hello Tom. I know you love cats so you will be happy to know that cats rule Istanbul. They are everywhere. Well-kept, fed, and mostly chipped and spayed (we were told) but still, it’s a lot of cats. And there are some dogs, just fewer by our count. I think one memory I’ll have of Istanbul is the smell of cat poop and Friskies (sprinkled on sidewalks). Cats can beg for food too!

Postcard - Minaret Nusretiye Mosque Postcard - Minaret of Yeni Mosque - View from Pandeli restaurant Postcard - Minarets of Suleymaniye Mosque

Postcard - Minarets of Suleymaniye Mosque piercing the sky Postcard - Minarets of the Blue Mosque
Hi Scott....So far, we are not used to the mournful call to prayer over the scratchy, low-quality speaker systems of the local mosque. Maybe in another few weeks we’d stop noticing it? The 6:00 am one is the most jarring. We were told it’s a paid job and it’s live – meaning someone is doing the call to prayer and broadcasting over the speakers placed high up on the minarets. Maybe we need to find and cut those wires?

Postcard - Istanbul Modern Rooftop Postcard - Museum of Innocence
Robert: We are doing well in Istanbul. We found some great modern art museums: Istanbul Modern, Arter. They seem to be relatively new (buildings) with few visitors. We had lunch at the Istanbul Modern and alongside us two huge cruise ships were docked 🙁. Also, we really enjoyed the Museum of Innocence and got introduced to Orphan Pamuk’s book of the same name.

Postcard - rugs we were tempted with
Hi Rona! Be prepared to be offered to buy a rug when you least expect it. For us, it was when we were buying corn on the cob. And, with our guide – who at least asked us and posed it as educational (!). We had an informative visit to a rug shop in Istanbul and learned about knot count and different designs. We resisted and didn’t buy anything and they even gave us a box of Turkish delight. (Julie says they give that to everyone. Leave it to her to ruin the fun 😊.)

Postcard - Basilica Cistern
Terry: Be prepared for long lines in the first half of the day for major attractions. Topkapi palace and the Palace Basilica were insane. Beautiful but crazy in the first part of the day. When will we learned to go after lunch??

Postcard - large cruise ship in Istanbul
Doug, just a note from Istanbul where we are spending 6 days. Be prepared for the docking of huge cruise ships and all that comes with just-here-for-a-few-hours tourists. (I know, how judgmental!) But when you are waiting in line for the Blue Mosque or the Basilica Cistern and there they all are, all 100 cruise-shippers in front of you, with their headphones tuned to some secret guide sort of wish they would go away.

Postcard - Suleymaniye Mosque
Dad, how are you? We are on our last day in Istanbul. Today, we had a pleasant Sunday walk from the Beyoğlu district to the Süleymaniye Mosque. This was one of our favorite mosques. No line to get in, nice and peaceful. We strolled to Beyazit Square and then back to the mosque to eat at a restaurant just outside the complex KURUFASÜLYECİ ALİ BABA. Get the bean dish!

Postcard - Bayezid II Mosque  Postcard - Yeni Cami
Marianne, wish you were here with us. We visited 6 mosques during our time in Istanbul. The most beautiful to us was the Suleymaniye Mosque. Also seen: Agia Sophia, Blue Mosque, Yeni Mosque, Nusretiye Mosque, and Bayezid II Mosque. I love that in a mosque the construction allows the dome (cupola) to be perceived from almost any position inside. I also love the fact that we take off our shoes and walk around on the plush carpet. Speaking of carpet, notice the pattern and lines in the carpet to help prayers orient and position themselves.

Postcard - Taner Ceylan (1967) - 1553 (2012)
Hi Family! I kept seeing men walking the streets of Istanbul with red, irritated heads like they just had an operation. Sometimes with bandages. Sometimes carrying an umbrella to shield themselves. Upon closer inspection, we realized they were hair transplant patients. Medical tourism especially for hair transplants is big here. Couldn’t find a hair transplant postcard so instead here’s a painting from the Istanbul Modern that caught our eye. It’s by Taner Ceylan (1967) and is called “1553” (2012). It’s about Süleyman the Magnificent (him of the mosque) who had his son Prince Mustafa killed. 

Notes on our Istanbul stay

At no time did we feel unsafe. The only “trick” pulled on us was the one we read about in the Lonely Planet guide where a shoe-shine guy pretends to drop his brush waiting for you to pick it up and then you are hooked. It happened to us but we were engaged in conversation and just walked over it. Oops.

Our hotel/apartment had a carboy of water that we used to fill up a pitcher. We did not drink the water from the tap.

We exercised moderate caution when eating and were okay. We skipped trying the raw mussels from the guys selling them on street corners with a little squeeze of lemon. That wasn't too much of a sacrifice. We did go for the roasted corn on the cob. And, we did eat a few salads and here and there and nothing happened. (We say that because a friend warned us several times: “don’t get a salad”.)

We tried five “specialty” coffee places (recommended by European Coffee Trip) and they were so-so or out-and-out bad. They were not like specialty-experiences we had say in Copenhagen or Prague. We decided it would be better to order “normal” coffee or better yet Turkish coffee or tea and do as the locals do. The word “specialty” means nothing now and European Coffee Trip is losing its grip.

Where did we stay? We stayed in the Beyoğlu district. We were a few minutes (walking) from the Galata Tower. It’s a lively section, but we were off on a side street: Ali Hoca Aralığı. We could reach all the major sites on foot. For example, we walked from our apartment to the Suleymaniye Mosque in under an hour, walking across the beautiful Haliç Metro bridge. We took the T1 tram a few times but mostly walked.

Some books we read to prepare for Istanbul:

Our stay in Istanbul was part of a larger trip of 18 days in Turkey. We decided to put the big city experience up front. After Istanbul, we were off to Cappadocia for 4 days, based in Selcuk for 3 days, and finally Pamukkale for 2 days. For more information, see 18 days in Turkey – Some Observations.


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