You Can’t Walk to Asia

June 16, 2012

Before I get started on San Francisco, where I am now, it seems appropriate to back track. I should have been writing the whole time we were in Istanbul and then Italy, each day, capturing the streets we walked, the carts tilting with cascades of small fruits I didn’t recognize, the sounds of the call to prayer, Rome’s zooming, and Tuscany’s layers of shades of green. I didn’t though. I don’t have a good reason why. It’s mostly because I dislike typing on the iPad, which is all I had with me, but also I think my head was too full with leaving New York, anxiety about moving, and overwhelmed with seeing the new to tease out the things worth talking about.

So now, what feels like a long time ago, we spent five days in Istanbul. We arrived in the evening, and after following along the water and sweeping around the curve of the old city, we crossed the bridge and wound our way up through Beyoglu to our hotel. It was a beautiful old converted mansion, with great stye and views of the city. 

I had been to Istanbul as a kid with my family, I think I was eleven or twelve, and I only had a few mental images of what  the city was like. The area where we were staying, close to Taksim Square and Istiklal Caddesi, wasn’t even on its way to gentrification yet. Walking up and down the small cobbled streets it feels like how I imagine Soho used to feel, with hip boutiques and restaurants stuck in surprising nooks.

The combination of the very old, the layers of history and empires, with the vibrant energy of a growing modern city was so captivating. Our first full day there we crossed the Galata Bridge and visited the new Mosque and the crowded and fragrant spice market (I’m sorry we didn’t really take any pictures). From there we wandered through the Grand Bazaar, a place I definitely remembered from being a kid. While a lot of it is junk–knockoff Rolex watches, sneakers, jerseys, unstylish leather, there were some beautiful rugs and sparkly light fixtures that caught our eye. If we hadn’t had so much of our trip to go, I think we would have bought something.

The following day we did the rest of the tourist circuit–Topkapi Palace, the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sofia. The last of the three was the most impressive–huge, fraught with a storied past. Topkapi was packed with other tourists. For anyone going, I would say beeline to the harem and then get out. The next day, we tried to walk to Asia. It didn’t work. You can’t. Ortakoy was nice though. And then we went to the Prince’s Island.

On a friend’s recommendation, we eagerly boarded the ferry, expecting the ride to take twenty minutes (we should have done more research). Nearly two hours later, with tourists leaning over our seats to take pictures of seagulls and shipping containers we arrived at the island. At the outset, it sounded charming–no cars allowed, only bicycles and horse-drawn carriages. The area right around the ferry station was touristy, but we had a plan to rent bikes and wind our way up to a monastery at the top of a hill that was supposed to have a kebabs. A few minutes later we were cruising on bikes with nonfunctioning gears, getting passed by horses galloping by (a gait much faster and more terrifying than the more usual trot through Central Park). Along with sunshine and pretty Turkish country homes, there was a pervasive smell of horse poop. A few turns later, we found ourselves on what we thought was the road to the monastery, and after about half an hour of going uphill on that road, we realized that it was indeed not the right road. The lesson from this excursion was that it’s usually best to eat before there’s a chance of getting lost on bicycles on an island in a foreign country.

The way back down the mountain was better, as was the express boat back to Istanbul. From there, we left Turkey and made our way to canal-crossed Venice…

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