Istanbul astounds. Yes, we owe an update on our trip through Romania (thanks Lavinia!) and early morning train ride through Bulgaria into Turkey, including a 1:00 AM queue to get our entry visa, but that will have to wait. Instead, while CeCe watches the first Batman movie in Turkish, and as a hotel employee prays towards Mecca a few feet away, I will write about our first thrilling day in Istanbul. (Photos, too, will have to wait. The internet connection here is glacial.)
Our early morning arrival into the centrally-located train station enabled us to quickly find a hotel at the base of Hagia Sofia and off we went. Our first stop was the Grand Bazaar, the much-heralded labyrinthine market in Sultanahamet, Istanbul’s heart. Mark Twain once described the Bazaar as a “monstrous hive of little shops” and it did not disappoint. Since market rules state that shops cannot merge, each small stall has its own proprietor and, thus, its own personality. Jewelry, carpets, pottery, antiques, fabrics, t-shirts, you name it, you can bargain for it. Everything caught our eye, but not our pocketbook; we certainly will return.
All visitors to Istanbul quickly learn that the Turks’ reputation for generosity and friendliness is well-earned. Visitors also learn that every Istanbul street – at least where tourists spend their time – teems with men trying to sell you something. A variant on “Spend money, I help you,” is a come-on we heard more than once.
Around the corner from the bazaar, on a whim we stepped into a carpet and jewelry emporium Kalite and were treated to our first taste of true Turkish hospitality. A salesman named Muzaffer Musellim quickly came to our aid, plying us with Turkish tea and engrossing us with tales of his tour of duty during the Balkan conflict in the mid 90’s and his brief encounter with Princess Diana. We then initiated a thoughtful conversation on the deleterious effects worldwide of extreme religious fundamentalists, both Muslim and Christian. After probably an hour of enjoyable conversation, he finally moved to the carpets, unrolling for us a series of beautiful hand-made gems, one after the other. The most striking were certainly those shimmering examples entirely of silk from the Hereke region of Turkey. If we had $12,000 or to spare, we certainly would have taken one home.
Then we were off across the Bosphorus (into Asia!) to Istanbul’s Kadikoy neighborhood for a Champions League qualifier featuring premier Turkish football side, Fenerbahce. If Fenerbahce are the Turkish Yankees, then their Istanbul rivals Galatassaray are the Red Sox, although the insane passion of the rivalry is said to have no near comparison in American sport. After revelling in the intensity of the supporters during this, the season’s opening match, CeCe and I don’t doubt it. From 30 minutes before the first kick, until the outcome was no longer in doubt, the stadium thundered with cheer after cheer after cheer. Even CeCe, a determined soccer skeptic, was quickly converted. It was especially impressive considering that it was purely tea-driven: there wasn’t a beer in sight. Our emissary for the evening was a pleasant fellow named Yasin Turkmen, who quickly introduced himself and welcomed us into the legion of Fenerbahce supporters.
As an aside, I read somewhere a while back that only in the first few decades of the 20th century did Turks begin using surnames. Turkey’s founder, the revered Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, decreed that all Turks should choose and use surnames as part his drive to Westernize Turkey. I think this probably explains the basic names of both our friends Musellim, the carpet salesman and Turkmen, the Fenerbahce fanatic. Ataturk’s own name means “King of the Turks”. To this day it remains a crime as well as a major social faux pas to criticize Ataturk.
Clad in their trademark bumble bee yellow and black jerseys, Fenerbahce out-classed their anonymous competitors from MTKBudapest in an entertaining 2-0 victory. Budapest was clearly nervous and who wouldn’t be with 120 decibel cheers vollying from bleacher to bleacher? Brazilian legend and former Real Madrid star Roberto Carlos had the opening goal. You might be able to watch it here or here. (It appears as if YouTube isn’t legal in Turkey. Or maybe we’re just having internet issues.) As a grand sign above the bleachers attests, and we agree: “Glorious Team – Magnificent City.”
The $50 tickets left us well over-budget for the day, but it was well worth it. We took the ferry back across around midnight. The stunning views of Istanbul’s many mosques were memorable, although we didn’t have the energy to take photos.