The Blue Mosque at night, with birds flying around the minarets lit up by the floodlights.
Well, I guess I failed pretty miserably at keeping you all updated on my time in Israel, considering I haven't written a single entry about my time here over the last few months. I can't believe it's been as long as it has-- I feel like I just got here. But, this entry is not about Israel, it's about my post-final final exam trip to Istanbul
, Turkey (that repeated "final" is not a typo).
Those of you who read my blog during my East Asia trip in 2006 may remember my friend Ryan, who popped up repeatedly in those entries. Ryan and I are fraternity brothers from UCLA, and he now lives in Shanghai. It so happened that he had a convention to attend in Nuremberg, and that because there are no direct flights we coordinated a short visit in Istanbul. It also worked out that a few of my companions from here in Tel Aviv, Amy (my roommate) and Brent, also wanted to head out to Istanbul and perhaps elsewhere in Turkey to do some post-exam sightseeing, especially since the trip from Tel Aviv is short and relatively cheap.
Well, I finished up exams on Thursday the 6th,
The Million Stone
The point from which all distances in the Byzantine empire were measured.
and the next afternoon I was enroute to Istanbul. At the airport I stopped at an ATM to get cash, and when it presented me the option to take Dollars, Euros, or Lira, I wasn't quite sure what to do. The hotel Ryan and I would be staying in advertised their rates in Euros, so I took out some of those, and then decided that since the local currency was Lira I should probably have some of those on hand, too. I headed over to the subway, following the directions I'd managed to pull up on my laptop from the Tel Aviv airport. I hadn't planned on bringing the laptop, since I'd stored the notes for my trip on my iPod, but the iPod died literally right before I walked out the door in my apartment for the airport.
On the subway, I met a group of four just-graduated med students from Drexel University who had been touring around Turkey for a little while, so we chatted for a bit and they showed me where to change lines to the tram and where to get off the tram. One of them had gone to UC Berkeley as an undergrad,
so we talked about the fabulous restaurants from back home and I felt a bit nostalgic for a little while. I got off the tram at the Sultanahmet station in the old part of Istanbul where most of the touristy sights are, and walked around looking for the hotel for a bit, lost, unaided by a map, and getting lots of shrugs from the locals when I asked where the street was that the hotel was on. I was also late, since my flight had been delayed, and I was worried that Ryan might not be in the lobby when I arrived--we had planned to meet there at seven because he arrived early that morning. Somehow, I managed to more or less stumble over the front doorstep of the place, and Ryan was sitting there finishing up some work.
It's only been a couple of months since I was in Brazil, but I forgot how much easier it is to travel when you can speak the local language. Even though I speak Hebrew, in Israel, since the schools start teaching kids English in the first grade, almost every Israeli speaks excellent English and I've gotten used to hearing it.
So it was a bit disorienting to be somewhere where even the English tourist brochures are written in the kind of broken English I'd gotten used to in Shanghai. But, that said, the city was really incredible. Apparently there are more Ancient Roman and Greek ruins in Turkey than in Italy and Greece, respectively. Having spent a week in Istanbul, it's not that hard to believe.
After I met Ryan and took a shower, we headed out and ate dinner at one of the many restaurants with rooftop terraces that overlook the city. It's really a great bonus feature--our hotel served breakfast on one, too. As we were walking into the restaurant, we met a group of tourists that was coming out, so I asked them how the food was. Well, we ended up chatting for a few minutes and they told us that their first day in Istanbul, which was the day before, was quite an exciting one. They had witness some sort of fight that escalated to what they claimed were gunshots fired, and that it had happened not too far from where we were about to sit and eat. I'm still not sure if I believe
Panoramic View from the Topkapi Palace Cafe
the story, but they all seemed to have details to add, so I'll give them the benefit of the doubt. I did not have any such experience myself, and after the cop was shot less than a block from my apartment
in Philly a few years back I'm not sure stories like that phase me anymore, anyway. But I digress. From dinner, we went out to Taksim square, where we walked around Istiklal street, a huge pedestrian street where I'm pretty sure that just about all of the 13 million Istanbul residents go out. Needless to say, we ended up back there almost every night, since there wasn't much going on elsewhere that we knew of.
The next morning, we did the tourist stuff, and visited the Ayasofia (Hagia Sophia), Sultanahmet (Blue Mosque), Topkapi Palace, Grand Bazaar, and the Spice Market. Not bad for a day. We also walked across the Galata Bridge in the evening, deciding not to stop at any of the lounge-y looking bars or restaurants under the bridge, opting instead to try out the nightlife in the Sultanahmet area where we found it to be like any other hostel row -- bars playing Coldplay and Radiohead, serving lots of beer, and
Harem of the Topkapi Palace
plenty of obnoxiously loud groups of Western tourists. Having been one of those tourists before, I can appreciate the scene for what it is, but it wasn't what we were looking for, and anyway we were tired from all the walking and made it an early night.
Sunday we did a lot of walking around the city, taking a ferry from the Europe side of the city at Emınönü to the Asia side at Üsküdar (Istanbul the only city in the world to straddle two continents). We just sort of hopped on the ferry, not really knowing where were going to end up, and then tried to walk back across the Bosphorus Bridge, but despite the signage for a pedestrian walkway a guard at the beginning of the bridge told us that such a walk was forbidden--I learned later that they closed the bridge to pedestrian traffic soon after opening it because so many people used it as a jumping off point to the next world. So, we knocked on the window of a taxi stuck in bridge traffic and asked the driver to take us across to the Beşiktaş area. From there, we walked some more, then stopped
to smoke nargile (hookah) in Tophane, where we also ate some excellent charcoal-baked potatoes and a quesadilla-like dish called gozleme. We walked over to the Taksim area again, because Ryan wanted to stop in a shop that sold old maps and the like, and also because we wanted to find a particular restaurant he'd read about in the New York Times.
We found the map store after a lot of searching; apparently the numbering of the buildings had changed since the old Lonely Planet we'd picked up in the hotel lobby was researched in 2004, so what was once 295 was now 197. We did not find the restaurant, so we ended up in another one that looked nice called Meze. We got to talking with the owner, who was also a tour guide who runs culinary tours, something that Ryan has been doing in Shanghai, and he gave us lots of great information about where to eat, what to see, and where to go out. I also noticed that the lone girl at the next table had been making eyes at me, so when Ryan got up to go to the bathroom I went and sat at her
The Writing's On the Wall
But it's all Greek to me...
table and we got to talking. She was there writing an article about the restaurant for Food & Travel magazine, since she writes short clips about new restaurants and this one had only been open for two weeks. Oh - the food was pretty fantastic. Well, Ryan and I and Biray (the food writer) ended up hanging out for a few more hours, and then Ryan and I called it a night since he had a flight out early the next morning, and I needed to check out early and head over to the hostel where I'd meet Brent and Amy.
The next morning, Ryan was up at 6, and I got up soon thereafter to have breakfast with him before he took off. And there I'll leave you waiting for the rest of the story.
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