A Day Lost in Istanbul

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I pride myself on being able to read maps. I’ve created a ton of them for my outdoor guidebooks. One of my most used apps on my phone is the compass, not Google maps. I’ve watched a “professional” guide walk a group nearly six miles in the wrong direction despite my weak protests (I defer to professionals typically) that perhaps he should look up from his GPS device and consult the map posted at a trail juncture. I have a pretty good sense of direction and a knack for finding my way around an unfamiliar place… about 90% of the time. That other 10%? Upside down and backwards. If I get my initial impression of a place wrong, it is remarkably hard for me to undo it in my head. My whole year in Ankara I had east and west flipped. I used to joke that it was because my “magnetic” east — having lived in the US my whole life up to that point — was New York City.

But I do believe one should be able to follow directions without phoning someone every 10 steps like the modern equivalent of the Marco Polo game. “Now where do I turn? And now?” So it is with deep embarrassment that I must confess I screwed up yesterday.

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A wooden house in Fatih complete with evil eye protection

We are staying in Fatih, a European-side district of Istanbul that lies just west (am I sure?) of the famous tourist attractions of Sultanahmet. I had a perfect mental map of our tram stop and how to get to the house we were staying in. Trouble is a change of plans had us arriving from the opposite direction (without my realizing it) and then we entered that waving compass-needle world of my 10%. I went the wrong way that first day and each day since, I had to stop and really think about it to get on the tram going the right way into the city. But yesterday we decided to take the bus. I was chatting with Peung as we walked there, and just got on the next bus to Taksim where we were headed for Turkish coffee. That’s to the east. About 20 minutes later I started seeing unlikely modern buildings and tried to catch my bearings. Oh yes, we are heading “east” to New York or what a normal person might refer to as west. Super. Should we hop off at the next stop and wait for the bus going the other direction? Oh no, let’s just see where this goes. It will likely pass near the airport or the ferry port or… nothing at all familiar. We rode it a long long way to the end of the line and waited 15 minutes for it to head back into the city.

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I was amused that our last stop appeared to be Green Bay (as many will know I am a Packers fan). However, on closer inspection I saw the umlaut. Yeşilkoy (Green Bay) would have been more amusing. But alas, this was Yeşilköy (Green Village).

Nothing is more discouraging than seeing you now have 81 stops before your destination. Sheesh.

Over the last several weeks we have been on a rather tight travel schedule, running from this to that, making appointments, making a list of places we must eat at, sights we need to see. All this is great, but from my travels the best things I’ve found have always been when I slowed down and stopped following the treasure map. Exploring without a goal. Yesterday might not have been the most amazing travel day ever, but it was unplanned, and enjoyable as such. Two hours in the sunny seat on a city bus left my mind to wander, and my feet followed when we finally hit the pavement in Taksim. This area is hardly off the beaten path, but despite all the redevelopment and the pedestrian traffic, one can still find little spots and moments that typically escape notice.

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We succeeded in one thing, anyway: we found our coffee at Mandabatmaz, considered the best Turkish coffee in Istanbul, if there is such a thing. Turkish coffee is quite special, but what we found at Mandabatmaz surprised us.

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Taken from the window of a moving bus with a Canon S100 and cropped. We’ve been meaning to capture this mustache since we saw it earlier this week. That’s just awesome. The rest of the photo also intrigues me.

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The ruins of the city walls. One good sign that you are definitely not anywhere near Taksim. One of the few sights to see on the Number 72 bus tour of western (pretty sure) Istanbul.

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The final photo from the bus: a shot of the new train bridge being built across the waters of the Golden Horn. Plus a fisherman’s arse.

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We took Istiklal Cadessi (Street) south from Taksim Square and midway to its end we headed west (almost certain) down the steep street and found Homer Bookstore. I popped in to see if they had my book. They did not. Not since a few years ago. But I had a great conversation with the bookseller, so perhaps the new 5th printing will get some shelf love. Plus she gave me some good reading recommendations. Outside we noticed this sign for the Museum of Innocence. That’s a novel by Turkey’s Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk, and now it is an actual museum located in the same place where the book is set. I haven’t gotten through the book yet, and at 25 TL I am not sure I’ll get through the museum either. But the arrow led us onward and downward…

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…where we found a couple of hotties at a very serious coffee shop. Every kind of coffee except Turkish. The owner roasts his own beans and takes great care to brew things correctly. This is a golden find in Istiklal where Starbucks is the unfortunate and ubiquitous alternative to Turkish brew. Back in the street, Peung stopped for a 1-lira glass of squeezed-in-front-of-you-on-a-street-cart orange juice. I asked the juice man where the museum was and he said he’d tell me if I bought a glass. I withdrew a lira coin and he quickly made it clear he was only joking, but I had juice envy and wanted a glass for myself as well. When he finished mine and handed me the glass, I asked: And the museum? He shrugged. “I don’t know it.” He laughed again and pointed back up the hill a bit to a side street we skipped over.

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We found the museum and decided 50 TL for the both of us wasn’t worth it for two people who hadn’t read the book. Continuing up the steep street, we passed a simitçi selling simit, the round bread like a soft pretzel with sesame seeds. He pushed his heavy cart up the hill and no one was buying the little 1-lira rings. As I’ve written about earlier, Peung has a soft spot for this sort of thing seeing someone she perceives as lonely or having a hard life or just a hard day. As soon as she pulled out a coin, it seemed his business perked up and he had sold 10 by the time we reached the top of the hill.

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Behind us we could see Galata Tower framed between the buildings.

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The street was lined with very old classy structures, a few characterless apartments from a few decades ago, and brand new construction. Soon it would be swallowed up by the new look that is spreading outward from Istiklal Cadessi. I wondered where the residents would go or if the little antique shops would remain. Here a cat enjoys its plush royal throne, king of all it surveys.

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Graffiti and street-art-lined concrete steps back up toward Istiklal…

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We came out near some restaurants and found one with a sign that said Summer Soup, their translation for soğuk çorba or cold soup. We stopped in for what was a delicious bowl of chilled yogurt, mint, and barley.

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Plus a nice fresh-squeezed lemonade with mint:

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We were sitting now steps away from Istiklal Caddesi, wondering what to do next. We sent a text to our friend Hasan, who worked a couple miles away, to see if he was hungry. He was.

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Twenty minutes and a funicular ride later we were seaside, looking for a table for dinner along the Golden Horn. Not a bad end to a day that started in the wrong direction.

4 thoughts on “A Day Lost in Istanbul

  • May 31, 2013 at 4:36 pm
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    “I have a pretty good sense of direction and a knack for finding my way around an unfamiliar place…If I get my initial impression of a place wrong, it is remarkably hard for me to undo it in my head. ”

    This is exactly the way I am and I’ve never heard anybody else say this, so had to comment. And, as you’re in Istanbul, the Grand Bazaar throws me off every time – it’s a maze – and the map has to make an appearance every time I exit the place. Thanks for the post.

    Reply
    • May 31, 2013 at 4:45 pm
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      Hi Diane, So I am NOT a freak? Super! Funny thing about the Grand Bazaar: My editor found the puppet for the cover of my book in there, and one day I just went to see if I could find it, thinking it impossible. I was standing in front of the guy’s booth/shop in under 10 minutes. It was a minor miracle. Everyone in there knows everyone I think and if your product stands out (camel skin shadow puppets?), other vendors can tell a person where you are.

      Reply
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  • May 21, 2014 at 6:21 am
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    We are so different. 90% of the time, i can not read maps and it is a guaranteed certainty that I will get lost, wherever I go!

    Reply

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