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Echoes of the Ottomans: Beyoğlu, Istanbul

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We allowed the weekly markets to dictate our schedule in Istanbul. There were numerous lists of food markets and before long I had at least one for each of our four days in Istanbul. On Sunday, our first full day, both markets I had found were north of the Golden Horn in the district of Beyoğlu. Beyoğlu is the most central and bustling neighborhood of Istanbul after Sultanahmet and contains most of the city's remaining popular tourist attractions. In Byzantine times Beyoğlu was known as Pera and was referred to by that name in the West until the end of the Ottoman Empire. This was the first word I encountered with the yumuşak (soft) ğ which is a very easy Turkish letter to deal with because it isn't pronounced at all. The only effect it has on the word is to lengthen the sound of the vowel that precedes it. The vowel part is more difficult but it is far more important not to pronounce a hard g. The ğ is particularly important in the present day because the name of the country's president since 2014 is correctly pronounced Air-Dohh-Ahn, not Ur-Duh-Gan as it is typically pronounced in the West.

We had two markets to begin the morning with followed by a long walking tour that would eventually bring us back over the Galata Bridge to Sultanahmet. My main concern was how the kids would hold up with the inevitable jetlag. We would be traveling by metro and by foot, with no opportunity for anyone to nap. I resolved to just push it as far and as long as we could and let the chips fall where they may.

My fears of the kids jumping up at midnight weren't realized. I was the first to wake at four and everyone else soon followed. This was a little earlier than the ideal but we decided to make the most of it and get a jump on the day. It was quite chilly outside but we were comfortable enough in our hoodies. The first order of business was to get to the metro which was just a ten minute walk from the hotel. It was eerie to walk through a completely silent and deserted Hippodrome at 5:30 in the morning. As we approached the metro we passed a man setting up his restaurant and Cleo suggested we get something to eat. I wanted to push onward to the station since it didn't look like a breakfast place but when we arrived at the metro we found that the kiosks containing the Istanbulkart vending machines were shuttered. A passerby told me they wouldn't be opened until six when the trains began running. We doubled back to the restaurant and found that indeed breakfast was being served. The owner was very friendly and wanted to know where we were from and why we were visiting Istanbul. He told us that he was Kurdish, originally from eastern Türkiye. His cordiality and curiosity surprised us at first but we were to find that this was a typical feature of the Turkish people that we encountered over and over during the trip, in contrast to western European countries where we're generally ignored. Excited as we were to commence our exploration of Istanbul, we were quite happy to engage him in conversation. We ordered almost everything on the menu including the Turkish specialty of menemen which I found much more savory than the similar Arab dish shakshuka. The freshly squeezed orange juice was terrific.

The Istanbulkart is one of those little rites of passage for enterprising tourists who want to go beyond Sultanahmet without relying on taxis. One of the challenges is that the price and some of the features of the card constantly change so that information from online articles very quickly becomes out of date. Fortunately the card and the metro fare are very cheap by Western standards and it just becomes a matter of figuring out the quirks of the vending machine. One dilemma was whether to buy a single card or five. Each card cost a small amount of money that was nonrefundable and one card could be used for up to five people. Buying one card for the five of us seemed like a perfect way to save a little money. On the other hand the most expensive metro line was the Marmaray line to the Asian side. The metro would charge the card the full rate to reach the terminus far past where we would be disembarking and then the difference would be refunded to the card when we left the station. The rub was that the card would only get one refund, so four people would have to overpay. In the end I settled on one card for simplicity and decided we would figure out the Marmaray later. The metro was clean and pleasant, delivering us efficiently to the Karaköy station on the other side of the Golden Horn. There didn't seem to be any tourists on the train and it felt cool to ride shoulder to shoulder with the locals as though we belonged. The next step after Karaköy was to walk to the Tünel funicular which would take us up a steep hill to the upper level of Beyoğlu. The only problem was that I hadn't pinpointed the location of the funicular during my planning and once we were in Karaköy I just couldn't find it. All the shops were closed and the few pedestrians we encountered seemed to have no idea what we were talking about. Eventually we decided to just walk up the hill instead. The buildings that lined these empty streets seemed much older than those of Sultanahmet and some were almost falling apart. The metal store shutters were vibrantly painted with flowers and portraits that contrasted sharply with the weathered stone facades.

My research had yielded two different addresses for the Inebolu Sunday market in the quiet and residential neighborhood of Kasımpaşa. Thanks to my failure to locate the funicular the walk was much longer than I had planned but the kids held up remarkably well. We went to the closer of the two locations first and did find a market there, although it was much smaller than I had expected. This market is distinguished by the the fact that the produce is trucked in every weekend by farmers from the agricultural Black Sea district of Inebolu, more than six hours away. We bought some freshly baked flat bread and some fruit which we consumed as we moved around the market. There was a profusion of fruit but also artisanal products such as honey and yogurt.

We walked two more blocks to the second location where we found a fenced-off square that was undergoing construction. Presumably this was the original location of the market and it had been moved to the smaller street. Most likely many of the regular vendors had decided the long trek from Inebolu wasn't worth the trouble under those circumstances, which was why the market had been smaller than expected. Fortunately we still had another market that morning. To reach the Tarlabaşı neighborhood we passed through an attractive city park with tall palm trees and a waterfall.

Tarlabaşı is not on anyone's top ten lists of places to go in Istanbul but I had been eager to visit this gritty neighborhood since I first spotted it on Google Maps. The warren of irregular streets intersecting at odd angles looks like a maze that has been planted in the center of Istanbul. On activating Google's Street View the mystery only deepens. All the surrounding neighborhoods light up with the familiar network of blue lines but Tarlabaşı remains blank. Who is trying to keep Tarlabaşı invisible?

Some quick research informed me that Tarlabaşı came into existence in the late nineteenth century as a middle class neighborhood popular with Greeks and Armenians, many of whom worked in embassies around Beyoğlu's main drag, Istiklal Caddesi. For a variety of reasons the government forced out the non-Turks in the mid twentieth century and they were replaced by an influx of Kurds, Roma, and other ethnic minorities who were typically living at the poverty level. With poverty came other urban blights such as drugs and prostitution, and Tarlabaşı acquired the reputation of Istanbul's most dangerous neighborhood. Most of the videos on YouTube that come up with the search term "Tarlabaşı" are clickbait clips of various locals and tourists tensely walking through the neighborhood while bemused residents stare at them. I quickly determined that Tarlabaşı, while certainly unsavory at night, was likely to be perfectly safe during the day and I didn't let its bad reputation daunt me once I saw that there was a weekly market in the area. After all, the most dangerous neighborhood in Istanbul probably couldn't hold a candle to downtown San Francisco.

Despite my conclusion I couldn't help some slight trepidation as we crossed Ömer Hayyam Caddesi into Tarlabaşı. This quickly dissipated as the first people we saw, a group of men playing cards in a storefront, looked up as we approached and gave us friendly smiles. They directed us towards the market which of course was not where the articles I had scoured online claimed it would be. It wasn't far way though, along Serdar Ömerpaşa Caddesi close to where it intersects with Kalyoncu Kulluğu Caddesi. It was a mixed market with clothes and housewares interspersed with food items. Similarly to Arab markets there wasn't much in the way of prepared food to try but fortunately we were still full from our huge breakfast.

Once we'd passed back and forth through the market a couple of times we started to walk southeast through the neighborhood towards Taksim Square. I hadn't realized that Tarlabaşı was on a hill and I quickly found myself breathless as I climbed upward with the daypack on my shoulders. As I had expected the streets were quite beautiful with nineteenth century townhouses that had been brightly painted and clotheslines strung across the street boasting an array of colorful apparel. There was plenty of unsightly garbage in the street and crude graffiti marring the facades of the houses but I was willing to overlook all that because I have always loved this type of working class neighborhood in old cities, from the tenements of Hong Kong to the favelas of Rio. There have supposedly been efforts undergoing to gentrify Tarlabaşı for at least fifteen years but I saw no trace of any assault on the neighborhood character during our walk.

Had I been on my own I could have spent hours walking the streets of Tarlabaşı but we had already done much more walking than planned. I knew jetlag would start hitting the kids eventually although they had held up remarkably well thus far. We emerged from Tarlabaşı very close to Taksim Square, where the central area containing the Republic Monument had been fenced off for some kind of official ceremony. The Champions League final between Manchester City and Inter Milan had just taken place in Istanbul the previous day and some related event had taken place in the square. A giant replica of the trophy still stood in the square.

The area around Taksim Square is a modern competitor for the tourist dollar with ancient Sultanahmet, tending to attract young adults seeking nightlife more than culture. The square itself has a long history of conflict and protest but on this day it was quite placid and rather devoid of interesting sights. I hadn't expected much from the square as our real reason here was to return to Karaköy via Istanbul's foremost pedestrian thoroughfare Istiklal Caddesi. Formerly known as Grande Rue de Péra to the area's large number of French expatriates, the street was renamed with the Turkish word for "independence" after the Republic was declared in 1923. The closest English approximation of "caddesi" is the word "avenue" and as always the letter "c" is pronounced like the English "j". Istiklal Caddesi is famous for the distinguished Ottoman era buildings in a variety of architectural styles as well as the iconic red tram that run between Taksim Square and Tünel.

On Istiklal Caddesi the Turkish people's love of sweets is on full display. Sellers of chocolate, baklava, and lokum do brisk business but the most impressive storefront is that of the venerable Turkish confectionery company Hafiz Mustafa 1864. Inside the shop one can watch the sugary treats being prepared and packaged behind a glass partition while choosing from countless varieties and flavors of lokum. Known to the rest of the world as Turkish delight, lokum is believed to have been invented in Türkiye in the late eighteenth century by renowned confectioner Haci Bekir. Hafiz Mustafa was a later arrival but the company can still boast a lineage of more than a hundred and fifty years. I'm not overly partial to sugary food but the sheer beauty of the colorful arrays of lokum and pyramids of baklava was mouth-watering.

As we walked down Istiklal Caddesi we kept our eyes on the side streets and eventually we spotted one that looked too interesting to resist. This led us into the neighborhood of Çukurcuma to the south of the pedestrian thoroughfare. This was the busiest and most colorful neighborhood we had seen yet in Beyoğlu. The pedestrianized streets were packed with cafes, grocers, antique shops, and small hotels. People were everywhere, strolling on the cobblestones, eating outdoors, or even sitting on stools on the sidewalk outside their stores. It was a completely different vibe from Tarlabaşı but just as beautiful in its own way.

Çukurcuma could easily have occupied an entire day in its own right but I had to remember that this was only an exploratory visit to Istanbul. We guided ourselves back to Istiklal Caddesi and soon found ourselves in front of the Çiçek Pasajı arcade. This hundred and fifty year old covered passage has hosted a group of restaurants since its last renovation in 1988. The cobblestone aisle between the restaurant tables is like a miniature version of the avenue outside, lined by walls of distinguished white neoclassical buildings that rise upward to the glass dome that keeps out the elements.

Istiklal Caddesi eventually came to an end in the Galata neighborhood, an area of narrow irregular streets atop the hill that overlooks the Golden Horn. The centerpiece of Galata is its namesake tower, one of the most recognizable landmarks of Istanbul. The tower was constructed by the Genoese community in 1348 as part of their local fortifications and was subsequently used by the Ottomans as a watch tower and a jail. The stone tower with its familiar conical roof can be seen from almost any shoreline in central Istanbul and is an iconic feature of the famous Beyoğlu skyline. We've learned from experience that the touristic instinct to climb to the top of tall buildings doesn't usually pay off for us so we ignored the sizable line for the expensive entrance tickets. I regretted this later once I had spent more time in Istanbul and could appreciate the uniquely beautiful layout of the city. I suppose it isn't too bad to have a few things left for our next visit. At the base of the tower there was a book fair but very little in the way of English fiction. The kids hadn't made much of a dent in our book supply yet so we just skimmed through a few booths and kept on our way.

All we had had since breakfast was fruit from the market and a couple of lokum samples from Hafiz Mustafa. The perfect place to have lunch would be one of the seafood restaurants along the Golden Horn in Karaköy. We began our descent of Galata Hill which was a substantially easier undertaking than our ascent a few hours earlier. Almost immediately we encountered one of the fabled Istanbul scams I had come across in my research. We heard a clatter and saw a man carrying a shoeshine box walking uphill, seemingly oblivious to the fact that one of his brushes had fallen to the street behind him. Before I could even point out to Mei Ling what was going on a middle-aged woman, obviously a tourist, had scooped up the brush and was running to catch up with the shoeshine man with her husband at her heels. She handed it back to him and he immediately began thanking her profusely and insisting that he be allowed to shine her shoes. She tried to decline but he already had his box open and was starting to go to work. The husband seemed to have an idea that something wasn't right but he didn't know how to refuse the service either. He ended up watching anxiously and helplessly as his wife received an unnecessary shoeshine that was the last thing they had in mind when they came to Galata. As we watched I explained to Mei Ling and the kids how the ploy was executed and why it was always a good idea to research the local scams and pitfalls before visiting a new place.

Halfway down the hill we encountered the Camondo Stairs, a flight of concrete stairs with an artistic helical design that was built in the late nineteenth century by a prominent family of bankers to make it easier for their children to get to school. The stairs connect two of the parallel streets that run perpendicular to the slope of the hill.

My research indicated that the fish restaurants underneath the Galata Bridge, beautiful as they appeared, were poor quality tourist traps and risky in terms of scams. Some of the famous restaurant scams popular in Istanbul are adding steep charges to the bill for items that are traditionally free like mezes or water, and leaving prices of certain dishes off the menu knowing that tourists will assume they are commensurate with the other prices and not want to ask. Instead we walked down the street next to the shoreline looking for something appetizing. At first we headed east from the Galata Bridge but didn't see any of the kind of restaurants we had in mind. We reversed course but ended up one street inland from the shore on the western side of the bridge where we found nothing except a hardware market. Finally we found the street next to the promenade on the Golden Horn where the tour boats dock and at this point we were ready to eat at the first place we saw. We soon saw a guy grilling some small fish, perch or something similar, and the variety was good so we sat down. I found the fish itself a little disappointing because of the difficulty of getting even half a mouthful of meat that didn't contain numerous bones to pick out, but overall the meal was good. Poor Spenser could barely keep his eyes open and napped on the table for most of the meal.

After lunch we walked around the docks a little longer and came across a fish market I hadn't realized was there. I kicked myself when I saw that there was a large seafood restaurant called Karaköy Balık Evi right next to it that was packed with locals. Fortunately we still had three days left in Istanbul to remedy our error.

We were now in one of the most beautiful places in all of Istanbul. In front of us was the Golden Horn, an inlet of the Bosporus that courses past the eastern border of old Constantinople. Throughout history the Golden Horn has played a vital role in the development of the city with the neighborhoods close to the water becoming hubs of international trade. Across the water we could see the packed shoreline of Eminönü and the minarets of Sultanahmet and Fatih.

The Galata Bridge was packed with pedestrians who were somehow never snagged by the hooks of the fishermen who lined the railings. We never saw anyone actually reel anything in and we weren't sure if the small fish in the buckets were bait or the day's catch. From the bridge it was easier to appreciate the colorful disarray of Karaköy. As we approached Eminönü on the far side of the bridge we could see the Bosphorus tour boats with their distinctive golden roofs lined up in the harbor with the Süleymaniye Mosque as a backdrop.

Eminönü is one of the oldest parts of Istanbul and remains a nerve center, a transport hub adjacent to the Spice Market from which thousands of people embark on trips up the Bosphorus and across to the Asian side for business and leisure every single day. Vendors filled the wide square in front of the New Mosque, a name that was probably more appropriate soon after it was completed in 1665.

Up to this point I had executed my itinerary perfectly, but here I made a strategic error. What I should have done was celebrate an extremely successful walking tour of the European side and gotten us all back on the Metro to the hotel for a well-deserved nap. What I did instead was decide that we should walk back to the hotel, passing through the Grand Bazaar on the way. This was quite foolish because first of all I misjudged the distance, which was actually over two kilometers, and second of all I completely forgot that the Grand Bazaar was closed on Sunday, a fact I had known perfectly well when I designed the day's itinerary. It went well enough at first as we passed through the crowded street bazaars around the Rüstem Paşa mosque. I was the only one motivated to walk upstairs to the mezzanine entrance but was rewarded with a close up view of the mosque's exquisite İznik tiling. Once we realized we had to detour around the shuttered Grand Bazaar it was a brutal slog to the end. Finally we made it back to our apartment and collapsed into bed. It was only three in the afternoon.

Posted by zzlangerhans 02:40 Archived in Turkey Tagged road_trip istanbul family_travel istiklal travel_blog galata_tower tony_friedman family_travel_blog karakoy tarlabasi inebolu taksim_square camondo_staircase familygolden_horn

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