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Echoes of the Ottomans: Fatih, Istanbul

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The Fatih district encompasses the entire peninsula bounded by the Sea of Marmara, the Bosphorus, and the Golden Horn of which the Sultanahmet neighborhood is only the tip. The word fatih means "conqueror" and the district is named in honor of Sultan Mehmed who conquered Constantinople for the Ottoman Empire. We were leaving Istanbul that day but we didn't have to pick up our rental car until late afternoon which I hoped meant we would have enough time to visit the Fatih market and the Balat neighborhood. The market was called Çarşamba (Char-SHOM-ba) Pazarı because it takes place every Wednesday in the streets just east of the Fatih mosque. Early Wednesday morning we walked once again through the Hippodrome, nearly deserted except for the occasional stray dog sleeping on the cobblestones.

When we arrived at the Sultanahmet Metro we took the train in the opposite direction from Eminönü for the first time. We got off at the Aksaray station in front of the Pertevniyal Valide Sultan Mosque, a late nineteenth century creation that stands out for its Rococo style. From here we had quite a long walk through rather nondescript streets to the Fatih Mosque. My insistence that we skip breakfast at the cafe next to the hotel in favor of finding food at the market didn't do much to improve anyone's mood.

As soon as we got close to the mosque it was clear that we were in the right place. The streets had suddenly become a hive of activity. Enormous piles of clothing were laid out along makeshift tables of wooden boards supported by plastic stools. Ropes had been strung across the street about ten feet above the ground to support white tarps that were protecting the goods from the elements. We walked through a seemingly endless area of clothing stalls which held no interest for us whatsoever, although they seemed to be quite popular among the middle-aged, conservatively-dressed clientele. The few restaurants that were open were only serving the usual coffee and pastries. It seemed that in Istanbul the concept of a hearty meal to begin the day only existed where tourists could be found.

Just when we had concluded that the Çarşamba Pazarı was for clothing only we broke through into the food area. Here were the piles of colorful fruit, olives, and pickles that we had come to see. It was quite a visual feast but by now we were all quite hungry and once again there was nothing available to eat more substantial than fruit and some stuffed grape leaves. It seemed clear by this point that Turkish markets were more like Arab markets than European ones with respect to the absence of prepared food.

We had another long walk to our next destination but the terrain north of the Faith Mosque was fascinating. It was heavily residential and charmingly dilapidated, quite unlike the immaculate Sultanahmet. We finally found a place to eat at an unassuming grill where they were quite surprised to see a family of five tourists. The area seemed to be a more religiously conservative, working class neighborhood where the women universally wore head scarves and shapeless clothing and the men didn't have the typical smiles we had seen in other parts of Istanbul. We were quite far from any of Istanbul's sights here and there were no other tourists around whatsoever.

We didn't realize we had been atop a hill until the cobblestone streets began to slope downward. A noticeable increase in the brightness and freshness of the building facades signaled that we had finally reached Balat. Historically Balat was one of the most Jewish neighborhoods in Istanbul although only three of the eighteen synagogues that once stood there are still in use. As with many other neighborhoods in Istanbul, pogroms in the mid-twentieth century drove out most of the ethnic minorities and Balat became homogeneously Turkish and Muslim. In modern times Balat was just one of many working class neighborhoods in Fatih but in the last twenty years it has been actively rejuvenated to attract local and foreign visitors. Several residential streets in Balat have become locally famous for the rows of brightly painted apartments in contrasting colors. One of Istanbul's notorious shoeshine guys intercepted us descending the hill and directed us towards one of the most colorful streets. We walked together and had a short chat about his hometown in central Türkiye. Naturally he wanted to shine my shoes and only redoubled his efforts at persuasion after I pointed out I was wearing sandals. Afterwards I regretted not having thought to give him a small tip for providing us with directions.

The heart of Balat is Vodina Caddesi. This cheerful street may not have been as overrun with tourists as İstiklal Caddesi but it was positively frenzied compared to the area we had walked through to get here. Rainbow colors were everywhere: the building facades, the omnipresent umbrellas, and even rows of cars parked outside the profusion of antique stores. European style cafes were also popular here with English menus posted outdoors on rainbow placards.

On Vodina Caddesi we also found another fixture of Istanbul's touristic areas, the ice cream performance artist. The kids were old hands at this game by now but still erupted in peals of laughter every time they were tricked out of getting their cone. This was one tourist trap that we didn't mind falling into over and over again.

Parallel to Vodina Caddesi is Yıldırım Caddesi. This was a quieter street but even more alluring than Vodina because of the relative lack of commercialization. We spent the next hour circling back and forth between the two long streets and the short alleys that connected them. We had now seen three of these colorful miniature villages within Istanbul and it was impossible to decide which of Arnavutköy, Kuzguncuk, and Balat was our favorite.

Wandering to the east along Vodina Caddesi we eventually came to the adjacent neighborhood of Fener. Fener was once a predominantly Greek neighborhood and still holds many landmarks of Greek culture although it has now embraced the same modern upscale aesthetic as Balat. Here we searched for the glassblowing studio 1800 Derece but found it shuttered. It would have been nice to see some craftsmanship taking place but we were starting to push the limit of safety when it came to picking up our rental car.

I knew there was a ferry dock on the Golden Horn at Fener and I hoped we would be able to find a boat back to Eminönü. Unfortunately after crossing the busy coastal road and a park we found the station locked and deserted. As if to punctuate this unwelcome development it began to rain vigorously. We pulled on our hoods and huddled on the sidewalk until we were able to flag down a taxi. Although the rules against taking five passengers in a taxi are pretty strict in Istanbul, the driver took pity on our bedraggled family and drove us all the way back to our hotel. The manager had a minivan waiting to take us and our belongings to the rental car office at the Beşiktaş Stadium. This was the most nervous I had been since the beginning of the trip since I had used an unfamiliar third party company called Holiday Autos which had booked us a car with Europcar, not one of my favorite agencies. We had a rather poor experience picking up a rental from Europcar in Rome nine years previously and we hadn't used them since. We had a lot depending on a straightforward pickup and a smooth departure on our road trip and my mind kept on replaying all the things that might possibly go wrong.

Ultimately none of the dreadful scenarios I had imagined came to pass. The agency had not closed early, they did have our car, it was an automatic, it did have enough space for the kids and all our luggage, and they didn't attempt to charge me more than the amount listed on my reservation. With all these positive developments I didn't mind one bit that the agent maintained the expression of someone who had just stepped in dog waste. Nothing at all went wrong with our rental experience but our road trip almost came to an abrupt end soon after I exited the lot. At the first red light it suddenly seemed that the car in front of me began moving forward even though the light hadn't changed. At the exact moment that Mei Ling shouted and the car behind me blasted his horn I realized that it wasn't the car in front moving forward, it was our car that had started rolling backward on an incline. This was a rather unexpected occurrence for me in an automatic vehicle, where the brakes normally engage automatically to prevent the car from doing such a thing when the gear is in drive. Thankfully I managed to stomp on the brake pedal in time to avoid crashing into the car behind me. We circled the stadium and set off to the east on Dolmabahçe Caddesi which would take us all the way to the First Bosphorus Bridge. Traffic was slow but not excruciating and soon enough the tall arches of the beautiful bridge were looming in front of us. From here on it would be just two hours of smooth highway driving to Bursa.

The peaceful drive gave me some time to reflect on the success of our four day visit to Istanbul. I'm not sure that anything could have made it a bad experience but the advance preparation I did really helped. I already knew the layout of the city and which outer neighborhoods I wanted to visit. I had some sense of the history and culture of Istanbul from the stories and novels I had bought before the trip. One part of my preparation which may have helped more than anything was becoming familiar with the alphabet and some basics of the language. I always set a goal for some level of proficiency with the language in the countries we visit, depending on the prevalence of English spoken and the amount of time we will be spending there. I learned that it doesn't make much sense to try and learn languages like Icelandic, Norwegian, or Dutch because the locals will just look at you bemusedly and speak in English. I still insist that we all learn how to say "hello" and "thank you" in the local language. Those are two simple phrases that a traveler is certain to need over and over again in any country and doesn't require the speaker to understand a response. The easiest greeting in Turkish is "merhaba" (MEHRhaba) which can be used anywhere, anytime. To switch things up a little one might say "günaydın" (good morning), "tünaydın" (good afternoon), or "iyi günler" (good day). The latter can also be used to say good-bye, or one might say "güle güle" to someone who is leaving. Turkish has several ways to say "thank you" of which the most common is "teşekkürler", the equivalent of "thanks". A slightly more proper way of saying it would be "teşekür ederim" which translates more literally to "thank you". An alternative phrase is "sağ ol" which translates to "be well" but is understood as "thank you". "sağ ol" is only two syllables if the four in "teşekkürler" seem intimidating but it's important to remember the ğ is not pronounced, so "saah ol". My kids tended to go with "Sağ ol" but I preferred "teşekkürler" because it's not quite as familiar.

Of course knowing how to say "thank you" is the bare minimum and I will always try to learn more if I will be staying more than a couple of days and English is not universally spoken. We had twelve days in Türkiye and I wasn't expecting English to be the lingua franca outside of the most touristic areas, so I aspired to speak what one might describe as "Travel Turkish 101" by the time we arrived. This is a highly utilitarian approach based on what phrases I will be using the most. As a tourist I will be asking for directions, asking for the bathroom, ordering meals, and buying things. Therefore the critical interrogatives of Travel Turkish 101 are such things as "where is ..." and "how much does this cost" and "do you have ..." while other important vocabulary elements are "excuse me", "sorry", and "check please". "Yes" and "no" are quite useful as is an understanding of basic directions words like "left", "right", and "straight ahead". "Can you speak English" and "I don't speak Turkish" are crucial phrases. The vocabulary for different meats, vegetables, rice, and above all beer is also fundamental. The other key element is numbers. Not much point in knowing how to ask how much something costs when one can't understand the answer. Fortunately the numbers in Turkish are quite simple as long as you can remember one through ten (including the correct pronunciation), the tens for 20 through 90, 100, and 1000. The rest of the numbers are formed very similarly to English by listing the number of thousands, the number of hundreds, the tens word, and finally the ones word. So 4356 is dört (four) bin (thousand) üç (three) yüz (hundred) elli (fifty) altı (six). Travel Talk 101 might seem intimidating to many people but I've gone through the process enough times in different languages that I know it can be done and the payoff is awesome. Not only do I get a tremendous sense of accomplishment after successfully bargaining for an item in the native language or feeling comfortable ordering dinner when there's no English menu, but the appreciation of the locals makes all the studying and practice worthwhile. We never really know what we are capable of until we make the effort and I found Turkish very straightforward. Unlike tonal languages such as Chinese where even my best efforts are often met with total confusion I had a very easy time making myself understood in Türkiye and was often able to comprehend what was being said to me. Of course I still had to fall back on "Sorry, I don't speak Turkish" quite often.

Posted by zzlangerhans 06:40 Archived in Turkey Tagged road_trip istanbul family family_travel travel_blog tony_friedman family_travel_blog balat fener

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