There are some cultural experiences so core to Turkey that anywhere else you will only find poor mimicries. A Turkish Hammam is one of them. Most of the hammams are not designed for tourists, they are used by the locals and are still as traditional as used to be. They are gender-segregated in the strictest of fashions with most of them having separate entrances. You pay and are ushered into a changing room where you undress and are given a towel. The interior is almost always fully made of marble and you typically start with a super hot steam room. There is a washing area with water basins along the walls and then slabs of marble in the middle where you can get a massage and wash from one of the employees if you paid for that. The locals come in for their weekly cleanup and the masseuse does a crazy job scrubbing every dead cell off your body. You can always go to one of the basins and wash with the soap provided. You always walk out feeling fresh, clean, amazed, and at times a little scandalized.
Food in Turkey is mostly a grand experience and you are nearly certain to have a great experience even if you end up in one of the most touristy areas. There is black tea in small glasses, sheesha if you like to smoke and succulent kebabs with warm pita bread to go with it. Try the Iskandar kebab and one of the many forms of chicken tikka. Hummus is a must with all meals and comes in large portions. The modern places serve beer and local wines instead of tea or post-meal coffee. On one of my later trips to Istanbul I also ended up in a wonderful place where dinner was served with local music and a whirling dervish performing. More about the dervishes and their performance in the piece on Capadoccia.
The second phase of our Istanbul trip was spent indulging in the district of Galata. This is the more modern side of the city with markets selling western fashion attire and accessories. The local food joints are replaced by fine dining restaurants and nightclubs, a lot of them around the famous Istiklal street. This highly commercial street has a tram station on one end and even more famous Taksim square on the other. Anyone who hadn’t heard of the square before 2013, heard enough in the news for the next year or so. Many small streets perpendicular to the Istiklal house smaller retail outlets and some boutique hotels – one of which I stayed at. A wonderful location in good times, but not necessarily the best during a riot that starts at Taksim square, a hundred meters away.
The first day in Galata was spent walking around the area and planning for a boat tour of the Bosphorus that separates the 3 parts of Istanbul. The Bosphorus is an extension of the Sea of Murmura named after the calcium carbonate mines in the islands across that produce a fine stone called ‘Sange-murmur’ in Urdu or Marble. Several boats and run the length of the Bosphorus and have guides talking of the many structures by its banks and their stories. The speak of new architectural discoveries that have halted the construction of a new bridge and many other hidden stories of the city. The boat we took terminates at a ropeway that takes you up for a fabulous view of the city. Find a comfortable boat and pick a good weather day, the sites are wonderful and the stories rich, you want to enjoy that combination in peace.
Aside from the hundreds of mosques across the city, most of whom are quite beautiful, the other to-dos around the area are focused on Taksim Square and Istiklal street. We found myself at a rooftop bad one night with outdoor seating, some female performers doing some juggling acts, and a spectacular view of Sultanahmet across the waters. The food was still good, the drinks potent and the crowds quite heavy, till very late into the night. In the day the street was abuzz with activity as people window-shopped, enjoyed one of the several cafes or clicked pictures of the historic Taksim Square. The tram that connects the square to the ‘Tunnel’ chughs slowly through the crowds walking the street. It is interesting to know that the ‘Tunnel’ is the second oldest subway network in the world, after London’s underground, and it shows. The shops on the main street include some of the top designer brands , though some more affordable labels are mixed in too.
On the last day of the trip (exactly 7 years ago), I had gone for a walk in the morning, just exploring the area and enjoying the Sun. I noticed groups of people collecting in parks and chanting some slogans in Turkish. No one bothered me and in my glorious moment of ignorance, I didn’t pay much attention. The crowds kept increasing and I did notice some smoke rise in the distance, but who cared, it was in the distance.
After a fantastic lunch in a restaurant on the main street with a beautiful view of the shopping crowds, we decided to join the masses and indulge. That is about when hell broke loose, slowly. The protests had turned violent and police were responding strongly. On most of the small lanes perpendicular to Istiklal, there were the protesters on one side, throwing stones and a few Molotov cocktails. The police were on the other side firing tear gas. Our hotel was on one such lane…
It was a few hours before the street cleared up and we tried to dash to the hotel – a very bad idea since the protesters had dispersed, the tear gas hadn’t. It was my first (and hopefully last) experience of tear gas. It not just burns your eyes but every soft membrane on the face, mainly nose and lips. The burn is sharp and painful and the instinct to rub it only makes it worse. The hotel owner let us in and he seemed to know the cure, lemon juice. The pain didn’t go away instantly but reduced substantially. Then is an extraordinary act of heroism, he stepped out of the hotel and stopped a taxi that was rushing out of the madness. The luggage was thrown into the boot and away we drove. There were more adventures left as the driver had to change course several times to avoid the crowds and the police. We saw a few more tear gas shells being lobbed and some water cannons, but fortunately, note affected us and the driver soon got us away from the madness and on the way to the airport.
A minute outside of the madness, the taxi passed one of the protesters with his hands covering the face, obviously trying to reduce the pain from the gas. The cab driver slowed, rolled down a window, and handed the protester his bottle of water. He said something in Turkish, which I assume meant ‘wash your face’. After having spent about 4 hours watching the riots and not understanding anything about them, that 10-second act told me a lot about public opinion. Gezi park development was just an excuse, the anger in the crowds was much deeper.