Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Everything's cool in Istanbul

Istanbul's cool.

It doesn't need my endorsement, of course. This place has been cool for several thousand years, long before it was called Istanbul. When your history dates to the Neolithic Age and you've been the capital city of so many empires it's hard to keep count, you get a reputation early on for being a pretty cool place. And after a quick visit over the weekend, I can vouch that its coolness is alive and thriving.

Different sources peg the population at anywhere from nine million to 15 million. Either way, it's a huge place. It spans two continents - the only city in the world to do so - spilling from Europe into Asia (or vice versa; I'm not sure anyone knows which side was settled first).

I stuck with my recent travel strategy of trying to get to know a small area really well rather than attempting to see everything in one visit. There's nothing like sitting at a sidewalk cafe in a faraway place, sipping a Turkish tea and enjoying the sunshine and having a guy from the restaurant up the street walk by and call out "Robert, how are you?" because he remembers you from the day before.

I spent most of my time in Sultanahmet, a historic district that includes the Blue Mosque, the Hagia Sophia, the Grand Bazaar and a maze of winding cobblestone streets lined with funky boutique hotels and restaurants. It runs along the Bosphorus Strait, a stunning body of water that separates Europe from Asia and is packed with ships of all shapes and sizes, bound for ports unknown.

Sultanamhet is built on the hills that climb semi-steeply from the water's edge. There are no high-rises; nothing more than four or five stories, all very old and charming and quaint. Many of the buildings have rooftop terraces for restaurants, and because each street is a little higher above the coast than the one before it, they almost all have spectacular views of the Bosphorus and the Asian side of the city across the way.

The Blue Mosque is the main attraction. It reminded me a lot of the Sheikh Zayed Mosque in Abu Dhabi, just 400 years older. The Topkapi Palace is nearby, and the Grand Bazaar, and the whole place is bustling with a nice mix of tourists and locals from early morning until around midnight.

There are cats everywhere, even in places where Abu Dhabi doesn't have cats. I saw bar cats and cafe cats and palace cats and rocks-beside-the-sea cats. No ceiling cats, though – Abu Dhabi still has the corner on that market.

The restaurants and bars are an eclectic mix of styles that attract a lot of the backpackers and other young vacationers. I walked into one that was playing James Brown's "The Payback" at full volume, then switched to some intolerable techno junk for about 20 minutes before the "DJ" started taking requests. Just write down a song and hand it to the bartender, who uses a laptop to find a recording online, and it will get played. I managed to get the Old 97's and Lucinda Williams into the mix. Not sure how the crowd liked it, but Istanbul seems like a live and let live kind of place, no matter what they think of your taste in music.

No comments:

Post a Comment