Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Five Bs I loved in Istanbul

I just spent five days in Istanbul with my family (I am doing another post on the travel details since I have a few useful Istanbul tips). We loved Istanbul, even if it was a challenge with an eight-month old. So here is a quick rundown of the things I really appreciated there:

1. Baby-Friendly
Istanbul is definitely not baby friendly in any conventional way. The streets are steep, pedestrian sidewalks narrow at best (but often non-existent). In the hilly neighbourhoods (all of Istanbul we saw) there are often uneven steps on the pavements, forcing the stroller onto the road. There, cars and motorcycles speed by, honking horns.

Hagia Sophia museum guard plays with babyBut Istanbulians love babies. Everywhere we went with the baby the people were unimagineably warm. When I walk around Bratislava with the stroller (and especially with the baby sling) I get a lot of smiles and some friendly comments but few people would engage with the baby. In Istanbul the BABY was the centre of attention. Everybody everywhere smiled, made sounds (in the photo the guard at Hagia Sophia baby talks the baby in the sling), people would come up to pat him on the head, sometimes kiss his hand. Waiter and shop assistant would pick him up and carry him around, entertaining him. Every parent (unless, of course, you are particularly worried about communicable diseases) knows how gratifying it is when people show love for their child.

What struck us was that this was most often men (in Bratislava it will usually be women) although the explanation may simply be that most people out were men. Our baby loved the attention but also this made our job of keeping him happy throughout the day a lot easier.

2. Beyoğlu
Whether luck or my obsessively extensive, professionally biassed travel research, we picked the right neighbourhood in Istanbul. We stayed in Cihangir, a part of the Beyoglu district between the well known Taksim Square and Kabataş.

Beyoglu was once the seat of Greeks, Jews, Levantines and Armenians but aparently declined after all of these people left Turkey. But it is now a vibrant mixture of gentrified and run down, residential and commercial, Turkish and Cosmopolitan.

We loved it from the amazing Art Nouveau architecture, through stunning Bosphorus views through neighbouthood shops, bakeries, restaurants. There was such a healthy mix of modern and authentic. People out late into the night and just a good vibe.

We simply enjoyed walking around the neighbourhood and that's what we did the most in our five days in Istanbul. We briefly ventured into the glorified Sultanahmet across the river but felt much more at home in Beyoglu.

3. Bidets
The Turks are so civilised. In our hotel but also at the Airport, in restaurants and at the Grand Bazaar there was always a bidet built in to the toilet (or a separate water outlet for the same purpose in the so-called Turkish toilets).

A bidet is used for intimate personal hygiene - it is a stream of water directed at your behind, which lets you wash rather than just wipe after using the toilet. I am embarrassed to say I had never used one prior to this visit to Istanbul but now I am determined to have one installed as soon as we get a chance.

Having seen their ubiquity in Turkey I am sure Turkish people must look funny at the rest of us when travelling abroad. Of course, the above assumes that people actually use the facilities but then, if they didn't use them I think they probably would not spend the extra to install them everywhere?

In the photo from our hotel the bidet attachment is running (the stream of water in the middle of the bowl). You operate it using the valve on the left.

4. Bad Driving
Especially on our first day I was always worried for our safety - you have to be constantly on the look out because Istanbul taxi drivers drive fast, as do other locals. There is no courtesy in traffic - you see an opening, you move. If you wait everybody starts passing you by.

Cars will make U-turns in the most unlikely places. There will be cars parked on pavements or so close behind each other that you cannot cross the road in between.

Yet in this aparent chaos there seems to be order. Perhaps the lack of rules keeps people on their toes but everyody we saw driving did really well. Cars would squeeze through narrow constrictions and drivers skillfully maneouvred their way through traffic.

My theory (which I first explored in Holland where as a pedestrian you had to be constantly on the lookout for bikes) is that the heavy traffic helps preserve people's faculties into their old age. After getting into the every man for himself mentality I actually liked dealing with the traffic - I felt every road crossing made me a stronger man.

5. Baklava
I am a fan of cakes, which are less sweet. I like my chocolate dark and my bananas green. I constantly harass the baking (read older female) part of my family to cut the amount of sugar in their cakes (usually, using half the sugar in the magazine recipe works just right). This would, of course, make me an unlikely candidate to enjoy the ultimate in sweet cakes - Turkish baklava.

Thin layers of filo dough, chopped pistachios and other nuts and rich sugary syrup. Sometimes chocolate, sometimes (I am not sure about this one) condensed milk? Amazing stuff. The Turks really have this down.

On about day two of our Istanbul stay I bought two pieces of baklava and was hooked. Every subsequent day the number of pieces of baklava I ate grew exponentially. I tried baklava from a large commercialised bakery, from numerous smaller vendors and ended up liking the locally made fress Cihangir Bakery baklava best.

We bought about three boxes to take home as gifts and for our own use the night before departure, then felt this was not enough and bought another few boxes on the day of departure. In duty free, we bought two more just in case.

Come see me, I will show you what I'm talking about.


lidija said...

I love your travel posts. The toilet part is bcs the country is mostly Muslim (you know Muslims all wash up after the toilet, right?). In the US you can buy separate hose-faucets that you can install on your toilet water line (I looked into them not for bidet purposes but others). Maybe you can find them in Slovakia too.

As far as the baby thing goes, I think Greece (Crete) felt similar (though sans baby at the time).

LOL street crossing!

And well, baklava is baklava (you should try my mom's).