Monday, June 18, 2007

from Istanbul: Sunday destinations

The ever changing Bosphorus. A morning mist can add another level of beauty to a view that I have now looked at a million times (I need only roll over in bed and face the window and I have this before me):


It’s Sunday. We have been told that the commercial heart of the horn (the old center of town) shuts down. We work from morning til night — a Bazaar merchant tells me. Thank goodness for Sundays.

I ask at the desk for suggestions: what’s a good outing? What do Istanbuli people do on this day?
They take the ferries out to Princes’ Islands.

I’ve read about them. An hour or two from central Istanbul (depending on which island), they offer an escape – a few beaches, no cars, a restaurant or two – that kind of thing.

Great. Do you have the ferry schedule?
The desk clerk hesitates.
Go there during the week. It can get very crowded on a Sunday…
That’s okay, we want to do what the Istanbuli people do. What time are the ferries?

We do the usual: first, ferry across to the European side. There we look for the boat that will take us to the closest of the islands – Kinaliada. We take look at the various boats and ferries and then we see it. The big boat. And a sea of people. The rush to the islands is on.

We are undeterred. If the Istanbuli people regard this as a fun Sunday outing, we want to try it. We join the stampede.

Everyone is running toward the boat and we run as well, though we’re not quite sure why. It’s still twenty minutes toward departure.

As soon as we step onto the boat, the gangplank is lifted, the horn blasts and the boat pulls away. The ferry crew makes the call that there are enough passengers. Off it sails.

Indeed, the large ferry is packed. Standing room only. There are some couples, sure, and some families, but mostly we see young men – groups of them, dressed for the beach.

As always, we are treated super politely. A boy will punch his brother for bumping into me and make him fish for the English word to apologize. (Sometimes they’ll find it, but mostly, when you step out of the hotel or restaurant, English disappears. Not a word.)

We stand at the rail and watch the city retreat.

Within an hour, we are nearing the island. A vast majority chooses to disembark here. Like us, they want a quick escape. We get off with a crowd that is worthy of Grand Central Station in New York. At rush hour.

But it is, in fact, an escape. We have been told that there are anywhere between 14 and 25 million people living in the city. The traffic congestion during the day is unreal! How wonderful to get to a place that has none of this.

Still, it has the crowds alright. This island hasn’t much in the way of beaches, but people make do. They splash with the jelly fish (hundreds of them!) and they take pleasure in getting wet. Just a little break. A dip.


We pause for our afternoon baklava and espresso (it’s become a routine – replacing the latte and scone addiction from back home),


... and then hike up. Mind you, this isn’t a big island – maybe two miles across and a half mile wide. Still, there is a village center and some open countryside.

Most day trippers stick to the village and the beaches. As we climb up, the air becomes hot, still. And you have this feeling of eyes peering at you from behind bushes and dry grasses. That’s because there are eyes peering at you. Every couple of hundred meters you’ll see the flash of kerchief. Young men, smooching away with their women. It still takes getting used to: the guy in western clothes – jeans, t-shirt, maybe swimming trunks and the woman in an ankle-length skirt, maybe with a coat over it and a head wrapped tightly with a scarf.

The views from the walk up are predictably stunning. The city in the distance, a few sailboats, freighters, ferries, and the mountains of western Turkey somewhere in the hazy horizon.


But it’s hot up there and so we head back to town, past horse-pulled wagons delivering water,


…past kids, couples, stray cats, past cafes with men playing cards and games that I cannot recognize, drinking tea, talking,


…all the way to the ferry. True, the schedule says we have more than an hour til the next one, but lo! There is a boat and there are people rushing to it and so we join the pack, because joining the pack has served us well thus far and we’re all running again, because this boat is about to pull away toward who knows where.

On board, we are reassured that we are indeed heading to Istanbul and so once again we squeeze ourselves up there toward the rail, to avoid all those men (and a handful of women, but really, mostly men) puffing away at their cigarettes.

There is a stir. Passengers are leaning over the rails, pointing, smiling. Dolphins. One leap, another. People are guiding us to look this way, to see better.

Eventually we settle on a bench and do some people watching.



And always there are the tea drinkers as the ferry bar tender makes his rounds, not with beer, not with coke, but with glasses of tea and cups of orange juice.


And finally, we are back in Istanbul...


Landing seemingly close to our dinner place, and yet, the fact that we are in downtown Istanbul means that we are not close at all, because maps do not properly tell you where you are and where restaurants are and so we spend the next two hours trying to find where we ought to be.

Flamm Restaurant is worth finding. In a back alley, with just a handful of tables hugging the wall, it is run by the nephew of the original owner.

My uncle gave me this restaurant to manage. He’s busy with hotels and restaurants in other parts of the city and country. I have ten cousins, but my uncle, he doesn’t trust any of them. He was his textiles, his family cheated him. So I got the restaurant.
He likes you?

I think he just thought I needed something to do.

The nephew is an easy going kind of guy and he comes over frequently to talk to us.
My uncle hired all the best people for the kitchen.
You’re just getting into the busy tourist season?

Actually, the busy season is winter. Mostly, we serve my uncle’s friends and relatives here. He has a lot of friends in Istanbul.

We eat fried squash patties, smoked fish and mussels in grape leaves.


We go with the choices from the kitchen – meat in yogurt sauce over eggplant puree, pudding for dessert. The waitstaff hovers attentively.


Our week in Istanbul is finished. Tomorrow we fly south, before heading north again. When you’re in Istanbul, it’s hard to remember that Turkey is more than just Istanbul. Time to take a look elsewhere in the country.