We went to Istanbul in June 2016. We flew direct from Glasgow to Istanbul with Turkish Airlines, best airline I’ve been on. Istanbul was amazing and full of surprises.
First thing was Ramadan. I was completely ignorant about Ramadan I must admit. Each night crowds would gather in Sultanahmet, whole families, and have a picnic after sunset in front of the Blue Mosque. In Ramadam, Muslims do not eat or drink during daylight hours. So families gathered after sunset to ‘break the fast’. I was fascinated. I couldn’t help compare it with George Square : if crowds gathered there at night it would be a huge swally, descending into carnage, bottles flung, polis arrive, horses charging in the fuckin lot. Not here though. Peaceful picnics, music and laughter as people watched the light show.
And that was the next surprise. Turks were very friendly and likeable, not like the volatile football fans I’d seen on TV with the infamous “Welcome to Hell” banner. Young men would sit in cafes each night, drinking tea. Families would stroll around the squares and markets. It was lovely.
And then there was the weather. I was worried the heat would be stifling but, because it’s on the Bosphorus, Istanbul had a lovely sea breeze. Each morning we had breakfast in the near empty restaurant, looking out across the tiled rooftops to the ships in the Bosphorus. Apparently Russia was boycotting Turkey so the numbers of tourists was tiny. It was great.
We walked for hours, visited the mosques and temples. The Grand Bazaar was incredible, the scents, colours and noise, constant bartering, haggling – “hey you, you English?” One stretch in particular was like going in a Turkish pinball machine. I was launched into the fray, buffeted, shouted at, tugged and cajoled until, 5 minutes later, I was spat out on the pavement, clutching a bag of spices, wondering what the fuck just happened. Then I wanted another go !
We took a boat trip across the Bosphorus to Asia. For a couple of hours we were on a different continent! We also visited Topkapi Palace and the iconic Byzantine Hagia Sofia with its 6th century dome. We had to take shoes off and wash our feet outside, then don a strange garb. Inside it was incredible and we were in awe, until an Iranian woman told us the mosques in Iran were better. Did ye, aye?
We climbed up to a mosque temple thing on a hill. It was lunchtime and we had a picnic in the sun. Just then there came the strange wailing from mosques all over the city : the call to prayer. It was quite an experience, the strange voices of the muezzins floating across the city.
Kebabs were the order of the day and the food was very cheap, the drink not so, alcohol being disapproved of in Turkey. There were also Turkish Delight shops and you could get free samples before buying. That was good fun. Also plenty of spices , saffron from Iran etc.
There was one strange quirk, maybe a Turkish thing : there seemed to be ‘council dogs’ wandering around. Dogs that had ear tags and lazed in the city parks and squares. Very odd.
On our last night we went to a rooftop restaurant on top of a 12 storey building. It was an incredible setting, looking across to the Sultan Ahmet blue mosque but it was gieing me the heebees, acrophobia setting in and there was only a silly glass balustrade at the edges…. and then a fuckin seagull buzzed me ! I lasted 5 minutes up there. Later that night we saw on the news there had been a suicide bombing at Istanbul Atatűrk airport. It took a while to sink in : later we found out 48 people died plus 3 bombers.
Next morning we went to Atatűrk airport with much trepidation…and it was fine. No sign of the horrific suicide bombing, only media and camera crews. It had literally been mopped up (apologies for the image). The flight was on time and almost empty and we sprawled out across the seats. At Glasgow airport, the woman at passport check said we were very brave to fly home. Only 50 of us boarded the flight out of 187 seats booked she said. In hindsight, I should have asked for a second meal.
So, despite the suicide bombing and stray dogs, Istanbul is amazing, folks. Go there!
Next stop, Iran !