Istanbul is a magical place. As you walk through the cobbled streets of this ancient city you could expect to be whisked away on a flying carpet. You imagine yourself gliding Aladdin-style through a tangle of spices and shishas sold at the mystical Grand Bazaar or flying high over the Bosphorus; straddling two continents with Europe to your left and Asia to your right.
It’s beyond early this February morning and Justin and I have thrown ourselves out onto the foreign streets of Istanbul. I woke early to the sound of a distant song creeping under the crack in the window.
“What is that noise?” I asked.
“It’s the adhan, the Muslim call to prayer.” He replied.
The sound was calming, it ebbed and flowed for a minute or two before the morning quiet resumed.
We arrived from China late last night and our body clocks are out of sync. This morning there is a slight chill in the air but, thankfully, the Turkish winter is balmy in comparison to the Chinese one. It is peaceful here in the morning and at this time of the day the only people around are commuters on their way to work and locals setting up their stalls.
My heart gallops with excitement as we amble down to the main square passing carpet and textile shops. I feel a world removed from Australia. This is a different world; an ancient one. The age-old walls of the city whisper of long-forgotten secrets; of a place that was once known as Constantinople, the capital of the Eastern Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman empires. I have that song Istanbul not Constantinople playing over and over in my mind as we pass through the streets.
We spend the morning lost in narrow alley-ways, exploring nooks and crannies and admiring carpets hanging from shop windows.We take a long stroll in a nearby park and wander through a dust-covered graveyard where cats congregate on the headstones. In the short time I have been here I have discovered that this is cat city. They are everywhere, weaving their way around our legs and appearing where you least expect to see them.
And, like us, these cats seem to be drawn to a fine quality carpet.
Later in the day, we make our way to the famous Blue Mosque. It is a magnificent sight. It’s the first time I’ve seen a mosque this grand. As we enter through an exquisite courtyard, we take off our shoes and I wrap my purple scarf around my hair.
The Mosque has a decadent interior with thick red carpet and intricately designed stained glass windows. What is most amazing about this place are the patterns that cover the walls and ceiling. They are colourful with deep blues and rich golds. I stand in the middle of the room and marvel at the exquisitely elaborate detail. This is a peaceful place.
Later in the afternoon we navigate our way to the waterfront to get a glimpse of the port of Istanbul. Large ships trail in from the horizon and gulls cry. I watch as the dark figure of a man catches the late afternoon shadow.
If we turn around we can see the chaos of the old city in the distance. The Blue Mosque rises through the tangle of buildings to greet the ships as they enter the port.
At night we venture out in search of dinner. We pass a man who tries to coax us in to his restaurant.
“Hello welcome! Can I interest you in dinner tonight?”
The man has a wide smile and twinkling eyes. It is difficult to ignore him.
“No thank you, not tonight.” We say.
“Oh! Where are you from?” He asks, suddenly curious to place our foreign accents.
“Australia,” We reply.
“Aussie mates! G’day mate!” He says enthusiastically, “Welcome to Istanbul!”
“Thank you.” We reply with a smile.
We wander off again only to be stopped by another man.
“Hello my friends! Come and have some Turkish pancakes!”
His English is impeccable and he is a handsome man with dark eyes, wearing a broad smile full of honest intent. He asks us where we are from and welcomes us to Istanbul. We almost forget that part of his job is angling for customers. These people seem genuinely happy to have us here; it’s almost as if we are old friends.
We finally settle for a hole-in-the-wall kebab shop. I opt for a salad after discovering that the menu either consists of lamb, beef or chicken. We are served by a man with a heavy Turkish accent. He has joined our conversation and is practically bursting out of his skin with the desire to practice his English.
“I have a question for you my friends. What is the meaning of the word deestricht?”
Justin and I raise our eyebrows at each other. We’ve never heard of it before. It doesn’t sound like it belongs to the English language.
“Sorry can you repeat it?” Justin asks.
He says the same word again. Deestricht. Justin glances at the man’s notebook and his eyes light up with recognition.
“Oh, you mean district?” Justin asks.
He glances at his notebook and nods enthusiastically.
“Ah, it’s an area that’s part of a country or city – like a division…” Justin trails off as the waiter writes rapidly in his book.
“Thank you!” He rushes off to the counter.
We share a smile as the call to prayer begins across the road at the Blue Mosque. It is louder this time and I let the sound wash over me. Around me others have stopped what they are doing and are giving their full attention to the adhan. Not many seem to be praying though which momentarily surprises me.
After dinner we wander to a convenience van on the street. We ask the man behind the counter for a bottle of water. I am flipping through our guidebook trying to find the Turkish word for it. We are trying hopelessly to tell the owner what we want and I have a feeling we will be leaving without it. We are about to turn to leave when the man behind us steps out and says something to the owner. He then turns to us.
“I asked for water for you. Where are you from?” He asks as we pay for the water that has been presented to us.
“Australia and thank you.” I reply.
“No problem. Welcome to my city.”
He walks off with a wave and Justin and I stare at each other again.This city seems to be overflowing with friendly strangers.
In the morning we are up again at the crack of dawn. Our room is a basic private at a new hostel in the old city. The showers are communal and they offer a simple but delicious breakfast of bread, cheese, olives, tomatoes, and tea for the equivalent of 3 EU or about 5 AUD.
Today, we decide to brave the crisp, morning sea breeze to search for food. We stroll to a place we passed by yesterday, where the front-of-house man started up a conversation in German with us after assuming we were from Germany. Luckily, I studied German at university so I was able to reply to his questions and tell him, in German, that we were actually Australian. He then switched to English and made us promise to try his restaurant before we left.
We arrive before the cafe has opened its kitchen. The man who owns the place greets us like we are long-lost relatives. He offers us Turkish coffee and we gladly accept, happy to momentarily be out of the cold air. In the background he has the Turkish equivalent of Rage playing on the television.
The interior of the place is decorated with crimson cushions and there are shishas positioned outside under a canopy. I’m not usually a coffee drinker but I am impressed by Turkish coffee. It is presented to us in a china mug decorated with Arabic art. It has a thick texture and a sweet taste. I like it.
“How much do you want to pay for them my friends?” The owner asks as we approach him.
We stare at each other, unsure if he is joking or whether it is part of the culture to name a price. We “um” and “ah” for a moment.
“Well my friends they are free for you!” He says, opening his arms wide and laughing.
We stare dubiously at each other.
“No, no we couldn’t possibly take them for free.”
“Okay, that will be ten lira!”
He laughs again and we understand that he has been joking the entire time. I laugh along with him, not entirely understanding his sense of humour – it’s a bit left of centre for me. Friendly, but a bit unusual.
At 9 we line up at Aya Sofya. It is a awe-inspiring building, standing proudly opposite the Blue Mosque. We hire headsets for ten lira and wander into the open courtyard. The woman in the recording tells me that Aya Sofya has been burned down twice in history, was originally a church, converted into a mosque and that it was finally declared a museum by the great Ataturk.
The ceiling of the building is high and is sporadically marked with faded mosaics. Justin and I put our thumbs in the wish wall and turn them. Apparently, a saint once protected this building yet left once it was set on fire. The saint was said to be found in one of the columns where you can still make a wish.
After spending the morning drinking in the magnificent Aya Sofya we head across the road to the cistern. The cistern has sat beneath the city since the Byzantine times. We wander through the underground toward the two Medusa heads, one faces sideways and the other is upside-down. They were mysteriously placed that way when the cistern was constructed. It feels magical here beneath the city, like we are experiencing one of the secrets of Istanbul’s history.
That night we sleep restlessly. Our bodies are still adapting to the time difference here. I am woken by the sound of incessant screeching outside of the window, a much more unpleasant noise than the melodic call to prayer. I crane my neck out the window and quickly discover the noise is coming from two cats fighting on the rooftop.
Today we are taking a journey up the Bosphorus. We meander down to the port, passing men selling breadsticks and slices of cheese. I can smell the heavy scent of the sea hanging in the air.
We board a small tourist boat that chugs slowly up the river. I glance at the other side of the river at the chaotic skyline. I drink in the fresh sea air and momentarily consider the fact that I am smack-bang in the middle of two continents; Asia and Europe. I can see the Turkish flag fluttering in the distance, a white star and crescent moon against a red background.
After we disembark we make our way back past the spice markets toward our hostel.
We are only minutes away when we are approached by a man with a wide face encompassing his enormous smile. He is a short, squat and is what I imagine a frog to look like if it evolved into a human.
“My friends! Hello my dear friends, now tell me, where are you from?”
Justin and I glance sideways at each other. We’re not sure if he’s just being friendly or trying to sell us something. It is becoming increasingly difficult to make that distinction. But, we are in a good mood from the healthy dose of sea-air and see no harm in talking to him.
“We’re from Australia.” We reply, watching as his eyes, emphasised by glasses, widen in approval.
“Australia! Which part of Australia?”
We tell him we’re from Tasmania and he looks as though he’s about to collapse with joy. Not really the usual response.
“I have a friend who lives in Tasmania! He is friends with the premier down there!”
This piece of information makes me suddenly suspicious of this man but I can hardly cut him off and walk away, he’s far too delighted to meet us.
“Well, how about you just come and look at my carpet shop down the road. I have many fine carpets! It’s a fifth generation family business but it doesn’t get so much attention because it’s off the main road. And you tourists don’t like to walk off the main road…”
His face is suddenly the picture of a wounded puppy. We sneak one final look at each other. Surely a quick glance at a few of his carpets is harmless.
Five minutes later frog man is enthusiastically leading us off a small alleyway into a shop with a low doorway that is practically overflowing with carpets. There is another man standing at the door, ushering us in with an inviting smile on his face. He towers above frog man and has thick muscles. He reminds me of a bouncer at a club. We are taken into a cluttered back room and offered a seat on a comfortable red couch.
All around me are carpets. Carpets draped over a mahogany table, carpets lying on every free patch of floor. Some are wide and thick and others are barely longer than a cardboard box.
“Tea, my friends? We have apple, or we have plain.”
Glasses have appeared before us. I take one from the plate that is held by the ‘bouncer’ who was earlier standing at the front door. He nods politely at us and dismisses himself from the room. Meanwhile, frog man is making a display of several carpets on the floor before us. I stare admirably at them, trying desperately to recall the dot-points I read in the Lonely Planet about how to know a fine-quality carpet from a not-so-fine one. Something about the sheen on the rug? The thread count? If I’m honest with myself I have no idea.
“Now, please my friends. Take a good look at these carpets. See this one. This carpet is five generations old – I have spent many, many days perfecting it like my father before me. This can be yours for two hundred Australian dollars.”
I nearly choke on my tea. I’ve snapped out of my dreamy state and have realised that we’re expected to buy a carpet here. Suddenly, the tea I’m drinking loses its sweet taste. It seems to be a tool in the carpet-selling seduction process. I sneak a look at Justin who seems to have cottoned on to what was going on here long before I joined in.
The carpet he is presenting to us seems nice enough. I think it has a decent sheen, though I can’t be sure. The colours are rich crimsons and dark blues. There’s no way I could begin to afford it at two hundred bucks.
An hour later, we have seen every carpet there is to see in his store. There are big and small, every colour of the rainbow and every pattern in the book. This man seems to know everything about the exchange rate and has an awfully accurate idea of how much money we have saved – not that we’ll admit he is right. We are currently discussing a small, worn looking carpet that he is holding. Neither of us want to purchase it so we are politely throwing him every excuse in the book.
“I’m so sorry, we have so long to travel. We cannot carry or afford it!” I say.
The man looks like the wounded puppy again. He bows his head.
“Well, I shall put this rug in your pack and you shall take it for free. If you don’t want it you can simply send it back to me when you return to Australia.”
Justin and I look at each other in alarm. That is most definitely not going to happen. We insist that we couldn’t possibly do that. But, before we know it, he has sneakily placed the carpet in Justin’s bag. I sigh loudly. The only quick way out here seems to be to buy this carpet. And so begins the bargaining process. I offer a lowish number, hoping we can leave this room that is becoming increasingly claustrophobic. When he hears my offer his smile abruptly disappears and is replaced by a wide-eyed frog-like expression of shock.
“Thirty dollars! For this fine carpet! I could not possibly accept. Have a close look my friends! Look at its sheen, its colour. I have spent days restoring it to its original glory.”
I take another look at this rug I am considering buying. It doesn’t appear to be anything special, let alone a work of art. In fact, I would probably mistake it as an old doormat. I definitely won’t be mentioning that to him though. He has removed it from Justin’s pack and is crooning over it; running his hand over its coarse surface like a man caressing his lover.
“No, no, no. How about you give me this much.”
He punches a few numbers into his calculator and comes up with an amount in liras. I try to do the maths in my head but before I get the chance he has already converted it to the Australian dollar. He knows far too much to be duped by me.
“Seventy dollars!” I gasp.
He nods sadly again. I shake my head and take the calculator from him. I punch in some numbers and hand it to him. I have offered 30 dollars. As he sees my offer he inhales in shock. He shakes his head vigorously and stares me directly in the eye.
I can see that this is going to be a matter of willpower and who can stick to their guns the longest.
“How about this then?”
He hands me back the calculator. I see he has dropped to sixty dollars. No chance. I hand him the calculator back again this time offering 35 dollars. My final offer. We stare each other eye-to-eye before he looks away and sighs dramatically.
“This, my friends, is my price! Meet me halfway, tell me how much you will pay for this creation!”
I tell him again that our final price is 35 dollars. I can sense that bouncer has entered the room and is silently watching from the corner. There seems to be a lack of tea in the late stage of this bargaining process. Justin is being mostly quiet next to me and looks as though the bargaining process is having a lullaby effect on him.
I stand up to leave, taking the backpack off the floor. I stare frog man in the eye for the last time.
“Thirty five dollars, my final offer.”
He whimpers and glances lovingly at his carpet but lets us walk out the door. My stomach clenches a little as bouncer-man scowls at us. We are almost out of the store when the curtain behind us bursts open.
“My friends! Thirty five dollars and it is yours!”
Ten minutes later we are being waved out of the door by frog man who is counting his liras like the cat who got the cream. I have forgotten all about the carpet and am simply glad to be out of the room, breathing in fresh air. That was definitely an experience in willpower. Even if I did end up with a carpet I didn’t want in the first place.
On the way back to the hostel we stop short at an ancient graveyard with lilting headstones. It has a white gate with a food menu attached to it. Strange. Are they offering food by the headstones?
We open the gate and wander through. We pass a courtyard and come to a small cafe with a balcony. We enter into a quirky establishment where people are sitting on cushions and smoking shishas. I am fascinated by these shishas. At first I thought they were some kind of equivalent of marijuana but Justin informs me that what they are smoking is infused water.
We sit at a table on the balcony and order tea from the menu. If there is one thing I learned from the carpet experience it is that Turkish tea is delicious. Especially the apple flavour. We buy the tea for two TL and drink it, enjoying the view below us and laughing about the small, worn and red-pattered carpet that is in the pocket of Justin’s day pack. We take it out and analyse it. It’s not really the sort of thing I can see in my house but, really, it’s not so bad. It has a lot of character when it comes down to it. Maybe every time we look at it we can be relieved that we’re not still arguing over its price.
We rest in the hotel for the afternoon before venturing out again at night. We walk past our new friend up the street.
“Hello my Aussie mates! How are you? Tell me all about your day.”
We tell him about our trip up the Bosphorus and our newly purchased carpet before he wishes us a pleasant evening and we are off again. Five minutes later, we come across our other friend.
“Turkish pancakes for you tonight my friends?” He asks, laughing before we have even responded.
“Not tonight thanks!”
The man turns to Justin.
“My friend! Your girlfriend looks so cold. Here, she must have my jacket.”
Before I know what is happening, he is slinging his suit jacket over my almost-bare shoulders. I laugh along with him before reluctantly handing it back. We walk off toward the sea-side, marveling at the friendliness and good humour of the locals.
The next morning we wake early and prepare ourselves for a day trip to the Grand Bazaar. It is a huge market with a spectacular hall that appears to sell everything from jewellery to clothes to bags. I remember reading in the guidebook that i has over a thousand jewellery stores. On the way in a man comes rushing toward us.
“Sir, you have a beautiful girlfriend!”
He gestures toward me and I am pleased by this unexpected compliment.
“Where are you from? England? Germany?” He asks.
We suddenly know where this conversation is going. He asks us if we want to go to his friends shop to see some antique jewellery. This time we are prepared and politely but firmly decline before hurrying off inside the market.
It is one million times worse as we wander through the clogged hallways of the Bazaar. There are people calling to us from every direction, throwing me compliments whenever they get the chance. I buy a small shisha from a man who tells Justin he is the spitting image of Harry Kewell. Personally I don’t see it.
After, we pause too long looking in the window of a fine carpet shop. An attractive man with piercing blue eyes pounces on us. He is wearing a sharp black suit and cleverly guides us into his store under the pretense that we will just be “having a look”, of course.
Suddenly, apple tea has appeared on a silver platter before us. Carpets are being laid out. Prices over 500 dollars are being named.
I realise, too late, that we have fallen victim to Turkish charm yet again.
So, even though we know we should run – we sit back, relax and enjoy the delicious apple tea.