You could say it's now Istanbul night two, but this was our first daytime here, and if it was our second day of international traveling, it was our first of walking around and exploring. I love its steep-and-narrow cobblestone streets, its stores overflowing with belt-buckles or socks, its endless cycle of doner kebab and cute cafe.
I feel like I grok this city's energy, but there's a lot I'm missing. Like, how do we get cups of tea in glass vases like everyone else, at restaurants, in stores, on streets? Why is there a chestnut roaster on every corner, when no one every buys? What makes shop keepers think that yelling "Want to see the menu?" (pointing to the enormous platform I had to step into the street to get around) or "Spend money!" won't chase me away? And the language is big barrier (particularly to getting decent prices)-- I only managed to successfully say the word for "thank you" on my 58th try.
I really like our neighborhood. We're staying across the bridge from the old city, about 1 km from the super-busy Taksim square. A short trek up our street, past five bookstores, four relaxed-looking cafes, and three art galleries, is Istiklal street. Parts of Istiklal look like the main shopping street of every other large city, but local businesses far outnumber chains, and almost every person in the constant packed flow is Turkish (which could be a winter effect). The streets coming off Istiklal are much more interesting, though, filled with clubs, cafes, and restaurants and plenty of competition to have both good food and atmosphere. Our hostel, Neverland Hostel, is heel-to-toe with peace, anarchy, and anti-corporation murals and band posters, with a cafe-atmosphere common space playing international indie music.
Today was our Old City day: the Hagia Sophia was closed, but we exhausted much of the rest. The Blue Mosque is exquisite inside, with a seamless wall-to-wall rug that apparently hasn't been spilled on once in centuries. The Grand Bazarre is suffocatingly touristy, but it's also enormous: it took us a half-hour to make one path through it. After a long wander (including two more gorgeous mosques, and some hand-acted-out directions), we returned to familiar territory and checked out the more authentic Spice Bazaar. Then to Topaku Palace with a treasury of jewel encursted, mother-of-pearl inliad everything, and a harem completely detailed by the square-inch in vibrant colors-- something like a mix between a convent and a castle. Finally to the Basilica Cistern, an enormous underground Roman koi pond, where almost every pillar was reinforced, but the constant drips from the rain puddles outside don't stop you from wondering when it's all going to cave in. Finally, dinner at a vegetarian cafe (Zencefil) back home near Taksim.
Tomorrow we explore the Asian side, and get on a train for Cappadocia! We made an important step in our planning today, buying flights from Istanbul to Cairo on January 3, and then to Athens on the 10th. That should give us time for a tight loop through western Turkey, before an Egypt trip including a couple days in Luxor and Aswan. Israel and Cyprus seem to be squeezed out of this trip, but I don't think we'll miss them too much.