Finally, touchdown, nearly twenty four hours after leaving home – 400 humanoid sardines (economy class travel is not for sissies) grab our suitcases and go, go, go. It’s difficult to imagine (2017) only a few months ago this, now pristine, airport being ripped apart by a bomb and terror screaming through the hallways. A refreshing 6 degree wind gives us a facelift as we hail a kamikaze taxi outside, which negotiates roads that are actually pavements and highways that must have more lanes than believed demarcated. Every hairpin bend between buildings receives a honking warning and a hair raising journey into the city has us oscillating between hysteria and laughter.

Cleopatra's hotel

Our Icing Sugar pink hotel

A gorgeous Cleopatra kind of cat greets us at the door of our cute iced-cake pink hotel (booked from South Africa – recommended by friends), and gracefully ushers us to HER fridge in room number 4. For three days and nights she adorns an exotic ‘throne chair’ in the corner like a masseuse, encouraging us to secret food from the rooftop breakfast restaurant to satisfy her hunger. Typically, foreign food has me saying hello to the big white telephone for a day and night. Miss Cleopatra watches over me curiously while I curl into the foetal position, between waves of nausea and 3 metre sprints to the bathroom. I feel grimmer than death warmed up. Will I ever learn to say no to syrupy baklava, fire roasted chestnuts, gooey sweets and tempting slices of cheeses pedaled from street vendors?

Turkish delight of every colour and taste

Turkish delight, carpets and desserts

Our room overlooks ancient rooftops scattered with sunbathing felines, tattered plastic sheets covering non-existent tiles, tossed unmatched shoes, a pair of undies, discarded ruined suitcases and pieces of unwanted plumbing. Our view on the hill skims over a crumbling wall built centuries ago around the city of Constantinople, over many Mosques and across the busy famous Bosphorus waterway to Asia. The evening air is bitterly cold but won’t keep us away from life outside these hotel walls. Back at home an interesting night life is non existent; we can’t safely walk aimlessly in and out of wine bars, cafes or window shop after dark, and I won’t miss a second of this opportunity.

Istanbul, April 2017

Thank goodness for my Pashmina

Haunting and happy music drifts through the airwaves, jostling for spaces between sparkles of colourful light from mosaic lanterns hanging everywhere we look. “Hello Sir, Ma’am, carpets, we’ve got carpets, any carpet you want and if you don’t want now, we send home for you by ship. Let me guess, where you from? How long you been here?”. Oh, yes I hear by your accent, you from South Africa – I have cousin living there, do you know my cousin, his name is Muhammed, in Johannesburg? No, you not from Johannesburg – Cape Town, I have a brother in Cape Town, not Cape Town – Durban you say, well you might know my wife’s sister’s brother’s auntie”. Half an hour later we are still there, not knowing how to be polite and leave (run!), “if you not like carpet, I have these bwootiful lights, pretty mosaic, any colour you like, and strong” – he jumps upon one ornate glass shade on the pavement outside the shop”. “You buy, I take Credit Card” ………… and so it goes…..  The days blend into nights and back into days.  I set my alarm to remind us when we will leave here. 

Carpets & Lights

we submitted to buying explosions of colour

Do we buy a carpet – no, however I am smothered by a flirtatious scarf seller who persuades me to part with my money for a pashmina, and just as well – for the following 5 weeks, from Istanbul to Croatia, stunning Mosques to ancient Churches require my head, shoulders and knees be covered. These places of worship do offer headscarves on loan to visitors (sort-of free – pay for a lit candle to borrow scarf – always a trick in Eastern Europe which makes it all the more interesting). I’m so fussy I’d have loathed that – staying home would be preferable to shared flakes of skin and hair of strangers.

After the biggest breakfast spread I have ever seen, we start touring this vibrant City. The main market has me feeling completely overwhelmed and almost sick; so much noise, shelves packed to the rafters with things to buy, ceilings and walls are smothered in beautiful colourful tiles and paintings – Chris has been swallowed up in the crowd and suddenly the Prostrate Examination Department emits a wail from minarets nearby. It is a call to prayer echoing across the city! Muslims ebb and flow to and from their exquisite Mosques to worship Allah several times a day. Too-muchness. We find one another and comment how accepted and happy from a pick-pocket knife wielding point of view we feel, however the presence of police, armoured vehicles, suited military personnel and constant fly-overs by army helicopters did make us twitchy and one night loud-hailers shouted us off the streets. I was still less nervous than on a dark street at midnight in Johannesburg!

Throughout the stay, at the end of each day I leave Chris to have his cat-naps and return alone to the historic area of Sultan Ahmet, around the Blue Mosque, allowing myself to drift aimlessly through malls, sample local desserts and Turkish delight sweets (risking the risk), drink coffee poured from above my head into the tiniest cup (so strong I instantly sprout hairs on my chest) but give smoking the invitingly aromatic hookah pipes a miss. I sit on benches and observe families gather and inwardly smile at youngsters sporting trendy backpacks as they swagger by to the beat of head-phoned music. 

Blue Mosque on the hill

Looking from the Bosphorus to the Blue Mosque

What a wondrous place to visit. Turkey has a mash up and confluence of religions, history and cultures who all meld together in a way that you wouldn’t think could work, but somehow it just does and the atmosphere is truly amazing.

By now, after reading my other stories,  you must know about my Ice Cream fetish – Turkey takes it up a notch – I’ll never be the same again! Not only are their ice creams delicious, made with orchid sap they’re kinda weird in a consistency sort of way and watching them serve a cone is like attending a puppet show, Punch & Judy childlike entertainment! Ambling by a pop-up caravan, near fountains in a walking precinct, surrounded by laughing adults and jostling children, we stop – spellbound by ice cream vendors’ tricks and shenanigans. Then dodge bell clanging red and cream trams which nearly squash dreaming pedestrians, notice half hourly Hop on Hop off buses which spill map wielding tourists and frown as vehicles screech and swerve at top speed in organized chaos.

Strobe light belly dancing

Dance and dine to strobe lights

During the City Bus Tour we are persuaded to buy tickets to dine and dance on a Bosphorus Cruise tonight. This strait thrums 24/7 and when we board, the water looks like a million shattered fireworks, reflections of lights zigzagging from shoreline palaces, passing partying and cargo boats, plus lines of bursting torch lights, as the waves hit pylons, from hopeful fishermen who line the bridges cheek by jowl (these fishermen supply freshly caught fish to the famous restaurants above them on the three tiered bridge between Asia and Europe). On board we are served “whatever” with wine, food is not that important to me and all I hope for is to not be attacked by food poisoning later. Across the table chatty tourists from Albania flirt with us, but we cannot understand, so they keep repeating their questions in ever increasing shouts. The belly dancing is exceptional and when we join the strobe lit dance floor (thank goodness its under cover of darkness) for a lesson, I discover my place in life is not to belly dance, instead to be an awkward camel loping across a desert illuminated only by the northern lights! Oh well, nobody actually cares, anonymity can be fabulous a fabulous thing.

April mid tulip season in Istanbul

Tulips in Istanbul

Upon closing this “Belly Dancing and Baklava in Istanbul” post,  I imagine the vacuum Covid must have caused. This beautiful ancient city, where nearly everything revolves around tourism, must have starved. Even during our visit in 2017, locals complained they were struggling after the terrorist bombing and everything was offered at half price, discounted and nearly prostituted.  We had seen Syrian refugee families begging on street corners and sweeping in the parks – what happened to them? How long will it take until our world returns to what we once took for granted. Trading – buying & selling, traveling, mingling and accepting – will we ever know that freedom again? I hope so, but for the record – I think those days will never return and we need to re-invent and discover what ‘new’ can fulfill our needs. Thank you for hosting us Turkey, we love you.

The Baklava and coffee calls

Spring in Istanbul, baklava and coffee