A March 2002 trip
to Istanbul by Idler
Quote: Drawn to the mystique of both ancient and modern Istanbul, a family of three spends five days exploring the city, taking in mosques, museums, meyhanes, bazaars, and the vibrant street scene.
Istanbul is a feast for the senses. Indulge yourself! Take in the sights and smells of the Spice Bazaar and the dazzle of the Grand Bazaar. Let history wash over you in Aya Sofya, Topkapi Palace, the Archeological Museum, and numerous other cultural standouts. Stand on a promontory and look out over the Golden Horn and Bosphorus. Join in the vibrant night life centered in the Taksim district. Enjoy one of the world's great cuisines. Take in performances of Turkish music and dance. Let yourself be seduced by this magical city at the crossroads of Asia and Europe.
The Sultanahmet district hotels place you closest to many of the key museums and attractions of the city, but be sure not to miss out on other parts of Istanbul as well. It helps to get a sense of the geography and history of the place before you go (see my entry on suggested books ).
As Istanbul is so large and diverse, it helps to have an idea of what you most want to see as well as what days various museums are closed so that you won't be disappointed. Any advance planning and background reading that you do will pay off.
In general, we felt very safe and comfortable travelling in Istanbul. Exercise the normal caution you would in any big city. Beware of cab drivers, however - they can literally take you for a ride. It's best to have your hotel arrange for cabs as hotels often have arrangements with a particular company and thus have a little leverage that will act in your favor.
I would like to say that Istanbul is an ideal city for the average walker, but it isn't. The city is built on seven hills, which means you're often going either up or down, plus the many old cobblestone streets make it challenging at times. In addition, there are places where the pavement or steps are crumbling. Watch your step and wear comfortable shoes.
Taxis are cheap and are generally the most efficient way to get across town, but be very clear about your destination to your cab driver. Most cab drivers speak little English and some will simply begin to drive first and only ask you where you're headed later, often after having driven in a contrary direction. Have your guide book or map at the ready to show him exactly where you want to go. (One of our hotels had a printed card to distribute to the cab drivers to show the hotel's location.) In addition to taxis, there are trams and buses; the tram running along Divanyolu Caddesi in the Sultanahmet district is an easy and inexpensive way to get to the Spice Bazaar.
The Empress Zoe is tucked in a quiet side street near the main attractions of Seraglio Point and Sultanahmet. The hotel has only 19 rooms, arranged more or less vertically on successive floors. Hence the caveat about the stairs. The first set, an open spiral staircase, is in the small reception area. Thankfully, two small but incredibly strong men carried our suitcases up to our room, located at the top of the building.
We'd known that we would be in for a climb by opting for the "penthouse suite," but loved the idea of staying in a room with its own terrace. The room itself was charmingly decorated in dark wood and warm reds, but my god, the climb! Four steep flights, not to be taken lightly. Thankfully, our room was well worth it, decorated in a simple folk motif manner, with kilims and rustic antiques. Large windows ran the length of the main room and the adjoining wall. The effect was of being in a private hideaway, up above the noise and tumult of the street, yet in a prime position to observe everything from an enviable vantage point.
The suite consisted of three areas: a large main room containing two single beds doubling as couches, a small curtained-off area containing a double bed, and a lovely bathroom with an opulent marble shower. In the main room there was a small table, chairs, TV, and coffee table as well as a kitchenette with a shelf of dishes and utensils, a coffee/tea maker, and a small refrigerator. The promised terrace looked out to sea in one direction and toward the Blue Mosque the other. As a bonus we had our own set of stairs that led down to the hotel's charming bar.
In keeping with the intimate surroundings, the hotel staff couldn't have been more accommodating. Most of the young, well-educated staff speak excellent English. We had several interesting conversations with the night desk clerk, an archeology student. Ali, who tended the bar, advised us on places to hear Turkish music. He was also extremely kind to our 11-year-old son, offering to play several games of chess with him. Greg, needless to say, thought Ali was the coolest guy in Istanbul.
A typical Turkish breakfast is included in the price of the room. It was too chilly during our stay to eat out in the lovely small garden area, but as a consolation all the public areas throughout the hotel were decorated with lively Greek murals.
There’s a 10% discount for paying cash. The penthouse suite was $125 ($112 with discount). While there are undoubtedly less expensive hotels in Istanbul, I can imagine few with greater charm. We made a vow to ourselves before leaving: we'd be back.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on April 12, 2002
Hotel Empress Zoe
Akbiyik Cad. No:4/1 Sultanahmet
(90 212) 518 25 04
Attraction | "Istiklal Caddesi (Independence Street)"
When you’ve fended off your twentieth carpet salesman in Sultanahmet, which is generally about the same time that you’ve developed ‘tourist neck’ from milling endlessly with your fellow tourists, head tilted back gazing at the ceilings of Aya Sofya and the Blue Mosque, you might find yourself in the mood for something more relaxing. Less regulated. More hedonistic. Less antiquarian. More 21st century. Something…. different.
That’s the time to jump in a taxi and head across to the opposite shore, to Taksim Square in the Beyoglu district. There, on Istiklal Caddesi, you can slip effortlessly into the stream of humanity and stroll anonymously to your heart’s content, practically assured that no one will take notice of you. That sign you imagined you were wearing in Sultanahmet, the one proclaiming in foot-high crimson letters, "RICH TOURIST," will vanish. The people in Beyoglu, you see, have their own agenda, and you’re not on it. They’re out to enjoy themselves: to shop, eat, drink, dance, sing, socialize, and, well, a few other activities I’ll leave to your imagination.
Your taxi driver will most likely drop you off in the confusing swirl of Taksim Square, the central transportation hub. Ranged around the square are the Atatürk Cultural Center, the Marmara Hotel, and the metro station. Istiklal Caddesi is easy to spot, however – it’s where the majority of people are heading. The street is closed to traffic, though an antique tram plies up and down its mile-long length. You can walk down the street and take the tram back up, if you like, or proceed all the way down past the end of the street, to Galata Tower. Be aware, though, that many of the area’s attractions lie just off the street, in the maze of sidestreets and small covered markets.
Beyoglu was traditionally the area where foreigners lived back in the days of the sultans, and it still retains its international flavor. Numerous consulates and wealthy residences line the streets; Istiklal Caddesi (or "Independence Street") was once called the Grand Rue de Pera (‘pera’ meaning ‘opposite shore,’ where the foreign enclave lived). Imagine, if you will, a scene from the late 19th or early 20th century, when the streets were gas lit and French-speaking sophisticates in top hats and minor Russian princesses in ostrich-plumed hats walked its cobbled streets. Today, the once gracious area is awash in restaurants, book shops, night clubs, cinemas, and every form of entertainment imaginable, but some of the stately beauties of yesterday still prevail, such as the Pera Palas Hotel, where passengers on the famed Orient Express stayed, among them Agatha Christie, who wrote Murder on the Orient Express there.
Whether enjoying the Belle Epoque sights of yesterday or frequenting the hip bistros of today, you’re sure to find something that quickens your pulse on this vibrant, urban street. Its cosmopolitan charms never pall.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on April 21, 2002
Istiklal Caddesi, (Independence Street)
off Taksim Square, Beyoglu
Attraction | "Archaeology Museum"
This award-winning museum has been undergoing renovation throughout the past decade, winning the Council of Europe’s Museum Award in 1993. The carefully chosen pieces are displayed with great artistic sensitivity, particularly in the largest building, with the placement, lighting, and curator notes enhancing the museum-goer’s experience. Within the boundaries of modern Turkey and the former Ottoman Empire are archaeological sites from many of the world’s great cultures, including Thracian, Bithynian, Byzantine, Egyptian, Hittite, and Mesopotamian. It’s worth remembering, for example, that the site of ancient Troy is actually located in modern Turkey rather than Greece. This happy circumstance places Turkish archaeologists in a unique position to explore the past.
The first building, the Museum of the Ancient Orient, features an impressive display of antiquities from the Egyptian, Mesopotamian, and Hittite cultures. One of the standouts is a large glazed brick frieze of lions and bulls set against a blue background from Babylon’s Ishtar Gate. Less impressive looking, but of great historical importance, is the Treaty of Kadesh, a tablet dating from 1269 BC that contains the world’s first peace treaty.
The building adjacent to the Museum of the Ancient Orient houses a collection of Turkish tiles and ceramics, with some lovely examples of Iznik tiles. The pride of the collection is the gorgeous blue tiled mihrab from the city of Karaman in southeast Turkey.
The largest building, a long neoclassical affair with four tall columns set along the entrance, houses the Archaeology Museum. Upon entering the museum, the visitor is greeted by an appealingly grotesque statue of Bes, an Egyptian dwarf god believed to guard against evil spirits. From the entrance, the visitor makes a choice to go right, left, or up. If pressed for time, go left to view the magnificent marble tombs brought from Sidon by Osman Hamdi Bey, a 19th century Renaissance man who was most responsible for the museum’s development.
The museum is at its best when it first opens at 9:30 a.m., when there are few visitors and the noisy groups of schoolchildren who plague many of Istanbul’s museums have not yet made their appearance. The entrance fee is approximately $3. The museum is open until 4:30 and is closed on Mondays.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on April 14, 2002
Osman Hamdi Bey Yokusu
+90 212 5207740
There are a fair number of the ever-present carpet shops here, of course, but there are also many other types of shops as well, selling ceramics, leather goods, jewelry, books and illuminated manuscripts, pashminas and scarves, inlaid chess sets and boxes, and many folk crafts. My husband got a lovely belt and a painted vase there, while I bought a pashmina for much less than I’d expected to pay. Several Turkish people had told us that the Cavalry Bazaar was cheaper than the Grand Bazaar. We didn’t do enough comparison shopping to ascertain if this was true (and I suspect that, in any case, a lot depends on the buyer’s haggling skills), but prices did seem very reasonable. Admittedly, the selection is not as good as in the Grand Bazaar with its sixty-five streets and hundreds of shops, but what could possibly compete with that? Still, we liked this market well enough to stroll its length on two separate occasions, making our purchases on the second visit after deciding in the Grand Bazaar that we’d probably be able to find the items we wanted cheaper in the Cavalry Bazaar.
A trip here can be easily combined with a visit to the Mosaic Museum, which lies alongside the bazaar. In fact, the exit from the museum lets you out into the middle of the bazaar. When the larger attractions of Sultanahmet such as the Blue Mosque and Aya Sofya have become crowded by mid-day, taking a side trip to this attractive little bazaar and the Mosaic Museum provides an afternoon’s respite from the crowds. The shopkeepers seem to regard the afternoon hours as a time of relaxation as well, and you’ll undoubtedly see men carrying tiered metal trays loaded with the ubiquitous tulip-shaped glasses of hot apple tea for the afternoon break.
Member Rating 3 out of 5 on April 15, 2002
The Cavalry Bazaar
Behind The Blue Mosque
The Great Palace stretched from Aya Sofya and the Hippodrome down to the Sea of Marmara, where a massive sea wall was built to protect the palace and city. In its time, no palace in Europe was its rival. Visitors wrote of its beautiful gardens, magnificent pavilions, and sacred churches containing important Christian relics such as (purportedly) the head of John the Baptist. Emperors culled treasures and commissioned glorious works from the breadth of the empire. Yet among all these magnificent objects, the mosaics were perhaps the highest expression of Byzantine art, later influencing artists such as Giotto and El Greco. Today, the best examples of Byzantine mosaics are found in Ravenna, particularly the church of San Vitale. One can only conjecture, based on Ravenna’s mosaics and those found here, on the splendor of the original palace mosaics.
The mosaics on display are from a portion of the palace complex called the Boucoleon Palace, which was the main living area of the emperors. It is said that the famous Doge’s Palace in Venice was inspired by the Boucoleon, which featured a magnificent mosaic floor. Portions of this floor are on display in situ at the museum. Painstakingly restored by a joint Austrian-Turkish team in the 1980’s-1990’s, it is one of the most magnificent antique mosaic compositions in the world.
The mosaics depict dozens of human and animal figures, some locked in mortal combat, others in pastoral settings, all rendered vibrantly. Here an eagle battles a snake, there a boy waters a donkey, and here in the center a great hunting scene unfolds. The museum is essentially a roof erected over an archaeological dig, with the mosaic floor in the center and various mosaics displayed along the walls. Stroll along the walkway, gazing down on the mosaic floor, to connect with the past. The themes are timeless – for some things never change – yet there’s a poignancy to this display, for only fragments remain. Regardless of how skilled the restoration, the passage of the ages is written all too plainly here as the city marched on, building over the emperor’s residence with scarcely a thought to what lay below. Sic transit gloria mundi: Thus passes the glory of the world.
The Mosaic Museum
Arasta Carsisi, Sultanahmet
Attraction | "Basilica Cistern (Yerebatansaray)"
The cistern is, indeed, atmospheric in the extreme. Entering a non-descript building on Yerebatan Street, just across from Aya Sofya, we had descended into a vast underground space. It's an impressive engineering feat, considering that it was created almost 1500 years ago. Twelve rows of columns, with 28 columns per row, stretch across the length of the vast chamber. The bases of the columns lie in the shallow, motionless water and are artistically lit so that the columns and their reflections march endlessly into the shadowed recesses. The air in the cistern is still and cool, almost dank but with no hint of decay. Spidery strains of classical violin music echo off distant walls. The effect is of profound mystery and stillness.
Of course, the original purpose of this romantic place was completely practical. It was built during the reign of Justinian (527-565), who began a great program of civic construction and restoration after the Nika revolt, a riot in the Hippodrome which spread into a full-scale revolt, destroying much of Constantinople. A plentiful water supply city was of paramount importance to the walled city, which endured seige after seige by successive waves of invaders before ultimately falling in 1453.
During the first century of Ottoman rule, knowledge of the cistern seems to have been lost. It was, oddly enough, a Frenchman, one Pierre Gilles, who rediscovered the cistern while looking for remains of the basilica for which it was named. He noticed that the local people drew water and even fished from certain wells, and descended by torchlight into the cistern with a local guide.
During the 1980's the Turkish government set about restoring the cistern. Fifty thousand tons of mud were removed, the columns were cleaned, and a platform was built so that vistors could walk through various portions of the cistern. Today, this restored cistern is universally regarded as one of the most romantic and fascinating places in the old city.
Twice I was admonished by Istanbul residents to "Go see the cistern - you must not miss it!" In particular, I was advised to look for the "Medusa heads," stone faces lying sideways and upside down, each supporting a column. The origin and purpose of these heads is unknown, though it is said they were probably pilfered from some other building when the cistern was constructed. One informant explained their peculiar sideways and upside down placement to me thus: "If you looked at the face when it was right side up, you would turn to stone! But you can look at the reflection in the water, which is right side up, and you will be okay."
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on April 13, 2002
Southwest of the Hagia Sophia
The best overall guidebook we used was Eyewitness Guide to Istanbul. While the information in the guide was not always completely up-to-date (for example, it says that a visa for a U.S. citizen is $20, when in fact the cost is now $40), we found it generally reliable and extremely easy to use. The plentiful pictures and maps are great visual references, and the guide itself packs a tremendous amount of useful information into a slim volume. While touring Topkapi, Aya Sofya, and other major sights, we noticed that about a quarter of the tourists had their own copies of Eyewitness: Istanbul open to the relevant pages.
Another guidebook we used, but which we did not carry with us, was the hefty Strolling Through Istanbul by Hilary Sumner-Boyd and John Freely. Written in the 70’s and updated in the 80’s, this book gives no information on hotels, restaurants, or other practicalities. Instead, it is just what its title suggests: a guide to strolling (and I do mean strolling) though Istanbul, soaking up the rich historical and architectural history. Full of fascinating anecdotes and rich in detail, this is a scholarly book, yet not stuffily so. The authors’ deep affection for and extensive knowledge of the city is apparent on every page. Note that while this book is almost prohibitively expensive here in the States, that you can buy it for $12 from the bookstore that sells English books about Turkey on Divanyolu Street, which is the main thoroughfare through the historic Sultanahmet distric.
After Hilary Sumner-Boyd’s death, his junior colleague John Freely went on to write several popular histories of the city, one of which, Istanbul: The Imperial City, traces the city from its origins to the present day. The book, in my opinion, suffers slightly from adhering to a chronological sequence of rulers, but within that sequential narrative it is sufficiently entertaining and, more to the point, provides an excellent overview of the city’s history. The last section of the book, "Notes on Monuments and Museums," is a comprehensive list of the city’s historic sites. By the way, here’s a bit of trivia for you: this is the book that Hugh Grant recommends to Julia Roberts in the film "Notting Hill."
Another John Freely book, Inside the Seraglio focuses on the private world of the sultans, to the exclusion of practically everything else, really. Again, the book is a chronological account of the various rulers throughout the centuries. Details of life in the harem, the intricacies of palace etiquette, the bloodthirsty intrigues, and the supporting roles of court officials, eunuchs, consorts, and slaves flesh out the portraits of the Ottoman sultans' decadent private lives.
Sir Steven Runciman’s The Fall of Constantinople has been reprinted numerous times since its initial publication, testimony to its enduring qualities. Runciman, an authority on Byzantium and the Crusades, constructs a very sympathetic portrait of the beleaguered Byzantine rulers, whose shrinking empire ultimately consisted of little other than the imperial city of Constantinople itself. The death throes of the empire and ultimate Ottoman triumph are vividly recounted by Runciman, who was a master stylist as well as historian.
As a companion to the Runciman account, Lord Kinross’ The Ottoman Centuries: The Rise and Fall of the Turkish Empire takes up the story where Runciman leaves off, explaining the wondrous rise and slow decline of the Ottoman empire. He has a gift for weaving the various social, political, and economic issues effortlessly into the narrative, making the "whys and wherefores" of the various events and rulers more comprehensible. An enormous book, but an engrossing one. In fact, my one disappointment with my pre-trip reading was that I was not able to lay hands on a copy of Kinross' universally acclaimed biography of Atatürk.
Speaking of Atatürk, his monumental figure looms large in one of my favorite books on Turkey, Jeremy Seal’s A Fez of the Heart: Travels around Turkey in Search of a Hat. Seal traveled throughout Turkey on a personal odyssey to search for the origins and meaning of the fez, a form of headgear outlawed by Atatürk in 1925. The conceit of the book – that the author is searching for fezzes – is an appealing one, as is Seal himself, sympathetic and yet bemused by modern Turkey’s apparent contradictions. An interesting amalgam of travel book and cultural history.
Ostensibly a children’s book, but with adult appeal as well, A 16th Century Mosque by Fiona MacDonald is a lavishly illustrated and simply written account of the construction of the Blue Mosque, with basic explanations of the Islamic faith and its spread, the Ottoman Empire, and Suleyman the Magnificent and his court. It makes an excellent reference before a visit to Istanbul’s mosques, the Blue Mosque in particular.
Orhan Pamuk’s most recent book, My Name Is Red, was a literary sensation in Turkey and, with its translation and publication elsewhere in 2001, is causing a stir in the English-speaking world as well. It has been likened to The Name of the Rose and other cerebral historical mysteries, and the comparison is not misplaced, though personally I found Pamuk’s strong aesthetic and philosophic bent reminded me more of Lady Murasaki’s 11th century classic, The Tale of Genji. Pehaps it was Pamuk’s attentiveness to emotions and the symbolic use of setting and detail that brought that comparison to mind. The mystery involves the death of an artist and centers on the various pupils of a certain master illuminator. Written from the perspective of all of the suspects, as well as numerous other characters, the 59 short chapters form the shards of a brilliant discourse on philosophy, religion, politics, the relationship of Christianity vs. Islam/West vs. East, and the meaning of art. A highly original novel, dense with complex characters and intricacies of plot.
Another Pamuk novel, The White Castle also reflects Pamuk’s fascination with the East/West dichotomy. Ottoman society is viewed through the eyes of the Italian protagonist, who, in the 17th century, is taken prisoner by the Turks and made a slave to a young scholar in Istanbul. That the Turkish scholar and the Italian are almost identical physically is the key to this enigmatic novel. This was one of Pamuk’s earlier novels, and it’s interesting to note how his fascination with identity works itself out into full flowering in My Name Is Red and perhaps other novels (these are the only two I’ve read at this point).
A friend who had been to Istanbul and knew I was planning to go gave me a most delightful Christmas present, a copy of Philippa Scott’s Turkish Delights. Beautifully photographed and arranged, the book explores Turkish influences on the West, with numerous plates showing how Turkish dress, art, and architecture influenced their Western counterparts. I hadn’t much appreciation for the artistic inspiration that Turkey provided to other cultures until I read this book. A feast for the eyes and the mind alike.
Speaking of feasts, a good guide to Turkish food is Eat Smart in Turkey: How to Decipher the Menu, Know the Market Foods & Embark on a Tasting Adventure. The title says it all, really, though I might add that there are a number of recipes included, plus tips on finding and using Turkish ingredients, and most useful glossary of Turkish food.
Finally, while I can’t claim to have made much headway into learning Turkish before arriving in Istanbul, what little I did learn was from Turkish: A Complete Course for Beginners by David Pollard and Asuman Celen Pollard. Had I been more diligent, I’ve no doubt I would have been able to master the rudiments of Turkish with the help of this basic text. As it was, skimming through the chapters at least gave me some appreciation for the subtleties of the Turkish language and a passing familiarity with its more salient characteristics.
I've just returned from Istanbul, a city where history conspires to waylay the visitor at the oddest places. It’s a land of colorful bazaars and old-fashioned courtesy existing alongside cell-phone chatting youth and CNN International News on TV. Tantalizingly foreign (but not disconcertingly so), we found Istanbul a relatively easy city to travel in.
On our first Istanbul morning we were woken at the crack of dawn by what sounded at first like an air siren. Sitting groggily upright in bed, the sound resolved itself into a discernibly human voice. Ah, the morning call to prayer. Of course – how could I have forgotten? Our hotel
was located near the Blue Mosque, but within range of a second mosque which
featured the five-times daily call to prayer. This otherwise excellent location led to a phenomenon my husband and I referred to as
"duelling muezzins." While we had no idea whatsoever what they were
calling, the two muezzins seemed to be perpetually trying to outdo each
We imagined a long-standing feud between the muezzins in opposing minarets, with each one trying to outperform the other. However, the fellow calling from the Blue Mosque possessed the more magnificent set of lungs; he was truly gifted,
nay, inspired. Walking through the Hippodrome (adjacent to the Blue Mosque)
one afternoon, we heard what had to be THE longest sustained
"Allllllllaaaaaahhhhhhh Akkkkhhhhbaaaar" in world history. The poor muezzin
calling from the second mosque was completely drowned out, not to mention that his loudspeakers had an unfortunate resonant buzz to them, which rendered his
sacred call into an incomprehensible insect-like drone.
If the call to prayer set the tone for exotic old Istanbul, the vibrant nightlife in the Taksim district set the tone for the new. We went to Taksim on three of the five nights we stayed in Istanbul, drawn like moths to the lights, sounds, and scents of its most lively street, Istiklal Caddesi, which stretches from Taksim Square down Beyoglu hill.
Now, any good trip (at
least in my book) takes in multiple pubs or taverns or what-have-you, both for
liquid refreshment and the opportunity to see how the local populace behaves
in a relaxed setting. You can learn a lot about a culture by seeing how its people
behave when they’re out drinking. Are they quarrelsome? Jolly? Confused? Morose? Do they sing? Dance? Throw things at one another? Debate? Do they drink
slowly? Quickly? Enough to get sick? Are they generous? Stingy? You get
In Istanbul we sought out a particular kind of "folklore" tavern, or meyhane, which is
usually found down a side street, set in the basement of a building. There are a number of these places off of the little streets that feather out from Istiklal Caddesi. In most cases, the meyhanes are long and narrow, consisting of a central aisle with tables set on either side. They’re invariably smoke-filled, as many Turks (especially the ones given to frequenting meyhanes) are inveterate chain smokers. My hope in seeking out meyhanes was to
kill two birds with one stone by doing a little research into
Turkish music and observing people at the same time.
The music varied from meyhane to meyhane, definitely setting the tone for the
establishment depending on whether it was soulful or festive. There was typically a trio, usually consisting of musician
on a stringed instrument such as a violin, ud (Turkish lute), buzuq (long
necked lute-like instrument), or guitar; a percussionist, usually playing a
darbuka (similar to tablahs); and someone playing a wind instrument such as
a clarinet or ney (throaty flute), though on one occasion there was a qanun
(dulcimer) rather than a wind instrument. The musicians were universally
sober, so far as I could tell. The audience, however, never was.
The best meyhane we went to was called "Sal" (pronounced "shal"). The musicians were wonderful, the trio consisting of a
classic Turkish beauty with a clear, soft voice accompanying herself on
darbukha, an ascetic-looking fellow with several days' stubble on his wan
olive cheeks playing the buzuq, and a third salt-of-the-earth looking fellow
on qanun. I had been told by the person who had recommended the place that
the music played there was all Anatolian. If so, then that now makes me a
big Anatolian music fan. Marvelous stuff.
The meyhane patrons sang enthusiastically along to each song, clapping and responding in a call-and-response pattern. They had obviously spent many a night
sitting in this meyhane singing the same songs. The mood was festive; the
large party at the adjacent table was putting away raki (similar to ouzo) at
a fast clip. After several rounds, two of the men began moving their
shoulders in time to the music. The movement then progressed to their lower
arms, finally taking control of the entire limb, so that soon they were
waving their arms over their heads in an expressive way that indicated
dancing was imminent.
Now, these meyhanes are small. Frankly, there isn't enough room to swing a
cat, let alone dance, but dance they did, and with considerable skill,
making me conclude that they either had a head for raki or had done the
dances since infancy. Chairs were whisked to the side, making a narrow
passage well-suited for the line dances - arms around waists or about
shoulders - favored by the Anatolians. The lead dancer took up a napkin in
his free hand and waved it above his head in small circles in time to the
music; this is apparently a standard feature, for I saw it elsewhere.
Stomping, crouching, weaving, the dancers moved up and down the room,
scooping up our 11-year-old-son, who had been sitting grimacing theatrically over the clouds of cigarette smoke, on the third pass. Greg tried to
preserve his facade of indifference, but his pose gave way in seconds to an earnest
attempt to follow the dance. Ah, it was a sight to warm a mother's heart,
it was, his game and unembarrassed assay down the floor.
The dance came to an end with a final flourish from
the darbukha, the dancers collapsing flushed and panting into their respective seats. More
raki! More mezes (appetizers)! Here, my friend, have some salted nuts. A
little water? That's better. A dozen cigarettes were simultaneously lit,
prompting the return of Greg's grimace (he having been thoroughly indoctrinated in the American anti-tobacco campaign). Once the
group composed itself, the music started again, but this was not music to
dance to. Ah, no, it was the moment we had all been waiting for. The sad,
sad song about the home we miss, the woman left behind, the broken heart,
the injustice that is life. The entire meyhane indulges in a collective
sorrow. A dozen chins are lifted and throats quiver as each sings
separately and yet at one. Oh, how beautifully sad; it makes me cry.
I make a note to myself that the Turks, at least the ones in Sal that evening, have been convivial, open-hearted, and, ultimately, poetic. It's how I always want to remember them. But now it is time to leave, for we've had
enough of Greg's sulking and, really, it is getting late. I cast an inquiring look toward the waiter, who promptly brings us our check, and we nod our mute good-nights to the people at the surrounding tables. Then, after pausing regretfully at the door, we step out into the cold embrace of the evening.
A meyhane is usually a friendly and unpretentious place, and however crowded it may be, a waiter will attentively guide you to a small table as soon as you enter. Mezes, or appetizers, are the crowning glory of meyhane cuisine, and after seating you, the waiter will often bring a tray laden with a tantalizing array of mezes from which to choose. Other times, when language fails or the music is loud, he may simply beckon you to follow him to the kitchen, where you’ll be shown what’s on offer to make your selection. Mezes are clever concoctions, seemingly designed to goad you to drink more, as the Turks take great pleasure in combining different textures and tastes as they eat. It’s all a very leisurely procedure: first take a sip of raki mixed with water, then perhaps a mouthful of eggplant salad, then a bit of crusty bread, followed by another sip of raki, then some garlicky yogurt dip, then a bit of cheese, more raki, followed by a crispy fried herring, another sip of raki… and so it goes, seemingly endlessly, punctuated by frequent cigarettes and plenty of cheerful conversation.
We only sampled the tip of the meyhane iceberg while we were in Istanbul, visiting places that had been recommended to us by people we met at our hotel and other places. We were told that some meyhanes were more desirable than others, the less desirable being little more than hard-core drinking spots filled almost exclusively with men. The better meyhanes feature not only music but also set-price menus which include a variety of mezes, drinks, and dinner. Although an evening out will probably run you no more than $10-$20 a person, be aware that many meyhanes do not take credit cards, so you should bring cash. Non-smokers may find the smoke in meyhanes to be somewhat overwhelming; if you are sensitive to smoke, consider going to one of the outdoor cafés instead.
The Taksim district, notably Istiklal Caddesi, is where the highest concentration of meyhanes and cafés can be found, though they are often tucked off in side streets that can be confusing to navigate. Luckily, a number of choice meyanes are easily located on the third street on the left branching off of Istiklal Caddesi as you enter from Taksim Square. This is Buyukparmakkapi Sokak, and a number of trendy night spots, restaurants, and bookstores are clustered here.
Up this street a short distance, you’ll find Sal (pronounced ‘Shal’), our favorite meyhane as well as a very popular one with the locals. The staff is very attentive and the ambience is suitably folksy; on any given evening you’ll find young musicians playing traditional Turkish instruments and singing, usually with a great deal of audience participation. This is one of the better places to hear music, and the patrons as well as the musicians are part of the entertainment. We went to this meyhane twice; on our second visit, we were greeted like old friends.
Just around the corner from Sal, on a sidestreet running parallel to Istiklal Caddesi, is Yorem (15 Hasnun Galip Sokak). The music was quite loud and the room very crowded and smokey on the night that we visited Yorem, so we elected not to stay long. However, we liked what we saw of the place and it had been highly recommended to us. If we’d been less tired that evening, we probably would have stayed and enjoyed ourselves.
Across the street from Yorem, we found a quieter setting in Türku, Türku, which reminded us in many ways of blues joints that we’d been to during our student days in southside Chicago. The lone musician was singing soulful down-and-out melodies, and the mostly male crowd sat nursing glasses of raki and taking long pulls at their cigarettes. Despite its less-than-festive atmosphere, however, the patrons were friendly. Not long after we sat down, the people at the table next to us sent over a bowl of the ubiquitous mixed nuts beloved by Turks. This meyhane also had the virtue of being cheap even by meyhane standards; a large beer won’t set you back more than about a dollar.
We had been recommended to go to a meyhane called Asir (formerly ‘Hasir,’ 94 Kalyoncu Kulluk Caddesi) not far from Istiklal Caddesi, but we had the very devil of a time finding it. We finally did so with the help of three rather inebriated men who gave every indication that they would have liked nothing better than to permanently attach themselves to us for an evening’s free drinks. (We parted amicably at the door of Asir after a half-hour’s search, sending our opportunistic friends off with enough money to stand them a couple rounds of drinks).
Asir is located in a rather threatening-looking part of the district, but as it’s only a stone’s throw from a police station and one of Taksim’s major thoroughfares, Tarlabasi Caddesi, we deemed it sufficiently safe. We were disappointed to find there was no live music that evening at Asir, but we quickly found that food, rather than music, was the focal point here. And what food!
The moment we were seated, the waiter came by with a tray groaning with a delicious-looking assortment of meze. We stuffed ourselves, washing it all down with a surprisingly good Turkish white wine. For the main course, we had exquisitely fresh fish, and for dessert a freshly-baked chocolate soufflé. All this at a very reasonable set price, too. We waddled out the door several hours later and jammed ourselves into the cab called for us – ooof!
The Sultanahmet area, where our hotel was located, is not known for its nightlife. Still, there are several spots to go to for music and convivial company after dark. In fact, the first night we were in Istanbul, we were more or less reeled in by a friendly tout into one of the nicer spots, Antik Gallery, just across from the Basilica Cistern on Salkim Sögüt Sokak. This is, properly speaking, more of a restaurant than a meyhane, but it does feature musicians after around 9 p.m. (Don’t expect much to happen before then, though; we made the mistake of coming around 7:30.)
This is an attractive, cozy spot, lit with hundreds of small glass lanterns overhead. Numerous folk crafts and rustic wooden beams add to the charm. More expensive than the meyhanes, the Antik Gallery is accustomed to more tourists and thus makes more concessions to them, yet it doesn’t come off as being particularly "touristy."
When the musicians made their appearance, we sat back and drank tea, digesting our dinner. And here I’d like to mention something very refreshing about Turkish meyhanes and restaurants: no one ever makes you feel as if you’re taking up a table by sitting as long as you like after a meal. In fact, from what we could tell there was virtually no table turnover at the Antiq Gallery whatsoever. Once seated, the patrons make an evening of it, ordering as much or little as they like.
The one spot that we visited that we had some reservations about was the popular but touristy Cennet (pronounced "Gennet") Café, located at 90 Divanyolu Caddesi, the main street running through Sultanahmet. We saw very few Turks here other than the staff, which isn’t a bad thing in and of itself, but we were put off by the indifferent service. The large room of the café is jammed with low tables and large cushions, and in the center area women dressed in traditional village costumes sit preparing Anatolian dishes. We found the food here to be so-so, and the music was also of an indifferent standard, but the saving grace of the place is some of its loopy "for tourists only" traditions. Ranged about the room are elaborate costumes and hats: fezzes, turbans, dancing girl’s veiled headpieces, and other paraphernalia. Customers are encouraged to don the hats and costumes to have their pictures taken or simply be silly. Our son greatly enjoyed dressing up as a "Sultan."
Relaxed, convivial, and affordable, meyhanes are Turkey’s version of an Irish pub or "Cheers"-style bar, places where you’re always made welcome and you’ll always be happy to return.