Story and photos by Manos Angelakis
It is 4:30 in the morning and I’ve been waken from a deep sleep by the melliferous voice of a muezzin coming from the mosque’s minaret across the street. Within a couple of minutes, numerous others join him, and there is a chorus of Muslim cantors singing their first call to prayer.
We are in Istanbul, the city that has been a crossroad of civilizations for more than 3,000 years. And this is my first extended visit to The City (Ή Πóλης) since 1953. It’s a personal journey of return to a place I found enjoyable as a child.
When most of Athens was embroiled in the communist insurrection and living conditions were still abominable after WWII, my father would send my mother and I during summer vacations to visit her brother, uncle George and his family in Istanbul. So, from 1948 to 1953 I spent half of the summer at my uncle’s home on Büyükada (Prinkipos), the largest of the Princes' Islands in the Sea of Marmara, and the other half at his apartment in the affluent residential center of the city, right off Taksim Square.
With the exception of a very brief business visit in 1986 when I had no time to devote to anything except the task at hand, this is the first time I returned to see The City. And the changes, from the traffic growth, to new buildings, to relocation of transportation points, have been significant. On the other hand, there have been mosques, and hotels, and bazaars that have seen no changes with the passing of time; few of the magnificent public buildings erected from the 14th to the early 20th century have changed much.
After some 60-odd years, I found the building where my uncle’s apartment was. The address had been drilled into me as a child by giving me a Turkish lira as baksheesh every time I recited it correctly. So I found the address I remembered, Topçular Caddesi 5, Şahane Apartman, and I can still recite it without the lira nowadays.
Another significant, to me, place that seemingly has changed little with the passing of time is the Haci Bekir sweet shop by the Spice Bazaar. As far as I’m concerned they still make and sell the best lokums (Turkish Delight) in the city. Other places, like the little whole-in-the-wall patisserie by the Tünel’s Pera-side entrance, where we used to stop for tavukgöğsü or kazandibi (both sweet custards; the first made from chicken breasts, the second by allowing the custard at the bottom of the large copper pot, where the dessert is made, to caramelize) and the foreign newspaper agent where I bought my first Superman and Batman comics, have long disappeared. Isticlal Caddeci, the main drag of the Pera district, is still there; a little worn by time, but it still attracts thousands of people on a daily basis. It has been turned into a walking precinct, and the tram that runs at the center of the street from Taksim Square to the Tünel and back is still chugging along, up and down the avenue ringing its bell, as the crowd parts in front of it.
The Pera Palace Hotel, my first encounter with a luxury 5-star property, has been totally refurbished and it reopened a couple years ago. It is now owned by a governmental agency, no longer by the initial owners, the famous Greek entrepreneur Bodossakis (Prodromos Athanassiadis) and La Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits et des Grands Express Européens.
The Pera Palace is a “grand dame” of years past, revived and made as beautiful as ever; it was initially built to accommodate affluent travelers from Europe coming to Constantinople on the Orient Express. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (father of Turkey), who founded the modern Turkish Republic out of the remains of the Ottoman Empire, used the hotel as a residence when he was in Istanbul, and the Pera Palace has devoted suite 101 as a small museum to him, open to the public 2 hours every day during the week. I remember the hotel the way it was, because my great-aunt was a permanent resident for most of her life, and we would visit her and have afternoon tea with her in the tea room.
There are other outstanding suites in the hotel that are available for travelers; named for example The King Edward VIII and The Franz Joseph Presidential Suites. Located on the fourth and fifth floors of the hotel, they overlook the Golden Horn. These 1300 square foot (115 m²) suits offer spacious living areas including dining, living room and study rooms. There are also the İnönü and Bayar Senior Suites (suites 201 and 301) that are named after the second and third Presidents of the Republic of Turkey. The famous Agatha Christie stayed at the Pera Palace Hotel many times between 1926 and 1932. One of her bestsellers, “Murder on the Orient Express” was purportedly written in room 411, the Agatha Christie Room.
The ferries to Prince’s Islands no longer use the space under the Galata Bridge for docking. I vividly remember the color of the water under the bridge; it used to be bright emerald-green when the sun would hit it as we were waiting to board the ferry. The other thing that I remembered were the fresh walnut vendors; they used to have fresh shelled walnuts in jars of ice-cold water and they would fill a small cone of butcher-paper for us to munch-on while sitting on the ferry’s upper deck enjoying the breeze. We did take a ferry from its new terminal to the Big Island (Büyükada) to try to find my uncle’s home there. Horse-drawn Victorias are still a popular mode of transportation across the island. But the roads have changed so much that I couldn’t find the house. One thing that has not changed is the coffee and tea vendors on the boats; they still go up and down the decks, carrying brass trays with cups of Turkish coffee and glasses of very strong tea with a sugar cube on the side, repeatedly chanting “chai kahveh” (tea and coffee) at the top of their lungs.
Near the Galata Bridge is the Egyptian (Spice) Bazaar. It is one of Istanbul’s famous public markets that have, unfortunately, become unregulated tourist traps. I remember going there with my mother and her friends to purchase black Malabar pepper, saffron and other spices that were not available at local grocery stores. Today you can buy all kinds of products there from caviar to pine nuts to meerschaum pipes to backgammon boards and worry-beads, and almost everyone speaks English, but be advised that the prices are 300% to 400% higher than what is available at local supermarkets in the neighborhoods and you have to be really skilful at bargaining, otherwise you would pay much more than you should – when everything else fails, just tell the vendor how your children will suffer if you pay the exorbitant price he is asking.
One of the most well known Istanbul restaurants is located in rooms above the main entrance of the Spice Bazaar. Pandelis, is a known business lunch hotspot; every guide book regarding the city talks about the place. Unfortunately, the lunch we had there was mediocre, geared mostly towards tourists and pricing was set accordingly. But I had to go there at least once, since the original Pandelis – an Istanbul Greek – was a friend of my uncle’s and we used to go there with the family for numerous plates of meze and raki that Pandelis would personally bring from the kitchen.
And talking about restaurants. Istanbul residents do not eat fish unless they can see the sea – as locals were eager to point out. The best fish restaurants are on platforms on the Bosporus and you will recognize the good ones by the fact that they are crowded day or night. Tuna, mackerel, sea bass, red mullet and all kinds of other fish come down in season from the Black Sea to return to the Mediterranean and you can see fishing boats with bright lights on the stern leaving small harbors along the Bosporous every evening, to go fishing. Just look at the eyes of the fish displayed on ice tables in the restaurants or brought to the table on platters for your selection. If the eyes are clouded and sunk in, the fish is not fresh – look for clear or very slightly cloudy eyes and red or red/brown gills; that’s the fish you want to eat. The seafood is also outstanding. Mussels stuffed with rice and pine nuts or fried in an anise-flavored batter, pickled or sun dried octopus cooked on a charcoal grill, charcoal grilled calamari, cuttlefish, shrimp or crayfish, lobsters; the entire bounty of the Bosporus, the Black Sea and the Mediterranean is laid out for your delight. However, be wary of the restaurants under the Galata Bridge. Again, they are geared towards the tourists and the evening we ate there the fish we saw was at least three days old, if not older. We did not order fish and mainly stayed with stuffed mussels, pickled octopus, and other meze dishes. I ordered fried baby squid and instead was given fried cuttlefish strips that were like rubber bands. But when we were leaving, the owner apologized for the lack of fresh fish and the cuttlefish.
In Turkey, herbs and fresh vegetables cooked in many ways form the basis of the diet – most of the Ottoman specialties like patlican salatasi (smoky eggplant salad), ispanakli böreği (spinach in puff pastry or filo), enginar çorbasi (artichoke soup), yaprak dolma (rice-stuffed vine leaves with currants and pine nuts) and the famous imambayildi (literally: the priest fainted – a dish of long eggplant stuffed with onion, garlic, pimiento, parsley and tomato) involve vegetables cooked in extra-virgin olive oil. Yogurt is another major ingredient and it is used as a dressing for meat, grilled vegetables, rice and soups, and drunk diluted with water and salt (ayran). The protein part of the diet is mostly chicken and lamb, either roasted whole on spits or as cubes on skewers (shish kebab – skewered meat), or potted (taskebab – meat cooked in a metal bowl) or as a giant meatball revolving in front of an electric fire, sliced very thin and served in a folded pita with salad and a yogurt dressing (doner kebab – i.e. meat that revolves). Of course, in seaside areas fish and seafood dominate. And, of course, pork is non existent in a Moslem country, though since the times of Atatürk, wine, beer and other alcoholic beverages, like raki (anise-flavored 90 proof aperitif), are widely available.
Istanbul is a very interesting city, both figuratively and literally spanning Europe and Asia, with a culture that encompasses both. The long history of the Ottoman Empire is stamped on the philosophy and everyday life of its peoples. For me it was a walk down memory lane filled with both sweetness and sadness for a city that no longer exists and an introduction to a city that has grown up and prospered.
How to get there and once you are there:
Türk Hava Yollari - Turkish Airlines
Luxury Travel and Cultural Services, Our Personal Guest
Fez Travel, Experience Turkey
ITEM Travel Event Management
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