A stroll through Sultanahmet

I’d been hearing the siren song of Turkey for a long time and couldn’t ignore it any longer. I’d originally planned to go for only 4 days while on my 6 month solo trip across Europe. But as I started to dig I discovered more things that I just had to see, so 4 days turned into a week, then 10 days, and finally 2 weeks. Now I wish I’d allotted a month, but how could I have known the deep love I would feel for this country? Istanbul is BY FAR the most culturally different place I’ve ever been, I was in sensory overload. The sights, the smells, the noise and the sheer number of people was rather overwhelming. The Turks seem to be constantly yelling at each other. Not angry yelling per se, perhaps it’s just how they do business here.
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The Turks are very serious about their baklava. Funny, until I visited Turkey I thought only the Greeks did baklava, but now I know (after visiting both countries) that I prefer the Turkish variety . I stopped by a shop called Hafiz Mustafa right down the street from my hotel in Sultanahmet.  It’s been around since 1864 and had such an array of Turkish Delight (I liked the one with pomegranate with pistachio) and so many types of baklava and pastries that I didn’t know where to start! I got a small box with a smattering of different choices and called it lunch. Hey, there were nuts in it!
Baklava in Istanbul, Turkey from Hafiz Mustafa in Sultanamhet.
How do you choose? One of each is how!
You can’t leave Turkey without trying their ice cream. The taste is similar to gelato but the texture is not. It’s a little gelatinous and for lack of a better word-chewy! They call it dondurma, and what gives it this unique toothiness is something called salep, which is a flour made from the root of the Early Purple Orchid, and mastic, which is a type of resin. The chocolate flavour kind of reminded me of Jell-O pudding pops. Remember those? The men selling it on the street put on quite a show scooping it out and onto your cone. They keep pretending to drop it and as they go to give it to you they’ll whisk it away leaving you empty-handed. Eventually you do get your cone, and it is so worth the wait.
Dondurma in Istanbul, Turkey.
Dondurma man!

I’d heard how friendly the people are here, and indeed it is true. Yes, they want to sell you something most of the time, but once you make it clear that you’re not interested in shopping, they’re still happy to have a chat. That doesn’t mean they won’t stop *trying* to sell you something, but if you stick to your guns you’ll be fine. I’m sure some of them had something else on their mind when they’d approach me, but I knew what I was here for, and it was not to find a date! This is by far the most interaction I’ve had with the locals while traveling through Europe; it’s a great place to travel alone because you won’t be lonely for long!

Street scene in Istanbul, Turkey.
Istanbul street.
I enjoyed a leisurely dinner at a little place around the corner from my hotel. It’s always difficult for me to decide where to eat, and sometimes it’s just easier to be “brought into” a restaurant, especially if you haven’t done any research about where to go and you’re hungry. The waiters here stand outside of their restaurant with menu in hand. If they see you looking at their competitors menu they’ll come over and *steal you away* to try and talk you into their place instead. I watched this happen over and over again (and it happened to me too) as I was sitting there enjoying my shish kabob. Luckily the food was really good and at the end of my meal the waiter brought me a complimentary apple tea and dessert called Semolina Halva (which looked like an unbaked cookie with pine nuts in it.) It was moist and nutty and a lovely ending to my meal.
Street scene in Istanbul, Turkey.
Sultanahmet
The thing that struck me about Istanbul immediately is their tea culture. Whether it’s a hotel, a restaurant or a shop, almost everyone seems to have a stoop outside of their business where they sit and invite you over for an apple chai. The offering of the tea is an offering of their hospitality and friendship. I’d be invited to sit (usually on a pile of rugs) and chat for a while, then move on. Inevitably I’d soon get another invitation for a chai and chat by someone else down the street. I quickly realised that I was going to get nothing accomplished in Istanbul if I stopped and had tea with every person that asked me. My next thought was that maybe it was OK to just soak up this part of the culture, rather than focus on seeing every sight.  That IS what I came here for, right?
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At dusk I walked over to the square where Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque are and there were literally hundreds of people strolling around, having picnics and generally just enjoying the balmy evening air.  I’ve never felt chills down my back like I did when the call to prayer came on over the loudspeaker. It’s chilling, it’s moving and there’s no ignoring it! I was in Istanbul during Ramadan, and the call to prayer  informed he people of when it’s sunrise (time to fast) and sunset (time to chow down!) I was also awoken on my first night to the sound of a drum being pounded upon by someone walking the streets. This was at around 2:30 in the morning, and it was sort of like a public alarm clock to wake everyone up to get their eating in before the sun rises.
Istanbul is so alive. On my first day here I didn’t visit any museums, palaces, mosques or even the Grand Bazaar. Just walking around the old city was a cultural event to itself. And the price of admission? Free.
Whirling dervish in Istanbul, Turkey.
Freebie whirling dervish show.
Blue Mosque at sunset in Istanbul, Turkey.
Blue Mosque at sunset.

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3 Responses to A stroll through Sultanahmet

  1. Nomadic Samuel July 2, 2012 at 6:39 am #

    One thing I’ve found fascinating in Korea is how they’ve embraced Turkish food. Turkish ice-cream shops can be found all over Seoul!

    • My name is Andrea July 2, 2012 at 7:41 am #

      Interesting! I hope the trend comes to Vancouver… I loved the dondurma!

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  1. Get Inspired: Interview with Andrea Mueller - CuriousAroundTheWorld - August 13, 2013

    […] that’s a hard one! I have almost 400 posts! If I had to choose I think I’d have to say “A Stroll through Sultanahmet.” I loved Turkey more than I ever thought I would, and I’m hoping to live there one day for a […]

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