Amid COVID-19, Turkey remains a beautiful travel destination

Had COVID-19 not erupted globally we would have had to fight our way along the more popular sites and thoroughfares of the city.

THE HAGIA Sophia mosque in Istanbul’s Old City. (photo credit: BARRY DAVIS)
THE HAGIA Sophia mosque in Istanbul’s Old City.
(photo credit: BARRY DAVIS)
Having passed through various Istanbul airports over the years, en route to some other destination, it was high time I got out onto the streets of the city I’d espied so many times from the air.
What I’d registered through the plane window primarily amounted to the Bosphorus Strait, mosques with towering minarets and the Mediterranean shoreline. The street level reality of the enormous metropolitan area that is home to an unbelievable 16 million inhabitants was very different.
The scale factor was conveyed, in no uncertain manner, from the off. If you have become accustomed, naturally in pre-pandemic times, to doing the airport-hotel or other vacation accommodation trip in a comfortable 20-30 minutes, think again, that is if you ever manage to go abroad again, and pop up the coast to Istanbul. Finding the bus stop was easy enough, just across from the terminal exit and, while the average Turk’s command of English leaves much to be desired, we found people generally more than happy to help with directions. But the journey into town, to Taksim Square, seemed endless and we began to get some idea of the enormity of the urban sprawl, the sheer volume of human presence and, of course, the masses of vehicles that ply the city’s highways and byways.
After alighting from the bus we got a taxi to our accommodation, down the road from Istiklal Street, one of the most popular, and touristy, thoroughfares in Istanbul. After surviving one cab driver’s attempt to up the prearranged price, and demand the cash up front, we found ourselves at our Airbnb apartment in the nether regions of Kumbaracı Yokusu St. “Down” the road from Istiklal Street is something of an understatement. Despite having lived previously in Jerusalem for 13 years, nothing could have prepared us for the challenging topography of a megacity which is also, as we later learned, known as the City on the Seven Hills.
We’d caught a glimpse of a vegan eatery from the cab and decided to pop up there once we’d unloaded our luggage. If we weren’t hungry when we set out, we were certainly in urgent need of solid sustenance by the time we’d climbed probably in the region of 100 m. up to the friendly looking Falafel Koy spot run by a smiley Syrian Kurd who, it transpired, knew an Israeli friend of ours – percussionist-oud player Yinon Muallem – who has been living in Istanbul for almost 20 years. Despite the 10 p.m. coronavirus curfew having ticked by, the proprietor rustled up a couple of portions of tasty Middle Eastern vittles as we chatted about this and that, veering into his background and ours, and generally dispensing mutual affection and empathy. The only downside was that, while he was showing us pictures of his wedding, and the conversation wore on, our food cooled to a pretty low room temperature. All in all it was an eventful first evening, and the enjoyable social encounter was echoed numerous times with cafe owners and people out on the street during our stay.
We spent three days in Istanbul on our way home from a couple of weeks in the Netherlands where we’d been fortunate enough to manage a trip to the cinema the evening before they were shut down, as per Dutch pandemic directives. It was quite an experience to watch a film in an actual movie theater and, in Istanbul too, our timing proved to be on the nail. Cafes, restaurants and bars were all still open for business, closing down the day after we departed. They say you often don’t appreciate what you have until it is taken away from you and we made the most of the situation. We dropped by around half a dozen cafes and a teahouse on the first day. The latter was festooned with cultural locale-compatible musical instruments with the aforementioned Israeli musician pal generating some teahouse rapport with a turn on one of the darbukkas lying around there. Music is, truly, the universal language.
There was also plenty of time for window shopping down Galip Dede Street with its many musical instrument stores, clothing outlets and purveyors of tourism-oriented merchandise which, in these strange times, were mostly sparsely populated.
Having espied the 67 m. high Byzantine Galata Kulesi (Tower), we took the elevator up to the observation level, complete with an outdoor balcony, which offered a superb view, albeit blustery, of much of the city with the famed Bosphorus Strait, which divides the Asian and European parts of Istanbul, seemingly not much more than a hop skip and jump down the hill.
The next day we fulfilled a long-harbored ambition to do the intercontinental boat trip, from the Beyoglu district on the European side to the trendy environs of Kadiköy, which was made all the more dramatic and pleasurable by the company of a bunch of seagulls that kept up with the ferry swooping and cawing while, inside, a couple of buskers provided the passengers with some high quality local musical entertainment. Turkish music comprises a rich array of sounds, rhythms and textures, and any of the street musicians we heard in Istanbul could have graced the stage of the most prestigious of concert halls anywhere in the world.
Although we generally prefer to get a sense of the human zeitgeist wherever we roam, on the second day – after being woken up at the crack of dawn by the manifold amplified sound of the local muezzin, thankfully blessed with a sonorous voice – we got in some bona fide sightseeing. After trying to work out how to purchase a tram ticket, and failing miserably, we took a cab to the Sultanahmet District of the Old City where we got some idea of the yesteryear grandeur of the Ottoman Empire. The Blue Mosque – aka Sultanahmet Camii – which dates from the early 17th century is a gargantuan edifice. Hagia Sophia, across a manicured lawn, is much older. It was built as a church in 527, it was converted into a mosque with the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans in 1453. It is considered one of the wonders of Byzantine architecture and we marveled at the dome, the sumptuous gilded inscriptions and sheer size of the interior, as we shuffled, shoeless, in an ambiance of hushed reverence.
We also managed to drop by the intimately proportioned Jewish Museum of Turkey which offers an appealing overview of the local Jewish history, which predominantly starts with the arrival of Jews from the Iberian Peninsula in the wake of the Inquisition. And a visit to the Pera Museum, with its mix of historical and temporary artworks, was well worth the effort.
Not having been to downtown Istanbul prior to the pandemic, judging by pictures I have seen, had COVID-19 not erupted globally we would have had to fight our way along the more popular sites and thoroughfares of the city. As it was, Sultanahmet and the city streets were not exactly empty but were far from overcrowded which, naturally, made our stay all the more relaxed.
Another intriguing phenomena we noted there was the proliferation of well-kept felines. Several of the stores we passed by had sleepy cats curled up in comfy reposes. We also saw people, of all ages, leaving cat food and water out at various vantage points along side streets. When I remarked about that to the proprietor of a vegan shoe store we visited, he explained that the prophet Muhammad admired cats and that they are revered in Islam. As we have one of our own, a particularly rotund furry specimen by the name of Gregory, we were taken by the feline creature loving mind-set, indeed a far cry from the strays that proliferate in the streets and dumpsters of some of our own fair cities.
Contrary to media-fueled opinion we experienced no adverse reactions from Turks when we told them we were from Israel. Indeed the sense was one of Middle Eastern sibling affection. Hopefully we will be able to make it back to Istanbul sometime in the not too distant future, when everything – particularly music venues – reopen for business, and we have time to explore some of the natural beauty and other gems of this vast country which is, after all, only a short plane ride away.