Christmas in Turkey: Istanbul (Part One)

In Turkey

Men fishing ALL DAY EVERYDAY from the bridge, with that kick-ass view in the distance

After two years in Asia, we were longing for something we just couldn’t get – cold weather.  Miserable, rainy, cold grey skies – you can even miss these things if you are away from them long enough.  Living in Phnom Penh, we barely put shoes on anymore, jeans are hardly ever even worn.  At first we were thinking Europe, but there has always been something about Turkey – and in particular Istanbul – that had pulled strongly at both Asha and I.  Something to do with its history, its ‘old-worldness’, of castle walls and ancient empires, when so much of south-east asia seems new or recent, or at least from the last century. We’d thought for a long time that when our time in Cambodia was finally up, that we would head for Europe.  So in some ways, we didn’t want to jump ahead and spend a few weeks in Europe, before heading back to Cambodia.   Going to a city that straddles two continents (as Istanbul does – in fact its the only city in the world that does), and being able to stand in Asia and gaze over the Bosporus to Europe, had a kind of romantic symbolism.   Whether we go to Europe next (or ever leave Cambodia), well, who knows.

A city so steeped in history, it pays to do even a little research before you go.  If you don’t know anything about it all, here is the briefest of introductions.   Istanbul was founded almost 2,700 years ago, as a Greek fishing village known at the time as Byzantium.  Some 700 years later, Constantine the Great, emperor of the Roman Empire, decided that the city would become the ‘new Rome’, and he re-established the city as Constantinople.  A long way from a Greek fishing village at all, the city went on to become the capital city of four empire – the Roman Empire, Latin Empire, Byzantine Empire, and the Ottoman Empire.  It is truly one of the most important cities in the world, with an incredibly rich history.    

Want to find out more about Istanbul before you visit?  I recommend the recent 3 part series from the BBC “Byzamtium”.

But only for those with lengthy attention spans. Arriving in Istanbul, I soon realised that the ancient Istanbul makes up so much of the modern city itself – from the skyline punctuated by minarets and ancient towers, to the castle walls and aqueducts you drive through on the way in from the airport.   Its a living, breathing ancient city, as busier today as at any time in its 2,600 year history.  And what a huge city it is today – some 14 million people now call the city home.  It is huge, and spreads out endlessly across the gentle hills around the old city. Our first port of call was a spartan little apartment with the most incredible view, straight across from the Galata Tower.  Just off Iskitlal St (the ever busy, extremely long, shopping strip), and a 20 minute walk to the old city, this was the perfect place to base ourselves while discovery the city. Like so many times during the cities history, the city is once against simmering with tension.  Over the past 6 months, Istanbul has been rocked by violent clashes between the police and protestors, as people fight back against the direction that Erdogan is taking the country.  Much of this action has taken place in Taxim square and along Iskitlal Street.  In fact, violent clashes between protestors and police took place on Iskitlal during our stay.  It seems tensions have been reduced since the clashes in 2013, however the overwhelming police presence in Taxim – complete with water cannons, troop carriers and tank-like vehicle – makes you think its not over yet.  Maybe the cold weather (it was freezing) has played apart – certainly in summer ,there will be many more people in public spaces like Taxim. Anyway, I’m rambling here. We loved Istanbul.  Fantastic food everywhere.  Beautiful buildings.  Streets you can actually walk on.  Here are some photos of the things that we loved.