The sun rises on the land over two continents and Istanbul slowly reveals its beauties to the world. The Bosphorus awakens to a complex scene of tankers, sea busses and cruise liners, dancing ponderously along their courses between the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara. A perfect reflection of the city that caresses its shores, the waterway presents a pleasant, welcoming appearance while the strength and impulsiveness of its underlying currents reminds the unwary of the temerities of “organized chaos”.
On solid land, a new day begins. The merchants of Balık Pasajı (Fish passage) prepare their stalls of fruit, vegetables and fish, a glass of hot, black tea in hand. On the pedestrian avenue of Istiklal, Döner vendors are gradually setting their colossal spits of lamb and chicken to spin, turning to the rhythm of the tram’s bell as it trundles along its century old journey down the centre of Beyoğlu. Fruit stalls clang their shutters open for the early risers, serving freshly squeezed juices of every variety possible, just a few liras each.
The more hurried among the locals grab a sesame-sprinkled Simit on the fly, in expectation of their equally hasty grilled or boiled Misir (corn on the cob) that same afternoon. Those, on the other hand, who have a moment, sit down to a traditional breakfast of boiled eggs, tomatoes, white cheese, olives, cucumbers, fresh bread, jam and the ubiquitous glass of black tea – staple drink of any Turkish day, morning or evening, autumn or spring.
On the Galata bridge, the first fishermen are already filling their second bucket or hamsi (sardines), having set up shop since just after dawn and yet watch their lines ever so patiently for the next tremor while contemplating the Golden Horn and, on the hill above, the palace of an Empire that made all of Europe tremble… once upon a time.
At the end of the bridge, floating restaurants serve the fisherman’s produce with tomatoes, lettuce and onions between thick slices of bread, passing them to the waiters on the shore. For those looking for deeper ocean fare, the grillers will happily fill your sandwich with battered mussels or calamari.
A little further on, at the foot of the New Mosque, built for the Sultan’s Mother and dating back more than 500 years, stands the Egyptian market, the spice bazaar where every seasoning and flavour of Turkish cuisine mingles into a heady experience of smells and colours: peppers, cinnamon, cumin, saffron and nutmeg share counters with figs, apricots, raisins and pistachios. Welcome to Ali Baba’s cave of gastronomic wonders, paradise for anyone looking for a touch of the Mediterranean to add to their next culinary adventure.
After standing, stunned and in awe of the twin magnificences of Haghia Sophia and Sultanahmet (the Blue Mosque) and before stepping into the Grand Bazaar – ageless sanctuary of negotiations of everything from gold to carpets, ceramic bowls to antiquities – take a right at the banded column (Çemberlitaş), ancient centrepiece of Constantinople’s Forum, and taste one of Istanbul’s most delicious Iskender (named after the Alexander the great), a traditional dish of morsels of pide bread covered with thin slices of lamb and a thick tomato and butter sauce, accompanied by a hearty serving of yoghurt. A true delight.
Turkey is the haven of all unconditional addicts of yoghurt, inspired by the Turkish word “to knead”. Yoghurt can be served as a regular side to nearly any meat or vegetable dish or as Ayran, the popular salted drink which vies for market share with the mighty multinational soft drink brands.
As the sun reaches its zenith, those who have mastered the oriental art of keyif (pleasure) saunter to their customary seats in the numerous cafés and myriad shaded benches, a nargile pipe in one hand and the dice for their winning throw at tavla (backgammon) in the other. The games can go on long into the afternoon; the steady sound of markers slapped and slid across the boards puzzling tourists at to exactly what else these authorities in easy living do with their days.
On the summits of the city, families come together and friends meet up for, yes, another glass of tea at the Café Pierre Loti. The most well-known – not to mention controversial – French author who spent several years in Turkey during its tumultuous first throes into Independence after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, Pierre Loti sat at the selfsame coffee shop, working on his novels Iceland Fisherman, Exile Stories and Oriental Phantom. Now, thousands come admire the sunset view from the tip of the Golden Horn, reaching out to the southern end of the Bosphorus and into the Sea of Marmara, a hundred Muezzins chanting the dusk’s call to prayer from a skyline of minarets spread across the city.
On any given evening, the modern youth of Istanbul make their way down the parallel streets of Istiklal Caddesi, where the waiters and maitre d’s of Nevizade vie for the slightest glimpse or acknowledgement from passersby to place a menu in their hands and harp their fish’s freshness. To start, plates of traditional Mezze (hot and cold starters) in the form of Patlıcan salatası (aubergine salad), Bakla Ezmesi (Humus), Cacık, (Yoghurt with cucummbers and mint), Çerkez tavuğu (mashed chicken and nuts),Midye Dolma (stuffed mussles), Çiğ Köfte (raw minced meat with bulgur wheat) or Börek (thin slices of dough stuffed with a numerous vegetables and cheese) adorn every table.
Once the king’s feast in entrées set aside, the choice becomes no less complicated between the fish – barbun (red mullet), levrek (sea bass), mezgit (whiting) and çipura, generally served grilled – or the meat dishes, including Kuzu Güveç (lamb stew) Hünkar Beğendi (purée of aubergines with) and a wide variety of Köfte (meatballs with a variety of spices and shapes).
The meal ends with a heaped plate of fresh, chilled fruit or a Turkish pastry dessert, topped off with the world-famous Turkish … coffee. With its infamously thick texture, legions of Turks, young and old, take their chances at reading each other’s futures in the dark sediments left to drip along the inside of an upturned cup.
As the night winds down for some, others head for the lair of the daemons of Rock to savour their hazelnut flavoured vodka shots in Dorock, while the angels of Melek sway late into the night to the rhythms of the dancefloor.
All good things must come to an end but, before braving the fanatical driving dares of taxis, busses and minibuses on the way home, there is just enough time and maybe just enough space for a late midnight snack of Kokoreç at the undeniable Şampyon restaurant in Çiçek Pasajı (flower passage) or, for the more faint of heart, maybe a simple Dürüm Döner (lamb slices rolled in flatbread) will suffice.
Afiyet olsun! (Bon appétit)
You can also find out more about amazing places to go and restaurants to eat on Simon Seeks website, a new online travel guide.