After our Kebab Machine experience in London, we could not wait to experience the tasty lamb concoction whose origins are rooted in Turkey. And upon arriving in Istanbul, the quest for the perfect Kebab began. Having crashed the night before in London’s Gatwick airport, curled up on a cold bench in the “special assistance” area, our energy was low but morale high. We were dreaming of a land that rained garlic sauce and where meat spits twirled on every street corner.
Istanbul has been called by many names including Byzantium and Constantinople. Its history and origins date back to before Christ and still houses the relics to prove it. The only city located on two separate continents, Istanbul merges Europe and Asia culturally, as well as geographically. Separated by the Bosphorus, the European and historical side of the city sits on the west banks with Asia on the east.
After landing in Turkey and a few hours of travel by bus, train, and foot, we found ourselves in the historical portion of Istanbul standing amongst the Blue Mosque and the Aya Sophia. The old city lies on the European side of the Bosphorus and feels exactly that. Apart from the clear Muslim influence and Middle Eastern ethnicity of its inhabitants, walking around was reminiscent of any western European city with street markets, food vendors, and ancient relics to boot.
However, on a trip like this you can only see so many museums, visit so many churches/mosques, and sit on so many site seeing tours. The real fun comes from diving head first into the culture. Which for us, means finding the perfect Turkish Kebab.
Kebabs come in many forms and I am not one to discriminate. Chicken, lamb, or beef. Vertically or horizontally grilled. Diced, shaved, or ground. Served on pita or baguette. Doused with garlic sauce or covered in dry pepper spices. They are all delicious, bountiful, and do wonders for your figure.
After an unsuccessful bout at a crowded tourist kebab shop our first evening (a factor of our laziness and naivety), it was clear that although bountiful, there were many kebab impersonators. Kebabs that appeared to be fantastic juicy kebabs, but while you weren’t looking performed their tricky Turkish magic and transformed into dry tasteless kebabs. However, after a few days of searching we finally discovered true kebabs in the back alleys and streets of the modern city. Needless to say, we haven’t put them down since.
Along with hacking the art of kebab locating, we had to discover and experience another cultural icon of Istanbul and Turkish culture – the hookah. A major part of daily life, hookah (shisha in Turkish) is everywhere and is a common activity any time of the day. Clearly inexperienced hookah smokers (see picture), we were hooked after our first authentic experience and foresee this becoming a constant throughout our time in Turkey.
It took us until our last day to hop over to the Asian side of Istanbul. It is downplayed by many of the guide books, however we discovered it to be the most authentic and interesting part of the city with street markets and small Turkish cafes geared completely for the locals. Apparently on the Asia side, nobody over the age of 45 works in Istanbul. They all huddle into small cafes, drink tea, smoke, and play board games. Inspired by their daily routine, we changed ourselves to follow in their footsteps. So we hunkered down into a small back alley cafe and grabbed the locals board game of choice – backgammon. However, after 30 minutes of unsuccessfully teaching ourselves how to play backgammon we resolved to a very boring round of checkers and hookah for the remainder of the afternoon. (Note: After our second round of hookah, its novelty has worn off. We are now on a “hookah hiatus”)
We have met some remarkably interesting people thus far on our trip. However, the most interesting by far has been Anton, a Brit in his mid 30s who is determined to bike around the world. Beginning in London, he worked his way down to Italy before becoming sidetracked and working as a tour guide for two years in Rome(I believe a lady may have been involved). We met up with him in Istanbul after he had biked all the way from Rome with around 50lbs of gear. He is planning to make his way through Turkey, Iran, and Pakistan on his way to India. Conversation was rousing over a few pints of Turkish lager as we three discussed history and world politics. Its always fascinating and educational to hear perspective on US and world politics from someone outside of America.
We have zero itinerary for the rest of our time in Turkey beyond a late night bus down to the ancient city of Ephesus (think St Paul’s letters to the Ephesians). Although we would like to hit up the southern Mediterranean coast as soon as possible.
[Hygiene Update as of 1/29/2009: Showers -10 Laundry – 0]