“Sit” the elderly man said in Turkish. I mean, that must be what he said. I looked at him, somewhat confused, as it was a sound I had never heard before. He repeated, and gestured to the seat next to him. Ah, sign language, truly the most international language of them all. I smiled and nodded and said “thank you” to him as he then put his hand over his heart, closed his eyes and slightly bowed his head.
The tram from Istanbul airport couldn’t have been easier to figure out but this sign of kindness from the elderly gentleman instantly endeared me to a place and a people and I have not forgotten the simple politeness he offered to me. I’ve often wonder what he was thinking, looking at a 6’1, shaved head, ripped jeans foreigner with a huge backpack coupled over his shoulders. How easy would it have been to just remain silent? His life would be no different today. He could have made any number of conclusions based on my appearance. He could have told someone else to sit there instead of me. What did placing his hand over his heart mean? I’m not sure what it meant to him, but I can tell you how it made me feel. I felt welcome. In a place, further from him that I’ve ever been. I felt welcome. And as I disembarked at the Sultanahmet stop, repeating thank you to him. He just smiled back, I assume knowing, his impression was made.
“So this is Istanbul” my mind proclaimed as exterior of Hagia Sofia entered my pupil for the first time. The silent thought only lasted for a tick until it was time to get to work. This was yet another situation where we winged it, showing up in a city with no hotel reservation. I thought our luck would have run out by now. But we found an internet café, paid 2TL for some time and searched for a small budget hotel close by. While not available for the whole time we were in Istanbul, it was for the first three nights (and we had to change rooms after the first night) so we took it as the clerk said they would help us find another hotel for the last two nights.
The rooms were small but had nice décor, comfortable beds and private bathrooms. The windows opened in case you couldn’t hear the call to prayer and the breakfast, included in the price, was an appreciated way to start the day. Especially since you could observe the loitering ships out in the Aegean Sea. Again, there are no grocery stores so we set out to find our local food stop and to get a feel for the neighbourhood. This is always fun for me in a new city. Getting my bearings, understanding what’s available in the area and selecting my routes to the various restaurants, taverns and sites. Only a five minute walk to the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofia it was easy to pick those landmarks and direct ourselves through the “old town” of Sultanahmet. While the area near these world renowned attractions is saturated with tourists it is still well worth exploring. A quick tram or an even better walk to the waterfront will get you to the spice bazaar and famous Bosphorus bridge that connects the continents of Europe & Asia. Hundreds of fishing poles line the top of the bridge while restaurants squeeze underneath. Unless you enjoy “in your face” harassment from the hosts of the bridge restaurants walk across the top and observe the fisherman trying to catch their dinner.
By population, Istanbul is the second largest city in the world with 13.8 million people. It used to be called Constantinople named after Constantine the Great in the times of the Byzantine & Roman empires. It served as the main trade route between Europe and Asia. After sacking the city in the mid 14th century, Mehmed II set out to rejuvenate the city and the Ottoman Empire was established and ruled the area until 1922.
With such a huge history I couldn’t wait to see what Istanbul had to offer. I may have even found a compass sitting in a shop along the way….