Up early again – not a bad thing (though I wish I were better adjusted to the time change), given that I had to present myself at the Spice Market at 930AM for a tour of the Asian side of Istanbul. I allowed myself plenty of time to get lost on the way there, but managed to find the place in plenty of time – which meant I got to take a wander through the market.
It’s quite a feast for the eyes – spices piled high, mounds of lokum, gold jewelery, textiles. Looking forward to trip back to stock up on candy…
I met two of my two tour companions – a very nice couple from Geneva – as we waited for Alexandra, our guide, from Context (I’ve taken tours with Context in Rome and they were the best walking tours I’ve ever been on – today’s walk in Istanbul proved to be no different. I recommend them unreservedly). She showed up shortly, along with a Canadian fellow who’s been living in Istanbul for six months and wanted to learn more about the city. Alexandra is Viennese, though she’s been in Turkey for four years – and lived in India before that. She was a wonderful guide – thoroughly versed in this city and its history, while also sharing her own experiences with us a both a local and a foreigner.
Started off with a ferry ride across the Bosphorus – traveling from Europe to Asia during the 15 minute voyage! We were treated to cups of tea and simit, just like authentic local commuters. Once in Asia, Alexandra showed us around Üsküdar with a stop at a charming mosque set right on the water, followed by a walk along the Bosphorus. This is where we made a new friend – one of the city’s many street dogs (though they are far outnumbered by cats – I’ve not included any of the hundreds of photos of cats I’ve taken thus far – I think they warrant their own post…) took a liking to us and joined our walk for the next 20 minutes or so as we made our way to the Yeni Valide Mosque. A relatively small but quite charming place – and my first time ever visiting the inside of a mosque. Alexandra had lots to share about the design and construction of mosques – really useful as I’ll be exploring several other mosques during my visit.
After that, we proceeded through an old hamami that is now home to shopping center filled with tat (and none of those 20TL shoes were even available in my size!) – but the building is amazing, including the original domed ceiling, pierced with stars and hexagons to create a skylight. Just lovely.
Next a meander through the local market – cheeses, nuts, fish so fresh they were nearly jumping, piles of fresh local produce, plus dried tomatoes, aubergines, peppers hanging from the rafters. The place was bustling and great fun.
A short ride over to the next little neighborhood. We stopped for tea and sweets (Alexandra treated us to an amazing local specialty – a small, chewy ball with a bit of icing. Sort of marzipan meets cookie meets cake) before walking us through the neighborhood. She’s friends with several of the local shopkeepers – we had visits with a baker, a chocolatier and a guy who produces olive oil and sells it along with cheese and olives. He had us sample just about everything in his shop and it was all delicious.
Hiked up the hill, through narrow streets filled charming houses – and at the top had an amazing view of the Bosphorus and the bridge from Europe to Asia. Ambled back down to the water, said our farewells and hopped on the ferry back to Europe. It was a really great day for me – felt like I was spending time with friends, rather than being marched around by a tour guide. And as much as Istanbul has to offer tourists, it was a real treat to feel like I’d gotten a bit off the beaten path – in the capable hands of Alexandra.