Years ago, a friend in Belize pointed out that a country never escapes its origins. The United States, he told me, is a land of puritans. Belize is a land of pirates.
And Istanbul is a land of traders. Once the end of the 4,000-mile-long Silk Road, the mother of all trade routes, this part of the world, as a result of all the traffic and all the business that culminated here, has been notable since the second century B.C.
Making our way around current-day Istanbul recently, my family and I couldn't help but compare this great city to Paris, the city all cities are graded against and (to admit my bias) my favorite place in the world to spend time.
Indeed, Istanbul has long been referred to as the Paris of the East. The better we got to know Istanbul, the more readily we accepted the accolade. The cafés, gardens, parks and river walks of Istanbul are all à la Paris. The windows of bakeries and confectioners can be picture-perfect arrangements of breads, pastries and sweets. The people dress smartly and wish each other good day as they come and go. The old city is ancient, but spreading out from it are many and diverse other quarters, from bohemian and artsy to chic and modern ... again, just like in Paris. Climbing the hill to reach Galata Tower felt like climbing Montmartre toward Sacre Coeur, and, reaching the top, we had our choice of street-side bistros for lunch and hip and groovy shops for exploring after we'd eaten.
Most fun for me, Istanbul, again like Paris, is a city made for walking. Not only the oldest parts but every region of this city, both Euro and Anatolian, invites you to take off on two feet to explore it up close. When you do, you discover book stores and art galleries, antique shops and boutiques of all descriptions, on and on as far as your curiosity and legs will carry you.
"You know," remarked my young son-in-law Harry to the rest of us one day as we gazed appreciatively upon the neat and symmetrical displays of brightly colored candies in yet another notable Istanbul shop window, "Maybe we shouldn't be saying that Istanbul is just like Paris. Maybe we should be saying that Paris is just like Istanbul."
Aha. Harry had a point. Not only was Istanbul settled some few hundred years earlier than Paris, but it developed much quicker and grew to become grand and prosperous when Paris was still swampland. Still, today, two-and-a-half millennium later, it's Paris that other cities want to be compared favorably to, not Istanbul. Paris is the most beautiful and romantic spot this world knows.
Paris is pretty, but Paris is also a museum, and this is where the real difference between Paris and Istanbul begins. I appreciate that, every time I return, central Paris will be perfectly packaged and just as lovely as the last time I laid eyes on her. Life in this spot continues as it has for centuries, according to tradition and the seasons and without fail.
Life in Istanbul continues as it has for centuries, too, I'd say, but the whole affair is livelier. Paris is polished, and the French are reserved. Istanbul is gamier, and her population doesn't seem to take life or their city or themselves too seriously. The people of Istanbul have an openness and a playfulness about them. Exploring Istanbul isn't like wandering through a great open-air museum; it's like being invited into someone's living room.
Everywhere are the touts. On every corner, behind every door, someone is selling something. Their calls are constant ...
"Hello, ma'am. I have carpets ... very good carpets ... the best carpets ..."
"How are you, nice lady. Are you hungry for lunch? I have seafood ... very good seafood ... the best seafood..."
"Do you know what time it is? No? Perhaps you need a watch. I have watches ... very good watches ... the best watches ..."
Water, ice cream, shirts, underwear, maps, prints, spinning tops, slippers, sunglasses, pashminas, kebabs, grilled corn, watermelon, cherries, fresh-squeezed orange juice ... anything you could want anywhere you happen to be, a friendly Istanbulian is nearby, you can be sure, ready to oblige.
Yes, this is a land of traders but not hustlers. The touts are ever-present, the shopkeepers inventive in their efforts to entice you inside, but they all moved on with a smile when we made it clear we weren't buying. The merchants are persistent but not obnoxious and also, as far as we could tell, not trying to pull one over on you. They don't want to take advantage, just to do some business.
The exceptions are the taxi drivers. My husband and I visited Istanbul for the first time some 17 years ago. One of the memories I carry from that trip is of my husband Lief arguing with taxi drivers who were trying to scam him on the fare or the currency conversion, any way they could get away with. Now I have new memories of Lief arguing with Istanbul taxi drivers.
Though densely crowded and more so all the time, this isn't a noisy city. The patter of the touts, birdsong and the regular calls to prayer -- these are the sounds of Istanbul, and you're able to discern them even amidst great crowds. We'd turn a corner sometimes to face a veritable sea of people, some tourists, yes, but mostly just the people of this city -- there are something like 20 million of them -- going about their daily business. In Panama, where I'm currently based, crowds are to be avoided. In Istanbul, people respect your space, wait their turns, even excuse themselves when they pass. There may be loads of them, but Istanbulis don't overwhelm, neither the pedestrians nor the drivers. Traffic is on the scale of that back in Panama City but nothing like as terrifying because these people seem to know and respect the rules of the road.
Contrasts are strong in Istanbul, between the traditional and the modern, the old and the new. In the bazaars, women in burqas walk past shops selling red lacy lingerie and mankinis. In the squares, buskers play flutes and traditional drums called dumbeleks; meantime Neil Young recently appeared in concert.
The best vantage point for appreciating this mega-city is one of its rooftop restaurants or cafes. From the rooftop terrace of our hotel in Istanbul's Old City, we had a view out over the Sea of Marmara and at Asia across the way. The Marmara thoroughfare is busy, ferries, cruise ships, sailboats and private cruisers coming into port and going out, dispersing passengers and taking on new ones.
Istanbul owes its place in world history to these waters, which, since the days of Byzantium, have meant tolls, harbor fees, trade and prosperity. Today, this metropolis with such a unique and enviable geographic situation is again thriving.
"Do you have any sparkling wine on the menu?" I asked our waiter as we sat down to dinner our first night together in the city. I felt like celebrating.
"Yes, we have two," he explained, showing me.
Both, it turns out, are Turkish. Turkish sparkling wine? We had to give it a try.
I'm pleased to be able to report that it's not nearly as bad as you might imagine. In fact, I recommend you try it, too, your first night in this grand, historic city.