We arrived in Istanbul this morning. We've read our history and guide books and we know that Istanbul sits at a crossroads of Asia and Europe; a way station and meeting place for the 3 continents. Flying into Ataturk Havalimani Airport in Istanbul this is evident when you see from the air that Istanbul is a narrow peninsula surrounded by the Black Sea to the North (we had just sailed down the Danube, almost to the Black Sea on the AMAPrima) and Marmara Sea to the South, with the Bosphorus splitting the city into its Asian and European sides. If you want to travel by land- this is clearly the path of least resistance, but also a choke point!
Looking a large map, it's clear to see that the easiest way to go East to West or West to East by land is to go through Turkey and cross the Bosphorus. This is how peoples moved for migration and trade routes since ancient times. Istanbul was a place where people pass through, but also where trade commences. My first impression is how clean, bright, well landscaped and just how huge, and very busy this city is. I'm also surprised by how many huge Turkish flags fly here. There is a lot of local pride.
I wasn't surprised to see that it is still a cross roads for humanity. People are here from every corner of the globe; women in burkas from the Mideast carrying Michael Kors bags, dreadlocked youthful European backpackers, a Chinese couple just off the train (who look like newlyweds and get suckered into the "shoe shine" scam right outside our cafe window. *see below for a description) middle aged Americans (that would be us) and 20 something girls in belly shirts with pierced navels. Even the waiter at the cafe can't sort our where everyone is from- he guesses that Jeff is from Australia. Jeff tells him "close" and then explained he was from Boston, USA. We all had a good laugh over that!
But I was surprised at just huge this city is and and just how MANY people are here! At 3 PM on a Tuesday, Istiklal street, the main pedestrian shopping boulevard in the new part of the city, is teeming with so many people that it makes rush hour in my own city seem like a bank holiday. So many people, from so many places, so many stories. The saddest are the newest arrivals; tiny Syrain refugee children begging on the streets, singing in their little voices, hoping for people to notice them and give them some coins. Our guide tells us 500,000 have come to Istanbul recently. This is an amazing place to people watch, a fascinating display of global culture and commerce...and that's just within walkin distance of our hotel...over the next two days we will see far more of the city with our guide Meli.
* Shoe Shine Scam
Our concierge here at the hotel sent us to his favorite spot for lunch, not an hour after landing (well ok, it was more than an hour because it tooks us an hour to cross town in our van because of the traffic- but let's say within a few hours) He walked us to the revolving door with only one warning "if you see a shoe shine boy and he drops his brush, just ignore it." We didn't have time to wonder about this before we had stepped 10 steps out of the hotel and a shoe shine boy passed us dropping a shoe brush as he passed. He expects naive tourists to say, "hey, you've dropped your brush!" and then they pounce with the hard sell to "shine your shoes" (the Chinese fellow had sneakers for heavens sake but once he picked up the brush, the tout was on him brushing his Addidas like they were Bruno Magli's.) Of course all this attention ends with the tout expecting a "tip". In the case of the poor couple we saw targeted; even his young wife came over realizing they had been had and decided to get a picture out of it, but another shoe shines tout started in her shoes! The best advice we got was "ignore them", which is exactly what we did when the brush fell at our feet. We sidestepped it and felt proud that just hours in, we were no longer newbies in this huge complex city.